Friday, January 30, 2009

Bonds Returns, but not to Left Field

Barry Bonds is back -- not with a baseball team, mind you, but in the news. With his perjury trial set to begin March 2, Federal prosecutors are beginning to throw heat at Baseball's tainted Home Run King.

The New York Times' Michael Schmidt reported Wednesday the existence of alleged steroid tainted urine samples taken from Bonds. Around the time that journalists Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams published the ground-breaking book, Game of Shadows in 2007, they spoke at The Commonwealth Club of California and made references to Federal authorities procuring evidence.

When Bonds testified before the grand jury in 2003, he denied using banned drugs," said Williams who continues to cover the story for the San Francisco Chronicle, "He said he took flax seed oil arthritis balm, and the prosecutors instantly knew he was fibbing and have taken considerable evidence on that point.

It can only be speculated what other evidence the Feds may have attained. Fainaru-Wada, who now writes for ESPN, and Williams both conveyed disbelief when the federal judge chose not to question Bonds' trainer Greg Anderson about the people to whom he supplied steroids, but instead questioned him about a 75-year-old San Mateo women and money laundering. According to the authors, simply asking Anderson to supply the names of athletes to the public record would have side-stepped much of the legal posturing still taking place two years later. (Listen to Fainaru-Wada and Williams discuss BALCO and Bonds here.)

Instead, unless the Feds sufficiently back Bonds into a corner where his best decision is to cop a plea, the Bonds saga may be entering into its climatic final act. Just so the entire San Francisco Bay Area does not feel left out, comes news that the crosstown rival Athletics will be sending the infamous Giambi Brothers -- newly re-acquired Jason and Jeremy -- to testify. Here's looking to the judge throwing the book at Jeremy for not sliding at home during the 2002 playoffs against New York.

–by Steven Tavares

India's Enron Threatens the Legitimacy of the Oscars

With the Super Bowl over, the attention of a weary nation turns to its next distraction, the annual Academy Awards event in late February. And it just might have more drama than is noticed by the casual observer.

India has its own Enron. An Indian film also received 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. The accounting firm charged with overlooking nearly $1 billion while auditing the books of the Indian firm Satyam is PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the same company that tabulates voting for the Oscars.

This could easily be a mystery-suspense picture starring the guy from Heroes as the scheming CEO, Jude Law as the unscrupulous accountant and Neil Patrick Harris as the guy who figures it all out. I'll wait for my Oscar nod until next year.

In the meantime, should there be a bit of concern for the legitimacy of the Oscars? Could PwC suffer the same fate as Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm that went belly-up after the Enron scandal? The Oscars web site clearly states that a small amount of PwC employees are involved in the counting of votes. In fact, once a winner is declared, according to the Oscars, only two representatives from the firm know the results until showtime. PwC is trusted to faithfully deliver the correct winners, yet they are unable to account for $1 billion on the other side of the world?

The Indian film, Slumdog Millionaire, has received glowing reviews across the board and is unlikely to win Best Picture, so the specter of impropriety is low. On the other hand, Robert Downey, Jr., received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for playing an Australian actor who plays a black man in the comedy Tropic Thunder. Maybe there's something to this accounting scandal after all?

Welcome to Oscar Season, a time of rumors and speculation and hopes and inevitable embarrassing moments on stage by the award recipients.

The San Francisco Chronicle's renowned film critic Mick LaSalle will give his impressions and predictions for the 81st Oscars in a conversation with Sacramento Bee film critic Carla Meyer on Feb. 21 at the Napa Valley Opera House. For more information, visit The Commonwealth Club web site here.

–by Steven Tavares

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Is the GOP Sending Coded Messages to Obama and Constituents?

The House passed President Barack Obama's stimulus bill last week, despite many Republicans intimating the honeymoon is already over for the new president (here, here and here) Senate Republicans are bracing for a fight with carefully chosen words. Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) told reporters today that the Democrats are pushing debilitating legislation similar to what Herbert Hoover used preceding the Great Depression. "Hoover was very interventionist," said Ensign, "He raised taxes, increased spending, and tried very much to [intervene in] the economy."

According to a piece in the Wall Street Journal by Andrew B. Wilson, Ensign's comments correctly refute a myth about Hoover's earlier handling of the economy.

Hoover was an ardent believer in government intervention to support incomes and employment. This is critical to understanding the origins of the Great Depression. Franklin Roosevelt didn't reverse course upon moving into the White House in 1933; he went further down the path that Hoover had blazed over the previous four years. That was the path to disaster.

While it is true FDR merely returned confidence to the public in his first 100 days in office, but did not stem the worsening of the economy until the outbreak of war in the 1940s, Ensign may be mixing apples and oranges relating 1933 to today. The GOP, instead, is using the gambit to harpoon the stimulus bill under the rubric of small government. "A lot of us would not like to have the level of government involvement," said Ensign.

Republicans strike me as having an uncanny ability to speak in codes. For example, in GOP parlance states' rights really means allowing sovereignty to each state to legislate divisively within race and gender issues. Sometimes the coda is mocked, such as when Sen. John McCain told an audience the "fundamental of the economy were sound" the same day Wall Street said it wasn't. Well, at that point, the fundamentals were anything but crumbling, but it spoke to conservative voters differently than to Democrats. The Nation argues that President Bush famously used the landmark case of Dred Scott, the 1857 decision that ruled that blacks could not become citizens, to the same effect. The loaded message, though, perplexed liberal and moderate viewers of the 2004 debate. It flew over everyone's heads except for evangelical pro-life supporters who equate the rights of slaves to the rights of unborn children.

Republicans may be in the minority today, but their voice can still be heard even if a portion of the electorate does not quite get the message.

–by Steven Tavares

Do you believe the GOP is using messages to their constituents? If so, is it effective? Is Sen. Ensign playing politics with Great Depression imagery? Join the discussion and leave a comment below.

The Expansion of Conflict in Afghanistan


The drumbeat of war emanating from Washington is not the deafening booms of a thousand timpani which led President Bush to invade Iraq, but the likelihood of expanding the war in Afghanistan sounds a bit like a smooth jazz rhythm -- cool and nuanced, a bit like the new president.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified to the Senate Armed Service Committee yesterday about the need to add 17,000 additional troops in Afghanistan within the next few months. On Friday, reports surfaced that President Obama ordered military drones to bomb Taliban extremists in northwestern Pakistan; the attack killed 22. Gates also reiterated the Status of Force Agreement signed by the United States and Iraq in June, which will leave Iraq bare of American troops by 2011.

The Obama administration's call for an expansion of involvement in Afghanistan comes as no surprise, despite calling the war in Iraq the wrong war. Throughout Obama's presidential campaign he was the only candidate who focused on Pakistan -- Afghanistan's neighbor to the south and enabler of the Taliban in the Waziristan region. Americans may have inadvertently bundled both conflicts into one and find the decision to send more troops to the regions a bit contradictory. But, isn't this what many liberal critics have always said about Bush's follies in the Middle East: The war in Afghanistan was justified, the war in Iraq was not. But the situation today is vastly different than 2002.

Noted Middle East expert Juan Cole says that a returning focus to Afghanistan could make it "Obama's Vietnam," meaning "Obama may be falling into the Lyndon Johnson Vietnam trap, of escalating a predecessor's halfhearted war into a major quagmire." Cole sees the recent attack on Pakistan without prior interaction with the government as a "bad sign."

It is not clear if Obama really believes that the fractious tribes of the Pakistani northwest can be subdued with some airstrikes and if he really believes that U.S. security depends on what happens in Waziristan. If he thinks the drone attacks on FATA are a painless way to signal to the world that he is no wimp, he may find, as Lyndon Johnson did, that such military operations take on a momentum of their own, and produce popular discontents that can prove deadly to the military mission.

Much of the conflict in Afghanistan is invariably intertwined with Pakistan and, to some extent, Iran. As William Dalrymple writes in a New York Review of Books article on author Ahmed Rashid's new book, Descent into Chaos, the Pakistani intelligence apparatus has a history of encouraging the Taliban in Afghanistan as a friendly bulwark against India, yet this association flies against its own self-interests.

It is for this reason that many in the [Pakistani] army still believe that the jihadis make up a more practical defense against Indian dominance than even nuclear weapons. For them, supporting a range of jihadi groups in Afghanistan and Kashmir is not an ideological or religious whim so much as a practical and patriotic imperative -- a vital survival strategy for a Pakistani state that they perceive to be threatened by India's ever-growing power and its alliance with the hostile Karzai regime in Kabul.

The Obama administration seems bent on resolving Afghanistan through Pakistan. This could take years, though. With a swift change in course comes apprehension for Americans weary of seven years of conflict. Out of that comes a question: Will Afghanistan threaten to gobble up the next four years like Iraq destroyed the Bush presidency?

--Steven Tavares

Is Afghanistan likely to become to Obama what Vietnam was to Johnson or Iraq to Bush? Is escalation in Afghanistan the right move? Did it work in Iraq? Leave a comment and join the discussion!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Did Former WaPo Editor Finally Cast a Vote?

In December of last year, Michael Kinsley sat down with San Francisco Chronicle editor-at-large Phil Bronstein at The Commonwealth Club of California and had this exchange about the former editor of the Washington Post, Len Downie, Jr. who famously abstains from voting:

Bronstein: You also mentioned the Washington Post. I mean, it should be said that while there is great work going on down there, I never could understand Len Downie's refusal to vote as a part of his journalistic creed.

Kinsley: This was the previous editor. He didn't vote because he felt that was a conflict of interest and he went out of his way not to decide who he might vote for, if he was into that sort of thing, because that was a conflict of interest.

Bronstein: I've never known an editor who had that much control over their own behavior.

Downie will discuss his sterling career at The Post this Thursday at The Commonwealth Club. During his tenure, Downie's newsroom garnered 25 Pulitzer Prizes during a 17-year career, which included six this past year. (Investigative reporter Steve Fainaru, who recently spoke at The Commonwealth Club, received one those awards. Click here to hear him discuss the conspicuous role of private security firms in Iraq.)

When Downie revealed his belief in extracting his mind and body from the act of voting, he received rounds of hushed snickering. How could it be humanly possible for a person to be totally objective? "Is this neurologically possible?" asked one blogger at the Columbia Journalism Review. Bronstein mentions Downie again at his blog along with a recent CNN video of the two former newsroom chiefs. But, Downie's views are not entirely in the minority and tend to be favored by idealistic journalists and acolytes of Downie.

MSNBC host Keith Olbermann says he doesn't vote, to the consternation of the ladies on "The View." and two former reporters under Downie who left the paper to create agree.

With a new book out, The Rules of the Game, and unhinged from his daily duties at the paper since September; the question needs to be asked: Did Downie vote in the November election?

According to Media Bistro, he registered to vote in the District of Columbia the very same day he retired.

--by Steven Tavares

Friday, January 23, 2009

Ifill's Book Touts Large Crop of Young, Black Leaders


Before the vice presidential debate last October, conservative pundits learned that the moderator, the well-known journalist Gwen Ifill, also had a book on Sen. Barack Obama conveniently due Inauguration Day. A few such as Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin howled. The question of Ifill's objectivity soon dissipated as Sarah Palin stole the show and the election continued.

Ifill, who will discuss her new book The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama at The Commonwealth Club of California Jan. 28 in Palo Alto, has proven those earlier fears false with a book that does not deal directly with the rise of President Obama, but the rising crop of young, black politicians ready to change the landscape of American politics.

Similar to early worries about Obama's candidacy -- he was not "black enough," he was "too black" or he was too green -- the politicians featured by Ifill share a few commonalities. All are young, highly-educated and grew up in middle-to-upper class surroundings, yet they are able to cross socioeconomic and cultural-mixed racial environments.

In an election as historically unique as 2008, where an African-American and female senator fought as front-runners throughout the campaign, it is interesting to learn Ifill's thesis that the civil rights movement has produced a deep reserve of talented black politicians.

Among them is Congressmen Artur Davis of Alabama, who will likely attempt to make Obama-like history by becoming thar state's first black governor. Davis, incidentally, graduated in Obama's class at Harvard.

Ifill also profiles the first black governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick, Stanford alum and mayor of Newark Cory Booker, and the scion of the civil rights movement Jesse Jackson, Jr. The inclusion of Jackson may be the least likely of the group, since it was revealed during the sting that rounded up Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich that he had been a government informant for years.

While the stock of rising black leaders is strong, the names of up-in-coming women in government is perhaps less-so. Aside from new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Palin, I find it difficult to conjure up many women other than Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, who was a contender for Obama's VP slot. Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm is a strong female voice , but her ambitions won't include the White House, because she was born in Canada. So, why are blacks hitting the highest levels and stealing the spotlight from the women?

Ifill does not explicitly say this, but one reason gleaned from the book is the fact that this new crop of black politicians was forged from of a distinct political movement that was highly organized and direct. By contrast, the women's movement does not have a center, does not have a rallying point such as Selma, Alabama, had for the civil rights movement. Coincidentally, the strong campaign of Hillary Clinton aimed at progressive women and the unique political talents of Palin to conservatices could be the impetus for the rise of significant female candidates in the next 10-15 years.

Undoubtedly the election of Barack Obama is a turning point in this country's history. If you were able to fast-forward a few decades into the future, it is quite conceivable three of the next four leaders of our country could be a mixture of women and minorities.

--Steven Tavares

Do you agree black leaders are succeeding disportionately to female leaders? Does this development prove gender divisions in America are now stronger than racial ones? How might a succession of minority and female presidents affect the attitudes of white males in this country?

Diversity and the Boardroom

Almost three-quarters of the members of Fortune 100 boards of directors are white men, according to a January 20, 2009, column in BusinessWeek. The remaining 28 percent are women and ethnic minorities.

One group that is trying to make available qualified board candidates who are women or ethnic minority males is the nonprofit Boardroom Bound. It's Corporate Board Director Candidate Pipeline Seminar comes to San Francisco in late February, and no doubt will be the place for local individuals to go to and learn more about increasing that 28 percent of Fortune 100 boards -- and boards at other companies across the country.

We're pleased to note that one of the speakers will be a member of The Commonwealth Club's Board of Governors, Evelyn S. Dilsaver, who is also the former executive vice president of Charles Schwab and former president and CEO of Charles Schwab Investment Management.

Interested? Get more information.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Friends head into challenging jobs

Here's the inside scoop on some appointments and pending choices for key positions at the State Department, DoD and the NSC:

The Commonwealth Club applauds the appointment of our colleague and Board Member, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, as Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Europe at the National Security Council. She left home in the Bay Area Tuesday, and reported for work at the White House yesterday. In that role, the Rhodes scholar and expert on Europe and the former Soviet Union will help guide US policy with countries that are our friends - or should be our friends. There is a lot of rebuilding to be done, after disputes with our European allies over how the war in Iraq has been prosecuted and policies dealing with terrorism suspects. Then there is the global economy as it affects the EU, the question of missile deployments in Eastern Europe, the future of NATO and so many other issues where our relationships with our allies need to be improved. Liz and I served side-by-side in the Pentagon during the Clinton Administration, so she is experienced in the ways of the federal government and will hit the ground running.

Working with Liz at the NSC will be Stanford colleague Mike McFaul, who will have specific responsibility for Russia. Another Rhodes scholar, McFaul participated on a panel at the Club just prior to the November election, and has been a commentator not only for local media but nationally. This is the Stanford prof's first tour of duty in the government. He has had little sympathy for what he sees as the Putin/Medvedev governments' bad human rights policies and encroachments on the security of neighboring countries, and can hopefully help to craft policies that will allow the US to positively influence Russian behavior.

I also note the pending nomination of good friend Rose Gottemoeller, until recently head of the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow office, to be Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control and Verification, and lead negotiator for the START (Strategic Arms Reduction) talks with Russia. The existing START agreement with Russia expires later this year, and little or no work has been done to update or replace it with additional limitations that will prevent a new US/Russia nuclear arms race. Getting these talks back on track with an ornery Russian leadership will be no small feat.

She will also be central to the question now being debated in the inner circles of the new administration: how far to set our sights towards the goal of elimination of nuclear weapons that has recently been laid out by the "Four Horsemen" - former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, former Senator Sam Nunn and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Rose is an experienced government hand, having served successfully in the White House and Department of Energy during the Clinton Administration. This role builds on her earlier work to denuclearize the countries of the former Soviet Union and put in place some controls on the spread of fissile materials that can be used to make nuclear weapons. She must be confirmed by the Senate, so it will be awhile before she formally takes up her new position.

My former Pentagon boss, Ash Carter, yet another Rhodes scholar and a Harvard physicist, is reputed to be in line for nomination as USD (ATL) - Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics. Another tough job. As the Pentagon's chief technology and weapons manager, he will confront the need to possibly cancel weapons systems that now seem too expensive or ineffective, like the F-22 aircraft, which has contractors in 44 of the 50 states (and is thus politically sensitive). If nominated, he, too, will await Senate confirmation.

Ambassador Dennis Ross, a Bay Area native and frequent speaker at the Club, is reputed to be in line to become the Obama Administration's chief envoy to Iran. The former negotiator for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict likes big challenges. On his plate will be finding a positive way forward with Iran which deals with Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions.

Tall orders for these folks, but they are definitely up to the task. I wish them all success in addressing these difficult national security challenges!

Obama Names George Mitchell Special Mideast Envoy


Former Sen. George Mitchell was named President Obama's special envoy to the Middle East earlier today, as the new president moves quickly to make that region of the world a high priority of his administration's from day one.

Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have both been criticized for taking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict late in their terms in office, when even a full-court press often failed to produce results that could survive the entrenched security concerns of the participants. Obama's moves are a marked contrast. Yesterday, on his first full day in office, Obama called four Middle Eastern leaders.

Mitchell, who served as special envoy to the Northern Ireland peace process starting in 1995, will now take his considerable experience and contacts from a life in diplomacy, legislative bodies, and private business to his newest posting. You can get a sense of his approach to the world (and his theories about how America should engage the world) in his October 22, 2008, appearance at The Commonwealth Club, in which he and Club President/CEO Dr. Gloria Duffy discussed the U.S. role in the world [see video player above].

Can George Mitchell achieve in the Middle East what has eluded previous American peace efforts? What will challenge him the most? Post a comment and join the discussion!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Is History the Casualty of the Internet?

An older gentleman by a kiosk outside The Commonwealth Club offices on Market Street holds up the San Francisco Chronicle and cries repeatedly, "EXTRA!, EXTRA!, EXTRA!"

Who says the newspaper industry is faltering?

At least, it's not hurting today, with another round of colorful, graphically pleasing editions featured on newsstands across the country. The Newseum web site has an extensive gallery of today's historic page-ones featuring a very elegant and simple cover from The Fresno Bee.

According the Associated Press, many of the nation's largest newspapers, including The New York Times, USA Today and the Washington Post, printed extra papers in advance of high demand. Many learned a lessons from the day after the November election when demand for papers to commemorate Barack Obama's victory left publishers flat-footed. Not only are newspapers increasing production of their daily editions, but also publishing special editions and books ranging in price from $4.95 to $14.95.

The rush to grab a piece of history through buying and preserving newspapers has been an American tradition since the colonists' veracious habit of reading the news made the nascent country one of the most learned places in the world. With the end of newspapers as we know them possibly around the corner -- at least, Michael Hirschorn at The Atlantic says The Times could be kaput as early as this May -- how will people retain the memories of historic times such as President Obama's inauguration?

Without a paper and ink version of the news, will people download a screen shot of yesterday's home page of the Washington Post? Send the file to their printer and unassumingly tuck it between last month's overdue phone bill and their child's sterling report card? The Internet as a record of history has proven to be insufficient with its power based on constant change at the whim of breaking news. Lasting snapshots of a single day or event invariably fall through the cracks. Organizations like The Internet Archive strive to preserve the web's news history but fall short in their brevity.

What is the future? There seems to be a missing link between how a new generation of people consume the news through the net on a personal computer, laptop or even their smart phones. Portability and complete access to the web at any moment is also problematic. reported in December on rumors of a larger seven-by-nine inch iPod which would be capable of accessing the news and making it easier to navigate and read. Down the road, the news may be downloaded onto bendable computers, which conceivably could be rolled up and folded without harm.

Of course, none of these devices will solve the problem of capturing history in a tangible form. It may be the one aspect of communication we will have to adapt at a time when more information is flowing than at any time in human consciousness. The casualty ironically may be history.

--Steven Tavares

Steves Shows a Different Side of Iran

An Iranian man, with his large arm hung out the window of a dilapidated sedan, tells the travel writer Rick Steves he loves Americans; the author of numerous European travel guides nearly reciprocates by saying Americans love Iranians before stammering and reversing course. In this moment you realize the host of "Rick Steves' Iran" comes to the fertile crescent with the same worn out stereotypes many Americans might have with the Middle Eastern nation.

Of course, this is exactly what Steves is attempting to do with his hour-long venture into the people, customs and landscape of Iran and he does it well. (Viewers in the San Francisco Bay Area can watch an encore airing of the program on KTEH-54 on Feb. 1 at 10 p.m. Others around the country can click here for the date and time in your area.)

Steves' high-definition camera lovingly captures the capital of Tehran in vivid, bright blues and greens. My personal vision of Iran conjured up a gray, dusty and dank metropolis. According to Steves, the city's downtown, parks and transit system are comparable to anything he has seen in Europe.

Through Steves' cameras we find the large demographic of young people to be inquisitive with a strong grasp of the English language. The young women featured in the program are some of the most beautiful in the world and they adapt to the stringent morality laws and customs with a certain sense of come hither feminine coyness. Iranian law says women must cover their hair with a chaddor, yet we see many stylishly sporting their bangs out from under the scarf covering their heads. Steves also gives potential male travelers a good tip: do not shake hands with women, it is disrespectful.

The program makes mere mention of Iran's theocratic style of government but does not dwell on its human rights issues. One reason may be the fact the program is sponsored by the United Nations to foster understanding between countries, and Steves' is just a traveler opening the viewers minds to a distant land, not hoping to change their politics.

While "Rick Steves' Iran" may not nudge you toward spending precious vacation dollars in the Middle East, it does show Iraninans are not much different than ordinary Americans. They question authority, dream of their future and enjoy family and friends. It is a snapshot of humanity our government and mainstream media rarely portray between the images of American hostages and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Rick Steves will discuss this PBS program Monday, Jan. 26, in Palo Alto, Calif. For more information, visit the The Commonwealth Club web site.

--Steven Tavares

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Stephen Seewer on Alice Radio


Stephen Seewer is a longtime Wells Fargo employee who somehow finds time in his busy schedule to serve as chair of The Commonwealth Club's LGBT Member-Led Forum and as chair of the MLF Platforum (a series of related events on a theme) called "Now & Then." Seewer recently sat down with Liz Saint John of Bay Area radio station Alice 97.3 FM for an informative interview about The Club's programming, its speakers, and the many people who make The Club work.

The radio interview will be broadcast this Sunday, January 25, between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. on the following radio stations: KALC, KITS, KMBQ, and KFRC. But you can hear the podcast of the event or you can listen to streaming audio of it here (scroll down the page until you see Seewer listed as a Sunday magazine speaker). Seewer does a great job explaining the importance of The Club, how easy it is to join, and how to become involved. Listen for yourself.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Tough Times in the Citi


When Wells Fargo & Co. Chairman Dick Kovacevich spoke at The Club October 21, he gave a detailed history of the drive to deregulate banking in the United States and open up new lines of business for banks. (See video above of Kovacevich's speech, or listen to audio.) Kovacevich's history drew heavily on his many years of work as an executive at Citibank, as it grew to global giant status and led the way in the deregulation fight.

Now, is that fight over? News this week is that Citi is dividing itself up, sequestering its "bad bank" businesses from its "good bank" businesses so that the bad doesn't drag down the entire business. And the Congressional financial overlords are talking of tightening regulation of banks -- something that will be easier, now that many banks are taking taxpayer money in one form or another. (There's no free lunch, even for the pinstripes.)

We should get at least a glimpse of the answer on Tuesday, when Barack Obama gives his inaugural speech in Washington, D.C.

In Farewell Bush Is Unrepentant Until the End: A Personal Reaction

President Bush looked tired. His hair gray. His neck visibly thin, barely filling his starched white collar. His farewell address last night revealed that certain charm that initially created a brief bond with a certain swath of America. He thanked Dick Cheney, had loving words for his wife, daughters and even mom and dad. You almost felt sorry for him. Some tender part of you might miss him -- maybe not his policies -- but his goofiness, his rebellious smirk and the ubiquitous notion of him as the Everyman-in-Chief.

Empathy for President Bush only goes so far, though. He can't hide from his cocky hubris. It is so much a part of his soul that he cannot stifle it. Many early news reports of the address focused on one quote: "We must never let down our guard." It was as if we were transported just for old-time's sake back to 2003 when the mainstream media walked in line with everything we now know was false about the invasion of Iraq. Bush is still fighting the terrorists while the rest of us are fighting the debt collectors.

Bush's retro bravado is not the most intriguing part of the speech. Instead, three sentences beforehand, he says, "America did nothing to seek or deserve this conflict." The United States did nothing to provoke the ire of the perpetrators of 9/11 and the Middle East? The line is a sharp jab in the eye to the entire region.

(For an earlier look into the president's thought process on defense and America's priorities, read the text of Bush's 2002 speech to The Commonwealth Club, or listen to the audio.)

If this was the rationale for the crumbling of the next six years, was it all worth it? I don't think so. Actually Bush's imperviousness to the facts is the hallmark of his presidency. His perception in a highly insular world allowed him to think he could repeatedly lead the nation wherever he wanted to take it, but like he once said, "Fool me once, shame on ... shame on you. It fool me. We can't get fooled again."

I don't think there was a singular event that caused al-Qaeda to attack seven years ago, but over 50 years of American intervention in the region. Arrogance that continually slapped the region's downtrodden adherents of Islam in the face, though in a usually covert manner, rarely as upfront as the style Bush preferred. The U.S. overthrew the democratically-elected leader of Iran because he wanted higher earnings from the oil he sold to the West. We have bankrolled the seats of power, at some point, of nearly every nation in the region, more often than not, propping up murderous despots who ruled their nations with iron-fists. Since seas of oil were first discovered on the Arabian Peninsula, it has always been about oil.

I think the U.S. did plenty to deserve 9/11. It did not deserve the loss of 3,000 innocent people, but then again, our government has not been very careful in differentiating insurgents from innocents, either. Bush long ago staked his presidency on the invasion of Iraq. By stubbornly clinging to the idea the U.S. was attacked without reason, the arrogance that so many Muslims sense from our government continues to permeate until Bush's last days in office.

--By Steven Tavares

Do you agree with Tavares that the U.S. provoked the 9/11 attack? Do you think President Bush is correct that it was unprovoked? Are you sad to see President Bush exit the national stage, or are you eager to have him gone? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Suskind: Bush Lacked Humility for the Presidency


The nation stands just four days away from inaugurating a new president. Of course, this is the glass is half-full argument. It sounds more uplifting than the glass is half-empty version manifested in the end of the troubled Bush presidency. Many journalists and television pundits have pressed to portray the inner psychological workings of George W. Bush. Filmmaker Oliver Stone bravely attempted to tell his story on the silver screen before time and history had made even a preliminary verdict on the last eight years.

Speaking last night at The Commonwealth Club, journalist Ron Suskind made one of the most astute observations that goes to the root causes of Bush's tumultuous time in the White House. During the Q&A portion of the program, Suskind was asked to name names at the CIA who were involved in creating faulty intelligence regarding WMD in Iraq. Suskind sidestepped the question, but he conjured a revealing portrait of a president both contemptuous of the office and unable to evolve as a leader. The following is an excerpt from last night's Suskind program:

I am absolutely of the mind there was plenty of information -- plenty -- with clarity that [had], at the very least, considerable doubts about WMD in Iraq. Eventually when all the documents on Iraq come out -- and they will, some of them I've seen, but now everyone will get to see them -- this will become crystal clear. This was not a mishap. This was not a oh, my goodness—shocked -- that there is gambling in Casablanca. It wasn't. It was never about the evidence, ever. That was part of the marketing department. How do we package it? How do we sell it.

Dick Cheney, to his credit, just a week ago said it would not have mattered had we not found any weapons. It wasn't about weapons. Now George Bush stuck to the old, tired script, “I'm disappointed” [in the voice of President Bush]. Disappointed? And where were you? Some of you are old enough to remember Harry Truman, I'm guessing. I wonder about that sign, “The buck stops here.” Where did the sign go? I heard [Paul] Wolfowitz took it to some cocktail party and left it there. You are a duly elected leader! Stand up in daylight! Be a mensch. This is an issue of character. My wife says, Don't be shrill. I try not to be! This is an issue of weak character. I hate to say that.

I wrote a piece in the New York Times. I went to Grant Park. Sort of the beginning of the Obama year and the end of the Bush years. I thought a lot about all the reporting I had done. And this whole Oedipal thing .... What's interesting about it is that, I think, I was looking at it in the wrong way. All this time, sometimes you can see thing at the end of it. Some folks say this whole period we could put a big headline, “Oedipal Rex”--w-r-e-c-k. I'm not writing that book.

In some ways what happened is that Bush never evolved when he got into office. We had this 9/11 and he was overwhelmed before that and then he dug deep and the faith-based presidency rises from that moment. He was confused. He was always overwhelmed. He was overwhelmed from the very start of the presidency.

You know, the fact is that he sat around corporate tables throughout his private life without anything to offer for a couple decades, while other people did the basic analytical work. He took a lot of things for granted. I've spoken to dozens of people about this.... He never had anything to offer. He would tell jokes. He would sit around saying, “I can't believe your wife let you out of the house with that damn tie on,” [doing an impression of President Bush]. He would fuss with people and use this non-verbal acuity to get leverage over them. He's real good at that. He's got real skills there, but imagine that being a mahogany table sitting in a boardroom at the Carlyle Group or in Texas or the Situation Room where you have to make a decision. That's scary.

He dug deep. He was scared. He never evolved. Presidents tend to. Almost all the ones we can name, [they] get into the Oval Office and it's humbling. You're a guy from Whittier. A guy from Independence, Missouri -- name a city. And you're in the round room and you've got to make decisions. Bush never evolved. Wy? Because he was so caught up in the father/son conversation. He wasn't humbled. He wasn't saying, “I better stay up late tonight because if I get this wrong, good God!” The consequences are overwhelming and dire. He always made it so personal. Whether it's "Tony Blair is a guy I can trust" or "Saddam tried to kill my dad" [doing impression of President Bush]. His issues. His dilemma. It's not about you. It's not about you. You sit there for a designated period of time as the leader of the free world and then you're out. It's a place that you're passing through. You do your level best. He never faced that.

If you have not seen the film, W., Suskind does in five minutes what Stone never quite accomplished in two hours.

--Steven Tavares

Is Suskind too hard on Bush? How would you characterize George W. Bush's performance in the most important job in the world? Leave a comment and share your opinion.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Reich Sees Opportunity in the State of Nation's Economy

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich foresees the loss of another 3 million jobs and the Dow Jones “languishing” around 7,500 during the next year.

Reich cautioned members at The Commononwealth Club of California’s Bank of America-Walter E. Hoadley Annual Economic Forecast today in San Francisco that without “effective government action” the current recession will likely continue until 2010, with unemployment rising over 10 percent.

He reiterated his belief that the much-debated stimulus bill on Capitol Hill should carry a price tag of $900 billion over the next two years, which is larger than the plan put forth by President-elect Barack Obama. Reich believes the lower figures put forth by Obama may be an attempt to lure Republican support for the plan.

Reich praised Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke for taking on more responsibility during the financial decline, while deriding Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s Troubled Assets Recovery Program as “a miserable failure.”

Despite the ecomonic gloom, Reich attempted to cajole some hope in the current situation by noting out-of-work Amrericans and a neglected infrastructure could spark a type of national renewal.

“We have now the opportunity to make these investments or, at least, make a down payment on these investments,” said Reich, “We have the opportunity because of the gap between economic capacity and demand in the private sector from consumers and business.”

Reich also said that, because of the popularity and relative safety of Treasury bills, borrowing is cheaper than ever before. In addition, there's a mood among Americans of striving for a common political cause. “We have an opportunity to begin doing what we could not before.”

The bursting of the housing bubble, according to Reich, was not the impetus for the current state of the nation’s coffers, but ultimately revealed the underlining problems with our economy.

Reich has always laid claim to defending working class Americans and finds their plight to be indicative of the current financial situation, where consumers turned to refinancing their homes and procuring home equity loans as a way to finance their lifestyles despite stagnating wages in inflation-adjusted terms.

“Some Congressmen said Americans are living way beyond their means, but another way of looking at that was: Americans' means have not grown, and therefore the only way of continuing their spending and maintaining their living standards is to go deeper and deeper in debt,” said Reich, “When the housing bubble burst, so did that last coping mechanism.”

The ways Americans coped with maintaining their financial standing, Reich said, goes back to the 1970s when more women were forced into the labor market not because of opportunity but for maintaining their family income. Americans also worked more hours disportionate to others in the world. Reich, at one point, offered the acronym, “DINS” to describe the situation as “Double Income, No Sex.”

At various point during the program, Reich comically played on the audience’s dour deameanor by urging them to keep in mind that “now is an opportunity that we have not had in decades.”

--By Steven Tavares

Is Reich correct in his diagnosis of the economy and what needs to be done? What do you think will happen to the economy in 2009? Post a comment and share your opinion.

Suskind Stands by Allegation of Administration Forgery

When it comes to adding infamy to the record of the Bush administration's misdeeds, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind has made it a cottage industry.

In his 2004 book, The Price of Loyalty, Suskind was the first to find evidence that the administration had the overthrow of Saddam Hussein on the brain starting with the first meeting of its National Security Council. Two years later, The One-Percent Doctrine, reported al-Qaeda's intention to attack New York's subway system and revealed Vice President Dick Cheney's belief that even a one-percent chance of a terror attack justified preparing for it as a certainty.

Suskind's newest book, The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism, published late last year, contains the most explosive allegation of all: the forging of documents by the administration during the run-up to the war in Iraq. Read a short Q&A with Suskind about the book for Men's Journal.

Despite the initial burst of attention the story garnered in the media it had a short shelf life. While the allegation has not been refuted, the notion administration officials could not have been irresponsible enough to put their indiscretions in writing -- certainly not White House stationary -- colored the story with enough doubt to sweep it under the rug.

(Watch Suskind on Hardball with Chris Matthews -- this day without the screaming host -- talk about the handling of the forgery.)

In a posting on The Huffington Post, Suskind fought the requisite blowback the administration would unleash on him by standing by his on-the-record interviews and his book saying:

So, here we go again: the administration is in full attack mode, calling me names, George Tenet is claiming he doesn't remember any such thing -- just like he couldn't remember "slam dunk" -- and reporters are scratching their heads. Everything in my book is on the record, with many sources. And so, we watch and wait....

Nevertheless, the story has not gained much traction in the months since and likely will merely join the endless pantheon of serious acts of malfeasance attributed to the Bush administration.

Ron Suskind will discuss his latest book on the Bush administration and provide an outlook on the road ahead for President-elect Barack Obama tonight at The Commonwealth Club of California at 6 p.m.

--By Steven Tavares

Do you think Suskind's disclosures merit more attention? Why hasn't it gotten it? Or do you think Suskind's disclosures are without merit? Leave a comment and voice your opinion!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Recessionomics: Think Local, Act Global?

Americans are feeling the economic pinch, but, in many cases, the decisions made in Washington may effect the rest of the world more deeply. In the current edition of The American Prospect, Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson calls for a "Global New Deal".

Using the example of the American Insurance Group (AIG) and the ability to use its global tentacles to effectively be a company without a country to regulate its business, Meyerson constructs an argument that has received little attention nationwide.

Barack Obama may well seek a new New Deal to right a profoundly dysfunctional American economy. But he faces one constraint that Franklin Roosevelt didn't have to confront in the 1930s: The economy that Roosevelt saved was fundamentally a national economy that could be altered by national policies. The economy that Obama must fix, by contrast, has national dimensions that can be altered by national policies, but in matters ranging from corporate conduct to consumer safety to Americans' incomes, not to mention global warming, purely national solutions no longer suffice. To fix America today requires fixing global systems. The next New Deal won't work if it's only American.

Under the concepts of globalization, a multinational corporation is able to evade basic regulatory oversight that a nationally-based business would have to cooperate.

A report from the Center for American Progress deals more closely with the topic from the standpoint of foreign economies, saying Franklin D. Roosevelt's response to the Great Depression needs to be applied globally.

This common political imperative has created the conditions for an unprecedented exercise in international economic cooperation aimed at stabilizing the world economy and placing it on a stronger and more sustainable footing through a series of structural reforms. This is precisely the approach the creators of the New Deal took to our national economic crisis in the 1930s.

Americans may have a narrow view of the global ramifications of its own financial demise, but this fact need not preclude the newly elected president from scratching it from the national dialogue.

The European economies of Germany, France and England are searching for ways to stimulate their economies, while reports this past weekend say that Greece, Ireland and Spain may have their AAA-credit ratings downgraded because of worsening recessions. Of course, these are relatively rich nations as compared to say, Latin American countries, which are relatively stable, but are all encountering lowered gross domestic product figures in the new year.

Some economic isolationists may deny the inevitability of globalization, yet it exists. The effort to fix the U.S. economy needs to add the discussion of world markets in our national dialogu, because people around the world are beginning to argue that what is good for the United States is not necessarily good for the rest of the world.

Reich's Assessment of the Economy Has Been Spot On


"2009 is likely to be a very hard year."

Robert Reich could have easily uttered this sentence within the last week. Instead, he used those words to describe the prospects for the economy during a September 2008 speech at The Commonwealth Club.

Of course, any cynic or chronic pessimist could have seen the worsening of the economy persisting into this year or longer, but the former labor secretary under President Clinton and current professor at Cal has been one of the few sounding the alarms over the economy for some time.

His assessment of the then-pending $700 billion bailout to Wall Street sounds dead on today. “The bailout will not ultimately do much," said Reich, "It will provide a one-shot shot of confidence. It will stop the bleeding, but it will not end the underlying problem.”

Indeed, today, many wonder what the initial half of the bailout money went toward. Without reliable accounting of the dollars, some wonder whether financial institutions are hoarding the relief money while credit markets still languish. Reich pointed out that the financial dilemma the country faces is actually a "crisis of trust" and, though the bailout in September was a message to investors that the government is willing to do something big to alleviate the problems, it will not fix the long-term problems with the economy without substantial oversight and a strong monetary policy.

He did focus on one interesting unintended consequence of the bailout: a resumption of avarice. “You take greed away from Wall Street and what you have is pavement,” he said to a round of guffaws.

Reich says corporate leaders and their earning are predicated on the short term. In this situation -- where the government has, in effect, subsidized the down side to investing -- he says the "risk is greater" that corporations will continue to dabble in seizing the quick buck.

Today, as President-elect Barack Obama attempts to push another large round of stimulus benefits through Congress, Reich's 2008 words are useful; he urged listeners not to view the next president's capacity to apply his agenda in Washington as being depressed.

Reich recounted how during the beginning of Clinton's term in 1993, the discovery of larger deficits forced the new president to pare back some of his campaign promises. Don't necessarily believe it this time around, said Reich, because the September bailout is technically not an expenditure. The money will be borrowed from Asian and Middle Eastern countries, he said, which are more than happy to invest in relatively safe Treasury bills, something that has indeed occurred.

Because many in the Obama administration believe expanding the deficit to stoke the poor economy falls in line with the Keynesian mantra of infrastructure spending, balancing the budget is far from the most important policy objective and should allow the incoming president to hold his campaign promises intact.

Robert Reich will try his hand again at making sense of the economy while peering into the future this Wednesday at The Commonwealth Club of California's Annual Bank of America-Walter E. Hoadley Economic Forecast. The event will be held at the Hotel Nikko at 222 Mason St. with lunch at 11:45 a.m. and the program starting at 12:30 p.m.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Stark Facts Behind the Rise in Unemployment

Here are the disturbing facts and figures behind today's announced rise in unemployment to 7.2 percent:

The economy shedded nearly 2.6 million jobs in 2008, according to the Labor Department. This many jobs have not been lost since the 2.75 million at the conclusion of World War II. Three quarters of the total has occurred just in the last quarter alone.

The 7.2 percent figure represents the highest total in 16 years. The 584,000 jobs lost comes after the economy lost 524,000 in November of last year. To see the raw numbers from the Department of Labor, click here.

The number of unemployed Americans now totals 11.1 million. The figure may actually be higher since the Labor Department only tracks those looking for work during the last four weeks and cannot account for those intimidated by the bleak job market.

The comparison between President Clinton's two terms in office and President Bush's is stark and puts even more pressure on the incoming Obama administration. By the end of Clinton's presidency, the economy generated nearly 23 million new jobs, while Bush is slated to have created just over 3 million in eight years.

Within the numbers lies one devastating insight: things are likely to get worse. According to a Los Angeles Times report, those gainfully employed are losing more hours than before.

The report was full of ill portents. Among them was a reported decline in the number of hours worked to 33.3 hours per worker -- the lowest number recorded since the Labor Department began keeping track in 1964. Businesses tend to cut hours before cutting workers, so the declines likely mean more layoffs are pending.

This fact cuts directly to real-world problems affecting all Americans. While times are difficult for those laid-off recently or fruitlessly attempting to find work, those with employment are hurting as well.

Dr. Gloria Duffy blogs on Huffington Post


Commonwealth Club President and CEO Dr. Gloria Duffy's recent posting on this blog about the nomination of Leon Panetta to be CIA director is getting an even wider audience. Today's Huffington Post includes the article by Dr. Duffy. You can read it here.

Obama's Recovery Plan Moves to the Center

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says he has no qualms with President-elect Barack Obama's stimulus plan – and that could be a problem in itself.

After eight years of tax cuts under President Bush, some Democrats – especially Northeastern liberals like Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Barney Frank – think that giving tax breaks to businesses and middle-class families will not create long-term job growth. Scott Lehigh, writing in the Boston Globe's op-ed page, thinks tax cuts make little sense and wonders whether they exist in Obama's plan as a carrot to Republicans.

Democrats are also leery about heaping more debt on the books. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the deficit will reach $1.2 trillion in 2009, not including Obama's stimulus plan. Some in Washington also believe the total stimulus price tag will ultimately reach closer to $1 trillion. Obama's preliminary estimate is around $775 billion.

With 11 days until inauguration day, Obama, like President Franklin D. Roosevelt 76 years ago, will be afforded a brief honeymoon period in Washington and this is the impetus for the presidential feel of yesterday's speech at George Mason University.

Former labor secretary under President Clinton, Robert Reich, believes the government stimulus should reach upwards of $900 billion spread over two years and urges for it to be done quickly. "Without federal action, next year could be even worse," Reich told congressmen at a forum discussing the stimulus bill in Washington.

Reich will discuss the economic prospects of the country at The Commonwealth Club of California next Wednesday when he gives a special forecast for the economy in 2009.

On his blog, Reich urges Congress to spend without caution of overextending itself.

As the buyer of last resort, the federal government must respond if that cycle is to be reversed. In my judgment, this will require a stimulus of about 6 and a half percent of gross domestic product, or a total of some $900 billion, spread over two years. That’s my estimate for the shortfall in private demand. But the federal government should stand ready to spend larger sums if necessary to get the economy back on track toward full capacity. The danger is not that the government will do too much; the danger is that it will do too little, too late.

Reich agrees with Obama's plan to upgrade the nation's infrastructure as does Paul Krugman, but some disagree with the basic Keynesian approach. Larry Kudlow at the National Review mocks Obama's progressive pedigree by saying his stimulus plan is somewhat Reaganesque. "Nobody really believes infrastructure spending will end the recession or create permanent new jobs. However, it’s interesting just how much the Obama plan has changed since the election," he wrote.

Here lies the problem facing Washington: in the shadow of a clumsily rolled out $700 billion bailout for the financial sector where many do not know where the money went and fewer gained any stimulus from the investment, how will what many people see as a chronically ineffective legislative branch deal decisively with the economy? Obama wants a bill ready to sign from Congress by Feb. 13. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is already pushing to extend the deadline. Meanwhile, unemployment reaches 7.2 percent and the prospect of this year being somewhat better than the last decreases.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

'Serious' Emanuel Brother Aims To Fix Health Care

When Esquire named the three Emanuel brothers as (collectively) one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century, they called Rahm, president-elect Obama's chief of staff, "the mouthy middle boy" and portrayed younger brother Ari as a petulant change-of-pace character mixed with a little of Rahm's bombastic intensity. The oldest Emanuel, Zeke, is different. He is the low-key, serious brother attempting to fix the nation's foundering health-care system.

Zeke Emanuel's ideas run somewhat off the beaten path, if not controversial. In an appearance of PBS's public affairs program, "NOW," his plan to fix health care involves using vouchers of similar value to what most Americans pay for basic coverage (Watch the clip here).

There is one catch. To pay for the program, a "value added" sales tax of 10 percent, excluding food and other items that disportionately affect the poor, would be added. In California, for example, consumers would be paying more than 18-percent sales tax, something many people might find exorbitant. In the interview, Emanuel points out that the savings in health care and a theoretical jump in earnings would offset the tax.

In a piece for The Huffington Post, Emanuel states his belief that the recent economic downturn may actually help push through health-care legislation that would have otherwise languished in the halls of Congress.

This financial crisis also means Americans may be more willing to forgo gold-plated comprehensive insurance that covers everything with few restrictions. Under the threat of losing everything, Americans may feel content with the guarantee of a decent plan that covers cost-effective treatments with some restrictions on choice and services to save money. This should enhance the chances for a bipartisan deal on health care.

Emanuel, as the chair of the bioethics department at the National Institutes of Health, will likely have some of his ideas within earshot of the new administration working under Tom Daschle at the Department of Health and Human Services.

As one of the leading opponents of doctor-assisted suicide, Emanuel wrote in a 1997 article for The Atlantic that from an ethical view it both violates the Hippocratic Oath and could possibly be used without consent in the future – refuting studies done in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands studies fail to demonstrate that permitting physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia will not lead to the nonvoluntary euthanasia of children, the demented, the mentally ill, the old, and others. Indeed, the persistence of abuse and the violation of safeguards, despite publicity and condemnation, suggest that the feared consequences of legalization are exactly its inherent consequences.

Zeke may be the Emanuel you have never heard about, but The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan says he's just like the others.

Emanuel will discuss his ideas for fixing health care in America this Thursday night at The Commonwealth Club at 6 p.m.

The Raging Debate over Panetta: Agent of Change or Agent of Status Quo?


The choice of Leon Panetta for CIA's top man has certainly launched Washington and Washington-watchers into a cacophony of chatter. There seems to be little common ground between both arguments – he's not qualified or he's a proverbial breath of fresh air.

The former California congressman and chief of staff under President Clinton spoke at The Commonwealth Club of California's centennial celebration in 2003. During the question and answer portion of the program referring to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, Panetta alluded to the organizational problems in the intelligence community. These same factors may have led to Panetta's appointment. (Read a transcript of Panetta's speech here.)

The Homeland Security Agency, without the FBI and without the CIA being part of it, still creates some of the same conflicts that we have seen before. The only way to resolve those conflicts is when the White House, the president of the United States, basically says, "Everybody operates as a team in getting this job done.

So the Washington chatter contest continues to rage.

Though it is correct that Panetta has no relative intelligence experience outside of Clinton's inner circle, the choice could be seen by some as nothing more than placing a Democratic ally at the post while the current bureaucracy continues to exist.

During the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson became frustrated by consistent missteps by the CIA, according to the award-winning history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, by Tim Weiner. Johnson's solution was to install one of his Texas cronies, Admiral William Raborn to the post. Raborn proved ineffectual, lasting a mere 18 months, but Weiner writes the appointment was nothing more than a warm body. Johnson, according to the book, told Raborn he could be napping by noon. The more capable old hand at the CIA, future chief Richard Helms, would carry the load.

This leads us to today. This time around, the candidate likely perceived to have more qualifications is the Deputy Director Stephen Kappes. His problem may be his involvement in signing off the abduction and rendition to Egypt of suspected terrorist Abu Omar. One cynical line of thinking asks whether it is naive to believe that the torture and rendition of suspected terrorists or the extraordinary depths of the CIA's hand in world events will change greatly under Obama's administration. Though the breadth of the clandestine activity might subside under Panetta, his gravitas in Washington could allow for the CIA to conduct business-as-usual.

Since the CIA's creation under Harry Truman, it has proved troublesome for every president at one point or another. Maybe Obama is learning from the past and putting a friend in Langley?

Staceys: Our Neighborhood Shrinks a Little

It is with great sadness that we learned of the impending close of Stacey's Bookstore, the multi-storey book shop right next to our building on San Francisco's Market Street. Stacey's is not only a great place to browse and buy a wide selection of books and magazines; it's also home to a wonderful staff, some of whom Commonwealth Club members have met when they come to Club events and find a little table with the speaker's books for sale.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Is Leon Panetta the Right Choice for CIA Director?


I believe he is an inspired choice. Why? What the intelligence community needs most at this time is a firm management hand and strong ethical guidance, and Mr. Panetta has both. Not only has he managed the Office of the President as Chief of Staff for President Clinton, but he managed the budget process for all federal agencies, including the CIA, as Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the 90s. His contacts in Congress are excellent, from his years representing the Monterey Peninsula in the House, including as Chairman of the House Budget Committee - which reviewed and approved the CIA's budget. All of these roles, and his membership in the recent Iraq Study Group, give him the capability to succeed with the management and budgetary issues facing the intelligence community.

More important, the intelligence community has suffered through some poor choices in recent years. These have included yielding to what was probably political pressure leading the agency to mistakenly conclude in 2002-2003 that WMD were present in Iraq, and the decisions to use interrogation techniques that have not gone down well in our democratic society, no matter how justified our cause in combating terrorism.

These problems require a leader with a strong ethical compass, who will use good judgment in making key choices for the intelligence community. In addition to his prior government service that met high standards for good judgment and ethics, Mr. Panetta has spent the past decade thinking about leadership and ethics, teaching and lecturing about these topics, and training young people to engage in ethical government service through the Panetta Institute at Cal State Monterey Bay. He has the qualities of high moral standards and good judgement that are essential for the intelligence community at this time.

Concerns have been expressed that Panetta would be viewed as an outsider by the personnel in the intelligence agencies. But most CIA Directors for the past several decades have come from outside the intelligence community. They have included professors, businessmen and diplomats. Panetta is more of an insider than most of these folks.

It is also perhaps not widely known that there has been a major change in the intelligence agencies' personnel since 9/11. Some 50% of intel community staffers have joined since 9/11. This is not the hardened group of veteran analysts and operatives that it might have been in previous years, who perhaps would have protested or undercut the effectiveness of a director who was not "one of them". Many of the current staff are young and relatively new to the intelligence profession.

In addition, the intelligence community is involved in a makeover in how information is gathered, bringing into its practices the major developments from the civilian economy that have increased capabilities for finding and organizing information. For example, the intelligence community now has an "intellipedia", like wikipedia, where analysts from different fields and agencies can post and access information that previously would have only been accessible to a narrow range of people in a limited field.

Given this change in makeup and in its work process, I believe the intelligence community will welcome a man of Mr. Panetta's stature and capabilities as the fine leader who will secure their budgets and continue to improve their capabilities, while providing the moral compass to keep them out of trouble.

Besides all of this, Mr. Panetta's son, James, is a naval intelligence officer just awarded the Bronze Star for his work locating Al Qaida targets in Afghanistan.

I commend the choice of Mr. Panetta for this role, and wish him great success.

Gloria Duffy
President and CEO, The Commonwealth Club
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, 1993-1995

Ecomomists Confusing Bull and the Bear Market

Although the Dow dropped below the 9,000 mark today amidst a round of profit-taking, last week's mini-rally still has economic experts optimistic about the new year. But is this a self-fulfilling prophesy perpetrated by Wall Street?

Optimism in the financial world is part-and-parcel to the whole idea of investing, isn't it? If the outlook were bleak, who would participate?

Last week's impressive rally, which lifted the Dow over 9,000 for the first time in two months, may have had the fortune of arriving in tandem with numerous articles on the 2009 outlook for the economy. Of course, most were bullish and those that were not, were eagerly anticipating good times near the middle of the year.

Though Jim Cramer writing at has a headline foreseeing a return to the Wall Street of old, he only predicts the Dow rising to near 10,000 – hardly something to celebrate. Cramer based his projections of the possibility of the housing market rebounding with new buyers and – like many other economists – wondering how high unemployment will rise.

A recent article in USA Today does a good job of laying out various scenarios occurring during the next year. Some optimistic, some pessimistic, and others ominously following the current downward trends.

In a nod to the suspicion that nobody knows where the economy is heading, the USA Today article contributes this:
A recent Citigroup survey of institutional investors reflects the wide disparity of potential performance outcomes for stocks next year. More than 20 percent expect the S&P 500 to rise 11 percent to 22 percent in 2009. But more extreme predictions — both pessimistic and optimistic — were also evident. About 15 percent think stocks could fall as little as 12 percent or as much as 39 percent. And about 15 percent said stocks could post gains ranging from 44 percent to 55 percent.
So, what does all this optimism portend for the economy?

Niall Ferguson at the Financial Times wrote a far more honest and hardly satisfactory outlook on the economy with a clever look back on 2009. In the article he refers to not the second-coming of the Great Depression but what he coins as the "Great Repression," where the entire economy is in denial about its current state.

So, while Ford's reported 32-percent drop in sales looks rosy next to Chrysler's announced 53-percent tumble, unemployment looks more and more grim and banks teeter near insolvency, many experts on the market still say don't worry. An unsympathetic observer might conclude that this sort of denial would make the former Iraqi Minister of Information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf – also known as the man who pleaded with reporters that American troops were not in Baghdad when they were – quite proud.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Bill Richardson Steps Back from Commerce Role

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) withdrew his nomination as President-Elect Barack Obama's commerce secretary today, attributing it to a desire to avoid letting a corruption investigation interfere with the launch of the new administration.

The fact that the corruption charges were no out-of-the-blue occurrence did not go unnoticed by some.

Richardson, who spoke at The Commonwealth Club June 12, 2007, during his short-lived presidential campaign [listen to audio of his program or watch video], was reportedly "stunned" by the Obama camp's move to have him withdraw, according to CNN. Apparently, the ongoing farce occurring in Illinois state government, with the arrest and impending doom of Gov. Rod Blagojevich, has made the incoming president's team quick to pull the trigger to do away with unwanted ethics problems.