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December 7th, 2012
03:54 PM ET

Letters to the President #1418: 'Do I detect a deal?'

Reporter's Note: President Obama and the Republicans have been butting heads over the fiscal cliff, and yet now…maybe they are finally pushing each other away from the brink a bit.

Dear Mr. President,

One of the peculiar features of schoolyard fights back in the day was that the threats became most heated when the combatants had little or not interest in actually fighting. When two guys squared off and filled the air with invectives, explaining in detail how they would beat the other into humiliation, you could almost bet your lunch money that not a single fist would fly. The real fighters, in my experience, were usually much more quiet. They might give one warning. At most two. Then they took your teeth out.

That’s why I find myself heading into the weekend feeling oddly encouraged about the fiscal cliff negotiations. I can’t say exactly how it happened, but sometime this morning I was listening to coverage of the continuing fight, and I suddenly thought “ They've got the makings of a deal.”

Call it instinct, but it feels as if the sharpness of the comments has shifted ever so slightly. Now it sounds truly as if both sides are talking to their bases, flinging around tough words, and trying to convince folks that they've waged a Titanic battle…while in reality, I suspect, you've all found some kind of way to get past the cliff with a series of tortured but workable compromises. At least I hope so.

Of course, being the kind of guy I am, I would prefer that you’d all just walk out and say something like, “After an afternoon of realizing what ninnies we are, we've decided to do the right thing. We've each given a few concessions. No one is gong to be thrilled with the deal, but that is the nature of compromise.”

But since that is not going to happen, I will content myself with listening to the continuing posturing while privately reassuring myself that it is nothing more than that…and there is a bridge, shaky as it may be, across the awful chasm.

Call if you want to chat about it. You don’t have to tell me any details, but if I am right about there being a deal in the works maybe you can give me a code phrase. How about “I just bought a nice clawfoot bathtub.”

Regards,

Tom

December 6th, 2012
04:42 PM ET

Letters to the President #1417: 'A Christmas scene'

Reporter's Note: President Obama and his family lit the National Christmas Tree this evening.

Dear Mr. President,

I must say that you and your family looked very happy throwing the switch to light the tree by the White House tonight. There are many unpleasant and weighty duties that come with the presidency. It is nice to see you enjoying some of the nicer moments as well.

Which remind me of something wonderful that happened in my own life last evening. My wife and I have been, as we often are, scrambling to prepare for all that the holidays will bring. We’ve been scrambling to put up decorations, shop for gifts, share some nice moments with the daughter we still have at home and some by phone with our daughter who is at college. At any moment it can be quite wearing, as I am sure you know. On top of which my work load has been absolutely massive lately as I try to deal with several end-of-the-year projects.

So it was no surprise last night that it was about 9:30 before I drove up to our house, and that my wife was still out running errands. I wandered inside to say hi to our younger girl and our dog, and collapse on the sofa for a few moments. I was so tired I could not see straight, and yet I was aware of how much work was still looming before me. Then I heard a noise in the driveway.

I walked to the front door and there was my wife emerging from the car carrying a huge wreath of fresh evergreens with gold ornaments and a big bow on it. Even in the dim light I could see that she was beaming. She came up the stairs holding her prize before her, telling me excitedly how she’d found it at a roadside stand operated by some guy named Pablo, and how nice he was, and how nicely priced it was, and how it would fit perfectly over the mantel…and suddenly, it was Christmas. There is just no other way to describe it. Her infectious joy, lovely smile, sparkling eyes, and overwhelming enthusiasm absolutely made the season for me.

Tell me there will be no tree, no gifts, no quiet moments in church, or rowdy moments around the dining table; no softly falling snow, twinkling lights or seasonal music; no mistletoe or candles; no stockings by the chimney. I won’t care. I’ve known Christmases with all the trimmings and more that could not compare to watching her walk into the house spreading the spirit of the season with every step…happiness, giving, kindness, beauty, love, and faith.

I hope you, and indeed every American, can enjoy just such a moment this holiday season…no matter what faith anyone may follow.

As for me…come what may, I am content.

Regards,
Tom

December 5th, 2012
09:00 PM ET

Letters to the President #1416: 'The wisdom of penguins'

Reporter's Note: President Obama and Congressional Republicans are basically daring each other to jump off the fiscal cliff. I’m daring them to reconsider and read my latest letter to the White House.

Dear Mr. President,

When penguins in Antarctica are ready for a swim but fearful that a predator, such as a sea lion or killer whale, might be lurking in the water they have a simple way to deal with the problem. As a group, they start crowding closer and closer to the edge of the ice pack, bumping, nudging, and pushing each other, until one of them falls off the edge. If he disappears in a bloody froth, they all hang up their beach towels and go back to reading Fifty Shades of Gray or whatever it is they do to pass those long, cold winters.

If however, he pops his little black and white head up from the waves and says, “Oh, very funny guys. I can’t stop laughing out here. You’re hilarious,” then the rest of them jump in too, slapping him on the back and offering him extra tidbits of fish to make amends.

At least that is how I understand the situation. I’ve never witnessed it firsthand, but this is what I’ve read.

In the animal world, I suppose it passes for a good plan. Sure, if you’re the penguin who gets served up like a plate of foie gras, your afternoon pretty much sucks. But this system reduces the risk for everyone else and in the grand scheme of penguindom, keeps the flock alive year after year.

I mention it because as you, your Democrats, and the Republicans keep waddling closer to the edge of the fiscal cliff, I can’t help but see images of penguins all over Capitol Hill…trying to see who falls over the edge first. Here is the difference, though: When the penguins do it way down south, only one falls. In this game that you are all playing, it may be true that some of your…or one party may fall faster than the other…but if you mess around about making a deal long enough we will all fall. And the fate for elected officials of all stripes may be very ugly down in the murky waters where angry voters swim…and wait…

Call if you can. I’m around.

Regards,
Tom

December 4th, 2012
08:36 PM ET

Letters to the President #1415: 'A driving lesson'

Reporter's Note: President Obama has two daughters, as do I. And presumably he will one day teach them to drive.

Dear Mr. President,

Our younger daughter, who recently acquired that most coveted of youthful prizes – the driver’s license, is now learning to drive our stick shift car which was made five years before she was born. She is relatively good at it, but the coordination of gears, clutch, brakes, and steering are far from instinctive at this juncture so any given moment can become a neck snapping adventure with the car leaping and bucking down the road.

And if that is as thrilling as a round on a state fair Tilt-A-Whirl to us, you can just imagine how it impresses nearby pedestrians, a few of whom I have watched wisely waiting on the curb for us to pass even though a well-marked crosswalk beckons them into the path of doom.

I’m not making fun of her. She is conscientious, smart, and a quick learner. As I noted just this morning while we careened through the neighborhood with the wild abandon of a go-cart racer or a demented weasel, “You know, once you master this, you will be one of the few kids at your school capable of driving a standard transmission.”

“Yeah, I suppose so,” she said. “Actually, I told some of my teachers I am learning and they said even they don’t know how to do it.”

Funny how things change. When I was in high school it seemed as if there were still a lot of standard transmissions on the road, and my parents generally regarded anyone who could only drive an automatic as somehow deficient; as if the poor soul was destined for a lifetime of boiled meat, white bread and weak tea. I can still recall the look of disdain and pity in my father’s eyes when he met someone who meekly accepted the mind-numbing limitations of an automatic transmission, not even bothering to sample the delicious joys of clutching, shifting, and coaxing an engine through its gears.

I guess, judging from my daughter’s friends and teachers, it is a dying art; soon to be as archaic as a buggy whip. But for now, I feel like we are giving more than driving lessons; we are reveling in a piece of history…sore necks and all.

So how are the fiscal cliff negotiations going? Sounds a tad rough…

Call if you can. Btw- did you see the Redskins beat the Giants last night? Quite a surprise that…

Regards,
Tom

December 3rd, 2012
11:45 AM ET

Letters to the President #1414: 'Breaking the impasse'

Reporter's Note: President Obama’s Democrats and the Republicans are celebrating the holiday season by furiously insulting each other over the fiscal cliff negotiations. What fun!

Dear Mr. President,

The more I look it over, the more I am convinced that you and your Republican pals do not face a budget issue right now. You face a trust issue. Neither of you believe that the other is dealing in a forthright manner on this matter of the fiscal cliff and that mistrust is crippling any and all attempts to reach an agreement.

Think about it. You’re all smart folks. You’re all (presumably) interested in leading the country toward better days, with a stable economy and a sustainable government. I have not a doubt in the world that if the most reasonable members of your party and the most reasonable members of the Republican party were locked in a room and told they could not…oh say, attend any fundraisers until they came up with a deal, we’d have one by lunchtime. Sure, they’d have to make some tough choices and each side would have to give up something, but they’d work it out.

And yet free from that instant demand for action, what we have instead is both sides pulling their hair, running in circles, and howling that economic Armageddon is looming. Maybe the Mayans have it right.

But I don’t think so. I think the key here is that neither side is being truly open and honest. Neither party wants to say clearly, publically, and specifically what it wants for fear that a) if the party does not get what it is after, that will look like a loss or b) any admission of actual goals will give a negotiating advantage to the opposition. Yes, both sides are laying out very broad goals, but they’re also carefully obscuring the details, and in this debate details really matter.

You know what I think you need? A single document negotiation. You need one trusted emissary…or small bipartisan team…that takes a single sheet of paper and starts going between the two sides. First one side writes down specifically what it wants, then the other side responds with what it wants. Back and forth the document goes with each side adjusting it each time to a level that that side can accept. No press conferences. No inflammatory statements. And if you finally reach the point where both sides agree to what is written on the paper, then…and only then…the leaders of both parties can appear, standing side by side, taking equal credit for averting the crisis. No one loses. Everyone wins.

That is what cooperation and governance is about; not finding ways to blame the opposition for why things went wrong, but rather finding ways to make things go right. At least, I’ve always thought it ought to be that way. Best of luck with it all. Hope the idea helps.

Btw-My Christmas lighting ordeal continues. I’ll give you the full update later this week, but in short, I managed to have the whole yard looking like a weirdly frozen arctic military outpost Saturday night. Not the scene I was after at all!

Regards,
Tom

December 2nd, 2012
07:20 AM ET

Letters to the President #1413: 'Rich and Richer'

Reporter's Note: President Obama is hard on the trail of the wealthiest Americans, intent on tapping their wallets for a bit more in taxes…but who exactly is rich?

Dear Mr. President,

I noticed that you were out in the country meeting with people and making your pitch about this idea of taxing the rich a good bit more. I’m not entirely sure why since the polls suggest most people are on board with that idea anyway, but it’s your schedule so good luck with that…

I do have a question, however: Do you think you’ll have to find some other way to define rich?

The question occurs to me because you current definition is a might broad. Here is what I mean: You seem to be calling anyone who makes more than $250-thousand as a couple “rich.” So yes, Warren Buffet is rich. He is one of the wealthiest human beings on the planet, and he shows up on lists of billionaires all the time. He could win the Powerball lottery and not even notice the change in his bank account. That is rich. Really rich.

But under your definition, here are some more rich people: Dave and Susan live in a modest house outside of New York which, because of the cost of real estate is valued at a million dollars. They have both worked hard all their lives to reach a point in their 50’s at which they each make about $150-thousand dollars. They are putting two children through college and trying to save for retirement. They would like to take a vacation now and then, but it is always somewhat limited because they take their financial responsibilities seriously. They are, by your terms, rich too. But they are in no way, shape, or form anything like Warren Buffet, and I suspect many of them, especially near large cities where the cost of living can be terribly high, don’t find your idea of “fair” to be so.

A mouse is a mammal, and so is an elephant, but you can hardly suggest they are the same thing.

Anyway, I’m not telling you how to handle this. Perish the thought. Were the country in my hand for twenty minutes I’m sure calamity would follow. Still, it might help if you made it a bit clearer that you are aware of…and prepared to deal with the details…of the very different differences between the rich and the really rich among us.

Call if you can. My Saints are pretty much out of the playoffs, so I’m available to chat.

Regards,
Tom

December 1st, 2012
11:01 AM ET

Letters to the President #1412: 'Let there be lights'

Reporter's Note: President Obama, as I have noted, probably doesn’t have to do any decorating for the holidays at the White House. The rest of us face a different story…

Dear Mr. President,

Contrary to my earnest plans, I did not succeed in putting up all the Christmas lights at our house as I had hoped last weekend. More to the point: I did not put up any. This is a bad thing. I am not some sort of manic Noelophile who must, must, must have the lights twinkling just hours after the Thanksgiving turkey has met its demise, but I have learned over the years that it is rarely good to delay big jobs.

Once, when we lived in Colorado, I was sent on the road to cover a series of stories in the final weeks leading up to Christmas. Each time I tried to board a plane home, another call would come from New York and I would be sent scurrying off to another state. The whole time I was sharply aware of the days slipping by…days I desperate needed for shopping, wrapping, tree cutting, and overall decoration.

Finally, I was set free. I rushed to grab a flight back to Denver from Tulsa, or Detroit, or Tampa, or wherever the heck I was, and I landed in the teeth of a rapidly gathering storm. “No matter!” I howled as I slid into the garage and my wife waved for me to race inside. “I must put up the lights!”

Well, it wasn’t quite that dramatic, but I did decide shortly after hitting the doorstep that not another minute could be wasted, so I ventured out into the biting sleet, bitter cold, and gale force winds with my ladder and an armload of lights. At the time, I was attempting one of those lovely gingerbread-house-like effects in which the eaves of the house would be lined with bulbs. To that end, I had a sack full of plastic clips that could be jammed onto the rain gutters to hold the lights. I’m quite sure that they worked brilliantly in the warm safety of the Chinese factory in which they were made, but in Ice Station Zebra, not so much. As I worked my way along the edge of the house, teetering ten feet in the air, many of the clips skittered sideways out of my grip and fell to the ground, or snapped into pieces as I tried to shove them into place, or simply refused to stay in place. The cold was numbing my face and crippling my fingers. The wind was shrieking around me like one of Dicken’s ghosts. And yet I pressed on, one light at a time.

As I approached the corner of the house, the ground dropped away considerably, forcing me to climb higher on my ladder. Despite warnings pasted to the rungs that I should not “stand above this step” I crept up and up and up. Balancing on the topmost plank like a frozen Wallenda, I reached for the final corner to push a red bulb into place, wobbling dangerously in every gust.

This story does not end badly. Yes, yes, I know, I lead you to expect some grand catastrophe, but that was not the case. I finished the lighting, crept down from my icy perch shivering and vaguely hypothermic, and retreated into the house to await the return of feeling to my extremities.

So what is the point of this tale? As I said at the start: It is not good to let deadlines loom too close. Take on difficult tasks early and accept that you must get them done, even if that means grappling with some unpleasant realities when you’d rather not.

Call if you can. I’ll be around this weekend…yes, putting up the lights.

Regards,
Tom

November 30th, 2012
04:03 PM ET

Letters to the President #1411: 'Mr. Biden goes to the store'

Reporter's Note: The White House often seems twitchy about the subject of Vice President Joe Biden, especially since he rather famously strays from the talking points now and then.  But in today’s letter, I note the Veep may have a few lessons from which the president could learn a thing or two.

Dear Mr. President,

I noticed Joe Biden was off doing a little Christmas shopping at a new Costco here in D.C., and I must say it was entertaining.  I know that you fancy yourself a great communicator, but let me tell you Biden is just a natural when it comes to connecting with folks one on one.  There he was slapping other shoppers on the back, tasting the free samples, scrutinizing prices; looked totally like a local city council member picking up supplies for a tailgate party.

Now, I’m not so naïve as to think this was anything other than a carefully orchestrated photo op.  Heck, I pretty much assume anything involving a politician in this town is a photo op.  But some are more successful than others, and when it comes to selling that whole “common man” routine that you big time politicos love so much, I don’t think Biden can be beaten.

And while I know it probably sounds like blasphemy, you could learn a thing or two from him.

To be honest, you often seem…well, ill at ease when you are out among regular folks.  That’s odd because I would assume in your “community organizer” days that you spent a lot of time hanging out with people who worked for a living.  Now, however, you often look as if you don’t know quite what to say or do; like you’ve never really been in the company of middle class folks despite all of your talk about them; and like you’re acting the part of a caring leader instead of actually being one.

Mind you, I am not accusing you of not caring or anything like that.  I’m just talking about appearances.  In a nutshell: Biden looks comfortable among working folks, and you most often don’t.

So the next time he takes off on a shopping trip you might want to tag along.  Watch how he talks to people and engages with his surroundings.  Notice how he seems to have precious little concern about image or whether he comes off as smart.  I realize you’ll never run for another office in your life, so I’m not suggesting this for purposes of campaigning, but rather as a matter of leadership.  In my experience, people are most comfortable with leaders who are, in turn, comfortable with them.

Give it a whirl.  And give me a call if you can.

Regards,
Tom

November 29th, 2012
11:25 PM ET

Letters to the President #1410: 'Is this how DC does business?'

Reporter's Note: President Obama is embroiled in new talks about taxes, the budget, and...well, we all know where that is going...

Dear Mr. President,

It's disappointing to hear that you and your Republican pals are once again rapidly coming to loggerheads over this tax business. Fool that I am, I actually enjoyed a few delusional moments of thinking that both sides might want to work something out before we go vaulting over the fiscal cliff, and spinning to the canyon floor like Wile E. Coyote, but I guess I was wrong.

Of course it goes without saying that your fellow Dems are already blaming the Repubs for everything, and vice versa. I'm not sure how that gets us closer to a solution. I actually think heaving around snarky comments about the opposition probably does more to impede progress than to spur it on.

And yet sometimes you DC types seem like you just can't help yourselves. There really is something of a junior high quality to it. Put downs. Taunts. I'm surprised I don't hear members of Congress insulting each other's mothers.

And again: Who benefits? Does anyone really imagine that the other side is going to respond positively to such tactics?

Insults delivered in such a public setting are doubly damned; not only do they inflame tensions against agreement, but they also force foes into defensive corners from which they can not emerge without appearing weak.

It's something for both sides to consider, if you truly want things to work out. Sorry for writing so late tonight. Hope you're not already asleep.

Regards,
Tom

November 28th, 2012
02:52 PM ET

Letters to the President #1409: 'A sledding mishap'

Reporter's Note: I do not know if President Obama likes sledding...or these letters, for that matter.

Dear Mr. President,

So I notice that you and your Republican pals are pouring more gasoline on the campfire over this whole fiscal cliff issue. You want to tax the wealthy more, they don't want to tax anyone, and the Chevy keeps racing toward the brink of the canyon.

Obviously there are genuine philosophical differences, but there is a political calculation as well. Each side is betting the other side will be blamed more if things go badly.

It reminds me of a misadventure with by brother. Many years ago, when we were kids, we were contemplating a narrow sled run cutting between thick forests of lodge pole pines down a very steep slope. At the base of the run was a single gigantic tree that dominated the path. We knew we would have to slip past it, either left or right did not matter, and it would be a close scrape.

We decided to risk it anyway. My brother, being older, laid down on the sled and grabbed the steering handles, I climbed onto his back and we pushed off. In seconds were were blistering down the icy decline and watching the big tree loom large ahead.

"Turn! Turn!" I shouted, holding on for dear life.
"I can't," he yelled back, "You're holding my arms too tight!"

A split second later we smashed into the tree and were flung across the snow like rag dolls. No one was seriously hurt, although the front of the sled was buckled by the impact. And a question has remained ever since: Who caused the accident? Him, because he did not turn us to safety? Me, because I prevented him doing what he wished? Or both of us for venturing so close to danger and not truly contemplating the consequences?

Just a few thoughts. Call if you can.

Regards,
Tom

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