Monday, October 31, 2011

Schieffer Smoking Mad

CBS News correspondent Bob Schieffer has become the dean of Washington reporters after more than 40 years covering the town for CBS News. Schieffer is a wonderful man who plays it straight as a journalist, seldom offering his own opinion. Sunday was an exception.

Schieffer is the anchor of the CBS News public affairs program, "Face the Nation." The guest this past Sunday was businessman Herman Cain, the Republican frontrunner for that party's presidential nomination. Cain's campaign had recently produced a political ad that ended with Cain's chief of staff, Mark Block, puffing on a cigarette. The ad has gone viral, but it has also raised plenty of questions.

Schieffer asked Cain to explain the ad, in particular the peculiar ending. Cain laughed it off, saying, “One of the themes of this campaign is ‘Let Herman be Herman.’ Mark Block is a smoker, and we say ‘Let Mark be Mark.’ That’s all we’re trying to say, because we believe ‘let people be people.’”

At this point Schieffer went right after Cain. “It wasn’t funny to me… I am a cancer survivor, like you. I had cancer that’s smoking related. I don’t think it serves the country well, and this is an editorial opinion here, to be showing someone smoking a cigarette." Schieffer continued, "And you’re the frontrunner now, and it seems to me that as frontrunner, you have a responsibility not to take that kind of a tone with this. I would suggest that perhaps as the frontrunner you would want to raise the level of the campaign.”

Cain sat composed but clearly stunned. Schieffer then directed Cain to admit that smoking was "uncool" and to warn young Americans not to start. Cain said he would, but Schieffer said how about now? "Young Americans," Cain said, "don't smoke."

Recently "Face the Nation" has finished atop the ratings for Sunday public affairs programs. Although it is only a half-hour in length, the broadcast lands impressive guests every week. Schieffer's Texas drawl and pleasant demeanor are part of the draw. But of greatest note is Schieffer's incredible experience and knowledge about Washington and politics. Therefore, his questions are well focused and the guest's answers are most often revealing and informative.

"Face the Nation" will be an important place for viewers to turn during the 2012 presidential elections for the latest insight from CBS News correspondent Bob Schieffer, arguably the best in the business.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Republican Idol

Were it not for the struggling American economy President Barack Obama would be in a commanding position in his campaign for re-election in 2012. But the current field of Republican presidential candidates is doing all they can to help President Obama win a second term.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has pretty much been the GOP frontrunner since he announced his candidacy. But Romney has been stuck at about 23% in national polls of those who say they are Republicans. The fact is that many conservatives don't believe he is one of them because Romney has flip-flopped on several of their key issues, like abortion.

Just this week Romney sidestepped a question on whether he supported Republican Gov. John Kasich's restrictions on public sector employee bargaining in Ohio. State polls show that the restrictions are overwhelmingly unpopular among Ohioans. One day later Romney clarified his position by saying he supported the initiative "110 per cent." But both Democrats and Republicans criticized Romney for his handling of the issue.

Texas Governor Rick Perry briefly shot past Romney when he declared his candidacy, but he crashed back to earth following a series of poor debate performances. In an effort to regain momentum, Perry announced a "flat tax" that, upon careful examination, benefits the rich at the expense of the middle class. He then raised questions about the authenticity of President Obama's birth certificate, a move that has been denounced by many leading Republicans. Now the Perry campaign has suggested that he may not participate in some future Republican debates.

Businessman Herman Cain charmed the American public with his smooth and likeable style, whether on the campaign stump or in debates. He surged to the top of the polls after he announced his "9-9-9" plan as a "bold and simple" way to turn the economy around. When critics charged that his plan was regressive for low and middle income taxpayers, he then came up with the "9-0-9" plan. Some observers suggest he is making it up as he goes. Now his position on abortion has been attacked as too liberal. Meanwhile, Cain has not yet put together a serious campaign organization. Instead, he has been on a nationwide book tour.

Representative Michele Bachmann, leader of the Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives, started strong but quickly sank in the polls. Now a tea party group is calling for her to end her presidential quest. A tea party executive told CNN, "I think it's pretty obvious that Michele Bachmann is about Michele Bachmann."

For the most part, the other Republican candidates have languished in the polls. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has been too centrist. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich is too unpredictable. And former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has consistently trailed the others.

Meanwhile, President Obama has taken to the campaign trail to sell parts of his jobs bill that failed to pass Congress intact. He got some good news on Thursday when the House passed one small portion of that bill which would repeal a 3% withholding tax on payments the government makes to contractors. The president also got some encouraging economic growth numbers for the U.S. as Europe announced a major agreement to deal with their economic crisis.

With the 2012 election one year away, it is unlikely that the nation's unemployment rate will significantly decline or that the economy will take off in the next twelve months. Despite his string of national security successes, President Obama will almost certainly be on the defensive during the fall campaign for his handling of the economy.

However, he is no doubt grateful to the Republicans for their brutal primary process. It has shown that the GOP is bereft of any good ideas to turn the economy around--other than cutting taxes for the rich and reducing entitlements. More importantly, it has exposed the enormous flaws each of the Republican candidates has, beginning with the serial flip-flopper, Mitt Romney. It is like the worst season of American Idol--call it Republican Idol.

President Barack Obama should be feeling a little better these days about his re-election chances in 2012.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Obama's Battle

With his announcement that all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of the year, President Barack Obama has had a series of foreign policy achievements that have garnered praise from most Americans. But not from many leading Republicans.

President Obama's troop withdrawal announcement was the final step in fulfilling a promise he made when he ran for president in 2008. The eight-year-old Iraq War has cost nearly $800 billion, and, most importantly, the lives of more than 4,400 U.S. servicemen and countless Iraqi civilians. In making his announcement, the president said, "There will be some difficult days ahead for Iraq, and the United States will continue to have an interest in an Iraq that is stable, secure and self-reliant.”

Republican presidential candidates immediately denounced the president's decision. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney said, in a written statement, “President Obama’s astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women.” He continued, “The unavoidable question is whether this decision is the result of a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government." The Obama campaign was quick to provide a pointed response, “Mitt Romney’s foreign policy experience is limited to his work as a finance executive shipping American jobs overseas.”

Since taking office, President Obama has focused on ridding the world of terrorists. In May 2011 the president bagged public enemy number one when a Special Forces unit killed Osama Bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda and the architect of the World Trade Center terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. Subsequently, terrorist leader Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in Yemen by a U.S. predator drone attack. In all some two-dozen terrorists have been killed since President Obama took office.

Earlier this week, Libyan freedom fighters captured and killed their country's former leader, Muammar Gaddafi. Gaddafi was a tyrannical dictator who had ruthlessly ruled his country for four decades. He was also responsible for the 1988 downing of Pan Am 103 over Scotland, which resulted in 270 deaths. The president, working closely with NATO allies, provided air support to the freedom fighters. Because of this the president was accused by neo-cons of "leading from behind" in Libya, but the results are undeniable.

For decades Republicans claimed to be the strongest party when it comes to national security. Yet, the administration of President George W. Bush found itself the victim of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil when nearly 3000 people were killed in a series of plane hijackings. U.S. intelligence had information about a possible attack but the government failed to connect the dots.

In response, President Bush authorized an invasion of Iraq and the U.S. Congress supported him. U.S. intelligence had claimed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and their leader, Saddam Hussein, would use them. The CIA also claimed that Hussein had links to Al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for 9/11. All of those claims proved to be false. That and President Bush's inconsistent strategy in Afghanistan, where American troops had also invaded because that is where Al Qaeda was based, led to a protracted war.

When elected, President Obama intensified U.S. focus on Afghanistan while looking for a way to end America's military commitment to Iraq. The Iraq withdrawal is based on a timetable originally established by President Bush.

Iraq is in a very precarious state. Iran is meddling. The Kurds in the north are revolting. The Sunni minority, which controlled the country under Hussein, is on the decline. No longer is Iraq a hedge against Iran's ambitions as it had been while Hussein ran the country. Nonetheless, the United States will maintain a strong diplomatic presence, and thousands of the American contract workers will continue to support Iraq. But Iraq's future is uncertain.

The United States can no longer afford to be the world's policeman. And President Obama has altered how the country conducts national security in a way that reflects the realities of the twenty-first century.

While he will receive praise for killing terrorists and keeping his campaign promises on Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2012 election will be decided solely on the state of the U.S. economy. As a result President Obama will be in the fight of his life.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Bickersons

The GOP presidential debate from Las Vegas Tuesday night was, at times, intensely contentious and deeply personal. For sure, there were no winners from all of the sparring. In fact, the debate may have been damaging to the entire Republican field.

The Obama campaign must have been cheering during the debate, which aired on CNN. After all, they are trying to convince voters that President Barack Obama is the reasonable adult in Washington who is willing to cooperate and compromise. They blame Republicans for all the partisan acrimony that has paralyzed Washington since the president's election. Tuesday's debate only strengthend their case.

Businessman Herman Cain, who has enjoyed a surge to the top of recent polls, came under fire from all sides for his "9-9-9" economic recovery proposal. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said, "I love his boldness and it’s great. But...84 percent of Americans would pay more taxes under his plan." Cain responded, "That simply is not true. I invite people to look at our analysis which we make available."

At one point Cain tried to deflect charges that his proposed nine percent income tax would be added to a state's income tax. "Whether you throw out the existing code and you put in our plan, you’re still going to pay that. That’s apples and oranges," said Cain. Former Governor Mitt Romney pounced, "And I am going to be getting a bushel basket that has apples and oranges in it, because I’m going to pay both taxes."

But former Governor Romney himself took heavy incoming from all sides. The initial criticism centered on his Massachusetts health care reform plan known as "Romneycare". Former Senator Santorum charged, "You just don’t have credibility, Mitt, when it comes to repealing “Obamacare...your plan was the basis for Obamacare.” For several minutes the former governor and senator testily went back and forth, then Governor Romney affirmed, "What Obama has done has imposed on the nation a plan that will not work, that must be repealed."

But the real fireworks came on the subject of immigration. Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has done poorly so far in the debates and has cratered in the polls, pointedly attacked former Governor Romney. "Mitt, you lose all of your standing from my perspective because you hired illegals in your home, and you knew for — about it for a year. And the idea that you stand here before us and talk about that you’re strong on immigration is, on its face, the height of hypocrisy."

Former Governor Romney, who has been a cool operator in previous debates, quickly answered, "Rick, I don’t think that I’ve ever hired an illegal in my life." But then he host his composure when he was interrupted by the Texas Governor, even placing his hand on the governor's shoulder. The Governor Romney said, "This has been a tough couple of debates for Rick, and I understand’re going to get testy. But let’s let — I’ll tell you what: Let me take my time, and then you can take your time."

Governor Romney answered by saying a contractor he had used to cut his lawns hired an illegal, and when he found out he fired them. The incident was first reported years ago by a Boston newspaper but it shows that Governor Perry came prepared to take on the front-runner.

Since President Obama was elected to office the two political parties have become more polarized and more deeply divided. Americans from all walks of life have regularly expressed their great frustration with the constant partisan bickering in Washington because it has impeded progress on the economy. The Republican debate in Las Vegas was just more of the same.

Former House Speaker and candidate Newt Gingrich offered his fellow debaters some advice, "Let me just point out a second that maximizing bickering is probably not the road to the White House.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Romney Cruises

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney ran the table in the latest Republican debate held at Dartmouth University. Businessman Herman Cain, brandishing his "9-9-9" economic plan, showed some extra pop, perhaps fueled by his strong performance in recent polls.

The debate, sponsored by Bloomberg and the Washington Post, was moderated by Charlie Rose of PBS and conducted around a large oval table. The setting allowed for a more conversational and less tense atmosphere.

Of course, Texas Governor Rick Perry has performed poorly in all of his debates. As a result, he has plummeted in the polls. So, even with expectations at an all-time low, Governor Perry barely cleared the bar. It was surprising that, with everything riding on his performance, Governor Perry appeared small and unimpressive in this debate. It seemed that whatever the question Governor Perry's answer would circle back to "reduce energy regulations" and "I know how to create jobs--I did it in Texas." The fact is that even the conservative Wall Street Journal has been casting a disbelieving eye on his jobs claims. And Governor Perry has still not released a detailed economic plan.

What is most annoying about these debates is that candidates are sometimes not truthful with their answers, yet their responses are seldom challenged. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman said that President Obama's health care reform legislation would result in the IRS hiring more than 19,000 staff. This silly claim has been found totally untrue time and again for two years. Governor Perry inferred that 2.9 million jobs have been lost under President Obama. In fact, the president has been adding jobs since his second month in office. Former Governor Romney says that President Obama's first stimulus failed. Yet the non-partisan CBO says the stimulus package added or saved between 1.9 million and 3 million jobs. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich said that Obamacare did include death panels. Nonsense!

Of course, Republican voters believe just about anything that is critical of the president. A huge percentage of Republicans believe he is a Muslim. Ditto for those who believe he was not born in the United States. Ditto for those who believe the president is a socialist who engages in class warfare.

Political candidates are coached on what to say. Their responses have keywords and are often reduced to easy to remember bullet points. So the answers that many of the candidates give are well developed, extensively focus-grouped and are repeated over and over. But time and again, in all of the debates, inaccurate candidate responses go unchallenged. Instead, journalists should research the candidate's previous answers to important questions and anticipate what they will say. They can then be prepared to push back when the responses are untrue.

Nonetheless, today was a great day for the Romney campaign. First, he got the enthusiastic and impressive endorsement of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Christie just ruled out a presidential bid for himself although he is extremely popular among party loyalists, especially among moderate Republicans. Governor Romney then hit it out of the park with his debate performance.

A particularly interesting moment came when Governor Perry got to ask former Governor Romney about his universal health care reform measure, which is now the law and working well in Massachusetts. Governor Romney ably defended it as right for his state, but turned the spotlight right back on Governor Perry. ""One per-cent of Massachusetts' children are uninsured while 25%, or one million Texas children, are uninsured." Governor Perry's lack of debating prowess is truly amazing.

Of course, with each passing day, more and more Republicans are getting comfortable with the likelihood that Romney will head their ticket in 2012. The question will be can he win the crucial independent vote and beat President Barack Obama?

The good news for the ambitious Texas governor is that Governor Romney's success will give Governor Perry at least four years to practice his debating techniques and learn something about the world.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Remembering Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs will always be remembered as a historic figure who shaped the technological revolution of the past three decades and made it accessible to everyone in the world. Jobs inspired a whole generation of young entrepreneurs to take chances, to innovate and to pursue their dreams with relentless determination.

Jobs always conducted his life with passion, purpose, focus and daring. “It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy,” he was quoted as saying in 1982. He was a brilliant visionary. In 1985, he told Playboy magazine, “The most compelling reason for most people to buy a computer for the home will be to link it to a nationwide communications network. We’re just in the beginning stages of what will be a truly remarkable breakthrough for most people––as remarkable as the telephone.” His comments came years before there was an Internet.

Jobs had an uncanny ability to create and market products so beautifully designed and powerfully functional that consumers had to own them. He once told Business Week, “For something this complicated, it’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” And so it was with the iPod, iPhone and iPad.

Jobs also applied innovation and technology to distribution. For instance, take those iconic and always crowded Apple Stores. Even more impactful, he reinvented the music business with iTunes. “It will go down in history as a turning point for the music industry,” he told Fortune in 2003. "This is landmark stuff. I can’t overestimate it!”

But in October 2003, Jobs learned he had cancer. He had not yet turned 50 years old. Jobs, a notoriously private man, did not publicly disclose his illness for several months.

In June 2005, Steve Jobs gave a powerful commencement speech at Stanford University. He told the graduates, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

On selecting a career, Jobs said, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle."

Jobs spoke about his willingness to take chances, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Jobs also spoke of death, “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new."

Jobs' had stepped down as Apple's CEO this past August for health reasons. On October 4, the day before he died, Apple announced its new iPhone 4S. Did the name "4S" actually mean "for Steve"?

Jobs leaves behind a wife of twenty years and four children. At the time of his death Jobs' net worth was estimated to be $7 billion. He was one of the richest persons on earth. But money was not what drove Steve Jobs, as he told the Wall Street Journal in 1993.

“Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me.”

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Few Minutes About Andy Rooney

Zoe Peyronnin & Andy Rooney, Hill Country Barbeque, NYC, 2010

Andy Rooney has been the voice of America for thirty-three years. He once described himself as, "a dead center normal average American." But the always modest Rooney was so much more.

Rooney seemed to epitomize a curmudgeon--however, he really just played one on television. And he willingly accepted this role, "I don’t like to complain all the time, but that’s what I do for a living, and I am lucky because there is so much to complain about." And complain he did, about everything from the way shoes are made to the way mixed nuts are packed. That is why his weekly "60 Minutes" commentaries connected with viewers. He spoke for them.

Born in Albany, New York, in 1919, Rooney experienced the Great Depression as a young boy. He attended Colgate University until he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Rooney began writing for the Army publication "Stars and Stripes" in London and found himself on the frontlines of history. He reported and wrote about the allied entry into German occupied Paris and the concentration camps. He also was one of six correspondents who flew on the first U.S. bombing raid over Germany in 1943. These experiences had an important impact on his career.

Following the war Rooney joined CBS in 1949 as a writer for Arthur Godfrey, whose shows were hits on television and radio. He later moved on to the "Garry Moore Show", which also was a hit program. And, at the same time, he began writing for CBS News public affairs programs, including "The 20th Century". Subsequently he collaborated with the late CBS News correspondent Harry Reasoner on many critically acclaimed specials. In 1968, he wrote two CBS News specials in the series "Of Black America", and he won his first Emmy for his script for "Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed".

In 1978, "60 Minutes" creator and executive producer Don Hewitt began including Andy Rooney's essays at the end of the program as a summer replacement for its "Point/Counterpoint" segments, with Shana Alexander and James Kilpatrick. Rooney's commentaries were so popular by the fall that Hewitt alternated Rooney with "Point/Counterpoint". By the end of the season Kilpatrick and Alexander were dropped in favor of "A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney".

For nearly fifty years Rooney wrote his essays and scripts on a 1920 Underwood typewriter. His transition to computers was not smooth and the experience resulted in a commentary directed at Microsoft founder Bill Gates. "Some one screwed up the way computers work and I blame it on him," Rooney opined. "I had one typewriter for fifty years, but I bought seven computers in six years," he observed, "I suppose that is why Bill Gates in rich and Underwood is out of business." Rooney said the reason is, "They make computers so you have to buy a new one when there is a full moon."

Rooney came up with the ideas for all his commentaries. He would write them in a modest office in the CBS Broadcast Center on New York City's westside. He would then record them there, at his desk, at the end of the week. It was all very low-tech. Yet the commentaries almost always had an impact on millions of viewers.

At 92 years of age Andy Rooney has decided to cut back on his work schedule. His final regular appearance Sunday will be his 1097th commentary for "60 Minutes". "A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney" was a unique fixture on American television that will never be replaced but will always be remembered. Thank you, Andy.