Saturday, February 12, 2011

When Democracy Weakens BOB HERBERT NYTimes

As the throngs celebrated in Cairo, I couldn’t help wondering about what is happening to democracy here in the United States. I think it’s on the ropes. We’re in serious danger of becoming a democracy in name only.

While millions of ordinary Americans are struggling with unemployment and declining standards of living, the levers of real power have been all but completely commandeered by the financial and corporate elite. It doesn’t really matter what ordinary people want. The wealthy call the tune, and the politicians dance.

So what we get in this democracy of ours are astounding and increasingly obscene tax breaks and other windfall benefits for the wealthiest, while the bought-and-paid-for politicians hack away at essential public services and the social safety net, saying we can’t afford them. One state after another is reporting that it cannot pay its bills. Public employees across the country are walking the plank by the tens of thousands. Camden, N.J., a stricken city with a serious crime problem, laid off nearly half of its police force. Medicaid, the program that provides health benefits to the poor, is under savage assault from nearly all quarters.

The poor, who are suffering from an all-out depression, are never heard from. In terms of their clout, they might as well not exist. The Obama forces reportedly want to raise a billion dollars or more for the president’s re-election bid. Politicians in search of that kind of cash won’t be talking much about the wants and needs of the poor. They’ll be genuflecting before the very rich.

In an Op-Ed article in The Times at the end of January, Senator John Kerry said that the Egyptian people “have made clear they will settle for nothing less than greater democracy and more economic opportunities.” Americans are being asked to swallow exactly the opposite. In the mad rush to privatization over the past few decades, democracy itself was put up for sale, and the rich were the only ones who could afford it.

The corporate and financial elites threw astounding sums of money into campaign contributions and high-priced lobbyists and think tanks and media buys and anything else they could think of. They wined and dined powerful leaders of both parties. They flew them on private jets and wooed them with golf outings and lavish vacations and gave them high-paying jobs as lobbyists the moment they left the government. All that money was well spent. The investments paid off big time.

As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson wrote in their book, “Winner-Take-All Politics”: “Step by step and debate by debate, America’s public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefited the few at the expense of the many.”

As if the corporate stranglehold on American democracy were not tight enough, the Supreme Court strengthened it immeasurably with its Citizens United decision, which greatly enhanced the already overwhelming power of corporate money in politics. Ordinary Americans have no real access to the corridors of power, but you can bet your last Lotto ticket that your elected officials are listening when the corporate money speaks.

When the game is rigged in your favor, you win. So despite the worst economic downturn since the Depression, the big corporations are sitting on mountains of cash, the stock markets are up and all is well among the plutocrats. The endlessly egregious Koch brothers, David and Charles, are worth an estimated $35 billion. Yet they seem to feel as though society has treated them unfairly.

As Jane Mayer pointed out in her celebrated New Yorker article, “The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry — especially environmental regulation.” (A good hard look at their air-pollution record would make you sick.)

It’s a perversion of democracy, indeed, when individuals like the Kochs have so much clout while the many millions of ordinary Americans have so little. What the Kochs want is coming to pass. Extend the tax cuts for the rich? No problem. Cut services to the poor, the sick, the young and the disabled? Check. Can we get you anything else, gentlemen?

The Egyptians want to establish a viable democracy, and that’s a long, hard road. Americans are in the mind-bogglingly self-destructive process of letting a real democracy slip away.

I had lunch with the historian Howard Zinn just a few weeks before he died in January 2010. He was chagrined about the state of affairs in the U.S. but not at all daunted. “If there is going to be change,” he said, “real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves.”

I thought of that as I watched the coverage of the ecstatic celebrations in the streets of Cairo.

Simply the Worst MAUREEN DOWD NYTimes

Donald Rumsfeld is starting to make Robert McNamara look good.

At least McNamara felt sorry at the end for all those lives and limbs lost because of his colossal misjudgments and cretinous refusal to admit mistakes.

“We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our image or as we choose,” a penitent McNamara said.

By contrast, when Diane Sawyer asked Rumsfeld last week if he ever revisited decisions that cost lives, he blandly replied, “Well, you know, in a war, many things cost lives.”

Goodness, gracious, stuff happens.

As a Republican congressman in the Johnson era and a Nixon White House official, Rummy had a front-row seat to the ego-driven bungling on Vietnam. But unlike McNamara, who said that the U.S. repeated Vietnam’s moral, political, economic and cultural mistakes in Iraq, Rumsfeld is still blinded by ego.

As part of his “Je ne regret rien pas” book tour, the 78-year-old former defense secretary stopped by the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, where he got the group’s annual “Defender of the Constitution” award. Only another person with such an ironic spin on the phrase “Defender of the Constitution” could present the award, of course, so Dick Cheney popped by to give it to his old pal.

Cheney’s entrance music was Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best,” also favored by Ricky Gervais for motivational speeches in the British version of “The Office.” When supporters of Ron and Rand Paul heckled the crusty pair — yelling “draft dodger” at Cheney, “Where’s bin Laden?” at Rumsfeld, and “war criminal” at both — Cheney blithely ordered them to “Sit down and shut up.”

Noting that his friend was both the youngest and oldest defense secretary, Cheney said, “Maybe if we give him a third term he’ll get it right.”

Doubtful. Rummy was still full of vinegar as he taunted President Obama for the conservatives.

Looking at the administration’s many “reversals of their announced policies on national security issues — Guantánamo Bay, military commissions, indefinite detention, CIA drone strikes,” he said, it makes me wonder if Dick has had more influence on President Obama than the people that got him elected.”

He is still oblivious about how wrong it was to shunt aside Afghanistan and goose up reasons to go careering into Iraq, which he felt had easier-to-hit targets and easier-to-find villains. He doesn’t agree with the “If you break it, you own it” theory. He thinks you can break it and just leave and not get bogged down in trying to build democratic dream countries.

Rummy’s memoir, “Known and Unknown,” is an unnerving reminder of how the Iraq hawks took crazy conditionals and turned them into urgent imperatives to justify what the defense chief termed “anticipatory self-defense.”

At “,” the author has put up an archive of records and memos. One, marked “SECRET” and declassified last month at his request, is dated Sept. 9, 2002. That was after his P.R. roll-out to the March 2003 Iraq invasion was under way.

The subject line reads “WMD.” Secretary Rumsfeld is sending a secret report that he received a few days earlier to Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, asking: “Please take a look at this material as to what we don’t know about WMD. It is big.”

The attachment is from Major Gen. Glen Shaffer, then the director for intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense, responding to Rummy’s request to know the “unknowns” about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

“We range from 0% to about 75% knowledge on various aspects of their program,” Shaffer wrote. Unfortunately, the 0% had to do with actual weapons.

“Our assessments rely heavily on analytic assumptions and judgment rather than hard evidence,” the report said. “The evidentiary base is particularly sparse for Iraqi nuclear programs.”

It added: “We don’t know with any precision how much we don’t know.” And continued: “We do not know if they have purchased, or attempted to purchase, a nuclear weapon. We do not know with confidence the location of any nuclear weapon-related facilities. Our knowledge of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program is based largely — perhaps 90% — on analysis of imprecise intelligence.”

On biological weapons: “We cannot confirm the identity of any Iraqi facilities that produce, test, fill, or store biological weapons,” the report said, adding: “We believe Iraq has 7 mobile BW agent production plants but cannot locate them ... our knowledge of how and where they are produced is probably up to 90% incomplete.”

On chemical weapons: “We cannot confirm the identity of any Iraqi sites that produce final chemical agent.” And on ballistic missile programs they had “little missile-specific data.”

Somehow that was twisted into “a slam-dunk.” You go to war with the army you have, but the facts you want.

Mubarak's Final Hours: Desperate Bids to Stay

CAIRO (AP) — Hosni Mubarak was supposed to announce his resignation on Thursday. The Egyptian military expected it. The new head of his ruling party pleaded to him face-to-face to do it. But despite more than two weeks of massive demonstrations by protesters unmoved by lesser concessions, the president still didn't get it.

Mubarak's top aides and family — including his son Gamal, widely viewed as his intended successor — told him he could still ride out the turmoil. So the televised resignation speech the rest of Egypt had expected became a stubborn — and ultimately humiliating — effort to cling to power. It only enraged protesters. On Friday, the military moved decisively.

On Saturday, insiders in Egypt gave The Associated Press an initial picture of what happened in the hours before Egypt's "unoustable" leader of nearly 30 years fell. Some of them spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

Their account portrayed Mubarak as unable, or unwilling, to grasp that nothing less than his immediate departure would save the country from the chaos generated by the protests that began Jan. 25. A senior government official said Mubarak lacked the political machinery that could give him sound advice about what was happening in the country.

"He did not look beyond what Gamal was telling him, so he was isolated politically," said the official. "Every incremental move (by Mubarak) was too little too late."

The military, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly impatient with the failure of Mubarak and Omar Suleiman, his newly appointed vice president, to end the protests. The unrest spiraled out of control Thursday and Friday, with demonstrations, strikes, sit-ins and even gunbattles engulfing almost the entire nation.

Insiders spoke of fighting among Cabinet ministers over how great a threat the demonstrators posed, and of deliberate attempts by close aides, including Gamal Mubarak, to conceal from the president the full extent of what was happening on the streets.

The insiders who spoke to the AP include a senior Egyptian official, editors and journalists from state newspapers close to the regime who have spent years covering Mubarak's presidency, retired army generals in contact with top active duty officers, senior members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party and analysts familiar with the machinations of Mubarak's inner circle.

Their account of the events of the past three weeks shows that the military became concerned soon after the protests began. They said it was the military that persuaded Mubarak to appoint Suleiman as vice president — the first since Mubarak took office in 1981 — and place him in charge of negotiations with opposition groups on a way out of the standoff.

Suleiman failed on that score — on Tuesday he was reduced to threatening that a coup would replace the negotiations if no progress was made. Leaders of the protests vowed not to negotiate until Mubarak was gone, even after he said he would not seek another term in September and promised reforms to reduce poverty, end repressive emergency laws and make Egypt more democratic.

By Thursday, nearly everyone had expected Mubarak to resign, including the military.

Hossam Badrawi, a stalwart of Mubarak's National Democratic Party, met with Mubarak on Thursday and later told reporters that he expected the Egyptian leader to "meet people's demands" — read that stepping down — later the same day. After Mubarak did not, Badrawi, who had been named the party's secretary general a few days earlier, resigned in protest, according to two party insiders.

Meanwhile, the military's highest executive body — The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — met without its chairman, commander-in-chief Mubarak, and issued a statement recognizing the "legitimate" rights of the protesters. They called the statement "Communique No. 1," language that in the Arab world suggests a a coup was taking place.

Insiders said Mubarak's address Thursday night was meant to be his resignation announcement. Instead, he made one last desperate attempt to stay in office after being encouraged to do so by close aides and especially by his family, long the subject of rumors of corruption, abuse of power and extensive wealth.

One insider said Gamal, his banker-turned-politician son, rewrote the speech several times before the recording. It was aired at 11 p.m., several hours after state TV said Mubarak was about to address the nation. It showed brief footage of him meeting with Suleiman and his Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq.

The address was clearly prepared in a rush. It had rough cuts, and Mubarak was caught at least once acting like he was between takes, fixing his tie and looking away from the camera.

Information Minister Anas al-Fiqqi was there at the studio alongside Gamal Mubarak, according to two of the insiders. State TV quoted him in the hours before the broadcast saying that Mubarak would not resign. On Saturday, al-Fiqqi announced his own resignation.

Mubarak said in the address that he was handing over most of his powers to Suleiman but again rejected calls for his resignation. He vowed to introduce genuine reforms, prosecute those behind the violence that left scores of protesters dead and offered his condolences to the victims' families. He said he was hurting over calls for his removal and, in his defense, recounted his record in public service. He was not going anywhere until his term ended in September, he said.

He had hoped that putting Suleiman in charge would end the protests and allow him to remain in office as a symbolic figure, a scenario that would have seen him make a dignified exit.

The address betrayed what many Egyptians suspected for years — Mubarak was out of touch with the people.

Mubarak, said a senior Egyptian official, "tried to manage the crisis within the existing structures and norms. That was clearly too late. The incremental offers of reform also were clearly insufficient."

The insiders differ on whether Mubarak's address that night was made with the consent of the military, whether it represented his last chance to take back control of the streets. Even if the military's patience wasn't exhausted by the speech, it ran out as the protests grew more intense.

On Friday, the military allowed protesters to gather outside Mubarak's presidential palace in a Cairo suburb — but by that time Mubarak and his immediate family had already flown to another palace in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, 250 miles away. The soldiers also allowed protesters to besiege the TV and radio building in downtown Cairo. Two days earlier, the military stood by and watched as protesters laid siege to the prime minister's office and parliament. Shafiq, the prime minister, could not work in his office and had to work out of the Civil Aviation Ministry close to Cairo's airport.

By early afternoon, millions were out on the streets in Cairo, the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria and a string of other major cities. The crowd outside his palace was rapidly growing. Only a few meters and four army tanks separated the protesters from the gate.

Suleiman, Mubarak's longtime confidant and a former intelligence chief, announced that Mubarak was stepping down. In a two-sentence statement to state television that took 49 seconds, Egypt's history changed forever.


Oregon Man Dies Outside of ER After Delay in Treatment (NICE THINKING FOLKS!)

Police Treating Man Told to Radio for Ambulance Despite Being Near ER

Portland, Ore., man died in the parking lot of a hospital Thursday after confusion between hospital personnel and police led to a delay in the man's receiving treatment, officials said.

He told his wife, "I have a lot of coughs so I'm going to go to the hospital and I'll be back later," Claudia Luis Garcia told ABC Affiliate KATU through her daughter, acting as a Spanish interpreter.

Marin-Fuentes crashed his car into a light pole in the hospital's parking lot under a sign that said "Emergency Vehicles Only." He was 125 feet from the entrance to the emergency room.

Four Portland police officers in the area tended to Marin-Fuentes after a bystander alerted them to the crash, officials said.

Two officers began administering CPR to the unconscious man while two other police officers went into the emergency room to alert hospital staff about the accident. Police said that they were told by ER staff that they needed to call 911 for an ambulance.

"You know, there's a good reason for it, I'm sure," Portland Police Lt. Kellie Sheffer told KATU. "Does it help in the heat of the moment when there's high emotion and high frustration? No, it's difficult."

Police officer Andrew Hearst radioed dispatch, saying, "Hospital says they won't come out, we need to contact AMR [American Medical Response] first."

The officers continued performing CPR until an ambulance arrived. Marin-Fuentes was put on a gurney and wheeled 125 feet into the ER more than 10 minutes after police first responded to the unconscious man, officials said.

At 1:22 a.m., 35 minutes after a Portland police officer first radioed dispatch, Marin-Fuentes was pronounced dead from a heart attack.

Officials from the Portland Adventist Medical Center said that the police misunderstood the hospital's policy.

"We do not have a policy against responding to emergencies in our parking lot," hospital spokeswoman Judy Leach said in a statement. "In fact, we always call 911 and send our own staff into these situations whether they are gunshot wounds, heart attacks or any other medical emergency."

Hospital officials said they were told that there was a automobile accident and their typical policy in responding to car accidents is to first call 911 to send an ambulance.

"We advised the officer immediately to call 911 because EMS have the mobile equipment to respond to a car accident," Leach said in the statement.

Leach said that along with calling 911, hospital staff immediately began mobilizing and sent a paramedic and two first responders to the scene right away.

"When the security staff arrived, the police were already doing CPR," she said. "Then the nursing supervisor ran out to the garage. She saw that the ambulance and fire department had arrived and were actively preparing the patient for transport to our emergency room."

Police refuted those claims Thursday.

"If a nursing supervisor came out there, that person never made themselves known," Sgt. Pete Simpson told the Oregonian newspaper.

Police and hospital officials met.

"We had a very productive meeting with the police department, which allowed us to go over what actually did take place and it was very productive," Leach said.

Leach called the incident "unfortunate."

"It's just so unfortunate that this patient chose to drive himself when they were having chest pains," she said. "We're wanting to make sure the public knows if you're experiencing chest pains or discomfort, it's always the right thing to call 911 first."

The hospital's position that police misunderstood is little comfort to Marin-Fuentes' family. His brother-in-law called him a "good father figure" to his daughter. Marin-Fuentes and his wife worked detailing cars.

"If he would have seen somebody in the street [asking] for food and stuff, he would have helped them, so why didn't anyone help him," his wife said.

Fitness: A Walk to Remember? Study Says Yes

In healthy adults, the hippocampus — a part of the brain important to the formation of memories — begins to atrophy around 55 or 60. Now psychologists are suggesting that the hippocampus can be modestly expanded, and memory improved, by nothing more than regular walking.

In a study published on Jan. 31 in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers randomly assigned 120 healthy but sedentary men and women (average age mid-60s) to one of two exercise groups. One group walked around a track three times a week, building up to 40 minutes at a stretch; the other did a variety of less aerobic exercises, including yoga and resistance training with bands.

After a year, brain scans showed that among the walkers, the hippocampus had increased in volume by about 2 percent on average; in the others, it had declined by about 1.4 percent. Since such a decline is normal in older adults, “a 2 percent increase is fairly significant,” said the lead author, Kirk Erickson, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh. Both groups also improved on a test of spatial memory, but the walkers improved more.

While it is hard to generalize from this study to other populations, the researchers were delighted to learn that the hippocampus might expand with exercise. “And not that much exercise,” Dr. Erickson pointed out.

People don’t even have to join a gym, he noted. They just need shoes. PAULA SPAN