Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, RIP

This Wednesday I thought to myself, "I haven't read anything from Hitchens recently ... I wonder how he's doing." Last night delivered the unfortunate answer.

My interactions with him were few but memorable. While producing Laura Ingraham's radio show, I regularly tried booking him, though not regularly succeeding. During my rookie year, I began one such solicitation: "Hey, Chris ..." He politely declined due to a scheduling conflict and ended his note, "And please feel free to call me Christopher." Which naturally made me feel like a jackass. Another time he demurred, "Sorry, caught between Cuba and Venezuela," which of course wasn't a joke.

Once when he was in the studio, I asked if he'd like a glass of water for the interview. He said no, pointing out that he already had one. That appearance was actually a debate over the premise of his book, "God Is Not Great." This is the subject where Hitchens, in my opinion, was at his weakest, but even then he took on all comers -- his Christian minister sparring partner, Laura, the callers -- with wit, eloquence, and charm. Afterward, I settled back into my seat and accidentally mistook his water for mine, immediately realizing he was actually drinking straight vodka. Mind you this was 10 AM. And if memory serves, after his cancer diagnosis.

I agree with William F. Buckley, who, as his son Christopher recounts, thought Hitchens intolerable after reading his latest attacks on the church; yet no matter how badly he offended, ultimately he always proved irresistible. He lacerated Mayor Bloomberg in the most satisfying way, and for that alone he'll always have a special place in my heart.

And that's how I'll remember him. As someone evinced the best qualities of rebellious American individualism and the graceful, fluid wit to be expected only from the pen of a Brit.

Speaking of Bloomberg, below are highlights from his pièce de résistance:

The lawbreaking itch is not always an anarchic one. In the first place, the human personality has (or ought to have) a natural resistance to coercion. We don’t like to be pushed and shoved, even if it’s in a direction we might choose to go. In the second place, the human personality has (or ought to have) a natural sense of the preposterous. Thus, just behind my apartment building in Washington there is an official sign saying, drug-free zone. I think this comic inscription may be because it’s close to a schoolyard. And a few years back, one of our suburbs announced by a municipal ordinance that it was a “nuclear-free zone.” I don’t wish to break the first law, though if I did wish to do so it would take me, or any other local resident, no more than one phone call and a 10-minute wait. I did, at least for a while, pine to break the “nuclear-free” regulation, on grounds of absurdity alone, but eventually decided that it would be too much trouble.

So there are laws that are defensible but unenforceable, and there are laws impossible to infringe. But in the New York of Mayor Bloomberg, there are laws that are not possible to obey, and that nobody can respect, and that are enforced by arbitrary power. The essence of tyranny is not iron law. It is capricious law. Tyranny can be petty. And “petty” is not just Bloomberg’s middle name. It is his name.

In the space of a few hours late in November, I managed to break a whole slew of New York laws. That is to say, I sat on an upended milk crate, put my bag next to me on a subway seat, paused to adjust my shoe on a subway step, fed some birds in Central Park, had a cigarette in a town car, attempted to put a plastic frame around a vehicle license plate, and rode a bicycle without keeping my feet on the pedals at all times. I also had a smoke in a bar and at a table in a restaurant. Only in the latter two cases would I hitherto have been knowingly violating a city ordinance. ...

The previous night I had been to the movies and had been annoyed, as one often is, by people chatting and commenting in the back row. This is the height of antisocial behavior, because it ruins the pleasure of others while bringing no benefit to the offender. I normally deal with it as I do when people in cinemas fail to turn off their cell phones. I turn round and tell them that I know where they live, and I know where their children go to school. Others are usually on hand with similar suggestions, especially in New York. It’s all part of the fun. Ask yourself: what if uniformed cops were standing at the back of the theater enforcing the no-talking rule? It wouldn’t be quite the same, would it? But in Bloombergville, where the citizen is treated like a backward child, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this was the next bright idea.

Decency forbids me from mentioning where I ate lunch, because the proprietor is an old friend and a beautiful and conscientious restaurateur and I can’t risk having him treated like a fractious juvenile. On September 11, 2001, he turned his place into a casualty-treatment station and general refuge, and he does everything he can think of to make his guests welcome and well fed. It was a fairly slow lunchtime, and I was able to ask all diners present if they minded my lighting a cigarette for the purposes of a Vanity Fair photo shoot. All of them said go right ahead and good luck to you. So that’s all I need say about that, except that New Yorkers are no longer trusted with such discretion or good manners. It is government alone that knows what’s “appropriate.” There cannot be a single exception. One size must fit all. This casual destruction of Bohemia, in one of its oldest and most famous redoubts, is an unquantifiable loss. It misses the point of New York—in fact, it negates it. The backward child in this case—also the spiteful and bullying and smug and spoiled child—is His Honor the Mayor. May he one day be cornered in the schoolyard at recess, and without his team of hired toadies and informers, and taught the lesson of a lifetime. ...

I have only ever heard one defense of this reign of error, which is that it mimics the “broken window” street-level campaign that began to tackle crime under Bill Bratton and Rudy Giuliani about a decade ago. But, excuse me, that was directed at people making a nuisance of themselves by wielding squeegees at intersections, or panhandling with an attitude, or offering their bodies for sale at unwanted moments and locations, or jumping over turnstiles. This current Niagara of pettiness and random victimization may well be Bloomberg’s attempt at a wannabe reputation as heroic crime-fighter and disciplinarian. Who knows what goes on in the tiny, constipated chambers of his mind? All we know for certain is that one of the world’s most broad-minded and open cities is now in the hands of a picknose control freak.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Spitzer's Shame Deficit

Disgraced ex-New York governor Eliot Spitzer's certainly made his fair share of mistakes in life. Yet I only seem to recall him apologizing for one. The others he'll never apologize for, seeing as he views them as his greatest accomplishments (namely, turning New York's attorney general's office into the official micro-manager of the global financial industry -- never mind the billions in market capitalization destroyed as a result).

Writing today in, the recently fired CNN host is now calling on Attorney General Holder to take out Rupert Murdoch:
The Murdoch empire is falling apart—criminal behavior and disregard for basic ethics having permeated its highest ranks. News Corp. executives' claims of a full and thorough investigation and that there were only a few bad apples have been exposed as feeble and false. The pseudo-investigations conducted by Scotland Yard are likewise proving to be corrupt and unreliable. Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron's government is running for cover, but it cannot escape the untoward relationship that it had with Murdoch.

So how does all this concern Americans? First, it is hard to believe that the misbehavior in Murdoch's media empire stopped at the water's edge. Given the frequency with which he shuttled his senior executives and editors across the various oceans—Pacific as well as Atlantic—it is unlikely that the shoddy ethics were limited to Great Britain.

Much more importantly, the facts already pretty well established in Britain indicate violations of American law, in particular a law called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The Justice Department has been going out of its way to undertake FCPA prosecutions and investigations in recent years, and the News Corp. case presents a pretty simple test for Attorney General Eric Holder: If the department fails to open an immediate investigation into News Corp.'s violations of the FCPA, there will have been a major breach of enforcement at Justice. Having failed to pursue Wall Street with any apparent vigor, this is an opportunity for the Justice Department to show it can flex its muscles at the right moment.
Are you man enough, Eric? Spitzer may as well call him a pussy, punch him in the face, and launch the investigation himself. That is his style, after all.

Only Spitzer could suggest an attorney general engage in blatant prosecutorial overreach while feigning devotion to the cause of justice. As everyone in New York is well aware, The Post -- one of Rupert Murdoch's prized holdings -- savages Spitzer with regularity and evident delight. Smelling blood in the water, Spitzer wants revenge. Using the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in a way so utterly unrelated to its original purpose recalls Spitzer's serial abuse of New York's Martin Act. Many years ago, AIG's founder and then-CEO Hank Greenberg audaciously spoke out against Spitzer's politicization of NY's AG office. Spitzer responded by using his beloved Martin Act to force AIG to depose its leader, thereby initiating the company's lengthy, expensive, and widely destructive downfall. The re-insurance industry may have been destroyed in the process, but at least Eliot got his guy.

Speaking of serial abuse, if Salon's going to permit Spitzer to publish on its site, the least it can do is impose a quota on the word "should" -- perhaps one of the most obnoxious words in the English language. Example:
If DoJ does investigate and if a court were to find News Corp. liable, the penalties should extend beyond the traditional monetary fine. News Corp. should also have its FCC licenses revoked. Licensure and relicensure by the FCC require that the licensee abide by the law and serve the public interest. News Corp. appears to have blatantly violated this basic standard. Its licenses should be pulled.
There are many things Eric Holder SHOULD do. Listening to Eliot Spitzer is not one of them.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Democrats: Let's Pass a Balanced Budget Amendment

In today's White House press conference, Press Secretary Jay Carney explained the president's opposition to a Balanced Budget Amendment:
The President believes that we do not need to amend the Constitution to cut the deficit. We need to get beyond politics as usual, and find bipartisan common ground.

A balanced budget amendment has, today and has always been, about ducking responsibility rather than taking our challenges head on. This is not -- we don’t need -- I mean, the Constitution should not be used to simply abdicate responsibility. What we need to do here is not complicated. It does not require a constitutional amendment and the ratification by preponderance of states here. It requires people rolling up their sleeves -- the leaders, the representatives of the people in the Congress and the President, the Vice President and others here -- and working out a compromise to achieve a goal that we all share, which is significant deficit reduction, a plan that gets our fiscal house in order that deals with our long-term debt.

It is something we can do. And in some ways, while these are hard issues, it is something we can do easily if people accept the principle that we have to compromise to do it. So, no, we do not support the balanced budget amendments.
Which places the president even further to the left than Harry Reid. This afternoon, the National Republican Senatorial Committee distributed the following quotations from Senate Democrats:

SEN. SHERROD BROWN (D-OH): “Before I ask for your vote, I owe it to you to tell you where I stand. I’m for… a balanced budget amendment.” (Rep. Brown, “Where I Stand,” YouTube, 11/1/06)

· BROWN: “I stood up to a President of my own party . . . In support of the balanced budget amendment, in restoring fiscal sanity to our government.” (Ohio Senate Debate, City Club Of Cleveland, 10/27/06)

SEN. DEBBIE STABENOW (D-MI): “I crossed the line to help balance the budget, as one of the Democrats that broke with my party.” (Michigan Senate Debate, 10/22/00)

SEN. MARK BEGICH (D-AK): “It’s time to stop playing political brinksmanship with the budget and do what every Alaskan is doing - balance the budget.” (Sen. Begich, “Begich Statement On 2011 Budget Vote,” Press Release, 4/15/11)

SEN. BILL NELSON (D-FL): “Over the years, I have supported a balanced budget amendment…” (Sen. Bill Nelson, Congressional Record, S.1920, 3/29/11)

· “Senator Nelson has been a long-time supporter of a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, going back to his service in the 1980s, and will continue to reach across the political divide...” (“Support For Balanced Budget Amendment,” Columbia County Observer, 3/8/11)

SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D-WV):[T]he balanced budget amendment's very, very important to me and to every governor, to every state, to every household, especially in West Virginia. And if they can do it, they think we can do it also.” (U.S. Senate, Budget Committee, Hearing, 1/27/11)

SEN. BEN NELSON (D-NE): “I voted yes and support a balanced budget amendment that allows for flexibility in times of war and for natural disasters.” (Sen. Nelson, Press Statement, 3/4/11)

SEN. MARK UDALL (D-CO): “I've long gone by the saying, if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. By restoring healthy and responsible spending through a reasonable Balanced Budget Amendment, we can begin filling in that hole.” (Sen. Udall, “Udall Co-Sponsors Balanced Budget Amendment,” Press Release, 2/1/11)

SEN. MICHAEL BENNET (D-CO): “U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet broke his hesitation on endorsing the balanced-budget amendment last week… pledging support for the idea.” (“Bennet Balancing His Approach To Budget,” Denver Post (CO), 3/6/11)

SEN. CLAIRE McCASKILL (D-MO): “I think they should. …It would be great if that discipline were in place. Clearly it’s a goal we’ve got to work toward…” “…responding to a question of why the federal government can’t have a balanced budget amendment…” SEN. CLAIRE McCASKILL (D-MO): “I think they should. …It would be great if that discipline were in place. Clearly it’s a goal we’ve got to work toward…” (“McCaskill For ‘Responsible’ Balanced Budget Amendment,” PoliticMo, 6/29/11)

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D-NY): “New York families must continuously balance their checkbooks. Forty-nine states, including New York, require a balanced budget. An amendment to the Constitution will finally hold the federal government to the same, common sense standard.” (Rep. Gillibrand, “Nation Deserved A Balanced Budget,” The Time Union, 6/4/07)

SEN. TOM CARPER (D-DE): “As a Member of the House, when I served with Senator Santorum over there, we were great proponents of something called a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution…” (Sen. Carper, Congressional Record, S.8063-4, 7/14/04)

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV): “…I believe we should have a constitutional amendment to balance the budget. I am willing to go for that.(Sen. Reid, Congressional Record, S.1333, 2/12/97)

SEN. KENT CONRAD (D-ND): “I believe deeply in the need to balance the Federal budget… I would support an amendment to the Constitution.” (Sen. Conrad, Congressional Record, S.1147, 2/10/97)

SEN. HERB KOHL (D-WI): “The balanced budget amendment does, in my opinion, embody a principle simple and vital enough to deserve inclusion in the Constitution.” (Sen. Kohl, Congressional Record, S.1609, 2/26/97)

· KOHL: “…I am committed to the concept of the balanced budget amendment.” (Sen. Kohl, Congressional Record, S.2947, 2/22/95)

SEN. MARY LANDRIEU (D-LA): “I took a position to support a Balanced Budget Amendment…” (Sen. Landrieu, Press Conference, 2/25/1997)

· “Landrieu had touted her support for the balanced budget amendment in order to win moderate votes … she would uphold her campaign promise.” (CNN’s Inside Politics, 2/28/97)

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D-CA): “The spending trends are what really motivates me, and I hope others, to accept a constitutional balanced budget amendment.” (Sen. Feinstein, Congressional Record, S.1594, 2/26/97)

SEN. TOM HARKIN (D-IA): “Mr. President, I have long supported a balanced budget amendment. I expect to do so again...” (Sen. Harkin, Congressional Record, S.2460, 2/10/95)

SEN. TIM JOHNSON (D-SD): “It is time to get our priorities straight. I've been a strong supporter of a balanced budget amendment…” (Rep. Johnson, Congressional Record, H.11213, 10/26/95)

SEN. MAX BAUCUS (D-MT): “I have always supported a balanced budget. Montanans want a balanced budget. We must listen to the people and give them a balanced budget.” (Sen. Baucus, Congressional Record, S.2469, 2/10/95)

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL): “…we need to move toward a Balanced Budget Amendment.” (Rep. Durbin, Congressional Record, H.1310, 1/11/95)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

One Man, Many Ideas

President Obama is a man of many ideas. Sometimes these seem to randomly join together to form a larger vision, but more often they're scattershot, coming from all points across the political spectrum to collectively present a man not of deep thinking or complexity, but of profound confusion and unwarranted faith in himself. Consider:

Obama kicked off today's presser with a boast of all he's done to boost business, specifically by studying how burdensome regulations might be reformed. Later during the Q & A, a reporter asked about the National Labor Relations Board's threats against Boeing for trying to open a non-union facility in South Carolina. Seemingly being just the sort of burdensome government interference Obama proposed reforming only minutes earlier, one might've expected him to use the opportunity to pledge to remove this roadblock and clear the way for Boeing to create these much-needed jobs; instead he extolled the virtues of government regulations, crediting them with keeping the air clean, the water pure, the food edible. And, presumably, union workers happy.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from today's speech is Obama's strong desire to hike taxes on "corporate jet owners," whom he suggested were somehow guilty for amassing America's national debt. With aviation on the mind, Obama also relayed his opinion that the airline industry is one of America's dominant sectors and that he planned to ensure its continued success. So America's jet culture is a point of pride, or enmity? Hard to say.

Today's topic, of course, was America's ever-worsening debt crisis. Early on, Obama said we must take a "balanced" approach (not, by the way, toward budgeting, but toward mixing spending cuts with tax hikes). Yet while he was clear enough he sought to raise Americans' taxes, he was less clear regarding where he proposed cutting. He actually rattled off several spending areas he considered inviolable -- e.g., the budgets of the National Weather Service, food inspectors, medical research, scholarships, programs for seniors. Addressing congressional Republicans, Obama lectured that it's time past-time to make some "tough choices" and, presumably, jack up taxes. Tough choices for thee, not for me.

By the time all was said and done, Obama boasted of being a "tax cutting" president, while also bashing tax cuts as irresponsible and unethical, and then supporting them again when discussing business investments; he insisted the Constitution plays no role in his decision to invade Libya, while also saying his decision to unilaterally revoke the Defense of Marriage Act was motivated by his devotion to the Constitution; he claimed to avoid doing"scare tactics," while also telling senior citizens that Republicans planned to cut off anticipated benefits; he roared that he's the president of the United States and he's here "to lead," while also explaining that the debt crisis is so important he delegated the task to Vice President Biden.

In all, today made for a very confusing introspection into the inner workings of President Obama's mind. But that isn't to say there are no clear takeaways. In every instance, Obama expressed complete confidence that his ideas were perfect (even when they contradicted each other). And while he invoked certain conservative ideas -- tax cuts, spending cuts, a strong foreign policy -- he more passionately offered ideas that undermined the conservative ones. A cynic might say Obama doesn't really believe everything he says. That he marches forward a very liberal agenda, but under a banner preaching conservatism. I'd tend to agree with such a cynic.