Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Death of a Baby Bird

The northern cardinal is one of the most familiar birds for residents of New York City, especially those who live near Central Park.   They are characterized by their bright red color and distinctive chirp.

The cardinals start appearing in spring, just as the last trace of winter snow is melting away.  What a joy to watch them flit from budding tree to budding tree.  They build their nests high above the ground where the cats and other predators can't reach them. Nonetheless, tragedy can strike these most beautiful creatures.

In an Upper East Side neighborhood, known as Carnegie Hill, a family of cardinals lives behind several townhouses and buildings.  This doughnut hole, as it is called, is made up of a dozen backyards protected by a wall of buildings.  Each yard, separated by wooden fences, has a garden while some have trees.  This is an ideal home for any bird, which could spend a lifetime in these friendly confines.

But this Garden of Eden can be treacherous as well.  High winds, associated with thunderstorms and heavy rain, can shake the smallest and least experienced bird from its perch.  And so it did this past week.  A baby redbird fell to the ground and landed at the base of our building, on a glass atrium.  

Its parents spent hours frantically looking for their child.  Their chirping was loud and desperate.  Drawn by the noise, our dogs peered out of the window and watched with fascination as the birds flew from tree to railing, yelping loudly while looking everywhere for their baby.  Finally, they spotted it on the atrium and raced to its rescue. 

As the mother approached her child, she realized that she could do nothing but check on its condition.  The baby was too young to fly.  As the father jumped above from branch to branch, the mother continued to call to her baby.  As the parents flew above hours passed, but they had no way to save their child.  It was so painful to watch.  

I considered saving the chick, but I had no easy solution.  If I touched it I thought the parents might reject the child.  If I moved it to the backyard, it would still be unable to fly, and it would be in more danger from predators.  

Later, as I worked out at the gym, I decided to capture the chick and put it in a large plastic container with food and water.  But by the time I returned the chick was gone.  I went outside and searched the area for any sign of the little bird.  I could not find it.  Maybe a cat or hawk grabbed the chick.  But the parents continued to circle the area, landing on the top of the fence and looking below.  

As darkness fell, a major thunderstorm rolled through the area.  The storm cell settled over the city inflicting lightening, loud thunder and heavy rain.   I knew that had the chick survived the day it would not survive Mother Nature's wrath.

The next morning I went out into the backyard to clear the debris.  The parents continued to chirp and fly around the atrium area.  I climbed over the barrier and swept the dead branches from the top of the glass.  Suddenly, I saw the dead chick trapped in between some wire mesh and the wood walkway.  Fate had dealt its blow.

Sadly I removed the bird's body.  But the parents continued to look for their child until darkness fell again on the backyards of Carnegie Hill.  They will never know their child's fate.   Will they return? 

Friday, May 23, 2014

VA on Memorial Day

Memorial Day is upon us.  It is the day when Americans remember all of the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. armed forces.  From the streets of Amiens to the beaches of Normandy, from the fields of Gettysburg to the jungles of Khe Sanh, more than a million Americans have died defending this nation throughout its history. 

But what about those veterans who return home today from the front lines, where they risked their lives for their country, including tens of thousands who suffered serious injuries?  They should be revered, and treated as heroes.  But now there are horrifying reports of negligence by at least one VA hospital that may have led to 40 deaths.  The problem centers on excessive delays in seeing veterans and charges that the hospital doctored its books to assure performance bonuses.  

President Barack Obama addressed the problem earlier this week by expressing outrage at the delays and allegations of misconduct by VA officials.  "I will not stand for it," the president said, "Not as commander in chief, but also not as an American.  None of us should."  Speaking of the investigation that is underway, he said, "If there was misconduct, people will be punished."  In 2008, candidate Obama said he would do more to help veterans, but President Obama waited two weeks to comment on the latest revelations.

In an interview published Friday by USA Today, former Senate majority leader Bob Dole, a World War II hero, criticized the president for being slow to address the VA revelations.  "You shouldn't keep a veteran waiting three months to see a doctor," he said.  He expressed mixed feelings on whether VA Secretary Eric Shinseki should step down.  Dole praised former Army general Shinseki as a hero, but said, "If the facts reveal that he neglected his duties, then he should go." 

The fact that there are problems with the VA system is a decades old story.  For example, President John Kennedy approved the use of Agent Orange, a highly toxic chemical, to clear the jungles of Vietnam.  President Lyndon Johnson continued the use during his term in office.  While President Richard Nixon ended the practice, it took too long for any president to acknowledge the chemical's harmful affects, especially on veterans.   A 1990 congressional report found, "The Reagan administration had adopted a legal strategy of refusing liability in military and civilian cases of contamination involving toxic chemicals...The Federal Government has suppressed or minimized findings of ill health effects among Vietnam veterans that could be linked to Agent Orange exposure."

The Veterans Administration was established in 1930 when congress authorized the president to consolidate all existing programs affecting war veterans.  The VA currently includes 152 hospitals, 800 community based outpatient clinics and 126 nursing home care units.  The Department of Veterans Affairs was established as a cabinet-level position in 1989 by President George Bush.  At the time President Bush said, "There is only one place for the veterans of America, in the Cabinet Room, at the table with the President of the United States of America."

By most accounts, veterans receive good care once they are in the VA system.  But after a decade of wars, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and with thousands of Vietnam veterans, demand on the VA has grown enormously.  The VA is now the government's second largest department, with nearly 300 thousand employees.  Its budget for 2014 is about $150 billion, an increase of more than 50% since 2009.  The VA provides care for 6.5 million veterans, 675,000 of those who began their military service after September 11, 2001.

Regretfully, the latest VA revelations have turned into a political issue.  They have generated soundbites and congressional hearings where members can express outrage and try to score political points.  However, in his interview, 90 year-old Bob Dole observed, "We do more in this country than any other in the world.  And I think what we're experiencing now - it may be a culture at the VA that's developed in the last 10 to 20 years."  He continued, "If you eliminate the hospital problem, I think we take pretty good care of our veterans...and I spend a lot of time working on veterans and veterans' issues."

On this Memorial Day the VA problems need urgent action, both to decrease the delays, and to punish anyone who is guilty of misconduct.   Everyone at the VA must live by its mission statement, which calls for "providing world-class benefits and services to the millions of men and women who have served this country with honor in the military."  We owe it to our veterans, let's get this right! 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Rove's Brain

Republicans are doing all they can to discourage former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from becoming a presidential candidate in 2016 by attacking all things Hillary.  They fear that she would easily roll over any Republican candidate and generate many congressional victories in her wake.  

Secretary Clinton says that she will decide by the end of the year whether she will run for president.  But, given the fact that she is already the overwhelming favorite to win her party's nomination, she has been the target of political attacks from the right.  The most recent assault comes from Republican strategist Karl Rove, who, speaking at a closed-door corporate event in southern California on May 8, raised questions about her health.  The New York Post reported earlier this week that Rove said,  “Thirty days in the hospital? And when she reappears,she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that.”

These comments from this master of dirty tricks and misinformation were no accident.  Rove's intentions are to raise doubts among voters about Secretary Clinton's health, and to get cable pundits to talk endlessly about the issue.  By being disruptive and dishonest he wins the admiration of many in the Republican party, even despite his recent poor performance.  For instance, Rove's political action committees spent more than $300 million on the 2012 election cycle and failed.  In response, Donald Trump, real estate mogul and occasional Republican presidential aspirant, was sharply critical of Rove. “When you spend $400 million and it’s a failure and you don’t have one victory, you know something is seriously, seriously wrong,” he said last spring.

But Rove can live with the criticism, and he is being well-paid to do so.  Rove was a longtime adviser to President George W. Bush, and he helped shape the administration's case to the American public for waging war on Iraq.  Of course, the Bush administration misled the world into believing Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.  Also, Rove was questioned regarding his role in leaking covert CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity in 2003 as retaliation for criticism by her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, of the Bush administration's case for the Iraq war. 

Rove made quite a name for himself from his tactic of attacking an opponent's strength.   In 2004, then Senator John Kerry was nominated by his party to run for president against the incumbent President Bush.  Kerry was seen as a Vietnam War hero, while Bush had pulled strings to avoid fighting on the front lines in that war.   Texas journalist Wayne Slater said, in a PBS Frontline interview, "The number one thing that John Kerry offered was his heroic service in Vietnam …and so what Rove did was attack the strength of Kerry, not his weakness."  Rove's tactic led to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth negative campaign against Kerry's claims of heroism.  The campaign was discredited, but Bush won reelection.  

Karl Rove is a protegee of the late and legendary Republican dirty trickster, Lee Atwater.  Rove was first investigated by the Republican National Committee in 1973 for allegedly teaching seminars on dirty tricks to young Republicans, but he was cleared of wrong-doing.  And George W. Bush biographer  Louis DuBose says Rove was behind a whisper campaign about then Texas Governor  Ann Richard's "sexual orientation."  DuBose wrote, "No one ever traced the character assassination to Rove.  Yet no one doubts that Rove was behind it."

But all of this is okay in politics, where operatives are not penalized by the public for lying about an opponent, and they are not financially penalized by a candidate for losing an election.   Karl Rove spent  and wasted an enormous amount of fundraising money in 2012.  In fact, he was so concerned about upsetting his donors election night that he went into a meltdown on Fox News when the network declared Ohio for Obama.  Rove insisted their declaration was "premature."  Of course, Ohio did go to President Obama, and its delegates put him over the top in his reelection bid.  

Over the past few months, Rove and other Republican operatives have been building up their war chests for the 2014 midterm and 2016 presidential elections.  And congressional Republicans have focused their attention on the terrorist attack at Benghazi, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.   

If she runs for president, Secretary Clinton will showcase her experience at State as a strength.  But Republicans are now on the attack.  Despite the findings of a rigorous bipartisan report, which did not blame Secretary Clinton, several congressional hearings, and the 25,000 pages of relevant documents that have been turned over by the administration, Republicans have now begun a select committee investigation.  Meanwhile, GOP congressmen have turned up the volume on their attacks of Secretary Clinton.  They have accused her of mismanagement, incompetence and a coverup.    

On Thursday, a Quinnipiac poll of registered voters in Ohio found that Secretary Clinton's commanding lead over each of her possible Republican opponents is narrowing.  This may be, in part, the result of all of the Benghazi attacks.  The poll was taken well before this week's "brain-ghazi" attack by Karl Rove.  

You would think America was in the final stretch of the 2016 presidential campaign.  Thankfully, former President Bill Clinton responded to Rove's charge with humor.  "First they said she faked her concussion and now they say she is auditioning for her part on the Walking Dead," President Clinton told a gathering in New York.   "If she does (have brain damage), I must be in really tough shape because she is still quicker than I am."

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Politics of Benghazi

Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi.  It has become the battle cry of congressional Republicans as they continue to politicize a human tragedy in order to energize their base and tarnish the reputation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Republicans accuse the administration of a cover-up and negligence for failing to provide adequate security at the diplomatic compound in Benghazi.  Democrats accuse Republicans of playing politics with Benghazi and for irresponsibly cutting the budget for State Department security.

On September 11, 2012, four Americans were killed, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, in an attack by armed militants on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, and later a nearby CIA annex.   The incident took place on the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, and two months before the 2012 Presidential Election.  President Obama had frequently touted his anti-terrorism record during the campaign.

On September 12, President Obama called the attacks an outrageous act, "No acts of terror will shake the resolve of this great nation…Today we mourn four Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America."  He continued, "We shall not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act.  And make no mistake, justice will be done."   

The following Sunday, Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, appeared on five network public affairs programs.  Ambassador Rice said that the administration had no evidence that the attack was preplanned but it was investigating.  "Based on the best information we have to date…what began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what transpired some hours earlier in Cairo, where…there was a violent protest outside of our embassy sparked by a hateful video…(In Benghazi) We believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in that effort with heavy weapons."  

Rice's explanation immediately came under fire from leading Republicans, who said the attack was preplanned by extremists with links to al Qaeda.  They accused Rice of misleading the American public in order to protect the president's image of being strong on terror.   They also criticized the administration's response during the attack, and the lack of security that had been in place prior to the assault.  

Following the attack, the administration increased security at its diplomatic missions, announced that the FBI would investigate, and increased surveillance to hunt for the attackers.  The State Department's Accountability Review Board released findings in December 2012.  It found, "Systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department…resulted in a special mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took pace."  

While she quickly implemented corrective measures, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has come under continuous criticism for Benghazi.  In January 2013, she told a congressional hearing, "I take responsibility.  Nobody is more committed to getting this right.  I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger and more secure."  

In the 18 months following Benghazi, Politico reports congress held 13 hearings and 50 briefings, and 25,000 pages of documents have been turned over to congressional investigators.  The New York Times conducted an exhaustive investigation and reported, "The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs."  As to the hateful video, entitled Innocence of Muslims, the Times reported that the attack was "fueled in part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam." 

Meanwhile, last month the conservative group Judicial Watch released 100 pages of documents it had obtained from its Freedom of Information Act request.  They included an email from White House advisor Ben Rhodes that spelled out talking points to be used at the time by administration spokespersons.  He wrote in part, "To underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader policy failure."  While every administration has issued talking points, especially during a crisis, Republicans saw this as a smoking gun.  

As a result, House Speaker John Boehner has said he will create a special select committee to investigate the attacks.  Now some Democrats are talking about boycotting the committee, but House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has said she is open to the suggestion.  "If this review is to be fair, it must truly be bipartisan," meaning an equal amount of Democrats and Republicans, she said in a written statement.    

As Republicans hope to win control of both houses of congress in the midterm elections this November, they see Benghazi as an issue that will mobilize their voters to the polls.  They have intensified their attacks on the administration to a fever pitch in part to damage Secretary Clinton, who is likely run for president in 2016.  

Benghazi has turned into an investigation about talking points.  It has become a political rallying cry for Republicans, who see it as the gift that will keep on giving to 2016, while overlooking similar such incidents under Republican presidents.

Lost in their vitriol is the memory of four Americans who gave their lives in service of their country. Benghazi was a terrible tragedy.   But its brave victims deserve to be treated with more respect.