Posts by Walter Shapiro
A child’s first plane flight these days is about as much of a landmark event as that first elevator ride or an initial expedition to the dry cleaner. But things were different in the early 1960s, when air travel still had a whiff of glamor and most passengers were either wealthy or traveling on business.
I was 16 years old when I boarded my first airplane on a frosty Sunday morning in November 1963, two days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. A close high school friend, Wally Marcus, and I flew from New York to Washington to bear witness — to mourn the slain president by viewing his flag-draped coffin lying in state in the Capitol.
It was a journey that had begun for me when I stood along the railroad tracks in Connecticut, three days before the 1960 election, cheering the youthful senator from Massachusetts who would go on to win that race by a whisper over Republican Richard Nixon. We were going to honor the president who had guided the nation through the harrowing 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis without a bomb falling or a shot fired.
This was an election night that should have been sponsored by the Acela, Amtrak’s premium train running from Boston to Washington. This was politics Thirteen Original Colonies-style where most of the voters in key races live within an easy drive of the Atlantic Ocean. The obsession to find national meaning in the results is like betting the rent money on a crooked roulette wheel because it’s the only game in town.
The two governor’s races on the docket (New Jersey and Virginia) came out as expected, but less definitively than the pre-election buzz suggested. In Virginia, former national Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe eked out a narrow win over state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in a vitriolic race that made many voters wish for a none-of-the-above line on the ballot. As a measure of disaffection, Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis picked up 7 percent of the vote and, according to exit polls, garnered 16 percent support among voters under 30.
Tuesday night’s results provided fodder for everyone’s political talking points.
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As everyone knows — except certain politicians in both parties in Washington — the greatest problem facing America is an undernourished economy that just can't create enough jobs to get unemployment below that economically key 7 percent threshold. In September, the economy created only 148,000 new jobs, a dismal statistic five years after the start of the Great Recession.
But, other than sporadically, the jobs crisis is not an issue that animates Washington. Instead, national politics revolves around scorched-earth wars over federal spending and steel-cage struggles over the rollout of Obamacare. From the sidelines, pundits wail over the self-destructive polarization in Washington and the failure of the political system to deal with questions like immigration and global warming.
If only the politicians would listen to the polls. Yes, you read that right. What is happening in Washington symbolizes a dangerous disconnect between the priorities of the voters and those of their elected leaders.
There is no simple explanation for Washington’s failure to address economic growth.
Washington runs on hype. We live amid an almost daily onslaught of defining moments, game changers and never-before-in-human-history blather. No one has ever been banned from cable TV talk shows for overreacting to political stimuli. Skeptics are often right in the end, but, boy, are they treated like tedious killjoys along the way.
That’s why it’s tempting to play contrarian, as everyone in politics — aside from tea party true believers — is agog over polls showing support for the Republicans melting like a snowman in the Sahara.
Irrational exuberance can be as misleading in political soothsaying as it is on Wall Street. Polling analyst Nate Silver may have had a valid point when he wrote, “The media is probably overstating the magnitude of the [government] shutdown’s political impact.” It is also worth remembering that after two of the biggest presidential defeats in modern history (Barry Goldwater for the Republicans in 1964 and Democrat George McGovern in 1972), the loser’s political party rebounded to win the White House four years later.
These days, D.C. has come to stand for Dysfunction Central.
As the government shutdown that began Tuesday moves into its first weekend, outrage and derisive jokes have given way to a depressed acceptance. This is what political life in 2013 has become. This is the inevitable result when most of the essential jobs in Washington involve the manufacture of partisan talking points.
Still, the first days of Shutdown October have taught us some things about politics. So here are thoughts, partly inspired by candid off-the-record interviews with key Republicans, to tide you through the coming days.
The Art of War : Everyone saw this one coming — that the House Republicans would march into battle waving their “No Obamacare Ever” banners and meet fierce resistance from the White House. What stuns many Republicans is that the war was launched with no backup plan, no strategy, no sense of “then what?”
But what if a few tea party zealots faced 2014 primary opposition from GOP centrists? That is a topic, according to GOP insiders, that is being quietly discussed in Washington among Republican Super PACs and other major funders.
Why Can’t They Run the Government Like a Business?
In April, with his domestic agenda stymied in Congress, Barack Obama tried to channel Mark Twain when he declared, “Rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point.”
For the president, those were the good old days. In the early spring, his approval rating was still over 50 percent in some surveys and he clung to hopes for legislative victories like immigration reform. Since then, on almost every front, things have gotten worse politically for the president. Obama’s popularity in the polls now averages 44 percent, close to the nadir of his presidency.
It’s not only the polls. Immigration reform is dying in Congress. And not even last week’s massacre at the Washington Navy Yard could revive efforts for limited gun legislation, a cause that earlier this year aroused Obama’s deepest public emotions.
In short, Obama appears reduced to reciting the lame-duck lament. But is the president truly doomed to brooding irrelevance during his final 40 months in the Oval Office?
As a long ago White House speechwriter (Jimmy Carter) and a devoted student of presidential rhetoric, I have spent the past 24 hours searching for a historical parallel to Barack Obama’s address to the nation on Syria.
We are used to presidential speeches on war (Vietnam, the Gulf War, the 9/11 horrors, Afghanistan, Iraq and the many smaller struggles along the way). Occasionally, we have reveled in presidents announcing breakthroughs for peace, whether it was the end of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis or the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian accords.
But never has a president — down in the polls and stymied in Congress — spoken to the nation in prime time about an unpopular attack that he may not launch against a nation that is not a direct security threat to the United States. Just to add to the degree of rhetorical difficulty, this punitive bombing lacks the support of the United Nations, NATO or even our most loyal ally, Great Britain.
But Tuesday night — after a day of diplomatic flurries that may have averted the immediate crisis — Obama delivered the clearest, the most concise and the most morally compelling foreign-policy address of his presidency.
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
President Barack Obama, according to background briefings by his aides, reached a fateful decision late Friday afternoon as he strolled along the White House lawn with his chief of staff Denis McDonough. Contrary to every expectation by his national security team, Obama concluded that he should ask Congress for authorization to bomb Syria.
The full reasoning behind the president’s turnabout remains murky. He may have wanted to share responsibility for a risky strategy to punish the barbarous regime of Syrian strongman Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people. Obama may have recognized the political dangers of attacking another Middle Eastern country without popular support at home.
And the president, a former part-time constitutional law professor, may have also belatedly recalled the wording of Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution that grants Congress the sole power “to declare war.”
Just a few days ago, before Obama’s decision was known, legal scholars from both the right and the left were in agreement that waging war over Syria — no matter how briefly — without congressional approval would bend the Constitution beyond recognition.
For all the grainy black-and-white television replays and the smoothed-by-time recollections of the living participants, the 50 th anniversary of the March on Washington has inevitably taken on a sepia glow.
Unlike the quarter million justice-seeking Americans massed at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial on a warm August Wednesday in 1963, we know how the civil rights story of the 1960s played out. Both the legislative triumphs (public accommodations and voting rights) and the tears (assassination and riots) are etched in our collective memory.
The fear was omnipresent, even among white liberals who supported the goals of civil rights. John Kennedy had tried in vain to persuade the organizers of the march not to come to Washington. On that festive Wednesday in August, the Pentagon had nearly 20,000 soldiers on standby duty. Jerry Bruno, the best advanceman from the 1960 JFK campaign, was deployed to the Lincoln Memorial with instructions to pull the plug on the sound system if any speech turned incendiary.
Make no mistake — grave injustices still endure.
Fifty years ago, a primary goal of the March on Washington was safeguarding the voting rights of black Americans.
MARTHA’S VINEYARD, Mass. – For an island that resolutely resists such symbols of modernity as McDonald’s and traffic lights, the oversized electronic signs by the side of the road right now are jarringly unaesthetic.
The message flashing on these garish traffic bulletin boards is even more troubling: Parts of South Road – the main gateway to Chilmark, Lucy Vincent Beach and the cliffs of Aquinnah – will be closed for a week starting Saturday. This is a mortal blow to the delicate ecosystem of Vineyard traffic during August vacation gridlock.
The subtext here is obvious: This is the price of having Barack Obama vacation here for the fourth time in his presidency. Of course, this is the first round-the-clock closure of a major Vineyard road since Bill Clinton began summering here in 1993. But the ways of the Secret Service are as inscrutable as the eternal mysteries of time and tide.
But what explains the hypnotic allure of this 88-square-mile island for Democratic presidents?