Sunday, May 31, 2009

Blue Hill

It was date night for the president and the first lady. Motorcade to Andrews Air Force Base, hop on your Gulfstream and zoom on up to New York City. Not bad for a former Columbia University student who once lived in a small apartment on New York's upper east side a few blocks from our house.

The first couple dined at Blue Hill in the Village near NYU. The restaurant, three steps below street level, is charming and intimate. Nothing too fancy here. The food is excellent. It is all gathered from local area farms.

We have one notable link to Blue Hill. For the past three summers Zoe and her friend Georgina have attended summer camp at Stone Barns, near Tarrytown, New York. Stone Barnes is the home of the sister restaurant to Blue Hill.

Stone Barnes is located on a farm that is part of a former Rockefeller estate. Here mostly city kids feed pigs, sheep and cattle, chase after chickens and till to the vegetable gardens. The food harvested here goes to both restaurants.

So the first couple dined on fresh produce and dairy products free of harmful chemicals. They ate their meal without interruption. But when they stood to leave, everyone in the restaurant gave them a huge ovation.

We like Blue Hill too! But I bet it will be hard to get a reservation for some time to come!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Reverse Thinking

Immediately after President Barack Obama announced Judge Sonia Sotomayer as his nominee to the Supreme Court, conservatives unleashed a torrent of snarky criticism led by their pit bull and spiritual guide, Rush Limbaugh. So shrill were the criticisms that it is no wonder that the party of "NO" is dwindling into the party of NO ONE!

With less than one quarter of the country identifying themselves as Republicans, the party is struggling to find its way. Today few Americans have empathy (pardon the expression conservatives) for what's left of the GOP, and no wonder. The notion that Judge Sotomayer practices "reverse discrimination" is absurd and reflects the Republican tendency to use scare tactics.

A key element of the attacks is Judge Sotomayer's 2001 speech made at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law entitled, "Raising the Bar: Latino and Latina Presence in the Judiciary and the Struggle for Representation." At one point Judge Sotomayer said, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who just hasn't lived that life."

Conservatives have seized on this statement as evidence that she is racist. They do not understand that this is an aspirational statement, not a condemnation of white males. It is also an incomplete representation of what she said. The judge went on to say, "I am reminded each day that I render decisions that affect people concretely and that I owe them constant and complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives and ensuring that to the extent that my limited abilities and capabilities permit me, that I reevaluate them and change as circumstances and cases before me requires. I can and do aspire to be greater than the sum total of my experiences but I accept my limitations. I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage but attempt, as the Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate."

Another criticism centers on Judge Sotomayor's role in a dispute between the city of New Haven and a group of white and Hispanic firefighters. Here she was on a three judge panel that unanimously ruled the city was within its right to throw out results of a promotional exam because too few minorities scored high enough. The decision relied on precedent not on judicial activism. The case, known as the New Haven 20, is now before the Supreme Court.

Conservatives also cite a speech Judge Sotomayer made at Duke University in 2005 as evidence she will make policy from the bench. She said, "Court of appeals is where policy is made. And I know this is on tape and I shouldn't say that because we don't make law." But they leave out or dismiss the follow on sentence, "I'm not promoting it, I'm not advocating it . . . " She went on to clarify her comment, "When you're on the district court, you're looking to do justice in the individual case, so you're looking much more to the facts of the case than you are to the application of the law because the application of the law is not precedential, so the facts control. On the court of appeals, you're looking to how the law is developing so that it will then be applied to a broad class of cases. So you're always thinking about the ramifications of this ruling on the next step of the development of the law."

Judge Sotomayer may have been blindsided by an anonymous quote that she in not really smart. The fact that she finished second in her class at Princeton University and edited the Yale Law Review seems to indicate the opposite. But that did not persuade Republican strategist Karl Rove from spouting this comment: "I know lots of stupid people who went to Ivy League schools." Never mind that his former boss, President George Bush, was barely an average student at Yale.

At best, these points will make for a lively discussion when Judge Sotomayer seeks confirmation before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But Republicans have to tread carefully or they risk alienating the few Hispanic supports they do have. There are already more Hispanics in the United States than there are Canadians in Canada. Soon there may be more Hispanics than Republicans.

Judge Sotomayer's life story is powerful and compelling. Raised in a Bronx housing project, she has had to overcome great obstacles to achieve success. Unless something more serious comes up, Judge Sotomayer will take her place on the Supreme Court. She will be the third woman and first Hispanic to serve her country as a justice. She is living the American dream.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Obama and Cheney

It was the polished and thoughtful constitutional lawyer against the irreproachable and contemptuous lifetime bureaucrat. President Barack Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney engaged in a remarkable battle of words over national security, torture and the future of Guantanamo prison.

While not face to face, it may be the most important debate of our time because it was about the soul of America. Obama's central theme was that some Bush/Cheney policies were illegal, ineffective and weakened our country. Cheney's theme was that his administration's policies were legal and they kept America safe from another terrorist attack.

Vice President Cheney has been a lone but forceful voice in defending the battered Bush/Cheney legacy. Why did his newly elected administration not take seriously 2001 intelligence reports that Al Qaeda was about to strike America? He even raised it in his speech at the American Enterprise Institute; "Nine-eleven caused everyone to take a serious second look at threats that had been gathering for a while, and enemies whose plans were getting bolder and more sophisticated."

The World Trade Center terrorist attack was devastating. The Bush/Cheney administration went into overdrive to make up for their initial mistakes. "Everyone expected a follow-on attack, and our job was to stop it," Cheney recounted yesterday, "Al Qaeda was seeking nuclear technology...we had an anthrax attack from an unknown source...and dictators like Saddam Hussein with ties to Mideast terrorists."

From the earliest moment Bush and Cheney linked Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda and targeted him for attack. They built a case for an American invasion of Iraq by claiming his complicity in the American attacks and his possession of weapons of mass destruction, WMD's. But no link would be found and there were no WMD's. More than 4,000 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq since the poorly planned invasion and occupation began. As Obama said, "Faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of hasty decisions...all too often our government made decisions based on fear rather than foresight."

Another one of those decisions was to use enhanced interrogation techniques. Cheney defended them as legal and effective, "(their use) prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people." He quoted President Obama's Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, as saying, "High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the Al Qaeda organization that was attacking this country." But Cheney did not mention that Blair also said, "The bottom line is that these techniques hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security."

Obama's position on these techniques was firm, "I categorically reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation." Cheney's was righteous, "In my long experience in Washington, few matters have inspired such contrived indignation and phony moralizing as the interrogation methods applied to a few captured terrorists." Cheney's claim that the enhanced interrogation techniques used were legal is manipulating the truth. This country has long declared that waterboarding is torture. Further, in 2002 terrorists were waterboarded well before the ginned up and misguided Justice Department approval was given for its use.

Former Vice President Cheney also criticized the "selective release" of documents relating to the interrogations by the President. "For reasons the administration has yet to explain, they believe the public has the right to know the method of the questions, but not the content of the answers." The President said he released those memos because, "We will not be interrogating terrorists using that approach. That approach is now prohibited." But the argument may not be settled until the President releases all the memos.

With regard to Guantanamo, Cheney accused Obama of acting hastily. "On his second day in office, President Obama announced that (he was) closing the detention facility," Cheney said, "The step came with little deliberation and no plan." Cheney then played the fear card, "The President says some of these terrorists should be brought to American soil for trial in our court system." He added that he agreed with many Democrats who were "Unsure how to explain to their constituents why terrorists might soon be relocating into their states." But Obama described Guantanamo as a symbol that helped Al Qaeda recruit terrorists. "The problem of what to do with Guantanamo detainees was not caused by my decision to close the facility, " Obama said, "The problem exists because of the decision to open Guantanamo in the first place." Today Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover Bush appointee, defended Obama's decision to close the Guantanamo facility.

The blight of Abu Ghraib came up when Cheney blamed "a few sadistic prison guards" for abusing inmates "in violation of American law, military regulations and simple decency." He said that the guards had received Army justice but failed to point out that responsibility for Abu Ghraib runs all the way up the chain of command to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Obama seems to be trying to find a pragmatic way to deal with all of these problems. "National security requires a delicate balance," he said, "On the one hand, our democracy depends on transparency. On the other hand, some information must be protected from public disclosure for the sake of our security." But will he remain pragmatic should there be another devastating terrorist attack on this country? He raised that possibility in his speech.

And how will history treat the Bush/Cheney administration? The difficult and costly Iraq war that America should have never waged, a failed Katrina response, a collapsed economy, incredible deficit spending and the use of torture are among the missteps that do not bode well for their legacy.

Yet Cheney remains defiant and outspoken because he has nothing to lose. "For all the partisan anger that still lingers," he said yesterday, "our administration will stand up well in history--not despite our actions after 9/11, but because of them."

Saturday, May 16, 2009

My Young Lady

In the blink of an eye my little girl, Zoe, has become a young lady.
She spent Thursday evening cramming for two exams.

Then, after school Friday, she had her nails done and headed off to a friend's thirteenth birthday party at the swank Sherry Netherlands Hotel on Fifth Avenue. And boys were invited too!

Here Zoe, on the right, and her friend Ginger head out for an evening of dancing and birthday cheer.

Oh boy, fasten your seat belts!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cheney's Torture Logic

Perhaps there was one good thing about having Vice President Dick Cheney in office, you didn't hear from him very often. But now that he is a civilian he just can't stop talking. It is especially surprising because there is nothing much good to say about the past eight years. Record government deficits, a failed financial system, a collapsed housing market, a senseless war in Iraq, no weapons of mass destruction and an increase in global terrorism.

Unlike his former boss, and most of his predecessors, Cheney can’t seem to move on with life, so he has taken the offensive. Cheney has one self-proclaimed accomplishment to hang on to; terrorists did not attack America again after 9/11. So he has been attacking President Barack Obama for making America less safe from a terrorist attack by ending surveillance and other intelligence procedures implemented under President Bush. Further, he has emphatically and unabashedly defended the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Let's face it, Vice President Dick Cheney didn't just have the President's ear, it is pretty clear he had President Bush by the ear. Take this exchange about enhanced interrogation techniques with CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation this past Sunday:

Schieffer: "You approved this?"

Cheney: "Right."

Schieffer: "Did President Bush know everything you knew?

Cheney: "I certainly, yes, have every reason to believe he knew -- he knew a great deal about the program. He basically authorized it. I mean, this was a presidential-level decision. And the decision went to the president. He signed off on it."

He "basically authorized it?" It sounds like back then Cheney said, "Just sign here George and don't worry, I got your back." Only now it is clear Cheney is saying, "If you go after me, you got to go after Bush too!"

One of Cheney's central arguments is that the enhanced interrogation techniques used were legal. "We had pursued interrogation in a normal way. We decided that we needed some enhanced techniques. So we went to the Justice Department," Cheney said to Schieffer. "What we got from the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) were legal memos that laid out what is appropriate and what’s not appropriate," he continued. "If we had been about torture, we wouldn’t have wasted our time going to the Justice Department."

The United Nations Convention Against Torture, of which America is a signatory, says, "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession" is torture. Further, torture is illegal under U.S. law, and "The Army Field Manual" specifies that waterboarding is prohibited.

Clearly the OLC was instructed by the White House to manufacture guidelines under which waterboarding would not be torture. In other words, harsh enough to have an impact but gentle enough so as not to cause pain. Journalist Christopher Hitchens underwent waterboarding for a Vanity Fair article last August and his conclusion was, "If waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture." So much for legality.

Whether waterboarding worked or not appears to be, at best, a jump ball. Most experts believe that torture does not work because prisoners lie. But Dick Cheney is emphatic that waterboarding did work, and he says four former directors of the CIA agree. As Cheney told Schieffer, "No regrets. I think it was absolutely the right thing to do. I’m convinced, absolutely convinced, that we saved thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives."

So Cheney has asked the Obama administration to release all the classified memos pertaining to the enhanced interrogations. "Release the memos. And we can look and see for yourself what was produced," Cheney said. This makes a lot of sense. By releasing all of the relevant memos Americans will likely know conclusively if the enhanced techniques worked. There should also be a bipartisan special commission investigation into the use of enhanced interrogations and the role of the OLC.

In the end the Bush administration abandoned American values and played with the truth. Illegal acts are rewritten as legal through some tortured logic. That will be the Bush/Cheney legacy here. And Dick Cheney doesn't care what anyone thinks.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

LeBron MVP

Two years ago this July I was in need of a white blazer for one of those summer parties in the Hamptons. I headed down to Ralph Lauren, several blocks away from our home. The good news was I found the last white jacket in the store. The bad news, the jacket was one size too small. So I headed up to the store's tailoring department to see if the jacket could be fitted.

To my surprise, LeBron James was sitting on a bench in the fitting room. I could see that LeBron was trying on several expensive and spectacular suits. He appeared to be in the company of another large man who was quietly watching the proceedings. I looked at him out of the corner of my eye and was amazed by how together he looked for a man who was barely 20 years old.

Meanwhile, my tailor asked me to put the white jacket on as I stood in front of a 3-way mirror. It was clear that the jacket was too tight around my waist and there was not enough fabric to make the appropriate correction. But, because I had to have a white jacket, I instructed the tailor to do the best he could.

As I was preparing to leave the dressing room I decided to say a few words to LeBron. I had watched him play basketball on television many times. He is tall, 6'9", fast and a great shooter. From the very beginning he appeared to have great potential.

"I am from Chicago," I said, "I watched and met Michael Jordan."

As if I had mentioned almighty God, LeBron James stood up and looked me in the eye.

"From what I have seen, you will be at least as good as Michael Jordan," I continued. "You have great potential."

LeBron stood speechless for a few seconds. He then reached out his hand and shook mine. Then, nodding his head up and down, he said, "Sir, I really appreciate that, I appreciate what you said." His face was earnest and his voice truly sincere. He appeared humbled by the comparison.

After this brief encounter I headed out to the cash register across the room. While finalizing my business I noticed that LeBron was walking across the room to come speak with me.

"Sir," he said respectfully, "I want you to know how much I appreciate what you said." He then tipped his head to me, shook my hand again, and left with his friend.

From this one brief encounter I know that LeBron James is more than just an incredibly gifted athlete. I was struck then by his thoughtfulness, his maturity, by his easy and unassuming manner. LeBron seemed to be a very special person who possessed talent, purpose and decency.

I was thrilled to see him win the NBA's MVP award this year. I was not surprised to hear his humble tone and gracious acceptance remarks, especially the part where he said it is really a team award.

For sure, LeBron James is a "most valuable person" for his family, his community and his sport.

By the way, I wore the white jacket even though I could not button it!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Hispanic Justice

"I will seek somebody with a sharp and independent mind and a record of excellence and integrity," President Barack Obama said in commenting on whom he will nominate to replace retiring Associate Justice David Souter. But President Obama now has an important opportunity to pick someone who, if approved by the Senate, will lead to a Supreme Court that more truly reflects the composition of the American population.

America has been enriched by its diverse Hispanic culture. But this culture has been under represented in our government. Today more than 40 million Hispanics live in the United States, our nation's largest minority population. And, according to recent projections, more than 100 million Hispanics will live in this country by the year 2050, or about 30% of the population. Hispanics are a vibrant collection of cultures and political views. More than three-fifths of the U.S. Hispanic population is of Mexican origin; the other portion includes Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans and people from throughout South and Central America.

U.S. Hispanics are doctors, lawyers, athletes and laborers. Hispanics are American soldiers who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. They serve as police officers and fire fighters. These men and women are our heroes too. They pay taxes, and own or rent homes. Their children attend our schools and many want their kids to live the American dream. While some Hispanics are third and fourth generation families, still millions more are new arrivals who speak little if any English. They read Spanish language newspapers, listen to Spanish language radio stations and live in tight knit communities. Nonetheless, they make up a booming portion of our economy.

Of his potential Supreme Court nominee, President Obama said, "I will seek someone who understands that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook; it is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives, whether they can make a living and care for their families, whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation." He continued, "I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes."

In many ways, the Hispanic hopes and struggles are unique. There are important legal questions around immigration, discrimination and rights to a decent education and health care that call for a Hispanic perspective in our nation's highest court. How can the Supreme Court be truly "empathetic" if its composition does not reflect the the diversity of America? It is time for a Hispanic justice to be seated on the highest court in our land.

From a political perspective, Republicans are likely to oppose whomever President Obama chooses. Should the candidate be Hispanic, such opposition is likely to further alienate their party that has struggled nationally for Hispanic votes. Hispanics are an important voting block in states such as California, New York, Arizona and Colorado. But they may play a decisive role in less populous Southern and Midwestern states in coming elections. Therefore, Republican opposition to a Hispanic nominee just for ideological reasons would be extremely risky.

In the words of our Constitution, "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

"We the people of the United States" includes all of the people of this country. And the strength of America has always come from the diversity of its people, its ideas and experiences. I, therefore, urge President Obama to nominate the first Hispanic justice for the U.S. Supreme Court. And, by so doing, President Obama can make history again.