Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Reality Speaks Most Eloquently of All

First I admit my bias favoring conservativism in government. But that bias doesn't translate to a party affiliation. I have registered as an Independent for decades, and find no reason to change that this November because I jealously guard my right to vote for whomever I feel would make the best President.

To decide whether to vote for Senator Obama or for Senator McCain, I have followed whenever possible all the speeches, news articles, newscasts and opinion pages I could find on the campaigns, the issues, and the candidates since the primaries. And I have seen, with the external realities of world and national events and issues, each of the candidates attempt to grapple with the rapidly-shifting, complex issues facing the nation how each has wrestled to present his positions.

As November approaches, no one could have designed a more dramatic script of crises for both Obama and McCain to confront. Gone are the free and easy days for Presidents to simply memorize and spew forth their party line spontaneously at one whistle stop after another across the land. First there was the underlying issue of a war on two fronts continuing many years longer than anyone imagined or wanted to support. Although most Americans had supported our war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and search for Al Queda leaders wherever they exist, for several years the country has become more divided on whether to support the administration's continuation of the war in Iraq,

The war in Iraq was issue one in the last election and the midterm Congressional elections. It swept George W. Bush back to power for his second term, and within two years wrested both houses of Congress from Republican control. As early as a year ago it seemed the U.S. was losing the war and there was little hope of winning. Voices rose against further funding the war through a succession of several expensive bills as cries of "Bring them home now!" became a chorus.

Then came the troop surge, and it began to succeed, just as the primary season began as well. The war became the main campaign issue for both camps, Obama insisting the war must end regardless, McCain insisting the war continue to the victory the surge had begun to suggest might be possible after all and see it through to the end. John McCain had stood behind the administration's surge nearly alone in the Senate, and his courage was rewarded by a resuscitation of his flaggging campaign, which had seemed nearly lifeless and insolvent last July, and a succession of primary victories which had seemed impossible mere months before, and eventual victory in becoming the Republican nominee.

The war in Iraq was, however, soon to take a back stage to reality again as a succession of hurricanes smashed our Gulf states and focused everything on what to do for timely and effective response. As late as Monday night of the Republican National Convention, as Hurricane Gustav hit New Orleans, the convention had to be postponed--or at least reduced to administrative issues. President Bush and Vice President Cheney stayed in Washington to monitor the federal response. John McCain arranged for his plane to fly Gulf states delegates and their families where needed, and again campaigns took a back seat to real events. No sooner did that storm pass up through the nation's spine than Hurricane Ike came and caused worse. Again, the campaigns could only posture and lament in empathy. Threat, destruction, angst, loss of homes, jobs, and property heaped atop ever-worsening finances on Wall Street, loss of credit, inflated debts and inability of millions to meet their expenses.

The addition of Senator Biden and Governor Palin to the campaigns each caused a flurry of interest, and it seemed the race for President was finally on track for each party to put its best foot forward. The debates were approaching, and I looked forward eagerly to hearing what each had to say about the issues and help me decide my vote--for as I said despite my conservative preferences I recognize the individual is at least equally as important a deciding factor as his political stance. I look for how each decides small matters and speaks and reacts, not just what their scripts say on the hustings. I look for what I hear in the voice and see in their eyes, and the sense of passion each shows, and sense of grace and humor as well, for I will have to live with the next President's manner and speech for the next four years.

Then, it seemed out of nowhere, the Secretary of the Treasury and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve informed Congressional leaders in the late evening urgently convened meeting last Thursday that Armageddon was, effectively, only hours or days away. The United States of America was about to crash in the greatest collapse of the entire economy since the Great Depression. The only way to postpone the collapse was to legislate nearly a trillion dollars of bailout money for purchase of toxic mortgage-related debts from the big financial houses--all of them! And to do it without qualifications or wrangling, immediately! Because the house was on fire, and there was absolutely no time to argue: we had to get out NOW!

This, of course, came in the midst of a tightening Presidential campaign, and on the watch of the most unpopular President since Coolidge, whose credibility for crying wolf prohibited speaking of it to those leaders himself and forced his getting his treasury secretary and fed chairman to do it for him.

Predictably, even those august persons couldn't convey the urgency to the do-nothing Congress, and hearings were instantly arranged to discuss the matter instead of deciding it too quickly. After all, Congress surely had the rest of the week before the break began, and they had to measure the ramifications carefully. And if they had to delay a bit longer, well, surely the markets wouldn't collapse as predicted. It boggled the mind too much. Further, almost to the man and woman, both houses of the legislature were instantly beseiged with an angry, disbelieving constituency that their representatives even dared consider passing such a draconian giveaway to the fatcats of Wall Street to bail out their years of bad loans and mismanagement.

Still, no one wanted to be caught looking indecisive or bringing down the entire economy. Everyone agreed something had to be done. No one agreed what, or when, or how much, or under what conditions. Not much surprise there, sadly. What would these leaders have done in 1775 on July 4, I wonder, with the emerging nation's founding in the balance.
Once again, suddenly no one cared a whit about the Presidential campaigns, or about Barack Obama or John McCain--or even the always-fascinating news and views of Joe Biden or Sarah Palin for that matter.

It's all coming together for Act III now, it seems. And the candidates have agreed to disagree on even whether to suspend their campaigns till the financial crisis is dealt with in Washington, which McCain has decided to do, or to continue to campaign and speak out on what they see as the big issues, which Obama has declared he will do while keeping a watchful eye on unfolding events in Washington, each trying to appear more Presidential in so doing. McCain has said it's no time for politics and speeches or partisan arguments, and has cancelled participating in the scheduled debate Friday night, saying that it's time to deal with a vital real issue as senators and senate leaders, which both are.

Since both McCain and Obama view the financial crisis with similar ideas about what is needed, surprisingly, the only distinctions between the two I can make out are about how they conducted themselves in their decisions. McCain quickly raced to embrace the issue and return to Washington to join his colleagues in forming a response. Obama insisted on restraint and deliberation and called for concerted action in a joint statement plan which McCain jumped out ahead of with his unexpected, unilateral announcement.

Which do I think acted more Presidential? Decisive but impulsive? or cautious but noncommittal? In the face of the urgency claimed, it would seem McCain wins. But in the reality of the nation's overwhelming opposition, it would appear to be Obama. Again, I couldn't see any daylight between their behaviors that would seal my vote.

But I did catch a glimpse of something, I think, in the way McCain raced ahead and in solemn patriotic tones pre-empted his agreed-upon joint declaration with Obama, whereas Obama honored his and refused to make a big deal out of it against McCain. That, to me, seemed more Presidential.

It would also seem to me that this financial crisis, on top of the horrible economic state of affairs we have suffered through for many months now, and the draining wars on our national psyche, or what's left of it--would hand the Presidency to Senator Obama on a silver plate! I'm not sure any Republican could overcome the entire nation's dissatisfactions with the plagues of locusts and dust which have ravaged this land of late.

But I have learned that events not of any candidate's making, or even his political positions and ideology seem to shape the nature of the race more than the candidate himself, perhaps. Reality speaks most eloquently. And forty days is time enough--for Noah to sail the world and for something else--some other unforseen crisis--to happen. But it will be hard to top this one.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

It Is Mete to So Do

I got up today focused on tomorrow, September 12, my son's birthday, his last in his '20's. I was miffed about the way the New York post office blew the express mail delivery of the presents his mother and I sent. They got it there in twelve hours alright, but since he was working in the city, just left a notice to come get it at the post office. That's not what I paid $16 for, so I was "plenty hoo-hoo," as Hawaiians sometimes say when steamed.

Then I turned on the morning news and realized it was September 11. But in a real sense there is no more September 11. There is only 9/11, a day that will, like December 6, live in infamy as one of the most tragic days in our history.

I didn't want to get wrapped up in the commemorations and ceremonies at Ground Zero in Manhattan, the Pentagon, and the field near Shanksville, Pennasylvania. But I couldn't turn away. I couldn't turn away because I saw the faces of my countrymen and was riveted in the solemnity of the moment. As an American, I could not put 9/11 behind me, not this year, nor last year, nor any other of the seven years since September 11, 2001.

At 8:48 that morning I had just entered my humanities classroom at the university and was preparing to teach my 9:00 class when a colleague stepped in at the door and said, "CNN says a plane just flew into the World Trade Center!" It was terrible, I knew--a terrible accident, like the light plane that flew into the Empire State Building some years before. But when my friend opened my door again a few minutes later and cried, "Another plane just flew into the other tower!" everything changed in my mind. It was no accident. We were at war. My nation was under attack, on our soil, for the first time in my life. I didn't know by whom, but I immediately suspected terrorists, who had threatened us repeatedly and attacked our embassies abroad, our Marine barracks in Lebanon, the U.S.S. Cole and other targets around the world but had till then never succeeded in launching an attack on our soil.

My students were frightened and wanted me to cancel class. I said, "Anyone who wants to can go, but I intend to stay right here and teach this course. If I get scared off, the terrorists win." It was a pathetic false bravado I guess, but no one left. The horror of the full scope of the attacks unfolded after classes when we learned of the attacks on the Pentagon and United flight 83 over Shanksville en route to Washington when brave men charged the cockpit and saved an attack on the U.S.Capitol, or the White House, or other key target, readily sacrificing their own lives to save other Americans.

Yes, it was indeed a day that will live in infamy. But I also had a personal link to the events of that day, and I didn't find out till a couple of days later when I opened my morning paper and saw the face of a man I passed by in our Publix Supermarket aisle not more than a month or two before, peering out of a sinister black and white head and shoulders shot on the front page. His name was Mohammed Atta. He piloted the first plane into the north tower.

As I had approached and passed that man in that aisle we were alone, but so shaken had I been when I glanced into his intense eyes that I sought my wife in the next aisle to tell her, "Barb, that man in the next aisle there looks evil! I mean, really evil. He gives me the creeps!" My reaction was not unique. Residents of Tara Apartments where he stayed during his months in Coral Springs before the attack said he always made them uneasy also. I guess we had good reason. To this day I do not believe in judging people by their looks and recognize that appearances are often deceiving, but I am convinced that the hatred for this country and its people that that man carried in his heart could not escape notice in his face.

Today, though seven years have passed, I felt the need to listen, to watch, and at times to pray. I was very impressed with the ceremonies dedicating the amazingly fitting Pentagon Memorial, the Ground Zero reading of victims' names, the gathering on the site of United Flight 83 near Shanksville, and the solemn honoring of all Americans who perished in the attacks of that day.

When I had begun watching I was worried I would just get depressed. But the more I watched, the more I felt uplifted and proud of my country, its courage and bravery, its refusal to set aside the past and its lessons, and the sensitivity it showed to so respectfully honor the lives of those who perished that day. I saw today that America I grew up in with such pride, and felt the spirit of 9/11 once again which drew us all so close together as a people.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Here comes G through J

The bowling alley of hurricanes and tropical storms heading our way is in full operation: Fay, Gustav, Hanna, Ike, Josophine--they're all lined up for their turn to try to wipe us off the low-lying sands of South Florida. My community is on a mountaintop at 16 feet above sea level. That's because I'm almost 20 miles inland. But some of the oldtimers here tell of rowboats and canoes rowing and paddling on Sample Road, my nearest main street only 50 feet away.

Since moving here in Coral Springs in 1998, we've experienced probably twenty named hurricanes, some of them like Wilma, Katrina, and Andrew severe, ripping out our screen room and toppling our tall ficus trees. Now we can only watch what the tracks bring us and hope to dodge the hail of bullets this month. Three years ago, the year Katrina hit New Orleans, we had so many named storms the National Weather Service ran out of alphabetical names and had to go into the Greek alphabet to name them all. Remember that? I think the last English one was Hurricane Zebulon.

Then, by late October, just as suddenly as they had formed, they were gone. Our hurricane season begins June 1 and lasts till November 30 each year. But we very seldom get any major action till late July or August. When we do, they form off Cape Verde at the African coast and drift across the tropics westward. When they get into the Caribbean, however, they try to organize themselves into waves that hang around with nowhere to go till they decide to spin up into a tropical storm or hurricane and try to head north.

The natural track of hurricanes is to circle the Atlantic Ocean basin, which in normal times is surmounted by the Bermuda High, the humongous high pressure system that is the main guiding pressure for these storms. The hurricanes try to go up off the east coast of America and circle around until they cool off and dissipate in more northern latitudes. But this arrangement is often interrupted, especially at these peak times of September into October, by low pressure troughs that come across the continent. When one of these displaces the Bermuda High, whatever storm spins under Florida gets sucked right up to the north following that trough, and voila, we get hit. Sometimes the Bermuda High expands its high pressure westward to the Gulf, and voila, Katrina, Gustav, and other storms can't curve north till they get into the Gulf head north or west to the Gulf coast.

All these patterns are very cyclical, and we've had years where hurricane after hurricane sweeps up off our Florida peninsula and smacks the Carolinas silly, one after another. Other years the most ferocious-looking systems appear to be headed straight for us, only to be blown to bits by upper-level wind shear caused by El Nino or La Nina. Every once in awhile we get a hurricane that loops around all over the place and even returns to hit somewhere again. And Fay, our most recent to hit Florida itself, made no fewer than four separate landfalls as it curved up from Key West, headed east across to the Atlantic, curved back into Jacksonville and across to the west, emerged into the Gulf again, then came ashore one last time at Tallahassee and Pensacola. The only major areas of the state Fay didn't hit were Miami and Tampa. We felt her winds here for a week.

Hurricanes and Tropical Storms are part of living in Florida. We don't take them for granted, but we realize they are part of nature and forces to be reckoned with. We prepare for them all and hope for the best. But we realize they are nature's way of transferring billions upon billions of cubic feet of warm, moist tropical air for cooler, temperate air of northern latitudes. They are nature's air conditioners/humidifiers, and the exchanges must be made to avoid cataclysmic disruption of the climate worldwide. We stand in awe of these storms and respect them. But we'd still just as soon they do their mighty work offshore and in unpopulated areas, and steer around us.