A Generational Debate

Friday’s presidential debate highlighted two things. First, Barack Obama indeed has the experience, knowledge and fortitude to be a great American president. He politely considered McCain’s attacks, then confidently countered them. He presented the issues and his determined plans to solve them. Agree with it or not, he has a new, forward-looking strategy. Secondly, the debate showed that John McCain is a shadow of his former self. This is not because of his years. It is because he has lost touch with America. He thinks we are still in the 20th Century. He thinks we are still in Vietnam. But even more regretful, Sen. McCain he has lost touch with himself. He still calls himself The Maverick, but he knows it doesn’t ring true. Not after he caved on tax cuts, caved on religious fundamentalists, caved on his running mate. Throughout the debate, McCain couldn’t bring himself to even look at Barack Obama. McCain spent a good part of the debate grumbling into the podium. At first I thought it was because McCain was angry, but then it became clearer. He couldn’t face his opponent because he can’t really face himself – the compromised version of himself. This campaign and the Republican Party have done what the North Vietnamese could not. They turned him. They broke him. Obama is a lean, strong reminder of the sort of tenacious achiever McCain used to be, of the Maverick he once was. And McCain couldn’t bear to face that reality.

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McCain’s Maverick Left Eye & A History of Presidential Infirmity

McCain’s Maverick Left Eye and a History of Presidential Infirmity

A few perceptive bloggers have commented on Sen. John McCain’s left eye and its tendency to buck the facial party line and do its own thing. In essence it is lately forging its own path – it is becoming clearer that McCain the Maverick may have a maverick left eye. Of course the significance here is that it calls further into question McCain’s health concerns. The maverick left eye of the maverick right-winger has some bloggers speculating about the possibility of a recent stroke. More to the point, this last bout of rumors calls into question McCain’s refusal to release his medical records as well as his choice of successor in V.P. running mate Gov. Sarah Palin. It may seem as if McCain’s health is receiving more-than-usual attention. Yet, these concerns are exacerbated by the fact that, if elected, McCain would be the oldest ascending president in American history. In fact he’d be older than reigning geriatric champ Ronald Reagan by nearly a full presidential term – and it is widely believed the younger Reagan may have suffered dementia for at least part of his administration. So, perhaps such medical scrutiny is warranted. Moreover, it is a perfect time to delve into our presidential past and dig up health records for some of our commanders-in-chief.

Presidential health concerns go all the way back to our humble beginnings as an upstart young nation. Throughout our history the Presidents’ true medical condition has always been kept from the public until after they’ve departed the highest office. But since the beginning there have been concerns. Even our, now seemingly immortal, Founding Fathers had serious medical issues. Our first president didn’t have it too bad. George Washington’s worse affliction was rotten teeth. Everyone’s heard about his wooden dentures. As the richest man in the country, he did not have to rely on comprehensive dental coverage either. His successor John Adams however didn’t have it so lucky. It is now widely believed by historians he suffered from depression. Although Adams lived to a ripe old age, doctors prescribed a diet of toast and milk. He maintained this diet for fourteen years. No wonder he was depressed. Actually depression has been quite common among our presidents. It seems all that responsibility takes its toll. Calvin Coolidge reportedly slept eleven hours a day – a result of his personal battle with depression. If George Bush’s recent appearance is any indication, he probably tries to hide under the covers as much as possible, too.

A healthy looking candidate is no safe bet either, as seemingly hale and hearty presidents have simply dropped dead. Zachary Taylor fell stone cold after eating a Fourth of July dessert. Gastroenteritis they called it, some claim assassination by poison. William Harrison died of pneumonia after serving only one month. When it’s your time, it’s your time. Often presidents suffered long battles with medical malaises. John Kennedy appeared vibrant and strong, but in fact he endured a long list of ailments. He was under constant medical supervision and treatment. Chester A. Arthur probably suffered the most painful affliction – Bright’s Disease. His years in the White House were excruciating, as the inflammation of his kidneys left him gasping for breath, chronically feverish and physically ballooned from retained body fluids.

William H. Taft suffered from a condition probably most relevant to modern Americans – hyper-obesity. He weighed in at over 400 lbs. This condition caused hypersomnolence – he’d fall asleep mid-conversation, sometimes with foreign heads of state. This was a guy that would love our America today. He’d no doubt be a Wal-Mart-and-back-in-time-for-Rachel-Rae-and-bon-bons kind of guy. However, just as he was a larger-than-life man, he was a larger-than-life public servant. Despite his obesity, he can boast a tireless record of service to our country. He was provincial governor of the Philippines and Cuba (think Bremer in Iraq). He served as U.S. Solicitor General and Secretary of War (think Paul Clement and Donald Rumsfeld). He of course served as our 27th president and then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (think John Roberts… if he ate David Souter). Imagine all those people rolled up into one man. One very large man. McCain should be inspired by Taft’s ability to overcome his health issues. Yet there are two presidents in particular whom John McCain can look to for even more inspiration. The two presidents who rose above their poor health to lead our country when we needed them most were Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was in such obvious dire-straits healthwise that he purposely chose the highly popular and uncontroversial Harry Truman as his running mate. FDR worried that he wouldn’t live through his final term and he wanted to leave the country in good hands. Clearly, McCain has courageously considered this stark reality himself with his practical selection of the proven leader Sarah Palin.

As for Woodrow Wilson, he serves as an even clearer example of how best McCain can serve his country with complete disregard for his poor health. Surprisingly, this is not in reference to Wilson’s most obvious health concern – his bad teeth. Washington already proved you don’t need any teeth to lead the country, not when we have good, solid Yankee hickory. Wilson proved you can still lead, though every tooth in your skull is rotted and black. These two exemplars will serve McCain well as he too is a dentally-challenged individual. This too has not gone unnoticed within the blogosphere. No, we are not speaking about Wilson’s “busted grill”, nor McCain’s. Unbeknown to the nation, Wilson also suffered a stroke late in his presidential term. It is now thought to have been a seriously debilitating stroke, all but incapacitating the president. However, Wilson, like McCain, had a second wife and she, also like McCain’s, was very strong willed. She took on a “stewardship” role in her husband’s presidency. She is often considered more than just a first lady but “the first lady to lead our government” and often referred to as “the first female president”. In fact, she shrewdly kept V.P. Thomas Marshall from assuming power. As Wilson was essentially out-of-commission, his wife did more than stand by her man – she stood in for her man.

The presidency has been frought with illness and disease and, in at least one case, clinical insanity. Clearly health is no rationale reason to discount a candidate. No matter how critical John McCain’s real medical condition might be, the American people can be assured through our own history. Like FDR, McCain has chosen a proven leader, loved by all, to ease any devastating, unfortunate transition. And like Ellen Wilson, Cindy McCain has the grit to step in and take over should a stroke or any other malady incapacitate her husband. Either way, he is surrounded by two strong-willed, capable women – both undoubtedly ready to be the next president in one way or another. So, there is no need to worry about that little maverick left eye.

Peter J. Burns

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Most Burmese Have Stopped Waiting for U.S./U.N

If you want to discuss politics in Myanmar, even far-away American politics, you don’t meet in a popular restaurant for a chat over lunch. You wouldn’t pick up a phone and call a friend for an engaging discussion. If you did, you would probably find yourself being followed, monitored and, if you kept it up, arrested and thrown in prison for four to seven years. To discuss politics in Myanmar is risky business. It is mostly done outdoors, at night, sitting at low tables, on tiny stools at street corner tea shops. This is where people gather to talk about politics and any other issue that you might not want overheard by the wrong person – namely a government informer. Tea shop proprietors set up large speakers that blare heavy metal and hip hop tunes – the perfect din to conceal any questionable conversations. This is the reality of living in Myanmar, where it is believed one in five “citizens” is informing for military intelligence or M.I. as it is ubiquitously known.

Usually these closely-guarded conversations focus around local, national and personal questions. Who is M.I. and who is not? What sort of power structure shifts might be stirring among the countries ruling generals? Which underground market has the cheapest gas this week? A trio huddled around a tea shop table might be trying to distinguish rumor from fact. Are rebels in Shan State really beating back Burmese forces? Are the monks really organizing for another round of protests next month? Is Aung San Suu Kyi really on a hunger strike? Is your brother really still in prison? Was General Than Shwe really secreted out to Singapore for another emergency surgery? Is electricity really going to be out the rest of the week? These are the sort of issues that are most often discussed at the tea shops – after they’ve finished discussing the international soccer leagues, of course. American politics doesn’t much raise an eyebrow here as it once had. However, if there is a little extra time and another pot of tea to finish or a couple extra cheroots to smoke, a few people might make time to discuss America’s latest presidential election circus that has permeated even this oft-forgotten corner of the world.

Myanmar has been so closed off from the outside world for so long that international news reports on television often seem more like a Hollywood movie than actual events occurring “outside”, somewhere in the world. The local street-side tea shops receive nightly reports from government scripted MRTV, but few people listen. A traditionally dressed young woman literally reads the news from the state run newspaper. Perhaps this is to demonstrate that any errors in the reporting are not her fault. Maybe she does not want to inadvertently let slip any subtle suggestions that the news is anything but factual. She reports each night that the country is enjoying record-breaking rice yields thanks to the oversight of such-and-such a general and his flawless ministry. The news of the bumper crop doesn’t seem to jibe with the high cost of rice and the hungry kids on the streets. But this is all the news on MRTV that is fit to report. They would superficially cover the American election, highlighting the candidates, their wives and the media circus. They might be quick to report any glaring scandals of corruption, but more often than not they merely gloss over the real political issues. The people don’t seem to mind. They have far more important things to worry about than the American presidential election.

Most people are aware of the two candidates’ names. Most know that McCain was in a Vietnam prison and that Obama is the black one. They are impressed with the former and too-quick to dismiss the latter. In Myanmar society, the dark-skinned are still disadvantaged. Darker-skinned Indians mostly comprise the labor force and are often discriminated against by Myanmar’s elite and middle classes. For Myanmar people, it is difficult to take Obama seriously as a candidate. One man asks “why would you want a black man for your leader”. I try to explain that we don’t care about race anymore. We look to the substance of the candidate. I believe this, but I can tell he knows there is more to it than that. After a moment, I admit to him what he’s already hears, that we have places in America where people would never vote for a black man. But I add quickly, they are becoming fewer and fewer. I remind him that Obama went to Harvard. This he knows and he admits he is very impressed as “Harvard is a very good school.” As for McCain his Vietnam legacy is less known than Obama’s race, but those who do know McCain’s story are very impressed by it. Myanmar people have a long torturous history that would compel them to be impressed by the story of a man held in a cage by enemies, only to survive and become a “big man” himself, even more powerful than his captors. This is the story they hope will come to be for their own national hero, Aung San Suu Kyi. They can appreciate McCain’s story far better than any American voter. Yet in reality they don’t have a vote of any kind, so they don’t bother speculating much. No one I spoke with realized that McCain had been to Myanmar in 1995. This is probably because he was there to visit with democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi and the government wouldn’t likely broadcast that information on MRTV. McCain in fact has been by far the most outspoken for Myanmar. In 2003, he called for then Secretary of State Colin Powell to boycott a trip to the region and encourage Myanmar’s neighbors to increase pressure on the regime to hand over power to the democratically elected party that won elections in 1990. He has since called for increased international sanctions. His wife Cindy is an even more out-spoken critic of the regime. In June she vowed to make human rights in Myanmar an issue if she were to become first lady. She then went on to call the ruling junta “a terrible group of people” who rape and starve their own people. She may be right, but this sort of name-calling is exactly what has forced the paranoid junta to dig in and cling to empirical, iron-fisted control of the country. This sort of threatening language is what has made them ignore outside pressures and violently maintain their hold on power. They have positioned themselves, uniquely protected by both China and India. They also maintain a valuable economic lifeline with their ASEAN neighbors. The threat of further sanctions by John McCain and the acerbic, albeit accurate, name-calling by Cindy is easily dismissed by the ruling junta. Until China, India or ASEAN starts making threats, they are sitting pretty. Here might be Obama’s opportunity to try a new tack. Throughout the presidential race he has been the candidate who has said that he will engage rogue states, not just shut them out of the game. He has said that he will “not only work with countries we like but also with those we don’t”. Engagement with the Myanmar junta might be the first step toward real change. After all it is worth a whole-hearted try, nothing else has worked for the last forty years.

The citizens have given up on the idea that the US or the UN will come to liberate them like they did for Iraq. Even with their sparse news, they can eventually came to see that the US never went there to liberate. This is a popular topic because Myanmar people love to make analogies. In 2003, when the US invaded Iraq, many Myanmar people were elated. They heard George Bush say that we were invading to rid the peace loving people of Iraq of a terrible dictator. The Myanmar people took note, saying, “that’s us, too!” When it was decided that Saddam had to go because he killed his own people, they nodded their heads in approval, knowing their leader had done the same. If Iraq was due for regime change, Myanmar clearly had to be very close to next-on-the-list. Then lots and lots of time went by and they saw what was happening in Iraq, or rather what was not happinging. There was no blossoming of democracy. The tea shop scuttlebutt spun around rumors of “Americans getting richer and Iraqis not getting any freer”. Slowly they began to realize that no one was coming to liberate them. There would be no regime change. Unless they made a public, international demand for it.

In September of 2007, Buddhist monks and university students took to the streets en masse. The people joined them until the streets were filled with hundreds of thousands of citizens screaming Doyay! Screaming for democracy. Then the troops came. Just like in 1988, a bloody stamp down on these protesters put a brutal end to their uprising almost as quickly as it had emerged. On day three of the riots, a man approached me and asked where was the UN? Where was the USA? Didn’t they see all this on the news? I didn’t know how to answer him. I held his desperate eyes and all I could think to say was, “You already know.” His shoulders fell and I saw the hunger and hope fade from his eyes. He said, “They won’t come will they?” I shook my head. “They don’t care do they?” I shook my head again. Finally he looked up the street at the crowd of his people facing the soldiers and then back to me and he said, “We are all alone, aren’t we?” I nodded my head. He already knew the answers to all these questions, he just hadn’t admitted it until that moment.

For others the realization came later – in May after Cyclone Nargis devastated Yangon and eviscerated most of the Aywerwaddy Delta in the south killing 100,000 or more. As international aid agencies clashed with the government, French and American war ships closed in with humanitarian aid. The desperately paranoid junta government feared it might be a prelude to an invasion and warned them away. The people watched intently wondering if this might be the beginning of the end of their oppressive rulers. In a tea shop, of course, a man asked me if the ships had medical supplies or bullets? His question was hopeful for either. I admitted that I didn’t know. Either way, he said, they would do some good. As it turned out the ships were filled with both, but they dropped off their medical supplies and turned and headed away. Everyone knew at that point, if they didn’t already know, that there would be no invasion, no liberation, no Doyay!

So now that the US election cycle has come once again, they are understandably tuned out. For most of them, they have only a romanticized idea of what democracy is anyway. When they talk about democracy, they speak with almost a religious zeal. As if with Democracy (always capitalized) the skies will part and salvation will rain down over all. When asked about specific policies or programs, they shrug and dismiss it. “Democracy” will handle all that. A friend of mine “Mying Htun” told me that most Myanmar people didn’t have any idea what real democracy was. They didn’t understand what it really entails. He was well traveled and spent years in Australia. He knew what an active, living democracy looked like. We sat at his restaurant before opening, countless wait staff bustling about. Mying Htun gestured at them, “If they were given a vote tomorrow, you know who they would vote for?” I didn’t know. “Neither do they. They would come and ask me who I wanted them to vote for.” He went on to explain that they have never known anything but a strong leader telling them what to do. To all of a sudden ask them what they wanted, was expecting too much. He told me that if McCain and Obama were running for “leader” in Myanmar, McCain would win easily. I asked why and he said, “You name it!” He’s been in a military prison. He’s angry and mean. He a tough soldier. He’s not black. I let the last one go, but noted that many of those qualities sounded a great deal like their current leader. Myint Htun laughed at that notion and nodded his head. He supposed that was true. “Give us a choice and we will choose a strong, iron-fist leader again.” I pushed a little further, “A leader like Obama might offer something new. A new way to unify all the different groups. Move together and then move beyond,” I delicately suggested. “Yeah, but he’s black. We’d never vote for him.” Simple as that. End of discussion. I was left wondering if Myint Htun was talking about his country or mine.

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Can We Finally Be Honest With Ourselves Yet?

Another anniversary of 9/11/01 has come and is nearly gone – only a couple hours left for me. In New York City and D.C. and even that field in Pennsylvania the 7th anniversary is gone already. So, I had predicted that the 5th anniversary would be a leap over the blockade of honesty that surrounds that horrific day. But no, I had overestimated the courage of the American People. Not the big courage. The courage to run into a collapsing skyscraper to save strangers. I don’t mean the courage to band together with fellow citizens to rush armed assailants, knowing it would mean death. No, we have that courage. When the chips are down and we are backed in a corner we can do some incredibly courageous things. I am talking about the little courage – the personal courage to face demons inside all of us. That is what we lack. For many it might be alcoholism or drug addiction. For others it might be depression or anger or abuse. Gambling, greed, cruelty are other personal shortcomings that hobble the best of us. It takes a personal courage to face these weaknesses within each of us. Yet, collectively there is a personal weakness that we all struggle alone and in silence. We can forget it is there for a while, sometimes for a long while. But it is still there and it comes back to haunt us. I am reminded of it every anniversary of 9/11/01. If we don’t face it, like the alcoholic or the depressed, it will consume us. We must face the hard truth. We must, each of us, come to accept the fact that we are complicit and in many ways responsible for the deaths, the murders of September 11, 2001.

Maybe this is the year. Perhaps now we can come to admit that our foreign meddling, our global stagger, our governmental hubris and citizen ignorance sowed the seeds of that horrible day. Of course I am not diminishing the role of those hijackers or the governments that supported and funded them. They made the decision to do this. And what they did was wrong. But that sort of fatal commitment to something isn’t born of thin air. It is nourished with foul resentment and rage. They don’t hate us because we are free. They don’t want to take our liberties as the talking heads like to purport. They hate us because we won’t allow them to be free. They hate us because we prop up their governments which hold these people face down in the dirt. We got richer and richer and they could only watch us get from the outside.

For a long time, I wouldn’t accept responsibility either. I used to say that it was my government who did those horrible things. Not me. I care about poor people the world over. I worked with them. I advocated for them. I raised funds for projects to support them. I didn’t help hinder them. I didn’t hold them down. My government might have but I didn’t. Those are the things I used to say. I was in denial. Just like the smack addict or the gambler. I can quit anytime. It wasn’t my fault. But I was wrong.

We are all to blame. We can not live in this democracy, flawed horribly though it may be, and cry “not me!” We all signed off on acts that limited our freedom. We all stuck our heads in the sand, when we knew we smelled a rat. We all decided we wouldn’t criticize the government because there was a war on, and we wanted to appear unified. We all felt a moment when we saw the crowd walking the wrong way, thought about saying something, thought about yelling for them to stop, thought about walking the right way alone. But we didn’t. We turned and walked lockstep with the crowd in the wrong direction and even convinced ourselves it was the right direction. We all did it. Some faster than others. Some in small steps. But we all did it. Each time we held our tongue. Or looked the other way. We all did something, even when we did nothing. For most of us, we just didn’t know that there was a whole world of people out there that hate us for the things we’ve done on their soil. Ignorance is no excuse – not in a democracy. Not in America where, even after our civil liberties have been whittled away, we are still free enough to tell a representative, or even a President that he or she is wrong and we will not be a part of it. We are all a part of that horrible day.

Both major parties put a hold on the politics today in reverence to the anniversary. I say today, this day more than any other perhaps, politics, government, democracy needs to be alive and active. I race to post this before midnight because I want to be political today. I want to voice my opinion about our society and our government today, especially. The people should stand at Ground Zero today and demand a better government – a government of the people – not for the sheeple. We must stand there and grab a leader by the neck and stick his or her nose in it and say look what we did. Look what we all did. Now, maybe after seven years, maybe now we can forgive ourselves and move on. If we learn from it and work to make sure it never happens again, than maybe we will even be able to heal from it. But it is not easy. It is one step at a time, day after day. And it starts with taking our country back. It starts with making sure we are informed about what our government does on our behalf, because we reap the rewards and the dire consequences of their actions. Deservedly so. That is the price of democracy. No more can you say “not me”. We need to kick out big business and profiteers. We need to stop allowing our government to keep us stupid. We need to stop keeping ourselves stupid. Turn off Fox and CNN and turn on C-Span or better yet, drive to your capitol and tell them in person what you want them to do. We can’t keep bombing poor nations thinking that will stop them from hating us. We must stop unfair practices around the globe. We do not deserve any sweeter deal than any other country. We need to stop trying to control everything. We must focus on putting our own house in order. We must demand this from our elected leaders. We can not sit back and be passive peasants anymore. We must be a nation of self-ruled men and women, intelligent and strong. Because we have the power and the courage to make this nation strong again. We have the values to allow the rest of the world to be strong too. Then we’ve kept our promise to ourself and the world. America is a place for all. Not just a few. But America is our home and our hope. We can’t be strutting around the world imposing our dominance wherever we like. We can’t take what we want and leave people wasted in our wake. That is not the noble notion of America. Let’s take our country back.

You Can Put Eyeglasses On a Flock of Sheep, They Are Still a Flock of Sheep

Are we so blind that we need new eyeglasses – especially those, must-have eyeglasses? I read a blurb today dedicated to Sarah Palin’s eyewear! What is worse than the fact that someone actually wrote it is the fact that I actually read it. She wears some special, rimless frames that have become the most-ordered model since, well, another famously bespectacled public figure. I was immediately reminded of this other self-assured, deriding, shameless politician who belittled opponents and friends alike. His hubris knew no bounds and for a time, people were enamored with him and, like Palin’s, eagerly sought his eyewear style for themselves. Donald Rumsfeld fell from the good graces of the people and even eventually the Bush Administration. I don’t know if his rimless glasses are still in demand. I do know that the only place where he is really in demand is in Germany where he’s been indicted for war crimes. I guess the lesson here is that we should probably be more careful where we invest our blind devotion. We should more carefully consider those whom we try to emulate.

-PJ Burns

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Palin = Quayle

Twenty years ago Dan Quayle was plucked out of obscurity to solidify the republican base behind George Bush, Sr. He was a staunch, eerily conservative VP candidate who appealed to a broad swath of American fundamentalists. Today, we’ve been dealt a new Dan Quayle, but in lipstick. Sarah Palin has the same uncompromising fundamentalist stances that appeal to a small but highly mobilized population of our country. They are commonly referred to many circles as ‘the crazies’. They love her. And they loved Dan Quayle. They always love people who agree with them, simply because they agree with them when most people do not. Do you know the difference between Dan Quayle and Sarah Palin? And I don’t mean lipstick. The real difference is that George Bush, Sr. didn’t have to hide behind Dan Quayle. We must remember we have a Presidential candidate there at the Sarah Palin rallies – a candidate who is dodging issues. John McCain, like his insta-celebrity running mate, dodges the issues and refused to talk real policy. It is classic evasive maneuvering, meant to dupe the people.


Breaking Out The Ugly Stick

It is that time in the election season when the gloves come off and the cheap shots are thrown. McCain is a true poet when it comes to dirty verses. His quick-draw sidekick has also shown her skill with the well-aimed slur. Both of them tag-teamed to sneer community organizers of all people.

For decades, Sen. John McCain has scattered profanities around Capitol Hill like Johnny and his apple seeds. In 1998, he publicly levied a “joke” that simultaneously insulted Janet Reno, Bill and Hillary Clinton and especially their then teenage daughter Chelsea. Now, the young cygnet has grown into an attractive, charismatic and destined-to-be powerful player. I wonder what that scattered seed of insult might one day grow into for the hapless Mr. McCain. He has dropped the C-bomb on his own wife and possibly Hillary Clinton. It makes one wonder how he first mentioned Sarah Palin to his campaign staff. If in fact they didn’t first mention her to him.

Now they try to pin their own mud-slinging tactics on Obama for an old, oft-used rural colloquial phrase about a pig and lipstick. Well, to that I must say this: “that dog don’t hunt”. Relax, that is not any direct canine reference to any candidate. Obama would not deign to play their cheap game of smear. He likes to talk issues. Something we’d like to hear more on from McCain/Palin. Do they have substance behind the slander?

PJ Burns