Farewell Mr. Cub: A tribute to Ernie Banks

I’m going to step away from politics and media for one post and share memories of a childhood hero.

Ernie Banks was just the best. All of the accolades today include his lifetime stats: 512 home runs; 1,636 RBIs; two-time National League MVP; a Gold Glove; first black player for the Chicago Cubs; 11-time All-Star; a 17-year career, all with the same team.

He will always be a champion to me. He never won a World Series — and you know that he and fellow teammate, No. 10, the late Ron Santo, who played third base and would go on to become a longtime Cubs radio broadcaster, would have loved to. But he always exemplified the most positive aspects of what it meant to be a baseball player. He was the Cubs’ ambassador. He was “Mr. Sunshine” as well as being Mr. Cub. And he brought a ray of hope in the summer of 1969.

Because the Cubs were in first place.

That summer, I was a young teenager and already a lifelong Cubs fan. Friends and I would ride to Wrigley Field on the El, get off the Red Line early in the morning, and walk to the beautiful ballpark at Clark and Addison to watch baseball in the sunshine. We would sit along the wall on Sheffield Avenue and wait until the gates opened to let us into the bleachers. For one dollar. (Yes, you youngsters. There were no reserved seats in the bleachers back then, and people would arrive at 6 a.m. to get a seat closest to the ivy in the left field bleachers. All for $1.)

I went to maybe a dozen games that summer, and, like many a Cub fan before and after me, I was sure that this was “the year.” Most fans had a favorite player, and for me it was the first baseman. Ernie Banks had switched from shortstop, where he won his MVP awards, to first base, but he was great at both positions, even if his MVP days were behind him. He was already a player-coach, and he instilled a sense of optimism in his fellow players as well as fans.

Besides the prodigious hitting, the Cubs defense was fantastic. Cubs fans in the bleachers developed a chant for the players who were so successful at making double plays: “Fourteen, Eighteen, Eleven, and Ten! Come on, infield, do it again!” That would be Ernie Banks, No. 14, at first; Glenn Beckert, No. 18, at second; Don Kessinger, No. 11, at shortstop; and Ron Santo, No. 10, at third.

We made homemade signs out of cardboard and magic markers. Wrigley had no electronic scoreboard, and we would wait until the people behind the green hand-turned scoreboard posted scores from other games, so we could cheer when teams chasing the Cubs lost. We watched Ron Santo click his heels after each Cubs victory. It seemed like even the White Sox fans on the South Side of Chicago were cheering for the Cubs that year.

We were wrong about the outcome, of course. The Cubs went into a “September Swoon” and lost the pennant to the New York Mets. They were in first place until mid-September, when they lost 17 out of 25 of the last games of the season to sink to second place. The “Miracle Mets” went on to win the World Series that year over the Baltimore Orioles.

Nothing new about that — the Cubs seem to go into a swoon no matter what month it is. (Hey, we all thought 2003 was going to the “the year,” too, until the ill-fated sixth game of the NLCS. The Cubs led the series 3-2, but in the sixth game, Cubs Manager Dusty Baker left pitcher Mark Prior in a little too long, and the Cubs defense collapsed in the eighth inning after fan Steve Bartman grabbed a fly ball in foul territory along the third base line, robbing outfielder Moisés Alou of a catch and possible out. The Cubs had been ahead 3-0 and were five outs away from a World Series. But the Marlins scored eight runs in that inning. The Cubs lost the game 8-3, and they lost the game the next day, too, sending the Marlins to the World Series. Which they won, beating the New York Yankees, 4-2.)

Sorry. I’m still bitter about that one.

Ernie Banks was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977. My husband and I went to Cooperstown, N.Y., a decade ago, and it’s an incredible place to visit: the history, the photos, the memorabilia, the lockers, the memories it invokes. I’m neither the most ardent nor the most knowledgeable baseball fan. But when we got to the Hall of Fame room, I knew there was one bust I had to see before I looked at any others. Ernie’s.

The Cubs retired No. 14 in 1982 — the first number retired by the team. A statue of Mr. Cub in a batting stance greets fans in front of Wrigley Field. Besides his lifetime work as a Cubs ambassador, Ernie Banks established the Live Above & Beyond Foundation, helping youth and the elderly. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2013.

So thanks, Mr. Cub, for your smile, for your optimism, for your hope. I’m sure you and Ron Santo are swapping stories about what could have been.

Let’s play two, indeed.


Senate: Climate change real, but not people’s fault. But maybe Al Gore’s.

Just when you think Republicans in the U.S. Senate can’t do anything more stupid, they come up with new ways to display their idiocy. And new ways to troll.

And the Republican senator from Illinois blames it all on Al Gore anyway.

The Senate, of course, is gearing up to approve the bill on the Keystone XL pipeline (I’m not going to dignify the silly name of the bill by calling it a “jobs” bill, since the number of permanent jobs is fewer than 50). There were a series of amendments from Democrats, nearly all voted down. For instance, Republicans in the Senate refused to agree that the pipeline should be built of steel produced in the U.S. So much for U.S. jobs.

Then Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) offered an amendment specifying that “climate change is real and not a hoax.” The grand Neanderthal of the climate change deniers, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Stone Age), who has spent years calling global warming a hoax, asked to co-sponsor the bill. Because, he said, the climate is changing, but “the hoax is that there are some people who are so arrogant to think that they can change climate.”

With this loophole, Republicans could cast a meaningless “yes” vote. The amendment was approved, 98-1. Yes, even with that bit of tomfoolery, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) couldn’t bring himself to vote in the affirmative.

An amendment by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) saying that climate change is caused by humans failed, of course, 50-49. Among the few GOP votes for Schatz’ amendment were Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Mark Kirk of Illinois, both of whom face the voters again in 2016 and could see serious competition for their seats, especially Kirk, running in a primarily Blue state like Illinois.

And Kirk might have set new flip-flopping records. In 2009, he was one of a handful of Republican representatives voting in favor of a climate bill by former Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass., and now a senator). Of course, Kirk was representing a moderate suburban district north of Chicago, so he couldn’t afford to look too wacky. When he ran for Senate in 2010, Kirk reversed himself and renounced his 2009 vote, no doubt scared by Tea Party candidates in the Republican primary. In 2011, he gave this excuse for his flip-flop on global warming in a story in The New York Times: “The consensus behind the climate change bill collapsed and then further deteriorated with the personal and political collapse of Vice President [Al] Gore.”

Aha! It’s all Al Gore’s fault! Of course, we’re not sure exactly what was supposed to be Al Gore’s fault — the collapse of his marriage, perhaps, cast doubt on the facts of global warming somehow? — but heck, it must have sounded good to Kirk at the time. Of all of the excuses to deny climate change, that’s one of the most original.

Just a few weeks ago, Kirk was quoted as saying that climate change isn’t caused by industrial greenhouse gases. And then he switched again and became one of the GOP “yes” votes on the Schatz amendment. He probably knows that sticking his head in the world’s increasingly heated sand on the issue of climate change isn’t going to play well in Illinois as he faces a tough re-election fight; preliminary head-to-head polling with Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth, who has said she’s only considering a run, shows them even.

Earlier in the day, Republicans did something even stranger. The GOP posted what they called an “enhanced webcast” of President Obama’s State of the Union address online. But the GOP version is nearly a minute shorter than Obama’s actual address. What’s missing? You guessed it — some of Obama’s remarks on climate change.

Obama started to talk about how “2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record. Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does — 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century.”

But Obama’s next remarks are missing from the GOP version: “I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe.”

So many Republicans have been using the “I’m not a scientist” line about climate science and climate change that they figured it was easier to pretend that Obama just hadn’t given that additional evidence. Just like they’ve spent all this time pretending that climate change isn’t real.

Even this “enhanced webcast” of Obama’s SOTU address wasn’t as bad as the changes in the official GOP response. After the new Tea Party darling, Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, gave a lukewarm speech, mostly about wearing plastic bread bags on her feet, her speech was translated into Spanish and delivered by a Spanish-speaking GOP representative, Carlos Curbelo of Florida. Although Ernst eschewed any mention of immigration in her speech, Curbelo, speaking to a Latino audience, gave another message altogether. “We should also work through the appropriate channels to create permanent solutions for our immigration system, modernize legal immigration, and strengthen our economy. In the past, the president has expressed support for ideas like these. Now we ask him to collaborate with us to get it done.” In other words, give the usual anti-immigration reform party line when it’s for the wide, white, English-speaking audience, and throw a misleading bone to those listening in Spanish.

When asked about this later, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus mostly babbled, saying it was all Obama’s fault because of his executive actions. So let’s review: The reason Republicans won’t pass common-sense, bipartisan action on immigration that most Americans support is Obama’s fault because he took the same action that other Republican presidents have taken. The reason Republicans won’t take action on climate change is Al Gore’s fault, because Al Gore got a divorce.

Whatever. Next on the Senate’s agenda: A debate on whether the Earth truly revolves around the Sun, and whether the commutative properties of addition and multiplication are real. In other words, if 3 + 2 = 5, does that really mean that 2 + 3 = 5? Jim Inhofe isn’t so sure …


Obama tax plan fires new salvo on income inequality

President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address will offer details on the White House Robin Hood proposal about raising taxes on the very rich and giving most of America a tax break.

Quite simply, Obama wants a simpler and fairer tax code to help lower- and middle-class families while asking the wealthiest to pay more. The plan would provide a simple tax credit for families with two earners and extend the American Opportunity Tax Credit, the higher-education tax benefit that’s set to expire in 2017, while making it more valuable to low-income students. The plan also would make it easier and automatic for workers to save for retirement.

To pay for these plans, the tax proposal would close the “trust fund loophole” — a situation in which heirs pay no capital gains tax on inherited assets. Obama also wants to raise the top capital gains rate to 28 percent  — the same rate that existed under President Reagan — and impose more fees on the biggest banks. More details about the tax plan will be delivered at the State of the Union address and are available now on a White House website.

The tax proposal comes on the heels of a report on income inequality from Oxfam that says the world’s richest one percent of the population will control half of the world’s wealth by 2016. That’s not a surprise, says Oxfam, an international group of 17 organizations working in nearly 100 countries to fight poverty and injustice. The report also points out that “the most prolific lobbying activities in the U.S. are on budget and tax issues.”

Among the disturbing facts from the report: The wealth of the richest 80 people in the world — with a combined wealth of $1.9 trillion — has surpassed the combined wealth of half the planet. To show how the income gap is growing, that ratio was the richest 85 people a year ago, and the richest 388 people in 2010. And this is while more than 1 billion people in the world live on $1.25 per day.

In 2014, there were more than 1,600 billionaires in the world, and 30 percent of them live in the U.S. Their wealth has come primarily through the financial, insurance, pharmaceutical, and health care sectors. So it’s no surprise that those groups spend the most lobbying dollars on Capitol Hill. The entire Oxfam report is available online.

Of course, Obama’s plan to change the tax structure doesn’t have a chance of passage in a Republican Congress. If Obama is for it, Republicans in Congress will be against it. If Obama offered a bill to declare Christianity the official U.S. religion, many in the GOP would probably embrace Islam. Or atheism. Already, GOP leaders in the House who hold leadership positions on committees that handle tax proposals have shot down Obama’s ideas.

The question really isn’t whether Obama’s tax plan will ever pass — it won’t — or if the GOP will come up with a fair tax plan of its own — it won’t. The bigger question is how the problem of income inequality is sold to the American people and how it’s used in the 2016 presidential campaign.

How will Democrats treat the issue? Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has become the Democratic point person when talking about income inequality. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has been talking about the issue for years. Their ideas are being widely embraced, especially by Millennials. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) has introduced a new plan to expand tax credits and boost child-care credits, among other proposals, and pay for it all by raising taxes for those at the top of the income scale. Not that Van Hollen’s plan is going to pass, either, but it’s good to see some solid proposals coming from Democrats.

The real question is whether presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton will get on board. So far, signs seem to show that she sees the issue as a winner. It’s way too early to tell, but she already has called on businesses to do their part. In a speech last year at the New America Foundation 2014 Conference, she spoke of the need to raise wages and invest in new programs, to “encourage more companies to come off the sidelines and frankly, for some to use some of that cash that is sitting there waiting to be deployed.”

And how will the Republicans treat the issue? They’ve been talking about changing the tax code for years, but those proposals usually end up being some form of trickle-down economics. And before anyone believes the GOP come-to-Jesus moment on economic populism, remember that until this point, what the rest of the world called income inequality, Republicans called “class warfare.”

What is most laughable is that Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential candidate considering a 2016 run, now wants to make fighting poverty a priority. Mr. “47 percent of Americans are freeloading moochers” now claims that rising income inequality is somehow Obama’s fault. (Gee, maybe income inequality wouldn’t be so bad if the companies taken over by Bain Capital hadn’t closed plants and shipped jobs overseas, putting people out of work.) In the 2012 election, whenever Obama brought up the idea of income inequality as part of the campaign, Mr. Etch-a-Sketch called it a “very envy-oriented, attack-oriented approach.”

Oxfam launched its “Even It Up” campaign in October 2014, calling for governments, institutions, and corporations to tackle extreme inequality. Among Oxfam’s proposals in its new report: make government work for citizens; promote women’s income equality and women’s rights; pay workers a living wage; share the tax burden fairly; and close international tax loopholes. All common-sense ideas that any right-minded candidate can embrace.

What will it take to fight income inequality in the U.S.? As Sen. Warren has said, “Wealth trickles up.”



Why Mitt Romney 3.0 will fail in 2016

After a series of definitive, continuous statements that he would never, ever run for president again, Mitt Romney is now testing the waters for 2016. The former Massachusetts governor seems to think that the third time must be the charm.

He’s wrong.

Let’s review: Romney ran for the GOP nomination in 2008 but lost to Sen. John McCain (R, Ariz.). Romney won the nomination in 2012 against a lackluster field and lost to incumbent President Barack Obama, ironically receiving about 47 percent of the vote.

The figure of “47 percent,” of course, is significant, because that was the percentage of Americans that Romney was infamously caught on tape claiming were freeloading off the government. According to Romney, those are the 47 percent “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them,” he told a room full of wealthy donors.

But now he says that in the 2016 go-round, he’s going to focus on poverty. Go figure. Remember, he also was quoted during the 2012 campaign as saying, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” One wonders which of his multiple homes he was at when he dreamed up the “poverty” theme.

In an article in New York magazine, commentator Jonathan Chait says he refuses to believe that Romney is really running again — or that he has a real chance.

“Why would Republicans, who grudgingly submitted to a Romney nomination in 2012 only after every other possibility had exhausted itself, give him another try when so many alternatives are available?” Chait asked. Chait also claimed that many of Romney’s opponents in the 2012 race for the GOP nomination, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, were really running for a position as a talk-show host.

A Wall Street Journal editorial wasn’t kind to Romney: Exactly how Romney would be a better candidate “was not obvious,” it stated. A story in Politico quoted skepticism from a slew of Republican politicians and pundits, from former half-term Alaska Gov. $arah Palin to an opinion piece by conservative writer Jonah Goldberg: “The problem is that ‘Romney for president’ is now an art-house film thinking it’s a blockbuster franchise and that there’s a huge market for another sequel. There’s not.”

Romney advisers like to cite a July 2014 CNN poll showing that, in a “do-over” election, Romney would beat Obama 53 percent to 44 percent. Of course, that was only one poll, in the middle of a particularly bad news cycle for Obama, with issues such as Ukraine, a surge of child immigrants, the upswing of the Islamic State, etc. And remember how ungodly awful CNN’s polling was in 2012? They had Romney in front then, too, in many polls leading up to the election, and they never bothered to count votes in the Electoral College. How’d that election turn out?

Yet Romney is talking to potential donors, telling them that he wants to be president and that he “almost certainly will” run for president again. But he’ll face opponents who already can smell blood in the water and who are fighting for the same donor dollars.

This time around, there are a plethora of GOP office holders who are itching to declare their candidacies. The only almost-declared candidate so far is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has formed a fundraising committee and already has lined up some big name donors — some of the same pools of money Romney is chasing. Then there’s New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is apparently on the verge of forming a leadership PAC to start fundraising. Other governors waiting in the wings are Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who thinks voters will forgive and forget his “oops” moment during a 2011 GOP debate. It probably didn’t bode well for Perry that in one recent interview, he said there wasn’t “an IQ test” for running for president.

From the Senate, there are Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — two lawmakers famous for being flamethrowers. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is still flirting with the idea of a presidential run, but he probably took himself out of serious contention when he let his thirst overpower his political ambition during his time in the national spotlight when he gave the Republican response to Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address. And since Rubio backed the doomed immigration reform plan in the Senate, he’s lost credibility with the far right.

Rand Paul is making sure everybody knows that he thinks Mitt Romney is “yesterday’s news,” as he said in a recent interview on Fox radio. And he was quick to downplay Romney’s chances in the New Hampshire Journal: “It’s sort of what Einstein said, that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result.”

Past Romney staffers and supporters are now making claims that are just, well, ludicrous. In the 2014 election, former Sen. Scott Brown, who jumped the border from Massachusetts into New Hampshire to run for Senate in that state (and lose), claimed that if Romney had won the 2012 election, the country wouldn’t be facing any Ebola problems. Huh? The virus would magically disappear? Now Romney advisers are saying that, had Romney won, “There wouldn’t be an ISIS at all, and Putin would know his place in life. Domestically, things would be in better shape,” according to a report in the Boston Globe. Seriously? As if the war in Iraq that created ISIS never existed?

Let’s return to the real world. Romney based his 2012 campaign on claiming that he would save the U.S. economy (note: It already had been saved by the 2009 economic stimulus package). Romney claimed he would lower the unemployment rate to under six percent by the end of his first term (note: The current U.S. unemployment rate is 5.6 percent — accomplished in two years after the 2012 election). Romney claimed that he alone could bring down gas prices (note: Gas now averages $2.10 a gallon, down from nearly $4 a gallon in 2012). Romney claimed that his “25 years in the private sector” — if you count working as a vulture venture capitalist really working in the private sector — meant that only he, and not Obama, would be in a position to rescue the economy and create new jobs (note: Job growth averaged 246,000 new jobs per month in 2014).

“If you believe in your heart that this country is going to hell in a hand basket and is worse than ever, you owe it to your country to think about this,” one longtime Romney adviser said in the Globe story. Funny — people are now expressing more, not less, faith in the nation’s economy. Americans’ confidence in the economy is higher than it has been at almost any time over the past seven years, according to the latest figures from Gallup.

What do voters think? It’s way too early to tell, of course, but as Chait said: “The post-election savaging of Romney was widespread and totalistic, ranging from his inept polling and campaign mechanics to his political philosophy. … There is no evidence that Romney has learned to suppress the traits that made him a figure of ridicule in 2012.” Romney advisers crow that he leads the pack in the currently meaningless GOP presidential opinion polls. That’s called name recognition, you dim bulbs.

Stronger GOP opponents. A stronger U.S. economy. Memories of missteps, misstatements, and failed messaging. Need we go on? There’s just no reason to take the possibility of a Romney candidacy seriously, even if he is hiring staff for a run (hey, maybe he’ll spend his own money this time). If wealthy GOP donors can’t decide where to funnel their campaign dollars, why would they bet on a two-time loser?

Obama didn’t go to Paris? Quelle horreur!

The latest OUTRAGE on the right and in the media seems to be the fact that President Obama didn’t fly to Paris to take part in the group of other world leaders in the midst of a million-plus person march to show solidarity in face of the terrorist attacks against the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery, which killed 17 people in all.

CNN, which doesn’t seem capable of covering more than one news story at a time, had the headline “WHERE WAS OBAMA?” in giant letters on its website for about 24 hours. CNN’s Jake Tapper wrote that he was “ashamed” by the absence of U.S. leaders, and he includes both Republicans and Democrats in that dismissal. Tapper said it was a perfect opportunity for any political leader to chime in, and he wondered why potential presidential candidates didn’t attend the event or at least tweet about it.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was first out of the gate on that score. He wrote an op-ed for Time in which he stated, “The absence is symbolic of the lack of American leadership on the world stage, and it is dangerous.”

Many world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, flew to Paris to participate. Of course, they’re in Europe. Flying in from the U.S. takes a little more planning.

And the White House admitted that the lack of top-level U.S. participation was an error. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was in Paris for a meeting about the response to the terrorist attacks; many thought he would participate as the U.S. representative with the group of 40 world leaders, but the signals about the event’s significance apparently got crossed. The U.S. ambassador to France, Jane Hartley, did participate.

“I think it’s fair to say that we should have sent someone with a higher profile to be there,” admitted Press Secretary Josh Earnest. What Earnest added — and what many in the media are failing to report — “Had Obama or [Vice President Joe] Biden attended, it would have significantly affected the ability of those in attendance to participate like they did yesterday.”

Exactly. Let’s break this down: When a U.S. president goes anywhere in public, especially in a foreign country, there are days — usually weeks — of advance planning by the Secret Service and security forces. This particular president gets about 100 death threats a day (that’s not an exaggeration; the figure comes from the White House Office of Correspondence, which sees these threats daily on email and sends them to the Secret Service). Whatever failings the Secret Service has had in recent months, like letting someone climb the White House fence and enter the building, the agency would not allow President Obama to march into a large throng without sufficient security.

Which would have ruined the point of the whole march. This wasn’t a march about a U.S. president, or about world leaders; it was a march about ordinary French citizens, standing together against terror.

According to a friend from Paris, the world leaders’ participation was more than a photo op, but “it was symbolic. [President François] Hollande greeted each one at the Elysées Palace like he does for a state visit. Then they had lunch — along with French government leaders who were also present and greeted. Then they were all taken by a fleet of buses to a half mile place that had been ‘sanitized’ for them for security reasons (snipers on roofs, apartments visited to make sure who lived there, etc.). They marched about 300 yards — first the families and friends of the victims, then the foreign heads of state and government and the French government officials. After they’d done their 300 yards, Hollande embraced each one and then each member of the friends and family group. And then they were taken back in the buses and the route was opened for everyone else.”

From all accounts, the French appreciated the effort made by the world leaders, even if it was symbolic. But no, Mr. Tapper, Sen. Cruz, and anyone else: This day was not about world leaders, and it was not about politics. It was about the French people, how they are hurting, how they are standing strong, and how the world is supporting them right now.

We saw footage of the size of the crowds, the people marching, the image of the giant pair of glasses, symbolizing Charlie Hebdo cartoonist and Editor Stéphane Charbonnier. For days, we’ve seen candles, signs, and flowers. We watched as they waved French flags. We listened to them singing along to John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

The most effective and moving photos have been those of ordinary citizens. They held signs besides the ubiquitous “Je suis Charlie.” Others said “Je suis Juif (“I am a Jew,” in honor of those killed at the kosher grocery), or “Je suis Ahmed” (in honor of the Muslim policeman shot and killed by the Kouachi brothers in front of Charlie Hebdo).

Of course, the GOP never misses a chance to claim that Obama is unpatriotic, weak, ineffective, soft on terror, etc., etc. Right-wing claims included the statement that this was “Obama’s diplomatic Katrina moment” (they’re just dying for SOMETHING to be a Katrina moment, aren’t they?). Someone on Fox said this proves that Obama “chose the side of the terrorists.”

Please. Remember that it wasn’t that long ago that the GOP was claiming that the French were “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” Republicans also insisted on changing the name of a certain potato side dish from “french fries” to “freedom fries.”

Now imagine if Obama HAD gone to Paris to join the group photo of world leaders. No doubt the right would have been apoplectic that he had abandoned the United States at a time when he should be looking for terrorist plots. He would have been accused to trying to steal the spotlight from the French during a day of sorrow and solidarity.

Secretary of State John Kerry already addressed the French people in two earlier TV appearances, speaking in his fluent French. At the time of the march, he was at an event in India but will return to France soon. After his statements on French television, French TV channel TF1 said that Kerry’s “poignant statement in French” would “go down in history,” according to a column by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post.

The Obama administration is is the midst of planning a February conference on fighting anti-extremism in response to the terror attacks in Paris, with representatives from the same countries present at the Paris march. Maybe a well-run meeting with some new, dynamic, and ultimately successful approaches will move us all to the next step, and we can leave this symbolism silliness behind.

Honor Charlie Hebdo victims with more satire, not less

Satire is, by its very definition, offensive. Satire makes fun of someone or something else. It doesn’t matter if it’s a religion, a political figure, a business magnate, or a celebrity. Somebody somewhere is going to get his or her knickers in a twist.

But after the killing of 12 people at the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the right of journalists to publish satire — indeed, to publish any kind of free expression — is more important than ever.

Charlie Hebdo has been described as a cross between Mad Magazine, Playboy cartoons, and the Daily Show. Over its 45-year history, it has probably offended most of the world’s religions at one time or another. “Provocative,” “crude,” and “controversial” are the most common adjectives used to describe it. Its cartoons can be the kind that might make you think, “I can’t believe they had the nerve to publish that.” Except you might be laughing too hard — and you might wish you had thought of it first.

My French is not good enough to understand all of the words accompanying the cartoons. Yet the drawings themselves communicate their messages to even those of us who are second language-challenged.

In 1988, in a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of Hustler magazine — not a publication anyone would ever describe as being in the best taste — to publish parody without fear of reprisal. In 1983, it had published a parody piece about a fundamentalist preacher, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, having sex with his mother in an outhouse. (“Not in the best taste” is an understatement here, and I won’t go into the details. Look it up yourself if you want to. And yes, it’s pretty funny.) Falwell, as one might imagine, objected and sued for libel, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The invasion of privacy claim was dismissed — Falwell was, after all, a public figure — and the case went to trial on the other two counts. A jury ruled in favor of Hustler Publisher Larry Flynt on the claim of libel, saying the parody could not “reasonably be understood as describing actual facts about [Falwell] or actual events in which [he] participated” but ruled in Falwell’s favor on the issue of intentional infliction of emotional distress. Falwell was awarded $150,000 by the jury, and an appellate court upheld the decision.

But the Supreme Court overturned that decision. “At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern,” the court said in its opinion. “The freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty — and thus a good unto itself — but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole. We have therefore been particularly vigilant to ensure that individual expressions of ideas remain free from governmentally imposed sanctions.”

I can empathize with Muslims who feel offended when a cartoon is published suggesting an image of the prophet Mohammed. Islam teaches that there should never be any images of the prophet. But feeling offended can never, ever transfer into the right to kill anyone. It cannot be overstated: That is NOT what Islam teaches.

Charlie Hebdo Editor-in-chief and cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier was no shrinking violet when it came to offending people. “I’d rather die standing than live on my knees” is a quote that has been repeated widely since the shooting. And he brought an irreverent yet accurate attitude toward fundamentalism in all faiths. If anyone is offended by his satirical depictions of Mohammed or of any religion, he said in one interview, “Your God is very, very small, and your prophet is a midget.”


Will GOP’s Steve Scalise survive or take a dive?

“David Duke without the baggage, but electable” is how the House majority whip, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) described himself.

It’s been recently reported that Scalise gave a speech to a white supremacist group in May 2002 — a group headed by former Ku Klux Klan leader, anti-Semite, white supremacist, and Republican former office holder David Duke of Louisiana. Although there are no photos or tapes of Scalise, a state representative at the time, giving the speech, he has admitted that he addressed the group, although he claimed he “didn’t know” what the group stood for.

For now, at least, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio is standing behind Scalise, and the Louisiana Republican has a two-year term as majority whip in the new Congress. Boehner has frequently had trouble lining up the votes he needs to pass legislation, and Scalise, with his strong Tea Party credentials, has been effective in rustling up votes. But what will happen to Scalise in the long run?

Democrats are mostly holding their ammunition — for now. When asked about Scalise at a White House daily briefing, White House Press Secretary John Earnest read aloud Scalise’s now infamous quote about being “David Duke without the baggage.” The GOP has the right to choose whomever they want in its leadership positions, Earnest said, but having Scalise in such a high-profile position “says a lot about what the [GOP] conference’s values and priorities are.”

Some Republicans are feeling the heat and are saying — under the radar, only anonymously — that it might be time to take Scalise out of the GOP leadership. According to a story in Politico, many Republican aides and lawmakers, including some of his own allies, are starting to say that he has become “too toxic for some Republican circles.”

The “Scalise affect” may be hurting other GOP lawmakers, too. Again, according to Politico: “Rank-and-file GOP lawmakers, meanwhile, found themselves defending Scalise back home, a potentially fatal flaw for someone who wants to serve in leadership. Many of these lawmakers are faced with blistering editorials from hometown newspapers calling for Scalise to step down. Conservative activists like Mark Levin, Erick Erickson, and Sarah Palin have all said he should be booted out of GOP leadership.”

Scalise himself isn’t helping matters much. At first he claimed that he didn’t know the specifics of the group. (Note: The name itself, the “European-American Unity and Rights Organization,” or EURO, should have been a clue.) The group was and is still led by Duke, a former KKK grand wizard. Given Duke’s high profile in Louisiana and nationally, it’s hard to take Scalise at his word.

Scalise’s original excuse was that he talked about the importance of keeping America a Christian nation. Now he claims that he was speaking in reference to a proposed tax plan in Louisiana called the Stelly Plan, described as “a proposal to lower sales taxes on electricity, gas, water, and home food consumption and replace that lost revenue by closing loopholes on individuals making more than $80,000 a year who double-count their federal and state income tax exemptions,” according to Lamar White Jr., the reporter who broke the Scalise story.

Now, according to a story in Salon, White points out the fallacy of Scalise’s tale: That plan wasn’t even introduced in the Louisiana Legislature until AFTER Scalise gave his now-infamous speech to EURO. The Republican campaign against the Stelly plan wasn’t even organized until August 2002. So Scalise’s story doesn’t hold water. Scalise isn’t addressing the subject any more, and his office is merely saying that they are “standing by the congressman’s last statement” on the subject. The Salon story also quotes several people who were at the conference who say they don’t remember Scalise saying anything about the tax plan.

What about David Duke himself? He’s still very active in his own group, with an active website (pardon me if I don’t offer a link to a site espousing white supremacy and anti-Semitism), and is selling books and, apparently, a diet plan. He served in the state Legislature and ran — unsuccessfully, but strongly — for both senator and governor of Louisiana.

Duke has said he’s not afraid to “name names” if anyone comes after Scalise. He claims to have ties to both Republican and Democratic officeholders. Somehow, I doubt that. I don’t doubt that others share his views, but I doubt that they would be in touch with him. Duke says he didn’t have a “relationship” with Scalise, but Duke’s political adviser and campaign manager, Kenny Knight, was “friendly” with Scalise and donated to his political campaigns. “Kenny would keep Scalise up to date on my issues,” Duke is quoted as saying in a story in the Washington Post.

Of course, just as in a lot of decisions in top political circles, it may all come down to money. Again, according to the Politico piece: “ ‘If Republicans want to keep a white supremacist sympathizer as a top leader and the person in charge of telling their Members how to vote, they will pay the price,’ said Jesse Ferguson, a top aide at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. ‘Republican donors won’t want to be seen with him, and vulnerable Republican members can’t afford to be associated with his agenda.’ ”

Of course, that’s a Democrat talking — the Politico piece also says Dems hope Scalise stays as majority whip so they can use the scandal as a fundraising tool. But the story points out that “senior figures within the [GOP] doubt that the corporate chieftains and rich donors who bankroll Republican candidates will give him money to keep campaign coffers filled.”

And here’s a quote from the story from a Republican: “ ‘As far as him going up to the Northeast, or going out to Los Angeles or San Francisco or Chicago, he’s damaged,’ said a GOP lawmaker who asked not to be named.”

Damaged, yes, but is he damaged beyond repair? As with most political stories, keep your popcorn ready.

Could Pope Francis save the world on climate change?

The year 2015 may prove to be the year that the pope figures out how to save the Earth. In the coming months, Pope Francis might be able to accomplish what other politicians haven’t been able to do — lead the world on the issue of global warming.

In 2015, the pope has a full agenda to talk about climate change. In March, he will issue a lengthy message on the subject to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, including the 75 million Catholics who live in the United States. In September, he will address the subject at the United Nations General Assembly. To top it all off, he is planning to call a summit of the world’s main religions, all to figure out how the world can save itself from heating the planet beyond livable sustainability.

After a visit to the Philippines, where he will meet with victims still reeling from Hurricane Haiyan in November 2013, Francis will publish an encyclical on climate change and ecology, according to an article in The Guardian. The encyclical “will be sent to the world’s 5,000 Catholic bishops and 400,000 priests, who will distribute it to parishioners,” the story reports.

The choice of the Philippines isn’t accidental. The effects of the typhoon no doubt were worsened by how environmental factors have affected the islands of the Philippines and how they have altered how people live there.

Such an encyclical on climate change ought to make for some interesting homilies during Mass. It should be an interesting topic in sermons in Protestant churches, Jewish synagogues, Muslim mosques, Hindu temples, and everywhere else people listen to religious leaders. It’s the first time the Catholic church has addressed global warming in an encyclical — the highest form of papal teaching.

These efforts by Pope Francis also follow a four-day workshop in May 2014 at the Vatican called “Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility.” The title really says it all, but the meeting was “aimed at shaping strategies for human advancement that are attuned to the planet’s limits, organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Academy of Social Sciences,” according to a column in The New York Times.

All of these efforts will build up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris next November. The point of that meeting is to develop a legally binding agreement on climate science and climate change, with buy-in from countries all over the world — something that has been tried but has failed at past meetings. The United States and China got the ball rolling with the climate pact that President Obama announced in November 2014, which sets goals to cut carbon emissions in both countries.

It’s not going to be an easy task. Pope Francis will face backlash from some within the Catholic church itself and from conservatives who are still burying their heads in the sand — sand that is several degrees warmer in recent decades because of global warming. As Republicans take over both houses of the U.S. Congress, we can expect little or no action from them on climate change. As a matter of fact, incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said one of his primary tasks is to weaken regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Of course, the pope knows that the Bible directs humankind to take care of the Earth. As it says in Leviticus chapter 25, verses 23 and 24: “The land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.” And if you really want the scary warning, read Jeremiah chapter 2, verse 7: “I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and you made my inheritance detestable.”

During a climate change conference in Lima, Peru, in December 2014, Pope Francis declared that the “time to find global solutions is running out.” The question is, will the rest of the world heed the pope’s warning?

Obama’s 2015 challenge: Veni, vidi, veto

Now that the Republicans control both houses of Congress, there’s no question that they’re going to pass bad bills that have no chance of becoming law.

Both House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky already have announced some items at the top of their GOP agenda: passage of the Keystone XL Pipeline — something McConnell has said is his first order of business — and the repeal of or changes to the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. On the ACA, it will be at least the 50th vote the House has taken to repeal some aspect of the law — I’ve lost count by this time. But no doubt some new Tea Party types in both the House and Senate will demand that they get to go on record as voting to repeal the whole thing.

According to an article in The Atlantic, Boehner and McConnell “want to score victories early in 2015 to show voters Congress can function.” They want to show the American people that “the logjam in Washington has been broken,” as the two men wrote in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal (now available as a post on the speaker’s website).

Besides some action on taxes and trade, the two GOP leaders want to get rid of the ACA’s definition of a 30-hour work week as full-time employment and boost the number of charter schools. McConnell especially wants to weaken the EPA and soften its rules on coal mining, specifically the requirement that carbon emissions be cut by 30 percent by 2030. They’re still railing about the national debt, even though the deficit has dropped precipitously since Obama has been in office.

And Republicans are clamoring for action on jobs, even though the jobs picture has brightened considerably, with a 5.6 percent unemployment rate, and the economy is growing at a rapid pace — GDP grew by 5 percent in the third quarter. But of course, what Republicans call a “jobs” bill is called a tax-giveaway for corporations by Democrats and many economists.

The president should — and will — veto many of those bad ideas, and he has stated publicly many times that he’s not afraid of using his veto pen. “I suspect there are going to be some times where I’ve got to pull that pen out,” Obama told NPR in a year-end interview. “And I’m going to defend gains that we’ve made in health care; I’m going to defend gains that we’ve made on environment and clean air and clean water.”

How about immigration? As he has for six years, Obama would welcome action by Congress on immigration reform. But does Boehner have the power to control anti-immigration legislators like Rep. Steve King of Iowa? The guy who said border crossers have calves the size of cantaloupes? Boehner has not shown that he has much control over the extremists in his party; I can’t imagine that changing now that they’ve won a few more seats.

The start of any new congressional term is full of feel-good talk about bipartisan cooperation, but it never lasts long. Boehner and McConnell think they can swing a few Democratic votes to make some of their bills sound “bipartisan,” but they won’t be. McConnell will need six Democratic senators to vote with the new GOP majority to overcome a filibuster to take up a bill for an actual vote. With some of these ideas so extreme, he’s not going to have too much support.

During his years in office at the end of and after World War II, President Harry Truman became the veto king of modern presidents, nixing a whopping 250 bills sent to him from a Republican Congress (President Franklin Delano Roosevelt actually vetoed 635, but he was elected four times). Some of his vetoes were overridden, including the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act and a bill to reduce individual income-tax payments. With the 54-46 GOP-Democratic split in the Senate, it’s hard to imagine Obama’s vetoes being overridden, since override votes require a two-thirds majority. (No doubt some new Tea Party types in Congress never got that far in reading the Constitution; some of them still think they will have the votes to impeach and convict the president to remove him from office, too.)

Obama has issued only two vetoes so far. That number is going to start growing exponentially.

GOP has selective memory when police are killed

Remember Jerad and Amanda Miller? In June of 2014, they were among the Tea Party, anti-government followers of scofflaw and tax cheat Cliven Bundy on his Nevada ranch, who refused to pay his cattle grazing fees. The Millers, who had an online history on social media of white supremacy and militia movements, decided to start their own “revolution” and shot and killed two police officers as they ate lunch at a pizza restaurant in Las Vegas, then shot a shopper at a nearby Wal-Mart. Jerad was shot by police, and Amanda shot herself.

Don’t remember them? How about Richard Andrew Poplawski? He was a white supremacist who often ranted against the government on social media who shot five police officers in a four-hour standoff in Pittsburgh in 2009. Three officers died, and two were wounded. Poplalwski was tried and convicted.

No? How about Gordon Kahl? He was a member of the anti-government “sovereign citizens” movement. In 1983, he shot and killed two federal marshals in North Dakota, then fled to Arkansas, where he holed up with fellow sympathizers and shot an Arkansas sheriff, who later died. Kahl was killed in a shootout with police.

Still not ringing a bell? Surely you remember Eric Frein, who shot and killed a Pennsylvania state trooper and wounded another in September 2014. The right-wing, anti-government survivalist led police on a seven-week manhunt before he was captured.

I could go on and on about right-wing, anti-government activists who killed not only police officers but innocent bystanders. In 2008, Jim David Adkisson shot and killed two people in a Tennessee church and wounded two more. He said he got his ideas about who to kill — Democrats, liberals, African Americans, and gays — from conservative author Bernard Goldberg’s book, 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. Adkisson is serving a life sentence. In 2012, white supremacist and neo-Nazi Wade Michael Page killed six worshipers at a Sikh Temple near Milwaukee. Page shot himself in the head.

Many of these stories got fleeting news coverage, and were mentioned barely at all in right-wing media. You didn’t hear Democratic politicians exploiting these killings as examples of the dangers of right-wing thinking and hyped media coverage. Yet when Ismaaiyl Brinsley shot and killed two officers as they sat in a patrol car in Brooklyn, well, it seemed to be everyone’s fault but the shooter.

To be sure, Brinsley posted on Instagram about his intention to kill cops. But he also shot an ex-girlfriend earlier in the day. And his social media postings were nowhere near as numerous as those by the cop killers named above.

Fox News couldn’t get enough of Cliven Bundy when the assault rifle-carrying militia members flooded his ranch — he was a “patriot” who got screen time all day long, especially by blowhard Sean Hannity. Fox only stopped coverage when Bundy revealed his racism. Just a guess here, but his racism paled in comparison to two followers killing two police officers.

Even bigger blowhard Bill O’Reilly, another Fox stalwart, cut his vacation short to “demand” the resignation of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio for his supposed “role” in stirring up sentiment against the police. Numerous Republican officials past and present blamed the killing on de Blasio, President Obama, and Attorney General Eric Holder for stoking “anti-police hatred,” even though the three men went out of their way to avoid any such language in any public statement and instead praised the police. Funny, I don’t remember similar criticism about Tea Party politicians and their anti-government rhetoric when one of the right-wing loonies takes out a cop.

Individuals sometimes do horrific things. They get warped ideas and kill people. They can be influenced and emboldened by the hyper, sensationalized words of others. But they, ultimately, are the ones responsible for their actions, and to blame a mayor, a president, an attorney general, or those protesting peacefully against police brutality is wrong and exploitative.

But it’s Christmas Eve. Maybe the Ghost of Elections Yet to Come will visit some Republicans tonight and warn them what’s in store for them if they don’t change their lying ways.

Nah, they’ll probably just pass more voter suppression laws and scare some more people about Ebola.



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