Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Somewhere, Andrew Johnson Is Thankful That He Is No Longer the Worst

Until perhaps now, the worst president in the history of the United States has to have been President Andrew Johnson.  No one else has managed to reach the same reverse Midas touch (everything he touches turns to name something foul and offensive) ineptness shown by Andrew Johnson . . . again, until perhaps now.

As a president, Johnson deserves his fate.  As a man, he deserves some slack.  The nation would have never elected Johnson to this office on his own merits.  He was an aggressive, sometimes drunken, angry man bearing not chips, but full grown redwood trees on his shoulders.  Johnson was useful as a Southern Democrat in the US Senate who hated secession and everyone associated with it.

Johnson tried to follow what he assumed Lincoln's policy would be.  But he lacked Lincoln's disarming diplomatic style.  His intellect paled in comparison, also.  Most importantly, Lincoln earned more political capital than any president since Washington by winning the Civil War.  He would have had to spend all of it and test his leadership abilities to their limit to implement his Reconstruction plan and make sure the South abided.  Johnson had no such capital and no such abilities.

His suspicious and angry nature alienated moderate Republicans who had been eager to assist and even defend him against Radicals who sought full punishment for the costs of secession.  The Democratic Party remained too tainted with the recent Rebellion to have given him substantial backing.

Johnson and Obama have many differences.  One grew up in rural poverty, the other in urban comfort.  But many similarities link them.  They both saw themselves as the moral center of events.  This created trouble for both because they could not understand that others may disagree for completely honest reasons.

Johnson, on Washington's Birthday no less, savaged his House Republican opponents.   He accused Thaddeus Stevens, among others, for preventing the reconciliation of the country.  "I do not intend to be bullied by my enemies!" he shouted.  Obama, too has played the morally righteous victim, attacked by unreasonable opponents.

Both men relied on shrinking circles of trusted advisers.  Obama has few, other than Valerie Jarrett, at this point after starting off with the capable Rahm Emmanuel and Robert Gibbs.  Johnson lost most of his Cabinet outside of the increasingly moderate secretary of state William Seward.  Seward had a relatively free hand and gave Johnson one of his few accomplishments, the purchase of Alaska.

Johnson's political influence did not hit its nadir in fall of 1866, even though he invested two weeks into speeches backing Democratic candidates.  Those who allowed him to speak in their support found he was little help.  Radical Republicans won big in the midterms that year and the nation repudiated Johnson.  In 2014, most Democratic candidates avoid Obama.  Allison Grimes of Kentucky hopes to build support for her Senate race against Republican Mitch McConnell by attacking the president.

And both men broke the law.  Historians generally agree that the Tenure of Office Act was a trap laid out in the open by Republicans hoping to catch Johnson committing "high crimes and misdemeanors." they impeached, but failed to remove him.  The odium of violating the law and facing a Senate trial ended whatever influence Johnson had left.

Obama last week violated a more important federal law.  He turned five terrorist leaders and strategists back over to the enemy for a Marine who may have been at best a deserter, at worst a traitor. The law requires that any terrorists released from Guantanamo Bay come after consultation with Congress and 30 days for discussion. Obama failed to follow the law, then allowed his National Security Adviser to claim the enemy captured him on the battlefield, which was far from the case. The Taliban must know that if these men plan and execute an attack that harms Americans, that it will spark a Constitutional crisis and the likely impeachment of the president.

Democrats seem to have found their breaking point.  Senator Diane Feinstein was livid in her denunciation.  This comes on top of the Veterans' Affairs scandal and the War on Coal regulations that provoked open rebellion from Senator Joe Manchin and Congressman Nick Rahall.  Obamacare's many failures and burdens on working Americans already define his presidency. Clinton will try to separate herself from the president and his policy, but will not have much success.

Johnson with his flawed personality and good intentions sank his own presidency.   He failed in everything that he tried, but Andrew Johnson did not make the country substantially worse off than when he took office. Obama's values and beliefs have underlain every policy decision that he has made, foreign and domestic.  The utter wrongness of those ideas has put the nation and the world in a much worse position

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Why Is the EPA Out Of Control? Because They Succeeded.

Ever since travel writer Anne Royall regaled early 19th century audiences with tales of environmental destruction in the Kanawha Valley salt works, there has been concern about pollution and destruction.  Ronald Lewis' Transforming the Appalachian Countryside chronicles the effect of the later 1800s timber industry on the landscape, eroded mountains, streams devoid of fish, and other disasters. In 1969 came the seminal environmental event, when pollution in Ohio's Cuyahoga River caught fire.

Modern conservatives blame Richard Nixon for the later sins of the Environmental Protection Agency that he created.  Nixon, however, knew that systematic abuse of the environment had become standard operating procedure in many industries.  This was the problem that the EPA was created to address. The Industrial Revolution brought prosperity, education, higher living standards, and longer lives.  It also set a river on fire.  Nixon created the EPA to reduce pollutants and enforce new environmental standards to encourage conservation and protect the environment. 

And what came of it?  The EPA succeeded.  According to their own statistics, carbon monoxide levels in the air dropped 83 percent from 1980 levels, from 178 million tons to 51 million. Much of the drop in carbon monoxide emissions came between 2001 and 2009, the years of the George W. Bush presidency.  Airborne lead dropped 91 percent. Aggregate emissions of six common pollutants dropped 67 percent.

Percentages and raw numbers dropped even though the US has more people, producing more goods and services, and driving more vehicles than ever. 

So the EPA actually succeeded in its most important primary task.  It brought reasonable standards into being and provided an enforcement mechanism to ensure that the air and water did not harm us.  In any group of people, accidents and even disasters will happen.  But they do not have a serious long term impact because industries generally abide by EPA standards.  

If the story ended here, we'd call it a government success story.  Most people understand, however, that it did not, that the EPA now uses flimsy evidence and bad science to justify destroying industries.  Worse, they work at the behest, as Heritage's Stephen Moore describes, of green energy moguls who have a vested interest in its work.  So-called green energy cannot replace coal, gas, or oil.  It also requires enormous amounts of resources to build and ship which limit their benefit to the environment. 

A lot of politics and money have energized the EPA to attack the cleanest coal mining and power production that has ever been seen anywhere in history.  But why do they also go after farms?  Why, for example, as Delegate Kelli Sobonya said last week, has the EPA gotten so obsessed with limiting "bovine emissions" (that's cow farts to the rest of us.)

Another aspect fuels EPA lunacy.  They succeeded and now the agency has little real justification for crusading.  Going after bogeymen, real or false, gives bureaucrats a sense of purpose.  Secular Saint Georges slaying the mean and nasty pollution dragon, saving the world from global warming, err climate change.  This all sounds like much more fun than a scaled down agency administering reasonable regulations that maintain a successful status quo.  

The EPA achieved its original goal beyond what was likely expected in 1972. It eventually hit a balance between the needs of a dynamic economy and the needs of a protected environment.  Now, to justify itself, it goes out looking for new empires to battle and conquer.

It's human nature to want to matter and have a strong sense of purpose.  But this agency level self-fulfillment should not come at the cost of real jobs, real standards of living, and real lives.


Monday, June 2, 2014

Movie Review: To Be Or Not To Be (1983)

Since Hollywood keeps serving up loads of crap, and since the best talent and effort comes from cable television these days, you have to go back into the past to find decent movies to review.

From 1983 comes To Be Or Not To Be.  Mel Brooks produces, stars in, but does not direct this updated version of a 1942 Jack Benny movie of similar name and plot.  Brooks plays Frederick Bronski, a bad Polish actor whose theater gets caught up in the fear and chaos of newly occupied Poland in late 1939.  A key difference between Jack Benny's version and Mel Brooks adaptation is one of grave consequence.  In 1942, few in the United States had any notion of the horror engulfing Jews, homosexuals, political dissenters, Jehovah's Witnesses, Freemasons, and others pulled into the Holocaust.

Brooks' version has to balance dark comedy against utter darkness.

Starring alongside Brooks is Anne Bancroft, best known for her role as a predatory seducer in The Graduate, here playing Bronski's wife Anna.  The alluring Italian star (despite the very American sounding stage name) was Mel Brooks' wife for over 40 years.  Her chemistry with Brooks in once sense forms the foundation of the film, their unquestionable adoration for each other saturates every scene containing the both of them.  It does, however, undermine a crucial subplot.

Tim Matheson plays a young Polish pilot, Lieutenant Sobinski, who falls for Anna Bronski.  Anna Bronski never seems to decide if it is lust or love she feels for Sobinski.  At any rate, he flees to London after teh invasion.  There he learns that Professor Siletski (Jose Ferrer) has obtained a list of Polish Underground members that he intends to deliver to the Gestapo.  Matheson is convincing as the lovestruck dalliance of Anna Bronski. Bancroft, as great as she is in other areas, does not convince anyone that she has any feelings for him, lust or otherwise. And it's not really necessary anyway, because the film itself deals with more important issues.

Most of To Be Or Not To Be centers around Bronski having to play several roles to ensure the success of the caper, which is stealing the list of Polish rebels. Brooks plays Bronski playing a Gestapo colonel, Professor Siletski, and even Hitler.

The film is funny, sometimes hilarious, but always comes back to the underlying horror of the Holcaust. James Haake plays Sasha, the typical flamboyant gay man often seen in Brooks' films.  At one point, he complains that his inverted pink triangle clashes with everything else he owns (this was a symbol the Nazis forced homosexuals to wear for identification.)  Eventually, the Gestapo arrests Sasha.  Bronski must adapt his scheme to help free Sasha from deportation.

To Be Or Not To Be has a tremendous cast for its time.  Charles During, known best recently as Mississippi governor Menelaus "Pappy" "Pass the biscuits" O"Daniel in O'Brother Where Art Thou, plays a similar role as Gestapo colonel Gerhardt in that he is a harassed man of authority, dealing with pressures, and blaming much on his idiot subordinate.  In this case, the subordinate is "Schultz," played hysterically by Christopher Lloyd who would soon star in Back to the Future.  George Gaynes sounds almost Shakespearean as actor Ravitch, who usually appears on screen either as a Shakespearean character or a fake Gestapo general.  Gaynes would soon forge his own iconic comedic role as Commandant Eric Lassard in Police Academy.

For a Brooks film, there are surprisingly few trademark gags, such as when Bronski orders the character Sondheim to "send in the clowns."  The audience never is allowed to forget that gravity of the subject.  Towards the end, when the actors try to sneak a large group of Jews past the Nazis, one older woman grows too terrified to move until another actor allays the suspicion of the Germans and gets her going again.

Mel Brooks often delivers silliness.  Silent Movie, Spaceballs, and a few other films have no point except to make the audience laugh.  Then, consider a film like Young Frankenstein that satirizes a genre, yet also develops strong and memorable characters.  Brooks at his best, in works like Blazing Saddles, The Producers, and To Be Or Not To Be, jabs at mindless discrimination and persecution using both comedy and a powerful optimism in the human spirit. Evil never learns its lesson in these Brooks movies, but those who join together against the evil always prevail with grace and good humor.