HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

March 10, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Late Dawning
March 4, 2008

It appears that the waste of money deriving from the invasion and occupation of Iraq is gradually penetrating the national consciousness. It's often said that most people can't imagine what a trillion dollars is. But as more and more comparisons are publicized, showing what might have been done with the money, the public begins to grasp just how disastrous the past five years have been.

Economist Joseph Stiglitz is leading the way in teaching Americans what they have permitted their government to do. I hope his forthcoming book, The Three Trillion Dollar War, will get the attention it deserves. As Americans comprehend that Social Security could have been put on a sound basis for more than a half century, that a competent medical system serving everyone could have been put in place, that the crumbling roads and bridges could have been repaired, that tens of thousands of bright young people could have been supplied with college education, they may become less twitterpated by the thought of dressing young men up in soldier suits and sending them around the world to attack people who never did anything to us.

These are somber facts. But the most distressing truth facing us now is that a leading contender for the presidency wants to keep right on spending money in the same way. In the face of increasing evidence that the cost of the occupation of Iraq is eviscerating the health of the American nation, John McCain wants to continue slicing. And this is called patriotism.

Rejecting this nonsense may well be the most crucial test the country has ever faced. I hope we're up to it.


Clueless
March 4, 2008

You can always count on the media to miss the genuine import of a story. The flap about Rush Limbaugh and Curious George may have mild racist implications -- and what would be surprising about that coming from Rush Limbaugh? -- but the genuine significance of it is that Limbaugh didn't know who Curious George is. How can you have lived in this country for the past three decades and not know Curious George? What does that tell us about a brain?

Al Franken should be pleased. His charge that Limbaugh is a fat idiot has been confirmed beyond doubt.

I don't guess this revelation has quite the national impact of Mitt Romney's testimony that L. Ron Hubbard was his favorite novelist, but it falls into the same category.

These moments tell us who we are. Probably the greatest service any reporter could render to the nation would be to mention Elizabeth Bennet or Mr. Micawber in George Bush's presence and then train a camera on the president's face.


Bonkers
March 5, 2008

The commentary in the wake of the primaries yesterday has been surprising and in many cases close to insane. An unusual number of Democrats seem to have been driven crazy by the truth that their party has two strong candidates, each of whom appeals to wide sectors of the electorate. Instead of rejoicing over their wealth, many Democrats are wailing that a vigorous primary campaign will do them in when November rolls around.

The idea that having to fight hard to secure the nomination weakens a candidate in the general election makes no sense. It seems to be the case that great numbers of Americans can't imagine anything past next week. They are incapable of grasping that the general election will be determined by contest between two people, and that whoever prevails in that struggle will gain the presidency. And if the Democratic candidate has been tested by a difficult path to the nomination, it will be all to his or her advantage when the time comes to confront the Republicans.

People who can't imagine anything past next week are also unable to remember anything longer than a week ago. The criticisms the Democratic candidates make of one another will be ancient history by the time people have to choose between one of them and John McCain. The only person on television I heard make that point last night was Tom Brokaw, who was so disgusted by Chris Matthews's anti-Clinton effusions, he suggested that Matthews just cancel the Pennsylvania primary since the Democrats there have no right to a part in deciding the nominee of their party. It was the sharpest put-down I have ever heard one newsman make of another and for a moment Matthews appeared stunned. But it was certainly deserved.

It's unfortunate that the Democratic candidates feel driven to use empty sentiment and fear in order to win the nomination. I wish that weren't the case and that each campaign could simply concentrate on the strength of its candidate. But we have created a political ethos in which whatever works will be used. The blame for these icky tactics lies not as much with the candidates as it does with voters who are swayed by them. I confess, I didn't like the Clinton campaign's three A.M. phone call commercial. I thought it was cheap and silly. But already, pundits are calling it brilliant because they say it secured her big win in Ohio. If that's the case, we scarcely have the right to fault her for using it. After all, she's up against a candidate who will relentlessly, and brilliantly, use empty emotionalism to his advantage. Under the conditions of a campaign, he has every right to play to his strengths. But if he does, so does she, and the truth is she is liked by many citizens who are possessed by unfocused fears.

Democrats need to let the campaign play out, support whichever of the candidates they think will make the best president, and be prepared to unite behind the person who secures the nomination. Sulking or getting enraged because the candidates are trying to win is juvenile. Come September, Democrats will be cheering tactics they are frothing about now.


Being Oneself
March 6, 2008

I don't always agree with the editorial positions of the New York Times, but the paper's advice this morning to the two Democratic candidates is the best thing I've seen from any of the media in a long time. The message is, get serious.

The nation has big problems, many of them deriving from the disastrous behavior of the current president and his administration. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama need to explain to the electorate how those problems should be addressed. And the first step would be laying out clearly what they are.

I understand it must be tremendously difficult to ride herd over the pack of prima donnas, egomaniacs and soreheads that make up a presidential campaign, but that's exactly what each of the candidates needs to do. If they have confidence in themselves then they should have confidence in presenting a true self, along with honest opinions, to the people.

Up till now both campaigns have been essentially childish. The one that can now grow up will probably be successful.

Hillary Clinton had best forget about phone calls in the night and Barack Obama should put aside his promises to unify the American people. The country needs neither snap decisions nor sweety-pie sentiment. It needs, rather, a functioning intelligent government genuinely devoted to the well-being of all the people.

John McCain cannot deliver such a government because he is an imperialistic militarist. Like any other Republican, he cannot speak honestly about what he wants for the country. A Democratic candidate could, if he or she could summon the courage to do it. But that's the problem. It evidently takes gigantic resolve and courage to be oneself in a presidential campaign.

If this election marks a turning point in the history of the nation, as both the Democratic candidates have been saying, then the biggest turn of all would be a presidential candidate who could put aside the ignorant blathering of focus groups and tell the people what is wrong with the country, why it got to be wrong, and what can be done to place us on a healthy course.

We may not get such a message from either of the Democratic candidates but, still, it's a thing to be devoutly hoped for.


Into the Pit
March 7, 2008

Now we've descended to the "commander-in-chief threshold." This is the single most fatuous piece of rhetoric in the presidential race so far, and it comes from a candidate I have favored.

I wonder if our fabled press corps is going to ask Senator Clinton what the CICT is.

In advance of her answer I'll give you my definition. The CICT is a brainstorm vomited up by a juvenile campaign staff who care nothing about good sense or good language, but are obsessed by their own insulting take on the American electorate. They are convinced they have to appeal to voters who think government is exactly like a low-grade TV adventure series, with the president spending most of his or her time in tense situation rooms where only he, or she, has enough gritty determination to do the right thing. God help us, if that's what our government has really become.

Here's my question: how can Hillary Clinton regurgitate such pap without gagging, or breaking into a giggle? Has being able to intone utter stupidity in solemn tones become the chief requirement for the president of the United States?

If the American people actually want a new politics, here's how they can get it: break out into peals of unrestrained laughter every time a politician utters the words, "commander in chief."


Fawnopolis
March 8, 2008

The saddest thing in the furor concerning the remark about Senator Clinton by Samantha Power is the way the latter is almost always referred to now as "an ex-Obama aide." If you read nothing but the headlines, you'd get the impression that Samantha Power is no more than another political flunkey who let her tongue get her into trouble. It doesn't seem to matter that she is the author of the most powerful book on the nature of genocide ever written, a work that may well be a more significant accomplishment than anything Obama or Clinton will ever do.

If I were to hear that a presidential candidate were within a block of me, I'd take out running for the hills in an attempt to preserve my name against the danger of becoming, forever, "a Montpelier man who was greeted by Obama, or Clinton, or McCain, or whomever."

I understand: the story gets its punch not from who Samantha Power is but from the association. Still, you'd think the press might want to acknowledge that she is a person in her own right, an actual human being who has lived, and thought and written in serious ways.

Celebrity seems now to be the only thing the media cares about. One who happens to drift into a pool of celebrity becomes nothing other than a piece of flotsam that may circle for a while and then be whirled aside.

We do see some criticism of our celebrity culture, but it's commonly focused on girls who manage to get their pictures taken often and, then, become neurotic. Most of the time the press implies that it's their fault. Seldom do we find anyone pointing out that obsession with just a few members of the human race is an emotional disease. It's the reason, by the way, that so-called independents regularly pop off with the nonsense that they vote for the person and don't care about the party. They seem to think that the president will decide, himself or herself, everything the government does.

Obviously, some persons will become better known than others. That's inevitable.  But if we allow ourselves to believe that only people who make the headlines are making the world, then we're demented.


Bad Territory
March 8, 2008

I haven't watched The O'Reilly Factor in months, but last night at eleven, I wasn't quite sleepy enough to go to bed, so I flicked onto Fox News to see what O'Reilly was up to. I discovered him going into one of his anti-Vermont rants. It turns out I live in not only the worst place in America but in one of the worst places in the world.

The reason is SPs. I don't know what SPs are, but they've taken over completely in Vermont and ruined everything. It's funny, but you wouldn't know it from walking down the Main Street in Montpelier. Most people are friendly, the stores are accommodating, you have better access to books there than in most small towns, and you can get a cup of coffee and a muffin for far less than what you would have to pay in other parts of the country.

I'll admit that we do have quite a bit of snow piled up this year, but it doesn't seem likely that the SPs are responsible for that, unless, of course, God is striking at them where they hole up. I don't know if O'Reilly thinks that's the way God works, or not.

I am curious about how O'Reilly's diatribes strike people in other parts of the country who haven't visited Vermont recently. Do they believe him? He and people like him may be having some effect because occasionally when I'm away from home and talk to people who know I'm from Vermont, they'll ask me how I like living among weird people. I generally respond that I hadn't noticed, or, that I guess you can get used to anything.

I don't suppose there's anything Vermont can do about O'Reilly. He has his TV show and its success is based on his making up villains. There's little reason for him to change as long as he can stay on the air. In a way, what he does for us is somewhat nice, actually. You could do worse than be what O'Reilly thinks of as villainous, and to be publicized in that character throughout the nation is even better.


Misdirected Attention
March 9, 2008

Speaking in Ghana on February 20, 2008, President George Bush noted, "I'm oftentimes asked, What difference does it make to America if people are dying of malaria in a place like Ghana? It means a lot. It means a lot morally, it means a lot from a -- it's in our national interest."

His comment has been quoted often, I guess for an obvious reason. But the obvious reason is not the most interesting thing about it.

Who are these people who often ask the president if the death of Africans from malaria should matter to Americans? Where does the president meet them? Are they among his advisors? What kind of people is he in the habit of encountering?

I presume he talks to more Republicans than he does to Democrats. Does this mean that Republicans are more given to questions of this nature than other people are?

Or might it be that no one in George Bush's life has ever asked him that question? If that were the case, what would that mean?

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