What’s the point of the U.S. going back to Iraq?

Nearly 12 years ago, the United States government lied to its citizens and other countries around the world to start a war in Iraq, a country under the thumb of a regional strongman but that never had anything to do with the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. We invaded, destabilized the region, and disbanded the Army. We spent trillions of U.S. dollars, tanked our own economy, caused nearly 4,500 American troops to lose their lives, and left tens of thousands of members of the U.S. military wounded, maimed, and worse.

Where Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims used to live in relative peace, they are now segregated and at each other’s throats. Where once al Qaeda was successfully kept out of the country, it is now being overrun by a group so bad that al Qaeda doesn’t even want anything to do with it. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Most of the weapons Saddam Hussein had were the ones sold to him during the 1980s through Donald Rumsfeld when he was President Reagan’s special envoy to the Middle East. And yet some members of the GOP can’t wait to send in troops again.

Sen. John McCain (R, I never met a war I didn’t like) thinks he’s playing a successful game of gotcha with the media and the Obama administration. “The fact is, we had the conflict won,” McCain said on MSNBC the morning of June 13. Funny way to define victory — wreck a country, claim success, then go on TV and hope the American people won’t remember how wrong you’ve been all along.

We were never greeted as “liberators,” as Vice President Dick Cheney so often claimed at the beginning of the conflict. It was only supposed to take months, if not weeks — remember those promises by so many in the Bush administration? The Iraq war would pay for itself because of all the oil revenue. Yet the U.S .spent more than $1 billion a week for a decade on the war.

McCain, who has been wrong so often that you would think he might show an ounce of humility, left a classified briefing on Iraq early to rush in front of the cameras to denounce the Obama administration’s foreign policy. According to a piece in Politico with the headline, “GOP on Iraq: We told you so,” McCain demanded that the entire Obama foreign policy team resign. Funny, he never asked the entire Bush administration to resign after they lied about WMDs, yellow cake, mushroom clouds, and the like. And don’t forget that McCain is such a shrewd judge of character that he chose $arah Palin to be his running mate.

House Speaker John Boehner (R, Sun lamp) accused the president of taking a nap. This from a guy whose House of Representatives has been the least productive in modern history, has wasted nearly 50 votes on repealing the Affordable Care Act, and meets only one out of every three weeks. Hey, Boehner, head back to the tanning booth. I think you need a nap yourself.

How wrong was John McCain on Iraq? He claimed that Saddam was tied to the 9/11 attacks, telling ABC in 2001 that Iraq was part of a “network” of terrorists. (It wasn’t.) McCain knew — he just knew! — there were WMDs there. (There weren’t.) In 2001, he even blamed Iraq for the anthrax attacks in Washington. (Attacks were finally linked to an American.) He told CNN in 2002 that success in Iraq would be “fairly easy.” We all know how that turned out.

Why should we listen to someone who has been so spectacularly wrong? Why should the media give him such a large spotlight? Hint to news networks: Just because John McCain opens his mouth doesn’t mean you have to stick a microphone in front of it.

On June 13, President Obama clearly said no — no U.S. troops will head back to Iraq. The United States has a history of backing corrupt leaders in unstable countries, and the American people are rightly saying, “No more.” Air strikes and limited military aid are a possibility, Obama said, but there’s not much point unless Iraqi leaders act to be more inclusive of the Iraqi population as a whole in all government levels. And where would these air strikes be, and against whom? Who would get the military aid?

No good answers, no good options. Remember, we elected this president — twice — because he said, “I am not opposed to all wars. I am opposed to dumb wars.” And the Iraq War was a dumb war.

Militia plus guns equal killing. Why are we surprised?

Sometimes you wonder what it will take to make America wake up to the insanity of its twisted gun culture.

A few days ago, two self-styled, anti-government militia members decided to start their own revolution against law enforcement. Before long, five people would be dead.

Jerad and Amanda Miller left a friend’s apartment after telling neighbors that they were going to carry out an attack against police, but the neighbors did nothing — did not call police or any authorities. Did they think the Millers were just kidding? The friend they were staying with, a self-styled “patriot” herself, saw them leave with a shopping cart full of guns and backpacks filled with ammunition, but she didn’t think anything of it. Just another Sunday morning with your guns, I guess. Police said the pair walked four miles through Las Vegas neighborhoods with the gun-loaded shopping cart, but apparently no residents or passersby bothered to call attention to the fact that heavily armed citizens were walking around a residential neighborhood.

We all know what happened next. The Millers went into a pizza restaurant where two police officers were taking a lunch break. The pair shot and killed both officers, took their weapons and ammunition, then covered one body with a Gadsden flag favored by Tea Party and militia groups with the words “Don’t Tread on Me.” They left a Nazi swastika just for extra decoration. They also pinned a note to one body, saying, “This is the beginning of the revolution.”

The Millers next went to a nearby Walmart, fired a round, announced that “the revolution had begun,” and yelled for shoppers to clear the store. Shopper Joseph Wilcox, carrying a concealed weapon himself, drew his gun, but Amanda Miller shot him. Sort of puts a damper on the National Rifle Association’s argument that “the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” doesn’t it? Amanda Miller ended up shooting Jerad and killing herself.

The Millers were part of the heavily armed militia group that descended on the Cliven Bundy ranch in Nevada in April. Bundy, of course, is the freeloading cattle rancher who refused to pay fees for letting his cattle graze on federal lands for 20 years and owes the federal government $1 million in back payment and fines. Militia members carried assault rifles and other semi-automatic weapons, frequently aiming them at federal agents of the Bureau of Land Management who were just trying to do their jobs. The militia members all joined in spewing out heated rhetoric against the federal government. Jerad Miller even got his own 15 minutes of fame in a TV interview in which he issued a veiled threat against federal authorities.

Groups favoring the right to carry guns anywhere they damn well please have made news lately by carrying assault weapons into family restaurants such as Chipotle’s and Chili’s in Texas, and objecting when other patrons objected to them and store owners asked them to leave. They proudly carried their weapons into Target stores and even left a loaded gun in a toy aisle. In a moment of temporary sanity, the NRA spoke against this practice, saying it looked “weird.” The NRA had to backtrack quickly after the “carry-your-guns-everywhere” group threw a fit.

States are passing laws allowing people to carry guns into churches and into bars. Nope, nothing bad happens when you mix alcohol and guns, right? And no doubt the next phrase from the religious right will be WWJS — Who Would Jesus Shoot?

Maybe the Millers just acted alone, as police are saying. Maybe they were just two meth-addled young adults with nothing better to do on a Sunday. But they left a trail of YouTube videos and online rants filled with anti-government zealotry — views that are developed by listening to the same hate-filled rants from others, and in turn influence other “patriots” down the line.

How many killings will it take? How many more people have to die before the populace realizes it’s just not normal to walk calmly down the street with an assault rifle strapped to your back? The NRA was right — it is “weird.” How many more deaths do we need to know that you DON’T have to carry a gun everywhere you go?

The woman the Millers were staying with, Kelley Fielder, who accompanied the pair to the Bundy ranch, now tearfully says she’s got “five deaths on her shoulders,” and that she is “so sorry.” Somehow, I don’t think the widows and children of the two slain police officers take much comfort in her apology.

UPDATE: And before I could even finish writing this post, there is another school shooting in Oregon. This follows a shooting at Pacific State University. The Oregon school shooting is the 74th school shooting since 20 children were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

This is not the America we want to live in, but it seems to be the America we have right now.

GOP response to Bergdahl is the new McCarthyism

Many commentators — not enough, so far — say we’ve entered a new era of despicable politics with the attacks on Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and his family. In one sense, that’s true. But it’s also a throwback to the knee-jerk reactions of the 1950s, embodied by GOP Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.

You all remember Sen. McCarthy, who shamed the nation when he basically made stuff up as he went along in Senate hearings, smearing everything and everyone to the left of the John Birch Society by calling them Communists. It didn’t matter who they were or what line of work they were in, or whether they were in the military. In his role as chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations for Communist Activities, old “Tail-Gunner Joe,” a failed lawyer, chronic gambler, and alcoholic, was there to discredit their good names. He rarely had evidence, and his claims were dubious, but oh, how he loved the spotlight. Blazing his way into TV and feeding the anti-Communism frenzy was his way of saving his moribund political career.

It wasn’t long before the U.S. House started its own investigations with HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee, which only continued the witch-hunts. It also trickled down to states and even local school boards. Communists were not welcome. Even if you weren’t a Communist at all. And it was all done to build up political careers.

Television became McCarthy’s undoing, because too many Americans saw his constant attacks as too mean-spirited and unscrupulous, especially when he started attacking the U.S. military. “At long last, have you no sense of decency left?” asked Joseph Welch, counsel to the Army, during one hearing. The Senate censured McCarthy in 1954, and he died in poor health of alcoholism in 1957.

So what is different today? Today, unfortunately, McCarthy would be a regular guest on Fox News. He might go for the bigger audience and the bigger paycheck and get his own show. Consider the half-truths and lies that have been told in less than a week since the Bergdahl-Taliban prisoner swap:

* Six soldiers died trying to rescue him. No, it was SEVEN. Make up your minds, already, GOP operatives who are scheduling these interviews with various news agencies. According to a New York Times story, nothing is cut and dried. And Defense Dept. data on when Bergdahl left his unit and was captured and when those soldiers actually died put those claims further in doubt.

* The Obama administration told us nothing, NOTHING, claim the GOP, specifically Sen. John McCain (R, Ariz.). Then why did he know the details of a Bergdahl swap during a February interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN? He even mentioned five high-level members of the Taliban.

* Bergdahl’s family must be Muslims — just look at his father’s beard. As so many have said, most humorously by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, scraggly beards are only OK when they’re on the cast of Duck Dynasty.

* The Senate got a classified briefing about the details of the prisoner swap. So what did GOP senators do? They left the hearing and rushed right to the cameras, still claiming outrage.

The town of Hailey, Idaho, had planned welcome-home festivities for when Bergdahl finally gets home to see his family again. They were forced to cancel those events because of “security concerns.” Hey, with the way the fright-wing (I saw this recently and decided it was so obvious that we all need to use it) lunatics are sending hate mails to the town and posting hate messages on fright-wing websites, I would cancel, too. Some of those militia guys down on Cliven Bundy’s ranch in Nevada might be looking for something else to do, since the cameras have left.

Bowe Bergdahl enlisted in the Army to serve his country. Whatever he thought about a war that most Americans stopped thinking about long ago is beside the point. He spent five years being held by the Taliban, and he’s free now — that’s something to celebrate. When the U.S. Army investigates what happened, there will be more answers. He went, and many of us didn’t. And neither did many of the Republicans and hosts on the Fake News Channel who are now expressing faux outrage. One GOP House member went so far as to say that Bergdahl deserted his post, “just like John Kerry did in Vietnam.” It’s Swift-boating all over again.

Historians describe McCarthy as “one of the least qualified, most corrupt politicians of his time,” according to an article from the Cold War Museum. Given the lies and the low level of discourse we’re hearing from many in the Republican Party, we may not be doing much better today.

Lots of GOP hypocrisy on POW Bergdahl’s release

Well, this is choice. For months — years, even — Republicans have been demanding that President Obama do something to get POW Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl released from his five-year captivity with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Senators and representatives frequently demanded action, then quickly changed their minds when they saw a political exploitation opportunity, according to a story in the Huffington Post.

A May 22 press release from the office of Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R, N.H.) read, “As part of ongoing efforts to urge the Department of Defense to do all it can to find Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl and bring him home safely, Senator Ayotte worked successfully to include a provision in the bill that presses Pakistan to fully cooperate in the search for Sgt. Bergdahl.”

Sen. John McCain (R, Ariz.), an ex-POW himself, told Anderson Cooper of CNN in February that he thought a Bergdahl-Taliban prisoner swap was a great idea. He even mentioned the details of five members of the Taliban.

“Well, at that time the proposal was that they would release — Taliban, some of them really hard-core, particularly five really hard-core Taliban leaders, as a confidence-building measure. Now this idea is for an exchange of prisoners for our American fighting man. I would be inclined to support such a thing depending on a lot of the details.”

Sounds a lot like what actually happened, doesn’t it? And it sounds like an awful lot of members of Congress had been told that a plan was in the works, doesn’t it? Months before, in fact. A lot more than the 30 days they’ve been screaming about.

Several members of Congress posted immediate tweets on the day of the release praising the fact that Bergdahl was out of Taliban hands. Of course, they hadn’t gotten the memo that this was a new way to be outraged — OUTRAGED — about Obama. At least three Republicans — two House member and a Senate hopeful — had to scrub websites and Twitter accounts, according to the website Talking Points Memo.

For instance, Rep. Lee Terry (R, Neb.) put out a statement and Facebook post about Bergdahl’s release before scrubbing them both. “A grateful nation welcomes the news of the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. I have the pleasure of regularly speaking with our nation’s active duty military and veterans and I know that there is nothing more solemn than the pledge to never leave one of their own behind on the field of battle.” Terry called Bergdahl a “national hero.” Of course, the words “never leave one of their own behind” echo what the president said when defending the prisoner swap. Can’t have that, can we?

Rep. Mark Amodei (R, Nev.) also trumpeted Bergdahl’s release. “Best news I’ve heard in a long time! #standwithbowe” Amodei tweeted. The tweet was deleted 15 hours later.

The newly minted GOP candidate for Senate from Iowa, Joni Ernst, whom many are referring to as the “Sarah Palin from Iowa,” tweeted the news and offered her “thoughts & prayers” to Bergdahl’s family. Twenty-five minutes later, the tweet disappeared.

Nope. I guess now Bergdahl must be a traitor. Especially since GOP operatives started setting up interviews with various news organizations featuring some members of Bergdahl’s old unit, calling him a deserter and claiming that men died trying to rescue him — a claim not borne out by Defense Dept. data of when Bergdahl disappeared and when those soldiers died.

He’s got to be bad news. Just look at his father’s beard! Bob Bergdahl, Bowe’s father, grew a beard that he said was in solidarity with his son. The idiots on Fox and Friends complained that he looked like a member of the Taliban. “Are you out of razors?” asked Brian Kilmeade. Guess scraggly beards are only OK on the Duck Dynasty guys, huh?

Probably the most disgusting reaction came from Fox News talking head Oliver North, the admitted go-to guy in the Iran-contra “arms for hostages” deal in the 1980s. He demanded that the media ask Obama if there were any financial transaction as part of this deal. “Was there a ransom paid? Did the government of the United States, either directly or indirectly, finance a terrorist organization?”

Hey, if anyone knows about financing a terrorist organization, it’s Oliver North. He was the one who siphoned off money the U.S. made selling missiles to Iran and diverting it to a group trying to overthrow a democratically elected president in Nicaragua.

Look, if the Defense Dept. wants to investigate the circumstances of his disappearance from his unit, fine. But keep the fake outrage to yourself, please.

Obama’s POW release: OMG. How about Reagan and Iran-contra?

Several in the GOP are pitching a hissy fit over the release of an American POW over the weekend. Maybe they should remember the highly illegal actions taken by the Reagan administration in the 1980s during the Iran-Contra affair.

Two days ago, President Obama announced that Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held by the Taliban in Afghanistan and possibly in Pakistan for five years, was being released in exchange for the release of five prisoners from the prison in Guantanamo Bay to Qatar.

Sen. James Inhofe (R, Stone Age), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R, Hypocrisy), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, issued a joint statement railing that Obama had “broken the law” because he hadn’t notified Congress 30 days in advance and hadn’t explained how the threat by the five prisoners had been mitigated.

(You know, if you in Congress had agreed to CLOSE Gitmo, like Obama has tried to do ever since he was elected president, that wouldn’t have been a problem. And does anyone really think that Republicans in Congress would have kept their mouths shut about this? It’s been reported that Bergdahl’s health issues made the exchange of immediate importance. Besides, the Obama administration DID tell Congress that officials have been working on this. But we digress.)

Back to Saint Ronnie. Let’s remember the huge and much more illegal scandal that occurred during the Reagan presidency, when, working in secret, officials in the Reagan administration agreed to sell arms to Iran — a country that held Americans in captivity for 444 days — and divert some of the proceeds to fund a clandestine war in Nicaragua. Reagan was determined to undermine the democratic election in Nicaragua that had elected Daniel Ortega as president. Reagan did everything he could to fight the Sandanista government, including supplying weapons and financial support to the opposition, the right-wing Iran contras.

Congress had passed two laws limiting Reagan’s power in Nicaragua. Instead of following the laws, Reagan and his staff searched for ways to get around them.

Iran and Iraq were at war throughout the 1980s. Iran wanted to buy U.S.-made missiles, but there was a U.S. embargo on selling any arms to Iran. Meanwhile, seven Americans were being held hostage by a pro-Iranian group in Lebanon. So the Reagan administration arranged a deal to sell arms to Iran in exchange for the release of the Americans. All this was done in secret, because it was against the law. (Only three were released, and they were replaced by three more Americans soon afterward. Secretary of State George Schultz referred to this as a “hostage bazaar.”)

A Lebanese newspaper exposed the whole affair in November 1985, after the U.S. had delivered 1,500 missiles to Iran. At first, Reagan went on TV and vehemently denied the whole thing. A week later, he said the weapons sale was not tied to the hostage release.

While investigating these issues, Attorney General Ed Meese discovered that the U.S. government could account for only $12 million of the $30 million that Iran had paid for the missiles. It turned out that Lt. Col. Oliver North, from his post on the National Security Council, was sending the extra funds to pay for activities of the contras, with the full knowledge of the White House.

The congressional and independent investigations and trials took years, with much chest-thumping testimony from North, a decorated Marine with a chest full of ribbons. His secretary, Fawn Hall, who had done her best to cover her boss’s tracks by shredding as many documents as possible until the shredder broke down from overuse, actually uttered these words to Congress: “Sometimes you have to go above the law.”

Fourteen people were charged with operational or cover-up crimes. North was convicted, but his conviction was overturned on a technicality. (Of course, today he’s on — where else — Fox News.)  President George W. Bush pardoned six people involved in the scandal, including National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, already convicted, and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who hadn’t faced trial yet.

Reagan and Bush continued to claim that they had NO IDEA about the entire scheme, which is beyond implausible. The Reagan-appointed Tower Commission determined that Reagan’s “disengagement” from running the White House meant that he had nothing to do with Iran-contra. Might “disengagement” mean that Reagan was already suffering from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease when he was president? Televised interviews with Reagan late in his presidency include a lot of shots of Reagan saying, “I don’t remember.”

Even worse than the initial statements about Bergdahl’s release are the ridiculous statements being made by the likes of half-term, half-brained Alaska Gov. $arah Palin, who says that he has “un-American” beliefs. Some soldiers who served with him are calling him a deserter, a charge being repeated on — again, where else — the Fake News Channel. McKeon promises hearings — HEARINGS! — on the whole matter. Because in addition to all of their vacation time, lawmakers don’t have anything else to do.

So don’t get your knickers in a twist, Sen. Inhofe. Stop getting your undies in a bunch, Rep. McKeon. Just be glad that Bergdahl will soon be back with his family in Idaho.

When — and why — did the U.S. become so gun-crazy?

Another weekend — another mass killing, this one in California on a college campus. A no-doubt mentally ill young man stabs and kills his three roommates, then goes on a shooting spree, killing three others and injuring 13 before finally turning the gun on himself. His motivation, according to videos he made and page after page he posted online, was that girls were shutting him out.

The families of the victims, the students at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the rest of us are left to pick up the pieces. But most people just go on with their lives.

When did we become so numb to this violence? When did our politicians become slaves to the National Rifle Association?

For most of this country’s history, the 27 words of the Second Amendment were interpreted to mean just what the words said — a “well-regulated militia.” It wasn’t until 1977, when the new NRA leadership, made up of staunch conservatives, decided to push for a novel interpretation of the Second Amendment, to give all individuals, not just militias, the right to bear arms. The view was first mocked, but by 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out legal precedent and said the right to own a handgun could not be abridged, ruling against the District of Columbia’s law on handgun restriction. Justice Antonin Scalia used some legal obfuscation in writing his decision, saying that some weapons bans, such as those on assault rifles, would still be constitutional. But to hear the NRA talk these days, every weapon is off limits.

Since 2006, there have been more than 200 mass killings in the U.S., according to research by USA Today. A mass killing is defined as killing four or more people at one time. The overwhelming majority are by shooting. And the biggest reason is that there are so many guns.

There is no national gun registry, so there’s no definitive way to count how many guns people own in the U.S. But according to a wide-ranging study by the Pew Research Center, there are between 270 million and 310 million guns in the United States. That’s close to one firearm for every man, woman, and child in America. Thirty-seven percent of Americans said they or someone in their family owned a gun. So it’s an actual minority of Americans; it’s just that so many gun owners own multiple guns. A gun owner like Elliot Rodger, the shooter in Isla Vista, Calif. The percentage of people who are gun owners actually has gone down — the same survey gave the figure as 49% in 1973.

Hunting and recreation used to be biggest reasons for gun ownership. Now people claim that it’s safety and protection. Yet nearly 60% of people in the same study said they would be uncomfortable with a gun in the home. They are concerned — correctly — about the chances of gun accidents.

The differences in attitudes about guns and gun ownership go along political, gender, and racial lines. The vast majority of gun owners are male (74%) and white (82%). Fewer than 30% of Republicans think stricter gun laws would cut down on mass shootings, while more than 70% of Democrats think so. Thirty-one percent of whites own a gun, while that figure is 15% for blacks and 11% for Hispanics.

The numbers are the most startling when we compare gun ownership in the U.S with gun ownership worldwide. Outside the U.S., there is roughly one gun for every 10 people. The U.S. sees 3.3 homicides by firearm for every 100,000 citizens. By comparison, Canada’s rate is 0.5 homicides, and in the United Kingdom, that rate is 0.1.

So no wonder there are so many shootings, when there are this many guns. According to the most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are more than 16,000 homicides in the U.S. each year. Out of those, more than 11,000 are gun-related.

No one is trying to remove guns from people’s homes, no matter what propaganda the NRA pushes. Some members of my extended family hunt, and I have enjoyed venison at their tables.

But when the lead story on the nightly news is a shooting; when so many candidates shoot guns in their campaign ads; when they wave guns around at political conventions — I can’t help but think we’ve gone off the deep end.

The father of one of the victims of the Isla Vista shootings has made emotional pleas in recent days about gun laws.

“Have we learned nothing?” Richard Martinez, father of 20-year-old Christopher, the last of shooter Elliot Rodger’s victims, said during an interview on CNN. “These things are going to continue until somebody does something. So where the hell is the leadership? Where the hell are these people we elect to Congress that we spend so much money on? These people are getting rich sitting in Congress, and what do they do? They don’t take care of our kids. My kid died because nobody responded to what happened at Sandy Hook.”

Many people in the country — gun safety advocates, many politicians, and a majority of the populace — thought that the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 children and six adult staff members were killed, would be a turning point. Many hoped for passage of common-sense gun measures, like enhanced background checks to make sure the mentally ill don’t have access to weapons. Measures like closing loopholes at gun shows, which really have no rules at all. Proposed changes in ammunition, to limit the size of high-capacity ammunition clips. All of these measures still have majority support throughout the country, many even from NRA members.

So why don’t they pass? The measures had bipartisan support in the Senate, yet they failed in the face of a GOP filibuster. Some states, like Colorado, passed some gun restrictions after the Sandy Hook shootings. Yet in a recall election heavily financed by the NRA on one side and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on another, at which gun-supporting shooters turned out while gun-safety voters didn’t, two state senators who had voted for the measures lost their seats. The nominee for U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Hallegere Murthy, is being held up in the Senate, even though by all accounts he is well qualified and says he will spend most of his time fighting child obesity. He supports limited gun-safety measures, and too many senators are afraid of pressure from the NRA.

Samuel Wurzelbacher, aka “Joe the Plumber,” who enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame during the 2008 presidential election, wrote his own letter of condolence, if you can call it that, to families of the Isla Vista victims, but it rung pretty hollow. “As harsh as this sounds — your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.” Well, I guess if your career has failed as a country singer, would-be politician, and just about everything else you’ve tried (because he was never a plumber to begin with), you might as well try to squeeze some publicity out of making outrageous comments.

Maybe he’s trying for a new gig as an NRA spokesman.

 

No easy answers to fixing the VA health system

The current problems in the Dept. of Veterans Affairs’ hospital system seem insurmountable. We’ve all seen news reports of huge backlogs  and “double” lists of reported and actual wait times, some of which left some veterans to die while waiting for care at various VA hospitals across the country.

Yet politicians who breezily call for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki don’t really understand why the system is the way it is or why the backlogs exist. Many pundits who say the system is a recent disgrace or scandal haven’t been paying attention. This isn’t a new problem for the VA, and it’s not one that’s going away anytime soon.

The $53 billion military health care program now consumes 10%  of the Pentagon’s nonwar budget. That’s a big number, but it’s one that doesn’t meet the health care needs of the military. In 2009, when President Obama took office, he allowed two new areas of coverage – military members with PTSD from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam veterans suffering a variety of ailments from being exposed to Agent Orange. Adding those extra veterans added about 300,000 extra military members to the rolls.

In must-watch TV on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart continued his slams against treatment of veterans, which goes back to the start of our country. He included the refusal of the Reagan administration to recognize the problems of Agent Orange; the refusal of the government to advance the bonus payments to unemployed World War I veterans in the “Bonus Army” that marched on Washington in 1932 (instead they were attacked by forces led by no less than Gens. Douglas MacArthur and George Patton); and the continued growth of the backlog of processing veterans’ requests for treatment and disabilities, which skyrocketed while the VA tried to handle the increased numbers of troops during the Bush administration and grew more when the Obama administration added those extra categories.

Of course, the same politicians calling for Shinseki’s removal aren’t blameless. Senate Republicans blocked extra funding for the VA in February. You can’t treat people if you don’t have the funds to do it. And the gigantic system grew up over decades. The Defense Dept. and the VA have different computer and processing systems. So when an active member of the military moves from the Defense Dept. system to the VA system, the whole process starts over, rather than using existing medical records. Meshing them is a monumental task.

So we have an underfunded system with problems of monumental growth, more serious health issues, and outdated and incompatible computer systems.

For a start, let’s look at the issue of funding.

Most of you reading this probably have a pretty good idea of what you pay for health insurance each month, whether you’re part of an employer health insurance plan, you’re on Medicaid or Medicare, or you have individual coverage. There’s a lot of variance, depending on where you live, what type of plan you have, whether you pay for individual or family coverage, how high your deductible is, etc. The U.S. average monthly premium for family coverage in an employer-sponsored plan in 2013 was $380, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation/Health Research & Educational Trust. Since 2003, health insurance premiums have increased 80%, nearly three times as fast as wages (31%) and inflation (27%).

Members of the military and their families, whether they are actively serving or are retired, get their health insurance a different way. They use TRICARE, the government program that lets families buy health insurance. And they pay less than the rest of us – a LOT less. Remember that “retired” in the military doesn’t mean you’re 65 years old, it means you’ve served the minimum number of years to retire with full military benefits. And that includes a pension and health insurance. For life.

TRICARE premiums for beneficiaries have not kept up with inflation and the overall increase in health care costs during the past two decades. Congress raised TRICARE Prime annual enrollment fees for retirees in 2011 — the first time the fees had gone up since 1995. Right now, TRICARE Prime retirees pay $273.84 annually for individual coverage and $547.68 per year for family coverage through Sept. 30, 2014.

Those are ANNUAL rates, not monthly rates. Remember, most of us pay an average of $380 per month through an employer for family health insurance. Military retirees pay less than $46 per month for family monthly coverage.

I’m all for honoring returning members of the military. I’m old enough to remember the shameful treatment veterans got when they returned from Vietnam. But if a military family is paying $46 per month for insurance, no wonder the VA health system doesn’t have enough money.

And despite all these problems, what do members of the military think of the care they get? Veterans consistently rate the care they get from the VA more highly than most other Americans rate their own health care. In a recent survey, 81% of veterans expressed satisfaction with their care from VA hospitals, compared with 77% satisfaction from Medicare and Medicaid patients. And we know that America’s seniors love Medicare.

So what are the answers? Pay for it. DON’T privatize it, as that will make the system even more dysfunctional and more expensive. And modernize the records systems and mesh them with those of the Defense Dept.

We might as well wave a magic wand.

 

Don’t count out the Tea Party so quickly

Many in the media are declaring the death of the Tea Party. After all, Tea Party candidates are not winning primaries in 2014 the way they did in 2010 and 2012. So the movement must be all washed up, right?

“The Tea Party’s Over,” declared the National Journal. “That doesn’t mean the influence of the conservative grass roots has petered out. If anything, it demonstrates that conservatives have already reshaped the House to their liking in recent elections.”

The GOP establishment “is confronting a Tea Party suffering from waning enthusiasm, controversial candidates, and bad publicity, early signs of a shift in the movement that rocked politics and left a mark, from deep budget cuts to immigration and last fall’s government shutdown,” said a story on Tea Party influence on GOP identity in the Tampa Bay Times.

A grass-roots group launched “Operation American Spring” and bragged that it would draw an estimated 10 to 30 million Tea Partiers and like-minded individuals to Washington, D.C., last week. The number of demonstrators was closer to 10 actual people than 30 million. This was a group that planned to take over Washington in an “armed revolt,” to rid the government of President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, House Speaker John Boehner … well, it was hard to keep all of their planned priorities straight. It was all done “as a start toward constitutional restoration.” Because of course, electing a president and having him win the needed majority of Electoral College votes as well as the popular vote – twice – obviously is unconstitutional.

Needless to say, the few that showed up didn’t accomplish much. They complained that it rained – that’s why people didn’t attend. They promise there will be more by Memorial Day, the traditional time the Rolling Thunder motorcycle riders show up in D.C. I’m not holding my breath.

Which brings us back to Tea Party candidates. Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky faces a wealthy Tea Party challenger in businessman Matt Bevin. Voting is still going on as I write this, but due to several missteps by Bevin’s campaign, not the least of which was when Bevin attended a meeting devoted to cockfighting, McConnell looks to breeze through – the latest polls show him up by 20 points. (Update: McConnell won, 60% to 35%.)

In Mississippi, conservative Sen. Thad Cochran faces a Tea Party challenger, state Sen. Chris McDaniel. But recent news threatens to derail that primary challenge. A conservative blogger and McDaniel supporter broke into a nursing home where Cochran’s wife has lived for several years with advanced dementia. The blogger took pictures of Rose Cochran for an online video to slam the senator for – something. Rumors about an affair with a staffer? The McDaniel campaign’s muddled and changing response only made the candidate look worse.

In North Carolina, state House Speaker Thom Tillis won the GOP primary by beating back multiple Tea Party challengers, including one who compared food stamps to slavery. In Idaho (also having a primary today), video of a GOP gubernatorial debate went viral when two “fringe” candidates were included – one wearing a Duck Dynasty-type beard and a biker in leather who said a “Masai prophet” told him he would be president. I don’t think incumbent Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter is too worried about them. indeed, the real Tea Party challenge is state Sen. Russ Fulcher. But including the two crazies in the debate limited the challenger’s screen time. (Update: Otter won, 51% to 44%.)

Yes, the “establishment” wing of the party seems to be winning this year. But are we?

Candidates who used to be described as “mainstream” or “moderate” have veered sharply right – so sharply right that in North Carolina, Tillis says he doesn’t believe there should even be a minimum wage. He backs stricter voter ID laws and rejects the state expansion of Medicaid.

And the establishment candidates are benefiting from millions being spent in TV ads. Mainstream GOP groups backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Realtors, and others are pouring money into races to outspend Tea Party candidates. In Republican Idaho, groups have spent $700,000 on ads for Tea Party challenger state Rep. Bryan Smith. Incumbent Congressman Mike Simpson has been the recipient of more than $2 million in ads from D.C.-based corporate groups. (Update: Simpson won, 62% to 38%.)

In The New York Times, Harvard government and sociology professor Theda Skocpol insists that the Tea Party has won by “Leverage, not Popularity.”

“The Tea Party has won the heart and soul of the Republican Party. This is due not to its popularity, but to its challenges and threats of challenges to candidates who are less right-wing, or willing to compromise,” she wrote. “The big picture then, is clear enough. Tea Party forces have overwhelmingly won the war. All the Republicans running for the Senate this year have adopted hard-line Tea Party policy positions across the board.

“Until Republicans move toward the middle ground in important policy areas and cooperate with Democrats to accomplish what most Americans want, we cannot say that the Tea Party is dead or dying. Tea Party forces do not have to be popular or win most elections to maintain their extremist grip on one of America’s two great political parties.”

House Speaker John Boehner admitted it the day before the six-state primary election: “There’s not that big a difference between what you call the Tea Party and your average conservative Republican.”

 

 

New York Times fires Jill Abramson: Was it sexism?

I have been reluctant to weigh in on the matter of The New York Times‘ firing of Executive Editor Jill Abramson, because 1) so much has been written about it already, and 2) I wasn’t there, so what do I know? But I have been reflecting on my years in the newspaper business, working for both male and female bosses, and certain things have fallen into place.

Yes, women and men are treated differently in newsrooms. Although goalposts have been uprooted, not just moved, there remains a double standard, not just in the newspaper industry, but at all workplaces.

In my first job at a daily newspaper in central Illinois, I remember a male colleague telling me – confidentially – that he had just been given a raise because he and his wife had a baby. I didn’t even know how to respond. Should I have said, “Congratulations! You’re going to need more income” or “That’s so unfair”? (“That totally sucks” was an uncommon term in the 1970s.) Was my work now worth less than his? Of course, with more responsibilities at home, he didn’t have to cover the same amount of evening meetings that I did.

At the same paper, a friend who had graduated college with me and I started work on the same day. He covered the police beat. I wrote features and wedding notices. Now, to be certain, his talents tended toward straight news, while mine were feature writing and editing. Still, we were pigeonholed pretty early.

When I worked for The Milwaukee Journal, now The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, in the early 1980s, I had the unenviable task of filling in on the overnight desk while the usual editor was on vacation. It meant starting about 10 p.m. and working until 6 a.m. – not the best shift for a morning person like me. The reason given was “Well, you’re single. You can’t expect a married guy to do this.” At the same paper, a group of women reporters got together for lunch once a month to talk about issues of sexism in the media. I remember one discussion about the double standard that Margaret Thatcher faced as prime minister, since the press always zeroed in on what she was wearing. With obsessions about Hillary Clinton’s clothing, have we really changed that much? And the men at the paper, especially those in sports, made fun of these monthly lunches.

I have worked for both men and women editors over the years. Some of both the men and women were truly awful, and some of both were a joy to work for and taught me a lot. I have been a boss, too, of both men and women (full disclosure: not a role I particularly enjoyed). I think I can say with certainty that I treated both genders equally, although I can’t say that’s how they treated me. I have friends who are women physicians who told me that during their residencies, they had to “turn themselves into a man” to get by.

So what about Jill Abramson? According to various news reports, she found out that she was being paid less than a predecessor, and that she had earned less as a managing editor than a deputy managing editor under her. Unfair? Yes. Are there extenuating circumstances? Most likely, including the tenure at that particular paper.

More disturbing are the reports that her “style” is what the Times execs objected to. Politico Magazine Editor Susan B. Glasser wrote an eye-opening piece called “Editing While Female: Field notes from one of journalism’s most dangerous jobs,” in which she comments on the story from her viewpoint. Glasser was pushed out as national news editor of the Washington Post. A good friend, Natalie Nougayrede, was forced to quit her job as editor-in-chief of Le Monde.

“This has happened to just about every woman I know who has dared to take up a highly visible leadership position in our great but troubled news organizations. Including me,” Glasser wrote. “We like to pretend it’s different now, that Hillary Clinton really did shatter the glass ceiling into thousands of pieces. But it’s not true. There are shockingly few women at the top anywhere in America, and it’s a deficit that is especially pronounced in journalism, where women leaders remain outliers, category-defying outliers who almost invariably still face a comeuppance.”

We heard a lot of these same issues in Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook. The same kind of characteristics that win points for male bosses (boldness, authority, strength) are detracting in female bosses (bitchiness, pushiness, bossiness).

A recent cover story in the May issue of The Atlantic headlined “The Confidence Gap,” by TV journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, described a truth that too many women probably realize: Too many women lack self-assurance, and men have too much. Even if it’s not deserved.

Let’s face it, women: Some odds are still stacked against us. Kay and Shipman offer some advice – to become more confident, women need to stop thinking so much and just act. Even when those actions show our “temperament.”

“Dr.” Rove’s new smear shows where real brain damage is

So Republican strategist and sleazy rumormonger Karl Rove hints that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must have a “brain injury” because a few years back, she fell, got a concussion, and developed a blood clot. Obviously, he infers, she’s not capable of being president.

This from a guy whose own presidential boss called him “Turd Blossom.” On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart even gave this a new hashtag – #BRAINGHAZI.

“Thirty days in the hospital?” Rove said, according to the report of a speech he gave at a conference a week ago. “And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that.”

According to Politico, Rove was trying to inject questions about Clinton’s health into the debate. And he wasn’t being too subtle about it.

It would be one thing if what Rove said multiple times during his speech was anywhere close to the truth. Thirty days? Of course, she was in the hospital for only four days. He must be skewing the numbers again, just like he did in Ohio in the 2012 election. And yes, Hillary Clinton has worn those same sunglasses before.

Clinton’s people pushed back, as did many Democrats and many in the media. “Karl Rove has deceived the country for years, but there are no words for this level of lying,” said Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill. As for Clinton’s  health, he said, “She is 100 percent. Period.”

Of course, initial reports of Rove’s smear used the term “brain damage,” which Rove immediately denied saying. True, he said “brain injury.” Not a lot of difference, is there? It’s the old GOP trick of claiming that his words were taken out of context.

“In other words, Rove didn’t say Hillary Clinton has brain damage,” writes Peter Beinart in the Atlantic. “He hinted it, thus giving himself deniability while ensuring that the slur lingers in the public mind. Which is what he’s been doing his entire career.”

Let’s remember how Karl Rove first got involved in politics. In 1970, when he was still a college student, Rove used a fake identity to sneak into a campaign office for Alan Dixon, who was running for Illinois treasurer. Rove stole some stationery with campaign letterhead and printed fake campaign rally fliers promising a rally with “free beer, free food, girls, and a good time for nothing.” These were distributed at rock concerts and homeless shelters – Rove hoped the rowdy crowd would disrupt Dixon’s rally. Dixon won anyway.

That’s one political smear he admits to. He has never admitted his likely involvement in the whispering smear campaign against Sen. John McCain (R, Ariz.) in the 2000 GOP primary battle, supposedly for fathering an African-American “love child” (McCain and his wife adopted a daughter from Bangladesh). McCain had been gaining strength, but he lost South Carolina to George W. Bush, eventually giving Bush the GOP nomination.

There have been other smears of which he is likely guilty. But that’s how he plays the game – intimate something negative or tawdry and see what sticks.

Look, there are things to question about Hillary Clinton’s career, and her age in 2016 will be one of them, although there’s an awful lot of sexism in talking about it, since so many male candidates are older. Some on the left say she’s too much of a hawk. Those on the right say, well, that she’s Hillary Clinton. And don’t forget BENGHAZI!

I think this latest approach from Rove is likely to backfire, since the obviousness of the attack may have the effect of angering women and older voters. It makes it look like the GOP is so scared of Hillary Clinton in 2016 that there’s no level they won’t stoop to to bring her down.

No, I think the sheer stupidity of bringing up this false report shows something else – Karl Rove is past his prime. Whose brain should we be worrying about now?

 

 

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