Monday, July 21, 2008

Only Six Months To Go

In six long months, the most disastrous presidency in American history will come to a close, though the damage will last for decades, perhaps generations.

As George W. Bush rides off into the sunset on his high horse, leaving behind a country drained by six years of war, an economy in shambles, and a Constitution put through the shredder, I thought I’d offer him some unsolicited advice on what he can do with his free time. By his own account he expects to make a ton of dough giving speeches, but maybe first he should, in some small way, atone for his many sins.

First, I suggest he grab a shovel, a hammer and some nails and go to New Orleans’s Ninth Ward and help clean up the mess his incompetent, indifferent leadership in the wake of Katrina helped to create, or at least helped to prolong for years after the event.

Then, I suggest he and former Attorney General John Ashcroft and other members of the administration tour carnivals around the country and do a water boarding act so we can see for ourselves what they’ve been telling us all along: that water boarding isn’t torture.

After the tour, the president should take a metal detector and spend a few months in the Sunni Triangle of Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction. Like our troops, he should ride in an unprotected Humvee and inadequate body armor. When he comes back he should spend an hour with every family who has lost a child in Iraq, and another with every soldier suffering grievous wounds, physical or psychological, fighting the war over those weapons of mass destruction. To each of them he should say, simply, “I’m sorry. I ask for your forgiveness.”

After he apologizes to those soldiers and families, it will be time for his trans-arctic swim, now possible because of the melting of the polar ice cap. From the top of the world he can explain why his administration silenced the government’s own scientists on global warming, spent seven years denying the problem even existed, and the next year proposing woefully inadequate solutions that were music to the ears of the big energy companies.

When he dries off, it will time for the president to don all that fighter-pilot gear he wore on the USS Lincoln when he declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq, and scour the mountains near Tora Bora for Osama bin Laden who slipped from our grasp because Bush tried to sub-contract out his killing or capture, then took his eye off the ball and blustered and lied his way into Iraq.

When the ex-president returns from Afghanistan, he should pump gas at a Texas service station for a spell and explain to average Americans why the price of a barrel of oil went from about $30 when he became president to more than $130 today. Does it have anything to do with his energy policy?

When he recovers from the wounds suffered at the hands of angry motorists, he can visit a senior center and explain why people (not just seniors) who invested their retirement savings in the stock market (an idea he touted in his failed plan to privatize social security) have seen the Dow Jones Industrial Average rise about 8% (that’s a total, not an annual return) over the eight years of his presidency when historical averages would have brought a total return of nearly 100%. He can also explain how his tax cuts, a third of which went to the top 1% of taxpayers, have led us to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars from Japan and China to keep our government, and our wars, running. While he’s at it maybe he can explain why the U.S. dollar is worth less than a Canadian dollar. Does any of this have anything to with his economic policies?

And finally, Mr. Bush should go duck hunting with Dick Cheney so he knows what it’s been like to be an average American during his reign.

Friday, July 18, 2008

That Man is Half Naked!

For the past few years, as I've followed my usual cycling route through the backroads of Boston's more rural surroundings, I've often seen a trim, bald, elderly man on an old bicycle taking a leisurely ride. What makes him especially noticable is that he wears only large glasses, red shorts, sandals and a countenance that suggests a man very much at peace with himself. Every time I see him I vow to stop and talk with him: surely, I think, there must be a story here.

Well, yesterday was my day. I saw the gentleman stopped by the side of the road for a drink of water. So, I glided over, removed my helmet and told him what I've just told you. His name is Dan Kan and he lived most of his life in Holland before moving to Israel and the United States. He's a mathemetician by profession, a good profession, he notes, because you can do it for as long as you live and, he confided, with some cardiovascular disease and borderline diabetes, he didn't expect to be alive at 80. He will soon turn 81. He rides every day in the good weather, usually 20-25 miles.

"Your cardiologist must be very happy that you're getting all that exercise," I said. I often have a hunch that a conversation is going to lead to some unexpected connection, usually one that is less than the proverbial six degrees of separation. "Who is your cardiologist?" I asked.

"Brian Bilchik," he replied, "but it used to be Tom Graboys." Voila!

I had just helped Tom Graboys publish a memoir of the Parkinson's disease and dementia that forced his early retirement from medicine (the book is "Life in the Balance: A Physician's Memoir or Life, Love and Loss with Parkinson's Disease and Dementia" from Union Square Press), an event that led Dan Kan to start seeing Tom's partner, Brian Bilchik at Boston's famed Lown Cardiovascular Center. Coincidentally, from 1998-2000 I worked at the Lown Center as Executive Director of the research foundation that is based there. I've known both Tom and Brian for many years.

What are the chances?

I was always struck by the elegant simplicity of Dan on his bike. No fancy wheels, no fancy bike clothes. Just a half naked man enjoying the outdoors unencumbered, so it seemed, in every way. To be able to do that when I'm his age... I always thought.

But I asked Dan about the danger of riding helmetless. He shrugged it off. Perhaps when you are nearly 81 and living days that you see as a bonus anyway you can take your chances.

Then Dan gave me the once over in my lycra bike shorts, clip-in shoes, and colorful biking jersey. In his heavily accented English he said with a smile, "you look rather generic." It was a wonderful choice of words: I guess I looked like every other suburban Lance Armstrong wannabe who had passed him over the years. I explained the practical benefits: more comfort in the saddle, greater visibility to passing cars, but he was not persuaded. And truth be told, I sometimes wish I could throw caution to the wind and ride as he does: half naked. Just me, my glasses, and a pair of shorts. Oh yes, don't forget the bike.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I'm Back

OK, I'm back. Every year since 1990 my wife, my kids and I have gone to the beach for a week in early July. We live within an hour's drive of a lot of beautiful beaches so naturally we fly 3,000 miles to the coast of Oregon and spend a week there.

I'll be brief today. In a post a couple of week's ago I pointed out that if historical averages had held during the Bush presidency, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which was about 10,500 when Bush was sworn into office in January 2001, would now be closing in on 19,000 or so. A couple of weeks ago it was just below 12,000, meaning that it had risen a paltry 2% a year or less while Bush was busy making a mess of everything he touched. Well, the Dow is now just under 11,000.

Think about this. There have been single days, rare and extraordinary to be sure, when the Dow has risen 400 points in a day. Yet, after eight years of Bush economic policies, it now sits about 400 points above where it was when he took office nearly eight years ago! Of course it's not his fault. Nothing ever is.

With John McCain all but declaring we have won in Iraq because the violence is down, but with no end to the U.S. occupation in sight, things in Afghanistan have detriorated and McCain (and Obama) is calling for more troops to be sent there. It's endless, folks. So many people to fight, so few armies to fight them with.

When I collect my thoughts on some subject or other I will be back with a more fulsome new post.