Thursday, January 29, 2009

Move ahead, but recall how we got here


Of course he's overhyped. Of course the expectations are too high. Of course he can't change the world overnight.

That's not what matters. President Obama has already changed this country for the better by one simple fact -- not just who he is, but who he isn't.

In 2004, there were many Democrats who couldn't make themselves overly excited about John Kerry, but still worked their hearts out for him. He lost, but not because his party didn't support him.

For many, Kerry promised the political version of the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. (The real oath doesn't say that, but the sentiment is the same.) The first thing Kerry would do, and the reason he won the support of tens of millions of people, was make George W. Bush the former president.

Obama won where Kerry lost, partly because Bush had four more years to convince everyone his party was bad news. As Obama takes office, there's a reason people talk about the challenges he faces in apocalyptic terms.

Even with all we're facing, though, the worst course of action would be to pretend we don't know how we got here. We're in this situation because the former president and his party made decisions, every day for eight years, that led to this. It wasn't incompetence to blame, though there was plenty of that. But if we decide to simply start fresh and try to forget, we'll be guaranteeing it will all happen again.

Everyone who makes that kind of suggestion, even if it's Obama himself, is wrong. If we don't have an honest reckoning about possible criminality committed by our government these past eight years and hold people responsible, nothing will change in the long term. It's not enough to say we've seen what can happen and will stop it in the future. Without consequences, there will be no deterrent.

So that means prosecuting people who broke the law by, for instance, torturing people. To say they only did it to protect their country is a fine defense, if a judge and jury want to believe it.

But it must come before a court, not be decided on some cable talk show.
Saying we need to "move forward" is demanding the questions not even be asked. The new attorney general and restaffed Justice Department can't preclude any investigations, because they don't know where the evidence will lead. If controversial cases go to trial and are decided in court, that's how it should be. But we can't pre-empt them.

Obama had most of his Cabinet approved with no fuss, but his choice for attorney general, Eric Holder, has been held up because a Texas senator wants an assurance that he won't pursue punishment against government torturers. We need to look forward, not backward.

How did we get here? A U.S. senator is telling the administration it has to rule out the idea of investigations, let alone prosecutions, when members of the recently departed administration have already admitted to torture. This isn't "24." We're supposed to be better than that.

(Incidentally, has there ever been a more harmful TV show in history? It's a fact that government interrogators have said they were inspired by the show's blatant torture, which is always presented as the only way to protect us from evil-doers, even though nearly every expert says it's not only wrong, it's counterproductive. They also have the worst writers in the business, but that's another story.)

It goes without saying that no one who was tortured in real life had been convicted of anything, or even formally charged. And torture barely scratches the surface of all the wrongs -- illegal spying, politicizing criminal investigations and all the rest -- committed in our names since 2001.

It would be nice if the election of Barack Obama was a cure-all. Just by him being in office, we're a better country than we were a month ago. But it's not enough. Unless we face these issues now, find out as best we can everything that happened and where laws were broken, we can look forward to having these same discussions the next time a Democrat is elected to clean up a Republican mess.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 330-6233 or at

City's chances come and go quickly


It's hard to avoid the feeling Bridgeport missed its chance. The window of opportunity was narrow, but it was real. For a few months there, with the economy chugging along and housing prices soaring, and the demand for luxury accommodations spiraling upward, the city had a chance to fill a void in the local market.

The rest of Fairfield County had outpriced the population. Bridgeport, it was thought, could become the home for people who needed to live in the area but had to forget about anything between here and New York. And maybe the city could snag some of that luxury overflow, as well.

Projects that had hung around the back burner suddenly attracted attention from big-name developers. Fallow land was slated for condominium towers, brownfields were to be cleaned and marinas prepared to take root in the Sound.

The scene today looks a bit different. Barely a peep has been heard about the various mega-projects around town, and the smaller-scale deals have nearly ground to a halt, as well. A nationwide housing collapse will do that.

The first real sign of trouble came in what was shaping up to be the first new housing construction downtown in decades. The corner of Fairfield Avenue at Lafayette Circle not too long ago was nothing but grass, but on the site sprang the makings of an 84-unit condo complex, to be built, its backers said, without using any public money. This was Bridgeport coming into its own.

It hasn't worked out that way. Despite a deal last April where the City Council granted the right to sell the condos at a lower rate to entice buyers, the building has for months sat half-finished. There's been no sign of construction restarting, and it's safe to say the active winter weather is not helping matters.

It's not that there hasn't been progress downtown -- the stretch of Fairfield Avenue next to the condo construction has refashioned itself as a destination for new restaurants, and work continues on a number of vacant buildings undergoing a retrofit for housing.

But there, too, the reality is a long way from the promise. The Citytrust building is occupied, but the retail and restaurants slated for the ground floor have not panned out. Work continues at other buildings, slowly -- even the boarded-up disaster at 333 State St., at the corner of Lafayette Boulevard, has seen some activity in recent weeks.

But it's the large-scale projects that look to be on life support, or worse. At last report, the condominium towers and marina to be built at the end of Main Street, next to Seaside Park, were stalled by a dispute over oyster beds in the Sound. In the interim, with the economy falling apart, the market for high-end housing in a neighborhood of decrepit buildings and a total lack of services has not grown.

Then there is the site that brought former NBA star turned high-powered developer Magic Johnson to the city. Next to the Harbor Yard complex, the lot was going to feature movie theaters, an 11-story hotel, thousands of square feet of retail and dozens of residences. For a time, a top concern was that the complex would turn inward, away from the city streets, and do little to help the surrounding neighborhood draw foot traffic. Today, it appears not much of anything will happen there.

Finally, of course, is Steel Point. A few decades ago, a long-gone city administration bulldozed a neighborhood, including dozens of houses and tax-paying businesses. In their place, the city has been granted some awfully attractive artist renderings of what the Bridgeport skyline could look like in some alternate universe.

It's not the fault of city leaders the housing market died, and priorities have taken a drastic turn. Now City Hall is trying to close a budget deficit before the end of the fiscal year, with no one talking much about what the revenue stream will look like the following year, or the year after that. It won't be pretty.

For a city that has suffered a generations-long run of bad luck, it's hard to think the opportunity to turn things around hasn't come and gone. The next time the stars align could be far in the future.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 203-330-6233 or at