Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A New Senator for Illinois?

As far as I can tell, Roland Burris is an honorable man and Rod Blagojevich is still the governor of Illinois. I don't see what basis Harry Reid has for refusing to seat Burris.

Doubling Down with the RNC

I can see no reason why the benefit Obama might have derived from white guilt shouldn’t be a legitimate target of political satire. However, “Barack the Magic Negro” has that sledge hammer subtlety that has always caused me to find Rush Limbaugh so profoundly unfunny. As everyone probably knows, the song was part of a CD distributed by Chip Saltsman to boost his candidacy for Chairman of the Republican National Committee. The title of the CD is “We Hate the USA.” Apparently, Saltsman wants to bet the Republican Party’s future on the Sarah Palins and Michelle Bachmans who think that the only “real” Americans are people who share their vision of the world. Perhaps it was Saltsman’s service as manager of Mike Huckabee’s unsuccessful campaign that convinced him that pandering to the prejudices of the far right is much more promising than trying to take the high road.

I was particularly fascinated by Larry Elder’s attempts to turn the table on Democrats. Appearing on Anderson Cooper’s show on CNN, the conservative Black talk show host noted that it was the Democratic “party that was opposed to the 13th, the 14th, the 15th amendment. The party that founded the Klan.” According to Elder, “If you want to go over the history of the party, the Democratic Party is a party, historically, that has been antithetical to black history.” What Elder failed to mention was how Ronald Reagan stole that mantle for the Republican Party during his 1980 presidential campaign by announcing his support for “states’ rights” at the Neshoba County Fair near Philadelphia, Mississippi; the scene of the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

I'm Still a Sucker for Christmas

I will be going to the earliest mass tomorrow as I do every Christmas. Although I consider myself an agnostic, I am still deeply moved by the story of the divine spark manifested in such humble circumstances.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Last Minute Gift Ideas or What I Have Been Reading Lately

The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire, Matt Taibbi. Very entertaining book about nuts on both ends of the political spectrum who have abandoned belief in objective reality. The author goes undercover at John Hagee's Cornerstone Church and in the 911 Truth Movement. Highlights include vomiting demons into paper bags and the 911 group whose big accomplishment was scheduling a movie night.

Robert Kennedy: His Life / by Evan Thomas. A fascinating character who grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth, enthusiaticly supported Joe McCarthy, and wound up as a crusader for the poor and downtrodden.

The Conscience of a Liberal , Paul Krugman. A very well written explanation of why everything is the conservatives' fault.

The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too, James K. Galbraith. Another very well written explanation of why everything is the conservatives' fault.

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James W. Loewen. Excellent.

Chain of Blame: How Wall Street Caused the Mortgage and Credit Crisis, Paul Muolo, Mathew Padilla. There is truly plenty of blame to go around although Bill Clinton's support of the Community Redevelopment Act had nothing to do with it.

The Coldest Winter : America and the Korean War, David Halberstam. Fascinating book on a little known war. Truman stands up to MacArthur, the arrogant general who never spent a night in Korea during the entire time that he commanded the American forces there.

The Great Upheaval : America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800, Jay Winik. The French Revolution, Catherine the Great and George Washington's administration all packed together.

The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, Alan Greenspan. Although he is much more candid and clear than he was in his days as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Greenspan has a gift for making the most tumultuous financial events utterly tedious. I had a feeling that this was going to be a snorer when the library called me to tell me it was available. There had been seven people ahead of me when I reserved it and I got it three weeks later.

The End of Prosperity: How Higher Taxes Will Doom the Economy--If We Let It Happen, Arthur B. Laffer, Stephen Moore, Peter J. Tanous. A defense of supply side economics. Although I am only half way through, I notice that the authors only seem to make comparisons to the 1970's. They conveniently ignore the 1950's and 1960's when the United States was the dominant economic power in the world and the top marginal tax rate was as high as 90%.

The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, Jane Mayer. I saw Philadelphia radio talk show host Mike Smerkonish telling Chris Matthews the other day that he had no problem with using any means necessary to extract information from Al Queda suspects. He figured that the CIA's best interrogation specialists must have figured that waterboarding was the best way to get the information. The only problem is that the CIA did not have any interrogation specialists; the FBI did but they were cut out of the loop because they did not believe in using torture.

Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The facts were there but Bush and Cheney weren't interested in them.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Wishful Thinking

I have been stunned by the number of right wing bloggers I have read in the last couple days who are convinced that the Blagojevich scandal is somehow going to expose Barack Obama as the Marxist-terrorist-socialist-Muslim-babykilling non-citizen that they know him to be. I am not particularly surprised that they have such a low opinion of Obama's character. Rather, it is hard to believe that they are so stupid as to think that Obama is so stupid. Haven't they been paying attention to what has been going on over the last few months?

Here are two simple facts for the right wingnuts to consider:

(1) Rod Blagojevich is a first class douchebag. He is such a douchebag that he wishes he had George Bush's approval ratings. If George Bush and Sarah Palin had a child together, that child might be as arrogant, stupid, and incurious as Rod Blagojevich--but only if Bush and Palin were first cousins.

(2) Barack Obama, on the other hand, is really really smart. If he really is as complete a fraud as the wingnuts think he is, then he is an evil genius on a par with the love child of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney.

Conclusion? Obama is not going to be brought down by Blagojevich.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Why Obama is So Confident

At a press conference today, Barack Obama was "absolutely certain" that no one on his team was involved with making any deals with Rod Blagojevich although he was still investigating to see what other contacts his staff might have had. I think I know why he is so confident.

I think the Obama campaign recognized long ago that Blagojevich was a ticking time bomb and they made the decision that the risk of dealing with him on any level outweighed anything that could possibly be gained. I suspect that a concious decision was made long ago that no deals would be made regarding Obama's vacant senate seat. My guess is that everyone on the Obama team was instructed to tell Blagojevich that he should use his best judgment in filling the senate seat. They could tell Blagojevich who Obama liked, but they never had any intention of offering the governor anything in exchange for any pick.

I think that Obama campaign manager David Axelrod's comments to FOX News Chicago on November 23rd make sense in this context. "I know he's talked to the governor, and there are a whole range of names, many of which have surfaced, and I think he has a fondness for a lot of them." If it had been planned for months that Obama would tell Blagojevich who he liked for the seat and nothing more, Axelrod may simply have assumed that the conversation had taken place at some time.

I think that Blagojevich's behavior makes sense in this light, too. The complaint describes the governor becoming irate with consultants who told him to “suck it up” and give Obama the senate candidate he wanted for nothing. I suspect that the consultants had put out feelers on behalf of Blagojevich and been told Obama wasn’t interested in any deals. The consultants would not have been as blatant as Blagojevich and Axelrod or Rahm Emmanuel would have been smart enough to cut them off long before they reached the point of suggesting a quid pro quo.

What is more interesting to me is what the Obama guys knew about Blagojevich eighteen months ago that made them decide to freeze out Blagojevich from the start. I wouldn’t be surprised if Obama gets away without ever answering that question as the right wingnuts are going to make themselves look silly trying to trump up some improper contact between Blagojevich and the transition team.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Obama's Role in Blagojevich's Downfall

On September 17, 2009, Chicago Tribune columnist Dennis Byrne accused Barack Obama of “abetting” the Illinois State Senate President Emil Jones’ efforts to block meaningful ethics reform in Illinois. Byrne wanted Obama to urge Jones to call the Illinois Senate back into session in order to override Blagojevich’s veto of a bill that would have banned companies from making campaign donations to certain state officials if they were doing more than $50,000 in business with the state. Obama had declined to get involved in the matter other than to express his generalized support for reform. Byrne ranted “Agent of change, my foot.”

While I did not think it fair to blame Obama for what Blagojevich and Jones were doing, I realized that it was not unreasonable to expect him to express his support for the bill. Obama’s ability to stay clean in the cesspool of Illinois and Chicago politics was one of the things that most impressed me; however, his endorsement of Democratic hacks like County Board President Todd Stroger had disappointed me. On the other hand, I thought that getting involved was a no-win proposition for Obama. If he was successful, it would carry little weight outside Illinois—a state that he already had locked up. If he failed, he would look ineffectual across the entire country and give Republicans tons of ammo.

To my surprise, Obama decided to call Jones and Jones agreed to call the Illinois Senate back into session to pass the ethics bill. Blagojevich whined that Obama was falling into a GOP trap. “Let me be clear: I don’t think he (Obama) should be asked to be involved in any of this. He’s busy running for president,” the governor said. “It’s the Republicans who dragged him into this issue. They’re the ones who called on him to call on Senate President Jones to act on the ethics bill.” Nevertheless, the bill passed and will take effect in January.

It is apparent that Obama’s phone call indirectly sparked Blagojevich mad cash scramble. According to the criminal complaint filed by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, after passage of the bill, Blagojevich “accelerat[ed] his corrupt fund raising activities to accumulate as much money as possible before the implementation of ethics legislation on January 1, 2009.” This led Fitzgerald to seek court approval to tap Blagojevich’s office and bug his phone. Like the contestants on Supermarket Sweep, Blagojevich was desperately filling his shopping cart with cash in the allotted time.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Things We Only Think They Said

On April 6, 1862, a Confederate army under General Albert Johnston attacked a Union force camped on the banks of the Tennessee river in northern Mississippi. In what came to be known as the Battle of Shiloh, Union General Ulysses S. Grant was completely taken by surprise. By the end of the first day's fighting, the Union army had almost been forced into the river. Almost everyone except Grant believed that he would have to retreat. However, Grant knew that the Confederates were just as exhausted by the day's fighting as the Union troops. Using reinforcements that came up during the night, Grant counterattacked the next day and drove the rebel forces from the field.

Appalled by the casualties and lack of preparation, newspapers and politicians throughout the North called for Grant to be sacked, but Abraham Lincoln declined to do so. Speaking to one Pennsylvania congressman, President Lincoln said "I can't spare this man. He fights!" This is not the most famous thing Lincoln ever said, but it is pretty well known. It is recounted by James McPherson recounts in Battle Cry of Freedom, by biographer Jean Edward Smith in Grant, and by many others.

The only problem is that Lincoln may never have said it. According to William Marvel in Lincoln's Darkest Year: The War in 1862 and Brooks D. Simpson in Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865, the Pennsylvania politician, Alexander McClure, did not tell anyone about Lincoln's comment until several years after the war. The record shows that Lincoln relied on Grant's superior, General Henry W. Halleck, to determine whether Grant had acted properly at Shiloh, and that Halleck gave Grant a hard time over the next several months.

There are also questions about Confederate General Robert E. Lee's statements on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg after the Union forces had repulsed Pickett's Charge. According to Shelby Foote in The Civil War: A Narrative, Lee rode among his troops saying "It's all my fault" and "The blame is mine."
To [General Cadmus] Wilcox, who was about as unstrung as [General George]
Pickett in reporting that he was not sure that his troops would stand if the
Federals attacked, Lee was particularly solicitous and tender. "Never
mind, General," he told him taking his hand as he spoke. "All
this has been my fault—it is I that have lost this fight, and you must help me
out of it the best way you can."
It is considered to be one of Lee's finest moments.

In this case, the problem is not so much with what Lee said as to who he said it. According to Michael Fellmen in The Making of Robert E Lee, Lee had taken responsibility in order to rally his discouraged brigade commander Wilcox, but
"[t]here is no evidence to corroborate the legend that Lee rode among the common
soldiers and confessed his failings . . . . It would not have been
in his aristocratic character, nor would it have made good sense in terms of
discipline to have made such a confession to all and sundry, an act that Lee
would have found unacceptably humiliating."
He encouraged his foot soldiers, but Fellmen considers the generalized mea culpa unlikely.

Any Civil War buff worth his salt is probably aware of dozens of cases where the evidence is pretty thin that a famous quote is actually the product of the person to whom it is attributed. Stories about Lincoln and Lee were as likely to be told and retold over the years because they reflected popular understanding of these men as because they accurately reported what really happened.

Evangelical Christians like to tell themselves that unbelievers are unreasonably skeptical about the historicity of the gospels, but no responsible historian takes any written report at face value. They look for corroboration and always recognize the possibility that a story got passed on because it was a good story rather than because it was true. One needs to look no further than the story of the woman caught in adultery to know that this happened in the Bible.