Sun-Times Jan. 4, 2004 - Dec. 26, 2004

1/4/04

 

New Year's predictions grow moldy faster than even New Year's resolutions, but since a holiday period of some self-indulgence all around has just concluded, topped by Tom Ridge hassling many folks' travel and vacations by elevating the Homeland Security threat level to orange, a few more predictions won't hurt.

And Tom Ridge is a good place to start: there will be at least two threat-level elevations in 2004, the first in the summer right around the time of the political conventions, the second just before the general election. Polls have shown that every time the threat level has been raised it has been good for Republicans and bad for Democrats.

In fact, the threat-level-elevations are probably too certain to qualify as a prediction. But, since I am not very good at predicting, I'd be happy to get at least one right. Way back when, I predicted the vogue for waterbeds would be short-lived and they would disappear faster than eight-track tapes. That was about three decades ago.

My second prediction is that Howard Dean will get the Democratic nomination and he will chose John Edwards as his running mate, since Edwards, unlike the other prominent contenders, has avoided vilifying him. However, if Dean's not thinned-skinned, he will choose John Kerry to give him some "national security" heft.

The election, however, will be no fun at all. Democrats will unify around Dean as the Anyone-But-Bush candidate, but that will only muster something above 40% of the electorate. On the Republican side, unless the grim reaper intervenes, Dick Cheney will be George W. Bush's running mate once again.

Republicans, unhappy that the GOP will not hire--as proposed by Tom DeLay--a luxury cruise ship for its party-headquarters during its late summer New York City convention, instead will lease a number of yachts for special parties for special people and the Chevron oil tanker "Condoleezza Rice," a "red hulled, 129,000-ton Bahamas-registered Suezmax behemoth" will dock in tribute to President Bush's national security adviser and act as a come-one-come-all photo-op site.

If Osama bin Laden or Fidel Castro die during 2004 it will be by natural causes.

The White House's favorite Iraqi former expatriate, Ahmed Chalabi, will continue to defy all expectations of his unsuitability and continue to play a major role in the still-to-be-created governance of Iraq.

Halliburton will be exonerated of any and all overcharging in Iraq and will be awarded a surcharge based on their patriotic under-billing during 2003.

Kenneth Lay, friend of the Bushes and Enron's former head honcho, will not be convicted of anything in 2004, much less indicted.

The bond market will collapse under the weight of the budget and trade deficits and interest rates will spike, but the Bush White House will respond with further tax cuts for the top 1%, claiming the bond collapse is proof of their need.

AARP will continue to lose members in 2004. Rush will relapse. The military will be serving the troops a lot of beef during the year.

All the films of 2003 that glorify either hand-to-hand combat (The Last Samurai, Master and Commander), or general butchery of evil-doers of one sort or another (Lord of the Rings), or personal revenge killings (Mystic River), will do very well at the Oscars.

George W. Bush will visit Iraq for more than two hours in the coming year, most likely in October. Surprise, surprise.

Gay divorce will become more of a topic than Gay marriage in 2004.

The rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer and the middle class and working poor will continue to pay a greater share of their income in taxes than the rich in any case.

And one last thing: waterbed sales will increase in 2004.

1/11/04

 

Democrats can't duck their Howard Dean problem. Especially since it might become permanent soon after the folksy hands-on voting in the Iowa caucuses eight days from now.

Howard Dean seems to be a perfectly OK guy, marked by his class and upbringing in predictable ways. He's a typical American mix, with a handful of contradictory traits. Becoming a doctor, then a governor, is not an illogical career path: Dean wants to serve the public, and, more particularly, he's certain he can do some good--and do a good job.

When, at last Sunday's Des Moines, Iowa, debate, Dean blithely remarked that he planned to balance the federal budget "in the sixth or seventh year of my administration," he seemed genuinely surprised and puzzled by the laughter that followed.

Like President Bush, whose youth Dean's resembles (wealth, Yale, northeastern roots), Dean is used to success. When has he failed? Vermont might not be a populous state, a fact held against him, but he won three state elections and was governor.

And, again, similar to Bush, Dean isn't just a politician looking to move up a pol's career ladder. Campaigning in 2000 Bush was truthful in this regard: he didn't need the job; he had a life he could return to. This criticism was aimed at Al Gore, a political lifer, and, unfortunately, it turned out to be true.

So, Dean has run a race in a much more liberated fashion than the handful of permanent politicians he is pitted against. Most run as if they're heading toward a cliff; if they lose they fall into oblivion. Dean is just running. Governors, however political, aren't seen as creatures of Washington, part of the company town--with voting records on national issues--which is where the "outsider" notion comes from and why so many of our recent presidents have been governors.

Dean's "electability" problem comes not from core party voters, but from the so-called swing voters. Sept. 11 reduced the arc of their swing. They don't swing very far now. Most want someone in the White House who will pull the trigger. And President Bush will certainly do that. As a governor, Bush's claim to fame was Texas's number one ranking for executions. In 2000 George W. Bush joked about executions. It is not a far stretch from being a devoted advocate for the death penalty to waging preemptive wars.

As Muhammad Ali once memorably said during the Vietnam war, "I got nothing against no Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger." The Vietnam war wasn't waged to make Americans safer. No one claimed that.

But Americans have quite a bit against al-Qaida and the 2004 election will be a referendum on whether we can hurt anyone who has a connection, however thin, to al-Qaida or "terrorism." It's difficult to be against a "war on terror." It has put the Democrats into the same bind many Vietnam-era conscientious objectors found themselves in. A lot of anti-war protestors of that time were not pacifists. In fact, quite a few were partial to violence: see the Weatherman, etc. Some were conscientiously objecting to just the Vietnam war. Now, Dean and others object to the war in Iraq, but not the war on terror. You could hear the hairs splitting in the marathon Democratic primary debates as Sens. Kerry, Lieberman, Edwards and Rep. Gephardt fashioned and refashioned their positions to explain their voting records.

Dean stands opposed to the Iraq war and thinks we should have concentrated on al-Qaida. Fine. Who do we get to bomb? LBJ was criticized for hand-picking targets in Vietnam. The Democrats are put in a position to hand pick the targets in an amorphous "war on terror." President Bush just gets to unleash the 101st Airborne. He's proud of not micro-managing his CEO presidency.

Lately, a number of Democrats have fallen back on the Bill Clinton insurgency in 1992 as a parallel for a possible Dean victory. What they leave out of that equation is H. Ross Perot, a man who disliked George H. W. Bush as much as many Dean supporters claim to hate his son. Perot's strong third-party run made Clinton's long-shot--92 victory possible. In 2004 the Democrats don't so much have a Dean problem, as an absent equivalent Ross Perot problem.

1/18/04

 

Workers of the world are uniting, but not in the way Marx and Engels had in mind. Most are working for as little as possible and happy to have a job. Here in the states, the latest unemployment report was startling: only 1000 new jobs were created in December and 26,000 manufacturing jobs were lost. And the unemployment rate barely changed (5.7), since a large number dropped out of the work force, giving up searching for a job.

At the same time, President Bush launched his new immigration work initiative, the creation of a permanent guest-worker system. The word "guest" is a misnomer: these guests are not treated with extra politeness and they are supposed to defer to their hosts. "Guest" is more a synonym for "second-class".

In late December I watched groups of our current guests hanging out on street corners of Alameda and Berkeley, Ca. hoping for some day work, waiting for potential employers to drive up.

This has been going on for years, but now there were government-produced street signs in Spanish telling the day-workers that they could gather there. The president's new plan has an interesting twist for anyone familiar with academia. For decades American universities have been able to hire non-nationals for faculty appointments, if the schools claim they could find no U.S. citizen who could fill the same position. Bush's proposal contains the same requirement for the guest workers.

Most universities have mini-law firms ready to do this sort of paper pushing, attesting to the worth of whatever alien they want to hire at the moment.

Picturing the men waiting on Fourth St. in Berkeley coming up with this sort of paperwork--job in hand, testimony of the employer that no American is as suitable for the job--is laughable, more of a fiction that even universities indulge in.

Given that the 1000 jobs the Bush administration's tax cuts managed to provoke in December, plus the unemployment figures, there must be people wanting to work, even American academics.

Of course, those folks want "good" jobs. Even since the Grapes of Wrath dust-bowl days, Americans have balked at being peasant labor. And President Bush's well-to-do tax-cut beneficiaries and the industries and agriculture holdings they own require a good bit of undocumented peasant labor available.

President Bush's immigrant-worker proposal has even created friction among Bush's loyal conservative base. Even the rubber-stamp Indiana freshman congressman, Chris Chocola, offered the rarest demurral, citing "homeland security" issues.

But, like a lot of the president's job proposals, this latest appears to be more rhetoric than reality. Paul O'Neill, the former Treasury secretary, now awkwardly promoting a book about his 23-month Cabinet stint, has said that Bush offered little guidance to top officials in his administration and they had to form policy based on "little hunches about what the president might think."

So, Congress and the administration will flesh-out Bush's proposal, perhaps creating a new federal agency to provide the day-workers and seasonal crop-pickers with the necessary forms and testimonies from Agra-business and California home-owners that no American worker could be found to fill their job.

When O'Neill was interviewed last Sunday on 60 Minutes he was taken aback when correspondent Lesley Stahl suggested that President Bush might be offended by his portrayal of Bush. O'Neill thought his account was complimentary; he illustrated that with an anecdote claiming that for a minute Bush opposed the second tax cut, asking, "Haven't we already given money to rich people?"

But, according to O'Neill, presidential adviser Karl Rove stepped in, saying, "Don't waver. Stick to principle." Bush shrugged and the second tax cut went through. Uniting the workers of the world under the banner of low wages is also a matter of principle. The White House would be delighted if it could have a pool of polite, temporary and documented immigrants readily available as cheap labor.

1/25/04

 

Two campaign caucuses took place this week: one in Iowa and one in Washington, D.C. The Iowa contest was the more surprising event, redoing the cast list of the Democratic nominee race. The State of the Union address was the victory speech of the uncontested Republican nominee. Both spelled out their party's central concerns.

The Iowa caucuses act as a very public Democratic focus group. The candidates have had the caucus goers' close attention for months. Finally, we all got to see what that scrutiny produced. This time it produced a new media-anointed front-runner: Sen. John Kerry. The Deaniacs have been relegated to the mad house. And Howard Dean did look a bit unhinged as he delivered his belligerently boisterous non-concession speech Monday night. He appeared to be a bad amateur actor pretending to be happy and enthusiastic after a deflating defeat.

A majority of Iowa caucus voters (81 percent--including 38 for Kerry and 32 for Sen. John Edwards) had concluded that Dean would not match up well against President Bush. Once they decided that, they selected from the crowd running absent Dean.

One hidden factor that was exposed by Kerry's Iowa victory was the fear that remains in the heart of the electorate. Of the top Democratic finishers, Kerry was the only one with a strong military history. Kerry took away much of the anti-war vote from Dean. Unfortunately, that fear could bode well for President Bush. If even anti-war Iowa Democrats want a warrior as commander-in-chief, they already have the Johnny-come-lately warrior, but already tested commander-in-chief, in the job.

That was one reason for the Dean disappointment; there were others. Dean's internet bubble campaign, as I described it in October, burst in Iowa. Dean has no non-virtual base and it showed. The internet itself lost some of its clout as a political power broker Monday night. As did both the trade and service labor unions that supported Dean and the now withdrawn Dick Gephardt. Their organizations might have bought out union voters, but far too many of them voted for Kerry and Edwards than the men they were presumed to support.

New Hampshire's primary comes too quickly for Howard Dean to refashion himself, though he has tried. His voters will be voting for the old Dean, not the new calmer, centrist version. Whether New Hampshire finishes the Dean slide begun in Iowa remains to be seen. Regardless, Dean has dragged most all of the candidates kicking and screaming into the Democratic wing of the Democratic party, forcing them to up the volume against President Bush.

If John Kerry wins New Hampshire, or does almost as well as Dean, Dean will continue to spin out of control and he might quickly turn out to be a footnote to this election, rather than its head liner.

In the Washington state-of-the-union caucus President Bush received a hundred percent of the Republican vote, about the same amount Saddam Hussein amassed in his last election. Bush filled his own focus-grouped speech with pie-in-the-sky proposals, while stoking the homeland fires of fear and insecurity.

The White House had promoted the president's speech as "non-political," the same way it promotes all of its misleadingly named programs, such as its pollution-creating "Clear Skies" initiative. Attempting to elevate Bush above the political fray is a bid to remove him from the need to actually campaign too personally in 2004. His handlers would like to make former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill's unflattering description of a "disengaged" Bush a virtue, rather than a vice.

In the past, presidents often needed "denial-ability" and their staffs tried to provide it; now Bush wants to claim disengage-ability as a protective shield. How can he be held accountable for what goes wrong if he wasn't involved? He didn't even fire Paul O'Neill. That was left to Vice President Cheney.

President Bush's State of the Union speech was his party's vision of the campaign to come: The military on steroids, tax cuts made permanent, and a permanently fearful electorate as well.

2/1/04

 

What has been predicting the Democratic primary results thus far has not been polling, but demographics. Lawrence Jacobs, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, demonstrated last week at a National Academy of Social Insurance conference held in Washington, D.C., that 72 percent of 65-74 year-olds vote, whereas only 36 percent of 18-24 year-olds do. One of the reasons for Howard Dean's abysmal showing in Iowa was so few 18-24 year-olds bothered to attend the caucuses.

The Golden Years are the Voting Years. And those seniors turned out for John Kerry in both Iowa and New Hampshire. The Greatest Generation, full of veterans, want another veteran, preferably a VFW, in the Oval Office. Kerry, though not of their generation, is their man, with only a lesser slice voting for the hoity-toity general, Wesley Clark.

The question that still looms is who is the candidate for the baby boomers? That demographic bulge has many consequences, and voting patterns is only one of them. So far, a majority of boomers have been going for Kerry, too. They are the deserters from Howard Dean in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

Within the baby boomers is the so-called anti-war vote. Since boomers grew up with the Vietnam war as a central experience that is not unexpected. They found a soul-mate in Bill Clinton, but he betrayed them badly: Once burned by the reckless peace-nik, the Vietnam vet John Kerry looks good. Though he and George W. Bush share Yale and the secret society Skull and Bones, Kerry lacks Bush's common-man aspects, jumbled sentences and simple notions.

Nonetheless, as boomers age, it won't be just Medicare that will be stressed. It will be the large boomer voting bloc's seismic effect on the landscape of American politics.

That is being played out now in the Democratic primaries. Howard Dean's Internet constituency is too young and inchoate to put over a candidate at the national level. But as aging boomers vote in even higher numbers, their favored candidates may well prevail.

Since there are more lieutenants than generals, as Wesley Clark learned to his sorrow in New Hampshire, boomers are likely to want presidents who reflect their own paradoxical experience, the Vietnam-war veteran and peace activist side, exactly the double-ness that John Kerry himself represents.

Kerry was both a war hero and an anti-war activist. That fits the demographic perfectly. If Kerry goes on to secure the nomination, he would be well advised to talk about issues that concern older voters as well as boomers, Social Security large among them.

Kerry's former positions on Social Security have drawn attention. As one conservative columnist, David Brooks, put it in the New York Times, Kerry has considered "unpopular reforms, including raising the retirement age and means-testing the benefits."

It might be news to some, but Social Security is already means-tested. High income elderly pay taxes on their benefits and the current earnings cap benefits the rich. One could solve most of the projected 2042 Social Security shortfall by raising that cap, not the retirement age.

Kerry should certainly attack President Bush's plans to privatize Social Security.

Bush's domestic proposals are often versions of break-it-because-it-works. All the gloom and doom pro-privatizers neglect to mention that a small tax raise now (in the range of 1 to 2 percent) would cure any presumed problem in Social Security's future.

When confronted with a simple tax solution conservatives howl: it's unfair to younger generations. What needs to be pointed out, and was pointed out at the NASI conference, is that the present generation of parents is transferring more wealth now to their children than ever before in recorded history. The least these children could do is return the favor.

2/8/04

 

David Kay, the former weapons sleuth, appears to be a happy guy, even when he's declaring he was "all wrong" about Iraq having Weapons of Mass Destruction. On TV Kay can't shake a smile from his face. "Pleased with himself" is a conservative estimate of his demeanor. This, perhaps, isn't strange, since Kay began his intelligence career in Vietnam, where he and his superiors were wrong about most everything, too.

Colin Powell is not quite as happy after his turn a year ago at the UN imitating Adlai Stevenson, when Stevenson was stuck in 1964 with parroting the defense department's fictions to the Security Council about the Tonkin Gulf on behalf of his president. Powell now says he wouldn't have been as eager to invade Iraq if he knew then what he knows now, even though he agrees that deposing Saddam Hussein was a great thing.

Weapons of Mass Destruction have always been bothersome: the words themselves, that is. Who spoke them first might be lost to history, but they were to take the place of the phrase "the Bomb" and all it had meant for U.S. foreign policy.

Once the Bomb had proliferated to a number of grade B states, nuclear weapons became a more diffused problem. And when the Cold War ended, the government needed a different bogeyman to fear, one that would allow us to wander in countries not as grand or fearsome as the former USSR: hence the specter of WMDs.

Joining weapons of mass destruction with the war on terror covers most of the landscape now. Another benefit of fixating on WMDs is that it lets us fudge the fact that America has been conventionally arming a good bit of the world for decades.

Though privatization of domestic entitlements, Social Security foremost among them, gets the most press attention, privatization of the military has been progressing rapidly, especially since the first Bush administration.

A Halliburton subsidiary, Brown and Root, was first hired to plan logistics for our military forces by Halliburton's future CEO, Dick Cheney, when Cheney was secretary of defense in the first Bush White House.

Now, 12 years later, Halliburton's many Enron-like entities keep overcharging the Pentagon for gasoline and meals for the troops in Iraq, negotiating fees with its former boss's underlings at Defense and State. Rest assured their profits will remain high. Just as defense contractors' stocks went up after President Bush released his new budget, PMCs (Private Military Contractors) can be as lucrative as WMDs are dangerous.

The Pentagon and Homeland Security get the biggest raises in Bush's budget, 7 and 10 percent, whereas most domestic programs barely increase, if they are not slashed altogether. That is Bush Republicanism in a nutshell: guns galore and only butter for friends in the military-industrial-intelligence complex.

But that group is rather large, since defense spending is spread throughout the country, which keeps everyone if not content, at least under control.

The Bush clan for decades has been profiting from war and reconstruction thereof. The current President Bush is just doing his part for the family business. As Kevin Phillips writes in his new book, American Dynasty, "This penchant for armaments and arms deals is rarely highlighted in biographies of either president."

But such personal connections don't much bother anyone in Washington, just as Justice Antonin Scalia finds it insulting that anyone could think he would be prejudiced by his friendship with Dick Cheney and his indulging in a duck hunting outing with the veep and his energy friends.

Scalia still refuses to recuse himself from hearing the Cheney energy case before the high court. Scalia's reasoning seems to be: How could I be influenced when I already believe the same things they do?

Yes, indeed. Like minds are running things in the Bush administration. As it's said in legal circles, ignorance is not a defense, but David Kay's ignorance about WMDs is yet another boon to the Bush White House. Ignorance is another defense for the president. If the intelligence is wrong how can Bush be faulted?

2/15/04

 

President Bush's appearance last Sunday on "Meet the Press" has generated heated comment. Both Republicans and Democrats have found Bush's performance lacking. I'm not one of them. Bush was Bush, for better or worse.

A few things were made clear by Bush's hour-long "chat" with Tim Russert, formerly thought a pit-bull interviewer. Not this time. One of Bush's strengths was completely evident: He is the president and Russert felt the full furnace heat of that fact. He was all deference, letting Bush ramble on, backing off when the commander-in-chief wouldn't brook interruption. Incumbency has a lot of advantages; respect for the office is one of them and it won't go away during the campaign months to come.

Another presidential trump card was played by Bush, over and over: "I'm a war president." Bush could not have made it clearer--though he could have said I "am" a war president. Bush spent some time elaborating on that, becoming as personal as he lets himself be: "I've got a foreign policy that is one that believes America has a responsibility in this world to lead, a responsibility to lead in the war against terror....To me that is history's call to America. I accept the call...."

There is no mistaking the religious fervor of the "call" Bush has accepted. It is what his supporters want from him.

The questions about Bush's irregular service in the National Guard were handled less deftly by Bush. When Russert brought up the controversy over Bush's spotty service history, Bush responded, "I've heard this ever since I started running for office. I--I put in my time, proudly so."

Bush's last remark summed it up. He saw his service as putting in his time, doing something he'd rather not be doing, going through the motions, and once out of his mouth, he paused, realized he needed to soften it, and added, "proudly so."

Then Bush outlined what will be his campaign response to such questions: Don't "denigrate the Guard." But questioning Bush's service is not slandering the National Guard. What is clear, beyond the extraordinary amount of special treatment Bush received, was that those in Bush's elite unit knew that they wouldn't be going to Vietnam, unless they wanted to.

But this line of attack won't be all that productive for Democrats. Bush's "Meet the Press" performance proves he intends to run on these four years of his life, not the first fifty-four. John Kerry, by making so much lately of his Vietnam service, is letting his whole life be held up for examination. And Republicans intend to scour all his years of public service for matters to attack, while the Bush White House will do its best to confine the conversation to Bush's first term.

And most voters will likely go along; whatever Bush's former failings he is the president now. In the '96 election, the public was quite willing to give Bill Clinton a pass on all his embarrassments previous to his first term. Clinton's victory in '96 was the equivalent of a fresh slate, a reward for the state of the nation in '96, for where the country was heading.

Of course, Republican stalwarts hadn't forgiven Bill Clinton, only the majority of the American electorate had. Clinton haters never gave up and when they discovered Monica Lewinsky they made Clinton's second term a living hell.

Democrats have not displayed the same deep, dark desire never to stop attacking Bush. That's why they lost the battle of the Florida vote count.

President Bush understands what the 2004 election is about; as he told Russert, "There is going to be ample time for the American people to assess whether or not I made a--good calls, whether or not I used good judgment, whether or not I made the right decision in removing Saddam Hussein from power...."

There are plenty of things to attack Bush with and about, and John Kerry and Democratic party faithful will do so forcefully. But, what the voters will "assess" in November is likely to be as simple as Bush's own description of it: The war president will get a war election.

2/22/04

 

When Ronald Reagan was president his budget director, David Stockman, spilled the beans to a reporter about the Reagan administration's economic reasoning: they needed to cut taxes not just to give money to the rich, but in order to cut government programs to the poor, mainly.

Reagan took Stockman to the "woodshed" for the bad press that followed. Recently, N. Gregory Mankiw, head of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, caused a similar stir, praising the "outsourcing" of jobs to other countries as a definite economic plus.

Mankiw had his Mad Cow moment discussing the release of his "Economic Report of the President." Bush hasn't yet taken Mankiw to the woodshed, but like a number of Bush appointees who reveal right-wing thinking at the wrong time, Mankiw has backpedaled furiously, asking forgiveness for his regrettable candor.

It's a short-run, long-run problem, Mankiw argued. In the short run losing jobs is "regrettable," but long term the economy benefits (eliminating jobs can be shareholders' gain.) Mankiw should be put on the gay marriage beat. The president faces another short-run-long-run problem with gay marriage, now a leading domestic GOP campaign issue.

Mankiw's economic analysis would show how in the long run it is both necessary and inevitable. But Bush's opposition to gay marriage is a short-run gift for Republicans, with benefits that will keep on giving they believe till the November election.

President Bush has already set aside $1.5 billion for his marriage initiative. But, if Bush wants to boost marriage as the stellar institution it is, he should honor it with some singularity: Meaning, marriage shouldn't be demoted to a common serial activity. If marriage is so important to the fabric of civilization, as conservative commentators claim, only one marriage per person should be allowed. I'm not advocating making divorce harder, just that the second, third, or fourth "marriage" should be turned into civil unions, what even progressive folk want gay couples to be satisfied with.

In a number of countries, marriage is only valid with both a civil and religious ceremony. Bush could call for marriage (the one and only) to remain as it is; subsequent unions should be handled by civil authorities, plus a second ceremony conducted by whatever religious entities that will go along with recidivists who can't seem to stay either married or unmarried.

We should want marriage to mean something in our society. "Make it count," the president could say, rather than "Bring 'em on."

And here N. Gregory Mankiw's theories could help. Obviously, one-time marriage and many civil unions will generate local and state revenues. As many single-sex institutions of higher learning went co-ed in the 1970s, thereby reaping economic and academic rewards from the enlarged pool of potential students, allowing gay marriage (once, followed by as many civil unions as a person can stand) will only increase revenue in the long run for all sorts of hard-to-outsource economic sectors: from those who do the marrying, to the lawyers who handle the dissolutions, to the florists, caterers, banquet hall personnel, and on and on. The ripple effect will be even larger than that of sending U.S. computer jobs over to India, as Mankiw holds, in the long run.

The short run will see some regrettable friction and confusion, such as those long lines around San Francisco's City Hall. People will have to get used to the sight of same sex folk kissing, throwing rice (organic brown rice, or Rice-A-Roni in S.F.), carrying on in festive ways.

Doubtless there will be more stories to come of abandoned and abused children, broken homes, murdered spouses, the terrible litter of domestic violence and cruelty to one and all the current marriage status quo produces. But, that will need to be glossed over, just as the Bush administration is overlooking its miserable record on job creation, while it does its best to oppose gay marriage on all fronts.

2/29/04

 

Is this Ralph Nader's nadir? Is running as an independent this time around as low as Ralph can go? Probably not. In the 1996 presidential campaign, Nader ran as the Green Party's stealth candidate, turning up infrequently, more an annoying fly than a vigorous gadfly. But that half-hearted run prepared him to campaign in earnest in 2000 and his presence, as Democrats learned to their horror, turned out to be decisive.

One advantage candidate George W. Bush had in 2000 was no serious threat on his right from a third party. For whatever reason, Pat Buchanan's mission in 2000 appeared to be not the hindrance of Bush, but the destruction of Ross Perot's baby, the Reform Party, payback for Perot costing Bush's father the presidency in 1992. Buchanan got more misguided Democratic votes in Florida than those from his own supporters.

Ralph Nader's campaign doubtless will receive clandestine financial support from Republicans, the way Al Sharpton's primary effort has been aided by a long-time Republican operative, Roger Stone. Stone had inspired a National Enquirerheadline during the '96 presidential race: "Top Dole Aide in Sex Orgies Scandal." Later, Stone played an active role in the 2000 Florida recount and now, according to the Village Voice, he has been drumming up monetary and strategic help for Sharpton.

People are catching on that Al Sharpton has never run for an office he could actually win, even though observers have pointed out a few local New York races he could have strongly contested. But his participation often pays off for the other party: In 1992 Sharpton's candidacy in the New York Democratic Senate primary was helpful to the Republican incumbent's reelection that year.

Nader's scorched-earth rants against many beloved Democratic targets will aid the Bush campaign. Though Nader has been a CEO himself all his life, running his hierarchical organizations most authoritatively, he will denounce corporations' undue political power with righteous abandon, making Sen. John Kerry's more moderate criticisms seem to be waffling equivocations from a protector of board-room privilege and greed.

Nader may be right about corporations, but he isn't right about the salubrious effects of marginal parties on national politics. Minor parties are often pawns the two large parties use in the chess game of elections, both local and national. They are invented if necessary, or made more viable than they would be naturally, like Al Sharpton's campaigns.

At this point, Ralph Nader still refuses to confirm the obvious, which is that he cost Al Gore the election in 2000. Nader has a hundred reasons why it wasn't his fault, all of which have theoretical validity, though they remain beside the point.

This election season, Nader is likely to do more subtle damage. He is the butterfly wings that will affect the larger climate of the campaign. If the GOP can use strange characters like Roger Stone effectively, it will make good use of Ralph Nader. Karl Rove and Company knows how to wage a PR war on many fronts.

Commentators of all stripes already have concluded that this will be an "ugly" campaign. President Bush's recent remarks at a fund-raiser for Republican governors, billed as his first re-election speech, set his tone: "The other party's...candidates are an interesting group with diverse opinions. They're for tax cuts and against them. They're for NAFTA and against NAFTA. They're for the Patriot Act and against the Patriot Act. They're in favor of liberating Iraq, and opposed to it. And that's just one senator from Massachusetts."

Bush's tone will swing between such jokes and his serious-and-resolute voice, used when speaking about the war on terror--or calling for a constitutional amendment forbidding gay marriage.

Others, as usual, will do Bush's campaign dirty work, from shadowy back-room figures such as Roger Stone, all the way up to Cabinet members like Bush's Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, who told the nation's governors that the Democratic friendly National Education Association--the largest teachers' union--"is a terrorist organization." Be prepared for more campaign terrorism to come.

3/7/04

 

Concerning Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," here's the important question: Is it good for Bush? Clearly, it is not good for Christian-Jewish relations, though it has inspired endless panels and chatter. If "The Passion" is nominated next year for the Oscars it should be in the foreign film category, given that its actors speak Aramaic and Latin and those in the audience not fluent in either read the subtitles.

Personally, I think the film is a hymn to Mohamed Atta and his 18 "martyred" brothers. The problem with "Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his brother" is that it fits too many religions, especially if they are built around a cult of life sacrifice in order to bring about their version of the greater good.

Gibson's read on Catholicism certainly stresses the sacrificial side, though he is very stingy on the greater good aspects. The gospel of Mel is a series of devotional scenes of lacerating violence and Gibson makes the case that if a mighty wrong is done (in this case, killing Jesus), you will pay for it. When, as Mel puts it, "the Christ" dies, the temple in Jerusalem is rent by an earthquake. Bad times ahead for those Jewish High Priests.

History has absolved Gibson in advance. Pain and suffering has followed since Jesus died. When Christ rises from the dead restored at the film's end he doesn't have a nail-wound scar on his hand, he has a hole through it, which makes a striking visual image, though one theologically nonsensical, but it does stand as a symbol for the empty hole still unfilled in lower Manhattan.

Mel's vision of the world conforms more to President Bush's fundamentalist protestant leanings than it does Catholicism as taught at such places as, say, Notre Dame, though now even Protestants are embracing Catholic devotions, such as the Way of the Cross.

In the war on terror, if somebody else's hand offends us, we cut it off, along with offending eyes, etc. Of course, there is a certain amount of satisfaction to be gained from this. Since 9/11 we've taken over one way or another three countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, and now the half island of Haiti.

This is not the preemptive love-thy-neighbor strategy of the Christ, but the triumphal muscle flexing of the earthquake that follows His death. Gibson's romance with tormented flesh has always been evident in his own Hollywood roles. One of the problems of movie violence is that it is often unrealistic: in so many "action" films a human body (usually the star's) sustains more punishment than anyone could bear, but nonetheless the person survives and prevails.

Jesus, too, in Mel's film, is still walking up to the end, when He's hammered to the cross. Back in my childhood, Sister Mary Sadist went on and on about how the nails were driven into the wrist, not the palm, since the nails would rip through the hand's soft flesh, but wrist bones would make a good grip. Mel goes through the palms, but has Jesus tied to the cross, too.

When the crucified Jesus is finally stabbed with a lance, more liquid gushes out of His side than pea soup from the mouth of Linda Blair in "The Exorcist," another famous Catholic film.

If "realism" was Gibson's aim, he failed most miserably. But the film is a howling success and it will run as another long campaign commercial for President Bush's fundamentalist base. Evangelical churches display its poster; a local farmers' market had them hung behind the farmers' stalls. Rural and church-going folk are being saturated in the message of the movie. Nonetheless, Mel seems rather fond of the film's high-ranking Romans. They all are thinkers. The lowly Roman soldiers are the blood-thirsty barbarians. Gibson likes certain elites. Pontius Pilate walks around muttering about the nature of "veritas," truth, much like Hamlet pondering the mysteries of the universe.

Mel's interested in truth, too. This is his. Gibson's father is a well-known holocaust denier. The father of President Bush's press secretary, Scott McClellan, thinks LBJ killed John F. Kennedy. I know all about "the sins of the father," etc. George W. Bush's father was the forty-first president. I know, that doesn't matter, either.

3/14/04

 

The timing of Martha Stewart's guilty verdict and the release of the disastrous February job report was a happy coincidence for the Bush administration. A two-fer: equal justice for all and enough of a distraction to demote the job report to a footnote over last weekend's news cycle.

No jobs? No problem! Martha's going to jail. A cross-section of the country, though, has expressed sympathy for Stewart, fromThe Wall Street Journal's editorial writers, to the actual jury itself, which wanted any reason at all to set her free, but were nonplused that Martha and her lawyers provided none.

The Wall Street Journal in the gentlest of ways chided Stewart for lying, saying, "Certainly we all want to discourage lying, not least in our markets," forgetting it wanted to drive an elected president from office for just that type of offense. But Bill Clinton was caught lying about sex, whereas poor Martha was merely lying about money.

So Stewart is out of a job, like any number of Americans. Many jobs in her case, since she had an excess of jobs, as well as an excess of everything else. She, like many in the workforce, has withdrawn from even looking for work, while she's under threat of cooling her well-groomed heels in a federal spa/pen for a number of months, at taxpayers' expense.

My first memory of Stewart was an advertisement; she had lined a swimming pool with credit cards, creating a Roman mosaic effect. Martha could make something out of nothing. That has always been her pitch: she showed the housewives of America how to turn junk into gold.

That was a timely thing to do during the junk bond era and the speculative stock bubble decade. Martha Stewart is one of the most successful purveyors of the do-it-yourself school, a field which has a long, rich history in our culture.

Her vision was how to get people to do work for free, a more delicate kind of sweat equity for middle class women with some time on their hands. See those pine cones on the ground? You can do marvelous things with them. Martha changed America's color palette: it was no longer beige, blue and green, but some tastefully mixed shades of beige, blue and green. Stewart helped the world discover the color teal.

Now the Bush administration is following Stewart's do-it-yourself ethic. It doesn't create jobs; it wants workers to create them themselves. Harness that entrepreneurial spirit. No work? Start your own business. Self-employment is up, according to the Household survey. Perhaps someone wants to buy all those golden pine cones, or have pools lined with maxed-out credit cards.

The 21,000 jobs created in February, far short of the 150,000 expected, weren't in the private sector, but were government jobs. President Bush, unfortunately, is off-shoring most of the government jobs he is creating, sending the workers abroad to help build various nations around the world.

The Labor Department said that unemployment rate in February held "steady" at 5.6 percent. But, this is the Labor Department headed by Elaine Chao, who, after January's own disappointing job report, said, "Well, the stock market is, after all, the final arbiter. And the stock market was very strong," the day that report was issued. Chao should be Secretary of the Stock Market, instead of Labor.

Putting Martha Stewart, the queen of make-work, in jail may not improve the job picture, any more than the pro-investor policies of the Bush administration will. The president's economic adviser, N. Gregory (Mr. Outsourcing is Good) Mankiw, who Bush still sends out to explain the lack of jobs, said last week on CNN's The Money Gang, "The labor market is a lagging indicator." And lag it does. Mankiw went on: "We believe in reforming the tort system so that businesses can expand and not worry about frivolous law suits." Too bad the Bush administration didn't save Martha Stewart with a little well-placed tort reform. Her business will not be expanding, though there will be an increase in the country's do-it-yourselfers looking for something to do.

3/21/04

 

The presumptive Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's verbal "gaffe" caught by a open mike, calling his Republican opposition "the most crooked...lying group I've ever seen," was extremely, for Kerry, un-nuanced.

Another gaffe, his charge about foreign leaders wanting him in and President Bush out, made at a Florida fundraiser, was of grander import. Last year's intemperate aside about Howard Dean, "You can't make 15 gaffes a week and be president," was an off-the-cuff insult, not intended to be repeated, like the derogatory comment candidate Bush made about a New York Times reporter to Dick Cheney back in 2000 that was recorded and broadcast. Fifteen gaffes might be the magic number, too, for Sen. Kerry: no more than two a month allowed until Nov. 5. He needs to start cutting back.

The switch in government from conservative to socialist in Spain might be unfortunate for the Bush administration, but it has also kept Kerry's "foreign leaders" remark alive: Various cabinet members, as well as President Bush, are demanding that Kerry name the leaders he had in mind.

As the Bush administration exaggerated the WMDs threat, the al-Qaida-linked train bombings in Madrid have been exaggerated as the act that toppled Spain's government. But Nicolas Checa, an employee of Henry Kissinger's consulting firm, pointed out on PBS that polls showed the election was "a statistical dead heat" the morning of the attacks. The Aznar government's attempt to dupe the public about who perpetrated the bombings, not just the bombings themselves, caused a larger voter turnout that sealed the Socialists' victory.

Aznar had other problems previous to the bombings: Spain has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe; and Aznar, a la Alan Greenspan, had proposed drastic cutbacks in Spain's social security system. Aznar and Bush's policies have similarities beyond troops in Iraq.

But in campaign years complicated facts get reduced to simple slogans: "Al-Qaida wins the Spanish election!" is the version that will prevail.

A new study from the Project for Excellence in Journalism reveals two disturbing trends: one, there is less thorough, serious reporting being done or read. Solid simplifications trump messy complexities. And, second, because of cable's 24/7 news stations, the raw stuff of news is substituting for analysis itself. "Fair and balanced" is becoming a version of "Make it up yourself."

Prime Minister-elect Zapatero says he will bring home the 1,300 Spanish troops at the end of June if the UN isn't involved in the running of Iraq by then. President Bush also hopes to bring home troops then, too, though most likely no more than the small number Spain has there, since the end of June is the date "sovereignty" is to be transferred back to the Iraqis.

Even President Bush would like the UN to play some role in Iraq, however symbolic. What is being successfully run there and will remain permanently under U.S. control is Iraq's oil industry. Oil production has reached prewar levels. The White House's protestations that the Iraq war was not about oil were always suspect. It wasn't about WMDs, either. Finally, it was a humanitarian venture.

Iraq's connection to 9/11 was less a fact than the absent WMDs. Updating the Iraqi oil fields will continue. But Saudi Arabia, the home of many of 9/11's attackers, has, for the first time, granted natural gas exploration contracts to Russian, Chinese, Italian and Spanish oil companies. On NPR, Prince Faisal claimed, much to his surprise U.S. bids came in "second place in every single contract." We might have gained Iraq's oil, but we are beginning to lose our lock on Saudi Arabia's.

The Bush administration continues its own policy gaffes when it comes to the corrupt House of Saud, starting with arranging the Bin Laden family's and other Saudis' exit from our shores shortly after 9/11. But, if Bush wanted to take over another Middle Eastern oil-rich country, all he'd have to do is point our guns already there at the Saudis, rather than away from them.

3/28/04

 

During the last two presidential races the term "the permanent campaign" was tossed about, describing the state of continuous politicking by both parties, each eye cocked on the next national election. This time around things have speeded up and we have, for good or ill, a permanent election.

Polls appear regularly and are greeted as snapshots of the electorate; each week either John Kerry or George W. Bush is declared the winner by the media. This week John Kerry wins.

One cause of this, of course, was the 2000 election, the election that never ended, though it was called to a halt by the Supreme Court. If elections aren't over when they're over, electing never stops. Another reason was the creation of red (Republican) and blue (Democrat) America in 2000, a national electorate starkly divided: Two countries, but one president.

The 2004 election stands to become another coin toss: heads or tails, red or blue? In 2000, only Ralph Nader contended loudly that there was hardly a whit of difference between the two parties. This time even Nader has toned down that rhetoric. But the present clear-cut choice is what accounts for the campaign already being characterized as "mean" and "ugly."

Why this state of affairs? The buck stops in the oval office. Bush claimed, beyond being a compassionate conservative, to be a uniter, not a divider. After 9/11 the country united itself and stayed united when our military overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan and scattered the remnants of al-Qaida there.

But President Bush broke apart that unity when he chose to go preemptively into Iraq and that is why his Iraq policy is the centerpiece of his election strategy and why the release of the former "counterterrorism czar" Richard Clarke's book, Against All Enemies, and the 9/11 Commission's public hearings this past week, carries such weight.

The Bush administration's early and focused desire to attack Iraq has been in the news for months. Bush's former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's account, related in the book The Price of Loyalty, claims it was the first thing the newly elected president wanted to do. Richard Clarke's book confirms it.

At this point, it seems rather futile for the White House to protest differently, though it continues to do so. Indeed, what the 9/11 Commission hearings depressingly revealed was that Bush's pre-9/11 policy toward al-Qaida was no more active or effective than Bill Clinton's, and arguably less. Senior Bush advisers had downplayed the capabilities of bin Laden's group, Clarke's book reveals. But President Bush had been told al-Qaida was dangerous; on 9/11 he knew it.

Bush resisted creating the 9/11 Commission, then tried to neuter it by making Henry Kissinger its head. One can now see why. The hearings have had a similar effect to the release of the Watergate tapes of the Nixon White House: Both the O'Neill version and Clarke's book relate the same sort of private insider conversations that the Nixon tapes supplied; and the 9/11 Commission's public testimony has filled in the big picture.

President Bush considers Iraq to be at the heart of his war on terror. It certainly has consumed the most blood and treasure and will continue to do so. Whatever the base of Bush's personal desire to remove Saddam (Bush's father's unfinished business, etc.), it played into the theories of the administration's tacticians (Paul Wolfowitz's principally) of how to reorder the Middle East and eventually, in domino-theory fashion, to reduce terrorism by creating democracies and cowing tyrants.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration's prevailing grand theory may not be correct. Iraq, post-Saddam, could become another theist state, as prickly as Saudi Arabia, eventually as uncontrollable. Or it could become a fractious state that would allow us a continuous presence, a Guantanamo Bay base for U.S. oil interests in the Middle East. In our divided country, unlike in Iraq, there will be an election this November. And the blunt choice will be to assent to Bush's vision of the world or to refute it. About this, President Bush is right: Iraq is at the heart of the matter.

4/4/04

 

Thankfully, the promised lull in the presidential campaign has finally arrived--at least on the Democratic side. John Kerry has been skiing and falling down ("knocked-over"), even though his shoulder needed an operation, which he had, that has put him into recovery mode: No handshaking for a week or two.

Kerry, though, had been returning fire from his opulent vacation home after GOP attacks, making jokes about Dick Cheney emerging from his "undisclosed location" in order to criticize him, and traveling to warm climates to campaign and raise money.

The Republicans have been less cheery, but more active. They have been contending with sour insider recollections from unhappy civil servants: A small flap caused by a Medicare actuary saying his more accurate and higher estimation of the costs of Bush's new Medicare bill was shelved in order to keep his job and the ongoing tempest surrounding former terror chief Richard Clarke's revelations concerning the White House's lackadaisical response to pre-9/11 terror threats. What is clear, though, is Clarke's lack of regard for President Bush's role in shaping policy. Though much has been said and written about Bush's remarks, quoted by Clarke, urging Clarke to search out the possibility that Saddam Hussein had a hand in 9/11, the main thrust of Clarke's critique is that, in contrast to Bill Clinton, Bush was hardly "engaged."

Paul O'Neill, once Bush's Treasury Secretary, also highlighted in his own account Bush's lack of direct involvement in policy discussions. This aspect of Bush clearly bothers his former officials more than it seems to bother the public.

Since the end of the Nixon administration Americans have thought differently about the presidency. Gerald Ford was a placeholder. Jimmy Carter was faulted more for his micro-managing, or, rather, his lack of being able to manage the problems of his one term--the hostage crisis, inflation, gas prices--than for his symbolic governing style. The change to symbol over substance was more or less made permanent by the election of Ronald Reagan.

President Bush governs in the Reagan manner, not his father's. He has a few ideas, like Reagan, and their simplicity appeals both to him and voters. And they are implemented and fleshed-out by others. Advisers, outside of Bush's personal inner circle, are not going to get intellectual give-and-take from him. "I won't negotiate with myself," Bush has said. Both O'Neill and Clarke found that more than disquieting.

Thus far, though, the public seems to approve.

Indeed, Bush's approach is the reverse of Bill Clinton's. Clinton was more like Richard Nixon: wanting things done his way, but willing to argue over complicated ideas and compromise. But Nixon was brought down by a criminal scandal. Clinton's presidency was weakened by personal scandal. One of the sober lessons of the 9/11 commission is how costly the Republicans' obsession with Clinton's sex life was. If Clinton's counter-terror policies had been supported with the same passion the Republicans showed for Clinton's impeachment, Osama bin Laden may well have been neutralized long before 9/11.

But, the hatred of Bill Clinton wasn't the same sort Republicans now accuse Democrats of having for Bush. Clinton was hated by elected members of Congress and stalwart GOP lawyers and benefactors, most of whom were plugged into the power structure of Washington, D.C. The Democrats who profess to "hate" Bush are mainly non-government professionals, journalists and entertainers. And very few share the zeal or effectiveness of the "vast right-wing conspiracy." And, of course, the hatred of Clinton was doubled. Hillary Clinton was hated as well. No one hates Laura Bush.

There is no vast left-wing conspiracy, because what "hatred" there is is very public, not scheming behind the scenes. And though President Bush said after his Thanksgiving trip to Iraq that he and his national security adviser and traveling companion Condi Rice looked like "a normal couple" (a normal couple driving in Crawford, Texas!), whatever Rice's current problems--scheduled now to testify in public before the 9/11 commission--she is no Hillary Clinton.

4/11/04

 

Church services on Easter Sunday when I was young always had the incongruous atmosphere of a happy funeral. Everyone dressed up, children especially; spring flowers had bloomed and though death was in the air it was joyous, given the expansive mood of the adults and the abundant floral decorations all around: Christ had risen.

This Easter the world is full of funerals, but few are happy. It is an Easter more suited to Mel Gibson than to the risen Christ. Jesus, in Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ, has risen to kick butt, as solitary in His resurrection as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator when he first lands on earth.

God is getting the blame for a lot of deaths these days. God ordered Deanna Laney to kill her sons with a stone and this week her Abraham defense got her off: The jury believed she was crazy, crazy with the word of the Lord.

Abraham was going to sacrifice his son, Isaac, make him a burnt offering, but God stayed his hand, but not the hand of Andrea Yates, like Laney another Texan, who drowned her children in a bathtub a while back, but Yates' deadly baptisms were judged sane and she was convicted. Islamic jihadists, including the 19 perpetrators of 9/11, continue to die for their God, getting their tickets punched for the paradise beyond. Palestinian children offer themselves as suicide bombers, though one of the youngest balked at the honor.

In the Middle East death is both random and specific. Israel targeted a spiritual leader and dispatched him to his maker with a rocket. Hamas and other terrorists groups will outfit more children with explosives and kill whomever is in the vicinity.

Meanwhile, this Easter walls are making a comeback. Israel is turning itself into its own golden ghetto, walling off the Palestinian territories for its own safety. The bitter irony of Israel erecting its own wall, the Warsaw-ization of the country, makes this Passover especially dour. The Old City of Jerusalem, of course, is walled, since the history of ancient cities is often the history of warfare and security.

In Iraq, our military is walling off a number of towns, sealing perimeters, establishing checkpoints. This Easter we are after a Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, who has stirred up his followers with anti-American invective. It was Sadr's newspaper that our military shut down recently, provoking disturbances.

In Fallujah, the world got to see the unimpeded spectacle of more burnt offerings, Isaac style, without God in form of the Marines stepping in to prevent dead Americans from being dragged about the city and hung up on a bridge spanning the Euphrates, one of the legendary rivers I was taught many Easter's ago led to the birth of civilization.

Well, Fallujah was a spectacle of civilization and its discontents. Now, we are encircling that city, burdened with the challenge of pacifying its citizens, while stateside retired generals and state department officials on cable news programs say we have to kill more of the insurgents more efficiently.

The subtext of a lot of the commentary about how to control Iraq is the need to act more like Saddam Hussein in his heyday.

The four employees of the private army supplier Blackwater USA were dispatched with no more skill involved than the average drive-by killing. Another Blackwater mercenary a few days later told his wife that the four men "didn't follow procedures" and were "new" to the country, which accounted for their demise.

Obviously, such rationalizations might be necessary for other Blackwater employees to believe. Blaming co-workers for their own slaughter is a bit cold, but that goes with the territory. But the Bush administration is full of calming rationalizations itself, including the claim that we will hand over Iraq to the Iraqis on June 30th. We bought ourselves a hornet's nest in Iraq and this Easter it is far from a happy place. Where Christ goes after He rises in Mel Gibson's film is anyone's guess, but it is clear He is going to settle some scores. Where we are going in Iraq is equally unknown, but the road ahead is full of peril.

4/18/06

 

The 9/11 commission is a painful exercise for all involved, since it conjures the troubling world of what might have been. The 9/11 commission and the Warren Commission on the murder of President Kennedy have one major similarity: both involve assassinations. The perpetrators of 9/11 mimicked assassins, both in their stealth and surprise and in their selection of targets. They meant to kill something specific, not just destroy lives and terrorize a population.

They wanted to kill what the WTC towers symbolized, what the Pentagon symbolized, what the Capitol symbolized.

Condoleezza Rice, in her commission testimony, claimed there was no "silver bullet" that could have prevented 9/11. The commission's work has shown otherwise.

Commissioner Bob Kerrey's frequent lament, about how "19 men with less than half a million dollars could defeat every single defensive mechanism we had in place, utterly," needs an answer. One potential silver bullet was available and its implementation would have been very cheap. But no one ascribed enough importance to it to have moved forward forcefully. It was to make clear to the airlines that hijackings had evolved, that planes could be used as weapons, that "Take me to Cuba" was no longer the modus operandi.

But no one saw the connection clearly, even with all the facts that were available. Contrary to Condoleezza Rice's protestations, many people, beyond thriller authors, had considered the possibility that planes could be used as weapons. The much discussed PDB (president's daily brief) of August, 2001, mentions hijackings twice, and the word "sensational" once. The thwarted millennium bombing plot in 1999 of some 11 planes, had introduced the additional critical element, the notion of attacking more than one plane at a time.

But, an administration is often a reflection of the president. No one was curious or imaginative enough to come up with any brilliant and cheap "actionable" ideas: "The terrorists were plotting, why weren't we?" is the melancholy underlying question the 9/11 commissioners seem to be asking. The question, if not "the buck," stops at the president's desk.

Citizens presume the government is protecting them and "secrecy" is what makes that hopeful, but often illusionary, wishful-thinking possible. But secrecy can put people in peril. The unprecedented release of a current president's PDB, like the White House Watergate tapes of the Nixon era, shows how little the Bush administration's inner circle knew and how unimaginative it was. Americans like to think the people high up are smart and capable, but there continues to be a lot of evidence to the contrary.

The released PDB is especially disturbing because of its vapidity alone: Folks who closely read the news before Aug. 6, 2001, could have prepared it themselves. But, if there had been anyone in a position of authority "tasked" not only with "thinking," but "acting," what could easily have been seen is this: Shouldn't there be a plan formulated to deal with a situation that could be considered "sensational"? What should we do if more than one plane was hijacked? Two? Or three? Shouldn't there be an action plan if that ever happens? Should we make it clear to the public and the airlines that hijacking isn't necessarily your father's sort any longer, that hijacking may be a death sentence and the passengers and crew should take action commensurate with the threat?

Instead of sending run-of-the-mill memos to the FAA, the FBI/CIA could have met with heads of the airlines. Terrorists attack the public and that makes secrecy itself a public danger. It only took a bit of knowledge and a few minutes for the folks aboard the Pennsylvania-downed 9/11 plane to act.

Of course, none of this does much good, all this coulda-shoulda-woulda. The problem, though, is that given the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no evidence that the Bush administration has gotten any better today at imagining what might occur and formulating plans to deal with it successfully.

4/25/06

Why the Bush White House cooperated so assiduously with Bob Woodward for his new book, Plan of Attack, remains puzzling. Woodward's career has been unique: once having gotten a taste for changing history with his early '70s Watergate reporting, he continues to want to be a player in current events, not merely history's chronicler.

Woodward's first book on the Bush presidency, Bush at War, was considered a plus for President Bush. But why was that book aided by the White House?

One answer, of course, is that Bush's handlers decided Woodward could write a book without the president's approval, so by cooperating they could help shape it. Woodward is a curious hybrid, an investigative reporter who values the status quo. He is the official scribe of Washington power politics. Woodward's books are written in a mock heroic style, shorn of editorial comment, which anoints all the participants with grandeur and gravitas, especially, in Bush at War's case, President Bush.

Woodward, since the Watergate days, has been dogged with rumors that he has ties to the CIA, since his military service included intelligence work in the vicinity of Gen. Alexander Haig, who became President Nixon's last Chief of Staff and one of the perennial candidates for being "Deep Throat," the principal source for Woodward and Carl Bernstein's Watergate work.

Nonetheless, Woodward seems sympathetic to those in the CIA who think it is being misused and abused, this time by its director, George Tenet.

Woodward and his books embody the Washington establishment's view of how the world works: they are hymns to the powerful, cartoon-like in the simplicity of their presentation. Woodward's establishment (made up of long-term government and legal insiders and media world movers and shakers) turned against Bill Clinton at the end of his besieged presidency, concluding Clinton was just too "Arkansas" for its taste.

Some of Woodward's revelations in Plan of Attack confirm the obvious, but they have to be taken seriously.

And serious they are. The most shocking is not Bush's march to war in Iraq beginning shortly after taking office, since that is by now well-known and hardly disputed, but the on-going Bush administration's close ties to the Saudis and the remarkable fact that Prince Bandar was shown the Iraq war plan and told the war was on before Sec. of State Colin Powell had been informed it was a go.

Even more disturbing, Woodward writes of the Saudi's pledge to "fine-tune oil prices over 10 months to prime the economy for 2004" to help insure a Bush second term.

Of all the venom aimed by the Republican's far-right legions at Bill Clinton, accusations of taking money and having corrupt relationships with shady foreign figures lurking around Little Rock were particularly prominent.

Over the years, the Saudi royal family and the Bushes have been so close they appear related. The current high gas prices allow the Saudis to take their profits now. The dip that will take place in the fall will barely be noticed by them and after Nov. 5, the prices will be able to rise again.

During the Iraq invasion our military made use of the high-tech underground command and control bases we built in Saudi Arabia over the years and our government continues to look the other way even after the Saudis nurtured 15 of the terrorists who manned the 9/11 attacks; and it looks the other way as the Saudi royal family suppresses whomever it wishes and enriches those it chooses to, including the Bush family and its circle.

Those in Bob Woodward's establishment world consider such circumstances business as usual: some people always profit off of other's misery.

But, given Woodward's book, it appears Washington's power brokers harbor some discontent. That might be because the bellicose Bush brigade is not showing the requisite competence to handle all they bit off. The chewing has been hard and unsightly for a while. Woodward's book may be an attempt to correct such behavior, a signal to announce a Trump-like, "You're fired" to George Tenet. If the public doesn't care about the message, Woodward and those he represents do. And they expect the Bush White House to pay attention.

5/2/06

 

The only war that the Bush Administration is fighting with great skill and imagination, aided by wisdom gleaned from past experience, is the war against John Kerry's Vietnam war (and anti-war) record. Bush has had practice: All his previous major national opponents (John McCain and Al Gore) have been Vietnam vets.

Unlike in Iraq, President Bush has the help of embedded operatives throughout the country, locals willing to be even more gung-ho in the viciousness of their attacks than Bush himself. His troops also include his closest White House confidants, including Vice President Cheney and Bush's language-nanny Karen Hughes. They've been sent out to snap and snarl at Kerry.

And then there are the congressional platoons, the veterans of the Clinton wars, experts at slandering Democrats, along with the fedayeen of right-wing cable personalities such as Sean Hannity and old radio stalwarts like Rush Limbaugh.

The Bush administration doesn't do defense very well--that fact, unfortunately, is being demonstrated in Iraq. So, when it comes to the touchy business of Bush's own state-side and irregular military service, after stumbling badly trying to put a good face on it, the administration has chosen to attack. The theme of the GOP's assault on John Kerry is its portrayal of Kerry having a Janus nature: first he's one thing, then the other.

John Kerry does represent the ambivalence of the Sixties' generation. In fact, he generally represents liberals' ambivalence about a lot of things: Kerry can see both sides. Luckily, for Bush, he only sees one side. That makes him appear resolute. In politics, some defects can appear to be virtues.

Kerry gave the Bush team what they wanted by being two-sided: a warrior and an anti-war warrior. In an early Bush ad attacking Kerry, the president's campaign inserted a recent tape of Kerry saying he voted for the $87 billion Iraq appropriation before he voted against it. The ad-makers were pleased as punch: Kerry made their point for them. The sound-bite was just right, since they left out Kerry's explanation: first he voted yes when there was a way to pay for it; the no came when there wasn't.

Kerry's Vietnam service is being played the same way: first he's for that war, then he's against it. Kerry's youthful anti-war work, his claim that he and fellow Vietnam veterans committed "atrocities," is credited by the Bush campaign as the reason that Kerry is now weak on defense. Kerry voted for the Iraq war, then he voted against it, didn't he? If you stop there, all is clear: if thinking is required, it gets more complicated.

So, for the past week, Kerry has had to defend throwing medals (or ribbons) away during a Vietnam Veterans Against the War protest. Bush's campaign piranhas have been so effective questioning Kerry's first Purple Heart and the extent of his injuries that Kerry released his war-time medical records.

The GOP attack, of course, is shameless, but Republican campaign operatives have a long track record for being without shame. They claimed the multiple-amputee veteran Max Cleland lacked courage (!) during Cleland's 2002 Senate reelection campaign, which he lost to Saxby Chambliss, a shameless nonveteran. This take-no-prisoners style of campaigning, of course, had its biggest success in Florida, 2000. It resulted in Bush achieving the presidency. The GOP is sticking with what works.

Dick Cheney and other Bush war-mongers now can start wars of their own choosing, even after having avoided serving in the war they didn't choose when they were young. Cheney had other "priorities" back then, as he once put it.

Bush shared with Bill Clinton (and the majority of their peers) his own youthful ambivalence about serving in Vietnam. Clinton danced away from being drafted. Bush side-stepped having to fight in Vietnam, while maintaining his political options, something Bill Clinton also attempted (and succeeded) to do. But the Bush forces have been deployed successfully to tar John Kerry's war record and to demonize his anti-war work. Would that they were as clever and effective in the current war in Iraq where they have sent the young to fight and die on their behalf.

5/9/06

 

The most recent photographs heard 'round the world, those from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, are certainly disturbing, but they are equally illuminating of our experience in that beleaguered country.

The photographs themselves are worth a thousand words. The smiles on the faces of the reservists are the most telling: It is the play-acting, look-what-we're-doing wonder of the moment that the National Guard members display. Those featuring the young woman soldier, gesticulating in a sassy "mean girl" manner, pointing toward the groin of the naked Iraqi men, are especially meaningful. Aren't we bad? Let's photograph everything and videotape it, too. It's not as much fun if we can't relive it later.

These snapshots recall a host of American images. They recall the Air Force Academy's episodes of male abuse of female students; they recall Tailhook Navy pilot conventions. Rush Limbaugh wasn't completely wrong comparing some of this behavior to fraternity hijinks and rumored Skull & Bones rituals at Yale. The extreme examples of that kind of hazing demonstrate the same sort of adolescent sadism, not the hardened psychopath's kind.

The descriptions of the snapshots in The New York Times read in their graphic vividness like out-takes from the Starr Report. The sexual act simulations depicted are the type of cheesy porn shots amateurs attempt. One assault alleged copied the Abner Louima case of a few years ago, when New York City cops used a handy object to sodomize Louima in a police station bathroom.

But the most striking Iraq prison image is the one of the clothed prisoner, standing shrouded, wearing a peaked Klan-like head covering, festooned with wires. That picture is weirdly evocative, reminiscent of a number of paintings and provocative works of art--this one part Mel Gibson poster, part Goya etching.

In the photos thus far released, digitized in most cases making them look even more bizarre, none of the M.P. guards appear ashamed of what they are doing, since they weren't really "torturing" the men, or so they assumed. See, we're still the good guys, the guards' smiles project.

That of course is what the White House says about the Iraq war all together: That we're the good guys, bringing democracy to the oppressed people of Iraq. If we engage in atrocities, or war crimes, it is by accident, or it is an aberration. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld doesn't consider the pictured abuse "torture," in any case. That we used one of Saddam Hussein's most infamous prisons at all, hadn't torn it down, shows a fatal lack of understanding of our supposed purpose in Iraq.

The treatment of prisoners in Iraq follows the Afghanistan model. The military kept John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban, in a metal box. And combatants are still kept in cages in Guantanamo. Why would we expect better behavior in Iraq? Some state-side American prisons have been hell-holes that eventually became ignominious enough to be reformed or closed; suspects are beaten in city jails.

But, it is the failure to take responsibility for anything that has become the Bush administration's hallmark. The military did its job. The Army's report on the abuse was completed in February, but the top brass and the Bush administration didn't act till CBS broadcast the pictures. For the White House, that was a familiar response. Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who ran the Iraq prisons, also claims no knowledge of the abuses taking place under her watch. Gen. Karpinski has done little to promote equality of the sexes in the military, except in showing the same eagerness her male counterparts have to disavow responsibility.

Of course, President Bush doesn't claim responsibility either. The bad news didn't work its way up to him, just as the threat of al-Qaida didn't seem to register. No one in the Bush administration admits mistakes. That policy trickles down.

The National Guard members, the playful sadists, are set to take the fall. They are the "aberrations". But aren't heroes rare, too? We might not have found WMDs in Iraq, but we have provided our foes in the Middle East with fresh propaganda and new evidence of their worst fears and most outrageous charges.

5/16/04

 

Poor General Taguba. At last Tuesday's Armed Forces Committee hearing, the military's straight-shooter was chaperoned by two flak catchers for the administration, their presence meant to keep him on a short leash. The most egregious flak, the one not wearing a uniform, Stephen Cambone, an undersecretary of defense, claimed Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba's damning Abu Ghraib report wasn't in all ways accurate. But Cambone's chief purpose was to speak first and pronounce his bosses, George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, blameless for any of the bad apple reservists' misdeeds.

Undersecretary Cambone spun PR faster than any top, saying President Bush should be praised for proclaiming that prisoners everywhere should be treated "humanely." Nothing done wrong should be ascribed to the president, since he set the high, moral tone. Ditto for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.

President Bush did set the tone in his 2003 State of the Union speech, when he boasted that many suspected terrorists who weren't arrested were "no longer a problem for the United States." Wink, wink. That set a decidedly extra-legal tone.

There is no need to be naive: That a war on terror could be fought without our side being a bit terrible on occasion is difficult to imagine. But, the President wants Americans to think we can do it without dirtying our hands--that it is evil-doers vs. the saints--just as he wants voters to believe he can end taxation for the super rich and have a robust economy that serves the elderly and the needy.

So many disasters in recent history have been the for-want-of-a-nail sort: A chunk of foam falls from the shuttle's tank and fatally wounds the craft, more or less ending the U.S. manned space program. The FAA doesn't bother to change the hijacking protocol and 19 men with box cutters and mail-ordered mace bring down the WTC buildings and smash a wall of the Pentagon.

Looters in Iraq do more damage in Baghdad with their hands than all our modern weaponry managed to do and Donald Rumsfeld declares, "Stuff happens."

Stuff certainly does happen. In the case of the Abu Ghraib photos, it appears from reports, a father of an accused soldier thought his son was being railroaded and was put in touch with a producer from CBS. The photos subsequently broadcast provoked outrage around the world and hearings here at home. Then Rumsfeld's defense department treats Taguba at a hearing as a bothersome whistle blower in need of supervision.

Should Secretary Rumsfeld resign? Why? Because stuff happens? The Abu Ghraib photographs, despite their disproportional effect, are the least of Rumsfeld's problems: he was unprepared for a quick "victory" in Iraq; he didn't foresee Saddam Hussein's Trojan Horse strategy; he didn't provide sufficient troops to garrison the country; and he relied on faulty intelligence throughout. And photographs of humiliated Iraq detainees will bring him down?

President Bush got rid of Paul O'Neill, his first treasury secretary, because O'Neill didn't support Bush's spending binge vigorously enough. But, Rumsfeld is Dick Cheney's man and the vice president has been even more effusive in his praise of Rumsfeld's work than President Bush, who stopped at "superb."

Bush won't cross Cheney. When President George H.W. Bush selected Dan Quayle as his veep, it was reported that the senior Bush wanted someone in the job Asmaller than "life." In George W.'s case, he picked someone bigger than himself. Rumsfeld is as likely to resign as Cheney is. Only a medical disaster would remove him from the ticket.

The entire Bush campaign is based on not changing war horses midstream, sticking with those that brought you the war on terror and the Iraq occupation. There will be no previews of ditching one nag for another before November's election.

The difficulty with stuff happening, the small things that result in huge consequences, is that they are hard to spot until some terrible outcome makes them obvious. But, there is little evidence that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld know how to see such problems before they arise and even less evidence that they can fix them when they do.

5/23/04

 

President Bush has been accused often of overseeing a jobless economic recovery. And, of late, John Kerry hasn't had much of an anticipated recovery in the polls, given all the bad news from Iraq the Bush administration has had to absorb.

True, Kerry is up a point or two on Bush in some polls, but when Ralph Nader's portion is added in, the race remains, as predicted, head to head. Those polled are acting like employers who held back on hiring last year, making those with jobs work harder, while keeping wages flat.

Likewise, John Kerry's poll numbers may finally rise if the public's insecurity about Iraq lessens. The conventional wisdom is that the election is a hostage to events, given the polarization of the electorate. But it appears that John Kerry at this point is a hostage to events himself. Both friend and foe want him to answer the question, "What would you do?" to fix the Iraq problem.

Kerry is being asked to offer a solution to a problem not of his own making. He voted to give President Bush the leeway to attack Iraq, though, at the time of the vote, it appeared necessary to endorse what was a successful policy on the part of the Bush administration. Saddam Hussein had been put in a diplomatic lock box: UN inspectors had been reintroduced into the country, foreign state sentiment was opposed to his policies. Bush's big-stick threat had more or less cowed the dictator. Voting for the use of force in Iraq increased the White House's leverage. But then that pressurized containment strategy was abandoned and Bush went to war.

Kerry later made another symbolic vote, a vote against endorsing the $87 billion down payment on the astronomical cost of the Iraq adventure. That vote, too, was meant to send a signal: that, unlike the first strategy, the second--the war and occupation--was ill-advised and badly thought out. In the way of the Senate, Kerry would not have cast a "no" vote if he actually thought the bill wouldn't pass and the soldiers left deprived.

President Bush, though, does not make symbolic votes; he is in an acting role, not a thinking role. That puts John Kerry at a disadvantage, one that he appears to be suffering from now, reflected in the small movement upward in the campaign polls.

Kerry has answers to the "What would you do?" question, but not until July's Democratic convention will many pay attention. By then, the cascade of gay marriages in Massachusetts--as well as other pressing matters--may have abated enough to leave some room on the front pages of the nation's papers and the public may be prepared to listen, at last.

As the Bush administration tries to make the normal job numbers of the last two months appear to be the second coming of the '90s boom economy (though, even if the last four months' rate of increase holds, Bush will have replaced only half of the 3 million jobs lost during his presidency), Kerry expects the convention will provide him and his party with the lift Democrats have been hoping for.

Kerry will, by all reports, name his vice-president before the convention begins, but he also would do well to name key members of his cabinet. Because the best answer to the "What would you do?" question would be to name the folk he intends to substitute for those individuals who have failed so miserably in Iraq: It isn't just a matter of policies, but of personnel.

Kerry should give the American people not just the choice of a different president, but the choice of a different government. Name not only Dick Cheney's replacement, but Donald Rumsfeld's, along with Rumsfeld's policy team in the