Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Dr. Gloria Duffy to Discuss Obama's Transition on "Bay Area Vista," January 4

On KNTV/NBC Bay Area on January 4, 2009, at 10:00 a.m.:

Gloria Duffy, president and CEO of The Commonwealth Club, will be featured on the January 4 edition of "Bay Area Vista," airing at 10:00 a.m., on NBC Bay Area. Dr. Duffy, who served as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense and special coordinator for cooperative threat during the Clinton administration, will offer her perspective on the choices made by President-Elect Obama in fulfilling his major cabinet positions. Tune in for an insider’s perspective on what to anticipate with the new administration and why she believes that President-Elect Obama inspires many throughout the nation.

This episode will also feature a panel discussion with James Taylor, Ph.D., USF professor of race and politics; Ron Takaki, Ph.D., UC-Berkeley professor of rthnic studies; and Dawn-Elissa Fischer, Ph.D., SFU professor of Africana studies. This show will also feature Pat Mitchell, Peter Ortiz and Catherine Ortiz, who are all involved with the educational program known as Silicon Valley Faces.

Anchored and produced by NBC Bay Area Community Relations Director Janice Edwards, "Bay Area Vista" began in November 2002 with the goal of covering the compelling personal stories of people who are making a difference in the Bay Area community.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Mark Felt, aka "Deep Throat," Passes Away


For decades following the Watergate scandal, "Who was Deep Throat?" was considered to be an intriguing-but-unanswerable question along the lines of "Where is Jimmy Hoffa?" But in 2005, of course, that question was actually answered when Deep Throat finally revealed himself to be Mark Felt, a former high-ranking FBI agent who fed inside information to Washington Post reporters during the scandal.

Mark Felt took any remaining secrets with him when he died yesterday at the age of 95.

John O'Connor (pictured above), an attorney and author of the Vanity Fair article "I'm the Guy They Called Deep Throat," gave the inside story on the long-running mystery when he spoke at The Commonwealth Club of California on August 18, 2005. Listen to the audio of that speech here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tom Vilsack to Head Agriculture


Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack is reportedly President-Elect Barack Obama's pick to head the Department of Agriculture.

Vilsack (pictured above at his Feb. 13, 2007, speech to The Commonwealth Club of California) was, very briefly, a competitor of Obama's for the Democratic presidential nomination, but he withdrew early in the contest and threw his support behind New York's junior senator, Hillary Clinton. For those of you keeping score, that means Vilsack joins former candidates Clinton, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden as Obama administration officials. Can Mike Gravel still get a position?

Rich Lose Billions While the Poor Get Poorer


Staggering amounts such as $700 billion for the financial service industry and the relatively paltry $15 billion proposed for the auto industry pale in comparison to the estimated $1.7 trillion the recession will exact in future losses by the continuing plight of America's poor.

A study released today by a bipartisan child advocacy group takes into account that children born in poverty tend to become lower wage earnings and suffer from poor health without the help of consistent health-care coverage.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said last month that more than 10 million adults and 3 million children could dip into poverty during the current economic downturn and may further hamper those still reeling from the previous recession of 2001.

A story from earlier this year when the state of the economy was bad, but not yet in the free fall that is seemingly occurring today, explained that while the economy expanded after 2001, the number of those in poverty increased by over a million.

This unfortunate phenomenon was touched upon last year by Nobel-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman during a speech at The Commonwealth Club where he said, "There have been huge gains at the top of the income distribution. A few people got much more richer, and that took all or almost all of the gains."

Krugman also explained a notion that, a year later, seems quite prescient: "We are fully back to the levels of inequality not seen since the 1920s. It's an extraordinary thing."

As many media types struggle to pin a moniker on this "financial crisis" (this one has nearly runs its course), some are now calling it the "Great Recession." Either way, it is the poor who are shoulder the biggest burden.

The Department of Labor said last week that more than 573,000 Americans applied for unemployment insurance. Indiana's fund is insolvent and California, New York, Ohio and Rhode Island may not be far behind. If government aid is struggling to keep up with demand, it is likely non-profits that fill in the cracks are having trouble keeping their doors open.

Nearly half of the non-profits in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota are resorting to staff cuts because of higher costs and dwindling donations.

A feature story from the Rocky Mountain News illustrates in detail the problems the poor and local non-profits have keeping people warm and nourished. Similar problems are surfacing in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Just last September, an Alameda County non-profit that administered health care to about 1,000 East Bay children closed its doors – and this is in one of the country's wealthier counties.

Gaudy figures on the pages and web sites of the newspapers' business sections may titillate headline makers across the nation, but it seems during a recession, the poor are the canary in the coalmine.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Great Gifts


Over at Jordan Ferney's blog, the writer includes a holiday gift list for a certain "Paul" (we dunno; your guess is as good as ours as to who he is). But we liked the seventh item on her list: "A membership to the Commonwealth Club [so] he can go hear interesting people speak at lunch."

No, we didn't pay her to write that! But, you know, if it gets you thinking ...

Friday, December 12, 2008

Using the Union to Break the Fall of Detroit


If the Chrysler bailout of 1979 is our guide for the tumultuous times in Detroit today, then Federal assistance for the Big Three is not much more than a short-term solution.

Popular culture fawned over Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca after "saving" the company. He had a best-selling book, graced magazine covers and hawked cars on television commercials. Iacocca was the man, except, in hindsight, he barely stopped the bleeding of the company and the slow slide of the American automobile industry.

A Hertitage Foundation essay from 1983 did well to take some of the shine off Chrysler's resurgence, calling the bailout "quasi-bankruptcy" in which the company failed to recapitalize or make significant changes to its leadership. The report points out that Chrysler missed out on becoming a leaner and more innovative company and its laggard ways also spread to General Motors and Ford.

Barry Ritholtz at The Big Picture blog details this point in a posting last month:

The Chrysler bailout of 1980 was not quite a pre-packaged bankruptcy reorganization. It left the company with the same management team, the same union contracts, the same pension obligations, and the same health-care coverage; all the bailout did was buy the company a few more years. Indeed, the pre-bailout industry looked almost identical to the post-bailout industry. None of the Detroit automakers, Chrysler included, received any long-term benefits from the bailout.

The major difference between 1979 and today is the hovering dark shadow of economic collapse, and many people believe that whether The Big Three fail is almost irrelevent just as long as it does not happen now, when just a smidge of panic on Wall Street will trigger further bloodletting.

What is interesting about our current financial atmosphere is a willingness by Republicans in Congress to stick to their ideological guns during this period by laying blame on the United Auto Workers. Embattled Louisiana Senator David Vitter simply says, “It sounds like the U.A.W. blew it up,”

Possibly the leading opponent to the bailout Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, who has four foreign automakers in his state, told the Wall Street Journal that he has always been against government assistance of private industry, noting that he voted against the 1979 Chrysler bailout and the recent $700 billion financial bailout. The story also describes the South's hospitality toward non-union workers and low wages.

Blaming the union for scuttling the proposed $15 billion bailout is not fair, according to The Nation's John Nichols, who notes that the UAW has already made huge concessions to The Big Three, while attempting to further weaken them will hamper the labor movement in the U.S.

Anyone who thinks that breaking the UAW will only weaken the circumstances of autoworkers is missing the point of the royalist enterprise, which is to weaken the ability of all American workers to demand fair pay and benefits.

Failure to aid Detroit could lead to unimaginable economic decline (just in time for Barack Obama's inauguration!). If politics is the ulterior motive of House Republicans – where one of labor's strongest unions is obliterated and the president-elect is saddled with an agenda solely of economic matters – then some people will wonder who's interests are being served.

Look for more thoughts on the auto bailout at The Commonwealth Club's Bank of America-Walter E. Hoadley Annual Economic Forecast, coming January 14. Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich will share his reactions.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Report: U.S. Global Power Will Diminish By 2025


The National Intelligence Council (NIC) has a thought-provoking outlook for the the global geopolitical future in a report released last month. (A .pdf of the report can be downloaded here.)

In the report titled, "Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World", it predicts the United States will continue to sit atop world leadership, but with diminishing returns and "where power will be dispersed with newer player with new rules to the game."

Along with Russia and China, one of these new players will be India, which was the subject of a four-person panel last night at The Commonwealth Club.

The assessment sees both China and India regaining economic power not seen in those countries in two centuries and predicting both will rival the U.S. and Japan in Gross Domestic Product by 2025. Here are some of the other points the report makes regarding India:

-States such as India and other nascent countries may not espouse the Western-developed modes of governing, but are more likely to drift toward methods of "state capitalism" used in China.

-Rapidly modernizing nations like India will likely usher in a new sense of stability as their economic livelihoods will depend on it. It cautions, though, that Russian aggression may be an outlier to that situation.

-The report also imagines the Middle East and Asia without Western intervention as potentially a stumbling block to globalization. If the West and the United States, specifically, find the region a burden to their interests, a scenario could arise where China and Russia, despite differences, come to a tacit union, leaving Iran and India with no choice but to support them in the absence of Western support.

As Michael T. Klare wrote in The Nation, "Not only will the United States be weaker in 2025 because of the hubris of Bush and Cheney; it will face a world of multiplied dangers, emboldened challengers and a paucity of reliable allies."

If you don't want to read the 130-page report, that's the conclusion in a nutshell.

Energy Pick Gets Rave Reviews, Yet Much Work Lies Ahead



After years of perceived scientific neglect at the upper rings of government, President-elect Barack Obama's choice of Nobel-winning physicist Steven Chu to lead the Department of Energy is drawing high marks, or as one blogger wrote, "I'm on board the Chu Chu train."

Praise for Chu's selection has been effusive. Joe Romm at Climate Progress called him "a great choice," as did Andrew Revkin on The New York Times blog Dot Earth. Brad Johnson at Think Progress' Wonk Room blog called him "a singular addition to Obama's Cabinet" and a posting from Science magazine also lays out how Chu might change the department.

The appointment brings both the prestige of the scientific world's highest honor along with adding an Asian-American to Obama's diverse cabinet.

Since last Friday, when word of possible candidates for the job began to leak, the name of Chu was little-known among big names who campaigned vigorously for Obama such as Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel and former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. The choice shows a willingness by the incoming administration to address climate and energy issues confronting the country.

During a 2005 speech at The Commonwealth Club, Chu said national security has become synonymous with energy security and the long-term competitiveness of the U.S. is threatened by global warming. (Click here to listen the speech.)

“I believe this energy issue is the center of all of these concerns," said Chu, "thus, I think it is the single most important societal problem that science has to solve. There is no magic bullet to this problem.”

Traditionally, the role of the energy secretary has primarily focused on nuclear energy and weapons issues rather than the conservation and alternative energy programs Chu favors.

The lack of administrative experience on the scale of the Department of Energy's $25 billion budget and 14,000 employees has been one major argument for some detractors. Former New Jersey governor and head of the Environmental Protection Agency Christine Todd Whitman has cautious words for the appointee saying, "It's a big leap from the academic world to the administrative world."

A Wall Street Journal piece from today also reveals Chu's aversion to coal and the need to develop methods for clean-coal.

Comments Chu made during a lecture at Cornell University last April on the need for regulations to curb carbon emission will not endear him to conservatives.

"Free market forces aren't going to do this. You really need a combination of fiscal policies and downright regulations, and it has to be international. And above all, we need to put a price on carbon without any loopholes. People in the U.S. especially are working very hard to keep it below $20 per ton -- and then have additional loopholes -- because at that price you actually don't have to change anything."

Blogger Matthew Yglesias put a damper on the appointment of Chu; while lauding it, he also believes the position offers the chance at little but a "bully pulpit." Also, at the same posting an interesting video of Chu is offered.

Chu, 60, was both congenial and lighthearted during the question and answer segment of his Commonwealth Club speech on solving the world energy crisis.

He reflected on his denial to both Princeton and Yale after graduation as a being "the best thing to happen to him" and displayed sharp, self-deprecating humor when describing his mother's feelings about winning the Nobel Prize in 1997.

“It gained me some respect in my family, but not in my mother’s eyes. She still can’t figure out why my oldest brother—he’s the one with the most degrees—and so my mother, who is getting along in the years, is still trying to figure out why didn’t Gilbert get the Nobel Prize. Why did Steven get the Nobel Prize? So, she’s finally come to the solution that Steven must be better at the politics of getting something like that. So, you can’t win.”

Wonder what Mother Chu is thinking today?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Kinsley On Journalism, Not The Economy



You really could not expect two journalism lions like Michael Kinsley and Phil Bronstein to not talk about the state of newspapers, could you?

Kinsley, the purveyor of nearly every medium of journalism, spoke to The Commonwealth Club Tuesday about the demise of newspapers while finding optimism in journalism's future online, in a conversation moderated by the editor-at-large of the San Francisco Chronicle.

With fresh news that Kinsley's old boss during his stint on the editorial pages at the Los Angeles Times filed for bankruptcy, the topic was on the minds of both.

Kinsley's contentious stay at the L.A. Times occurred among infighting with the new owner, the Tribune Company, and a radical and unsuccessful idea to allow readers to make additions to editorials using technology made famous by Wikipedia. In his conversation with Bronstein, Kinsley did not mask his anger towards Zell, who purchased the Tribune media empire two years after Kinsley left the Los Angeles Times.

“I was prepared until today to think that Sam Zell wasn't totally evil,” said Kinsley before adding, “I think Zell should be taken out and shot.”

Kinsley criticized the Tribune's decision to put ownership of the company under employee stock holders, while noting many of the former employees offered buyouts are now unsecured creditors since the bankruptcy.

Some of the more thought-provoking moments of the hour-long program were Kinsley's view of the future of his craft. He does not believe that newspaper companies will die, but newspapers will, and he thinks the key to the future may be discovered by a no-name.

“It will probably be a company that nobody has heard of. Somebody is going to crack this nut,” said Kinsley. He believes whichever successful model that arises will ultimately be replicated or bought by a larger company like the New York Times.

It might be wise to heed Kinsley's advice when it comes to imagining the future of journalism and the internet; Kinsley is about the closest person to a sage of cyberspace. In 1996, he founded Slate, the web's first online news magazine. He did note that some of his ideas were a bit conventional in hindsight.

Initially, he conceived the site's content to be printed weekly similar to a magazine, even including page numbers.

“The conventions of print have been in place for centuries and to the point that you don't even think about,” said Kinsley, “The internet is starting to develop some conventions like that, so that you don't have to be Gutenberg to start a publication.”

At one point, in reference to a recent Time column where he wondered whether there were too many blogs, one audience member jokingly asked whether he was also against the printing press. He said he was not and said the piece was a bad attempt at humor and reiterated his belief in the future of blogging.

“Something like that is where this whole thing is going to end up,” said Kinsley, “It's probably going to evolve in some ways to the whole blogging world where amateurs sitting in their boxer shorts opining. It might not be so terrible.”

When the discussion turned to economic matters, of which Kinsley was expected to speak, he said “I don't think anything that has happened certainly so far really threatens capitalism. Capitalism is here to stay.”

With Congress immersed in talk of bailing out the automotive industry, Kinsley wondered why until the bankruptcy of the Tribune Company no one has called for assistance of the newspaper industry, and he ridiculed cable news talking heads (of which he was one once, as the liberal side of CNN's Crossfire) who are clueless on the financial crisis.

I think it is very funny to watch all these shows during our current financial crisis and you'll find some funny stuff there,” said Kinsley, “They don't have any idea and I don't either, and to hear them, you would think, they were masters of derivatives and how the auto industry works.”

Travelers Beware!


Amy Kniss, a member of The Commonwealth Club's media and PR staff, contributes the following:

As the holiday season draws near, many of us are in the midst of making our travel plans, but before you make those reservations or hit the road you should consult Peter Greenberg's new book Don't Go There!: The Travel Detective's Essential Guide to the Must-Miss Places of the World (Rodale Books).

Greenberg spoke yesterday at The Commonwealth Club of California about how to travel better, faster and cheaper, even during these harsh economic times. The former Newsweek writer and onetime travel editor for NBC's "Today Show" has spent much of his life and career on the go, and now he is sharing the secrets of traveling well. His talk revealed much of "what locals will tell you if you asked, but travel guides won't."

Covering all 50 states and at least 50 foreign countries, Greenberg brought a humorous style to some of the more serious issues of traveling, like piracy, terrorists and airport security. But his comedic style only enhanced what might otherwise be a depressing look at what's wrong with a globe's worth of destinations.

What's the key to effective traveling? According to Greenberg, "It's all about not listening to the rules. The rules are arbitrary and going to you get you in trouble every time." He advised travelers to be contrarians, particularly when it involves going against the flow of airport traffic. "Why look at the departure board when checking to see if your flight is on time?" Greenberg asks. Those boards haven't been right since 1963. Travelers should instead check the arrival board for their gate to see if a plane is there. If not, he says, why make the trek down the terminal only to be disappointed by an inevitable delay?

Although it may seem counterintuitive, Greenberg also suggested that when travelers arrive for a departure flight, they enter at the arrival level, and vice versa when their flight arrives at an airport. His logic? Full flights lead to long lines, congestion and slow security. Entering and exiting the airport against the flow of traffic will help travelers arrive speedily at their destinations, with far less stress.

Also, when preparing to leave for the airport, Greenberg reminded travelers to print their boarding pass and check-in online to streamline the airport experience. He also recommended that travelers program the airline's 800 number into their mobile phone. That way, should they run into unexpected delays at the airport, or worse find their flight canceled, they can avoid the lines at the ticketing counter and rearrange their travel plans over the phone while fellow passengers scramble to talk to an agent in person.

Instead of landing us in jail with his "don't follow the rules" mantra, Greenberg's spin helps us tweak our expectations for particular destinations and insists that being informed about where we are going is the best offense to both domestic and international travel.

He emphasized the human element of traveling and recommended calling hotels directly and contacting airlines before purchasing online. He not only encouraged travelers to FedEx their luggage to their destination beforehand, rather than check their bags, but to befriend ticket and gate agents at airports they depart from frequently.

Most important, Greenberg said, “Get to know their names. Don't ask them for anything. Be nice. Say thank you." Greenberg says agents tend to remember you positively and are more willing to pass along essential information concerning your travel itinerary and the like. "Not because you asked them for the low down, but simply because you were nice.”

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dawn of the Energy Climate Era

While the negotiations going on this week in Poland often seem plodding and diffuse, when one considers the magnitude of exactly what is happening, they are an exciting moment in history.

After World War II, the victors created a set of institutions (United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund) and treaties (United Nations Charter, Universal Declaration of Human Rights) that collectively defined the world order for the ensuing 60 years.

As Fareed Zakaria said (audio) in his talk earlier this year at The Commonwealth Club, those institutions are ill-equipped to deal with the challenge of climate change. And, as the carbon muscles of India and China illustrate, the industrialized West will not get to dictate terms this time around.

Next year, developed and developing countries will negotiate a new treaty on climate change that will impact every person, industry and organization in ways that we are just starting to comprehend. That treaty will rank up there with the pillars of the post-war era and its implementation will be accompanied by the creation of new international structures that don't even exist now. In 20 years they will be household names. Thomas Friedman is calling this new chapter the Energy-Climate Era.

The centerpiece agreement of this carbon-conscious era could be built on several architectures, says Rob Stavins, co-director of the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements.

1) It could be centralized under one mega-treaty with a set of targets and timetables for each signatory country to reduce carbon in the atmosphere;
2) It could consist of harmonized national policies, which could include a portfolio of various treaties or a system of national taxes.

Whichever emerges, it is going to be a very busy year in 2009. While the Obama administration re-engages the international negotiations, there will be a flurry of activity in Congress on domestic legislation to create some kind of cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. Lorrie Schmidt, a Congressional staffer , says, “Congress and the executive [branch] will go in parallel; neither will get too far ahead of the other.” With good reason. During the Kyoto talks in the 1990s, the Clinton administration negotiated a deal without sufficiently including Congress. The treaty was dead on arrival at the U.S. Senate.

This time around, Congress will be much more involved, as demonstrated by the bi-partisan staffers here representing chairs of key committees such as House Energy and Commerce (Waxman), Senate Environment and Public Works (Boxer), and Foreign Relations (Kerry).

Can the United States approve a cap-and-trade law before the international treaty negotiations next December in Copenhagen? That will be a stretch, to say the least, given the complexity of measuring, trading and verifying an entirely new market and political opposition in some states. One possibility is for the U.S. Congress to approve a set of principles next fall that empower the U.S. negotiating team to cut a deal that can get through the Senate.

However they do it, they need to get it right. A lot is at stake. As Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says. “This is our defining moment.”

Fighting Deflation By Printing More Money

Investors in Treasury bills today did the equivalent of betting on the thoroughbred running at even money in every race.

The interest rate in T-bills fell to -.01 percent and the government came away with a no-interest $30 billion loan.

Aaron Pressman at BusinessWeek says that T-bills, regardless of their worth, are still the safest bet in these chaotic financial times, yet the reason for the seemingly poor investments is the padding of year-end quarterly reports.

It implies that investors are so worried about the safety and possible decline in value of most investments that they’re willing to lend merely on the assurance of getting their principal back intact. While some analysts fear runaway inflation from all the government bailouts and borrowing, the T-bill market at least is giving a pretty clear signal that’s not what is on big investors’ minds. They’re worried about the opposite, widespread deflation from the ongoing credit crisis, like the falling prices that occurred during the Great Depression.

The specter of deflation, the reduction of the money supply and credit, is forcing some to urge the U.S. Treasury to alter its monetary policies to deliberately jolt the prices, namely by simply printing more money.

Michael Kinsley, who spoke tonight at The Commonwealth Club of California, espouses this idea in the current issue of Time, though it rests on former Fed chair and Obama adviser Paul Volcker reversing course on the idea of tamping down inflation.

It would seem one of the problems with merely stoking the economy with new money in addition to a robust stimulus package is the issue of timing, along with pinpointing how much is enough. As many economists believe, adding too much money just as the economy begins to heal could lead to inflation when the economic caffeine of the stimulus finally kicks in. Conversely, not enough of a stimulus could further prolong the doldrums.

Conservative voices on the issue understandably believe in a more hands-off way of fixing the economy. John McManus at the New American faults Obama for choosing Tim Geithner and Lawrence Summers for this economic team, writing, "Each strongly supports another stimulus package that will have government print or borrow some more money to dispense to the American people. Each will seek to manage the economy when what is clearly needed is for government to get out of the way."

Thomas Mayer, writing in the notoriously conservative opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, is denying that deflation is around the corner but says little to assuage feelings that a deep recession is likely.

Economics is a tricky, multi-headed Hydra where the monster could easily be slain by one method at one time, while utterly invincible later to the same plan. If that's true, some critics may worry that so many of our economic leaders are wedded to the textbook response to fighting deflation that they may overlooking something better.

On the Auto Bailout, "Nationalization" Is the Secret Word

Apparently, you can fool Congress once, but not twice.

The auto industry is paying the price for the apparent inability of the banking bailout to do much for the ailing economy. Big banks have been accused of hording the initial round of the $700 billion bailout, while peripheral industries like the insurance companies have sought to buy into the government handout by buying struggling financial institutions.

The New York Times' David Sanger cuts to the heart of President-elect Barack Obama's plan to place restrictions on any aid to the Big Three automakers. It's called nationalization.

Sanger points out that not since President Harry Truman attempted to nationalize the striking steel industry in 1952 has the idea been seriously contemplated.

Truman's attempt at nationalizing the steel industry was highly unpopular and was attributed, in part, to whispers from Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) that he was soft on communists during the height of the Korean War. The New York Daily News' front page even blared, "Truman Does A Hitler." The U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturned Truman's steel-nationalization executive order two months later, but outrage over the legality of Truman's reach of presidential power lingered.

Discussion of the steel workers strike was rampant around The Commonwealth Club in the summer of 1952. The Commonwealth, the then-weekly newsletter of the club, was teeming with references specifically to price controls issued by the Wage Stabilization Board and by Truman's own choice for the Democratic nomination, Averill Harriman.

In a speech given at the club on May 19, 1952, a defiant Harriman defended Truman's stance toward the striking steel industry. "We can't leave it to the steel industry to tell us how much steel the country needs," said Harriman, who would eventually lose the nomination to Adlai Stevenson, "We can't leave it to industry and business to plan the future of the economy."

At least in part, Harriman's rationale sounds similar to feeling toward automakers that Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress have expressed: We don't trust you.

The possible deal laid out before the Big Three bears this sentiment, calling for extraordinary government oversight of the industry. Here are a few of the bill's recommendations:

  • Naming of a "car czar" to rein in the industry's financial dealings.
  • The power to access financial records.
  • Ability to approve any transaction over $25 million.
  • Denies payment of stockholder dividends while emergency loans are outstanding.

Possibly fearful of too much government intervention, Ford announced that it was not in such dire straits after all and bowed out of any bailout. Thanks, but no thanks, at least, for now.

As the Times article points out, how long until foreign car companies with factories in the states begin to cry political nepotism? I have a Nissan built in Tennessee that runs like a dream. My dad has a Chevy made in Michigan that runs like a nightmare. Which company is to be rewarded for their work?

Feds, 2; Illinois Governors, 0


In what is becoming the de rigueur exit strategy from the Illinois governor's office, that state's governor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, has been "taken into custody" by federal agents in connection with an investigation into Blago (as he's sometimes known) trying to "sell" the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by President-Elect Barack Obama.

Blagojevich's arrest comes not long after he tried to get President George W. Bush to commute the prison sentence of his predecessor in the governor's mansion, Republican George Ryan. Ryan is serving a six-year sentence on federal charges of racketeering and fraud.

Blagojevich's alleged crimes include trying to extort money from people wanting to do state business, trying to get money and other considerations in return for appointing someone to fill in the remainder of Obama's term in the Senate, and withholding state help from the Chicago Cubs, who were trying to sell ol' Wrigley Field.

If you're a Chicago White Sox fan like I am, then that last charge is understandable. But the rest of the charges are jaw-dropping, and they are not the first to be aimed at Blago. Read this major article in Chicago magazine (which, like the Chicago Tribune, the LA Times, WGN TV and Radio, and much more, is owned by the Tribune company, which recently filed for bankruptcy).

If you're at all a clean-government devotee, then this latest development can do nothing to improve the historic image of Illinois as a den of political corruption.

12:43 pm ADDITION: The Wall Street Journal offers this handy listing of corupt Illinois governors. Clip it out and carry it around in your wallet.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Audio of Dr. Gloria Duffy Discussing Obama Transition on Ronn Owens Show

Here's an MP3 podcast link for Commonwealth Club President and CEO Dr. Gloria C. Duffy's appearance Friday, Dec. 5, on KGO Radio's Ronn Owens show.

You can find this and other links on Owens' audio archives page. (Note: These links may expire soon.)

Christie Hefner Exits Playboy Enterprises


At a time of unprecedented turmoil in the publishing and media markets, Playboy Enterprises Chair and CEO Christie Hefner has announced her plans to leave the company she has led for 20 years.

Hefner, seen in the photo above addressing The Commonwealth Club of California on January 19, 2005, has been credited with stearing the company through decades of changing tastes in America's political, cultural, and business scenes. From closing the company's iconic nightclubs to selling its iconic skycscraper in Chicago (sorry; so much of the magazine – like it or dislike it – is iconic), Ms. Hefner changed the company into a multimedia player with considerable successes in video and the internet. The company has, arguably, not recovered from the loss of big-pocket advertisers after it became targeted by right-wing critics in the 1980s. But it remains a major multimedia player, and Ms. Hefner has been a high-profile media executive with frequent public appearances (at everything from the old Internet World expos to the aforementioned Commonwealth Club, where she discussed globalized media companies).

Her exit marks yet another turning point for the company founded by her father in 1953. No doubt, publishing industry eyes will be closely watching her successor for indications of how much he or she will change the direction of the – sorry – iconic company.

This just in: MSNBC interviews Christie Hefner about her future plans; click on the video feature to view the interview.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Post from Poznan


The first thing I noticed upon arrival in Poznan, Poland, for the United Nations Climate Summit was the acrid smell of coal in the air. Coal, among the dirtiest of fossil fuels, accounts for 95 percent of Poland's electricity and the hazy skies here evoke sooty images from a Dickens novel. This heavily industrialized part of central Europe is so polluted it is called the Black Triangle.

One of Europe's largest coal mines is just a few miles down the road, and there is a smokestack right across the street from the sprawling Soviet-era conference center. That's a fitting reminder for the 11,000 people who are gathered to discuss pathways to a low carbon global economy.

If the dreary setting, and the massive magnitude of the climate challenge, were not enough, the UN conference opened as the global economic crisis continues to deepen. "The bottom line is we are not going to be in the position we were two years ago" to provide technology and financial resources to tackle climate change, U.S. Senator John Kerry said in the United States before the conference opened here December 1st. Kerry is head of the US Congressional delegation arriving here next week and chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, which will consider the treaty expected to emerge at the next annual summit in Copenhagen next December.

Despite the dark horizons and modest expectations of this year's gathering, there are bright spots. A briefing by the World Resources Institute, a Washington think tank, noted that much of China's $586 billion economic stimulus package is geared toward improving energy infrastructure and efficiency. China realizes that juicing the economy can be done while making smart investments in a new generation of energy infrastructure and efficiency. Other countries are seeing the same double play and the amount of capital being pumped into alternative energies and sustainable economic development is now many times greater than it ever has been.

Still, much more needs to be done. There is a broad international consensus on that. How much more? Some energy advocates and NASA's climate pioneer James Hansen say the end goal should be an atmosphereic carbon concentration of 350 parts per million. Others say 450 ppm is the number that will avoid catastrophic disruptions in our climate and way of life.

Many companies and politicians don't want to commit to a specific target. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a London-based association of corporate titans such as Dupont, IBM, and mining giant Rio Tinto, dodges the sensitive question of a hard figure. But it does say significant cuts are necessary. "The current economic crisis reinforces business interests in a clear, comprehensive framework" for cutting carbon emissions after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, council member George Weyerhaeuser, Jr., told the conference.

What will the new global climate deal be? That won't be known until next December, but if it has any hope of solving the climate crisis it must dramatically cut emissions from coal plants such as the ones that power (and choke) this town. Poland's prime minister, Donald Tusk, says he supports fighting climate change, like just about every politician these days. And like nearly every politician, he thinks his constituents should get a special break, arguing Poland should be exempt from European Union plans to curb carbon emissions. Multiply that attitude by 160 participating countries and one begins to gauge the enormity of what must happen. Fast.

Greg Dalton, Commonwealth Club vice president and head of its ClimateOne program, is attending climate talks in Poznan, Poland.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Juice Is No Longer Loose


Is this the final act in the O.J. Simpson tragedy? Fourteen years after his infamous acquittal for double murder, the Hall of Fame running back was sentenced to a maximum 33 years in prison, though eligible for parole in 2017, for kidnapping stemming from an altercation in a Las Vegas hotel room last year. (Read Simpson's plea for leniency here.)

Many stories and blogs have skipped to the most interesting subplot of this story--namely, is this retribution for the perception of many that he slipped free from the hands of justice in the same way he dodged would-be tacklers in the NFL?

The entertainment blog at the Los Angeles Times, The Dish Rag, gets right to the point with the headline, "O.J. Simpson Sentenced to Jail Time. Finally!" with an exclamation point for good measure.

In an indication of Simpson's multi-platform stardom, sports bloggers from USA Today's Game On! include legal analysis on the judge's sentencing. ESPN's Lester Munson said, "this is a very stiff sentence," while adding, "Clearly the judge had no idea of leniency, or mercy or forgiving him for this robbery."

Though it adds nothing new to the discussion, the Washington Post actually has an NFL and crime blog called, NFL Crime Watch, which does not say much for the state of football and society when there is enough football players "gone wild" to justify its own blog.

Simpson's first go-around with the legal system ended more happily for the man known as "the Juice." His acquittal of charges of murdering his ex-wife and Ronald Goldman divided the nation along racial lines. Many believe Simpson literally "got away with murder."

In a 2002 speech at The Commonwealth Club of California, Simpson's lead attorney, the late Johnnie Cochran, answered the ubiquitous query, "Did O.J. do it?" (Read Cochran's entire speech or here.)

I think he is innocent for the following reasons: Never before have I seen a case, and I'll work backwards, where one of the star witnesses pleads guilty to perjury during the course of the trial. Never before have I seen a case where so much of the evidence was tampered with.... I argued the case to the jury in good faith, because he always maintained he was innocent; I'll be debating and arguing this case forever, but that was pretty much it.

In many ways the initial stream of thought in the blogosphere is similar to the media circus Americans witnessed outside the Los Angeles County Courthouse in 1994.

Lee Stranahan at the Huffington Post is urging President Bush to pardon Simpson as a smoke screen until January 20, while another blogger posing as O.J. writes that the authorities should look into the death of William Shatner's wife because "he's a no-talent hack."

This may be the end of O.J. in American popular culture, of course, until the biopic of his life comes out in theaters Christmas Day 2020. Any guesses to who will play O.J.? Will Smith, maybe, or foul-mouthed child actor Bobb'e J. Thompson from the movie, Role Models?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

How The Mumbai Attacks Change Everything in India


Stanford professor Rafiq Dossani wrote in a paper titled, "Prospects Brighten for Long-term Peace in South Asia" that radicalism in Pakistan relies on the military, and Indian economic growth made armed conflict unreasonable.

Dossani, who will appear Dec. 11 at the Commonwealth Club of California to speak about India's future as a world superpower, may have made a controversial reading of the future of the Indian subcontinent when he wrote: "Hindu radicalism in India, though gaining in both popular and political support, is insufficiently popular to support irrational aggression against Pakistan."

That was until last week's terrorist attacks in Mumbai changed everything.

Robert D. Kaplan writes a fascinating, yet boiled-down version of Indian relations between Muslims and Hindus on theatlantic.com. There are 154 million Muslims in India. Only Indonesia and Pakistan has a larger population. According to Kaplan, India has more to lose from Islamic fundamentalism than any other nation. With the rise of India as an economic powerhouse, the ruling Hindu middle class has created a new national narrative that has excluded the region's Islamic history:

Indians, especially the new Hindu middle class, began a search for roots to anchor them inside an insipid world civilization that they were joining as a result of their new economic status. This enhanced status, by the way, gave them new insecurities, as they suddenly had wealth to protect.

Just as 9/11 hardened national securities issues supported by many military hawks in the U.S., experts believe that the Mumbai attacks could push Indians toward a government more strident in its view of radical Muslims.

The party leader of the opposition Indian People's Party (BJP) is already ratcheting up an aggressive stance against Pakistan before national elections in a few months from now.

"Let us not forget, the 26/11 strike is not just another terrorist incident," said Rajnath Singh, "This is a declaration of an open war against India by terrorists and their perpetrators."

Criticism of the Indian government and reaction to the world media's use of September 11 imagery to describe last week's siege has been skeptical. A New York Times Op-Ed yesterday says "9/11" is not an apt metaphor for the attacks, and a column in The Nation says Mumbai is a domestic issue, not a part of a so-called "global jihad."

Dossani along with Sabeer Bhatia, co-founder, Hotmail and Arzoo.com; entrepreneur
Kanwal Rekhi, managing director, Inventus Capital Partners; venture capitalist; philanthropist, and Ananya Roy, Ph.D., associate dean of Academic Affairs International & Area Studies, UC Berkeley, will discuss India's future growth toward superpower status at The Commonwealth Club of California Dec. 11 at 6 p.m.

Irish President Attempts to Bring Nation's Religious Factions Together

Irish President Mary McAleese has done much during her 11 years in office to change Irish politics for the better, yet what she did last week had never been done.

McAleese visited the Brakey Orange Hall in County Cavan, about 50 miles north of Dublin. An Irish Catholic leader had never before been invited to the Protestant outpost. (Read the entire speech here.)

The Orange Order of County Cavan is one of the few Protestant outposts left in the Republic of Ireland. The order is fundamentally opposed to anything Catholic. Members are expected to reveal they are not Catholics and are expected to sign documents vowing to leave the organization if they choose to marry one.

The Irish Catholic president, the first born in Northern Ireland and the world's first woman to succeed another female head of state (Mary Robinsion preceded her), has made reconciliation with Protestants a focal point of her administration.

Ten years have past since the historic Good Friday agreement brokered in part by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell. The accord, also known as the Belfast Agreement, has significantly quelled sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. McAleese's recent trip to the religious order was just a part of a larger outreach to Irish Protestants.

McAleese will appear at the University of San Francisco Dec. 11 at 10 a.m. to speak in-depth on Ireland's attempt to reconcile social justice on the island. The speech is in conjunction with The Commonwealth Club of California and is free to the public. Click here for more details.

Dr. Gloria Duffy on KGO Radio's Ronn Owens Program Friday at 10 am


Commonwealth Club President and CEO -- and veteran of the Washington presidential transitions process -- Dr. Gloria C. Duffy will discuss the Obama transition during an appearance this Friday on the Ronn Owens show.

The live program will air this Friday, December 5, at 10 am Pacific time, on KGO Newstalk AM 810.

Owens has also had our next president as a guest on his program; listen to that audio.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Nixon Tapes Show Cautious Defense Secretary Laird


New tapes and documents from the Nixon presidency were released yesterday revealing his Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird highlighting the public's unrest over the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War.

Laird was Nixon's defense secretary from 1969-73 and was a major proponent of allowing the South Vietnamese to slowly take control of the war on their own. The policy called "Vietnamization" lowered casualties and reduced the number of troops in Southeast Asia.

On January 28, 1971, Laird spoke to The Commonwealth Club of California and touted the success of Vietnamization. "My trip confirmed a continuing conviction that President Nixon's strategy for achieving our goals in Southeast Asia is working." Laird's trip is a reference to meetings he held with commanders and South Vietnamese diplomats.

The seven-page memorandum released yesterday and written in October of 1969 shows Laird's belief that expanded bombings in North Vietnam favored by the military would bloat the already high cost of the conflict and further the tide of discontent among Americans.

With combat activity levels reduced in South Vietnam, but with seemingly rising levels of discontent in the United States, we should review the overall situation and determine the best course of action.... The sum total of the considerations ... casts grave doubt on the validity and efficacy.

The bombings did not take place in 1969, but did result in the "Christmas Bombings" of Hanoi in 1972. Some historians believe the controversial military operation was illegal, while others blamed the North Vietnamese for walking out of the Paris peace talks.

In Laird's Commonwealth Club speech, he touches upon the North Vietnamese attitude toward the negotiations.

President Nixon early made explicit the U.S. interest in pursuing the negotiations route. As it became clearer that other side regarded Paris as an opportunity for propaganda rather than serious negotiation, the prospect of resolving the conflict by diplomacy alone appeared more and more remote.

Laird, 86, stands by his decisions to support Vietnamization during his tenure at the defense department and believes it was a factor in the eventual stabilization of Vietnam today.

In a 2005 article for Foreign Affairs, Laird regards the governments propped up in Vietnam during the conflict to be "puppets." He compares the present government of Iraq today favorably, despite early problems.

"The factious process of writing the Iraqi constitution has been painful to watch, and the varying factions must be kept on track," Laird writes. "But the process is healthy and, more important, homegrown."

People have drawn many parallels between the Vietnam War and the current situation in Iraq, yet there is one important difference. How many people in our government today can be called a supporter of true "Iraqization" – other than the Iraq government?

FDR Called for the Rights of the Individual; Will Obama Do the Same?


President-elect Barack Obama has not saved the economy yet, but his victory last month is going a long way toward saving the publishing industry.

Doris Kearns Goodwin's two-year-old book Team of Rivals has becoming a bestseller on the heels of countless references to it and Obama's desire to create the same open-ended discussion in his own cabinet. (Listen to Kearns Goodwin discuss the book at The Commonwealth Club.) Of course, newspapers and magazines around the country couldn't keep enough copies on newsstands with the visage of Obama during the days after the election.

Now, it's all about making the link between the Depression-era beginning of Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency and Obama's today.

One of the better and most specific books concerning our current period of economic upheaval and presidential transition is Jonathan Alter's The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.

Alter posits that FDR's common jibe of being a "traitor to his class" was born out of his battle with polio. This debilitating illness forced him to gain an understanding with those less fortunate. It could be said that Obama's background and his fight with race in America would allow for the same empathy.

One interesting chapter in the book details how FDR broke convention tradition by accepting the nomination the day after. Though flying by aircraft was not particularly safe in 1932, FDR flew to Chicago for the mere spectacle of such arrival. Recall how Obama, on short notice, chose to accept the nomination in an 80,000-seat football stadium instead of at the convention hall and packed nearly 100,000 into Chicago's Grant Park on election night.

But it is one of FDR's most famous speeches that reveals a plausible connection between the two leaders.

On September 23, 1932, he gave what Alter calls "a dividing line in his political evolution." during a speech at The Commonwealth Club of California. The speech ranks as one of the club's most famous moments. (Read the entire speech here.)

The address has been characterized as un-Roosevelt-like in its clarity and bluntness. Alter says this was because the speech was barely read over beforehand by FDR; therefore, the candidate was unable to "sand the edges and apply his usual caution."

The Commonwealth Club speech is now seen as the first clear rationale behind the New Deal and, more important, redefined the idea of the individual. Some of FDR's rhetoric seems pedestrian today, yet it was revolutionary to a country set in an economic free fall and wallowing in self-doubt.

Every man has a right to life; and this means that he has also a right to make a comfortable living. He may by sloth or crime decline to exercise that right; but it may not be denied him. We have no actual famine or death; our industrial and agricultural mechanism can produce enough and to spare. Our government formal and informal, political and economic, owes to every one an avenue to possess himself of a portion of that plenty sufficient for his needs, through his own work.

University of Chicago professors Jane Dailey and David Nirenberg bring the speech and the current state of our financial atmosphere into perspective in an article in Dissent magazine from last September.

As we watch (at current estimates) more than a trillion dollars in collective savings disappear into the whirlpool that was once Wall Street, we are already hearing calls for such restrictions and regulations. These calls are not misplaced, but they are not enough. We also need what Roosevelt provided three-quarters of a century ago: a politically convincing and principled way of imagining a relationship between the economic and political rights of the individual and those of the collective, which he called the “economic constitutional order.”

They go on to urge this simple bit of advice: "In order to know what we want to regulate or whom we have to bailout, we first need to know what and whom we want to protect."

Monday, December 1, 2008

In Defense of Blogs; They're Not Taking Writer's Jobs

Will newspapers exist five years from now? Will bloggers overrun newsrooms? And what to do with legions of out-of-work career journalists unable to shift to the Brave New World of the Internet?

One of web journalism's pioneers, Michael Kinsley believes cyberspace is critically inundated with blogs, as he writes in his Dec. 1 article in Time.

Kinsley, who founded the web magazine Slate in 1996, would seem to be the one journalist able to see into the journalism's tangled future. Instead, like many long-time scribes, the ability to condemn blogging as a craft unlike any other form of writing seems easier than describing its possible benefits.

In a article for The Atlantic, long-time blogger Andrew Sullivan writes what may become the manifesto for the true meaning of blogging. In the current issue of the magazine, Sullivan describes blogging as an elusive middle ground between dialogue and writing. Because of the immediacy and unfiltered aspect of the blogging, he argues, a writer delivers crisp, unfiltered information.

Kinsley's article laments the sheer number of blogs that "need" to be read. Jason Linkins writing at The Huffington Post thinks this coming "blogopocalyse" is a bit of hyperbole with a simple solution.

I just don't recognize the human beings suffering from blog overload in the way Kinsley describes it, as creatures I have met in Real Life. Blog readers are not all mindless, passive drones on a Sarah Palin-esque quest to read "all of them." The simplest solution to the problem Kinsley cites, it seems to me, is for sentient beings, capable of making choices, to exist.

Beyond this, Kinsley veers back to a common dig at the bloggers perpetuated by print journalists. The key is to ridicule them as Kinsley wrote in a 2006 column for Time, asking, "So are we doomed to get our news from some acned 12-year-old in his parents' basement recycling rumors from the Internet echo chamber?"

One could argue that the underlying argument against the blog levied by journalists is buried beneath human nature – jealousy and spite – for the most part. In my own experience, I have two 25-year-vets of the San Francisco Chronicle as journalism lecturers. Both despise the activity and openly mock the craft. To them, being a reporter is about pounding the pavement and getting the story before the other guy. As Kinsley writes, "while an article a day used to be a typical reporter's quota (or in the leisurely precincts of newsmagazines, an article a week), reporters are now expected to blog 24/7 as well."

The bulk of the perception regarding the end of newspapers may actually be a related to the experience of professional journalists who pushed their way through J-school, worked the dreaded city council beat and forged a solid reputation for honesty, reporting and excellent writing and now see the younger generation have it way too easy.

Change is difficult no matter occupation you're in. The influx of computers in the office space during the 1980s surely made older employees nervous about doing jobs that once involved pencils, paper and giant accounting ledgers.

The other point of ridicule is to propagate the image of a slacker recycling the news, or as Kinsley said two years ago:

Meanwhile, there is the blog terror: people are getting their understanding of the world from random lunatics riffing in their underwear, rather than professional journalists with standards and passports.

Scott Rosenberg, one of the founder of the web 'zine, Salon, answers the question of blogging's legitimacy succinctly in an article for The Guardian last year. It is not about the ability of anyone on the planet to broadcast their thoughts and ideas according to the media, but what that power will do to their jobs.

Most journalists' understanding of the nature of blogging has been circumscribed by a focus on how it might affect our profession. We write articles about whether blogging can be journalism, we worry about whether bloggers can or will replace journalists, and we miss the real stories.

The real story is the democratization of thought that worries journalists who bash bloggers. The keys to the kingdom of information no longer sit in the locked offices of the publisher, but on simple, free blogging sites readily available on the web. In some ways the rise of blogs is similar to the decline of adult film studios and the availability of VCR's and video tape. Adult studios quickly ran out of business. Actors and actresses were no longer needed. Anybody could produce these videos and a glut of "entertainment" followed.

If you follow Kinsley's logic that every single blog must be read instead of making informed choices on the integrity and newsworthiness of each, then hordes of teenage boys would have never left their homes.

When it comes to the quality of blogging, it is compelling to think of John Milton's concept of the "marketplace of ideas." There are surely millions of worthless blogs, but like any good newspaper or book, the good one's can rise to the top, leaving the scum at the bottom of the cyberspace tank inconsequential and without significant page views.

"We're not going to run out of web space." writes Rosenberg, "and each of us still decides how to spend our time. What price is the world paying for the existence of blogging's universal soapbox? Unless someone has figured out how to make you read a blog when you don't want to, I don't see one."

The blog as most of us knows it is not the Wild West of writing that journalists will have you think, but a place well-known to the those same writers – The New York Times is of far greater gravitas than your free weekly tabloid dropped on your driveway in the same way The Huffington Post is of greater importance than the slacker posting in his underwear that Kinsley describes.

Unless you own stock in The New York Times Co., it is best not to lament the fall of newspapers. For every journalists out of work, a thousand citizen journalists will rise to take their place making society stronger with the power of truth and knowledge.

Michael Kinsley will be speaking Dec. 9 at The Commonwealth Club of California at 6 p.m. For tickets click here. Kinsley will give his thoughts on the current U.S. financial system and the politics involved.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Turner and Kawasaki at ContentNow Blog

Martine Paris has nice things to say about the recent appearance at The Club of Ted Turner and Guy Kawasaki. Read the post or check out her entire ContentNow blog.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Rhonda Becomes Invisible

Try sitting on the sidewalk. The rhythm of the noontime San Francisco foot traffic is steady on the corner of 2nd and Market, and the skies have been graying on the verge of rainfall. Businessmen and tourists stroll by and hover over you. This is the epitome of power, like Cassius Clay looking down at a destroyed Sonny Liston.

From this vantage point you become invisible. You don't really see more than shiny loafers and stylish pumps skitter across the cold concrete. This angle doesn't allow for much eye contact, either way. For a homeless woman named Rhonda this arrangement makes her disappear. Her obscurity lets passersby off the hook. I don't see you and you don't see me. People like Rhonda are easily forgotten.

Rhonda has made her home on 2nd Street for 10 years or as far as anyone around here remembers. John, the shoeshine man on Market, remembers her that far back, and the manager at the Men's Wearhouse, whose wall Rhonda uses as a backrest, agrees. "She thinks that's her home," says John, who is has been a fixture on that corner for 20 years. Members of The Commonwealth Club may have passed her by on their way to a fanciful speech on the downfall of our society, or something like it.

Rhonda's spot is quite large. She lies sideways on the sidewalk. Her elbow propping her body up against a few worn blankets -- a homeless Cleopatra without consorts. To her left is a large cart filled with a sleeping bag, cardboard boxes, half of a broom, a sheet of plastic to shield the rain and various sundry items. "Nothing I have is worth anything," she says.

Rhonda herself is a large African-American woman, though the the multi-layers of shirts, coats and sweaters makes her look rounder than she really is. She says she is 72, but like a lot of what she will tell you, this is subject to debate. The upper bridge of her teeth is gone, along with a few on the bottom, and she tugs a dark blue knit cap to her eyebrows and covers her ears. She's listening to her radio with her earphones. She likes R&B music with a little jazz. She listens to KBLX and sometimes the news to pass time.

There is no denying that Rhonda is one of many homeless people suffering from mental illness. Our conversation devolves into a jumble of non sequiturs and delusions of grandeur, but in between she realizes her life is not what she once imagined.

"I don't want to live like this -- like some wino -- or some dope addict," Rhonda says, "I don't want to be one to beg the streets. I don't want to be a panhandler." By all accounts, she does not ask for money, though she wears a small button on her coat saying donations are welcomed. She says she typically receives $5-$10 per day. She does, though, beg for food, saying "I love to eat."

On this day, she was nibbling on graying pieces of chicken presumably from the Subway two doors down. She would not say whether the sandwich shop gave the food or she found it in a garbage can. With Thanksgiving around the corner, Rhonda says she might visit a local soup kitchen or get in line at Glide Memorial nearby.

"Everybody who loves me helps me," she says, "There's a lot of people who hate me and do nothing."

John says there's a woman who visits Rhonda every day and gives her food and other necessities, but Rhonda doesn't want to talk about it. She calls her "just a friend."

Having survived on the streets for over 10 years, Rhonda has seen awful things. She says she was stabbed early on when another homeless person attempted to steal her purse, and she says she has been in the crossfire of numerous gunfights. Her meager possessions are also always in danger. "You can't leave nothing. You can't even close your eyes with all these vagrants and dope addicts around," she says.

Like many of the downtrodden among us, Rhonda is prone to alcoholism. "I love to drink liquor, especially gallons of liquor," she says, "I hate to even drink if it isn't a gallon."

John has seen her go on binges and notes "when she drinks, she gets the good stuff," but also says she doesn't bother anybody. The manager at the Men's Wearhouse agrees and says it is that fact that justifies not bothering her in return.

"She cleans up after herself. She sweeps her spot. If she would be throwing chicken bones all over or using it as a bathroom it would be different," he said.

Before I leave, Rhonda shakes my hand and blurts out, "I'll probably be locked outdoors for Thanksgiving." As I rise from a kneeling position next to her, my face floats out of her view and our line of eye contact is broken. All I become is just another pair of black shoes walking away from her and Rhonda becomes invisible again.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Presidential Transitions


As President-Elect Barack Obama moves with unusual speed to select and present the cabinet for his incoming administration, a great deal of attention is being focused on his possible and actual choices.

Today, Obama presented his economic team to the country. In coming days, we expect to hear about his foreign and domestic policy teams. Clues about the team and its goals can be found at the transition team's web site.

To provide some perspective on transitions past and present, we present Commonwealth Club President and CEO Dr. Gloria C. Duffy's most recent "InSight" column from The Commonwealth magazine. The column, called "Transitions," explains why a slow transition can present a danger to the nation. For a full-sized image of the column, click on the picture to the right of this posting.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Mukasey's Back on His Feet


Attorney General Michael Mukasey told reporters he was feeling "excellent" after an apparent fainting spell last night at an address to the Federalist Society.

Mukasey, who replaced embattled former AG Alberto Gonzales, made a memorable appearance at the Commonwealth Club of California in late March of this year when during the question-and-answer session he defended the Bush administration's use of wiretapping and remarked on a little-known Al Qaeda phone call placed from Afghanistan to the United States.

We shouldn't need a warrant when somebody picks up a phone in Iraq and calls the United States," Mukasey said. Before the 2001 terrorist attacks, he said, "we knew that there had been a call from someplace that was known to be a safe house in Afghanistan and we knew that it came to the United States. We didn't know precisely where it went. You've got 3,000 people who went to work that day, and didn't come home, to show for that.

Salon's Glenn Greenwald took a detailed look at the alleged 1999 phone call from Afghanistan and wonders why the 9/11 Commission never knew about it.

In the meantime, the 67-year-old Mukasey says he ready to get back to work.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Steve Fainaru and the Private Warriors of Iraq

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Fainaru speaks tonight about his new book, Big Boy Rules: America's Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq, tonight at the Commonwealth Club of California.

Here's a sample of some of the articles on the use of private security contractors in Iraq written by Fainaru for the Washington Post. The collection led to Fainaru winning the prestigious award in international reporting this year.

The title of the book is a reference to soldiers behaving however they please or no rules, whatsoever.

Fainaru is also the coauthor of The Duke of Havana: Baseball, Cuba, and the Search for the American Dream. He lives in El Cerrito, California.

Fainaru will speak at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco today at 6 p.m.

Ted Turner Sings an Old Tune


Media mogul Ted Turner spoke at The Commonwealth Club twice yesterday, first in conversation with San Francisco Chronicle's Phil Bronstein in San Francisco, and in the evening in conversation with Club CEO & President Dr. Gloria C. Duffy in Palo Alto. Both times, he was full of opinions and humor and good-natured orneriness.

But he sang at only one of the events, after he boasted to Bronstein that he could sing, and promptly began his song. (He followed up the song by reciting poetry.)

How many businessmen can carry a tune? Bronstein's blog includes the above video, from Dickson Louie, of Turner's Old Kentucky Home rendition. Not a bad singer, eh?

Turner Tells Old War Stories; Reveals Little About Ted

When Dr. Gloria Duffy, the Commonwealth Club's president and CEO, began a question to Ted Turner with "Mr. Turner," the cable news revolutionary deadpanned, "Call me Ted."

That, of course, is the title of Turner's autobiography slated to debut at number eight on the New York Times bestseller's list.

The humorous retort was emblematic of an evening featuring Turner's thoughts on the economy, foreign affairs, his children, ex-wife Jane Fonda and pet projects such as nuclear disarmament and global warming.

When asked why he had little involvement in the dot-com boom of the late 90's, Turner said facetiously, “Has there ever been anybody who ever led more than one revolution in one lifetime? Martin Luther King had civil rights, but that’s all he did. Alexander the Great conquered the world, but that’s all he did.”

Turner, who turned 70 Wednesday, sounded at times like an elder who claimed to have forecast every important event with the aid of hindsight.

On the demise of newspapers: "It's obsolete technologically. I saw that 40 years ago."

On the automobile industry: Turner said he "studied the situation" during the 1974 energy crisis and begrudgingly purchased a compact Japanese car.

On the rise of digital photography: Turner said he realized film was in trouble when he tested digital cameras 15 years ago.

It is undeniable, though, that Turner's wild-eyed vision of a 24-hour cable news network changed the media landscape forever. In some of the most interesting moments of the hour-long conversation, Turner described with wonderment how the Big Three networks failed to see the potential of cable news.

He described the network's vast infrastructure as being "1,000 times bigger than mine" and furiously worked to build the network from scratch without arousing the attention of the networks.

“I figured they were like a pack of hounds and I was going to be like a rabbit. I had to stay out in front of them because if they ever caught me they would tear me apart like a pack of hounds do a rabbit,” Turner said.

Calling himself a "global worrier," Turner mixed humor with real concern for the economic well-being of the country. At one point, he said people should welcome children back to the nest if the economy continues to spin downward.

“I’m really worried that we’re going to have a meltdown," Turner said, "But, I’m already thinking in terms of offering my children to move back into my house with me. If you remember "Sanford & Son," you know Lamont and Fred seemed happy.”

When asked if he believed the automobile industry should be bailed out, he said, "I don't think so" and instead offered his own idea for a bailout of the restaurant industry. "You can’t go more than three days without eating.” said Turner who owns Ted's Montana Grill with 50 restaurants in 18 states.

Turner believes the economy will distract president-elect Barack Obama's attention from other pressing issues like global warming, poverty and nuclear weapons.

He also agreed with Obama's desire to talk with our enemies, in particular, Iran. “I would meet with them and see if I could make them laugh," Turner said, "How can you sit there with a straight face? We’ve got 12,000 nuclear weapons and we tell Iran they can’t have any, but it’s okay for Israel to have them. They look at Israel as a danger. I think we all got to get rid of them or we’re all going to have them.”

Similar to numerous reviews of his book, Turner focused very little on his early years. The suicide of his father and abuse and the death of his sister to Lupus were touched upon but Turner offered little or no real insight, despite Turner's belief that you cannot know someone without understanding where they came from.

Turner did speak about his famous ex-wife Jane Fonda who wrote a section of the autobiography, revealing warts and all. “I’m good with that," said Turner. "I mean, after all, what’s she suppose to say? We got divorced. There must have been some problems.”

Despite the breakup, Turner indicated the two still share a good relationship. Fonda attended his birthday bash last Saturday featuring Burt Bacharach.

“She came to my birthday party. I talk to her just about every week to get my dose of humility," Turner said, "My father use to say that a few fleas were good for a dog, they reminded him that’s what he was.”

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

For Hillary, the Second Cut May Be the Deepest


An anonymous former adviser to Sen. Hillary Clinton, speaking on the likelihood of her former boss's secretary of state ambitions, told the New York Times this weekend, “I can’t believe they would have her schlep out there with all this publicity unless they were real about it.”

It sounds logical until you consider that president-elect Barack Obama has an exit strategy in the name of Bill Clinton's potentially iffy post-presidential dealings around the world.

Alex Koppelman at the Salon's War Room blog writes that the Clinton's may be using their old, yet ineffective bullying tactics or riding a wave of inevitability into the State Department. That old wave did not quite reach the shores of the Potomac unfortunately

In the meantime, rumors and spin are swirling around whether Clinton is a shoo-in, somewhat interested or merely a trial balloon about to deflate.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that President Clinton is willing to cooperate in the vetting process of his financial dealing around the world and Bloomberg.com reported that Hillary may have to pay off $7.6 million owed to vendors from her failed presidential campaign before she could accept a place in Obama's administration.

Politico, though, reports that Hillary may not actually want the job and the New York Times published an even more peculiar article pointing toward Clinton withdrawing her name from consideration.

It was unclear if Sen. Clinton’s stated hesitation was part of a bargaining tactic as the Obama team weighs whether to appoint her secretary of state, a genuine moment of indecision or, perhaps, a signal that she was preparing to withdraw from consideration.

Both articles contain remarks about Clinton being "torn" between the cabinet position and finishing her work in the Senate. A bit of political posturing may well be going on between the Clintons and president-elect Obama, which leads to the question of who is next in line?

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) was an early rumor. While his name has not dropped from the rumor mill, it also has not gain much momentum.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has gained a modicum of attention in the last week after taking a meeting with Obama last Friday. During the Democratic primaries, many pundits joked both Richardson and vice president-elect Joe Biden were running – not for president, but for secretary of state.

When Richardson visited the Commonwealth Club of California in June of 2007 to talk about his presidential campaign, he gave some insights into how he would handle foreign affairs. Calling himself a "little rough around the edges," Richardson said that "the essence of governing is diplomacy. It's talking. It's dialogue. It's mediation. It's not, first, seeking a military solution." (See video above.)

Nearly taking a page out of Biden's strategy of splitting Iraq into three separate countries, Richardson said he would use diplomacy to urge the Iraqis to form a coalition government that would split oil revenues. "I would tell them we are going to divide your country into three entities – not three states," Richardson said.

Mimicking Obama's plan to approach hostile nations in the Middle East, Richardson said he would try to find "common ground" with Iran and Syria, while proposing an all-Muslim peace-keeping force in Iraq.

As a former Ambassador to the United Nations under President Clinton, Richardson said he recognizes the usefulness of the U.N., but does not favor using it in issues pertaining to Israel. "I believe there are times when you shouldn't use the U.N. – [for example,] the Israeli-Palestinian issue – they just basically get in the way because Israel is outnumbered," said Richardson.

The prospect of Richardson as secretary of state has some backers and a few detractors, without mentioning the possibility of greatly expanding the rift caused between Richardson and the Clintons over his support for Obama in the primaries.

Robert Guttman, blogging at The Huffington Post, likes Richardson; though he would seem to like anybody but Clinton at State. Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, though, has some really harsh words for Richardson. (Watch the video here.)

Eagleburger slammed Richardson Tuesday on MSNBC, "I don't want to beat everybody to death, but I have very little respect for his intelligence and his knowledge of foreign affairs."

How might Richardson perform as secretary of state? Maybe a bit more aggressive than you might imagine. Click here and here.