25 January 2008

Kreskin Or Cassandra?

Prediction time. Going out on a limb before Super Tuesday. And what I am predicting isn’t what I want, but like Scrooge’s Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, these are the way things will be unless something remarkable happens. I see only trajectories and arcs, and where they lead, not outcomes and certainties.

John McCain will be the next president.

Congress will remain Democratic, but slightly moreso. Not enough to override.


Why do I say this?

The Republicans have no other real choice. There will be some jostling yet, but Romney is getting stale already, and Huckabee has as many doubters as believers. He could get the Veepstakes, though.

This arc seems just about certain.

The Democrats have two choices, and the numbers favor Clinton. If that plays out, and this arc is far less certain, the choice between McCain and Clinton must go to McCain. Again, on the numbers, as his negatives are all within his party which will be even more exercised by Clinton than they ever were at McCain. But hers are distributed among both Democrats and Republicans. And independents are even more likely to drift away from her.

I am already on this record as not supporting Senator Clinton. I have several reasons, but let me say that none of them are about her qualities as a senator with admirable intelligence and political skill. Her values are fine.

The number one reason I cannot support her, amounting to more than 50% of my resistance, is that family based presidencies are wrong. There is something corrupting about keeping it in the family. It has happened thrice, the Adams’ and the Harrisons and now the Bushes. None of them are considered very good either pere or fils.

But performance is not my basis, even as it is hers. It is the confounding of authority, as a former president will now be the spouse, but will also inevitably exert political influence. Protest all you like, it blurs the locus of power. And what we need now is to move power back to the Congress and not to a tag team presidency. Do not tell me she will reign him in. He is amok now, and either she isn’t or cannot. Neither option is attractive.

I think the American people sense there is something wrong here. Adding to the utter failure of the second Bush, who came to office partly on familial familiarity, there is a deep, inarticulate, and thus unrecorded reluctance to take this path. And so when November comes, if she runs, she loses.

What a pity in so many ways. A woman president is certainly due. If Nancy Pelosi were in it I would be far more sanguine. If Barbara Jordan were alive I would quit my job to work for her.

Honestly, I think our first woman president will be a Republican. There’s something happening in Alaska that could change everything.

This election? I could be wrong, and you will remind me if so. But if I am right, remember you saw it here first.

20 January 2008

This Might Be Good

I do not usually post my Sunday stuff. This reads better than it sounds though, and deserves a wider audience than a sanctuary....

I Will Faithfully Execute… delivered January 20, 2008

Exactly one year from now (it will be a Tuesday) the new president will take office. In a grand ceremony at just this hour, a new president will take the oath and deliver an address that will proclaim the vision that person has for the next four years. Despite a year of campaigning already, debates and interviews and analysis of those debates and interviews, we have no idea who that person is and therefore no idea what will be said a year from today.

Let me correct that. We have some idea. One or another of the major parties will win. Those within those parties differ but more about how than what. And between the parties what they differ about is not unknown. Whoever wins will couch their language in grand phrases, but it will be a party platform of some kind. And if you are like me, that fact will cast a pall of resignation over your hopes. As someone said, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. And government prose is about as appalling as it gets. Face it, there are too many from both sides with a stake in the status quo to go much beyond a slight turn or a modest change in speed.

The president we want will not be standing there, and the speech we want will not be heard. But does that mean the speech need go unspoken at all? We have a sense that what matters most to the nation is not this program or that policy, but something deeper; something that, if we could grasp it, would point with compass like simplicity toward the pole star of our national soul. In the end, we get the leaders we deserve, because if we do not tell them what matters, they will not know.

This, then, is the speech I want to hear next January, in the words of a new president, in the language of that occasion. It is my attempt to say what lies at the heart of this nation, behind parties and platforms and programs and policies. They are my hopes, and perhaps also yours.

“Every four years the American people exert their national power, and give to one person the impossible task of guiding their nation through the future’s uncharted seas. I say ‘impossible’ because no nation can be led by one person. And truthfully, it is not. A president presides and does not rule. Congress, whose very name means deliberation, is likewise selected by the people, and shares with the executive in the task of leadership. The Supreme Court, reminds us that elected power is momentary and that we who enjoy it will be judged not just be those who elected us but by history and posterity. The president, therefore, is not alone in duty or in power or in wisdom. And it would be greatest folly to preside by diminishing the blessings of these estates; as so doing would weaken both president and nation.

“Thus the first and foremost measure of a president should be the strengthening of every gift our constitution supplies. This, more than any platform, is what it means to be president. Should an incumbent accomplish everything promised in seeking election and subvert the Constitution, that president has failed.

“But the converse it not true. Merely to preserve, protect, and defend will not do. Our Constitution has grown and changed with time. Slavery, too long countenanced, was ended. Women, long denied full citizenship, were enfranchised. As time revealed new wisdom about the exercise of freedom, we changed our Constitution, and will again. The president must preserve not just the letter but the spirit that gives it life, protect not only the law but the people it serves, defend not only the institutions of government but their purpose.

“These things do not reside in the effective clauses but in that part of our Constitution which in majestic simplicity says why we exist – the Preamble. This, which is nothing less than our national purpose, is what is entrusted to the president, to remind the nation of itself, for leadership is invoking what the greatest occupant of this office called ‘the better angels of our nature.’ Let me now recall those angels, those guardians of the national soul:

“‘We, the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty, do ordain and establish this Constitution.’

“A president’s first duty is to the people, all of them; not only to their personal well being regardless of party or power or any accident of birth; but to their sovereignty as the grantors of national power itself. The president does this by ensuring the comprehensive pursuit of those other phrases, but it is essential to note that it is for the benefit of the people that these are done, not for the benefit of the states, the congress, the courts, or the many interests who crowd the corridors of power.

“When this nation was born, the union meant the several states. Today, those states are less sovereign than before, and wisely so. A ‘more perfect union’ has come to mean that no citizen should suffer loss of freedom or dignity by crossing a state line. The president is today obliged to preserve, protect, and defend the citizens as moral equals to the powers and principalities that daily would reduce them to the servitudes of a new century. Neither government nor business, neither citizen nor criminal, can claim exception in this regard.

“Today, the private sector says it should be free of undue regulation that stifles innovation and enterprise, else it will die. And so it should, but not if that liberty threatens the life and liberty of citizens whom it employs, to whom it sells and in the midst of whom it lives. Likewise, government itself cannot justify denying the people their liberties in the name of protecting the same.

“That is why the next phrase is “establish justice,” for what is justice if not the sure and equal application of the law, equally, to all under its judgment. None shall be advantaged and none disadvantaged under the eye or watch of the president. If corporations are persons in the legal sense, they stand but equal to, not taller than, their fellow citizens. Though the realities of politics make temptation very real, the president cannot serve the people and the moneyed interests any more than the fabled man can serve two masters, God and Mammon. The central test of this or any presidency will be that it is the paragon of this principle and may not enforce upon others what it will not obey itself. The presidency is not for sale, either for a price or a partisan principle, even the appearance of such mocks and perverts justice.

“Without doubt there will be times when the laws themselves are contrary to the spirit they represent. Great Americans have given of their lives, sometimes their whole lives, to destroy laws made in defiance of the great commission of the preamble. The president will from time to time have to protest such laws as they will arise again. But as the custodian of the great commission, the president must live up to its charge while exercising it, for violating it is rank betrayal.

“In the exercise of justice we have the basis for “domestic tranquility.” But the fullness of tranquility is peace between people and communities. While the law may and must address struggles, it must not itself become a struggle. That great jurist, Louis Brandeis, observed that among the liberties acknowledged by the Constitution is the right to be let alone. Does not the ancient prophet hold out hope that each should “dwell beneath a vine and fig tree and live and peace be unafraid?” This is domestic tranquility, and the president should guard against the encroachments of law and the state as vigorously as provide for their exercise. To the president goes the authority to say ‘veto,’ I forbid, which is literally true in the case of federal law, but in principle as well. The nation expects the president to oppose laws that diminish, disenfranchise, and disadvantage any citizen or groups of citizens for the advantage or the convenience of others.

“Today, for example, we have fervent citizens who believe the Constitution to favor a particular religion, though there is no doubt that such favor was never intended. Some would enact laws or amendments that define families by favoring some and punishing others. These modern miscegenation laws have no place in our constitution and no president can support them without betraying the oath. It is clear that the right to be let alone serves to prevent the state from intruding on the most important liberties, namely what we shall believe and how we shall live by those beliefs. Only when such beliefs and actions threaten the essential liberty of others should the law enter in. The president, beholden to no faction, alone can stand against them.

“To ‘provide for the common defense’ is the gravest of duties for it entails the use of force and is given primarily to the president. But the causes for which we must regrettably suffer wars are not for the president to decide, but for Congress, as the greatest assent is required to undertake the most terrible of enterprises. Thus no president should, without the gravest penalty, enter into wars without the people’s consent through Congress, and the cause for that war must be that which the Congress decides, and which it alone can determine is met or not.

“Today, we have heard it said that the world is too fast and complex to wait for Congress. Presidents must act, and swiftly. In defending against invasion and to repel attack, this is true, but only to that end and not beyond. War is always entangling, never sure, and even the best executive may step unwisely in haste or passion. The president may lay the case before Congress and the nation, but the people themselves must bear its costs and thus should determine whether to begin and when to end. A wise president will not ask for wars that cannot be defined, defended, or completed.

“Thankfully, this grim command is not the last of the angels that guard our nation. The last two are those which ring of hope. To ‘promote the general welfare’ is a mandate to do good for those we serve. If insuring domestic tranquility is found chiefly by restraining government from intrusion, to promote the general welfare commands action that perfects the union of citizens.

“Today the vast difference between wealth and poverty strains the union of the people. A democracy, which insists that every citizen is an equal stakeholder in the nation, is at risk when millions of citizens have so little that they must choose between food and home, while at the same time a very few citizens are so prosperous that their own private means could supply all that they lack. A nation struggles for common cause when its owners are unable to secure reliable health care without becoming poor. The country cannot be united when its children are fed knowledge so unequally that millions are starving while some are fat with privilege. Howbeit elected by those with power and wealth, the president is obliged to advocate for the poor and powerless for their well being is the test of our general welfare.

“Finally, and most happily, the Preamble says we exist to ‘secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.’ Not only liberty, but the blessings thereof. Not just for we who are here now but for those who shall follow. The Constitution does not provide clear guidance about what this means, but surely it demands that whatever we do here takes due measure of the gifts we have received from our ancestors and the legacy we will bestow on our descendents.

“Today, we face the daunting challenge of preserving our blessings without eroding those in the future. Diminishing energy supplies, climate change, the global economy, and more forces are pressing down upon us. Can we preserve our land, literally and figuratively in response? Certainly, we must. As all parents wish their children to exceed them, America wishes its future to be better than its past. But what is it we wish them to have? Power? Prestige? Might?

“Liberty and its blessings, are not measured in dollars or acres or quantities of goods. Of course we want our descendents to prosper materially, but this is not our purpose as a nation. Liberty and justice for all is our cause, and the ultimate measure of our government. Like the impossible task of the presidency, this is our national task. However many strides we have taken nigh onto two hundred and fifty years, twice as many lie ahead. Ours is not to complete the task of America, even as it was not ours to begin. But if we can advance a few steps toward that hope we shall have done our duty.

“Fellow Citizens of a nation conceived in liberty and equality, tested and tried by struggles and wars, liberty and justice for all is what America is about. Presidents come and go. Leaders rise and fall. Parties battle, politicians wrangle, privilege and power persist, but none of them can obliterate the hope of liberty and justice for all if the people believe in it.

“Therefore, I ask you to take this same oath today, to solemnly swear that you too will faithfully execute the office of citizen and will to the best of your abilities preserve, protect and defend the Constitution; that you will help to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity; that you will join in the impossible task of America, which is liberty and justice for all.

“If you will not, I cannot succeed. If you will, I cannot fail.”

This is the speech I am waiting for.

13 January 2008

Applesauce Or Hamburger?

Wasn't it Will Rogers who called politics applesauce, meaning a hash of a good fruit. By that definition, when I asked "What's Your Beef," in my previous post we should be on our way to a good hamburger.

Great to hear from those who sent stuff in, sharing you beliefs about what the most important or pressing issues are. For those who do not know, I am working on sermons for Lent, and your comments have generated some ideas. Thanks for your guidance. But it is not too late for others to chime in. Just click on this (or go over to the right and click on the last post) and see the original as well as the earlier comments.

Here is what is likely to happen. I have six Sundays between Feb 3 and March 16 (which is Palm Sunday). Those will be the weeks I take up these issues and try to ground them in what I consider the fundamental (yes I did say fundamental) principles of progressive/liberal thought. Actually, I expect that these ongoing issues are issues because we have failed to anchor them in such principles, in what I believe are ‘transcendental truths.’

That sounds religious, I know, but I am a preacher. (I originally wrote theologian but that is such a pompous word that unless you are actually paid to read and write books that use words like soteriology and hamartiology and ecclesiology you are just a wind bag.) When I say transcendental truths I mean things that are true across time and place – true for us now, and others before and after, not only here but elsewhere.

You see, one of the things I reject is ontological relativism. (There I go again, sorry). Let me speak plainly. I believe there is a common reality with common truths. Anyone who says truth varies with the person makes want to say, “And what does two plus two add up to in your world?”

A long article in a recent NYTimes reports on how two philosophers are quarreling over a book review in part because they differ on this matter (that and a prior act of malice which is stunning proof of Henry Kissinger’s observation that “it is because the stakes are so small that academic politics are so bitter). I will not prolong this post on that matter. I only wish to say that if liberalism wishes to be a player on the political scene it needs to speak plainly and simply and without frou-frou snob language that is actually intended to impress other liberals and make outsiders feel stupid. Those who do should read Dale Carnegie or Norman Vincent Peale before cracking their next volume of Derrida or Lacan.

Gee, another rant. My bad.

Don’t forget. Tell me what you think. Go to “What’s Your Beef,” read the post and leave your notion of the most pressing issues facing the nation.

10 January 2008

What's Your Beef?

I need your help here.

Every four years for the last twenty, I have ‘run’ for vice president to play jester to the imperial clothing of our political process.

We have a preposterous political system. The way we elect presidents (and I do not mean the lovely anachronism of the electoral college, which as a contrarian I actually value) is not proof of how good our system is but of how good our country is, because we have prevailed despite our presidents and congresses far more than because of them.

It is a system designed to cheapen, coarsen, dilute and demean whoever has even a shred of idealism in seeking the presidency. As I have told my sons more than once, any one smart enough to be president is also smart enough not to want it.

Rant over.

But Vice president, now there’s a good gig, and as long as I am a ‘candidate’ I should state my position on the issues.

That’s where I need your help. There are so many issues out there:

- Irag and afghanistan
- ‘war on terror’
- global climate change
- immigration
- education
- the economy
- stem cells….

which ones are the top ones? This winter and spring I will be ‘laying out my position’ on the major issues, using my pulpit as a bully pulpit.

My purpose is not to state my position so much as to show what a real position is – an argument based on principles, subject to logic, responsive to facts, that stands on its own regardless of party or poll. My model is Lincoln at the Cooper Union, where he argued, step by step, his political philosophy. That, in my opinion, is what is absent from the public forum. We have parties, positions, platforms, statements and programs, but not a set of principles from which someone proceeds to analyze an issue and refine a position.

Those issues I listed up there are just that - issues. They are places where real life and abstract principle meets. We all talk about the facts, but no one seems able or willing to talk about principles, except evangelicals, which may explain their appeal. But principles are not the exclusive property of religious conservatives.

Now I am arguing. What I want is for you to tell me which of the current issues are the most important for this election. Yes, this is a poll, but I am asking only for the issues you think are most pressing, not your opinion of them.

Send a comment. Click on “comments” right below this post. Tell me what you think I should talk about. I mean this. Do it, and tell your friends to do it too.

07 January 2008

Thoughts And Prayers

You hear that phrase a lot these days. Whenever someone is having a tough time, facing an illness or somehow perceived to be ‘in harm’s way’ (another phrase we hear a lot) people say ‘our thoughts and prayers are with them. Sometimes it’s only prayers, almost never just thoughts. Occasionally we say, ‘our hearts go out to them,’ but usually as an opener. “Thoughts and prayers” are the closer.

What frosts me is that saying this is always useless and usually self serving. What’s the point?

- We only utter it to impress others, not those to whom said thoughts and prayers are supposedly directed. If we were truly thinking about those in trouble we would not be telling everyone else how wonderfully concerned we are.

- Does anyone who says it actually say a prayer later? Sure, some clergy might, but that begs the question of what good that does as well. Mostly, politicians say it, and they only to let us know they are appropriately pious in the appropriate way at the appropriate place and time.

Somewhere in a sacred book someone says (and yes I am being sarcastic here, not dim) pray in secret. Those who make a show of their faith get their reward, it is written.

Here is my point: Public piety is always corrupting.

Those who offer it do so to enamel their reputations with the gloss of sanctimony. It is never selfless.

The public that listens, even demands it, thus rewards the hypocrite who says the right thing but does not mean it and condemns the honest soul who does not.

The show of piety thus cheapens faith itself, even as it proclaims its religiosity. It amounts to prostitution, where the public person is made to genuflect to satisfy the pious lust of the crowd.

Ironically, it was the great atheist, Thomas Jefferson, who perhaps best invoked the diety in public when, reflecting on the nature of slavery, wrote, “I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just.”

Now that’s public piety.

06 January 2008

Loose Lips Sink Ships

I try not to censor myself when writing. However, it is inevitable. Unlike most other bloggers, who are private citizens except for their virtual public, I am an actual public person. What I say here is attached to my actual personhood and by extension to my reputation in that public. Once or twice I have tested the limit inadvertently, as one or two have told me of feeling uneasy when reading something here that seemed a bit too frank or personal.

Does that mean, then, that this is less than honest? No. Whatever I say is honest, but it is not the whole story. But as the oath witnesses take when giving testimony bids them tell not only the truth, but the whole truth, we know that leaving things out changes what the remaining truth means.

Why mention this now? What is on my mind today, after long pondering, should stay right there. It is the sort of thing an ordinary blogger could readily write about, and probably would be more interesting for you readers than these safer, more abstract wanderings.

I guess I am saying this to tell you that I know this blog could be a whole lot more succulent. Boy, if you could hear what’s going on between my ears sometimes – let’s just say paint would peel – this could be a really exciting blog.

But I am a preacher. Gotta keep a lid on it.

03 January 2008

So Soon?

Well, I had some extra time on my hands it seems. Not that there was nothing to do, but I caught my new year’s cold. Had to slow down if only for lack of energy.

This feels familiar, getting sick right after the holidays. Somewhere in the bones I know there is no room for illness before Christmas, and so my macrophages and others put in extra hours and double shifts. Come the 26th, though, some get a furlough and that’s when the little buggers get in.

This past Sunday was when it started and the congregation commented on how resonant my voice was. You see, I am by nature a tenor, with a Clintonesque scratch from time to time. In all honesty, I hate the sound of my own voice, especially when listening to it on tape. But when I have a touch of a cold I trade briefly have that ‘stained glass voice’ so admired by homilists, instead of the ‘broken glass voice’ that is my norm.

Self pity is a gift of mine, with odd benefits. Like remembering that Lincoln was noted for having a high tenor voice. This was a compliment back then, and such a voice carried more clearly in a crowd. I like thinking of myself as Lincolnesque. We are likewise notably rugged in our features, though he wins the outright homeliness prize. Did you ever see such ears on a fellow?

Back to my voice, though. A now deceased parishioner once called mine a whiskey tenor, and a similarly deceased colleague a plangent tenor. Plangent, for those who do not keep a thesaurus in your brain, means loud and/or suggesting sadness. Sure makes you want to come by on Sunday and check me out, huh? (Actually, I am not preaching this week. My colleague is, and he has a lovely baritone voice and is seriously cute, too.)

In a weird way, I find strength in this grating sound I make. I knew of a fellow whose deep Scottish accent was so excellent that people said they would listen to him read the phone book. Were I to do that, it would violate the Geneva Convention. But people do come to hear me preach, and thus I conclude that the words have some value because the voice itself has none.

Legend says that Jesus was not “comely.” Jonah sulked. No question John the Baptist was smelly. Elisha was bald. True or not, the point is that it is the message not the messenger that matters. In these cinematic, televised, times, when everything is packaged to ensure it gets noticed, such a notion seems woefully na├»ve. But in a sense, isn’t all faith is a sort of deliberate naivete?

01 January 2008

How Many Preachers Does It Take...

... To screw in a light bulb?

Read on and find out.

Odd how different New Year’s day is from Christmas Day. Perhaps it is the cold I am nursing that makes it less lovely. Like Christmas, I stayed up late and this time actually slept a little late as well. Like Christmas I shoveled the drive and walk, which felt as solid today as it did last week. I also plodded off to church to find my paper. But somehow the air felt a bit cooler, my spirit a bit drier.

My extra chore today, a most prosaic one, was replacing light bulbs. We have a number of chandeliers here, not great big ones but small Victorian ones that throw mostly ceremonial light into bedrooms. Chandelier, of course, is French for candlestand. So there are multiple bulbs, each in flowery sockets. Removing them takes work. They are flame shaped bulbs sitting in artful translucent glass cups made to look like flowers. One of them broke off at the ‘stem’ and required extra work.

Now, most men would find this a simple task. But my relationship with handy stuff is like that between North and South Korea. We do not get along. Blame it on my father who had little care or experience in these matters, and so did not train me in that wonderful mythological way that involves saying things like “sport,” and smiling with pipes in teeth and otherwise living up the Rockwell version of life.

The actual changing of bulbs is not difficult, although for some reason I seem always to do these and other chores from below, the blood draining from my arms and trying to keep the chandelier from spinning as I firmly but gently unscrew the dead bulb. Little bits of something old come raining down from the sockets as I persuade them to leave.

What spiked my frustration, though, we the one that had actually broken off when I first tried to release it. A dim memory told me that a good way to remove it without courting electrocution (almost always a good thing to avoid) is to force a raw potato over the jagged edges and then turn it counter clockwise. I succeeded only in grinding up little bits of potato that fell gently onto the bed.

Having inanimate objects reduce you to ineptitude is guaranteed to cause boil over. I found myself using unwise words in front of my son – who knows them quite well so there was no inadvertent teaching – and muttering how Norm Abrams seems always to simply turn a wrist or pound a nail before the screen shifts and behold, a house has risen. Sort of like the cooking shows where glop gets stirred shabbily and poured into glass dishes and then is placed in an over as a completed version comes out perfectly cooked.

In the end I found a pair of needle-nosed pliers, grasped the edge of the bulb socket and with grim determination dragged it around until its distorted corpse emerged. In another room the bulb changed well, but a set screw for the globe is missing so I have to root around in my basement ‘shop’ for an equivalent. Altogether it took about 20 minutes for a job that should have taken five. But I assure you I got the maximal self pity and misery I could, so it was not waste.

I am testing those resolutions on the first day, it seems. Who said it would be easy, though?