Obama's New Fuel Sucking Limo

the_beast300.jpgBack when he was a mere senator, Barack Obama declared that "When it becomes possible in the coming years, we should make sure that every government car is a plug-in hybrid." Now that he's leader of the free world, he's rolling a bit differently. The new presidential limo, which entered service this morning, is a fuel-sucking monster. The Cadillac, nicknamed "the Beast," is so loaded with armor and security features that it takes a medium-duty truck chassis to lug it all. And despite stories like this, it is most definitely not a hybrid. Its diesel engine gets somewhere between 5 and 10 mpg. Ouch.

So is Obama breaking his pledge to spend taxpayer money on hybrids whenever possible? There aren't any plug-in hybrid limos out there, but there are regular hybrid ones, though none as heavy as the Beast. But heavy doesn't rule out going hybrid. Peterbilt makes a hybrid medium-duty truck, and Treehugger notes that Obama once earmarked money to make hybrid Hummers. To be fair, the new presidential limo was probably on the drawing board way before Obama was elected. Yet it's not too early for the president to start leaning on the recently bailed-out General Motors to get working on the next generation of fuel-efficient presidential bunkers on wheels.

Not all energy-efficiency geeks are upset that Obama's carbon tireprint is getting even bigger. One poster on the message boards over at CleanMPG, the hypermiler hangout, is willing to cut the guzzler-in-chief some slack: "There are only two good reasons for personal FSP's. The Military and the President." In hypermiler lingo, FSP means fuel sucking pig. Still, a plug-in hybrid with 8-inch armor would still set a pretty cool example for those of us with less demanding security specs.

Photo courtesy US Secret Service

Jonathan Stein was poking around the new WhiteHouse.gov web site (which we've already pointed out is pretty darn sexy) and noticed something interesting, which he forwarded to me: the "Civil Rights" page under "Agenda" features a surprisingly large section on gay rights. "Support for the LGBT Community" takes up fully half the page, more than all other civil rights proposals combined, and while some of the eight points have been made by Obama before (repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," fight workplace discrimination), others are eye-opening:

Support Full Civil Unions and Federal Rights for LGBT Couples: President Obama supports full civil unions that give same-sex couples legal rights and privileges equal to those of married couples. Obama also believes we need to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and enact legislation that would ensure that the 1,100+ federal legal rights and benefits currently provided on the basis of marital status are extended to same-sex couples in civil unions and other legally-recognized unions.
Expand Adoption Rights: President Obama believes that we must ensure adoption rights for all couples and individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation. He thinks that a child will benefit from a healthy and loving home, whether the parents are gay or not.

Other bullet points include expansion of hate crimes statutes, opposition to a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, and AIDS prevention. It's quite a list, which may help to to assuage us queers who were appalled by Obama's choice of Rick Warren for the invocation at today's inauguration ceremony, and disturbed by openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson's speech somehow being scheduled before the TV broadcast began and the guests of honor were there to hear it. It's been rough going around the gays, to be honest. Personally, while I supported Obama from the beginning, I was nearly alone among my gay and lesbian friends, who supported Hillary Clinton almost unanimously. With both the Warren and Robinson situations, I got a barrage of "I told you so" emails, and my response has always been to offer a hopeful hypothesis that Obama would offer inclusive nods to people like Warren but make up for it with aggressive pro-LGBT moves on actual policy. If the administration follows through on even a few of these ambitious proposals, my admittedly optimistic theory may turn out to be correct.

Inauguration 7

INAUGURATION 7....I'm pretty much aligned with conventional wisdom on Obama's inauguration speech: It was OK, but not great. The somberness wasn't the problem. For the most part, that was appropriate. But with a few exceptions, it struck me as a little bit too utilitarian and themeless, sort of a stripped down State of the Union, or even a campaign stump speech. There was nothing badly wrong with it, but neither was it very memorable.

The thing that struck me the most as I was listening to it, though, was the number of shout outs he gave to conservatives. The main thrust of the speech was liberal — building roads, providing healthcare, rejuvenating global alliances, etc. — but there were quite a few spots that seemed specifically crafted to appeal to conservative ears. For example:

For us, they fought and died in places Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works....Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched.

We will not apologize for our way of life nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that, "Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society's ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.

To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

Those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.

I don't know how long it will last, but so far Obama has spared no opportunity to reach out to conservatives in ways cultural, rhetorical, and political — which shouldn't be a surprise. After all, it's exactly what he said he was going to do during the campaign. I wish him luck on this.

Then, after the speech, there was the inaugural poem: Elizabeth Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day." Adam Kirsch calls it a perfect specimen of "bureaucratic verse," and I can't argue with that. I thought it felt forced and self-conscious throughout. But even worse, it felt like a poem meant to be read, not spoken. The age of thunderous civic verse is long gone, of course, but still: an occasional poem is meant to be heard, not merely studied on a page. This one wasn't.

With over a million exhilarated Americans filling the space between the civic shrines of the Capitol and the Washington Monument on the National Mall, President Barack Obama, in the first American inaugural address delivered by a black man, acknowledged the enthusiasm and hope he and his victory have inspired, but his speech was not overly celebratory. Instead, he attempted to guide the nation into what promises, due to circumstances heretofore beyond his control, to be a somber time and a trying presidency.

Underneath clear skies on a crisp, slightly-colder-than-usual day, the 44th president began, "I stand here today humbled by the task before us." He noted that he had just become one of the few presidents who takes office "amidst gathering clouds and raging storms." He outlined the obvious problems his administration faces: war, a weak economy (partly due to the "greed and irresponsibility" of "some"), job losses, businesses closed, homes lost, a broken health care system, and failing schools.

Vowing to meet these daunting challenges, the new president offered not policy details but, yes, hope. He praised the unsung workers (including slaves) of America's past, "obscure in their labor," who built this country. But, he added, the current challenges "will not be met easily or in a short span of time." He maintained that Americans "must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." And that renewal, he said, would demand "bold and swift" action, including the building of roads and bridges, electric grids and digital lines. It also would entail reforming health care, developing alternative energy, and revitalizing schools. He acknowledged this is a big job.

Obama portrayed his response to the moment at hand as ideology-free: "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them--that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works--whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified." Obama can try to depict his agenda as post-ideological, but these words do convey the opposite sentiment of Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address: "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." And Obama did challenge another fundamental precept of conservatism when he noted that the free market cannot always be trusted: "without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control." This was a speech of progressive notions--without explicitly championing them.

Kennedy, Byrd, and Assorted Reflections

The pair of medical emergencies at today's inaugural luncheon reminds me of one of the lessons you learn if you live in Washington for even a little while: when living in this city and following politics closely, it's easy to forget the humanity that lies behind all the partisanship and power plays. Ted Kennedy's seizure and Robert Byrd's reported removal for unknown reasons should bring to mind these men's accomplishments and produce a concern for their well-being. I'll admit that my first reactions were: (1) big news! and (2) holy cow, Obama is drifting dangerously afield of that all-important 60-vote mark.

Those are awful responses, and the people who end their careers in this city beloved by their peers (think Tim Russert) are the ones who suppress them. They're political junkies like the rest of us, of course. But they never forget that big shots in this town, hard as it may be to recognize sometimes, are people, too. They keep in touch because they care about people, not because they want to network. They help out up-and-comers because they genuinely want to share the success they themselves experience. When they retire or pass away, all of the people who lived by a different set of values wax poetic, with a twinge of regret.

Obama's 7-Minute Walk Down Pennsylvania Ave

In an (according to CNN) impromptu move, President Obama and First Lady Michelle got out of their limo and walked a 7-minute stretch in the middle of the inaugural parade about an hour ago, to the delight of a roaring crowd, and to the likely dismay of their secret service crew. (Apparently they were scheduled to walk the last bit near the White House, according to tradition, but not earlier sections.)

Commentating for CNN from the parade Rev. Jesse Jackson, after the Obama's got back into their car, said he was nervous the whole time given our "history of violence in this country." He warned that Obama "must risk on the side of caution." CNN's Soledad O'Brien came back with this instant classic:

"You can't talk about hope and change and the promise of a nation, and not get out of the vehicle."

bush_turkey300.jpgIf there was a sure bet about George W. Bush's final moments in office, last-minute pardons seemed like they were it. Intrade once had the likelihood of a pardon for Scooter Libby at 93%; Frank Rich said a Libby pardon was a "slam dunk." Mother Jones even got into the action: In our current issue, Jonathan Schwarz explores the history of preemptive presidential pardons and speculates about a blanket pardon that would have covered everyone from Dick Cheney and David Addington down to the guys who actually did the waterboarding. (For a list of all the journalists and pundits who predicted pardons, this site has been collecting examples.) But now (barring some kind of shady shenanigans in his last nanoseconds) it appears that Bush hopped on Marine One without leaving behind Get Out of Jail cards for anyone but two former Border Patrol agents doing time for shooting a drug dealer. So what happened? Did Bush just leave his subordinates out to dry? Did he recognize pardons as an admission of guilt? Or was he just calling Democrats' bluff, daring them to investigate or prosecute actions that they'd signed off on back before the political winds changed? Or, as a final gesture as self-styled Beltway outsider, did he decide not to play the midnight pardon game? Probably a bit of all those. I'll be curious to hear from legal experts if Bush just left an opening for the kind of legal reckoning and accountability that went AWOL during the past eight years. Meanwhile, count me in the ranks of those who didn't expect the Decider to forgo this final perk of executive power.

Image of Bush pardoning a turkey from Wikimedia Commons

Rosa Parks Didn't Act Alone: Meet Claudette Colvin

Rosa Parks, left, and Claudette Colvin.

In his warm-up for the first-ever inauguration of a black American president, the actor Samuel L. Jackson stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial, speaking of the sacrifices of everyday people to bring about the event we were witnessing, including the well-worn story of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus. Jackson told the story as the old history books do, more or less the way my child, then six years old, had learned it at school: Parks, a department store seamstress en route home from work, told the police she hadn't boarded the bus intending to get arrested. She was simply tired, and wanted to get home like anyone else. But the true story was far more nuanced, as revealed in Claudette Colvin, Twice Toward Justice, by Phillip Hoose, which is written for teenage readers.

colvin.jpg

Parks was certainly brave. (Standing up to white power in that place and time made you a target.) And she may not have boarded that particular bus, on that particular day, intending to get arrested. But Parks also knew what she was doing. Sure, she was a seamstress, one widely known and respected in Montgomery's black community. But as secretary of the local NAACP chapter, Parks also was deeply involved in a movement to reform the city's draconian segregation laws—one primed for action thanks to a then 15-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin.

Colvin was a smart and rebellious teen whose family lived in King Hill, a small, poor section of town flanked by white neighborhoods. She became politically active in high school after her classmate Jeremiah Reeves was accused of raping a white woman. Reeves confessed to the crime, and an all-white jury convicted the boy and sentenced him to death. Reeves later recanted, saying the police had forced him to confess. The case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which ordered a retrial, but the outcome was the same.

Bush's Last-Minute Land Grab Halted

This weekend, a last-minute Bush maneuver that would have made more than 110,000 acres of federal land available to oil and gas exploration was halted by a temporary restraining order issued by a District Court judge, reports the Los Angeles Times. As we wrote in our September/October 2008 issue, environmentalists say the recent attempts to free up public lands for oil and gas companies were "parting gifts" to the energy industry by Bush's Interior Department. Made official in mid-December, the move would have given oil and gas companies the right to begin drilling in sensitive riparian areas and key wildlife corridors throughout Utah. Several environmental groups, including the NRDC and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, filed suit against the government to stop the Interior Department from leasing the lands. In his decision this weekend, Judge Ricardo Urbina found that the groups' logic held, and that any energy development would be "...far outweighed by the public interest in avoiding irreparable damage to public lands and the environment." Some of the leased lands, which included parts of Canyonlands National Park and Dinosaur National Monument, contained ancient rock art and other sensitive cultural resources. However, though Judge Urbina's ruling keeps Utah's public lands safe pending a decision by the Obama administration, it doesn't help the land in five other states that have also been slated for increased drilling by the Bush administration.

Change You Can Click On

The 44th president's official website was apparently "fired up and ready to go" before he took office. At precisely 12:01 pm EST, the White House web page that greeted Americans for most of the 21st century was no more. In its place was a very change.gov-esque replacement:

whitehouse-dot-gov-600x300.jpg

Users of barackobama.com or change.gov will immediately recognize those sites in the new WhiteHouse.gov. The new site features the latest in Obama-style web design: lots of white space, lots of logos, lots of small caps, and lots of Gotham, the font that his campaign made famous. It also includes a sexy front-page slide show to display multiple top stories (just like MotherJones.com!), a front-page blog (with an RSS feed!), and a promise that "WhiteHouse.gov will be a central part of President Obama's pledge to make his the most transparent and accountable administration in American history."