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Friday, January 25, 2008

Seems Like Old Times

I can keep silent no longer. Politics is not usually my blog fodder, but sometimes I simply have to stand up and squawk.

Today it is mostly the Obama thing. I’ve heard and read some of my generation talk of him as the ghost of JFK and /or RFK spectrally merged with the soul of MLK.

I admit that when I listen to his speeches, I feel a chill breeze that often accompanies ghostly visions. I get a flashback to the long suppressed tingle my people felt when those apparitions first spoke to us. I was still in high school when I first heard the word "charisma" in the summer of 1960 after JFK’s speech accepting the nomination. From then on, words like "the torch has been passed to a new generation" ... "ask what you can do for your country" and "I have a dream," were intoxicating ... yes, I blush to say, inspiring.

How much substance there was beneath the soaring rhetoric was not in issue back then. That feeling is like the hope of puppy love - it blots out all reason, resists logical analysis, thrives on chemically induced passions.

By the time I graduated law school, eight years later, all such passion had been sapped. We had barely survived the macro i.e: BIG events: The Bay Of Pigs, The Cuban Missile Crisis, The Dallas Weekend, The Warren Report, Goldwater, The John Birch Society, Viet-Nam, Governor Reagan, Mario Savio, Watts Riots, Detroit Riots, Stokely Carmichael, The Black Panthers.

Then came 1968.

The year began by cruelly reviving some of our hopes. The Prague Spring promised freedom in Eastern Europe, Gene McCarthy defeated LBJ in the NH primary & RFK entered the race. LBJ quit. By the end of the summer, while I studied for the Bar Exam, any residue of hope was gone.

We turned away from it all. Some time later, while moving in with Bijou, I found an old college textbook: sociologist David Riesman’s "The Lonely Crowd."

Riesman divided personalities in three general types: Other directed, Outer (or Tradition) directed, and Inner directed. His theory seemed apt to what happened in the following decades. Most in my generation spun inward for satisfaction, first to drugs, sex, music, "self-realization," then to career and acquiring things, and eventually to outright greed. It was a dizzying trip from "I have a dream" to "Greed is good."

By the 90's we were ready for Bill Clinton. His style was a stew of JFK’s voice, gestures and virile persona calculated to attract listeners to his earnest caresses. Like the therapists most of his generation trusted, Bill convinced people (mostly women and minorities) that he heard, understood and cared about each of them, one at a time.

I never felt the magic. I had watched his rise as a "new democrat" in the DLC, knew that he was not about ideals or visions, but compromise and finding ways to win. Not that there is anything wrong with that ... in fact, it is a fine strategy – as he proved. But it is not "inspiring," not likely to move a generation to action. It is notable that Clinton achieved most while Congress was in Newt Gingrich’s control, between ‘95 and ‘97.

After abandoning his "radical" health care plan, he admitted that "the era of big government was over," and got do-able things done: he balanced budgets, reformed welfare, made trade agreements and crime laws, embraced globalization and technology. He was credited for prosperity – which was in part fueled by the disintegration of the Soviet Empire’s threat that permitted lowered defense spending and the tech bubble.

Bill Clinton’s willingness to find a "third way," a strategy that was more cynically labeled "triangulation," also permitted him to raise more campaign money than any Democrat before him. His policies were not threatening to corporate contributors and they preferred him to riskier alternatives on the Left. Positions were calibrated by polls and focus groups to a finer point than ever before, straddling the Center with deft balance.

Bill’s eventual fall was the stuff of Greek Tragedy. Like his model, JFK, his womanizing, ruthlessness, deceptions, were the flip side of his character. But unlike JFK, his times did not permit concealment until after his legend was secure. Ironically, by legitimizing the politics of personal appeal, Clinton opened himself to scrutiny of his personal flaws. Character would now be fair game and whether we would lose the "great" leader in search of the "good" person would be a question.

Now we find Obama presenting himself as the leader who can heal polarization and inspire a "new generation" to believe in the democratic illusion: that government can solve problems. He wants to change direction, not only from the Bush mess but also from the style of creating "wedge issues" that stir anger against ... the enemy. His"story," his appearance and his demeanor all personify the difference in a way reminiscent of TR, FDR, & JFK.

When he speaks, those of my generation can’t help but think of him (wishfully) as the shocking proof that we were right after all back when we were young — integration, optimism, public service, good faith, eloquence, excellence, ideas — they can lead to progress.

But now the inherent filth of campaigning in a democratic election is testing that wish. One of Borenstein’s favorite Laws is that anyone who wants to be president should be suspect. Obama certainly "has the bug." He wants it bad. In recent debates, he’s played the dirty game, rising to the bait all too readily, risking everything, exposing his weaknesses.

A recent New Yorker article pinpointed the theoretical differences between Hillary Clinton and Obama. As defined in a recent debate, Obama sees the presidency as the pulpit to inspire movements for positive change; Clinton sees it as a seat of limited power to do enough to get re-elected.

My suspicion is that, although we always seek the inspirational leader, the fact is that the pragmatic compromiser almost always accomplishes more good.

The trick is to find one who can do both. Inspirational leaders can only move the ball when events conjoin to form strong coalitions, dissolving the usual American public’s polarized state of apathetic skepticism. When the stars align, as for a few years for TR, then for Wilson and again for FDR and even LBJ (from ‘65 to ‘66), the ball can be moved forward in greater increments.

2008 seems to be a time when the seas are ready to part. I might even say that if it doesn’t happen, the Democratic Party should declare bankruptcy and flee.

Yet, it can happen. If Clinton and Obama scratch each other’s eyes out and if Clinton wins the nomination, alienating Obama and his base; and if, say, Romney is nominated, the scenario might make him the candidate of "change" and her the return to the bad old days.

What a revoltin’ development that would be.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

"The best of times ... the worst of times ..."

The U.S. Supreme Court accepted cert on a death penalty case arising in Louisiana which will provide an interesting test for the newly constituted Bush / Roberts court.

The defendant is appealing a death sentence for the crime of child rape, not murder.

For most of man’s history, capital crimes included any "felonious" (i.e., serious) crime. As Charles Dickens observed, writing about the late 18th Century custom,

"[T]he hangman, ever busy and ever worse than useless, was in constant requisition; now, stringing up long rows of miscellaneous criminals; now, hanging a housebreaker on Saturday who had been taken on Tuesday; ... today the life of an atrocious murderer, and tomorrow of a wretched pilferer who had robbed a farmer’s boy of sixpence." ("A Tale Of Two Cities")

But after Caryl Chessman was executed in California in 1960 for multiple kidnap rape / robberies amidst public outcries, the Supremes ruled it a violation of the 8th Amendment to execute where no murder occurred. Chessman had been executed under a law enacted in the 1930's. California, like many other states, had made kidnaping itself a capital offense after the notoriety of the Lindbergh case.

A few years later, The US Supremes overturned a Georgia law permitting execution for rape of an adult (the victim was actually 16 years old) as "cruel and unusual punishment."

That has been the law in this country since. Now, as in the aftermath of the Lindbergh case, rage against abductors and molesters of children have led legislators in several states to reinstate the death penalty for such crimes.

Whether the Supreme Court, as presently constituted, will "honor precedent" as the recent nominees, Alito and Roberts, promised in their confirmation hearings, or will concur with their brethren Scalia and Thomas in a "strict interpretation" of the Constitution as it was intended in in the 18th Century is in serious doubt.