WASHINGTON -- I missed the hot fun this summer. While much of America seemed to be screeching over the incredible -- in the truest sense of the word -- notion that angry citizens could tote a gun even to a town hall meeting with the president of the United States, I was pondering the relative merits of bike ride versus beach walk. The brouhaha that has stripped away the thin veneer of good will that greeted the start of Barack Obama's presidency is over health care revision, and specifically over something the media keep calling the "Obama health care plan." That one stumps me, too, because there is no "Obama health care plan." Nor has there ever been one. That's part of the problem. The Obama political strategy has been that the White House would not propose its own health care legislation, lest it meet the same fate as the Clinton initiative of the early 1990s. The Obama political operation believes the death of the Clinton plan was foretold because President Bill Clinton sought to impose a White House blueprint on Congress, rather than letting lawmakers do their own thing.
That's not the way it is -- not now, and not for a long time.
WASHINGTON -- When a virulent disease is ravaging you like a cancer, you don't want a cacophony of voices promoting different or contradictory cures. Yet that is what we're starting to hear about the economic crisis, not only from a politically divided -- and pretty scared -- capital, but from within the Obama administration itself. In just the past few days, Vice President Joe Biden has said the young administration misread the depth of the recession -- an honest account, since most private economists did as well. Laura Tyson, an outside economic adviser to the White House, said it's wise to start preparing another stimulus package.
WASHINGTON -- The appearance of extreme political impropriety, the Supreme Court has decided, is sometimes just too extreme. The circumstances of West Virginia's chief justice, who refused to remove himself from deciding a case involving the company of a political contributor, is an "exceptional" example of why appearances count, according to the high court's 5-4 ruling in a case that shines a brutal light on the spiral of campaign contributions that threaten to compromise too many state courts.
WASHINGTON -- The partisan firefight over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's incendiary allegation that the CIA lied to Congress about its use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- torture -- is a blessing. It turns the compelling case for a public inquiry into the Bush administration's policies toward terrorism detainees into an urgent necessity.
Americans must finally own up to what was done, at whose order, with whose acquiescence, and why. The United States government must at last hold accountable the architects of this calamity -- not only the underlings like Lynndie England and Charles Graner and Janet Karpinski, those frontline military personnel who paid the price for bit roles in the scandal after the first stomach-turning photos of abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison came to light.
This trio again comes to mind because even as the Pelosi furor escalated beyond all reason -- not to mention the known facts -- President Obama rescinded not one but two promises. He reneged on a commitment to release more photographs of the horror at Abu Ghraib and at detention sites in Afghanistan. The first pictorial chronicle of depravity at Abu Ghraib led to the congressional inquiries that eventually led us to understand that the United States had implemented torture as official policy. And that policy was not some half-baked idea cooked up by kids in the desert but developed by lawyers and top administration officials in Washington.
The presidential candidate who harnessed the power of the Internet to gain the White House seems oddly oblivious to the fact that, however much he may want to keep the photos private to spare U.S. troops the possibility of deadly backlash, more images already circulate. The unauthorized distribution of the graphic photos is just as likely to provoke the same reaction. Yet a controlled release by the Obama government, abiding by a court decision and what this president has pledged would be the "rule of law" on his watch, holds the possibility that the president -- and the country -- would gain respect abroad for breaking cleanly with the culture of cover-up.
Obama meanwhile has decided to reinstitute the discredited military commissions for trying suspects at the Guantanamo Bay prison -- a system he once decried as anathema to civilized society. Even in doing so, he noted that as a senator, he'd voted in favor of military commissions in 2006. Which loops us back to the Pelosi controversy and to the larger question of Democratic complicity in the moral outrages of the Bush era.
We do not know who is lying about CIA briefings on torture, and who is telling what best approximates the truth. These briefings were at best cryptic, members of Congress weren't allowed to take notes, and the whole enterprise was classified. If Pelosi had emerged from such a session and blown the whistle on torture, the very same Republicans who now attack her for keeping silent would have howled mercilessly and quite possibly pronounced her guilty of treason.
Yet Democratic acquiescence in abhorrent Bush policies is a worthy subject for a chapter in any final report of a truth commission. Too often in the aftermath of 9/11, Democrats decided where to stand depending on where George W. Bush sat. When he sat atop the public opinion polls, they cowered at the possibility he would call them soft on terror and threaten their re-elections.
This syndrome was at the root of the 2002 vote to authorize the war in Iraq. A majority of Senate Democrats, led by Tom Daschle -- known last year as anti-war candidate Obama's inside-Washington promoter -- voted to let Bush charge recklessly into Iraq. Pelosi and most House Democrats voted no. Still there were many later opportunities for forceful action, if not against torture and abuse, then in determined opposition to warrantless wiretapping, the Guantanamo penal colony, the detainee deaths while in U.S. custody -- the list goes on and on.
That the list is so lengthy, and that we still lack basic facts about so much of what transpired, is reason enough to establish a nonpartisan panel, along the lines of the 9/11 commission, to at last expose the truth. Those who designed and implemented the policies that have brought such discredit to the nation must be called to account.
Those who looked the other way must now face their own responsibility. For the worst of human history inevitably unfolds when good people avert their eyes.
The Health Care Industry and their Capitol Hill Protectors Are Sabotaging Our Chance for True Reform
Every so often, I remember Ronald Reagan fondly -- not for his policies but for his skill at the art of persuasion. Right now, for example, I'd like to call the Gipper back to cock his head, give us that quizzical look and say "There you go again."
Well, that didn't work out. The split-screen image of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's speech on a new-and-we-all-hope-improved financial industry bailout plan was of a banker trying to do a politician's job while the markets he was trying to calm jumped off the cliff. Things got worse when Geithner went before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee to explain himself. How much worse?
WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's renewed struggle with cancer is both a demonstration of courage and a dismaying reminder that she represents a quota of one.
Ginsburg, who has pancreatic cancer, says she intends to resume her duties on the high court before the end of February, a quick return after surgery and harrowing treatment for a disease that is difficult to overcome. That is the courageous part.
The cheerless truth is that Ginsburg's ill health brings to mind her unique position. She is the only female jus tice, and has been since Sandra
Day O'Connor left the court in 2006. Certainly if Ginsburg's health fails and she is forced to retire, President Barack Obama would be under intense pressure to appoint another woman to fill her slot. With women voters providing Obama's margin of victory in last year's election, there is little doubt that he would do so.
But what then? Would a second vacancy automatically go to a man? That is how it usually works. This use of women as tokens must now be reversed.
Justice Clarence Thomas is the sole African-American sitting on the high court, and the only member of any racial minority group. All ethnic groups legitimately aspire to greater representation. But why set up a zero-sum game in which the advancement of one means the other must wait?
Women -- of all ethnic backgrounds -- are not a minority. We are a majority of the population and a majority of the electorate. Women earn about half the law degrees awarded each year, and comprise well over half of those earning bachelor's and master's degrees. Still, we are treated as a cranky interest group to be placated, and rarely given our rightful place in leadership.
But when women lead, something extraordinary happens: Suddenly the voice of more than half the population can be heard.
This was the voice that called out almost immediately after President Ronald Reagan appointed O'Connor as the first woman justice in 1981. Though she was appointed by the icon of the contemporary conservative movement -- and is best known as a centrist, swing vote on the high court -- O'Connor's most consistent votes were those she cast in favor of equal treatment for women. Her vision became apparent quickly, when she wrote the majority opinion in a 1982 case involving an admissions policy at the University of Mississippi nursing school, which favored women over men. O'Connor attacked not just the illegality of the policy but its pernicious message. The admissions rule, she wrote, "tends to perpetuate the stereotyped view of nursing as an exclusively woman's job" and so "lends credibility to the old view that women, not men, should become nurses, and makes the assumption that nursing is a field for women a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Ginsburg, in a stinging dissent to the court's 2007 decision toughening the rules governing when a woman can sue for sex discrimination in the workplace, took her colleagues to task for overlooking "common characteristics of pay discrimination" -- that is, year-to-year pay decisions that add up to long-term discrimination are often hidden from the employee. They might not be apparent or challenged immediately in court, Ginsburg wrote, "particularly when the employee, trying to succeed in a nontraditional environment, is averse to making waves." The ruling in this case, involving tire company supervisor Lilly Ledbetter, was just overturned in legislation that resets the rules to what they were before the Supreme Court decision.
O'Connor, a Republican and a Westerner, and Ginsburg, a Democrat and the personification of the Eastern intellectual, brought few similarities in personal background to the Supreme Court. Yet they shared an outlook as women who suffered blatant discrimination early in their careers. Both understood intuitively that women experience life differently than do men, and often saw the legal issues before them through that lens.
In 2007, Ginsburg told USA Today that she was "lonely" without O'Connor at the court, and worried about the symbolism implicit in having a sole woman justice. The message, she said, is that having a woman on the Supreme Court is a "one-at-a-time curiosity, not the normal thing."
"Normal" would be having a Supreme Court on which four or five justices are women. And if this sounds like a fantasy, it is only a measure of just how abnormal the high court's makeup is now.
Marie Cocco's e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
(c) 2009, Washington Post Writers Group
As the nation celebrated a day of uplift, Wall Street delivered a brutal downdraft. Even as Barack Obama was taking the oath of office, the markets plunged -- the Dow dropped more than 300 points, and broader indexes slumped on jitters about shaky banks. It was the worst Inauguration Day performance in more than a century of trading.
WASHINGTON -- There will be no freedom from want. The only thing we might now hope for is freedom from fear. Even that is a distant state of mind.