Obama’s Land Deal

If Obamamania is to continue and Obama makes a serious run at the nomination, it will be necessary to evaluate whether his land purchase will create problems which affect his electability and whether there were any real ethics violations which should preclude him from being President. This was discussed briefly in the earlier post on Obama today. Slate reviews this in more detail:

The Chicago Tribune broke the story back in November. It begins in 2004 with Obama’s $1.9 million book advance for The Audacity of Hope. In June 2005, Obama used the money to purchase a $1.65 million Georgian revival home on Chicago’s South Side—$300,000 less than the asking price. On the very same day, Rezko, a Democratic Party fund-raiser and developer, bought the adjacent empty lot at the asking price from the same owner (the house and the lot were previously owned by the same person). Rezko, who had raised money for Obama and known him since the senator attended Harvard Law School, did not develop the empty lot. In January 2006, he sold a 1,500-square-foot slice of it to Obama for $104,000, a fair sum in that market.

Here’s the question: Did Rezko orchestrate his same-day purchase of the lot at full price so that the seller would give Obama a break on the price of the adjacent house? Was Obama in on the deal? And did Rezko never intend to develop the lot, giving Obama a nice roomy side yard, a favor which he’d call in later?

Obama says he did talk to Rezko before the purchase, but only because a person who had renovated it for a previous owner had once worked with Rezko, who owns other properties in the South Side. He didn’t arrange the joint purchase with him. He bought the house at such a good price, Obama has told the papers, because it was being unloaded in a “fire sale.”

There’s no evidence that the senator is fibbing or that the indicted fund-raiser asked anything in return for his neighborly behavior (though that might have been just a matter of time). Obama hasn’t tried to change his story, even though Rezko is now talking to investigators.

What about Obama’s judgment? Chicago politicians with national aspirations have to think a little harder about appearances than their colleagues from other cities that don’t have reputations for corruption. Shouldn’t Obama have known not to get anywhere near a sketchy character like Rezko?

When Obama bought his house, Rezko was not as radioactive as he is today. Newspaper accounts contained allegations about his business practices, but he was regarded as a typical power broker who cannily cultivates politicians. But by the time that Obama bought the strip of land, Rezko was glowing. The papers were reporting that he was under investigation by federal prosecutors. In October, he was charged in a 24-count indictment with trying to obtain kickbacks from companies seeking state business.

Obama presents himself as a squeaky-clean politician, so the dubious association with Rezko has caused him more trouble that it would, say, anyone else in the history of Chicago or Illinois politics. To defuse the issue, the junior senator has done a good John McCain imitation: swamping critics with apologies, admissions, and candor. “This is the first time this has happened and I don’t like the feeling,” Obama said at a press conference in November. “It’s frustrating to me, and I’m kicking myself about it.” He told the Associated Press: “Purchasing a piece of property from somebody who has been a supporter of yours I think is a bad idea. It’s an example of where every once in a while you’re going to make a mistake and hopefully you learn from it.” He told the Chicago Sun-Times that he made a mistake and, “I regret it. … One of the things you purchase in public life is that there are going to be a different set of standards, I’m going to make sure from this point that I don’t even come close to the line.”

So far it doesn’t look like there is much of anything there. Obviously if the facts turn out to be different than stated by Obama it will change everything, and there is no doubt that the deal will be scrutinized very closely.

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Evidence Released Showing Blair Lied over Iraq WMD

While we anxiously wait to see what comes out when Democrats have full powers to investigate the run up to the war, we might be receiving a preview in Great Britain. Previously the Downing Street Memos provided evidence that Blair and Bush were lying to their countries. Further evidence has now been released as reported by The Independent:

The Government’s case for going to war in Iraq has been torn apart by the publication of previously suppressed evidence that Tony Blair lied over Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

A devastating attack on Mr Blair’s justification for military action by Carne Ross, Britain’s key negotiator at the UN, has been kept under wraps until now because he was threatened with being charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act.

In the testimony revealed today Mr Ross, 40, who helped negotiate several UN security resolutions on Iraq, makes it clear that Mr Blair must have known Saddam Hussein possessed no weapons of mass destruction. He said that during his posting to the UN, “at no time did HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] assess that Iraq’s WMD (or any other capability) posed a threat to the UK or its interests.”

Mr Ross revealed it was a commonly held view among British officials dealing with Iraq that any threat by Saddam Hussein had been “effectively contained”.

He also reveals that British officials warned US diplomats that bringing down the Iraqi dictator would lead to the chaos the world has since witnessed. “I remember on several occasions the UK team stating this view in terms during our discussions with the US (who agreed),” he said.

“At the same time, we would frequently argue when the US raised the subject, that ‘regime change’ was inadvisable, primarily on the grounds that Iraq would collapse into chaos.”

Obama and the Experience Factor

Barack Obama continues to dominate the news media. Peggy Noonan, not surprisingly, considers him a man from nowhere who doesn’t believe in anything. Reading The Audacity of Hope proves that Obama does have convictions, even if there is reason for peoplle left and right to wonder about the specifics of what he would do in office. In contrast, Rosa Brooks believes that Barack’s ready:

Obama bashers now complain that his two years in the U.S. Senate have been largely devoid of shock and awe. That’s not a bad thing. Obama wisely hasn’t tried to hog the limelight; instead, he’s focused on issues that are unsexy but important.

He forged a sturdy partnership with Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, for instance, and the two successfully sponsored legislation that steps up U.S. support for global programs designed to secure or destroy stocks of conventional weapons, including shoulder-fired missiles, small arms and abandoned ordnance. (Hand-wringing about WMD is de rigueur in Washington, but most politicians forget that it’s conventional weapons that kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq, allow terrorists to shoot down aircraft and fuel the bloody conflicts that have killed so many civilians from Darfur to Colombia.) On a dozen equally unglamorous issues, from global warming to our decaying public health system, Obama has shown a similar steady commitment.

In any case, experience, like charisma, can be overrated. A good president doesn’t have to know everything about everything. (If he doesn’t know anything about anything, of course, that’s no good. We’re still trapped in an unhappy national experiment with a guy in that category.) Good presidents strike a balance: They learn all they can, then appoint smart, thoughtful aides, people who can fill in the gaps in their own knowledge and serve as honest brokers. At the end of the day, good presidents need the judgment and common sense necessary to make tough decisions. But to get there, they need to know how to listen and how to nurture, rather than crush, dissenting voices.

We hear from Barack Obama himself in a Chicago Tribune interview:

Asked how he would address the issue of his relative lack of experience, Obama said he thought that the campaign itself–how he managed it, his position on issues and his framing of a vision for the country–would answer the question. “That experience question would be answered at the end of the campaign,” he said.

“The test of leadership in my mind is not going to be what’s on a paper resume,” Obama said. Vice President Dick Cheney, a former defense secretary, and departing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “had the best resume on paper of any foreign policy team and the result has been what I consider to be one of the biggest foreign policy mistakes in our history,” he said.


Kerry Advises Talking to Other Countries

John Kerry has been talking quite a while about the need to communicate with other countries, even those we aren’t on the best of terms with. The Iraq Study Group’s report came to the same conclusion. Kerry raised this point again during his current Middle East Tour:

U.S. Senator John Kerry, the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 2004, said on Thursday the U.S. administration should talk to Syria and Iran.

Kerry also told reporters in Cairo he believed U.S. policy in the Middle East was in trouble, partly because the United States had failed to listen to people in the region.

He cited Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s advice in 2002 that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would lead to disaster. “Frankly, more people should have listened to him,” he said after talks with Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif.

“It’s very important for countries to talk to each other, even when you disagree. We have serious differences with Syria right now, we have serious differencess with Iran, but you can’t begin to resolve those differences if you’re not willing to try to understand.. I think it’s important to begin a discussion,” said Kerry, a Massachusetts senator.

One reason we are in such a mess in Iraq, and the country has become less secure under George Bush, is Bush’s lack of willingness to communicate with others. Many right wing bloggers (such as here, here, and here) share Bush’s view, as they distort the accounts of Kerry’s statement and advocate burying our heads further in the sands.

Update: Add Condoleeza Rice to the list of those who oppose talking to Syria and Iran. Stay the course. After all, the current plan is just working out so well.

SciFi Friday: Animated Star Trek, Writers Awards, and Galactica Mid Season Finale

Rumor has it that Matt Damon might play James Kirk in the upcoming Star Trek movie to be produced by J.J. Abrams, and Damon says he would consider it. The movie, possibly to be released in 2008, isn’t the only new version of Star Trek being considered. The TrekMovie.com has information on an animated series being considered:

TrekMovie.com has learned that there is a new animated Trek project under consideration at CBS, but it has yet to get the green light. The series would most likely be broadcast on the web and be made up of ‘Clone Wars’ like 6-minute mini episodes. The yet-to-be-named project was originally pitched by long-time Trek producer David Rossi (well known to TrekMovie.com readers as a producer on Trek Remastered) along with his producer/writer partners Doug Mirabello and José Muñoz. Rossi sat down with TrekMovie.com for an exclusive look at how he and his partners hope to create a different kind of Trek set in the 26th century…

The Zero Room team felt that the time was right for a new approach to Trek. The setting is the year 2528 and the Federation is a different place after suffering through a devastating war with the Romulans 60 years earlier. The war was sparked off after a surprise attack of dozens of ‘Omega particle’ detonations throughout the Federation creating vast areas which become impassible to warp travel and essentially cut off almost half the Federation from the rest. During the war the Klingon homeworld was occupied by the Romulans, all of Andoria was destroyed and the Vulcans, who were negotiating reunification with the Romulans, pulled out of the Federation. The setting may seem bleak and not very Trek-like, but that is where the show’s hero Captain Alexander Chase comes in. Relegated to border patrol, Chase is determined to bring the Federation (and a ship called Enterprise) back to the glory days of seeking out new life and new civilizations.

The parallels with the real world are obvious. The view is that to be relevant Trek cannot skirt around issues. Rossi explains: “couching big social issues in allegories so they are more palatable is kind of passé now. Today shows deal with these issues head on, so we decided to make the entire show an allegory. The premise is an allegory for the post-9/11 world we live in. A world of uncertainty and fear.” In addition to the attempt at relevance, the Zero Room team want to incorporate other modern techniques. The show will have an overall ‘arc’ related to the mystery of who perpetuated that ‘Omega’ attack which sparked the Romulan War (turns out it wasn’t the Romulans…ooops). As one might imagine, all of the above back-story is quite a lot to get across in animated mini episodes, but that is where the web comes in. On StarTrek.com there will be a special sub-site for the show with crew logs and detailed histories of the Federation to get viewers up to speed on what has been going on since Picard’s day. The team also want to tackle the issue of how Trek does not usually lend itself to the action-oriented world of animated shows like Star Wars: Clone Wars. “We won’t have long diatribes, we are utilizing a clipped kind of writing and the editing is frenetic,” explains Rossi. The overall approach is hoped to make the show have a wider appeal than Trek’s last foray into the world of animation.

It might be interesting, but it isn’t Star Trek. Besides, they already tried this idea with Andromeda, which they wisely made a stand alone series as opposed to a Star Trek sequel as originally considered. I wouldn’t mind if this winds up like Star Trek Phase II and other ideas which never made it to television.

Writers for Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and Heroes have been nominated for awards from the Writers Guild of America television awards:

ABC’s hit SF series Lost got two 2007 nominations for Writers Guild of America television awards, and SCI FI Channel’s Battlestar Galactica received one.

Lost received a nomination for best dramatic series, and the episode “Two for the Road,” written by Elizabeth Sarnoff and Christina M. Kim, received a separate nomination for episodic drama. Lost is written by J.J. Abrams, Monica Owusu-Breen, Carlton Cuse, Leonard Dick, Drew Goddard, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, Adam Horowitz, Dawn Lambersten Kelly, Christina Kim, Edward Kitsis, Damon Lindelof, Steven Maeda, Jeff Pinkner, Matt Ragghianti, Elizabeth Sarnoff and Alison Schapker.

The two-part Battlestar Galactica episode “Occupation/Precipice,” written by Ronald D. Moore, got a nod for best episodic drama.

NBC’s Heroes, meanwhile, received a nomination for best new series for its writing staff, which includes Jesse Alexander, Adam Armus, Natalie Chaidez, Aron Eli Coleite, Kay Foster, Bryan Fuller, Michael J. Green, Tim Kring, Jeph Loeb and Joe Pokaski.

Tonight is the 2006 mid-season finale of Battlestar Galactica with the first part of a two part story which concludes on January 21 when BSG returns on Sunday nights. The story involves both Galactica and the Cylons going after an artifact which might provide a clue as to the location of Earth, and Odama must consider sacrificing members of the crew to prevent the Cylons from finding earth. It has been previously revealed that a major character would be killed off sometime later this season. Reportedly Baltar also has to stop messing around with those two Cylon babes and return to Galactica in the second part of the upcoming episode. The Chicago Tribune has an interview with Ron Moore which provides further information on the second half of the season.

Hastert Sneaks in Benefits for Illinois Insurance Company Increasing Medicare Waste on HMO’s

The last minute tax and trade package passed by Congress last weekend included provisions affecting Medicare which weren’t reported until today. Dennis Hastert slipped in one provision to help an Illinois insurance company. Under previous law Medicare beneficiaries were locked into a plan for the year with limited ability to switch until March 31. The insurance company pushed for a change to allow Medicare beneficiaries to switch to Medicare Advantage plans any time during the year.

While on the surface it sounds like this might offer more choice there are a few problems. Senators from both parties protested that this was slipped in by Hastert without going through the normal legislative process. Insurance companies with Medicare Advantage programs engage in high pressure sales tactics on elderly Medicare patients who do not understand what is being pushed on them. I have had many patients wind up signing up for Medicare Advantage programs without really understanding what they were signing.

The major problem is that Medicare Advantage plans are a wasteful transfer of taxpayer’s money to the insurance companies. The Commonwealth Fund recently published a study showing that the provisions in Bush’s Medicare plan to provide extra payment to Medicare HMO’s is costing 5.2 billion per year. Even though Medicare Advantage plans typically cherry pick the healthiest patients, it costs $922 more per year to treat those in Medicare Advantage plans than those in the traditional government-run program. The Commonwealth Fund commented that this money could be better spent on improving the drug benefit to eliminate the donut hole, eliminating the annual problem of the current formula calling for reductions in physician reimbursement, or to reduce the Medicare premium for beneficiaries by ten dollars per month.