Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Here Comes Obama

Flash! Confirmed today that President Obama will pay his first post-election visit to San Francisco next month. He'll headline two fundraisers on Thursday, October 15th, both at the St. Francis Hotel. There will be your usual cocktail reception, followed by a bigger-ticket full-on dinner. The money will be split between the Democratic National Committee and Obama's own campaign apparatus, now known as Organizing for America (the successor to Obama for America).

It's possible Mr. Obama's first presidential visit here will actually happen a few days before that, because organizers of the Presidents Cup golf tournament at Harding Park still hope he'll be here for the awards ceremony on Sunday, October 11. Former Presidents Clinton and Bush the First are supposed to be here for that. It seems unlikely that President Obama would come to San Francisco on the 11th, leave for four days and then come back, but maybe that can fit into his presidential schedule somehow.

Also interesting to note that he hasn't been here yet. By this point in his presidency, Bill Clinton had already paid about four thousand visits to the Bay Area. He came to California dozens of times as president, because Clinton knew all too well that Democrats can't win the presidency without carrying California, and that the Golden State's deep pockets are the best place to find enough loose change to build a campaign war chest. Perhaps Obama is taking us for granted? I would expect him to step up the frequency of his California visits as we get closer to 2012.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

It was a stunning moment in the middle of last night's presidential address to Congress. As Barack Obama ran through the litany of untruths told by opponents of his plan to reform the nation's health care system (death panels, government-paid abortions, free medicine for illegal immigrants), Republican Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted out "you lie!"

President Obama seemed stunned, not sure how to react. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's eyes shot daggers Wilson's way. Vice President Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama shook their heads in disapproval. Democrats drowned Wilson in a chorus of boos. It sounded like a backbencher being shouted down during Question Time in Parliament. His fellow Republicans gave Wilson scolding looks, and the conservative from Columbia, SC seemed to sense immediately that he had done something wrong.

Wilson apologized later, admitting his outburst was "inappropriate and regrettable." It was also unprecedented. Never in anyone's memory had a member of Congress heckled the president during an address to a joint session. George W. Bush uttered all sorts of things that we now know to have been completely false, and not once did a liberal Democrat stand up and call him a liar, to his face, during a nationally televised speech. Can you imagine the Republican outrage if one had? The drumbeats for resignation, impeachment, maybe even public hanging for treason would have been deafening.

You can't access Wilson's House website right now - it's crashed from excessive traffic. His Twitter feed has been overwhelmed. His Democratic opponent in next year's election has reaped $100,000 in donations overnight from outraged voters. Conservative bloggers have already launched a campaign to respond in kind, seeking donations to re-elect this "great American hero."

So, was the president lying? Or was Wilson?

For the most part, the facts are with the president on this one. Some fairly quick research and interviews after the speech last night clarified what's true, and what isn't.

First off, on the issue of health care for illegal immigrants: The 1018-page House bill specifically outlaws spending federal money to provide health care for them. It couldn't be more explicit. So when the president told Congress "the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally," he was telling the truth, and not, as Congressman Wilson asserted, lying.

But - and there's often a but when you're dealing with federal legislation - there is nothing in the bill that would keep illegals from buying their own health insurance, and as Republican Congressman Dan Lungren of Sacramento told me last night, House Democrats killed a GOP-sponsored amendment that would require people to show proof of citizenship to obtain government health benefits. In other words, the reform plan excludes illegal immigrants from health care coverage, but it lacks an enforcement provision to make sure they don't get it anyway. That's a sore point for the GOP, and the source of Wilson's anger.

On other points of contention, President Obama stretched the truth a bit, mostly through sins of omission.

For example, he's changed his tune slightly on whether we'll be able to keep the insurance coverage we have now, if we want to. For months, he has guaranteed that those who like their current plans can keep them. Last night, his wording was different: "Nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or the doctor you have."

That's true - it won't. But there's nothing to stop your employer from dumping its insurance plan, sending you out into the private market, or to a new insurance exchange, and possibly to a government-run option, if that idea survives the Congressional meat-grinder. There could be incentives in the legislation that make it more economical for companies to stop insuring their employees. The Congressional Budget Office projects that about three million workers will suffer that fate under the plan, as now written.

And what about the president's assertion that he "will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits either now or in the future. Period" ? The president's first attempt at that line was interrupted by applause, so he said it twice. Both times, it wasn't 100% accurate. Well, he hasn't signed anything yet, so maybe he really means it. But it rang hollow, coming from a president who's already shown his willingness to increase the deficit at an exponential rate that would make even the Deficit King, George W. Bush, blush.

In fact, the CBO said the House bill would add more than $200 million to the deficit. But Pelosi and company dismissed that unbiased opinion, saying their bill would actually cut the red ink by $25 million. How did they reach that conclusion? They simply exempted about a quarter of a billion dollars that the bill spends on Medicare reimbursements for doctors. Even though Congress recently enacted "pay-as-you-go" legislation, requiring that all new programs be paid for, the Congressional negotiators made an exception for the reimbursements, and decided they don't have to be counted towards the total cost of the package.

Isn't that convenient? I think I'll subtract our mortgage payment from my expenses this month so that my bank statement can be printed in black ink for once.

On the hot-button issues, though, the president was telling the truth. There are no death panels in the health care bill. There is nothing in there allowing federal funding of abortions. The Hyde Amendment remains firmly in effect, and this bill does not repeal it. That won't stop his Republican opponents from saying otherwise as they try to derail reform.

The last ten minutes or so of this speech were as eloquent as any policy address you will ever hear. This wasn't an Inaugural Address; it was a nuts-and-bolts policy speech. Yet from the moment he brought up the late Ted Kennedy, Obama's rhetoric soared as movingly as ever. Singling out three iconic Republican Senators who'd worked with Kennedy on health-care issues was a particularly effective device. If you haven't read the text of Kennedy's deathbed letter to Obama about health care reform, click here. It will bring tears to your eyes.

It was a British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who famously declared that "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics" (although Mark Twain is the one who gave Disraeli's line wider circulation). We've heard more than our fair share of all three during the health care debate, and we're likely to hear many more. Last night's breach of Congressional etiquette would have felt familiar to Disraeli, but for Americans, it was much too reminiscent of last month's occasionally raucous public health care forums. Here's hoping that Congressman Wilson's outburst shocks the country back into a sober, civil discussion of a critically important issue. Sadly, as Disraeli might say, that's not bloody likely.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Lieutenant Governator?

Just spent a long, late evening covering the special election in the 10th Congressional District, which sprawls across a gerrymandered swath of the East and North Bay Area. Our Lt. Governor, John Garamendi, won the Democratic nomination and Republican businessman-attorney David Harmer won the GOP nod. They'll face off in November, along with three minor-party candidates.

It's a safe seat for the Democrats, who enjoy a 47-29 registration advantage over Republicans in the district, which voted 2-1 for Barack Obama last November. And that sets up an interesting scenario for political junkies to ponder: Who will replace Garamendi as Arnold Schwarzenegger's second-in-command?

The LG is almost certain to win in November. Harmer is an attractive, sincere, thoughtful, articulate man - but he has almost no chance to snatch the seat from any Democrat, let alone someone as well-known and well-versed as Garamendi. Yes, Garamendi can be wooden on the stump - in fact, sometimes he's downright stump-like - wears his political ambitions on his sleeve (he's run for Governor HOW many times?), and flits to the nearest TV camera like a moth strapped to a light-seeking missile. But he really does know the issues better than anyone else, has tremendous experience on a wide range of public policy questions, and is a comfortable fit for the increasingly progressive district.

So it's safe to assume Mr. Garamendi goes to Washington this fall - giving Governor Schwarzenegger the opportunity to appoint his replacement. Under California law, there will be no special election to choose Garamendi's successor. Governors and Lt. Governors are elected separately in California, which is why we have a Republican in the big fancy office and a Democrat in the smaller one down the hall. But if the #2 job becomes vacant, #1 gets to fill it. Both the State Assembly and State Senate have to confirm the governor's choice, with only a simple majority required.

So whom does Arnold pick to serve the remainder of Garamendi's term, which runs through January 2011?

We have to assume he will nominate a Republican. Schwarzenegger remains one, although some in his party would say it's in name only. Under normal circumstances, legislative Democrats might be willing to confirm any reasonable choice (read: not a fire-breathing right-winger). But the circumstances aren't exactly normal, for a few reasons.

First off, we have a major statewide election next year. Might Schwarzenegger give one of the three Republicans running to succeed him a huge boost by elevating him (or her) to the Lieutenant Governorship? How about Tom Campbell, the governor's former finance director, not to mention ex-Congressman, State Senator, Stanford law professor and Cal business school dean? What about Meg Whitman, the ex-eBay CEO and frontrunning Republican gubernatorial candidate? Not likely for Whitman, although Campbell's an intriguing choice. Problem is, he may not be conservative enough to win the Republican primary, but he's moderate enough to win a general election, so Democrats probably won't want to give him any help.

What about one of the people who's already running for the number two job? Schwarzenegger could give a huge lift to Merced State Senator Jeff Denham, the leading Republican contender for lieutenant governor in 2010, who has a huge lead in money raised over the only other Republican candidate, his Senate colleague Sam Aanestad. State Senator Dean Florez heads the Democratic field, but there's no reason Schwarzenegger would pick him. But confirming Denham would damage their party's chances of beating him next year, so Democrats would probably nix that nominee.

Perhaps Schwarzenegger will find a caretaker, even a Democratic one, who would be palatable to the Democratic majority. Former Senate president pro tem Don Perata? He's running for Mayor of Oakland and recovering from prostate cancer, so he might be preoccupied. How about Willie Brown? He and the Governator had a cozy lunch last week in San Francisco, with Arnold tweeting out photos of the two and Willie gushing about their good time in his newspaper column. It would be a nice career-capper for the former San Francisco Mayor and longtime Assembly Speaker. But can you imagine the Republican outrage if Schwarzenegger actually put Willie Brown a heartbeat away from the governor's office?

The thing is though, while the vice presidency is famously not worth a bucket of warm spit, the Lieutenant Governor of California actually has some real power. He gets to chair all sorts of commissions and sit on various boards, including the Regents. One of those is the State Lands Commission, a three-member panel that consists of the LG, the State Controller and the Finance Director. Earlier this year, the commission voted 2-1 to block the Schwarzenegger-supported plan to allow new oil drilling off the Santa Barbara coast. Garamendi was the deciding vote. So if the governor replaces him with a Republican, one presumably beholden to some degree to Schwarzenegger, that vote could be reversed, and just like that, whether the legislature likes it or not, say hello to oil rigs along Tranquillon Ridge.

You can bet that will come up when the Democratic leadership goes into the governor's office tomorrow to discuss which nominees might be acceptable.

And then there's Abel Maldonado. You remember him - he's the middle-of-the-road Republican from Santa Maria, who represents another ridiculously-drawn district in the State Senate, reaching all the way up to the southern tip of the Bay Area, who broke party ranks last winter and voted with the Democrats to raise taxes to balance the budget. He desperately wants to run for statewide office. His Republican colleagues consider him a traitor, and he's not their ideological soulmate. Democrats can't wait for him to leave the Senate, because they've been salivating over his district, which they consider ripe for turning. Snatching Maldonado's seat would give them a 26-14 edge in the Senate, just one short of that elusive two-thirds majority they need to raise taxes and pass budgets.

So. Let the wheels turn. May the Machiavellian machinations begin. Increase your majority in the Senate - or risk offshore oil drilling? These are some of the weights the Democrats will have to balance as they consider whom, and whether, to confirm. Schwarzenegger may find himself handcuffed by the legislative leaders, who aren't going to want to give anyone with real ambitions a big leg up. They will almost certainly urge him to name a placeholder - maybe someone like former Controller Steve Westly, although Westly still may have future designs on running for governor again himself someday.

I'm not placing any bets, and I'm not taking any either. And I've gone on way too long, so let's call it a night! By the way, I do have lots I'd like to blog about on the health care debate, and I know I haven't been a very active blogger lately, but remember, I micro-blog on Twitter all day, so you can always follow my tweets at twitter.com/sovernnation.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Bear Market

A few months ago, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger stumbled across a grizzly bear while visiting Montana. Luckily for him, it was hollow and made of bronze. But still, it was life-sized, and reminded him of the great grizzlies that once roamed his beloved Golden State, so he bought it and brought it home to Sacramento.

The governor installed his new bear smack dab in the middle of the Capitol hallway, right in front of his office. This was good news for the Highway Patrol officers who guard Schwarzenegger's lair, since the bronze grizzly replaced them as the focus of visiting tourists' snapshots. It also made a nice bollard, adding another level of security outside the governor's office. And it gave the reporters who cover the governor somewhere to rest their microphones during his occasional hallway news conferences on the state budget crisis.

Today (and we use that term loosely since this very long day has about ten minutes left in it) was the last day of California's latest budget stalemate. As we staked out what would prove to be the final Big Five meeting of the crisis, the governor's staffers brought out a press pool, something we refer to as a "mult box," because it has multiple microphone outputs for the media to plug into, thus sparing the bear the indignity of all those microphones duct-taped to its bronze back.

It occurred to me that the bear could be put to better use as California struggles to balance its books. Why not carve a slot along its spine, and turn it into a Piggy Bear? (Or would that be a Beary Bank?) Certainly all those tourists who line up in the hall hoping for a glimpse of the Governator would gladly drop a quarter or two into the bear's belly for the privilege of posing with it. We could charge the out-of-staters a buck, or maybe even five; after all, they're freeloaders anyway, getting a free tour of our Capitol and occupying valuable hall space without paying any rent, all on the California taxpayers' dime.

Once the great beast proved his worth, the state Treasurer could securitize the bear, as California likes to do with all its longterm assets. Why, we could sell Bear-er Bonds. Perhaps Bear Stearns could handle that for us. After all, they pioneered those securitized asset deals, didn't they?

Oh wait. That got them in trouble. They went belly up - as extinct as the California grizzly.

Governor Schwarzenegger and his pals in the legislature found some other ways to balance the books, ending my five-hour reverie about the bear (who is still unnamed, by the way) by coming out of their meeting to announce a Deal At Long Last to erase the state's $26 billion deficit. It isn't pretty; they plan to slash $6 billion from K-12 education, $3 billion more from higher ed, more than a billion from the prisons, more than a billion from medical care for the poor, etc. etc. The governor gets to close some state parks (but thankfully, just a few), resume oil drilling from a single rig off Santa Barbara, tighten up on fraud and abuse in welfare programs, and raid the treasuries of California's counties to the tune of $4.3 billion. All of this assumes the approval of two-thirds of each house of the state legislature, some of whom have been known to hold this sort of budget deal hostage until the appropriate legislative ransom is paid.

If the deal does go through, it should allow the state to resume selling bonds, which would mean an end to the IOUs that have brought California international embarrassment for the last three weeks. It doesn't really mean an end to the state's financial crisis, since tax revenues are still declining, and the budget is likely to fall further out of balance before the year is out (think about this: already this calendar year, the state has had to cut, borrow or manipulate more than 60 billion dollars out of its spending plan - which is more than half the state budget).

Which means we're likely to be back in that hallway at some point this fall, sprawled across the marble floor, charging our iPhones and laptops on the taxpayers' electric bill, resuming our vigil as our fearless leaders grapple with yet another shortfall, and squabble over how to close it.

At which point I say, let's open up the bear market. Name that grizzly, saw out a slot in his back and put the California Golden Bear to work.

Otherwise, we could be bearish on California for a long, long time.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Curious Case of Sarah Palin

At least no one can accuse the Republicans of being boring anymore.

In a span of just two weeks, the Grand Old Party has shot off more political fireworks than a pyromaniac on Independence Day.

One after another, the rising stars of a leaderless party have gone supernova. Two of them have probably disappeared forever into political black holes. The third will continue to ping pong around some parallel universe, hoping her unpredictable trajectory finds its target at some point.

First, Nevada Senator John Ensign, the silver-haired son of the Silver State, a classic Central Casting presidential hopeful, revealed he had an affair with a married staffer, and got his mistress' husband a couple of jobs on the public payroll, too. Oops. Nevada is supposed to be a swing state...not just a swinger's state. So long, Senator.

Then, an even bigger bombshell - South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford's disappearing act, followed by his bizarre, rambling confession of an Argentinean love affair. Abdicating his gubernatorial responsibilities for five days was bad enough, but admitting to multiple affairs and not loving his wife anymore has doomed this Great Republican Hope (Rush Limbaugh kept muttering "He could have been our JFK!" What, did Rush already know about Sanford's philandering?).

And now, the Curious Case of Sarah Palin. She was born wacky and grows wackier right before our eyes - and all without benefit of digital effects. No one's ever accused her of being a conventional politician. Why should she start now?

Palin's startling decision to quit being governor two-and-a-half years into her term makes no political sense. To many Alaskans, her "explanation" that she doesn't want to be just another lame duck governor, "milking it," as she said, is a selfish affront. Many, many governors serve only one term - in some states, like Virginia, they do so by statute. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine were lame ducks from their first day in office; the Virginia Constitution forbids running for re-election. Should they have just resigned, then, rather than "milk" their lame duck status for four years? Arnold Schwarzenegger has a year and a half left in his second term as Governor of California, making him as lame a duck as Palin in Alaska. Can you imagine the uproar if he quit tomorrow, abandoning ship in the middle of a budget crisis? It's not likely he'd be applauded for his leadership and integrity, or for answering a "higher calling." Most voters expect their leaders to honor their oaths of office.

I don't buy the blogosphere's theories of some sinister secret that Palin's hoping to keep hidden by leaving office. Sure, she's under investigation for all sorts of alleged ethics violations, but Palin is nothing if not a fighter. She has shown that from the moment John McCain foolishly thrust her into the national spotlight. If that was all this was about, Palin would stand firm and punch back. No, I actually believe her when she says she's tired of the nasty focus on her family. It's also very much about money; Palin probably hopes that leaving office now will lower the volume on those ethics charges and slow the mounting cost of her defense. And I think she really does want to step back and marshal her resources for some sort of national campaign, perhaps as a highly-paid inspirational speaker for now, and then as a presidential candidate in 2012.

But Palin is kidding herself if she thinks her critics will simply go away once she's no longer governor. The spotlight's red glare just gets hotter when you run for president, and her irrational decision gives her enemies even more ammunition. If she can't even complete a single term governing the nation's least populous state, how in the world will she ask America to entrust her with the presidency? Didn't she owe it to Alaska to finish the job to which she was elected? Will she ever again be able to accuse an opponent of wanting to "cut and run" - from Iraq, or anywhere else?

It's one thing to decline a second term to pursue a national campaign; it's worked for many former governors, including Jimmy Carter. It's quite another to quit halfway through that first term. In fact, it's almost without precedent. A review of the National Governors Association's historical database shows that 205 U.S. governors have resigned their seats. Almost all did so because they were elected or appointed to higher office, such as California's Earl Warren becoming Chief Justice in 1953 or Arizona's Janet Napolitano quitting to become President Obama's Homeland Security secretary. About a dozen have resigned because they were indicted or under criminal investigation. Remarkably, New Jersey's gay Gov, Jim McGreevey, was the first to quit because of an extramarital affair; all the previous governors caught in (heterosexual) dalliances rode out the storm (a ray of hope for Mark Sanford).

But in that long, rich legacy of prematurely departing governors, not even the wonderfully named Alpheus Felch of Michigan or Archibald Yell of Arkansas slunk from office in as ignominious a fashion as Sarah Palin. One must go all the way back to California's very first governor, Peter Burnett, to find a chief executive who simply quit because he couldn't take it anymore. Burnett served barely more than a year in office before resigning in 1851 under intense criticism from the state legislature. Among other things, the governor wanted all black people expelled from California, passed a stiff tax on immigrants, and advocated the extermination of California's Indian tribes. While in the Oregon legislature, he had led the successful fight for that state's exclusion law, barring blacks from Oregon and mandating the flogging every six months of any who refused to leave. California lawmakers reacted to their new governor's State of the State address with howls of fury. Burnett was ridiculed in newspapers up and down the state. So he simply packed up and quit. This is the exclusive company in which Sarah Palin finds herself 158 years later.

(Burnett still got a street named after him: Burnett Avenue in San Francisco. Somehow I doubt there will be a Palin Place in Anchorage, or even Wasilla, anytime soon).

So while soon-to-be-former Governor Palin ponders her future and plots how to build a national campaign around defensiveness and victimization, the Republican Party is reeling, casting about for a leader, and staring at an awfully thin bench. Last year's also-rans, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, look awfully good right now. Newt Gingrich? Come on down and play savior. The governors McCain passed over to pick Palin - Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels - vault to the head of the pack. Even jolly old Haley Barbour of Mississippi, as unlikely an Obama opponent as you could ever envision, looks more and more viable for 2012.

Until the next bombshell goes off, that is...

Friday, April 3, 2009

Barry's Auto Repair

President Obama slid out from beneath the rusting chassis of the banged-up Ford Explorer.
"Hey Geithner, can you pass me that pneumatic ratchet?"
"Which one is that again, Mr. President?"
A deep sigh.
"The one that looks sort of like a Jedi light saber, without any light coming out of it."
"Oh cool! That one! Sure, here you go, sir."
After some clanking and banging, the President pokes his head out again.
"I don't suppose you could hook up the diagnostic tester, could you, Mr. Secretary?"
"Um...how does that go again?"
Another deep sigh.
"You never learned any automotive engineering at all, Tim?"
"I'm sorry sir, they don't teach that at Johns Hopkins."
"Fine. I'll do it myself. Like everything else around here."
"Yes sir. Remember though, sir, what Jimmy Carter told you during the transition."
"And what was that, Tim?"
"That if you take on too much as president, they call you a 'micro-manager.' But if you wait until you get out of office to do that, they give you the Nobel Prize."
"Ah yes. Well, we need some hands-on government right now, Timmy, and I'm laying my hands on everything."
The president re-emerges from beneath the Ford, gets up and starts wiping the grease off his hands and face.
"Hey Emanuel! How does my schedule look for the rest of the day?"
"Well sir," says the Chief of Staff as he consults a clipboard, "we have two Buicks, a Pontiac, Bill Richardson's Camaro and Schwarzenegger's Hummer to fix. And then Ted Stevens just dropped off his Ford pickup. Very high mileage, lots of road salt corrosion. But I think we'd better squeeze him in. We owe him one."
Yet another deep sigh from the President as Rahm heads back out to customer service.
"Tim, do you think we made a mistake guaranteeing the warranties for all those American cars? When will I ever get to health care reform, or global warming?"
"No sir, I think we can handle it," says Geithner. "Right along with balancing every American's checkbook, doing their taxes, reorganizing their 401ks and hand-picking the boards of the Fortune 500. I have every confidence, sir. Remember," he says proudly, "I used to work at the IMF!"
"Yes, Tim, but how many times do I have to tell you," says the president wearily, "The one you worked for was the International Monetary Fund, not the Impossible Mission Force."
"Oh, right, sir. Sorry. Then why does everything I touch seem to self-destruct?"
The president gives him a blank stare as Emanuel rushes back in to the garage.
"Mr. President, Mr. President!"
"What is it, Rahm? An Iranian missile test? A dirty bomb? Another corporate titan caught with his bonus showing?"
"No sir. It's Ted Kennedy!"
"Oh my God! Is he..."
"Yes, sir. He just pulled in to the loading dock. Driving a 1967 Oldsmobile. Massachusetts plates. Says it has some pretty bad water damage. Wants to know if you could take a look - and is it okay if he pays cash?"

Monday, February 9, 2009

Obama, No Drama

Man, is this president disciplined.

Every politician is taught to stay on message. They should use a video of President Obama's first White House news conference tonight to teach fledgling politicos how to do it.

Not many presidents could speak for 60 minutes without making news beyond the purpose of the news conference, which was to push the economic stimulus package. Are you going to meet with the Iranians, Mr. President? We'll look for opportunities. Will you lift the ban on photographing coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq? That's something we'll have to look into. What's in your bank bailout plan? Well, I don't want to upstage my Treasury Secretary. It seems clear after just three weeks and one news conference that Barack Obama is going to run his White House the way he ran his campaign: a tight ship, disciplined from the top down, putting out fires as soon as there's smoke. That's not a bad template for organizational management, although the wild cards of unpredictable Washington politics and arrogance creep could corrupt it.

Every president establishes his own style. Mr. Obama's first news conference (which you can hear here) demonstrated how different his will be from the chief executives who've come before him, including but not limited to George W. Bush. Obama struck a professorial tone, giving long-winded answers that veered off into tangential cul-de-sacs but always found their way back to the main artery (that's a notable difference from Bush right there).

He was new at this, and so was much of the White House press corps. Many news organizations change their White House correspondents when a new president comes into office. These days, they often install the reporter who covered the winning candidate's campaign. So CBS News, ABC, NBC, the Associated Press and many others had correspondents there who had never played the supporting role at a White House news conference before. Some, especially on the print side, seemed nervous and tentative. We can only hope they find their voice quickly, and avoid melting into the same spineless blob that covered President Bush for most of his tenure. I want to hear challenging questions, designed to compel answers that tell me something I didn't know before. That's not so hard as it sounds.

President Obama could have been giving a constitutional law lecture. I don't know if they employ the Socratic method at the University of Chicago, but it sure seemed like it. Every modern president knows in advance on which reporters he will call, and in what order, and has certain organizations he's going to ignore. But presidents typically scan the room and find their desired target among the raised hands and pens. Not Obama. He simply worked his way down his list, even announcing the reporters' affiliations. "Jennifer Loven, AP?" Check. "Chip Reid, CBS?" Check. Whether a reporter had a hand up or not, if it was his or her turn on the list put together by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, he or she got the call. "Sam Stein, Huffington Post?" Check.

Wait a second - Huffington Post?

That's right, I believe this Sam Stein guy made history tonight, by becoming the first blogger ever called on at a White House news conference. Perhaps President Bush called on one once, but I don't remember it happening. President Obama actually called on a blogger who works for Arianna Huffington. And Mara Liasson from NPR. And good old Helen Thomas, now a columnist for the Hearst Newspapers. These are people whose probing questions had been left out in the wilderness to die for the last eight years (well okay, Bush called on NPR every now and again, but he banished Helen a long time ago). Now this is change I can believe in.

Even Mr. Stein's question about prosecuting members of the Bush administration with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission didn't faze the unflappable Obama. Nobody is above the law, the president said - but I prefer to look forward, not backwards.

I kept waiting for this scholarly president to ask one of the reporters to give the class the facts of Bush v. Gore, or maybe Roe v. Wade.

But I must confess I do miss the nicknames President Bush gave all the reporters. I wanted to hear Obama call out "Lefty? A question? What about you, Chickenhawk?" The closest we got was Chip and Jake, but those are actually their names.

Now let's see if the president keeps his promise of a news conference every week. We already know there was some puffery in the campaign rhetoric, but it would be refreshing for a candidate who pledges transparency and accountability to actually deliver some once in office. As long as he has something to promote, such as the stimulus package, we're likely to see him back at that podium, but don't expect anything surprising to come out of his mouth. He'll be on message, ticking off his points, completing his regimen. It might as well be one of his daily 60-minute workouts. Let's see how long it takes before the White House Press Corps gives him some heavy lifting.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Still Having A Ball?

It took more than six years for George W. Bush to admit making a presidential mistake. It took Barack Obama less than two weeks.

This past week, we were treated to an odd sight in our newsroom. A glance up at the bank of TV screens showed President Obama on five channels at once - except this wasn't a State of the Union speech or some other live event broadcast on every network simultaneously. This was the evening news, on CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN and Fox. And there was the president, with the American flag strategically positioned behind his cocked head, with cutaways to a thoughtful-looking network anchor seated in an Oval Office chair, saying "I screwed up" and "It's my fault" and "I take full responsibility" to each one, over and over again (referring to Tom Daschle's tax problems and the withdrawal of his nomination at HHS). It was coincidence that every network aired its taped presidential interview at the exact same time; the rest was careful White House choreography. The exact same shot - almost identical words - given prominent placement by networks eager to trumpet their Oval Office access.

A student of history to be sure, President Obama is transparently determined not to repeat the mistakes of past presidents (even those who never admitted making any). Jimmy Carter was a notorious control freak; Barack Obama is delegating key White House tasks - not all of them, but just enough. Bill Clinton tackled thorny issues too quickly, without Congressional input; Obama's going slowly on some, and is involving Congressional leaders, from both parties, at every turn. President Bush - well, we all know what he did wrong, and in most cases, Obama's doing the exact opposite. A snarky Dick Cheney needled the Obama team this week for its multi-layered flow chart of many czars. You could almost hear the derisive collective snort from the Obama White House. The last thing they intend to do is simply photocopy the Bush White House Way and repeat it.

But that too could be a mistake. Surely, something must have been done intelligently in the Bush administration. There must be some systems worth replicating.

Well, maybe not.

So here was President Obama granting interviews, so early in his administration, taking the blame and moving on. Days before, he roamed the halls of the Capitol, meeting face-to-face with the loyal opposition, on their turf. It's certainly refreshing to have a seemingly candid, articulate, fully-functioning adult running our country. I'm still waiting for the news conferences he said he would have on a weekly basis. If you're keeping score, that may be his first broken campaign promise. He will finally have one, Monday evening, in prime time, no less. Let's see if he has another the following week.

As for the economy, well, so far, the only job creation has been at the White House. President Obama is cramming people into the West Wing. Do we really need a czar for this and a czar for that? Is his model Abraham Lincoln or Peter the Great? It remains to be seen if the Obama White House will be brilliant and efficient, or a top-heavy nest of sniping bureaucrats mud-wrestling for power. Then there's the stimulus package. Every liberal or Democratic interest group in America has emailed me, begging me to lobby Congress to pass it, and to make sure their pet project is included. If George Bush had proposed this package, would you support it? Is this the best way to spend our hard-earned trillions? More importantly, will it work?

We don't know, of course. We can only hope (unless we're Rush Limbaugh). I worry that it won't. I'm not a big fan of deficit spending. I don't believe in it in my own economy, and I certainly don't like it on the macro level. Bill Clinton's deficit reduction was, I think, the most significant accomplishment of his presidency. The red ink run up by the last three Republican presidents has been a nation-weakening embarrassment. But now Obama is poised not only to repeat that mistake, but to multiply it, with an annual deficit next year perhaps exceeding one trillion dollars. No nation can sustain that level of debt. I realize that in this instance, Obama's historical touchstone is not Lincoln but FDR, but unless there's a world war coming that we don't know about, there's no guarantee that we, too, can spend our way out of this economic collapse.

But then, we've got to do something, right? There seems to be agreement on that. As long as these moves don't turn us into the Weimar Republic.

Was it really just two weeks ago that I was crammed into the Newseum at the Huffington Post Ball on inaugural eve? That is hard to believe. There was an incredible air of hope and optimism and celebration there. Exuberant celebrities counted down at midnight to the end of the Bush Era, and the dawn of Obama Time. Bloggers and pundits and liberal activists partied shoulder-to-shoulder, jockeying for hors d'oeuvres and dancing the night away to Sting and Sheryl Crow and Will.i.am. They had shivered for 20 minutes on a long VIP line just to get inside. There was a jubilant Howard Dean, and a shimmying Demi Moore, with kids and Ashton Kutcher in tow, and a grumpy Robert DeNiro. Here came Don King's hair, and there went Dustin Hoffman and Denzel Washington and Jamie Foxx (at one point, a friend pointed out that there were at least five Oscar-winning Best Actors on the dance floor). Ben Affleck grabbed a cheese puff from a passing tray. Vaguely recognizable TV stars mingled with CNN talking heads. I ran into one of our favorite Bay Area Congresswomen, Blue Dog Democrat Ellen Tauscher, with her new fiance. We bonded over our wedding plans.

At one point, the dance floor crowd surged into a previously off-limits area, and a tall, beautiful woman grabbed my hand and pulled me to safety. This woman is strong, I thought. Then I saw that her other hand was being pulled by her massive husband - Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker. We popped out into an open space, where paparazzi shouted "Forest! Forest!" (since my friends call me Forrest Gump, I of course thought they were shouting at me). Whitaker obliged, smiling and waving for the cameras. Somewhere there's a great picture or two of a beaming Forest Whitaker, his gorgeous wife and a short, startled-looking, bald guy holding her hand.

(Okay, those two paragraphs should satisfy those of you who have been begging for the HuffPo celeb ball report. You know who you are. To the rest of you, thanks for the indulgence).

That party was all about dispatching the sorry past and embracing the possibilities of the immediate future. You didn't really think it would be stumble-free, did you? Barack Obama already has to replace three of his original Cabinet choices, and as far as Congressional Republicans are concerned, the honeymoon is already over (if you have paid all your taxes, please send your resume to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Attention: Rahm Emanuel). Some form of the stimulus package will pass, festooned with Lord knows what. If it doesn't work, the bloom will be off Obama's rose before you can say "one-term president." I have been cautioning starry-eyed friends for two years that this man is not the Messiah. Clearly, he's learned from the past, but that's no guarantee that he's not doomed to repeat some of it anyway. Nobody said this would be easy, least of all him. Euphoria wears off, and reality sets in. Two weeks ago, Obama made history. Now it's all about creating the future, and that may take a lot longer.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Difference

Eighty-eight months ago, we were told that everything had changed forever in America - and nothing would ever be the same. We were at war. There was a new sense of national purpose, of shared responsibility. We'd all have to adjust to new security measures. It was the death of irony.

Well, nothing lasts forever. I never bought the death of irony – it was resurrected within days. President Bush frittered away the world’s good will and America’s collective willingness to sacrifice. Our national dialogue became even more partisan and mean-spirited than before. The economy collapsed – just as the terrorists who attacked us on September 11, 2001 intended.

The security measures remain, of course. I dutifully removed my shoes and coat this morning on my way home from covering the inauguration. I pulled my laptop from its cozy corduroy sheath. I padded through the metal detector in my socks. A sign announced that the TSA is exploring “Whole Body Technology” that could soon let us keep our clothes on at the airport (I thought “Whole Body Technology” was what helps me pick out the right sunscreen at Whole Foods).

Now, once again, everything has changed. Everything is different. For how long this time?

Like many of the million or two who crammed onto the frozen grounds of the National Mall, I am filled with hope. But mine is the hope that the American people won’t give up too quickly on their new president. A CBS News-New York Times poll on the eve of the inauguration found many Americans willing to wait for positive results from Barack Obama. They recognize that the United States has enormous problems, and the consensus in the survey was that it might take two years for Mr. Obama to get the creaking, leaking ship of state back on course.

But in a month, or two, or three, when President Obama’s First 100 Days have been televised, scrutinized and digitized, when the chattering class has picked apart the ins and outs and ups and downs and nits and bits of every presidential stumble and hiccup – and unemployment is still rising, and the stock market is still sputtering (or worse), and the troops are still in Iraq – how quickly will that patience wane?

The public has a short memory. It also has a short attention span. And it famously keeps its presidents on a very short leash. George Herbert Walker Bush went from a record 91% approval rating in the spring of 1991 – to summarily drummed out of office 18 months later. His son went from an approval rating in the same neighborhood after 9/11…to Tuesday’s ignominious departure, taken away by helicopter as tens of thousands below hooted and waved bye-bye to the most unpopular, and many would say the worst, president in American history.

You may say I’m a cynic. No - I’m as idealistic and romantic as any soul on this earth. I just also believe in pragmatic realism, and I come by it honestly. I have been a student of history and politics for more than 40 years, and it just doesn’t pay to burden a fellow human being with impossibly unrealistic expectations. Never forget that Barack Hussein Obama is just a man. He’s an uncommonly disciplined man, a very smart man, who is thoughtful and eloquent, not to mention handsome and tall, which never hurts when it comes to self-confidence and the ability to persuade others. But it is a rare soul who can fairly bear the burden of others’ dreams. Every generation or so, an extraordinary individual transcends our natural limitations: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela. But even among those, only Mandela lived to see his people enjoy the freedoms he helped them achieve.

Someday, perhaps Mr. Obama’s name will fall naturally at the end of that line. Most of us hope so. Rush Limbaugh doesn’t; he said on the radio this morning that he hopes President Obama fails, because he disagrees with his policies. At the moment, thankfully, he is an exception.

For some, Mr. Obama has already delivered. Janet Jones Kern drove from Farmington Hills, Michigan all the way to Washington to see Mr. Obama sworn in. She is white. In 1971, she gave birth to a biracial daughter. She was a single mom, raising a half-black child alone in the Midwest.

“I always felt alone,” she told me. “I endured a lot of hard times, a lot of pain and bias.” She eventually married a black man. Her daughter married, too, and had children of her own.

“But I always felt that the playing field wasn’t exactly level, and that I brought them all into a tough world. I just always felt this nagging doubt, that there was a deficit for my children and grandchildren. Now I feel validated. My little five-year-old granddaughter can look me in the eye and say, ‘Grandma, I’m going to grow up and become President of the United States of America.’ And for the first time,” she told me, in the cold shadow of the Washington Monument, “it’s really true! I just feel joyous. I don’t feel like I’m alone anymore, I feel like the whole world is with me.”

She didn’t have a ticket. She got nowhere close to the West Front of the Capitol. But, she said, “I’m just thrilled to breathe the same air as this man. I know it’s going to be long and hard and tough” for him to turn the country around – but for her, the difference is already real, and in her case, it will last forever.

The difference is already there for Nancy Pelosi, too. I’ve interviewed the Speaker of the House three times in the past ten days, the last time yesterday in her Capitol office. From her windows, we could see the presidential podium, the scaffolds, the chairs waiting to be taken down after the proceedings of the day before. We looked out along the empty Mall, to the Washington Monument and beyond, where so many people had shivered and cheered and cried 24 hours earlier. For Speaker Pelosi, the change has already come.

“I just can’t stop smiling. It’s an incredible thing!” She beamed at me. “No one knows better than I how important it was that we make this change. President Bush’s presidency wasn’t just one of missed opportunities,” she said, “but of making matters worse. Whether it’s the war in Iraq, the economy, the budget, the environment – you name it. He took us backward. When that helicopter went up yesterday,” referring to the Marine chopper that carried the Bushes away from the Capitol, “I thought – bye bye!”

And here she waved at the sky. “It’s like a ten-ton anvil being lifted from my chest.”

And did she feel even a single pang of pity for President Bush, as he sat on that stage listening to the new president trash the Bush policies? Uh…no.

“I don’t have to be concerned about what President Bush is thinking anymore. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on it. I don’t feel sorry for him. I feel sorry for the one in six children in America who are living in poverty. I feel sorry for the people who have lost their jobs because of the economic downturn. President Bush? Goodbye!”

The change is also real for the African-American security officer who helped me find the Speaker’s office, after I got lost in the maze that is our Capitol. As he was walking me to the proper elevator, he suddenly started giggling.

“I know, “ I said sheepishly, “I’m an idiot. I went to the Senate side by mistake.”

“No, it’s not that,” he said with a smile.
What then?
“My president is a black man.”
And with a giddy guffaw, he pushed the elevator button and sent me on my way.

President Obama is already on his way, signing Executive Orders to close Guantanamo Bay, make sure American interrogators don’t torture terror suspects and freeze the pay of White House staffers. In the next few days, he’ll sign more, reversing Bush policies on abortion, ethics, maybe on gays in the military. These are things he can do with the stroke of a pen. Would that resuscitating the economy and ending two wars were that easy. Simple principle and belief aren’t enough to create jobs and restore lost wealth. For those who have placed perhaps too much faith in him, who have turned Barack Obama into a vessel for all their national aspirations, the wait for things to truly be different may take a little longer. They may end up disappointed when he can’t be everything they thought he was. Perhaps they should temper their hopes with a dash of reality, lest they be dashed completely if he fails to live up to those lofty expectations.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Diary of an Inauguration

I know, you want to know all about last night's Huffington Post bash. Was that really only last night? Seems so long ago already...

But how can I blog about a silly, celebrity-soaked party after what we witnessed today? I think I'll make the HuffPo report tomorrow's postscript to this adventure. For now, I offer instead this blow-by-blow of today's incredible proceedings:

(as prescribed by the Constitution of the United States)

1:45am: Glad I only had one vodka martini at the party, I finally get to bed, just a few short hours before it's time to cover the swearing-in of a new American president.

4:00am: Fifteen minutes before the alarm is supposed to go off, I get up, awakened by sirens and the sounds of police setting up barricades outside my hotel. Yes, I have only slept two hours and 15 minutes, and fitfully at that.

4:49am: I leave the hotel, stepping out into a police zone. The cops have blocked the front door of my hotel. I am forced to exit through the service entrance on a side street, weaving through the hotel kitchen on a route that reminds me too much of Robert F. Kennedy's last moments.

5:02am: Lugging two heavy bags of broadcasting gear, I board the Metro, bound for the Capitol. Luckily, the surging crowd is getting off at my station, not on, so the train isn't that crowded. Most of this pre-dawn throng is heading for the National Mall, not the Capitol itself.

5:22am: I exit the train and stroll up to the Capitol grounds. Hey, this is going great! Empty train, no delays, smooth sailing. I have been told by the Secret Service that I must be on site between 4 and 6am, for screening of all my equipment and to get in place on the Capitol's West Front. It is 22 degrees.

5:23am: Uh-oh. Everything grinds to a halt. I join the longest security line I have ever seen. It's mostly media, mixed with a large group of military medical personnel in camouflage. The queue snakes out the security trailer, down Capitol Hill, around a bend...it's at least two blocks long. Everyone is stunned.

6:28am: One hour and five minutes later, it's finally my turn to go through the magnetometers. The temperature has dropped to 20 degrees. We have all been shivering in the pre-dawn cold. Photographers mostly, from Time, Reuters, Agence France-Press, Polaris. Some have endured the delay in good humor. Others have not.

6:29am: An officer scans the bar code on my special inaugural credential. A friendly "blip" brings my name onto the screen of his handheld scanner. I am good to go. The photog behind me hears an unfortunate "bonk" sound instead - kind of like losing at Pong (dating myself, I know). He swears that youthful indiscretion was supposed to be expunged from his record! Can't they try again? After FIVE scans, the machine finally accepts him and he's cleared to photograph Barack Obama.

6:34am: After lingering in the heated security trailer as long as we can, we are finally chased back out into the cold by the Capitol Police.

6:35am: We cross the West Front onto the Capitol steps. Everything is in place for the inauguration. Rows of seats are set up behind the podium for members of Congress, the Supreme Court, and invited guests and dignitaries. I am shown to my seat. This can't be possible - I get to sit this close?

6:36am: Somebody pinch me. I have a chair, and a desk, with electricity, high-speed Internet and an ISDN broadcasting line. It is on an elevated platform directly to the right of the presidential podium, at the same height as the lectern. It is maybe 75 feet away from where Barack Obama will take the Oath of Office. The line of sight is unobstructed. I could hit the president with a snowball. Luckily, it isn't snowing. Yet.

6:37am to 11:30 am: The temperature drops to 19. With the wind chill, it feels like eight degrees. I can no longer feel my feet. The reporter to my right flees the platform with frostbite in his toes. He never returns. I wish I'd brought my other hat. And a space heater. And a blanket. And maybe some electrically heated down booties.

7:00am: My laptop shuts itself down and goes into hibernation. It becomes a block of iced aluminum. It stays that way for the duration of the inauguration. So much for blogging. So much for my high-speed DSL line. Guess I won't be writing my scripts on the computer!

7:01am: The ink in my pen stops flowing. It's frozen. Hmmm. Guess I won't be writing my scripts at all. I'll have to ad lib the rest of the day. It could be worse: two other reporters have their broadcasting gear freeze up. They are forced to report by phone the rest of the morning.

7:30am: We all decide to kill some time with a little breakfast. Except our energy bars, pastries and bagels have frozen solid. They would make nice doorstops. Or hockey pucks. They are like little carbohydrate icebergs. Our bottles of water have also frozen solid. They become weapons. The Secret Service considers confiscating them but takes pity on us. Some apply little hot pad toe warmers to the bottles, hoping to thaw them out so we can actually drink something over the next five hours. No such luck. I slap the toe warmers onto my feet. Unfortunately, this requires removing my shoes, which I think negates the positive effect of applying the warmers.

8:00am-11:30am: A vast throng fills the National Mall, from just west of us to the Lincoln Memorial, which is about two miles away. Every section between the Capitol and the Washington Monument is filled to capacity. Beyond that, some late arrivals fill in the spaces around the Reflecting Pool and at Lincoln's feet, but that area isn't completely full. We are given a preliminary crowd estimate of approximately one and a half million. It is an awesome sight. A slight turn to the right and I can gaze along the length of Pennsylvania Avenue, which is also lined now by the smaller parade crowd.

On the platform in front of us, senators and governors and former presidents begin to arrive. There's a large California contingent - Governor Schwarzenegger, former Governor Gray Davis, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass. There's John Kerry talking with John McCain. Chris Dodd chats with his state mate, Joe Lieberman. Teddy Kennedy limps out to a big roar from the crowd. George H.W. Bush limps out too, looking surprisingly unsteady. Dick Cheney does him one better, coming out in a wheelchair after hurting himself moving out of the vice presidential residence. In a long black trenchcoat and black fedora, hunched in the wheelchair, he looks like the black-clad guy from Spy vs. Spy.

Below us, celebrities fill some of the next best seats. Don King, waving an American flag, holds court. His shock of gray hair isn't as tall as it used to be. There's Denzel Washington, and Beyonce, and Jay-Z and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs.

11:30am: The ceremony is behind schedule. Howard Gantman, longtime aide to Senator Dianne Feinstein, told me two weeks ago that Obama absolutely must be sworn in before noon, to comply with the Constitution. The oath is scheduled for 11:56. But here they are, running about 15 minutes late. Perhaps they'll push Yo Yo Ma back, or Aretha Franklin.

Nope. They continue with the program. Obama is sworn in a few minutes late. It doesn't matter - according to the Constitution, he becomes president at noon anyway, even though he hasn't taken the oath yet.

Random observations: President-elect Obama lost in apparent rapture as he listens to Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman play John Williams. Is he going over his speech? Pondering the import of what is about to happen? Simply lost in the music? Meanwhile, his wife gets up and fusses over the kids....President Bush fidgeting and smirking and shifting in his seat. He seems uncomfortable. Maybe it's the cold. Maybe it's that a million people booed lustily when he was introduced. Maybe it's because during his speech, Obama essentially denounces all of the Bush-Cheney policies and says we'll have no more of that. That's got to be tough for Bush to hear, sitting three feet away...Denzel Washington, in long coat and knit cap, suddenly leaping to his feet in the middle of President Obama's speech, and standing in rapt attention the rest of the way...and most of all, one to two million people, completely still and silent, even in physical discomfort, absolutely transfixed by the words of their new president. Most of the time, the only sounds are the military helicopters and the booming voice of Mr. Obama, ringing out in a slight delay across the Mall. People hang on every word. It gives me chills - or maybe that's just the numbing cold.

12:37 (or so - I can no longer operate my iPhone to tell the time, because you can't use touch screens with gloves on, and with the gloves off, my fingers aren't generating enough heat to activate the touch screen): It's done. President Obama and the new First Lady depart the stage. The podium guests discard their blue wool commemorative blankets. We on the media platform covet them but the stern regard of the Secret Service dissuades us from trying to snag one. I hobble up the steps behind the presidential platform, looking for the nearest bathroom. The walk brings some feeling back into my feet. A knot of guards stands between me and the Port-a-Potty.

"Do you think I can use that Port-a-Potty? Would that be okay? Please?" I beg the nearest one, a tall guy in a dark suit, wrapped in one of those blue blankets.

He looks at me in surprise. "Why, I think...Yes! I say yes!"

I realize this one is not with the Secret Service. It's the actor John Cusack. For some reason, he was seated on the main dais with all those politicians.

"Well, you would Say Anything!" He gets the joke. I ask him what's written on the souvenir blanket. "It doesn't Say Anything," he deadpans.

As I limp into the port-a-john, a military helicopter rumbles into the air from the Capitol's East Front. It roars right over my head. It is now-former President Bush and his wife Laura, leaving the Capitol. A rousing cheer goes up from the remaining crowd, as they realize the significance. I fumble for my camera to get a shot but my frozen fingers aren't nimble enough.

John Cusack leaves. Don King runs his hand through his hair and makes sure no one else wants to interview him. The Obamas have gone inside the Capitol, for a gala luncheon led by my senior Senator, Dianne Feinstein. The transfer of power is complete. As always, it's been orderly, peaceful, and rich with ritual and tradition. And, this time, absolutely extraordinary, both bone-chilling and spine-tingling.

It will take me two hours to trudge all the way back to my hotel, schlepping my heavy gear, due to road closures and an overwhelmed Metro. At 5:07pm, I am finally indoors for the first time in 12 hours. I put my laptop on the radiator. It thaws out and boots up. I massage my numbed toes. I get some hot soup, my first food since a yogurt while in the security line at 5:30am. It's been a long, exhausting, cold day, and I still have about seven hours of work to do.

I will never forget a single second.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

On the Verge of History

If I have felt anything like this before, I can't remember when.

The energy is palpable. The sense of euphoria, of optimism, of possibility, is coursing through Washington D.C. like fresh blood through the veins of a previously anemic man. Our capital city has come crackling to life. People are pouring into town by the hundreds of thousands, clogging the streets, thronging the monuments and memorials and museums, high-fiving total strangers and bursting into spontaneous whoops of joy.

Maybe this is how it felt when World War Two ended. I wouldn't be surprised to see a sailor bend a nurse over backwards and kiss her, hard, on the National Mall.

I arrived in Washington Sunday afternoon by Amtrak from New York. The train was packed, completely sold out, and except for the woman who got all in a snit when I politely informed her husband that he had taken my seat while I was visiting the snack car (somehow this was my fault?) and could he please relocate - everyone was in high spirits, unusually friendly and open and sharing. Can we help that passenger with her bag? Yes we can! Can we hold the door for an older couple and help them find seats? Yes we can! Can we share our stories of where we came from and why we're here and what being at the Obama inauguration will mean? Yes we can!

The Amtrak crowd spilled into Union Station to find Enrique Iglesias rehearsing on a stage in the middle of the terminal (at least I think that's who it was). The train station will host the Latino Inaugural Ball Tuesday night, one of about a dozen official balls around town. From there it was out onto the broad boulevards so famously laid out by Pierre L'Enfant more than 200 years ago. Now they are lined with portapotties and police barricades. Heavily armed cops in SWAT gear roam the streets. Helicopters chatter overhead. Emergency vehicles race past, sirens wailing. And through it all, the people come, smiling, laughing, chatting with complete strangers, riding a buoyant wave of Obamamania.

The Mall was a crush of people, from memorial to shining memorial. Lincoln gazed down from his throne on a crowd right out of "Forrest Gump." The red light high atop Washington's monument blinked upon maybe 500,000 people below, some of whom camped out for hours for free seats at the "We Are One" concert. They lined the sides of the Reflecting Pool; they spilled out onto Constitution Avenue. They clapped their hands and sang "Shout!" with a surprisingly ebullient Garth Brooks. They belted out the "oh, oh, oh, oh!" coda to "Pride" with U2. They wept as they rang out "This Land Is Your Land" with Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger, strumming a banjo as if he were singing "Little Boxes" to me back in the 1960s. Towards the end of the show, the President-elect strode onto the stage and told the adoring crowd "Anything is possible." Right now, right here, it sure feels that way.

P.S. I went to the California Gala tonight and have scored VIP passes to the hot-hot-hot Huffington Post party tomorrow night at the Newseum. There's lots to say about all that but somehow it feels trivial at the moment. We'll get to that next time.