Thank you, Bob

It was, indeed, a special moment this week, when the country of my birth awarded Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in literature, for he has been a constant companion ever since my student days in California in the 1960s. It was special, it was even grand.

Now, I’ll leave that up to others, and they have been many, to go into the literary merits of Dylan’s songs and poetry, like the Princeton professor Sean Wilentz, author of the excellent book, “Bob Dylan in America,” who said to the Washington Post:

“We are honoring a great literary figure of our time…He has taken the lyric form, as old as Homer, and raised it to an entirely new level, a level that stands with the highest literature that the West has produced. Period.”

Like in “Mr Tambourine Man…”

Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time
Far past the frozen leaves
The haunted frightened trees
Out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

It’s beautiful and I must have listened to Dylan sing it a thousand times without ever getting tired of it.  I could mention many others, “Desolation Row,” “Visions of Johanna,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Red River Shore,” and on and on…They have all been a constant joy in my life.  In fact, life would have been different without them.

Thank you Bob.

A happy Labor Day, after all…

As an immigrant and a recent citizen, I will cast my first presidential vote in November. I have looked forward to this for quite a while although this sad, even depressing, campaign hasn’t been the kind of campaign that I had hoped for. And my choice is clear: Hillary Clinton — Trump’s America is not my America.

Today, on Labor Day, I realized that all is not doom and gloom. At the traditional Labor Day Parade in Kensington, the next town over from my home town of Silver Spring in the Maryland suburbs just north of Washington, DC, thousands had come out in the beautiful weather. There was excitement and optimism in the air; good people are running for office, among them my Congressman, Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat who is running for the U.S. Senate to succeed retiring Barbara Mikulski, and State Senator Jamie Raskin, also a Democrat, who is trying to succeed Van Hollen in the U.S. House of Representatives. Their campaigns are important parts of this year’s overall political campaign and their outcomes are almost as important as the race for the White House in determining what kind of America we will have after November.

Van Hollen and Raskin

Van Hollen and Raskin both handily won their respective Democratic primaries in April and their victories in November, although not guaranteed, of course, are highly likely in this Democratic state. Van Hollen, the son of a foreign service officer, was born in Karachi, Pakistan. A progressive with lots of foreign policy experience and knowledge, he has been in Congress since 2003 — the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, and part of the Democratic leadership team. Raskin, a law professor at the local American University, has been in the State Senate since 2006, where he has been a leading voice on many liberal issues: marriage equality, repeal of the death penalty, gun control, climate change, medical marijuana, campaign finance reform.

They are smart and hard-working and their hearts are in the right place. They will be great additions to the U.S. Congress, which, god knows, needs all the help it can get.

Why didn’t I know about The Tragically Hip?

Sometimes I wonder what I have done and where I have been. It struck me again this morning, as I read articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post about the last concert in the farewell tour of The Tragically Hip, Canada’s premier band, led by the country’s “unofficial poet laureate,” Gord Downie.

Downie is dying of incurable brain cancer, and this was his and his band’s last concert, in their home town of Kingston, Ontario. “Dear World,” the Toronto police tweeted just before the last concert, “Please be advised that Canada will be closed tonight at 8:30 pm. Have a #Tragically Hip day.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was there, because the band is “an inevitable and essential part of what we are and who we are as a country.”

The Tragically Hip has been around for 30 years and has come to define our northern neighbor’s cultural identity, but they never became big in the United States, and I had never heard of them until this morning. Although I consider myself well-informed and well-read, I am sure this says a lot about me, but it also says something about America, “one of the loudest neighbors in the world,” as one Canadian told the NYT, “the elephant in your bed,” as Justin Trudeau’s predecessor and father, Pierre Trudeau, once said about his big neighbor to the south.

America sucks you in, takes over, dominates, and although the leading newspapers are not without coverage of the rest of the world, including Canada, it all somehow becomes secondary in this often introvert super power. This seems particularly true during this year’s presidential election campaign. I am following it closely, although it has gone on too long and its end cannot come soon enough, and the choice is clear.  More later.

Meanwhile, I will dig into The Tragically Hip. I want to know more. I think I will like them.

For Minnesota’s Wendell Anderson — “Tryggare kan ingen vara”

“Tryggare kan ingen vara,” the classic Swedish psalm called “Children of the Heavenly Father” in English, was sung in both languages earlier this week at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as the life of former Democratic Governor Wendell Anderson was celebrated. “Wendy,” as he was called, died on July 17, 83 years old. He was Sweden’s best friend in Minnesota — maybe in all of America.

Hundreds had gathered in the church, founded by Swedish immigrants, to a service dedicated to all things Swedish. Political Minnesota, both former and present leaders, Democrats as well as Republicans, filled the front pews – a former Democratic U.S. Vice President, two former Republican governors, a U.S. Senator, legislators, members of Congress, and many, many political friends.

Minnesota’s Governor Mark Dayton called “Wendy” one of the state’s “greatest governors,” someone straight out of central casting, tall and handsome, and with a last name ending in “son” – the “quintessential” Minnesota governor. “Well done, very well done, rest in peace,” Dayton concluded. Former long-term majority leader of the Minnesota Senate, Roger Moe, called “Wendy’s” years as governor, with an emphasis on education and the environment, as the “most productive” in Minnesota history. “What a legacy he leaves,” Moe said. “Thank you for all you did for all of us.”

Wendell Anderson, Minnesota’s governor from 1971 to 1977, loved Sweden. He once wrote, “I am a Swede who happens now to live in America.” Born into a working class family in St Paul, Anderson became a star hockey player, first at the University of Minnesota and then as a member of the U.S. national team that won the silver medal at the 1956 Winter Olympics. All his grandparents were Swedish Americans; three of them were born in Sweden. He had been to Sweden 40 times and, he once told me, was even thinking about getting a “stuga” so he could spend his summers there. After law school, only 37 years old, he became the state’s youngest governor ever, winning 13 of 14 Swedish counties and nine of eleven Norwegian, three of four Finnish, and both of the most Danish counties in Minnesota. In 1974, riding high, he was reelected in a landslide, capturing all of Minnesota’s 87 counties. By then, the young governor had landed in the national spotlight as he followed up on his campaign promise through the Omnibus Tax Bill that raised 588 million dollars in new taxes for increased state support for public education. The bill was a fundamental reform of school finance, equalizing school funding between rich and poor districts, and became known as the “Minnesota Miracle” – the high tide of liberalism in Minnesota – despite both the State Senate and House being controlled by the Republicans.

On August 13, 1973, Wendell Anderson landed on the cover of Time Magazine with the headline, “The Good Life in Minnesota,” and the state was described as “the state that works.” Wendell Anderson on TIME's coverBut his decision in late 1976 to resign and assume the seat in the U.S. Senate that Walter Mondale vacated upon his election as U.S. Vice President proved politically fatal. He lost the election to a full Senate term in 1978 to a Republican. A Republican also captured the second Senate seat and his successor as governor, Lieutenant Governor Rudy Perpich, lost his bid for a full term to a third Republican. The decade that had started with the “Minnesota Miracle” ended with the “Minnesota Massacre.” Wendell Anderson’s political career was over. He was never again elected to political office. He practiced law and served as a regent of the University of Minnesota. In 1975, he was selected Swedish American of the Year and he also served as Sweden’s honorary consul in Minnesota.

A Swedish flag, blue and yellow napkins, and coffee and cookies, greeted the attendants in the church basement after the memorial service. The prominent mingled with the less prominent in typical low-key Minnesota fashion before they all went their separate ways. Former Vice President Walter Mondale and his old friend and law firm colleague, former Minnesota Attorney General, Warren Spannaus, lingered, and as the two political war horses walked out of the church by themselves in the afternoon heat, Mondale took off his jacket and swung it over one shoulder. They crossed the busy street with the help of two traffic cops and walked slowly up the block as cars buzzed by. At the corner, a woman, waiting for a bus, greeted the two before they turned into a side street where they had parked, apparently unable to find parking in the church parking lot. They climbed in and Spannaus drove off, with the former Vice President of the United States as passenger in the front seat.

That’s Minnesota, too.



Obama’s historic speech in Havana — finally!

The tragedy in Brussels and the endless election campaign came to overshadow President Obama’s historic speech in Havana, Cuba, yesterday.

So I am posting it here because of its  importance. Finally, the United States and Cuba have broken with the past and started on the road towards a new, constructive relationship.

I am also posting it because of its eloquence, Obama at his best.


It’s Hillary Clinton vs. the GOP’s “Frankenstein monster”

I once thought that the American presidential election was going to be a battle between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, between the country’s two legacy families, the Clintons and the Bushes.

I am still right, at least so far, that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. In fact, I believe so now more than ever after her spectacular victory yesterday in South Carolina, capturing over 73 percent of the vote and over 80 percent of the African American vote. She simply trounced Bernie Sanders, and I believe this pattern will repeat itself in the primary contests in the slew of Southern states, also with large and important African American constituencies, on Super Tuesday in two  days. And, then, the race is more or less over.

But, obviously, I was wrong about Bush. His legacy did not carry him for long, or really not at all, as his candidacy whimpered out after only four primary contests, in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. He was a bad campaigner, almost pitiful, and although he tried to stand up for what the Republican Party used to stand for, he had no chance in the toxic climate created by Donald Trump, the GOP’s “Frankenstein monster,” as foreign policy expert and Brookings Institution scholar, Robert Kagan, writes in a scathingly critical article of his old party in today’s Washington Post.

Trump has picked up, Kagan writes, where Republican pundits and intellectuals had already had taken the party and where they had left it off, “tapping the well-primed gusher of popular anger, xenophobia and, yes, bigotry that the party had already unleashed.” So let’s be clear, Trump is the party’s creation, “its Frankenstein monster, brought to life by the party, fed by the party and now made strong enough to destroy its maker.”

For Kagan, a former Republican, the only choice in November is to vote for Hillary Clinton, as the “frantic efforts” within the Republican Party to stop Trump have failed, according to a report in today’s New York Times. There was talk of the “Republican establishment” stopping Trump, but who is that and where is it? No, it now seems too late to stop Trump, as all the polls on the doorstep of Super Tuesday point to many more victories for the New York businessman.

What a sad turn of events!

Scalia’s death raises the stakes but also the question of reforms

The presidential election campaign all of a sudden got more contentious, more exciting, and more important with the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the leading conservative on the Court.

The voters on November 8 will now decide not only who occupies the White House after President Obama, and who controls the U.S. Congress, but also who, conservatives or liberals, will control the third branch of the American political system, the Supreme Court.

With Scalia gone, the Court is tied, 4 – 4, between conservative and liberal justices. An Obama appointment would almost certainly swing the Court to a liberal majority and, for the first time since 1972, the justices appointed by Democratic presidents would outnumber those appointed by Republican presidents. The change would be monumental.

The Republicans in the Senate led by majority leader Mitch McConnell have instantly made it clear that they have no intention to consider an Obama nominee, no what who that is. The decision to appoint Scalia’s replacement should be made by the next president. But Obama is not elected to a three-year but to a four-year term. He has almost a year left in office and he has, rightly, declared that he intends to nominate a new justice. So we are in for a big fight, a complicating, new factor in an election campaign already fraught with uncertainty and tension.

McConnell, who famously said during Obama’s first term that his primary political goal was to make sure that Obama was not reelected now wants to deny the president, who has already appointed two new high court justices, the chance to appoint a third. McConnell’s stern “no” could have serious election implications for the Republicans and their goal to keep their Senate majority, as NYT’s Nate Cohn outlines. We’ll see how this plays out.

The death of Scalia is also an important reminder of how totally unpredictable the system of appointing Supreme Court justices is. It’s time to change what’s been, rightly, called an undemocratic system by doing away with life time appointments and create more orderly nomination procedures with term limits and a retirement age. In Minnesota, to which I presently spend a lot of attention, the retirement age for the state’s highest court is 70. That’s a bit young, maybe, but why not 75? And why not a 20-year term limit? Or both?

Sadly, such reforms are seldom part of the American political dialogue. They should be, particularly as the politicization of the Supreme Court shows no signs of abating.