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“A Pretty Good Year In A Pretty Bad Century”: A High Point In A Century Marred By The Disastrous Bush Presidency

Imagine the 21st century as a Broadway show. We’re not talking “Hamilton” material. Actually, it’s pretty much a flop. If it were a Broadway show, it would have closed by now.

A year-end 2015 album picture, taken in Paris, showing solemn world leaders gathered to march in mournful defiance of the Islamic state group’s November terrorist attack arrested my attention. There was Germany’s Angela Merkel. There was France’s Francois Hollande. And even Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. But not the American president, Barack Obama. And that seemed strange.

Whatever. But the picture wept. The Islamic State group was our own scary gift to the world, after all, wrapped up during our long war in Iraq; and the tag definitely has George W. Bush’s name on it. Obama has yet to fully face this unforeseen consequence of war, bound to shadow his last year in office. To his credit, he recognizes the futility of going to war once again.

So let’s skip the year in review and go straight to the century in review. It’s a good time to look back over our collective shoulder.

A full 15 years have ended in a pretty pass. At home, we are a nation more roiled by race and police brutality than ever since the 1960s civil rights movement, even with a black president. Income inequality is a plague on our houses. And we are seriously looking at an abrasive reality show host as our next Republican presidential nominee. I mean seriously, folks. Some pundits who urged us onto the Iraq War blithely assert Donald Trump will never win the primary. I don’t put my faith in those wise men. I foresee leading Democratic contender Hillary Clinton facing Trump in the general election.

We’ve seen roughly half and half in Republican and Democratic control this century. Eight years of George W. Bush as president – defined by Sept. 11 and a couple wars – followed by seven years of Barack Obama – defined by picking up the pieces and trying to make peace. A huge economic downturn was also passed along directly from Bush to Obama. The euphoria at Obama’s inauguration lasted about a day in the frigid winter air.

Obama surely deserved better than what he got, but presidents don’t pick their predecessors. Bush had staked all on avenging the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and invested in becoming a “war president.” A Special Forces lightning-like attack on Osama bin Laden, the mastermind, would have been the wiser course of action, as commander-in-chief Obama showed much later. For on 9/11, there was no army against us, just 19 hijackers: Fifteen men from Saudi Arabia, zero from Iraq.

Bush’s slothful insult toward a storied city felled by a hurricane – tipping Air Force One’s wings over New Orleans in 2005 – was the tipping point of his presidency. Suddenly, the dots of his incompetence connected and his approval rating, too, was felled and never got back up again.

Everything that came out of the Bush years – false premises for declaring war, looting antiquities, the Patriot Act, torture, Guantanamo, mass surveillance on citizens, thousands of military and civilian casualties – tarnishes what we are supposed to stand for. In the end, the Islamic State group is the last cosmic slice of “just desserts” for an absolutely meaningless war. Few who thanked soldiers for their service in airports could fully embrace or explain what it was for. Next time, people, get a draft. It’s much harder to go to war with a draft.

As the new century dawned, the omens were plainly ominous. Bush’s victory over Al Gore in late 2000 called into question whether a Supreme Court 5-4 decision is a fair election. It was hard to tell from the timid press coverage, but Gore clearly won the popular vote. Just think how different the last 15 years would have been if the outcome had gone the other way. The peace and prosperity of the Bill Clinton years seem like a dream.

Obama has done much repair work, especially on the economy and foreign policy. In fact, between the Iran deal and the recent Paris Agreement on global warming, the seventh has been his best year in office. In fact, 2015 has been the best year since this century began. But he’s not the best morale-booster. That’s just not his way.

In singing “Amazing Grace” solo at the funeral service of nine murdered black church parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, the president showed amazing grace that moved the nation. For that June day, he became consoler-in-chief. Whether he’ll reach out to the American people to conduct heartfelt dialogues on race in 2016, somehow I doubt it, unless another catalyst arises. An eloquent writer on race in his memoir, Obama seldom put it on the front burner in the White House. But with or without him, it’s a burning subject.

2016, here we come into the maelstrom, a divided country swept by cross-currents. With Clinton in the election cycle, gender may soon join race as a force awakening in the national conversation. Iowa and New Hampshire voters, as usual, will be treated like they know so much. Both are overwhelmingly white states with rural swaths. They do not speak for flash points of violence and pain: Ferguson, Missouri; Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; Baltimore, Maryland; nor Charleston, South Carolina.

But we can take heart: 2015 was a pretty good year in a pretty bad century, so far.

 

By: Jamie Stiehm, U. S. News and World Report, December 29, 2015

December 31, 2015 Posted by | 2015, 21st Century, Bush-Cheney Administration | , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

“The Donald And The Decider”: American Political Discourse Hasn’t Been Dumbed Down, Just Its Conservative Wing

Almost six months have passed since Donald Trump overtook Jeb Bush in polls of Republican voters. At the time, most pundits dismissed the Trump phenomenon as a blip, predicting that voters would soon return to more conventional candidates. Instead, however, his lead just kept widening. Even more striking, the triumvirate of trash-talk — Mr. Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz — now commands the support of roughly 60 percent of the primary electorate.

But how can this be happening? After all, the antiestablishment candidates now dominating the field, aside from being deeply ignorant about policy, have a habit of making false claims, then refusing to acknowledge error. Why don’t Republican voters seem to care?

Well, part of the answer has to be that the party taught them not to care. Bluster and belligerence as substitutes for analysis, disdain for any kind of measured response, dismissal of inconvenient facts reported by the “liberal media” didn’t suddenly arrive on the Republican scene last summer. On the contrary, they have long been key elements of the party brand. So how are voters supposed to know where to draw the line?

Let’s talk first about the legacy of He Who Must Not Be Named.

I don’t know how many readers remember the 2000 election, but during the campaign Republicans tried — largely successfully — to make the election about likability, not policy. George W. Bush was supposed to get your vote because he was someone you’d enjoy having a beer with, unlike that stiff, boring guy Al Gore with all his facts and figures.

And when Mr. Gore tried to talk about policy differences, Mr. Bush responded not on the substance but by mocking his opponent’s “fuzzy math” — a phrase gleefully picked up by his supporters. The press corps played right along with this deliberate dumbing-down: Mr. Gore was deemed to have lost debates, not because he was wrong, but because he was, reporters declared, snooty and superior, unlike the affably dishonest W.

Then came 9/11, and the affable guy was repackaged as a war leader. But the repackaging was never framed in terms of substantive arguments over foreign policy. Instead, Mr. Bush and his handlers sold swagger. He was the man you could trust to keep us safe because he talked tough and dressed up as a fighter pilot. He proudly declared that he was the “decider” — and that he made his decisions based on his “gut.”

The subtext was that real leaders don’t waste time on hard thinking, that listening to experts is a sign of weakness, that attitude is all you need. And while Mr. Bush’s debacles in Iraq and New Orleans eventually ended America’s faith in his personal gut, the elevation of attitude over analysis only tightened its grip on his party, an evolution highlighted when John McCain, who once upon a time had a reputation for policy independence, chose the eminently unqualified Sarah Palin as his running mate.

So Donald Trump as a political phenomenon is very much in a line of succession that runs from W. through Mrs. Palin, and in many ways he’s entirely representative of the Republican mainstream. For example, were you shocked when Mr. Trump revealed his admiration for Vladimir Putin? He was only articulating a feeling that was already widespread in his party.

Meanwhile, what do the establishment candidates have to offer as an alternative? On policy substance, not much. Remember, back when he was the presumed front-runner, Jeb Bush assembled a team of foreign-policy “experts,” people who had academic credentials and chairs at right-wing think tanks. But the team was dominated by neoconservative hard-liners, people committed, despite past failures, to the belief that shock and awe solve all problems.

Anyone remember that period in the late 80s and early 90s when conservatives were branding themselves as the intellectually rigorous, the…

In other words, Mr. Bush wasn’t articulating a notably different policy than what we’re now hearing from Trump et al; all he offered was belligerence with a thin veneer of respectability. Marco Rubio, who has succeeded him as the establishment favorite, is much the same, with a few added evasions. Why should anyone be surprised to see this posturing, er, trumped by the unapologetic belligerence offered by nonestablishment candidates?

In case you’re wondering, nothing like this process has happened on the Democratic side. When Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders debate, say, financial regulation, it’s a real discussion, with both candidates evidently well informed about the issues. American political discourse as a whole hasn’t been dumbed down, just its conservative wing.

Going back to Republicans, does this mean that Mr. Trump will actually be the nominee? I have no idea. But it’s important to realize that he isn’t someone who suddenly intruded into Republican politics from an alternative universe. He, or someone like him, is where the party has been headed for a long time.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, December 21, 2015

December 22, 2015 Posted by | Donald Trump, GOP Presidential Candidates, GOP Voters | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“We Expect A Higher Standard From The Old Guard”: Brian Williams’ Lies Are Not Equal To Those Of Fox ‘News’

There’s this speech I give my students. Distilled, it goes like this.

“Your primary asset as a journalist is not your dogged curiosity, your talent for research or your ability to make prose sing on deadline. No, your one indispensable asset is your credibility. If you are not believable, nothing else matters.”

Which brings us, inevitably, to Brian Williams. The NBC Nightly News anchor saw his career crumple like used Kleenex last week after he repeated one time too many a story he has been telling for years: how a U.S. military helicopter on which he was a passenger was shot down over Iraq in 2003.

But the man who was flight engineer on that copter said on Facebook that Williams was never on it. Instead, he was on the one trailing it. Williams apologized for conflating the two, blaming the “fog” of memory.

The incident was remarkably similar to candidate Hillary Clinton’s false 2008 claim that she came under sniper fire as First Lady during a 1996 visit to Bosnia. As it turns out, an American dignitary was shot at in Bosnia — just not Clinton. Rather, it was then-Sen. Olympia Snowe, six months before.

Then, as now, one is tempted to ascribe the lapse to false memory, that phenomenon where you recall with clarity things that never happened. Then, as now, one is hampered by the sheer drama of the events in question. A person may honestly misremember eating at a certain restaurant or seeing a given movie. But you’d think you’d be pretty clear on whether or not somebody almost killed you.

So now, people are poring over old newscasts to determine whether this is an isolated incident. A statement by Williams of seeing bodies outside his hotel during Hurricane Katrina was initially mocked, but has been found on closer inspection to be more credible than first believed.

Fans of Fox “News,” at least to judge from my email queue, are having a ball with all this. I wrote a column a few weeks back blasting Fox for its habitual, ideology-driven inaccuracy. Attacking Fox is not for the faint of heart. Its viewers (like Rush Limbaugh’s listeners) tend to take it personally, responding with such a nasty, visceral outrage that a body might think you’d blasphemed their deity rather than criticized their news outlet. I savaged CNN in this space last year and while some folks took issue, no one called me a “bleephole” or invited me to “bleep” myself. With Fox fans, that’s the salutation.

So this latest news brings a flood of email crowing over Williams’ troubles and demanding I give him equal treatment.

As I wrote in the aforementioned column, serious people do not take Fox seriously. Indeed, consider the level of angst, the sense of expectations betrayed, that has attended Williams’ failure and ask yourself: Would there be a similar outpouring if someone at Fox had told this whopper?

Unlikely.

Fox is what Fox is, but its distortions and mendacities are generally only mistaken for gospel by a stratum of the electorate already predisposed to its bizarre worldview. The rest of us like to think we can expect a higher standard from the old guard of the news media, meaning the likes of CBS, NBC and The New York Times. And usually we can.

But every time that belief is betrayed — meaning not garden variety errors of fact, but catastrophic failures of journalistic integrity — the damage is exponentially greater precisely because the level of trust is exponentially higher. Such failures feed the disaffection and cynicism of a politically polarized nation where the universally accepted fact is an endangered species.

It’s a state of affairs that makes it hard to run a country. Or to be one.

So people asking that I give Brian Williams equal treatment are missing the point. If, indeed, he lied, then his sins are not equal to Fox’s.

They are worse.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr.,  Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, February 11, 2015

February 12, 2015 Posted by | Brian Williams, Fox News, Journalism | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The ‘Toil And Trouble’ Of The Bush Dynasty”: The Resurrection Of A Dangerous Political Family

Here’s how I picture Jeb Bush, with his father George and his big brother George, huddled around a boiling cauldron: “When shall we three meet again?/in Florida, Texas or in Maine?”

Any resemblance to the Macbeth witches in thunder, lightning or rain is, of course, intentional. The Washington buzz that Jeb Bush will follow in his brother’s and his father’s footsteps in running for president is a bit scary for democracy. They are not done with us yet. Good and bad things come in threes.

Beware the current wave of nostalgia for Bush rule. They are not the brightest dynasty under the sun, but the House of Bush has staying power. If genial Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida runs, then we the people will be in for another pounding by an Eastern elitist family. They masquerade their cultural origins as south by southwest. But it all started with Prescott Bush, a Connecticut senator.

As the faithful gathered this past weekend in Texas to mark the 25th anniversary of the first Bush presidency, the Bush men are also re-engineering the family story with help from friends like Jim Baker and conservative cheerleaders in the national media. Even columnist George Will, who scorned the elder Bush, is on-message for Jeb as a moderate man of substance. He practically invented school choice. The rest of the story line goes something like this.

Apparently, the one-term president George H.W. Bush, aka “Poppy,” was a seasoned foreign policy hand who conducted the end of the Cold War with magisterial ease. Skeptics like me think it just happened to happen on his watch. His son, George W. Bush, upset a lot of China with wars of choice that proved feckless. But wait, we now know he has the perceptive sensibility of an artist. We know he could see into the soul of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, after Putin “dissed” Bush’s dog Barney. The 43rd president told this tale as he explained his portrait of Putin – which is rather good, actually.

A pity that W. missed his calling. He never should have been president of the United States, and not only for his military misadventures. He never lost sleep over commandeering civil liberties. The “war president” did not write home much to a beleaguered, rattled public in the years after 9/11, though his visit to the site of the fallen towers is seen as a high point. While Washington slept, New Orleans wept as Hurricane Katrina raged past the broken levees of the beguiling city. The lame presidential response was the domestic analogue of the haphazard way the wars were being waged abroad. And then came the economy’s pitch downward.

The Bushes set great store by winning, any which way. The fury of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearing back in 1991 went down the way it did because H.W. Bush would not back down on a divisive nominee who made many women’s blood boil. If you remember the Willie Horton political ads against Michael Dukakis in 1988, that was also Poppy’s way of doing business. He has said he’ll do whatever it takes to win, though vision was never his thing.

The family penchant for winning at all costs came to a head in Florida in the Bush v. Gore showdown in 2000. Shakespeare could not have set the scene or the stakes better, with the fate of the nation hanging on a state governed by a brother Bush. All family human resources rushed down there, with Baker leading the way and strategy. If the fight seemed fierce, the outcome felt preordained. The Supreme Court stopped the vote count cold. It was all over, by a 5-4 vote. Indeed Thomas was “the best man for the job,” as Poppy put it in 1991.

Let it not be forgot, this is how the Bush dynasty defines “one man, one vote.”

 

By: Jamie Stiehm, U. S. News and World Report, April 7, 2014

April 8, 2014 Posted by | Bush Family, Democracy | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Beltway Hyperventilators”: Those Media Hysterics Who Said Obama’s Presidency Was Dead Were Wrong, Again

It’s been a pretty good week for the Obama administration. The bungled healthcare.gov Web site emerged vastly improved following an intensive fix-it push, allowing some 25,000 to sign up per day, as many as signed up in all of October. Paul Ryan and Patty Murray inched toward a modest budget agreement. This morning came a remarkably solid jobs report, showing 203,000 new positions created in November, the unemployment rate falling to 7 percent for the first time in five years, and the labor force participation rate ticking back upward. Meanwhile, the administration’s push for a historic nuclear settlement with Iran continued apace.

All of these developments are tenuous. The Web site’s back-end troubles could still pose big problems (though word is they are rapidly improving, too) and the delay in getting the site up working leaves little time to meet enrollment goals. Job growth could easily stutter out again. The Iran deal could founder amid resistance from Congress or our allies.

Still, it seems safe to say that the Obama presidency is not, in fact, over and done with. What, you say, was there any question of that? Well, yes, there was – less than a month ago. On November 14, the New York Times raised the “K” word in a front-page headline:

President Obama is now threatened by a similar toxic mix. The disastrous rollout of his health care law not only threatens the rest of his agenda but also raises questions about his competence in the same way that the Bush administration’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina undermined any semblance of Republican efficiency.

A day later, Dana Milbank gave an even blunter declaration of doom in the Washington Post:

There may well be enough time to salvage Obamacare.

But on the broader question of whether Obama can rebuild an effective presidency after this debacle, it’s starting to look as if it may be game over.

And Ron Fournier, the same week, explained in National Journal that things were so grim for Obama because his presidency had reached a kind of metaphysical breaking point:

Americans told President Obama in 2012, “If you like your popularity, you can keep it.”

We lied.

Well, at least we didn’t tell him the whole truth. What we meant to say was that Obama could keep the support of a majority of Americans unless he broke our trust. Throughout his first term, even as his job-approval rating cycled up and down, one thing remained constant: Polls showed that most Americans trusted Obama.

As they say in Washington, that is no longer operable.

Granted, finding overwrought punditry in Washington is about as difficult as hunting for game at one of Dick Cheney’s favorite preserves. Making grand declarations based on the vibrations of the moment is part of the pundit’s job description, and every political writer with any gumption is going to find himself or herself out on the wrong limb every once in a while. That said, this has been an especially inglorious stretch for Beltway hyperventilators. First came the government shutdown and the ensuing declamations about the crack-up of the Republican Party. Then, with whiplash force, came the obituaries for the Obama presidency. The Washington press corps has been reduced to the state of the tennis-watching kittens in this video, with the generic congressional ballot surveys playing the part of the ball flitting back and forth.

What explains for this even-worse-than-usual excitability? Much of it has to do with the age-old who’s-up-who’s down, permanent-campaign tendencies of the political media, exacerbated by a profusion of polling, daily tipsheets and Twitter. Overlaid on this is our obsession with the presidency, which leads us both to inflate the aura of the office and to view periods of tribulation as some sort of existential collapse. Add in the tendencies of even more serious reporters to get into a chew-toy mode with tales of scandal or policy dysfunction, as happened with the healthcare.gov debacle – the media has been so busy hyping every last aspect of the rollout’s woes that it did indeed start to seem inconceivable that things might get better soon.

But things did get better, as one should have been able to anticipate, given the resources and pressure that were belatedly brought to bear on the challenge. The fiasco took a real toll on the law and on the liberal project, for which Barack Obama bears real responsibility. But the end of a presidency? Take a deep breath, folks.

The sad thing about this spectacle isn’t even the predictable display of presentism. It’s the evident ignorance of the constitution and the basics of American politics. For the next three years, Obama will occupy the presidency, a position that comes with remarkable legal powers, especially now that he’s been partly liberated from the filibuster’s constraints. Washington columnists—the folks who presumably get paid to disseminate this kind of wisdom to the rubes beyond the Beltway—ought to know this better than anyone else, yet even as they fixate so much on the office’s aura, they are awfully quick to declare an administration defunct. News happens, and in the Oval Office, or the House majority, you always have the ability to influence it, even when you don’t deserve it. Kind of like certain well-known writers I could name.

 

By: Alec MacGillis, The New Republic, December 6, 2013

December 7, 2013 Posted by | Media, Politics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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