Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Game Is Over--The Media and Rick Warren Can't Protect McCain Anymore

When it comes to Barack Obama, the news media does its job with a vengeance. When Obama goes to Germany and draws a crowd of 200,000 they ask if he's being too presumptuous. When he is the target of non-stop attack ads a few weeks later, they ask if he's not being presidential enough.

Every real and imaginary friend or connection Obama has had over the last twenty years has been examined in great detail. That's what the media is supposed to do. Ask the hard questions and make sure the American people know the full story so they can make a more informed decision.

Unfortunately for all of us, the tough questions and real accountability have only been applied to one of the candidates. John McCain has gotten a total pass to this point. He has billed himself as the foreign policy and security expert who's ready to be commander in chief on day one. But the media had to cover for him and bury the stories when McCain showed four times that he didn't know Sunni from Shi'a or when he twice referred to Czechoslovakia (a country that hasn't existed for 15 years) or when he expressed concerns about the Iraq-Afghanistan border (which also doesn't exist).

The most outrageous media cover-up came when McCain claimed in a CBS News interview that The Surge had cleared the way for the Sunnis in Anbar Province to turn on Al Qaeda. That Sunni initiative began months before The Surge and virtually none of the additional U.S.troops were deployed in that region. Rather than air McCain's embarrassing inaccurate answer, CBS edited the tape to use a McCain answer to a previous question in the place of his real answer--a deliberate distortion of reality.

Pastor Rick Warren joined the crowd of McCain protectors during his conversation with the candidates at the Saddleback Church last week. Warren was interested in their views on "moral" issues such as when life begins and the nature of (same sex)marriage. But Warren seemed to have no interest in discussing their views on adultery. This had to be a great relief to McCain.

By his own admission, McCain was a serial adulterer when he returned from Vietnam and eventually divorced his first wife Carol after having an affair with his current wife Cindy--a gorgeous heiress whose father bankrolled McCain's entry into politics.

McCain actually opened the door for Warren when McCain said his greatest moral lapse was "the failure of my first marriage." But what does that mean? Marriages don't just fail. The answer begged a follow-up--particularly given the fact that Warren knew full well that McCain's first marriage didn't just "fail." It was sabotaged by McCain's behavior.

It has been well-documented in recent articles in the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Mail that while McCain was in prison in Vietnam, his wife Carol was faithfully raising their three children back home. During that period, she suffered massive injuries in an automobile accident and after 23 surgeries still walked with a cane when McCain return to the U.S. in 1973.

Over the next six years, McCain has admitted having "girlfriends" while he served as commander at Cecil Field in Florida. A good friend of mine served under McCain there and told me that McCain's numerous affairs were well known throughout the base.

By 1979, McCain was 42 and it was clear that he was not going to follow his father and grandfather to an illustrious Navy career. He met 24-year old Cindy Hensley at a party in Hawaii and although he was still married to Carol he pursued Cindy relentlessly--"brazenly" according to CNN--until he divorced Carol and married Cindy less than a year later. McCain then used his new father-in-law's money to launch his political career.

McCain admits that his actions severely damaged his relationship with Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

Former presidential candidate Ross Perot said in a recent interview, "McCain is a classic opportunist. He is always reaching for attention and glory. After he came home, Carol walked with a limp. So he threw her over for a poster girl with big money from Arizona, and the rest is history."

I have a great deal of respect for John McCain. I voted for him as my Senator and supported his campaign. I would support him for the Senate and vote for again. I am not trying to smear him or do an expose. My beef is not with McCain--it's with the news media and people like Rick Warren who claim to be impartial but have clearly been anything but that.

This information has all been published by two respected newspapers in recent weeks. None of these facts has been refuted by McCain or his campaign. During the same period, the infidelity of non-candidate John Edwards was given non-stop 24-7 coverage for more than a week.

So here's my question: How many American voters know any of this? No major news organizations followed up on the Los Angeles Times story. As with other negative news or gaffes regarding McCain and outright lies that his campaign has spread, there has been a protective silence. Can you imagine the coverage that this story would have gotten if Obama was the protagonist?

But the party may now be over. McCain's admission this week that he didn't know how many houses he owns was so damaging and said so much about him that even the protective media can't insulate him from the blowback.

After all, the McCain campaign has spent a lot of time and money trying to portray Barack Obama as an elitist who is out of touch with the American people. Obama, of course, was the child of a mixed marriage who started with nothing and worked his way up through his intelligence, merit and hard work to become the head of the Harvard Law Review and a place in the U.S. Senate.

McCain, on the other hand, was the son of an admiral who was the son of an admiral. He launched his political career by marrying an heiress. He and his wife are now worth more than $100 million, have their own plane, and have more houses than McCain can count. And Obama is the elitist?

Until this week, the media has abandoned all responsibility to be fair and balanced in the way it has covered these two candidates. Hopefully we can count on a more level playing field going forward.

Monday, August 18, 2008

T. Boone Pickens-- A Swift Boater Turned Pluralist

Smart successful people tend to have strong opinions and the courage and confidence to act on them. But they can differ on how the deal with those who disagree with them or have other opinions.

One approach--the one we see from most politicians today--is to discredit and even demonize those who have other points of view. We've all seen how unproductive that is. A second is to be tolerant of the holders of inferior positions or to pretend to respect them in an effort to promote diversity. This can keep people happier but does little to promote excellence.

The winning position in every aspect of daily life is to be pluralistic. Pluralism means being fiercely committed to your own beliefs and practices while trying to find the partial truth in the approaches of those who with whom you disagree. In business and education they call it using "best practices" and in sports they call it "cross training." Look for wisdom everywhere and when you find it, use it to upgrade your own ability to perform.

A few days ago I got to listen and talk to T. Boone Pickens, an 80-year old multi-billionaire oilman who over the last four years has transitioned from being a man who tried to discredit and demonize the other to a true pluralist. He is the best example I have seen of what a profound difference pluralism can make in our effort to confront the most important challenges in life.

In 2004, Pickens donated almost $4 million to the Bush campaign--a huge chunk of which went to fund the sleazy ads produced by the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth which viciously criticized the military record of decorated Viet Nam veteran John Kerry. George Bush, like myself, enlisted in Air Force Reserve to avoid the Vietnam war. Bush was trained as a pilot at a cost of $500,000 to U.S. taxpayers and then never showed up for a Reserve meeting for four years. Against all logic, the ads were a huge success and Bush won the election.

Last Friday, Pickens appeared at the Aspen Institute as a totally changed man on a mission. Although he never mentioned his Swift Boat role, he did say that our country's biggest problem is "a failure in leadership" and rolled his eyes whenever Bush's name was mentioned.

Pickens was here to talk about the Pickens Plan ( for making our country energy independent. His plan is explained in detail at his website but in a nutshell, he believes our top national priority should be to stop the $700 billion a year wealth transfer between the U.S. and oil producing countries--including many that are funding terrorism and have pledged to destroy us.

He is in favor of aggressively pursuing any form of energy that can be produced in our country with an emphasis on natural gas--for heating, industry, and to fuel cars--and wind. He also favors expanding drilling although, unlike McCain, he does not believe that we can "drill our way out of this problem."

He pointed out that the U.S., with 3% of the world's oil production and 4% of the world's people, consumes 25% of the world's oil. "We got addicted to cheap oil and now that the price is going up we're stuck" he said, pointing out that no other country in the world allowed its oil prices to remain as low as we did. "It's your fault and my fault," he said. "And a failure of leadership."

When I talked with Pickens after his presentation, he said he has met with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Friedman called for a big hike in gasoline taxes the week after the attacks on 9/11 to cut demand for oil and keep us from supporting the people who attacked us. "I'm in favor of that right now," Pickens told me. "I'm looking for good advice wherever I can find it."

Pickens was enthusiastic and animated as he talked about his plan. He also said that he would not endorse John McCain or Barack Obama and would "sit out" this year's campaign because he felt that dealing in a non-partisan way with this problem was more important that his partisan political feelings. He asked for and received private meetings with both McCain and Obama over the weekend and he said he will look forward to working with our next president--whomever that might be.

Someone asked him if his enormous wealth didn't give him access to decision makers that the average person doesn't have. "My money gets me access, but it doesn't get me results, Pickens said. "I would rather show up with a million people signed up than show up rich."

Hearing about the Pickens Plan was fascinating, but I came away from the session blown away by the transformation in Pickens himself. In just a few years he moved from being a totally partisan political animal to a man who is looking for the partial truth in the disparate views of a variety of people. And, he's backing his position with $60 million of his own money.

From Swift Boater to pluralist in just a few years. From funding lies and smear tactics to working with millions of people to solve one of our nation's most pressing problems. In my mind, Pickens is the new poster boy for pluralism.

The Jewish Talmud says:

Who is truly wise? He who learns from all people.

T. Boone Pickens has become truly wise.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

My Advice For John McCain--Be John McCain

I moved to Tucson seven years ago and I have voted for and supported Senator John McCain since I became an Arizona resident. I got to hear and talk with McCain this week for the fourth time. Three of those meetings have been here in Aspen which should tell you something right off the bat about why so many Arizona residents aren't so fond of him. I've only heard him in Tucson once.

Presidential candidate McCain was here at the Aspen Institute to address a crowd of about 1,000 people. It was a mcuh older, whiter, cleaner-cut crowd than we normally see in Aspen. They wore a lot of outfits decked with flags and McCain stickers with red, white and blue definitely the colors of the day. I didn't think there were that many Republicans in Aspen but I learn new things every day here.

During the last month, the national news coverage has focused on McCain's apparent confusion over a number of pretty important facts and the sharp negative tone his campaign has taken since Karl Rove-trained Steve Schmidt took over the campaign several weeks ago.

I noted that the front rows of the venue were filled with GOP stalwarts such as Jack Kemp, Senators John Thune and Lindsay Graham, and McCain economic advisor Phil Gramm who is apparently back after being chased out of the campaign a few weeks ago for calling the American people "whiners" for complaining about the economy.

I settled in and waiting for McCain to embarrass himself by stumbling and spreading more lies about Barack Obama. But it didn't happen.

He was questioned by Aspen Institute Chairman Walter Isaacson for almost an hour and McCain was very impressive. He was funny, articulate, presidential and seemed reasonably well informed. He explained his views on Iraq, the economy, the situation in Russia and Georgia, and our energy challenges with clarity and focus.

He also didn't mention Barack Obama's name once.

During the audience question period I told him that I was proud to have voted for him as my senator because I admired his courage and maverick positions. I also said that I respected the way that he and his family had responded to the vicious personal attacks they endured from the Rove slime masters during the 2000 Republican primary. Since Aspen is so intimate, I got to throw a glance at Schmidt, Rick Davis, and Charlie Black in the front row as I said it. I LOVE this place.

"That is why," I said, "I am so disappointed that you have flipped on most of those courageous positions during this campaign and that you have hired the very people who smeared you so badly in South Carolina eight years ago to run your campaign right now."

"After you and your wife stated publicly that you would run a clean campaign focused on the issues all you ads and statements lately have been attacks on your opponent filled with lies and innuendo. During a three day period, you called Senator Obama a traitor who would rather lose the Iraq win than lose the election, you accused him of blowing off the troops in Germany because reporters couldn't come with him on the visit while every reporter on the trip said that was a lie, and you accused him of being a hypocrite when he wrote a beautiful message at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. What has happened to the man I admired so much over the years?"

It was the last issue that bothers and confuses me the most. McCain and his family were devastated during the 2000 Republican primary in South Carolina when the Rove-led Bush attack machine conducted a phone and email smear campaign to spread the false rumor that McCain had fathered a black baby. The truth is that the McCains had actually adopted a child from Bangladesh. After that, McCain reportedly didn't speak to Bush or Rove for years.

Then, as is the custom at the Aspen Institute, I sat down. String questions or debates from the audience are not allowed. But I didn't stay seated for long.

"Please give that man the microphone back," said McCain. "Sir," he said as he pointed at me. "Get back up." I was in the sixth row and could see the veins on his neck starting to bulge.

"You have accused me of changing my views on positions. Be specific."

I then pointed out his flip on the issue of cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans while we were engaged in a war that we weren't paying for. McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 but now he supports them. I also pointed out that he called the late Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and others on the Religious Right "agents of intolerance" several years ago but now he seems to be pandering to those same people in his effort to secure his base.

He claimed I had the facts all wrong to great applause from the McCain Fan Club that surrounded me. He never addressed the issue of why he had turned to the GOP slime machine to run his campaign after being so critical of their tactics eight years ago and going out of his way to promise a positive, issues oriented campaign just months ago.

"I believe in a big Republican tent with room for everybody," was the closest he came to a response. I didn't think he really answered my questions but the crowd loved went wild. They loved his spunk and the way he took me on.

So I had my fifteen minutes of fame with John McCain. The McCain-Gellman exchange was noted by BOTH Aspen daily papers.

But I actually came away far more impressed with his ability to address the issues of the day clearly and effectively than I thought I would. He seemed totally confident and on top of his game throughout the session--even as he artfully dodged my questions.

"He was really impressive today. Why doesn't he do that all the time?" I asked one of the many Republican campaign operatives around me--one of whom had previously promised that McCain campaign would be "Swift Boat times five." None of them had a respnse.

I don't plan to vote for McCain for president. It's not because I don't like him or his policies that much. It's because I believe the current leadership of the Republican Party did more to ruin our country in every way over the last eight years than any group in my lifetime. I have voted for and actively supported many Republicans in the past--including McCain--and I'm sure I will again. I just believe right now they need to be delivered a strong message that they need to change with a landslide loss in November. Hopefully they will regroup under new leadership.

The Republican party used to stand for small government, fiscal responsibility, integrity, and personal sacrifice. Under Bush/Cheney/DeLay/McCain they have been the party of of corruption, arrogance, fiscal irresponsibility, and no sacrifice for anyone other than the troops. We all need the old values to make a return and they won't if the current leadership is bolstered with a McCain election.

But if John McCain were to ask me for my advice, I would tell him to be himself and not let the "experts" bring him down as they did during the last year. A year ago, McCain was a big favorite to win the Republican nomination. People loved him and his maverick tendencies. Then he started listening to his handlers and tried to pander to the Republican base. He proceeded to fall so far behind in the primary race at that point that he almost had to drop out.

By ignoring those experts and following his instincts, he won in New Hampshire and never looked back. He had become John McCain again.

But then he panicked during Obama's whirlwind trip to Europe and the Middle East and brought in hatchet man Schmidt to run his campaign. Suddenly McCain became an attack dog and abandoned the moral high road that he and Cindy had pledged to follow.

He has won some early points with that approach but being negative and spreading lies about his opponent is not his style and he doesn't look very good doing it.

John, I'm sure you won't ask me for my advice. But if you did I would tell you to go back to being yourself and give the American people the debates on the issues and the high road campaign that you yourself said they wanted and deserved.

Not only is the right thing to do, I think you're pretty good at it and you might even win in November.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Exactly What Are We "Winning" in Iraq?

One of the many criticisms of Barack Obama and the Democrats coming from the McCain campaign and the Bush White House is that they refuse to acknowledge that we are now winning the war in Iraq as a result of The Surge.

The fact that the Republicans are spinning like crazy to push this message is far less surprising than the way the news media has generally accepted it as fact without asking a number of questions that seem to beg for answers. This is actually a continuation of the kid glove treatment that the media has given the Bush administration over the war for more than five years as the stated mission has changed often and dramatically with no acknowledgment of that fact and essentially no questions asked by reporters and pundits.

I'm talking about the "stated" mission. It has become increasingly clear in the last few days (if you can believe Pulitzer Prize winning author Ron Susskind's book) that the real reason for the Iraq war was that Bush and Cheney wanted to invade Iraq and get rid of Saddam Hussein from day one. All the reasons they gave relating to weapons of mass destruction and Saddam's collaboration with Al Qaeda were not just wrong -- they may well have been lies from the start.

But let's give Bush the benefit of the doubt and assume he was just wrong and not lying about the reasons for going to war. The original stated reason for invading Iraq was that Saddam had weapons that posed a real and imminent threat to the U.S. and that we had to take him out to protect ourselves.

So, we invaded Iraq and took him out at the cost of a few billion dollars and a very small number of American lives.

By early 2004, it became clear that all the reasons for the invasion were wrong and based on assumptions that proved to be untrue.

Rather than admit his mistakes, cut our losses and look for an exit strategy, Bush chose to pretend that he had been right all along. To pull off this charade, he was required to reframe the mission which seamlessly shifted dramatically. Instead of eliminating a grave threat, we were now "fighting the terrorists over there so we don't have to fight them here." Not only did no one in the media comment on the shift in mission, they also didn't point out that there were no terrorists in Iraq prior to our invasion -- at least not any that had anything to do with the Al Qaeda that attacked us on 9/11.

There was plenty of violence and bad stuff going on, but it was the result of the civil war that had broken out among various factions in Iraq who had hated each other for hundreds of years. The vacuum that had been created by our removal of Saddam and the total mismanagement of the aftermath had truly opened a Pandora's Box that our government hadn't anticipated and had no idea how to deal with. The biggest beneficiary of that vacuum was Iran which had seen its longtime enemy suddenly removed as an international force.

Fortunately for Bush, an organization calling itself Al Qaeda in Iraq emerged -- a group having no relationship to Osama Bin Ladin or the Al Qaeda that attacked us years earlier. It did give the White House the opportunity to confuse the American people by claiming that these were the same terrorists that had attacked us. This was of course a total lie but again, the news media helped spread the false impression rather than provide insight and guidance.

Over the next two years, the situation deteriorated into such a mess that many new missions and stated game plans (slogans du jour) bounced around constantly. First we were told that we must Stay the Course. When it became clear that our strategy was failing we were then told we needed to Adapt to Win -- another way of saying Change the Course. This complete about face took place so seamlessly and without comment that virtually no one noticed that our stated strategy had flipped 180 degrees.

Meanwhile, the new mission was now to Bring Democracy to the Middle East. Any rational criticism or suggestion that we should cut our losses and bring the troops home was labeled "surrender" and those who raised questions were branded as "cut and run" cowards who weren't real patriots. They were people who were willing to lose a war in order to win an election.

Finally Bush decided on The Surge -- sending in more American troops to cut back on the violence so the Iraqi government would have a chance to succeed. Now, more than a year later, violence levels are down. After five years of being totally wrong, Bush, McCain, and their base can finally say we are winning and give credit to the courage and wisdom they showed by pushing for The Surge.

Never mind the fact that the reduction in violence in the most violent part of Iraq -- Anbar Province -- began months before The Surge. Never mind the fact that virtually all of the additional troops were deployed in the area of Baghdad. Never mind that General David Petraeus recently told a Congressional committee that he "didn't know" if America was safer as a result of our involvement in Iraq. Never mind any of the facts. Bush and McCain had waited too long to claim any success in Iraq and they weren't going to allow the facts to deny them their moment of glory.

So here we are. We're winning. After our country has gone almost a trillion dollars in debt while Iraq has built an $80 billion surplus, suffered tens of thousands of dead and wounded, and lost our moral standing by becoming a nation that tortures and ignores the legal rights of our citizens and others, I guess I need some help trying to understand exactly what it is that we have won.