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Ted Kennedy Passes Away

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

It’s 1:30 a.m. It’s not up on the New York Times or Washington Post yet. His Wikipedia page has already been updated, though. And CNN is reporting: Ted Kennedy has died.

He died in his home, from brain cancer, at 77.

The first thing that hits me is a memory: I covered Kennedy, in the early 1990s, as a reporter for Congressional Quarterly. I picture him coming off the Senate floor, a huge man, pink-faced, his thoughts seeming to run a mile ahead of his gait. I remember how nervous I felt, before I asked him a question. This was JFK’s brother. I’m so glad I got to interview him.

Looking at the footage of him on TV, it strikes me that we’ve lost so much. An unabashed liberal. Not someone who needed to hide behind the less stigmatized label: Progressive. (Which is to say, not someone like me.) A shameless fighter for workers, and the rights of workers to organize. A believer, until his dying day, in the absolute imperative of universal health care.

We miss Kennedy already. We miss him because he was the youngest brother of John and Bobby, and now there are no brothers left. We miss him because he was a force, a proud and powerful force for causes that are so out-of-fashion today. We miss him because we sensed, through this summer of bitter partisan infighting over health care, that he was perhaps the one person who could restore some sanity to the debate. Who could get people to move beyond their taunts — he, afterall, had worked tirelessly across the aisle, with the likes of Utah Republican Orrin Hatch — to try to find common ground.

Some political leaders inspire hope. Others, though, inspire courage.

Perhaps, with his death, those of us who believe in health care reform can remember: It’s important not just to have convictions; it’s important to be brave in advancing them.

Thanks for the interview, Ted.

Poll: Jewish Dems Strongly Support Obama on Israel

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

The results are in.

After all the gnashing of teeth by Obama’s critics that his policies on Israel are costing him the support of his Jewish base, a new poll — by a right-wing organization, no less — shows that 92 percent of Jewish Democrats approve of President Barack Obama’s job performance.

The poll also found that 58 percent believe President Obama “is doing a good job of promoting peace in the Middle East.” (Only 16 percent disagreed with this statement.) Moreover, when asked: “Do you think President Obama is being too tough on Israel?”, 55 percent answered “No.” (Only 18 percent said yes.)

The poll was conducted at the end of July by the Traditional Values Coalition, a conservative lobbying group that represents 43,000 churches.  A quick perusal of the coalition’s Web site gives a clear sense of the values it seeks to promote. The home page offers a click through for “Causes and Cures of Homosexuality.” It opposes abortion but supports the death penalty, citing Biblical imperatives. Its chairman and founder, Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, is a strong defender of Israel.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that Sheldon and TVC seemed almost let down by their own polling results. The coalition takes great pains to emphasize the negative results of the poll, issuing a release headlined: “TVC Poll Finds Americans Conflicted Over Israel and Obama.” They cite as evidence the fact that 52 percent of respondents said “the Arabs will never live in peace with Israel” — as if that’s somehow definitive.

“In other words,” Sheldon is quoted as saying in the TVC release, “the President’s support among Jewish Americans is a mile wide but when specific issues about Israel’s defense are raised it is about halved and looks ‘an inch deep.’ ”

Wow. What a stretch. I guess there’s spin, and then there’s flat-out desperation.

Here’s more: When asked if Israel should bomb Iran to stop it from obtaining nuclear weapons, only 15 percent of Jewish Democrats answered “yes.” A whopping 62 percent said, “no.”

You can nearly hear Sheldon contorting to make this statement: “Support for President Obama is high among Jewish Americans but half express concerns and disagreements with specific policies, particularly where Iran is involved.”

His conclusion is apparently based on the fact that 45 percent said they were “not sure” what Obama would do if Israel attacked Iran. TVC flat out ignores the fact that when answering the same question, 40 percent said they thought Obama would support Israel, while only 15 percent said he would not.

Ignoring the central findings of the poll, Dick Morris and Eileen McGann penned a missive in the New York Post headlined “Where BAM Breaks With Jewish Dems,” which begins:

JEWISH Democrats strongly agree with the Israeli position and disagree with President Obama’s on issues such as a Palestinian state, settlement construction and trading land for peace. Does the president realize he’s at risk of a break with an important part of his base?

Cherry-picking through the poll with an eye to anything at all that might convey discord, Morris and McGann downplay all the poll results they don’t like. True, they shrug, half of Jewish Democrats flat out reject the notion that Obama is biased against Israel, but “a significantly large number” — 35 percent — are still undecided on the question!

Is this what happens when the rhetoric of Obama’s detractors fails to square with the reality of his wide and strong support among Jewish Democrats?

For a fair and balanced analysis of the poll results, see this Jewish Telegraphic Agency article: “It’s almost unanimous: Jewish Dems on board with Obama.” The JTA writes:

The survey suggests that despite the Obama administration’s repeated calls for an Israeli settlement freeze, support for the president among American Jews remains high.

It’s a good article. Morris and McGann should read it.

The Hitler Parade Continues

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

For awhile, I’ve been doing my best to keep the health care debate in perspective. We are extremely fortunate to live in a time and place where the debate over health care is our most serious, inflaming issue. Most of us in this country have some measure of personal security. We are not hungry. We have access to good medicine. Bombs are not shredding our public squares.

Last week, I blogged about how the Republicans are being hypocritical by not forcefully responding to those comparing Obama to Hitler. (And some in the GOP are actually making these comparisons, themselves.)

Well, the Hitler parade continues.

In this video, a man praising the Israeli national health care system is interrupted by a woman shouting “Heil Hitler.” Watch the video. It’s one of the most upsetting things I’ve seen in a very long time.

In this video, Rep. Barney Frank, a Jew, confronts a woman at a town hall who, toting a picture of Obama defaced to look like Hitler, demands to know why Frank supports Obama’s “Nazi” policies. (“Ma’am,” Frank says, “trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table.  I have no interest in doing it.”)

In an article in the News-Record of Greensboro, Rabbi Fred Guttman writes of confronting a man at a health care rally who carried a sign reading: “ObamaCare = NationalSocialism” (aka Naziism).

Where is the Republican outrage as this wave of ugliness washes over our Democracy? Where is the demand that Rush Limbaugh cease and desist his ugly comparisons between Obama’s administration and the Nazis? Where are the brave Republicans who — like the brave Israeli in the video, and Barney Frank, and Rabbi Guttman — have the guts to get in the face of these despicable hatemongers and shout: Enough!

Really, lady castigating Barney Frank at the mic? Obama is Hitler?

Rabbi Guttman writes:

When I lived in Israel, I had the opportunity to meet on several occasions with a woman named Ruth Eliaz, an Auschwitz survivor.

Most pregnant women and women with young children were sent directly to the gas chambers as soon as the cattle car transports arrived at Auschwitz. Ruth, pregnant at the time, wasn’t showing and was selected to be a worker. As her pregnancy continued, she tried her best to cover her stomach, knowing that if she were to be discovered, she would be sent directly to the gas chamber. Eventually the pregnancy could not be hidden any longer. Ruth was taken to the infamous Nazi doctor, Josef Mengele.

In Auschwitz, Mengele conducted horrific experiments on Jews. Mengele told Ruth that he had something special in mind for her and that he would allow her to continue the pregnancy to term. After Ruth gave birth to a baby boy, she began to breast-feed the child. Mengele had her brought to him, whereupon he strapped her to a gurney and injected her breasts with poison so she would not be able to feed her baby. The purpose of this “experiment” was to see how long a newborn baby could live without being fed. After several days of seeing her child suffer, Ruth could stand it no longer and smothered her own child.

I am starting to believe this debate over health care is no longer a “luxury” — a national conversation that we are lucky to be having, regardless of how it turns out. I am starting to see this as a new fight for the very soul of our country.

Is ours a nation where Republicans and their supporters can tacitly sanction widespread comparison between Obama and the regime that injected poison into a new mother’s breasts, forcing her to murder he own child?

Hate health care. Shout all you want about why you think government run insurance amounts to Socialism. Scream and bellow and stomp your feet. But do not, in willful ignorance, cheapen the memory of the 6 million who died. And don’t stand idly by, out of fear or embarassment or political expediencey, and let it proceed.

Jose Saramago, the Nobel Laureate, wrote a book about this kind of thinking. It’s called “Blindness,” and it does not end well.

“Do we have enough strength for the task, asked the girl with dark glasses,” Saramago writes, “The question is not whether we have enough strength, the question is whether we can allow ourselves to leave this woman here, Certainly not, said the doctor, Then the strength must be found.”

Hypocrisy on Hitler

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

Remember five years back, when had a contest, inviting people to submit 30-second ads critical of the Bush administration? There were some 1,500 submissions — 2 of which compared Bush to Adolf Hitler.

Republican condemnation was swift and furious — and rightly so. The Republican National Committee called on all nine Democratic candidates to condemn the ads. RNC chair Ed Gillespie called the ads “the worst and most vile form of political hate speech.”

Jewish groups along with the mainstream media — from CNN to USA Today — added their voices to the powerful chorus of critique. Moveon quickly removed the offending ads from its web site.

Some, though, saw the incident as a condemnation not only of Moveon, but more broadly — as a black mark on Democrats or liberals in general. Here’s Chris Matthews on Hardball:

John Fund, how are the Democrats going to hide this sort of crazy lady in the attic now they’ve got, this Hitler ad?

Byron York, writing in the National Review on Jan. 7, 2004, had this to say:

Referring to President Bush as a Nazi, or comparing the president to Hitler, are nothing new in the world of MoveOn. They are, in fact, a common mode of expression of some of the people associated with the website and its brand of political activism.

Well, flashforward to today. In protests across the country, we see critics of Obama’s health care plan, comparing Obama to Hitler. (For a sampling of photo evidence, see “Jonah Goldberg Goes in Search of Swastikas,” from mediamatters.) Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina has compared America under Obama to Germany in the 1930s. Rush Limbaugh, with a 15 million listenership, has spoken about ”similarities between the Democrat Party of today and the Nazi Party in Germany.” He said the other day that “Obama’s got a health care logo that’s right out of Adolf Hitler’s playbook.”

Yesterday, the AP reported that a swastika was painted outside Rep. David Scott’s district office in Georgia.

Some Democrats, in response, have likened the protesters’ tactics to those of the Nazi army — which clearly oversteps the line. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dangerously oversimplified when she implied that protesters at these anti-health reform rallies are themselves identifying as Nazis.

But where is the storm of media outrage — about comparisons between Obama and Hitler — that greeted Moveon in 2004? Where is the swift and total Republican denunciation?

Glenn Grenwald, at Salon, has compiled a partial list of those who denounced Moveon in 2004 (the above examples are culled from his post), and has sent all of them emails, asking for their response to Limbaugh’s recent comments. Some of them — including the National Review — have responded , harshly criticizing Rush. But it registers as barely a peep — nothing like the firestorm that rained down on Moveon.

As Grenwald writes:

Compare (a) the way that a single anonymous person’s comparison of Bush and Hitler swamped our political discourse and forever altered the image of MoveOn with (b) what the (non)-reaction will be to the identical comparison coming from the leader of the Republican Party who spouts his hate-mongering to an audience of 15 million people.  Within that comparison one finds many central truths about how our political debates and media discussions function.

Columnist Michael Gerson gives us a good reminder  this week of why any comparison to Naziism — by Republicans or Democrats; Moveon or anyone else — should be roundly condemned:

Nazism was the ”beard game,” in which the beards and sidelocks of Jews were pulled off or set a fire before audiences of cheering soldiers. It was the practice of making elderly Jews dance around a fire of burning Torah scrolls. It was whole orphanages deported to death camps, and pits full of corpses, and ancient communities erased from human memory, and death factories issuing a thick smoke of souls, and a mother trading her gold ring for a glass of water to give her dying child.

Many who study these events think silence the only appropriate response. ”There is nothing,” says scholar Lawrence Langer, ”to be learned from a baby torn in two or a woman buried live.”

I was upset when, in Akron’s recent recall election, Democratic mayor Don Plusquellic compared his opponent to Hitler. Specious comparisons, Gerson writes, trivialize the Holocaust. He concludes:

For the survivors of Nazism, memory is a kind of sacred duty.

Trivializing the Holocaust: “desacralizes those memories — shrinking them to the size of our political agendas and robbing them of their power to shock and teach. The history of those times should be approached with fear and trembling, not mocked with metaphor.”

And, certainly, they should not be mocked with hypocrisy.


Where are Obama’s Supporters?

Friday, August 7th, 2009

I was thinking about mconley’s comment on this blog yesterday — that our government hasn’t given us much reason to trust it in a long time — when I read this in the Times this morning:

Economists say that the president’s $787 billion stimulus package has helped blunt the downturn in limited but discernible ways. …

“The signs of the stimulus are there,” said Allen L. Sinai, chief economist at Decision Economics, a forecasting firm in New York. “Government — federal, state and local — is helping take the economy from recession to recovery. I think it’s the primary contributor.”

Despite this, economic experts were predicting that with today’s jobless numbers, the unemployment rate would rise above 9.5. I’d read it was going to hit 9.6 percent.

That, the Times reported, would have provided “Republicans and conservative economists new ammunition to argue that the stimulus has been a waste of taxpayer money.” (Can you hear them rooting for it to fail? Bring on the suffering so we can get ourselves re-elected!)

Well, guess again. When the Labor Department released the jobless report this morning, unemployment had dropped to 9.4 percent.  As the AP reports:

Employers sharply scaled back layoffs in July, and the unemployment rate dipped for the first time in 15 months, sending a strong signal that the worst recession since World War II is finally ending.

Do the math. That’s the first drop in unemployment since April of 2008, when the economy started to crater.

I don’t mean to paint an overly rosy picture. Experts say the job market won’t stabilize until next spring, and more losses are surely ahead. But would anyone seriously argue that the stimulus has not saved hundreds of thousands of jobs at this point?

That is: government — despite constraining partisan divides — is helping.

This got me thinking, as Obama marks his 200th day in office, about some of the other things his administration has done, that should have earned our trust.

In foreign affairs, he has reached out to the Muslim world — just as he said he would during the election campaign — allowing the United States to actually gain popularity and credibilityon the Arab street. He ordered Guantanamo closed. He has kick-started a totally moribund peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, inducing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to say for the first time that he endorsed a two state solution. He has boldly asked Israel to reign in settlements — but only as part of a regional approach, in which Arab countries are being asked to make concrete gestures to Israel, from offering commercial offices in Tel Aviv to letting El Al fly over Arab countries en route to Asia.

Joe Biden said Obama would be tested early, and he has been. On Obama’s order in April, Navy snipers cut down three Somali pirates and rescued an American sea captain being held hostage. This week, working behind the scenes, the Obama administration helped arrange President Clinton’s mission to North Korea, securing the release of two American journalists who were headed to the gulags.

Think about the boldness of these gestures, and the calculated risks involved. Think about what Rush Limbaugh would be saying had either of them gone wrong.

But wait, there’s more. Just hours ago, we learned that an unmanned CIA drone has apparently struck and killed the main leader of Pakistan’s fearsome Taliban militia. A bloodthirsty terrorist, taken out as he was receiving kidney treatment in a remote village in South Waziristan. As the Times reports:

The American government made killing or capturing Mr. Mehsud one of its top priorities this year, and his death would boost President Obama’s effort to weaken a resurgent Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

On the domestic front, Obama has courageously attempted to find political consensus on some of the most critical — and intractable — issues of our time. Under his leadership, the House has passed a bill that would for the first time begin to address global warming in a serious way. And despite the fact that so many U.S. presidents have crashed and burned trying to fix our broken health care system, Obama has stuck to his campaign promise, making it Issue No. 1 for his young presidency. Moreover — forget about what John McCain says — Obama is indeed seeking a bipartisan solution.  That’s why he’s waiting to see what compromise Democrats and Republicans come up with in the Senate finance committee. Obama’s even signalled that he could be willing to retreat on what for him has been a center piece of reform — a public option for providing health insurance — if it meant getting a bill that would cover the majority of Americans.

Cash for clunkers is wildly popular, spurring the auto industry, helping car dealers, and removing inefficient gas guzzlers from our highways. We have a Latina woman on her way to the Supreme Court, shattering another barrier. Obama is promoting aide to community colleges in a way that has earned praise from conservative commentators. He has quickly restored our image around the world.

Oh, he’s made plenty of mistakes. But, unlike his predecessor, he’s admitted them — see, for example, the Gates arrest — and he has sought to use them to promote tolerance and reconciliation.

In short, he has already done much of what he said he would do during his election campaign, which, as I pointed out yesterday, he won by nearly 10 million votes.

And, yet, his popularity is slipping. And we supporters can’t shake the feeling that while we are winning the war, we are badly losing the battles.


The always depressing Paul Krugman provides an answer in his column this morning.

Krugman notes that wherever Democratic leaders have gone to town hall meetings to promote health care reform, they have been met by screeching mobs. Some of this, he notes, is orchestrated by interest groups who want to kill reform at all costs. But, he argued, we can’t discount the throngs of people who appear genuinely angry. He writes:

There was a telling incident at a town hall held by Representative Gene Green, D-Tex. An activist turned to his fellow attendees and asked if they “oppose any form of socialized or government-run health care.” Nearly all did. Then Representative Green asked how many of those present were on Medicare. Almost half raised their hands.

Now, people who don’t know that Medicare is a government program probably aren’t reacting to what President Obama is actually proposing. They may believe some of the disinformation opponents of health care reform are spreading, like the claim that the Obama plan will lead to euthanasia for the elderly. (That particular claim is coming straight from House Republican leaders.) But they’re probably reacting less to what Mr. Obama is doing, or even to what they’ve heard about what he’s doing, than to who he is. 

It doesn’t really matter what he’s done, and what he’s trying to do. People are reacting to who he is. There’s a phrase for this in Judaism. It’s called baseless hatred.

Here, though, is the problem. As Krugman notes:

Right now Mr. Obama’s backers seem to lack all conviction, perhaps because the prosaic reality of his administration isn’t living up to their dreams of transformation. Meanwhile, the angry right is filled with a passionate intensity.

And if Mr. Obama can’t recapture some of the passion of 2008, can’t inspire his supporters to stand up and be heard, health care reform may well fail.

He’s right. But don’t be so quick to put the whole burden on Obama.  All of us who hit the streets for him last fall need to look in the mirror and ask: Do we really intend to sit the rest of this one out? Having elected a pragmatic, progressive president, are we content to let the birthers and their ilk set the terms of the debate?

Remember. History isn’t always written by the victor. Sometimes, it’s written by those who shout the loudest.

Thank You, Thomas Friedman

Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

The conservative mind is made up. President Obama is anti-Israel. See, for example, John Podhoretz’s latest essay in Commentary, “The Turn Against Israel“:

There is no question that we have entered a new era, one that I expect will be characterized by tensions and unpleasantnesses of a kind unseen since the days when George H. W. Bush was president, James A. Baker III was secretary of state, and the hostility toward Israel oozed from both men like sweat from an intrepid colonial traveler’s brow as he journeyed across the Rub-al-Khali.

It’s pretty wearying stuff, after awhile. I’ve heard Obama talk about Israel. Personally, in a small group in Cleveland, two weeks before the Ohio primary. This is a man who oozes respect for the Jewish state, its history, and its people.

“The US-Israel relationship is rooted in shared interests, shared values, shared history and in deep friendship among our people,” Obama said, last October. “I will work tirelessly as president to uphold and enhance the friendship between the two countries” …

Obama next described a trip he took to Israel 2 years ago, and his travels around the country, saying it “left a lasting impression on me.”

“Seeing the terrain,” Obama said, “experiencing the powerful contrast between the beautiful holy land that faces the constant threat of deadly violence. The people of Israel showed their courage and commitment to democracy everyday that they board a bus or kiss their children goodbye or argue about politics in a local café.”

Never mind. Podhoretz skewers Obama for telling NPR that part of being a good friend to Israel is being “honest.”

But, of course, honest discourse about Iran [and its nuclear threat] was not the fearless truth Barack Obama wished to bestow upon Israel or the Muslim world.

Rather, his honesty solely concerned the trajectory of the “settlements” …

Nice to read this, then, posted a few minutes ago by the NY Times:

Officials said the United States was pushing for a package of measures ranging from Arab countries’ opening commercial offices in Tel Aviv to their leaders’ granting interviews to Israeli journalists. Another step would be getting Arab nations to allow Israel’s state carrier, El Al, to fly over Arab countries to cut flight times to Asia.

So much for only pressuring the Israelis. Obama’s negotiating team, lead by George Mitchell, is working tirelessly to get Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, to take concrete steps they’ve never taken before.

“One of the public misimpressionsis that it’s all been about settlements,” Mr. Mitchell, the administration’s special envoy to the Middle East, said in a rare interview Friday after six months on the job. “It is completely inaccurate to portray this as, ‘We’re only asking the Israelis to do things.’ We are asking everybody to do things.”

Podhoretz, though, has a point to make:

And so the turn against Israel that so many predicted during the 2008 campaign is coming to pass—with a smile, and a nod, and an invocation of a word [honesty] that actually means something very different from friendship. It might even mean its opposite.

What a tonic, then, to read Thomas Friedman’s column this morning in the NY Times. Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jewish columnist who began covering the Middle East for UPI in 1979, does have some advice for  Obama: 1) Don’t get into the historical blame game in the Middle East, because nobody believes they are at fault, and 2) Connect with Israel on a gut level. (I couldn’t agree more. I blogged nearly a month ago, “The Time is Right for Obama to Visit Israel.”)

[This, also from the Times article, should help address Friedman’s second point: “In coming weeks, senior administration officials said, the White House will begin a public-relations campaign in Israel and Arab countries to better explain Mr. Obama’s plans for a comprehensive peace agreement involving Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world. The campaign, which will include interviews with Mr. Obama on Israeli and Arab television, amounts to a reframing of a policy that people inside and outside the administration say has become overly defined by the American pressure on Israel to halt settlement construction on the West Bank.”]

But here’s the rest of what Friedman has to say. And, as he’s been covering this topic for literally 30 years — and is one of the most even-handed and knowledgeable commentators on the region — he’s worth quoting in full:

President Obama is not some outlier when it comes to Israel. His call for a settlements freeze reflects attitudes that have been building in America for a long time. For the last 40 years, a succession of Israeli governments has misled, manipulated or persuaded naïve U.S. presidents that since Israel was negotiating to give up significant territory, there was no need to fight over “insignificant” settlements on some territory. Behind this charade, Israeli settlers bit off more and more of the West Bank, creating a huge moral, security and economic burden for Israel and its friends.

As Bradley Burston, a columnist for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, put it last week: “The settlement movement has cost Israel some $100 billion. … The double standard which for decades has favored settlers with inexpensive housing, heavily subsidized social services, and blind-eye building permits has long been accompanied by a kid-gloves approach regarding settler violence against Palestinians and their property. … Settlers and settlement planners have covertly bent and distorted zoning procedures, military directives, and government decrees in order to boost settlement, block Palestinian construction, agriculture, and access to employment, and effectively neutralize measures intended to foster Israeli-Palestinian peace progress.”

For years, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the pro-Israel lobby, rather than urging Israel to halt this corrosive process, used their influence to mindlessly protect Israel from U.S. pressure on this issue and to dissuade American officials and diplomats from speaking out against settlements. Everyone in Washington knows this, and a lot of people — people who care about Israel — are sick of it.

The Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, captured the we-are-untouchable arrogance of the settlers last week when he quoted Rabbi Yigael Shandorfi, leader of a religious academy at the settlement of Nahliel, calling Mr. Obama in a speech “that Arab they call a president.”

So if Mr. Obama has bluntly pressed for a settlements freeze, he is, in fact, reflecting a broad sentiment in Congress, the Pentagon and among many Americans, Jews included. …

What about Mr. Obama? He has nothing to apologize for policy-wise. The president is working on a deal whereby Israel would agree to a real moratorium on settlement building, Palestinians would uproot terrorists and the Arab states would begin to normalize relations — with visas for Israelis, trade missions, media visits and landing rights for El Al. If the president can pull this off, it would be good for everyone.

Put another way: The so-called “turn against Israel” is pure fiction.

The Beer Summit

Friday, July 31st, 2009

It’s not every day that I receive a request from a reader, asking me to weigh in on a specific topic. I did, though, this week: A reader wanted to know my take on the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.

First, I should say, I appreciate the request. It prompted me to ask myself: Why haven’t I weighed in on this already?

Part of the reason I didn’t comment at first was that the basic facts of the case were unclear, and in dispute. I continued to hold off over the last week because I really try to avoid the kind of exhausting, mind-numbing verbal diarrhea that characterizes so much of our media coverage.  (See, for instance, this report from Fox News: “Beer Enthusiasts Disappointed in Obama’s Choice of Beverage for Summit with Professor, Cop“; Obama drank Bud Light, now owned by a Belgian/Brazilian consortium.) Also, if I’m going to ask readers to take a few moments to read a blog post, I like to say something original, or at least present things from a slightly different vantage point. If you can read the same thing on Huffingtonpost, why come here?

For the record, here’s what I think: To the extent Gates became belligerent with the cops — black, white, or otherwise — it was wrong. (I’ve yet to read a persuasive argument for belligerence with authority figures.) Sgt. James Crowley was wrong for arresting — and humiliating — Professor Gates. (I’ve yet to read a persuasive argument that cops should let wounded feelings guide them when making arrests.) And President Obama was certainly wrong for saying the Cambridge police acted “stupidly” at his news conference last week on health care. (I’ve yet to read a persuasive argument that our president should make vague, off-the-cuff remarks on racially-charged issues when he doesn’t have all the facts.)

Obama quickly backed down, calling it a “teachable moment,” and inviting Gates and Crowley to the White House for a beer.

Yet all week long, I’ve been scratching my head: Beyond platitudes about racial progress and harmony, what, exactly, does Obama hope to teach us?

Flashforward to yesterday’s Beer Summit at the White House.

This is from the New York Times coverage:

“What you had today was two gentlemen who agreed to disagree on a particular issue,” a poised and smooth Sergeant Crowley said in a 15-minute news conference after the session. “We didn’t spend too much time dwelling on the past, and we decided to look forward.”

Professor Gates said in an interview, “I don’t think anybody but Barack Obama would have thought about bringing us together.”

The two men and their families first encountered each other in the White House library while each group was on individual tours of the White House on Thursday afternoon.

“Nobody knew what to do,” Professor Gates said. “So I walked over, stuck out my hand and said, ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you.’ That broke the awkwardness.”

Sergeant Crowley added that the families “had continued the tour as a group while the beer talk commenced.” He described the interaction between families as very cordial.

Professor Gates concurred, saying: “We hit it off right from the beginning. When he’s not arresting you, Sergeant Crowley is a really likable guy.”

One of my all-time favorite Torah portions is Va-era, Exodus chapter 8. It’s the familiar Passover story of the second plauge. God tells Moses to tell Aaron to hold his rod over the river, and raise an infestation of frogs over all of Egypt. Pharoah’s magicans, though, counter the trick, doing the same with their spells. With frogs spreading out over the land, Pharoah is forced to beg Moses to plead with God to remove the frogs, promising in turn to let the Israelites go free.

What on earth does this have to do with the Beer Summit?

The Midrashic interpretation states: “Pharaoh’s magicians cannot remove the frogs; they can only create more frogs, making matters even worse. Trying to spite Moses, they make their own lot worse. It is easier to augment a plague (whether conflict, gossip, or greed) than to end one.”

This is about race relations, sure. But, more broadly, it’s about how we treat one another. Our families. Our friends. Our spouses and children. It’s about the seemingly intractable conflicts in our lives.

It’s a gift when one of our political leaders can admit a mistake, and show us — by example — how we might make our own tentative steps toward reconciliation and repair.