Saturday, January 24, 2009

Patterson did the right thing by resisting promoters of Caroline Kennedy

New York Gov. David Patterson is taking a lot of hits for how he handled what's being called the "fiasco" over his naming a successor to former senator Hillary Clinton, the Obama Administration's new Secretary of State. But in resisting intense pressure to name Caroline Kennedy, which included a last-minute inquiry by Kennedy about where she stood, Patterson was doing his job under extremely difficult conditions. Hurray for him.

Instead of being muddle-headed, as he's been portrayed in some media reports, Patterson looks to have shown tough resolve and a sharp sense of assessing the top senatorial candidates' political skills, as this New York Daily News piece shows. Key grafs:

"In meetings, the governor and his aides decided [Kennedy] had no political depth, the source said.

"She had no firmly held views and little idea about why she wanted the job, the source said."

So instead of caving to the pressure from the formidable Kennedy claque, Patterson named a relatively conservative upstate Democrat, Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, who had won her seat in 2006 by ousting a hitherto entrenched Republican.

While Gillibrand does not have the dynastic trappings of Kennedy, she comes from a politically active family, and, in contrast to Kennedy, enjoys the endless meet-and-greet chores that any politician must embrace. Those chores are often dismissed in the media, but they are a crucial part of the compact that politicians -- good ones -- make with the voting public. Eating a knish in Manhattan or milking a cow upstate does not a great elected leader make, but it tells the public that the candidate does not live in a self-created bubble.

Caroline Kennedy lives in a bubble of privacy. With her tragic family history, she's entitled to do so -- but not if she wants to be the junior senator from New York State. In her audition for that job, she seemed to want to keep her bubble mostly intact, deciding when and where she would occasionally step out of it. This is what turned off Patterson, it looks like. It seems not to have turned off the Kennedyites, including high-ranking politicians who could make life difficult for Patterson, especially if he decides to run, as he is expected to do, for a full term in 2010, beginning with a Democratic primary.

By the time Gillibrand is comfortable with her 99 colleagues in the Upper Chamber, I'll bet most of Patterson's critics will concede he did the right thing.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Caroline Kennedy does the obvious thing

The New York Post, I'm sure, got it exactly right when it reported that Caroline Kennedy withdrew as a candidate to replace Hillary Clinton as junior senator from New York because she knew she was not Gov. David Patterson's choice.

The unsourced claims that Kennedy withdrew out of concern for her ailing uncle, Sen. Ted Kennedy, seems a pretty obvious cover story. Are we supposed to believe that the daughter of Jackie and John Kennedy was prepared to become Ted Kennedy's caretaker?

Throughout Thursday, there was a flurry of reports -- always citing sources "close to" somebody important, beginning with Patterson -- about Kennedy problems ranging from "tax issues" regarding a nanny to the state of her marriage to Edwin Schlossberg. I'm sure that there were all kinds of peripheral issues that could be brought to bear. But there's something far more important regarding the exit of Caroline Kennedy from electoral politics. The uncomfortable truth is that Kennedy, despite her estimable pedigree, showed no political skills or charm when she entered the selection race after Clinton was nominated by President-elect Obama for secretary of state last month. Polling in mid-January showed that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo was preferred by more New York State voters than Kennedy. Patterson, who is an accomplished politician, had to wonder whether Kennedy could live up to the challenge of being a senator from New York (think Clinton, Daniel Moynihan and, of course, Kennedy's uncle, Robert).

Kennedy's several attempts to improve her very private, Upper East Side image (which included not voting in many elections) by glad handing with upstate politicos looked contrived. She was not in her element, and photographs that emphasized her strained public demeanor didn't help.

Many offspring of the three politically successful Kennedy brothers -- John, Robert and Ted -- have stumbled badly as they tried to keep the dynasty alive.

Right now it looks like that dynasty might end with the youngest of the brothers.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President Obama's Inaugural Address climbed no peaks

President Obama's Inaugural Address will not likely be mentioned with Franklin Roosevelt’s First Inaugural or John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural, much less Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. It was poorly constructed and forced in its delivery. Worst of all, Obama missed his opportunity to embolden Americans to recapture their misplaced sense of national purpose.

Early in the speech, he said:

“Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met.”

By saying, categorically, that the challenges “will be met,” Obama invites Americans to be complacent at one of the country’s most critical moments.

Later, he veers close to what we were led to believe would be the real message of his address – re-dedication to individual and collective responsibility. But he missed the mark with these anticlimactic words:

“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

What a letdown! For Obama, the “work of remaking America” is nothing more heroic than building “roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines,” and improving health care.

These objectives are fine, but they don’t address Americans’ need to recover their sense of national purpose, of the kind of collective action that has continually breathed new life into the words of our country’s founding documents.

Obama seems to suggest we don’t need to do anything so basic:

“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”

But have Americans “chosen hope over fear”? All around us we see numerous examples that tell another, far more problematic story. It’s no so much that most of us are paralyzed with fear, but that we are doubtful – about our financial system, about our economy, about the ability of either the private or public sector to respond to crises that radiate throughout the U.S. and beyond to every section of the globe. We are sometimes even doubtful about ourselves, wondering if we have distracted ourselves from purposeful civic action by clinging to a distorted sense of national exceptionalism, consumerism and perhaps excessive attention to our personal and family lives.

Actually, it was invocation speaker Rick Warren who ventured into this sensitive zone, imploring:

“Help us, O God, to remember that we are Americans, united not by race, or religion, or blood, but to our commitment to freedom and justice for all. When we focus on ourselves, when we fight each other, when we forget you, forgive us. When we presume that our greatness and our prosperity is ours alone, forgive us. When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the earth with the respect that they deserve, forgive us.”

Warren’s message was that Americans must get back on the path to accountability. He didn't match Moses admonishing the idol-enamored Israelis, but he was not mealy mouthed. In contrast, Obama said all we had to do was, in effect, pour concrete, pound nails and computerize medical records.

The 44th President's Inaugural Address didn't reach toward greatness. But Obama will, in the weeks and months ahead, sure have more opportunities to inspire Americans to reclaim the true greatness of their country. I am sure the new President, a quick learner, will seize them.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Bush administration $17.4B auto plan provides the carrots -- and the stick

General Motors and Chrysler now have a chance to become 21st century automakers.

The Bush administration's $17.4 billion loan plan provides the necessary carrots and the stick. According to the Wall Street Journal:

"The deal is contingent on the companies' showing that they are financially viable by March 31. If they aren't, the loans will be called and all funds must be returned, officials said."

The plan means GM and Chrysler won't have to go through what would have been a destructive bankruptcy. It doesn't guarantee they'll recover from their years of blindered decision making, but the money, plus costs savings and new product technology and design that are already being put in place, means the automakers have a shot at competing with foreign companies who produce increasingly popular U.S.-made vehicles.

GM, Chrysler and Ford (which doesn't need emergency financial help) can turn automaking into a "green" industry. If they become technology leaders in low-pollution, all-electric autos, the Big 3 could capitalize on major growth that's projected in global sales as millions more poor people achieve middle-class status in countries like China, India and Brazil.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Rick Warren is a 'conservative' evangelist, but what does that mean in the Obama era?

When the pastor of my former Catholic parish announced from the pulpit several years ago that Rick Warren's "The Purpose-Driven Life" would be the text for our Lenten studies program, I exclaimed to myself (in a whisper) Oh, no -- from Paul, Augustine, Teresa of Avila, Aquinas and Thomas Merton, we go to a TV evangelist for spiritual insight and guidance?

I had heard about Warren's book, and lumped it with other inspirational best-sellers that clog bookstore tables, right next to those on how to lose weight (in six or eight or 10 easy steps).

But while preparing some material for my parish's Lenten studies, I had to confront "The Purpose-Driven Life." The first two paragraphs forced me to rethink my stereotypes:

"It's not about you.
"The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose."

These words were the perfect antidote for our narcissism. They had, I immediately recognized, a Pauline thrust -- direct, prodding and aimed well beyond the reach of our reflected images. Warren recognized that we were the lineal descendants of the clever, self-regarding, high-maintenance Corinthians who were such a special, and recurring, challenge to Paul.

What Warren preaches -- like Paul -- is that "God is not just the starting point of your life; he is the source of it." In other words, faith is not a one-on-one negotiation between man and God , it is a surrender of man to God.

Yet Warren, again like Paul, is not saying that surrender to God means man is essentially a nobody. He writes:

"...there is a God who made you for a reason, and your life has profound meaning! We discover that meaning and purpose only when we make God the reference point of our lives. “The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us [paraphrase of Romans 12:3]. ”

Warren strikes a balance between man as the center of the universe and -- the other extreme -- a mere dot.

Some more conservative Southern Baptist religious leaders criticize Warren as a "feel good" evangelical. But Warren himself specifically rejects that notion:

"The number one goal of a hedonist is to feel good, be comfortable, and have fun."

President-elect Obama's decision to have Warren deliver the invocation at his Inaugural has enraged gay groups because Warren -- pastor of the huge Saddleback Church in Orange County, CA -- supported the successful Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriages in California.

Gays make a good point, but the Obama Inaugural team argues that the day-long event will be inclusive. The benediction will be given by the Rev. Joseph Lowery, whom the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. chose to lead the epochal civil right march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, and who today is a supporter for gay marriage. The Lesbian and Gay Band Association will, for the first time, march in the Inaugural parade.

But, in the end, obsessing about who's conservative or liberal or in-between runs counter to the new spirit that Obama has sought to kindle from the beginning. In the lexicon of labels, Rick Warren is indeed a "conservative" religious leader. But that label doesn't tell us much about Warren's spiritual message of finding purpose in our lives.

President-elect Obama -- who technically would be called a "liberal" -- speaks about purposeful lives too.

It's no coincidence.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bernard Madoff -- the unlikely macher

What was Bernard Madoff really thinking, and when?

In all the extensive coverage of the multi-billion-dollar fraud connected with this so-called pillar of Wall Street, I don't find any substantial clues helping to explain why or when Madoff started his self-described Ponzi scheme. Did it begin after he tried, perhaps unsuccessfully, to be a Wall Street Master of the Universe?

To me, that seems the likely explanation. It's hard to believe Madoff consciously made fraud the starting point of his investment ventures back in the 1960s. He would have had to know that such a pyramid scheme would, sooner or later, collapse -- at which point his inflated status would become a shrinking, flubbering balloon.

I am not persuaded that Madoff was quite the macher -- Jewish "big shot" -- he's described as in the media. Yes, he gave to Jewish charities and he had rich people literally begging to permit them to invest in his funds. But can you see this pudding-faced guy holding down a mike at, say, a New York charity event, and triggering a wave of inside laughter as he laser-beams the real big shots commanding the center tables?

Here's how Madoff described his investment company, as reported by Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten:

"In an era of faceless organizations owned by other equally faceless organizations, Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC harks back to an earlier era in the financial world: The owner's name is on the door. Clients know that Bernard Madoff has a personal interest in maintaining the unblemished record of value, fair-dealing and high ethical standards that has always been the firm's hallmark."

No real macher would powder his image with such platitudes.

Madoff was "smart," he worked hard and -- here I'm venturing into perhaps pop psychologizing -- he wanted to make his mark in a world where there were many Masters of the Universe who were not only "smart" and worked hard, but had that je ne se quois that I don't think Madoff had but sought.

So, to continue my theorizing, what could Madoff do to compete against -- even outdo -- the Masters who got all the attention? He could deliver investment returns that over time would beat the ups and downs of the mercurial Masters. That, I believe, was the road to perdition for Madoff. Perhaps early on he had to do a little trimming if not cheating on returns in the hope that his market guesses would, over the longer term, pay returns bigger than the Masters. But if Madoff proved to be no more a Master of the Universe than he was a macher, what could he do? The better question might be what would he have been forced to do?

The answer, I believe, was replacing small-scale trimming and chating with the massive Ponzi pyramid that ultimately would collapse. If Madoff, cornered by his bad choices, resorted to such a dead-end scheme, then he was perhaps still rational but not sensible.

Rational people can spin logic up to the point of walking off a cliff. Look at all the business executives who have found a cliff to walk off in the current financial crisis. Sensible people don't do that.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Will what's left in TARP go to Detroit Big 3?

The collapse of legislation in the Senate to help save the Detroit Big 3 may or may not spell the end of emergency aid for the automakers. The White House says it's considering using what's left of the $700 billion TARP financial bailout fund to finance the $14 billion bridge loan that was torpedoed Thursday by GOP senators. The bridge loan would keep the Big 3 alive until a longer-term aid plan was taken up by the new, more Democratic Congress in January.

If the bridge loan fails, Chrysler says it will close all 59 of its plants and lay off 53,000 workers. GM hasn't announced what it would do, but even if it stays alive through Chapter 11 reorganization, it would probably be forced to close plants, adding thousands more to the unemployment rolls.

The impact on the U.S. economy, which has seen job losses totaling nearly 2 million through November, would be devastating. A big plunge in the markets today could concentrate minds, and, one way or another, produce the $14 billion bridge loan for the Big 3.

A not incidental note: The drive by Senate Republicans that killed rescue legislation was led by GOP members from Southern states, where international automakers have non-union production facilities. Heading the Southern opponents was Richard Shelby of Alabama, where the internationals have several major facilities.