Tuesday, September 30, 2008

New Urgency Over McCain Medical Questions As Election Nears

Over the last few weeks, the issues of John McCain's age and health have been pushed, with much resistance, back into the heart of the political discussion. Prompted in part by the selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential candidate, the topic crested with the release of a political advertisement calling attention to McCain's history of skin cancer and the need for more information about his medical records.

Cable news stations were too skittish to run the spot, produced by Brave New Films. CNN refused to air it, Fox's Bill O'Reilly called it shameful, and MSNBC, which initially aired the ad, reversed course and took it off the air.

All of which has come to the anger and befuddlement of Democrats as well as members of the medical community, both of whom ask a very basic question: what more important information is needed to elect a president other than his fitness for office?

"I don't see anything wrong with opening up the discussion," said Ronald Bronow, former chief of dermatology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "What we want to know is, what stage is this melanoma? Particularly with the prospect of the vice president becoming the president... If you are an objective physician, you have to be concerned about this."

With just weeks before election day, McCain's campaign says it has released all of the information needed to make a thorough assessment of his health, and then some. In late May, the Senator allowed the vetting of over 1,000 pages of his records that showed him in generally good condition despite having skin cancer eight years ago. But the process was far from transparent.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's medical correspondent who was one of only a handful of reporters allowed into the review, summarized the problems to the Huffington Post:

"We were given three hours to go over 1,200 pages of records. That is a lot to go through. It was very sort of cloak and dagger and I'm sure they had their reasons. Given that I had my medical training, I was able to hone in on what it thought was important more quickly. But the pages weren't numbered, so I had no way of knowing what was missing... As a reporter I can only comment on what I saw but I can't say by any means that this was complete... As far as the secretiveness of it, what they said to us is that you can't take anything out of the room, but you could make notes. So it was a lot to go through in a short period of time."
Provided with only a scant review of the information, questions have begun to rise as to the danger of McCain's most recent bout with cancer. Bronow noted that there are two reports detailing the stage of McCain's latest (his fourth) bout with melanoma. One report put it at a stage 2a, which has a relatively high five-year survival rate; another put it at a stage 3b, which is much more dire in nature.

"As a dermatologist, if I hear about a stage three melanoma, I say 'My God this guy is walking on nails here," said Bronow. "There is that much difference between a stage 2 and a stage 3."

Asked to detail his notes, Gupta said the pathology report - which lists the size and other attributes of the cancer removed - indicated a stage 2a:

"It was 2 centimeters across, 0.22 centimeters deep, and not ulcerated, which gives him a 66 percent survival rate over ten years. Melanoma is a particularly aggressive cancer. Mainly because skin is the largest organ in the body it can spread to the lungs, liver and the brain... Most of the occurrences will occur right away. I am reassured by the fact that it has been eight years now and there hasn't been a reemergence of that melanoma."

And yet, the debate over the status of McCain's health is accompanied by a separate, equally significant argument: mainly, what level of medical disclosure should voters demand of presidential candidates? As Bronow noted, Barack Obama has given the public far less information on his health than McCain - a one-page report detailing the last 21 years of care he has received.

"Let's have the same thing for him," he said. "Let's have a complete disclosure of everything. It isn't just McCain."

And as Gupta argued, there is something sadly ironic with the fact that physicians and airline pilots are required to release medical records, but not the would-be president of the United States.

"[Former Senator] Paul Tsongas -- when he ran for office in 1992, he was a cancer survivor at that point, but said he had been cured," recalled Gupta. "We now know that had he been elected to a second term, he would have died in office. It was Tsongas who went to Clinton and said we should really have a requirement for the release of physical and mental medical records. Which, looking back now, is pretty remarkable."

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Public Perseption, Pure and Simple
First Presidential Debate

New York Times Politics blog
The Caucus

Check Point: The First Debate

By Julie Bosman, Jackie Calmes, Michael Luo, Larry Rohter and Matthew L. Wald

The Times is presenting its “Check Point” feature examining the policies and statements of the presidential candidates in real time tonight.

And the Number Is…
How much does the United States owe China? Senator John McCain got it right, Senator Barack Obama was wrong.

“We owe China $500 billion,” Mr. McCain said early in the debate. Near the end, Mr. Obama noted the challenges the United States faces with China and added, “they now hold a trillion dollars’ worth of our debt.”

According to the most recent data from the Treasury Department, through July, China holds $518 billion in U.S. Treasury securities.

How High?
Senator John McCain said tonight that U.S. businesses pay “the second highest business taxes in the world, 35 percent. Ireland pays 11 percent.” While 35 percent is the corporate income tax rate, few if any corporations pay that rate given tax breaks available to them. The effective tax rate is closer to 20 percent.

Senator Barack Obama, in response, said Mr. McCain is “absolutely right” that business taxes are high “on paper.” He added: “Here’s the problem ­there are so many loopholes that have been written into the tax code, oftentimes with the support of Senator McCain, that we actually see our businesses pay effectively one of the lowest tax rates in the world.” Mr. Obama has proposed closing business tax loopholes, though he hasn’t identified many specifically.

Senator John McCain plunged into the debate with a strong attack based on one of his signature issues, the requests by members of Congress for funding for pet projects that would benefit their home districts or states, also known as earmarks.

Mr. McCain charged that Mr. Obama “has asked for $932 million of earmark pork-barrel spending, nearly a million dollars for every day that he’s been in the United States Senate.” Parts of that statement are true, but others are not, and other remarks Mr. McCain made about the subject Friday night were also incorrect.

According to the calculations of fiscal watchdog groups, Mr. Obama has indeed requested that amount of funding since entering the Senate in 2005. But some of the same groups make a distinction between “pork-barrel” projects that they deem inherently wasteful, such as the now-famous “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska, and those projects that may have a useful purpose but which are obtained through legislative guile.

In addition, Mr. McCain erred when he said that earmarks have “tripled in the last five years.” Earmarks tripled in size over the decade between 1996 and 2005. But since then, they have actually declined, from nearly 14,000 projects worth $18.9 billion in fiscal 2005 to just over 11,500 projects valued at $16.5 billion for the fiscal year ending next week.

Finally, earmarks are, as Mr. Obama indicated, a tiny part of the federal government’s overall budget and deficit. For fiscal year 2008, President Bush asked Congress to authorize $2.9 trillion in spending, which meant a total deficit of about $240 billion. That means that even if all earmarks were eliminated, it would reduce the federal deficit for the year by less than seven percent.

What Would Henry Do?
One of the most vigorous exchanges of the evening occurred over what exactly former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said recently about negotiating with Iran. Mr. Obama cited Mr. Kissinger’s comments to bolster his defense of his earlier statement at a Democratic debate that he would be willing to sit down with the leaders of nations like Iran, Venezuela and Syria without preconditions.

“Senator McCain mentioned Henry Kissinger, who is one of his advisers, who along with five recent secretaries just said that we should meet with Iran, guess what, without preconditions,” said Mr. Obama. “This is one of your own advisers.”

Mr. McCain pushed back forcefully, saying he knew Mr. Kissinger well and insisting that Mr. Kissinger would not approve of “face to face meetings” between the president and Iranian President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad but lower level negotiations.

Mr. Obama was referring to comments made by Mr. Kissinger at a forum last week at George Washington University with several other former secretaries of state– Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, James Baker and Colin Powell.

CNN broadcaster Christiane Amanpour asked them a hypothetical, whether a message came from Iran that they were ready to negotiate, “all conditions on the table. Is the advice to the next American president to once again put conditions to expect Iran to cry uncle or to engage?”

All of them said they would engage, with Mr. Kissinger arguing:

“Well, I am in favor of negotiating with Iran. And one utility of negotiation is to put before Iran our vision of a Middle East, of a stable Middle East, and our notion on nuclear proliferation at a high enough level so that they have to study it.” But then Mr. Kissinger added, “I actually have preferred doing it at the secretary of state level,” before he trailed off.

When another CNN broadcaster, Frank Sesno, followed up, whether it should be “put at a very high level right out of the box,” Mr. Kissinger said, “Initially, yes.”

He added: “I do not believe that we can make conditions for the opening of negotiations.”

In other words, it appears that both men were right to a certain extent. Mr. Kissinger did not specify presidential-level talks, but the thrust of his comments appear consistent with what Mr. Obama has been arguing as well, insisting that his comments did not mean that he would sit down with the leader of one of these countries without any preparations, including lower level discussions.

After the debate, however, Mr. Kissinger issued a statement to the Weekly Standard backing Mr. McCain: “Senator McCain is right. I would not recommend the next president of the United States engage in talks with Iran at the Presidential level. My views on this issue are entirely compatible with the views of my friend Senator John McCain. We do not agree on everything, but we do agree that any negotiations with Iran must be geared to reality.”

Most Liberal?
According to Mr. McCain, “Senator Obama has the most liberal voting record in the United States Senate.” The reality, however, appears to be more complex than that categorical statement would suggest. One publication that rates members of Congress gave him that description in 2007, but others disagree, and Mr. McCain himself described Mr. Obama as “a centrist” when the Democratic nominee first entered the Senate.

In January, the specialized political publication National Journal, evaluating what it regarded as important votes in the Senate last year, concluded that Mr. Obama was indeed the Senate’s most liberal member. But Congressional Quarterly, using a different index to rank members of Congress, found that Mr. Obama voted with President Bush nearly half the time, which would put him closer to Mr. McCain’s original “centrist” description.

Negotiating With Adversaries:
For over a year, the McCain campaign has sought to portray Mr. Obama as eager to meet with the heads of state of Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea and other countries that the United States sees as adversaries.

On Friday night, Mr. McCain repeated the accusation, which stems from a remark Mr. Obama made early in the campaign

In a debate among Democratic candidates in July 2007, Mr. Obama was asked “would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?” Mr Obama replied “I would,” adding that “the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration - is ridiculous.”

Since then, the McCain campaign has sought to blur the distinctions between “would” and “will” and to use “without preconditions” as a synonym for “unconditionally.” But in diplomatic parlance, “without preconditions” has a specific meaning: that one party does not demand concessions from the other as a price for sitting down at the table to begin to negotiate.

On Friday, Mr. McCain accused Mr. Obama of merely “parsing words” when the Democratic candidate insisted on a distinction. But Mr. Obama has been clear and consistent in saying that he would not automatically meet with the heads of state of nations that are adversaries of the United States and that preparatory spadework would be required before he as president would meet with such leaders.

“The point is that I would not refuse to meet until they agree to every position that we want,” he said in May when asked to explain his position. “But that doesn’t mean that we would not have preparation, and the preparation would involve starting with lower level diplomatic contacts, having our diplomatic corps work through with Iranian counterparts, an agenda.”

Oil and Energy:
Mr. McCain took Mr. Obama to task for voting for the 2005
energy bill, which Mr. McCain voted against. “This is a classic example of walking the walk and talking the talk,” he said. “We had an energy bill before the United States Senate. It was festooned with
Christmas-tree ornaments. It had all kinds of breaks for the oil companies — I mean billions of dollars’ worth.”

At the time, Mr. Obama said he voted for the bill because of the tax credits it included for ethanol and clean-coal facilities. But the bill actually raised taxes on the oil industry by about $300
million, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.

A report in March by the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group in Washington, said that Mr. McCain’s tax plan would lower oil company taxes by nearly $4 billion.

No Hearings on Afghanistan?
Mr. McCain attacked Mr. Obama tonight for never holding any hearings on Afghanistan while chairman of the a subcommittee on European Affairs on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The crux of the argument is that Mr. Obama’s subcommittee has jurisdiction of NATO issues.

The charge is literally true, but some have argued that such a major issue would probably be taken up by the full committee. Indeed, the non-partisan, FactCheck.org, pointed out that the full Senate Foreign Relations Committee has held three hearings over the past two years on Afghanistan and Mr. Obama was at one of them.

Mr. Obama claimed that Mr. McCain has said that the United States “can muddle through in Afghanistan.” That alters a critical word in a statement Mr. McCain made in Nov. 2003 to the Council on Foreign Relations, substituting “can” for “may.” The full context of Mr. McCain’s remarks suggests that he was merely describing a possible policy
outcome, rather than endorsing it:

“There has been a rise in Al Qaeda activity along the border. There has been some increase in U.S. casualties. I am concerned about it, but I’m not as concerned as I am about Iraq today, obviously, or I’d be talking about Afghanistan. But I believe that if Karzai can make the progress that he is making, that — in the long term, we may muddle through in Afghanistan.”

Tax Hikes:
Senator John McCain charged that Senator Obama voted “to increase taxes on people who make as low as $42,000 a year.”

Mr. Obama interjected, “That’s not true, John. That’ s not true.” Mr. McCain’s claim has been called “simply false” by the nonpartisan FactCheck.org.

It is based on Mr. Obama’s vote for Senate Democrats’ nonbinding budget resolution for fiscal 2009 that assumed all of President Bush’s 2001 tax cuts would expire as scheduled in 2010. But Mr. Obama has promised that he would retain all Bush tax cuts for families making less than $250,000 a year. Mr. Obama has proposed other tax breaks for the middle class as well. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center has concluded that 95 percent of families with children would get a tax break under Mr. Obama’s plan, significantly more than under Mr. McCain.

Fannie and Freddie:
Senator John McCain said tonight that he “warned about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,” echoing some of his recent comments in which he portrayed himself as sounding the alarm about the impending financial crisis.

Mr. McCain was referring to his decision in 2006 to sign on as a co-sponsor of a Senate bill that would have overhauled regulations governing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But the legislation was introduced more than 16 months earlier, and the debate over the issue had been going on for some time. He also only added his name to the measure after an oversight agency issued a long report condemning practices at Fannie Mae.

Nuclear Reactors and Jobs: In the debate, as in his campaign speeches, Mr. McCain said that the program to build 45 nuclear reactors that he favors would “provide 700,000 jobs for American workers.” But scientists, industry analysts and other experts, including advocates of nuclear power, offer much more modest figures, noting that a good deal of the heavy foundry work, for instance, would have to be done overseas.

Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace who is now co-chairman of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, a pro-nuclear group, estimated that each reactor project would generate between 3,000 and 4,000 jobs during the construction phase and up to 800 permanent jobs once in operation. Asked to provide a ballpark figure on employment if all 45 reactors were to be built, he responded “225,000 good union jobs that you can support a family on.”

Senator Obama also talked about reducing oil dependence with wind and solar power, but making that work would require a new battery technology that is not certain to develop.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Joint Statement of Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain

"The American people are facing a moment of economic crisis. No matter how this began, we all have a responsibility to work through it and restore confidence in our economy. The jobs, savings, and prosperity of the American people are at stake.

"Now is a time to come together - Democrats and Republicans - in a spirit of cooperation for the sake of the American people. The plan that has been submitted to Congress by the Bush Administration is flawed, but the effort to protect the American economy must not fail.

This is a time to rise above politics for the good of the country. We cannot risk an economic catastrophe. Now is our chance to come together to prove that Washington is once again capable of leading this country."

Speaking for himself, Senator Obama outlined the following principles that he calls on Senator McCain to support:

I believe that several core principles should guide this legislation.

First, there must be oversight. We should not hand over a blank check to the discretion of one man. We support an independent, bipartisan board to ensure accountability and complete transparency.

Second, we need to protect taxpayers. There should be a path for taxpayers to recover their money, and to turn a profit if Wall Street prospers.

Third, no Wall Street executive should profit from taxpayer dollars. This plan cannot be a welfare program for CEOs whose greed and irresponsibility has contributed to this crisis.

Fourth, we must help families who are struggling to stay in their homes. We cannot bail out Wall Street without helping millions of families facing foreclosure on Main Street.

Fifth, we both agree that this financial rescue package should move on its own without any earmarks or other measures. We have different views about the need for other action, but this must be a clean bill.

This is a time to rise above politics for the good of the country. We cannot risk an economic catastrophe. This is not a Democratic problem or a Republican problem - this is an American problem. Now, we must find an American solution.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Fresh blood for the vampire
By Camille Paglia
Sep. 10, 2008

A beady-eyed McCain gets a boost from the charismatic Sarah Palin, a powerful new feminist -- yes, feminist! -- force. Plus: Obama must embrace his dull side.

Rip tide!

Is the Obama campaign shooting out to sea like a paper boat?

It's heavy weather for Obama fans, as momentum has suddenly shifted to John McCain -- that hoary, barnacle-encrusted tub that many Democrats like me had thought was full of holes and swirling to its doom in the inky depths of Republican incoherence and fratricide. Gee whilikers, the McCain vampire just won't die! Hit him with a hammer, and he explodes like a jellyfish into a hundred hungry pieces.

Oh, the sadomasochistic tedium of McCain's imprisonment in Hanoi being told over and over and over again at the Republican convention. Do McCain's credentials for the White House really consist only of that horrific ordeal? Americans owe every heroic, wounded veteran an incalculable debt of gratitude, but how do McCain's sufferings in a tiny, squalid cell 40 years ago logically translate into presidential aptitude in the 21st century? Cast him a statue or slap his name on a ship, and let's turn the damned page.

We need a new generation of leadership with fresh ideas and an expansive, cosmopolitan vision -- which is why I support Barack Obama and have contributed to his campaign. My baby-boom generation -- typified by the narcissistic Clintons -- peaked in the 1960s and is seriously past it. But McCain, born before Pearl Harbor, is even older than we are! Why would anyone believe that he holds the key to the future? And why would anyone swallow that preening passel of high-flown rhetoric about "country above all" coming from a seething, short-fused character whose rampant egotism, zigzagging principles, and currying of the gullible press were the distinguishing marks of his senatorial career?

Having said that, I must admit that McCain is currently eating Obama's lunch. McCain's weirdly disconnected persona (beady glowers flashing to frozen grins and back again) has started to look more testosterone-rich than Obama's easy, lanky, reflective candor. What in the world possessed the Obama campaign to let their guy wander like a dazed lamb into a snake pit of religious inquisition like Rick Warren's public forum last month at his Saddleback Church in California? That shambles of a performance -- where a surprisingly unprepared Obama met the inevitable question about abortion with shockingly curt glibness -- began his alarming slide.

As I said in my last column, I have become increasingly uneasy about Obama's efforts to sound folksy and approachable by reflexively using inner-city African-American tones and locutions, which as a native of Hawaii he acquired relatively late in his development and which are painfully wrong for the target audience of rural working-class whites that he has been trying to reach. Obama on the road and even in major interviews has been droppin' his g's like there's no tomorrow. It's analogous to the way stodgy, portly Al Gore (evidently misadvised by the women in his family and their feminist pals) tried to zap himself up on the campaign trail into the happening buff dude that he was not. Both Gore and Obama would have been better advised to pursue a calm, steady, authoritative persona. Forget the jokes -- be boring! That, alas, is what reads as masculine in the U.S.

The over-the-top publicity stunt of a mega-stadium for Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention two weeks ago was a huge risk that worried me sick -- there were too many things that could go wrong, from bad weather to crowd control to technical glitches on the overblown set. But everything went swimmingly. Obama delivered the speech nearly flawlessly -- though I was shocked and disappointed by how little there was about foreign policy, a major area where wavering voters have grave doubts about him. Nevertheless, it was an extraordinary event with an overlong but strangely contemplative and spiritually uplifting finale. The music, amid the needlessly extravagant fireworks, morphed into "Star Wars" -- a New Age hymn to cosmic reconciliation and peace.

After that extravaganza, marking the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s epochal civil rights speech on the Washington Mall, I felt calmly confident that the Obama campaign was going to roll like a gorgeous juggernaut right over the puny, fossilized McCain. The next morning, it was as if the election were already over. No need to fret about American politics anymore this year. I had already turned with relief to other matters.

Pow! Wham! The Republicans unleashed a doozy -- one of the most stunning surprises that I have ever witnessed in my adult life. By lunchtime, Obama's triumph of the night before had been wiped right off the national radar screen. In a bold move I would never have thought him capable of, McCain introduced Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his pick for vice president. I had heard vaguely about Palin but had never heard her speak. I nearly fell out of my chair. It was like watching a boxing match or a quarter of hard-hitting football -- or one of the great light-saber duels in "Star Wars." (Here are the two Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn, going at it with Darth Maul in "The Phantom Menace.") This woman turned out to be a tough, scrappy fighter with a mischievous sense of humor.

Conservative though she may be, I felt that Palin represented an explosion of a brand new style of muscular American feminism. At her startling debut on that day, she was combining male and female qualities in ways that I have never seen before. And she was somehow able to seem simultaneously reassuringly traditional and gung-ho futurist. In terms of redefining the persona for female authority and leadership, Palin has made the biggest step forward in feminism since Madonna channeled the dominatrix persona of high-glam Marlene Dietrich and rammed pro-sex, pro-beauty feminism down the throats of the prissy, victim-mongering, philistine feminist establishment.

In the U.S., the ultimate glass ceiling has been fiendishly complicated for women by the unique peculiarity that our president must also serve as commander in chief of the armed forces. Women have risen to the top in other countries by securing the leadership of their parties and then being routinely promoted to prime minister when that party won at the polls. But a woman candidate for president of the U.S. must show a potential capacity for military affairs and decision-making. Our president also symbolically represents the entire history of the nation -- a half-mystical role often filled elsewhere by a revered if politically powerless monarch.

As a dissident feminist, I have been arguing since my arrival on the scene nearly 20 years ago that young American women aspiring to political power should be studying military history rather than taking women's studies courses, with their rote agenda of never-ending grievances. I have repeatedly said that the politician who came closest in my view to the persona of the first woman president was Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whose steady nerves in crisis were demonstrated when she came to national attention after the mayor and a gay supervisor were murdered in their City Hall offices in San Francisco. Hillary Clinton, with her schizophrenic alteration of personae, has never seemed presidential to me -- and certainly not in her bland and overpraised farewell speech at the Democratic convention (which skittered from slow, pompous condescension to trademark stridency to unseemly haste).

Feinstein, with her deep knowledge of military matters, has true gravitas and knows how to shrewdly thrust and parry with pesky TV interviewers. But her style is reserved, discreet, mandarin. The gun-toting Sarah Palin is like Annie Oakley, a brash ambassador from America's pioneer past. She immediately reminded me of the frontier women of the Western states, which first granted women the right to vote after the Civil War -- long before the federal amendment guaranteeing universal woman suffrage was passed in 1919. Frontier women faced the same harsh challenges and had to tackle the same chores as men did -- which is why men could regard them as equals, unlike the genteel, corseted ladies of the Eastern seaboard, which fought granting women the vote right to the bitter end.

Over the Labor Day weekend, with most of the big enchiladas of the major media on vacation, the vacuum was filled with a hallucinatory hurricane in the leftist blogosphere, which unleashed a grotesquely lurid series of allegations, fantasies, half-truths and outright lies about Palin. What a tacky low in American politics -- which has already caused a backlash that could damage Obama's campaign. When liberals come off as childish, raving loonies, the right wing gains. I am still waiting for substantive evidence that Sarah Palin is a dangerous extremist. I am perfectly willing to be convinced, but right now, she seems to be merely an optimistic pragmatist like Ronald Reagan, someone who pays lip service to religious piety without being in the least wedded to it. I don't see her arrival as portending the end of civil liberties or life as we know it.
One reason I live in the leafy suburbs of Philadelphia and have never moved to New York or Washington is that, as a cultural analyst, I want to remain in touch with the mainstream of American life. I frequent fast-food restaurants, shop at the mall, and periodically visit Wal-Mart (its bird-seed section is nonpareil). Like Los Angeles and San Francisco, Manhattan and Washington occupy their own mental zones -- nice to visit but not a place to stay if you value independent thought these days. Ambitious professionals in those cities, if they want to preserve their social networks, are very vulnerable to received opinion. At receptions and parties (which I hate), they're sitting ducks. They have to go along to get along -- poor dears!

It is certainly premature to predict how the Palin saga will go. I may not agree a jot with her about basic principles, but I have immensely enjoyed Palin's boffo performances at her debut and at the Republican convention, where she astonishingly dealt with multiple technical malfunctions without missing a beat. A feminism that cannot admire the bravura under high pressure of the first woman governor of a frontier state isn't worth a warm bucket of spit.
Perhaps Palin seemed perfectly normal to me because she resembles so many women I grew up around in the snow belt of upstate New York. For example, there were the robust and hearty farm women of Oxford, a charming village where my father taught high school when I was a child. We first lived in an apartment on the top floor of a farmhouse on a working dairy farm. Our landlady, who was as physically imposing as her husband, was an all-American version of the Italian immigrant women of my grandmother's generation -- agrarian powerhouses who could do anything and whose trumpetlike voices could pierce stone walls.

Here's one episode. My father and his visiting brother, a dapper barber by trade, were standing outside having a smoke when a great noise came from the nearby barn. A calf had escaped. Our landlady yelled, "Stop her!" as the calf came careening at full speed toward my father and uncle, who both instinctively stepped back as the calf galloped through the mud between them. Irate, our landlady trudged past them to the upper pasture, cornered the calf, and carried that massive animal back to the barn in her arms. As she walked by my father and uncle, she exclaimed in amused disgust, "Men!"

Now that's the Sarah Palin brand of can-do, no-excuses, moose-hunting feminism -- a world away from the whining, sniping, wearily ironic mode of the establishment feminism represented by Gloria Steinem, a Hillary Clinton supporter whose shameless Democratic partisanship over the past four decades has severely limited American feminism and not allowed it to become the big tent it can and should be. Sarah Palin, if her reputation survives the punishing next two months, may be breaking down those barriers. Feminism, which should be about equal rights and equal opportunity, should not be a closed club requiring an ideological litmus test for membership.

Here's another example of the physical fortitude and indomitable spirit that Palin as an Alaskan sportswoman seems to represent right now. Last year, Toronto's Globe and Mail reprinted this remarkable obituary from 1905:

Abigail Becker

Farmer and homemaker born in Frontenac County, Upper Canada,
on March 14, 1830
A tall, handsome woman "who feared God greatly and the
living or dead not at all," she married a widower with six children and settled
in a trapper's cabin on Long Point, Lake Erie. On Nov. 23, 1854, with her
husband away, she single-handedly rescued the crew of the schooner Conductor of
Buffalo, which had run aground in a storm. The crew had clung to the frozen
rigging all night, not daring to enter the raging surf. In the early morning,
she waded chin-high into the water (she could not swim) and helped seven men
reach shore. She was awarded medals for heroism and received $350 collected by
the people of Buffalo, plus a handwritten letter from Queen Victoria that was
accompanied by £50, all of which went toward buying a farm. She lost her husband
to a storm, raised 17 children alone and died at Walsingham Centre, Ont.
Frontier women were far bolder and hardier than today's pampered,
petulant bourgeois feminists, always looking to blame their complaints about
life on someone else.

But what of Palin's pro-life stand? Creationism taught in schools? Book banning? Gay conversions? The Iraq war as God's plan? Zionism as a prelude to the apocalypse? We'll see how these big issues shake out. Right now, I don't believe much of what I read or hear about Palin in the media. To automatically assume that she is a religious fanatic who has embraced the most extreme ideas of her local church is exactly the kind of careless reasoning that has been unjustly applied to Barack Obama, whom the right wing is still trying to tar with the fulminating anti-American sermons of his longtime preacher, Jeremiah Wright.

The witch-trial hysteria of the past two incendiary weeks unfortunately reveals a disturbing trend in the Democratic Party, which has worsened over the past decade. Democrats are quick to attack the religiosity of Republicans, but Democratic ideology itself seems to have become a secular substitute religion. Since when did Democrats become so judgmental and intolerant? Conservatives are demonized, with the universe polarized into a Manichaean battle of us versus them, good versus evil. Democrats are clinging to pat group opinions as if they were inflexible moral absolutes. The party is in peril if it cannot observe and listen and adapt to changing social circumstances.

Let's take the issue of abortion rights, of which I am a firm supporter. As an atheist and libertarian, I believe that government must stay completely out of the sphere of personal choice. Every individual has an absolute right to control his or her body. (Hence I favor the legalization of drugs, though I do not take them.) Nevertheless, I have criticized the way that abortion became the obsessive idée fixe of the post-1960s women's movement -- leading to feminists' McCarthyite tactics in pitting Anita Hill with her flimsy charges against conservative Clarence Thomas (admittedly not the most qualified candidate possible) during his nomination hearings for the Supreme Court. Similarly, Bill Clinton's support for abortion rights gave him a free pass among leading feminists for his serial exploitation of women -- an abusive pattern that would scream misogyny to any neutral observer.

But the pro-life position, whether or not it is based on religious orthodoxy, is more ethically highly evolved than my own tenet of unconstrained access to abortion on demand. My argument (as in my first book, "Sexual Personae,") has always been that nature has a master plan pushing every species toward procreation and that it is our right and even obligation as rational human beings to defy nature's fascism. Nature herself is a mass murderer, making casual, cruel experiments and condemning 10,000 to die so that one more fit will live and thrive.
Hence I have always frankly admitted that abortion is murder, the extermination of the powerless by the powerful. Liberals for the most part have shrunk from facing the ethical consequences of their embrace of abortion, which results in the annihilation of concrete individuals and not just clumps of insensate tissue. The state in my view has no authority whatever to intervene in the biological processes of any woman's body, which nature has implanted there before birth and hence before that woman's entrance into society and citizenship.

On the other hand, I support the death penalty for atrocious crimes (such as rape-murder or the murder of children). I have never understood the standard Democratic combo of support for abortion and yet opposition to the death penalty. Surely it is the guilty rather than the innocent who deserve execution?

What I am getting at here is that not until the Democratic Party stringently reexamines its own implicit assumptions and rhetorical formulas will it be able to deal effectively with the enduring and now escalating challenge from the pro-life right wing. Because pro-choice Democrats have been arguing from cold expedience, they have thus far been unable to make an effective ethical case for the right to abortion.

The gigantic, instantaneous coast-to-coast rage directed at Sarah Palin when she was identified as pro-life was, I submit, a psychological response by loyal liberals who on some level do not want to open themselves to deep questioning about abortion and its human consequences. I have written about the eerie silence that fell over campus audiences in the early 1990s when I raised this issue on my book tours. At such moments, everyone in the hall seemed to feel the uneasy conscience of feminism. Naomi Wolf later bravely tried to address this same subject but seems to have given up in the face of the resistance she encountered.

If Sarah Palin tries to intrude her conservative Christian values into secular government, then she must be opposed and stopped. But she has every right to express her views and to argue for society's acceptance of the high principle of the sanctity of human life. If McCain wins the White House and then drops dead, a President Palin would have the power to appoint conservative judges to the Supreme Court, but she could not control their rulings.

It is nonsensical and counterproductive for Democrats to imagine that pro-life values can be defeated by maliciously destroying their proponents. And it is equally foolish to expect that feminism must for all time be inextricably wed to the pro-choice agenda. There is plenty of room in modern thought for a pro-life feminism -- one in fact that would have far more appeal to third-world cultures where motherhood is still honored and where the Western model of the hard-driving, self-absorbed career woman is less admired.

But the one fundamental precept that Democrats must stand for is independent thought and speech. When they become baying bloodhounds of rigid dogma, Democrats have committed political suicide.

Camille Paglia's column appears on the second Wednesday of each month. Every third column is devoted to reader letters. Please send questions for her next letters column to this mailbox. Your name and town will be published unless you request anonymity.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Mayor Palin: A Rough Record
Time Magazine
Tuesday, Sep. 02, 2008

Photo: Sarah Palin as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, in 1996
Mat-Su / Valley Frontiersman / AP
John McCain was clear about why he picked half-term Alaska governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate. "I found someone with an outstanding reputation for standing up to special interests and entrenched bureaucracies," he said in introducing her in Dayton, Ohio, on Friday. Palin was someone, he noted, "who reached across the aisle and asked Republicans, Democrats and independents to serve in government."

It is a powerful reinforcement of McCain's own political brand: tough, reform-minded, willing to break with his own party for the right cause. And it's true that her high-profile crusade against corruption and complacency in her own state party over the past few years has made Palin the Frank Serpico of Alaska politics: she publicly ratted out her state party chairman; whupped the good old boys' network, as she likes to put it, in a gubernatorial primary; and fought a general election in which the scandal-stained state GOP didn't lift a finger on her behalf. She won only because she had the enthusiastic backing of independents and grass-roots activists.
But in the first major race of her career — the 1996 campaign for mayor of her hometown, Wasilla — Palin was a far more conventional politician. In fact, according to some who were involved in that fight, Palin was a highly polarizing political figure who brought partisan politics and hot-button social issues like abortion and gun control into a mayoral race that had traditionally been contested like a friendly intramural contest among neighbors.

In the early '90s, Wasilla was little more than half as big as it is today, and much more loosely confederated. The main issue then, says longtime resident Chas St. George, was public safety. "We needed a police department," he says. "So we set up a group to make it happen." That group — Watch on Wasilla — included a handful of the town's most influential figures: St. George; the town's mayor, John Stein; and Palin, who wasn't in elected office yet. Her father-in-law Jim Palin and his wife Faye were also in the group.

Eventually, they started a police department, led by chief Irl Stambaugh. Kaylene Johnson, author of Sarah, a Palin biography published earlier this year, says one place where the power group met was a step-aerobics class that Stambaugh and Stein took along with Palin. That class signed the original petition for Palin's first political race, for city council in 1992, which she won.
Four years later, she took on her former workout buddy in a race that quickly became contentious. In Stein's view, Palin's main transgression was injecting big-time politics into a small-town local race. "It was always a nonpartisan job," he says. "But with her, the state GOP came in and started affecting the race." While Palin often describes that race as having been a fight against the old boys' club, Stein says she made sure the campaign hinged on issues like gun owners' rights and her opposition to abortion (Stein is pro-choice). "It got to the extent that — I don't remember who it was now — but some national antiabortion outfit sent little pink cards to voters in Wasilla endorsing her," he says.

Vicki Naegele was the managing editor of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman at the time. "[Stein] figured he was just going to run your average, friendly small-town race," she recalls, "but it turned into something much different than that." Naegele held the same conservative Christian beliefs as Palin but didn't think they had any place in local politics.

"I just thought, That's ridiculous, she should concentrate on roads, not abortion," says Naegele.
St. George worked on Stein's campaign at the time, and while he says he has no reason to dispute Stein's recollection of events, he doesn't remember Palin's conduct being beyond the pale. "Our tax coffers were starting to grow," he says. "John was for expanding services, and Sarah wasn't. That's what the race was about."

One thing all sides agree on is that the valley was in flux. The old libertarian pioneer ethos was giving way to a rising Christian conservatism. By shrewdly invoking issues that mattered to the ascendant majority, Palin won the mayor's race. But while she may have been a new face, says Naegele, she was no maverick — not yet. "The state party gave her the mechanism to get into that office," says Naegele. "As soon as she was confident enough to brush them off, she did. But she wasn't an outsider to start with. She very much had to kowtow to them."

Governing was no less contentious than campaigning, at least to begin with. Palin ended up dismissing almost all the city department heads who had been loyal to Stein, including a few who had been instrumental in getting her into politics to begin with. Some saw it as a betrayal. Stambaugh, the police chief and a member of Palin's step-aerobics class, filed a lawsuit for wrongful termination, alleging that Palin terminated him in part at the behest of the National Rifle Association, because he had opposed a concealed-gun law that the NRA supported. He eventually lost the suit. The animosity spawned some talk of a recall attempt, but eventually Palin's opponents in the city council opted for a more conciliatory route.

At some point in those fractious first days, Palin told the department heads they needed her permission to talk to reporters. "She put a gag order on those people, something that you'd expect to find in the big city, not here," says Naegele. "She flew in there like a big-city gal, which she's not. It was a strange time, and [the Frontiersman] came out very harshly against her."
Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. "She asked the library how she could go about banning books," he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. "The librarian was aghast." That woman, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn't be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving "full support" to the mayor.

St. George, however, points out that Palin couldn't have seen everything through an Evangelical lens. She did, he says, notably resist calls to restrict operating hours for the bars in town. And even if faith did play an unusually large role in her decision-making as mayor, it may have only reflected the continued rise of Evangelicalism in the valley, a growth that continues to this day.
"We like to call this the Bible Belt of Alaska," says Cheryl Metiva, head of the local chamber of commerce. Churches proliferate in Wasilla today, and among the largest and most influential is the Wasilla Bible Church, where the Palins worship.

At the 11:15 a.m. Sunday service, hundreds sit in folding chairs, listening to a 20-minute sermon about the Book of Malachi and singing along to alt-rock praise songs. The only sign of culture warring in the whole production is an insert in the day's program advertising an upcoming Focus on the Family conference on homosexuality in Anchorage called Love Won Out. The group promises to teach attendees how to "respond to misinformation in our culture" and help them "overcome" homosexuality.

When Palin, who went on to win re-election by a landslide, was forced out of the Mayor's office by term limits in 2002, her husband Todd's stepmother Faye Palin ran for mayor. She did not, however, get Sarah Palin's endorsement. A couple of people told me that they thought abortion was the reason for Palin not supporting her family member — Faye, they say, is pro-choice, not to mention a Democrat. A former city council member recalls that it was a heated race, mainly because of right-to-life issues: "People were writing BABYKILLER on Faye's campaign signs just a few days before the election." Faye Palin lost the race to the candidate that Sarah backed, Dianne Keller, who is still mayor of Wasilla. (Over the weekend, Faye Palin told the New York Daily News that she liked listening to Barack Obama speak and that she wasn't sure who she would vote for in November.)

By the time Sarah Palin was entering state politics, the hottest issue in Alaska wasn't gay marriage or even abortion. It was corruption and cronyism. Andrew Halcro, a noted Palin critic who ran against her as an independent in the governor's race, says she knew instinctively that the issues were changing. Plus, he says, her opponents, such as incumbent governor Frank Murkowski, whom she defeated in the primary, were just as hard-right on abortion and guns as she was.

She needed a new political identity to make it to the next level, so ethics reform became her calling card. "She's a very savvy politician," says Halcro. "So wedge issues were not part of the portfolio."

"If anything," he says, "she got tired of answering questions about them." Halcro recalls one debate in October 2006 in which, after repeated questions about her opposition to abortion even in cases of rape or incest, she looked at the moderator with exasperation and asked if they were going to talk about anything besides abortion. It was detracting from her new message: cleaning up the capitol.

Nor has Palin made social issues the cornerstone of her governorship. When a parental consent law was struck down by Alaska's highest court in 2007, Palin called the decision "outrageous" but refused calls from conservatives to remedy the defeat by introducing antiabortion legislation in a session that was supposed to be about drilling rights.

Wearing her faith quietly fits more with Palin's personality, says St. George. "In all the years I've known Sarah and her parents, we never talked about right-to-life or any of that," he says. "She doesn't let those issues get in the way of getting things done for the community."

In the end, her political journey from banner-waving GOP social conservative to maverick reformer may simply be about good timing. It's what former journalist Bill McAllister, who now works for Palin's press staff, used to call "Sarah-dipity" — that uncanny gift of knowing exactly what voters are looking for at a particular moment. And, of course, the political will to give them what they want.