Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Revolutionary Tale

How a conversation between the King of France and his advisers might have been like in 1778.

THE KING: Gentlemen, Dr Franklin continues to petition us (pester us) for more help for the American rebels.  They want weapons, money, our fleet to unblockade their ports and take on the English fleet and even soldiers to stand with them against the English.  What should I do?

The foreign minister: We do not know who these rebels are. There are merchants and planters and then there are ragtag workingmen, rabble from the cities and peasants from the farms. 

The finance minister: We cannot afford this adventure once we start giving them help they will want and need more and the costs to us will go up.  Your majesty will have to either raise taxes or cease giving things to the aristocrats -- we should worry about France first.

The ambassador: Our allies are skeptical of this revolution.  The Czarina Catherine of Russia says she supports them but can’t do anything to help them.  The Netherlands says it might lend them money and might recognize them but not yet.  Spain says it will help us if we fight England but won’t help the Americans

The minster of war: These rebels probably can’t win, maybe not even with our help.  They control only one of the five coastal cities (Boston) and that because the English left and it is the northernmost of the cities.  The English control three (Savannah, Charleston and New York).  And the so called capital seesaws back and forth between the two forces (Philadelphia).  When the rebels win a town they then lose it or leave it.

The General: These revolutionaries are untrained.  They wouldn’t know what to do with weapons if we gave them anything but the most elementary of rifles.  They have no army just what are called militias who turn and run whenever the English stand and shoot.

The King’s Attorney: They have no government to recognize.  There are 13 Governors and 13 legislative bodies and innumerable committees of correspondence and local councils.  They come together in a Continental Congress but it talks and has no power.

The Cardinal: Their radical ideas and writings by men like Paine and Jefferson, Deists who don’t believe in the Christian Church, will infect people here in our country, and if we send soldiers they will return with these ideas, this will come back to haunt us and maybe cripple the monarchy.

The philosopher: Your majesty these Americans are on the right side of History - so should be France.
THE KING: Gentlemen I’ve heard all of you and made my decision.  We will send arms to the rebels.  We will send the French Fleet to end the blockades and create a level playing field.  We will send soldiers to stand with their militias and train their troops so they can defeat the English.  And when they create a government we will recognize it.  And who knows perhaps some day they will return the favor and help France.

Louis XVI sent aid to the American rebels who in 1781 at Yorktown won their independence.  (Louis lost his life during the French Revolution which was inspired by the American Revolution.)  It was 163 years later when thousands of young Americans stormed the beaches of Normandy and died to liberate France from the Nazis. In 1781 France was on the right side of history as was America in 1944. 


Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Reminiscence About a Dear Friend - Geraldine Ferraro

            I first met Geraldine Ferraro in the spring of 1978 when the then assistant DA of Queens County decided to run for Congress from the 9th Cong. Dist of NY.  She had announced her candidacy against an almost 40 year incumbent James J Delaney, whom I had worked for prior to my election the New York State Assembly in 1976.  My Assembly District was entirely within the 9th Congressional District. When Delaney decided not to seek another term, Ms.Ferraro sought my support.  Our lunch was inconclusive and when I decided to stay in my Assembly post I did not endorse any of the three Democratic primary candidates.  Geraldine Ferraro won with a majority in a three way race and made an impact on the district, the state and ultimately the nation.

            She was tough.  She didn’t mince words or as the right likes to say today “nuance” her positions. You knew where she stood. In those days in the predominantly Catholic part of Queens County, being a Catholic who supported a woman’s right to choose an abortion was a tough position for any candidate.  Geraldine never faltered in her commitment to women’s rights.  Once after her election we were both invited to an event sponsored by a pro-choice organization.  The right-to-life folks decided to picket it; and Geraldine was the only Catholic Democrat to cross the picket line and attend - she sat at the same table as me.

            Upon her election she sought out a suitable location for a district office and found the one she wanted that was the size and location she needed. But, the landlord wouldn’t rent to her until the middle of her first year in office.  So of course the advisors (consultants and DC folks) said get another one. I invited her to share one of my district offices until the one she wanted was available.  She did and ultimately got the one she wanted.  She usually did get what she wanted and set out to accomplish.  We had a local issue in my neighborhood that had rankled the folks for decades.  Our zip code had a Brooklyn prefix and we were in Queens but it was a real hassle for our folks when it came to insurance and to home values to explain away the zip code.  Even Cong. Delaney, one of the most powerful Congressmen of his era (he chaired the House Rules Committee), couldn’t get the zip code changed.  When Geraldine ran in 1976 she said she’d get it changed. No one thought it could happen. In 1978 it was changed to a Flushing prefix - to the folks in the neighborhood it was like a miracle.

              In early 1984 when Walter Mondale asked her to chair the Democratic Platform Committee, she assumed that meant that the talk of a VP nomination was just that - talk.  We all did at that point and she began planning a 1986 race for US Senate.  Then In July just before the convention Mondale asked her to come to Minnesota and he offered her the second spot on the ticket.  The convention was electrified by the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro which had been announced before we convened.  Under the rules we needed a petition of a few hundred delegates to place her name in nomination before the convention and I was asked to collect signatures for Ferraro.  I went over to the Georgia delegation and sought out an old acquaintance of my grandparents and asked him to sign which he enthusiastically did.  Turned out he was the leader of the Georgia Democrats for Life - imagine that.

            I campaigned for her throughout that fall in our district and frankly she was treated both by the media and by many voters and organizations somewhat differently because she was a woman.  And the fact that she was the first Italian- American on a national ticket also played into some of the treatment.   But she took it all in stride, she often told me “If my name were Gerald Ferraro I wouldn’t have been chosen to be V.P.”. That was true; and it explains somewhat what she tried to say, somewhat inartfully, about Senator Obama’s candidacy against Senator Clinton in 2008.

            She was unapologetically a liberal Democrat in the era of Reagan and the first resurgence of conservatism.  And she always believed, as she said in 1984, “America is a land where dreams can come true for all of us.”  When the first woman is elected President of the United States -- and that day will come - the name of Geraldine Ferraro will be repeated again many times as the trailblazer   she was.  But she was also a middle class Italian Catholic girl, raised by her widowed seamstress mother, who rose to the political heights and lived a life of decency,  hard work and compassion.  She was a daughter, a wife, a mother, a grandmother and almost a Vice President of the United States.  WELL DONE.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Government is Broken - We Can Fix It!


The government of the United States is broken.  The Senate is dysfunctional and the Senators who represent states not people (at least not proportionally) won’t fix it. So it becomes a brake on doing what the people’s House wants done.  The Supreme Court has become again, as it was in the 1850's and the 1930's, the bastion of conservative orthodoxy and the opponent of popular democracy. With the Citizens United decision, and what will probably be the crushing of Health Care reform, following the tradition of the Bush-Gore recount case, the Supreme Court has now become a third partisan political branch of the federal government.

All our elected offices are now up for the highest bidder.  Money in incredible amounts determines 99% of our elections.  There is talk of the President needing $1 billion to run a re-election campaign.  And it is not unheard of for campaigns for state legislative seats to cost from $250,000 to $500,000.

When the U.S. Confederation government was broken in 1787 the nation’s most prominent leaders called a constitutional convention and proposed a new form of government; which was ultimately ratified by the people of the separate states through conventions called solely for that purpose with delegates chosen by universal white male suffrage (an expansion of the then limited franchise).

When the U.S. union was broken in 1857-9 it was ultimately remade after a horrendous civil war, that cost 600,000 lives, and the constitution substantively amended by the 14th amendment that essentially made the federal republic one united nation.

When the U.S.  economy was broken in 1929-33 the electoral process brought a complete change in all branches of government and once the Supreme Court oldsters got out of the way the American system of capitalism was saved and a social safety network put in place “to protect the American people from the vagaries of the economic system” (FDR.)

The question now, as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, is how i.e. by what process and in what manner, do we fix our broken system.

America today needs a leader like George Washington who can transcend political parties and bring groups together to fix our broken system. That can be done either by calling a new Constitutional Convention or mobilizing people to pressure Congress and the State Legislatures to enact the necessary changes.

Some of those changes could be:
n  The direct election of the President  by the people without the anachronistic electoral college
n  A six year term for President with no re-election thereby reducing the value to the opposition party of devoting its’ time to taking down the President.
n  A line item veto for the President, as envisioned in the original language of the constitution, which would go far to ending the abuse of earmarks and Christmas tree legislation
n  A majority-vote run Senate with it clear that only specified actions, e.g. treaties would require any super majority
n  Term limits of ten years (with one reappointment allowed) for Justices of the Supreme Court;  and twelve years of service allowed to Senators and Representatives – 2 terms for the former and 6 terms for the latter
n  A required federal balanced budget allowing for deficits of no more than 10% of the GDP (with a 60% vote of both houses)
n   Clear and concise language as to personal rights and civil rights for all citizens

And we should adopt an idea proposed by James Madison in 1787 that the federal government should have the right to override a state action when that action or law was detrimental to the interests of the Union.

These constitutional changes should be submitted  for approval to conventions elected by all the people of the states in order to form an even  more perfect Union – One united national government.  To those who say that our system is broken because it is too democratic I respond with Al Smith “the only cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy”.


Friday, March 18, 2011

"Liberty or Death":France helped the Americans - Who will Help the Libyans?

            America needs to stop propping up monarchs to preserve order and keep oil flowing. There seems to be no Arab regime in the Middle East or North Africa whose leaders are there by the choice of the people, except maybe the weak and dysfunctional governments in Lebanon and Iraq.  Our policy should be friendship  to all those who are friends of liberty.  In the 19th century we supported the South American revolutions, the Greek Revolution, and the liberal revolts in Europe in 1848.  After WWI we tried, unsuccessfully, to replace colonialism with self-determination of peoples.  That means sometimes things are going to get messy and sometimes people who don’t like us are going to get elected.  But as long as they have to get themselves re-elected we should tolerate them. What we should not tolerate are these brutal dictators who do not respect the rights or the lives of their people.  It was Patrick Henry and the founding fathers of this country who first advocated revolution to assure government by the consent of the governed.  And, let us not forget that if France had not come to our assistance we might be celebrating the birthday of a Queen rather than the 4th of July as our national holiday.

            Saudi Arabia has now sent 1,200 troops to Bahrain, joined by 800 from the United Arab Emirates, to help the Sunni royal family of that island nation keep the Shiite population (70% of the nation) under control.  But, will anyone send help to the freedom fighters in Libya. It is clear from the failure of the democracies to oppose Khaddafy  in Libya that the message to the rulers of the Arab states has been keep power and fight your people because no one will come to help them or fight you. The lesson that will be learned by the young people of he Arab world is that the only enemy of oppression is radicalism as symbolized by Al Qaeda.

            The Arab revolts are becoming not 1989 in eastern Europe but 1848 in central Europe.  In that year liberal revolts against European monarchies failed eliciting moral support from America but no real support from anyone.  The failure of those revolts meant that it took another 70 years until the monarchies fell and then with the rise of communism and fascism it was another 70 years before east and central Europe was free.
            Twenty years ago in 1981 the Polish military under pressure from the Soviet Union crushed the Solidarity labor/freedom movement.  Solidarity had received great support from Americans and other Europeans and was a truly popular movement in Poland.  But, like Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 the freedom movements were crushed due to Soviet opposition.  Clearly the western democracies were not prepared to risk a nuclear war with the USSR to free these small countries.  They won their  freedom only when the Soviet Union imploded.

            In 1848 we had no resources to aid European democrats;  in the Cold War era we could not risk a nuclear attack unleashed upon us – What is our excuse now in Libya?  Khaddafy can pose no counter  threat to the US. But to retain power he is willing to slaughter his own people. In the name of liberty they fight and they plead for help from the democracies.  With some planes, perhaps drones we could help them.   With the weapons we could provide they would fight and die themselves asking for none of our men and women to join them  The democracies may soon become morally bankrupt – intervening only when no one asks (e.g. Iraq where we stood by when the Iraqi Shiites revolted against Saddam Hussein in 1991and then invaded twelve years later) or when we can save oil (Kuwait).  Unless the democracies reclaim the banner of human rights (and history shows only the USA can lead that movement) the rest of the world may turn to China with its developing system of economic freedom tied to political one party control and civil order enforced by a peoples military.  The regime that slaughtered its own people as they stood beside a replica of the Statue of Liberty may replace as the worlds leader the great nation that was symbolized by that Statue. 

            The UN Security Council urged on by the Arab League and France and Britain has now authorized assistance to the rebels.  The US could have taken out Khaddafy two weeks ago possibly with drones – now it will be more difficult - if we decide to do so. Winston Churchill once said that America could always be counted on to do the right thing – after it had tried everything else.  We may be proving that true again or worse we may be too late.