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Kingston, NY, Friday, Feb. 6, 2009

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Falling Short and Finding Wisdom
By Judith Gayle | Political Waves

THERE'S A new word in town, one I hear repeated over and over: purity. It seems to be the one assigned to Barack Obama's vision of governance, although I don't remember him using it in any of his speeches. In fact, I'm pretty sure that a man so thoroughly pragmatic would never use that word, especially in regard to reforming a government that is in shambles after decades of infighting and institutionalized corruption.

The Neptunian qualities of our new President -- he's a blank page for our hopes and dreams to be written on -- and the adoring response from those who have internalized his message of hope and reform, have set the bar for success improbably high; and given the Right an easy target. Barack Obama is not going to walk on water, save us all from ourselves and do it without breaking a sweat, but he does have the potential to bring an end to our moral and ethical hemorrhage, slow up the international decline of American power and bring the nation together to collectively face a global financial emergency -- if we let him.

As Obama fleshes out his administration, he's just endured a series of jostles on his high-wire; American opinion, still woven through with an archaic and immature thread of Puritanism, has cried foul over the less-than-perfect track record of his nominees. The Right is gleeful and the Left is furious; I'm perplexed. Where are the grownups?

Nobody appears to be doing a check and balance of Obama's errors against those of his predecessor; Barack's election was a boomerang to the sleazy, corrupt and arrogant Bushies, yet the difference between his recent appointment stumbles and, say, Bush's wide, and often covert, embrace of oil executives and corporate powerbrokers in the Oval Office is a mile wide. You wouldn't think so, from the response, both Right and Left, over the appointment glitches of Timothy Geithner, Nancy Killefer and Tom Daschle.

The Village (Washington DC) has jumped on this happening as if it had the same unethical impact as George Bush's declaring torture the new norm, "So much for change," say the politicos, especially those on the Right who have obstructed with a vengeance in these last few, critical days. Obama is being painted part naïf, part socialist; he has, so they say, already failed. To quote the Bard, from Julius Caesar: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."
What part of Obama's repeated statement that he considers himself an 'imperfect vessel' didn't we hear? What part of his assertion that he will make mistakes, but will be quick to learn from them and not repeat them did we ignore? What degree of reality did we have to suspend in order to think that those political animals who have both the talent and the insight to do a crackerjack job might not be deeply entrenched in a governmental system gone dank and sour in the last 30 years.

One lesson we might learn quickly enough, considering the challenged tax returns for these three, would be the necessity of streamlining an unwieldy tax code. While the three failed nominees' tax situations seemed more that of ignoring a financial fly buzzing around their heads, the code itself is so difficult that few of us can file our own forms each year; relying instead on tax services that are becoming more unaffordable in this downturn. Even those aren't entirely trustworthy; literally, you can call the IRS with the same question on two different days and get two different answers.

I had to giggle when I read about Geithner's naming TurboTax software as the culprit that missed his liability. I was the 33rd employee in the fledgling company that developed TurboTax in the 90s, launching software that had been written by the husband of an acquaintance; when it became apparent that I had no patience with order-taking, I was declared the Communications Department, personally writing over 10,000 business letters in the first year. We often worked 24/7, dozing in our chairs, during those early tax seasons; getting the product out, supporting our users and working through the bugs. The company, ChipSoft, became an extended family and an entire lifestyle, and the parties at the end of a tax year were exhausted explosions of excess and relief that we'd made it through.

I remember the party when we sold our millionth product; from there, it was a steady assent to a ritzy new building, hundreds of employees and hundreds more seasonal helpers; the Communications Department got a floor of its own, and I got a snazzy windowed office. Trainings, internal meetings about growth and sustainability and an explosion of headaches led to the day we were named Number 1 Tax Software in the country. Eventually, the company was sold to Intuit -- when the suits arrived I began my emotional drawdown, and after a bit, packed up and left.

See, here's the thing -- the 'purity' of TurboTax, if it can be called that, and of the little band of highly creative anti-establishment merrymakers who birthed it, was in the original idea; not to get rich and powerful, but to make a decent living by designing something that helped others and to make that widely available. By the time it became a 'brand' with a 'market', the joy had been squeezed out of it and its wide path of creativity had dwindled down to the narrow pavement of a cookie-cutter, competitive business model peopled with lawyers and executives and HR representatives.

A blogger over at the Daily Dish wrote recently that Woody Allen was quoted as saying, "The best an idea gets is when it's in your head." I couldn't vet the quote, but -- as a writer, for instance -- I absolutely agree with the statement. Whatever the original idea was, the finished product won't look like that; you'll find hints of it, flavoring and flowering, throughout a finished story line, but the piece itself will take on a life of its own and flow where it wants to. That's called process; getting from here to there is a process that hits necessary snags and snarls and glitches. Nothing is ever a smooth sail; here's another Woody Allen quote (I confirmed) that addresses that experiment: "If you don't fail now and again, it's a sign you're playing it safe."

I don't perceive Barack Obama as a man who necessarily plays it safe; and in times like these, I don't want him to. If he made mistakes about the background checks of his nominees, he's already done what George Bush found himself patently unable to do in office, even to this day: apologize. "I screwed up," said our new President. Wait a minute, citizen -- is that accountability? I can't quite remember; it's been so long since I heard any. The Republicans are celebrating that remark, thinking it a chink in Obama's armor; I doubt that they understand such a statement as repudiation of the last eight years, delivered at their hands.
The enormity of what needs fixing in Washington is the platform Obama ran on, which some say is his vulnerability in this moment -- the reality of his presidency will be the attempt to make those changes while standing on that high-wire of circumstantial national meltdown. I don't know how he's going to do it, but I know this -- taking shots at him while he tries is akin to slitting our own throats. This project of reversing lobbying influence, alone, is a full time job. Lobbying has become big business, like so many other things we haven't taken stock of since the 'greed is good' 90s. Hacking at the root of these problems is going to take time; if we're so jaded that we assess each false step Obama makes in this quest as proof that he's not fit for the job, we should throw in the towel right now.
From what I can tell, he's on the right track, even if there will be years of fine-tuning ahead. Obama's proposal of caps on pay to CEOs receiving Federal money prompted The JPMorgan Chase CEO to complain that it was "unfair." Well, perhaps -- although his argument that some financial institutions are flush and healthy, and not subject to systemic error, sounds optimistic to me. But fair?
Hey! Get over it; life ain't fair. People who lost jobs due to outsourcing, who lost homes due to astronomical medical bills, who are now sleeping in their cars or their relative's basements, like my recently moved-on neighbors -- let's ask them what's fair. I realize that it's human to think of those people as tragic, or perhaps even losers, if we ourselves have dodged that bullet; we might remind ourselves that the gunplay is thick out there at the moment and nobody knows who's going to take a round next.
We just love a good soap opera, here in the States. Maureen Dowd, princess of overkill for The New York Times, has written an op/ed comparing the nominees' tax problems with 9/11. Say what? Someone needs to whisper my mantra, the one that I'm applying to every challenge and situation that comes my way, into Maureen's ear: 'If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.' The woman referred to as MoDo is a clever writer, but opportunistic in her quest to find occasions to prove her skill at turning a phrase. Maureen needs to put a sock in it; she's been a problem child for too long, amusing the soap opera fans. Old politics, that; tiresome, and an impediment to clearer thinking.
Our mythologies are getting a black eye lately, anyway; there are examples of people falling off their pedestals everywhere we look. Pictures of Olympic superstar Michael Phelps recently surfaced showing him smoking from a bong; none of his sponsors pulled out on him, but now the police are growling about taking a closer look. In 2004, young Phelps got a DUI. Youthful high jinks, or pattern? I don't know -- do you? Do we have the larger picture on Mr. Phelps in order to make that judgment?
Similarly, for those who use this extraordinary socio/political moment to point their guns of cynicism at the attempt to return to ethical, common sense priorities for the nation -- including the Republicans who march in lockstep against funding Obama's financial rescue plans -- I only have this question: Et tu, Brute? You never took a hit off a bong? You never found an error in your taxes? You never avoided paying something until it got in your face? You never sat on an apology because it made you look guilty? You never ever EVER stepped into the morass of, "Do as I say, not as I do?" We finger point at our peril.
I could have hoped for Obama to name more progressive candidates; on the other hand, at this writing the Democrats are reporting that they do not have enough Blue votes to pass the stimulus bill without Republican help. Obama has pulled from the moderate middle to staff his administration in what I believe is an attempt to shoot through some of the critical propositions the nation awaits; clearly, it's not working. That honeymoon is over, and a new batch of nominees will be selected from the political pool. Let's hope they don't have any tax problems; but with four out of five returns questionable, nation-wide, who knows?
Unless we get over this business of cult-of-personality worship, of imagining impossibly high standards that we couldn't live up to ourselves, and of lookey-loo schadenfreude when someone else gets nailed for things we, ourselves, might easily be guilty of, we will not make any progress toward wisdom. Indeed, the longer we prolong our eschewment of good sense, the more we continue to shoot ourselves in the foot; we don't need to be limping into a new century, do we?
Purity -- it's an illusion. From Christian fathers that 'marry' their daughters in a pledge of premarital abstinence to ethical standards that set the bar high for reform and reconfiguration -- all of these are only targets we're hoping to hit; none of them are so, simply because we say they are. There is no 'perfect' out there, a truism the Progressives should begin to integrate because their in-fighting and squabbling is costing their party the unity that will be required to take this government to a new level.
The idea of ethics, the idea of commonwealth, the ideas put forth in the United States Constitution -- all of those have a ring of purity about them; their implementation, in this grand experiment of liberty, will always fall short and give us fits and starts. Our humanness invariably muddies those high-flying dreams; let's not allow our cynicism and unrealistic idealism to create impossible obstacles to their possibility. The old ways and the new ideas are tangled now, like a ball of yarn that seems easier to ignore than to unsnarl; the work ahead is to take each moment, apply common sense and commitment to the task, tedious as it is and gird ourselves against losing the joy of it.
If we want to be part of the solution, we need to put childishness behind, as Obama suggested, and forget the soap operas and glitches that allow competing ideologies a sense of righteousness they don't deserve; we don't have time for that. We can't handle our Katrina-sized problems with Brownie-sized actions. And for those who want something 'pure,' might I suggest a bar of Ivory soap -- that's about as close as any of us are going to get.

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