Sun-Times Jan. 1, 2003 - Dec. 31, 2003

Jan. 1, 2003 – Dec. 31, 2003                                  [archive]

1/7/03

Just as President Bush has reached back to cold war veterans to staff his administration, the new James Bond film hasn’t entirely shaken its cold war roots, either. The latest Bond tale, Die Another Day, makes North Koreans the chief villains. Given the choice among the axis of evil candidates, North Korea, at first, seemed a strange choice.

Weren’t we fighting a war on terror, searching for Osama bin Laden, bombing Afghanistan, while the film was being made?

Why Hollywood prefers to make North Koreans villains is the same reason the Bush administration wants to “disarm” Saddam Hussein, hunt down al-Qaida, rather than deal as aggressively with North Korea. In both cases, the reasoning is obscured.

North Korea is a country. But, the war on terror isn’t waged on countries, but on individuals, primarily radical Islamic fundamentalists, and those who aid them directly: it’s Saddam we want to attack, says the administration, not the Iraqis. North Korea is old policy. Iraq is part of the new war on terror.

The Bond film hasn’t generated much flak from political correctness quarters for its depiction of North Koreans (it portrays a few good ones, along with a lot of bad ones), just as, during the 60s and 70s, there wasn’t much of a problem for depicting evil Russians of one sort or another. North Korea is still a cold war problem, a more troublesome vestige of Stalin-style communism than, say, Cuba.

And that is how the administration is dealing with it. Secretary of State Colin Powell said recently on Meet the Press, “President Bush authorized me to engage with North Korea…we have no intention of attacking it.” But, Middle Eastern countries are hot war problems, war on terror problems, new problems. In an era of globalization, the war of, and on, terror is as mobile as capital and it, apparently, flows as freely.

The spectacle of last month’s missile-laden North Korean ship, boarded and released on its way to Yemen, was a surreal example of the new political order. Contracts had been signed! And needed to be honored!, was the cry— or the excuse. But, what kind of war on terror is that? It was business as usual between the countries, cold war-type business, rather than al-Qaida business between individuals bent on freelance terror.

Over the last decade, as a percentage of GDP, our foreign aid has precipitously decreased, by almost half, partly because of the perception that the cold war had ended. When it comes to North Korea, foreign aid could buy us peace, the way, after the fall of the USSR, money bought us nuclear disarmament and the dismantling of war heads.

Indeed, North Korea’s nuclear bluster can be seen as part of a bargaining dance to extract foreign aid, not at bargain basement rates, but at full-price retail. Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that Americans spent $2.6 billion on birdseed, more than twice what was spent on food for the starving in other countries.

Would a non-nuclear North Korea be worth the price of birdseed? 

Recently, a photo resurfaced of Donald Rumsfeld shaking Saddam Hussein’s hand. It was taken during a 1983 meeting when Rumsfeld was a special presidential envoy. The Reagan administration was allowing Saddam to acquire chemical and biological weapons capacity, along with cluster bombs, at the time our government was tilting toward Iraq during the Iran-Iraq conflict.

Now, the Bush administration claims it is extracting itself from past sins, even though the same folks who erred the first time are now doing the correcting. The mistake, they claim, was not knowing that Iran would mellow, rather than Iraq.

But, letting the North Korean Scud missiles go to Yemen, another friend-of-the-moment ally, shows that mistakes involving arms will continue.

The spirit of James Bond lives on in the Bush administration. Countries can be considered reliable enemies. But religious fanatics and their allies are harder to paint as villains, since you then tar all who share the religion, rather than just the individuals who aim to do us harm. The cold war was simpler for the movies— and the White House.

1/14/03

The Raelians claim to have cloned two babies and Presdent Bush claims the super-sized clone of his 2001 tax cut needs to be enacted now, rather than later, in order to restore economic health. Both claims await independent verification.

The Raelians assertions, certainly, are proof that you can claim almost anything and have major media broadcast it throughout the world. Indeed, the amount of coverage alone is evidence that the faith-based Raelians must have access to celestial powers. But, their outlandish claims trumpeted so far and wide stretch the boundaries of news judgment.

Have editors become so timorous about what sort of bizarre outfit constitutes a religion that even UFO congregations are given equal treatment?  One could argue that a thousand years from now the story of the Raelians’ genesis (a space alien telling a race car driver humanity sprang from extraterrestrial clones) wouldn’t sound that much different from, say, Christianity’s beginnings.

But once in television’s hands, all reporting stops, except for interviews with the CEO of the Raelian cloning business, Clonaid, Dr. Brigitte Boisellier, a former college professor who looks extraterrestrial enough to lend the story some legitimacy.

Forget about producing the DNA of the alleged babies—viewers would be grateful for a tour of Clonaid’s alleged laboratory. TV news is mostly reporting: not in the sense of actually finding anything out, but just reporting what is said. The reign of con artists and swindlers is far from over. The Raelians PR coup is the result of hyping a story a lot of powerful groups are invested in, with spokespeople of all kinds eager to be interviewed. For cloning, or against? Stem cell research? Yea or nay? Abortion politics? Which side are you on?

Despite all the “tax cuts for all!” sloganeering, President Bush’s new proposals, especially ending dividend taxes, are more windfalls for the very rich. Even conservative commentators have given up the sideshow of calling the plan a “stimulus package.” This is all for long term growth, we’re told.

Well, human cloning is long term, too. The Raelians just want to get there first, to put their stamp on whatever might happen down the road. Once they have asserted their clones exist— and that claim is taken seriously, seriously enough so it is repeated over and over—they can force others to prove a negative, that is, that no clones exist. Now the Raelians claim privacy considerations prevent the “parents” from showing the world the little darlings.

Similarly, Vice President Cheney still can’t produce the list of his energy advisors, since revealing the names would prevent him from getting such good advice in the future. And President Bush promises, free of proof, his tax cuts will grow the economy in the future— as well as leave a lot of money in the pockets of his largest contributors.

When it comes to tax cutting, Democrats are put in the same position they occupy when the discussion comes around to why there are no liberal equivalents of talk radio giants like Rush Limbaugh. The Democrats, liberals in general, are those who say no, rather than yes. They are the folks who want to raise taxes, not lower them, who entertain the notion one might actually have to pay for a civil and safe society. The message is not rosy rah-rahing, not “you can have it all,” but restraint, curbs, rainy days. They often project a negative view, not a positive one.

Who wants to be reminded of all such things, the need to tax, to right past wrongs, to contemplate a country’s failings in order to help it have successes? The right wing ranters have always had an advantage in their message and they are now reaping the rewards for being on the sunny side of the street.

President Bush hopes his tax plan will be yet another beneficiary of such desires. Cut taxes, what could be better? Even if the rich get richer, even if deficits balloon?

In the past, a verbal gaffe candidate Bush once made was often quoted in derision. It was his desire to " raise the pie higher." The left used to deride the idea of offering the poor “pie in the sky.” But, the president is offering the well-fed more sky-high pie. He is raising the pie. Obviously, it wasn’t a gaffe, after all.

1/21/03

President Bush’s job approval rating has fallen to pre-9/11 levels in a recent poll, but his administration’s political arm continues to show no fear. Karl Rove and the GOP plunged right into the belly of the beast and selected New York City for the site of the 2004 Republican convention. In 1992 Clinton and Gore were nominated there and began the campaign bus ride that ended successfully in unseating President George H. W. Bush.

His son intends to right the wrong of that regime change and return to New York City to set history straight, just as he plans to return to Iraq to fix what his father left still broken and bring Saddam Hussein’s reign to an end.

Baghdad in ‘03 and Manhattan in ’04! Both are bold (the White House’s favorite characterization) moves, though the invasion of New York City (the Republican’s first convention there ever) should be carried out with less human cost. New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, a reformed Democrat turned Republican, expects a financial boon from the GOP’s takeover of Madison Square Garden. The budget for the convention alone is $80 million. And if the typical Republican delegate has anything, it is a lot of ready cash to spend.

The location of President Bush’s first nominating convention, Philadelphia, didn’t produce a Bush victory in Pennsylvania, but Rove and company aren’t shying away from trying to win New York state in ’04. It does have a Republican governor, George Pataki, so there has to be some Bush voters there, even though New York City itself is the capital of Blue America. Bush wants to win a least one major city in ’04, unlike ’00, and not remain just the president of rural and suburban Red America.

It is the ghost of the 2000 election (and its map of Red and Blue states) that doomed the selection of Jeb Bush’s Florida city of Tampa, which vied for the convention prize. The White House did not want to bring the battle of hanging chads back into the media’s spotlight.

New Orleans, the other contender, fell also to the fate of unwanted memories, the dynasty bugaboo, given it was the site of the former President Bush’s first convention. New York, though, has many pluses. Most have to do with the likely press coverage, the tone the legacy of 9/11 will give to the entire affair. The national press, given the proximity to the still empty (and still likely to be empty in ‘04) ground zero, the cavernous remains of the World Trade Center complex, will be inclined to solemnize and elevate the occasion. It’s a guarantee of reverence—for both the aftermath of the attack and for the Bush presidency.

If the GOP had gone to either Tampa or New Orleans, the usual sort of Republican waterhole, such as San Diego, where the ’96 convention was held, places that ooze with Republicans, all their expensively maintained virtues and fat-cat vices would be laid out under the sun for all to see and report on.

But in New York the Bush campaign won’t have to fill the stage with more black faces (via shanghaied school children and choirs) than were in the audience to give it the illusion of a party that accepts diversity. The city itself will cloak it in diversity. Going to New York will be seen as an act of affirmative action, even though President Bush acts to end affirmative action at universities.

New York City gives the administration nothing to lose and everything to gain. It even helps the rich stay richer, since the owners of the national media outlets will be happy that their costs are kept down, since the Republicans are bringing the mountain to them, rather than making them go to the mountain.

The Republicans have made an inspired choice; the Democrats have made a vacuous one: they are going to Boston, limping off to a friendly Blue state, one they did win in 2000. But, whereas the symbols of New York City all favor the Republicans, those of Boston and Massachusetts do not flatter the Democrats. Boston’s biggest story of the last two years is the predatory pedophiles in the Catholic priesthood and its feckless Bishop, Cardinal Law.

Heroic firefighters versus disgraced clergy. Karl Rove has helped his president. The ham-handed DNC chair, Terry McAuliffe, has hobbled the eventual Democratic nominee, even Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), McAuliffe’s apparent choice, or, worse yet, a different candidate, if Kerry, the local boy, doesn’t capture the nomination.

1/28/03

George W. Bush’s political act at the moment he crossed into the second half of his presidential term, his stand against affirmative action at the University of Michigan, may turn out to be his most self-revealing.

President Bush, during an interview shortly after he achieved the presidency, was asked what bothered him most about the public’s perception of him. He complained that people still saw him as a product of his father and his father’s legacy, rather than as a product of his own hard work. The famous remark, that Bush was “a man born on third base who thinks he hit a triple,” obviously still rankled.

Bush proclaimed in his speech on the Michigan case that he was against “quotas,” even though the University of Michigan admissions process does not employ quotas. But the president knew quotas was a buzz word that would play well with his conservative base, and some of his middle-of-the-road followers, too.

In the coverage of Bush’s decision to come out against Michigan’s affirmative action efforts, his National Security Advisor, and former provost of Stanford University, Condoleezza Rice, was said to have given it some personal weight. The Washington Post reported Rice took a “rare central role” in the decision. The next day, though, Rice issued a statement that though she supported the president’s position, she believed race could be used as a “factor” in a university’s admissions procedures, thereby having it both ways.

In a follow-up article, the Post said that Rice was angry about the earlier account because “it had been written only because she is black.”

Condoleezza Rice, like the president, wants to believe she has gotten where she is because of who she is, not because of her race, even though, in the past, she has admitted she has benefited from affirmative action policies.

Everyone wants to believe he or she succeeds because of intrinsic merits, not because of external factors. But, in the president’s case and Condoleezza Rice’s case, like a lot of others, it is not true. When I was hired at Notre Dame over two decades ago being a white male Irish Catholic was a big plus. Again, in most everyone’s life, except for the progeny of the rich and powerful, accidental external factors, like race and religion, can get you in the door, but once admitted you have to succeed to stay on. Only children of wealth and influence are allowed to fail often, yet still ultimately succeed. President Bush resists this sort of self-knowledge. He stills thinks he could have been elected president, even if he hadn’t been the son of George H. W. Bush.

That distorted view allows him to be a foe of affirmative action, even though he profited from the oldest version of it, the legacy form, where your patrimony counts for something, as it did in his case in his admission to Yale.

A new memoir, The Right Man, by David Frum, a former Bush speech writer and no foe, points out some of the president’s weaknesses, but none seems to be as bad as this stubborn lack of awareness, the absence of a reasonable measure of humility, for the privileges and outright gifts Bush has benefitted from over the years. When Frum speaks of the president’s anger, Frum makes clear one likely result of the president’s aggrieved sense of entitlement: If people think you’ve been handed things, don’t deserve what you have, it can make you testy.

The trouble with compassionate conservatism is that it can choose who it is compassionate towards. Bush’s other prominent black appointee, Secretary of State Colin Powell, has been more straightforward and outspoken than Condoleezza Rice in his support of affirmative action and the University of Michigan’s method of achieving class diversity.

Both Rice and Powell realize what each has achieved and what it took. They both have more than an inkling of what external forces helped them, though Rice now finds it harder to credit them. Whether the president will ever understand and acknowledge the affirmative action he has enjoyed throughout his life remains to be seen.

2/4/03

Given all the reasons President Bush laid out in his State of the Union speech to attack Iraq, the one he left out is perhaps the most compelling to his administration the need to validate its preemptive force doctrine, to show the world it isn’t a hollow threat.

President Bush, evidently, does not want to take credit for a masterful bluff, a strategy that has reopened Iraq to inspectors and international scrutiny, making further mischief on Saddam’s part highly unlikely. But, Saddam Hussein, Bush emphasized, cannot be “contained.” Saddam is not to be trusted. Inspections are almost worthless.

But, we have learned some things from the inspectors’ work. We have seen some of Saddam’s many palaces, their acres of polished marble and gilded chandeliers. Oil revenue has provided so much grand empty space that most would conclude there must be something productive and sinister going on down below, underneath it all. Why would anyone require all that vacant splendor?

In any case, the conspicuous consumption alone, the contrast between the haves and the have-nots, is sinister, though that contrast is not unknown here in the U.S.

What would be useful is if we could have a team of inspectors go to Saudi Arabia and give us a glimpse of what sort of magnificence oil has provided its rulers. Would their palaces be thought window-dressing camouflage for factories of mass-destruction weapons? Clemenceau’s old remark, a drop of oil is worth a drop of blood, continues, it appears, to hold true.

This year’s State of the Union was singular in its fright-night tone. Unlike last year’s (or any other year’s), President Bush did not so much “rally” the nation to “great causes,” in order to “accomplish those causes together,” as he promised before the speech, as attempt to scare the public into supporting his wish to eliminate Saddam Hussein as a threat.

However chilling, the list of horrors perpetrated by Saddam is not unique. “Who’s next?” is the appropriate question when such behavior is the criterion for invoking American power, including a not-so-veiled nuclear threat (“we will fight with the full force and might of the United States military”).

The morning after Bush’s speech, the new Majority Leader, Sen. Bill Frist, admitted on NPR, when asked, Who will pay for this?, that deficit spending will pay for it. Frist was talking about the Bush’s AIDS proposal for Africa, a bill Frist himself has already written and champions, and a necessary show of compassion after Trent Lott’s exit and Bush’s affirmative action decision. Frist could have been asked, Who will not pay for this?

The answer to that, of course, is the wealthy folks who, like Frist, will take advantage of Bush’s present and future tax cuts. Those who will pay, eventually, are the rest of us, those whose Medicare benefits will be curtailed (since coverage will remain “just the way it is,” as the president put it), if they do not opt for a privatized version of Medicare, those whose Social Security benefits will be imperiled, if they too do not go along with Social Security privatization (“a chance to invest”), not to mention the truly poor and the working poor, who will get less and less, until they are forced to show some gumption and become not poor.

The president intends to do guns for all and butter for some. Iraq will soon get the guns and though we will attempt not to harm the “innocent,” there will be collateral damage, such as in the first Gulf War, when we bombed, Iraqis claim, a shelter full of hundreds of women and children.

The President is for ending “partial-birth abortion,” though not in Saddam’s case. That sort of preemptive removal is now our foreign policy goal, head-of-state assassination accomplished by means of war.

Many are hoping that a silver bullet will save the country from this policy, a silver bullet fired into Saddam’s head by one of his own henchmen. That would be vigorously applauded by all. Just as raucous applause followed when the president boasted, beyond 3,000 arrested suspected terrorists, that “many others have met a different fate,” a darker, final fate. It was sobering to see so many politicians cheer so much anonymous killing.

2/11/03

The possible initiating cause of the Columbia disaster, though downplayed by NASA, appears eerily similar to the cause of the Challenger disaster 17 years ago. Both events took place at launch and both were, given the enormously complicated machines involved, relatively simple. One of the Challenger’s O-rings burned through, creating a torch that set off the terrible explosion that blew the shuttle apart. In Columbia’s case, a chilled chunk of insulation fell off during liftoff, damaging the left underwing of the craft, which likely played a roll in the wing’s ultimate failure upon reentry.

In each case, there had been earlier examples of both problems. O-ring scorching (or near burn-through) had been noted in flights previous to the Challenger explosion. Insulation debris striking the shuttle had been noted before Columbia’s launch.

Complex systems can fail by means of one fairly innocuous last straw. Meaning, serious events that were earlier not fatal, become fatal when they turn only a bit more serious. September 11th had some of that planes had been hijacked before. The next step wasn’t that much larger hijackers using them as weapons, but that that step ever would be taken was discounted.

What is apparent and distressing (though, of course, not as distressing as the loss of the two crews who manned the shuttles) is how little changed at NASA after the loss of the Challenger, despite the various investigations that followed.

The O-ring problem was fixed; that part of the launch vehicle was redesigned. But, potentially fatal problems, such as insulation falling off and striking the shuttle, continued to be tolerated and those who run the agency still let public-relation political considerations (pleasing Congress, pleasing those who fund the program) weigh heavily on their decisions. Indeed, it was budget concerns, not safety ones, that led to NASA’s partial privatization in 1996.

Much has been made of Ronald Reagan’s comforting words to the nation after the Challenger explosion. President Reagan quoting from a poem (“slipped the surly bonds of earth”) used in an Air Force public service announcement many television stations ran at sign-off, back in the days when television stations “signed-off,” has been rerun a number of times since the Columbia tragedy. What isn’t recalled is the pressure NASA felt to launch the Challenger that cold day in Florida, in order to have the teacher Christa McAuliffe in orbit for President Reagan to refer to in his State of the Union speech, scheduled later that day.

There had been arguments previous to blast off in 1986 between Mission Control and Morton Thiokol, Inc. about O-ring tolerances. And there were discussions about the consequences of the insulation hitting Columbia’s wing during its flight. In both cases, those who offered negative counsel were overruled.

The astronauts fly at the limits of space and NASA runs its program at the limits of safety tolerances. If anything strays and inch or two beyond those tolerances disaster can result.

During the recovery of the Challenger a veritable news blackout was imposed over the pieces taken out of the Atlantic. It was said to be a matter of good taste and respect for the families of the astronauts, but the result was limited understanding that had the orbiter been designed differently, the astronauts may have survived the explosion, since the flight cabin itself came down intact. If that had been widely known then, the outcry may have been sufficient to pressure NASA to do something about it. Instead, minor safety changes were made and the hardly altered shuttles continued to fly for 17 years.

But, disasters, unfortunately, are about the only thing that shines a light on what has been going on all along. 9/11 has produced some looking back, though one can question how much we have yet learned from that exercise. Creating a department of Homeland Security doesn’t seem so much a solution, as a bureaucratic way of continuing to do the same thing, while promoting the idea something significant is being done.

When we look back at Columbia’s destruction 17 years from now, one can only hope that, unlike the Challenger precedent, something substantial will have changed.

2/18/03

President Bush’s eagerness to bomb Baghdad and take out Saddam Hussein (recently described by fellow critic Osama bin Laden as an untrue Muslim and socialist infidel) has produced provocative new international alliances, an Axis of Peace, made up of unlikely bed-mates Germany, France and Russia. And NATO is now shakier than ever, withholding assurance that it will protect its member Turkey, if it supports the administration’s war on Iraq.

Faced with such peace mongers, President Bush continues to push his you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us rhetoric. He doesn’t brook even shades of opposition with our once and former allies. And at home, there isn’t room for opposition, either.

Indeed, Bush’s policy of allowing no dissent at all has closed the First Lady’s back channel to the world of arts, which has been ongoing since the early days of the administration. Laura Bush had been given high marks for her work with artists and writers in Texas, a legacy of her years as a librarian. Her laboring in that vineyard continued in the White House.

But, a whiff of protest over her latest olive branch to the arts resulted last week in the cancellation of a White House event and ended, it appears, the ongoing months of detente. There was to have been a reception to mark the installation of the new head of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia, and a symposium titled “Poetry and the American Voice,” featuring the works of Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Now there’s a provocative lineup of race, gender and sexual preference writers.

Mrs. Bush invited a raft of prominent poets to the White House and one, Sam Hamill, took offense and though he planned not to attend he encouraged the poets who would to present the First Lady with a sheaf of anti-war poems, protesting their and his opposition to the impending Iraq war. Hamill’s campaign was sufficient to cause a skittish White House to cancel the Feb. 12 soiree.

President Bush may have learned a lot about governing from his father’s one term as president, but he didn’t absorb the lesson that to censor poets and writers often causes more publicity than to let them have their say. His father’s presidency was marked by controversy surrounding the National Endowment for the Arts and though the NEA was weakened because of it, so too was President George H. W. Bush’s standing with both the right and the left. That art spat was truly lose-lose.

Instead of permitting a decorous display of dissent at the White House, which, among other things, would have demonstrated the administration’s tolerance for civilized argument, while showcasing the First Lady’s appreciation of the arts, the White House canceled, thereby revealing the opposite an administration that is in favor of covering a bare-breasted statue at the Department of Justice to satisfy its Attorney General’s tender feelings, that approves of shrouding Picasso’s famous anti-war painting, Guernica, at the UN, so it will not be photographed with our Secretary of State, an administration that fears poetry that doesn’t extol the winds of war, a president who sanctions no dissent within or without.

Somehow, France, Germany, and Russia can come together in opposition, but President Bush won’t allow a few dozen poets to assemble under his roof if they don’t all fall into line and champion his foreign policy.

President Bush is no fan of the UN, but he has managed to grant it more legitimacy and good PR the last few months than Bill Clinton was able to lend it during his two terms. Clinton was not pleased with the UN’s role as peace keeper in the Balkans and he made the UN look powerless when its inspectors were pulled out of Iraq during the impeachment frenzy.

But President Bush has made the UN look fairly effective. And Colin Powell distinguished its chambers with his eloquence. But, by making the White House off limits to poetry Bush brought that event more publicity than it would ever have mustered on its own. And, he caused anti-war poetry readings to take place all over the country the day the banned event was to have taken place. His wife might love poetry, but the president effectively spread the word.

2/25/03

If consumers drive the American economy, the Democratic party is giving them a lot of choices in the presidential contender market, at least seven now, perhaps more to come. The news that Rep. Dick Gephardt has thrown his hat in the ring (didn’t he do that weeks ago?) was greeted in most media quarters with coverage about how Gephardt would likely lose. Even Gephardt’s staunchest ally, the AFL-CIO, is having doubts about his electability.

Unfortunately, as the appetite of the 24/7 news cycle has grown, so too has the business of running for president. It’s a job you can apply for—if you have the right qualifications, foremost of which is name recognition—and many have.

Back in the days of Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, Eisenhower, the eventual candidate would likely be opposed by only two or three. Every once in a while a favorite son would pop up in a primary state. Now, more than a half-dozen yammering pretenders is standard. Long before the Bachelor and the Bachelorette, there has been the reality television show, the Contenders, running in presidential primaries. It is the welcoming arms of television, cable especially, which quickly gets bored with the same two or three faces, and post-’70s convention rules changes, that has opened up the wannabe market.

Steve Forbes bought himself a place on the national stage in ’96, along with Alan Keyes, who was a professional campaigner in order to supplement his income and raise his profile. Losers of ’96 and 2000, Lamar Alexander and Liddy Dole, found it a profitable way to prepare for successful Senate races in 2002.

Al Sharpton runs often as a temporary job and resume builder. After losing a number of campaigns in New York, he’s now ready to lose the biggest one of all, a run for president of the United States. Sharpton is a singular case, though one not without precedent. He is entirely a media creation, never having enjoyed an apprenticeship out of the public eye with a serious organization, such as Jesse Jackson had with Martin Luther King. Sharpton had just himself and whatever notorious event was being filmed for the evening’s news. But, growing up in the media’s eye makes Sharpton feel very familiar to those who have watched his evolution. And he has matured, learning from his mistakes, though he’s still willing to repeat them.

And Sharpton is not above doing favors for others, as he did when he ran for the Senate in the 1992 N.Y. Democratic primary against Robert Abrams, the former attorney general and eventual nominee, in order to dilute Abrams’ support and make the reelection of Al D’Amato possible. Sharpton’s reward has been that the powerful take him seriously, especially when they can use him, as the Republican governor of New York, George Pataki, did in his last election.

Sharpton is posed to play the same role in the 2004 presidential primary season, the spoiler who aids some and foils others. So much so, Carol Moseley-Braun has hired on as a candidate, since she too can play that game, attract money and support, help out here, hinder there, despite the baggage she brings to the race. Indeed, she even helps Sharpton, since she deflects the controversies that surround him, because her own questionable behavior will be examined.

In ’96, Bill Clinton had the benefit of no serious opposition in the primary season for his second-term run. George H. W. Bush, running for a second term in ’92, did. Not only from Republicans, but a former Republican, a challenge on his right from good old Ross Perot. And it hurt, big time.

But, George W. Bush won’t be challenged in ‘04, not even from Perot’s Reform Party, which was effectively destroyed in 2000 by the former Republican professional candidate, Pat Buchanan, when he allegedly abandoned the Republicans for the Reform Party. Buchanan’s electoral work on behalf of the Bush family hasn’t been sufficiently acknowledged: not just gathering all those wayward votes in Florida in 2000, but also ruining the Reform Party.

Since running for president is now a business, Buchanan couldn’t have done better for the Bushes if he had been their employee. After 2004, the Bushes will have more folks to thank.

3/4/03

My grandfather, Ralph Kompare, survived the Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903 and, according to family lore, was only discovered two days later by his sister in a hospital ward when she noticed a familiar ring on the exposed hand of a patient swathed in bandages. Reading the recent accounts of people searching for loved ones after the nightclub fire at Rhode Island’s Station and E2’s crushing stampede seemed familiar and personal. In all three cases, human error played a role, but most of the human errors took place previous to the disasters themselves.

In the Iroquois Theatre Fire, safety violations abounded, not the least of which was the poorly designed fire escapes at balcony exits (my grandfather fell from such an exit crossing over an alleyway on a jury-rigged ladder draped between buildings). The Station was another firetrap, awaiting a match, which the band Great White provided with its pyrotechnics. E2’s crowded space was already in violation of building codes that many chose to ignore and not enforce.

The Station and E2 disasters took place during our Homeland Security Orange alert—as did the subway fire in South Korea that killed nearly two hundred. None of these terrible events were terrorist inspired. Even an efficient and well-funded Homeland Security department wouldn’t have prevented The Station and E2 tragedies. They are versions of homeland terrorism, since human failings and corruption figured in both of them, so much so they make the possible success of true Homeland Security seem farfetched, if not ridiculous.

Tom Ridge, the head of Homeland Security, does his best on his own to make his department look ridiculous. Ridge’s duct tape fiasco was just the latest act of his G-man comedy show. His vividly-hued color alert system was among the first of the chuckle-inspiring initiatives.

When Tom Ridge was governor of Pennsylvania, he didn’t appear to be such a comic figure. Governors are obliged to smile often and Ridge looks fairly genial when he grins. But, as director of Homeland Security he has to appear serious and frown a lot, thereby becoming a Dick Tracy-esque caricature.

The funniest breach of Homeland Security happened a couple of weeks ago in Key West, Florida, the military and tourist bastion 90 miles from our dangerous foe, Cuba. Four members of the Cuban coast guard made off with a patrol boat and sailed into Key West in the dead of night, docking at a resort hotel and, since no one took any notice, they wandered into town wearing their military uniforms, looking for someone to turn themselves in to. Luckily, they came upon a Key West police officer on the prowl for late-night snowbird revelers. One of the Cubans handed over his sidearm and directed the officer to their boat, its flag flying, which had loaded AK-47s aboard.

The Cubans were taken to the Key West jail and later delivered to Border Patrol officers, so Orange-alerted by then their faces barely turned red.

The Homeland Security department has a long way to go before it inspires confidence. What it does inspire is John Ashcroft-fostered abridgment of our normal civil rights, exaggerated surveillance, wire tapping, airport security, and individual displays of personal spite and power, such as keeping people like the ‘60s-’70s-era Northern Ireland civil-rights figure, Bernadette Devlin, out of the country, sending her back to Dublin after she landed at O’Hare, as reported last week by Jimmy Breslin in Newsday, to prevent her from making a speech or two, after someone sent a fax from London to local immigration officials claiming Devlin was a potential or real threat to the United States.

Our homeland will be more secure when public venues like E2 and The Station are made safe for public use. And that doesn’t take the creation of a new cabinet-level department, abridgement of civil and federal workers’ rights, costly PR campaigns, or harassment of foreign public figures. It requires proper safety regulations and the enforcement of those that exist, relatively minor steps that would, however, cut into somebody’s profits. Recall, the 9/11 hijackers were successful because of a series of small mistakes, not large ones.

3/11/03

On the domestic front, President Bush is promoting his own personal version of bait and switch: he dangles bait in order to get people to switch. He displayed this tactic in a speech last week to the American Medical Association, where he sketched his vision of a “modern Medicare system.” It’s one that gives seniors “more choices and better benefits,” through free-market intervention. For those seniors who don’t go the baited route of “more choices,” that is, abandoning Medicare for subsidized private insurance plans, there’s that old favorite, the often-proposed (by Republicans) drug discount card (10-25%), similar to those a lot of pharmacies already provide regular customers.

 

Offering cash bait in order to switch already has been used liberally on the foreign front. But the amounts are much more impressive, making laughable the savings on the price of pills, and those gigantic sums (in the billions) the president has promised a number of Middle Eastern countries to sign on as members of the coalition of the willing come with fewer strings attached. But we expect to get a lot of that money back through arm sales, if nothing else, since beyond the outright bribes, much of that huge outlay is earmarked for military-related sales.

 

Pharmaceutical and insurance companies plan not only to get money back, but to boost profits, not just from seniors’ pockets, but from the government’s, through Bush’s “subsidized” private insurance plans proposal. What companies don’t want is price controls and the government flexing its competitive buying-power muscle. The president extolled free-market competition (except where the government is involved) in his AMA speech, but only because it made companies offer “new treatments and services” more quickly, not because it lowers drug prices. Bait in order to switch will be trotted out in the months to come when President Bush resumes his push to privatize Social Security. Just as the administration is attempting to lure seniors away from Medicare, juniors will be offered more “choices” with Social Security, tempted with private accounts they would “own”, run by subsidized private money market firms. Who would end up paying for subsidies required are the same folks who will end up paying for the billions offered to Turkey and the other coalition members willing to take our dough. And it won’t be those who want their dividend taxes abolished.

 

A study released the same week as President Bush’s Medicare speech showed almost a third of Americans under 65 lacked health insurance at some point during the last two years. What many see as a ticking time bomb, private insurance companies view as potential larger market share, if the Bush administration can entice people out of Medicare and into their insurance and drug plans, all in the name of free-market competition. But, the baiting to switch President Bush had been doing with Big Labor hit a bump in the road in the form of Elaine Choa, the latest Republican labor secretary with a powerful politician husband, when she appeared recently at this year’s AFL-CIO executive council meeting in Florida. Choa spoiled the White House’s campaign to woo the Teamsters and the building trade unions (the Carpenters, especially) to the welcoming arms of the GOP by beating them about the head with the financial disclosure requirements of the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959, which strengthened the anti-union provisions of abusive Taft-Hartley Labor Act of 1947 (even post-Enron, there is no equivalent act policing corporations). Choa came equipped with a binder full of corruption charges against a variety of unions. Earlier, her Labor Department had filed a suit alleging improper use of the Plumbers Union’s pension fund that had invested a $100 million to renovate the very hotel housing the union confab.

 

Bush’s bait-to-switch policies sooner or later will be seen to be the con job they are. It is finally dawning on labor leaders that the Bush Administration is not their friend. Seniors are catching on, too, and when the Social Security push occurs, some of the younger generation may also. But, both the young and the old will have to join together to stop it and become themselves a coalition of the unwilling.

3/18/03

On the eve of what many think to be impending war, polls show well over half of Americans think Saddam Hussein was directly involved in the events of Sept. 11th, even though there is almost no evidence to support that belief. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, it can be argued, had much more to do with al-Qaida’s success on 9/11 than Saddam.

 

During the first hours after the Oklahoma City bombing, Islamic extremists were the chief suspects. But, McVeigh graciously turned himself into law enforcement (by driving a car without a license plate, a form of anti-government protest on McVeigh’s part) and when it became clear two days after the bombing McVeigh was the culprit, there was a good bit of backtracking by officials, along with complaints by Muslims about the cloud of suspicion that had so quickly descended over them.

McVeigh, it turned out, provided more than a half-decade’s worth of cover for al-Qaida by destroying the federal building in Oklahoma City. The first bombing of the World Trade Center in February of 1993 showed the malignant designs of radical Islamic terrorists. But those bombers appeared to be such a gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight—caught because one of them went back to reclaim the deposit on the blown-up truck they rented—they weren’t taken seriously, or seriously enough. Then came Oklahoma City in April of 1995. Republicans who blame everything on Bill Clinton continue to bring up the last few weeks Clinton’s relative inaction on all things al-Qaida. When our two African embassies were bombed in 1998, followed by the USS Cole, even Clinton’s response (weakened by his Monica troubles) would have been different if the buildings had been in New York and Washington, or the Cole had been floating off Baltimore. We appear to have a great tolerance for terrorism if it happens anywhere but in our backyard. The two exceptions prove that rule. The body count and the physical damage of the first World Trade Center bombing was not great enough to cause sufficient outrage. And, most importantly, the devastating bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building was carried out by a home-grown product, a 1995 version of Lee Harvey Oswald, a military trained white malcontent. The country’s reaction to McVeigh’s deed was more shock and embarrassment than vigilance and suspicion.

The Oklahoma City bombing did decrease the amount of home-grown terrorism during the last half of the ‘90s. It took the wind out of the sails of a lot of angry white men with grievances against the government. But, it allowed al-Qaida to go about its business without causing much alarm. Indeed, that is the upshot of the FBI agent Coleen Rowley’s famous first letter to the head of the FBI after 9/11. Why wasn’t more attention being paid to what was going on? Timothy McVeigh is one part of the answer. McVeigh was executed almost 2 years ago. Among conspiracy theorists there has always been a suspicion that McVeigh was manipulated by Muslim extremists (one defense theory held that he was a pawn of the Iraqis), but executing him put an end to that line of inquiry. Yet, that the theory persists is only the unexpressed acknowledgment of the aid McVeigh accidently provided al-Qaida. Saddam too has been useful to al-Qaida: by changing the focus, the discussion, the country’s single-mindedness, if nothing else.

All along, the war on terror has proved difficult to win. It is hard to triumph over an enemy that kills itself in order to attack us. And, by personalizing the war (Osama, Saddam), President Bush makes the task even harder. If it is individuals who are the problem, how can you convince the leaders of other major nations (or the UN) that we must continue to attack sovereign states in order to get rid of them? It appears President Bush can’t. And, while the country waits for war, it is clear the administration not only lacks an exit strategy to get out of Iraq once the war begins, but it lacks a strategy to gracefully exit from the war footing the president has had us for so long occupy. He can only declare war, alas, not peace.

3/25/03

The shock is that President Bush did what he said he would and the awe is that the military has shown some restraint. President Bush has often been praised for his simple rhetoric, the common man language he employs. When he issued his High Noon ultimatum to Saddam last week, it was not only simple, but it echoed a dozen western cowboy and Indian movies: you and your boys have 48 hours to get out of town.

The Bush Doctrine is also simplicity itself, a different kind of American Dream than the one we are used to, where anyone who works hard can succeed. This one is about our country doing what it wants when it wants and there being no one to stop us.

What good did it do to win the Cold War, if we can’t start a hot one when we want to? When Saddam didn’t leave we bombed Baghdad. And our first bombs were aimed at him and his family, an OK Corral defining moment. It made perfect sense. Evildoer, etc. In giving Saddam his get-out-of-town order or else, President Bush gave Saddam a perplexing choice. In order for Saddam to have accepted it, he would have had to be a different person than the one the Bush administration spent so much time describing. Saddam would have to be rational, rather than crazy, considerate, rather than cruel. The only upside for Saddam would have been to show our analysis of him was wrong, a prize he didn’t think worth winning.

President Bush’s populist appeal has always been two-faced. On one hand, he demonstrates many traits of a regular guy; on the other, Bush retains the haughtiness of a man with his upper-class roots. The old British war-time remark, about battles being “won on the playing fields of Eton,” applies here. Bush’s idea of who is right and who is fit to chose was formed early at his prep school, Andover, an American version of Eaton: we boys are the best; we can do what we want.

And George W. Bush does like to decree. He likes absolutes. Good vs. evil. You’re with us or against us. On a field far from war, he had his No Child Left Behind Act decree that a 100 percent of fourth graders pass state reading tests in a decade, or face serious consequences. A 100 percent. Imagine.

Old Europe will just have to put up with the new America. What is a Superpower suppose to do with all our military power except use it? We no longer live in the Cold War’s Mutually-Assured-Destruction world of deterrence. Mere might doesn’t deter terrorists. The only way to handle them, goes the Bush Doctrine, is to kill them before they commit terror. That is why our troops are invading Iraq, why we are targeting Saddam. But, the president gets to pick which evildoer is to be dispatched and when.

If you don’t use power you lose it, President Bush is instructing the UN. He wants to rearrange the Middle East, so he does. A man of his background feels entitled. So what if Iraq has the second largest reserves of oil, and companies that members of his administration have deep personal and financial interests in will hugely profit? That’s just the way it is. Operation Iraqi Freedom will be worth their enrichment. Critics claim the war is about oil, but that is not the case, the White House says, even though the Bush administration before 9/11 was all about oil. From Vice President Cheney’s still secret energy advisors, to Bush’s abandoning the Kyoto accords, to his wish to drill in the arctic wildlife preserve, to resisting tougher CAFE standards for SUVs. If the administration was all about oil then, when did it stop being all about oil?

Bush has brought simplicity into American politics. Commentators have wasted a lot of ink trying to discover complexity in the president’s motives. He is not his father. Saddam had 48 hours to get out of town. Iraqis will be grateful to Americans for their liberation. We are bombing Iraq in order to save it.

This war is not about oil. I wish it was. It is about doing what we want. Welcome to the new world.

4/1/03

Vietnam, it is often said, was the first war to be brought into our living rooms. But, the attack on Iraq has leapt forward many degrees of intimacy. We have moved from the living room to the bedroom and today we are all embedded.

Reality war is the latest TV extravaganza. How long it will remain popular is in question. War in real time, with both its successes and failures, has become virtual experience. Even Secretary of Defense (Offense?) Donald Rumsfeld calls the immediate coverage “breathtaking,” adding, “It tends to be all accurate, but not in overall context.” Mistakes counterbalance the troops’ victories, causing dissonance, mixing hope and disappointment. And for some the events are very personal: stateside parents learn live the fate of their children. One father heard about his captured daughter when she was described on a non-American cable network. News has been globalized and if U.S. outlets do not run video, others will and the images will be seen. That world-wide cable and satellite television could be a form of propaganda penetration had not gone unnoticed at its inception.

Not only has TV become global, uncontrollable by any single government, but the internet was in its infancy when the first Gulf War began. Now the internet is a rowdy adolescent. It provides a hurricane of information and misinformation that often blows the mainstream press its way.

The lasting effects of all of this instantaneous-ness has not yet been digested. Our military has been conducting psy-ops on the Iraqis, but media (and our military) conducts its own form of psy-ops on the audience here at home. Television news over the past two decades has become politicized, insofar as many prominent television personalities are former GOP and Democratic political consultants. Now, it is becoming militarized. Fox News has even embedded Col. Oliver North, who doubtless still has Middle Eastern contacts from his days selling arms to one of the Axis of Evil states, Iran. News organizations attempt to counter the overwhelming here-and-nowness of the war by hiring “experts.” No longer do generals have to work for boring military contractors when they retire. They can become TV talking-heads. Denied the perspective of time, television seeks out veterans who can bring the perspective of their own military experience to bear, though their expertness does not always make their analysis accurate.

Actual journalists are already chafing at the restrictions of the official news briefings held by the military in both the Persian Gulf region and at the Pentagon. The chief complaint being that the embeds give us “snapshots” of the war, and the briefings are supposed to provide the context, but they only provide video snapshots of the precision bombing successes. There is something faintly unnerving about the videos of these precision munitions, the accuracy of the guided missiles. The military airs them as a point of pride, showing before and after pictures of how only the target buildings have been destroyed, leaving other surrounding structures largely intact. They want to show how this sort of bombing spares civilians, a worthy motive. But, the officers never seem to notice that such images only echo 9/11, where the terrorist accomplished their own deadly act of precision, turning our 737s into their guided missiles.

During the early days of the war, the military seemed confident enough of its blitzkrieg strategy, the quick collapse of Saddam’s regime, the welcoming Iraqis, that it spared the infrastructure of the country, including its television capabilities, wanting to make use of it ourselves. Of late, the military has begun to target Iraqi television. Not just for its effect on Iraqi viewers, but the world’s. In Vietnam, we wanted to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese. Now, it’s the hearts and minds of the viewing global village. Images come first; contested explanations are a distant second. The information age has embedded this war everywhere.

4/8/03

Ralph Nader, speaking at Notre Dame two weeks ago, denounced “corporate-induced violence,” that ruins more American lives than acts of terrorism or street crime and reiterated his opposition to the Iraq war. Nader, labeled by CNN recently a “consumer advocate,” his old designation, has affected American society in two decisive ways: the first was reshaping car safety standards through his successful denunciations of the unsafe Pinto and, second, by becoming a Pinto himself and crashing the hopes of Democrats in 2000 by enabling the election of George W. Bush. If Nader had wanted no war in Iraq in 2003, it is likely he could have stopped it himself by not running in 2000. Nader is still not certain if he will abstain from running again in 2004. He is tempted to turn the Green Party into Ralph Nader, Inc.

Nader, nonetheless, is one of the few potential presidential candidates speaking out against the Iraq war. Democrats, even the dark horse Howard Dean, pledged to “tone down” criticisms once the war started (though last week Sen. John Kerry did call for “regime change” both in Baghdad and Washington) and have been as silent as Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wants serving officers and the retired generals on TV to be regarding criticism of the military’s conduct of the war.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is not being very Harry Trumanesque when it comes to embracing the paternity of the Iraq war plan, even though his DNA is all over it. Nor, for that matter, is the Commander in Chief; indeed, President Bush seems eager to announce that the military runs the show. While General Myers calls for silence, Rumsfeld continues to say that the buck stops very short of him, and more likely in the pocket of Gen. Tommy Franks. Bush and Rumsfeld are acting as corporate buck-passers-in-chief, positioning Franks as the war plan’s creator, lest it finally be judged not successful, but stand ready to take the credit if it succeeds.

This not taking responsibility has been an unseemly spectacle, especially on Rumsfeld’s part, who reemerged in the political world in 1996, as a “top official” late in Bob Dole’s doomed presidential campaign. On “Meet the Press” back then Rumsfeld assumed the role as a man of no opinions: he had no opinion on Dick Morris’s troubles, no opinions on the upcoming presidential debates (hot topics at the time). Rumsfeld knows the art of political survival. It is always instructive to see the powerful claim they have no opinion, even though they are hired to have opinions, demonstrating the safest opinion often is to have no opinion.

Now Rumsfeld has been making clear how his opinions, or lack thereof, didn’t shape the Iraq war plan, that is, Tommy Franks’s war plan.

And, at the Supreme Court last week, the Bush administration’s desire to end affirmative action was also made clear by the Solicitor General, Theodore B. Olson, installed in the post for his years of yeoman service in the right-wing’s harassment of Bill Clinton. Originally, the White House’s brief filed in the Michigan affirmative action case was wishy-washy on the central issue. Olson’s long-standing blanket opposition was withheld, but he threw off the cloak of ambiguity and declared the government in complete opposition. He thundered: “The Michigan law school admissions program fails every test this Court has articulated for evaluating governmental racial preferences.” That was about all he got out before the justices interrupted. When Justice Stevens pointed to another brief about current active racial preferences at the military academies, Olson retreated to the no opinion line: “We haven’t examined that and we haven’t presented a brief with respect to the specifics of each individual academy.” Both Rumsfeld and Olson have difficulty in admitting just what they think when things don’t appear to be going their way. Olson and President Bush are foes of affirmative action. They would both like to disguise that. Rumsfeld, it has been well documented, favors a leaner but meaner military, and if it isn’t mean enough, it’s Tommy Franks’s problem, not his. Rumsfeld intends to survive this war’s political battles, too.

4/15/03

Sept. 11th, many noted, changed everything. And Operation Iraqi Freedom has changed whatever was left over. Before the fighting began it was asked how many American deaths would be tolerated in order to take over Iraq and end Saddam Hussein’s reign. My guess had always been something over 3000, the number we lost on 9/11. The war against Afghanistan, the removal of the Taliban, the hunt for Osama bin Laden, was not a very satisfying exercise, even putting aside bin Laden’s current at-large status. Bombing a country that already appeared to be a pile of rubble, taking territory away from Islamic fundamentalists and giving it back to warlords, reestablishing the heroin trade and tribal dominance, didn’t match our suffering on Sept. 11th.

Payback on a larger scale was desired. Baghdad’s big buildings, palaces, could be destroyed and their ruins at least would recall the heap the World Trade Center towers made. Earlier peremptory military incursions to change regimes, such as Panama and Grenada, were small change in comparison. Previously, most regime changes organized by our government were covert operations, accomplished by the CIA and helpful locals.

But, 9/11 has allowed us to be very overt, indeed. The Iraq war began with the dropping of bunker busters on Saddam Hussein and his sons. When it appeared that they escaped that first decapitation, the taking of Baghdad was punctuated by dropping four more bunker busters on a restaurant building where Saddam and his son and other Iraqi higher-ups were thought to be meeting.

Think how many mob hits at restaurants could be successfully accomplished if Tony Soprano had B-1 bombers available: Saddam face down in a plate of falafel. This war was personal. The CIA and the military working hand in glove is usually kept from view, but post-9/11 that sort of nicety is no longer required. Political power certainly comes from the barrel of a gun, but does democracy, especially if it isn’t the indigenous population’s own guns? What has the military left in its wake, besides the dead and dying? Smiling freedom-loving looters and anarchy, which, of course, will eventually be put down, if a suitable iron fist can be found. An American major was quoted by an embed on NPR, saying the looters were entitled to “a little holiday.”

President Bush has had to become a quick student in nation building. Luckily, those around him claim all sorts of expertise. But, looking at the Balkan states’ bloody convulsions after the fall of the USSR is instructive. Even glancing at what is still going on in Afghanistan would tell a tale or two. Of course, Afghanistan’s largest export is heroin, not oil.

Though the military made few preparations to bring order to Iraq’s cities, we have had good plans all along to take care of its oil fields. Contracts have already been handed out to Halliburton, Vice President Cheney’s old firm, and other American concerns, to take care of business there. After the looting holiday ends, we’ll let the sheiks and tribal chiefs run the country, while we oversee the oil fields.

Another embed quoted a different officer on CNBC about an uprising in al Amarah, Shiites battling the Baath party, saying the military was going to let the locals sort it out, because he couldn’t tell “the good guys from the bad guys.”

The president and his advisors are happy to figure out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. They have shown they can do what they want and if the end is desirable, the means don’t matter. Iraq is free of Saddam. Who won’t cheer that? President Bush follows an old American tradition described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, where the rich “smashed things up…and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” Only a hundred or so Americans have been killed. We have at least 3000 left in our death bank account. There will be more scores to settle down the road.

4/27/03

Military service commonly has been thought to be the most dangerous profession. It’s not. The rate of death in the armed forces, including Afghanistan and the last two Gulf Wars, is less than many other jobs Americans hold. Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal 333 construction laborers died in 2001: During the last two decades fewer soldiers perished in combat (300). The Iraq war thus far has cost the military about 150 deaths, combat and accidental fatalities combined. The percentage of soldiers (rate per 100,000) killed has fallen below civilian levels of a number of hazardous occupations: construction laborers, taxi drivers, roofers, fishers, timber cutters, firefighters, among others. The military’s low mortality rates are praiseworthy—though the Pentagon trades off low death rates for low pay. But, when serving in the military turns into just another job, the best one possible for those who take it, the uses to which the armed forces can be put change significantly. When combat becomes a relatively safe workplace, look out.

Unlike the military, the possibility of being killed isn’t part of the job description for a construction worker. But, for those who either worry about—or want—America to be the world’s policeman, it becomes more likely when the odds of dying rival those faced by policemen. Donald Rumsfeld’s modern military, one that depends on air power and speed, has begun to resemble Hollywood’s conception of the military of the future: SWAT and SEAL teams taking out gun-wielding foes, overwhelming them with superior hardware and moxie. The temptation to act unilaterally and peremptorily with such a military grows exponentially. Movies provide another lesson about the here and now. For a decade or more any number of crime films, full of murderous drug dealers and avenging law enforcement, have featured a high death-rate job: that of henchmen.

Film critics seldom point out that every picturesque crime boss has a great number of employees willing to die for him. The most recent example is A Man Apart, the latest crime-gangster-action movie. The film’s chief evil doer (“Diablo”) lives on, while many of his employees are wantonly dispatched around him. Those guys really have a bad job. “Henchmen” should go to the top of the list of hazardous professions, at least in Hollywood.

In Iraq it appears that Saddam Hussein’s henchmen weren’t quite as willing to be slaughtered as the average drug lord’s henchmen are in the movies.

The mass disappearance of Saddam and most of his coterie did resemble a movie’s special effect. Poof. One day they were there, the next they were gone. But since then, some familiar faces, such as Tariq Aziz, the suave deputy prime minister who often turned up on TV the last decade, have trickled back, either giving themselves up or captured, though not as yet the new star, the information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, the walking Saturday Night Live skit, along with many of the Baath Party’s ruling elite.

Given our technological gadgets, one would presume such a magic act would have been hard to pull off. But, it was.

And so completely many think the fix was in. Conspiracy theories abound, claiming that was Hussein’s plan all along. The absence of weapons of mass destruction, their disappearance, may be linked. Before the war, Saddam was portrayed as an evil genius—his method of war-waging made him appear just evil. But, if he has done anything clever, it may have been dumping all his weapons of mass destruction, while luring America into war, then disappearing with his favorites en masse, and leaving the Bush administration with a mess to sort out. Or, perhaps, Hussein and the others are part of the rubble somewhere, which would be preferable to almost everyone. What would be nightmarish would be to have an Iraq government in hiding, headed by Saddam, holing up with Osama bin Laden, ready to reappear, in case we make a botch of post-war Iraq. But “Dictator” is likely to be the most hazardous profession, now that the military has become just one more job among many.

5/04/03

Conservative commentators in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere have been asking why so-called “liberals” have been made so glum because of America’s victory in Iraq. No longer is there a need to ask. I know why. It’s a variant of the self-help notions found in “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”: When Bad Things Turn Out to be Good for Questionable People.

George W. Bush wasn’t enjoying a successful presidency pre 9/11. On 9/10 half of his administration was implicated in the corporate scandals that were finally getting their moment in the sun. Bush’s one victory, the large tax cut for the wealthy, was beginning to look not so victorious as the economy continued to sour. The fallout from the 2000 election was still falling. The president often looked not-so-presidential; he had been relegated to friendly grade school audiences, where he could count on respectful treatment. And it was on such a stage Bush learned about the attack on the World Trade Center.

It isn’t just leaders who rise to the occasion when something terrible happens—those led rise up and want their leaders to succeed: they are receptive to any show of strength and resolve. So, after a rocky start, Bush began to appear presidential. National traumas such as 9/11, like private ones, often erase history, cause amnesia, leave a clean slate. Bush was given a fresh start, a new contract with the American people.

There is an old Shakespearean formula that pertains: Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Bush’s life reflects a version of this: He was born great, insofar he was born to a wealthy and powerful family; he achieved greatness, the governorship of Texas and personal riches with the help of a network of his father’s supporters, and managed to acquire the presidency with their help, too. Then with the calamity of 9/11 greatness was thrust upon him, though it was the greatness of the shock to the country’s sense of self, our place in the world. Bush responded with what we have an overabundance of: military might. We trampled Afghanistan in a thus far fruitless search for Osama bin Laden, while scattering an already scattered al-Qaida, ousting Afghanistan’s rulers, returning the country to a fractured version of its pre-Taliban political system, warlords and tribal fiefdoms. Congress passed the Patriot Act, letting the Attorney General curb freedoms and rights, and brought about a Homeland Security department to make everyone feel more insecure, inventing a terrorist warning alert system that has never gone to green, the state of no alert, making sure we never forget that the president is fighting the war on terror.

Then we invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein, allegedly to end a national threat armed with WMDs, but, at this point, more a mission of pure self-sacrifice on the nation’s part, freeing a country of a murderous tyrant. Indeed, it’s like an adolescent’s fantasy of Superman: righting wrongs, smiting evil, bringing truth, justice and the American way to a backward land. Bush is the perfect embodiment of that dream. Why aren’t liberals happy? Isn’t the result worth the methods? So what if the president needed to claim Saddam was a threat to the national security? He was a threat to our economic and political interests, as they are judged by the Bush administration. Even disasters breed winners and losers and as Bush has done all his life he continues snatching victories from defeats. Bush bent the truth to get us to Iraq and he will go on calling apples oranges in order to get more from his new-found powers of leadership. It is clear that his tax cuts exist not just to give money to the rich, but to take services away from the poor for ideological reasons. “Fend for yourselves (our friends excepted),” is the administration’s motto.

Baghdad has fallen and next will come the push to sell another bill of tainted goods to the people: privatizing Social Security, privatizing Medicare, etc., all the domestic shock and awe to follow. 9/11 was a boon for Bush. That’s why liberals are glum.

5/11/03

Theatrical extravaganzas have returned to politics now that news of the Iraq war has dropped to the level of the ho-hum. President Bush landing on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln was theater big time. It was obvious he was having fun, almost too much fun, given the setting, but Bush managed to grow somber by the time of his address to the sailors and marines aboard and the television world abroad. The stunt raised a lot of memories, though a good many of them went unmentioned during the rapturous coverage the speech received.

Bush gave a victory speech, but one that had no enemy leaders present to surrender, as happened on the USS Missouri at the end of WWII. Saddam and his sons are still unaccounted for, but like the absent WMDs, may yet turn up some day. Bush’s history as a pilot was not much mentioned, given his abandonment of his National Guard duties during his last year of service. But, the president’s tailhooking did bring to mind other memories of military special treatment, the “angles and dangles” that the Navy supplied for visiting dignitaries, corporate bigwigs and others, who got the royal treatment aboard submarines, though one such trip sank a Japanese fishing boat killing nine of its crew. The Navy is used to giving important people thrills. A friend of mine got the same ride as the president, landing aboard a carrier, when he was a producer of a television show that made the military look good. That the president is meant to be a civilian commander in chief took second place to what looks good on television in this White House.

What didn’t look too promising on television was the nine Democratic presidential aspirants gathered in South Carolina the weekend following the president’s show. That debate became a showcase not for the politicians, but the moderator, the political-consultant-turned-journalist George Stephanopoulos, Bill Clinton’s former media advisor. George put the nine wannabes through their paces as if carrying on a mock debate, prepping his candidate for hostile appearances. Stephanopoulos’s questions were all about personalities, setting them against each other, a bear-baiting exercise meant to toughen them up.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, seated between Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton, looked ecumenical with a reverend on one side and the one female born-again candidate on the other. The debate started after sunset so Lieberman could avoid dishonoring the Sabbath, but he announced that no Democrat could win who wouldn’t appear strong on defense, more or less conceding the 2004 election to the flight-suit-clad commander in chief, George W. Bush. Sharpton, sporting a Doris-Day-like flip hair style, got off the best line, comparing Bush’s tax cuts to the Kool Aid associated with Jim Jones’ suicidal cult, saying, “It tastes good, but it will kill you.” It was macabre and tasteless, but accurate.

The other political theater last week was the morality play of William Bennett, virtue huckster and living-large gambler, swearing off decades of big stakes poker playing after his 8 million dollars worth of casino losses became public. Bennett shares with many conservative blowhards an endless supply of brazenness, scolding the wayward and extolling the virtues of family and moderation. But a lot of criticism aimed at Bennett missed the target: It is not his betting-jones that is the problem, so much as the Saddam-like sums Bennett has been tossing around (that a man has 8 million to gamble without affecting his “family” is a scandal in itself). And, like politicians who resign under a cloud claiming falsely to want to spend “more time with the family,” Bennett’s gambling is a very solitary activity, one that keeps him from his family for hours and hours. Even more than golf. Bennett had to be away from his family to earn his $50,000 speech fees and then chose to spend even more time pursuing his private vice, with a video machine, no less.

Hypocrites are a dime a dozen, especially among the morality police of the far right (Bob Livingston, Newt Gingrich, etc.). Bennett is just the most recent to have to repent and carry on.

5/18/03

Making predictions is a sport of fools. I managed to resist predictions during the Iraq war, though one I could have hazarded was that more Americans would die in Iraq during the peace than the war. Given the present death rate, that appears to be coming true, since our presence there looks required for years to come. Now that al-Qaida has killed Americans in the guarded residential compounds of Saudi Arabia (a version of the 1996 attack on the Khobar Towers), the shape of things to come is clear. Suicide bombers since 9/11 have evolved into what they have been all along: terrorism’s weapon of greatest destruction, believers who court death rather than shunning it.

In the language wars, suicide bombers have been become “homicide bombers” in conservative quarters. They want to take away any notion of self-sacrifice and to focus the blame on the result, not the cause; and, equally important, to make the act an individual’s madness, not an act tied to a larger political movement or group. Sec. of State Colin Powell, speaking of the Riyadh bombers, said, “We shouldn’t cloak them in any trappings of political purpose. They are terrorists.”

But “homicide bombers” hasn’t caught on, unlike other alterations Republicans have made in the language: the estate tax morphing into the “death tax,” tax cuts changing into “tax relief” bills.

President Bush, not a man of many words, is happy to stick to the new phrases exclusively. Affirmative action is a phrase that the right wanted to change into “racial quotas;” its detractors managed to turn it from a positive notion, to a negative one. Affirmative action was meant to increase the supply of applicants, especially of women and nonwhites, for all positions; those who want it to end want the supply restricted.

Sandra Day O’Connor is universally accepted to be the swing vote for the University of Michigan’s affirmative action case heard earlier this year before the Supreme Court. Here’s my prediction: O’Connor will use the case as a swan song. Her vote will determine its outcome and will become the capstone of her career. But the decision (coming by July) will be such as to let both sides claim victory. Affirmative action will be sustained, but will be limited by O’Connor. The Michigan law school’s narrow tailoring will be affirmed, but the larger undergraduate school’s numbers-based method will be restricted.

The resignation watch on the Court has been going on for the last three presidential elections. The leading candidate has always been Chief Justice Rehnquist. But, when Rehnquist put gold stripes on his robes he showed that he liked the job and intended to stay. It will be easier for O’Connor to resign first and let the replacement procedure for an associate justice go forward, especially since it will likely be contentious, given the administration’s taste for serving up very extreme judicial nominees, such as the three Democrats are trying to block: Priscilla Owen, Miguel Estrada, and Charles Pickering.

After a new associate justice is seated, Rehnquist can exit and President Bush can nominate Antonin Scalia as Chief Justice; it will be difficult to block a sitting justice, even during an election year, for that position. The Michigan affirmative action case will propel O’Connor off the Court and into the pages of history, on the wings of a big, significant decision, one that can either honor her name, or make it live in infamy. The first woman Supreme Court justice stands to either end or amend society’s answer to the profound lack of diversity in the highest and most esteemed bodies in the land: universities, board rooms, and the courts. When Ronald Reagan nominated O’Connor, fulfilling a campaign promise, his act of affirmative action, elevating a woman to the Supreme Court, encouraged a lot of women to apply to law school. It is hard to believe O’Connor will turn her back on the cultural and legal revolution that put her on the Court.

As predictions go, I think this one is fairly safe.

5/25/03

It is clear Karl Rove & Company hopes to redo the red and blue 2000 electoral map and paint the country Republican red from coast to coast in 2004, gaining, for the first time, a majority of the popular vote. It won’t matter if George W. Bush loses a few big cities and a couple of east and west coast states to whichever sacrificial lamb the Democrats serve up in 2004. It is the word “mandate” Rove wants attached to Bush’s second term. “Mandate” will be the GOP’s weapon of mass destruction, even though it may be as illusionary as Saddam Hussein’s absent nuclear arsenal.

And, armed with a mandate, the domestic shock and awe campaign will begin in earnest. Guerrilla raids on behalf of Medicare privatization are being fought now, by Rick Santorum, the homophobic Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, and others who want to lure seniors into private health plans with the bait of better drug coverage, but the big push for privatization of Social Security will await Bush’s second term. Preparations, though, are underway.

Rove & Co. has learned from the first misstep taken early on in the Bush presidency, convening an all-pro-privatization commission of academic experts and others to issue a report praising privatization, but pointing out in the small print along the way the high costs of such a step. That report was quickly buried. Since then Rove & Co. has seeded an enemy within Social Security: As personnel changes allow, transplants from the pro-privatization Cato Institute are being embedded in the agency itself. Who will save Social Security next term if Social Security doesn’t want to save itself?

The Bush administration has demonstrated it can do things quickly: Iraq fell in less than 30 days. Bush’s two tax cuts favoring the wealthy were done hastily, the second during a time of war and rising deficits, with almost no cost to Bush himself. Indeed, Bush and members of his administration, from the vice president down, personally profit from the cuts proposed. They are among the few dividend recipients who actually pay taxes on dividends.

If Bush achieves his mandate in 2004, bills to privatize Social Security will march through Congress with the same amount of resistance shell-shocked Democrats showed in the face of the latest tax cut and the Revolutionary Guard demonstrated in Iraq. And like the war in Iraq, what will follow that victory for future retirees will be chaos, looting, and years of disruption and uncertainty to come.

The lack of foreseeing foreseeable consequences that has occurred in Iraq will be duplicated here at home. Those who opposed the war in Iraq are in the paradoxical position now of not wanting the troops to leave. And those who oppose Social Security privatization will see Bush’s so-called vulnerability on domestic issues trumped by war-on-terror fears. But to the drastic problems that privatization will cause, the same rationalizations will be given by the administration: Operation Pension Freedom liberated you, gave you the freedom to invest. So what if the Social Security falls apart? You can buy one share of Halliburton stock!

Clinton administration precedents don’t provide much guidance. The lasting legacy of the Clinton administration is the George W. Bush administration. Clinton won a mandate his second term, soundly beating Bob Dole in 1996. But the mandate was snatched away by the persistence of the rabid pack of attackers snapping at Clinton’s heels and by his own deplorable conduct. The promise of Clinton’s second term turned into a scandal-obsessed national nightmare.

Bush’s second term, in contrast, will be launched on a tidal wave of patriotic fervor. Remember the Maine!, was a slogan sufficient to start a war. Remember 9/11!, will be enough to win an election. What odds would Bill Bennett give that the terror alert will be on “high” voting day 2004? President Bush is now used to winning, regardless of the cost of winning, or the destruction and suffering it leaves behind.

6/01/03

In all the name-calling aimed at Jayson Blair, the former New York Times reporter, current plagiarist and fabulist, one name he hasn’t been called is Monica Lewinsky. But, Jayson is Monica in many ways.

The first similarity, the one that makes Blair news, is the seat of power where his bad behavior took place, the front page of theNew York Times. Monica Lewinsky was news because her actions occurred at the White House. Many young ladies have had trysts of one sort or another with bosses in offices throughout the United States, but until Monica, not in the top office, the oval office (location hasn’t been determined for JFK’s intern fling). The New York Times, by default, is the country’s top newspaper. Examples of wayward journalism happen everywhere, but most of it goes away or gets corrected without becoming a national scandal. But, the nature of the New York Times, its many enemies and competitors, breeds a culture of attack. Its Executive Editor, Howell Raines, had already become a target, both inside the institution and outside. The presidency lives in the same culture and Bill Clinton had enemies within and without. When Monica turned up, she became the fuel that reignited the dying embers of the sputtering Whitewater investigation.

Bill Clinton and the New York Times share many of the same foes. Both, with somewhat equal relevance, are prime liberal targets. And those who oppose affirmative action have leapt on Blair’s transgressions as proof that such policies are inherent