Sun-Times Jan. 4, 2004 - Dec. 26, 2004
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Defense Department. Kerry should name who would replace John Ashcroft as Attorney General, as well as the feckless head of the CIA, George Tenet. Kerry should stand alongside his picks on the stage in Boston.
Whatever events the election is held hostage to can be countered by a clear choice presented to the voting public: Here are the folk who brought you the preemptive war against their former client dictator, as well as the botched occupation and here are my people who will try to repair both countries, ours and Iraq's. That would answer what Kerry would do.
On this Memorial Day weekend--and those to come--it is not the similarities between the Iraq and Vietnam wars that may turn out to be critical, it is the differences. A likely important one is the answer to the question, Who dies?
Over the last few months a number of TV programs and publications have run pictures of the American dead, now approaching 1000, along with their ages and hometowns. Jim Lehrer's PBS News Hour does this regularly and as the photos and names scroll by the message is clear: the average age of the U.S. dead in Iraq is higher than that in the Vietnam era. It is because of the reservists deployed there: Soldiers in their 30s, who have families back home, children, jobs, the sort of people who have already started their careers.
In Vietnam, during the peak of the killing years, because of the youthful harvest of the draft, many unmarried young men, barely out of their teens--boys whose military service was their first steady job--would be those who died: 61 percent of the men killed in the Vietnam War were age 21 or under. And there was a disproportionate number of black youths among them. Now, those dying are more a cross-section of the modern military and that cross-section looks a lot more like that of the general population.
In Vietnam, first lieutenants were killed off so regularly recruiting standards eased and that is how that war's most famous junior officer, Lt. William Calley, got to wander into the village of My Lai and oversee killing all the women and children and old men in it.
But the Iraq war's deaths mirrors its purported cause, if we go along with the president and consider the conflict part of the larger war on terror: The World Trade Center and Pentagon deaths were workplace fatalities. The Iraq war is very much an American workplace, resulting in the deaths of not only military casualties, but of many civilian contractors working in Iraq.
Recently, the Selective Service System has been restocking local draft boards and there have been a few calls in Congress, from Sen. Chuck Hagel (R.-Neb.) and Rep. Charles Rangel (D.-N.Y.) among others, to bring back the draft. Until the last few weeks, young people have supported Bush's war more than the general population has: now that support has decreased to the same level.
Talk of a restored draft may have contributed to the dampening of the college campus enthusiasm for the president's policies and desire for preemptive war. The draft, back in the days of the Vietnam war, was the precious baby of academic social scientists. Its many sorts of deferments were tools for an engineered society: it kept the "smart" kids in higher education; it promoted marriage and families; it was fashioned for those, like Vice President Cheney, who had "other priorities" back then.
Stopping the draft ended that particular social experiment and another one began. The draft had become too much of a headache for the Nixon administration and the Pentagon during the long Vietnam war and thanks to the Baby Boom there were plenty of young men available to fill the military's needs without it.
Vietnam protest on campuses diminished as the draft ended, but, when the polls turned against that war in the early 1970s, it was because the draft threatened parents more than it scared the young. The much-talked-about unfairness of the draft had its impact. When the adults stopped supporting the war and the draft the public opinion tide turned.
In Iraq, older reservists continue to die, mixed in with the fresh faces of the volunteer army. Unlike Vietnam, Iraqis are not waging a guerilla war to secure independence from the vestiges of a colonial power. It is a hybrid, part sectarian conflict, part terrorist with a political agenda insurgency, so the killing is general, as is the mix of our dead.
If Congress decides to bring back the draft then the killing of the cross-section of the military will stop and we will go back to the old days, the Vietnam days, when wars still meant sacrificing mainly the inexperienced young.
The wheels haven't entirely fallen off the Bush administration, though there are signs indicating they might: CIA head George Tenet resigning, President Bush looking for a private lawyer. Luckily, Bush has had the solace of Memorial Day observances and D-Day ceremonies, which have let him appear serious and somber, rather than worried and harried.
Once recent sideshow of administrative disarray was the bureaucratic one-upmanship between Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge and Attorney General John Ashcroft: Ridge said be observant but fun-seeking this summer and Ashcroft claimed dire threats, displaying wanted poster photos of terrorist suspects--five Middle Eastern men and one woman, a physician, in addition to an American youth--to be on the look-out for. Ashcroft dragged along FBI head Robert Mueller, a mostly forgotten man, since he came aboard the FBI shortly before 9/11 and hasn't been blamed for anything--or been much in demand before Congressional committees.
Ashcroft, whose background includes speaking in tongues, has broken records for the number of press conferences held in his first three years as Attorney General. And though he spent more time and public appearances denouncing obscenity, rather than international terrorism, before 9/11, Ashcroft now wants to put his face on the war on terror effort. He did stop short of painting his and Mueller's faces orange for his dire threat announcement: It substituted for raising the terror alert level, which did not happen.
If the terror alert level had been raised, Republican governors throughout the land would have been fighting mad (including Arnold Schwarzenegger!), seeing their state deficits grow even more to pay for what each terror-alert elevation costs, costs that continue to go underfunded in the Bush budget to be.
So, it was just Ashcroft and the quiescent Mueller with their seven photos and "disturbing intelligence." Mueller has faded back into the shadows after his appearance with the grim and determined Ashcroft, who even Republicans predict will not be around for a hoped-for Bush second term.
And President Bush himself has been personally assuring appointees that there will be a second term and has encouraged those not permanently based in Washington to buy homes there. Among Democrats, though, some sunshine has been spotted, enough to say now that at least Bush might almost lose.
This presidential campaign will be largely spoken of in the negative, rather than the positive. And that will not be just the negative TV advertising that will be run, enriching network and cable outlets throughout the nation: It is not whether John Kerry can win, but if George W. Bush can lose. Current newspaper articles about the Kerry campaign have a very decided "by the way" aspect these days: By the way, here's what John Kerry did yesterday.
Kerry himself prefers to see this predicament as a glass half-full condition: that there is so much bad news for the president to deflect, there is no need for him to take center stage on practically any topic whatsoever.
The Bush campaign also takes the half-full position, even on Iraq. The presumed "sovereignty" hand-over to the Iraqis on June 30 was a date set to be celebrated at the Republican convention. But what it has assured is not so much a celebration in New York City, but focused attention throughout the summer on Iraq.
The claimed improving economy may matter to the voters, but unless Bush sends out thousand dollar checks in tax rebates to everyone right before the election (to be paid back on April 15, like the last time), its "success" may not register with many voters, though a continuation of the status quo will be noted.
Perhaps Ashcroft and Mueller will reemerge, this time with orange painted faces, and with Tom Ridge in tow, between the two summer conventions to announce an actual terror alert elevation. But just as summer provides many with vacations--from work and thought--it will be hard for both campaigns to take a break from being overshadowed by Iraq, where no one will be vacationing any time soon.
There has been a lot of sifting through history this past week, given the death of Ronald Reagan and all the attendant pomp and circumstance surrounding his interment. President Bush, inadvertently doubtless, echoed only a minority sentiment when he, talking on D-Day with NBC's Tom Brokaw, referred to Reagan as a man "whose life we mourn," rather than Reagan's death being the event mourned, as it was by most everyone else.
President Bush is not Reaganesque in any number of ways, but the most critical is that, unlike Reagan, Bush seems on occasion to be as mean-spirited as many of his policies. Reagan was a happy warrior and, again unlike Bush, Reagan used his alleged mental low-wattage to insulate himself from the nefarious doings of his underlings, especially during the Iran-contra period. The buck stopped just a bit short of Ronald Reagan, but not in the case of George W. Bush. Bush might be impervious to criticism, but it isn't a case of Teflon protection: it is something else, more complicated and dark.
The past week has seen more of President Bush's father in the news than in the previous couple of years. That was unavoidable in the reviewing of Reagan's history, but this resurrection of George H. W. Bush is a mixed blessing for his son, especially following in the wake of the recent Bob Woodward book, where the president characterizes his father as "the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength."
Reagan's demise has brought about a hiatus in campaign coverage, but awakening historical memory during a presidential campaign is not necessarily an advantage to Bush. Iran-contra was not a much used name a week ago. Now that history has been refreshed for one and all. And still some toxic reports on Iraq filter through, such as the White House's torture memos.
But some bad news for Bush has been buried this week: the president's claim that he hardly knew Ahmed Chalabi, the notorious Iraqi expatriate, had barely met him, perhaps on a ropeline or two. Bush has cast out Chalabi from his acquaintanceship as quickly as he demoted Kenneth Lay, of Enron fame, from his circle of friends, even though Bush has retained (for the leaking of Joseph Wilson's wife's CIA affiliation matter) a private lawyer whose last well-known client was none other than Ken Lay.
And this summer's Republican convention now has a new task to accomplish, some appropriate memorial service for Ronald Reagan. As the publication of Bill Clinton's memoir will take away coverage from John Kerry this summer, the ghost of Ronald Reagan will haunt the GOP's convention in New York City. Bush will be forced once again to figuratively stand next to Reagan and be compared, for better or worse. And, like this week, it will likely be, once more, for worse.
New York City's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, yet may turn out to be another Ahmed Chalabi. Bloomberg's assurances that the people of New York will greet the president and his army of convention goers with flowers and cheers upon their arrival in Manhattan in August may be as reliable as Chalabi's predictions of the Iraqis' reaction to their American liberators.
On the John Kerry side, reaching back into history produces no better news: Al Gore had been getting more press attention previous to Reagan's death than John Kerry. It may have dawned on Al Gore by now that had he chosen to run, he likely would be sitting pretty today, looking like a front runner, given the mess in Iraq. Unlike Kerry, Gore wouldn't have voted for the Iraq war, since Gore wasn't in government when it began. He could have the anti-war vote without Kerry's equivocations that provide fodder for right-wing attacks against him. And Gore still could claim to know how to handle the Iraq situation as it currently stands, without looking hypocritical.
If Gore understands that the unfolding of events would be favoring him if he was the candidate, it explains why he appears so angry and out of control. But Gore running is ancient history, just as beside the point as all the history recounted the last week seems to be, given the fact that the war in Iraq makes current history all too real and murderous and last week's wallowing in Reagan's past mostly indulgent and escapist.
Both the Bush and Kerry campaigns are courting the minority vote, but it's a different sort of minority: the so-called swing voter.
Think of it: millions upon millions of dollars spent on television ads and radio spots and campaign literature devoted to capturing roughly 10 percent of the electorate. The other 90% are presumed to know by now whom they will vote for on November 2. But, the campaigns are attempting to woo the undecideds and the wavering and those who, without Madison Avenue prompting, wouldn't bother to get to the polls at all.
The so-called swing states are said to have a greater share of wishy-washy voters. Recently, the British magazine The Economist deemed Missouri the most important of the contested battleground states, claiming that "as Missouri votes so votes the rest of America." It printed a map of the state highlighting Democratic strongholds: counties bisecting the state hugging the I-70 corridor, St. Louis to Kansas City. President Bush has been to Missouri almost 20 times already and Sen. Kerry nearly half that.
A recent trip revealed the Show-Me state's political inclinations: John Kerry looks like a winner, but he may yet turn out to be another Smarty Jones at Belmont, liable to be nosed out at the wire. In 2000, Missouri went weakly for Bush.
For there are a lot of new "no" votes for George W. Bush in Missouri, but those votes aren't always "yes' votes for Kerry. A clerk in a Kansas City bookstore wasn't voting this time for Bush, who has turned him off completely, but Kerry inspired almost the same level of revulsion. The clerk offered he once voted for Frank Zappa, the musician, but Kerry is no Frank Zappa. This effect--no to Bush but also no to Kerry B--is more widespread than anyone in the Democratic National Committee would like to admit.
At the Kerry Campaign headquarters in Columbia, Mo., the state's largest college town and another Democratic bastion along I-70, a staffer spent more time denouncing Attorney General John Ashcroft than George W. Bush, but that came from the man's intimate knowledge of Ashcroft, who was Missouri's governor for eight years: "We thought we drove a stake through Ashcroft's heart when we elected a dead man instead of him"--in the 2000 Senate race--"but he keeps popping back up. I'm working for Kerry as a penance for Missouri foisting Ashcroft on the whole country." Exiting Kerry headquarters, a mammoth SUV roared by, its large back window festooned with a flag-decorated "W '04" decal: AW"--now that's name recognition.
In Kansas City, another Bush supporter had turned on the president. He, too, fumed--though his non-Bush vote wasn't going to Kerry either--but most of his ire was aimed at Vice President Dick Cheney. The unhappy Republican predicted Cheney would be dropped from the ticket. "Medical reasons," would be the excuse, he claimed, but Cheney is now satisfied with the money he has spread around to his Halliburton friends and wants to enjoy life.
Given the Halliburton-related memos that have surfaced recently, Dick Cheney's many denials of aiding his old company may need to be corrected. Cheney's first whopper regarding Halliburton came in the 2000 vice presidential campaign debate with Sen. Joe Lieberman, when Cheney claimed that his past government service "had nothing to do" with his great success at Halliburton. Lieberman didn't bother to refute Cheney's claim, but just looked envious of Cheney's wealth.
Enthusiasm in Missouri for Kerry was scarce, but it didn't take much effort to encounter anti-Bush feelings. Among those who plan to vote for Kerry, more energy was devoted to the question of just who Kerry would choose as his vice president. Dick Gephardt, who is well-known to Missourians, given his long service in Congress as its representative, elicited groans and epithets ("boring")--though all were certain tapping Gephardt would bring Kerry the state. North Carolina's John Edwards, though, was far and away the female favorite. Countering conventional wisdom, this election might hinge on the Democrat's choice of veep: Whoever it is, he (!?) is likely to be more popular with voters than the unpopular John Kerry.
The title of Bill Clinton's autobiography, My Life, is a bow to his generation. When Clinton was a young man in the 1960s, publishing--and the culture in general--was awakening from the slumbers of the 1950s. One book that the incipient counterculture was reading, one of a number of influential volumes published by the taboo-shattering firm Grove Press, was My Life and Loves, the diary of the bon vivant Frank Harris's (1856 - 1931) randy days and nights.
Bill Clinton's life and loves aren't much of a secret, thanks to Ken Starr and his detailed Starr Report. That book reads like Frank Harris at his most graphic, describing sexual acts overlooked even by Harris.
It's clear from his autobiography Clinton isn't much of a writer, but he's still a great talker, since that is his book's style and strength: One long, very long, monologue from the former empath-in-chief. This time, he feels his own pain.
Clinton remains a performance artist and he skates, travelogue-like, on the surface of his life for nearly 1000 slick pages. Many of his stories have the polish of accounts often recounted. The material Clinton deals with is largely the history that has already entered the public realm. Here is no My Secret Life: rather, it's My Public Life, as I want it told.
Ronald Reagan had to wait till he died to get this sort of attention for his life's story. There was hardly any ballyhoo when he published his autobiography, a book Reagan said he was looking forward to reading someday, since he hadn't bothered to write it. Reagan knew himself well-enough to know he wasn't going to reveal anything that mattered by writing a memoir and he didn't want to discover anything about himself through the process, either.
Richard Nixon, at least, tried to come to grips with his world in his own autobiography, RN. Nixon had the right mix of conflicts and neuroses to be a writer: Whatever narcissism he had wasn't rewarded in his own relationships and that is usually the case for writers. They hope, often fruitlessly, that their writing will be praised and admired, even if they aren't.
Clinton's narcissism, though, has been rewarded throughout his life. With the publication of his memoir it continues to be--if not the book itself, his own person: Clinton's everywhere again, smiling his winning smile.
Well, Clinton does have a lot to answer for, even if he doesn't answer for it in My Life: Not the unchecked sexual appetite, but the George W. Bush administration, and, by extension, the war in Iraq, the soured economy, the enriching of the wealthy, the limiting of civil liberties.
Clinton, ultimately, betrayed his generation--the part of it that appreciated Frank Harris and the changes the '60s brought about, the meritocracy generation, where ability trumped background. Clinton is proud that he fought the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that engineered his impeachment. He thinks he won that battle--since he wasn't driven from office--but he certainly lost the war. His lapses of judgment resulted in handing the presidency back to the well-born, anti-meritocractic, dynastic person of George W. Bush.
Clinton's book has reignited the unfinished battles of those culture wars. The old antagonists have reemerged on TV and in print. Clinton does understand that right-wing Republicans saw his presidency as an "usurpation," and considered it illegitimate, which allowed them to fight their destructive no-holds-barred campaign against him throughout his two terms.
What Clinton can't admit was that his personal conduct cost Al Gore the election. He claims, "I might have been able to turn it around," in Arkansas (a state Gore lost) in "two or three days." For Clinton to admit his role in Al Gore's defeat would require an ounce of humility on his part.
But Clinton is not a humble man. The best autobiographies cost their authors something: self knowledge doesn't come cheap and the price is often embarrassment and an understanding of what one's weaknesses and shortcomings have wrought. All of that is elevated--and partly erased--in great memoirs by their authors' honesty and eloquence of expression. And My Lifelacks both honesty and eloquence.
The Rehnquist Court has once again revealed itself as the most politicized in American history.
Last year, in deference to the upcoming presidential campaign, it had agreed to hear a number of politically charged cases (the godless Pledge of Allegiance, Dick Cheney's secret list of energy advisors, various terrorism cases, internet porn) in order to throw more fuel on the culture-war fires, hoping to bestir President Bush's base. After launching these issues into the political atmosphere for months, in the last two weeks the Court sent most of them back to lower courts on technicalities, in order to avoid a firestorm of criticism and still let them play out their role in the election.
This court may be divided, but it does orchestrate its decisions collectively in order to present one face to the public. In the Pledge of Allegiance case it turned itself into a divorce court, deciding that the father had no standing to bring his anti-"under God" pledge suit. And in Cheney v. U.S. District Court, the controversial energy task force case, the Supremes (including Cheney's duck-hunting companion, Antonin Scalia) sent the case back to a lower court till it is clear whether Cheney will remain vice president for a second term.
The Padilla, Hamdi and Guantanamo habeas corpus cases were more judicial bait-and-switch sidesteps. In the case of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen who was detained at O'Hare on suspicion of plotting terrorism, the Court decided that his case was filed in the wrong court, another election hot potato deferred.
Sandra Day O'Connor was the swing vote in the 5-4 Padilla decision, this time opting to go with the four firmest pro-Bush judges to send the case back, thereby sparing the Bush administration any further embarrassment over the largely botched Padilla matter. And O'Connor was the "controlling opinion" in the Hamdi case, legitimizing detention as an "enemy combatant," but granting that since Hamdi, like Padilla, was a U.S. citizen he did retain some minimal rights to use American courts, even though he was picked up in Afghanistan by the Northern Alliance. Only Clarence Thomas thought Hamdi was entitled to no rights at all, once again burnishing his pro-incarceration credentials. O'Connor continues to play her decisive role, still reluctant to relinquish her seat on the court, perhaps out of fear of whom Bush would nominate in her place. Being the court's least predictable swing vote makes her the most important justice and she knows Bush would appoint no swing vote in her place.
The Guantanamo case was decided 6-3 in favor of minimal rights for foreign prisoners. Anthony Kennedy joined O'Connor as a second swing vote, but the majority seemed flummoxed, since they all agreed that "Executive imprisonment" was "oppressive and lawless," yet, given the war-on-terror climate, an obvious remedy was not at hand. The ruling allowed that the detainees had some slight procedural rights if they could find lawyers or district courts in which to plead them. Justices Scalia, Rehnquist and Thomas howled in dissent, denouncing the expansion of habeas corpus to the "four corners" of the world.
A decidedly mixed bag of justices sent the internet porn case back to a lower court, suggesting parents rather than government should tend to the policing of minors' access to internet porn. Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Souter, along with Thomas (showing his continuing soft spot for porn), were the free speech--and free market--advocates this time: Let software filtering firms thrive!, was their message.
That this Supreme Court would gauge its decisions based on the winds of the presidential campaign is not unexpected, given its singular role in the election of President Bush.
The Rehnquist Court gave birth to the Bush presidency and it looks after its own, even if the Court (in the person of Justice O'Connor) had to remind its headstrong youngster via the Hamdi case that "a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation's citizens." Children need to learn, but they do not always follow their parents' rules. This Nov. 2, given the likelihood some justices will--at long last!--retire, the public will get to vote for who controls all three branches of government: the Executive, Legislative and the Judicial.
Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11 still has legs: it's earned over $56 million since its release and has spawned nearly the same amount of words by commentators. It's the consensus among academic film buffs that the only other documentary that has had the same sort of impact was Woodstock, which memorialized the 1969 rock festival.
Indeed, F9/11 appeals to the same generational crowd, the Woodstock nation grown up. Early audiences have been made up of this AARP demographic, but, thanks to Moore's celebrity and his previous Oscar-winning film, Bowling for Columbine, the patrons of F9/11 have been a mixed group.
Moore's documentary, in many ways, is just an extension of Moore's latest book, Dude, Where's My Country?, one of many anti-Bush volumes published during this presidential campaign season. Coincidentally, The N. Y. Times Book Review, on July 4th, ran a full page ad for an upcoming film, The Manchurian Candidate, and a half-page ad for Moore's F9/11: When the country's most influential book review runs movie ads, it's announcing the age of literacy is over. Moore certainly will reap more profit and impact from the movie than from his book.
And that is the divide in the audiences for Moore's F9/11: people who have kept up with the Bush administration in print will see one film, those who haven't will see another.
Documentaries can either prompt memory or revelation. The portion F9/11 devoted to the 2000 election was the most melancholy, given the import of all that was lost when Al Gore was denied the presidency. Moore never shows the World Trade Center towers in flames or falling; he leaves the screen dark, the soundtrack playing the noise of the catastrophe. The withholding of images makes the audience uneasy and apprehensive.
In a video shot by a teacher we see President Bush sitting in the grammar school classroom for seven minutes after he is told of the second plane hitting the WTC. A sympathetic interpretation of Bush's actions, or lack of action, is that he is trying to collect himself for the tasks ahead, but there are many more unsympathetic explanations for why he continued to sit.
The GOP propagandist Grover Norquist, the champion of Republican right wing's destructive economic agenda, calls Moore a Democratic "propagandist" (the pot calling the pot a pot), though Moore is more a penitent--and his movie a penance, since Moore supported Ralph Nader in the 2000 election. What damage Moore did then, he is trying to undo this time around.
Norquist compares F9/11 to The Clinton Chronicles, an amateur videotape opus (and later a book) that claims Bill Clinton is the devil incarnate. But, that movie didn't have a general theater release (a plain-brown-wrapper distribution was more like it) and wasn't made by an Oscar-winning film maker.
Moore's documentary is an anthology of images you don't get to see much on TV, in part because of censorship on the part of the corporate entities that own cable and network television and in part because it would take a point of view to make sense of the film shown. Fox News is happy to take a point of view, but it wouldn't be using Moore's footage. F9/11 is Michael Moore News.
F9/11 doesn't have any Abu Ghraib torture photos, but, even more illuminating, it has video of American soldiers making sexual jokes about a just captured Iraqi and putting the by-now familiar empty sandbag over the head of an already blindfolded prisoner, revealing how widespread that sort of conduct was.
At his film's end, Moore quotes the early 20th century British writer George Orwell on the economic elite's need for "continuous war." Orwell is more eloquent than Moore in the same way Tony Blair is more eloquent than George W. Bush, but Moore's movie makes Orwell's point: There is no more continuous war than the war on terror and the Bush administration has achieved what Orwell had always feared.
That is one reason why F9/11 is being attacked so vigorously by Bush operatives. Another secondary reason is that it reminds the world of what George W. Bush was before 9/11. And whatever Bush's problems are now, his past history is even less attractive.
The report last week that Iraq's recently installed prime minister, Iyad Allawi, was setting up a new security service, the General Security Directorate, to "annihilate" terrorists, rang a bell. It was a very loud bell--and it needed to be, in order to be heard over all the other alarms competing for attention.
Allawi's new initiative followed on the heels of his earlier announcement of granting himself emergency powers, such as banning groups considered seditious, imposing curfews and detaining anyone he chooses.
What Allawi's new measures brought to mind was the career of John Negroponte, the diplomat who replaced Paul Bremer as our man in Baghdad.
Both Bremer and Negroponte have had Henry Kissinger in their backgrounds--in Negroponte's case, during his early service in Vietnam, which included time at the Paris Peace talks.
Negroponte shows up wherever America is intervening: After Vietnam it was to Central America, most notably an ambassadorship in Honduras.
And it is in Negroponte's time there that Iraq's new security service has its notorious precedent. The chief of the Honduran national police force, Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, ran an infamous death squad, Battalion 316. Alvarez and Negroponte were great buddies, many claim. Negroponte's job was to make sure Honduras was a stable supply depot for the Reagan administration's support of the contras, the CIA backed movement opposing the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
Negroponte became the target of a number of human rights groups back then, but, unlike, say Oliver North, Negroponte managed to stay afloat in the world of diplomacy. He did so well the Reagan administration presented him with an award, the Legion of Merit.
Of course, the Reagan administration was also the Bush administration, given George H. W. Bush's service as vice president. Then Vice President Bush claimed to be out of the "loop" on all the Central American nefarious doings in the same way Negroponte claims he never knew about Honduran death squads. He has been quoted saying all that was nothing but "communist propaganda," though Negroponte may have noticed--given all the high praise for his competence--how the "seditious" were dropping dead, or were being forever detained in a ditch.
Negroponte told the Washington Post recently he was proud of his service in Honduras. "It was certainly my job to be concerned with the Honduran march toward democracy," from being a "military government to a civilian government." Sound familiar?
Iraq's new prime minister, like Negroponte, is well connected to the CIA and Allawi's new policies are following a script Negroponte could have written. Iraq isn't a small country in Central America, but our role in Iraq and our presence there is duplicating our policies in Central America. And if you think Central America is an American success story, you can have hopes for Iraq.
Negroponte is yet another member of the Bush administration with a long history with the Bush family and--like Cheney and Rumsfeld--Negroponte's familiarity is more with the father than the son. Negroponte became the U.S. Representative to the U.N. a week after 9/11, which muted the criticism to his appointment. The Bushes do not like to go very far afield when they do their most sensitive business--be it arms for hostages in the Iran-contra case, or overseeing Iraq's transition from a military government headed now by Allawi to its "march toward democracy."
Negroponte's specialty in Honduras was setting one rebel group against another, getting them to eliminate one another. Whether he can do that on a much larger scale in Iraq, setting tribe against tribe, sect against sect, remains to be seen.
But, if Prime Minister Allawi, our former CIA asset, wants to know how to turn his General Security Directorate into an effective death squad, he knows where to go for advice and information. But Negroponte still claims ignorance about all that, just as Ken Lay claims he didn't know anything about what was going on at Enron, despite being praised and amply rewarded for his time there running it.
As the country's Democrats headed east to Boston, I traveled west, to California, to gauge the health of the Democratic party: For this election has resurrected the importance of the two major parties. When both candidates are sons of elite eastern families and contemporaneous Yale graduates, as well as co-members of the tiny secret society Skull and Bones, who they are becomes less important than what they are: Republicans or Democrats.
Bill Clinton alluded to this state of affairs in his Monday night convention speech, intoning, "We Americans must choose for President one of two strong men who both love our country, but who have very different worldviews: Democrats favor shared responsibility, shared opportunity, and more global cooperation. Republicans favor concentrated wealth and power, leaving people to fend for themselves and more unilateral action."
It appeared that DNC head Terry McAuliffe had made a big mistake scheduling the convention at the end of July, at summer's height, letting the Republicans lead off the fall with their late August confab. But, this convention may just have been one to get through, get over, since so much of the electorate has decided its choice so early, leaving the outcome to turnout and a few "swing" voters.
Clinton's speech at times was directed not at those in the hall, but at those undecideds the DNC hoped tuned in: "If you think it's good policy to pay for my tax cut with the Social Security checks of working men and women, and borrowed money from China, vote for them"--Bush and Cheney.
But the major networks aired less of the convention and fewer Americans were watching. The swing voters most directly affected, though, were the journalists covering the event: If they conclude the Democrats had a successful convention, their present and future coverage will reflect that.
And it was a success: The convention had the sheen of a polished Broadway opening, a show that came together after a long rocky period on the road. All the primary candidates, especially the actual ticket, Kerry and Edwards, did star turns. The Republicans will open in NYC cold, without tryouts.
The Democrats made unity their mantra--best expressed by Barack Obama's performance Tuesday night. (They sent in the kid and a star was born.) George W. Bush, of course, has unified Democrats. And the convention managed to obscure intra-party divisions, presenting viewers with the warm glow of Democratic middle-of-the-roadism: Saving Social Security, women's right to choose, canceling the future tax cuts of the ultra rich, reaching out to all the people all the time.
Indeed, Ralph Nader's egocentric run has highlighted the futility of third parties this time around.
The voting public has seen the difference between the Democrat and Republican parties this election. That's why the polls sit dead even. What is unknown is what the fickle voter will do, those not watching, who swing one way or another.
And to get a read on those folk it is useful to visit California. There the libertine libertarian, moderate Republican, international-film-star governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, continues to entertain his wildly enthusiastic voters (he's the most popular California governor ever), calling Democrats in the state senate "girlie men," while emailing state employees before Memorial Day weekend with instructions on how to save gas and get more mileage--this from a man who owns more than a half-dozen gas-guzzling Hummers--all to the delighted amusement of the Republicans, Democrats and Independents who put him in office after tossing Gray Davis out.
Gov. Schwarzenegger is the exception that proves the rule. He is sui generis, one of a kind, a Republican as liberal as he is conservative, an actor the public had already found mesmerizing. Whatever Schwarzenegger is, he's not George W. Bush.
Gray Davis, the man Arnold terminated, was at the Democratic convention this past week, a tall, sepulchral figure, a smoke-wisp slipping through the crowd. Davis told CNBC that "no one can take any vote for granted" in California, given Arnold's allure. But Schwarzenegger is not running for president: the two Skull and Bones men are. One's a Democrat, the other's a Republican. And that's what matters. Who you gonna choose?
The first thing to notice about the elevated orange terror alert is that it is confined to Democratic stronghold cities and states. The next is to realize that no battleground states will be subjected to formal elevated alerts, lest the security interruptions sour the swing voters residing therein. Terror alerts are mini-"October surprises" for this administration, ready to be employed anytime. President Bush wants to move the Kerry-Edwards campaign off the front page for a few days.
The "cry wolf" factor is high: Tom Ridge's claim that his department "doesn't do politics" rings hollow, given his political background and the boss he is beholden to. Bush can shout, "We're a nation in danger" in the Rose Garden anytime he wishes, but the public may yet conclude the danger is the president's judgment.
George W. Bush, though, has begun a new campaign of limited candor: he told the National Urban League on July 23 that the Republican party has "a lot of work to do" if it wants to gain black support and votes. And last week he told an Ohio crowd that the economy "lags" there and that he had spoken with Timken workers who were "nervous about their future," which they should be, since Timken has laid off over 1,200 employees in Ohio just this year.
But such admissions are just that: Bush says them and just does what he does. The remarks are to prove he is not completely out of touch; though, in Ohio, as Bush tried to boast of a rebounding economy, his host, Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH), had already admitted, introducing him, that Ohio's economy hadn't improved "as robustly as some other states."
It is not likely Bush will display this new candor--however sporadic--for long: But it may continue until the GOP convention. That affair, doubtless, will be a festival of noncandor, highlighting diversity and moderation foreign to the practices of the Bush administration. If the Democrats framed John Kerry in their convention as a warrior candidate, the Republicans will doubtless present Bush as the peace president, wanting no more than peace abroad and prosperity at home.
There was a lot of talk among Democrats before the convention of the need to introduce Kerry to the nation. The GOP's task is different. The public doesn't want to know more about Bush, since when it has looked into his background it has found a nest of bad news: Bush's sketchy military service, his drinking, his various failed businesses. The two Kerry daughters did manage to make their father seem "the real deal" in their convention speeches, but it is difficult to imagine the Bush twins introducing their father with amusing anecdotes about the early years with dad.
But Bush has been "born again" in a number of ways: his election to governor of Texas and his embracing of Jesus as his savior canceled, more or less, his previous history. And his presidency was born again on 9/11. The White House characterizes this campaign as one about the "future," not the "past."
Bush, unlike Ronald Reagan, is no father-figure--he is the big brother who will beat up--or have beaten up--anyone who offends his family. The latest terror alert elevation will make turning mid-Manhattan into an armed camp for the upcoming Republican convention easier to accomplish.
As much as possible, the Bush campaign will try to keep the public focused on the homeland. The 9/11 Commission has become a blessing for Bush. The recess hearings, as well as the president's feints toward approving some of its recommendation--including yet another terror czar, doubtless one as plaint as Tom Ridge--lets what is happening here be the news throughout the fall, rather than what is going on in Iraq.
For what is going on in Iraq is more bad news for Bush. Al-Qaida in the Big Apple is, perversely, a safer topic. The president will keep reminding the public that "We're a nation in danger." The photos associated with terror alerts are now familiar: police wearing layers of military protection, an arm cradling an automatic rifle, trigger finger pointing forward, caressing the metal. It's the GOP convention theme to come: A Nation in Danger: Re-elect Bush-Cheney.
Alan Keyes and the Swift Boat vets supporting President Bush have a lot of things in common, but military service in Vietnam isn't one of them. Keyes was nowhere to be seen in Southeast Asia back then: he, like Vice President Cheney, had other priorities and availed himself of student deferments. But the anti-Kerry vets TV ad that has garnered so much attention, though, is a version of Alan Keyes running for the U.S. Senate in Illinois.
How is that? This is how: John Kerry is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam war and the only way Karl Rove and the Bush campaign apparatus could attack that service is through surrogates, namely other Vietnam veterans. So, they found them. That wasn't particularly hard, since John O'Neill, co-author of the ad's accompanying book, Unfit for Service, and linchpin of the group, "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth," was recruited by the Nixon White House in 1971 to attack John Kerry when Kerry was associated with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
And, recent reports contend, the White House wasn't happy with a number of the potential Republican candidates offered to oppose Barack Obama, but smiled upon the run of Alan Keyes. Keyes' candidacy allows for the same sort of spectacle: the Democrats have their Swift Boat veterans and the Republicans have theirs. The Illinois Democrats have their black candidate for the Senate, now the state Republicans have theirs.
Of course, the White House claims it had nothing to do with the anti-Kerry Swift Boat ad and Alan Keyes claims that race has been "taken off the table" in the Illinois U.S. Senate contest.
Usually, the fantasies of political campaigns are confined to ad duels and media wars. This time actual human beings are involved, though one had to be imported from Maryland to Illinois. Alan Keyes did fume about Hillary Clinton's carpetbagging ways in New York state in 2000, denouncing her quest to be its junior Senator. But at least Hillary had long-standing dreams of living in New York and aspirations never to set foot in Arkansas again after leaving the White House. But Keyes says he never gave Illinois (or Chicago) a thought until approached to run for the Senate.
Keyes' make-believe campaign follows another: Jack Ryan's crashed and burned because of his own fantasies--one of which voters wouldn't accept: not the sex club excursions with his wife, but Ryan's portrayal of himself as the all-American boy, the morally straight high-school-teaching overall good guy, not the actual decadent rich man with special tastes. Pretend to be one thing and turn out to be another and the public will, on occasion, rebel.
So, in the presidential race, we have the he said/he said debate over what John Kerry did or did not do in the rivers of Vietnam, brought about by large contributions from a few wealthy Texas Republicans who financed the book, website and "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" group itself, coincidently fulfilling Karl Rove's desires of trashing Kerry's war record. Rove is a master at making a sow's ear out of a silk purse: He can rightly claim that his candidate, the president, never killed a Vietnamese teenager.
And in Illinois, Alan Keyes can promise he will give Barack Obama a "battle like this nation has never seen." Trouble is, the nation sees such battles regularly. Bush supporters in print and TV will be going over Kerry's Swift Boat days as thoroughly as Ken Starr fingered through Bill Clinton's minutes with Monica Lewinsky. If there's dirt to be thrown, it will be thrown. Keyes' role, like the Swift Boaters' presidentially, is to muddy the Illinois U.S. Senate race as much as possible, to smear and pontificate--so others can too--in attempt to diminish Obama's standing now and later, after Obama wins.
Keyes' earlier runs for public office (twice for president and senator) have been money-making career builders. He paid himself a handsome salary when he first ran for the Senate in 1992, something that caused controversy then. One wonders how much the Illinois GOP is forking over this time--or if Alan Keyes thinks the in-kind payment is sufficient: the national notoriety and the fun he has in store making a fool of himself and the people of Illinois, as well as pleasing the Bush White House and its band of merry trouble makers.
It is now official: the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. Last week's Congressional Budget Office tax-burden study confirms what the eye can see: John Edwards' "Two Americas" continues to grow.
What holds the two Americas together as the income gap widens (an over two-decade-long trend) are the so-called middle class middle Americans. Swing voters lurk in that population and as the rich's tax-share burden is eased, theirs is increased.
But it is to them President Bush is trying to sell his notion of the "ownership society." In the White House's marketing world of deceptive naming, this phrase has been chosen to replace "privatization," which, over the years, has acquired a sour taste. But the aims of the ownership society are the same.
A second Bush term will bring about a push for privatizing Social Security, hence the warm and fuzzy idea of "ownership." When "reform" of Social Security entails allowing "personal" accounts, it is not reform on the table, but elimination. Tax-friendly savings accounts are already available to working Americans: if they want them, they can have them, young and old.
Recent studies show that Social Security is the largest source of wealth for most Americans. Sixty-five year olds, on average, retiring today have almost a half-million dollars of expected benefits awaiting them. But there is no denying that the relentless PR campaign of the last two decades to undermine Social Security (and the trust in government to honor its commitments) has been largely successful.
Those who contemplate allowing George W. Bush to "reform" Social Security should look how Bush's policies affect other government agencies. As Bush wants to give Social Security to Wall Street money managers, he has been handing over the regulatory agencies to corporate America. Iraqis may have done damage to the institutions of their government when they looted, but the Bush administration has gone about its looting almost without notice.
War abroad and terror fears at home have allowed Bush the leeway to strip public protections from agencies as well known as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, to more obscure ones like the National Highway Traffic Safety administration. Bush's "ownership society" entails letting ordinary citizens fend for themselves against the corporations and individuals who own everything. The Levy Institute economist Ed Wolff reported in 2000 that the top 10% of American households owns 70% of the wealth--and the top 1% owns 40%. The aftermath of Hurricane Charley reveals the Two Americas in Florida. One America spray paints its insurance carriers--available to many only because of a state-sponsored program--on the side of their wrecked homes and the other seeks out shelters and remains homeless.
Hurricane Charley lets President Bush appear concerned and approving of big government intervention, even though any generous federal largesse is the result of one brother (the president) helping another (the governor). Of course, in many ways, Social Security is a disaster program, one that has prevented the worst from happening in millions of cases, often through its disability and survivor-benefits programs.
Hurricanes, like the war on terror, provide opportunities for Bush. Disasters become him--particularly other peoples'.
In this way, the New Jersey governor's sex-linked resignation was a pre-election gift to President Bush. Gov. Jim McGreevey's personal hurricane has all the things that the White House wants to advertise to its base: gay sex and Democratic corruption. McGreevey's Israeli ex-homeland security friend/adviser may have brought about some homeland security for Bush.
President Bush doesn't need to have good news to prosper, just the right kind of bad news. John Kerry, on the other hand, has to deal with all the bad news of his past, re-fighting battles on a number of fronts: why he would still have voted for the Iraq war absent WMDs, why the Swift boaters are attacking him, and why, as the president's problems multiply, he is still running in place.
During the run-up to the GOP convention in New York City, Republicans have been busy running down John Kerry, his Vietnam service and his subsequent anti-war work particularly. Former Senator, presidential candidate, wounded WWII veteran and Viagra spokesperson Bob Dole even went so far as to claim that Kerry "never bled" and Kerry got two Purple Hearts in one day, assertions at odds with the facts. Dole has been an admired figure (even by me), but now it is clear that he needs his Viagra dose adjusted. Perhaps Dole's first-term senator wife, Elizabeth, has been promised some plum committee posts for his slanders on behalf of the Bush campaign.
Early this week down at the ranch President Bush said that John Kerry "ought to be proud of his record," in Vietnam--implying that Kerry wasn't. Bush continued, "But the question is who best to lead the country in a war on terror?", managing to damn Kerry's service with faint praise. Bush then denounced all attack ads, the "527s". Pressed about the controversial Swift boat ad, Bush finally said, "That means that ad and every other ad. I'm denouncing all the stuff." The words "Swift boat" will not pass the president's lips--the White House made that clear when Bush's press secretary, Scott McClellan, later declined to criticize the ad and said the president wasn't singling it out.
Hearing all the anti-Kerry Swift boaters' criticism of Kerry, one would assume that the Vietnam war was a "cakewalk," as one Bush administration adviser predicted the Iraq excursion would be. Given the Kerry critics' version of what went on in Vietnam, there were only sad teenagers in loincloths to worry about. And, therefore, we should have won that war.
But we didn't--and there's the rub. It is Kerry's post-Vietnam anti-war statements made in the early 70s that so upset his opponents. Kerry's old accusations are artifacts of their time. When taken out of the heated context of that war their meaning is distorted. Back then his listeners could discriminate. Now the aging and raging veterans supporting Bush are taking umbrage at charges never aimed at them. Their rancor has only increased with time.
In the early 70s, a Vietnam veteran I met described his work writing the official military citations that accompanied the distribution of medals. Indeed, there was often embellishment of the danger and events--except in cases no exaggeration could match--and the language itself was formulaic, ornate and antiquated. Despite the levity of some of his stories, the reverence he had for his task was apparent: A number of the medals went to the dead. The Swift boaters' charges against Kerry have undermined the reputation of the military's system of honoring bravery under fire. Anger at John Kerry's antiwar work has left them doing their own anti-military work.
Kerry's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention could have done without his salute and the "reporting for duty" line. Instead, Kerry could have tried to reconcile the two impulses he displayed in Vietnam and immediately after: the war and his opposition to it. For it is that sort of understanding that needs to be brought to bear in the matter of Iraq and any campaign against international terrorism. But, he chose a simpler theme. In this one way his critics are right: Kerry has made his military service a centerpiece of his campaign. He should have made both kinds of service, for the war and against the war, its center.
Kerry's military focus encouraged his detractors--it is the Republican way: Karl Rove knows it's an individual's virtues that must be smeared and damaged. Weaknesses will speak for themselves. The Swift boat ads raking over John Kerry's battles in and after Vietnam have succeeded in firing up George W. Bush's base in the red states. And those same attacks will deepen Kerry's supporters' opposition to Bush. But the real fight is in the 16 battleground states. And as the Wall Street Journalreported the same day Bush testily condemned all the attack ad "stuff," three-quarters of those states have fewer jobs than they did when President Bush took office. The absence of those jobs--over 100 thousand in Michigan alone--will hurt Bush more than his well-known absence from any sort of service in Vietnam.
On this Labor Day weekend what workers are most thankful for is having a job, any job, fearful though they might be of losing it. Labor Day is celebrated in most of the world on May 1, honoring the American workers who fought for the 8-hour day--one of labor's dreams--and struck nationwide for it on May 1, 1886. The day after Chicago's march (the largest in the nation), police battled supporters and strikers at the McCormick Harvester plant on Blue Island. Following that melee, a protest rally at Haymarket Square on May 4 turned even more deadly.
This Labor Day finds the 40-hour week still a dream for many Americans: those who have to work two jobs to get along and those who can't find a 40-hour-a-week job that pays benefits, because so many employers skirt those obligations by hiring part-time and temporary workers, and by classifying employees as independent contractors. And the Bush administration has stuck its thumb in labor's eye once again with its new regulations reordering just who is paid overtime: So many people now work over 40 hours a week, employers had to find more ways not to pay them.
Thousands of workers who are toiling long hours are the underpaid soldiers of volunteer army, the Reserves and the National Guard in Iraq. Stop-loss orders and other military ploys have made them hostages to their present employers, the Pentagon.
American workers and labor unions didn't expect in 2004 to be fighting the same battles they did in 1886. But the widening gap between the rich and poor that was so gaudily evident in the Gilded Age is as prominent today.
The Census Bureau report issued right before the GOP convened in the Big Apple revealed that 1.3 million more Americans lived in poverty and 1.4 million were without health insurance last year. Those grim numbers have risen for the last three years under President Bush.
The Republican convention ran away from the dour economic news, especially during prime time. The GOP's preferred convention theme was waved on placards in Madison Square Garden on its first night: A NATION OF COURAGE. All the major speakers attempted to resurrect the spirit of unity that the nation achieved for a short time after Sept. 11. President Bush's claim in 2000 to be a "uniter, not a divider" became true thanks only to al-Qaida's attacks. But that unity dissipated at home as quickly as it did world-wide, during the run-up to the Iraq war.
But the White House wants Americans to think of themselves as courageous. It takes courage to live with economic insecurity, without affordable health care, with unprecedented consumer debt, with more children living below the poverty line.
It behooves Republicans to praise courage--and to collectivize that courage, not personalize it, but to nonetheless wrap it around the president, make Bush its representative as the leader of a courageous nation. Since John Kerry's personal courage is being denigrated by the White House's Swift boat allies, the convention's parade of personalities all attested to President Bush's courage--the courage to ignore the attacks in the "media" against him, the courage to send ordinary Americans off to war, the courage to hold fast to his convictions, which, the First Lady reminded us, don't change--ignoring her husband's remark the day before about not being able to "win"the war on terror and his repudiation of it the next.
Other than Dick Cheney's audacious assertion ("The Bush tax cuts are working!") and the president's own claims and excuses, it was left to California's celebrity governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to dismiss their administration's economic debacle with a single jovial insult: "To those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy, I say, Don't be economic girlie men! The U.S. economy remains the envy of the world."
But, these days even the enviable rich are overworked: Schwarzenegger may term-limit himself, informed sources predict. Being governor of California is an economic hardship for Arnold and his wife, Maria Shriver, both of whom have movie and television work to do in '06. And even Arnold--no girlie man he--doesn't want to work two jobs and an 80-hour week. Enjoy Labor Day.
Both the Kerry Campaign and Bill Clinton went under the knife over the Labor Day Weekend. The former president had his chest cut open and John Kerry's lagging campaign fortunes were dissected by media sawbones on TV and in newspapers.
That Clinton's heart troubles are gauged a setback for the Democrats, given his likely absence on the hustings, highlights the Kerry campaign's precarious state: The post-convention bump in the polls for President Bush is heard by many as the tolling of the bells for the hope of homeland regime change.
It does take a willing suspension of disbelief to conclude there was no coordination between Karl Rove and his old Texas buddies bankrolling the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The timing of the anti-Kerry Swift boaters' ads is the smoking gun: tucked between the two conventions, their attacks on Kerry's military service dominated campaign news and provided background to the charges leveled at the Republican convention. Imagine all those speeches denouncing Kerry without the weeks of Swift-boat-inspired controversy preceding them. Instead of the born-again Dixiecrat Zell Miller appearing merely enraged and vindictive, he would have looked like a madman--but the poisonous atmosphere created by the Swift boaters and their supporters' slanders made the GOP convention's anti-Kerry diatribes palatable.
John Kerry, alas, hasn't effectively challenged those calumnies. The Republicans understand this campaign is the first post-Florida 2000 national contest and they are running it as they ran their after-election effort: Take no prisoners. The White House knows it's in the fight of its life, whereas Kerry thinks he can still go windsurfing in the waters off Nantucket without being lampooned by his detractors--and supporters.
A presidential race, like the office itself, requires self-sacrifice, something Bill Clinton never quite understood. But George W. Bush's public life is just that: a show for the public. Kerry has climbed upon a national stage, but doesn't seem to realize he is so completely on display. America is not Massachusetts, where Kerry's own tastes and idiosyncrasies are well-known and tolerated. Clinton never curbed his philandering and John Kerry needs to cut back his vacation avocations.
The Bush team has made this campaign about the future. Kerry played into its hands by making his pitch about the past. What Kerry must do is make the remaining weeks about the future, too: what the future will look like if Bush gets a second term.
The GOP convention made that future clear: tax cuts for the wealthy made permanent, Social Security crippled with a partial privatization initiative, the Supreme Court packed with activist God-fearing conservative justices (modeled after Bush's favorite, Clarence Thomas), rash military adventures anytime anywhere.
John Kerry needs to broadcast that future. Swing voters are legitimately confused by the Bush presidency, because in many ways it echoes Democratic philosophies of old: big government, free-wheeling spending--not the girlie-man welfare state, but a he-man one Bush style: deficits that are generational transfers of wealth from the middle class to the rich, government handouts to the fattest corporations who swear allegiance to the White House, guns and butter no-bid contracts for the likes of Halliburton.
The Republican convention outlined a future full of fear. Vice President Cheney and President Bush elevated the terror alert for the next four years. The threat of nuclear annihilation has been privatized. The USSR once caused Americans to duck and cover; now Bush's vaunted "ownership society" lets terrorists buy nuclear weapons from international providers.
What the Bush campaign is selling to the public is that President Bush will kill more Islamic malcontents than John Kerry ever will in response to such threats. Bush will not hesitate to make that call, whereas Kerry might think about it for a while. In order for that bloody message to resonate, it must be heard in a state of fear. And when John Kerry wind surfs, many voters doubt that he is sufficiently scared--or scary. That is why, when President Bush vacations, he prefers to be photographed wielding a chain saw.
Despite the continuing controversies over John Kerry and President Bush's Vietnam-era military service--inflamed further because of the Dan Rather report on 60 Minutes of Bush's time in the National Guard--one unanswered question is why George W. Bush never continued to fly a plane. His father still jumps out of them on his birthdays, but the younger Bush--who, by all accounts, flew a jet competently--never showed much interest in keeping up his skill as a civilian aviator.
One would think flying itself would be the attraction, the romance of it. But Bush famously skipped his flight physical in 1972 and the 1999 biography First Son by Bill Minutaglio describes the one brief--and apparently only--episode of citizen Bush behind the controls of a rented Cessna, an event that barely avoided disaster. He momentarily took over the controls of the plane, it was reported, that landed on the carrier Abraham Lincoln, site of the "Mission Accomplished" banner.
It cost the National Guard $1 million to train Lt Bush to fly--a claim made in all the tit-for-tat coverage of President Bush's on-again-off-again duty in the National Guard generated in response to the success of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads attacking John Kerry's service. The back-and-forth on these matters has been the lowest part of the presidential campaign. Voters in 2000 spoke on this question--the candidates' differing military service--though, in Bush's case, they spoke in favor of Al Gore. Nonetheless, given Bush's first term, this rancorous debate only provokes questions about character: just what the Bush campaign and the Swift Boaters are attacking when it comes to John Kerry.
Observers not of the Vietnam generation are rightly baffled about the vitriol displayed discussing these topics. Anytime I write about Bush's National Guard years emails follow pointing out that Bush risked his life every time he strapped himself into his training jet. Yes, he did, and he often risked his life--as well as others--back when he drove under the influence.
But Bush's spotty military service was covered in 2000 and all the allegedly new information uncovered by 60 Minutes only confirms what was then generally believed, but denied by the Bush campaign: young Bush got oodles of preferential treatment.
The Bush campaign still denies the obvious, as it denies the more baroque drug-use tales of Bush's extended wild youth retold in the new Kitty Kelley biography, Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty. But, in 2000, almost, but not quite, a majority of Americans gave Bush a pass on all that.
Both the controversy over the disputed CBS documents and the Kelley book are likely to gain Bush as many votes as he loses.
The publication in late 1999 of a biography, Fortunate Son, by J.H. Hatfield, became a plus for Bush's 2000 campaign, after the author, who had hid his status as an ex-con, was discredited. Hatfield's own reckless life became more important than his book's drug charges against Bush. Hatfield's biography, in comparison to Kelley's saucy account, was a somber tome, but Hatfield (who claimed Karl Rove had set him up) validated his critics' harsh judgments when he committed suicide in July 2001. But, the heated flap over the book inoculated Bush against most inflammatory charges in 2000 and the "responsible" press shied away thereafter from even mentioning Bush's "irresponsible" years in any critical fashion.
Kelley's book once again airs this much-washed Bush dirty laundry to small effect. And, if the questioned CBS documents are exposed as fakes, the coverage of Bush's National Guard years will end, a la the Hatfield matter, with a whimper.
Responsible people call for coverage of more important issues: Iraq, health care, the economy. It's not "the economy, stupid," it's the stupid economy that Bush is overseeing, the unacceptable job losses, the exploding deficits, that should appall voters more than the follies of his early adulthood. Whether or not voters will ignore Bush's reckless youth this time around depends on whether they connect such behavior with his reckless war in Iraq and the unthoughtful debacle of its on-going liberation: That is the only value to resurrecting those messy years.
And now, on to the debates, which many believe the Kerry campaign's last best hope for recovering some momentum and favorable press coverage. The agreed-upon three debates (and one for Cheney and Edwards) are judged by most to be the only predictable domestic events that could change the conversation of the presidential race enough to have an effect on Nov. 2.
George W. Bush was decidedly underestimated in the 2000 debates, a feat engineered by Karl Rove, but, in 2004, the debates themselves are being overestimated. This bodes badly for John Kerry, since any sort of reasonable showing on the part of President Bush will seem a victory, a stunning performance.
In the 2000 Bush-Gore contest, the Republicans made the maximum use of the third-party candidacy of Ralph Nader: they had Nader on the ballot in critical states and they had him nowhere to be seen in the debates. The same applies in 2004.
But in 1992 Bush's father had more than the young governor of Arkansas to contend with. Where would Bill Clinton be today without Ross Perot? Still stuck in Arkansas, most likely.
In the '92 debates Perot lit into Bush the elder like a maddened chihuahuan, latching onto Bush's ankle and never letting go: Perot made Clinton the winner by default.
Absent Nader in 2000--and shepherded along in all three debates by a less-than-challenging Jim Lehrer of PBS--George W got through the experience largely unscathed, while Al Gore let his inner discomforts be displayed for all to see.
Bush passed the most important debate test, the rather low bar set for general competence: roughly half of the voters saw him as sufficiently presidential.
The Bush team has once again controlled the proceedings; it was upset by only one debate, the town-hall-style event to be held in St. Louis on Oct. 8. Up until now the Bush campaign has determined the audiences for most all of President Bush's appearances, limiting them to card-carrying Bush supporters.
The Missouri debate was to have an audience of "undecideds" and they can ask unexpected questions. The Bush campaign abhors the unexpected and the undecideds turned into "soft" supporters. It is clear that President Bush's reelection campaign is more thought out and under control than the Iraq occupation.
What Rove and company hope for is a replay of the Gore-Bush debates. There is reason for such hopes: Kerry displays the same sort of fondness for big words and long grammatical sentences, full of complicated notions and subtlety. And, in contrast to Bush, Kerry hasn't refashioned his public image to void his east-coast upper class background. His--what was used to be called--"breeding' shows. And Bush is the known quantity--he has some leeway with the public. Kerry is the new boy. He must demonstrate himself capable, commanding, knowledgeable.
The history of television debates being decisive starts with the John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon show in 1960. Television was in its adolescence then and in those pre C-SPAN days, the passive scrutiny of the camera was not yet commonplace. To just stare at a politician so intimately was not ordinary. All that looking seemed to reveal something: then it revealed Nixon's five-o'clock shadow, his sweaty, pale, unmade-up face.
In 2000 more was made of Al Gore's sighs and eyeball rolling and overall body language than his stands on public policy. The chief question that came out of the debates was both irrelevant and yet critical: Do you want this guy in your living room for four years?
And that may well be the deciding question of the 2004 debates. John Kerry will have the higher bar to get over. Bush got that shallow like-ability vote in 2000, which is what the so-called "undecideds" deem the most important. Those who don't vote their self interest certainly are swayed by the most inconsequential of qualifications: the regular-guy factor. And, once again, the Bush camp has approved the gentlemanly Jim Lehrer to host the first debate. Given his role in the 2000 and the soothing service Lehrer performed then for candidate Bush, the White House is certain that Lehrer will help President Bush to start off on the right foot.
One question neither President Bush nor John Kerry answered in Thursday's debate, because Jim Lehrer didn't ask it, is what Iraq would look like if, and when, we declare victory and leave. No one asked that question during the Vietnam war, either. Victory in places like Iraq and Vietnam has always been thought of negatively: no Communist control, in the case of Vietnam, and, in the case of Iraq--what? No Saddam Hussein? No safe haven for terrorists? No radical Islamic state?
The fairy-tale picture of an American-style "democracy" (does that include an electoral college?) that the Bush administration has been proposing is now a long way off. The war's most ardent supporters point out it took centuries to get from Miles Standish and his fellow liberators debarking on Plymouth Rock to the glories of the Rehnquist Court and, likewise, Iraq's eventual democratization should be granted a long, a very long, time-line.
In Vietnam a victory, at best, may have resembled our situation in South Korea: troops on the border for a half century. So, at the very least, victory in Iraq would likely entail our presence--both the public military and a sizable private military--for the foreseeable future.
Defeat is always easier to imagine. Yet defeat in Vietnam thirty years later doesn't look so bad: the predicted wholesale bloodbath in the country after the fall of Saigon never occurred. No dominoes fell. Communism contracted world-wide. (Few predicted god-full religious fundamentalism would replace godless Communists as the chief threat.) Vietnam itself disappeared from the cultural consciousness. An increase of Vietnamese-Americans in the population appears to be that war's most permanent legacy.
The ouster of Saddam Hussein is now the president's justification for the war in Iraq. The military made attempts to kill Saddam: bunker buster bombs were dropped on his supposed location, first as a prelude to invasion and then thereafter. The fact that they were assassination attempts by means of bombers (a larger scale version of Israel using smaller weaponry to pinpoint and kill selected Palestinian terrorists) was not much discussed during or after the war.
In many ways, removing Saddam was a mob hit, in so far as he was a dictator who was once useful to our government and then became uncontrollable and needed to be removed, a problem not foreign to the history of organized crime.
Saddam is now in custody, apparently being given the special treatment reserved for past heads of state, not the usual Abu Ghraib sandbag-on-head sort. Those in and around the Bush administration who wanted to insert our military might into the middle east for geo-political reasons have their triumph: we are there, as the vice president would say, big time.
So what would "victory" in Iraq be? The absence of an exit strategy shows that victory, in the Bush administration's eyes, is actually never exiting. Given the White House's choice of the CIA asset Ayad Allawi to head Iraq through its transition to "democracy", victory will be securing the oil production facilities and leaving the rest of the country to bloodily work out its destiny.
Unlike in South Korea, we won't be guarding the border, but protecting the pipe lines and the oil port installations. In Iraq, Hussein played the role of a sadistic Tito: As Tito--a gentle visionary compared to Saddam--kept Yugoslavia together; Saddam kept Iraq together. But now Iraq, over time, will devolve into its constituent parts, just as the former Yugoslavia has.
Beyond removing Saddam, the Bush administration's wish is to make Iraq a place that would serve our interests. After the "catastrophic victory"--President Bush's most thoughtful phrase--the one building our military saved from looting, as Kerry did point out on Thursday, was the oil ministry.
In the first debate, neither Bush nor Kerry described his vision of what victory in Iraq would leave in its wake. When President Bush stood beneath the "Mission Accomplished" banner, the mission to remove Saddam had been accomplished. But our mission in Iraq hasn't been accomplished--because it has never been honestly described: victory for some, catastrophe for others.
John Edwards' well-known campaign stump-speech phrase--"Two Americas"--was nowhere to be heard during the veep debate Tuesday, but the Two Americas were prominently on display in the person of Dick Cheney and John Edwards.
It was a high-contrast affair: a natty Jabba the Hut vs. a brash Han Solo. Vice President Cheney continued to portray Iraq and Afghanistan as exemplars of a winning war-on-terror strategy. In answer to moderator Gwen Ifill's question citing the former Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer's statement that we never had enough troops on the ground in Iraq, Cheney said, "If I had it to recommend all over again, I would recommend exactly the same course of action." The world is safer with Saddam in jail, Cheney added, describing Iraq as the "place where you're most likely to see the terrorists come together with weapons of mass destruction."
Cheney's views on Iraq were unchanged from earlier versions, despite the absence of WMD and Saddam-era al-Qaida collaboration, and he continued to insist that a Kerry-Edwards victory would leave America in peril. The only twist was the introduction of a new statistic. When Edwards pointed out the coalition casualty figures (Americans suffering roughly 90% of the fatalities) Cheney said those numbers were wrong: that the Iraqis who have been killed--those who met their deaths waiting in line to apply for jobs as policemen, etc.--by suicide bombers, should be included and, if they were, the percentage of American deaths would be a mere 50%.
Cheney continued to disparage Edwards as insufficiently impressed with the Iraqis' own sacrifice as they strive for liberty. Of course, their sacrifice was handed to them by our invasion and occupation, but now they were lauded by the vice president for being killed. Using their corpses to reduce an embarrassing statistic was Cheney's only fresh, however morbid, fact. In Cheney's America Iraq is a glass half-full, rather than half-empty, even if it is full of bodies, American and Iraqi.
Beyond Cheney and Edward's continuing disagreement over just what is going on in Iraq (and why it happened), the Two Americas was demonstrated in other areas: Homeland Security, medical care, jobs and the economy. In Cheney's America, Halliburton is a patriotic corporation of highest purpose, not, as Edwards charged, one "that did business with sworn enemies of the United States" and "paid millions of dollars in fines for providing false financial information": Any such talk was a "smokescreen," the charges "false."
In Cheney's America the tax cuts for the super-rich are wonderful job creators, though Cheney's assertion that the 900 thousand "small businesses" that pay taxes as personal income, rather than as corporate earnings, would be "hit" if the cuts were taken away from the top two brackets ignored the fact that most of the businesses Cheney is worried about have only one employee--the owner.
Cleveland, the site of the debate, described by moderator Ifill as a basket case suffering a "31% jobless rate," was not, evidently, Cheney's America, but Edwards': he pointed out the administration's dismal record of job creation and that during the Bush-Cheney's first term "4 million more Americans have fallen into poverty."
Cheney tried to dismiss Edwards as a lightweight a number of times and his most successful rhetorical sally--when Cheney claimed to have never met Edwards till he "walked on stage tonight"--turned out, like many of Cheney's assertions, to be false. By morning, photos were produced showing Cheney and Edwards side-by-side at the most Washington of institutions, a prayer breakfast.
And when Cheney said George W. Bush selected him to be vice president in order to "help him govern," Cheney may have said too much, since Cheney sharing governing responsibilities has often been a criticism leveled at President Bush.
The veep debate will quickly be eclipsed by Friday's and the last Bush-Kerry encounter to come. But the Two Americas were starkly presented Tuesday night: And when voters go to the polls on Nov. 2, they will demonstrate just which America they live in.
The three presidential debates have come and gone and what have we learned? For one, debates are important, insofar as the first debate, won decisively by John Kerry, halted President Bush's campaign momentum and restarted Kerry's. For another, all the onerous restrictions placed on the form of the debates can and will be ignored by the television industry, since what it desires above all is interesting TV and not static shots of talking heads.
Everything else about the debates continues to be debated by pundits and partisans. But one unexpected aspect of the debates was their overall civility. Given the conduct of Bush and Kerry it is easy to imagine both Yale men were operating under a secret Skull and Bones pact: No S&B member will embarrass another in a public setting.
Bush had to embarrass himself in the first debate--Kerry wasn't the cause. And throughout the second debate, where all agreed Bush recovered his footing, Kerry gave up the opportunity a number of times to lash out at Bush, for reasons large and small. One large was Bush's charge that Kerry would require a "global test" before he acted. Instead of challenging that immediately, Kerry let it slide by (though, in the third debate, he did offer a mild refutation.) One small was when Bush claimed Kerry had been judged the most liberal senator, misnaming him "Senator Kennedy," Kerry could have said, but didn't, "No, I'm the other liberal senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry."
And, in all three debates, Kerry was never as caustic as he might have been in attacking Bush's conduct of the Iraq war, other than the often-repeated charge that Bush had no plan to "win the peace."
President Bush's continuing argument for deposing Saddam Hussein has put Bush in the odd position of praising the former dictator: Bush posits a future when Saddam with infinite cleverness would have defeated sanctions, restored his nefarious schemes for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, healed his differences with Islamic religious radicals, and handed over to those who opposed his secular regime the means to get rid of it and himself, as well as the American infidels. In order to justify the Iraq war, Bush finds himself needing to give Saddam far too much credit. The reality of Hussein's misrule and the damaged, crippled country our troops found is ignored.
But Kerry didn't go for the jugular on any of the Iraq war questions. The words "Abu Ghraib" were never mentioned in any of the debates. Kerry could have said, "If I had been commander in chief the scandal of Abu Ghraib would have never happened under my watch--even if I had chosen to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power."
In the "town hall" second debate, President Bush had a few laugh lines prepared, similar to those that have produced great guffaws at his organized campaign rallies. When he delivered them and then paused for laughter, the laughs never came.
The town hall debate, though, was the easiest for Bush, since he could move around and did not need to concentrate his attention on one questioner for ninety minutes. He does better when the world is chopped up into little pieces, just as his speaking style is a string of short remarks.
The third debate found Bush again behind a podium, but with a smile permanently affixed on his face and a pen in his hand. He scribbled notes in the beginning, but soon ceased, since it appeared to be a parody of Kerry's incessant note taking.
No question was left behind by Bush if he could find a way to answer it by mentioning his No Child Left Behind boondoggle, which saddles American schools with underfunded mandates and retributive federal standards. Though the debate was to be about domestic issues, both the first and the next-to-last question brought up Iraq. Bush claimed once again his "plan will succeed" and Kerry said he could "do a better job of waging a smarter, more effective war on terror."
John Kerry showed remarkable consistency in all three debates; President Bush's performance had a rising trajectory, from abysmal to acceptable. That allowed Republicans to claim a half-hearted victory: their candidate was still standing at the end. But this time the debates certainly did matter, though we'll see soon enough how much.
For nervous Democrats, observing the presidential campaign at this point is akin to watching an imminent train wreck. The Bush war-president express is barreling full steam ahead and the Kerry Hope-Is-On-The-Way bus is speeding along, trying to cross the tracks unscathed. In 2000, Al Gore's bus managed to get across without being hit, but then it stopped and backed up, so Bush & Co. could smash it to smithereens.
This time Bush's train is fueled by its slight lead in the polls and its boilers are being stoked with trumped-up Mary Cheney insults, Swift Boat and Sinclair Kerry traitor charges, alleged Iraq war wimpiness, and homeland security fears. Kerry is stomping on the gas pedal with a lead foot, attempting to drive home the obvious: Bush's botched Iraq adventure--not just his original big stick policy, but his incompetence in wielding it; his economic follies and job losses; Bush's desire to privatize Social Security; and his neglectful handling of the simplest things, such as guaranteeing sufficient flu vaccine for the nation.
But this late in the campaign most of the electorate is transfixed, just standing back awaiting the outcome, a collision or its absence. The issues tossed up don't even have enough time to float back to the ground.
The Republicans managed to seize the post-debate stage with the protestations of outrage by the Cheneys over Kerry's mention of their daughter, Mary, the former Coors beer gay-liaison spokesperson and current "manager" of her father's campaign. No matter that father Dick gratuitously brought her lesbianism up in a campaign appearance when the question asked didn't allude to her or it, or the fact that she is being paid handsomely to advise him raises the issue of nepotism more than her well-advertised sexual preference, or that her parents' studied indignation is the cause of all the saturation coverage of the subject, not Kerry's modest use of her in his answer to the homosexual "born-or-made" question in the third debate.
In the same vein, Kerry's discussion of Bush's long-standing hope to privatize Social Security, prompted by an off-hand mention in a magazine article devoted to Bush's "faith-based" presidency, elicited similar howls of protest, along with claims that Bush never used the word and that Ron Suskind, the article's author, "made it up." And, as before, the usual media suspects pounded their irate drums as loud as possible, and the rest of the press dutifully followed behind, reporting the made-up controversy.
The U.S. private pension system has always favored the wealthy; Social Security doesn't and Bush wants to change that. But since we are in the train-wreck phase of the campaign, it is all just startling noise. In any close race, during the home stretch, the betting crowds are usually standing and screaming.
The Bush campaign running with such issues is grabbing at straws, but it is effective straw grabbing. The supposed insulting of Mary Cheney has more emotional traction with Bush's base than pointing out the flu vaccine shortage has with Kerry's: flu doesn't register as high on the passion index as family. Only if al-Qaida went into the Liverpool (known for the dank cellar the Beatles emerged from) factory and contaminated the doses of vaccine would the issue gain sufficient traction--though it does highlight any number of Bush administration failings: its downplaying of "big" government's role in protecting the public from possible epidemics, the consequences of profit-driven medical practice, the utter absence of oversight and planning, a hallmark of the Bush presidency.
Because of 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote by a half million, this election has become not so much a national contest, but a demonstration of state power: we may end up with the president West Virginia wants us to have. In these final days one thing does stand out--President Bush's otherworldly confidence, the attribute that might get him a second term. He has never accepted the charge that he was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. Bush believes he came to bat like anyone else and hit a home run. It is disturbing he believes that, but it's clear he truly does.
The 2004 presidential campaign is ending where the 2000 election left off: the nation waiting to see once again if a 50/50 electorate coin flip is going to land on its edge, resulting in a disputatious tie.
The irregularities associated with voting--the corruption and the mistakes--aren't problems until you have a photo finish race. As in the polling profession, a margin of error always saves the system from too much scrutiny. If a candidate wins by more than the margin of error, whatever difficulties inherent in the process simply fade away.
Both major political parties think a 5 percent spread or less in any congressional election means a district is in play. But a national election that can be decided by 500 votes or less (as in 2000) reveals all the blemishes of an imperfect system.
Until 2000 the Electoral College remained a dotty anachronism, given its slim role in modern politics. But, in 2004, its influence looms again.
Even an actual tie, 269 to 269 in the Electoral College, is possible; that would throw the decision into the House of Representatives and the Republican majority would elect its candidate.
Currently, a three-card monty game of possible swing states swinging is being played out: one combination gives us Kerry, another Bush. Yet there could be a dead-heat popular vote and still the winner would be able to claim an Electoral College landslide.
Ties, as was demonstrated in 2000, are a dangerous thing: Democracies that are divided in half are put under great stress. Consensus is always preferable. That is why the Senate requires 60 votes to get its most important business done. A firm majority encourages compromise, rather than loggerheads--middle ways, rather than extremes.
President Bush may be capable of compromise, of tacking toward the middle--examples might exist, though none come to mind--but he likes to boast of being a no-compromise kind of guy: Bush wants things dead or alive, folks either with him or against him.
President Bush's campaign of fear hasn't yet wound down. The vice president still claims terrorists with nukes are more likely with Kerry as president than Bush.
John Kerry's campaign has been targeted at those who favor the idea of a super majority, those who desire consensus and cooperation. And for that Kerry has suffered vicious attacks on his character and his service in Vietnam. For his pains he is often called a traitor. The Bush campaign paved the way for those kinds of extreme charges; its criticism echoes them.
Karl Rove and the president have waged a do-or-die campaign, a 50/50 nation campaign. If the country is divided and not inclined to consensus, the tiny margin-of-error voters will likely go with not the candidate that offers compromise, but with the side that appears the most rigid, strong. The incumbent has the guns. Who you going to call? The Iraq busters. And the fact that Iraq is busted, and the daily examples of the Bush administration's incompetence there, seems to matter not.
It took three presidents and 12 years to get us clear of our involvement in Vietnam. But, one only needs to contemplate what we would have done to Vietnam and the Vietnamese if 19 of their young men had destroyed the Twin Towers and one side of the Pentagon, killing over 3,000. North Vietnam would have been nuked.
President Bush has had to seek out countries to become the face of the war on terror. Osama bin Laden and a few hundred ardent followers were too illusive an enemy for him. The beleaguered and broken country of Afghanistan, controlled by the fanatical Taliban, offered itself up as a sacrificial lamb. But that regime change was unsatisfying. Iraq then became the scapegoat of choice, one with value we could take out our ire upon. And in red and blue America it appears at least half of the electorate is ready to applaud that demonstration of power, however inept its application has been. Dead or alive. With us or against us. And on Tuesday, as in 2000, the public will exercise its right to vote--and again chose up sides.
Red and Blue America has spoken again and this time Red claimed a 1.8 percent popular vote majority. Two exit-poll categories emerged as the voters' most important issues: moral values and terrorism. And those who listed moral values as the reigning issue of 2004 voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush.
Polls identified those folks as "gun-owning church goers"--gun-owning marking the terrorism side and church-going standing for moral values. That contradictory category is Bush's Red America base, the armed and the pious. If you are going to be an advocate for preemptive wars, you need to have a high degree of self-righteousness: It makes one feel better if you know you're a good person when circumstances force you to do bad things.
Our soldiers in Iraq are often burdened with the same quandaries: They know they are the good guys--handing out food, trying to fix the schools--but the general population isn't cooperating. Iraqis seem to hate them and appear awfully upset by our unintentional collateral damage, especially the dead and wounded women and children.
Most Iraqis see the Abu Ghraib photos as the face of America, whereas Americans see well-armed, but compassionate Marines, mostly gun-owning church goers, as our best face. We are sorry when we kill the wrong people; the terrorists are not.
Blue America states put the war in Iraq at the top of its issues. Red America, however, finds it preferable to take the high road of moral values, rather than the low road of war and its justifications, either pro or con.
In the 2004 campaign, moral values are no same-sex marriage, protecting traditional marriage and keeping it safe for divorce courts and matrimonial lawyers. Moral values are protecting the unborn, so they too, one day, can become gun-owning church goers, not marriage-minded gay people. The pope may hold that the Iraq war is unjustified, but when bombs are falling and you approve, it's best to have some unthreatening group (such as the unborn) to try to save, while elsewhere sanctioned death is being meted out to the long-ago born.
Ohioans have become the new self-sacrificing face of Red America: job losses approaching a quarter million and record unemployment notwithstanding, their moral values trumped their pocket books. Ohio was one of 11 states to pass anti-gay rights ballot measures; those initiatives fired up the Red base.
"Moral values" can be read as shorthand for who to hate, not who to love. And Blue America (the two coasts and the upper middle west--Hollywood, New York City, Chicago, and university towns everywhere) creates the culture Red America finds so unsettling and wants to destroy.
Vice President Cheney on Wednesday claimed Bush had been given an historic mandate--one more solid than the nonexistent mandate Bush seized in 2000. Bush announced he would be president of "all" the people and asked for the support of Kerry voters, saying he would work to earn their trust. Nonetheless, Bush spent more time praising his "superb" campaign team, singling out Karl Rove as the "architect" of the mud-slinging campaign that won on moral values. God was on Bush's side in this election, as was the weather, in the form of Florida hurricanes and all the subsequent federal pork that flowed south, along with Osama bin Laden, given Mister Dead or Alive's donation of an eleventh-hour, free GOP campaign commercial. Polarization was Bush's game plan.
Kerry-Edwards said reelecting President Bush would bring on "more of the same": It will be all that, but worse. The Supreme Court will get the justices Bush has been promising his base; tax cuts for rich will be made permanent; Social Security will be undermined and under assault. President Bush will continue in this way to reach out to the whole nation and earn the trust of Kerry voters.
Enron's Ken Lay and other corporate pirates will wait patiently for whatever pardons they require. A second term allows for excesses. Red America will get its moral values in spades: Homeland Security and the Patriot Act will separate those who are valued from those who aren't. But what are a few civil liberties when moral values are at stake? In his first term, President Bush boasted he didn't have to answer to anyone. Now, given the gift of a second term, that boast has become all too true.
The election of 2004 proved, once again, what a tolerant and forgiving country this is: No, not just because of the reelection of George W. Bush, but because of the general overlooking of the latest example of public-figure hypocrisy, that of Bill O'Reilly.
O'Reilly's embarrassments erupted in the election's final weeks, so that too is responsible for some of the lack of impact. The sexual harassment lawsuit filed against O'Reilly and his employers by a young woman subordinate--the legal papers of which were made public--painted an unflattering portrait, one at odds with O'Reilly's boastful straight-shooter image. The lawsuit's timing, though, was in another way unfortunate: it came just as O'Reilly was attempting to enlarge his moral-exhortation market share by invading the world of children's literature with the publication of the book, The O'Reilly Factor for Kids.
O'Reilly's accuser, given the particularities of the transcript-like quotes of O'Reilly's allegedly sexually harassing phone calls, appeared to have the goods on the No Spin Zone talk impresario. Either she taped his calls, or she is a budding first-rate novelist: having O'Reilly, in a state of excitement, transform the word "loofah" (the washing device) into "falafel" (the food) in a sexual context is just too good not to be true.
The legal proceedings have now disappeared, reportedly through the magic of a large cash transfer from O'Reilly to the young woman. Though employers are liable for their employees' conduct on the job, Fox and Westwood One may not police their star's behavior, as long as his ratings remain high. The night the story broke, O'Reilly coincidently had Dick Morris on the Factor to commiserate with, since Morris was at the center of a sex scandal himself during the second Clinton reelection campaign. Morris, too, has come out smelling like a rose, still employed by foreign governments and others to give political advice ("First, smash the unions!") and chat about Hillary Clinton running for president in a lively fashion on Fox News.
The American public has a great deal of tolerance for the peccadilloes of the prominent. Shame affects negatively only the unknown. The elite shameless still run the show--and often appear on them.
The current and former president are both examples of forgive and forget. Unlike George W. Bush, Bill Clinton won his second term with double digit popular support (10 percent); so, too, did Ronald Reagan, with more than twice that; even Richard Nixon won a second term landslide. Bush has the distinction to be the only president of the modern era to have been barely reelected; his small popular vote percentage rivals Woodrow Wilson's in 1916.
Bill Clinton, nonetheless, got impeached after his wide-margin second term victory, even though the public never abandoned him. But the unforgiving radical right filled his final four years with litigation and vilification.
George W. Bush ascended to the presidency the first time despite his wild youth. Not quite a majority of the voters chose to overlook it; this time, a roughly 2 percent majority overlooked the many failings of his first term and reelected him. Forgive and forget.
Bush feels no shame; indeed, he acts triumphant. Armed with yet another fictitious mandate, he sets out once again to change the world.
O'Reilly and his fellow rehabilitated hypocrites (Rush Limbaugh, William Bennett--make your own list) are equally invigorated by their quick escapes from ignominy.
Forgiveness and tolerance, though, are not to be for everyone. President Bush and Karl Rove showed they knew how to get the unforgiving horde of Bill Clinton haters, the moral values voters, to the polls on Nov. 2.
My former colleague, Joseph Ellis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, has just published a new biography of George Washington, "His Excellency." Ellis, too, has survived a scandal of his own making. For a decade he had been entertaining students at Mt. Holyoke College with tales of his daring exploits in Vietnam: The problem was, Ellis was never in Vietnam. Nevertheless, all has been forgiven. George Washington, of course, is famous for his honesty--these days, everyone else is famous for the reverse.
It is not difficult to defend the young marine who shot the wounded Iraqi inside the Fallujah mosque. The marine's recorded words largely exculpate him: Hey, he says in the video, here's one that's only "faking...dead." Any lawyer could argue that shows fear for his life; the insurgent moved--just being alive was a threat to the marine. The elapsed time from when the marines entered the room to the actual shooting was less than a minute. It clearly wasn't premeditated; the marine's voice was frantic, his act nearly spontaneous.
The day before this story broke, the NPR reporter, Anne Garrels, described seeing corpses of dead insurgents on the streets of Fallujah being eaten by wild dogs.
That city was turned into the usual war-zone disaster area: we had to destroy Fallujah in order to save it. The marine's killing of the wounded man would have gone unquestioned, except for the fact that it was videotaped by an embedded pool TV reporter. Embedding journalists--so the military's reasoning goes--is supposed to prevent this sort of embarrassment, but even in a controlled media war, cracks appear.
The photos of Abu Ghraib may have been the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the treatment of prisoners in both Cuba and Iraq, but they were treated as an aberration, the business of the young soldiers involved, not policy decreed by the upper-ups. And, thus far, only the lowly have been dragged into court for Abu Ghraib.
And, in all likelihood, the young marine who was carrying out the murderous logic of the siege of Fallujah will pay a price: court-marshal, forfeiture of pay, etc. But, given the battlefield context, this case is not as clear-cut as some of the earlier random killings the military has prosecuted. In an attack on an Iraq city resulting in wild dogs eating corpses, niceties such as the rules of warfare can seem "quaint," as the new Attorney General nominee, Alberto Gonzales, once termed them. If the Geneva conventions don't hold in Guantanamo and torture is permitted, as Gonzales claims, why should they be honored in a Fallujah mosque during combat? In any case, the rules of Armed Conflict were created to make war appear a reasonable game the powerful can play.
Even John Kerry, trying to match George W. Bush's unbeatable level of bellicosity, kept reiterating that if he became the president, he too would "kill" terrorists. Kill 'em dead, just like the young marine did. For over a week Fallujah was a free-fire-zone. Now, it appears, other Iraqi cities will require the same treatment: empty out the "civilian" population and bring on the tanks, artillery and air strikes.
Whether this makes Fallujah and other insurgent-infested cities ripe for democracy and free elections two months from now is up for question. But that quandary will be left to the new Secretary of State nominee, Condi Rice, to ponder. And since Dr. Rice is a Soviet studies scholar, the haunting pictures of what President Putin and his predecessors did to pacify Chechnyan cities will look familiar.
The CIA might provide some answers, too, if there's anyone there who hasn't resigned or been fired by the new director, Porter Goss. Goss follows in Bush's father's mold, but in a more bold and public way: an admitted former spy appointed to head the spy agency. The elder Pres. Bush, (41), appears to have been a CIA asset since the early '60s, well before he was named to head the agency--see Kevin Phillips' American Dynasty (p.205), where Phillips reviews all the available evidence.
Young Bush is shuffling his Cabinet, but all the cards are coming from the White House deck. The president, who boasts of not reading newspapers, now desires his news drawn yet more narrowly: He wants to hear only what he has already heard.
Democrats are becoming irrelevant--at least to the fortunes of the Bush administration. The latest reported bad news is that even demographics are against them: Religious church goers, those who favored Bush heavily in the '04 election, are having more children than Kerry voters. Democrats find themselves in the same position as white South Africans once were and the Israelis are now: staring at the future through the lens of an unstoppable, history-altering birthrate.
It rained on Bill Clinton's parade--and on a host of gathered Democratic luminaries--in Little Rock last week. The opening of Clinton's new presidential library, a disconnected bridge to the 21st century, was a largely sodden show: a military man gamely held an umbrella above the former president's already wet head and the singer Bono's sunglasses were doing double duty as water shields. A day later, a photo preserved the sight of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton jammed together in a doorway, each intending to go first (Clinton won); it brought to mind the shadow-boxing scene in July of 2000 between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat over who would go first through a doorway at Camp David--and the failed peace talks that resulted, Bill Clinton's one chance at real accomplishment.
Other than his doorway clash with Clinton, President Bush was in a good enough mood to be generous. And for most of the ceremonies he got to walk ahead, with Clinton trailing a couple of steps behind; Bush praised Clinton, as did the other presidents on hand: They kept their speeches short and to the point, the point being to get the formalities over so the world could go on and the Clinton legacy could fade into bucolic obscurity amidst the riverbank weeds in Little Rock.
Hillary Clinton, though, hopes to forestall the Clinton slide onto history's scrapheap. A Gallup poll, taken shortly after Bush's reelection, did show that 25 percent of Democrats want Hillary to head the ticket in 2008, but those voters are a version of the hard core Republicans who prefer moral values when electing a president. Whatever Democrats' version of "moral values" happens to be, it is currently spelled "Hillary."
Bush's earlier dubious mandate forced him to delay the attack on Fallujah until after the election, but his new one is being taken seriously by more sectors of society. The mandate appears to be permission to do whatever you want, if it is accompanied by a show of force. Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, was able to force complaint congressional Republicans to alter their ethics rules as their first order of business. Now leaders can keep their positions if they are indicted, as DeLay clearly thinks he will be--for transgressions in his elaborate Texas redistricting scheme. DeLay, riding the usual Republican hypocritical high horse, denounced the "politics of personal destruction" that he claims will be behind any indictment.
But it isn't just in the political world where anything goes now, if accompanied by violence. The Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons and a number of fans acted out the election's new green-light mandate by engaging in a slug fest, as did the football teams of Clemson and South Carolina the next day. All those involved decided to solve their problems by taking the law into their own hands, not caring what collateral damage might result.
It's hard to allow preemption in foreign policy matters and not have a little of it blow back home. The White House has shown the nation how to behave: bring 'em on, put up or shut up, with us or against us.
Previous to the battle of Detroit, the NFL had been allegedly embarrassed by the reception ABC's lead-in to Monday Night Football provoked. A blonde from Desperate Housewives, another ABC show, ended up unclothed in the arms of a black wide receiver. In the NBA melee, TV viewers were treated to black athletes decking white so-called fans. The racial component may well be coincidental, not instrumental, but history would label it as a potential flashpoint for such conflict. Luckily, in South Carolina and Clemson's case, most of the havoc was indiscriminate.
Given the Bush mandate's wide reach--at least as boasted of by Republicans--expect more of the same in the months and years ahead. Why not settle your differences with force? Violence is in.
Al Jazeera, the Qatar-run station and bright light of Arab television, though, is cutting back on violence, insofar as it declined showing the videotape of the kidnaped Irish-born aid worker Margaret Hassan's killing at the hands of Islamic terrorists. If there's violence to be shown, it's Americans killing Muslims that takes pride of place on Al Jazeera. Forget Desperate Housewives. As history demonstrates, whenever sex and violence compete in the world, violence always wins hands down.
The Bush White House is preparing for a post-inauguration push to privatize Social Security. True believers are being put in place in various agencies and the usual free-market hucksters are filling the airways and opinion pages with the glories of the president's "ownership society." Stephen Friedman, Bush's head of the National Economic Council and a supporter of privatization, has resigned to make way for an even more vociferous and effective advocate for President Bush's plans.
Reportedly, House Speaker Dennis Hastert withdrew the revamped Intelligence bill because he wanted it to pass with a "Republican" majority, not one cobbled together with Democrats. That explanation, however, does reek of protesting too much, since it is unclear how much the Bush administration wants the reforms the bill forces upon the Defense department and CIA.
But, with Social Security privatization, it is likely Hastert will take any kind of majority he can get. President Bush wants a domestic legacy other than record deficits, economic polarization, and police-state-like security measures standard. Dislodging the jewel of the so-called Democratic welfare state would be a triumph for him and his ideological brethren.
Those who have opposed Social Security since its inception have managed to successfully slander the most successful government program ever to be invented. What other federal agency as large and as rich has been so efficient and so utterly free of scandal or mismanagement? That alone should leave it inviolate, but the attack on Social Security is aimed at--and is meant to create--distrust of government. The charge often broadcast was repeated recently by Stephen Moore, the president of the "Club for Growth," on NPR: "If Congress wanted to...they could cut the benefits and take [Social Security] entirely away from you."
In order to sell the public their brand of privatization snake oil, critics first have to convince people that Social Security rests on quicksand. It's a curious argument: don't trust the government, but let it run a partnership with money-managers controlling your collective future trillions, an industry with a history of corruption and bad, or nonexistent, oversight. If the "full faith and credit" of the system's U.S. Treasury bonds isn't honored, this country will have worse troubles than a Social Security shortfall 40 years from now.
The problems earnest and honest privatizers are trying to "fix"--if there are any who don't want to do away with the 70 year old program itself--is not Social Security, but the low savings rate of Americans, coupled with their high average debt burden. Social Security is the only reliable program Americans use to put money away for their old age or possible disability, one that provides an after-death benefit for dependents. The tax code already contains over $100 billion in loopholes each year for workers to save in individual retirement accounts, 401Ks and employer pensions. Privatizing Social Security on top of all the existing vehicles violates the first principle of savings: diversification. No one should bet all their retirement security on the stock market.
Social Security can be "fixed" any number of ways, none of them damaging to the system or the economy. Payroll taxes can be raised minimally: a 1 percentage point increase for workers and employers would leave the system actuarially solvent for 75 years. In contrast, privatizing Social Security would give a trillion dollar handout to Wall Street firms over the same period, while pumping up deficits.
But any such changes will take leadership and courage, because they have none of the pizzazz of the flamboyant, but wrong, remedy of privatization. The larger the folly, the easier it is to sell: Why think small, when there's a big mistake possible? Why keep Saddam in a no-fly-zone box, under UN-sponsored sanctions, when we can go to war instead? Departing NEC head Friedman complained at an economic conference in May of '03 that there are people who will collect trillions of dollars of Social Security benefits (and Medicare) they didn't pay for. One dirty secret of privatization is that it's actually a plan to prevent people from getting too much return from the system, rather than too little.
In the current post-election lull and pre-Christmas consumption frenzy, a large segment of news coverage has returned--gratefully--to frivolity and the Scott Peterson, Michael Jackson, and Robert Blake legal proceedings have been claiming more air time and California court houses have replaced Fallujah and campaign appearances as video hot spots.
The Scott Peterson case is a Christmas story of sorts, since the jury decided he killed his pregnant wife the day before the night before, dumping her body on his infamous December 24 fishing trip in San Franciso bay.
Common sense and direct evidence didn't convict O.J. Simpson in his criminal trial for killing his wife, but common sense, along with circumstantial evidence, did convict Peterson. But Peterson wasn't a revered star athlete, with deep pockets, only a spoiled upper-middle class young man with an easy smile and sociopath tendencies.
Peterson is out of the mold of Robert Chambers, the preppie murderer, who turned up in the newspapers recently, because of a drug charge, walking hand in hand with his lawyer, Brian O'Dwyer, son of the legendary attorney Paul O'Dwyer, the brother of the fabled former New York City mayor, William O'Dwyer. The young woman Chambers killed wasn't pregnant and Chambers was let loose 15 years later, not a likely eventuality for Peterson.
There was a parallel case in Utah of Mark Hacking, but Hacking, who killed his pregnant wife, was not a suave junior philanderer, photogenic like Peterson, but a self-confessed loser who put his wife's body in a dumpster. Crime stories that run endlessly on television need better story lines and visuals than that.
Michael Jackson supplies arresting visuals, though his alleged crimes are not as thoroughly saleable as wife killing. Pederasty lacks the universal appeal marriage has and fewer people have a stake in its aberrations and outcomes. But the spectacle of Jackson's life, along with his musical talent, secures him and his possible misdeeds lavish attention. Given the physical mess Jackson has made of himself, an equally self-destructive impulse can easily be surmised to be behind the crimes he is charged with.
Robert Blake is another haunting case, though one that his claim to fame--his acting career--makes poignant. Blake came to notice in the first and best film of Truman Capote's book, In Cold Blood, a story of a Kansas farm family slaughtered by two robbers. The flamboyant Capote himself has returned from the grave to fresh notoriety through the recent posthumous publication of a volume of his letters and his collected stories.
Blake played one of the two killers who are the subject of Capote's influential book: It was the most modern example of coupling high art and low crime in order to make a desirable package that the whole culture would want to unwrap.
Blake's portrayal of the killer Perry Smith was as sympathetic as Capote meant it to be, given that Capote developed a Michael-Jackson-like creepy attachment to the young killer, the actual trigger man, one tinged with intimations of physical longing.
At the film's end, Blake and the other killer are hung, though the film portrays more attention to the execution of the Blake character. In 1967, the movie (directed by Richard Brooks) was considered a plea against the death penalty.
But the death penalty is back in a big way. And Robert Blake, if convicted, may avoid being hanged like his first and most memorable starring role, but he would likely spend the rest of his days behind bars.
But Blake is a star, however now faded, and that may sway any jury, along with the other baroque aspects of his case. The wife that died was no pregnant angel, such as Laci Peterson has been depicted.
Usually, in the past, war time has been good for criminals. When troops are dying abroad, there seems to be less thirst to kill them here at home. The Vietnam war, seemingly, did play a role in the death penalty's brief nationwide suspension. This time around, though, the public seems to like its retribution served both generally and personally. Abroad, insurgents pay. Here at home, wife killers--not all, mind you--can be at least be threatened to pay with their lives.
Now we know why President Bush wants all his appointments to come out of the White House, or to be relocations from one agency to another: the spectacle of Bernard Kerik.
Kerick, Bush's first choice for Tom Ridge's replacement as Homeland Security head, was a Bring-'em-On selection, a Wanted-Dead-or-Alive figure, a tough pit-bull guy who either eats steroids for breakfast or a concentrated diet of steak and eggs.
Kerik's life is an open book, one published by the spitfire editor Judith Regan, an alleged paramour of the busy former NYC police commissioner. If Kerik hasn't yet made cameo appearances on The Sopranos and Law & Order, he should; like so many characters in police work, it is hard to tell, in Kerik's case, who's the perp and who's the law.
President Bush, early on, tapped Paul Bremer from Henry Kissinger's consulting firm, Kissinger Associates, to oversee Iraq, and Bremer B who recently received the Medal of Freedom from his grateful commander in chief--made a botch of the occupation, famously disbanding what remained of the Iraqi army. Kerik was plucked from Rudy Giuliani's consulting firm, Giuliani Partners, another profitable high end cashing-in business that former public "servants" seem so good at creating.
Giuliani has been apologizing far and wide for never noticing Kerik's shady dealings and connections when Giuliani was Kerik's boss--first as mayor, then at Giuliani Partners. Who knew? Rudy claims. You can't judge a book by its cover, though it often gives you a pretty good idea of what's inside.
Kerik ran in and out of Iraq to train Iraqi police officers--another failure trumpeted as a success--staying no longer than it took for him to gain some street cred from being there.
Kerik, of course, is blaming his current problem on a woman, a no-longer-in-the-country nanny, who, Kerik claims, was an illegal immigrant and his tax-free household employee. Kerik would rather hide behind her poverty-wages skirts, rather than the shiny pants of New Jersey mobsters and other colorful miscreants that pepper his past. President Bush loves rags-to-riches stories (since they are the opposite of his riches-to-riches story) and he trusted that if Kerik had any bodies buried, they would be well buried. The Bush White House had gotten away with so much, why shouldn't it get away with Kerik? But, Bush's hopes were dashed, and now he will have to go back to the pool of already thoroughly vetted administration and congressional candidates for another Homeland Security top dog.
The pussycat Sen. Joe Lieberman has been mentioned, but it is unlikely Bush will want to put a Democrat in the position, however accommodating a Democrat. Bush has already had his beast: he will now want to chose a beauty, if he can snag one.
Bush purged his administration early of those who weren't the most enthusiastic yes men or women. That is why Paul O'Neill at Treasury and the EPA's Christie Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey, were jettisoned barely half way into the first term.
Colin Powell was cut loose as soon as decorum would permit. Other Cabinet members are exiting more happily, rushing back to reap the rewards of the private sector. Now, Bush has the Cabinet he always wanted: a rubber stamp with a smiling face.
Treasury Secretary John Snow, rumored to be dumped, swore his fealty to the president's privatization schemes and is ready and raring to do his duty. Others who are staying are the confirmed yes women Elaine Chao at Labor and Gale Norton at the Department of the Interior. Alphonso Jackson at Housing and the Democrat Norman Mineta at Transportation have hardly been seen or heard, though Donald Rumsfeld, who is both loud and omnipresent, remains to take the eventual blame Bush will disown when and if the Iraq adventure is ultimately judged a disaster.
Given the White House's lousy showing on the Kerik appointment, one wonders what will happen at the Department of Justice after Alberto Gonzales, Bush's White House legal aide and principal Kerik vetter, becomes Attorney General. And when Condi Rice takes over as Secretary of State, it, too, will become a branch of the White House and doubtless will be run accordingly.
It's Joy to the World this Christmas, or, at least, Joy to Bush World. Red is a seasonal color, not blue, and the Red States are thankful not just for their festive hue, but that their votes paid off, given the fact that all Blue states pay more in federal taxes than they get in federal spending and almost all Red states receive more than they pay in.
Blue staters, though, are trying to strike back by buying Blue: web sites have sprung up urging segregated buying, purchasing from Blue state businesses, rather than Red. Boycotts, though, are long-term affairs and rarely successful: civilian populations are more adversely affected than the targeted owners. Voting with one's dollars has always been a progressive American tendency, but one often violated: ordinary iceberg lettuce was always easy to boycott for Blue state gourmands.
Goods made in China were the least spurned this Christmas season. "Made in the U.S.A." used to be a union slogan, so it rightfully should be a Blue state preoccupation, but, at this point in globalization, foreign ownership of manufacturing plants in America has increased, as has American ownership of businesses abroad. Most any car sold today is a conglomeration of workers working around the world.
But, at the White House, it is Joy to the World. President Bush has the gift of his second term and is looking forward to the most expensive inauguration in history. During the go-go 90s, CEOs were competing to throw the most lavish parties and/or weddings and though a few of those CEOs are now indicted or in jail, most aren't. President Bush is carrying on that tradition in the 00s: a quarter of a million, according to the N.Y. Times, will get you two tickets to lunch with the Bushes and the Cheneys, along with tickets to inaugural events and one ball. A mere $100,000 will get you a dinner where the President will make "an appearance." That world is full of joy. Bill Clinton's second inauguration cost less than his first and Bill and Hillary weren't pikers when it came to pleasing the fat cats. But, Bush is a fat cat and he doesn't need to please anyone--the breed wants to please him. President Bush just wants to have fun, while, of course, honoring all Americans, but especially those who will be able to pay for the lunch with the excess left over from the generous tax cuts Bush gave them--especially that pesky "death" tax that he intends to get rid of. Unfortunately, those who can't ante up that kind of dough are paying the death tax the old fashioned way: with their sons and daughters fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush inaugural committee is shooting for at least $40 million to pay the bills and no one doubts that figure will be raised.
And it will be Joy to the World on Wall Street, if the president is successful in privatizing just a tiny part of Social Security. Like the aforementioned death tax, the Bush White House has managed to change the language of the debate to not "why?", but "when?". Privatization supporters just talk as if it is a done deal, the only thing yet to work out being the bothersome details.
If precedents mean anything, the bill that does the trick will look like all the rest of Bush's domestic initiatives: a thousand pages of unread, hastily thrown-together legislation--Homeland Security, corporate tax "reform," the 9/11-inspired intelligence bill--passed after a flurry of pork deals and Tom DeLay threats. These giant boondoggles will contain joy for few, pain for the many, but 'tis the season to be jolly.
But it likely won't be Joy to the World in the Middle East, though such thoughts at this time of goodwill to all is an example of Scrooge-ism. The inauguration festivities will be over before the made-in-Red-state-America Iraq elections are held. Who knows what they will bring?
But, if history is any predictor, they will bring a hodgepodge of contradictory results that President Bush will declare a great accomplishment and a joyous victory for freedom-lovers everywhere. White House Christmas cheer will continue on into the New Year and no bah-humbug-ing will be tolerated, no matter what evidence there is to the contrary.