Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Dream Big Dreams

America is on the move again because its new President has firmly asserted his leadership with an astonishingly ambitious agenda over the first 100 days of his Presidency. President Barack Obama has placed a lot of big bets on the economy, as well as in the International arena, but the next 100 days are likely to be equally as challenging.

The White House remains in full campaign mode every minute. Events such as a swine flu epidemic are unpredictable. Distractions, such as an ill-advised fly-over photo shoot, can needlessly divert focus. It has been clear from the earliest days of his campaign that Barack Obama is all about focus and discipline.

President Obama once noted, in a written greeting to a twelve-year-old admirer, "Dream big dreams." He was obviously speaking from personal experience. President Obama gives a lot of thought to everything he does, including enacting an unprecedented economic stimulus package, while at the same time connecting it to initiatives in health care, education, energy and the environment. He knows that these are the pain points for all Americans. And President Obama has promises to keep.

It is no mystery why the President remains popular with the American people. His approval rating is above 60%, and more than 80% of all Americans say they like the President. The fact is that the President is likable, and even most of his opponents agree with that. President Obama is a cool operator who is seldom ruffled. More importantly, he is willing to own up to his mistakes, such as the Daschle and Richardson nominations. President Obama knows that in the Internet era even one misstep can have disastrous consequences if it is not well managed.

President Obama is also strengthened by the near collapse of the Republican Party. Today about 21% of all Americans identify themselves as Republicans. And, as the defection of long time Republican moderate Senator Arlen Specter indicates, the party consists mainly of conservatives. Worse, the Republicans have become the party of no ideas and brickbats from Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. What happened to "a kinder, gentler nation?" No wonder this country is so polarized.

Meanwhile, the new American President has taken the world by storm. His trips to the G-20, France and Turkey were public relations successes, and signaled a new approach from Washington. The same can be said for his later visits to Mexico and the Caribbean.

So 100 days down and about 1360 days to go to the end of President Barack Obama's first term. Between now and then his challenges are enormous. Can the banking problem be solved? Will the stimulus package succeed? Will these enormous deficits lead to inflation? When will unemployment go down? Can GM and Chrysler survive? Can our troops safely disengage from Iraq? Will the U.S. troop buildup in Afghanistan be successful and what is the end game? What about Iran?

Senator Barack Obama ran as the candidate for change. And, just as President Obama has changed attitudes toward America throughout the world, today more African Americans are hopeful about their future than ever before.

The twelve-year-old admirer I mentioned earlier is my daughter. I am hopeful that President Barack Obama is successful in restoring the American economy and preserving this nation's security. I also want my daughter to dream big dreams.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Little girls can be very fickle, especially when it comes to bugs. Our daughter Zoe is a perfect example.

Recently a fly got into our house. It was very large and very, how shall I say it, buzzy? But from the shrill wail emanating from Zoe's room you would have thought that it was a pterodactyl!

Don't bring up the subject of bees when Zoe is around because this young lady is terrified she will be stung. Therefore, we steer wide of all flower gardens. This is one girl who will never smell the roses!

A millipede mistakenly entered Zoe's bathroom a few months ago. Unfortunately, she was right there brushing her teeth. The startled young princess let out a huge scream which drove Cleo, our Maltese, for cover under Zoe's bed. I swear the dog had its paws over its ears. Yours truly removed the intruder, but Zoe remained hesitant to re-enter her lavatory for several hours.

On the contrary, aren't lightening bugs wonderful? Zoe would always love to walk over to Central Park, little more than a block away, with a pickle jar in hand and her parents in tow. We would chase lightening bugs around the reservoir and through the apple trees that lined it. And when the jar was full of occupants, each beaming and blinking out distress signals, we would head back home with our collection to glowing reviews. (After Zoe went to bed I would release the bugs.)

As a younger girl, Zoe had an acute devotion to worms and slugs. Living in a townhouse on the upper east side of New York City we are fortunate to have a small backyard. Even though the yard is covered with paving stones, worms and slugs occasionally pay us a visit. Zoe used to be fascinated by them. She often would crouch down on her haunches and watch them slither across the yard. She would even try to pick them up. Now Cleo has developed an interest for worms. Nose to the ground, she sniffs them out and then, inexplicably, she drives the side of head across the worm rubbing its smell all over the hair on the nape of her neck. "Let's try the eau de worm please."

It turns out that Zoe likes slimy snails too. I first noticed it years ago in Miami, where I had an apartment for the seven years I commuted there to work. Each year I would bring Zoe with me for a few days during her spring break. My apartment was in a building on a small island called Brickle Key, located right downtown. Snails popped up everywhere on the island, especially by the pool. Zoe would catch them and put them in a mason jar with some green leaves. I would have quite a collection of guests by the time we were ready to return home. We once transported a snail to New York, but I later released it into the iron jungle. (Do you suppose those alligators in the New York sewer system got it?)

On my 60th birthday, Zoe, Susan and I traveled to Positano, Italy, on the Amalfi coast. What a spectacular vacation spot. But it wasn't long before Zoe befriended a slug. In fact, adopted might be a better way to describe it. We kept "Slimy" in a drinking glass with plastic wrap covering the top, punctured with small air holes. He, ah, it slept with Zoe and she would take it wherever she went around the hotel grounds.

When it was time for us to head off to Rome for the second leg of our vacation, Zoe insisted on taking Slimy with her. Slimy spent the remainder of the week with us in Rome's Parco dei Principi Hotel, and it got in plenty of time by the pool too. When it was then time to return home, Zoe asked us if she could bring Slimy to New York. Of course, I remembered the form I had filled out in the past when arriving at JFK, the one that asks "are you carrying any exotic plants or animals?" (Or something like that.) Let's see, are slugs exotic? I could only imagine what Zoe's reaction would have been had I been arrested for illegal possession of an Italian slug!

After much discussion, consternation and a few tears, we let Slimy go somewhere in the Villa Borghese park, across from our hotel. But, of course, we were not totally insensitive. We did give Slimy one final piece of advice, "When in Rome do as the Romans do."

Monday, April 20, 2009

El Presidente

President Barack Obama has not only turned the page with his personal approach to American foreign policy, he is rewriting the book. But this has sent the party of "no" into a tizzy. So Republicans are once again attacking Obama in hopes of driving his popularity down.

For one brief moment I thought that the United States had surrendered to Venezuela. At least, that seemed to be the tenor of the reaction from the frenzied fomenters of the right to a handshake and exchange of smiles between President Obama and Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez. Gasp!

To be sure, Hugo Chavez is a very bad person whose regime may have been responsible for as many as 6,000 killings according to the U.S. State Department. He has been accused of torture and a 2008 State Department report says, "Reports of beatings and other humiliating treatment of suspects during arrests were common and involved various law enforcement agencies." Chavez has been charged with rigging elections, cracking down on political opponents, and maneuvering a "takeover of the Supreme Court." President Chavez has taken control of virtually all the country's media and he rewrote laws so that insulting the president is punishable by up to 30 months in prison.

This past February Venezuelans voted to remove term limits for their president, a similar measure had failed in 2007. If reelected to a third term in 2012, President Chavez will serve until at least 2019. By all means, though, it is not clear sailing for "El Presidente." Annual inflation is about 30%, violent crime is up and weak oil prices have led to unpopular budget cuts. Today there was more bad news, Venezuela's first quarter oil revenues were down 33%.

Overall, President Bush's administration did not pay as much attention to Latin America as it should have. This left the door open for Chavez to manipulate governments and exert influence in the region with petrol dollars and a populist-socialist fervor. And now the Chinese are playing an ever growing role. It is time for a change of approach in American foreign policy.

Presidents Obama and Chavez met three times during the Fifth Summit of the Americas. Conservative critics accused Obama of looking weak, like President Jimmy Carter! Some people in Venezuela thought Chavez used the meetings to validate his power. But many others believe Chavez looked like a fool giving Obama a book, especially after a decade of anti-American rhetoric.

Chavez remains a polarizing figure in his own country as well as throughout Latin America. He has a huge ego, and worse, he is a wily survivor. "We just want to be treated with respect,” Chavez is quoted as saying after the summit. “We demand respect for our dignity, our sovereignty, and the self-determination of the Venezuelan people. Therefore, we are willing to pursue better relations with the new government of the United States."

Venezuela is a major source of oil for the United States. Unfortunately, Chavez is a democratically elected president. For a long time the countries of Latin America have felt largely ignored and under appreciated by the United States. This vacuum has been exploited by President Chavez and Bush's tough talk and empty diplomacy only encouraged him more.

With a handshake and a smile President Obama has signaled his desire for a new beginning in relations between the United States and all Latin American countries. This first step, however, must be followed up with a constant two-way dialog, consistent communications and mutual respect. Most importantly, American diplomacy with Venezuela must have a clear a strategy and firm goals in order to be successful.

But the more engaged and successful the United States is in Latin America, the more it diminishes Chavez in the region as well as in the eyes of all Venezuelans.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Roxana Saberi

"She was spying for America," said the Iranian judiciary official. Now Roxana Saberi, 31, awaits the verdict after a secret one day trial on Monday before the Tehran Revolutionary Court. Her trial was an outrage carried out by an oppressive, paranoid and ruthless regime.

Saberi is an American journalist with a dual American-Iranian citizenship. She was arrested in January after buying a bottle of wine and accused of working without press credentials. She was planning to return to the United States later this year. Saberi had been working for the BBC and NPR until her press credentials were revoked in 2006, but continued doing research for a book and a master's degree. If convicted, Roxana Saberi faces up to ten years in prison.

Private conversations with Iranian citizens reveal deep hatred for the government and its policies. They estimate that 85% of the Iranian people are against their own tyrannical government. But the people are powerless because the Mullahs are ruthless with dissenters. Iran's oppressive Islamic government controls every aspect of life in the country through fear and brutality. A citizen cannot run for elected office unless approved by the government. Only practicing Shiites who support the government are approved for election. Education, business, industry and the military are all tightly controlled by the government. The media, including print, television, radio and the Web, are controlled by the Mullahs and their surrogates.

Government spies are everywhere, so it does not take much to get arrested in Iran, especially if you are a member of the press and have a dual nationality. Iranian journalists pay a high price if they step out of line. The penalty can be jail, beatings, torture or even death. Minority religions are persecuted. Women are treated like second class citizens. Alcohol consumption is illegal. And gays are brutalized. "We don't have any homosexuals," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently said. Human rights groups have estimated that as many as 400 gays have been murdered by the Islamic regime.

The people of Iran live in fear, but Iranians living in other parts of the world have to be careful too, especially if members of their family still live in the country. The Iranian people carry anger and concern with them wherever they are. But their feelings toward America are complicated by, among other issues, its support of Iraq during its 1982 war with Iran, and its support of the Shah of Iran when he was in power.

Meanwhile the Iranian presidential elections will be held this coming June 12; President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected to be returned to office despite being very unpopular among the people. And simultaneously, the Mullahs are racing to build a nuclear weapon, a device they believe will help secure their leadership in Iran for the long term.

While most Iranians are said to have been encouraged by President Barack Obama's hopeful message, and they embrace Western culture and entertainment, there is still deep distrust for the U.S. government. Iran is certain to be the President's most difficult foreign policy challenge. He must be tough on the government but find a way to build a bridge to the people.

Roxana Saberi is from North Dakota. She is now a pawn in a political game being played by the Iranian government. On the day of her hasty trial her parents visited with her. "We met Roxana today for a few minutes and she is doing well," Reza Saberi, her Iranian-American father, said. "There is always hope but we don't know what will happen."

The same can be said for Iran.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Guaranteed Scam

We have not owned a car in 20 years. Of course, we live in New York City. Here we can walk, take a cab or the subway most everywhere we want to go.

Yet we all have been inundated with calls to our home and cell phones from the "Warranty Service Center." The taped message says, "Dear Mr. Peyronnin, your car warranty is about to run out." Then, "please press one to renew your warranty." Well, I pressed one and was routed to a live person.

"What is the make and vehicle number of your car," I was asked by someone who seemed to be in a state of stress. Let's see, they have my name and my phone number. What else do you think they want from me, money?

So I asked, "what company is this?"

The "Warranty Service Center," the lady responded.

"Why are you calling me since I haven't owned a car in twenty years?" I asked.

Slam, she hung up.

So I "*" 69'd her number, but a recording said "the number of your last incoming call cannot be called back."

It turns out that thousands of people throughout America are getting these calls.

Next time I get one of these calls I am going to say the following:

"Thank you for calling. You don't know me, but due to circumstances beyond my control I must ask you a favor. My late aunt, who was the duchess of York, has left me the sum of $5 billion in her will. I must collect it immediately. To help secure my inheritance, I must to provide a down payment of $150,000 to a Swiss bank account #1S2C3A4M. If you can lend me the down payment, I promise I will split my inheritance 50-50 with you. And you will not need a warranty!"

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Building Bridges

"I am personally committed to a new chapter of American engagement," Barack Obama told students Tuesday in Istanbul, Turkey. "The world will be what you make of it," he said, "You can choose to build new bridges instead of building new walls."

From London to Strasbourg, from Prague to Ankara and Istanbul, President Obama leveraged his enormous personal popularity to connect with the people, especially the younger generation. He did so with civility and humility. "America, like every other nation," he told the Turkish students, "has made mistakes and has its flaws. But for more than two centuries we have strived at great cost and sacrifice to form a more perfect union."

One of the president's goals on this trip was to begin rebuilding frayed international relations with pragmatism, honesty and humility. In London, Obama said America accepted responsibility for its role in creating today's world economic crisis, which was a refreshing admission to leaders of the Group of 20 nations. While their agreement to commit more than $1.2 to the International Monetary Fund to help revive the world economy was short of what America was hoping for, it was a step in the right direction. So was a meeting in London with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, which opened the door to new strategic arms-reduction talks. In a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Obama agreed to visit China later this year.

Obama emphasized the importance of listening throughout this trip. "The United States came here to listen, to learn, and to lead," he said in Strasbourg, "because all of us have a responsibility to do our parts." He stressed partnership and common purpose. "There have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive," he continued, "But in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual but can also be insidious." He then concluded, "America can't meet our global challenges alone; nor can Europe meet them without America."

Nonetheless, an expanded military role for NATO in Afghanistan was a tricky subject politically because America's two wars are so unpopular with the public throughout much of the world. So it was no surprise that NATO support of Obama's planned military buildup there was tepid. But Obama is known for "dreaming big dreams." From Prague he called for an end to nuclear proliferation and a world free of nuclear weapons. As first steps he announced America's willingness to negotiate a reduction in nuclear weapons, which would make it easier to confront Iran and North Korea on the subject.

At all times President Obama seemed pragmatic and realistic. "Agreement will almost never be easy, and results won't always come quickly. But I am committed to respecting different points of view, and to forging a consensus instead of dictating our terms."

President Obama's final stop was a surprise visit to troops in Baghdad, Iraq. To rousing ovations from several hundred American soldiers, President Obama called on the Iraqi government to take more responsibility for its own security.

Certainly Obama's trip was a public relations success for America. And it was a new beginning from a policy standpoint. Of course, a lot of uncertainty lies ahead, especially in the global economy. And everyone wants to be nice to the new kid on the block. But today there seems to be more good will and hope around the world.

President Barack Obama is a builder of bridges.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Play Ball

Tonight a new season begins for the Chicago Cubs. April is the time of hope, excitment and anticipation for fans like me. Of course, the fall is a time for humiliation and disappointment.

For the past two seasons the Cubs have won their division only to lose in the first round of the playoffs. In fact, they were shut out by the opposition both years. This year the Cubbies have added a Bradley "fighting vehicle" (named Milton Bradley)with plenty of left handed pop (and a temper to match it) to make up for previous deficiencies.

My eyes popped when I read that the NY Times is predicting a Yankee vs. Cub World Series. Almost every publication is predicting the Cubs will go far in the post season.

Will this franchise be stuck on 1908 forever? Don't get me started. But I am hooked.