Say of the Day: Graydon Carter, June 2008 Vanity Fair

May 29, 2008

“In less than a year, the Bush administration will strut out of office, leaving the country in roughly the same condition a toddler leaves a diaper.”  (A modest addendum might have made Carter’s statement yet more trenchant:  that Bush and the toddler regard their deeds with remarkably similar degrees of remorse and accountability.)

“I subscribe to the theory that politics should be treated as a utility–you should be aware that it is there, and it should be monitored,but you shouldn’t have to keep your eye on it every minute, as we have for the past seven and half years.”


ADL Torch of Liberty Acceptance Speech, 2/08

May 29, 2008

Thank you so much. Please forgive our stunned expressions. As venture capitalists, we are entirely unaccustomed to such outbursts of popularity.

I’m the firm’s designated thanker tonight but before I get to that happy task, I ask two indulgences.

The first is a little humiliating. It’s a disclaimer that my partners make me read at events like this. Here goes:

“The views expressed by the speaker are solely those of the speaker and do not necessarily represent the views of Austin Ventures. This is particularly true if the speaker is addressing a large, left-leaning audience in an election year. It is doubly true if the speaker’s initials are a J and a T.

That’s embarrassing, but let’s put it behind us. Second, I ask your indulgence for a story about my late grandmother, Lottie Warren.

Ms. Lottie lived much of her life in Mt. Calm, a tiny town about 90 miles northeast of Austin. Her resilience and stoicism were the products of coming of age in the Deep South as single mother during the depression. Still, there was one thing she never got over: that yours truly had the bad taste to be born on the 100th anniversary of Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox. Ms. Lottie was a student of omens. And this was plainly not a good one.

Gramma died at 96 having never driven a car nor seen an ocean. I only know this last part because, one year as I was headed to Padre Island for spring break, she said something like, “mmm, mmm. Going to the beach. Bud, why would ya wanna go and do a thing like that?”

I said “Gramma, what do you mean. I like the beach. What’s wrong with the beach?”

“Well, I reckon that the problem with the beach, you’re really never sure who’s been there before ya.”

I wish Ms. Lottie were here tonight. How proud she’d be to know exactly who has gone before us. The past winners of this award represent company that we scarcely deserve to keep. And in our offices it has caused an outbreak of humility which observers of our firm figure is both overdue and unlikely to last.

There are three groups of people we would like to thank tonight.

The first is the entrepreneurs and executives who are the lifeblood of our firm. Without them, we’d have neither the resources nor the inspiration to be involved in our community. Contrary to our own PR, venture capitalists don’t build companies—entrepreneurs and executives do. And if not for people like them, one thing is certain: there’d be no need for guys like us.

The second group we must thank is comprised of the Cookie Ruiz’s and Doug Ulmans and Susan McDowells of the world. These people are the uber entrepreneurs.

Although it pains me to no end given the dubious nature of the source, let me read to you the operational definition of entrepreneurship used by some third rate diploma mill called the Harvard Business School. I think it’s located somewhere east of Elgin.

According to HBS, entrepreneurship is “the pursuit of opportunities beyond the resources you currently control.”

Could there possibly be a better description of the never-ending challenge faced by the leaders of our non-profit organizations? Our social entrepreneurs?

I once asked a long time head of a social service agency what was the key to non-profit leadership. She said, “Simple”. “Know 100 varieties of the old loaves and fishes trick, and be able to do all of them with a smile.” That pretty much says it all. God bless our social entrepreneurs, each and every one.

And now the most important part: to thank the Anti Defamation League for this tremendous honor.

We had the pleasure of hosting Mr. Foxman in our office for breakfast today. And, sir, can correct me if I’m wrong: but I think that I might have been witness to Abe Foxman’s first-ever encounter with a breakfast taco. He ultimately opted to put the taco down and stick with the coffee.  Not quite as unfortunate as President Ford’s infamous encounter with the tamale, but in the same ballpark.

Mr. Foxman is fond of saying that the ADL is a perpetrator of an anti-bias bias. But more than anything, it seems to me that the ADL is one of the great purveyors and promoters of empathy in America.

Empathy is a word I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

First, an academic definition: The intellectual identification with–or vicarious experiencing of– the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. One psychologist writes that empathy is the second most significant accomplishment of the human mind, surpassed only by consciousness itself.

Another writer describes empathy in a way I like a lot: as “elasticity of spirit.” It reminds me of Reinhold Niebuhr’s great riff that “open mindedness is not a virtue of people who don’t believe in anything. It’s a virtue of people who know their beliefs are not absolutely true.”

My dad would have described empathy as “walking a mile in another brave’s moccasins.” He thought that was important.

So you see why empathy strikes me as an organizing theme for the ADL’s activities. This institution has long been a bulwark against hate. And it’s awfully hard to hate someone with whom you empathize.

OK, deep breath. And my partners ask that you remember that disclaimer.

You see, I’m a little edgy these days. I think we all are.

Since 9-11, America’s standing in the world has taken so many hits that a writer in the New York Times recently—and nonchalantly—christened the “post-American” era. We have ample reasons to question our recent economic gains at home, with any *un*questionable gains being very concentrated among a *very* few. And who would argue that since 9-11, a certain measure of—-civility—hasn’t gone missing from our civil society.

I find myself identifying with Professor Malik Solanka, the protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s 2001 novel, Fury. Solanka is an immigrant to the U.S., a really smart, really cranky guy. And he finds himself increasingly out of sorts in his adopted home, New York City just before 9-11, leading him to this observation:

“Rome did not fall because her armies weakened, but because Romans forgot what being a Roman meant. Might this new Rome actually be more provincial than its provinces; might these new Romans have forgotten what and how to value?”

So in my edgy state, I ask: what about the Professor’s question? Is there an element unique to the American experience that we have forgotten whether and how to value?

No big surprise: I think there is. And here’s that word again: empathy.

Our true uniqueness lies in our history as an immigrant nation. For three and a half centuries, we have welcomed—within the limits of our laws– those who are persecuted, or those who simply want to start better lives for their families. It’s been our shared objective—with their help–to make America worthy of their aspirations.

In 1630, an especially ambitious immigrant named John Winthrop laid out a vision for a little startup called the Massachusetts Bay Company. He pledged to build what he called “a city upon a hill,” a place to escape the pressure he and his fellows felt from the Crown—primarily religious, but also economic; and a place that others would aspire to live.

Nearly four centuries later, Ronald Reagan borrowed the phrase, calling America “a *shining* city on a hill” in his farewell address in 1989.

I think empathy really matters to Americans. Sometimes, though, it seems that the overdevelopment of some of our other muscles gets in the way of its practice.

When our celebrated talent for entrepreneurship and economic competition comes unhinged, and billionaires and the indigent uninsured seem to be in a contest to see who can grow more quickly.

When our long-standing sense of community mutates into a hyper suspicion of outsiders. And sure, we can be excused our economic and national security anxieties—god knows– we’ve earned them. But lately it feels like we’re in danger of forgetting what Reagan intended: the glow from our shining city was to be a beacon. Not a search light.

When our abiding optimism compromises our most important empathic relationship: the one we maintain with future generations of Americans. From Day One of the Republic, our ancestors sacrificed some measure of gratification to assure the well being of their progeny. Also known as—the people in this room.

How strange, then, that no real discussion of shared sacrifice has entered our politics for a generation. This, even though sacrifice seems a logical point of departure for almost any serious discussion of policy: fiscal, environmental, education, energy, health care…you name it.

Somewhere along the way, two big, important ideas: “sacrifice” on the one hand and “optimism” on the other–became mutually exclusive. No big surprise which idea always wins, as an almost obnoxious “optimism” has become table stakes for *any* serious candidate running for *any* office. You might say that in a referendum against optimism, sacrifice is assured burial in a landslide.

We often hear about “third rail” issues in American politics—issues so powerfully charged that they electrocute any leader who comes near them. You know the litany: social security, Medicare, drug legalization, conscription; the list doesn’t need any additions.

But I’ll propose one, anyway: It seems to me that *sacrifice* has become the *ultimate* third rail in American politics. We fry our leaders when they touch it, and so they don’t.

The choice between “optimism” and “sacrifice” is false, it is juvenile, and it does our nation great harm. But the temptation for our leaders to make that choice—false, juvenile, and harmful as it–proves simply irresistible. Why? Because we—the electorate—reward the false choice time after time. And so shared sacrifice is almost never on the table.

Hasn’t the time come to throw the switch on this third rail—to shut off the political deadliness of the notion of shared sacrifice? To have an adult conversation about the fact that tax cuts, wars, universal health care, investment in energy independence, $150 billion in short term stimulus to avoid recession: they simply can’t co-exist without borrowing from our progeny. Until we as a nation face the prospect of shared sacrifice, the biggest gift we will give our children is righteousness to match their indignation. Because without shared sacrifice, we just can’t show them the empathy our ancestors showed to us.

We had a really lively discussion this morning about the ADL’s role in our civil society—I could have stayed there all day. It would be nice if Foxman & Company could solve all our ills. They can’t. But as a force for social justice, as a force for empathy, thank God they get stronger all the time.

We simply need the ADL. We need them when hate crimes in America rise 8 percent this year, while almost all other crimes decline to record lows.

We need the ADL when, in the aftermath of the Jena 6 tragedy, there are hundreds of threats involving nooses in the south, after the near disappearance of that awful totem from our culture.

We need the ADL when our nation’s discussion about immigration becomes so shrill in tone and frankly racist in content –that the KKK finds a new lease on life. And when the cloaking of hate speech behind a cyber-wall reminds us of a time before the ADL’s success in passing anti masking laws in the 50s.

We need the ADL. As practiced travelers in unfamiliar moccasins. As crusaders for the elasticity of our common spirit. As purveyors and promoters of empathy.

Mr. Foxman, all of the ADL staff, your board and benefactors: you are marvelous public servants, and your work for our country is a great, great mitzvah.

But most of all, in giving us this award, you honor our firm more than you could ever know.

Thank you, so very, very much.


Trinity University Graduate School Commencement Address, 5/06

May 29, 2008

I’m so honored to be with you today.

Honored, and thoroughly terrified.

You see, President. Brazil has asked me to make this speech twice before, but I found an excuse to decline each time: an important business trip one year; the next, I think I mumbled something about an anticipated case of avian flu.

But the good President was not to be deterred. And his persistence only fueled my anxiety: if I’ve learned nothing else in my post-Trinity years, I have learned this: how pleasurable a task is likely to be—and how ardently you are pursued to do it—are reliably and inversely correlated.  Think yoga .

But with this event now looming on the calendar, I tried to place myself under your caps, and thought about what I might like to hear from someone about midway in age between myself and my parents. I tried to steer clear of the staples of commencement speeches past: hackneyed mastery of the obvious and scenes from my life story interesting primarily to–well, me.

I fear that I did not altogether succeed. But what I’d like to share most of all from the 15 years since I was in your seat is a sense of profound surprise.

Surprise is sort of the anti-wisdom. Surprise is an organizing thought for much of life’s fascination: people, events, emotions that we could never anticipate. And ironically, the wiser we think we are, the more likely we are to be surprised.

So my gift to you this morning—offered with deep humility and gratitude for your invitation–will be three major surprises I’ve encountered since graduate school. If they resonate with you today, terrific. If not, file them away in your subconscious. Maybe they’ll make more sense later. In any case, this is only going to cost you 10 minutes.

Before I launch, I should confess that I am a lover of books and, as I age, an ever more shameless plagiarist. But I should still acknowledge my debt to the words and thoughts of these authors:.

-George Vaillant in “Aging Well.”
-Martin Seligman, in Learned Optimism
-Sam Harris, “The End of Faith”
-Rheinold Neibuhr, in “Moral Man and Immoral Society”
-Madeleine Albright, in “The Mighty and the Almighty”
-And finally, Pat Conroy, in his memoir,“My Losing Season.”

So, three big surprises.

Big surprise #1 is how important it has been in my life to try to be an optimist. I say “try” because, by nature, I am a staunch pessimist. In Seligman’s book, there is a test you can take to place yourself on a spectrum of pessimism to optimism. If anyone scores lower than I did, I’ll buy you a drink. I’m sure we’d be a real barrel of laughs together.

I was raised in a home where one of the highest compliments that one could be paid was that he was “realistic,” or a little later,. “pragmatic.” And this comported with my developing world view: life ain’t easy, nobody does you any favors, and the more ready you are to face those facts, the better. The corollary to this world view is that seeing around corners is a valuable skill, and—as a pragmatist—it is more valuable to anticipate negative surprises than happy news.

But there are at least a couple  problems with being a pessimist. For starters, it’s tough to experience joy. Worse, it’s tough for anyone else to experience you with any joy, except in small doses.

But maybe most relevant to this audience of leaders: I have found it nearly impossible to be an effective yet pessimistic leader. People want their actuaries to be pessimists.  Their accountants.   But they *require* their leaders to paint a picture not only that things can be better, but that with hard work and dedication, they will be. The most optimistic words in the English language must be Robert Browning’s: “Grow old with me. The best is yet to be.” While these words usually wind up somewhere near a Hallmark logo, they could just as easily be the words of a great leader. Sure, we’ll be old as dirt some day, but just imagine what’s possible between here and there. And why not even in our dotage? All in 10 syllables. That’s the power of optimism to inspire.

The hard question, of course, is how to retrain our minds if we were not blessed with optimistic DNA. It’s certainly not as easy as Churchill’s famous pronouncement about optimism, but it’s not impossible, either. .

If you’re a pessimist like I am, read Seligman’s book. Retraining your brain circuitry is hard work, but it’s worth the effort. And for what it’s worth, Robert Browning’s not a bad read, either.

Now for something totally different.

Big surprise number two is what I ‘ve discovered to be the twin dangers of certainty and exceptionalism as they relate to religious belief..

Now, I know that’s a mouthful, and I tried like the dickens to boil it down. I tried “the importance of religious tolerance,” but thought it sounded condescending . I tried “the danger of religious extremism,” but quickly concluded, with an assist from CNN and the New York Times, that one person’s extremism is another’s core belief system.

At least 20 million souls were extinguished during the first 95 years of the 20th century, at least nominally in the name of religion, beginning with Armenians in Turkey and ending with the horrors of the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda a decade or so ago .

In the more contemporary sphere, I offer but a sampling of the mortal conflicts in which the reason for killing is explicitly religious: Jews and Muslims in Palestine; Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats and Bosnian and Albanian Muslims in the Balkans; Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland; Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt; Muslims and Hindus in Kashmir; Muslims and Christians in Nigeria; Muslims and Christians in Ethiopia and Eritrea; Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka; Orthodox Russians and Chechen Muslims in the Caucasus.

It would be well after noon before you got your diplomas, and I’d never even get to the 14-century old conflict between Sunnis and Shiia in Iraq, or the infinitely complex and tragic situation which pits Muslims against Christians and Animists in Darfur.

It seems that Sam Harris has a pretty good point. He writes:

“There’s a problem with some of our most cherished beliefs about the world: they are leading us, inexorably, to kill one another. It seems that if our species ever eradicates itself through war, it will not be because it was written in the stars but because it was written in our books; it is what we do with words like “god” and “paradise” and “sin” in the present that will determine our future.”

It’s also difficult, after a scan of the headlines, not to think of Elie Wiesel, who once speculated that the saddest, most tragic figure in the Bible is likely God himself, because of the senseless killing that has happened in his name.

Almost all of our belief systems—and certainly the Abrahamic Big 3– have embedded in them at least a seed of the notion that the truth of our “book” requires the invalidation of somebody else’s. These belief systems tend to square off with Niebhur’s dictum that “open mindedness is not a virtue of people who don’t believe in anything. It is a virtue of people who know that their beliefs are not absolutely true.”

As a kid sitting in a pew at Westlink Christian Church in Wichita Kansas, I must have sung a thousand times the words, “One Way, One Way to heaven. One way, one way through Jesus” . Now, admittedly, at 14, I was less interested in questions of comparative theology than I was in the Arbuckle sisters a couple of pews over. Even so, mine were potentially fightin’ words to the vast majority of my fellow earthlings, who had their own versions of the “one way” hymn, worded pretty differently from mine. And you can be sure, that given I didn’t meet my first Jew or Muslim until college, nobody in Wichita rushed to point this little fact out to me. (By the way, if you type the phrase “one way to heaven” into your google tool bar, you’ll get 92.3 million results. I only the skimmed the first hundred or so, but I’m supremely confident in reporting to this gathering that there is not broad agreement on the matter).

And in retrospect, it’s not hard to see how that seemingly anodyne statement: “one way through Jesus”—led to some of the most shameful acts in my home state over the past 15 years: the bombing of abortion clinics in the early 90s; the successful assault on the teaching of evolution in public schools in the late 90s; and most recently, the terrible protests staged at funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq. The logic for this latest idea: apparently that God is punishing our nation for the rampant homosexuality within our borders. These acts lack the spectacle and arguably the brutality of airplanes flying into buildings. But they are loathsome in the extreme nonetheless, and rooted in an eerily similar smugness of religious exceptionalism.

“One way through Jesus.”

Again, Sam Harris:

“These are mere words–until you believe them. Once believed, they become part of the very apparatus of your mind, determining your desires, fears, expectations, and subsequent behavior.”

Now Harris goes on to argue that the only salvation of the human race will be in the wholesale re examination and repudiation of the world’s major belief systems, and that’s where he loses me. But today, I have a more modest proposition, in three parts: First, an intense watchfulness for the seeds of bigotry in our own faiths, implied or expressed. Second, a keen mindfulness that the atrocities committed by the guy with the “other book” are likely at this very moment matched by someone carrying a book quite similar to our own. And finally, a frank recognition that once we’re dead sure that there’s only one way to get anywhere, or one way to do anything, we’ve suddenly made it on whole helluva  lot harder to make friends, either as individuals or as a nation.

Now for big surprise number three, and I’ve saved the biggest cliché for last. The big, big surprise for me has been the sheer speed of time’s passage.

Pat Conroy:

“I once studied Proust and his theories of time and duration. He seemed to think that time…did not exist, or existed only in an very abstract way. I could not help but notice, however, that, according to his biography, he happened to be dead.”

Takes a second to sneak up on you doesn’t it?

Conroy goes on:

“In my own lifetime, nothing has been clearer or more unremitting than the inflexible and man-eating current of time….I remain fully cognizant that my body is a timepiece that can kill me tomorrow or let me live a hundred years. It is this hard, inexorable passage of time that, I believe, is the one great surprise in every human life.”
My dad told me the same thing, probably 30 years ago. I was singing along with Ray Charles on the radio, “Ain’t it funny how time slips away.” Now, my father loved Ray Charles. But I’ll never forget how he turned to me, as deadly serious as I’d ever seen him, and said, “Someday you’ll realize that there’s nothing funny about it.

The last commencement speech I gave was in high school, 23 years ago next Saturday. It was a precocious piece of work, including an 18 year old’s commentary on President Reagan’s foreign policy in Eastern Europe. (I’m sure he was quite interested in my concerns, and indeed I had them). But at its core was my sincere conviction that life must be all about perseverance and struggle; sacrifice and endurance; trading tomorrow’s ultimate satisfaction against today’s pleasure.

My co-valedictorian, Danielle Cullinane, gave completely the opposite speech. Your parents won’t be around as long as you think they will, she said, make sure to hug them every day. Before you know it, she said, you’ll be parents, and then your children will look at you like you’re from another planet, and then they’ll be gone. Cherish them. The way to make the gods laugh, she said, is to tell them your plans. Live every day to the fullest; find what makes you happy and do it.

At the time, I thought it all sounded kind of simplistic, a touch immature, and maybe even a little irresponsible.

23 years later, I’m still in touch with my friend Danielle. And all I can tell you is that I find more a lot wisdom in her speech today than she does in mine.

From Vaillaint’s book:

“What’s the difference between a guy who at his final conscious moments has a nostalgic grin on his face, as if to say, ‘Boy, I sure squeezed that lemon’ and another man who fights for every last breath in an effort to turn back time? Damned if I know, but I sure think it’s worth thinking about.”

Worth thinking about, indeed.

Today’s as good a time to start as any. Friends and parents, I join your graduates in offering my most sincere thanks for your love and support of them. Graduates, please accept my heartiest congratulations for a job well done and my best wishes for a life well lived.

And to all, a request. Celebrate today with joy and thanksgiving by the bucket-full. And every day, try to whip up just a little bit of each.


Say of the Day: George Packer Jun 3, 2008

May 29, 2008

Writing in the New Yorker http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/05/26/080526fa_fact_packer

Packer quotes Pat Buchanan: “Every great cause starts as a movement, becomes a business, and ends up a racket.”

Describing the convservative movement, Packer notes that it was “conceived by Goldwater, brought to Power by Nixon, mass appeal by Reagan, radicalized by Gingrich, criminalized by DeLay, and ultimately brought to pieces by Bush.”


Say of the Day: Peggy Noonan, 5/23/08

May 29, 2008

Writing for the Wall Street Journal in her op-ed “Sex and the Sissy,”http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121148557268715077.html a deliciously indignant upbraiding of Sen. Clinton’s whining about sexism and mysoginy in the campaign:

“Where to begin? One wants to be sympathetic to Mrs. Clinton at this point, if for no other reason than to show one’s range. But her last weeks have been, and her next weeks will likely be, one long exercise in summoning further denunciations. It is something new in politics, the How Else Can I Offend You Tour. And I suppose it is aimed not at voters — you don’t persuade anyone by complaining in this way, you only reinforce what your supporters already think — but at history, at the way history will tell the story of the reasons for her loss.”


Say of the Day: Bobby Kennedy, March 1968

May 29, 2008

From Thurston Clark’s Forthcoming The Last Campaign, excerpted in the June 2008 issue of Vanity Fair http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/06/rfk_excerpt200806

Kennedy’s first speech of the campaign, at Kansas State University, speaking of the Vietnam War:

“Let me begin this discussion with a note both personal and public. I was involved in many of the early decisions on Vietnam, decisions which helped set us on our present path.”

“If it is the case (that the South Vietnamese government was unworthy of U.S. support from the outset), as it may well be, then I am willing to bear my share of the responsibility, before history and before my fellow citizens. But pas error is no excuse for its own perpetration. Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom…Now, as ever, we do ourselves the best justice when we measure ourselves against ancient texts, as in Sophocles: ‘All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and he repairs the evil.’ The only sin, he said, is pride.”

Oh, my. What a difference 40 years make.


Critical, by Tom Daschle et al

May 29, 2008

Embarrassingly, I avoided learning about the politics of the mid-East for a long, long time. Too complex and insoluble. Then 9/11 and, well… I picked up “The Mid-East for Dummies” at Barnes and Noble. “It’s a start,” I told myself, and not a bad one as it turns out.

As a supposedly responsible political actor, I’ve found myself similarly ignorant and avoidant when it comes to the droning debate on health care. And, God knows, listening to the candidates for President is no help. For all the noise in the channel about health care this election season, I’ll be damned if I can find the signal.

To my aid now comes Tom Daschle and his co-authors, whose “Critical: What Can We Do About the Health Care Crisis” could have just as well been sub-titled “U.S. Health Care Policy for Dummies.” Unlike the “Dummies” books, this one is prescriptive. Senator Daschle et al basically argue that the U.S. Congress is in over its head on health care and that–as it did on monetary policy with the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913–it should outsource much of its decision making on the immensely complex topic to a Presidentially appointed panel of experts. This is an interesting proposition, coming as it does from the former Senate Majority leader who hails from a state with deep populist roots. But while the case he makes is too much of an outline to be compelling, neither is it easily dismissed.

Daschle calmly traces how health care reform has crashed repeatedly upon the same special interest shoals. The shape of the barely submerged obstacle may change (doctors, unions, insurance companies), but its sheer, hulking mass only increaseth. Congress, he argues, has neither the collective knowledge nor institutional will to make good and far-sighted decisions on behalf of its constituents.

The book is worthwhile if for nothing other than its mid-section, wich recounts the history of attempted reform, especially since Truman. The Clinton/Magaziner effort of the early 90s gets special attention, as it should. Daschle–ever the statesman–manages to scoff at how silly was the C-M approach to health care reform, while not laying a glove on the former first lady. In fact, his account is practically tantamount to hagiography compared to the version delivered by Carl Bernstein in his biography of Mrs. Clinton.

Again, this is a very helpful book for the lay reader (e.g., yours truly). But its brevity and accessibility require that many good questions are left open. Is the obsession over absolutely universal coverage necessary? If the fault of the Clinton plan was primarily that it was too detailed, what details could have been eliminated with eviscerating its substance? If Congress can’t handle health care, what else is it not up to? Energy policy? The more delicate pieces of foreign policy oversight?

And finally, the elephant which has taken up tenancy in Daschle’s rather modestly sized room: “gee, isn’t all this good health pretty pricey?” By book’s end, I found myself with the mental image of one dial spinning clockwise, tallying the cost of the incremental (and undoubtedly worthwhile) programs Daschle proposes. Another opposing dial spun the opposite direction, counting the result of the cost savings the book proposes. You can guess which one spun faster.

Three things become especially clear in reading “Critical.” The first is that tackling the challenge of universal health care coverage will requre monuumental Presidential leadership, and an almost reckless risk of political capital which no event other than a fresh election will generate. Clinton promised a proposal in the first 100 days of his presidency. And while that turned out to be a hyperbolic mistake of ambition, it nonetheless reminds us that in order for health care reform to succeed, it likely must be a new President’s top priority.

Second, although Daschle’s proposal of a National Health Board is not new, its timing may be apt. Health care has bubbled to the top of the list of main street issues, and Congress has perhaps never in the modern era been less trusted to cleave the Gordian knot.

And finally, you can bet that if the nation chooses Barack Obama as its 44th President, this is not the last we’ve heard from Tom Daschle on health care.

Probably not the worst thing.