Saturday, December 21, 2013

Thank You Mike Bloomberg

There is no better place in the world to celebrate the holiday season than New York City.  The stores along Madison and Fifth Avenues are stuffed with shoppers, perhaps lured in by the beautifully decorated windows or early sales.  From Brooklyn to Queens, or from Staten Island to The Bronx, New York City is a colorful, diverse, vibrant and energetic metropolis.

But New Yorkers face an uncertain future.  With the New Year comes a new mayor, the first new mayor in more than a decade.  And this new mayor, Bill de Blasio, has many promises to keep and many supporters to take care of.  New York City is a huge, complex, and impatient metropolis filled with larger than life personalities, big egos, powerful interest groups with competing agendas, and the pulsating beat of an unrelenting 27/7 news cycle.  

After a dozen years in office, polls show that New Yorkers are tired of their current mayor, Michael Bloomberg.  A majority of those who voted in this year's mayoral election want a more progressive agenda, and someone who will focus on closing the huge income disparity between the city's rich and poor.  They want universal pre-K and expanded after school programs, and an end to abusive police tactics.  And many want the freedom to drink big sugary sodas and smoke--initiatives that have earned Bloomberg the nickname Nanny Mike.  

But the fact is that New York has been an extremely well-run city for more than a decade due to Bloomberg's considerable management skills.  And, while there is room for criticism, Bloomberg has done an enormous amount of good for the city while taking home only $1 in salary each year. 

For instance, according to current projections, New York City will have a $2.4 billion budget surplus for fiscal 2014, and a $1.9 billion budget surplus for fiscal 2015.  However, these projections will be affected by upcoming labor negotiations. 

The city population has increased by 300,000 since 2001, and New York now has 3 million immigrants living in its boroughs.  More than 54 million tourists came to the city in 2013, that's up 54% since 2001.  And it is no wonder, as the city's crime rate is down 35% in that same period, while murders have declined significantly as well.  New York is a safe place to visit and live.

Since Bloomberg first took office there has been a 23% decline in infant mortality, and the average life expectancy of a New Yorker is up 3 years, to 80.9.  That may be partially due to the mayor's crackdown on smoking in restaurants and other public areas.  For instance, there has been a 50% decline in teen smoking since 2002, and today only 14% of the city population smokes. 

New York is now a healthier city.  Bloomberg has put in 450 miles of bike lanes, and he has partnered with CitiBank to make bikes easily available throughout the city.  In fact, there will be about 5.5 million CitiBike trips in 2013.  The mayor has also expanded city parkland by 2% since he took office, and 800,000 have been planted in the past five years.  

The mayor won control of the city's public schools early in his mayoralty.  While there are still complex issues with the city's education system, including the expansion of charter schools, New York's four-year graduation rate is nearly 65%, up from about 50% in 2001.  Meanwhile, the city's welfare roles have been reduced by nearly a quarter since Bloomberg first took office.  

The mayor has encouraged investment, corporate development and new businesses.  Being a successful entrepreneur himself, he has created an atmosphere that has attracted many start-ups and new enterprises.  New York is a great place for the next generation.  

New York is a far better place today than it was when Michael Bloomberg first took office.  Some of the changes he has made have drawn, well, the Bronx cheer from many citizens.  Earlier this week, I asked the mayor what he thought of the criticism he has received.  He was accepting, "Change is hard, and people don't like it." 

Come January 1, New Yorkers will face a big change when the 6'5" de Blasio takes over from the 5'7" Bloomberg.  De Blasio will move quickly to raise taxes on the rich to pay for his education initiatives.  Unions will demand a quick resolution from him on pending contract and pension issues that will be costly.  His new police commissioner will take over and bring new community based tactics to keep the streets safe.  And these new challenges are just the tip of the iceberg.

Meanwhile, Michael Bloomberg leaves behind a stronger city and a powerful legacy.   

Friday, December 13, 2013

White House Press Access

Limited press access to the President and White House events is an important issue that goes right to the heart of America's democratic principles.  President Barack Obama's White House is not the first administration to try to limit press access, but they have been more restrictive than most of their predecessors.

Last month, the White House Correspondents' Association and dozens of news organizations sent White House Press Secretary Jay Carney a letter protesting the limited access.  "Journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the President while he is performing his official duties," the WHCA wrote.  "As surely as if they were placing a hand over a journalist’s camera lens, officials in this administration are blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the Executive Branch of government."

Instead, the White House has routinely given Pete Souza, the official White House photographer, sole access to the President, then distributed his pictures on the Internet and social media.  In its letter, the WHCA said, "You are, in effect, replacing independent photojournalism with visual press releases."  The White House is bypassing the press corps to give the public an unfiltered view of newsworthy events, often deemed "private," provided by one of its own paid employees.

Frustration boiled up at Thursday's White House press briefing as reporters demanded more access.  Carney, a former reporter, seemed to struggle with his answers, explaining that the problem was the Internet.  “In the past when White House photos were developed and handed out here, news organizations could decide whether their readers would ever see those photos. Now, the White House posts some pictures on the Internet identified as official White House photographs."  

But Carney's explanation misses the point.  This is not a distribution problem; rather, this is an access problem.  And President Obama campaigned on the principles of transparency and openness.   It is critical for journalists to cover and report newsworthy events in order to provide the public with an independent account.  Previous presidents frequently allowed a small pool of reporters and photographers to cover a portion their meetings and events. That practice should be the rule today, not the exception.  

The White House press is right to complain about its limited access to this President.  The practices that are used today by the White House press office will become a precedent for the presidents who follow.   This is such an important issue that news organizations should avoid using White House photos of events that they are barred from covering. 

NBC News' Chuck Todd observed Friday, “Look we’re at fault here because we put (the White House photos) up.” He said, “We basically give out these visual press releases and that’s what they are. And we don’t fight this enough.”  David Gregory, a former White House correspondent and now anchor of NBC's Meet the Press, complained that President George W. Bush often restricted photo-ops only to photojournalists.  This is because he feared being asked questions by reporters in these brief encounters.  But these photo-ops are often the only time a reporter can ask a president an important and newsworthy question.  

According to political scientist Martha Joynt Kumar, of Towson University, President Obama has had significantly fewer brief question-and-answer sessions in the White House than the last two presidents.  This is a disturbing trend.  Other presidents have realized that, like them or not, it is important to have a good relationship with the White House press corps.  

There was no better example than that set by President Ronald Reagan, who spoke of the ongoing friction with the White House press.  He once said,  "Every President will try to use the press to his best advantage and to avoid those situations that aren't to his advantage.  To do so results in a diminution of his leadership powers.  The press is not a weak sister that needs bracing.  It has more freedom, more influence, than ever in history.  The press can take care of itself quite nicely.  And a president should be able to take care of himself as well."  

In May 2010, President Obama signed legislation that promotes free press around the world, and discourages government control.   Mr. Obama, actions speak louder than words.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Promises, Obama Promises

President Barack Obama may be a rare exception for a politician because he has actually kept most of his campaign promises. And he has done so in spite of the most partisan and dishonest opposition tactics an American president has ever faced.

The president announced this past weekend that the U.S. and its allies had reached a short-term agreement with Iran on its nuclear enrichment program, opponents flew into a furor, even before they had specific details.  Some Republican members of Congress even accused the president of manufacturing the agreement as a diversion from his problems with the Obamacare rollout.

Understandably, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the agreement a "Historic mistake," and said, "The world became a more dangerous place."  Saudi Arabia at first expressed concern, but later reversed itself saying, "The government of the kingdom sees that if there was goodwill, this agreement could represent a preliminary step towards a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear program."

The president addressed the controversy in San Francisco Monday, saying the United States "cannot close the door on diplomacy."  Of his critics, he said, "Tough talk and bluster may be the easy thing to do politically, but it's not the right thing for our security."

The president first signaled his intention to pursue diplomacy with Iran during the 2008 Presidential Campaign when he said he would be willing to meet with America's enemies without preconditions.  At the time he was considered naive, and even radical.  Also in 2008, President Obama promised he would end the war in Iraq, wind down war in Afghanistan, and he would bring terrorist Osama bin Laden to justice.  He has delivered on all those promises.

This agreement gives Iran a six month window in which to reach an agreement that would ban it from building a nuclear weapon.  Iran was brought to the table by crippling sanctions that have cratered its economy.  Under the agreement, most of those sanctions remain in place, and can be instantly ramped up should Iran be found in violation during the next six months.

The point is that, for very little cost, the United States has opened a peaceful path to a verifiable and enduring nuclear agreement with Iran that would make the world safer.  It has also given Iran's new more "moderate" leadership something with which to strengthen its tenuous grip on power.  Realistically, reaching a long-term agreement will be a huge challenge for all sides.   But, for now, the president has done all he can to keep the U.S. out of another war. 

The president could use some good news given the shaky rollout of Obamacare.  He had promised in 2008 to make affordable health care available to all Americans, including the 40 million citizens who do not have coverage.  He and his allies had fought hard against long odds to make the ACA the law of the land.  Republicans have done all they can to defund or repeal the law, to no avail, even though they have no replacement to offer Americans. 

But now, in spite of a failed website, the Affordable Care Act is beginning to gain traction.  In fact, in California, where the state runs its own program, enrollment results are ahead of projections.  California is a test case that proves Obamacare can work if states are willing to give it a fair shot.  Most states that have Republican governors have opted out, but they are likely to opt in once the program gains momentum.

The president was elected twice by the American people.  Of President Obama, Shakespeare might have said, "He was ever precise in promise-making."   But the reality is, as the old saying goes, "A politician is known by the promises he keeps."

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

Today it is regarded as the most famous speech in American history. Yet, in the news coverage of the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, President Abraham Lincoln's brief two-minute address was overshadowed by the two-hour speech given by Edward Everett, one of America's great orators. 

As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, we can reflect on how deeply divided our nation was at the time. Seven hundred and fifty thousand people died in the Civil War, according to revised estimates. That most horrendous war inflicted severe wounds on the country, from Gettysburg to Vicksburg, that still have not fully healed.

The Civil War was a tremendous personal burden for the president, whose determination to right a wrong resulted in so much death and destruction. As he rode on the train with his staff to the dedication at Gettysburg, he was ashen and weak. As Everett spoke, Lincoln stood for two hours waiting to give his remarks, looking out upon a vast sea of blue uniforms worn by soldiers, some of whom had served in the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863.

The Bachrach photo. Source: Library of Congress

The dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery received front page coverage in many newspapers. Here is the headline from the New York Times:

THE HEROES OF JULY.; A Solemn and Imposing Event. Dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburgh. IMMENSE NUMBERS OF VISITORS. Oration by Hon. Edward Everett--Speeches of President Lincoln, Mr. Seward and Governor Seymour. THE PROGRAMME SUCCESSFULLY CARRIED OUT.
And buried deep within that New York Times article was a text of President Lincoln's speech, even noting where the crowd applauded:
Fourscore and seven years ago our Fathers brought forth upon this Continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. [Applause.] Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We are met to dedicate a portion of it as the final resting-place of those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate. We cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract. [Applause.] The world will little note nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. [Applause.] It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the refinished work that they have thus so far nobly carried on. [Applause.] It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain; [applause] that the Nation shall under God have a new birth of freedom, and that Governments of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth, [Long continued applause.]
Three cheers were then given for the President and the Governors of the States.
Later, Everett reportedly told the president, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Mr. Lincoln, the world did note and long remembered. Happy anniversary.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Obamacare: Don't Stop Believing

President Barack Obama has been rightly criticized for the launch of the    Affordable Care Act. But the fact is that the president did do something historic and morally right by giving almost all Americans access to health insurance. 

Yes, the ACA website has been a disaster. Yes, some people are getting cancellation notices from their insurance company despite the president's campaign pledge that, "If you like your current plan you can keep it." However, the website will be fixed at some point. And the cancellations are largely due to the fact that those policies did not meet minimum standards. In fact, many people were being ripped off and didn't know it.

But these problems have given Republicans another reason to attack healthcare. They have tried everything to repeal, defund and denounce the president's signature program. Republicans have lied about the program, "death panels" anyone? They claim it's a job killer (wrong) and it will add to the deficit (wrong). The Republican controlled House of Representatives has voted 46 times along party lines to defund Obamacare to no avail. The Supreme Court has upheld the law, and President Obama ran, in part, on the health care law and got reelected in 2012. So computer problems, while embarrassing, are just another hurdle to implementation.

But change is not easy. When Medicare Part D was launched in 2005, its website was not available for months. Few patients who had signed up received prescription insurance cards, which caused huge problems for pharmacists filling prescriptions. No one is complaining about President George Bush's program now, even though it has added billions of dollars to the deficit. And the Massachusetts health care law, Romneycare, which the ACA is modeled after, was enacted in 2006, had technical problems, has been amended twice, but is successful today. 

While many Americans may be frustrated with the problems encountered by Obamacare, at least the president did something about the growing healthcare nightmare. Republicans don't have a real alternative; they just talk. Take Senator Ted Cruz, who told NBC's Jay Leno that he's a "big believer in health care reform." Sure, and the Calgary Stampeder has got a plan! "I think we ought to reform health care so it's personal, it's portable, it's affordable. We ought to empower patients rather than government bureaucrats getting between you and your doctor," he told Leno. 

Perhaps in a more truthful moment, just last August Cruz criticized the president and Obamacare to a Texas Tea Party group, "His strategy is to get as many Americans as possible hooked on the subsidies, addicted to the sugar." He warned, "If we get to January 1, this thing is here forever." Of course, Texas has the highest number of uninsured residents in the nation. That is why the president was in Dallas last week promising Texans access to affordable health care, vowing, "to get this done."
But the president was also busy last week apologizing to those Americans who have seen their current plans cancelled. "I am sorry that they, you know, are finding themselves in this situation, based on assurances they received from me," he told NBC News. "We've got to work hard to make sure that they know we hear them and that we're going to do everything we can to deal with folks who find themselves in a tough position as a consequence of this." The apology seemed genuine, and there is no reason to believe the president misled the country in order to get Obamacare passed, even in the face of all the Republican lies about the ACA. 

The healthcare train has left the station, albeit with some struggles. And there will be other hurdles ahead for the law. But, as more Americans see the options that are available to them, they will understand the true significance of Obamacare. And then they will be "addicted to the sugar!"

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Halloween on East 91st

The New York City air has turned crisp, chilled by autumn's embrace.  Fallen leaves coat sidewalks and planters along the city streets and avenues.  An occasional wind gust stirs them into action, briefly making them reddish and brownish blurs in search of a new temporary home.  While people shuffle through unswept piles of leaves, the children frolic in them.

But on the city's Upper East Side, at the intersection of Park Avenue and East 91st Street, something very unusual has caught everyone's attention.  Giant spiders are affixed to the side of an apartment building -- perhaps waiting to pounce on some innocent victim. Since the arachnids suddenly appeared overnight a few days ago, those who walk by do so with extreme caution! 

The spiders were the first sign that Halloween is upon us.

Perhaps no city block takes Halloween more seriously than East 91st Street. On that magical day people from all over the region descend on this two-block stretch lined by beautiful limestone townhouses and apartment buildings.  The famous Brick Church is located across Park Avenue from the spider building. 

Typically beginning in the late afternoon, thousands of costumed kids crowd the sidewalks in search of candy treats.  They come from the Bronx, Harlem and Queens.  A few come from New Jersey and even Long Island.  Some arrive by subway, and others are bused to the neighborhood.  

Kids are dressed as superheroes and villains.  There are several Buzz Lightyears and numerous Disney characters.  Some trick-or-treaters wear sophisticated and intricate costumes, while others might wear a colorful tee-shirt or goofy hat. And, just when you think you've seen everything, a group of parents will wander by in full costume.  This can very very weird!

The neighborhood has seen some very famous trick-or-treaters in past years.  They include Alec Baldwin and his then preteen daughter, Ireland.  Woody Allen, who once lived in the hood, and family once joined in the fun, although he never looks like he is having fun.  Former New York Met Al Leiter brought his kids by one year.  Other trick-or-treaters include some of the most powerful young bankers and lawyers in the nation.  

As the evening wears on, more and more houses display "Out of Candy" signs.  Some residents run to the corner to buy more sweets, bringing their total expense for candy to well over $1,000!  

As evening turns into night, the flurry of actively subsides.  A quiet calm settles onto the neighborhood.  The temperature cools and the leaves, now mixed with candy wrappers, are still.  Soon the spiders, skeletons, vampires, ghosts and goblins will all go into hibernation for the next eleven months.  And thousands of kids will have a lifelong memory.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Fix the Glitches

The government shutdown was a misguided and senseless tactic that cost American taxpayers at least $24 billion and damaged the Republican brand.  But the error-plagued rollout of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, has given the GOP a way to change the conversation.

Senator Ted Cruz's reckless strategy to defund Obamacare was never going to succeed.  But he knew that.  However, the ambitious Cruz saw it as tremendous opportunity to galvanize Tea Party members behind his leadership.   And, while moderate Republicans call his maneuvers a "fool's errand," there is no question Cruz has now won the loyal support of many on the right.

Yet many Republicans are shaking their heads in frustration because the Cruz shutdown has taken attention away from Obamacare's problems.  "The fiasco of rollout has been obscured because of this internecine strife that's been going on in the Republican Party," Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said Sunday on CNN.  "Keep up the fight against Obamacare, but don't shut down the government and have so much collateral damage to innocent Americans."

However, out of the GOP wreckage will quickly emerge an all out attack against the problem-plagued launch of Obamacare.  On CBS's Face the Nation Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called Obamacare,  "The worst piece of legislation passed in the last half century...we need to get rid of it." He claimed that even if one can get on the site, they will find fewer choices and higher costs.

Democrats recognize that the faulty rollout is an issue ripe for exploitation.   Last week on MSNBC, Former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called it, "Excruciatingly embarrassing for the White House and for the Department of Health and Human Services." On ABC's This Week, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the problems "unacceptable."  She added, "This has to be fixed, but what doesn't have to be fixed is the fact the tens of millions of more people will have access to affordable healthcare, quality healthcare.  That no longer having a preexisting medical condition will bar you from getting affordable care." 

The White House and HHS have had years to prepare for the launch of Obamacare.  All along they have said that Republicans oppose it because Americans will fall in love with it once it is available.  But now the architects of President Obama's signature legislative achievement are vulnerable to attack and relentless scrutiny from Congressional Committees.  Republicans would like nothing more than to turn Obamacare against Democrats in the 2014-midterm elections.

Already Republican Chairmen Fred Upton, of the House Energy and Commerce Committee has announced he will investigate.  "It is well past time for the administration to be straight and transparent with the American people," he said in a statement last week.  For instance, how many millions of dollars were spent to design the error plagued software?  Whose fault is it that the program has failed?

President Obama is expected to address the health care glitches on Monday.  While making health care accessible for all remains a worthy goal, and millions of people have already tried to learn more about the offerings, the problems must be quickly remedied.  If the president fails to make that happen, Obamacare may damage his ability to achieve any further legislative successes.

Mr. Obama has already stated his intention to pivot onto the difficult and complex issue of immigration reform.  He has also indicated he is interested in achieving a budget deal with Republicans that will include infrastructure, tax and entitlement reform.   But the problems with Obamacare will weaken his position.

Republicans are mindful of the words once spoken by the president's former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."

Sunday, October 13, 2013

What Hath Cruz Wrought?

With very little time remaining until the U.S. government technically goes into default on its debt, Senate Republicans and Democrats struggle to reach a short-term solution that would end the partial government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. Of course, both parties say they are fighting for the American people, yet the American people are the biggest losers no matter the outcome of this latest skirmish. 

How ridiculous was it that Texas Senator Ted Cruz decided to lead an effort to defund the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, in exchange for keeping the government open and raising the debt ceiling. Senator Cruz knew full well that the Senate would not take the matter up, and the president would not go along with overturning his signature achievement. Even leading Republicans in both houses acknowledge it was the wrong strategy.

Now, in the height of hypocrisy, Senator Cruz joined his close friend, Utah Senator Mike Lee, and several Republicans Sunday to protest the government closing of the World War II Memorial in Washington. A small crowd gathered at the barriers chanted, "Tear down these walls." Senator Cruz said that the Obama administration was using veterans as pawns. What phony outrage! Cruz and Lee are the architects of the shutdown.

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 53 percent of the public blames Republicans, while 31 percent blame President Barack Obama. The poll shows that Republicans are getting more blame this year than they did when the government last shutdown in 1995-96. And the poll shows Cruz with a 14 percent favorable, 28 percent unfavorable rating. Surprisingly, the poll shows that while the government debate has gone on, Obamacare has gotten more popular, although it is still under water overall.

Utah's Senator Mike Lee has been a loyal and ardent supporter of his close friend Ted Cruz. He has received warm praise from his colleague for being a great leader and public servant. Lee even helped fill in during Cruz's fake filibuster on the Senate floor last month. But even Lee should be privately asking himself, what hath Cruz wrought? 

Senator Lee's favorable/unfavorable rating has taken a big hit according to a Brigham University poll released last week. A majority of the respondents now view Lee unfavorably, a twenty point swing since June. And a poll from Utah's Deseret News revealed that most of the state's voters don't believe that interrupting government functions to stop Obamacare is a good idea. 

A recent report estimates that the shutdown is hurting Utah 14th worst when compared to the other states and the District of Columbia. In fact, the report, by WalletHub, found, "States won by the Republican Party in the 2012 presidential election could be hit disproportionately hard by a prolonged government shutdown, as 15 such Red States ranked in the top 25 in the study's overall 'at-risk' rankings." 

So it is no wonder Lee is losing support. Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, told Time Magazine, "Utahans expect effectiveness and efficiency and results out of their government, not ideological tantrums." But Washington has devolved into nothing but ideological tantrums and trust in government is at an all-time low. 

From its very inception the Tea Party's goal has been to blow the federal government up. Close the place down. Default on the debt. Whatever it takes to get federal deficits under control, including "starving the beast." Tea Party Congressmen are all from gerrymandered districts that are 100% safe. They do not have to worry about what is best for America, and most Americans. Meanwhile, the House leadership fears the Tea Party.

Only in Washington would the very people who caused the government shutdown, and possibly a catastrophic government default, demonstrate against the shutdown. Confused? Well there is no better practitioner of perception deception than Senator Ted Cruz. 

One citizen at the WWII Memorial perhaps spoke for most Americans, "This is ridiculous. This is not just and fair. It's just not fair."

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Power of Faith

St. Thomas More Catholic Church, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, serves some of New York's most prominent families.  But these well-connected and widely traveled parishioners were moved to tears at Sunday's 12:30pm mass.  

Father Linus Nangwele, who is a visiting priest while studying at the United Nations, celebrated the mass.  The gospel reading was about the power of faith.  Following that reading, Father Nangwele asked everyone what time is was.  When he received a response, he then asked for everyone to indulge him for ten minutes. 

He began his sermon with the story of Margaret.  Forty years ago she lived in a small rural village in Ghana with her four-year-old son.  She worked on a farm outside of town, but always left her son behind so he could play with friends.  One day, while playing with his friends, the boy suddenly collapsed to the ground.  He had stopped breathing, and his stomach had become bloated.  The villagers, who were called to the scene, pronounced the boy dead.

Now there were no mortuaries or funeral homes in rural Ghana, so the dead were buried within 24 hours.  But Margaret was off working on a farm, so someone was dispatched to get her.  When Margaret arrived and saw her son's body she broke down.  The villagers informed her that they would bury her boy the next day.  But Margaret refused to go along with tradition.  She had to know what happened to her son.

Margaret created a sling out of the fabric she was wearing, wrapped it around her son and slung his body over her back.  Carrying her son and a rosary, Margaret walked 25 miles to the nearest hospital.  When she arrived late at night she explained to the nurse what had happened.  The nurse looked at the boy and then told Margaret she would have to leave and go bury her son.

By Margaret refused to leave.  She made such a scene that it attracted a doctor's attention.  She explained to the doctor that she couldn't believe what had happened to her boy and demanded that he perform an autopsy to determine the cause.   The doctor agreed to do so.  As he worked for several hours on the boy, Margaret sat outside the door saying her rosary.

When the doctor emerged from the operating room he told Margaret that her son was alive.  But, he cautioned, it would take a long time for the boy to fully recover.  So Margaret stayed with her son for two years as he slowly recovered.  When the boy was discharged from the hospital, Margaret took her son back to their village.  Only many villagers refused to believe that the boy was alive.  Instead, they thought he was a ghost.  

The St. Thomas More parishioners hung on every word as the priest continued his story, explaining that the boy ended up going to school, then on to college, then he entered the seminary, and was ordained a priest in 2000.  Father Nangwele then paused briefly, and said; "So today that boy stands before you."  

A collective gasp rolled across the pews, then murmurs as people spoke to their neighbor of their surprise.  Then the parishioners gave Father Linus a warm round of applause, something that rarely happens during this portion of a mass.  But Father Nangwele had more for the gathering.  

"What do the letters in the word faith stand for", he asked.  He answered himself: "Forward An Issue To Heaven."  He said his mother, who never gave up on her boy, had strong faith.  Father Nangwele then asked what the letters in the word "push" mean.  He responded, "Pray Until Something Happens."  Of course, his mother never stopped praying.  As he finished his sermon, the priest paused again, and said, "My name is Linus, L I N U S."  He then smiled, nodded and returned to the altar to continue the mass

Father Linus has occasionally told this story in his sermons to explain his calling to priesthood.  He came to the United States in 2005, and has lived in Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale while pursuing advanced degrees in theology and conflict analysis and resolution.  His English is fluent, although he has an accent, and his smile in infectious.  

After the mass was over, a huge line of parishioners waited to shake Father Linus's hand and thank him for his incredibly moving personal story.  In ten short minutes he had given them a powerful reason to have faith.

Friday, October 4, 2013

GOP Shutdown Politics

"This isn't a damn game!" House Speaker John Boehner said Friday at a news conference on the budget stalemate that has led to the government shutdown.  Really Mr. Speaker?  The government shutdown is, in fact, a direct result of political gamesmanship by the Republicans. 

Let's start with Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the Narcissus of Capitol Hill.  No one loves Senator Ted Cruz more than, well, Ted Cruz.  And it is no wonder.  This man holds himself in the highest esteem, walks with swagger, and drips with ambition.   Throughout his lifetime, all of his actions, associations and alliances have been undertaken solely for the advancement of Ted Cruz. 

He is clearly far smarter than your average Tea-Party Congressmen, so he is leading them around by their noses on his little ego trip.  And they love it because they each get to fulfill their lifelong dream of destroying the federal government, which they believe is at the root of all this country's problems.  They are elected from gerrymandered districts that are filled with white hyper-conservative citizens who can be mobilized at the drop of an anti-Obama epithet.   

Meanwhile, Cruz has the admiring backing of Fox News and conservative radio talk show hosts, who are promulgating lies and distortions about the shutdown to rally their rabid Republican base.  The more outlandish the criticism on these right-wing outlets, the more the audience loves it.  (Just don't try to take their federal benefits away!)

Tea-Party Republicans are downright giddy that they have forced the federal government to shut down.  "We’re very excited," said Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Mn). "It's exactly what we wanted, and we got it."   Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Ks) observed, "America's been a little astonished by us doing the right thing in the last few days here in the House."  

Nonetheless, the wiser Republican leadership has been flummoxed to by the negative public perception of the party as a result of the Cruz-driven strategy to shut the government down unless the Affordable Care Law, or Obamacare, is defunded.  Word of dissension in the party ranks has only added to the party's image problems.  Leaders have been scrambling to change the optics, to shift blame to President Obama and the Democrats. 

So it was particularly noteworthy when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Rand Paul, both Kentucky Republicans, were caught in an embarrassing conversation on the senate floor by a Kentucky TV station.   They were talking about messaging strategy; neither man wanted the government shutdown.

Paul approached McConnell on the floor following his CNN interview.  McConnell began by warning Paul he was "wired up here."  But that didn't stop Paul, who was eager to share a powerful revelation that had come to him.  "I just did CNN and I just go over and over again 'We're (Republicans) willing to compromise.  'We're willing to negotiate.'  I think... I don't think they (Democrats) poll tested we won't negotiate.  I think it's awful for them to say that over and over again," Paul said.
McConnell responded, "Yeah, I do too and I, and I just came back from that two hour meeting with them and that, and that was basically the same view privately as it was publicly."  McConnell was apparently referring to the meeting between President Obama and the Congressional leadership.
Paul added, "I think if we keep saying 'We wanted to defund it (Obamacare).  We fought for that and that we're willing to compromise on this', I think they can't, we're gonna, I think... well I know we don't want to be here, but we're gonna win this I think."  So neither Congressmen wants the shutdown, but they are now both think they will "win" this debate by shifting blame to the Democrats, whose position they can summarize as "they don't want to negotiate" on the budget or debt ceiling.  

This, of course, assumes that most Americans won't understand that that Democrats have already agreed to huge cuts, basically continuing the "sequester" levels that have already been disruptive to government agencies and services.  Or that Democrats have consistently said they will negotiate after a budget bill is passed and the debt ceiling is raised; or that Democrats have said they are willing to make some adjustments in the Affordable Care Act.  

Meanwhile, Republicans have consistently said they will never agree to a new budget, or to raise the debt ceiling, unless Obamacare is defunded. The lower house has voted 42 times along party lines to defund Obamacare.   Republicans have wasted precious time and valuable taxpayer dollars trying to eliminate a law that was passed by congress, signed by the president, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, and that President Obama was reelected on.

Instead of passing even a short-term budget, so 800,000 federal employees can go back to work, and services can be restored to the poor and needy of all ages, Republicans have focused on winning the battle in the court of public opinion.  Instead of agreeing not to let this country's credit rating be destroyed, which will be devastating for the global economy, Republicans are trying to win the perception game.

Speaker Boehner, your protestations about this not being a game are empty because of the actions of you and your party.  All American can see the games Republicans are playing.  It is time for you to do the right thing for the country -- bring the senate-approved budget to the floor for a vote.  

And don't forget what happened to Narcissus.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Clipping the Wings of Cruz

Texas Senator Ted Cruz knows exactly what he is doing and he is achieving all of his goals.  His disruptive tactics are winning him acclaim from conservative Americans who disdain all things Washington, while the Republican establishment is fuming with anger.    

Rafael Edward "Ted" Cruz was born in Canada but has been a Texan pretty much all his life.  From his earliest days he has been ambitious and driven.  He was valedictorian of his high school class.  He graduated cum laude from Princeton University in 1992, and magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1995. Harvard Law professor Alan Desrhowitz once said, "Cruz was off the charts brilliant." 

Cruz clerked for Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the first Latino to clerk for a chief justice. He went into private practice before joining the Bush-Cheney campaign in 1999.  He worked in the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission before being appointed Texas Solicitor General in 2003.  As a lawyer, Cruz has authored more than 80 U.S. Supreme Court briefs, and has presented nine oral arguments before the court.  Cruz is a gun-rights supporter, he has defended the rights of students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in classrooms, and he opposes same-sex marriage.  

But President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, has given Cruz the opportunity to quickly increase his national profile and collect deep-pocketed supporters.  Like the Calgary Stampeder he is by birth, he has shaken up the political arena by insisting that Congress defund Obamacare as a condition for keeping the government open.  But his twist in logic is that it will be President Obama's fault if the government shuts down.  And, in another amazing twist, Cruz has promised to filibuster in the Senate the very budget bill that defunds Obamacare he asked the House of Representatives to pass.

Cruz defended his tactics to Fox News, "I mean folks can do whatever they want to resist change, and there are a lot of people that have been in Washington a long time that are fearful of change," he said.  "They're fearful of risk, they're fearful of anything that changes the clubby way Washington does business."  Brilliant! And this sentiment reflects the feelings of many tea-party Americans.  Furthermore, it has won the strong endorsement of former Alaska Governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.  Palin is an opportunist as well.  

Cruz believes that if his efforts to defund Obamacare fail, his supporters will respect him for standing up for principle.  So the more criticism he receives, the better for his future.  As he said to Fox News, "No matter what insults others choose to hurl at me, and in the past few weeks they have picked quit a few, some of them have been pretty amusing actually, but no matter what they do I'm not going to respond in kind."  Ah, the high road. 

Cruz believes he is the smartest man in Washington, and his sights are set on the White House in 2016.  In his senior thesis at Princeton, entitled "Clipping the Wings of Angels", he argued against an all-powerful state.  So it should be no surprise he is opposed to implementation of Obamacare.  But how smart can Cruz be to want to risk a government shut down, or a debt ceiling breach, either of which will result in disastrous consequences for Americans.    

There is an old saying that applies perfectly to Ted Cruz: "Never in doubt, seldom right."   

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Compassionless Conservatves

The Republican Party is vigorously pursing reductions in the federal budget that will severely impact those who most need help.  What is worse, many in the party are willing to shut the government down and disrupt the global economy in order to make their point.

Republicans in the House of Representatives, led by Speaker John Boehner, have scheduled a vote Friday on legislation to fund the government through Dec. 15 at existing levels while permanently defunding the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.  The same bill will include a requirement for Treasury to give priority to Social Security and disability payments in the event the government reaches its borrowing limit and cannot pay all of its obligations.  The plan is then for the Senate to take up the measure, even though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev, says that such a measure will not pass.

Some 48 million Americans are uninsured, and the Republicans have offered no viable alternatives for the law.   Obamacare remains unpopular with Americans mainly because the public has misunderstood it and conservatives have demonized it.  Cries of death panels and deficits overshadow the many benefits that the law puts in place.  For instance, providing health insurance to everyone, requiring insurance companies to cover people with preexisting health conditions, ending lifetime limits on coverage, providing coverage to adults under 26, and reigning in health care costs.

Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has been among the most vocal proponents for defunding Obamacare at all costs.   While House and Senate Republicans have sparred over which chamber should take the lead, Cruz now says he will do "everything necessary and anything possible to defund Obamacare," including filibuster any funding bill in the Senate that funds the Affordable Care Act.  Earlier he had received the ire of many House Republicans because, after stoking up grassroots opposition in Republican districts around the country, Cruz conceded he could not get such a measure through the Senate.

If Congress doesn't pass a spending bill by September 30 the government will partially shut down.  And if Congress fails to raise the federal government's debt ceiling later in October, the USA will default and throw the global markets into economic chaos.

But some Republicans in Congress love to play brinksmanship, and have stirred up support among their core voters, all in an effort to change the way Washington does business.  Such tactics can also get an ambitious Senator more national attention and enhance political fundraising efforts.

But Obamacare is the law of the land.  It was approved by Congress, was signed by the president, and was upheld by the United States Supreme Court.  The president will veto any measure that would kill his most significant domestic accomplishment.  So the defund effort is a fool's errand and many Republicans know it.   The Wall Street Journal concluded that the defunding strategy will backfire on Republicans, "The kamikazes could end up ensuring the return of all-Democratic rule."  GOP strategist Karl Rove wrote, "Going down that road would strengthen the president while alienating independents. It is an ill-conceived tactic, and Republicans should reject it."

Meanwhile, House Republicans have voted to cut $4 billion a year out of food stamps over the next decade.  The controversial measure will force about 14 million people off the program by 2013.   48 million Americans currently get food stamps, or about 15% of the U.S. population.  House Republicans say their bill would eliminate those who shouldn't get food stamps by closing loopholes and cutting benefits to "able-bodied adults" unless they work part time or are in a job training program.  It is estimated that 3.8 million people will lose benefits in the first year.

Both these initiatives come at a time when the Census Bureau announced that the number of Americans living in poverty has climbed to 46.5 million.   Remarkably about 16 million children and 4 million seniors are now living in poverty in America.  While most of the 8 million jobs lost during the recession have been recouped, many of those jobs are in low paying service industry.  Meanwhile the nation's economic recovery remains tepid, in part due to state and federal government cutbacks.  Yet corporate profits are rising and the wealthiest 1% of Americans are doing better than ever.

So, just when so many Americans desperately need help and are most vulnerable, the Republicans are most determined to cut the deficit on the backs of the poor, and to deny every citizen access to proper health care.

So it goes with the compassionless conservatives of today's Republican Party.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Obama's Syrian Decision

As President Obama tries to rally support for a strike against Syria, he finds himself in a high stakes diplomatic chess match with no good outcome in sight.  Mr. Obama's stand on principle for the prohibition of chemical weapons use and the maintenance of international norms puts at risk the future of his presidency and his legacy.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a ruthless dictator determined to destroy his opposition using every weapon in his arsenal.  On Wednesday the New York Times said of Assad, "behind the veneer of normality, Mr. Assad has grown increasingly aggressive, declaring his determination to wipe out the opposition, insisting that he is standing against an imperialist enemy."

Syria's civil war has left more than 100 thousand civilians dead in that country.  Two million war refugees have fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and about five million Syrians have had to flee their homes.  Meanwhile, Assad has been able to turn the tide of momentum to his favor.  His opposition is made up of a myriad of groups with differing ideologies and competing goals, which has made it difficult for America to provide military support.  So rebel fighters are inadequately trained and poorly armed. 

Perhaps emboldened by his improving position, Assad has resorted to chemical weapons to kill and demoralize his opponents.  The United States has overwhelming and convincing evidence that he is behind the attack two weeks ago, which killed more than a thousand civilians, including several hundred children. 

One year ago President Obama told a news conference, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized."  He concluded, “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”  He did not specify any consequences at that news conference.

This past Saturday, the president announced he had decided on the consequences.  “After careful deliberation I have decided the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets,” Mr. Obama said.  But he added that he would seek Congress's approval, even though he did not need to do so. 

The president and key members of his administration have "flooded the zone" in search of congressional support, as well as the support of key allies.  In a series of hearings, Secretary of Sate John Kerry has stressed that military action would not be directed a regime change, it would not be an open-ended intervention, nor would America put "boots on the ground" in Syria. 

But the administration has to overcome great skepticism for its case from a congress that was burned ten years earlier by false evidence of weapons of mass destruction from President George W. Bush's administration as justification for invading Iraq.  Meanwhile, according to recent polls, a war-weary American public is opposed to any military action against Syria.

There are no good options for the president.  Failure to attack Syria will only further embolden Assad who will continue to massacre his own civilians, and it will spur Iran to accelerate its development of nuclear weapons.  Worse, it will weaken America's standing in the world, at a time that Russia and China are expanding their ambitions.

On the other hand, a "limited" attack, which the president proposes, is unlikely to be effective in significantly degrading and deterring Syria's weapon's stockpile, much of which is hidden among civilians, or deter Assad from using them again and again if he becomes desperate.  An American attack is certain to result in civilian casualties, set off a wave of terrorist strikes against Western nations and Syria's neighbors, and further demonize the U.S. among some people in the region.
On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved, by a 10-to-7 bipartisan vote, a resolution that would limit military strikes against the Syrian government to a 60-day window, with the possibility of a 30-day extension, and it would specifically block the use of ground troops.  The full Senate is expected to take up the measure early next week.  The prospects for success in the House of Representatives are uncertain.  If Congress fails to pass the measure it would be seen as a huge international embarrassment for the president.  

So momentum appears to be slowly building on Capitol Hill for support of military action against Assad's government, in part because it is the best choice from several bad options.  If an attack is approved and carried out by American forces, many nations may not like it.  But they will recognize that America, led by President Obama, has stood on a fundamental principle for the good of humanity.