Other movies did assassination better than The Interview

We can all agree that movie theaters and Sony Pictures were wrong to cave to cyberterrorism threats from North Korean hackers over the release of a movie about an assassination attempt on leader Kim Jong Un. But aside from the important First Amendment principles, is this much of a loss?

The Interview sounded like a pretty dismal movie — the few reviews that have been released called it juvenile, crude, and not funny. A buddy movie with Seth Rogen and James Franco overacting doesn’t sound very appealing — to me, anyway.

This is not meant to downplay the importance of the First Amendment and the right to the freedom of self-expression. But there have been books, TV shows, movies, and even a Broadway musical that have dealt with the assassination or attempted assassination of U.S. presidents before. Those are usually in the fictional realm, and they’ve been much more entertaining.

In West Wing, what is thought to be an assassination attempt on President Jed Bartlett was actually aimed at an African-American aide dating the president’s daughter. In Scandal, the assassination attempt on President Fitzgerald Grant fails, and the wrong guy is arrested. In 24, President David Palmer is faced with assassination attempts both before and after he’s elected. Much more fun, and more interesting.

The Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins features several assassins and would-be assassins throughout history. It won five Tony Awards, but was never a huge hit.

In the Line of Fire, a film focusing on a Secret Service agent played by Clint Eastwood and a would-be assassin played by John Malkovich, was pretty good as a thinking action movie.

The Day of the Jackal is a film classic about an assassin plotting to kill French President Charles de Gaulle. He, obviously, was a real president, but he was out of office when the 1973 film came out, even though the story was based on a real reported failed plot. It scored one Oscar nomination and won several Golden Globe awards.

For my mind, the 1962 classic The Manchurian Candidate remains the best movie about an assassination attempt, based on a book by Richard Condon. I wouldn’t want to give away too much if you haven’t seen it, but it dealt with the Cold War, presidential politics, brainwashing, and family dynamics. It received two Oscar nominations. The 2004 remake wasn’t as good.

There have been a few films about the Kennedy assassination: JFK and Executive Action. There was a film called The Assassination of Richard Nixon, based on a true story about a would-be assassin who wanted to kill Nixon by driving a plane into the White House. You think maybe Khalid Sheikh Mohammed heard about this idea before he thought up the 9/11 airline hijacking plans?

A 2006 “mockumentary” called Death of a President is a British film covering the fictional assassination of President George W. Bush. I had never heard of it before all of the Interview brouhaha. It played at film festivals in 2008, was released in the United States for all of two weeks, and never made much of an impact.

In the film, Bush was supposedly killed in 2007. His killing is blamed on a Syrian man, and now-President Dick Cheney ties the assassination to al-Qaeda. The new president also uses it as an excuse to further enlarge detention and surveillance powers. And it turns out the guilty party is really a Persian Gulf War veteran who recently lost a son in the Iraq war. Reviews were mixed (mostly negative), although the film won several awards.

Personally, I think movies advocating the actual assassination of real sitting leaders are in poor taste. We all can think of leaders we wish weren’t in power, but do we really want to go that far? I know I would be offended if another country released a movie that killed off President Obama. Heck, I never saw the British Death of a President, but after reading about it, I don’t want to, either.

There have been scads of books written about the Kennedy assassination and its many conspiracy theories. Fiction about attempted presidential assassinations? Too much to count. There have been stories and poems about political assassinations going all the way back to the year 800. They’ve been written worldwide. Some involve spies; some are science fiction. One interesting one is Z, both the novel and film, which is a thinly disguised account of the 1963 assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis.

There have been enough political killings and assassinations throughout history as it is. I started compiling a list of “political murders of the day” for this website, (available by clicking the link above), and I’m sorry to say that I have one for just about every day of the year. People have been killing other people since time immemorial. They need no encouragement.

So let’s leave assassination to the fictional realm of thrillers, movies, and the like. I update my political murder page every day; let’s not tempt fate.

Obama’s Cuba move really did “tear down this wall”

In a historic shift, President Obama has moved to end 50 years of rigidity in U.S. policy toward Cuba. It’s a change that is long overdue, and it’s a bold move for a supposed lame duck.

Diplomatic ties will be re-established between the two countries in the months to come. Embassies will be reopened. Travel restrictions will be eased, although Congress would need to act to completely lift the travel ban. In a prisoner exchange, American contractor Alan Gross and another unnamed U.S. agent were released from Cuban prisons, and three Cubans were released from American jails. More money can be sent to relatives in Cuba, and people traveling there can take out more goods. People can buy Cuban cigars and rum legally once again.

“Neither the American nor the Cuban people are well-served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born,” Obama said in announcing the changes. “It’s time for a new approach.” Indeed, the ill-fated Bay of Pigs fiasco was in 1961, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was in 1962. If you don’t mind listening to Kevin Costner’s bad attempt at a Boston accent, watch Thirteen Days to get a better sense of that period in time.

Over 18 months of secret talks, with the cooperation and intervention of Canada and Pope Francis, U.S. officials have been meeting with representatives of Raul Castro’s government. Obama’s announcement is the capstone of those talks, even though it’s really only a beginning.

The reaction of Cuban Americans is split mostly along age lines. Members of the older generation, who will hate Fidel Castro until their dying breath, predictably condemned Obama’s new position. Younger Cuban Americans welcomed the news and look forward to reuniting with relatives.

It didn’t take long for Republican outrage to surface. Sen. Marco Rubio (R, Fla.), who used to claim that his parents and grandparents escaped Castro’s Cuba until that was found to be a lie — they arrived in the U.S. before Castro took power — was first out of the gate with indignation.

Calling Obama the “worst negotiator since Jimmy Carter,” Rubio whined that Cuba got “everything” and the U.S. got “very little.” Rubio, whose 15 minutes of fame were basically up ever since his thirst overcame his poise during his GOP rebuttal to the State of the Union address, was joined by other Republicans expressing the usual anger at any Obama accomplishment. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R, S.C.) says he will fight so that not one penny goes toward opening a new embassy. Hey, how about Rubio or Sen. Ted Cruz (R, Texas) for Cuban ambassador? After all, Cruz’s father, Rafael, came to the U.S. from Cuba illegally, so Cruz would feel right at home.

Keep in mind that this is only the first step in what is bound to be a long process of normalizing relations between the two countries. Neither side got “everything.” As many pundits have correctly pointed out, the U.S. is the only country with the policy of isolating Cuba, and it hasn’t done much good. It has kept the people of Cuba poorer and hasn’t helped the U.S., while other countries have open travel and trade policies.

Conventional wisdom has always been that “Only Nixon could go to China.” It was a visit from Republican President Richard Nixon in 1972 that was the beginning of the normalization of relations between the U.S. and China. China became an ally of the U.S. in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Many issues about Taiwan were resolved peacefully, although some problems remain thorny to this day. Trade was established between the two countries, giving many U.S. businesses new opportunities for cheap labor and new markets.

No, Obama’s announcement about Cuba does not mean the restoration of democracy in the island nation only 90 miles away. But did the non-restoration of democracy keep U.S. companies from investing in China, Vietnam, or other Communist countries? According to some business commentators, this new chapter of U.S.-Cuban relations could be a win-win for both U.S. and Cuban enterprises.

Usually, at this point in a two-term presidency, other politicians and pundits have written off the incumbent as having no more influence. The opposition party holds both houses of Congress. Obama has become a lame duck, so why should anyone pay attention to him?

If this is what we can look forward to for the next two years, Mr. President, by all means, keep quacking.

The way to interrogate — not torture — terror suspects

One of the best books ever written in the wake of the September 11th attacks was The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by journalist and author Lawrence Wright. It paints a clear picture of the terrorist group, Osama bin Laden’s rise to power, American intelligence failures, and — probably most important — how FBI agents successfully questioned terror suspects without resorting to torture.

The book won a slew of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. Time magazine called it one of the 100 best nonfiction books ever written, and it has been described as the “definitive history” of al-Qaeda.

For me, the most fascinating part of the book came almost at the very end. It’s when a Lebanese American FBI agent successfully interrogated bin Laden’s bodyguard days after the attacks and was able to get all of the names of the 9/11 hijackers. He did it without waterboarding, “rectal rehydration,” forced nudity, sleep deprivation, or death threats.

He did it by talking to him.

Ali Soufan was the FBI case agent in the investigation of the USS Cole bombing of October 2000 in Yemen, in which 17 sailors died and 39 were wounded. When the plane carrying an FBI team arrived in Yemen to begin the probe, Yemeni soldiers waited on the tarmac in 110-degree heat, aiming AK-47s at the plane. The Americans drew their guns in return.

According to Wright’s account, Soufan quickly saw that the incident could turn into a bloodbath. He calmly left the plane and, speaking in Arabic, offered a bottle of water to one of the nearest soldiers and said he had water for all. The soldiers put down their weapons, and the Americans did the same. Crisis averted.

Soufan was still in Yemen nearly a year later after the 9/11 attacks. The bin Laden bodyguard, Abu Jandal, was being held in a prison in Yemen. Soufan had been given airport surveillance photos of possible hijackers and needed identification. He saw the link between the men and al-Qaeda but needed verification.

At first, Abu Jandal wouldn’t talk to him. The prisoner delivered diatribes against America, which he considered the root of all evil. But Soufan, also a Muslim, started a series of discussions about Islam. They argued about religion and about the true meaning of jihad. Soufan also brought him a history of America, written in Arabic, showing him that America started in a struggle against tyranny. Soufan discovered that Abu Jandal was diabetic, and he arranged for sugarless wafers to be delivered to the prisoner.

By the fifth day of questioning, Soufan showed Abu Jandal photos of the 9/11 bombing, saying, “Bin Laden did this.” He also showed the prisoner a Yemeni newspaper with the headline, “Two Hundred Yemeni Souls Perish in New York Attack.” Abu Jandal was horrified but still refused to believe that bin Laden was responsible.

Soufan finally brought out a book with a series of photos of al-Qaeda members and of the hijackers, telling Abu Jindal that some of these men were in custody. Soufan knew the hijackers had been killed in the plane attacks, but Abu Jandal didn’t.

Abu Jandal conceded that he knew some of the men and identified them. But he still insisted that the men would never commit such an action.

Soufan had the names he needed. According to Wright’s book, Soufan says, “I know for sure that the people who did this were Qaeda guys.”

“How do you know?” asked Abu Jandal. “Who told you?”

“You did,” said Soufan. “These are the hijackers. You just identified them.”

According to Wright’s narrative, Abu Jandal asked for a moment alone. Soufan left the room. When he returned, he asked Abu Jandal what he thought now.

“I think the Sheikh went crazy,” came the answer. Abu Jandal then told Soufan everything he knew.

The narrative in Wright’s book shows that intelligence gained by smart, legal methods is more reliable than that gained from suspects under torture. Soufan went on to question other suspects during his FBI career, often by sitting on the floor with them and drinking tea, speaking to them in Arabic. There were always discussions and arguments about Islam. And he found out what he needed to know.

Soufan testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May 2009. In his testimony, he stressed that his interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, one of bin Laden’s lieutenants, produced actionable intelligence with the names of other terrorists. After the CIA took over and started waterboarding, the flow of actionable intelligence stopped.

The release of the report of the Senate Intelligence Committee on CIA torture contains details most Americans wish they never had to read about. Unnamed CIA agents performed waterboarding on more suspects than previously admitted to. Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was waterboarded so many times that it really was “a series of near drownings,” despite the fact that the only good information he delivered was gained before the waterboarding started. Many news articles go into detail about the torture described in the Senate report; the lies told; the cover-up; the denials. I will leave those details to them.

Sen. John McCain (R, Ariz.) is usually bellicose about war. But the years he spent being tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam taught him an important lesson about torture — that it doesn’t work. On the day the Senate report was released, he gave an eloquent speech on the Senate floor. He ended his speech with these words:

“We gave up much in the expectation that torture would make us safer. Too much. Obviously, we need intelligence to defeat our enemies, but we need reliable intelligence. Torture produces more misleading information than actionable intelligence. And what the advocates of harsh and cruel interrogation methods have never established is that we couldn’t have gathered as good or more reliable intelligence from using humane methods. The most important lead we got in the search for Osama bin Laden came from conventional interrogation methods. I think it’s an insult to the many intelligence officers who have acquired good intelligence without hurting or degrading suspects. Yes, we can and we will.

“But in the end, torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said and will always maintain that this question isn’t about our enemies, it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be.”

Obamacare keeps delivering. Why won’t media notice?

The statistics are pretty stunning:

  • The rate of uninsured Americans has fallen by 30 percent. Some 10 million more Americans are insured now than were before the Affordable Care Act was passed.
  • In states that expanded Medicaid at almost no cost to them, the uninsured rate fell by 36 percent.
  • The rate of health care inflation has fallen to the lowest rate since the U.S. government started tracking it — only a 3.6 percent increase overall in 2013.
  • Hospital-acquired infections have fallen by 17 percent since 2012. Some 50,000 lives have been saved.
  • Most premiums for policies purchased through the ACA stayed the same or rose only modestly. Some actually fell. Increased competition brought policy prices down.
  • Since Nov. 15, the beginning of the new open enrollment period for buying health insurance, some 1.5 million people have bought policies or opened an account to buy a policy. And the number keeps growing daily.

Some of these details are from a new report in the December 2014 issue of Health Affairs. “Medicare spending growth decelerated from 4.0 percent in 2012 to 3.4 percent in 2013, primarily as a result of slower growth in enrollment, the impacts of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and the federal budget sequestration of 2013,” the report said.

So — more people covered, costs going up less, an ACA website working well, a big drop in hospital infections. Sounds great, right? So what part of Obamacare makes news?

Really, only two things are garnering any news coverage. One is a kerfuffle over a year-old recording of MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, who served as an adviser to provide economic models for the ACA, making a dumb statement that the law was written a certain way because voters were “stupid.” Of course, the House is holding hearings. A story on Politico trumpets the big headline “Will Jonathan Gruber topple Obamacare?” Before the mid-term elections, Fox News was all Gruber, all the time, when it wasn’t all Ebola, all the time. And media outlets continue to incorrectly report that he was the “architect” of the ACA, when in fact it was mostly written by congressional staffers, who write most legislation.

The other story came from remarks by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D, N.Y.) suggesting that Democrats made a political mistake by passing the Affordable Care Act instead of doing more to boost the economy with some unspecified economic engine measure. Never mind that the 2009 stimulus package, although not perfect, was the best that could be wrung out of Congress at the time, and Congress wasn’t about to spend a penny more in stimulus funds. (It also saved the economy, by the way.) Schumer’s remarks were the basis of several “Democrats in disarray” stories.

An article in New York magazine outlines the media’s biggest hits and misses when it comes to the ACA. Entitled “4 New Studies Show Obamacare Is Working Incredibly Well,” the story references a study by the Urban Institute, a Kaiser Health News analysis, a report from Vox.com, and a report from the Centers from Medicare & Medicaid Services, also referenced in the Health Affairs study.

Yet many Americans still don’t understand what the law does. You would think the media would be interested in explaining a law that has revamped much of the way we get health insurance, but four and a half years after passage, Americans are still waiting for those explanations, for the most part.

Chuck Todd, now host of NBC’s Meet the Press, once famously said that it “wasn’t his job” to explain the ACA. Really, Chuck? You make a seven-figure salary, and you can’t be bothered to explain how the law affects Americans? No wonder people are confused. It’s a lot easier — and lazier — to run a sound bite of a Republican telling a lie about the effect of the ACA than it is to explain to people how their coverage has improved. Death panels, anyone?

Kentucky, for example, has a popular and effective health care exchange called Kynect. The program expanded coverage to the tune of nearly half a million people. Yet many residents of the state say they love Kynect but hate Obamacare — even though the program wouldn’t be possible without the ACA. In the mid-term election, Sen. Mitch McConnell, poised to become the GOP Senate majority leader, told Kentuckians he would keep Kynect but get rid of Obamacare. And he didn’t get called out on the lie. (Of course, his Democratic rival, Allison Lundergan Grimes, refused to point out the error and embrace the popular program. One of the many reasons she lost.)

To be fair, some media outlets have made some attempts to explain the effects of the law. The same Politico piece refers to a guidebook about the law itself that goes through many of the law’s parts, step by step. The excellent health care reporter Julie Rovner probably led everyone else in ACA coverage when she was at National Public Radio, explaining complexities and answering questions from listeners. Even though she’s now the Robin Toner Distinguished Fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, her reporting can still be heard on NPR when the network is doing an ACA story. What the media need to do now is explain how the ACA is affecting Americans today — how it has changed details about coverage and care.

So roll your eyes at Gruber-gate (or is it Gruber-ghazi?) in the House hearings. Watch as Democrats wring their hands, running away from a law they should be embracing. And be thankful that

  • Children can stay on their parents’ health insurance coverage until they’re 26.
  • Insurance companies no longer can deny coverage for pre-existing conditions.
  • Preventive care is covered 100 percent. So even if the flu strain has mutated, get a flu shot. It won’t cost you anything.
  • Millions of people across the country have health insurance who didn’t before. That’s the biggest and best take-home message of all.

 

No indictment in chokehold case: Independent prosecutors needed

When it comes to police misconduct and police killing of civilians, it’s time to break the symbiotic relationship between local prosecutors and local police.

The video in the Eric Garner case was pretty shocking: A group of New York City police threw Garner to the ground and put him in a chokehold, a move banned by the NYC police in 1993. Garner didn’t struggle against them; he put his hands up. But the other thing he wasn’t doing was breathing. Eleven times, he told police he couldn’t breathe, and he died. The medical examiner ruled that his death was a homicide, caused by a chokehold. Yet there’s no indictment of officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose arm is clearly shown across Garner’s throat.

As the country awaited the indictment decision on the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Mo., experts, law enforcement officials, reporters, prosecutors, defense attorneys — just about anyone with any kind of expertise in the matter — stressed that it’s very hard to indict a police officer in a civilian killing in the line of duty. But I never understood why until I watched an interview with a former prosecutor who made an interesting point.

Prosecutors have one job to do — to prosecute criminals. To do that, they need the help of the police. The two bodies go hand in hand and depend on each other for those prosecutions. Whether it’s a simple charge or an indictment by a grand jury, those prosecutors need police for testimony and evidence to build a case and to convict.

The old line about “you can indict a ham sandwich” may be true, but only if the prosecutor wants to go after that sandwich. The prosecutor controls what goes before a grand jury, what questions get asked, what witnesses are called. It was true in the Michael Brown case and it was true in the Eric Garner case.

The system is broken. ALL incidents involving police killings of civilians must be handled at the federal level, with an independent federal prosecutor. That’s the only way any justice will be done. A local prosecutor, relying on that symbiotic relationship with police, is not gong to allow an indictment. It’s just not going to happen. We saw it in Ferguson, and now we saw it in New York City.

Body cameras are a must for police across the country. But incontrovertible evidence showed what happened to Garner — he was killed in a chokehold by Pantaleo, and there was still no indictment.

Some now question spending the money for body cameras — after all, if video didn’t help Eric Garner, who would it help? — but knowing that they are on camera will affect the behavior of police officers.

In Illinois, when President Obama was still a state senator, he sponsored a successful bill requiring all police interrogations to be videotaped. At first the police balked. Eventually, they saw that it would help them as much as it would help suspects, so they backed the legislation.

Now police must stay in line during interrogations — no torture, as was the case of a Chicago detective unit led by former Chicago Detective Jon Burge for 20 years. The city of Chicago had to pay millions in damages to those tortured under Burge’s direction, and many convictions had to be thrown out. Police are protected as well as suspects, because there can be no false accusations from suspects, either.

Cops seem to be incapable of thinking ill of a fellow cop. They think they are above the law. Listen to interviews by police about the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases — it’s amazing what is coming out of their mouths. If you go on a police message board, you see comments that are truly disgusting, disparaging Garner as “Fatso.” Others are filled with racial epithets. These are the guys who are supposed to serve and protect?

I agree with U.S. Attorney General that the majority of police in this country are doing their jobs well — they do put their lives on the line. But that doesn’t mean they have to reflexively defend the bad apples with the “shoot first” (or in this case, choke first) mentality.

Besides, we don’t need to raise the status of any public servant to the level of saint. You know what other groups of people “put their lives on the line”? Teachers. Firefighters. Health workers. People who run food pantries and health care clinics in poor neighborhoods. If we want to nominate everyday saints, I suggest starting with the health care workers traveling to Africa to care for Ebola victims.

One comment on a political blog suggested it was time to bring back the Black Panthers to patrol communities of color — that police could not be trusted. I don’t think that’s the answer. But in an interesting coincidence, today (Dec. 4) is the 45th anniversary of the death of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was shot and killed in a controversial police raid in his apartment on Chicago’s west side. The details are brutal: Hampton was drugged by an FBI informant; police fired nearly 100 bullets and the Black Panthers fired one, accidentally; those who survived were dragged to the street and charged with (you guessed it) resisting arrest and attempted murder of a police officer. The unbelievable details can be found by clicking on the “Political murder of the day” on this website. (If you’re reading this in subsequent days, scroll down — older murders are available there for at least a week.)

Incredibly, Rep. Peter King (R, N.Y.) blamed Garner for his own death. “If he had not had asthma, and a heart condition, and was so obese, he would not have died from this,” King said. Right. Let’s blame the black guy because he’s overweight.

Of course race plays a major part. Brown and Garner are both consistently described as “big men” — the big, scary black man. Remember that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson referred to fellow human being Michael Brown as an “it” — “It was like a demon,” he told the grand jury about why he shot and killed Brown. “Black lives matter” has replaced “Hands up, don’t shoot” as the mantra of protestors. It’s time that police officers with the “shoot first” mentality learned that lesson.

No surprise at GOP hissy fit over Obama daughters

The communications director for Rep. Stephen Fincher (R, as if you needed to ask, Tenn.) is resigning after a dust-up over some mean-spirited things she posted on social media about Malia and Sasha Obama.

The day before Thanksgiving, both first daughters accompanied their father for the annual ritual of pardoning two turkeys before Thanksgiving. Acting as normal teen-agers, they rolled their eyes at some of their dad’s corny jokes. Sorry, President Obama, being commander in chief doesn’t always cut it for the offspring. Heck, my daughters are in their 20s, and they still roll their eyes at me sometimes.

Many of us watching the cute clip of turkey-pardoning were a little startled to see how much 13-year-old Sasha has shot up recently, nearly matching her sister in height. Now both of them are nearly as tall as their parents. Who are tall to begin with. If Sasha’s skirt was a little short, no doubt that’s why.

Of course, that wasn’t good enough for Elizabeth Lauten, the soon to be ex-director of communications for Fincher. Here are some of the things she posted on Facebook, which barely reach the middle-school level of intellect:

“Your mother and father don’t respect their positions very much, or the nation for that matter, so I’m guessing you’re coming up a little short in the ‘good role model’ department. … Rise to the occasion. Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at the bar.”

Later, Lauten gave a non-apology apology. She claimed she “prayed about it,” but never said the words “I’m sorry” to the Obama family.

For the record, Ms. Lauten, Barack and Michelle Obama seem to be exemplary parents in a very difficult setting. They make sure they share most meals with their kids. They have kept their daughters out of the public eye for the most part. From all reports, the girls have limited screen time, they make their own beds in the White House, they didn’t get cell phones or Facebook pages right away. So to use the cheap line that “your mother and father don’t respect their positions very much” just shows how infantile this complaint is.

So Lauten is out as Fincher’s communications director. Perhaps she resigned or was “asked to resign”; perhaps she was fired. Either way, she’ll probably get a high-paying gig on Fox.

There has been a tradition to leave presidential offspring alone, especially when they’re children. Democrats respect that tradition. Republicans, in one more example of thinking the rules shouldn’t apply to them, do not.

John McCain (R, Ariz.), once again earning his name as Senator McNasty, famously told a tasteless joke about Chelsea Clinton in a prepared remark to a public audience, saying she was “so ugly, because her father was Janet Reno.” Ha, ha, Sen. McCain. Just one more reason you lost in 2008.

Radio gasbag Rush Limbaugh made fun of both Amy Carter’s and Chelsea Clinton’s looks. He compared Chelsea Clinton to a dog.

Chelsea Clinton had a comback of her own for Limbaugh: “I’m a believer in a thick skin as a survival tactic … I have the [dubious] honor of being compared to a dog as a 13-year-old by Rush Limbaugh. That was not about me, that was about him.”

Indeed. On right-wing websites, I’ve seen posts calling Malia Obama a “street whore” when she wore shorts. In GOP land, First lady Michelle Obama is constantly criticized for her looks, for the size of her derriere, for her fashion choices. Limbaugh calls her “Moo-chelle.” Seems to me that someone of his size shouldn’t be calling attention to weight.

The Bush twins got into their fair share of highjinks. They were arrested for underage drinking and using false IDs. They were both over 18, and it was reported by media and became a punchline for comedians. But you didn’t hear Democratic politicians and their staffs saying things publicly about it. Anything about the Obamas, however, seems to be fair game.

An episode of the TV show The West Wing shows the differences between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to basic human kindness. A novice GOP adviser outmatches White House Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn on a political talk show. President Bartlett is impressed by the young Ainsley Hayes and wants to hire her for the White House. Her GOP friends trash the idea, saying things like, “I hate these people” and “Did you meet anyone there who isn’t worthless?”

Ainsley Hayes is set to turn down the job offer until she sees how the entire staff reacts to a crisis, coming together in a caring way, asking about survivors after a coup attempt in Africa. She changes her mind and accepts the job. (And I really wish I could include the clip!)

Ainsley: “I said don’t say that. Say they’re smug and superior. Say their approach to public policy makes you want to tear your hair out. Say they like high taxes and spending your money. Say they want to take your guns and open your borders, but don’t call them worthless. At least don’t do it in front of me. The people that I have met have been extraordinarily qualified, their intent is good. Their commitment is true, they are righteous, and they are patriots. And I’m their lawyer.”

I’m curious about the official Obama White House response to the Lauten Affair. No doubt it will be “no comment.” But I wonder if President Obama wouldn’t really want to say something like this.

In 1950, Margaret Truman — already an adult, by the way — got a bad review for a singing performance in the Washington Post. Her father, President Harry Truman, wrote a short letter to the critic. It included the line: “Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens, you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!”

Ferguson no-indictment call: Travesty of justice or fair shake?

Justice for Michael Brown never really had a chance.

As a rule, police don’t get charged with a crime when they shoot and kill someone. In one sense, that’s fair, since they’re putting their own lives on the line trying to serve and protect, and they do have a right to defend themselves. But when a case is handled as poorly and in such an obviously biased way as the Michael Brown case was handled, it’s clear that there was only one outcome the prosecutor wanted — no indictment for the officer who shot and killed Brown. And St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch got what he wanted.

The variance in stories from the police side since August is stunning. Within a few days, Ferguson police played up the story of Michael Brown stealing cigars. They admitted that Officer Darren Wilson didn’t know that Brown was a suspect in that theft until after he had killed him. By the time of the 20-minute McCulloch press conference, all of a sudden the story was that Wilson stopped Brown precisely because he matched the description of the cigar-stealer.

Numerous eyewitnesses came forward to give accounts. As many lawyers on cable news shows said, eyewitness accounts don’t always agree. Yet McCulloch and his assistants played up the accounts that fit into the scenario of Michael Brown “charging” at Darren Wilson — a scenario that he no doubt settled on after he heard some of these eyewitness accounts — and discounted the ones that didn’t meet their test. Never mind that multiple witnesses said Brown was shot over 100 feet away, with his hands up.

In his bizarre press conference performance, McCulloch actually attacked the eyewitnesses who told a story that didn’t fit his prearranged scenario. He claimed those witnesses had “changed their story” and that their testimony “didn’t match the autopsy evidence.” This, despite the fact that he admitted some of the autopsy evidence was inconclusive. He claimed that some witnesses said Brown was standing still with his hands up, some said his hands were down, and some said he was running toward Wilson.

Late in the press conference, before McCulloch actually announced the non-indictment, the ONLY story he was repeating was that Brown was “charging” at Wilson. Why, exactly, should we believe that to be the case? Yet, since there was no police report about this incident, Wilson was able to pick and choose his details and tell a story that would exonerate him.

The photos released of Wilson’s supposed injuries from Brown don’t show much in the way of injuries. There is some slight redness in his cheeks, but no evidence that the “demon,” as Wilson described Brown, did much damage. Why should we believe Wilson?

There were a series of leaks throughout the “secret” grand jury proceedings. (Gee, wonder where those came from, Prosecutor McCulloch?) And all of those carefully leaked details served to bolster the outcome McCulloch wanted. And although McCulloch’s office was willing to leak those details throughout the proceedings, he refused to say if the decision not to indict was unanimous — claimed he couldn’t do it. How is it that so many of these details, including Wilson’s tailored testimony, are fair game, yet how the jurors voted isn’t?

According to reports from those who have started looking into the thousands of pages of documents from the grand jury, including the testimony from Wilson himself, McCulloch’s assistants bullied the eyewitnesses and treated Darren Wilson with kid gloves.

The oddest and most disturbing thing about the press conference was the timing. The grand jury issued its non-indictment and was dismissed. First the decision was to be revealed at 4 p.m. Central time. Then, inexplicably, that was postponed until 8 p.m. And then McCulloch started 20 minutes late anyway. Why?

Certainly it gave McCulloch prime time TV exposure. But it had the worse effect of announcing the decision late at night — a time when protestors who had been stewing all day waited in the dark. Is it any surprise that there was a violent reaction? A diary on Daily Kos suggested that the evening release of the non-indictment was done on purpose, to ensure a violent reaction from protestors. The prosecutor’s office wanted riots, so they would look good and the heavily African-American crowd would look bad.

“Crowd control is always more difficult in the dark,” said CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin in an online opinion piece. McCulloch’s “tone was icy and divisive. His sympathy for the Brown family was perfunctory. He seemed more angry at the news media than about the death of a young man.” That anger also seemed directed at social media and eyewitnesses who didn’t fit his preordained outcome. What kind of prosecutor treats eyewitnesses that way? Not one I want in my county.

So Darren Wilson walks free. No doubt someone will give him a lucrative ghost-written book deal, and he’ll be the darling of conservative media.

Some of the leaks about this case suggested that Wilson will resign from the Ferguson Police Department. For the sake of the town, I certainly hope he does. He’d probably be much happier living in an all-white community anyway.

So Obama took executive action on immigration. What now?

President Obama has announced a series of limited steps he is taking to partially fix the country’s broken immigration system. The big question is, what happens now — legally, politically, morally, and practically?

The predicted reaction from Republicans has been, well, predictable. Varying degrees of outrage, possible impeachment, lawsuits, even jail time for the president. Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann claims that “illiterate Hispanics” will vote Democratic. Some, like Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, even have predicted violence, anarchy, and “ethnic cleansing.” So a group of white Republican voters is going to commit an act of violence against the women who clean their houses, the men who mow their lawns, and the children who pick their fruits and vegetables? I don’t think so.

Republicans are masters at expressing outrage, but less so on offering any ideas of substance. The earlier talking point was “poisoning the well.” Now it seems to be claiming that Obama is offering “amnesty” to all immigrants here illegally, although that clearly isn’t what he told the country. It’s also clear that few Republicans actually understand what “amnesty” actually means. Even Fox News’ Megyn Kelly admitted that Republicans just use the term to get people riled up. And let’s not forget that GOP Saint Ronald Reagan was the biggest amnesty-giver of them all.

In one interview, a Republican lawmaker was repeatedly asked what the GOP would offer to tell those in other countries that the borders were NOT wide open. His answer was “I don’t understand your question,” and then he launched into how these new executive actions tell those in other countries that the borders ARE now wide open. Even though that’s the opposite of what Obama said — these actions do not apply to those who arrived recently and do not apply to future illegal immigrants.

It would have been better for the networks to give Obama the ten minutes the administration asked for so people could listen to the actual outline of his actions, but I guess 1) they’re too afraid of being labeled the “liberal media” and 2) it’s Sweeps month, and God help anything that postpones finding out who killed Sam on “How to Get Away With Murder.”

As responsible journalists have pointed out and as Obama said last night, the limited executive actions follow the same steps taken by other recent presidents, both Democratic and Republican, since Dwight Eisenhower. So legally, Obama is covered. Republicans won’t say it out loud, but those with brains in their party know so. Even some conservative members of the Supreme Court have said so.

On the moral front, most reasonably thinking people would say it’s a good thing if families can stay together, and that parents shouldn’t be deported if it means leaving children behind in this country.

Politically? This could be a tinderbox. Obama threw down a gauntlet to the GOP, saying that if they don’t like him taking action, “pass a bill.” Let’s see a show of hands: Who thinks they’ll do it? I didn’t think so. The bipartisan Senate bill that passed with a wide margin in the Senate has been sitting in the House all year, and House Speaker John Boehner refuses to bring it to a vote, even though it likely would pass with a majority of all Democrats and some Republicans. It’s more important for the GOP to deny Obama a victory, despite that fact that immigration reform has wide support from the American people, business groups, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, etc., etc.

Why should we think Republicans will all of a sudden find religion on immigration? The low voter turnout in the midterm election of 36.4 percent shows that their side turned out, and the Democratic side — which ostensibly would contain more Hispanic voters — didn’t. So the GOP isn’t paying a political price. It won’t work in the long run, but no doubt Republicans will think of new ways to suppress voting to try to ensure election night victories. And the cowardice of too many Democrats in persuading Obama to delay his actions on immigration no doubt helped to suppress the Hispanic vote.

As far as the well being poisoned, which party started poisoning the well on election night in 2008? Hint: It wasn’t the Democrats.

On the practical side of things, these executive actions will be good for the country. Those earning wages will be paid legally and will pay their share of taxes, boosting state and federal coffers. More unified families mean more stable families — families that can spend more money, boosting the economy.

Of course, the third time is the charm for something — the House GOP finally found a lawyer to file a lawsuit against Obama for doing something they wanted him to do anyway. The lawsuit, passed a full four months ago in the GOP-led House, goes after the president for acting on his own to delay the employer mandate for health insurance for a year. Which the House had passed before. And it doesn’t ask for any relief or change, it only asks for a ruling. No doubt the court will make quick work of throwing it out, since those suing can’t claim that it has damaged them, and thus lack standing to bring the suit.

So get out your popcorn and get ready to watch. But don’t expect Congress to do anything — they’ve already left for Thanksgiving vacation.

Truth about 2015 Obamacare rates the GOP won’t like

The Affordable Care Act health exchanges are again open for business, and it’s good news for consumers. And bad news for Republicans, no matter how they try to spin it and no matter how many votes they take to repeal the law.

According to an intelligence brief by the respected and impartial McKinsey Center for Health System Reform, Americans buying health insurance through state and federal exchanges won’t see their premiums go up very much, contrary to the claims made by the GOP during the mid-term elections and on Fox News. In some areas, premiums are actually lower than they were last year. And Americans will have a lot more choices when it comes to policies: Only five health insurance companies have withdrawn from the exchanges, while 57 carriers have been added. The number of carriers increased by 26 percent, McKinsey says.

The McKinsey brief states that in 2015, “enrollees could see a median increase of only 4 percent when they receive their renewal notifications. However, the actual increase they pay could be less than half that amount, given that many people will have the option of switching to a lower-price plan.”

An online article in Forbes — hardly a bastion of left-wing thought — pointed out the good news about Obamacare rates. “When was the last time we saw insurance premiums experience an annual increase of less than 5 percent?” the article asks. “All in all, it is going to be quite a stretch for Obamacare opponents to turn this data into bad news.”

A story in Bloomburg News — also not usually quoted by those darn liberals — shows a similar trend. That story put the average premium increase slightly higher — six percent — and said that 77 new insurance plans would be competing for customers in 2015.

Since the new round of open enrollment began, things have gone smoothly on the government website. At least 100,000 people started the process of signing up for health care the first weekend, and there are few reported glitches. Of course, when things go smoothly and websites work like they’re supposed to, that’s not news to cable news channels.

Instead, the latest right-wing talking point about the ACA is from a year-old video featuring Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist who wrote the Massachusetts health care law (aka “Romneycare”) and was a technical consultant on the federal law. In the video, Gruber talks about the “stupidity” of the American voter and that the ACA was written in such a way as to prevent the Congressional Budget Office from scoring the fines generated from health insurance mandate as a tax.

Fox and other conservative media have promoted Gruber to the role of “architect” of the ACA, even though he didn’t write the law itself — he had a contract for modeling the economics of various proposals for the bill. The cable network seems obsessed with Gruber’s comments, and some Republican House members are (of course) calling for hearings. Over eight days, there were 779 mentions of Jonathan Gruber on Fox, according to a compilation by the Poynter.org for the Poynter Institute. That contrasts with 79 mentions by MSNBC and even fewer by CNN. I guess we can call this “Gruber-gate,” or “Gruber-ghazi.”

Here’s the thing, though. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the ACA is constitutional, it dealt with that whole tax/not-a-tax issue. And when it came to scoring the bill, the CBO decided that it didn’t matter if it counted the penalty as a tax or a fine — the law still would generate $4 billion in health care expenditure savings in 2016. But Republicans are hoping that the Gruber brouhaha will add fuel to the fire facing the Supreme Court when it hears arguments in a case about the matter of subsidies for policies bought from the federal exchange rather than state exchanges. Which was basically a typo in the law — the law’s writers say the intent was to provide subsidies for both.

Irony is rich, but at least one Republican has apparently seen the writing on the wall. In Oregon, the losing GOP candidate for Senate, Dr. Monica Wehby, spent much of her campaign railing against the ACA. Now, according to a story in The Oregonian, she’s reportedly applying to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber to be director of the Oregon Health Authority — the agency that is responsible for implementing the Affordable Care Act and overseeing the Oregon health exchange.

Obama’s immigration stance against GOP: Crazy like a fox

President Obama seems to be on the verge of following in the footsteps of two Republican presidents. He is poised to issue the same kind of executive orders shielding immigrants from deportation that were issued by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Of course, when Reagan and Bush issued those same orders, it was seen as a humanitarian gesture to keep families together. According to an AP story, “Two of the last three Republican presidents — Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush — did the same thing in extending amnesty to family members who were not covered by the last major overhaul of immigration law in 1986.”

But when Obama talks of doing the same, it must be an impeachable offense, right? If Obama takes such action, he will “poison the well” so that there can be no cooperation between the White House and Congress.

Please. As if Republicans haven’t been poisoning the well for six solid years. Don’t forget that a group of Republicans met on election night 2008 and decided then and there not to support the new president on ANYTHING. They all heeded the directions from radio gasbag Rush Limbaugh, who said at a conservative talkfest in January 2009 that he “wanted Obama to fail.”

Instead, Republicans have spent six solid years trying to stymie every accomplishment; voting against every initiative, even if it started as a GOP idea, like the health insurance mandate; and attacking him from every direction, even when those attacks are in the opposite direction of previous attacks. They’ve questioned his very legitimacy as president. (He’s a Kenyan! He’s a Muslim! He wasn’t born in Hawaii, and he must have traveled back in time to insert a birth notice in a Honolulu newspaper. Whatever he is, he’s not a “real ‘Murrican.”)

Obama took a big — in hindsight, probably a misguided — gamble before the mid-term elections and held off on issuing an executive order about immigration and deportations. Senate Democrats feared they would lose seats because such an action would drive up turnout by tea-party and other anti-immigration types of voters.

Well, the election is over, and we know what happened. Those Democrats lost anyway — Mark Begich in Alaska, Mark Pryor in Arkansas. Most likely Mary Landrieu will lose in the runoff election in Louisiana, too. The tea party voters turned out in droves anyway, and Obama’s lack of an order when he promised such action could have suppressed Latino voters who decided to sit out the election rather than reward a party that was too scared to support immigrant families. Total voter turnout was only 36.4 percent — the lowest turnout in modern history in a U.S. election. When will Democrats learn that voters support positive action, not hiding?

All of that is the proverbial water under the bridge. The important thing is to consider the right course of action now. According to the AP story, Obama wants to “extend protection from deportation to millions of immigrant parents and spouses of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, and expand his 2-year-old program that shields immigrants brought illegally to this country as children.”

Lawmakers such as Rep. Steve King (R, Iowa) are already apoplectic. “The audacity of this president to think he can completely destroy the rule of law with the stroke of a pen is unfathomable to me.” Other Republicans bring up the possibility of impeachment over such an order. Gee, why didn’t they take the same impeachment vote against Reagan and Bush 1?

Some Democrats such as Rep. Joaquin Castro (D, Texas) are describing the GOP threats as “pure political theater” and saying they should be treated as such. “It’s clear that it’s fully within his legal authority to issue these orders,” Castro said.

Will there be a government shutdown over this? Will there be an impeachment vote if Obama issues such an order on immigration and deportations? I’ve given up trying to predict what the looniest of the loonies in the right wing will do. Those who have bothered to actually read the Constitution they claim to love so much know that it takes two-thirds of the votes in the Senate to remove a sitting president from office. Not gonna happen. One GOP congressman, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R, S.C.) gave this argument against impeachment: “Have you met Joe Biden?” Vice President Biden, of course, is next in line to the presidency. Fox News thought his one-liner was just hilarious.

President Obama has nothing to lose now. No more elections for him, no chance of a different Congress for the last two years of his presidency. I say go for whatever he can get done on his own, since he’s not going to get any cooperation from the other side of the aisle anyway. Many progressive Democrats are wondering what took him so long.

And the American people — and the beltway media — have started to notice. Before the election, the accepted media narrative was that Obama was “an unpopular president” and that Democrats didn’t want him to campaign for them. Of course, the Republican party polls much lower — 30 percent approval, if they’re lucky, and approval ratings for Congress itself hover just over 10 percent. And you wonder who those people are who say they approve of Congress, outside of, as Sen. John McCain (R, Ariz.) said, “blood relatives and staff members.”

Now the new narrative about Obama is that he’s turned into a man of action, and he’s not going to let the GOP stop him. Nothing to lose, and everything to gain with a chance for some good policies. His approval ratings are starting to inch up again, too.

It’s as if you could almost hear Obama saying, as he did in a debate with Mitt Romney in 2012, “Please proceed, GOP.”

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