Conductor’s call for boarding: next train to crazytown

The bad news is, more candidates are announcing for the 2016 presidential race in both major parties, which makes it harder and harder from day to day to ignore the pointless noise.  The good news is…OK, there isn’t any good news there.  But I did find a few reminders of the deplorable state of relations between our current president and the radical conservative opposition that we should keep in mind when we get serious about the next election…sometime next year, I hope.

Barack Obama is in the fourth quarter of his presidency but the tone of the attacks against him is as detached from reality as ever: remember, the conservative extremists proudly announced on inauguration day 2009 that their goal in life was to deny him any victories, just because he’s him.  Give them credit for perseverance, I suppose, even as we roll our eyes at their performance.

When the president announced an immigration plan late last year the conservative reaction that he was acting outside his authority thundered down as if an enormous dog whistle had ordered the uttering of talking points.  Never mind that the scripted response was, shall we say charitably, inaccurate; former solicitor general Walter Dellinger wrote in Slate:

Even though the action is breathtaking in scope, there is nothing legally remarkable about what the administration is doing, or the legal analysis supporting it. The announced “deferred action” provides temporary administrative relief from deportation for aliens who are the parents of citizens, or the parents of lawful permanent residents. “Deferred action” is an exercise of discretion in which officials may temporarily defer the removal of an alien. The grant of deferred action in this case will remain in place for three years, is subject to renewal, and can be terminated at any time at the discretion of the Department of Homeland Security. As Eric Posner, who served in the Office of Legal Counsel under the first President Bush, notes, the president “is just doing what countless Congresses have wanted him to do”—setting priorities for deportation enforcement.

That’s not even the most egregious example of the mindless opposition; how about, earlier this year, when Republicans in the Senate took it upon themselves to re-assure Iran—yes, Iran!—not to take the American president too seriously in nuclear arms negotiations.

Perhaps the most outrageous example of the attack on the president’s legitimacy was a letter signed by 47 Republican senators to the leadership of Iran saying Mr. Obama had no authority to conclude negotiations over Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Try to imagine the outrage from Republicans if a similar group of Democrats had written to the Kremlin in 1986 telling Mikhail Gorbachev that President Ronald Reagan did not have the authority to negotiate a nuclear arms deal at the Reykjavik summit meeting that winter.

There is no functional difference between that example and the Iran talks, except that the congressional Republican caucus does not like Mr. Obama and wants to deny him any policy victory.

It’d all be funny if it wasn’t so sad.  Wait, it is funny:


Thanks, Doonesbury and

Dear Ted Cruz,

I was going to write you a short note to congratulate you (I guess) for becoming the first officially-announced candidate for president…in a primary season whose first election is still more than a year away, for a general election even more distant than that.  But we both know that I wouldn’t have been sincere, so I didn’t do it.  I know how you hate the phoniness that’s unfortunately so typical of politics, and God knows I don’t want to add to it.

I think I understand why you announced when you did—to try to get commitments from big money donors before they sign up with Jeb, and to capitalize on any remaining Tea Party fervor that hasn’t just naturally bubbled off since November.  I take it you feel that was worth the chance, even if it flies in the face of the fact that in recent times the first person to announce does not end up winning.  And I guess I understand why you announced where you did—forsaking stages in both the nation’s capital as well as your state’s capital, and even your hometown here in Houston, you chose a setting deep in the heart of the Christian extremist movement to say loud and clear, I am here to be the president of Born Again America and the rest of you better watch your step.

What the hell, it’s your campaign…do it however you want.  I will note that while you have the advantage of at least being an alternative to another Clinton, or yet another Bush—a not insubstantial advantage, to my mind—you are also following in the footsteps of Barack Obama by aiming for the top after having barely dipped your toe in an elective office.  Your hubris is showing, buddy, and I imagine they had something to say about that back at Faith West Academy and Second Baptist.

Can you win?  There is so much time before anyone casts the first vote that actually means something, and so many unknowns that could go one way or another during that time—and that’s both the known unknowns as well as the unknown ones—it’s impossible to say.  So sure, I guess you could win…and I could finally break 80 on the golf course.  I can get you the names of some folks who can help quantify that possibility for you, if you’re interested.

So as you set off on this adventure, no doubt intensely secure in your belief in yourself, I’d suggest looking out for this one way that you might be able to expand your appeal: try to be less of an asshole.  It couldn’t hurt.

There are good reasons not to run around shouting “Islamic terrorist”

The whining is so tiresome, and the motivation so transparent, that I usually shake my head and ignore it each time the usual suspects launch a new “Dontcha Just Hate Obama” offensive.   Last week when the president talked about efforts to fight back against recruitment efforts by terrorist groups, we all got to see the righteous indignation of true Americans who were appalled, appalled I say, by the president’s refusal to refer to the terrorists as “Islamic” terrorists or extremists or zealots or whatever.

I gotta wonder, what effing difference does it make if the terrorists are Muslim?  Really.  If they’re terrorists, if they’re waging war on America and Americans, we have the right and the responsibility to fight back.  It doesn’t matter why they’re doing it unless we can use that to persuade them to stop.  (I have a similar feeling about “hate crimes:” murder or assault or whatever the crime is, it’s a crime because it’s against the law, not because of why they did it.)

But, haters gonna hate.  And even though I believe that words can work wonders, I’ve long since given up on the idea that valid, cogent argument grounded in demonstrable fact may ever again be persuasive once one has chugged the Kool-Aid of the radical right.  However, when I came across this terrific unpacking of reasons why it makes absolute sense in a reasonable world for the President of the United States to choose his or her words carefully, I wanted to share.

While [Barack] Obama has not used those words, he has acknowledged Islam plays a role in the Islamic State’s strategy. Obama has said that even though the Islamic State uses religion to justify its extremism, its ideology does not mesh with mainstream, modern Islamic thought.

“They try to portray themselves as religious leaders — holy warriors in defense of Islam.  That’s why ISIL presumes to declare itself the ‘Islamic State.’ And they propagate the notion that America — and the West, generally — is at war with Islam,” Obama said at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism last week. “We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”


Why such a careful choice of words? Experts we contacted offered a few theories.

For one, the Islamic State is just one of numerous jihadist groups that the United States is fighting in the Middle East and North Africa, including al-Qaida and its affiliates. And the Islamic State has several qualities that set it apart from other jihadi groups, such as their desire to immediately create a caliphate. In that sense, it would be misleading to lump these groups into one singular enemy code-worded Islamic extremism, said James Gelvin, a history professor at the University of California Los Angeles.

Additionally, several countries helping the United States fight the Islamic State and other terrorist groups are Muslim nations, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In those cases, it is in the United States’ interest not to be at war with a religion.


The Islamic State adheres to strict, literal interpretations of the Koran and Islamic teachings rooted in 18th-century religious philosophy called Wahhabism. This ideology, the dominant faith in Saudi Arabia, is focused on a return to the “truth faith” of the first caliphate established after the death of Mohammed, a time when Islam was not “polluted” by Christianity, paganism or governmental interference, said Richard Brennan, a Middle East expert at the nonpartisan think tank RAND Corporation.

The result is a puritanical practice of Islam that views government as a problem within society, as a man’s allegiance should only be to allah. For some recruits, the Islamic State represents a “fight against the normative world order” of Shia rule, Sunni suppression, and Western colonization and invasion, Mohammed said. “The idea is that after centuries of weakness, some Muslims are fighting back.”

The Islamic State goes even further than traditional Wahhabism by adhering to takfir — which is the belief that some people who say they are Muslim are not truly Muslim, and therefore there is reason to kill them, Gelvin said. The vast majority of the Islamic world tends to believe that if someone professes they are Muslim, then they are, no matter how they specifically practice their faith.

Even al-Qaida and other Islamic extremist groups don’t accept takfir, Gelvin said.


Just as Muslims worldwide refused to take up [Osama] bin Laden’s brutal brand of Islam, the vast majority of Muslims are also not heeding the call of the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Tufts University religion professor Kenneth Garden said accepting the terror group’s self-description would amount to “an own-goal” by the United States.

“I am confident that eventually the butchers of ISIS and their like will be roundly rejected and fade away,” Garden said. “But I am afraid this is the work of a generation. There is no quick fix for this, and little role for non-Muslim voices.”

And then, there was Jon Stewart on The Daily Show noticing with exasperation that Obama apparently “still thinks he can persuade us through reasoned argument.”  See for yourself (click the pic):


The state of the political system

Almost time for the president’s State of the Union address—oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy!

Not really.  I’m feeling that I should watch/listen to the speech just because I like to think that I’m a good citizen, but I don’t expect that what we’ll hear from the House chamber in a few hours will be very uplifting or much of a surprise.

But what if…what if Mr. Obama dropped all political pretense and told us what was really on his mind?  Ezra Klein imagines he might remind us that we’re in a slow but steady economic recovery, although wages need to catch up with inflation and we need to invest in infrastructure; and that although there’s a lot to do, he would predict “The really bad news is we’re not going to do any of it.”

And that’s because even if the state of the union is strong, the state of the political system that governs the country is weak. We have made it weak. You have made it weak. And whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative, you need to know there’s a problem here.

The hard thing I have to say to you tonight is that I was wrong. When I ran for president, I believed that the political system could be repaired by people of goodwill, who genuinely wanted to agree, to reach out, to compromise. I ran for president telling you that the problems in American politics could be fixed through elections. But the problems run deeper than the people serving in Washington at any given moment, and the way all of us in this room are elected is making them worse.

The refrain I hear all around the country is, “why can’t you guys just agree?” It’s the right question. Families balancing their books need to agree on how to spend their money. Businesses trying to make payroll need to agree on which investments to make, which workers to give raises, which costs to cut.


In a family, everyone cares for each other, everyone is working towards the same goal, everyone would throw themselves in front of a truck to make sure the others are safe and healthy and happy. A family is built to find agreement.

The government isn’t a business either. It doesn’t work towards a single goal. It can’t judge itself based off stock price or profit margin. And it isn’t built to make decisions or to be held accountable for them. When a company has a disagreement about its direction, there’s someone with the power — an owner, a CEO, a board — to make a decision. A business isn’t built to find agreement the way a family is, but it’s built to force a resolution to disagreements when necessary.

You want to know the truth? Government, or at least the political system, is like a football game.


The honest truth is that that’s how politics works, too. We’ve got two teams. And only one of them can win the election. So they line up and they hit each other as hard as they can. They don’t cooperate because the rules don’t let them cooperate. They don’t agree because agreeing means losing — and losing is political death. Losing means you can’t help the people you came here to help.


If this was just about policy, we could come to agreement. I promise you we could. When you’re just talking about policy there are lots of ways to make both sides happy. But this isn’t just about policy. It’s about power. It’s about who will win the next election and govern the country. And while policy questions have answers that can make both sides happy, elections only return answers that make one side happy.


This is a room of honorable men and women who entered public service for the right reasons. Most of us are still in it for the right reasons. But even if our motivations are noble, the game we’re playing is ugly, and more than it’s ugly, it’s getting dangerous. And that’s because, even though we can’t agree, even though the rules of the game make it career suicide for us to agree, the political system is built to require our agreement. It needs us to do the thing it makes impossible. If we can’t agree, the country often can’t move forward, and sometimes, it will get pushed backward.

Over time, the failures of our political system will eat at the very foundations of our country’s strength: they will weaken our economy, divide our people, and squander our opportunities. They may well lead to an unnecessary and devastating crisis, like a debt-ceiling fight that is not resolved in time and triggers a global financial crisis that leaves the American economy forever diminished.

And here’s the thing. We can’t change the game. Politics has no place for conscientious objectors, either. Only you can change the game. Only you can change the rules. But right now, you’re just punishing the players. In 2008, you elected me and my party. But Washington still didn’t work. So in 2010, you elected the Republicans. And then Washington worked even worse. So in 2012, you gave us Democrats another try. We disappointed you again. In the most recent election, you turned back towards the Republicans. And they’re going to disappoint you again. Because you can’t change the game by changing the players. You can only change the game by changing the rules.

The good news is we’ve changed the rules before. When this country was founded, people who looked like me didn’t even count as a full person. People who looked like Minority Leader Pelosi couldn’t vote. All those senators out in the audience, they were elected by state legislatures rather than ordinary voters. Speaking of those senators, most of the states they’re representing today didn’t exist. Nor did the filibuster, for what it’s worth.

The genius of this country is that it has continuously reinvented itself to handle new challenges, new problems, and new opportunities. The most honest thing I can tell you tonight is that we need to do it again, that you need to do it again. We need a political system as strong as this union, and right now, we don’t have it.

God bless you, and God bless America.

The odd obsession of CBS Sports

There is so much going on right now; what should I write about:

Yeah, that’s it: what is it with CBS Sports and the wives and children of PGA golfers?  It’s seemed to me for some time that Jim Nantz and the CBS golf broadcast are inordinately interested in naming, and showing, the wives/girlfriends/children of PGA pros when they win a tournament.  Frighteningly so.  Obsessed, even.

Not that I paid as much attention to golf on television then as I do now, but I don’t remember seeing Nicklaus’ and Palmer’s wives and kids showing up on the 18th green to hug daddy after a win.  Maybe it started with Tiger.  Tiger was such a phenomenon: so young, and so good, a new kind of golfer.  Way back when, the revered amateur golfer Bobby Jones* offered quite a compliment when he said young Jack Nicklaus played a game with which he was not familiar, and Nicklaus famously said the same about Tiger.  And when young Tiger would win, he’d walk off the green and hug his mom and dad.  It was kind of heartwarming, yes…but the TV couldn’t stop there.  Next it was Tiger hugging his bikini model-girlfriend du jour; then it was his fiancée, then his wife, but still his mom and dad.  And then after his dad died, just his wife.

(By the way, the CBS guys only ever call him “Tiger,” no need for last names…it shows they’re tight, I guess. Even if some bluenoses like me think it’s inappropriate for people covering a news event—even a sporting news event—to be quite so familiar with the people they’re covering—or even worse, to appear to be fawning over the people they’re covering—for fear that the presumption of objectivity and fairness will disappear.  Others say it’s better to be honest and not feign objectivity or pretend they don’t have favorites, and that may be the most charitable explanation I can offer for the overly familiar references from CBS, and the rest of the golfing press and TV, too, to be fair.)

Or maybe it was Phil (again, no need for a last name here) because he was hugging and kissing his pretty blonde wife, and later his pretty blonde kids which called to mind the legacy of the 1999 U.S. Open when he lost to Payne Stewart just before his first child was born.  And then even more so when Amy (yes, even some of the wives are first-name only) was being treated for cancer and she showed up to congratulate him at the 18th after a win, and that was sweet, too.

Somewhere along the way, the CBS golf producers got it stuck in their heads that the money shot from any tournament coverage was the winner being greeted by children and wives after sinking the final putt.  Eventually I realized it was happening at every tournament, every week, seemingly without exception.  Yes, some golfers have their wives/girlfriends/families with them on the road all the time; some of them are lucky enough to win a tournament being played near where their families live; but for the wives and kids to be there ever single week?  Too much.

Yesterday at The Barclay’s, the first playoff event for this year’s FedEx Cup, and Hunter Mahan is winning…yep, Cinderella story, comin’ outta nowhere…and Jim Nantz slides into that here-comes-the-fairy-tale-ending tone of his as he almost giddily whispers to a national TV audience that “hey, Hunter’s wife and daughter are HERE—I mean, they ACTUALLY FLEW HERE FROM ANOTHER STATE last night or this morning when it looked like he might win.  Have you ever seen such a thing in your whole life ever?!”  He even managed to slip in that she “NetJet-ted in.”  Imagine, if you can, the frontier grit it took for that woman to actually go to a local airfield and climb aboard a private luxury jet operated by one of her wealthy husband’s sponsors and ride in it all the way from Dallas to Teterboro?  (Yep, Nantz even told me which New York area airport she utilized!)

Mahan made his last putt, congratulated the others in his group, turned to walk off and you could see a little smile of surprise and recognition when he saw his wife and daughter on the other side of the green.  He was also trying to be a considerate competitor and get off the green as quickly as possible because there were still golfers on the course behind him waiting to finish the hole, but the cameras were in his way, hawking around waiting to capture the de rigeur heartwarming image of the man picking up his toddler and kissing his wife.  The camera even followed behind the little family as Mahan walked to the official’s tent to sign his scorecard, and we got to overhear as Mrs. asks “Weren’t you surprised to see us?”  A few minutes later the last group on the course finishes up and Mahan’s win is official; so, cue the CBS reporter for the perfunctory post-tournament “interview,” and damned if Peter Kostis didn’t make it part of the premise of his first question!

Today on my way to lunch I heard on CBS radio that Mahan won the Barclay’s AND OMIGOD HIS WIFE AND LITTLE DAUGHTER WERE THERE TO GREET HIM WHEN HE CAME OFF THE 18TH GREEN—WOWSERS!  This afternoon I was checking facts for this post, and this was the prominent picture on the front page of CBS Sports’ golf section:


Pul-leeze, give it a rest.  You’re trying way too hard to prove…what is it that you’re trying to prove again, exactly?  Look, the journalism bar is much lower for sports than for news, but there still is a bar, or there should be.  We tune in to watch a golf tournament, not a reality show/soap opera about the golfer and his family.  Nobody’s buying what you’re selling here…not even you, I bet.

(*updated: quote originally, and inaccurately, attributed to Ben Hogan — PR)