Mojo - August 2009

The Unsung (And Singing) Ted Kennedy

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 8:46 AM PDT

Back in March, Sen. Ted Kennedy’s family and friends organized a private 77th birthday gala for him, appropriately held at the Kennedy Center in DC. It was a star-studded affair. Bill Cosby was master of ceremonies, and all of Kennedy's favorite Irish tenors and Broadway crooners showed up to serenade him. (Apparently, Kennedy was such a huge fan of show tunes and Irish music that his wife gave him singing lessons a few years back so he could better belt out Wild Irish Rose, a video of which was presented during the event.) President Obama made a surprise appearance as the grand finale.

I was there as part of the community gospel choir doing some back up numbers and performing the big rousing patriotic tribute to Kennedy at the end. The man who organized the choir and composed the tribute to Kennedy was the incredibly talented young African-American minister Rev. Nolan Williams, the music minister of the Metropolitan Baptist Church in DC. Kennedy and his wife Vicki had befriended Williams a few years ago after Kennedy asked Williams to accompany him on his regular visits to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to help bolster the spirits of the wounded troops.

Williams told us during one choir practice that he and Kennedy had been making these visits for several years, which was one reason Kennedy’s family had tapped Williams to choreograph the big gospel production at Kennedy's birthday party. What I found touching about the story was that Williams said Kennedy's visits to Walter Reed were never publicized. The country's most famous senator regularly went to the run-down military hospital without the cameras to show his support for the people who had fought in a war he never supported. It was an authentic expression of patriotism and seemed to say a lot about who Kennedy was and why he will be so so sorely missed in American political life.

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Where Do We Go From Here?

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 7:42 AM PDT

Conceding the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980, Edward Kennedy told the delegates at the Democratic National Convention:

We cannot have a fair prosperity in isolation from a fair society. So I will continue to stand for a national health insurance. We must—we must not surrender—we must not surrender to the relentless medical inflation that can bankrupt almost anyone and that may soon break the budgets of government at every level. Let us insist on real controls over what doctors and hospitals can charge, and let us resolve that the state of a family's health shall never depend on the size of a family's wealth.

The president, the vice-president, the members of Congress have a medical plan that meets their needs in full, and whenever senators and representatives catch a little cold, the Capitol physician will see them immediately, treat them promptly, fill a prescription on the spot. We do not get a bill even if we ask for it, and when do you think was the last time a member of Congress asked for a bill from the federal government? And I say again, as I have before, if health insurance is good enough for the president, the vice-president, the Congress of the United States, then it's good enough for you and every family in America.

Nearly 30 years later, that dream—of health insurance for every American—is still unfulfilled, and now Kennedy won't be around to lend his considerable political heft to the continuing debate. His seat in the senate will be empty for six months before Massachusetts can hold a special election to fill it. (Unless Massachusetts Dems change the law.) The Democrats will have 59 votes (if the ailing Robert Byrd is healthy enough) in the Senate, and the Republicans will be able to filibuster anything and everything they want. When the seat's finally filled, it'll be well into 2010, an election year. No one expects sweeping health care reform to be passed in an election year.

Even without Kennedy, the Democrats are at a high-water mark in their political power. For sixty years, the party has tried and failed to bring health care to all Americans. Everyone, inside and outside the party, thinks this year may be health care reform's best chance yet. If Senate Republicans stand firm and filibuster, Democrats' only option to pass health care will be the budget reconciliation process—a parliamentary maneuver that would allow them to pass a bill with a simple majority. Will the Democrats muster the courage to move forward through reconciliation, even in the face of what are sure to be fierce protests from their GOP colleagues?

During the election campaign last year, Teddy and most of the rest of the Kennedy clan made a big show of passing the family torch to Barack Obama. "This November, the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans, so with Barack Obama, for you and for me, our country will be committed to his cause. The work begins anew, the hope rises again and the dream lives on," Kennedy told the delegates at the Democratic National Convention.

Can Obama bear the burden? His style is not Kennedy's—he's more careful, more moderate, less emotional. Obama can sure give a speech, but it's not a Ted Kennedy speech. Obama talks about common sense and working together and bipartisanship. Teddy spoke about doing the right thing. As the Boston Globe's Charlie Pierce wrote in 2003, Kennedy's best speeches were eulogies—his greatest from the pulpit of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, over Bobby's coffin, "in a voice like that of someone choking on blood":

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.

Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.

As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: "Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not."

Teddy Kennedy's funeral will be a huge moment in the history of the Democratic party and the nation. What will his chosen torchbearer say about him? And how will he carry forward Kennedy's legacy?

Ted Kennedy Links

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 7:24 AM PDT

Edward Kennedy died today.

Joe Biden: "I was talking to Vicki this morning, and she said, 'he was ready to go, Joe.' But we were not ready to let him go."

Ted Kennedy and the Future of Liberalism

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 6:20 AM PDT

Ted Kennedy, who died late yesterday, was much, much more than the Liberal Lion of the Senate. He was all we had left. Even in sickness, he was the anchor for decent health care reform. He was the one man in Congress who could pull quarreling politicians into a united effort. (John McCain and Orrin Hatch were Kennedy best friends.)

We are left with weak, squabbling, visionless Democratic puppets and a President whose domestic reform policies are adrift—sliding towards the horizon with each passing day. The lost battle for Afghanistan. Seriously. The British. Then the Soviets. Now us. The phony victory on Wall Street, one bubble replacing another; health care in the hands of right wing screwballs at the town meetings. The very idea that Obama, amidst the rightwing anger of the town meetings, and with health care reform in flux, is vacationing on a huge estate at Martha Vineyard with the wealthiest of the wealthy, is smack out of the George Bush playbook.

So, without Kennedy, even as a shadow in the background, who will it be for health care reform? Max Baucus, pawn of the health care industry? Christopher Dodd, bag man for Wall Street? Lieberman, turncoat? Harry Reid?

To be sure there are decent senators—Dorgan,Conrad, Rockefeller, Levin, Harkin, Leahy. None of them with the knowledge, experience, and political acumen of Kennedy, though.

The flag will be at half mast across the country today. Not on Wall Street, where as the sun goes over the yardarm, you’ll be hearing the popping of corks.

This post first appeared on James Ridgeway's blog, Unsilent Generation.

The Importance of Sleep Deprivation

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 4:22 AM PDT

Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan highlighted this passage from the 2007 OLC opinion on interrogation techniques (PDF):Andrew writes that the "interrogators seem to have had an affinity for sleep deprivation." Indeed. That's probably because sleep deprivation was utterly central to America's torture program. It doesn't sound too bad when you just say it, right? Sleep deprivation? Everyone's pulled an all-nighter once or twice. A third of Americans don't get enough sleep. It's especially easy to play down sleep deprivation when you're someone like Joe "they do it in fraternities" Scarborough. The reality of course, is totally different: fraternities don't keep you awake for up to 11 days, standing, in shackles, in solitary confinement, in diapers, on reduced, liquid rations. They don't kill you, either: 

In conjunction with other pressures... irregular sleep could have serious consequences. "In December 2002, two detainees were killed" while incarcerated at a facility in Bagram, Afghanistan," according to the Senate report. "Investigators concluded that the use of stress positions and sleep deprivation combined with other mistreatment at the hands of Bagram personnel, caused or were direct contributing factors in the two homicides."

You can learn a lot more about the CIA's use of sleep deprivation from this Spencer Ackerman article and this Wired piece. This quote (linked by Sullivan back in 2006) from former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, who faced sleep deprivation in the Gulag, also hits home:

[A person subjected to sleep deprivation feels] wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire to sleep, to sleep just a little, not to get up, to lie, to rest, to forget ... Anyone who has experienced the desire knows that not even hunger or thirst are comparable it with it.

If starving prisoners is unacceptable, how can depriving them of sleep somehow be okay?

Need To Read: August 26, 2009

Wed Aug. 26, 2009 4:01 AM PDT

This morning's must-reads are wondering what happened to the health care battle we'd heard so much about:

Like most bloggers, I also use twitter. I mostly use it to send out links to interesting web content like the stuff above. You can follow me, of course. David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, is also on twitter. So are my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Rachel Morris and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 26, 2009

Wed Aug. 26, 2009 4:00 AM PDT

A U.S. Army Soldier watches as U.S. Air Force F-15 fighter jets destroy insurgent positions with a bomb, after a 20-minute gun battle in Kunar province, Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, Aug. 13, 2009. U.S. servicemembers from Company B, 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, routinely engage insurgents in the volatile valley. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Matthew Moeller.

VIDEO: Paris, Lindsay, Fiji--Eek?

| Tue Aug. 25, 2009 4:43 PM PDT

As Anna Lenzer found in writing this issue's cover story, Fiji Water has a loyal celebrity following. Lindsay Lohan, Diddy, Paris Hilton, and even President Obama have been seen with the iconic blue-capped bottle. But will they be so thirsty for Fiji after they watch this new video from the Nation Institute's investigative fund?

We know Hollywood's a pretty liberal place, but Fiji Water is produced under the government of a military junta, its bottles use twice as much plastic as some competitors', and it's shipped thousands of miles from one of the farthest corners of the globe. Fiji Water may taste good, but what a price.

What Happened to Health Care?

| Tue Aug. 25, 2009 11:39 AM PDT

Every White House tries to control media narratives. They frequently succeed.

Early this week, for example, the CIA Inspector General's report from 2004 was released, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a probe of detainee abuse, the White House announced its plan to create a special interrogation group for high-value detainees, the government released more Office of Legal Counsel memos from the Bush era, and Michael Jackson's death was ruled a homicide. The administration can, and almost certainly did, plan those first four. The Jackson thing was a bonus for them.

You see, the health care debate wasn't going well. The president's poll numbers were falling, too much attention was being lavished on nutcases and liars, and there wasn't anything Congress was going to do to move forward, since, well, they're on vacation. There's nothing like foreign policy, torture, and terrorism to swing the media's attention away from domestic issues. A pretty solid rule of White House press strategy is that if something comes out on a Monday, they want you to be talking and writing about it. If it comes out on a Friday afternoon, they don't. The Ben Bernanke news was planned, too, of course: he doesn't have to be reappointed for months. But hey, it all worked: health care's off the front pages, and the president can enjoy his vacation, at least for a few days. Thank whoever killed Michael Jackson. But you can also thank the White House press strategy team.

Cash for Clunkers: Buyers' Remorse?

| Tue Aug. 25, 2009 8:32 AM PDT

On Monday night the Car Allowance Rebate System, otherwise known as Cash for Clunkers, rolled off the lot for the last time. While everyone from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to climate change expert Joe Romm has praised the program—which offered drivers up to $4,500 to scrap a gas guzzling vehicle for a more efficient one—many questions remain about its implications for the environment and the US economy. Let's look at the CARS American taxes paid for.

Will CARS jumpstart Detroit?

Not likely: While the popular program was never intended to rebuild the US auto industry, some commentators worry that the tune-up could actually backfire. Just as no one predicted that the program would burn through its initial billion-dollar allotment in a week's time, everyone is unsure what will happen to auto sales now that the incentives have been phased out. In 1997, the end of a similar program in France led to a severe drop in auto sales—a hit that the fragile US economy could struggle to withstand.

The short-term boost for Detroit may also cost it customers in the long term. The top ten clunkers were all American made, but only four of the top ten new vehicles purchased with CARS cash were from the Motor City. The Economist warns that the Big Three, in particular GM and Chrysler, "may find that cash-for-clunkers, by turning more American heads towards Asia's carmakers, is a present they regret receiving."