Monthly Archives: June 2010

McChrystal Gone, Obama Saved

There was no way Gen. McChrystal could save his job without the president sacrificing his.  Now, will Obama fire all the aides quoted in the story?  It shouldn’t be hard to find out who they are.

The downside, of course, is that the general, once his inevitable retirement occurs, and his aides will talk, and not kindly of the administration.  That will add fuel to the partisan fire that Obama is over his head in foreign affairs and as commander-in-chief.  But he would have heard that if he kept the general, along with accusations that he was weak.

Obama does not make decisions quickly, nor does he change strategies at the drop of a hat.  But this may be seen as a pivotal point in his presidency where he begins to assert himself more forcefully.  We may see it soon with the climate change bill.  I doubt that as much as the GOP will try, McChrystal’s firing will hurt the president.  In fact, maybe some independents will see that he has some cojones.

One can only hope.

Parker and Spitzer on CNN

Kathleen Parker is one conservative I find thoughtful and fair, even if I don’t always agree with her.  Eliot Spitzer, given his background as a politician, will need to prove that he’s not just a partisan apologist as the two team up for an 8 p.m. nightly CNN show.

So far, they’re saying the right things:

Parker: “If people want to just hear what they already believe, they have plenty of places to go. And so what we’re to do with this show is have a conversation and help people reach a conclusion through rational conversation, versus debate. We’ll come at it from different directions, because we’re very different people. It’s going to be a conversation — a roundtable — with guests and with some regular contributors. … We feel like we’re different enough to be interesting, but share the goal of trying to enlighten and advance the conversation about things we care about.”

Spitzer: “It’s going to be more to inform and challenge and be thoughtful. Where we disagree, we’ll be open about disagreements, but do it in a way that is obviously not only polite but is reasoned and say, ‘OK, I can see why you think that, but here is where I come out on the issue.

Then Spitzer took a shot: “The premise is that if people want to be validated in their underlying ideology and be made comfortable at 8 o’clock, they have a place to go. And that’s wonderful, and we applaud that. But if they want to be challenged and hear dissenting views and be informed, then we think we can create something very exciting and different. … People will be surprised how often we agree. This is not just an effort to highlight disagreement. It’s an effort to highlight agreement.”

Asked how they’ll make it exciting rather than snoozy, Parker said: “Rather than snoozy!? Come one, Mike, you really think we’d be boring?”

Spitzer: “I don’t think boredom is the issue. The issue is how you transform cantankerous argument into thoughtful conversation. And the answer there is fact — facts and cleverness. Kathleen will be the wit and the charm. And we’ll come back to facts over and over again, because so much of what you hear on TV these days is ideology untethered from facts. What we’re going to do is be rigorous about coming to facts and being true to them.”

This will test the theory that people actually want informed, rationale discussion.  But the format has not been set, and no one expects (hopefully prays) that the program will be just the two of them discussing the issues.  All we know is that it’s not a new “Crossfire or a combative battle of conservative talking points,” according to CNN executives.  That’s good, but what does that leave them?

Here’s what I’d like to see:

  • No more than 10 minutes of the two of them talking to each other.  Let the guests have the bulk of the time, with Parker and Spitzer evaluating, including fact checking, the discussion.
  • Book mostly policy experts.  Minimize the time given to politicians or interest groups with a predictable partisan point of view.
  • Let’s see the hosts asking provocative questions based on the merit of the policy stand and much less on the political implications.
  • Avoid labeling organizations or policy prescriptions as right or left, progressive or conservative.  left- or right-wing.  Once you do that, many in the audience make up their minds without considering the arguments.
  • Avoid trying to make news.  Make light, not heat.
  • I hope the hosts will interrupt a guest at the first mention of a highly debatable talking point.  This shouldn’t be a show where each side gets a free pass to lay out its arguments unchallenged.  The reason to interrupt early is that the rest of the argument may be predicated on an invalid fact or perception.  It will also keep guests on their toes, ensuring that they’ll have to adjust their arguments if their foundations are debunked.
  • Listen.  Listen, Listen.  All too often journalists or program hosts have a list of questions they want to ask, all too often in the hopes of making guests stumble or to embarrass them or simply to make news.  While doing so, it often seems they’re not listening to what the guest is saying and allow wild accusations or assumptions go unchallenged, which often happens when interviewers are thinking about their next question.

Robert Barnett apparently represents Parker.  He said:

It has been proven again and again that viewers like smart people debating important issues in a thoughtful but provocative way.

That is far from proven.  I’m hopeful but not optimistic that the intended format can attract a large enough audience.

P.S. How does Politico write this story without mentioning Spitzer’s downfall?  Has he really put all of that behind him?  If so, it’s an incredible rehabilitation.

Buffalo News Requires Real Names in Comments

More papers should do this.

After quite a bit of internal discussion, The News — in the next few weeks — will make a significant change. We will require commenters to give their real names and the names of their towns, which will appear with their comments, just as they do in printed “letters to the editor,” which have appeared daily for many years on the newspaper’s op-ed page.

It will mean that Web site readers must fill out an online form and include a phone number that we will use to help verify that they are who they say they are. It won’t be foolproof, and it will be somewhat labor-intensive for us, but we think it will raise the level of the discussion.

Police Abuse Privacy Laws

This must be dubbed the “Rodney King Law.”

Apparently what a police officer does while on duty is a private act.  A guy posted a video of a state police officer writing him a ticket, one that he says he deserved.  But when he posted a video of the incident captured by a camera in his helmet, he found himself facing 16 years in prison.

On April 8, Graber was awakened by six officers raiding his parents’ home in Abingdon, Md., where he lived with his wife and two young children. He learned later that prosecutors had obtained a grand jury indictment alleging he had violated state wiretap laws by recording the trooper without his consent.

…Like 11 other states, Maryland requires all parties to consent before a recording might be made if a conversation takes place where there is a "reasonable expectation of privacy." (By contrast, Virginia and the District require one party’s consent to a recording.) But is there any expectation of privacy in a police stop? That’s where police and civil libertarians differ.

During a 90-minute search of Graber’s parents’ home, police confiscated four computers, the camera, external hard drives and thumb drives.

…The frequency of such arrests has picked up with the spread of portable video cameras and the proliferation of videos showing alleged police misconduct on the Web. [Miami journalist Carlos Miller, who runs the blog Photography Is Not a Crime] has documented eight arrests in the past few years, including one of an Oregon man who was arrested for using his cellphone camera to tape police he says were being rough with a friend and a Chicago artist who taped his arrest for selling $1 artwork. "Most of the people getting arrested are not criminals," Miller said. "It is just really a power trip on the side of police."

…"The question is: Is a police officer permitted to have a private conversation as part of their duty in responding to calls, or is everything a police officer does subject to being audio recorded?" [Harford prosecutor Joseph I.] Cassilly said.

Cassilly thinks officers should be able to consider their on-duty conversations to be private. Other officers share that view and have issued warnings to documentarians. Another video that surfaced on YouTube shows a Baltimore police officer at the Preakness warning a cameraman who was recording several other officers subduing a woman that such recordings are illegal.

State police spokesman Greg Shipley said that Uhler acted appropriately and that the officer never pointed his gun at Graber, putting it away as soon as he saw Graber comply with his commands.

Troopers are told to act as if they are being videorecorded, Shipley said. If they see someone videorecording them, they can ask them to stop but are to take no further action even if the cameraman continues, he said. If they think a private conversation is being illegally recorded, they are to contact the local state’s attorney’s office and let a prosecutor decide whether a violation occurred.

Now get this irony:

Complicating the issue: Maryland state troopers record traffic stops themselves, using dashboard cameras that were installed in all patrol cars as a result of a 2003 settlement with the state ACLU over racial profiling.

In an August 2000 legal opinion, the state’s attorney general wrote that "many encounters between uniformed police officers and citizens could hardly be characterized as ‘private conversations’ " and that "any driver pulled over by a uniformed officer in a traffic stop is acutely aware that his or her statements are being made to a police officer and, indeed, that they may be repeated as evidence in a courtroom."

But Cassilly says the use of dash cameras does not negate officers’ entitlement to privacy on the job. Police who use dash cameras must alert drivers that they are being taped, he said.

Yes, but the driver have the option to say “I don’t want to be videotaped”?

If the police officers in California had such a law, Rodney King would have been beaten near to death and no one would have known.

“You Know”

Few of us speak in beautifully crafted paragraphs with nary an “uh,” “um,” “you know” or the ubiquitous “like.”  Few journalists include such utterances when quoting folks—unless they are trying to convey something more than the subject of the sentence quoted.  I recently saw a quote by Sarah Palin’s daughter in which she said the word “like” four times inside of about 25 words. 

"I remember sitting on the couch with one of my best friends and Levi, and I just couldn’t spit it out. I was like, ‘Mom, Mom.’ I was bawling my eyes out. She was like, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I was like, ‘I’m pregnant.’ And she was like" — Bristol stops and mimics a gasp — "Oh my God. Holy crap. But once that part was over with and Tripp was here, it was just like, this baby is a blessing."

The quote, I’m sure, was meant in part to embarrass her for her speaking style.

But since so many people use such phrases, including “you know,” often, it sticks out when a reporter includes the phrase when it adds no meaning to the sentence.  For example:

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in an interview that Obama "wanted to make sure as much as possible that if people had plans that they liked they got to keep them and balance that with, you know, some overall protection for consumers."

“You know” adds nothing to the meaning of the sentence.  Are you telling me that every time someone utters that phrase, Washington Post reporters print the quote with the phrase?  If not, when is it proper to include it?

Obama No Better Than George W. Bush

George W. Bush could have given Obama’s speech last night, and the reaction would have been the same: it was all bluster.  Bush would not ask the country for sacrifice to pay for his wars and tax cuts.  Obama doesn’t want to ask people to pay for new energy and tougher regulations for a host of industries:  coal oil and financial, to name a few.  He certainly did not take my advice.

While Obama alluded to the need to build weapon systems for World War II as a time when the country faced a challenge, he did not mention that we sacrificed to do that.  Copper, sugar and other products were rationed.  The build-up of the space program after Sputnik required huge federal investment.  Alternative energy will require the same magnitude of investment and will require federal dollars that even Democrats are unwilling to raise.

The first part of his speech was mind-numbing with its lists of projects and their costs.  He continues to have speech patterns that are also mind-numbing in their repetitious inflections: regularly dropping his voice at the end of sentences.  It gives his speeches a condescending tone. 

When he talked about the lives upended by the Gulf spill, he seemed on the right track. He could have compared what the U.S. needs to do to help the fishing and tourism industries in the Gulf with what it has done to help other folks, including teachers and police officers, keep their jobs over the past two years.  He could have said to help those industries he needs their support for a new energy direction.  Oil and fishing do not mix.  But if a motel operator doesn’t want to stop oil drilling because his brother works on a rig, then they’ll both have to live with the consequences.  One of them—or both—need to sacrifice to solve our energy problems.  The oil employee needs to retrain for green energy jobs, and the motel operator needs to pay more taxes to help with that transition.

But Obama, like Bush, wants to make it look easy, as if all we need in determination, the same determination we need to defeat Al Qaeda.  But money and unending one’s life to take on new challenges?  No, we don’t need to go there.

He has ruined his Oval Office speech command.  The next time he schedules one, most observers will think it another bland attempt to recapture lost political momentum.  Besides, if you’re going to talk about sacrifice, better to do it when there is no live audience.  To ask for that in front of one, you risk the pundit analysis of the crowd reaction.  Since people usually don’t wildly applaud when told they need to sacrifice, the chattering class will point out that “Obama’s proposals were met with a stony silence.”

Obama may be genetically incapable of delivering passion or empathy.  But he could have said,

“Next time, government will not be able to plug the hole without massive expenditures necessary to duplicate capabilities oil companies should have. 

But government can minimize the likelihood of another disaster by instituting tough regulations and hiring tough regulators.  We need to move us away from energy sources that put the country at such risk of economic and environmental disaster. 

That will call on all of us to make sacrifices.  Oil workers will need to adapt their skills to green energy needs.  That may not be hard to do, as the manual and manufacturing jobs will not require significantly different skills.  And if the public is willing to help through higher taxes, government can help pay and deliver the necessary training. 

Furthermore, we need to jump start green energy with investments and loans to help entrepreneurs willing to invest their own money and time into the effort.  But at the end of the day, we’re not paying what oil really costs.  So right now, I’m proposing a $1.50 per gallon surcharge on gasoline to be implemented in steps over the next five years to raise the funds needed to wean ourselves from our oil addiction.  That will mean folks who rely on their car to get to work will have to tighten their belts elsewhere or find jobs closer to home or car pool or use mass transit.  These are small sacrifices for our children’s futures.

The good thing I can tell you is that if we seriously attack our addiction to oil, the price of gasoline will come down as oil companies seek to hold on to their customers.  But if we think we can fix this problem without sacrifice, we will accomplish nothing, other than give the oil industry the carte blanche they want to manacle us to their drug.”

But he didn’t go there.  He punted instead.  Obama is becoming a disappointment not only to progressives but to independents who though they were voting for a strong leader.  As of May 23, as many people think Obama is a strong leader as they did at the end of the political campaign.  His leadership reputation, except for a bump at his inauguration, has remained steady.  But if he keeps blowing chances to lead, he’ll become as feckless as Bush was in the waning years of his administration.

What President Should Say Tomorrow Night

Assuming the peg for this speech is the Gulf disaster, I think the president needs to follow the advice of Bill Maher from his last show of the season Friday night.  (see:  (The relevant part starts at 2:10 into the video and continues to the end of the 6+ minute segment.)

This has bugged me for a long time.  Whenever we want to move forward and take meaningful steps to actually address and fix some of our problems, invariably someone says we can’t because of “jobs.”  This is Maher’s point.  According to Maher, there are about $58,000 oil industry jobs in Louisiana.  Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) says there are 300,000 jobs related to the oil industry.  The Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association estimates that “each exploration and production job represents four supporting jobs in and around the region.” 

Meanwhile, 46 percent of Gulf Coast jobs are in tourism–, an industry that has taken a beating because of the spill.  It would be humming along nicely about this time of year if there were no oil drilling in the Gulf.  Don’t those jobs count?

You hear the same argument from lawmakers who pass appropriations bills for defense spending the Pentagon doesn’t want.  Congress says we must continue producing planes no one wants because otherwise jobs will be lost.

Moreover, the jobs “related” to the oil industry include caterers who service the oil rigs and many others that are dependent on those oil rig jobs but could service other energy jobs.  In other words, they are service related that don’t necessarily need to be servicing oil  jobs.

Which brings me back to Maher and the president’s speech.  Basically, Maher said, “fuck those jobs.”   That was a little inelegant, but he has a point that I wish President Obama would articulate tomorrow night.

We cannot continue to support programs that are destroying our environment as well as other industries such as fishing and tourism in the Gulf Coast just because jobs will be lost.  As Maher put it, “Maybe your job needs to go when in it starts killing things.”  Or in a more graphic comparison, he notes there are jobs in the kiddie porn industry, but we prosecute offenders even if jobs might be lost. 

What we need to do is create jobs in clean energy industries where those displaced oil rig workers can work in the green energy field.  I don’t know his source, but Maher says the 58,000 oil industry workers in Louisiana alone would require $5.5 billion to pay them their same salaries in the clean energy field.  Can’t their skills, such as they are, be used in clean energy?  Isn’t $5.5 billion a drop in the bucket to begin transforming our energy industries?

The president needs to make that case, and not only about the oil industry.  The same holds true for mining jobs, aircraft mechanics and other skilled labor jobs that can easily be adapted to new energy industries.

An oil spill of this proportion will not come again soon, but it will come.  Obama needs to make the argument that we need to prevent it by moving to green energy and taking the oil industry workers with it.  But we can’t save jobs that are hurting the country.  He needs to say that upfront.  It’s time for leadership, Mr. President.