As President Barack Obama heads to Trinidad and Tobago to meet with leaders from the hemisphere, Cuba must be on his mind. He has slightly, very slightly, eased some of the conditions of the 47-year-old embargo on the island nation–less than many Americans wanted, and more than the hardest of the hardliners wanted.
His temerity is a testament to what a problem Cuba has now become for the United States. Once it was a political problem, involving the vote of Cuban-Americans in Miami. But as the generation that fled Fidel Castro’s revolution all those years ago has declined in numbers and influence, the epicenter of the Cuban problem has moved north from Miami to Washington.
Successive administrations have wrestled with what to do about Cuba; how to satisfy the angry refugees in Miami and to begin to normalize relations with our closest neighbor after Canada and Mexico. At one time, it was necessary to punish the communist regime for its willingness to be an outpost of the Soviet Union and a base for its missiles, and a fomenter of revolution in Africa and South America.
But things change, even in long-running dictatorships. No longer can Castro or his brother Raul, who has succeeded him in the day-to-day running of Cuba, look to Russia for succor, nor thrill to the applause of the unaligned nations.
The Brothers Castro–old, old men–have long since drawn in their international horns and have tacitly admitted the failure of their glorious revolution by tentatively loosening some of the economic reins (small private restaurants, foreign-currency accounts and cell phone ownership) that so enslaved Cubans. Last time I was in Cuba some party officials, over rum, told me that much of the old apparatus of the state–like the block informers—had become rusty.
Nowadays, Cubans seem a lot more concerned with the limits of their failed economy than the oppressive nature of the state. When I visited Cuba in the mid-1980s, the sense of the state was everywhere and was oppressive. You got the feeling that that if a group of people were walking down the street, they would all strive to be in the middle–not in front and not behind. In those days, the Russian presence was palpable and depressive.
As in the Soviet Union itself, government officials kept to the party line. Twenty years later, these same officials made jokes about the communist party and the governing apparatus. Particularly, I found them happy to ridicule the myth of Che Guevara, the mythological Argentine doctor who fought alongside Fidel Castro.
In short American attitudes to Cuba are changing as Cuban attitudes toward themselves are also changing. Theirs is not a yearning for political freedom as for personal mobility. Imagine growing up 90 miles from Miami, listening to commercial radio from Florida and knowing that if things do not change, your future will be one of poverty and confinement? Your face forever pressed against the American windowpane.
A government official, a member of the Communist Party, told me: “We are tired of rice and beans. We can smell the pork. We want some of it on our plates now.” A colleague of this man said that in the time of the Soviet Union, he would not have dared to speak up the way he did, but now it did not matter.
Obama has shown caution–as he does in many things–in edging towards a greater liberalism with Cuba. His challenge is geographic as well as political. If an open society emerges in Cuba, untold numbers of Cuba’s population of 11 million will try to emigrate to the United States. On Florida’s East Coast, thousands of boats are ready to illegally bring Cubans to the United States; likewise aircraft.
Cuba has no great wealth beyond its people; its biggest export is still sugar. Its people long for American goods, but they are penniless. U.S. agricultural exporters yearn to increase sales to Cuba, but the market is small.
There are already about 200,000 Americans who visit Cuba every year, according to the U.S. Interest Section in Havana (an embassy in all but name).
As the end of days for the Castro regime looms in Havana, a crisis grows in Washington: How will we keep the Cubans in Cuba if a new government meets all the well-published conditions for ending the embargo? A few Americans will head to Cuba. But mucho Cubans will be Miami-bound–like hundreds of thousands almost immediately. You cannot build a fence down the coast of Florida.
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I can do this: put my face where my mouth is. Each week I put my untelegenic face on television in the Washington-based, political talk show “White House Chronicle.” Therefore, I think I have license to comment on how stupifyingly bad political television has become and how it is getting worse.
Once, as Newton Minow said, television was a vast wasteland. Now it is much worse than that. Those were the good old days, before producers learned that you can make a talk show for less than any other kind of show, and that there is an enthusiastic audience for partisans shouting at perceived threats to the republic. For liberals, these threats are epitomized by the religious right; and for conservatives, it is liberals who are planning world subjugation.
Whether they believe this rubbish (how can they?) or not, the punters apparently love it.
Only on the Sunday morning talk shows is there any of the old idea of talk television: a magisterial host, impartial, nice-looking and superbly modulated asking prescribed questions of a subject, nearly always political. The exemplar was Lawrence Spivak, moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press;” later, it was the self-effacing Bill Monroe. I was occasionally on that program in the 1970s. It was tame, serious, gentle and polite–the guests were seldom rattled.
The Sunday morning talk shows have not crumbled completely, but they have grown edgier. Technology and the ability to summon up old footage have made them more compelling. But all the rest, particularly on cable, are on steroids.
The hosts who dominate cable television are grotesques: figures only Charles Dickens could love. Take a sampling, left and right, and in some cases, like Lou Dobbs, an amalgam: Sean Hannity, Keith Obermann, Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck and, just arrived in an act of counter-programming from MSNBC, Ed Schultz. These polemicists are partisan, loud, often rude and more often shallow. Maddow conceals her intellect, Obermann appears to be enchanted with his and Shultz, Beck, O’Reilly and Hannity have laid aside the burden of erudition.
Once thought of as a cool medium, television is now hot. Get excited, yell, make it personal, make the reasoning simplistic and you are on your way.
The first exponent of loud-and-rude was Morton Downey, Jr. But it was the venerable John McLaughlin who changed television talk forever. He took it from its bed and shook it, oddly on PBS. Gone was the impartial, non-participatory host, replaced by an opinionated loud partisan. That was 25 years ago; and although McLaughlin is still hosting his weekly, 30-minute “The McLaughlin Group,” it has faded compared to the night after night rants on cable.
Another remnant of the past is “Washington Week in Review:” the mannerly PBS show that now seems curiously old-fashioned.
To get its more outlandish hosts, cable raided radio, which had turned wild to survive. The end of the Fairness Doctrine, an unenforcible idea in today’s world, found an audience anxious for raw, unsophisticated political ranting. Now it is on television. It is the present and the future.
Deep down the fault is not the programmers, but the limits of television itself. It favors the sensational and the clownish. When it gets serious, it gets dull. It handles depth poorly and conveys information inefficiently.
So how, you ask, does the BBC do it? The answer is it doesn’t.
The BBC has huge resources–5,000 journalists, for example–and it does documentaries and dramas very well. Because only the best of its large and uneven output is seen in America, the impression is created that the BBC gets it right. It doesn’t. I know. I worked there years ago. Program after program on the BBC in Britain is as bad, and often worse, as programs on American television.
Yet television is compelling. We nearly all watch more of it than we admit to. It also is expensive to make, hence the shift to talk. A drama costs over $2 million an hour to produce; talk a few thousand dollars. Sorry, the grotesques are here to stay. And more are probably on the way.
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We have all heard about “too big to fail.” How about “too big to be denied?”
Step forward two commercial sectors that are certain to get in the way of President Barack Obama’s reform plans: the nation’s health insurers and its defense contractors.
The former are bound and determined to hold their lucrative position in any extension of health coverage to the uninsured. In this way, a new health agenda will be designed as much to accommodate the insurers as the patients and providers.
Likewise as Defense Secretary Robert Gates struggles to reform defense procurement and to cancel some weapons systems, he has to deal with the massive power of the defense giants. In defense, the customer is always wrong; and the vendors, through their congressional sponsors, overwhelm the department and get what they want, not what field commanders need or the national interest cries out for.
Ironically the Clinton administration strengthened the defense lobby, and its ability to push around the Pentagon, by orchestrating the consolidation of defense contractors into a few behemoths, as part of the downsizing of the military in the 1990s. Norman Augustine, chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin from 1995-97, told me that during his tenure, Lockheed Martin had absorbed 19 small contractors.
The big contractors of today–Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Northrup Grumman, BAE and the European wannabe EADS—have conscientiously scattered their manufacturing among many states. One program has components made in 44 states. That means jobs, and jobs mean political clout.
The health insurers, who succeeded in sinking the Clinton health care reform effort, are ready for some concessions, but only enough to insure their dominance. The health insurers and their conservative allies are expert in predicting the arrival of creeping socialism, unless the private insurers retain their supremacy in financing and profiting from the health care system. Ironically, they claim any larger government role in health care will lead to rationing. Yet it is the insurers who ration health care now; and if you are in an HMO they ration it severely, cruelly and sometimes lethally.
A favorite argument is that health care reform will substitute the judgment of doctors for the judgment of bureaucrats. One of the more appalling aspects of the current situation is that the insurance companies day to day substitute the judgment of clerks for that of doctors.
The health insurers will not be denied, but they feel it is reasonable to deny the evidence against them. When health care was in the operating theater in the l990s, and Hillary Clinton was poised to plunge in the scalpel, the insurers rose up against anyone who had evidence that the system was serving the companies, not medicine and not patients. They succeeded in banning from the debate what they dismissed as “anecdotal evidence.” They wanted the debate discussed on a level where they could dismiss reports of their own shortcomings, and conduct the debate in terms of capitalism versus socialism.
It is only now, with business crying out for reform, that the issue is being aired again.
My anecdotal evidence is this: I have lived under government-run medicine in England. It works well enough. The young are favored over the old there, whereas here the old are favored over the young here. Now I am on Medicare,which is remarkably like being on the National Health Service in Britain, except I am being favored over the young.
For 33 years, I ran my own publishing company in Washington. After payroll, the biggest expense was health care. To keep the cost down we changed the carrier frequently, to everyone’s inconvenience and a lack of continuity. When one employee had a rare and painful cancer, the insurance company paid for radiation and chemotherapy but denied payment for painkillers.
For years, ATT ran the telephone system and ordained that plugging in a phone could not be performed by a customer and black instruments were all that should be offered. They were, they thought, too big to be denied.
Robert Gates has shown guts in trying to deny the oligarchs of defense. Congress will need bravery in denying rent-takers in health care. Meanwhile, those who are too-big-to-be-denied are pumping dollars into Washington’s K Street, where the lobbyists carry their water.
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Truth be to tell, the Group of 20 meeting in London was not much of a summit. That honor belongs to the Congress of Vienna which met from September 1814 to June 1815, and hammered out a peace that lasted for about a century.
The London summit has been a largely a European-American affair. But it did include the next stage in the coming out of China; the first was the Beijing Olympics.
It also was the international coming out of President Barack Obama, who was hailed by the European press as the most popular politician in the world. That was a real problem for the continental Europeans, who wanted to be seen to be his best friend while admonishing him that he was, economically speaking, full of it.
From the start, the G-20 delegates seemed to have only one goal: to write a communique that implied they were all on the same page when clearly they were not. Those in the eurozone could not accede to Obama’s stimulus ideas, even if they wanted to, because legally they cannot go as far in deficit spending as the United States without violating the rules that created the euro. Also the European Central Bank, which just lowered its key interest rate to 1.25 percent, when it was hoped it would go lower, is much more conservative that the Federal Reserve and its independent chairman, Ben Bernanke.
The Euros are also deeply suspicious of the Obama administration’s plans to save the car industry. Nearly all of them have been down that road over many years with disastrous results. They also have been trying to create jobs with government programs, incentives and retraining which have not put a dent in their structural unemployment. “Look, we know a thing or two about messing up,” is their message to Obama.
The Euro pols could not have agreed with Obama, even if they had wanted to, but they wanted to wrap themselves in the magic, the popularity and the originality of the American president and his wife. Who would have believed that first lady Michelle Obama would outdazzle Nicolas Sarkozy’s wife, the gorgeous former model Carla Bruni.
The big news, according to the participants, was the $100-billion trade credit plan and the strengthening of the International Monetary Fund.
The real news, not missed by the storied British tabloids, was that the first lady hugged the Queen–something that has not happened in all of recorded English history–and that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper missed the de rigueur group photo because he was answering the call of nature.
More than anything else, the London summit was brief. The delegates only met in plenary session for few hours–a time frame that guaranteed that they could neither overhaul the international banking system, nor really get to know each other.
How different from that greatest-of-all-summits in Vienna with its parties, Lipizzan stallions walking on their hind legs at the Spanish Riding School, and chefs and musicians composing great dishes and exquisite ballroom music.
The congress was convened by the great Austrian foreign minister Klemens Wenzel von Metternich to tidy up after the French revolutionary wars, the Napoleonic wars and the end of the Holy Roman Empire. It never met in plenary session and relied on an endless informal exchanges between the delegates from more than 200 states and princely houses. But the big states dominated and pushed the lesser states around, assigning them new borders, monarchs and sometimes names. Europe was carved up on conservative lines, with a determination to lesson the impact of the French Revolution and the American Revolution.
Some of the arrangements had to be modified and there were some wars followed (the Franco-Prussian), but nothing like the endless fighting on the continent that had preceded the congress. It set in motion the consolidation of Germany and established Vienna as the place to be for New Year’s.
The London summit may be remembered not for its economic achievements, but for the first American president who has no of hint of Eurocentricity, and cannot trace all of his ancestry to that continent.
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There should be a morning-after pill for journalists. As access to White House insiders has decreased over the decades, journalism has obsessed over the rare lifting of the curtain—particularly press conferences with the president.
This week has been no exception. The Tuesday evening press conference in the East Room, which I attended, has been analyzed, dissected, examined, scrutinized; deconstructed and reconstructed, praised and excoriated. I heard Fox’s Bill O’Reilly call in his body language expert so that his viewers would know not only what Barack Obama said but also what he was thinking when he said it. There’s alchemy in the no-spin zone!
Forget O’Reilly, though. For sheer perspicacity, the prize goes to a commentator on CNN who said that the press conference, held on the 64th day of Obama’s presidency, revealed that he would be a one-term president. This sort of fantasy in the name of analysis deserves a Hall of Fame of its own.
The media does the morning-after thing for good and sufficient reason: Over the years the White House, under both parties, has become more and more impenetrable to reporters. We don’t roam the place as we once did in the days of Johnson and Nixon. In those days, reporters could walk the West Wing freely and could interview staffers without the intrusion of the press office, and the numbing effect of trying to conduct an interview in the presence of a press office minder.
No news will be broken when the minder is there, presumably to keep tabs on both the journalist and the official. Also, as I have often said, the press office presence cuts the White House off from a valuable source of information that is hard for presidential aides to get except from journalists.
In the days when you could get to senior White House players without a minder, interviews would invariably end with, “What have you heard?” And sometimes,“What do you think?”
Can you imagine any senior official asking those questions in the presence of a de facto double agent from the press office? I can tell you it doesn’t happen and it won’t happen.
As the White House press corps has swelled in numbers, it has lost in access. It is less effective and more completely controlled by the White House press office. With each successive president, the manipulation of the media becomes more pervasive and more obvious.
Take this latest press conference, referred to on the White House address system as “the program.” Twice this happened after the 360-plus journalists and photographers filed into the East Room.
The anonymous voice on the public address system was anything but a press conference in the old sense of the word. It was, indeed, a program. Only 13 reporters were called upon to ask questions. And clearly, the selection of these had nothing to do with their skills as interrogators. Pointedly, no major newspapers were called upon and few reporters, who was not backed by a television network, had any hope of getting the nod. Radio was completely shunned.
How one longed for a real press conference: a forest of hands and a multitude voices crying out, “Mr. President.” That system was ragged but in its way fair. The small radio station could compete with the mighty TV network.
Obama may be an egalitarian at heart but his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, is anything but. He is an elitist with a penchant for a fistful of TV reporters. The rest of us have the morning-after blues–and no medication.
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