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Friday, December 30, 2011

A new purpose on this fifth day of Kwanzaa

As a child of the post-revolutionary era, “Nia” isn’t as unusual a name today as it was, say, 30 or 40 years ago. Then, the biggest proof of overcoming and “living the Dream” was doing almost everything in your power to prove you were just as plain Jane as your white counterparts. So those exotic names, hairstyles, and dress that would make them uncomfortable were frowned upon by blacks of “better breeding.” After all, why waste all that good education as a pariah when you could “advance the race” by blending in?

Those were the years when celebrating Kwanzaa was almost clandestine, conspiratorial. There were the clothes that most people didn’t have, explicit lessons on collective responsibility to neighbors and elders, discussion on world affairs and how to make a difference from your own corner of the globe. It was a time filled with a sense of importance and legacy, of fortifying your presentation to the ancestors and future generations. The circle was completed, with seniors, adults, and children, as equals in the dialogue.

As a kid, nothing was more appealing than the thought of being part of a grand conspiracy.

The stealthy Jamila Bond, 008, waving a red, black, and green liberation flag – serving her people!

Tomie Lee "Pop-Pop" Meeks and the author
That private fantasy conflicted mightily with the somewhat shy kid that actually was Nia Ngina Afi Meeks, the girl whose name held a sizable charge, as “server of her people whose purpose is divine.” Then, the least little thing would inspire mortification, burning caramel skin to candied apple complexion.

And the one thing that invariably would evoke such a feeling was the annual Kwanzaa gatherings.

Yes, the intellectual and cultural fires of the week-long observance were nothing short of exhilarating. But the singing of Kwanzaa songs planted a deep terror. People would gather around, in significant numbers, and extol the virtues of unity, self-determination, collective economics, work and responsibility, creativity and faith with musical accompaniment.

Of course, they’d also sing about purpose. About Nia. And they would point. And laugh. Especially my peers. The more they’d see me squirm, the louder they would sing.

Though it seems nearly inconsequential now, it was often too much, and I would cringe inside, despite trying to put on face of bravery, pretending to laugh and ignore what felt like a flood of attention.

In minutes, relief would come. The song would be over. Snacks would be served. Some years, however, surviving those minutes felt like enduring the green mile. For years, that defined Dec. 30. Until 2004.

That was the day the hospital called to say Pop-Pop suffered major cardiac arrest. That he was brain dead, subsisting on machines that helped push blood through his fractured heart and air through his limp lungs.

Getting to Hahnemann Hospital seemed like sleepwalking, as if everything moved in slow motion. I remember my mother beginning to crumble as we crossed the street. Her Daddy was gone, is what the doctors basically said. In my head, on that Dec. 30, I realized a new terror. I had to be the strong one.

The prostate cancer had worked its evil on his body, compromising many of its functions. It had been his secret for five years until we finally discovered what was driving him to imbibe, what was robbing his one-time sound memory, his sense of impeccable dress, his passion for political theater.

Walking to his bed to say that final good-bye, looking at that body on the table, shook me. That wasn’t Pop-Pop, who always teased about “eating like Sonny Boy,” hummed everywhere he walked, and had more hats than most women had shoes.

Growing up, there was no greater cheerleader. He thought that this browngirl could take over the world, and often begged her to at least take Paula Zahn’s chair. “She don’t know nothing! She ain’t nothing! YOU should be doing what she’s doing!” he would grouse, in between cussing out Lou Dobbs and President Bush on some policy. Every policy.

And if that was not fated, he insisted a political office was, that this browngirl was smart enough, cared enough, and was clever enough to make a system work for the people.

Pop-Pop seldom slowed down long enough from running the streets, jaw-jacking with his Mason brothers, or catching ling on his fishing excursions to attend any Kwanzaa gatherings. Thankfully, my mom and grandmom filled that void.

But what he shared with me helped reinforce those principles that we reviewed every year: building stronger communities through people of productive minds, undying pride, and unyielding determination. Pop-Pop didn’t require a kinara or a mat or fruit (he’d eat it all before the Karamu feast, anyway) or the other Kwanzaa trappings. He told me to live it. Without embarrassment.

And I did. And do. Particularly on Dec. 30, with full purpose.

The year that was: 2011, vol. 1

Another year has come and gone, and it’s been a doozy. Protest perfumed the air, from funky Occupy encampments to centre squares throughout the Middle East. From natural disasters to political ones, 2011 was fraught with moments that pumped and tugged at our heart. Here’s a recap of the year that was, in alphabetical order:

On the front lines for freedom.
Photo credit: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP
Arab Spring
Dictatorships across the Middle East began falling like retail prices after Christmas. What began in late 2010 snowballed into 2011 with force. Television screens were filled with images of young people leading protests and revolutions in Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, and, finally, Libya. And one by one, entrenched strongmen realized they had clay feet. Some were smart and acceded to reforms, though grudgingly. In the case of Moammar “Man-with-too-many-variations-on-spelling-his-name” Gadhafi, that realization came far too late, and attached to a bullet. Armed with fliers, social media, and sheer determination, a new generation of Arabs declared themselves – and victory. Now the world awaits next steps as the conflicts prove far from over, with ongoing clashes in Egypt and outright battles in Syria. Freedom truly is not free, and bloodshed remains the going rate.

College kids crowd in front of the White House
to rejoice in taking out Public Enemy No. 1
Photo credit: Toledo Blade

Bin-Laden, Osama
It was the news dispatch heard ‘round the world – literally – as President Obama stepped to the mic and announced that Navy SEALs had dispatched and disposed of America’s No.1 boogeyman, once and for all. For the 9/11 generation, the collective sense of relief and retribution was palpable, from college campuses to high school locker rooms to a spontaneous gathering outside the White House and in New York. For many of them, the man they elected to office did what he promised he would: track down and kill the mastermind of the most heinous crimes ever committed on U.S. soil. The normally hawkish political right’s response ranged from muted to pouty-mouthed – with few giving props to the president. Surprise.

Cain, Herman
So much has been written about the former corporate executive who entered the Republican primary bent on selling his autobiography and wound up the accidental frontrunner. Up-from-the-country-black-man-by-his-bootstraps pizza magnate. Allegations of serial sexual harassment and affairs. Egoism that would make Freud blush. Let us let him go gently into that good night, a wilderness of post-primary hype known as the bargain books bin.

Whether it was the central excuse for an inane standoff in Washington or the crushing pressure on the Euro across the pond, the staggering amount governments owe their creditors (read: China) blared across headlines worldwide. Which would seem to push people to action. And it did. Just not action that would actually do anything. Congress has been limping along like formerly middle-class families, paycheck to paycheck, only in this case, it’s called “continuing resolutions.” Compromise was out of the question, according to the tea party crowd. Overseas, the outlook wasn’t much better, as everyone flocked to their NIMBY corners and wrangled for weeks to . . . agree to keep wrangling. Leadership. Ain’t it grand?

End of the World
At least that’s what Harold Camping preached. May 21, 2011 would be it. Kaput. A Pennsylvania outfit called eBible Fellowship even helped sell the campaign by posting creepy billboards everywhere. The Rapturous stood ready. The rest stood puzzled. And then partied. Media went cuckoo for Camping. The end was near. Except it wasn’t. He forgot to carry the “1”! It was supposed to be October 21, 2011! That’s it . . . er, oops. Oh, the end of our world? That’s not until 2012 – silly rabbit!

Families battered by earthquake and tsunami destruction
had to add potential nuclear poisoning to their list of fears. 

Photo credit:
Ever since seminal events like the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl meltdowns and 1983’s made-for-TV flick The Day After, nuclear destruction has taken on a visceral new meaning. For generations of Americans, it cemented what a nuclear attack would mean, would look like. For the Japanese, there was no need for such external horror shows; they lived the history. The meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant served as the third fatal blow to an area battered by both an earthquake and a tsunami. Almost a year later, blame is still being assessed. Meanwhile, parents fear sharing a painful future witnessed by Ukranian families just a generation before, or that of their own grandparents.

Giffords, Gabby
Christina-Taylor Green, the youngest
of Loughner's victims
Just when the political rhetoric emanating from D.C. couldn’t seem nastier, something even more disgusting took place in the midst of a constituent service day – a lone gunman hauled off and wounded 13 people and killed six others, including a federal judge and a Congressional aide. Jared Loughner was nearly successful in mortally wounding U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords. Early reports proclaimed that she had been assassinated, only to quickly offer a reversal and report a miracle – Giffords had survived the attempt on her life. President Obama traveled to Tuscon and spoke passionately to a packed house and the nation about tempering the rancor, which brought tears to the eyes of even the hardened. But even that paled in comparison to when Giffords returned to the House floor to cast her vote to end the gridlock on raising the debt ceiling.

The term “-gate” has been attached to every notable political scandal since Nixon orchestrated the Watergate Hotel break-in, but in this case, it’s deserved. The world witnessed enough deviousness, callousness and subterfuge within the Murdoch media empire to fuel a few John Grisham plots. (Refresh yourself here.) Lawyers are still sorting out what was sanctioned by whom, but before Parliament, Murdoch, the man who could make presidents and prime ministers whimper, looked frail and doty. His son and heir apparent, James, looked not much more competent than Arthur Carlson of WKRP in Cincinnati fame. And the latest testimony has crumbled any crust of courtesy credibility Parliament may have offered.

U.S. troops head for Kuwaiti border. 
Photo credit: AP
War ends, officially. Chaos continues, unofficially. Reams have been and will be written about America’s elective war. Honoring the pact President Bush made with Iraqi officials, U.S. troops finally headed home, as tanks rolled into Kuwait with embers of desert operations in their rearview. More than 4,500 U.S. fighters paid with their lives, and tens of thousands more remain wounded and scarred, physically and psychologically. In the macro, after the billions spent, most Americans wonder whether the cost of toppling one dictator in a region so far away was ever worth it. But in the micro, for many military families, it was one of the brightest holiday seasons in nearly a decade.

Jamal, Mumia Abu-
In the decades since the one-time radio journalist-cum-cabbie was accused of slaying Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, he’s been a visceral symbol for a shaky, if at times, corrupted, American judicial system. At least as it pertains to justice meted to black and brown defendants. After a nearly 30-year stay on Pennsylvania’s death row, court after court has reviewed, rescinded, remanded, and revoked. Finally, the case was sent back to Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams to either re-file for the death penalty or settle for life in prison. Surveying the surviving witnesses (after all, many have died), the cost of mounting a fresh case, and the feelings of Faulkner’s widow, Williams opted for life in prison. Mumia supporters vow to press on for his freedom. Still, with the death penalty off the table and the murky facts of the case, the “Free Mumia” clarion has dropped an octave on college campuses and the general populace. So have T-shirt sales.

King Memorial
For children today, it may seem incomprehensible that there had been so much backlash and hand-wringing about setting aside a day to honor the spirit and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For those too young to recall the decades-long battles that led to the historic 1983 creation (and 1986 national recognition) of King Day, touring the towering sculpture on the National Mall will do. A labor of love led by King’s Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brothers, the much-anticipated addition to the nation’s pantheon of heroes faced its own obstacles – from fundraising to weather. In the end, the three-hour dedication stirred souls, despite the dust-ups about the architect and inscription that flared.

Long, Bishop Eddie
The oh-so-tight tops had long been a joke among black people when it came to the Atlanta area megachurch leader. But the laughter subsided when reports of child molestation and abuse at his hands boiled over last year as victim after victim found his voice to speak his truth. What bubbled out the pot flowed into 2011, affirming those who had accused Long of homophobia. Lawsuits flew and were settled. Mrs. Long announced, retracted, then filed for divorce. Bishop Long went on “sabbatical.” And the fate of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church remains cloudy, with hints of Matthew 3:10 lingering.

Manned space flight, U.S.
In this 50th anniversary of man entering the stratosphere, there were fewer whistles and balloons of celebrations. That’s because the return voyage of the Space Shuttle Atlantis marked the end of a 30-year program of manned space flight forAmerica. The nation who was the first to put a man on the moon and lost and lauded intergalactic heroes for generations opted to mothball the program, citing a need to reexamine the goals of the program (read: budget axe). Locals in states like Florida and Alabama feared the future, equating a scrapped shuttle program to shoving scores of engineers and other related NASA support staff  into unemployment lines. Instead, they flocked to entrepreneurial whiteboards and private industry space ventures

North Korea
Shrouded in mystery and plunged into poverty by the eccentric excesses of its leadership, the Asian nation teeters on a precipice few even knew was about to reveal itself. So clandestine are the comings and goings in the country that not even superpower intelligence agents knew when the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il had died; they got the word like the rest of us, via an official dispatch. North Korea often has been depicted as a desperado nation – ill-tempered but dangerously armed. Its fickle policies keep its southern neighbors in fits and D.C. on the phone with Peninsula leaders. With the elevation of 20-something Kim Jong Un, its fuzzy as to whether a new brand of leadership will emerge or if he’ll be little more than a puppet of the established – and itchy-fingered – military regime. Game theorists will be up late on this one.

Photo credit: Marc Cooper
Occupy, multiple entries
It started out as a band of disgruntled citizens soured on the fact that the American Dream seemed to be a fantasy concocted by wealthy overlords who were content in pimping the democracy the rest of us toiled to support. A handful of folks plopped down in a public park in New York expressed the disgust, outrage, and frustration with power brokers on Wall Street and the D.C. politicians they roll. They were sentiments felt by millions aka the “99 percent.” Soon, the urban outbackers were joined by hundreds, and then thousands. The Occupy encampments spread from city to city, and a few college squares between. And then things just got weird. The Occupy crowd started turning off natural allies. A focused agenda was about non-existent. Splintering took place, as did criminal allegations that proved titillating to media. Occupiers mostly wound up being hosed down and chased away by the end, with some ugly incidents in the middle. The image of the campus officer pepper spraying a peaceful crowd harkened to the Bull Connor years of policing. If only there had been a cohesive (a) message or (b) agenda. Castigate the tea party at your peril; at least they recognized a need for organizing and parlaying civic discontent into political power.

Penn State
Forever, the only images “Penn State” conjured were a sea of chanting blue and white fans from Happy Valley, led by their NCAA football Moses, Joe “Joe Pa” Paterno. All of that turned on its head when allegations of child sexual abuse by a once-beloved assistant coach erupted. Worse, grand jury testimony charged that coach, Jerry Sandusky, had been caught in the act of abusing a boy in the shower by another assistant, but that assistant did nothing to save the boy being brutalized. And the waves of shame continue to shock Nittany Lion land and all its minions begging to return to life as normal. But for the nearly dozen alleged victims, life has been anything but since encountering Sandusky through a nonprofit to help economically challenged boys. The PSU president and Paterno both were tossed and the investigation continues. To their credit, PSU alum moved to do their part to aid the victims. Meanwhile, child sex abuse has received a new spotlight, and victims of all ages are having their say. Expectations are that 2012 will bring an explosive trial, and heads aren’t finished rolling.

Quake – the East Coast edition
Those on the Left Coast are always bracing for the Big One. But in New York? Philly? D.C.? Virginia? An earthquake is as rare as a snowstorm in Arizona. The August 5.8 quake rattled more than the china on the shelves as people reflective on Fukushima nervously eyed nuclear power plants along the Eastern Seaboard. Damage to the Washington Monument closed the tourist attraction and the National Park Service recently offered a repair assessment, providing Congress a new football to kick around. In all, it broke up the monotony of talking about the heat and all the flurry and fluster kept Californians in stitches.

Photo credit: Shannon Stapleton, Reuters
Republican debates
The greatest sideshow on Earth – all to posture, er, audition, for the most powerful job on                                                                            the planet: president of the United States of America. Yet, the cast of characters that came and went, rose and fell, would give any thinking person whiplash. Then again, the debates weren’t necessarily fashioned for thinking people. The flavor-of-the-month chronology went: Trump, Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, and most recently flirtations with Ron Paul and Rick Santorum for the heart of the conservative base that just is not that into Romney. The former governor of Massachusetts must figure chances go around; he’s been steady – if not boring – at about 24 percent in polling for months. Maybe they’ll grow to love him.

It was a green power company that went under, and Republican operatives hoped it would take the Obama Administration with it. The recap: a firm that created solar power panels for commercial complexes sounded promising. Records show that not everyone on Obama’s team was sold, but forces within the White House were pushing for a win. Solyndra received a $528 million loan backed by the Obama Administration, as part of its efforts to create green-collar jobs and boost the economy. Solyndra’s leadership couldn’t keep it together, and the company fell apart. The name became a GOP rallying cry as Republicans in Congress howled about sweetheart deals for Obama supporters and defrauding the American people. Minions began conjuring fantasies of an Obama impeachment. Administration officials stuck to their story. The company is “reorganizing” and an auction is pending. The saga continues.

Tahrir Square
When most folks think of freedom and democracy and iconic spaces, their minds drift to Gettysburg, Faneuil Hall, Independence Mall and the like. This year, it was all about the vibrancy and glow that emanated from Cairo’s central town square. Men and women converged to protest the Hosni Mubarak regime. For months, they endured bullies and bullets and emerged as victors. Mubarak and his cronies were driven from power, new elections were set, and euphoria could be felt. But when the military seemed too slow to relinquish its custodial role, the protestors returned to Tahrir. Women continued to face abuse, but have been gaining ground, with many more miles to go.

When the stimulus was launched in 2009 – formally known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – Obama prognosticators proclaimed that the jobless rate would jump. They were just wrong on the depth and direction. Hovering around 9 percent for most of 2011, the die for GOP ammunition was cast, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. The stimulus failed! Government waste! Obama – hapless hack! With history showing no incumbent president holding onto the White House with those kinds of numbers, you could hear the glee from RNC headquarters – and if the conspiracy theorists are correct, from the House leadership caucus that’s been thwarting the Obama Administration’s legislative remedies. As the dial clicked down toward 8.6 percent by the end of the year, Obama boosters grew reinvigorated, especially African-American ones who need change they could believe in. Black jobless rates have been steadier than prospects, a soaring 16 percent.

Voter ID bills
A signature piece of sinister legislation that has infected GOP-led statehouses is breaking out across the nation. After the electoral tsunami that pushed Republicans into majorities, an odd coincidence occurred. Suddenly, an outbreak of ghost voter fraud sent people into a panic. And by people, that referred to GOP legislators dying to flex their might (for a recap, click here), especially among those old folks and young people who dared to exercise their franchise. While more progressive-minded legislators -- usually in the minority -- have been fighting back, citizens aren't solely relying on those efforts, opting to craft their own solutions.
Democrats in unity:
Wisconsin union members and neighbors
stood and delivered
Who would have thought the state known for beer, cheese, Packers and Cheeseheads would be the political linchpin of the year? That's what happens when political intransigence and willful workers (and voters) collide. Gov. Scott Walker, crowned prince by homie and RNC Chair Reince Priebus, thought he could bully his way into stripping unions of their rights and powers. It’s been part of a national diffuse-the-Obama-vote strategy, and Scott may have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for that meddling AFSCME. And teachers. And firefighters. And so on. A gubernatorial recall campaign ramped up quickly, encouraging grassroots activists that smell blood in the water.

Without a doubt, it's been an eventful year, and 2012, with the upcoming presidential contest, among others, will prove equally memorable. Did this jog your memory -- or dig up memories you were trying to forget? Learned anything new here? Was something missed? Drop a line and update the record.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Left at the "alter": Christie 2012 ends

Broken hearted.

That about sums up the GOP electorate these days as their hopes for a Great Savior have yet again been dashed, forcing them  to turn their attentions to the reality at hand: this year’s contest is shaping up to be a grudging and belated coronation for the oft-spurned but ever-ready Mitt Romney.

Of course, Gov. Rick Perry and his crew will declare that they’re in it to win it, that they’re prepared for a battle at the OK Corral. And coming from oil-and-gas rich Texas, they plan to have the multimillion dollar backing to finance their endeavor, despite a relatively late start.

They probably aren’t counting on Donald Trump’s money, though, since he’s taken a fancy to meeting with all of his former would-be rivals in the splendor of Trump Towers, where he can flaunt his assumed wealth and media pull. The list of the groveling not only includes Romney and Perry, but also Mr. Pepperoni himself, Herman Cain. With his spicy comments (since recanted) and, in case you were blinded by his rhetoric, dark skin, Cain has been the most exciting thing happening in the 2012 Republican contest as of late.

Until New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Christie was love unrequited. As a near John Candy double, Christie’s girth gained almost more attention during this short courtship than his policies or politics in the Garden State. But he mastered the attention, raising the adulation level.

Christie’s the tough-talking, imperfect, get-things-done governor from a super blue state. He knows and could tame the voracious New York-Philly media markets, charm those suburban soccer moms, cozy up to the beer-swilling blue-collar guys – the ones President Obama (not multinational corporations in search of dirt-cheap labor) put out of work with his “job-killing policies.” 

He could be that knight from the City on the Hill, so the thinking went. He would alter the trajectory of the race.

Still, Christie consistently told folks he wouldn’t run. That didn’t stop a draft-Christie movement from bubbling. Or keep media from tittering. Big money donors pursued him like frat boys after a vestal virgin. Really, there was more begging going on behind closed doors than at a blue-light basement party.

Bordering on foul-mouthed, brash and a self-proclaimed conservative, he was going to be that “fresh face” on the national stage for which the base has been clamoring. And they were panting by the door.

No attention was to be paid to the apparent fickle nature of this electorate, a strange amalgamation of tea party patriots, anti-abortion obsessionists, war hawks and a sprinkling of last-gasp dinosaurs known as moderates or intellectual conservatives (as opposed to the thriving John Birch Society variety). 

They were only fooling around with Sarah Palin (or, she was fooling around with them; according to former NBA star Glen Rice, she does that well).

The Donald? Just a flirtation. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann? A summer romance. Perry? A pretty face, but not who you take home to Uncle Sam. Not when he flubs debates and stumbles with that race thing.

In the end, Christie stood up (or missed, as some pundits have said) his date with destiny. That collective groan from his cheerleaders you just heard started along the Jersey Turnpike, scoured the Rust Belt, shook across the Rockies and then shivered in the Great White North.

He said simply that he wasn’t ready – a not so subtle nod to those who have assailed Obama on this charge. Even at face value, that level of candor is refreshing. It almost made folks swoon all over. Almost.

He has significant right-sided criticisms. And given a history of fairly moderate ideals – a must, actually, for any successful Northeastern Republican, which may be why so few fare well nationally – it’s likely he, too, would have been another carcass on the side of the GOP road to the White House, 2012 edition.

No, Christie opted to live to fight another day. Maybe knock some more heads in New Jersey. Maybe transform historically underperforming and under-resourced urban school districts in places like Camden and Newark. Maybe shed a few pounds. Do all of that, and maybe he comes in a winner in 2016. That was said to have been his plan all along.

That is, if he doesn’t opt for a veep slot this go ‘round.

In the meantime, the battle royal for the GOP crown continues. Stay tuned.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

TV appearance: 6ABC's Inside Story

Readers of this space who reside within the Philadelphia media market may be familiar with the punditry of yours truly offered on various radio and TV outlets. For those who live elsewhere -- or just had too much to do this Sunday or simply forgot to set their DVRs -- we share this link.

Fair warning: the link is only good for a week, so catch it while you can!

This moderator for this week's panel (both pundits and moderators rotate every week) was Tamala EdwardsInside Story is the top-rated public affairs program in the Philadelphia market and airs on Sundays at 11:30A . . . until football season kicks off. Then, the program shifts to 10A. Gotta make time (and money) for all that E-A-G-L-E-S hoopla!

T-Paw's toast, officially

We interrupt this regularly scheduled blog post about youthful voters to solidify observations posted here earlier, that Gov. Tim Pawlenty was looking desperate and would be unable to make the GOP cut if he sank in Iowa. His Titanic-type campaign sputtered and sank at the Iowa Straw poll on Saturday.

Or . . . the courage to sit it out when the inevitable arises
Team T-Paw knew it too, and they went all in for Ames. Scrambling for activists. Pouring money into media. After throwing everything he had at the wall and seeing nothing stick -- from weakly sniping at fellow Minnesotan Michele Bachmann to declaring that you should "stick a fork in Obama, he's done" -- he decided to hang it up after finishing third in the largely symbolic political shin dig in Corn Country.

The straw poll winner doesn't always dictate the Iowa caucus winner -- or the RNC presidential nominee, or even White House's new occupant. But in this economy, even big donors have been a little gun-shy with the checkbook. Pawlenty's inability to connect with voters -- despite his working-class roots -- failed to sway those looking for energy. Anyone taking on a sitting president would need high momentum.

MashedPotatoMan just didn't inspire the masses.

Bachmann, on the other hand, does. Kind of like a mob leader. The U.S. representative and tea party queen  placed first in the contest, shattering a glass -- or corn husk -- ceiling of sorts. That may be the scarier prospect of this year's straw poll.

Check this space shortly on the latest regarding youthful voters and the issues that will have them hopping mad -- and organized -- for 2012.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Bad history: Downgraded credit catches up to downgraded discourse

People have been so fearful that the election of a brown man as president signaled that America would soon be a “third-world nation” that they’ve worked overtime to fulfill their fears. Witness the ongoing ramifications of the Congressional debt ceiling debacle, seen most starkly in the late Friday night report from Standard & Poor’s that downgraded the United States’ pristine credit. It's an act that made history, and not for the good.
You can argue that this a case of the money masters wanting to make their political monkeys dance. After all, the stock market plunged to significant lows in the past week.

But let’s not forget some basic facts: a chunk of U.S. debt is concentrated in foreign hands.  And as jittery as world markets are – precipitated by economic meltdowns in Greece, Ireland and Portugal, with more fallout predicted for Italy – investors have been looking for something solid and stable.

They looked to America. And America whiffed. Rather, America’s political leaders whiffed. Big time.

Show of hands of folks willing to shovel out a loan to Loosey-Goosey Lucy who’s as flaky as she is flighty.

No takers? Now you're in the shoes of investors. That's the analogy they can make. 

Anyone questioning the relevance of S&P offering its assessment of U.S. “political brinksmanship” miss the point. It’s no different than the rationale used when considering the investment risks associated with nations facing famine or floods. Unlike those disasters, though, the ridiculously obstinate ideology infecting the halls of Congress is entirely self-made.

People overseas look at President Obama – perhaps not perfect, but an Ivy League-trained, Nobel Prize-winning, forward-leading thinker. Then they look at the fringes – fairly or unfairly lumped under the universal umbrella of “tea party” – that seem to be leading the political parade. And then they turn to people they trust – and pay – to deliver analysis of situations they don’t understand. S&P made the case:

. . . the downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned. . . ..

In short, you can’t be seen as a global leader, let alone Leader of the Free World, by acting like a brat in the sandbox. That’s the realm of insolent (and perhaps insane) people like Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Those who took the 2010 elections as a mandate to wreck shop in D.C. need to think again. But that would require reflection. Or even more improbable in these times, culpability and accountability.

Like anyone else caught in the wrong, politicians – from the White House to Congress – are steadily picking apart the methodology and rationale of S&P.

The White House lambasted the rating house’s math and highlights the fact that the other two major rating agencies still have triple-A love for the United States.

Congressional members shrieked that this same rating agency failed to warn anyone about the junk that had been packaged and sold as mortgage default swaps – trickery that later tanked the global economy.

Policy wonks leapt to the air to assuage Americans – and international viewers – that this is not the end.

And it’s not. But if you need a louder wake-up call, this is it. For the sane, that is.

For U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has pledged to make President Obama a one-termer, this might be part of the grand strategy. Mitt Romney, who’s barely made a peep during the whole debate, for fear of being found out, issued predictable bilge, and the other GOP presidential candidates followed suit.

Don’t be surprised to see the next wave of GOP talking points proclaiming that Obama brought this upon the nation himself, when he critiqued the politicization of the debt ceiling process. That rankled folks who want to make him pay.

Now the rest of us will have to. Perhaps dearly, in fact. A dropped rating, no matter how slight, adds to the costs of every credit-impacted expense – from mortgages to car payments to municipal bonds.

It's the cost of the inability to compromise. Expect eyes to fall to Asia this weekend, with the opening of markets. By the time Wall Street rings its opening bell Monday, the chatter might just drown it out.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

America's crumbling image: More debt ceiling debate fallout

The Congressional elections of 2010 was supposed to be about jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs.

Instead, we got a retread of the culture wars – the usual assortment of favorites like abortion, gay marriage, border control and whatnot. Plus, there was some tea party protestations with the package, as a bonus.

But mostly, we got hard lines declaring that the only way we would resolve any looming debt crisis facing the nation would be by cutting government spending. We also got the rebranding of said spending: “entitlements.”

That language shift is important. After all, it’s easier for those of us slaving away every day to scorn and scoff at those who are plunging us into bottomless debt and think they’re owed something.  That can help sway public opinion, which pushes any public mandate into your corner, making it easier to mow down the opposition.

That brings us here to the close of July, less than a year later, teetering on the unthinkable – the downgraded credit of the triple-A rated United States of America, whose greenback has been world currency for longer than English has reigned as the official international language.

Raising the debt ceiling – something that has been done dozens of times through administrations led by both parties – was the easy work. Figuring out how to restructure spending would be the hard work. For some, that is. Others would just toss those without into the streets and figure it's a lick on them if they couldn't do better for themselves. 

If the debt ceiling debacle has been the easy lift, it's going to take more than Superman and the entire Justice League AND Hercules to heft the second half of the issue. For the record, no such superheroes roam the halls of the U.S. Congress. Not even in alter-ego form. Somebody's going to have to page them. And fast.

Both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s have been sounding the bells. And in case folks have been tone deaf to that, the markets signaled their own alarm, with stocks slumping downward every day last week. That finally got House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to cede the president’s point, that default would be economically catastrophic for U.S. and world markets. There may be some eventual relief in sight, though slight. Late Sunday, there were yet more assurances that a deal was "close."

But Boehner and McConnell's admissions of reality was a that concession came too late in the process – after start-and-walk talks with the president, days, instead of months, prior to the U.S. Treasury's Aug. 2 deadline.

Meanwhile, the tea party faithful still declare that such deadlines are pure fiction, that it’s all an elaborate ruse put together by the Obama Administration. And if it’s not, it’s his fault for panicking the world, not their obstinacy when it came to compromising on a deal on the debt solution that would include revenue adjustments – i.e. higher taxes for some, closing of loopholes for others. 

It was a deal Boehner could not sell or seal with the president. Compromise, we've come to find in this process, is a four-letter word in certain GOP vernacular. Or a two-letter one: “No.”

Meanwhile, the Moody’s economics team of John Lonski and Ben Garber warned again of a potential oncoming double-dip recession. The confidence that many had anticipated would ease open wallets and hiring offices suddenly slammed down in the face of the political wrangling that hijacked Washington.

How delighted America’s enemies must be at this moment – watching the world’s greatest economic and military power devour itself in what amounts to the pettiest of bickering. How easy it will be to demolish the remains of our global moral authority since we've all but delivered the equivalent of a juiced-up shredder and unlimited vats of coffee.

The nation whose fingerprints are plastered over international monetary policy, whose lectures are nearly mandated the world over, walked the precipice of global credit default. And to top it, much of the antagonism arose with a faction that was discontented with the concept of paying to educate its next generation, protect its elders, or care for its infirm and indigent. These costs have been lumped under the title of “wasteful government spending.”

Better those dollars stay in individual pockets; best if it goes to coffers of corporate conglomerates.

The propaganda writes itself. It also removes America’s hagiography and puts a glaring spotlight on the wizard behind the curtain.  And at a time when tens of millions of young people in the Middle East, Europe and the Americas, North and South, are looking for leadership and models to emulate as they fashion political philosophy for the next century, we have failed them, as a nation. And that’s the truest tragedy of all.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Debtor's Dance

With her staunch, power pantsuits and wonkish ways, few would have taken Hillary Clinton for a tap dancer.

Yet U.S. Secretary of State Clinton was doing approximately that in Asia earlier this week as the idiocy on Capitol Hill continued, careening us closer toward a completely unnecessary crash of confidence in America.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks in Hong Kong. Photo courtesy: CNN
Perhaps there's a conservative out there smiling, but it's hard to imagine any true patriots actually are.

Before a Hong Kong audience of investors and policymaker on Monday, Clinton deftly dodged any sense of panic about the tomfoolery that is the faux crisis of the debt ceiling debate. She danced about the obvious -- that so many legislators are intent on driving the economy off the cliff, both domestic and global, insistently so, because they are too busy denying that a default would mean anything.

These kind of lawmakers will castigate "greedy" homeowners for causing the housing bust, often pointing their fingers as lower-income folks who dared to grasp the American Dream via the detested Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. When these homeowners default (and those middle-income people who snapped up jumbo loans to live large usually are excused from this), it's a sign of incompetence and irresponsibility.

Yet when the U.S. Congress OPTS to default on its standing obligations, be it paying its mortgages or checks to veterans , the logic is that it's a sign of principle. It's about stopping "spending" and ending debt.

Let's face it. Most people would love to end their debt by just not paying their notes on time, but banks don't take too kindly to that. The same is true in this case, where the ongoing threat of such stupidity is giving great pause to our bankers -- largely China. They are frowning deeply at U.S. political "recklessness" and acting -- downsizing their T-bill holdings and other investments, further weakening the dollar and our recovery.

Overseas, it's hard to fathom that this great nation, once admired for its generous nature and prudent stewardship, has allowed itself to be enslaved by a handful of tea-swilling, mission-blinded zealots.

Yes, the United States is on a negative slope when it comes to its fiscal house. But even the sober authors of the U.S. debt commission report stated that "budget cuts should start gradually so they don’t
interfere with the ongoing economic recovery." This isn't the time to insist on a bloody hacksaw job. But that kind of intolerant rigidity has been the demand of the Republican caucus, thwarting the deals to date.

It's this lack of coherence and compromise that has made ratings agencies, Wall Street and world investors uneasy. We just got out of a tumultuous economic period and have been settling into a jittery one. Now the U.S. House of Representatives, led by mistaken Republicans, are rumbling us back toward catastrophe.

Hillary Clinton is probably happy to be back stateside. Were she still traveling, as the Aug. 2 deadline to lift the debt ceiling looms and the deadlock ensues, she just may have worn out the taps on her shoes.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Making messy myth of Minnesota “nice”

As D.C.’s debt ceiling debacle drags on, the popcorn has been crackling in time for the latest comic relief: Tim Pawlenty vs. Michele Bachmann.
 In some respect, it’s a train wreck that doesn’t deserve the attention. In all honesty, it smacks of desperation by the Pawlenty people to remain relevant, because he's not wowing them in the polls – any of them. This is despite having led Minnesota, a decent-sized state, as governor, despite having declared his intentions early and despite all that gosh-darned earnestness. No one is taking this suitor. He can't even break into double digits. 

Pawlenty almost had higher name recognition when he first came off as a mostly moderate Republican who would defend his values on The Rachel Maddow Show. The good-natured but firm sparring with the rising liberal cable-show commentator puffed up his stock. Then, like the housing market, it all collapsed.

He was dwarfed by crazy.

Not just normal, run-of-the-mill crazy like Newt Gingrich or the dogged quaintness of the near-eccentric U.S. Ron Paul. Or even decidedly disgusting digs by Herman “Can’t-stand-Muslims” Cain, the former  Godfather’s Pizza CEO trying to out-black the president and out-bigot his opponents in this GOP mash up.

Nope. Pawlenty got played out of position by a fellow Minnesotan – straight-outta-Stearns County silliness in the form of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, self-anointed Congressional tea party leader.

The man who won early buzz as a strong potential rival to Mitt Romney can't get it going, but in swoops the woman who swears the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more” (just as soon as they got finished reaping all the benefits of all that free, lash-driven labor and sanctioned rape; see "Washington, George" or "Jefferson, Thomas"). She's running second only to front-runner Mitt Romney.

Panicked Pawlenty people must have urged him to stiffen his rhetoric, add some sharp right turns to his speeches. Team T-Paw removed that renowned Minnesota Nice from the playbook and launched our lad into murky mud-slinging waters.

President Obama was the easy target. But then Pawlenty’s slings were lost amid the dozens of arrows slung by his 12 – or 16, or 24, but who’s counting? – fellow GOP presidential wannabes. And Romney just played it cool and quiet, bobbing along, unfazed.

On a pivot, Pawlenty changed strategies, walking right up to the door of attacking Romney at the first full GOP debate . . . and like a kid caught on the steps during Mischief Night, slunk back. So ended Round One.

Clearly that devil on his shoulder was no match for Minnesota Nice.

Round Two. Pawlenty got back in his corner. He shook it off, drank from the Courage Carafe and opened an offensive on the opponent he most needed to bring down . . . which was Bachmann. Using migraines as a weapon.

Yes, migraines.

Not her lack coherency – despite numerous examples, from distortions on monetary policy to basic American history. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’s writing team actually should pay her for the material she readily has supplied.  

Nope. That would come later. He first inferred that she may not be fit to be Commander in Chief because of reported vicious headaches. And as has been his pattern, he walked that back, calling it a “sideshow.” 

Then came Round Three, leading off with criticism of her lack of experience

Maybe he thought he was taking the path of least resistance. Or that she would stand still as he decided which way to try and take her down a notch. Maybe he expected her to practice Minnesota Nice, too.


Mama Migraine came roaring back. And that was just the beginning of his headache.

There’s fear that the comments could be read as a sly sexist wink, since female migraine sufferers outpace males. What next? Midol Michele – can we trust her at 3 a.m.? Boom! Enter the gender card!

Pundits blasted the blunder for what it was – at once spineless and bland, making it an apt T-Paw faux pas.

There is that maxim that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. If Pawlenty chats up Newt Gingrich, Man about Town and Tiffany’s, he'll learn that the sages lied. This kind of summertime stupidity is not how you want your presidential campaign defined. Not unless you’re planning to start pitching for Excedrin.

Regardless of the glint of promise that shimmered early on, Pawlenty keeps tramping down the wrong road. Yes, it's early. Six months in politics is like two minutes in football. But if he can’t get a grip for those critical caucuses in Iowa, with conservatives ready to launch the sails of the next GOP contender for the White House, he can pretty much kiss it goodnight. And probably only on the cheek, because he won't be making it to second base.

Forgot to mention Bachmann’s birthplace. It's Waterloo, Iowa. Heard she's planning quite the homecoming.

Monday, July 18, 2011

On Murdoch: In defense of a First Amendment rapist

In no society is the arrest of journalists a good thing. And in no society should there be a desire to set such precedent.

While no one is above the law, the tensions between those who would lead a free society and those who choose to protect it via a free press are long standing. Should the former ever gain control over the actions of the latter, the society ultimately loses, because it would compromise our freedom and allow us to slip closer to a totalitarian state.

This fact is under high consideration as the NewsCorp. scandal continues to unfurl on both sides of the Atlantic. As arrests of NewsCorp employees mount, including the former head of Rupert Murdoch's U.K. news division, so do disturbing musings about "muzzles" for the media.

It's enough to send shivers up the spines of every notebook-toting journalist, even if it's understandable.

The repulsive nature  -- from hacking cell phones to bribing the police for leads -- of these allegations has put the idea of tightening press freedoms on turbo boosters and may prove to be the greatest crime Murdoch & Co,. have perpetuated on our society.

Along with his apologies to the families affected by this scandal, Murdoch needs to apologize to every actual journalist.

Just as Watergate eroded public faith in politicians and Bush v. Gore shattered trust in the political process, this phone hacking scandal threatens to upend the tenuous balance of journalism, both here and abroad.

After all, trust and accuracy are the currency. Without either, the profession is bankrupt.

For as polarizing as his news outfits and philosophy can be and have been, Murdoch nearly single-handedly has unified forces on both the left and right to reconsider restricting the press. Contrary to popular belief, there IS a code of ethics for actual journalists, much like in other professions. While Murdoch's employees appeared to have been rewarded for flouting these guidelines, real journalists abide by them. Their work further cultivates our democracy, maintaining its vibrancy and our collective and guaranteed pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.

Silencing dissenting and distasteful speech always seems justifiable in the moment, but in the main, it's a dangerous practice of thought control exercised by despots and dictators. The First Amendment  protects even vile speech -- including things uttered on FOX News-- to secure political choice and free will.

With little doubt, Murdoch, who has built himself into a near oligarch through early and decades-long investment in cross-platform media ownership, is far from a sympathetic character, in the United States or in Great Britain. Through his global conglomerate, the plucky Aussie has flexed a steel fist that often sent politicians cowering and grabbed power and prestige through fear for decades.

Domestically, that reputation solidified with each screech and screed from FOX News. Its inflated and cartoonish contributions to the nation's political discourse has led it to be Public Enemy No. 1 when speaking of the coarsening and dumbing down of the culture, aided by a stable of blockbuster but mind-numbing cultural fare such as The New York Post and American Idol.

In acquiring the stately Dow Jones Company and with it, The Wall Street Journal, in 2007, Murdoch sought to buy a level of American sophistication and respect his tawdry and tacky tabloids -- print and broadcast -- could never afford him. The distasteful and illegal actions of those of his employ who helped plump up profits with their reckless disregard have eroded those efforts and set loose termites on his empire's ebony walls.

Let his punishment manifest in a pariah-esque reality and demolished stock returns. Let the journalistic abusers pay fines for their indecency and be banished to a Janet Cooke-like netherworld. But let the press be.

As always, wallets should decide winners and losers among the Fourth Estate -- not legislators.

Else, unchecked, the zeal of Murdoch opponents could incur unintended consequences for journalists everywhere, bringing to mind the prescient words of Protestant pastor and philosopher Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Pompadour Perry: Courting bomb throwers for a White House run

At one time, traitors and others accused of treasonous actions against the United States of America would be hauled off in chains with a certain date before a firing squad or the gallows.

Today, they’re urged to run for president. Go figure.

Rick Perry, the latest Texas governor intent
on crashing the White House lawn
It is uncanny that people who swear that government is evil are gunning to be in charge of it. First we had the erstwhile U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann deciding to pick up where Sarah Palin dropped off (or fizzled out, depending on your view). Now, the long-awaited candidacy of Texas Gov. Rick Perry appears weeks away, leaving self-proclaimed conservative and tea party activists and political watchers salivating.

It’s intriguing that people who brandish the Constitution in public discourse like a Bible at an exorcism have such a ready embrace for someone who openly has violated said sacred document, if not disqualified himself for a run at the highest office in the land, in spirit if not in completed deed.

What’s that? You missed Perry’s discussion about secession from the Union being a viable option, hearkening Jefferson Davis, nearly begging President Obama to channel his favorite president outright?

Perry’s comments in the spring of 2009 – just a few months into the Obama Administration – fired up those with Davey Crockett dreams and nightmares of a “liberal” black man with his finger on the button.

Lest we forget, the last time someone talked secession, a lot of bodies piled up in places like Gettysburg, Manassas,  Shiloh and some 378 other battlefields across this country and nearly shattered it. Then, like Perry’s rationale now, economics lay at the heart of the conflict, with devastating consequences.

And if you need a refresher, the 14th Amendment – cited more frequently as the president’s potential nuclear option-resolution to the debt ceiling debacle – has clear instructions and disdain for those who would bad-mouth the country and seek higher office: nothing doing. Section 3 is quite clear:

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. 

For those keeping score, secession is definitely a form of insurrection. Or rebellion. Take your pick.

Of course, a chunk of the Constitution-waving tea party set has overlooked that proviso; 1 in 5 said they’d back Perry in a recent Marist poll – and he’s not yet declared. In case some woke up and paid attention to his subtle secessionist flirtation, Perry sought to clean up his “enthusiasm” weeks later.

He has all the trappings of a presidential pol-in-waiting – from the Hollywood hair to the swinging politics, from a Democrat who stumped for Al Gore’s 1988 presidential aspirations to Bible-thumping red-meat spewing GOP good ol’ boy.

Up to his open musings of “different scenarios,” Perry’s job approval numbers hadn’t been too hot – and they’re not rousing now, particularly if parsed along racial lines. But he’s a savvy opportunist.

Of course, he’s far from alone.

Bush’s Brain aka Turd Blossom aka Evil Genius Karl Rove clearly wants to get back into the ring to do battle with President Obama, the Democrat that upended the Republican Party in 2008. And he looks willing to jump on this horse in hopes of riding it back to Pennsylvania Avenue, even if the rest of the Bush camp detests Perry, and the lack of love seems mutual. Political loyalties are built to last, after all – all the way until the next election cycle. And the narrative is that Texas – and by extension Perry – is a success story amid a nation wracked by recession.

Right-to-work Texas has been able to ramp up its economy and produce some winners in recent years, but the losers have been plentiful as well. Since 1980, its rate of poverty has continued to outpace that of the nation – and the ranks of the poor there continue to grow. Its rousing economic output has come under question lately, too. Despite being a nation with a short attention span, shenanigans such as the Tom DeLay-powered redistricting and Enron excesses cannot be forgotten, for they exemplified the worst in American power and greed. Nor can it be forgotten that Perry was in the thick of it. Pure Texan.

His pistol-packing ways leaves some waxing poetic while his fiscal policies has others sputtering curses. His retro culture warrior credentials make some simply shudder. But in an era where Michele Bachmann once was dismissed as plain wacko and now is giving frontrunner Mitt Romney a serious case of heartburn, a Perry candidacy is one to watch – carefully.

Texas has produced a few presidents in the modern era, from Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson to Republican George W. Bush. Neither was seen as a roaring success for the Republic, considering the political and militaristic morasses to which they led a once-willing turned deeply cynical nation.

We’re still suffering those effects, decades later. It’s enough evidence for even fevered minds to realize it’s too soon to willingly give another Lone Star leader keys to the White House – let alone this one.