Thursday, September 29, 2011
John Kennedy, foreign policy idiot
I've just finished reading "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth," Frederick Kempe's important new history of events that took place when I was four years old.
It is a gripping, well-written, and immaculately researched explanation of how John Kennedy wrong-footed his relationship with his Soviet counterpart from even before JFK's inauguration, and then proceeded to botch both his own efforts to appear resolute and his own efforts to promote a more peaceful coexistence with the Soviets.
In particular, the book puts the disastrous Vienna Summit between Kennedy and Khrushchev in June 1961 under a magnifying glass. Reading it, one realizes that John Kennedy, his brother Bobby, and their "best and brightest" cadres essentially invited Khrushchev and his East German puppets to seal off West Berlin — an act that brought the superpowers to the brink of war at Checkpoint Charlie later that year. And having signaled, and then proved, that the U.S. would not react strongly so long as Khrushchev was staying within the Soviets' own "sphere of influence," they made inevitable the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later, and the long further subjugation of Eastern Europe that persisted until Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush finished winning the Cold War.
The name "Barack Obama" appears nowhere in the book, and there's not the slightest of hints that this book was intended in any way as a commentary on him or his foreign policy. Nevertheless, by highlighting tendencies and characteristics of John F. Kennedy that Barack Obama surely shares, this book troubled me a great deal. In particular, the overwhelming and utterly unjustifiable arrogance that the Kennedy brothers displayed — with their personal end runs around the NSC, the State Department, the CIA, and the FBI — resonates with Obama's ridiculous confidence that he's his own best foreign policy adviser.
Most of you have read books or watched movies about the "Missiles of October," and for the last half century those have nearly uniformly depicted the Kennedy brothers as smart, calm, and shrewd actors who saved the world from disaster. Well, this book is the other half of that story — how those two brothers were culpably responsible for taking the world to the brink of that disaster, and indeed, how they took the U.S. from a position of overwhelming strength and unquestioned strategic superiority under Eisenhower to a full-scale retreat from American commitments around the globe in less than two years. You will definitely be better informed about world history, and particular about the Cold War, after you finish this book. And you'll probably wince the next time you hear anyone refer to Camelot.
Bismarck said that "God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America." I hope that's true, but this book suggests that He certainly had a special providence for a hard-drinking, drug-addled, skirt-chasing young Irish-American fool who managed to become POTUS when he didn't have a clue how to perform that job responsibly. This book further convinces me that it was only by divine grace that the world survived long enough for me to see my fifth birthday.
Monday, September 26, 2011
Barone: Oh yes, there's still room for Daniels, Ryan, or Christie
In this perceptive essay on the state of the GOP presidential field, Michael Barone's concluding two paragraphs make a point that also explains why I haven't changed my "Draft Paul Ryan" sidebar:
Could another candidate give a better performance than Perry and deliver more sustainable responses than Romney? To judge from their performances in various public and private venues, the answer is yes for Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, and Chris Christie.
Each has taken himself out of the race. Each still has time to get in. Most voters are ready to reject Barack Obama. But not necessarily for one of those on the stage Thursday night.
I think that's about right. And if I had to guess, I'd guess that Speaker Boehner and other GOP leaders in Congress are continuing to quietly twist Paul Ryan's arm.
Saturday, September 24, 2011
Review: Thumbs up from Beldar for James Hime's novel about 9/11, "Three Thousand Bridges"
There's considerable truth to the cliché that inside of every lawyer lurks a wanna-be novelist. Indeed, it's true even of tax and real estate lawyers. The surprise is when a lawyer actually manages to write a readable novel — much less a compelling and intensely authentic one!
But the proof that can happen is "Three Thousand Bridges," a new novel by Jim Hime — with whom I worked when he was a very capable young tax and real estate partner, and I was a trial department associate, at Baker Botts in the 1980s.
I'd been pondering buying a Kindle for some time, and when I learned (via Facebook, from another Baker Botts alum) that Jim's new book is being released only as an e-book, my curiosity about both book and gadget crossed the tipping point, and "Three Thousand Bridges" became my first Kindle purchase through Amazon.com.
(Of the Kindle, I'll say this: I like it better than I thought I would, and getting used to it was easier than I expected. The good things about it — price; capacity; ease of content delivery; spectacular battery life; and superb text legibility on a screen that doesn't tire your eyes — are very good indeed. In other ways, it very much reminds me of an Apple Macintosh computer circa 1986: its technology and interface both seem reasonably elegant but seriously dated. I suspect the Kindle is better adapted for the simple and singular task of serious and sustained reading than an iPad or other comparable device, but I haven't owned one of those yet, so I'm just guessing based on my limited experience trying to read other novels on my very-good-quality desktop LCD monitor. Reading on the Kindle beats that by a wide margin.)
Hime is, and writes like, a native Texan who's also grown wise in the ways of the world outside the Lone Star State. "Three Thousand Bridges" weaves a tale that incorporates some very powerful and poignant recent history of our state and our country. Here's an accurate blurb from biographer Hershel Parker, as reprinted on Hime's website:
The mystery writer James Hime made his mark with The Night of the Dance (an Edgar finalist) and Scared Money, both heralded by other novelists and reviewers for memorable characters, taut prose, and a comedic take on how things and people work. Hime nailed dialects as if no one else had ever listened to Texans talk, and readers settled back to await more adventures of Jeremiah Spur and Clyde Thomas. Adventures will follow, we are assured, but Three Thousand Bridges is of a different order of achievement, not a mystery novel but a novel with mysteries. Its unlikely and at first unlikable hero, a Viet Nam veteran, is the outrageous and outraging Texas oil supply man, Cole Simms — a belated cousin, we recognize, of Mark Twain's Pap Finn. In sculpted prose, pacing his revelations, Hime traces his bedeviled hero's journey across the South just after 9/11, toward Ground Zero and toward self-insight. Hime, who escaped from the South Tower of the World Trade Center with a printout of The Night of the Dance after witnessing the crash of American Flight 11 into the North Tower, has created a classic narrative of transforming American experiences, personal and national. After its wide initial popularity, I predict, Three Thousand Bridges will endure in college classrooms as a powerful, accessible testimony about an unthinkable time.
And I enjoyed, and agree with, Arden Ward's review of the book and interview with Hime, which includes some marvelous facts and factoids like these (bracketed portions in original):
Hime was halfway through his descent, on floor 35 or 36 he recalls, when the building rocked violently — "Almost enough to knock you off your feet," he remembers. Still, he kept walking, finally reaching the street.
"That was the first time I saw the gaping hole in 1WTC [the north tower of the World Trade Center] and the fire blazing out of 2WTC at just about the level we had been at maybe 30 minutes earlier." ...
Hime began wondering about his father, who hadn’t known he was in New York City at the time of the attack. "I was fascinated by the premise of what it would have been like to be a father whose son goes missing in New York City on that day. Suppose that no one knew why he was there to begin with, and you wake up on the morning of 12 September and know only that he was missing. What would you do?"
It's pretty much impossible to write about Texas without bumping into stereotypes and clichés. My favorite thing about this book, I think, is the way Hime embraces those — and then proceeds to bend and twist them to one degree or another, in ways that turn out to be quite funny. "Three Thousand Bridges" gets the Beldar Stamp of Texas Authenticity. It's a danged good book, and I'm proud of my friend for writing it.
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Strategic vision in short supply at the White House and Politico.com
Ponder, if you will, this strategically clueless bit of punditry from Carrie Budoff Brown and Ben Smith at Politico.com, as part of an essay entitled "President Obama's deficit plan puts him back in sync with progressives:"
[Obama's new] mocking tone toward Republicans, along with the sharp left turn in his policy prescriptions, aimed to send an unmistakable message to voters who have increasingly questioned the strength of Obama’s backbone: Congress won’t push him around any longer. If Republicans want a deal, then they’re going to have to compromise, too.
That last sentence might have been better written, "If Republicans want to deal, then they're going to have to compromise, too." And therein lies the mistaken premise. The only leverage that Obama and the Democrats had during July's struggle arose from GOP legislators' legitimate concerns that they'd be blamed for the interruption of government services that might have attended a failure to raise the national debt ceiling.
Now Obama and the Democrats face an even more united opposition that includes an absolute majority of the House and, on these issues, probably a working majority of the Senate. They believe that everything which Obama has just proposed — including the many recycled proposals which are so lame that Obama couldn't pass them even when the Dems controlled both chambers of Congress — would make things worse. So no, they don't want a "deal" on these measures, and neither do they want to deal on them: There's neither carrot nor stick in Obama's hand, just crap that he's throwing out there again for the sole purpose (a wholly and transparently political one) of making his base think he's talking and being tough.
That's a very tactical response to Obama's present problems. A strategic view would caution him against such short-term tactics, however: Certainly by November 2012, even Obama's base will have recognized that once again, Obama has failed to deliver on any of the wild promises that he made to make them (briefly) happy again back in September 2011.
If there's anyone at either Politico or the White House who's thinking strategically at all, they would realize that the smartest thing Obama could do now — both for the health of the national economy and for his own political prospects — would be to shut up and do nothing for a few months. That golf game will get rusty if it's not continuously polished, you know. America needs a president who can play a good round of golf more than it needs a president who can dish up the kind of nonsense we're hearing from Obama.
There's indeed a chance that if Obama will shut up, some legislation might pass both chambers of Congress which would reduce undue government burdens on the economy and, as part of an overall revenue-neutral flattening and broadening of the tax base, close tax loopholes. See my immediately preceding post regarding House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's broad reform and rescue plan, the Path to Prosperity. Parts of that plan, or analogs thereof, could probably make their way separately through both the House and Senate, via the proposals of the "supercommittee" or otherwise. By getting government out of the way, that legislation would actually stimulate the economy (or, much more accurately, permit it to begin healing itself). And if Obama would just shut up, then when and if such legislation passes, he could (and doubtless would) claim a share in its prospective success. And there might, for a change, actually be some success to take credit for!
But it doesn't take much strategic vision — or, really, anything other than my ordinary spectacle-assisted vision — to recognize that my speculation has an impossible premise, too: The earth will reverse its own rotation before Obama manages to shut himself up, ever, about anything.
Sunday, September 18, 2011
Ryan reacts to Obama's "jobs plan"
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) is making it really, really hard for me to give up on him as a potential 2012 GOP presidential nominee.
Chairman Ryan is always utterly consistent and thoroughly well-informed on fiscal matters, and much of what he said this morning about Obama's "new" job plan was no surprise because Obama has just recycled past policies (e.g., a temporary cut in payroll taxes) that have been repeatedly tried by both Democrats and Republicans, but that have always failed. Ryan's response is a clear, vital statement of specific principles and ideas, and those who've heard Ryan speak in the past will recognize much of what he had to say about those failed policies, and their alternatives, today.
I was struck in particular today, though, by Chairman Ryan's calm, lucid response to one of the most effective parts of Obama's and the Democrats' class-warfare demagoguery, the "Buffett's Secretary" argument:
WALLACE: Let's turn to taxes and there's a lot to talk about. I want to break it down in some bite-size pieces.
First of all, what do you think to all — over the papers today, I guess, the New York Times reported that, first, this idea of a new minimum tax rate for millionaires to insure that they pay at least the same percentage of their money that they get their income as middle income taxpayers?
RYAN: Great. So, I guess what he's saying he's going to raise on capital at ordinary income tax rate, raising capital gains and dividends. Look, if you tax something more, Chris, you get less. If you tax job creators more, you get less job creation. If you tax investment more, you get less investment.
At a time when experts are telling us, including, I said the fiscal commission, we should lower tax rates on investment and job creation by getting rid of all of the loopholes so we can create economic growth. So, we think this is going in the wrong direction. Let's not forget that under the current law that the president has already passed, the top tax rate on individual and small businesses in 2013 goes to about 44.8 percent.
So, we have employers in Wisconsin that pay that tax rate are competing against countries that are taxing their businesses from 16 percent in Canada, almost 21 percent going in England, 25 percent in China. The world taxes their businesses at about 25 percent and he's saying we're going to tax these job creators at above 45 percent with this new tax. What it does is it adds further instability to our system, more uncertainty and it punishes job creation and those people who create jobs.
Class warfare, Chris, may make for really good politics but it makes a rotten economics. We don't need a system that seeks to divide people. We don't need a system that seeks prey on people's fear, envy and anxiety. We need a system that creates job and innovation, and removes these barriers for entrepreneurs to go out and rehire people. I'm afraid these kinds of tax increases don't work.
WALLACE: But, Congressman, this is being called the Buffett rule, because it comes after Warren Buffet, the multibillionaire owner of Berkshire Hathaway said, I end up — because I get so much of my money from capital gains — I end up paying a lower tax rate than my secretary who gets her money in salary. What about the question — what about the question of fairness, sir?
RYAN: So, what he's saying, what he forgets to mention on that, that's a double tax. Capital gains and dividends are taxes on money that has already been taxed once before based on income. So, a person who's paying an income tax is paying the first level of tax on that money and then when you pay capital gains and dividends tax, you are paying that tax again on that money that earns it. What it does — and we've done this before — we have raised capital taxes gains and dividend taxes, we hurt economic growth, we stifle investment in our economy. So, if we tax investment in job creation more, you will get less of it. Like I said, this is — this looks like to me not a very good sign, because it looks like the president wants to move down the class warfare path.
Class warfare will simply divide this country more. It will attack job creators, divide people and it doesn't grow the economy.
Go to budget.house.gov and see a video we put up that shows a common sense idea that has a lot of bipartisan support in Washington these days to lower tax rates on these things by going after the loopholes.
Here's the video he just referenced. I think it's both simple and brilliant. And if the notion of the current tax laws letting General Electric Corp. get away with paying no federal income taxes nearly makes your head explode — a feeling shared by many Democrats, Republicans, and independents — then you should definitely watch this video:
I want this man to be president. This unflappable competency doesn't just appeal to me, it sings to me in ways that, frankly, neither Mitt Romney nor Rick Perry has yet been able to do.
Non-candidate Ryan continues to draw lots of attention
The NYT has some interesting factoids about and quotes from House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI). The bow-hunting and budgetary-wonk comments may appeal to slightly different audiences, but I suspect there actually may be a lot of cross-over appeal.
Ryan insists he's not interested in running, and indeed, that he's unwilling to be drafted. But when Gov. Rick Perry telephoned Ryan from the campaign trail this week, the substance of the report necessarily highlighted ... Ryan:
Perry also said he spoke Friday with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and backs the House Budget Committee chairman’s fiscal proposal.
“I talked with Paul Ryan today and told him that I thank you for standing up and having the courage and I’m proud to join you in having this discussion were having with America.”
This is further confirmation, folks, of what I wrote back on May 17th: Ryan's plan is the plan for the GOP in 2012. There is no practical choice in the matter, given the House's overwhelming and repeated record votes approving it, the large numbers of GOP senators who voted in its favor without success, and the large volume of other GOP leaders who've endorsed at least its broad outlines.
However, by genuflecting in Ryan's direction (albeit over the phone) and, more importantly, by publicly embracing the Ryan budget, Perry may also be trying to soothe any remaining itch that Ryan might still feel to test the presidential waters.
Saturday, September 17, 2011
Review: Beldar & kids see "Contagion"
My son Adam, his college roommate Erik, and my daughters Sarah and Molly joined me today for a Saturday movie matinee.
We saw "Contagion," described in its promotional materials as a "thriller centered on the threat posed by a deadly disease and an international team of doctors contracted by the CDC to deal with the outbreak." Its marketing tag-lines: "Don't talk to anyone. Don't touch anyone." And "Nothing spreads like fear." So I basically expected this to be another variation on previous Hollywood movies about fictional pandemics like "The Andromeda Strain" and "28 Days Later ...." Adam predicted, from the movie poster: "This will be a movie about people being scared and talking on cell phones."
I was wrong, and Adam was only partly right. This was one of the oddest and most peculiar films I've ever watched, actually, precisely because it violated most of Hollywood's most cherished plot conventions. But nevertheless — and, very likely, because of those breaks with tradition — it is a very good movie. My kids, Erik, and I all gave it a solid "thumbs up."
I don't mean to suggest that "Contagion" is lacking all of Hollywood's usual arts. The cinematography is excellent, and the musical score is unobtrusive yet effective. It has a bunch of big-name actors — including Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, and a deliciously despicable Jude Law (as "the Internet and all that's wrong with it"). They all give very tight, controlled, and quiet performances, and several actors play roles that are utterly contrary to those in which we're accustomed to seeing them. I have had a crush on Gwyneth Paltrow since "Shakespeare in Love," for instance, but no one's crush on her is likely to be enhanced by this movie.
"Contagion" does have heroes and villains, and tiny bits of romantic and familial love, along with small portions of suspense and violence. But the heroes are very, very life-sized, not Hollywood-style larger than life. The villains are ordinary people making selfish, petty choices, only a few of which could be described as "evil." Many of the most important plot developments take place offscreen or are only hinted at. There are no chase scenes, no miraculous escapes, no improbable coincidences revealed through the hero's cunning. The cars don't explode and the airplanes don't crash.
In fact [mild SPOILER ALERT: left-click & drag your cursor from here to the following paragraph to read this text]: It is a movie in which there are many, many deaths, and they begin sooner than you'd expect — but we only see a few of them onscreen. Those few onscreen deaths are powerful; and it was obviously the deliberate and artful choice of the filmmakers to make those many, many offscreen deaths seem remote and unreal in comparison.
Indeed, the plot doesn't rely on the typical Hollywood dramatic arc at all. Without employing the "mock documentary" or "reality TV" devices that Hollywood often uses, "Contagion" absolutely succeeds in seeming more real than most movies due to its relentless suppression of typical Hollywood gimmicks and clichés — and that is the key to its entire impact on the viewer, I think.
"Contagion" is grim, but not relentlessly so, and without ever being gruesome. The closest thing to snappy dialog was this epithet flung at Jude Law's character: "Blogging is not writing. It's just graffiti with punctuation." (Some of us bloggers are better at punctuation than others, but I suppose that doesn't undercut the gist of that assertion.)
Yet "Contagion" manages to speak to the human condition. It highlights our interdependency; if anything, it may overstate our resiliency. No one will ever mistake "Contagion" for the "feel-good summer movie of 2011," so don't go see it if you need cheering up or even if you're just looking for light entertainment. But we liked it, and I'm frankly amazed that Hollywood can turn a profit on a film that runs this strongly against type.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
On 9/11/01 plus ten
For four and one-half year, including the four football seasons from Fall 1975 through 1979, I had the honor of playing trumpet in the Showband of the Southwest, the University of Texas Longhorn Band. Beginning with a summer band concert in June 1975, and on several other occasions afterwards, I had the thrill of playing the Carmen Dragon arrangement of "America the Beautiful," which is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful versions of that song I've ever heard.
Here's the current LHB, with a re-arrangement of Carmen Dragon's arrangement done for LHB by my good friend and KKY brother Randol Bass, from last night's tribute (at the BYU vs UT halftime) to 9/11's victims and those who've defended our country before and after. It still sends chills up my spine and brings tears to my eyes, and yes, I gave in to the immediate compulsion to get out my trumpet so I could play along at home with the brass triplets at the ending:
I am a man of words. But today I'm going to let this music — played by these college-age men and women, in a tradition of which I am proud to have been a part — say everything I have to say on the subject.
If you don't feel your heart swell with emotion by about 1:20 in this clip — "Thine alabaster cities gleam / Undimm'd by human tears" — then you're not any flavor of American to which I can relate, and you may not be human at all.