Saturday, May 02, 2009


There’s a lot of nervous toe-tapping in the hallowed stalls of Washington after the Tribeca premiere of Outrage and its upcoming theatrical release May 8.
“Outrage,” a new documentary from filmmaker Kirby Dick, takes issue with the secret lives of closeted gay politicians — especially conservative Republicans who outwardly oppose gay rights.
The film, which premiered last week at the Tribeca Film Festival, features tell-alls from men who say they’ve had relationships with various Republicans, including Florida Governor Charlie Crist, Bush strategist Ken Mehlman and former Senator Larry Craig.
According to Magnolia Pictures, “Outrage” is a “searing indictment of the hypocrisy of closeted politicians with appalling gay rights voting records who actively campaign against the LGBT community they covertly belong to.”
I wish they’d used the trailer tagline, “We know what you did last session,” on the poster after the cut. It’ll be interesting to see how Florida Governor Charlie Crist deals with Outrage in future gubernatorial and senatorial races. Often named as Republican hopeful for the 2012 Presidential candidacy, does this movie effectively screw his chances?
While “Outrage” includes interviews with openly gay Representatives Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin, as well as out former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, it’s the look inside the secret lives of powerful U.S. political figures that will likely have people talking once the film is unveiled. The film aims to tell stories that haven’t ever been reported on.


The incredibly clueless stewards of the incredibly shrinking Republican Party would do well to recall that it was supposedly Abe Lincoln, a Republican, who said you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

Not only has the G.O.P. spent years trying to fool everybody in sight with its phony-baloney, dime-store philosophies, it’s now trapped in the patently pathetic phase of fooling itself.

The economy has imploded, the auto industry is in danger of being vaporized and more than half of all working Americans are worried that they may lose their jobs in the next year. So what’s the Republican response? To build a wall of obstruction in front of efforts to get the economy moving again, and then to stand in front of that wall chanting gibberish about smaller government, lower taxes, spending cuts and Ronald Reagan.

It’s not a party; it’s a cult. I’m no fan of Arlen Specter, but if I were a Republican, I wouldn’t be shoving him out the door and waving good riddance. This is the party of Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Newt (“I’m trying to rise from the ashes”) Gingrich, and the dark force who can’t seem to exit the public stage or modify his medieval ways, Dick Cheney.

It is losing all credibility with the public because it is not offering anything — anything at all — that could be viewed as helpful or constructive in a time of national crisis. And it has been unwilling to take responsibility for its role in bringing that crisis about.

Americans are aghast at what happened to the country while the G.O.P. was in charge. Iraq and Katrina come to mind, not to mention the transmutation of the Clinton surpluses into the Bush budget deficits and the collapse of the entire economy.

Trickle down. Weapons of mass destruction. Torture. Deregulation. You name it. The Republican-conservative know-it-alls of the past several years (all-too-frequently with feckless Democrats following closely behind) brought destruction and heartbreak to just about everything they touched.

And yet the G.O.P. behaves as though nothing has changed. Even in the face of a national economic nightmare, the party is offering nothing in the way of policies or new ideas that might give a bit of hope or comfort to families wrestling with joblessness, housing foreclosures and bankruptcies.

It’s a party that doesn’t seem to care about anything other than devotion to a set of so-called principles that never amounted to more than cult-like rhetoric. Waging unwarranted warfare while radically cutting taxes for the wealthy and turning the national economy into the equivalent of a Ponzi scheme may be evidence of many things, but none of them have to do with the so-called conservative principles the G.O.P. is always braying about.

When it came to looking out for the interests of ordinary working Americans, the party of just-say-no could hardly have cared less. Referring to the catastrophic ordeal of Detroit’s automakers, Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the senior Republican on the banking committee, told us last November, “The financial situation facing the Big Three is not a national problem but their problem.”

And Phil Gramm, John McCain’s top financial adviser during the presidential campaign, was enshrined in the foot-in-mouth hall of fame last summer when he said the country was experiencing “a mental recession.”

After awhile, it became all but impossible to overlook the madness of these true believers and the incalculable damage they had done to the country. Voters who hadn’t sipped from the Kool-Aid themselves couldn’t help but recognize that the G.O.P. was bizarrely detached from the real world.

It still is. In the place of constructive alternatives to Obama administration policies, it has offered increasingly hysterical rhetoric. Mr. Gingrich warned on television that the Democrats’ moves to stem the banking crisis “gives them the potential to basically create the equivalent of a dictatorship.”

Senator Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, described President Obama as “the world’s best salesman of socialism.” And Mike Huckabee, a former Republican governor of Arkansas and presidential candidate, said of the administration’s economic policies: “Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff.”

This is not a party that can be trusted with the leadership of the country. John McCain was ready to have Sarah Palin a heartbeat away from the Oval Office and reportedly wanted Phil Gramm to be his Treasury secretary. Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, has the strategic sense and attention span that you’d expect to find in a frat house on Saturday night.

“I love the Oscars,” he told GQ. “I’m looking for who’s got what dress on, you know?”

All the talk about the permanent marginalization of the Republican Party is silly. It will be back. Someday. But first it will have to stop fooling itself and re-engage with the real world.

MAUREEN DOWD 'How Character Corrodes'

How quaint.

The Republicans are concerned about checks and balances.

The specter of Specter helping the president have his way with Congress has actually made conservatives remember why they respected the Constitution in the first place. Senator Mitch McConnell, the leader of the shrinking Republican minority, fretted that there was a “threat to the country” and wondered if people would want the majority to rule “without a check or a balance.”

Senator John Thune worried that Democrats would run “roughshod” and argued that Americans wanted checks and balances. Senator Judd Gregg mourned that “there’s no checks and balances on this massive expansion on the size of government.”

Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, tried to put the best face on it, noting, “This will make it easier for G.O.P. candidates in 2010 to ask to be elected to help restore some checks and balances in Washington.”

This is quite touching, given that the start of the 21st century will be remembered as the harrowing era when an arrogant Republican administration did its best to undermine checks and balances. (Maybe when your reign begins with Bush v. Gore, a Supreme heist that kissed off checks and balances, you feel no need to follow the founding fathers’ lead.)

After so many years of watching a White House upend laws, I now listen raptly when President Obama plays the constitutional law professor. He was asked at his news conference Wednesday night about the Republican fear that he will “ride roughshod over any opposition” and establish one-party rule.

“I’ve got Democrats who don’t agree with me on everything,” he said. “And that’s how it should be. Congress is a coequal branch of government.” You almost thought the professor in chief was going to ask the assembled students to please turn to page 317 in their Con Law book.

He went on to reassure Republicans that his vision of the presidency is very different from the imperial view held by the Boy Emperor and his regents.

“I do think that, to my Republican friends, I want them to realize that me reaching out to them has been genuine,” the president said, adding, “The majority will probably be determinative when it comes to resolving just hard-core differences that we can’t resolve, but there is a whole host of other areas where we can work together” and “make progress.”

The officials who actually represented a threat to the country while they were running the country are continuing to defend themselves. But they just end up further implicating themselves.

Condi Rice, who plans to go back to being a professor of political science at Stanford, got grilled by a student at a reception at a dorm there on Monday.

I’ve often wondered why students haven’t been more vocal in questioning the architects of the Iraq war and “legal” torture who landed plum spots at prestigious universities. Probably because it would have taken the draft, like the guillotine, to concentrate the mind. But finally, the young man at Stanford spoke up. Saying he had read that Ms. Rice authorized waterboarding, he asked her, “Is waterboarding torture?”

She replied: “The president instructed us that nothing we would do would be outside of our obligations, legal obligations, under the Convention Against Torture. So that’s — and by the way, I didn’t authorize anything. I conveyed the authorization of the administration to the agency.”

This was precisely Condi’s problem. She simply relayed. She never stood up against Cheney and Rummy for either what was morally right or what was smart in terms of our national security.

The student pressed again about whether waterboarding was torture.

“By definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Conventions Against Torture,” Ms. Rice said, almost quoting Nixon’s logic: “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

She also stressed that, “Unless you were there in a position of responsibility after Sept. 11, you cannot possibly imagine the dilemmas that you faced in trying to protect Americans.”

Reyna Garcia, a Stanford sophomore who videotaped the exchange, said of Condi’s aria, “I wasn’t completely satisfied with her answers, to be honest,” adding that “President Obama went ahead and called it torture and she did everything she could not to do that.”

As Mr. Obama said in his news conference, it is in moments of crisis that a country must cleave to its principles. Asserting that “waterboarding violates our ideals,” he said he had been struck by an article describing how Churchill would not torture prisoners even when “London was being bombed to smithereens.”

“And the reason was that Churchill understood, you start taking shortcuts and over time, that corrodes what’s best in a people,” he said. “It corrodes the character of a country.”

Class dismissed.

FRANK RICH 'Enough With the 100 Days Already'

BELIEVE it or not, there are Americans who have a “very negative” opinion of Barack Obama (13 percent, in the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll). Some are even angry at him (10 percent, New York Times/CBS News). As the First 100 Days hoopla started to jump the shark last week, I tried, as an experiment in empathy, to see the world through their eyes.

It was difficult at first, but an interview with the official White House photographer, Pete Souza, on CNN, pushed me over the edge. Souza was showing all those beguiling behind-the-scenes pictures that, though government issued, were more or less passed off as journalism by virtually every news outlet in the land.

Inevitably we got to The Dog. “I want to show this picture because I find this to be a fascinating picture,” said the CNN anchor John King, who found almost every picture fascinating. “The president running down the hall with his new jogging partner there, Bo.” What, he asked Souza, is it like “to add this to the diversity of your work at the White House?”

I’ll leave the photographer’s answer to your imagination. But for a second, anyway, I could imagine what it’s like to be among the Limbaugh-Cheney deadenders who loathe Obama. Those who feel the whole world is against them. Those who think the press corps is in the tank. Those so sickened by the fawning that they’d throw a brick through the television screen if the Bush-Cheney economy had left them with enough money to buy a new set.

But only for a second. I confess to being among the 81 percent (per Wall Street Journal/NBC) who like the guy. And I share the belief of nearly two-thirds of the American people (per every poll) that he has made an impressive start. The new president is largely doing what he promised, and he is doing it with the focus, brainpower and preternaturally calm temperament that kept his campaign on track even as the political press dismissed him as a hope-mongering naif next to the supposedly far more organized and more moneyed Hillary.

That the same crowd is over the top now in its praise says more about the news business than Obama. The journalism industry is fighting for its life. Obama is the one reliable product that moves the market for newspapers, magazines and television. No wonder so many special sections, special issues and special cable marathons have alighted on the 100 Days.

All those great report cards! Trying to stand out in this over-caffeinated throng of hagiographers, a Time pundit sprinkled his evaluations with A-pluses. One of them was for Michelle Obama, whose approval rating is even higher than her husband’s. Hard to believe that just a year ago some of the same commentators were questioning her pride in America, and that Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate, was seriously arguing that her 1985 Princeton thesis linked her by association to the views of Stokely Carmichael and Louis Farrakhan.

Of course the high marks, mine included, are all ludicrously provisional. It’s too early to judge the results of any Obama policy. What we do know is that his leadership is restoring the country’s faith in itself and the future; the spike in the number of Americans who say we’re on the “right track” is eye-popping. And, for all the politicians and pundits who complain that Obama is attempting too much at once, many of us like the breadth of his ambition. Doing too much at the same time, even at the risk of failure, is a core American trait that built the nation. It’s as American as Benjamin Franklin, “Moby-Dick,” the New Deal and a double cheeseburger with all the toppings.

We’ll see how Obama’s vast plans play out. We’ll see what unexpected nightmares, bigger than the swine flu, materialize on his watch. The 100 Days celebrations could not fade soon enough, because neither he nor the country should be lulled into resting easy. There are at least two toxic fiefdoms to keep the president and us awake at night: Pakistan and Wall Street. Both could wreak further untold catastrophe. Obama has control over neither, and in the case of the financial sector, he is fielding a team dominated by Robert Rubin protégés whose wisdom remains, to put it generously, unproven.

But if those are the obvious hotspots for this presidency, there is also the domestic political culture to worry about. The Republican Party has collapsed, and that is not a good thing for the country or for Obama. We need more than one functioning party, not just to ensure checks and balances and pitch in ideas at a time of crisis, but to temper this president’s sporadic bursts of overconfidence and triumphalist stagecraft. No one is perfect. We must remember that there is also an Obama who gave us “You’re likable enough, Hillary,” a faux presidential seal and a convention speech delivered before what Sarah Palin rightly mocked as “Styrofoam Greek columns” hauled out of a “studio lot.”

That Obama needs a serious counterweight in the political arena. But the former party of Lincoln and liberty has now melted down to a fundamentalist core of aging, rural Dixiecrats and intrusive scolds — as small as 20 percent of the populace in the latest polls. Its position on the American spectrum of ideas is somewhere between a doomsday cult and Scientology.

Arlen Specter’s defection is the least of the Republicans’ problems, a lagging indicator. Though many characterize his departure as a “wake-up call” for the party, it’s only the most recent of countless wake-up calls the party has slept through since 2006. That was the year that Specter’s Pennsylvania Republican colleague in the Senate, Rick Santorum, lost his seat by a margin of more than 17 percentage points. Despite that rout and many more like it of similar right-wing candidates throughout America, the party’s ideological litmus test is more rigid than ever. The G.O.P. chairman, Michael Steele, and enforcers of Republican political correctness like William Kristol and the blogger Michele Malkin jeered Specter and cheered his departure. A laughing Limbaugh seconded e-mail from listeners commanding Specter to “take McCain with you — and his daughter.”

You can’t blame the president if he is laughing, too. As The Economist recently certified, the G.O.P. is now officially in the throes of “Obama Derangement Syndrome.” The same conservative gang that remained mum when George W. Bush praised Putin’s “soul” and held hands with the Saudi ruler Abdullah are now condemning Obama for shaking hands with Hugo Chávez, “bowing” to Abdullah, relaxing Cuban policy and talking to hostile governments. Polls show overwhelming majorities favoring Obama’s positions. But his critics have locked themselves in the padded cell of an alternative reality. Not long before The Wall Street Journal informed its readers that 81 percent of Americans liked Obama, Karl Rove wrote in its pages that “no president in the past 40 years has done more to polarize America so much, so quickly.”

From derangement it’s a small step to madness. Last week, the president of a prime G.O.P. auxiliary, the Concerned Women for America, speculated that the president’s declaration of “a state of emergency about the flu was a political thing” to push through Kathleen Sebelius’s nomination as secretary of health and human services. At those tax-protesting “tea parties” on April 15, signs and speakers portrayed Obama as a “fascist,” a “socialist,” a terrorist and Hitler. Republican governors have proposed rejecting stimulus money for their states (only to fold after constituents rebelled) or, in the notorious instance of Rick Perry of Texas, toyed with secession from the union.

But this is funny only up to a point. It was in 1937 — the year after the Democratic landslide left the Republican national ticket with a total of eight electoral votes — that a hugely empowered F.D.R. made two of the biggest mistakes of his presidency. He tried to pack the Supreme Court with partisan allies and, overconfidently judging the economy recovered, retreated from the New Deal by instituting spending cuts that prompted a fresh economic tailspin.

In the current climate Obama mustn’t drink his own Kool-Aid. As the 100 Days rollout reminded us, he remains a master at promoting and controlling his and his family’s image for maximum effect, down to each picture of Bo. The Obama White House has been more adept and broad-based than any of its predecessors at working the media, whether “Access Hollywood” or ESPN, Leno or YouTube, Us Weekly or what remains of newspapers. As Angela Burt-Murray, the editor of Essence, a magazine aimed at black women, recently told The Los Angeles Times after negotiating access to the Obamas for a photo spread, “There’s definitely a science to the way they’re approaching this.”

That’s why it was alarming to learn that a White House official had authorized that idiotic public-relations photo shoot for Air Force One at the Statue of Liberty. We’ve just lived through a hubristic presidency that delighted in staging propagandistic stunts to remake reality — Friday was the sixth anniversary of “Mission Accomplished” — and we don’t need another. The real Obama, unlike his predecessor, is more than strong enough as he is, without the steroids of excessive stage management. It will be incumbent on him now to remain grounded when there is so little opposition, in the political arena or most anyplace else, to challenge his high-flying course.

New York Times 'A Shift on Immigration'

Last week, immigration enforcement policy shifted a little. The administration issued guidelines for Immigration and Customs Enforcement that place a new emphasis on prosecuting employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

That is a good idea, and a break from the Bush administration method — mass raids to net immigrant workers while leaving their bosses alone. The raids were tuned to the theatrics of the poisoned immigration debate, using heavy weapons, dogs and helicopters to spread the illusion that something was getting fixed.

But as policy, they were worse than useless. They netted about 6,000 undocumented immigrants, out of 12 million, and 135 employers or supervisors. They destroyed families, tearing parents and grandparents from children, many of them citizens. The fear they caused went viral in immigrant communities, driving workers further into the arms of abusive employers while bringing us no closer to a working immigration system.

So the new guidelines are smarter than cruel idiocy, but raids are still not a solution. They keep the country trying to arrest, prosecute and deport its way toward a working immigration system. Enforcement alone will never get us there. Workplace raids, no matter how sensibly or tactfully redesigned, will never fix immigration by themselves. Indeed, they make things worse.

Raids do not uphold or reinforce workers’ rights, a non sequitur in the world of off-the-books labor, where employers erode conditions for Americans by hiring workers at deplorable conditions and pay. They do not fix long backlogs in legal immigration, lines that extend years or decades, forcing people who want to follow the rules to make an agonizing choice between intolerable separations from their families or lawbreaking.

They do not protect illegal immigrants from the arbitrary cruelties of the detention and deportation system, in which due process is limited and detainees face unacceptable risk of sickness, injury and death in prison.

And the new enforcement regime, like the old, might lead employers to purge their payrolls of people they merely suspect are here illegally, to avoid the hassle and expense of a raid. When raids are coupled with electronic hiring-verification schemes like E-Verify, which the government has been inching toward, the likelihood of mass firings becomes greater. Without a path to earned legalization, undocumented workers who lose their jobs will have nowhere to go — except to endure ever-lower wages and worse abuse from bottom-feeding employers. The cycle of illegality will not have been broken.

The administration has promised to tackle comprehensive immigration reform this year. President Obama has consistently said the right things, defending a path to assimilation and citizenship for illegal immigrants rather than the futility of mass expulsion.

The decision to adjust the policy on raids seems sensibly motivated. But we agree with immigration and labor experts like Professor Jennifer Gordon of Fordham Law School, who sees the new guidelines as a smarter version of a bad idea. Far better, she says, for the government to redouble enforcement of laws like the minimum wage, the right to organize, and health and safety protections. This would reduce the incentive to hire the undocumented, and raise standards for all workers. It would not end up devastating immigrant families, as raids do. In times like these, that would be a step toward immigration reform that all workers could support.

NICKOLAS KRISTOF 'A Nation of Typhoid Marys'

As swine flu spreads around the country, it’s only appropriate that the next political donnybrook may concern health care.

Vice President Joseph Biden said a few days ago that for the second 100 days of the administration, “the top of the agenda, the very top, is health care.” Lacing its armor across the field, a group called Conservatives for Patients’ Rights is airing commercials denouncing (and distorting) President Obama’s health care proposals.

Not to be impolite, but Republicans like Karl Rove and Senator Susan Collins (along with some Democrats) lost credibility on this front when they scolded Mr. Obama a few months ago for proposing stimulus spending on something as frivolous as ... preparations for a flu pandemic. (Note to Senator Collins: You might want to remove from your Senate Web site the February article citing your opposition to pandemic preparation.)

The flu crisis should be a wake-up call, a reminder that one of our vulnerabilities to the possible pandemic is our deeply flawed medical system.

“From SARS to avian flu to the current escalating outbreaks of swine influenza, it has become increasingly clear that we are risking a major catastrophe unless we act to restore the safety net,” noted Deborah Burger, the co-president of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee.

Think of the 47 million Americans who lack insurance. They are less likely to receive flu vaccines (which might or might not help), less likely to receive prompt care when they get sick, and less able financially to stay home from work — and thus they are more likely both to die and to spread the virus inadvertently.

“These are, in effect, 47 million ‘Typhoid Marys’ of the next pandemic — at risk themselves and to their families and neighbors,” said Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

“This is a most dangerous brew: a dysfunctional health care system, vast numbers of Americans without access to health care, a severe recession, overextended and highly stressed hospitals, and the prospect of a nasty new killer virus,” Dr. Redlener said.

The American health care system is exceptionally good at cutting-edge technologies. The top five American hospitals together conduct more clinical trials than any entire European country.

Yet over all, our health care system has failed us. Troll through World Health Organization data and cringe: Americans live shorter lives than Greeks, our kids are twice as likely to die by age 5 as Portuguese children, and American women are 11 times as likely to die in childbirth as women in Ireland. Over all, we rank well below most European countries in our health statistics (for which you can also blame the Danish in your hand as you read this).

The larger problem is that we over-invest in clinical care like CAT scans and underinvest in public health. There should be a Nobel Prize for Public Health, so that we might get more great minds wrestling with nonmedical pieces of the health puzzle, like industrial hog farms that can serve as breeding grounds for viruses and bacteria, from swine flu to MRSA.

President George W. Bush did an excellent job making preparations specifically for a flu epidemic, partly because of the avian flu scare and partly because he read a book about the 1918 influenza epidemic. But he and other presidents starved the broader public health system, so that today it is in desperate shape.

Hospitals lack spare beds, ventilators and staff to cope with an epidemic. One study found that a flu epidemic would mean that 10 million Americans would need to be hospitalized — compared with a total of nearly one million beds in America, about two-thirds of them occupied. Last year, Representative Henry Waxman ordered a review of “surge capacity” in hospitals available for a terror attack, and found that more than half the emergency rooms studied were already operating above capacity.

We don’t know whether this swine flu will be as lethal even as a typical flu season (the boy who died in Texas last week has already received more attention than all 36,000 Americans who die in a typical year of the flu). So far it has been mild in this country, but we know that the first wave of flu in 1918 caused few deaths but was followed three months later by a different form that killed tens of millions of people around the globe.

We do know we need to take precautions. These include not only washing our hands with soap and water, but also instituting far-reaching health care reform in the coming months.

“If a severe pandemic materializes,” Dr. Redlener said, “all of society could pay a heavy price for decades of failing to create a rational system of health care that works for all of us.”