Monday, April 13, 2015

Friday, April 10, 2015

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Short Takes

South Carolina police officer charged with murder in shooting death.

Rahm Emanuel wins 2nd term in Chicago mayoral race.

Kansas basically outlaws abortion.

Russia hacked the White House computer system.

Secretary of State Kerry will meet his Cuban counterpart at Latin American summit.

R.I.P. Stan Freberg, 88, one of the funniest men in the world.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Revolution Will Be On Netflix

Via Riptide:

Cubans will soon get to watch shows about corrupt, conniving politicians and the inadequacies of America’s prison system.

Yes, Netflix has officially launched in Cuba, bringing shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black to the island. The move also means that Netflix now offers its services in every single country in the Americas.

“We are delighted to finally be able to offer Netflix to the people of Cuba, connecting them with stories they will love from all over the world,” said Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings in a statement. “Cuba has great filmmakers and a robust arts culture and one day we hope to be able to bring their work to our global audience of over 57 million members.”

Granted, at the moment very few Cubans will actually be able to access the service. As of 2012, only about 25.6 percent of the population has access to the internet, and many have to rely on access through hotels, internet cafes, embassies and at work. It’s estimated that only 5 percent of the population has unrestricted, private access to the internet, and even then speeds are slow.

We’ve gone from reruns of Kate & Allie on TV Marti to House of Cards.  Forget about opening embassies and lifting the travel ban; this more than anything else signals the big thaw between Cuba and the U.S.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Friday, January 16, 2015

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Short Takes

Search continues for last of the the suspects in Charlie Hebdo massacre.

The U.S. Central Command’s Twitter and YouTube accounts were hacked.

Attacks against ISIS continue.

Cuba released 53 political prisoners as promised as part of the thaw in U.S. relations.

South Dakota’s ban on same-sex marriage is struck down, but the order is immediately stayed.

Paul Ryan isn’t running for president.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Looking Back/Looking Forward

The tradition continues:  it’s time for my annual re-cap and prognostication for the past year and the year coming up.  Let’s see how I did a year ago.

– Despite the terrible roll-out and start-up of Obamacare and the opportunity it handed the Republican campaign strategists, the healthcare law will not be as big an issue in the 2014 mid-terms that all the Villagers say it will be.  By the time the campaign hits the final stretch, the law will be so entrenched that even the people who claim they hate it — even though they support what it does — will have a hard time trying to run candidates who promise to repeal it.  Still, the GOP noise machine and Tea Party hard-core is locked in on re-electing their safe base and the morning after the 2014 mid-terms will show a House still in the hands of the GOP and the Senate closer to 50-50.

I got most of that right: Obamacare was not a campaign issue but I didn’t count on the Democrats running away from it like it was an Ebola-soaked sponge.  The Republicans didn’t win the Senate so much as the Democrats lost it.

– Immigration reform and gun control will go nowhere because it’s the same Congress we had in 2013 and they didn’t do jack-shit.

Too easy, more’s the pity.

– By December 31, 2014 it will be a foregone conclusion that Hillary Clinton will be running for president.  Joe Biden will play coy with the Villagers about running, but in the end he’ll demur to Ms. Clinton.  The Benghazi! non-scandal will be long gone except for the nutsery who still think Barack Obama was born in Kenya.  The GOP will be lining up its merry band that includes Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Rick Santorum, and just for laughs, Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee.  President Obama’s approval numbers will be back up in the 50% range.

Nailed that one.  Even the GOP House report says Benghazi! is a nothingburger, and President Obama’s approval numbers are going up.

– Florida Gov. Rick Scott will lose his re-election bid to Charlie Crist, the newly minted Democrat, and Marco Rubio’s star will be as faded in GOP national politics as Pauly Shore’s is among Oscar voters.  He’ll pick up a primary challenge from the far right, but he’ll be safe in 2016 because the Democrats have nobody to run against him.

– Governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio, Rick Snyder of Michigan, and Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania will all face tough re-election campaigns, but Mr. Kasich and Mr. Snyder will probably squeak by.  Mr. Corbett is out, and just for laughs, the people of Maine will toss their gaffe-prone Tea Party guv Paul LePage.

Still pissed that Florida and Maine re-elected those clowns.

– The national economy will continue to expand and the drive for the living wage movement will take hold.  The unemployment numbers will finally get below 7.0% and stay there.

Yeah, that was an easy call.  The minimum wage is going up all over the country.

– Marriage equality will spread to more states as more cases based on the ruling by the Supreme Court in 2013 are heard.  Indiana will vote on a ban on same-sex marriage in November 2014, and it will lose narrowly. But same-sex won’t be the law of the land yet, and I predict that unless the Supreme Court issues a sweeping ruling, Texas will be the last hold-out.

– The Supreme Court will rule 5-4 that Hobby Lobby or any for-profit non-religious corporation does not have the right “to deny its employees the health coverage of contraceptives to which the employees are otherwise entitled by federal law, based on the religious objections of the corporation’s owners.”

Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine that marriage equality would take hold like it did this year.  Thirty-five states now allow same-sex marriage, many based on rulings by courts that hold that banning marriage equality violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the Constitution.  There are several cases that are making their way to the United States Supreme Court.  But the court may have tipped its hand.  In October the Court declined to take action on five cases submitted for hearing during the 2014-2015 session.  This allowed the lower court rulings that struck down the bans in those states to stand.

Feh on the Hobby Lobby ruling.

– This will be a rebuilding year for the Detroit Tigers now that Jim Leyland has retired.  They’ll do respectably well and may even win the division again, but it’s time for a breather.

Yep.

– Fidel Castro will finally hop the twig, and the slow thaw between the U.S. and Cuba will begin as the generation that is as old as Castro continues to fade away.

Fidel is still alive, but Alan Gross is free and diplomatic relations are being restored.  About time, too.

– We will lose the requisite number of celebrities and friends as life goes on. As I always say, it’s important to cherish them while they are with us.

Losing Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, both by their own hand, made this year especially painful.

– Personally, life will continue at its gentle pace in good health and good spirits.  In September I will turn 62 and begin the first steps towards eventual retirement, but that won’t be for a long time yet.  I’ve already started on my paper for the William Inge Theatre Festival in March, and I continue to write and produce blog posts.  My parents are happily settled into their “life enrichment community,” and I hope to visit them this summer.  I might even get a smartphone this year, but don’t bet on it.

I’m already working on my paper for the William Inge Festival in April, and I had two one-act plays produced, including one entitled A Life Enriching Community, thanks to my visit to my folks in Cincinnati.  No, I don’t have a smartphone.

Now the predictions:

– Now that we have a Republican House and Senate and a president who isn’t running for re-election, get out the popcorn, and I mean the good stuff.  The GOP will try to do everything they can to destroy the legacy of Barack Obama, but they will end up looking even more foolish, petulant, infantile, and borderline nuts than they have for the last two years, and that’s saying something.  Repeals of Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, and recharged attempts to investigate Benghazi!, the IRS, and the VA will be like the three rings of Barnum & Bailey, all of which President Obama will gleefully veto.  As Zandar noted at Balloon Juice, “Over/under on when a Republican declares on FOX that Obama’s veto is  “illegal”, Feb 8.”

– Hillary Clinton will announce that she is running for president by March 2015 at the latest.  Elizabeth Warren will not run, but Bernie Sanders, the Gene McCarthy of this generation, will announce as an independent and become a frequent guest on MSNBC.  Jeb Bush, after “actively exploring” a run in 2016, will announce that he is running and quickly fade to the single digits when the GOP base gets a taste of his views on immigration and Common Core.  He may be popular in Republican polls, but those people don’t vote in primaries.  The frontrunners for the Iowa caucuses a year from now will be Rand Paul and Chris Christie.

– The war in Afghanistan is officially over as of December 2014, but there will be U.S. troops actively engaged in combat in what is left of Syria and Iraq in 2015.

– The U.S. economy will continue to improve at a galloping pace.  The Dow will hit 19,000 at some point in 2015 and oil will continue to flood the market, keeping the price below $60 a barrel and gasoline will sell for under $2 a gallon, and finally wages will start to catch up with the improving economy.  I blame Obama.

– The Supreme Court will rule that bans on same-sex marriage violate the Constitution.  They will also narrowly uphold Obamacare again.

– The embargo against Cuba will end on a narrow vote in the Senate thanks to the overwhelming influence of Republican donors who see 11 million Cubans starving for Dunkin Donuts and car parts and don’t care what a bunch of domino-playing dreamers on Calle Ocho think.

– The Tigers will win their division again.

– We will lose the requisite number of celebrities and friends as life goes on. As I always say, it’s important to cherish them while they are with us.

– I technically retired on September 1, 2014, but my last day at work will be August 30, 2019.  (It’s complicated.)  I’m planning a return trip to Stratford this summer — more on that later — and I’ll get more plays produced.  I will finish at least one novel in 2015.

– And of course, the usual prediction: One year from now I’ll write a post just like this one, look back at this one, and think, “Gee, that was dumb.” Or not.

Okay, readers, it’s your turn.  What do you predict will befall us in 2015?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sunday Reading

Vamos á Cuba? — How the restoration of diplomatic relations will change travel plans.  Vauhini Vara in The New Yorker looks at one travel agency that already goes there.

Cuba PosterOn Wednesday morning, Tom Popper was driving to work at InsightCuba, the travel organization that he runs out of New Rochelle, New York, when he heard a familiar name on the radio. Alan Gross, the American contractor for U.S.A.I.D. who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years, had been released and was on a flight home. “I kind of forgot I was in the car,” Popper said. “All of a sudden, I saw myself veering off to the shoulder.” Popper, who is forty-seven years old, makes his living helping Americans travel to Cuba without running afoul of the law. His organization is one of a small number that are authorized by the U.S. government, through Treasury Department licenses, to do so. For months, he and his colleagues had speculated that the Obama Administration would loosen travel restrictions on Americans going to Cuba—an idea that Popper has supported—but they knew that Gross’s imprisonment had been an impediment.

So, when Popper heard about the release, his thoughts had turned to what it could mean for InsightCuba. He straightened the car and got himself to work. Once there, he tried calling the Treasury Department and the State Department, but he couldn’t get through to anyone who could tell him more. Finally, he turned on the TV and, at noon, got the next round of news like everyone else. In an address from the White House, Obama announced that, after more than fifty years of tension, the United States and Cuba were reëstablishing diplomatic relations. The new measures would include the easing of some restrictions on commerce and travel. For years, anyone who wanted to go to Cuba had to be travelling for one of several specific reasons. Some of these purposes, like visiting close relatives or doing academic research, were covered by a “general” license that let people travel without having to fill out a special application. But others, like going on educational trips to promote “people-to-people contact” among Americans and Cubans—the category under which organizations like InsightCuba set up many of their trips—required case-by-case approval by the Treasury Department, which could be an onerous process and needed to be conducted by approved tour organizers. (One organizer of people-to-people trips, Friendly Planet, notes on its Web site that travellers should keep a journal as a record of their travels in Cuba and retain it for five years as “proof of the educational nature of your trip.”) Under the new rules, people will still have to travel for one of twelve pre-approved purposes, but these, including educational trips, will all be covered by general licenses. It’s unclear exactly what this will mean for travellers—the Obama Administration has said that it will be weeks before the details become available—but Popper and others expect that, at the very least, it will open up travel to Cuba to more Americans.

He’s Ready to Rumble — Charlie Pierce on the re-energized Barack Obama.

If, in 2008, you walked through the Iowa snows, or knocked on doors in New Hampshire, or caucused in Nevada, or drove the old folks to the polls in Ohio, the guy from today was the one you did all that for and more. In his year-end press conference Friday afternoon, the president turned in a bravura performance, a master class in cool. He laid Sony out flat, and did so by summoning up the fact that they ran the Boston Marathon again this year, even though there were people who were killed at that event in 2013 by actual bombs. (Sorry, Sony, but George Clooney, the Official Movie Star Of Esquire: The Magazine — non-Charlize Theron Division — is absolutely right.) And, just for fun, he did the worst thing you can do to lunatic bullies like the current regime in North Korea. He mocked them, directly and loudly.

“It says something interesting about North Korea that they decided to stage an all-out assault because of a satirical movie starring Seth Rogen…I love Seth. And I love James (Franco). But the notion that that this was a threat to them” was ridiculous.

I think it’s time now to enlist the president into Team America: World Police.

He is not spoiling for a fight come January, but he is clearly anticipating one. He minced no words reminding people of how he came to issue his executive order on immigration. (Hint: It’s a word that begins with “ob” and ends with “struction.”) He told the incoming Republican majority that, if he has to adjust to them, then they have to adjust to him as well, and that he knows where in the drawer the veto stamp is.

“There’s a very simple solution, and that’s pass bills and work with me to make sure I’m willing to sign those bills…Because both sides are going to have to compromise. On most issues, in order for their initiatives to become law, I’m going to have to sign off, and that means they have to take into account the issues that I care about, just as I’m going have to take into account the issues that they care about.”

Translation: don’t bring that weak shit in my kitchen. President Mutombo!

It seemed to me, anyway, that the president was liberated, not so much by the fact that he doesn’t have to run again, or by the clarifying event of Republican congressional majority throughout the last two years of his presidency, but by the fact that he doesn’t have to tailor his remarks to a Democratic Senatorial majority that depended on the likes of Mark Begich or Mary Landrieu. And nowhere was this more clear, and nowhere was his newfound confidence more clear, than in his answer on the future of that Republican fetish object, the Keystone XL pipeline, the continent-spanning death funnel that would bring the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel down through the agricultural heartland of the United States from the environmental dead zone of northern Alberta. He still could swing the other way on this issue, but today, he made it clear that the death-funnel’s benefits belong to foreigners, and that its benefits to people in this country were, as he said, “nominal.” I suspect that he will veto the bill that Mitch McConnell says will be the first one to come out of the newly refurbished monkeyhouse come January.

Let’s Go Galt at the Movies — Mallory Ortberg on how Ayn Rand would review favorite movies for children.

“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”

An industrious young woman neglects to charge for her housekeeping services and is rightly exploited for her naïveté. She dies without ever having sought her own happiness as the highest moral aim. I did not finish watching this movie, finding it impossible to sympathize with the main character. —No stars.

“Bambi”

The biggest and the strongest are the fittest to rule. This is the way things have always been. —Four stars.

“Old Yeller”

A farm animal ceases to be useful and is disposed of humanely. A valuable lesson for children. —Four stars.

“Lady and the Tramp”

A ridiculous movie. What could a restaurant owner possibly have to gain by giving away a perfectly good meal to dogs, when he could sell it at a reasonable price to human beings? A dog cannot pay for spaghetti, and payment is the only honest way to express appreciation for value. —One star.

“101 Dalmatians”

A wealthy woman attempts to do her impoverished school friend Anita a favor by purchasing some of her many dogs and putting them to sensible use. Her generosity is repulsed at every turn, and Anita foolishly and irresponsibly begins acquiring even more animals, none of which are used to make a practical winter coat. Altruism is pointless. So are dogs. A cat is a far more sensible pet. A cat is objectively valuable. —No stars.

“Mary Poppins”

A woman takes a job with a wealthy family without asking for money in exchange for her services. An absurd premise. Later, her employer leaves a lucrative career in banking in order to play a children’s game. —No stars.

Doonesbury — Get the hook.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Cuba Si

This is something a lot of people have been waiting for.

The United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century after the release of an American contractor held in prison for five years, President Obama announced on Wednesday.

In a deal negotiated during 18 months of secret talks hosted largely by Canada and encouraged by Pope Francis, who hosted a final meeting at the Vatican, Mr. Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba agreed in a telephone call to put aside decades of hostility to find a new relationship between the United States and the island nation just 90 miles off the American coast.

“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Mr. Obama said in a nationally televised statement from the White House. The deal will “begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas” and move beyond a “rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”

The contractor, Alan P. Gross, traveled on an American government plane to the United States late Wednesday morning, and the United States sent back three Cuban spies who had been in an American prison since 2001. American officials said the Cuban spies were swapped for a United States intelligence agent who had been in a Cuban prison for nearly 20 years, and said Mr. Gross was not technically part of the swap, but was released separately on “humanitarian grounds.”

In addition, the United States will ease restrictions on remittances, travel and banking relations, and Cuba will release 53 Cuban prisoners identified as political prisoners by the United States government. Although the decades-old American embargo on Cuba will remain in place for now, the president called for an “honest and serious debate about lifting” it.

“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s time for a new approach.”

If the reaction of the people in my office who have Cuban ties or are Cuban-American is any indication, it’s a stunning move.  Some are still holding on to the idea that if we just kept tightening the grip, the Castro brothers would finally give up and install Jeffersonian democracy.  Others — especially the younger ones who have no connection to the island other than through a parent or relative — see it as the beginning of the end of a policy that never worked and wasn’t intended to do much more than exact revenge for the Castros tossing out the capitalist exploiters and the Mafia.  They have been hoping for an end to the freeze not out of nostalgia but out of a promise of normalization…and the prospect of selling 11 million Cubans McDonald’s and car parts.

Not being Cuban or having any connection to the island, I have never understood the embargo.  I don’t have the visceral feeling that the Cuban revolution caused in the people who left everything behind and the hatred they have for the men who they hold personally responsible for upending their lives and killing people they knew.  But now, more than fifty years after the revolution and an embargo that did nothing but harm to the average Cuban and served as the excuse for further crackdowns, all that has come of it is the burning hatred that has consumed lives and torn families apart.

Hate only destroys.  Nothing good would come from continuing the mistrust and rhetoric. If reconciliation with Vietnam, where we fought a war that killed millions and caused a permanent scar across our nation, can happen, so it can with Cuba if we put hatred aside and show the world and ourselves that we can do it.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sunday Reading

What About Sherrod Brown? — Michael Kazin the The New Republic looks at the senior senator from Ohio as a possible presidential candidate.

At the risk of seeming ridiculous, I think Sherrod Brown should run for president. I know that, barring a debilitating health problem or a horrible scandal, Hillary Clinton is likely to capture the Democratic nomination. I realize too that Brown, the senior senator from Ohio, has never hinted that he may be tempted to challenge her. “I’m really happy where I am,” he told Chris Matthews last winter, when the MSNBC’s paragon of impatience urged him to run.

Yet, for progressive Democrats, Brown would be a nearly perfect nominee. During his two decades in the House and Senate, he has taken strong and articulate stands on every issue which matters to the party’s broad, if currently dispirited, liberal base. When George W. Bush was in office and riding high, Brown opposed both his invasion of Iraq and the Patriot Act. He has long been a staunch supporter of abortion rights and gay marriage, and is married to Connie Schultz, a feminist author who writes a nationally syndicated column.

Brown’s true mission, however, is economic: He wants to boost the well-being of working Americans by any means necessary. Brown has been talking and legislating about how to accomplish it for years before Elizabeth Warren left Harvard for the Capitol. During Obama’s first term, he advocated a larger stimulus package, called for re-enacting the Glass-Steagall Act to rein in big banks, and stumped for comprehensive immigration reform. He champions the rights of unions and the power of the National Labor Relations Board and criticizes unregulated “free trade” for destroying manufacturing jobs at home. He also led the charge among Senate Democrats that pressured Obama to drop his plan to appoint Larry Summers to head the Federal Reserve and appoint Janet Yellen instead.

On his lapel, Brown wears a canary pin to honor the workers’ movement that “gave us all food safety laws, civil rights, rights for the disabled, pensions and the minimum wage.” Like the canaries which miners once took with them into the pits to warn them of toxic gas, the pin symbolizes the need to stay on guard against any employers and politicians who threaten those gains.

There are other Democrats—Warren is the best known—who also skillfully combine a politics of economic populism with a commitment to gender equality and civil liberties. But only Brown represents a populous swing state that has voted for the victor in every presidential election since 1960. In both his Senate races, Brown faced well-known and well-financed Republican opponents—and creamed them. In 2006, his unexpected 12-point margin over Mike DeWine was aided, in part, by the anti-Bush wave that gave Democrats control of Congress. Still, DeWine was a two-term incumbent who had been elected previously by landslides. In 2012, Brown faced Josh Mandel, the popular young state Treasurer. After what became that cycle’s most expensive Senate race, Brown won by six points. He outpolled Barack Obama in Ohio by over 160,000 votes.

Brown’s success, like that of many politicians who are popular in swing states, relies, in part, on charm. He relishes going to hundreds of town meetings around the state, where he answers any question thrown at him. Whether in public or talking to an interviewer in his office, he comes off as relaxed, witty, curious, and rhetoric-free. Two years ago, when I spoke with him in Washington, we spent so much time talking and laughing about his Ohio predecessors—who included the formidable Mark Hanna, the Republican who, in 1896, pioneered the big-money, mass media national campaign—that we barely had enough time to talk about Brown’s career and policies. I have never enjoyed myself so much with any politician, particularly one who was, at the time, fighting to keep his seat.

But Brown earns his popularity by refusing to trim his progressive faith or apologize for it. “If you remember who you are,” he told me, “you don’t have to move to the center, wherever the center happens to be at any moment.” He keeps insisting that America will not become a decent society unless the labor movement regains some of its strength and corporations lose a good deal of their power over campaigns and politicians.

Last summer, George Will paid Brown a kind of tribute. “He looks, sounds and acts like a real, as opposed to faculty club, leftist,” wrote Will in a rare moment when he put his irony, if not his hauteur, aside. “Although he is a Yale graduate, he has the rumpled look and hoarse voice of someone who spent last night on Paris barricades, exhorting les miserables to chuck cobblestones at the forces defending property.” Will did have a point when he contrasted Sherrod Brown’s good-natured, steadfast populism with Hillary Clinton’s “risk-averse careerism” and “joyless plod” toward the Democratic nomination.

Ebola and the Embargo — From The Nation, Arturo Lopez-Levy and Foreign Policy in Focus on the cooperation between the United States and Cuba in battling the epidemic and how it might end the embargo against Cuba.

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel once famously said. “And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”

President Barack Obama should heed his former chief of staff’s advice and not squander the opportunity presented by the Ebola crisis. Political leadership in the White House and the Palace of Revolution could transform a fight against a common threat into joint cooperation that would not only promote the national interests of the two countries but also advance human rights—and the right to health is a human right—throughout the developing world.

Political conditions are ripe for such a turn. Americans strongly support aggressive actions against Ebola and would applaud a president who placed more value on medical cooperation and saving lives than on ideology and resentment.

In the sixth in a series of editorials spelling out the need for a change in US policy toward Cuba, The New York Times called on Obama to discontinue the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program—which makes it relatively simple for Cuban doctors providing medical services abroad to defect to the United States—because of its hostile nature and its negative impact on the populations receiving Cuban doctors’ support and attention in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

“It is incongruous for the United States to value the contributions of Cuban doctors who are sent by their government to assist in international crises like the 2010 Haiti earthquake while working to subvert that government by making defection so easy,” the editorial board wrote. The emphasis should be on fostering Cuba’s medical contributions, not stymieing them.

As Cuba’s international health efforts become more widely known, it’s become increasingly clear how unreasonable it is for Washington to assume that all Cuban presence in the developing world is damaging to US interests. A consistent opening for bilateral cooperation with Cuba by governmental health institutions, the private sector and foundations based in the United States can trigger positive synergies to update US policy toward Havana. It will also send a friendlier signal for economic reform and political liberalization in Cuba.

The potential for cooperation between Cuba and the United States goes far beyond preventing and defeating Ebola. New pandemics in the near future could endanger the national security, economy and public health of other countries—killing thousands, preventing travel and trade, and choking the current open liberal order by encouraging xenophobic hysteria. At this dramatic time, the White House needs to think with clarity and creativity.

Slipping Away — John Lahr in The New Yorker recalls his last lunch with Mike Nichols.

“Shall we Esca?” Mike asked me late this September, making our lunch date sound like a dance, which, in a way, it always was. When I walked into the Ninth Avenue watering hole where we’d meet a few times a year to talk show biz, he was already seated at the back of the restaurant—his table, of course—having been delivered by a chauffeur, who remained outside to whisk him to his next port of call at any time. Mike didn’t talk about his medical issues, but his body told the story. His tall, robust frame was shrunken now; he’d lost weight but not his appetite for life or conversation. (He was planning a Broadway production of Terrence McNally’s “Master Class” in February, starring Meryl Streep.) Nichols was a great raconteur, bringing to his stories both his swiftness of mind and the gift for mimicry that had made him famous as one half of the glorious high-wire improvisational-comedy act Nichols and May. Even as I write this, I can see Mike’s eager eyes, his smile starting to form, and hear his laugh, which could start as a ripple and end as a wave that left him in shuddering, eye-watering, wheezing, red-faced collapse.

At our lunch, which was the last time I saw him, Nichols talked about befriending Marlon Brando when he first got to Hollywood. “We were bullshitting one night, and I said to him, I asked him what it felt like when he first came to Hollywood and he was master of the universe. And he laughed, and he said something like, ‘Oh, honey, I was so busy trying not to go crazy I never noticed it all.’ ” We wandered into talk about his début Broadway play, Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park.” “I was immediately mature and experienced,” he told me, and he recalled the adjustment he gave to Robert Redford when he complained about being upstaged by Elizabeth Ashley, who was raising her leg when they kissed. “ ‘I feel like I’ve been used. I’m embarrassed,’ Redford said. And I said, ‘Why don’t you do it too?’ So he did and it got a huge laugh.” “And she stopped?” I asked. Nichols looked down his long nose, “Of course.” Mike was a repository of great knowledge about audiences and actors and the art of storytelling. He had lived a tempestuous life, which included a breakdown and four marriages; he had also achieved happiness, so his observations on people and problems were astute. We had planned a book together, but during the summer he’d withdrawn because, he said, he had neither the energy nor the memory for the task. Over the years, we’d talked of performance, and shows, and directors, and literature, but that afternoon, as he polished off his plate of sorbets, Nichols strayed into an area he’d never before mentioned. It startled me. I wrote it down in my notebook as a piece of wisdom that I didn’t want to forget. “I’m slipping away,” he said. “ I’ve decided to make friends with it.”

He drove me uptown. As we parted, I waved and said, “Next time lunch is on me.”

Doonesbury — Take the money and run.

Monday, October 13, 2014

New York Times: End The Cuban Embargo

This will rattle a few dominoes on Calle Ocho:

Scanning a map of the world must give President Obama a sinking feeling as he contemplates the dismal state of troubled bilateral relationships his administration has sought to turn around. He would be smart to take a hard look at Cuba, where a major policy shift could yield a significant foreign policy success.

For the first time in more than 50 years, shifting politics in the United States and changing policies in Cuba make it politically feasible to re-establish formal diplomatic relations and dismantle the senseless embargo. The Castro regime has long blamed the embargo for its shortcomings, and has kept ordinary Cubans largely cut off from the world. Mr. Obama should seize this opportunity to end a long era of enmity and help a population that has suffered enormously since Washington ended diplomatic relations in 1961, two years after Fidel Castro assumed power.

The editorial goes on to note that the Cuban regime has begun, however awkwardly, to initiate some economic reforms and liberalize their travel restrictions.  This is out of a practical need rather than any awakening of a sense of democracy: their ally in the region, Venezuela, is having its own political upheaval and may not be able to dole out the goodies.

The reaction to the end of the embargo is no longer a matter of political concern; most Americans agree — if they care — that the embargo should end, and the influence of the Cuban-American lobby here in Florida has been losing strength over the last couple of decades thanks to the realities of the actuarial tables.  The younger generations are in favor of ending the embargo for practical reasons: they see a country that could be ripe for trade.

The remaining pro-embargo advocates say that as long as the Castro dictatorship remains in place, so should the embargo.  Their record on human rights stinks and they have used the embargo as their excuse to keep a tight grip on both the economy and the people.  Ending the embargo would be a reward for the regime, according to them.  Yet the United States has been trading partners and economic supporters of regimes that are just as repressive and cruel to their people: China, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia are not exactly models of Jeffersonian democracy, and yet we buy and sell billions of dollars worth of goods with them.

The embargo against Cuba is as old and as rickety as the 1950’s American autos that chug along the streets of Havana, held together by spit and string.  It’s time to send it to the junkyard.

Cuban Pontiac

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Kissinger: “Smash Cuba”

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, aka Dr. Evil, plotted to overthrow the Cuban government in 1976, according to the New York Times.

Nearly 40 years ago, Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger mapped out secret contingency plans to launch airstrikes against Havana and “smash Cuba,” newly disclosed government documents show.

Mr. Kissinger was so irked by Cuba’s military incursion into Angola that in 1976 he convened a top-secret group of senior officials to work out possible retaliatory measures in case Cuba deployed forces to other African nations, according to documents declassified by the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library at the request of the National Security Archive, a research group.

The officials outlined plans to strike ports and military installations in Cuba and to send Marine battalions to the United States Navy base at Guantánamo Bay to “clobber” the Cubans, as Mr. Kissinger put it, according to the records. Mr. Kissinger, the documents show, worried that the United States would look weak if it did not stand up to a country of just eight million people.

“I think sooner or later we are going to have to crack the Cubans,” Mr. Kissinger told President Ford at a meeting in the Oval Office in 1976, according to a transcript.

Because that worked so well against North Vietnam, right?

I don’t think anyone around here harbors any special affection for the Castro brothers, but starting a war against them is just insane.  But then again, we’re talking about Henry Kissinger, who never met a country he didn’t want to conquer.

So say we attacked Cuba for whatever reason, and somehow we managed to win (although given his track record, that’s not necessarily a given).  Then what?  Welcome to Pottery Barn, as Colin Powell might say: You broke it, you bought it.  What would we have done with a country of 8 million people who were now dependent on us?  Put a puppet government in place?  Pour in tons of money?  Hand it over to capitalism and let McDonald’s and Marriott Hotels move in — along with NAPA Auto Parts to fix up the millions of cars left over from the 1950’s?  Well, that’s not for him to worry about; leave that to the next guy.  After all, Cuba has a long history of Jeffersonian democracy and squeaky-clean entrepreneurship.

Here’s another interesting revelation from the piece:

Mr. Kissinger, who was secretary of state from 1973 to 1977, had previously planned an underground effort to improve relations with Havana. But in late 1975, Mr. Castro sent troops to Angola to help the newly independent nation fend off attacks from South Africa and right-wing guerrillas.

That move infuriated Mr. Kissinger, who was incensed that Mr. Castro had passed up a chance to normalize relations with the United States in favor of pursuing his own foreign policy agenda, Mr. Kornbluh said.

“Nobody has known that at the very end of a really remarkable effort to normalize relations, Kissinger, the global chessboard player, was insulted that a small country would ruin his plans for Africa and was essentially prepared to bring the imperial force of the United States on Fidel Castro’s head,” Mr. Kornbluh said.

So it wasn’t that Castro was sending forces to Angola in an attempt to turn southern Africa into another worker’s paradise and spread the scourge of godless Communism.  It was because Castro got there first.

“You can see in the conversation with Gerald Ford that he is extremely apoplectic,” Mr. Kornbluh said, adding that Mr. Kissinger used “language about doing harm to Cuba that is pretty quintessentially aggressive.”

Shorter version: “Mine!  Mine!  Mine!  No fair!” followed by stomping of little feet and throwing of toys around the nursery.

Fortunately for us, though, the plans went nowhere because Jimmy Carter won the election and Henry Kissinger shuffled off to the backstage of history.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Negotiating Over the Price

There’s an old joke about a guy who sees an attractive woman at a cocktail party.  He says to her, “Would you sleep with me for a million bucks?”  She looks him over and says, “Sure.”  He replies, “Okay, how about for twenty?”  She retorts, “Hell, no; what do you think I am?”  He says, “We’ve already established that.  Now we’re just negotiating over the price.”

That came to mind when I read this piece in the Tampa Bay Times:

Top aides to Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, two of the most vehement anti-Communist voices in Washington, took an all expenses paid trip to China this month courtesy of the Chinese government.

Sally Canfield, deputy chief of staff to Rubio, and Arthur Estopinan, chief of staff to Ros-Lehtinen, were part of a congressional staff trip facilitated by the U.S.-Asia Institute.

The trips, which include meetings with government officials in Beijing, have occurred since 1985, involving hundreds of lawmakers and staffers. They are a popular perk on Capitol Hill and come with luxury hotel stays and visits to top tourist sites, including the Great Wall. The cost can exceed $10,000 a person.

The Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen connection stands out because of their strong anti-Communism views. Both Cuban-American lawmakers have condemned the human rights records of China and Cuba and have opposed efforts to lift the U.S. embargo on Cuba. They also regularly criticize people who have gone to Cuba.

[…]

The Tampa Bay Times learned of the aides’ visits — which have not yet shown up in Senate or House disclosures — from a source backing a group that wants to see more normal relations with Cuba.

“It represents a real double standard,” said Chris Sabatini, senior policy director of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, when the Times told him about the trips. “At the same time they are denying citizens’ right to travel to Cuba, they feel staff can travel to another country that has the same pattern of human rights abuses.”

[…]

Rubio’s spokesman Alex Conant wrote: “Senator Rubio has consistently condemned the totalitarian nature of the Chinese government, its record of systematic human rights violations and its illegitimate territorial claims. However, China is the most populous nation on earth, has the world’s second largest economy, has a significant nuclear weapons arsenal and is increasingly an economic competitor of the United States.

In other words, China paid for everything, including accommodations, travel, meals, and who knows what else, while if you took a trip to Cuba at the invitation of that government, bring your own soap.  A million bucks or twenty makes all the difference.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Tucker Carlson Gets Pawned

In October 2012 Tucker Carlson, the cheap version of George F. Will, ran with a story in his faux Fox site Daily Caller accusing Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) of consorting with prostitutes in the Dominican Republic.  That would have been really bad news just before an election if it was true.

Well, guess what.

Citing former U.S. officials and people with close ties to Menendez, The Washington Post reported Monday that the CIA had obtained credible evidence, including IP addresses, linking Cuban agents to efforts to disseminate the prostitution allegations. Menendez’s attorney sent a letter to the Justice Department in April requesting that it pursue that evidence, further alleging that the Cuban government sought to derail the senator’s political career as he was poised to head up the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The Daily Caller’s editor-in-chief, Tucker Carlson, told the Post it would be difficult to verify whether a story written by one of his reporters actually originated with the Castro regime.

Heh.

Sunday, July 6, 2014