An occasional digest.
The brilliant artist Maria Kalman, as is her wont on the final weekend of August, offers a spectacular multi-media essay, "I Lift My Lamp Beside The Golden Door," in the NYT. This time out, Kalman offers words and images that capture the essence of America in all its complexity, warts and glorious virtues. It is today's most e-mailed NYT feature, no surprise.
Much less heartening, but just as important, is this exposition on the ghastly underside of American sentiment when real change is in the air - ignorance, fear of the future, revulsion for leaders trying to better the lives of the disadvantaged. WaPo columnist Rick Perlstein reminds us it was ever thus. Even the Founding Fathers bitterly bickered, we don't hear much about that. Now it's healthcare reform. And the forces of retreat, self-interest and wilfull know-nothingness are on the march. This is the enduring character of the right in America. Nothing we have seen in recent months, from "death panels" to "pulling the plug on Grandma," should surprise us.
Paul Begala, Clinton-era political strategist (James "Serpenthead" Carville's teammate) and take-no-prisoners liberal (my kinda guy, plus he writes so damned well), makes a convincing case why progressives should settle for less than perfect in health care reform. If we had been around for Social Security 1.0, Begala asserts, we'd be repelled by how miserly FDR was in all the groups he excluded from its benefits. But the shortcomings were later fixed, once FDR had succeeded in establishing in law state assistance to retirees. Here's Begala:
"The Founders gave us a standard: 'a more perfect Union'. It's an odd phrase; we don't generally speak of something becoming 'more perfect'. I believe it means that we have a duty, every generation, to make progress. For a dozen generations we have done that, in our imperfect way. Let's hope those writing the new health-reform bill can give us something that represents historic progress -- and that those of us most passionately committed to fundamental reform can celebrate progress, not lament a lack of perfection."
If there's a darned good reason Obama is retaining the Bush practice of renditions, Clara Gutteridge, writing in the U.K. Guardian, doesn't see it. Me neither. Where's the progressives' outcry?
Obama can expect a distracting, heated debate on national security come Sept. 11, warns Justin Miller in the Atlantic. The first 9/11 anniversary of the Obama administration will see renewed doubts about Obama's commitment to protecting the nation, given his focus to date on domestic issues. The real story here, an American weakness, is that because domestic policy is so much tougher given all those clever checks and balances gifted by the Founding Fathers, most chief executives eventually give up on the home front and become foreign-policy presidents. JFK invaded Cuba; LBJ fought a ruinous war in Southeast Asia; Nixon launched an era of detente with the Soviet Union and "Red China"; Clinton intervened to stop the genocide in the Balkans, bailed out a defaulting Mexico, and brokered peace in Northern Ireland - all of this and much more without the say-so of anyone on Capitol Hill. The first Bush threatened to evict Saddam from Kuwait with or without Congressional authority (which ultimately he was given by a narrow margin). But try reforming healthcare, or education, or inner-city decay (as Carter tried and failed to do, making himself look weak in the process)...
Ariana Huffington advises Obama to channel FDR. In the WSJ, Thomas Frank counsels the president to channel Truman.(Who each failed with attempted healthcare reforms, but what the hey.) Here's what Obama's actually been reading on his rare week off, at Martha's Vineyard, and just now ending. Five books - not one on healthcare reform, thank goodness - totalling 2,300 pages. With time out for beloved Teddy's funeral, in Boston, and announcing Bernanke's reappointment earlier this week, that hasn't left much time with M&M&S. Then again, there's worse role-modelling than having your kids see you more often than not with your face in a book.
Obama's summer reading, BTW:
• The Way Home by George Pelecanos, a crime thriller based in Washington, D.C.;
• Lush Life by Richard Price, a story of race and class set in New York's Lower East Side;
• Tom Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded, on the benefits to America of an environmental revolution;
• John Adams by David McCullough;
• Plainsong by Kent Haruf, a drama about the life of eight different characters living in a Colorado prairie community.
With acknowledgements to William Faulkner.
For the purposes of this blog, the inception of the Great Recession in the U.S., the epicentre of the crisis, is taken as the start date for the global slump. The U.S. has been in recession since December 2007.