Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Biden: "Gird Your Loins, I'm About to Put My Foot in My Mouth Again"

At a recent fundraiser in San Francisco, Joe Biden dazzled his audience with his grasp of foreign policy: "Mark my words, " he said. "Within the next, first six months of this administration, if we win, they're going to -- we're going to face a major international challenge. Because they're going to want to test him, just like they did young John Kennedy. They're going to want to test him."

Biden was essentially (albeit inadvertently) saying that if we elect Barack Obama, the chances of an international crisis will be increased because the world's bad guys will be tempted to test a President with little international experience. That's certainly an interesting way of trying to convince people to vote for your guy.

But lest anyone accuse Biden of learning from his mistakes, he went out and said the exact same thing the very next day--except this time with greater emphasis. At a fundraiser in Seattle, he said: "Mark my words. Mark my words. It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. Remember I said it standing here, if you don't remember anything else I said. Watch, we're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy.

"Gird your loins," Biden warned. "We're gonna win with your help, God willing, we're gonna win, but this is not gonna be an easy ride. This president, the next president, is gonna be left with the most significant task. It's like cleaning the Augean stables, man."

What could possibly explain why Joe Biden would insist on inflicting such damage on his own campaign not once, but twice? Perhaps he was jealous of all the attention that Sarah Palin has been getting from those in the mainstream media who would question her fitness to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency. Perhaps, then, this was a cry for attention, with Biden essentially saying: "Hey, guys, I'm here, too. And if you think you ought to be worried about Palin's fitness for office, try this on for size. My judgment is so bad that it ought to make you forget about her and focus on me instead."

Or perhaps columnist Charles Krauthammer got it right when he said: "Obviously, Biden is a Republican plant." That theory certainly merits serious consideration, as it is more plausible than any other explanation for why Biden would say what he said.

Speaking of Sarah Palin, she perhaps said it best when she said that "the looming crisis that most worries the Obama campaign right now is Joe Biden's next speaking engagement." I guess that's one thing on which Republicans and Democrats, even in the midst of this heated campaign, can find common ground: Joe Biden scares the hell out of us.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Obama on Financial Crisis: Wrong Diagnosis, Wrong Remedy

Senator Obama believes that he knows what caused the financial crisis: "The old trickle-down theory has failed us," the Illinois senator said in an ad. "We can't afford four more years like the last eight." He and his allies now claim that the mess that we're in is a repudiation of the free-market ideology favored by Republicans.

He's got it backwards. While people in both parties must share the blame for this crisis, the fundamental problem is not that we had too much faith in market principles. It's that we had too little faith.

Our financial system is tumbling down upon the shaky foundation of loans which would have never been made had market principles been allowed to prevail. A well intentioned effort by Democrats to support affordable housing led to misguided pressure on banks to relax lending standards for mortgages. As a result, thousands of people took out loans that they ultimately were unable to repay. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which began their supercharged growth under the Clinton Administration, encouraged these unsound loans by relaxing the standards for loans that they would purchase.

The role of Fannie and Freddie here was crucial. Their mandate was to make more more funds available for people to buy their own homes. They did this by buying mortgage loans from banks and other lenders, packaging those loans into large pools, and then selling interests in those pools of mortgage loans on Wall Street to investors.

If you were a typical person wanting a mortgage loan, you would go into your local bank and apply for one. Under the old way of doing business, the local bank would only give you a loan if they thought you would be able to pay it back. They would carefully evaluate your ability to repay the loan, because if you didn't, they would be left holding the bag.

Fannie and Freddie helped to make more money available for home loans by buying mortgage loans from local banks. Your local bank, rather than keeping the loan that it made to you on its books, would sell the loan to Fannie or Freddie and get cash up front. In exchange for that cash, Fannie and Freddie, rather than your local bank, would be entitled to the monthly mortgage payments that you would be making over the next several years. (Your mortgage bill would not indicate that Fannie or Freddie had purchased your loan; you would be paying a "servicer", perhaps even the local bank that you got your loan from, and the servicer would then pass your payment on to the appropriate place.) Your local bank would no longer have to worry about whether you would be making your payments on time. That headache was passed on to Fannie or Freddie--or, more accurately, to investors who bought pieces of mortgage pools that were put together by Fannie and Freddie. Your local bank could then take the cash that it had received from Fannie or Freddie to make another mortgage loan, which it would then sell to Fannie or Freddie as the cycle continued.

While that process might sound a little exotic to some, there's nothing inherently wrong with it. Rather than your small local bank having to take the risk of you not repaying your loan, that risk was shared by thousands of investors who were willing to pump money into the system. That money meant that there was more funding available for people who wanted to buy homes.

If market forces had been allowed to work, then the system would have worked fine and helped more families purchase homes that they could afford. If the market had been allowed to work, then Fannie and Freddie would have been very careful about the loans that they purchased. In a properly functioning market, investors would only buy shares in Fannie's or Freddie's mortgage pools if they were satisfied that the riskiness of the mortgages had been properly evaluated and that the return was sufficient to compensate for that risk.

How did the system break down? In a nutshell, well-intentioned affordable housing advocates complained that not enough poor people were getting home loans. Under the Carter Administration, the Community Reinvestment Act pressured banks to make more loans in poor communities. Under the Clinton Administration, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac relaxed the standards they used to decide which mortgages to buy. The intention was laudable: to help more families buy homes. The result, as we are seeing today, was disastrous: Thousands of those people are now losing homes that they could not afford, and the effect of these bad loans has spread like a deadly epidemic throughout the worldwide financial system.

Your local bank was getting both a carrot and a stick to approve loan applications of people who really couldn't afford loans. The stick was mandates like the Community Reinvestment Act. The carrot was Fannie and Freddie essentially saying: "Go ahead and make that loan. We'll buy it from you, and then you won't have to worry about whether it ever gets paid back." At that point, making the loan becomes a no-brainer for the local bank.

But the system wouldn't work unless Wall Street investors were willing to put their cash into it, buying shares in those mortgage pools that Fannie and Freddie were putting together. Why would they do that without assurances that sound, market-based underwriting standards were being followed? Simple. Since Fannie and Freddie were government-sponsored entities (although they were owned by shareholders, not the government), everyone assumed that the government was guaranteeing Fannie and Freddie's obligations. In other words, investors assumed that if they bought shares in those mortgage pools, and the money they were expecting eventually didn't materialize because people were defaulting on the underlying mortgage loans, Uncle Sam (i.e. you, the taxpayer) would come to the rescue and pay off the investors.

Because of this "implied guaranty" by the Federal Government and the need to satisfy their shareholders' demands for more and more profits, the management of Fannie and Freddie embarked on a hyper-growth strategy during the Clinton Administration that made CEOs like Franklin Raines and Jim Johnson (both Obama allies) extremely rich. (Both Fannie and Freddie would eventually get into trouble over accounting irregularities, including overstating earnings in a manner that boosted bonuses for top executives like Raines.)

Both Fannie and Freddie were able to borrow at very low rates: since investors assumed that Uncle Sam would ultimately protect them against losses on their Fannie and Freddie investments, investors did not demand the higher returns that they would have demanded on investments that they perceived to be more risky. Fannie and Freddie could thus access funds from investors rather cheaply, and had every incentive to turn these funds into profits by buying up and selling interests in as many mortgages as they could.

This implied guaranty, like the pressure to ignore sound underwriting standards, was a distortion of the free market. Fannie and Freddie had the incentive to take much more risk and grow much faster than they would have had free market principles been allowed to impose discipline on the system. The implied guaranty became a self-fulfilling prophesy: It allowed Fannie and Freddie to grow so large that they became "too big to fail." Thus, even though the Federal Government never promised to bail out Fannie and Freddie, everyone assumed that they would and they were right.

But couldn't anyone see that this whole system was being built on a house of cards, and that the failure to follow free market principles would eventually cause the type of crisis that we now find ourselves in? Yes, some did see it. The Bush Adminstration expressed great concern about this situation. Back in 2003, Bush proposed what even The New York Times called "the most significant regulatory overhaul in the housing finance industry since the savings and loan crisis." The proposal was designed to head off a disaster by reining in the market distortions that were being perpetrated by Fannie and Freddie.

Bush's proposal was ultimately defeated in the face of stiff Democratic opposition. From The New York Times on September 11, 2003:

Among the groups denouncing the proposal today were...Congressional Democrats who fear that tighter regulation of the companies could sharply reduce their commitment to financing low-income and affordable housing. "These two entities — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — are not facing any kind of financial crisis," said Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee. "The more people exaggerate these problems, the more pressure there is on these companies, the less we will see in terms of affordable housing." Representative Melvin L. Watt, Democrat of North Carolina, agreed. "I don’t see much other than a shell game going on here, moving something from one agency to another and in the process weakening the bargaining power of poorer families and their ability to get affordable housing," Mr. Watt said.

Boy, did Barney Frank get it wrong. John McCain, by the way, got it right. He sponsored legislation to reform Fannie and Freddie in 2005. In 2006, while the bill was still languishing, he warned that "[i]f Congress does not act, American taxpayers will continue to be exposed to the enormous risk that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac pose to the housing market, the overall financial system, and the economy as a whole." The Democrats ultimately killed the bill in Committee, preventing the Senate from voting on it.

My point here is not to say that it's all the Democrats' fault. I strongly object, however, to Democrats like Obama and Frank now pushing the fiction that this crisis was caused by Republican free market ideology. Not only do I find that objectionable; I find it scary. Because if the public buys this nonsense, they are also likely to buy the nonsensical "solutions" that are likely to follow from it--"solutions" that move us farther from the free market principles that could have averted this disaster. People like Frank, by misplacing the blame for this mess (and in Frank's case, not accepting his significant share of it), would move us closer to a stultifying socialism where the state takes responsibility for people's bad decisions.

We can't have it both ways: We can't have a hybrid system where people are allowed to gamble and keep their winnings but get bailed out if they lose. Under such a system, people will have every incentive to take excessive risk and pass that risk on to all of us. If we're going to socialize losses, as the misguided Barney Franks of the world would have us do, then the only way to protect us from reckless risk-taking is to deny people the freedom to take risks. If we get to that point, then America can no longer be that special place where visionary entrepreneurs are free to take inspired risks that can enrich us all. We will have lost an essential element in what made us the greatest country on Earth.

This time of crisis is a time for us to renew our commitment to the principles that made this country great. I fear that many of the people who are leading the charge to address this crisis don't understand those principles. Barney Frank did not see this crisis coming, does not understand what caused this crisis and hence does not understand how to solve this crisis. I'm sorry to say that the same applies to Barack Obama.

Monday, September 22, 2008

African American Derangement Syndrome

A "performance artist" recently warned that if Sarah Palin entered Manhattan, she would be "gang-raped by my big black brothers." I won't mention the performance artist's name, because she doesn't deserve the publicity that she would derive even from this no-readership blog. Suffice it to say that the reference to "my big black brothers" struck me as odd, since the "artist" happens to be white.

Many have said that this is the latest example of Palin Derangement Syndrome. PDS is a disease that causes people who are gripped with an irrational hatred of Sarah Palin--frequently Hollywood celebrities--to make ridiculously vicious statements that damage their own reputations more than Governor Palin's.

That's not how I interpreted it. I thought the remark was an example of African American Derangement Syndrome, whereby people damage their reputations by launching hateful and irrational insults against African Americans. I mean, if you predict that a certain person will become the victim of gang rape perpetrated by members of a certain race because members of that race (who, of course, all think alike) disagree with her political opinions, then who are you insulting? The predicted victim? I don't think so.

What made the remark so incredibly offensive was its racism against African Americans. You would have to be an idiot to not see that, but the sad thing is that the "artist" clearly did not see that. As a liberal, she would be horrified at the suggestion that she harbors the racist sentiments that were so clearly betrayed by her outrageous words.

The artist has apparently tried to defend her racist statement by suggesting that it has to be understood in the proper context. You see, her statement was made as part of a comedic performance in which she was making an important statement against racism, sexism and all of the horrible things that are embodied by the evil Sarah Palin and her party. Since I'm a member of Sarah Palin's party, I'm probably too much of a buffoon to appreciate the profundity of the performance artist's work. She's a liberal, and people like her are just plain smarter than people like me.

This "comedic context" defense is essentially the Michael Richards Defense. And as we all know, that defense worked out just fine for Michael Richards. Oh that's right--it didn't.

All that aside, the performance artist can get away with statements like that because as a white liberal, she's Down with the Black Man. And besides, racist statements aren't racist when liberals make them. Why? Because they're liberals. If you don't get it, then you just don't get it. But it's kind of like how sexual harrassment isn't sexual harrassment when Bill Clinton does it.

You see, famous liberals can get away with almost anything simply by loudly proclaiming how much they care. They can absolve all of their sins by walking into the voting booth once every two years and pulling the "D" lever, which is their equivalent of walking into a confession booth and saying 40 Hail Mary's.

Us normal people, however, have to mind our P's and Q's. We don't get a free pass on racist and sexist remarks. That might explain why, during this election season, virtually all of the racist and sexist remarks by public figures have come from liberals.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Be Kind to Charlie Rangel

When House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel was asked why Democrats were so afraid of Sarah Palin and her popularity, he responded with a non sequitur: "You got to be kind to the disabled." When asked whether he was calling Governor Palin disabled, Rangel responded: "There's no question about it politically. It's a nightmare to think that a person's foreign policy is based on their ability to look at Russia from where they live."

Many have criticized Rangel for contributing to the mountain of vitriol that has been hurled at Sarah Palin since was selected for the Republican ticket. Many have also criticized Rangel for not grasping that the thing about being able to see Russia from Palin's house was a "Saturday Night Live" joke, and does not really form the basis of her foreign policy.

I, personally, am not going to join the chorus of criticism against Congressman Rangel. You've got to be kind to the ethically disabled.

Friday, September 19, 2008

On Sarah Palin's (and Joe Biden's) Foreign Policy Experience

Much has been made of Sarah Palin's lack of foreign policy experience. What no one seems to have noticed is that over the last 30-plus years, we have only elected one President--George H.W. Bush--that had any previous foreign policy experience. Four of the five Presidents that we have elected since 1976--Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush (George W.)--were governors with no foreign policy experience. That didn't stop those Presidents from achieving such foreign policy accomplishments as winning the Cold War, brokering the Camp David accords and ousting Saddam Hussein and the Taliban from power.

Joe Biden, on the other hand, is often said to have the most foreign policy experience of the major party candidates for President and Vice President. He has served in the Senate since 1972 (!) and chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. All of that experience, however, hasn't stopped him from being wrong on almost every major foreign policy issue he has ever weighed in on.

He opposed the Reagan military buildup policies that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. He opposed the first Gulf War to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Although he voted in favor of the current Iraq War, he opposed the surge and pushed instead for a policy--vigorously denounced by virtually everyone in Iraq--to split Iraq into three pieces. Had Joe Biden been our Commander in Chief, we might still be engaged in a Cold War with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Saddam Hussein might be still alive and well and occupying Kuwait (if not Saudi Arabia as well). Biden is the guy that, according to Barack Obama, has "stared down dictators." Yeah, right.

Biden aborted his first campaign for President after he was charged with plagiarizing Neil Kinnock, Britain's leftist Labour Party leader at the time. Perhaps Biden could have demonstrated sounder judgment on foreign policy by instead plagiarizing Margaret Thatcher.

On foreign policy, Senate experience is fine, but I would much rather have someone with toughness, sound judgment, common sense and strong convictions. I see much more of that in Sarah Palin than I do in Joe Biden (or Barack Obama, for that matter).

Perhaps much of the anxiety that some feel over Palin is the fact that she's uncharted territory. Put aside for a second the fact that she's a woman. Think of Palin's unique mix of characteristics, for better or worse: Under 45, put on the ticket with less than two years' experience as a governor, avid outdoors enthusiast, member of the National Rifle Association, large family, reputation as a reformer unafraid to take on fellow Republicans. There's never been a major party candidate for Vice President with all of these characteristics. Well, actually there has been. His name was Teddy Roosevelt. If we could put Teddy Roosevelt in a time machine and insert him into the current race, he would make a much better choice for Commander in Chief than Joe Biden. And so would Sarah Palin.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Sorry, Charlie: If You're Going to Play "Gotcha," You Need to Get Your Facts Straight

In his long-awaited interview with Sarah Palin, Charles Gibson's attempt at a "Gotcha" moment was undermined by his own confusion over the facts. He asked Palin about her views on the "Bush Doctrine." Palin asked for clarification. Gibson did not initially clarify what he meant by the "Bush Doctrine," in an obvious attempt to make Palin appear ignorant. At long last, he "informed" her that the Bush Doctrine meant that the U.S. has the right to launch pre-emptive military strikes to prevent an attack on us.

Sorry, Charlie. You are the one who is ignorant. The fact is that there have been at least four successive doctrines that have been known as the "Bush Doctrine," and the right of pre-emption is not the one which is currently in common usage. The more commonly accepted current version of the "Bush Doctrine" is that the survival of our freedom and democracy depends increasingly on the spread of freedom and democracy around the world. Palin was justifiably confused by Gibson's question, since there is no one "Bush Doctrine." He might as well have asked Palin to read his mind.

This is just the latest example of the mystical judo that Palin has been effortlessly practicing against the elite chattering class. The harder they try to make her look stupid, the more they make themselves look stupid. I'm almost starting to feel sorry for them.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Obama Campaign Questions John McCain's Honor

Responding to a campaign ad highlighting Barack Obama's support for comprehensive sex education for kindergartners, Obama press secretary Bill Burton issued the following statement: "Last week, John McCain told Time magazine he couldn't define what honor was. Now we know why."

Now, the campaign is close and heating up, and both sides are taking hard shots at each other. Each side believes that the other side isn't always being fair; it's normal for those in the thick of the battle to feel that way.

But does the Obama camp really think that it's a good idea to question McCain's honor? Most Americans believe that a man who fought for his country and suffered through five and a half years of torture as a POW--which worsened after he refused early release because it would violate his honor code--has demonstrated enough honor to last several lifetimes.

I believe that Barack Obama and Joe Biden are both honorable men, but have they ever proven their honor in the way that McCain has? Attacking John McCain's honor will only make people remember Sarah Palin's pointed line in her speech at the convention: "Though both Senator Obama and Senator Biden have been going on lately about how they're always, quote, 'fighting for you,' let us face the matter squarely: There is only one man in this election who has ever really fought for you."

After the raucous applause died down, Palin elaborated on her point: "There is only one man in this election who has ever really fought for you in places where winning means survival and defeat means death. And that man is John McCain. You know, in our day, politicians have readily shared much lesser tales of adversity than the nightmare world, the nightmare world in which this man and others equally brave served and suffered for their country. And it's a long way from the fear, and pain, and squalor of a six-by-four cell in Hanoi to the Oval Office."

In this election, each side will have plenty of legitimate grounds to criticize the other. It's a free country, and anyone is free to question John McCain's honor. Those who chose to do so, however, will only succeed in demonstrating that they don't know the meaning of the word.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

If You Disagree with Me, Then You Are Worse Than Hitler

My wife was having a business meeting with a Hollywood producer when the producer made a remark about how horrible John McCain was. My wife responded that she liked John McCain. Big mistake.

The producer, who came of age during the 1960's, appeared stunned that anyone could even think to utter such a hurtful and offensive thing. After regaining her composure, the producer asked my wife (who must have looked "foreign" to the producer) whether she was even allowed to vote in this country. When my wife broke the sad news that she did indeed have the right to vote, the producer put her face in her hands in despair. The producer then launched into a 20-minute tirade about how rotten, corrupt and incompetent John McCain was.

The producer demanded to know why my wife liked John McCain. My wife made mention of McCain's heroic service to his country. "Let me tell you about that," said the producer. "McCain was a screw-up. He only got into the Navy because his father was an admiral. He was such a bad pilot that he crashed into the lake without even being shot down. If the Vietnamese hadn't rescued him, his own crew would have killed him."

Now, for the record, none of that is true (except for the part about McCain's father having been an admiral). But even if it had been true, what would be the point? Would it somehow negate the heroic strength of character that it took for McCain, his body broken, to choose to suffer years of additional torture because he refused to released without his comrades? When was the last time that we had a presidential nominee from either party who had rendered such compelling proof of his strength of character?

John McCain's heroism does not obligate anyone to agree with him or to vote for him. But why did this producer feel compelled to impugn the character of such an honorable man? Would she not have had more credibility had she simply said something like: "John McCain is a man of great character and I have tremendous respect for his service to his country, but I have good faith disagreements with him on issues that are important to me and so I won't vote for him"? In fact, most people who are not supporting McCain would have no problem saying something like that. But there are some people out there who reflexively demonize people with whom they disagree, and who believe that people who do not share their political views are stupid, evil or both.

Most people, be they liberal, conservative or moderate, would recognize this as an adolescent way of looking at the world. The majority of people on both the left and the right are reasonable, tolerant people who are secure enough to respect good faith differences of opinion.

A subset of conservatives, religious conservatives, are often stereotyped as being intolerant. I believe that this stereotype is unfair, and that the majority of religious conservatives are tolerant (within reason, of course). The most influential religious conservative today is Rick Warren, who has earned trust and respect from both the right and the left. However, there remains a signficant minority of people on the right who are intolerant of those whose views and lifestyles do not conform to a particular set of religious teachings.

Leftist intolerance is a little different. Leftists are more likely to be intolerant of those who do not share their ideology, rather than those who do not share their religion. Perhaps this is because some on the left have rejected religion but have subconsciously filled the void with ideology. Indeed, the leftist brand of intolerance to differing political views bears all of the hallmarks of fundamentalist religious intolerance. Since ideology fills the role in their lives that religion plays in the lives of others, they deal with ideological diversity with the same lack of grace that some religious conservatives deal with those who do not share their religious views. Intolerant leftists practice what I call "secular fundamentalism".

College campuses have become hotbeds of secular fundamentalism, with activist groups frequently trying to stop speeches by those with whom they disagree, and professors sometimes abusing their positions of power to try to impose their political views on their impressionable young students. Ironically, intolerant leftists are the ones who are most likely to assert that all Republicans and/or all people of faith are intolerant.

Let me stress again that the intolerant ones, at least in the U.S., are a minority on both the left and the right (although they may be a majority in Hollywood). To the intolerant ones on the left, being called on their intolerance cuts to the core of their lofty self-image as open-minded, accepting people. Most of these people will never have the self-honesty to grasp the fact of their own close-mindedness and inability to accept diversity of thought. (In fact, many afflicted with the leftist brand of intolerance place great value on "diversity", but they value diversity of skin color to the exclusion of diversity of thought.) To admit their intolerance would destroy their sense of self, and so they protect their psyche by going into denial about their ideological bigotry. They firmly believe that they and people who think exactly as they do have a monopoly on virtue, and that McCarthyism can only be McCarthyism when conservatives are the perpetrators.

I believe that those who accuse John McCain of being corrupt, dishonest, etc., simply undermine their own credibility. Most people know in their hearts that John McCain is a good man. When Madonna compares McCain to Hitler, she makes herself, not McCain, look bad.

I support John McCain for President for many reasons, but I also recognize that Barack Obama is a good man with great intelligence, talent and ability to inspire. It's no insult to say that Obama has not proven his character to the same extent that McCain has; hardly anyone has.

Of course, all of this is only my opinion. But as Greg Gutfeld, host of the hilarious Fox News show Red Eye, would say: If you disagree with me, then you are worse than Hitler.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Golden Bones: A Truly Inspirational Story

Golden Bones (HarperCollins), Sichan Siv's new autobiographical account of his escape from the Killing Fields of Cambodia to find extradordinary success in America, is one of the most inspirational stories ever.

Siv grew up in a middle class family in a village near Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. After working his way through college, he eventually landed a job at the international relief agency CARE. When Pol Pot and his communist Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia in 1975, Siv's close-knit family was split apart and forced to return to the countryside to perform slave labor. The Khmer Rouge would eventually cause the deaths of up to 2 million Cambodians--over a fifth of the population--through execution, starvation and forced labor. Since the Khmer Rouge systematically murdered the most educated members of society, Siv had to hide his educated background at all costs.

Knowing that he would eventually be discovered and murdered, Siv plotted a daring escape into Thailand. He had to bicycle his way from the southeast corner of Cambodia all the way to the northwest corner, hiding in the forests and outwitting the murderous Khmer Rouge every step of the way. After finally making his way to a town near the border, he laid low until he found his chance to escape. He hid in the back of a truck that was transporting logs near the border, jumped off at what he thought was the appropriate moment, but got his shirt caught. After being dragged by the truck for about a mile, he finally broke free and miraculously escaped detection. He then broke into a mad dash through a mine-infested forest and eventually made it into Thailand.

After living in a refugee camp in Thailand, Siv was allowed to enter the U.S. as a refugee in 1976. After working as a migrant farm worker and burger flipper in Connecticut, he moved to New York and became a taxi driver. It was there that he learned that his worst fears had in fact been realized: virtually his entire family, including his elderly mother, his brother, his sister and their families, had been clubbed to death back in Cambodia.

Siv managed to win a scholarship at the prestigious international affairs graduate program at Columbia University. By 1989, just 13 years after he arrived in the U.S. virtually penniless, he was appointed by President George H.W. Bush as Deputy Assistant to the President for Public Liaison. Golden Bones recounts Siv's triumphant but sad return to Cambodia as a high-ranking White House official, and his subsequent service under President George W. Bush as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council.

Sad Commentary recommends that everyone read Golden Bones, which is full of dramatic twists and turns that are stranger than fiction. It would make a great movie. The question, however, is whether Hollywood today is capable of making a movie that could capture Siv's unabashed love for America without snickering. If every American could see this country through Sichan Siv's eyes, we would all be a lot more thankful for our blessings.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Barack Obama is a Half-Breed Mongrel

There, I said it. Barack Obama is a Half-Breed Mongrel. But I mean that in a good way.

I am a Half-Breed Mongrel. In fact, I invented the term (not that anyone seems to want to steal credit from me). I coined the term not as an expression of self-loathing, but as my un-PC way to describe the growing army of people whose parents didn't have the discipline to breed with their own kind. Some of us were created this way by accident, and some by design--as if part of some misguided experiment to mutate the human species. But however we were created, we're all here, an odd assortment of strange-looking schizophrenics who don't quite fit in.

There are other terms to describe people of mixed race. Samoans use the term "afa-kasi," but that's too particular for general use. "Hapa" is too PC. I think of Half-Breed Mongrel, or HBM, as a little like the "N" word--not the "N" word ending with "er" that some whites used to hurl at African-Americans, but the "N" word ending with "a" that some African-Americans use affectionately with each other.

HBMs have a special tie to one another. I was talking to the computer guy at my new job and we had an instant bonding mini-thrill when we figured out that we were both mongrels. Why would a Japanese Portugese find kinship with a Jewish Samoan? Because we're HBM, dude! He went back and emailed me the names of other HBMs at the firm.

The term first came to me spontaneously a few years ago when I was an attorney at an old-time New York law firm, interviewing a law student for a summer job. She mentioned that she was half Japanese and half white. Without divulging my own impure origins, I said: "So you're a Half-Breed Mongrel." I said it with a straight face and a disapproving tone, as if to say: "You won't fit in here." At first, a look of disbelief came across her mongrel face; perhaps she was wondering if I had Tourette's Syndrome. Then, she seemed to notice my own incongruent features and realized that I was putting her on. Had she chosen to get offended, joke or no joke, she seriously could have gotten me fired. But she didn't get offended, because HBMs are cool people. She accepted our offer of employment and became my HBM colleague.

It has been said that anti-Semitism, racism and other similar phenomena are rooted in the fundamental human fear of "The Other." That's bad news for HBMs. We are the ultimate "Other." That's even the box that we all have to check on all those nosy forms that ask us what race we are. "Other" defines our identity.

But this group of "Others" is coming into its own. Our numbers are growing by leaps and bounds. To all you HBM-haters out there, it's time to back off. So what if we look funny? I've seen some pretty ugly purebreds in my time. And how many cultures do you have? Only one, you say? How boring. And look at all the cool people we've got: Tiger Woods, Alicia Keys, Halle Berry, The Rock, Keanu Reeves, Jessica Alba, Norah Jones, Cameron Diaz, Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon, Hines Ward, Jason Kidd. On the other hand, what do Adolph Hitler, Osama bin Laden, Genghis Khan, Joseph Stalin, and Idi Amin have in common? That's right. They were NOT HBM. You can add to that list Attila the Hun, who, had he been HBM, would have been known as "Attila the Half-Hun."

OK, so maybe I stacked the deck there just a little. I suppose that non-HBMs have an occasional OK person that I could have put on their list, like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King. But there are logical reasons why I believe that HBMs tend to be cool people. For one thing, we're forced to see the world from at least two perspectives. That's twice as many perspectives as many people ever acquire in their entire lives.

HBMs have an innate understanding that there are usually at least two valid ways of looking at most issues. That's a fundamental first step to accepting and finding common ground with other people. That doesn't mean that HBMs are all wishy washy moral relativists incapable of saying that anything is better than anything else. It simply means that we don't start out of the box with the rigidity of thinking that might afflict some of our non-HBM friends. In fact, that's why I think that HBMs tend to be good at thinking "outside of the box."

Also, it's hard to hate people who aren't your kind when you aren't even exactly your kind. Who am I supposed to hate? Everyone who isn't half Samoan and half Jewish (including my parents)? That's why HBMs tend to be inherently at ease with the fact that the world is made up of many different kinds of people with different perspectives, and that reasonable people can sometimes disagree. I think that it's no coincidence that Hawaii, the state that has a higher percentage of HBMs than any other, is famous for its "Aloha spirit." And I'm not the first to suggest that inter-marriage, and hence the creation of more HBMs, is the path to a more peaceful, tolerant future.

Right now, the hottest HBM going is Barack Obama. I'm actually supporting John McCain for President because of I'm much more closely aligned with his political philosophy, I trust his experience and judgment and I believe he has demonstrated extraordinary character over the course of his life. But that doesn't mean that I'm not proud of Barack Obama or that I'm not inspired by his hopeful, post-partisan rhetoric. And even though I have good faith differences of opinion with Obama on policy, I sure like the way that he represents us HBMs on the national stage. Most people will think of Obama as the first African-American President if he were to get elected (sorry, Bill Clinton), and that would certainly be an historical milestone given our country's history. But it would also be of great significance that he would be our first HBM President. That, too, would suggest volumes about how far race relations have come in America.

Even though Obama's political views are strongly to one side of America's political spectrum, he does not demonize those on the other side. That's very HBM, and it's the reason that most Republicans like Obama much better than the more centrist Hillary Clinton. McCain, by the way, also has a very HBM ability to work harmoniously with people from the other party--which is why I'm starting to have suspicions about his ancestry.

So a McCain-Obama race, because of the personalities of both men, would hopefully be waged with an HBM vibe and an HBM spirit. And regardless of who wins, reasonable, collaborative, open-minded HBMs everywhere will have reason to celebrate the ascendancy of our way of looking at the world.

So c'mon, HBMs, throw your hands in the air, and wave them all around like you just don't care. Stand up, be proud, and shout out loud:

HBM 'til I die!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Who Has the Moral Authority to Question John McCain's Character?

I was flipping channels the other night and came across what appeared to be a biography of John McCain. My first thought was, "I don't need to see this. I already support the guy, and I know his story." I was more in the mood for some mindless entertainment after a long day.

I watched for a little, and then I couldn't stop watching. It turns out that I was watching the John McCain episode of "Headliners and Legends" on MSNBC. It should be required viewing for the entire country, as a civics lesson and as a profile in courage. I would say that even if he wasn't on the verge of becoming a major party's nominee for President of the United States.

Like most people, I knew that John McCain had endured brutal treatment as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. After so many years of hearing that recited as part of his biography, it became like an afterthought to me--a mere part of his resume, like Hillary Clinton's tenure as First Lady and Barack Obama's service as a community organizer.

It was quite compelling, then, to hear his story told in the way that it should be told, in all its horrifying, grotesque detail. How he was shot down and parachuted into a lake right in the middle of Hanoi, breaking both arms and a leg. How his nearly completely stripped body was dragged through the streets of Hanoi by an angry mob. How his painful injuries were exacerbated by beatings from that angry mob, including someone who smashed his shoulder with a rifle butt. How someone else in that mob lanced him with a bayonet. How he spent four extra years in captivity, including two years of solitary confinement and frequent torture, because he refused to allow himself to be used as a propaganda tool. How his body was so broken that it can never fully heal. How he came inches from death on a number of occasions, including twice by his own hand when things became unbearable. I couldn't begin to do his story justice by describing it here, without the footage, the photos and the emotional testimonials from those who lived through it with him or suffered helplessly at home praying for his return.

The show included interviews with some people I know. I have come to know Orson Swindle, McCain's fellow POW hero, because his wife, Angie Williams, worked for me. Orson, who slept on a concrete slab next to McCain in the Hanoi Hilton when the latter wasn't in solitary, told stories in his interview that brought McCain's heroism to life. It also reminded me of Orson's heroism.

I met John McCain's brother and fellow Navy veteran Joe McCain a couple of times at Orson and Angie's house. I don't know Joe McCain well, but he struck me as a very fun and jovial person. It packed quite an emotional punch, then, to see Joe McCain come to tears during his interview, even after so many years, when he described the pain of seeing his gravely injured brother in a propaganda video taken by his captors.

John McCain's heroism does not entitle him to be President. It does not mean that his views should not be vigorously challenged, on the merits, by those who strongly disagree with him in good faith. I believe that he has more than earned the right, however, to have people refrain from the character-impugning cheap shots that some have launched at him recently.

I've heard it said that John McCain betrays his own party because he craves the approval of the liberal media. Well, I'm no psychologist, but it seems to me that had John McCain been an approval addict, he would have made at least a half-hearted attempt to seek the approval of his sadistic captors during the war. He endured permanent bodily injury and years of extra captivity precisely because he did not seek their approval. And if John McCain was a betrayer, why did he choose to withstand unthinkable cruelty rather than betray his comrades and his country?

I would hate to put uncomfortable thoughts into the minds of McCain's critics, but isn't it at least conceivable to them that McCain takes the positions he takes not because of character flaws, but because he really believes in them? And hasn't the tremendous honor and character that he has demonstrated under unimaginably trying circumstances at least earned him the benefit of the doubt on that score?

I believe that some people may be launching unfair attacks on John McCain's character because they feel threatened by his moral credibility and want to tear it down. This is a free country, and subject only to our defamation laws, anyone has the right under the First Amendment to attack John McCain's character. While McCain's critics may have the legal authority to do so, I have yet to find one with the moral authority to do so.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

John McCain's Critics: Letting the Perfect Become the Enemy of the Great

Listening to the monolithic hysteria emanating from conservative talk radio over the past few days, one would think that the Republicans were about to select Che Guevara as their nominee. The aversion that some "professional conservatives" have to John McCain, the charismatic war hero who represents the GOP's best hope of retaining the White House, transcends the bounds of logic.

McCain's talk radio critics typically rattle off a list of issues on which McCain has allegedly "abandoned" his party. I respect the fact that McCain's critics have honest, good faith differences of opinion with him on certain issues. I just wish that those leading the group diatribe against McCain would be a little more consistent.

Many of McCain's critics are the same pundits who regularly blast liberal Democrats for not comprehending the overarching importance of the fight against Islamo-fascism. That is how many of these pundits justified their willingness to seriously consider supporting Rudy Giuliani's candidacy, notwithstanding his liberal views on social issues. During Giuliani's long tenure as "national frontrunner," his perceived electability in November made many radio pundits willing to set aside their differences with Giulani on almost everything. After all, they reasoned, the War on Terror was the issue that dwarfed all others, and even a "liberal" Republican in the White House would be better than Hillary Clinton. I like Giuliani, and found the willingness of many conservative Republicans to embrace Giuliani's candidacy to be a hopeful sign that the Republican Party's "big tent" was expanding further than ever. And I believe that if Giuliani had not made serious campaign strategy errors and had maintained his frontrunner status, conservatives would have indeed rallied around him.

Well, it appears that the logic that held sway when John McCain's campaign was in the ashes has been swept away in the updraft of his Phoenix-like rise (as it has often been described) from said ashes. Most of McCain's talk radio critics will grudgingly acknowledge that McCain has by far the strongest credentials to lead the War on Terror, but balk at supporting him because of his stands on immigration (where President Bush agrees with him), campaign finance reform (where President Bush signed his legislation) and other issues. But wait a minute: Isn't the War on Terror still the issue that dwarfs all others? And why can't conservative pundits who were willing to live with Giuliani's stands on abortion, gay marriage and gun control accept McCain's independent stands on issues that, while important, are much less fundamental to social conservatives? Are these pundits really willing to risk losing Republican control of the White House in the middle of the War on Terror because they object to McCain's stands on campaign finance reform and environmental protection?

What's going on now is something out of Alice in Wonderland. McCain's critics are impugning the character and integrity of a genuine American war hero who endured five and a half years of brutal treatment as a POW. In order to stop him, they are belatedly rallying around a candidate who has had very recent and very dramatic changes of heart on many issues that social conservatives hold dear, suspiciously coinciding with his decision to seek the Presidency.

Despite all of the huffing and puffing from some quarters, McCain has excellent conservative credentials on issues that have defined the movement in the modern era. He is pro-life, he is a crusader against excessive and wasteful government spending, and has by far the best credentials of all of the candidates on national security. Notwithstanding McCain's solid conservative record, he has always demonstrated an ability to find common ground with those across the aisle. While hard-core ideologues will find this to be a weakness, most normal Americans will recognize this as a strength. Most Americans are not ideologues. They respond to candidates who have strong core values, but without an ideological rigidity that prevents them from thinking independently. McCain thinks independently. This is why independent voters, among others, respond so strongly to him. It may also be why some people are threatened by him.

Most voters have the maturity to recognize that no one candidate will be a perfect fit for them on every issue. There is the famous saying that cautions against allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good. In the case of John McCain, who has inspired so many with his exceptional courage and love of country, some misguided souls are causing the perfect to become the enemy of the great.

You Got Beat, Beli-Cheat! (And Ain't it Sweet!)

Don Shula, Bob Griese, Mercury Morris and the rest of the 1972 Miami Dolphins can finally pop open their bottle of champagne. They've never had to wait this long, but better late than never. The New England Patriots, heavy favorites to post the second perfect season in NFL history, tonight lost a 17-14 Super Bowl thriller to the New York Football Giants. The 1972 Dolphins remain the only team in NFL history to go through an entire season undefeated, culminating with a Super Bowl victory.

Under different circumstances, I would have been rooting for the Patriots. Had the Patriots achieved their perfect season, they would have gone down as the best team in NFL history thus far. They won more games than the 1972 Dolphins, and had been a far more dominant team. It would have been really cool to see a team achieve the historical level of excellence that New England seemed to be headed for.

I couldn't bring myself to root for the Patriots, though. They were way too arrogant, starting with their coach. I can admire confidence, cockiness, or a winner's swagger. This year's Patriots, however, repeatedly crossed the line into an offensive form of bullying.

I'm a Washington Redskins fan. The Patriots beat the Redskins, 52-7, earlier in the season. Blowouts happen, but this one left an especially bad taste in my mouth. The Patriots left their starters, including Tom Brady, in the game way after the outcome was no longer in doubt. On at least two occasions, they went for it on fourth down just so they could run up the score. They humiliated Joe Gibbs, the Redskins' recently retired Hall-of-Fame coach and one of football's most decent men. I was disgusted.

The Patriots won many of their games in similar fashion. Although I had alot of admiration for the Patriots unprecedented level of accomplishment on the field, there was much about that team that I couldn't stand. I couldn't stand Bill Beli-jerk's smugness, and how his team played the victim card after they had been caught cheating. And while the Patriots adopted "Humble Pie" as their motto, I had a hard time detecting much sincere humility. I had actually been happy for Randy Moss's comeback this season, but was pretty offended by his failure to pay proper respect to Jerry Rice after Moss broke Rice's record for touchdown receptions in a season. Since Rice had set his record in a 12-game strike-shortened season, Moss might have at least demonstrated a little "Humble Pie" after taking 16 games to break that record.

After the Redskins went on an improbable late-season run to the playoffs, fueled by the inspirational memory of murdered All-Pro safety Sean Taylor, I thought that the Redskins might be destined to go all the way to the Super Bowl, where they would avenge the Patriots' early-season bullying by ruining their perfect season. Well, that particular revenge fantasy never came to pass, but the Giants' come-from-behind shocker tonight was pretty satisfying in its own right.

As a result of tonight's Super Bowl loss, this year's Patriots have not only failed to become the best team in NFL history, they've dropped themselves clear out of the conversation. You can't be in the "greatest team ever" conversation without winning the Super Bowl. The Patriots were one score away from becoming the first team ever to win 19 games in a season. Instead, they're merely the third to win 18 games, and the first 18-game winner to fail to win the Super Bowl.

After their unprecedented streak of perfection, the Patriots' season ultimately ended up as a failure. That's harsh, but that's the way it is. Sports history isn't kind to players and teams that achieve great things but ultimately fail to "win the big one."

I must say, however, that one thing about the Patriots loss makes me very sad. I very much wanted (and still want) to see linebacker Junior Seau get a championship ring. Seau is a Samoan role model and one of the greatest linebackers ever to play the game. This was his first time back in the Super Bowl since he led his overmatched Chargers against the 49'ers 14 years ago. Seau is a classy guy who deserved to go out as a champion. Maybe he still will. If he comes back next year, and if his Patriot teammates start taking this "Humble Pie" stuff seriously, maybe I'll be rooting for them this time next year.