Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Curse of the Mid-Terms...

'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark' - Marcellus to Horatio, Hamlet - Act I

To borrow a Shakespearian political analogy, all is not well within the political hierarchy of the Democratic Party. As feared by many of us within the progressive movement, and in keeping with the decades old trend in off presidential year elections, the party that doesn't currently hold the White House has been swept back to power in the U.S. House of Representatives. Two years after President Obama was handed the biggest crock of economic you know what on a plate by W, and despite trojan work by the White House and the Democratic majority to haul the American economy back from the edge of the proverbial cliff, the speed of recovery, or lack thereof, has proved crucial in deciding who will control at least half of the Congress for the next two years.

As I write, the Republicans stand to gain somwhere in the region of 65 house seats in the 435 member assembly, taking their number to approximately 243 in advance of the official swearing in ceremony for the 112th Congress in the first week of January 2011. To give these results some historical context, neither party has experienced such a significant swing against it since the elections of 1946; surpassing even the 54 seat swing in membership from the Democrats to the Republicans in 1994 - Newt Gingrich's 'Contract with America' you might recall.

Perhaps this is an obvious statement but these results are not good news for President Obama and don't augur well for him in terms of advancing his agenda of change during the remaining two years of his term as President. After two years of obstructionist politics and being the party of 'No', we will now finally see if the Repiblicans have either the ability or the guts to co-govern. The so-called Tea Party patriots, a couple of whom were elected during this election cycle (more anon) and whose mantra is to oppose everything that the federal government represents, will now have to decide whether they will stand by their so-called principals or actually display some bipartisanship in government. It was easy for them to stand on the sidelines and oppose everything that the Democrats have done to fix the horrific mess that was created by eight years of disastrous Republican rule when you know that voter resentment is on your side and you don't have any practical and workable solutions of your own to present. If you think that the political gridlock in Washington D.C. during the past two years was bad, brace yourself for Congress to potentially come to a standstill once John Boehner becomes the Majority Leader in January.

Riding on the coattails of President Obama's landslide victory in 2008, Democrats increased their majorities to record numbers in both the House and Senate that year. On the first day of Obama's presidency, Democrats had a 77 seat majority in the House and an 18 seat majority in the Senate (if you include the 2 Independent senators who traditionally have caucused with the Democrats). Notwithstanding these majorities, the Democrats passed 240 legislative bills in the House which ultimately died on the floor of the Senate because of almost absolute Republican opposition and because the Democrats didn't have a 60 vote filibuster proof majority in the 100 seat Senate. How is that for bipartisanship for you? Now, the same Republican leadership who didn't lift a finger to aid the Democrats to try and right the ship of state in a time of unprecedented economic and social upheavel in the country, are now the same folks who are saying that because the voters have given them back the majority, they (the GOP) will do the right thing by the American people. I remain unconvinced.

As you might expect, many Republican leaders have pointed to the popularity (or perceived popularity) of the Tea Party, for many of the gains they made in this year's mid-terms. When you analyze the numbers, the candidates and the winners and losers, the reality is actually somewhat different. I completely agree that the anger at government that was fermented and crystalized by the Tea Party movement helped greatly to energize the Republican base in a year when no matter what Democrats did, they were in for a hiding. The actual number of true Tea Party candidates however, (who ultimately ran as Republicans) that were elected this year, can be counted on two hands. Notable examples include Rand Paul in Kentucky and Marco Rubio in Florida, both of whom will be going to the Senate. On the other hand, in some cases Tea Party candidates who actually defeated establishment GOP candidates in their respective Republican primaries earlier this year ended up weakening the chances the Republicans might have had in that state to win back a seat from the Democrats. Examples include Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada.

If there is any good news to come out of these elections it is that the Democrats still retain control of the United States Senate (albeit with a smaller majority) and President Obama's popularity remains pretty consistent, in the mid to high 50%'s. The conventional wisdom among the political cognoscenti is that President Obama remains reasonably popular going into the second half of his (hopefully) first term. The message that was delivered, loud and clear, at the polls this November is that both parties in Congress must stop the bickering, end the gridlock within Washington and get on with doing the business of the American people. We shall see.

Oh, and by the way. Twenty eight years after he last served as Governor, Jerry Brown easily defeated former eBay CEO Meg Whitman to once again become Governor of California at the ripe old age of 72. Current San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom was elected to be Lieutenant Governor - with an eye no doubt to succeeding Brown in due course. Proposition 19 - the initiative to legalize marijuana in California, lost by a vote of 54% - 46%, going down by a half million votes, out of a total of 7.4M cast.

P.S. The San Francisco Giants won their first baseball World Series this month since the club relocated to California from New York in 1957. The city is alive - Go Giants!!

Friday, October 1, 2010


'I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice" - President John F. Kennedy, speaking on the issue of religion at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12th 1960.

It is perhaps fitting that as I write I am on an airplane, headed to the airport named after America's 35th president, and to a city that is once again embroiled in religious controversy. The problem is that it is a phony controversy. The latest brouhaha surrounds a plan to build a Muslim community center in the heart of New York City, a few blocks from that hallowed acreage known as Ground Zero, the site of the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks and location of the soon to be unveiled memorial to the victims of that awful tragedy.

The right wing media noise machine, the religious nut jobs and surprise, surprise the leadership of the Republican Party are up in arms over plans to build the Muslim community center, a development that is perfectly legal and has received the backing of the mayor of New York and the President of the United States. The religious zealots who are trying everything in their power to stop this proposal from going ahead are using the argument that it is somehow un-American to allow free people to gather in a spirit of community and practice their faith without fear of reprisal. Their logic of course is because the 9/11 attacks were carried out in the name of Islam by less than two dozen extremists, the entire Muslim race should not only be discrimminated against, but if these people had their way, persecuted as well.

It is pretty nauseating to listen to the Republicans in particular as they deliver their regular diatribe of hate mongering and racial insensitivity. This is the party of Lincoln, a man whose presidency, and the history of the United States, was defined by his promise to deliver emancipation for black Americans. Six hundred thousand Americans died in a civil war that was fought so that every citizen could be free from racial discrimination and be guaranteed equal rights under the law.

Once again, religion is being used as a weapon of hatred and racism. It's sickening to watch this same old movie play out one more time. Will we, as mortal human beings, ever learn from the lessons of history? As it relates to this issue, it doesn't appear so.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Juan Trippe* Too Many For Aer Lingus

'You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer" - Frank Zappa (1940-1993), composer, guitarist, record producer, film director and founder of 'The Mothers of Invention'

The inter-war years of 1918-1939 have long been referred to as the 'golden age' in aviation history. Ten years after Louis Bleriot flew the English Channel from Calais to Dover in 1909, Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Brown landed safely in Clifden, becoming the first pilots to successfully fly across the Atlantic. Steady improvements in manufacturing know how, technology and instrumentation contributed in no small part to these early successes, so much so that in 1927 Charles Lindbergh became the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic, marking the end of an extraordinary first quarter century of aviation pioneering. These momentous milestones in the early history of the airplane brought to an end once and for all the glorious era of the airship. The last of the great zeppelins was disassembled in 1940; a timeline hastened no doubt by the tragic Hindenburg airship disaster of 1937.

At around the same time that Howard Hughes was setting, and resetting multiple air speed records and Adolf Hitler was building the German Luftwaffe into the awesome aerial force that would inflict blitzkrieg on Western Europe, Aer Lingus Teoranta was officially registered as an arline. The date was May 22nd 1936. The airline's first commercial flight five days later, from Dublin to Bristol, was somewhat overshadowed however by the news of the maiden voyage of the luxury liner, 'The Queen Mary', an event that stole the newspaper as well as the newsreel headlines. That being said, at a time when the economic war between the Free State and Britain was having a devastating effect on the young republic, the establishment of a national airline that saw the start of fresh trading, tourism and cultural ties with our neighbor across the Irish Sea was a positive step forward. The air battle for the skies over Britain and the war in Europe stymied the growth of the young airline as regional British airports became inaccessible for commercial flights. At the same time German armies were overrunning the continent before finally giving way to the incessant Allied bombing campaign that pulverized Europe's air infrastructure.

While American aid in the form of the Marshall Plan was helping to rebuild Europe after the war, Aer Lingus began to expand its service to a wider network of British airports as well as planting its first aeronautical routes in some of Europe's oldest capitals. For the first time the Irish diaspora, many of whom had emigrated in the 1930's and immediately after the war and who were located in England in particular, had the ability to fly home at Christmas time or return for the funeral of a loved one. The airline however had its eye on the potential market that existed within the estimated 40 million (at that time) ethnic Irish who lived on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in the United States. Aer Lingus planned to launch a transatlantic route as early as 1947 but a confluence of economic and political circumstances delayed the plan for another decade. It would be 1958 before the first transatlantic Aer Lingus flights to New York's 'Idlewild' airport (later renamed in memory of the assassinated president) would take off from Shannon. Service to America would remain unbroken for 52 years until news came down from the company's management in June that the airline would discontinue service from Shannon to New York and Boston for a 'trial period' from January 5th to March 27th 2011. But more about that later...

James Joyce once referred to the Atlantic Ocean as the 'bowl of bitter tears'. By the time Aer Lingus finally launched its transatlantic service in 1958 the Irish diaspora in America had swelled still further. Chronic emigration during the 1950's brought on by a decade of economic stagnation only made the story of the Irish in America that much more heartbreaking. For the vast majority who left their homeland they knew it was possibly was the last time they would see their family and friends again. News from home came in the form of a hand written letter or a card on a birthday, St. Patrick's Day and at Christmas. The Irish worked hard and saved their money, often sending cash home to help bring a beloved brother, sister, nephew or niece to the great cauldron of opportunity that was America. The launch of the transatlantic route gave the Irish in America the possibility for the first time to travel home on holidays. The reality however was that for the vast majority of the diaspora it was literally only a once in a lifetime opportunity and that was due to one thing, cost. In 1958, an economy class ticket from New York to Shannon was the equivalent of $1883 in today's money - many times the annual salary of a 'JFK carpenter'. Still, the door had been opened and over the course of the next two generations, millions of Irish in America saw the land of their birth again or the home of their forefathers for the first time.

My first trip to the U.S. was sometime around 1998. By that time Aer Lingus had expanded its North American network to the point here cities like Newark, Chicago and Los Angeles had been added. In later years, and after much lobbying from the Irish in the Bay Area, twice weekly direct flights commenced from San Francisco. That route would sadly last less than two years. In the late 1990's and again in the early 2000's I must have flown from Shannon to London Heathrow with Aer Lingus about 200 times. There was a time when I could sketch the layout of Heathrow terminals 1 and 2 on the back of an envelope. Then unbelievably, inexplicably, Aer Lingus abandoned the Heathrow slots they had had for decades. Only after a massive public outcry, intensive lobbying by politicians across the country and a renegotiation of terms with the unions and staff was the route reinstated in March 2009.

For years I have often times gone out of my way, both in terms of flight schedules and financial cost, to give my business to Aer Lingus when traveling back to Ireland. I always felt I was a little closer to home every time I boarded the green airplane with the shamrock on it, whether I was in New York, Boston, Chicago, L.A. or San Francisco. I completely understand that Aer Lingus is a business and as such has to operate profitably to sustain itself through the current tough economic climate and to be ready to expand again in the future when things turn around. On the other hand I am only one of many who believe that Aer Lingus has been hugely inefficient for many years and that the airline is top heavy with staff. I would also agree that a very strong argument can be made that this state of affairs exists largely because Aer Lingus was essentially a government run organization for generations, bringing with it all the classic symptoms of bureaucracy, inefficiency and a culture of entitlement. Organizations need to be lean and nimble to survive in a turbulent 21st global economy. Suspending services from Shannon to Boston and JFK for 3 months (including St. Patrick's Day) in 2011 is not the way to do it.

*Juan Trippe (1899-1981) was an American airline entrepreneur and the founder of Pan American Airways. An airline visionary, he was almost as equally famous for his long running battle for control of the skies with his arch nemesis, Howard Hughes.