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Just the Beginning

332a64f4195b32b9555da335785b58d4It must have been about 1965 when my World War II veteran father had his gall bladder surgery.  As kid I wasn’t aware of many of the details, but I do remember that having the old man in the hospital for several days was a very big deal, particularly since we had to drive 100 miles or so round trip to visit him while he was recovering.

Gall bladder surgery in the 1960’s was a far different operation than it has become more recently and often resulted in several days in the hospital and then a good deal more rest at home.

We joked that Dad had the good sense not to show off his incision as Lyndon Johnson had done when he had the same surgery at about the same time. That classic LBJ moment still ranks as one of the most offbeat presidential photo ops.

Johnson, a Navy veteran of the war, had his surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington. My Dad checked into the Veterans Administration hospital in Hot Springs, South Dakota. We had no health insurance. If we needed to see a doctor we paid cash or, as when Mom had some major surgery, we pulled the family belt a little tighter and went on the payment plan. My parents spent years paying off Mom’s surgery and hospital bills, but the VA was free. The country owed it to Staff Sergeant R.E. Johnson and his grateful nation took care of his gall bladder. It may have been one of the few things my old man had in common with Lyndon Johnson.

The VA has been much in the news lately and the commendable retired Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who took the fall for the obvious shortcomings of the big, sprawling federal bureaucracy, will doubtless go down in history as the general fired for speaking truth to the Bush Administration about the cost and duration of a war of choice in Iraq and then ended up walking the plank due to the failures of his agency to properly take care of many of the veterans of that war. Numerous commentators have made the obvious observation that firing Shinseki will do about as much to right the wrongs of the VA as firing him before the Iraq war did to bring sanity to that misbegotten policy. His tombstone might well read “fall guy.”

Amid all the posturing by political people over the mess at the Phoenix VA hospital, and apparently other VA hospitals, should hover a palpable sense of “you should have known better.” It’s pretty clear that the more than $150 billion we spend annually on the Veterans Administration isn’t nearly enough money to do the right job for the men and women who served their country and now often need very expensive and long-term care.

Yet, when Congress had a chance earlier this year to provide more resources for an agency that is chronically short of resources, for example, primary care physicians who spend all day seeing patients the legislation died during a Senate filibuster. There was hardly a ripple of regret for letting our veterans down.“I don’t know how anyone who voted ‘no’ today can look a veteran in the eye and justify that vote,” said Daniel M. Dellinger, national commander of the American Legion. “Our veterans deserve more than what they got today.”

Next time you see a member of Congress ask them how they voted on that one. It’s a pretty good measure of who really is “supporting the troops.”

Now given a fresh “political scandal,” – and this was certainly true before Gen. Shinseki made his inevitable exit – everyone wants to get aboard the bash the VA bandwagon.

As the old story goes the most dangerous place in Washington, D.C. is the space between a soundbite spouting politician, in this case outraged by the VA’s mismanagement, and a waiting television camera. There has been a genuine stampede to present the VA’s problems as the most recent thing that comes near be “worse than Benghazi…”

But, as noted, this was all readily foreseen and, in fact, rather widely forecast as recently as when the Iraq fiasco was still unfolding. Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz actually produced a study that predicted the long-term cost of the Iraq adventure would be $3 trillion – yes, “T” as in trillion dollars. Stilglitz was derided as a liberal alarmist whose analysis was wildly off the mark, but in 2010 he actually went back and re-ran the numbers and concluded that his huge number likely underestimated the true cost of the ten year war, in part, because he underestimated the health care costs of veterans that will only keep increasing for 30, 40 or 50 more years.

“About 25 percent of post-9/11 veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder,” according one recent report, “and 7 percent have traumatic brain injury, according to Congressional Budget Office analyses of VA data. The average cost to treat them is about four to six times greater than those without these injuries, CBO reported. And polytrauma patients cost an additional 10 times more than that.”

I remember this much about my Dad’s long ago medical care from the Veterans Administration: he had a gall bladder attack and in short order he was in the hospital for surgery. Maybe a few days at most passed from the attack to the cure and this was a VA dealing at the time with vets, like my Dad, who served during World War II. My favorite veteran died when he was 62 having never again set foot in a VA facility.

The young men and women who fought for us in Iraq and Afghanistan will likely live longer  – much longer we can hope – than the World War II generation, even with the many and varied traumatic injuries our soldiers bring home from the battlefield. We’re just starting to feel the impact of that sober reality on the VA and the rest of American society. This truly is just the beginning. Properly resourcing the VA and de-politicizing the process of fixing its shortcomings should be every bit as much a national priority as sending young people to war and keeping them there year-after-year.

“If there is any cause that should be bipartisan, it’s care for our veterans,” writes E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post. “But too often, what passes for bipartisanship is the cheap and easy stuff. It tells you how political this process has been so far that so many of the Democrats who joined Republicans in asking for Shinseki to go are in tough election races this fall.”

This much I know: the VA was there when my Dad needed the medical help that he would have been hard pressed to access and pay for any other way. It was literally a life saver. Now, having pounded our military with endless deployments in the open ended wars that are now apparently a fixture of America in the 21st Century, the bill for those shattered and scared is coming due. Brace yourselves. The cost is going to be far greater than anyone engaged in the current debate lets on and we have no choice but to dig deep and pay it.

Maybe Congress should fume and fuss as much about how our military is used as they do when the health care system, created by Congress by the way, falls short of serving all of our veterans.


My Lunch with the Justice

51917203MW106_Homeland_SecuSandra Day O’Connor’s remarkable career is a testament to many things: dogged persistence, boundless ambition (of the best type), talent, good judgment, a sense of the power of history and, of course, some luck; luck of the being in the right place at the right time variety.

I did not realize until recently, while researching more deeply O’Connor’s history-making 1981 appointment as the first woman nominated to the United States Supreme Court, how determined Ronald Reagan was to put a woman on the Court. Reagan, of course, had made a campaign pledge in 1980 that he wanted to put a “qualified” woman on the Court. When he had the chance just a few months into his term he kept his promise, plucking from relative obscurity the 51-year-old Arizona Court of Appeals Judge and former state senator. So sure was Reagan that he announced O’Connor’s appointment before the FBI had completed its background check leaving then-Attorney General William French Smith to field questions from the White House press corps about whether that was a sound approach.

After a flurry of criticism and concern, most from the far right, O’Connor – imagine this – was confirmed unanimously by the United States Senate just three month after Reagan told her he wanted to put her on the Court.

“Called Judge O’Connor and told her she was my nominee for supreme court,” Reagan wrote in his diary on July 6, 1981. “Already the flak is starting and from my own supporters. Right to Life people say she is pro abortion. She says abortion is personally repugnant to her. I think she’ll make a good justice.”

[Idaho’s then-Sen. Steve Symms was one who voiced early skepticism about O’Connor, but eventually supported her appointment. Symms’ call to the White House expressing disapproval of O’Connor’s nomination is detailed in Jan Crawford Greenburg’s 2007 book Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court.]

O’Connor’s place in history is secure and not only as the first woman on the Court, but for her historic sense of moderation and pragmatism. She has become a remarkable role model and one hopes her careful, centrist, blocking and tackling approach to the law will one day soon serve as a model for a Supreme Court that seems determined to embrace the type of judicial activism that O’Connor so smartly rejected.

I would have liked to discuss any or all of this with what one lawyer friend called the “smart and tart” justice when I had the rare opportunity to sit next to her at lunch recently during an Andrus Center conference on women and leadership at Boise State University. But I left politics and the law aside after reading how reluctant she can be to offer up any comment, let alone criticism, of the judging of the current justices. [O’Connor did make news a while back with comments about the controversial Bush v. Gore decision, but even then her comments were very measured essentially saying the Court might have been well-advised to refuse to take the case that settled the 2000 presidential election but did little for the Court’s reputation.]

O’Connor’s latest book Out of Order, a history of sorts of the Supreme Court, has been rapped by some reviewers for not dishing  inside dope about the Court. The typically acerbic New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, for example, said: “There are no big revelations in this volume about Bush v. Gore or the author’s thoughts on Roe v. Wade; nor are there momentous insights into the dynamics between Justice O’Connor and her colleagues on the bench, or how she felt about being the crucial swing justice, whom the legal writer Jeffrey Rosen once called ‘the most powerful woman in America.'”

While one would undoubtedly enjoy O’Connor’s unvarnished assessments of all those issues and more, I also admire her restraint, a very O’Connor-like characteristic.

Given the chance to talk with the once “most powerful woman in America” I asked her about her love of fly fishing. O’Connor is a dedicated fly caster. In fact, when then-President George W. Bush tried to reach retiring Justice O’Connor to tell her he had selected John Roberts, a judge as conservative and activist as O’Connor is moderate and careful, to replace her on the Court she was fly fishing in northern Idaho. O’Connor told me that she had little time to fish during her more than 25 years on the Court, but she is clearly making up for lost time. If you are a devotee of the fly rod then you know how easy it can be to form an immediate bond with a stranger – even a very famous stranger – when you share a passion for the pursuit of the wily cutthroat or the gorgeous rainbow.

After fishing in Idaho this month O’Connor was headed for southern Montana to float the Yellowstone with a guide she described as “on a first name basis with every trout in Montana.” To go along with the Andrus Center’s leadership award that former Gov. Cecil D. Andrus presented to the Justice in Boise on September 4, O’Connor also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Montana Law School. She indicated that she very much appreciated the awards, but the chance to fish for a few days was also a big attraction.

She said she has fished in east some, even on the Potomac, and even in Patagonia. While in Montana a couple of years ago hearing cases for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, O’Connor was asked about her favorite Montana river. “Oh, this is a setup!” she replied. “Let’s start with the Big Horn.”

I take real comfort in knowing that the first woman on the Supreme Court knows about the Big Horn and the St. Joe. Who knows, perhaps knowing how to properly swing a fly helps inform the swing vote on the Supreme Court. O’Connor’s other great passions are the importance of civic education and the non-partisan selection of judges and again she is right about both.

As with her long ago critics, O’Connor still gets flack from the far right for warning that money, partisan-style judicial elections and good judging just don’t fit together. O’Connor warned in 2009 that too many state judicial elections – and Idaho has had its share – have become “tawdry and embarrassing” producing judges that are merely “politicians in robes.”

As for civic education, O’Connor quotes truly alarming statistics about American’s lack of knowledge about our history and government. “The more I read and the more I listen, the more apparent it is that our society suffers from an alarming degree of public ignorance,” O’Connor said in Boise. Fewer than a third of Americans can name even one current Supreme Court Justice and “less than one-third of eighth-graders can identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and it’s right there in the name,” she said.

Read more here: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/09/06/201376/retired-justice-sandra-day-oconnor.html#storylink=cpy
Read more here: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/09/06/201376/retired-justice-sandra-day-oconnor.html#storylink=cpy

I’ve been fortunate to interview one president – Gerald Ford – and one future president – Jimmy Carter. I had orange juice and coffee in the Roosevelt Room and stood in the Oval Office for a Bill Clinton Saturday radio speech. George W. Bush invited us to the White House for dinner and I was as surprised as he should have been. I’ve worked for one great governor and interviewed a dozen others and had dinner with big time reporters like Tom Wicker, Dave Broder and Tim Egan. Each and every one a very pleasant memory. Lucky me that I can add Justice O’Connor to the list.

The country has produced few more impressive leaders than the woman from Arizona who started out her legal career volunteering her talents because she couldn’t get a law firm to hire her. Her’s is a uniquely American story and one for the history books. Ronald Reagan was right. She did make a good justice.


Obama the Warrior

No More Soft on National Security

One of the great strategies in politics is to take your opponent’s greatest strength and turn that advantage  into a liability. It’s not easy to do, but when it’s done well it can be brutally effective.

The “swiftboating” of Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic candidate for president, is perhaps the best example in recent memory of how effective attacking the strength of an opponent can be. 

In Kerry’s case, a legitimate war hero – the guy was awarded the Silver and Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts for service in Vietnam – became, thanks to attacks on that military record, a questionable patriot, a liar and, in some minds, a fraud. “Swiftboating” has now entered the political lexicon as a verb meaning – to smear effectively.

You may remember that when Kerry accepted the presidential nomination in 2004 he stepped to the podium and saluted, military style. That was the beginning of the end. While it was obvious to most independent observers that Kerry didn’t deserve the swiftboat attacks and was obviously caught off guard by charges that turned the truth on its head, it’s also true that he  and his campaign did a horrible job responding. Still, the well-bankrolled truth turning – an early glimpse of what we’ll see this fall from Super PAC’s – worked remarkably well and George W. Bush, the guy who actually had avoided Vietnam service, got re-elected.

[I’ll offer the not terribly original prediction that the “swiftboating” of John Kerry will be studied years from now by political analysts as a classic example of a big smear that was improperly handled by the candidate-victim.]

The 2004 attacks on Kerry also worked, in part, because they seemed to confirm a narrative, dating back to George McGovern in 1972, that Democrats just aren’t as truthworthy when it comes to the nation’s security as Republicans. Ironically, McGovern, a decorated World War II bomber pilot who opposed the Vietnam War, also did not – or chose not – to make a virtue of his distinguished military record. Not until Stephen Ambrose’s 2001 book – The Wild Blue – that featured McGovern’s story did many Americans know that the South Dakota senator and presidential candidate was a genuine, if deeply conflicted, hero of the Greatest Generation.

Now comes Barack Obama and the anniversary of the Navy Seal mission to – use the President’s term – “take out” Osama bin Laden. As TIME’s Jon Meacham has written, Republicans are “shocked, shocked” that the Obama team is taking credit, politicizing if you will, the bringing to justice of the world’s foremost terrorist.

“Here, however, is the issue,” Meacham writes. “Since at least 1968, Democrats have traditionally been more circumspect than their Republican foes in presidential politics. The lesson of the Clinton years and of Obama’s win of both the nomination and the general election in 2008 is that Democrats need to be as tough as JFK was (tough was a favorite Kennedy term). Is the bin Laden ad fair to Romney? No, not really. But politics is not for the faint of heart.”

Here’s my take: Obama has so far been successful in taking away from Republicans one of the historically sharpest arrows in their quiver. Try as they might, Republicans and their presidential candidate can’t pull a Kerry or McGovern on Obama. The GOP and some commentators charge that Obama has overplayed the bin Laden events of a year ago and maybe so, but here’s the issue in that regard: any day Mitt Romney is talking about foreign policy, and he’s been talking about it for days, is a bad day for his campaign.

Obama owns these issues in a way that no Democrat has favorably owned a set of foreign policy issues since Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House. Count on Obama to make the case as the campaign goes forward that he inherited two wars, shut one down in the face of critics who said he was wrong to do so, and then gave the order to take out the guy who made the other war, Afghanistan, necessary.

Frankly, Republicans and Romney, in particular, are committing political malpractice by attempting to compete with the president on these issues. Rather than going to a New York City firehouse yesterday to remember 9-11, Romney should have gone to a military hospital and quietly met with a few soldiers after issuing a statement congratulating the Navy Seals for getting bin Laden. He looks weak and guilty of “me, too” when he says he’d have given the order to go after the Al Quada leader, particularly since he suggested during the last campaign that he wouldn’t.

Romney’s campaign will succeed or fail on the basis of whether he presents a coherent economic message backed by a strategy for growing jobs and economic security for Americans. The Obama campaign has rope-a-doped their opponent into punching below his weight on foreign policy, certainly not the issues Romney wants to run on, and every day that happens, Romney loses.

 As for the charge that Obama is overplaying the bin Laden success, give that great political analyst Jon Stewart the last word. After all, George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier and proclaimed Mission Accomplished in Iraq, or as Stewart said, “he spiked the ball before the game began.” Stewart’s point: Bush, like Obama, would have ridden the issue of being the good guy who got the bad guy as far as possible. In a very basic sense, Obama is again capitalizing on statements from Romney’s past that today look less than, well, astute.

Obama may be overplaying the events of a year ago, but as the baseball great Dizzy Dean once said, “it ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.”



Ten Years On…

Amid the tenth anniversary reflections over the terror attacks on New York and Washington there is much to ponder, remember and regret, including our response and its effectiveness.

Bill Keller, just stepped down as the top editor at The New York Times, used the tenth anniversary to revisit his own cheerleading for the Iraq war. Keller concludes “I think Operation Iraqi Freedom was a monumental blunder.”

No such reflection or any second thoughts from former Vice President Dick Cheney who told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “I think we made exactly the right decision (regarding the invasion of Iraq.)”

The weekend’s commemoration of September 11, 2001 was remarkably free of politics, but 9-11 and the war on terror, as Politico points out, continues to infuse our politics.

“Even as voters grow weary of the nation’s wartime footing,” Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman write at Politico, “Democrats and Republicans continue to seek out opportunities to wield the memory of 9/11 for electoral gain — whether that means using the Guantanamo Bay detention center as a wedge issue, courting the support of firefighters and police or attacking a proposed Islamic center near ground zero.”

So much was lost ten years ago and it is altogether fitting and proper that we regret and mourn that loss. We will do so for as long as people are alive who remember that day. But, we might do well to also reflect on the fleeting nature of the profound desire that existed in the days immediately after September 11 to come together as a country, share both grief and sacrifice and get our national response correctly calibrated. The Spirit of September 12, needless to say, did not last long.

Historian Julian Zelizer writes that our passion for partisanship couldn’t be overcome even by the tragedy of 9/11.

“Could the promise of September 12 ever be fulfilled,” Zelizer asks. “Certainly today there are enormous areas of consensus between the parties, such as over most counterterrorism policies, over the need for strong homeland security programs and even for strong military vigilance with countries such as North Korea and Pakistan.

“Nonetheless, the partisan forces that play out on the campaign trail are simply too great to overcome. If 9/11 taught us anything, it’s how deeply rooted partisanship is in our modern political culture. Even a tragedy of its magnitude could barely contain the forces that perpetually rip apart members of the two parties.

“Ten years ago, the parties came together. But they came together just for a brief spell. In the long span of history, it was as if the moment ended before either side could even blink.”

More serious than even the partisanship of our politics is the general failure of real reflection and analysis in the wake of that terrible day ten years back. A Dick Cheney can’t even hint that he has had a moment of pause considering all that has happened in a decade, including wars costing thousands of lives and perhaps $4 billion in treasure.

But reflect we must and not just on the horrible losses of a decade ago. Fareed Zakaria and others ask are we safer, was our response to 9/11 truly effective, have we improperly compromised our civil liberties and the American reputation for respecting the “rule of law,” has the re-ogranization of our intelligence system worked, and are we fated to wage an endless “war on terror?”

It is worth remembering, as Zakaria does, that “on the day before 9/11 the U.S. was at peace, had a large budget surplus, and oil was $28 a barrel. Today the U.S. is engaged in military operations across the globe, has a deficit of 1.5 trillion dollars and oil is $115 a barrel.”

A new Rasmussen survey says 66% of Americans think the country has “changed for the worst” since 9/11 and fewer than 50% think we’re winning our war on terror. To believe such surveys is to believe that the American people know that we haven’t gotten it right. As the past weekend illustrates, we remember well enough, but do we accumulate much knowledge along with the memory?

Bin Laden is dead and by most accounts his vastly diminished terror network is on the run, but it’s impossible to think – ten years on – that we are anywhere close to the end of the era that began on that spectacular September day a decade ago. Where do we go now? How will we know without more real reflection, without more effort at taking stock and admitting that maybe – just maybe – we have more learning to do?

A question for us – a question that really honors those who perished on 9/11 and in the wars that followed – is whether we will be smart enough to really assess the effectiveness of our response to the tragedy, and adjust as necessary, so that 20 or 50 years on the children of the victims of 9/11 will live in country that not only remembers their loss, but has learned from it as well.