The President and Joe Wilson

Another President plagued by another Joe Wilson.  This is not President George W. Bush and the Ambassador Joe Wilson who exposed part of the rational for the Iraq War and then had his undercover CIA operative wife, Valerie Plame, outed.  This is President Barack Obama heckled by a Republican Congressman Joe Wilson during a speech to a joint session of Congress.  And who is Congressman Wilson?  Aldele Stan has posted “14 Things You Need to Know About Obama Hecker, Joe Wilson” on Alternet.  So here are a few.

1. Like his ideological counterpart known as Mr. The Plumber, his real name is not Joe. It’s Addison. His middle name is Graves. That makes him Addison Graves Wilson.

3. Wilson served as an aide to the late segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond, who is credited with conducting the longest filibuster in Senate history — against the 1957 civil rights bill.

5. A large percentage of Wilson’s campaign contributions come from the health sector, according to Over the course of his eight-year congressional career, Wilson has collected $414,000 from the health sector, topped only by contribution from what OpenSecrets calls the “finance, insurance & real estate” sector, from which he has gleaned $455,000.

7. Wilson is an adamant opponent of health care reform. As reported by The Hill, his last Tweet before his heckling performance at Obama’s speech read, “Happy Labor Day! Wonderful parade at Chapin, many people called out to oppose Obamacare which I assured them would be relayed tomorrow to DC.” (Wilson is currently the top trending topic on Twitter, and has nearly doubled his number of followers since his outburst.)

8. A military veteran whose health-care coverage is set for life, even after he retires from Congress, Wilson has “voted 11 times against health care for veterans in eight years, even as he voted ‘aye’ for the Iraq War…, ” according to Adam Weinstein, an uninsured Iraq-war veteran, writing at Newsweek’s The Gaggle. “He voted to cut veterans’ benefits─not his own─to make room for President George W. Bush’s tax cuts,” Weinstein says. “He repeatedly voted for budgets that slashed funding to the Veterans Administration and TRICARE. And perhaps most bizarrely, he refused — repeatedly — to approve Democratic-led initiatives that would have extended TRICARE coverage to all reservists and National Guard members, even though a disproportionate number of them have served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan — and many lost access to their civilian work benefits when they did so.”

10. Wilson served in the Reagan administration as deputy counsel in the energy department.

Unfortunately, South Carolinians seem to like him and agree with him.  The New York Times reports

“Yeah, it was rude, but somebody needed to say it,” said Susan Wahl, 41, a homemaker in this town of 800 outside Columbia. “Ordinary people can’t just get up and tell Obama he lied. He said something we all wanted to say.”

Maybe Ms. Wahl wanted to say it.  I wanted to say rude things as I watched Representative Eric Cantor pay attention to nothing but his Blackberry or iPhone or what ever he was playing with.  And I did cheer when President Obama called out opponents of health care reform asking them to talk rationally about ideas and not spread myths about the contents of the legislation.  But, Ms. Wahl and I were watching at home and Representative Wilson was on the floor of the Congress where, I believe, calling anyone a liar is outside the bounds of established decorum.  Here is more from the Times

Some Republicans noted that President George W. Bush drew derisive hoots from Democrats when he made his case for Social Security changes during his 2005 State of the Union address. But Mr. Wilson’s Republican colleagues overwhelmingly took the position that he had exceeded the bounds of Congressional decorum and that he took the right step by quickly admitting it.

“His behavior was inappropriate,” said Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader.

Other Republicans said the outburst was also counterproductive, providing a political bonanza for Democrats, feeding the party’s story line that the August uproar over the health proposals was fed by boorish Republicans and orchestrated attacks.

It is difficult to see how this will play out in the long run.  Those of us outside of South Carolina can contribute to Rob Miller, the Democrat who is running against Mr. Wilson – and people can contribute to Wilson.  Miller has a tough road to victory.  As for the fate of health care reform, that is a wait and see also.

The President Speaks at Wakefield High

Updated September 9 .  I added this cartoon by Dan Wasserman.



President Obama gave a “first day of school” speech today that was broadcast to schools across the country – and available on the internet to anyone who wants to watch.  (there is a link in the New York Times story below) The conservatives, actually, the far right Limbaugh and Beck followers were convinced that the President was going to indoctrinate the the nation’s school population.  It has been compared with speeches given in North Korea and the former Soviet Union.

So what did he actually say?  According to the New York Times

President Obama exhorted America’s students on Tuesday to study hard, set goals, accept personal responsibility, and “get serious this year’’ in a back-to-school address that became a lightning rod for conservative parents who accused the White House of trying to indoctrinate their children with a political message.“The future of America depends on you,’’ the president declared, in one of the few departures from his script.


President Barack Obama spoke to students at Wakefield High School

This was a speech worthy of Bill Cosby.

“At the end of the day, the circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home – none of that is an excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude,’’ the president said. “That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. There is no excuse for not trying.’’

The President tried to explain that you won’t like everything you study and that some things will be hard but you had to set a plan for yourself and stick to it.  I think this is my favorite part of the speech.

Whatever you resolve to do, I want you to commit to it. I want you to really work at it. 
I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work — that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things. 
But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject you study. You won’t click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won’t necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.
That’s OK.  Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who’ve had the most failures. JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, “I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” 
These people succeeded because they understand that you can’t let your failures define you – you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time. If you get in trouble, that doesn’t mean you’re a troublemaker, it means you need to try harder to behave. If you get a bad grade, that doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it just means you need to spend more time studying. 

E. J. Dionne comments in the Washington Post

We have just gone through one of the most shameful episodes of the young Obama presidency — shameful because of the behavior of the right wing, shameful because the media played into an extremist agenda, shameful because we proved that our political system has become so dysfunctional that a president gets punished for doing the right thing.

Upon Barack Obama’s election, even my most conservative friends who supported John McCain said Obama could do a world of good for poor children in the country by stressing the importance of education, hard work, staying in school and taking responsibility. Yes, those are often thought of as conservative values.

But when Obama proposed to do just that on the first day of school, the far right — without asking any questions or seeking any information — decided to pounce, on the theory that everything Obama did should be attacked relentlessly as part of some secret and dangerous ideological agenda.

Out popped Jim Greer, the Florida Republican chairman, who accused the president of trying to “indoctrinate America’s children to his socialist agenda.”

In a normal world, the media would have asked Greer for proof of such a wild charge and, since he didn’t have any, his press release would have gone into the circular file.

But, no, the media is so petrified of being criticized for being “liberal” that it chose to take a lunatic charge seriously and helped gin up this phony controversy.

And, of course, Obama’s speech was not at all “political” in any conventional definition of that word. It was about highlighting the importance of individual achievement. Here is an example of the president’s “socialist” propaganda, from the text of his speech:

I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren’t working where students aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve.

But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world — and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

And that’s what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.

If that’s “socialist,” then Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and just about every parent in America are “socialists.”

So have the Limbaughs, Beck’s and Greers apologized?  Of course not.  There had to be a hidden or coded message in the speech somewhere.  Greer did concede it was a good speech but seems to continue to insist that it must have been rewritten.  Asked on CNN for proof, he had none.

It was a good speech.  Newt Gingrich, Laura Bush and Karl Rove said so.

Facts for the Health Care Debate

Anyone who reads this blog regularly already knows that I am in favor of reform all the way to single payer.  However, with single payer not an option, I have been sending email and writing everyone , including President Obama, that we need to keep the public option.  I don’t believe anything will really change without it.  But the debate has really degeneated.  Things are being presented as “fact” that are not true, but once said take on a life of their own.

This week Newsweek presented a two-page spread by Sharon Begley titled “The Five Biggest Lies in the Health Care Debate”.  But I think there are actually 6.  The quotes are from Begley; the comments are mine.

1) There will be electric funds transfers out of your bank account that you will not control.

 Take the claim in one chain e-mail that the government will have electronic access to everyone’s bank account, implying that the Feds will rob you blind. The 1,017-page bill passed by the House Ways and Means Committee does call for electronic fund transfers—but from insurers to doctors and other providers. There is zero provision to include patients in any such system.

2) You’ll have no choice in what health benefits you receive.

In fact, the House bill sets up a health-care exchange—essentially a list of private insurers and one government plan—where people who do not have health insurance through their employer or some other source (including small businesses) can shop for a plan, much as seniors shop for a drug plan under Medicare part D. The government will indeed require that participating plans not refuse people with preexisting conditions and offer at least minimum coverage, just as it does now with employer-provided insurance plans and part D. The requirements will be floors, not ceilings, however, in that the feds will have no say in how generous private insurance can be.

3) Older patients and the very sick will not get treatment.  This is related to the Stephen Hawking myth.  The one that he would be dead now if he were getting benefits under the British health care system.  Only he is under the British National Health and as of this morning is alive and still doing his work.

The House bill does not use the word “ration.” Nor does it call for cost-effectiveness research, much less implementation—the idea that “it isn’t cost-effective to give a 90-year-old a hip replacement.”The general claim that care will be rationed under health-care reform is less a lie and more of a non-disprovable projection (as is Howard Dean’s assertion that health-care reform will not lead to rationing, ever). What we can say is that there is de facto rationing under the current system, by both Medicare and private insurance. No plan covers everything, but coverage decisions “are now made in opaque ways by insurance companies,” says Dr. Donald Berwick of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

What I don’t understand is why wouldn’t we want to know what is most effective so we can all be treated in the best, most cost effective and beneficial way.

4) Illegal Immigrants will get free health care.  I think they already do when they go to emergency rooms and our insurance premiums reflect that cost.

Will they be eligible for subsidies to buy health insurance? The House bill says that “individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States” will not be allowed to receive subsidies.

Can we say that none of the estimated 11.9 million illegal immigrants will ever wangle insurance subsidies through identity fraud, pretending to be a citizen? You can’t prove a negative, but experts say that Medicare—the closest thing to the proposals in the House bill—has no such problem.

5) There will be death panels making decisions about who gets treatment.   Related to #)3, this has been debunked all over but still lives particularly in the minds of Betsey McCaughy and Sarah Palin.

This lie springs from a provision in the House bill to have Medicare cover optional counseling on end-of-life care for any senior who requests it. This means that any patient, terminally ill or not, can request a special consultation with his or her physician about ventilators, feeding tubes, and other measures. Thus the House bill expands Medicare coverage, but without forcing anyone into end-of-life counseling.

I’ve had a lot of older relatives who have had end of life discussions with their doctors to decide on the level of treatment desired.  Everyone found them comforting and helpful to have decisions made.

6)  The government will set doctor’s wages.  I believe that one way to control costs is to put doctor’s on salary rather than fee for service which often ends up in many extra tests as the doctor and his or her practice tries to pay for equipment and up the billing.  However the proposed bills do not do this.

This, too, seems to have originated on the Flecksoflife blog on July 19. But while page 127 of the House bill says that physicians who choose to accept patients in the public insurance plan would receive 5 percent more than Medicare pays for a given service, doctors can refuse to accept such patients, and, even if they participate in a public plan, they are not salaried employees of it any more than your doctor today is an employee of, say, Aetna. “Nobody is saying we want the doctors working for the government; that’s completely false,” says Amitabh Chandra, professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

I close with the picture Newsweek chose to accompany this story.

Town Hall Face:   An unsightly condition caused by unsanitary health-care politics

Cameron Todd Willingham and the Death Penalty

I haven’t had the chance to read the article in the New Yorker Magazine by David Grann but Bob Herbert has written a powerful op-ed in today’s New York Times about Cameron Willingham’s execution by the State of Texas.

There is a long and remarkable article in the current New Yorker about a man who was executed in Texas in 2004 for deliberately setting a fire that killed his three small children. Rigorous scientific analysis has since shown that there was no evidence that the fire in a one-story, wood frame house in Corsicana was the result of arson, as the authorities had alleged.

In other words, it was an accident. No crime had occurred.

Cameron Todd Willingham, who refused to accept a guilty plea that would have spared his life, and who insisted until his last painful breath that he was innocent, had in fact been telling the truth all along.

The fire broke out on the morning of Dec. 23, 1991. Willingham was awakened by the cries of his 2-year-old daughter, Amber. Also in the house were his year-old twin girls, Karmon and Kameron. The family was poor, and Willingham’s wife, Stacy, had gone out to pick up a Christmas present for the children from the Salvation Army.

Willingham said he tried to rescue the kids but was driven back by smoke and flames. At one point his hair caught fire. As the heat intensified, the windows of the children’s room exploded and flames leapt out. Willingham, who was 23 at the time, had to be restrained and eventually handcuffed as he tried again to get into the room.

According to Grann and Herbert,  an incompetent arson investigator decided the fire was arson, witnesses decided that Willingham had not tried to rescue his children and there was a jailhouse snitch.   Herbert continues

Willingham was arrested and charged with capital murder.

When official suspicion fell on Willingham, eyewitness testimony began to change. Whereas initially he was described by neighbors as screaming and hysterical — “My babies are burning up!” — and desperate to have the children saved, he now was described as behaving oddly, and not having made enough of an effort to get to the girls.

And you could almost have guaranteed that a jailhouse snitch would emerge. They almost always do. This time his name was Johnny Webb, a jumpy individual with a lengthy arrest record who would later admit to being “mentally impaired” and on medication, and who had started taking illegal drugs at the age of 9.

The jury took barely an hour to return a guilty verdict, and Willingham was sentenced to death.

He remained on death row for 12 years, but it was only in the weeks leading up to his execution that convincing scientific evidence of his innocence began to emerge. A renowned scientist and arson investigator, Gerald Hurst, educated at Cambridge and widely recognized as a brilliant chemist, reviewed the evidence in the Willingham case and began systematically knocking down every indication of arson.

The authorities were unmoved. Willingham was executed by lethal injection on Feb. 17, 2004.

The fundamental problem with the death penalty is that you can’t take it back. 

Now comes a report on the case from another noted scientist, Craig Beyler, who was hired by a special commission, established by the state of Texas to investigate errors and misconduct in the handling of forensic evidence.

The report is devastating, the kind of disclosure that should send a tremor through one’s conscience. There was absolutely no scientific basis for determining that the fire was arson, said Beyler. No basis at all. He added that the state fire marshal who investigated the case and testified against Willingham “seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires.” He said the marshal’s approach seemed to lack “rational reasoning” and he likened it to the practices “of mystics or psychics.”

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed by the State of Texas on no evidence.  Who will pay for his death?

What I did on my vacation

If I were President Obama, I would have to write something like this “I was going on vacation but there was a hurricane so I was late.  Then my advisors said I had to make an announcement about reappointing the Fed Chairman.  Then one of my best friends died and I had to write his eulogy and attend the funeral.  All I really wanted to do was to spend a week more or less out of the public eye and hang out with the family and the dog, maybe some friends.  Oh, well.”

Obamas on Vacation

I think we should actually be concerned that the President didn’t really have a vacation.    Here the First Family is arriving, full of hope for a fun time. 

Barack Obama goes biking with his daughters.

Then one of the few times he did something fun in public, he got criticized for not wearing a helmut. 

We need to lighten up.  There is a happy medium between the, to my mind, excessive vacationing done by George W. Bush and Obama’s measly, not quite a week.  There is also a medium between Bill Clinton many public times when he was on the Vineyard and W. hiding on his ranch.

As Susan Jacoby wrotes in the introduction to her discussion blog in the Washington Post

Why would a president, having just had the delightful experience of speaking at town hall meetings to which some upstanding citizens saw fit to carry loaded guns, need a vacation with his wife and daughters? Incredibly, President Obama is being criticized by the political right for his decision to spend a few more days on vacation with his family at Camp David next week. Of course, no president is ever really on vacation; his day always begins with a lengthy national security briefing and he is always out of touch with advisers on important issues. In this case, the family’s five days on Martha’s Vineyard have already been shortened by the inevitable political and personal duties associated with the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. It seems to me that there is an ethical blindness about this country’s obsession with working—or appearing to work—24/7.

I, for one, an suspicious of anyone who never takes a vacation.  Everyone needs some time away from the world in which they reside most of the time – a different location, a different rhythm to the day, a new experience.  I just do not understand those who think that President Obama should not vacation while there is a deficit or whatever the person’s issue is. 

I hope the President enjoys his few days a Camp David this week despite his daily briefings.  Come back and we will tackle health care, Mr. President.  With a public option.