Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Obama's First Year: Good Start to a Very Steep Climb

It has been almost one year since Barack Obama was sworn-in as the 44th President of the United States, becoming the first African American to attain our nation’s highest office. When Obama placed his hand on the bible and took the official oath, America once again became a beacon of hope to the world. As over a billion people tuned in, from every city and town across America to the far reaches of the globe, spirits were lifted as the promise of a bright future emanated from the Capitol steps and the symbols of our nation glowed in the background. “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit,” the President declared on that cold, exuberant January day, “to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

It did not take long, however, for the feelings of exultation and pride felt by many of us on inauguration day to be tempered by the harsh realities of governing a country. Beset with the largest economic recession since the Great Depression, two long, drawn-out wars in distant lands, and a mean-spirited, political opposition that spares no distortion in attempting to divide us, the obstacles facing Obama and the country were huge, the problems inherited seemingly insurmountable. The new President had a very steep mountain to climb, yet he willingly accepted the challenge. Faced with rising unemployment and a collapsing economy, he immediately put into place an economic stimulus package of historic proportions. Although a flawed bill in many ways – with too much emphasis on bailing out Wall Street and not enough on short-term job creation – few mainstream economists dispute that the President’s decisive action and infusion of $787 billion into the economy prevented an economic depression.

At the same time, and as he promised, Obama expended an extraordinary amount of energy and political capital on reforming our expensive, impersonal, unfair, and extremely flawed health care system – an ambitious legislative agenda that has been attempted, unsuccessfully, by every Democratic president from Truman to Clinton. Although the health care bill that Obama is likely to sign in January is imperfect in many ways – the lack of a public option and consumer choice, and the deference given to the insurance industry, its most obvious flaws – it is nevertheless transformative and will be one of the most significant pieces of domestic legislation since the creation of Social Security. I credit Obama for not giving in to all of the cries in the wilderness, and for recognizing that health care is not just an economic issue, but a moral one as well.

It is inexcusable that in the United States, the richest country on earth, 46 million people have no health insurance, while every other major industrial country guarantees health care to its citizens. Thanks in large part to Obama’s persistence and commitment, that is going to change. As the editors of the New York Times explained today, it is both “a moral obligation and sound policy to provide health insurance to as many people as possible.”

Claims that the uninsured can always go to an emergency room for charity care ignore the fact that American taxpayers pay a high price for that care. And it ignores the abundant evidence that people who lack insurance don’t get necessary preventive care or screening tests, and suffer gravely when they finally do seek treatment because their diseases have become critical.

The American Cancer Society now says the greatest obstacle to reducing cancer deaths is lack of health insurance. It is so persuaded of that fact that two years ago, instead of promoting its antismoking campaign or publicizing the need for cancer screening, it devoted its entire advertising budget to the problem of inadequate health insurance coverage.

When the final version of the bills approved by the Senate and the House become law, Obama will have achieved what no President since FDR has accomplished. Although falling short of universal coverage, he will nonetheless have reformed an intractable industry of divergent and powerful interests, and installed a moral compass in its heart, providing affordable, accessible medical care to over 31 million previously uninsured Americans. The tragic stories of people being charged exorbitant premiums or being rejected altogether because of pre-existing conditions, and of people who had their policies rescinded when they got sick, will become distant remnants of an uncaring past. Unmarried dependent children will be allowed to remain on their parents’ policies until at least age 26. For employees who lose their jobs and need to buy policies on their own, insurers will no longer be permitted to deny coverage or charge outlandish premiums for health reasons. In an effort to reduce the rising costs of hospital care that underlie virtually all increases in premiums, deductibles, and co-payments, the legislation includes a variety of pilot projects that test new payment and health care delivery systems within Medicare. And the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the health reform measures contained in the Senate bill (most likely to resemble the final bill) will reduce the deficit by over $80 billion by 2019.

Of course, lost in the debates over health care reform and universal coverage, is what Obama already has achieved this year in significant health care legislation. The Children’s Health Insurance Bill, for example, expands coverage to 4 million uninsured children by 2013, while continuing coverage for the 7 million already covered. He has reversed the Bush administration’s disastrous and immoral restrictions on stem cell research. Included in his economic stimulus program are funds that prevent huge cuts in state Medicaid programs, money to help laid-off workers afford their previous employer's health care under COBRA, and funds that will vastly improve our Health Information Technology systems. Any of these things, standing alone, would be major accomplishments, yet most people remain unaware of them.

Also lost in the hype over bank bailouts and other distasteful aspects of the economic stimulus package, are the many individual achievements that will benefit the country for years to come. A short sampling includes increased funding for: school construction, higher education, and scientific research; clean energy investments, state energy conservation programs, and improvements to our nation’s electric grids; public transportation and high-speed rail systems; broadband investments in rural and under-served areas that previously had little or no access to high-speed internet (a matter for which the United States is woefully behind the rest of the world); federal unemployment insurance; nutrition and child care programs; and affordable housing.

In foreign affairs, Obama’s efforts have been a mixture of disappointment and inspiration. Though he has so far failed to resolve many of the world's most pressing conflicts, he has succeeded in restoring America’s global image. It is easy to forget that, when Obama was elected, America's friends had suffered through eight years of unilateral, moralistic militarism. We had lost the confidence of our European allies, and we were looked upon with great dismay and distrust by most of the world. In his inaugural address, Obama declared that “America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.” Reminding that “earlier generations” had defeated fascism and communism “not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions,” he noted that “our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”

Obama has replaced the go-it-alone arrogance of Bush/Cheney, with an approach that is far more conciliatory, pragmatic, and frankly, refreshing. In doing so, he has reached out and renewed meaningful connections with much of the world, significantly reorienting policy toward Iran, Russia, China, Iraq, and many Islamic nations. Although not yet deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize, he has made some important strides in the right direction.

Like many of my liberal friends, I have taken issue with some of Obama’s first year actions and decisions. I am disappointed that he has made virtually no progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and I question the viability of an expanded war in Afghanistan, a war that has already gone on longer than America’s involvement in World War II and Korea combined. He has proceeded too cautiously in many crucial areas – short-term jobs programs, gay rights, the promotion of human rights abroad, the public option in the health care bills. I wish, in his dealings with his fellow Democrats in Congress that he relied a little more on LBJ’s behind-the-scenes flattery and intimidation and a little less on impressive speeches and attempts to seek common ground (although not his style, I have thought that at times he needs to, you know, twist a few arms along the way, whatever it takes to get it done). But tactically he has probably made the right call in deferring some of the smaller, more politically hazardous battles to pursue the major ones – preventing a depression, winning nearly universal health insurance, and remaking America’s global image.

Any shortcomings of his first year aside, if there is one trait President Obama possesses, it is the capacity for self-examination and self-improvement. Neither Rome nor America can be changed in a day, or even a year. Considering the problems this President inherited, and looking with continued hope and optimism to the future, this country once again has the capacity for greatness. Obama is yet to achieve everything he promised, and he has a long, steep climb ahead. But with 2009 coming to a close, I believe that America has much to be hopeful for in 2010 and beyond. I for one remain optimistic and thankful that President Obama will be leading the way.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

On Seizing the Day and Unfulfilled Dreams

How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses? In a rising wind the manic dust of my friends, those who fell along the way, bitterly stings my face. Yet I turn, I turn, exulting somewhat, with my will intact to go wherever I need to go, and every stone on the road precious to me.

--Stanley Kunitz (“The Layers”)

I never knew my Uncle Ted. (In the picture above, he is standing in the second row at the end on the right hand side, the tallest of the bunch.) His plane and crew fell from the sky, shot down over Vienna on March 22, 1945. Ted was 21 years old at the time, the second oldest of three brothers, and the son of two loving parents. My father remembers Ted as mature and wise beyond his years; a kind and gentle man, somewhat shy and bookish, he had plans to attend college when the war was over, possibly to go on to seminary and become a Lutheran minister. Ted died a hero’s death, fighting for our freedoms, yet I cannot help but wonder what might have been – for Ted, and for the millions of young men who died in that war and the many others our nation has fought.

My Dad recalls a delightful spring Saturday in early April 1945. Only fifteen years old then, a high school sophomore, Dad had just finished baseball practice and was walking home from Lincoln High School a few blocks away. As he approached his family’s Jersey City row house, he noticed his father looking out the upstairs window. As he often did in those days, Dad tried to show off, flipping his glove into the air and catching it behind his back. With a smile on his face, he looked up at the second floor window, only to see his father walk away. There was something not right in his father’s reaction; it was as if his father had turned his back on him, as if my grandfather could not comprehend the frivolity of a spring afternoon and the joking escapades of his youngest son.

When Dad entered the house, he understood immediately. His parents, my grandparents, with tears in their eyes, explained that a telegram from the U.S. Department of the Army had just arrived, informing them that Ted’s B-24 had crashed over the hillsides of Vienna, Austria. As Ted’s body remained unidentified, he was officially listed as “missing in action.” One can only imagine the devastation and pain that such news brings, the likelihood, yet uncertainty, of your child’s death; compounded further by the fear that your other son – my Dad’s brother Warren, the oldest of the three sons, was in Okinawa – might yet receive the same fate. The news then reported from Japan was not good, and the distinct possibility existed of losing two sons in the same war.

Warren thankfully came home after the war; he would marry my Aunt Ann and live another 35 years, work a productive life, raise four children – my cousins – and celebrate 35 more Christmases, unwrapping presents by the tree. He would read books, debate politics, pray, laugh, cry, become exasperated at his sons’ exploits and proud of their accomplishments; he would experience life, the future, and the possibilities, dreams and disappointments of everyday existence.

Ted suffered a different, more tragic, if noble fate. My grandparents learned that two crew members in parachutes had jumped from Ted’s B-24, but only one man out of the ten-person crew was known to have survived. The others remained missing. My grandparents, and the parents of the other nine crew members, latched onto the sliver of hope that, maybe, just maybe, their son was the one in the other parachute. Over the next year, news accounts said that many unidentified military personnel who had survived the war had come back as amnesia victims. Gold Star parents – those who had lost a loved one in battle, or whose sons were deemed missing in action – received permission to walk through the wards of military hospitals in search of their sons. On many occasions over the next year, my Dad accompanied his parents – hoping against hope – that they would find Ted in one of the hospitals. My Dad has often said that he will never forget these experiences; the mixture of hope and desperation in his parents’ eyes; the compassion felt for the wounded soldiers lying in hospital beds, some of whom could not remember their past; the sympathetic expressions and attempts by these young men to provide clues and tidbits of wisdom to my grandparents. As my Dad reflected recently in a sermon he gave on biblical hospitality, this went on for more than a year:

Two words describe that fateful 15 months after the crash before my brother’s body was found and identified. They are “hope and hospitality.” My parents – especially my mother – always felt that Ted would come walking in the front door someday. In her own way, she prepared for that delightful moment by keeping his clothes cleaned and ready for him while secretly planning a “welcome home” party. Even after Ted was declared legally dead a year later, my parents still looked for him in the Bowery in [New York City], the “tenderloin district” in Philadelphia, and other urban cities where the homeless gathered, and she soon started the practice of carrying small packages of food to distribute to many of those who appeared without hope. No matter what – both hope and hospitality kept my parents going.
There is a Latin phrase, carpe diem, made famous in the movie Dead Poets Society, which translated means “seize the day”. The phrase comes from Horace, in Odes Book I: Dum loquimur, fugerit invida Aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero: “While we're talking, envious time is fleeing: seize the day, put no trust in the future.” Whether or not intended for young men going off to war, it is a warning that, unless you make the most of life now, you may never have the chance to experience life in all its dimensions. To feel love and loss, joy and pain, all of the things that allows us to know we are alive. Too often, we muddle through our daily routines focused on the task at hand, failing to inhale life, to live in the moment and appreciate the uniqueness of each day. For each moment that passes is forever lost in time.

When I think of Ted and his unfulfilled dreams and passions lost, I question whether I have really embraced the opportunity to ponder life and all its wonder. Have I breathed deeply and smelled the fresh scent of a rosebud on a spring morning? Have I appreciated the sun as it breaks through the crisp winter air, the blue sky painting the background, laced with cotton-like white clouds? Have I examined the moon on a clear night, searched for the constellations in the expanse of the universe, or appreciated the peacefulness of a silent snowfall?

Ted was one of over 416,000 Americans who died in World War II, a war in which the world suffered 60 million deaths. I am immensely proud of my Uncle Ted and all of his compatriots who fought in that war. Until a greater national cause arrives upon the American scene, Ted and his cohorts will remain the Greatest Generation. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in The Insecurity of Freedom (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1959), “Freedom presupposes the capacity for sacrifice.” Ted and his crewmates sacrificed so that we may carry on in a free and prosperous land, so that we may experience life. On my wall is a framed certificate of recognition from President Harry Truman, honoring Ted’s death. On it is written:

He stands in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared serve to die that freedom might live, and grow, and increase its blessings. Freedom lives, and through it, he lives – in a way that humbles the undertakings of most men.
When I think of Ted and the sacrifice he paid, I feel the humility to which President Truman referred. As it pains me to consider what might have been, there is comfort in believing that, in our freedom, Ted and his band of brothers continue to live. Yet as I write, on Christmas Eve, part of the world prepares to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. I cannot help but consider the dichotomy of our existence, the hypocrisy of our actions as a people. There is a part of me that insists on asking whether Ted, and the other valiant and courageous young men who died and fought alongside of him, were victims – of the failure of humanity and the incapacity of the human heart. I have acknowledged more than once that war is sometimes necessary – as it no doubt was in Ted’s lifetime – but no one will ever convince me that war is anything but inherently evil.

Hold fast to dreams / For if dreams die / Life is a broken-winged bird / That cannot fly. Hold fast to dreams / For when dreams go / Life is a barren field / Frozen with snow. --Langston Hughes (“Dreams”)

Here is wishing all a time of peace and dreams fulfilled; seize the day and make the most of life, always recognizing those who have sacrificed for our freedoms, whose lives were abruptly and unfairly cut short, their dreams unfulfilled. As Heschel noted, “Modern man continues to ponder: What will I get out of life? What escapes his attention is the fundamental, yet forgotten question: What will life get out of me?”

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

High and Inside: Appreciating Bob Gibson

It all came together in the summer of 1967, when I was eight years old, and baseball entered my life for good. I caught my first fly ball that summer, a high arcing loop hit by a fungo from my little league coach. A bright, blue sky in the background, the whiteness of the ball reflecting the sun’s glare, my eyes were glued on the rotating seams as the ball sailed high in the air, drifted ten feet to my right and landed square in the web of my glove. Learning to overcome the fear of the ball and recognizing my capacity for the game bestowed a quiet confidence in me – on the baseball diamond – that has remained with me ever since. From that moment forward, there was no ball hit in my direction that I could not glove, or so I believed – the most important dimension of any sport. A bond was formed between baseball and me. The smell of grass in the air, the feel of leather on my hand, the sound of the ball connecting with a wooden bat, the beauty of the fenced-in green fields and perfectly dimensioned base paths, this became my religion. Hitting, fielding, and throwing a baseball became part of my everyday existence as the game took on a higher dimension. Baseball was more than just a game; it was a serious activity with meaning and purpose. Above all, it exposed my competitive instincts. I became someone who wanted to win, who needed to win, my identity tied to success or failure on the baseball field.

It was during that summer I first learned of Bob Gibson, the great pitching ace of the St. Louis Cardinals. As a young boy with a love of baseball and a passion for the Cardinals, there was no player I wished to emulate more than Gibson. From the naïve and innocent longings of a young child in central New Jersey, Gibson was everything I desired to become – a talented athlete, a great competitor, a winner.

I recently stumbled across a Bob Costas interview of Gibson and Tim McCarver on the MLB Network, which caused me to reflect on Gibson and his significance to me. When I think of Gibson, a portion of me reverts to when, as a nine year-old boy, I watched on our black-and-white television as Gibson pitched the first game of the 1968 World Series, striking out seventeen Detroit Tigers and setting an all-time Series record that stands to this day. Watching Gibson pitch was like observing a great artist at work. He had a full, overhead windup and a graceful, athletic delivery. His left leg kicked and looped around his waist as he leaned back, peering over his left shoulder, until his body shifted toward home plate. When he delivered the pitch, his arms flailed as his right leg sweeped across his body with a sudden sidewise rush that finished with all his weight on his right foot, wrenching his body and all his momentum toward first base. As Roger Angell described it in Late Innings (Ballentine Books, 1982), “the pitch and its extended amplifications made it look as if Gibson were leaping at the batter, with hostile intent. He always looked much closer to the plate at the end than any other pitcher; he made pitching seem unfair.”

For much of Gibson’s career, his pitching did indeed seem unfair. In seventeen seasons with the Cardinals, Gibson won 251 games, struck out 3,117 batters, and threw 56 shutouts and 255 complete games. He no-hit the Pirates in 1971 (I still have the newspaper clipping from that one), won two Cy Young Awards (1968 and 1970) and an MVP (1968), nine consecutive gold gloves (1965-1973), and he was the last pitcher to win 20 games and hit for a .300 average (1970). In 1968, his best year, Gibson achieved near perfection, throwing 13 shutouts and finishing with an almost inhuman 1.12 earned run average in 305 innings pitched. Unlike today’s starting pitchers, who rarely throw more than a few complete games in a season, Gibson completed 28 games in 34 starts, and he was not removed once from a game in the middle of an inning all season long. It is difficult to comprehend that Gibson actually lost nine games that season (he finished with a 22-9 record), until you realize he lost five games by a score of 1-0. His teammates provided him with meager run support, averaging just 2.8 runs per game in his starts. “No wonder I was always grumpy,” Gibson later recalled. Gibson’s performance was so spectacular (in a year of many great pitching performances) that the Major Leagues lowered the pitching mound by five inches and shrunk the strike zone in all directions at the start of the 1969 season.

Gibson became my all-time favorite player when I read his book, From Ghetto to Glory (Popular Library, 1968), an autobiographical account of his life and, for me at the age of nine, the first full-length book I ever read. The youngest of seven children, Gibson was raised without a father in the slums of Omaha, Nebraska, when segregation and racism prevailed throughout much of the country. From Ghetto to Glory and a later, updated version, Stranger to the Game (Penguin Books, 1994) exposed Gibson as an exceedingly intelligent and thoughtful man possessed of an honest frankness, a strong sense of justice, and an intensely competitive spirit.

Gibson was such an intense competitor that he hated playing in All-Star games because it required him to talk with players he pitched against all year. He especially hated pitching to a catcher from another team for fear the catcher would discover something about his pitching techniques. He refused to sacrifice any competitive edge he might have. After his record setting performance in the 1968 World Series, a reporter asked him if he had always been as competitive as he appeared that day. Gibson said yes, noting that he had played his young daughter in several hundred games of ticktacktoe and had beaten her every time. Although he said it with a slight smile, no one doubted he spoke the truth. Gibson would not let himself lose to anyone.

As a young boy, I viewed Gibson as nothing short of a hero and role model, yet I have since read that many people perceived Gibson to be somewhat distant, even cold and impersonal at times. I find this interesting if only because it is so at odds with my perception of him. His friends and teammates have always described a warm and caring man who takes seriously the bonds of friendship. Joe Torre, who played with Gibson on the Cardinals in the early 1970’s and became one of his closest friends, told Roger Angell in Late Innings that Gibson “can seem distant and uncaring to some people, but he’s not the cold person he’s been described as. . .. Things go deep with him.” Torre described how Gibson once sent him a photograph of himself and signed it, “Love, Bob.” In the machismo-filled world of professional athletics, Torre asked, “How many other ballplayers are going to do that?”

During the Costas interview, McCarver told the story of how, when he was first called up to the Cardinals as a young catcher in the early 1960’s, manager Johnny Keane urged McCarver to tell Gibson to slow his pace (he was always a very fast worker on the mound). In one game early in the season, Keane instructed McCarver to visit the mound and talk with Gibson. When McCarver approached the pitching mound, Gibson just stared at him with that famous Gibson glare and said, “What are you doing here? Just give me the ball. The only thing you know about pitching is that it is hard to hit.” McCarver walked back to home plate having not said a word. He told Keane between innings, “If you want Gibson to work slower, you tell him.” For the next six years, McCarver refused to approach the mound when Gibson was pitching. That was just how Gibson liked it. Yet despite their different styles and backgrounds, the two men became very close friends and remain so today.

Gibson told Costas that, after he retired, he learned that everyone thought he was mean because he glared in at the batter, as if he was trying to intimidate him. Gibson said this was simply not true. He wore glasses off-the field, and due to his poor vision, he had to squint to see the catcher’s signs. He said had he known that batters were intimidated by him, “I would have tried to look even uglier!”

Gibson’s competitive intensity and mastery of the brushback pitch enhanced his reputation for intimidating opposing hitters. Some thought he intentionally threw at batters, but this was not so and, in Gibson’s mind, smacked of racism. He did what all good pitchers did then, including Drysdale, Koufax, Wynn, and Seaver – he pitched inside to prevent the batter from feeling comfortable at the plate and trying to extend his arms on pitches on the outside corner. As Gibson explained in Stranger to the Game:

I pitched in a period of civil unrest, of black power and clenched fists and burning buildings and assassination and riots in the street. There was a country full of angry black people in those days, and by extension – and by my demeanor on the mound – I was perceived as one of them. There was some truth to that, but it had little, if anything to do with the way I worked a batter. I didn’t see a hitter’s color. I saw his stance, his strike zone, his bat speed, his power, and his weaknesses.
In the world according to Bob Gibson, most batters that get hit have only themselves to blame. They fail to respect the inside pitch and find themselves lunging over the plate, looking for the outside pitch. Gibson believed that the outside part of the plate belonged to him. If he caught a batter leaning to get an advantage, he would drill a fastball six inches inside “to make an honest man out of him.” To Gibson, the brush back is “the most misunderstood pitch in baseball. It is not meant . . . to punish a batter for the pitcher’s own mistake, as is often speculated. If I threw a bad pitch, I deserved to get creamed. But if I threw a good pitch and the batter still hit it hard, then I had to find another way to establish myself. [P]itching inside might be a starting point – to let the batter know, at least, that I’m out there and have to be reckoned with.”

Of course, Gibson willingly took advantage of his reputation. In 1968, after the White Sox traded Tommie Agee to the Mets, Gibson hit Agee on the helmet on the first pitch in the first inning of the first Cardinals spring training game. When Agee slowly rose to his feet, several baseball writers called out, “Welcome to the National League, Tommie!” Agee would never be comfortable batting against Gibson, who had successfully established his presence.

Gibson was all business, in everything he did. He knew no other way. When he played with the Harlem Globetrotters in the late 1950’s (Gibson was a star basketball player in high school and college), Gibson later said that he “hated that clowning around. I wanted to play all the time – I mean, I wanted to play to win.” He played for two seasons before devoting all his energies to baseball.

Gibson’s teammates knew that whatever bond they enjoyed with him as his teammate or friend could work against them as his opponent, should they ever be traded. Bill White, who played first base for the Cardinals and roomed with Gibson in 1964 (when they beat the Yankees in the World Series), was one such friend. When White was traded to the Phillies after the 1965 season, Gibson hit him with a fastball the first time he faced him. As Gibson later explained to Angell, “Even before Bill was traded, I used to tell him that if he ever dived across the plate to swing at an outside pitch, the way he liked to, I’d have to hit him. And then, the very first time, he went for a pitch that was this far outside and swung at it, and so I hit him on the elbow with the next pitch.” For Gibson, this was all part of the game. “That pitch, that part of the plate, belongs to me!”

Gibson is a proud man, confident of his self-worth, and sensitive to racial slights and historical discrimination. A man of strong opinions about race and politics, in his playing days he rarely expressed them in public and did not let his social concerns interfere with his competitive instincts. One day, in 1968, a television reporter asked Gibson about a civil rights demonstration that was taking place that day. Gibson replied, “I don’t give a [expletive]. I have a ballgame to pitch.”

Gibson, however, has always had a strong sense of right and wrong. A victim of racism and extreme poverty, his father died before he was born and Gibson suffered from numerous childhood ailments, including asthma, a heart murmur, and rickets, from which he contracted pneumonia and nearly died; as a young infant, he was bitten on the ear by a rat. He overcame all of this to become a star athlete in high school basketball, baseball, and track, yet he was turned down by Indiana University because it had already filled its quota of black basketball players (one). When he was an 18 year-old sophomore at Creighton University, he accompanied his basketball team to Oklahoma by train to play the University of Tulsa. On the way, Gibson was told that he would not be able to eat or sleep with his teammates when they arrived. “I cried when I was told that,” Gibson recalled to Angell. “I wouldn’t have gone if I’d known. I wasn’t ready for that.” In 1959, when he arrived for spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida, and tried to check into the team hotel, he learned that the black players had to stay in a separate part of town.

Shaped by these experiences, Gibson developed a compassion for the victims of hatred and prejudice. In Late Innings, Angell described an incident many years ago in which another player made anti-Semitic remarks about a Jewish public relations man who was Gibson’s friend. Gibson stopped the player mid-sentence and advised him to keep his distance. “And if I ever pitch against you, I’m going to hit you on the coconut with my first pitch.” (According to Angell, this particular player, fortunately or unfortunately, never faced Gibson).

Curt Flood, who played center field for the Cardinals during most of Gibson’s career, and who was a very close friend of Gibson, once reminiscensed to Peter Goldenbock in an interview published in The Spirit of St. Louis (Spike, 2000) about the human dimension of baseball, about friendships made and bonds formed. Although Flood would eventually change baseball forever when he challenged the reserve clause in a case that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, he reflected on the impact that Gibson and others had on the St. Louis Cardinals teams of 1967 and 1968, and how this racially and geographically diverse group of ballplayers overcame their differences to develop lasting relationships. Flood’s description reinforces for me what I most admire about Bob Gibson, and leaves me with a sense of hope and optimism:

The men of that team were as close to being free of racist poison as a diverse group of twentieth-century Americans could possibly be. Few of them had been that way when they came to the Cardinals. But they changed. The initiative in building that spirit came from black members of the team. Especially Bob Gibson. . . . It began with Gibson and me deliberately kicking over traditional barriers to establish communication with the palefaces.

“How about coming out for a drink after the game?” Hoot [Gibson] would ask a player who had never gone to a bar with a black man in his life. He was turned down more than once. So was I. But the spirit was infectious. After breaking bread and pouring a few with us, the others felt better about themselves and us. Actual friendships developed. Tim McCarver was a rugged white kid from Tennessee and we were black, black cats. The gulf was wide and deep. It did not belong there, yet there it was. We bridged it. We simply insisted on knowing him and on being known in return. The strangeness vanished. Friendship was more natural and normal than camping on opposite sides of a divide which none of us had created and from which none of us could benefit. . . .

It was baseball on a new level. On that team, we cared about each other and shared with each other, and face it, inspired each other. As friends, we had become solicitous of each other’s ailments and eccentricities, proud of each other’s strengths. We had achieved a closeness impossible by other means.

There we were, including the volatile [Orlando] Cepeda, the impossible [Roger] Maris, and the impenetrable Gibson – three celebrated noncandidates for togetherness. There we were – Latins, blacks, liberal whites, and redeemed peckerwoods – the best team in the game and the most exultant. A beautiful little foretaste of what life will be like when Americans finally unshackle themselves.

Towards the end of From Ghetto to Glory, Gibson wrote, “I would much rather be known as Bob Gibson, great American, than Bob Gibson, great baseball player.” Here’s to you, brother.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Obama's War: Bombs vs. Books

As I listened to President Obama’s speech at West Point the other night, I wanted to believe that his announced policy is correct, that the commitment of 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan is a necessary antidote to the growing influence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda sponsored terrorism. The president reminded us that Americans “did not ask for this fight.” The men who attacked us on September 11, 2001, were members of al-Qaeda, an Islam-defiling terrorist group operating from Afghanistan under the protective eye of the Taliban. When we invaded Afghanistan shortly after the 9/11 attacks – with nearly unanimous Congressional approval – our objective was to capture bin-Laden and to overthrow the Taliban regime. Although we defeated the Taliban in less than three months, and a U.S.-supported administration, headed by President Hamid Karzai, was installed in Kabul, eight years later the United States is still fighting the Taliban. Because of our disproportional focus on the War in Iraq over the last eight years – we had 160,000 American troops stationed there at the war’s peak, compared to less than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan in 2003 and 32,000 when Obama took office – “the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated.” Al-Qaeda has established a safe haven across the border in Pakistan, while the Taliban has gradually increased control over wide swaths of territory in Afghanistan.

I believe that Obama was sincere when he stated that he does not “lightly” make the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. Although he advocated greater troop strength and more U.S. forces in Afghanistan during the presidential campaign, he opposed the War in Iraq because, as he told the cadets at West Point, “[W]e must exercise restraint in the use of military force, and always consider the long-term consequences of our actions.” I believe that he sincerely understands the incredible burdens and sacrifices that our military personnel and their families endure, and that he feels their pain when a loved one is lost or becomes permanently disabled. So when the President says as he did the other night, “If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow,” I believe him.

To justify his decision, the President emphasized, as he must, that he is “convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. . . . This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat. In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders that were sent here from the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. And this danger will only grow if the region slides backwards and al-Qaeda can operate with impunity. We must keep pressure on al-Qaeda, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region.” It is for this reason that the President is escalating the war in Afghanistan, committing more than ten times the number of troops that were there eight years ago, when we supposedly defeated the Taliban.

Afghanistan is now officially Obama’s war. His legacy and historical success or failure as President will be largely based on how things work out in Afghanistan and, as importantly, in Pakistan. Although I have expressed growing doubts concerning the wisdom of expanding our war effort, I hope and pray that the President is right and that we achieve all of our objectives in the eighteen months or less that he and General Stanley McChrystal have indicated will be sufficient to accomplish our goals. The task ahead seems incredibly difficult in that time frame, but if our efforts allow for the beginnings of a successful transition to a stable, secure Afghan society, it will arguably have been worth the effort.

Although it is hard to contend from the safe confines of my living room that the threats outlined by the President do not justify risking American lives and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars, I continue to have my doubts as to whether the present escalation will be a successful strategy. As Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times recently noted, “many people working in Afghanistan at the grass roots are watching the Obama escalation with a sinking feeling.” Even General McChrystal has acknowledged the key to success in Afghanistan is winning hearts and minds. As McChrystal stated in his report to the President, “Our strategy cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent troops; our objective must be the population.”

For his column on December 3, 2009, Kristof spoke with Greg Mortenson, an Army veteran who wrote of his extraordinary work building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan in Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books Not Bombs in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mortenson expressed concern about the apparent lack of consultation with Afghan elders over the decision to escalate the military conflict there. In Mortenson’s view, the elders believe “we don’t need firepower, we need brainpower. They want schools, health facilities, but not necessarily more physical troops.”

Moreover, as Obama acknowledged, the current Afghan government is “hampered by corruption, the drug trade, an under-developed economy, and insufficient security forces.” Without a reliable partner in President Karzai and the Afghan government, even unlimited American firepower cannot create long-term stability in that country. Our success in turning around Afghanistan – and stabilizing Pakistan – does not turn on how many troops we send or deadlines we set. It depends in the end on our Afghan partners. Despite our initial military success in Afghanistan in 2001, that country has gone into a tailspin largely because Karzai’s government became dysfunctional and massively corrupt, focused more on private gain and personal enrichment than on governing. It is why many Afghans who cheered Karzai’s arrival in 2001 now welcome Taliban security and justice. Unless and until Afghans take ownership of their government, until they believe that it is at least minimally decent and focused on the people’s best interests, they will not fight for it. We can win military victories and secure much of the Taliban controlled regions for now, but without Afghan ownership of their own government, our achievements will simply collapse when we leave.

With our mission defined and more U.S. troops involved, I have no doubt that we will temporarily succeed in reducing Taliban control and influence over Helmand Province and other Taliban dominant regions of Afghanistan. Our military is extremely good and professional – there has never been any doubt of that. But like it or not, and whether Obama or Secretary Gates admit it or not (they have not), we are indeed engaged in nation-building in Afghanistan. And that is something we have never been good at. Without a sense of ownership in their own government, police and security forces, the Afghan people will do what they need to survive. If that means accommodating to the Taliban when we leave – we cannot kill them all – that is what they will do.

Obama made it a point to remind us that 9/11 is why we are in Afghanistan, that we were attacked from Afghanistan and al-Qaeda continues to operate from there under Taliban protection. But by most accounts, there are very few al-Qaeda left in Afghanistan – most have crossed the border into safe havens in Pakistan. The terror networks we need to be most concerned about are there, as well as in Somalia and Yemen, yet we are planning no military incursions into those countries. And if the enemy in Afghanistan, whether al-Qaeda or the Taliban, pose the same existential threat to our security as they did on 9/11, why are we settling for half-measures? Is it because we are unwilling to make the national sacrifices necessary for an all-out war effort (i.e., increased taxes and the re-institution of the draft)? Is it because the American public is not fully behind this war, eight years later, and is unwilling to support it with its money and people?

For all of Obama’s serious deliberations over this decision – and I believe he is doing what he believes he must to protect American interests – did he give the same consideration to other less violent, less costly approaches? Did he consider the real-life work of Mortenson, who as of 2008 had built 74 schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan, many in Taliban controlled regions? Did he consider that, as Kristof noted in his December 3rd column, that for “the cost of deploying one soldier for one year, it is possible to build about 20 schools”? Did he consider what has been done with the National Solidarity Program, “widely regarded as one of the most successful and least corrupt initiatives in Afghanistan” that helps villages build schools, clinics, irrigation projects, bridges, or whatever they choose based on the particular needs of the village? Did he consider that, over time, the single greatest force in stabilizing societies, in reducing birth rates, raising living standards, and preventing civil conflict and terrorism, is education? As Kristof stated, “My hunch is that if Mr. Obama wants success in Afghanistan, he would be far better off with 30,000 more schools than 30,000 more troops.”

In past columns, including one on Mortenson’s school-building efforts on July 13, 2008, Kristof has acknowledged that it would be naïve to think that a few dozen schools could turn the tide in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, because the Taliban recruit mostly from the ranks of the poor and illiterate, women who are educated are more likely to successfully restrain and positively influence their sons. For example, five of the teachers at Mortenson’s schools are former Taliban, and for each of these teachers, “it was their mothers who persuaded them to leave the Taliban.”

Pakistan is the key to the entire conflict, though exactly how it factors in is not as well understood by the American public. Obama only touched upon it briefly in his West Point speech. Yet as far back as 2001, there were fears that the war in Afghanistan would destabilize Pakistan because the Pashtun, an ethnic group that makes up a large part of the Taliban insurgency, straddles the border between the two countries. Everyone agrees that those fears are now reality; the Pakistani Taliban threatens nuclear-armed Pakistan's viability as a state even more than their Taliban cousins across the border jeopardize Afghanistan's. Indeed, it is because the war in Afghanistan threatens to destabilize an entire region that it has become America's biggest foreign policy challenge. Because of the Pakistani obsession with India, while they fight the Taliban inside of Pakistan, they nurture the Taliban in Afghanistan. This must cease for us to be successful in Afghanistan, but no U.S. President has yet succeeded in assuaging Pakistan’s security concerns over India.

Success in Afghanistan will mean nothing if fighters can find sanctuary in Pakistan; the Pakistani military has neither the skills nor the resources to conduct an effective counterinsurgency. It is largely for this reason that stabilizing Afghanistan is considered crucial to our security, if only to prevent the terrifying prospect of an Islamist takeover in Pakistan.

All of which brings me back to the wisdom of bombs versus books. As explained by Greg Mortenson, who has had intimate and extensive dealings with the people living in Pakistan and Afghanistan, “Schools are a much more effective bang for the buck than missiles or chasing some Taliban around the country.” Every Tomahawk missile that the United States fires in Afghanistan costs American taxpayers at least $500,000. As Kristof notes, “That’s enough for local aid groups to build more than 20 schools, and in the long run those schools probably do more to destroy the Taliban.” Even an American commander who works on the front lines of Afghanistan has told Kristof that “the long-term solution to terrorism in general, and Afghanistan specifically, is education. The conflict here will not be won with bombs but with books. . . . The thirst for education here is palpable.”

As Obama articulated at West Point, it may very well be that military force in Afghanistan is an essential component to combating the Taliban. I just hope that neither he nor McChrystal have lost sight of the reality that, over time, the best tonic against militant fundamentalism is education and economic opportunity.