Saturday, March 30, 2013

Amazing View of Mars

While growing up in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield, I would often look up at a small white dot visible in the night sky amidst thousands of other white dots.   It was the planet Mars, named after the Roman God of war. 

Known as the red planet, Mars is the second smallest planet in our solar system; it is the fourth planet from the sun, a distance of 141 million miles.  Questions have always abounded about life on Mars: had it once existed?  Could man now inhabit Mars?

In a remarkable human feat by NASA, the Curiosity Rover has beamed back high definition pictures from the surface of the red planet.

While the surface of the planet, seen from inside a crater, looks bleak and forlorn, it is nonetheless breathtaking! 

But could man someday inhabit the planet?  You be the judge:   Mars Panorama

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

W's Iraq War

Ten years ago today the United States invaded Iraq with the goals of toppling its tyrannical ruler Saddam Hussein, destroying its weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and freeing its people to establish a democratic government.  Now, a decade later, Saddam Hussein is dead, but no WMDs were ever found, and the country has devolved into a de facto civil war.

In February 2003 polls showed Americans overwhelmingly favored an invasion of Iraq.  The Bush government had linked Hussein to al Qaeda, the terrorist group that launched a series of terrorists attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, killing nearly 3,000 Americans.   The administration had made the case to the world that Hussein was arming Iraq with WMDs, and that he was conspiring with al Qaeda to launch further attacks on the United States and the western world. 

In October 2002 the "Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002" easily passed both houses of Congress with bipartisan support.   The resolution authorized President Bush to use the U.S. military to, "defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions regarding Iraq."

In February 2003 I traveled with a Telemundo news team to the White House to interview President Bush, one month before the Iraq invasion. War fever had built to a crescendo in Washington, and the White House wanted to make its case to Hispanic Americans.

President Bush entered our interview location, a room on the ground floor of the White House, with a swagger and a smile. He was imperious and proud. During the interview he went through his justifications for an invasion, but said that no final decision had been made.

Following the interview President Bush chatted with our group. I raised the issue of opposition to the pending war from the French, asking him, "What about President Jacques Chirac?" President Bush slapped me across my upper right arm with the back of his hand, cocked his head and said, "Don't worry, he'll come around." With that, he quickly said his goodbyes and confidently departed.

I turned to my team and said, "We're going to war!"

On March 20, 2003, American forces invaded Iraq and defeated Hussein's army.  But U.S. forces were not greeted as "liberators", as Vice President Dick Cheney had predicted on NBC's Meet The Press prior to the war.  The Bush administration failed to grasp how difficult, how complicated it would be to establish a unified government and a lasting peace in Iraq.  In 2007, former CIA Director George Tenet, the man who once called the evidence justifying an Iraq invasion a "slam dunk", told CBS's 60 Minutes, "We could never verify that there was any Iraqi authority, direction and control, complicity with al Qaeda for 9/11 or any operational act against America. Period."

To date, nearly 4,500 members of the U.S. military have died in Iraq, and more than 30,000 have been injured.  The Iraqi civilian deaths are estimated to be well over 100,000.  Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies estimates that the Iraq War has cost more than $1.7 trillion to date, not counting an additional $490 billion in benefits owed to war veterans.

The last U.S. combat troops left Iraq in December 2011. But thousands of veterans are struggling with the after effects of war, such as posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.  Meanwhile, a recent Gallup poll shows that 52% of Americans think the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, while 42% still support the war. 

In Iraq, American influence is low, while violence continues daily, and tensions among the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds are at an all time high.  One day, maybe, they'll come around.    

Sunday, March 17, 2013


So it is St. Patrick's Day, and there is a lot of green popping up in New York City.  But this is a very special day in our household because it is daughter Zoe's birthday.  She is now 17 years-old!  As I look at her with dogs Cassie and Cleo,  I wonder where all the years have gone?  In another year she will be off to college. 

This got me thinking about how time flies by, and how my sense of humor has changed.  Now old people jokes take on a more personal meaning. 

For instance, an OLD friend sent this list of texting codes along (anonymously)  and I could not resist sharing it with you:

Texting Codes for Seniors

• ATD - at the Doctor
• BFF - best friend’s funeral
• BTW – bring the wheelchair
• CBM – covered by medicare
• CUATSC – see you at the senior center
• DWI – driving while incontinent
• FWIW – forgot where I was
• GHA – got heartburn again
• HGBM – had good bowel movement
• LMDO – laughing my dentures out
• OMSG – Oh, my! Sorry, gas
• WAITT – who am I talking to?
• TOT –texting on toilet (my favorite!)

And some friends have updated the list:

OOV-Out of Viagara
OMT-Old Man Texting
LOL-Left out Lipitor  

But today, let me conclude with HBZ-happy birthday Zoe! 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Growth & Opportunity Project

Monday will be a big day for Reince Priebus, the Chairman of the Republican Party.  He will announce the results of a task force he convened, following last November's election, which he asked to "figure out what we can do to grow our party and win more elections."

The "Growth & Opportunity Project" (G.O.P) is chaired by five prominent Republicans, including Henry Barbour, the formidable nephew of former GOP chairman Governor Haley Barbour, and Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary under President George W. Bush.  Priebus and members of the GOP reached out to party and elected officials, community leaders across the nation, as well as donors.

Priebus has posted a tape on the G.O.P. web site that gives supporters a hint of what's to come in Monday's event.  "We are going to take the lead in technology, from data analytics to digital," he says, while announcing the party will hire a chief digital technology officer.  Led by the efforts of President Obama's campaign organization, Democrats are a well ahead of Republicans with digital campaign tactics.  Priebus also promises to "refocus our ground game" and to offer an "optimistic message."

It appears that Chairman Priebus considers Republican shortcomings as nothing more than a messaging problem.  That if Republicans could reach out to more Americans, extending a friendly hand and a warm smile, the party rolls would swell and it would win more elections.  This has to be great news for Democrats.

As Priebus was putting the final touches on his task force report, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, the losing vice presidential candidate, was announcing his latest federal budget proposal.  His proposal, which he projects will cut government spending growth over the next decade by $5 trillion, hits the poor and middle class hard.  Medicare would be voucherized, placing the burden on the elderly to find affordable quality care and pay for any cost differential.  It would block grant Medicaid, shifting the problem to the states. Of course, the winners in Ryan's proposal are the wealthy.

So while Ryan's budget takes a huge whack at social programs, Republicans are still out of step with the majority of Americans when it comes to social issues.  Florida Senator Marco Rubio drew a loud applause at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) convention Thursday when he said, "The people who are actually closed-minded in American politics are the people who love to preach about science with regards to our climate but ignore the absolute fact that science has proven that life begins at conception."  On gay marriage, he said, "Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in the traditional way does not make me a bigot."

The Republican solution to immigration reform is more troops on the border and taller fences.  The Republican solution to the epidemic of gun violence in America is more weapons.  The Republican solution for reducing unemployment is to slash the government payroll during an anemic economic recovery.  The Republican solution for federal debt is to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.  The Republican solution for universal health care is the nearest hospital emergency room. 

Also speaking at the CPAC convention was South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who bragged to thunderous applause, "Every election in our state now requires photo ID before your vote."  That's because the Republican solution to its election losses is to disenfranchise minorities through photo ID laws and reduced voting booth access. 

Memo to Democrats: remember the wise words of the great Republican strategist, Lee Atwater, who said when your opponent is self-destructing, just get out of the way.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Conclave

As Roman Catholic cardinals gather in the magnificent Sistine Chapel to select a new pope, their conclave, steeped in centuries of tradition, is at a critical crossroads.  Will the cardinals vote for a pope who can re-energize the faithful, and restore the trust that has been missing for millions of lapsed Catholics?

The conclave is both fascinating and intriguing.  The College of Cardinals will sit at tables amid great works of art, including Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam", a fresco on the ceiling, and "The Last Judgment", which covers the entire wall behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel.  The 115 cardinals eligible to vote will deliberate in absolute secrecy, and will vote until someone receives two-thirds of the ballots, or 77 votes. 

Politics will play a major role in the selection.  Rumors swirl around the Vatican of factions, those who favor some reform versus those who wish to preserve the traditions.  There is an air of great urgency as well as anticipation surrounding this conclave.

The Catholic Church has been roiled in controversies and crises that have it on the defensive.  The sex abuse scandal has cast a dark shadow over the religion, and the Church's handling, cloaked in secrecy, has been disastrous.  The impact has been felt in Ireland, Germany, South America, and in the United States.  Thousands of young men and women were victimized, and millions of dollars have been paid in settlements. This great tragedy is far from over.

The resignation of Pope Benedict the XVI shook the foundations of the Church.  The 85-year-old pope stepped down last month citing a "lack of strength of mind and body" to carry on as leader.  In additional to the sex abuse scandal, Pope Benedict had been recently tested by internal fighting, allegations of corruption, leaks and wiretaps. 

The Church itself is being tested by sharply declining church attendance, especially in Europe, and the United States.  It is being challenged in South America by growing evangelical movements.  While it is still expanding in Africa and parts of Asia, overall the Church is losing its relevance for many Catholics. 

The Church's firm stand on birth control, homosexuality, women priests and allowing its clergy to marry does not reflect the feelings of many Catholics, especially in America. Yet, there seems to be little prospect that the new pope will alter the Church's stand on any of these issues.

Will the new pope be an American?  For instance, will it be the charismatic Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, or the humble Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley of Boston?  The conventional wisdom is that the conclave will not select a pope from a super power.  Instead, the frontrunner may be Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, who is widely respected and has steered clear of many controversies. Also getting attention are Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of Brazil, Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada and Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana.

When the conclave elects a new pope, white smoke will billow from a chimney atop the Sistine Chapel.  That will be the first sign that a new pope has been selected to lead the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.  He will be regarded by the faithful as the successor to St. Peter, the Apostle.  But, will he be a man who can breath new life into the Church?   


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Hugo Chavez

President Hugo Chavez's death, while not unexpected, brings an uncertain future to a country that he ruled with an iron fist.  It also may present a great opportunity for American diplomacy in Venezuela and Latin America.

Chavez wanted to be considered a man of the people.  He was charismatic, quick witted and combative.  He was a polarizing leader, pitting the rich against the poor.  He verbally attacked superpowers, while embracing Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

To his opponents, he was a tyrant who imposed on his country a "Bolivarian" socialist state, while suppressing the media, limiting rights and nationalizing oil production.  His socialist revolution was focused on feeding and educating the poor, and expanding health care throughout the country.  This was his base, and he won their loyalty.

He entertained his followers with humor, singing, dancing and endless speeches.  He decided to nationalize golf courses, saying, "That’s an injustice – that someone should have the luxury of having I don’t know how many hectares to play golf and drink whiskey and, next door, there’s misery and children dying when there are landslides."

He wielded influence somewhat successfully throughout Latin America by attacking the United States as imperialist.  In 2007, he spoke to the United Nations a day after President George Bush.  "The devil came here yesterday, and it smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of," he said to the assembly.  He once responded to criticism from President Barack Obama by saying in a speech, "You are a clown, a clown."    

Venezuela has one of the largest oil reserves in the world, and about 40% of the oil it exports goes to the United States, or almost one million barrels a day.  Yet, while oil wealth was the source of Chavez's power, the country's economy faces serious problems brought on by spending, capital flight and shortages. 

Now Chavez is dead, and his loss leaves a great vacuum, and a country roiled in a political crisis.  His handpicked successor is Vice President Nicol├ís Maduro, who announced the president's death while accusing the United States of destabilizing Venezuela, and the expulsion of two U.S. military attaches.  The constitution calls for an election in 30 days, but Muduro, who will be a candidate, will run the country until a new president is chosen.

President Obama issued a statement on Tuesday, “At this challenging time of President Hugo Chavez’s passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government."  This will be a major diplomatic challenge for the U.S.

Meanwhile, the Venezuela's defense minister said, the military is in the "process of deploying ... to ensure the safety of all Venezuelans."  And Maduro, a former bus driver, in announcing Chavez's death, said, "We call on all compatriots to guarantee the peace. We, his civil and military compatriots, assume the legacy of Hugo Chavez."  

But will a bitterly divided Venezuelan people, freed of the yoke of a larger than life dictator, want to carry on his legacy?