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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

But Blair, who is African-American, is not so much an example of affirmative action gone wrong as he is an example of Monica-ism, the seductive personality at play. From all accounts, Blair displayed some charm. It’s hard for those who fake their way through life to do so without a few positive qualities. Blair may not have graduated from the University of Maryland, but he did edit its student paper. He did move from internships at theWashington Post, to the Boston Globe, to the New York Times. He worked editors better than he worked on his stories, but he cobbled together enough copy for the Times to run it and, early on, stand by him when objections were raised. Monica, everyone rushed to say, was seductive, flashing her thong. There’s all sorts of seduction in the world, and the workplace. And not all of it is blatantly sexual.

But, again, if not in the White House, if not on the front page of the New York Times, the conduct wouldn’t be much of a story. Like a number of trumped-up sensations, the snail darter imbroglio of the late 1970s was not just a tale of a tiny endangered fish and bleeding heart environmentalists, but a big battle between railroad and river-barge interests. That the story wasn’t described (or remembered) that way, until it was over, is a bigger problem in journalism than a young reporter getting away with something.

Likewise, the right-wing media gives the Jayson Blair saga a thousand legs and everyone else runs right along with it. Proximity to power is intoxicating and for those who have never had some, it seems a difficult drug to get. But, it’s not that hard to score. Monica got to the White House not through over achieving, but largely by happenstance. Jayson Blair seized the cultural moment, too, and found himself in over his head: If apparent to no one else, it was apparent to him. And Monica, too, was in over her head. The graceful exit is often harder to achieve than the lucky entrance. But Blair and Lewinsky aren’t the heart of the matter: It is the mighty we like to see fall, though some like it more than others. Clinton haters cheered and endless ruminations of the higher sort were produced because of his peccadilloes. The New York Times, too, is pulled down a notch and there is a large constituency that applauds and pontificates about that, too.

Jayson and Moncia are just bit players in the larger drama. They are the snail darters here.


It is now clear: President Bush’s recent tax cut, which makes the rich richer and the poor just as poor, or poorer, is actually part of a secret Homeland Security scheme to catch homegrown and foreign terrorists by forcing them to rummage in grocery store Dumpsters looking for edible food. That’s how the white supremacist bombing suspect, Eric Rudolph, was caught, sampling the wares in a refuse bin behind a Sav-A-Lot. If you keep enough people poor you’re sure to turn up other ne’er do wells with shady backgrounds scrounging for eats in trash cans.

The latest revelations about the Bush tax cut would be comic, if they weren’t so pathetic; it was quickly discovered that President Bush’s tax relief wasn’t a relief to 12 million children of the working poor ($10,500-$26,625), since the president’s minions in Congress eliminated the additional $400 child-tax credit for those families. And now that the hastily passed bill has actually been read by a few people, other affronts have been noticed, including the fact that middle-income earners will pay a larger share of all taxes. Compassionate Republicans in the Senate have rushed in to right this public relations blunder, but the House Republicans are not quite as eager to rectify the child-tax credit insult.

Not that the whole tax relief bill wasn’t an insult to begin with. Never has the sun set so many times in a bill, ending provisions and cuts in a staggered number of years, all to make the bill appear less than the trillion dollar give-back to the wealthy it is. But the administration is filled with people who can keep a straight face when they say the earth is flat and the moon is made out of blue cheese.

And it’s forward to the past at the Federal Communications Commission, too. “Robber baron” is now becoming a career path to aspire to. FCC Chairman Michael Powell appears to be a media baron in training, making it possible for future employers (or partners) to own almost everything when it comes to media, when he led the charge to relax the rules governing ownership of television stations and newspapers. Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, is an example of Bush-style affirmative action, where family connections carry a lot of weight. Under the guise of deregulation, by a party-line vote of 3-2, the FCC made it easier for the fat to get fatter. In the bad old days there was only three television networks to watch; now there can be three owners of the thousands of channels to watch, or radio stations to hear. Republican senators protest this, too, though a reversal is unlikely.

Yes, there is the Internet. When everyone is a commentator will anyone be left to listen? Economies of scale apply here. Already most of the popular Internet news sites (16 of the top 20) are owned by large corporations. And the public has noticed that the multiplication of theaters doesn’t make it easier to show obscure art films in the multiplexes, since the blockbuster films take over them all.

Regardless, only 39 percent of the voting age population managed to get to the polls in 2002, so what media spoke to them? Most of the people who use the world wide web don’t vote. It seems a surfeit of private behavior makes individuals less likely, rather than more, to participate in community activities. Bush’s economics are not Ronald Reagan’s version of trickle down. Bush sends everything shooting up. And it’s affecting government at all levels. Just last week, a suspected Louisiana serial killer, Derrik Todd Lee, was flown by Lear jet to his arraignment and Eric Rudolph was taken by Black Hawk helicopter to his. Rudolph became a celebrity by being hard to find and by being considered a hero by the anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-one world crowd. But a mere alleged serial killer? Why do these miscreants get such first class service? Hasn’t the FBI heard of a bus? But, in war and law enforcement cost is no obstacle in the Bush years. Yet giving the working poor the full child-tax credit, an extra 400 dollars, is a no-no.


Summer is an exaggerated season and, eventually, rising temperatures get to everyone, but a number of things have already become overheated. Domestically, the hot flash surrounding the remarks of former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, before he resigned as the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Review Board, is a prime example. Keating said, in an interview discussing the bishops’ response to the sex scandal that has brought so much shame to the Catholic Church, “To act like La Cosa Nostra and hide and suppress, I think, is very unhealthy.”

Those words caused Los Angeles’ Cardinal Roger Mahony to spring to action and demand Keating’s resignation, which Keating promptly provided. Had the Cardinal been as quick to act in the case of abusive priests the scandal may never have grown so large. But, Keating’s use of a simile, “like La Cosa Nostra,” somehow is a worse sin than covering up and facilitating sex crimes and prompted Mahony’s instantaneous ire.

George Orwell, among others, has warned about the corruption of language. But Orwell, the prophetic British author of the novel1984, might be surprised that it is not just language that has been corrupted, but the reading and understanding of it. What Keating said was actually quite mild. To point out that many bishops in their response to both the actions and results of the sex scandals behaved “like” the mafia is hard to deny. Keating didn’t claim that the Church was the Cosa Nostra. But, in today’s world, it is the opposite of the old saying: sticks and stones no longer matter, it’s the names that hurt. So, the bishops once again show their thin skins. The priesthood is a fraternal organization, one of the few that remains thoroughly fraternal. It is the long black line. The military, law enforcement, fire fighters, all live by a code of protecting their brothers (and now sisters), shielding them with silence, keeping problems internal, not letting the outsiders meddle. The long gray line, the thin blue line, etc. The long black line protects its own. One can see why: it is an important reward for the sacrifices required by joining up. It’s a job you give your life for and to. Another overheated event is the controversy surrounding the rescue in Iraq of Private Jessica Lynch. On one hand there is the version that emerged in April right after her removal from the Saddam Hussein hospital by Navy SEALs, complete with green-tinted video images. On the other is the recent version, questioning Lynch’s actions and the quality of resistance at the hospital. Again, George Orwell is pertinent: Orwell, regardless of his contempt for the misuse of the English language, spent World War II doing propaganda work for his country. That the military wouldn’t use the rescue of a young female soldier as propaganda is the fact hard to believe.

Whatever the circumstances, the question of how much resistance was encountered is almost irrelevant: a war was going on. The military did its job. That the public relations office of Central Command in Qatar played it up and claimed things not verified should be no surprise, given the Bush administration’s penchant for stage-managing and showcasing dramatic events, whether they be aircraft carrier landings, or commando raid rescues. Unlike just what to do with Iraq after we took possession of it, how to publicize the war was very well thought-out from the beginning by this White House.

The America public saw more uncovered skeletons of people killed by Saddam’s orders, than pictures of Iraqis killed by our weapons. That’s a story worth covering. But Jessica’s is the one that will be sold and argued over, overblown by everyone. Yet one powerful detail did emerge, written in language that Orwell would admire, in the Washington Post’s recent backtracking account of the Lynch story. It reported how the corpses of seven dead soldiers, all members of Lynch’s convoy, who were buried by the hospital, were recovered: “Navy SEALs dug the bodies up with their hands.” No pictures of that, but we do have those simple, stunning words.


Traveling in California recently there wasn’t much evidence of the “grass-roots” movement to recall the Democratic Governor Gray Davis. What was obvious was that there still is a lot of money in California, despite its massive $38 billion budget deficit.

And it is money that is driving the Davis recall movement: not its absence, but its overabundance in the pockets of a San Diego-area politician, Darrell Issa, a second-term Republican congressman. Issa has money from a car alarm business (and a history of being charged with car theft), plus political ambition, though he lost the 1998 Republican primary for Senator. He’s the liberal nightmare: pro oil, tax cuts, school prayer and anti abortion, affirmative action, immigration. Issa salvaged the floundering Davis recall movement with an infusion of nearly a million bucks, with more to come. There have been many gubernatorial recall initiatives in California’s political history, but none has made it to the ballot. If the Davis challenge does, it will mark the triumph of not just single-issue politics, but single-pocket politics. Wealth, clearly, can buy political power, but what is different is that the rich now attempt to remove people from office once they have won. The hounding of Bill Clinton is the chief example of that switch. Whitewater and all it spawned was essentially a recall drive that failed, even though it failed only in the eleventh hour in the Senate, which did not approve of drumming out the impeached president.

The battle for vote counting in 2000 in Florida was fueled by special interest money, since it looked like Al Gore was in need of recalling, though the hard-right managed to accomplish the annulling of the popular will before Gore took office.

Given these precedents, the alarming Issa moved ahead and bankrolled the recall effort. If successful, it will be a testament to the takeover of single-pocket politics. In elections, there is a choice often between the lesser of two evils. Citizens choose. A recall is not a choice: it is a “vote” against someone. It is functionally anti-democratic.

When President Bush was a candidate in 2000, he avoided limits on donations by not accepting federal money. As unusual as that was, it did not create a scandal. And even though Bush has the advantages of incumbency, he is doing it again, hoping to reap at least 170 million for the “primary” season, even though he is unchallenged. Why act like everyone else, if he doesn’t have to?

The Senate has long been a millionaire’s club. The House is rapidly following suit, filling with new members, like Darrell Issa.

Money might be the mother’s milk of politics, but the producing of it is limited to a small number of fat cat mothers, those who can manage to work the Republican fund-raising pyramid scheme and provide a hundred friends who each shell out 2 grand. In turn, those few find another few who can do the same among the beneficiaries of Bush’s tax cuts. Never before has a tax cut been so aimed at a donor base. And what the top 5% have to return to the president and his party is less than what he has already given them.

What Bush doesn’t give them is much of his time. He spends about 20 minutes at these profligate fund raisers, be they hot-dog fare, or canapes, raking in record setting grosses. Bill Clinton, no slouch at fund raising, would squander lots of face time, scouting the crowds for new friends. But President Bush is different. It is not that he has more important things to do. Even Clinton had important things to do. It is that Bush is used to being as rich as the company he keeps and there’s no need for him to rub shoulders with his supporters, since he’s been rubbing shoulders with them all his life. Bush’s donors are getting what they paid for. Democrats are at a decided disadvantage. They have to not only raise hard-earned money to win, but, like Gray Davis, they have to raise more money to fight partisan recall movements after they do.


Al Gore should reconsider his decision not to run for the Democratic presidential nomination for 2004. Why? Look around at what is happening to the Democrats since Gore bowed out last December: the party splintering into its demographic pieces, name calling among the jostling group running, conflicting and contradictory policies being touted.

A large field of contenders is hardly a pretty sight. Bob Dole in ‘96 emerged from a sizable Republican crowd and the primary season left Dole looking dazed and over extended. George W. Bush in 2000 employed his own shock and awe fund-raising campaign during the primaries and the marginals dropped out early. Bush had only to fight off John McCain, using the state of South Carolina as the site of McCain’s last stand. The Republican base had spoken and Bush sailed into the nomination.

Indeed, Bush was less beaten up in the primary season than was Al Gore. Bill Clinton served as his most stiff competition, not the other Bill, Bill Bradley, insofar as Clinton’s baggage hounded Gore throughout the primaries and the general election.

This time around there is no front runner in the large Democratic field. The fact that Howard Dean—two months ago a curious long shot—is now considered a leading contender shows the lack of heft available. Joe Lieberman has revealed himself to be what he was, a decent prospect for vice president.

John Kerry, the early pick of party insiders, might end up being a strong finisher, since he has not shown much speed out of the box. But Kerry has always seemed a little shop-worn and regional as a candidate. His flirtations with the national ticket in the past were tentative. He likely peaked in 2000, just missing being Gore’s vice presidential pick himself.

Richard Gephardt is another perennial bridesmaid. Part of Howard Dean’s insurgency seems to be his fresh aspect: a governor who sort of looks presidential, though he lacks Bill Clinton’s warm touch and often appears brusk and autocratic.

Given the un-collegial mud-slinging among the candidates, doing the Republican’s work for free, cynics could be forgiven for thinking that the RNC may be donating money to some of the Democratic contenders in order to keep them in the ring for as long as possible. Some Democrats are so distressed they hope to enlist a general, Wesley Clark. By the time a candidate emerges next summer it is likely the party will be so at odds with itself that whatever push for unity that comes afterwards will fall short. Optimists keep pointing out that 41, George W’s father, looked unbeatable at this point in his first term. But presuming the two cases are parallel is wishful thinking. There are many reasons why, but I’ll mention just one: Ross Perot.

If Gore had chosen to run again he would have done his party a great service, even if he ultimately lost. Whereas, if the Democratic nominee, other than Gore, loses to Bush in 2004 he will have set the party back in terms of the presidency for perhaps a generation.

Gore could, finally, run a strong, free-wheeling, pure campaign, stating forthrightly what he and the Democratic party stands for. All the present candidates, including Dean, squirm around tough questions, not wanting to alienate the so-called swing voter. The current candidates have to pretend to run as if they can win, so their vacillations are to be expected, if not tolerated. On the other hand, Gore could eschew that. He won the popular vote once already. He may not be able to win it again, but he certainly could make it clear how the Democratic party is different from the Republican party, how he is different from Bush, which would help the party in 2008. Thanks to a press corps that liked George W. more than they liked Al, and to the nattering campaign of Ralph Nader, turning Democrats green, not with envy, but motion sickness, that difference was sufficiently blurred in 2000. Gore would remind the electorate of all the things that should not be forgotten. Unfortunately, President Bush’s weaknesses are found in the past, not, alas, in the future.


That the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has been largely futile (one hopes the military will, at least, turn up Saddam, if not A-bombs) does not cause me much concern. As a reason for attacking Iraq, I always considered it far down on the list, even though the Bush administration put it at the top.

Though both have resigned recently, Bush appointed Victoria Clarke, from the Hill and Knowlton public relations firm, to run the PR side of the Iraq conflict, and Charlotte Bears, an advertising executive, to improve the administration’s image in the Muslim world. The ad and PR and military campaigns worked hand in hand. Their technique was the same as the list of ingredients now required on most foods: in tiny type the contents are given in descending order of amounts. On the wrapper large letters announce healthy ingredients, but the label shows those come at the end of the list and are the smallest part of whatever is being sold.

Likewise, President Bush and Vice President Cheney went on and on about Hussein’s imminent threat and his many WMDs. That is what was advertised, but WMDs actually were the least of it. After 9/11 White House advisors wanted to make use of the terrible al-Qaida attacks as a pretext to invade Iraq. There were geo-political reasons for remaking the map of the Middle East. Following those were lesser, but just as potent, security interests in acquiring control of Iraq’s oil reserves. Those elements would be listed first if the Iraq war came with a label of contents: bringing up the rear would be WMDs. But in order to sell the war to the American people the imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction had to lead the way and be promoted. “All Natural!” “Fat free!”. The WMD claims were marketing pitches.

Since the war was sold as a military necessity, not a humanitarian adventure, the current lawless state of Iraq should not be a big surprise. The quote from an officer early in the conflict, “The enemy we’re fighting is different from the one we war-gamed against” becomes not the pessimistic remark it seemed at the time, but a prescient one.

That the Bush administration misled the public is quite clear; what has been less clear is that it also misled the military. If, all along, the cause and the aims of the war had been stated honestly, the military would have prepared for the war they found: one where the regime was toppled quickly and the population did more lasting damage to the country’s institutions and infrastructure than our own forces. There have been macabre whisperings of what went wrong: we didn’t kill enough people in Iraq, we didn’t destroy large numbers of the Republican Guard.

It is a variation of the old Vietnam-era saying, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” In Iraq’s case it was, What if we went to war and no one resisted? Obviously, there was some resistance. Nearly 150 Americans were killed in what President Bush called “the major combat operations” that ended in April.

It’s hard to believe what has occurred since the war began was Hussein’s plan all along. Saddam goads us to invade his country, take it over with token resistance and then, after we won, he lets the real war begin. Soon the death count will surpass that of the major combat period. If Saddam couldn’t win a conventional conflict, perhaps he thought he could win a guerilla war. The only way to do that would be to turn us into long-term occupiers.

Regardless, there is not much historic precedent for accomplishing what we have set out to do: a foreign power taking over a country and quickly leaving behind happy campers ready to go to the polls to elect wise and capable leaders. Certainly, our recent experience in Afghanistan tells another story. We are better at taking over little countries, like Panama. It’s hard to run a country with the size and history of Iraq. Very hard. If one wants to know a reason for the war, one should look at what we do seem to be able to control and make work: the oil business in Iraq. Can that be just a coincidence?


The Bush administration is trying to have its yellowcake and eat it too. One faction is saying that the offending 16 words (“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”) shouldn’t have appeared in the State of the Union speech; another part claims what the president said was true nonetheless. Having your cake and eating it too always did seem like a good trick.

Well, the White House does want its tainted story of Niger yellowcake uranium to be both true and not true. President Bush says his intelligence is “darn good,” meaning not his own intelligence, but his spy agencies’ info. But one thing the continuing flap over the yellowcake points out is Bush’s role in speech making: he just reads the words, he doesn’t write them, or verify them himself. That’s left to others.

Bush has given other speeches that should undergo the same scrutiny as those famous 16 words from his SOTU speech. But I’ll just stick to the slogans he repeats. How about “No Child Left Behind”? When one looks into that program one quickly sees that its chief intention is to leave a lot of children behind. Some states are postponing their high school exit exams for fear that far too many students will be left behind. And if schools can’t show improvement in math and reading scores that the president’s act requires, even more students, experts predict, will drop out. And how about abolishing the “death tax,” the estate tax, in order to save family farms? Well, perhaps if your family is the Gallo wine family, you might require the abolition of the estate tax in order to save an acre or two of the farm, but not many other farm families need it, given the million dollar exemption from taxes found in the current law.

And what about the president’s “jobs and growth” tax cuts? The fact that unemployment is the highest in over nine years may owe itself more to the targeted tax relief for the super rich, allowing them to move yet more factories south of the border, or buy more foreign luxury goods or properties.

Recall the January speech Bush gave at a plant in St. Louis where boxes (and a backdrop) were prominently labeled “Made in U.S.A.”, when the boxes and contents were actually made in China.

Who is to blame for those true but not true statements? Will George Tenet fall on the sword every time it is required? What will be done about the president’s deceptive words about his shell-game drug plan for Medicare and his con-man privatizing scheme for “fixing” Social Security? And Homeland Security? While unemployed young male Iraqis were looting and destroying property in Baghdad, young unemployed males were burning and pillaging in Benton Harbor, MI. In recent terrorism studies, one statistic has stood out as an ominous indicator: how many young adult males are unemployed. That pool functions as a hiring hall for terrorists. It is now estimated by the Pentagon that Iraq will be costing American taxpayers about 4 billion a month for the next year. A fraction of a month’s outlay would fund a lot of job creation in Benton Harbor, but since states have to pay for increasing Homeland Security costs by cutting programs and services from budgets challenged by decreasing revenues, Michigan’s governor, Jennifer Granholm, is having a hard time finding more of what isn’t there to provide aid and relief for job-strapped Benton Harbor. Michigan’s new budget actually cuts most funding for adult education!

The Bush administration delights in calling things not what they are, but what it would like people to believe they are. Claiming “The Brits made me do it!” about the yellowcake fib is a sad defense. Such weasel-wording is acknowledgment enough that they were trying to pull a fast one. Republican strategy for some time has been to accuse your opponent of what you are guilty of. Such a tactic is win-win. So, the administration’s critics are the “revisionists”. But who is revising history? Ultimately, the president believes talk is cheap. And, in the Bush administration, it is. Action is what is expensive and for that we all will have to pay an ever-growing bill.


In for a nickel, in for a dime. Once President Bush sent the military stampeding into Iraq, following our ongoing occupation of Afghanistan, he set more than a precedent for unilateral preemptive attacks. He made not invading countries a fault, rather than a virtue. So, Bush’s standoffish handling of North Korea looks weaker than it perhaps is and he makes not intervening quickly in Liberia a sign of irresolute conviction, rather than prudent policy. In the past, our government had to explain why it would put troops in harm’s way. Now the White House needs to defend why it doesn’t. This new reality is what lurks behind Bush’s cavalier reply to the question about irregular attacks on our soldiers in Iraq: “Bring ’em on.” Bush’s military strategy is all swagger: It only looks phony when we don’t go in.

During the Vietnam war there was a great deal of debate in the Pentagon on the question of whether the North should be bombed. Would that bring in the Chinese? Inflame world opinion? There was practically no debate about bombing the South, even though it can be argued that bombing South Vietnam did more harm to our military’s interests than the eventual sorties against the North. Bombing the people we were supposedly helping never earned us their respect. Now, in Iraq, the lack of thought and planning about what we would do with the country after it was ours may be equally damaging. The Pentagon spent a lot of time figuring out how to topple Hussein’s regime, but, as in Vietnam, it apparently gave little thought to what do after we won. What would Vietnam look like today if we had “won”. South Korea?

The administration’s notion that we could just hand Iraq back to the Iraqis seems like wishful thinking. Afghans at least had active memories of what their country was like before the Taliban ruled. Those religious fanatics did a lot of damage, but they weren’t in power long. And though Afghanistan pre-Taliban wasn’t a pretty picture, its people were able to return to a version of it, war lords, heroin production and all. In Iraq, only the old can recall what the country was like pre-Saddam. And few want to go back to that. So they need to go somewhere they have never been. Last Wednesday President Bush called that place “free, sovereign, and democratic.” Our job is to take them there. Even critics of Bush stand in awe of the difficulty of the task. The American public watches Iraq like an audience at a magic show, where a prestidigitator prepares to saw a woman in half. One is both appalled and amazed at the daring of the stunt. But, in Iraq, the fear is that the trick won’t work and it will end up a bloody mess.

In the last two weeks President Bush may have given up his complete lock on sailing into a second term. Killing, not capturing, Hussein’s sons offers only a brief respite. Forget “It’s the economy, stupid”—it’s not even Iraq itself. It’s whether or not the administration continues to demonstrate incompetence.

For that is what the White House’s handling of the African uranium controversy has revealed. The military showed its competence in Iraq. But, now the administration is saddled with running a country that we have seized, not the military. Iraq might be a troubled foster child, but the White House now has two countries to look after, not just one.

That is the terrible heart of the matter. If you take over a nation and throw out its rulers, you better be able to run it yourself. We can get rid of a threat, obviously, but can we manufacture a friendly population and government there?

And the still open question remains of what all this has to do with 19 guys with box cutters who took over four of our commercial jets. You can ruin a country, but that doesn’t make the world safe from box cutters and dedicated fanatics.

President Bush has managed to forestall the competence question domestically, despite a host of dubious decisions and acts. But his lack of domestic competence in Iraq may be his greatest weakness and his ultimate undoing.


When Bill Clinton recently came to George W. Bush’s defense on CNN, citing the problems of defective intelligence, it wasn’t just one former president speaking up for the current one. It was Clinton protecting Clinton, as well as his (and Bush’s) CIA director, George Tenet. Clinton’s sympathetic remarks about Bush to Larry King came on the eve of the long-delayed release of the National Commission report on 9/11. It is difficult to blame the failures and lost opportunities outlined in the 900 page report on President Bush. He’s joined at the hip in that regard with Bill Clinton. Long ago the angst-ridden writer, Franz Kafka, blamed the outbreak of World War I on “a monstrous lack of imagination.” It is clear from the 9/11 report many in the government suffered the same lack. The abilities of the terrorists were underestimated, perhaps for racist reasons, despite the fact al-Qaida managed to blow up our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and almost sink the USS Cole. Osama bin Laden was on FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list in 1999, but like the other folks who graced that Hoover-era-inspired glamor poster, that honor did not signify so much the level of the G-men’s pursuit, as the ability to recognize the man if he was apprehended doing anything else.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has complained about the criticism that she, among others, wasn’t able “to connect the dots.” It is difficult to connect dots if you have only “skimmed” the national intelligence estimates that come your way. You rely on the foresight of others. The 9/11 failures were spread around democratically throughout the government and the nation. It wasn’t just the spy agencies’ lapses—there were many chances when the terrorists’ plans could have been foiled, but they weren’t. The sequence is the same as with other great man-made disasters. Small things matter: such as allowing foam to strike the space shuttle’s wing. Complex systems break down.

The one government lapse pre-9/11 which seems most egregious is that since 1994 it was known that terrorists were interested in using planes as weapons. That fact alone transmitted to the airline industry would have made a crucial difference. It didn’t require higher budgets to send out such a warning, or a new department of Homeland Security, or troops sent round the globe. It takes imagination to think small as well as large.

Another failure of imagination is the manner in which the report was released, with blacked-out pages. What kind of “public” report is sent out in such a ludicrous form? It is far beyond the Watergate-era device of “(expletive deleted)”. If President Bush had wanted to put a spotlight on his family’s ties with the Saudi royal family he couldn’t have found a better way.

Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, has joined the clamor to make those 28 pages visible. Perhaps this withholding is a tactic, one the White House has often used: Create one controversy so that others are overlooked.

It is difficult to revisit 9/11. That emotional black hole is why President Bush retains such latitude to do what he wants and damn the consequences.

One of the strongest feelings Americans experienced with 9/11 is one of the least acknowledged. It is shame. Shame at how those 19 (15 Saudi connected) men got away with it, how they outwitted everyone, from the highest echelons of the intelligence agencies down to the airline employees who sold them the tickets and welcomed them aboard the planes. Anywhere along that chain, someone with a little imagination could have exercised it—suspicion is imagination—and perhaps severed that thin thread that led to such disaster. Where imagination was shown, the 9/11 report reveals, it was thwarted. But the passengers aboard one jet employed it, when they were given just a bit of information. The failures of 9/11 were general, as well as particular. President Bush finally got the “Wanted Dead or Alive” poster he spoke about in 2001. But this version looks more like a movie ad than something out of the Wild West. The sum offered for Saddam Hussein ($25 million—10 million more than for his sons) doesn’t even sound outlandish (compared to bonuses a lot of CEOs give themselves each year), since our troops have found so many caches of hundred-dollar bills in Iraq that the government doesn’t have to cut a check, but can pay informers in cash.


The president is vacationing in Crawford, clearing brush and enjoying the heat. He gave a rare “solo” news conference, his ninth, right before he left Washington and though critics claim the press treats the president too kindly (a claim I find hard to make at the same time I’m treating him unkindly), even I was surprised at the congratulatory headlines that followed: “Bush accepts blame for speech” and “Bush: Nuclear claim my fault.”

Well, that’s putting it kindly. What Bush said regarding the misleading uranium claims in his State of the Union speech was of a different order altogether: “I take personal responsibility for everything I say, of course.” That’s equivalent to accepting blame with a ten foot pole. Of course.

Bush takes ten-foot-pole responsibility with other subjects, too, such as his appointments to the federal judiciary. He lets those beneath him fight the dirty battles. Currently the Democrats have serial filibusters running for four of the most extreme candidates, Priscilla Owen, Miguel Estrada, Carolyn Kuhl, and William Pryor.

The last, Pryor, the Attorney General of Alabama, is a Catholic who more often than not refers to himself as a “Christian.” Since being a Catholic in the deep South hasn’t always been a big plus, this tic of Pryor’s may be understandable. Pryor has become a symbol to the right wing of a new sort of bigotry, the notion that Catholics need not apply to federal bench, if they steadfastly oppose abortion. Tell that to Justice Antonin Scalia.

Pryor’s supporters claim his “deeply held” Catholicism is the problem. But Pryor seems as much of a cafeteria Catholic as any, since he supports the death penalty against the wishes of his Church and his Pope. President George H. W. Bush (“41”) and his former White House counsel, C. Boyden Gray, have backed ads denouncing what they perceive as anti-Catholic bigotry. It is comforting to have such eastern protestant elites taking an interest in the plight of southern Catholics.

Subsequently, debates in the media have raged about the difference between “good” Catholics and “bad” Catholics, a subject I’m familiar with. When it comes to public life, recent examples of “good” Catholics can be found. Three Dominican nuns, Ardeth Platte, Carol Gilbert, and Jackie Marie Hudson, were sentenced July 25th in Denver to from 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 years for vandalizing a nuclear missile silo in 2002. They are in a local jail until the Bureau of Prisons decides where to put them. Perhaps they could be sent to Alabama to be near Attorney General Pryor. He certainly would approve of the work of the Colorado U.S. attorneys, who were upset that the nuns didn’t receive the maximum sentence for their crimes: cutting chain link fence, banging the silo’s railing with a hammer, and emptying baby bottles filled with their own blood.

While such symbolic acts of civil disobedience may be only ineffectual blasts from the past, one of the current White House’s equally dusty relics, Admiral John Poindexter of Iran-Contra fame, who has ties to the ultra-orthodox Catholic sect Opus Dei, has kept up. Poindexter’s scheme to operate a terrorism futures market collapsed in a day and his retirement from his controversial Pentagon service is being hurried along. The past isn’t past.

William Pryor notwithstanding, as long as there are nuns in federal prisons there will be Catholics on the federal bench. Both good and bad.


Most people, so the conventional wisdom goes, start to read Hillary Clinton’s bestseller Living History by looking in the index for the page numbers on Monica Lewinsky. But people should look for other names. An index is instructive—for who is left out even more than for who is there.

One example, interested parties have discovered, is that you will find not one labor leader’s name, despite all the aid labor in general, and the AFL-CIO and various union presidents in particular, gave to both Clintons: No John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, not anyone. For an author conservatives claim is a tool of Big Labor, that absence is striking.

There are three entries for the Department of Labor and two for “labor unions.” Here’s the labor union entries: “During the 1940s and 1950s, labor unions bargained for health care benefits in the contracts they negotiated for workers.” And “Although unpopular with labor unions, expanding trade opportunities was an important administration goal.”

That’s it for labor unions.

The Department of Labor doesn’t fare much better. The first mention is a mere inclusion in a list. The second is: “In 1994, I had promoted the largest survey of working women ever conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor.” The third is another inclusion on a list of agencies Hillary worked with to “modify family and medical leave so that federal workers could use up to twelve weeks of accrued paid sick leave to care for an ill family member.”

There is no mention at all of Robert Reich, former Clinton friend and the first Clinton Secretary of Labor. Perhaps Hillary never liked him—or his sour memoir of the Clinton first term, Locked in the Cabinet. Senator Clinton’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, labels Living History on its dust jacket “Biography,” rather than “Autobiography.” Since the book had a number of authors that may well be the most accurate designation, though in an “Author’s Note,” Senator Clinton claims the book is a “personal memoir.”

It certainly is as personal as George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign-promotion memoir, A Charge to Keep, written more or less by Karen Hughes, Bush’s former wordsmith and handler, who is expected to have a busy hand in his reelection campaign.

But Senator Clinton’s lack of gratitude for all that Labor did for her should not come as much of a surprise (in the book’s Acknowledgments she does include “labor union members” among a list of supporters of her 2000 Senate campaign). You learn what and who really interested her in Living History. She does think she paid a big price for her new job: eight years of hard duty in the White House.

It is no longer the case that women need to have their governor or senator husbands die (or, in the case of George Wallace, run out of terms to serve) in order to rise to high office. Now, it can be arranged to win on their own, like Senator Clinton and Senator Elizabeth Dole. They certainly need some qualifications and a state willing to let them run, but it is likely to become a trend. Does Lynne Cheney want to be a Senator from Wyoming? By the time her husband leaves the vice presidency, she may well just want to take it easy.

Hillary Clinton does plan to run again. She is a quick study—except in the art of detecting signs of philandering in her closely observed husband—and is learning the ropes of her new position. The people of New York will have her service for a long time, if she and they want it.

When and if Hillary Rodham Clinton decides to run for president, she may think it prudent to at least show greater interest in making it clear who stood by her and supported her with money and people on the ground. If she runs in 2008 she could publish another book (Living in New York[?]) during that campaign and mention a union leader or two. She should know: it takes a village, etc.


A 19th century philosopher-economist’s famous dicta, “History repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce,” is being played out in the California recall. That the philosopher was Karl Marx is a further bit of comedy; given the circumstances, it could be a line of Groucho Marx. But what the recall has brought about is the rebirth of liberal Republicanism, of the Rockefeller stripe, even the George H. W. Bush type. That was the original compassionate Republicanism, the belief that government could be a tool of efficiency and stability, practiced by the sort of people Phyllis Schlafly once called, in horror, “Big Government Republicans.” Now it will be known as Schwarzenegger Republicanism. In all the comparisons made between Arnold Schwazenegger and Ronald Reagan, most to Schwarzenegger’s discredit, one has been overlooked. True, both are actors, but Arnold is a star. When Reagan entered state politics he was practically a has-been, a former “star” who was shilling for GE and Borax on TV’s General Electric Theater and Death Valley Days.

I haven’t seen Arnold selling soap (or GE’s mammography machines, for that matter.) The Terminator has had world-wide grosses as an actor that Reagan only could have dreamed of. Though there is plenty of farce, where is the tragedy (other than the recall itself)? When conservatives attack Schwarzenegger they complain he has no well-formed views, only advisers preparing his policies. Does that ring a bell? The same assertions were made during President Bush’s first campaign, but the doubtful were assured that what Bush lacked in foreign and domestic policy experience and knowledge, he would make up for by hiring the best and the brightest, if not the youngest.

So, when T-3 brings on board Warren Buffet (and George Schultz, among others), Arnold should be cheered, except for the fact that Buffet has the misfortune to be a billionaire who speaks clearly, as he did to the Wall Street Journal, pointing out that, for his class, his relatively modest home in Nebraska ($500,000) last tax bill was $14,401, whereas his more flamboyant home on the coast of California ($4 million) had a tax bill of only two thousand and change. Such facts and their implications really alarm conservatives. It is ironic that all this tax talk was made possible by Proposition 13, the property-tax success story of the anti-tax lobby. Its passage in 1978 restructured the state’s tax code, deprived California the funds necessary to maintain its once great school system. When the spurned wanna-be candidate Congressman Darrell Issa funded this mischief, the instantaneous recall of Gov. Gray Davis, it seemed just another of California’s wacky populist-inspired initiatives. Though the recall statute was written nearly a hundred years ago—unlike the U.S. Constitution—its wisdom has not been tempered by courts and amendment.

After consulting the focus group of my California in-laws, both Republican and Democrat, I have bad news for the anti-Arnold conservatives. If nothing changes, the Terminator is back, big time. Despite what the early polls show, Arnold has the stealth vote: though he has 99% name recognition, not everyone wants to admit they will vote for him.

Imagine this recall “election” without Arnold: A dull, bitter exercise, where Democrats would need to be dragged out to stop another Republican electoral coup. What a bore. But now it is a circus, the best show in town. Arnold has breathed life into a dead process and will bring out the vote pro and con in a way little else could.

Robotic or not, he energizes. Federal and state courts have been leery of jumping into this briar patch and thus far have refused to delay the recall stampede. Arnold Schwarzenegger governor of California! That’s as amazing as Jesse Ventura, wrestler and actor, being governor of Minnesota—and why it isn’t amazing any longer.


This Labor Day weekend we don’t have a tale of two cities, but a tale of two countries. In one country large segments of those out of work are paid their full salaries by the U.S. government; in the other unemployment benefits are limited and many have stopped looking for jobs altogether. In one country old and dilapidated electrical grids are being rebuilt and in the other electricity disappeared for nearly a quarter of the population for 24 hours. One has public works projects funded by the richest nation in the world and in the other it is pay as you go. We open one country’s jail doors and in the other the prison population has reached an all-time high.

Of course, the countries are Iraq and the United States.

We are currently spending over 4 billion a month in Iraq and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has asked for more. We are working day and night to get Iraq’s oil production up to speed, have started job programs of every sort and are handing out hundred dollar bills to the general population like John D. Rockefeller distributed dimes to children in the early 1900’s.

This Labor Day we have an anti-worker Labor Secretary who wants to eliminate overtime pay for 8 million, an administration that would like to deunionize any business that is still covered by a collective-bargaining agreement, and a president who fought hard to keep organized labor out of any division of Homeland Security—and wants no labor unions created in Iraq.

Here good economic news is bad news. Productivity is up 5.7%—the historic average is 2%. How this magic was brought about was described by an indiscreet management consultant quoted last month in the Wall Street Journal, “Employers are saying if I can’t raise prices, I’ll raise productivity. Employers are flogging their workers to get more out of them as a means to increase profits.” “Flogging” is a good word for it: ugly, but accurate. The recession was declared over in November 2001, but the unemployment rate is 6.2%. And there have been thousands of jobs lost in every sector of the economy, except for the category “temporary help.” Nearly 3 million jobs have been lost since Bush became president. Only he and Herbert Hoover share such a record. Economists point out that economic growth used to mean jobs, but not any more. Between 1950 and 1962 there was an 81% relationship between GDP and unemployment. That has declined between 1990 and 2002 to 59%. Since more output should equal more jobs the present economy is considered dysfunctional. In Europe, citizens have complained of interrupting their vacations to attend funerals of the summer’s heat-related dead. They take their vacations seriously over there; so seriously, European central banks refrain from making any official pronouncements about the economy during August.

President Bush has a European’s appetite for long vacations. Doubtless, his administration might consider a WPA program for homeland infrastructure (bridges, roads, water, electricity) if it could give the business to friends without any competitive bidding. That’s how Halliburton got much of its work in Iraq.

Over in Iraq we are attempting to establish democracy and here Attorney General John Ashcroft is sent around the country to friendly audiences to defend the elimination of rights in the Patriot Act. The government is deficit-spending with abandon. But here we are cutting taxes for the wealthy and transferring the debt to our children, while cutting the classes they can take at state universities because our government has no money for that sort of foolishness, whereas the sky’s the limit for our wholly owned subsidiary, the country of Iraq.

In the bad old days—unless these are the bad old days—the predatory corporation Enron paid a lot of money to have a baseball stadium named after it. The amounts we are spending in Iraq should give us naming privileges. Any suggestions? Enjoy Labor Day.


Ollie North, the Iran-contra figure and current Fox News contributor, asks in his pro-war public appearances how many in the audience know someone serving in Iraq. In most cases, three-quarters of the crowd responds affirmatively.

The percentage would be smaller if the former arms smuggler asked how many knew someone killed or injured. Unfortunately, I can raise my hand for that one. Gil Loescher was nearby the top UN official, Sergio Vieira de Mello, when the flatbed truck blew off the corner of the hotel the UN was using as its headquarters in Baghdad on August 19th, killing de Mello and injuring Loescher.

Gil Loescher retired recently from Notre Dame; all his teaching life he did work on refugees. In Iraq, he was working for the Open Democracy Project, a humanitarian organization. Loescher is tall, the sort of fellow who walks hunched over, so he doesn’t appear to tower over everyone in the room.

He is currently in critical condition in the U.S. Army Hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, having been evacuated from Baghdad shortly after the bombing. He suffered traumatic amputation of both legs, considerable damage to his right hand, and lacerations to his face. One still hears people say “War is Hell,” but if a picture is still worth a thousand words, we aren’t allowed to see many pictures these days. One surprising thing about 9/11 and the attacks on the World Trade Center’s twin towers was for an hour or so we all saw uncensored television. But, even then tape of people jumping from the buildings was quickly put away.

The first Gulf War had one set of shocking photographs shown widely, those of the Highway of Death, the bombing we did of the long line of Iraqi soldiers fleeing Kuwait.

But this war, even with the embedded reporters, appalling photos have been relatively rare. But both the government and the media have decided that such images are not fit for viewing—though as actual war footage has become more bland and censored, movies have become more bloody and bold.

Many of the arguments against showing such pictures are familiar: matters of taste, sympathy for relatives, etc. A photo of Gil Loescher being pulled from the rubble would be disturbing. But, who profits from the absence of such images?

Well, for one, those who want to wage just the sort of wars the Bush administration is waging. One of the many things that contributed to the growing anti-war movement during the Vietnam period was its images: The photograph of the women, children and old men killed in the ditch at My Lai was made into a poster and many saw it and were properly repulsed.

Before the Vietnam war, the baby boomers that filled the ranks of the anti-war movement, as well as the military, were raised on pictures of WWII atrocities. Some of the most influential were films of the concentration camps.

During the Vietnam war the bombing of Cambodia was kept secret from the America people. Of course, the bombing was no secret to those who were being bombed. And the carnage in Afghanistan and Iraq isn’t a secret to the populations there, either.

The many deaths and injuries suffered by Americans on 9/11 have given President Bush all the leeway he needs to attack whatever country he chooses: Such images fuel a powerful engine of revenge. But, the passions released by reproductions of suffering cut in both directions. The notion of “an eye for an eye” was invented in the Middle East. Here in the states, the public continues to receive the most sanitized version of what our military is doing and what is being done to it. When the freshly killed bodies of Uday and Qusay Hussein were shown on TV, it was only with reluctance and network warnings. But how can Americans decide what we want our government to do if we can’t see what it is that we do and to whom we do it?


The Bush administration is very concerned about backdrops for the president’s speeches, so during his address to the nation last Sunday I tried to identify the marble busts that were visible on his right and left. They were some distance behind and all I could do was guess: Thomas Jefferson? George Washington?

Whoever, they were doubtless founding fathers of one sort or another. In Bush’s first prime-time television address since aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (back drop banner: “Mission Accomplished”) Bush more or less accepted paternity rights for the founding of a new Iraq and was ready with support payments. No dead-beat dad he. For the first time, the sum of a trillion dollars doesn’t seem an exaggeration: 70 billion this year, another 90 the next. It won’t take long.

President Bush’s assertion, “We will do what is necessary,” like so many of his catch phrases, has a sinister edge. He might stop short of Saddam Hussein’s tactics in controlling the country (torture, wholesale killing, etc.), but that, ultimately, might be what is “necessary.”

The liberation of Iraq was supposed to help smooth the road map to peace in Israel. At this point, however, it looks like in Iraq the administration will be following Ariel Sharon’s current Israeli road map: targeted assassination, walls and fences of one sort or another, meeting terror with more terror.

What we have accomplished in Iraq is no small thing: if you can’t bring the mountain to Mohammed, bring Mohammed to the mountain. President Bush puts it this way: “We have carried the fight to the enemy. We are rolling back the terrorist threat to civilization, not on the fringes of its influence, but at the heart of its power.” It’s the OK Corral writ large.

As the terrorists threaten “civilization,” according to the president, blowing up water mains and oil pipelines in Iraq, we have discovered that it is difficult to change a regime if you don’t have another regime to put in its place and civilization is among the softest of soft targets and it doesn’t take much to threaten: It is all too easy to turn off the lights in a quarter of this country, or to send anthrax in the mail. In Iraq, the best outcome hoped for by many is: “Iraqis out front, more Americans out back,” which sounds a lot like Vietnamization.

The president continues to blame Bill Clinton for our problems, unless Bush includes his father and Ronald Reagan in his definition of “a generation”: “For a generation leading up to September the 11th, 2001, terrorists and their radical allies attacked innocent people in the Middle East and beyond without facing a sustained and serious response. The terrorists became convinced that free nations were decadent and weak. And they grew bolder, believing that history was on their side.”

History may not be on the side of the terrorists, but it doesn’t appear to be on our side, either, given the history of the Middle East. Our current adventure in Iraq is similar to what Great Britain, back when Britain was great, an empire, attempted when it set out to bring “civilization” to Iraq and the surrounding regions in the early1900s, with limited success. Of course, nearly a century later, things have changed: no Arab terrorists blew up Big Ben and London Bridge in the ’20s. And we appear ready to spend and spend to get it done, to do “what is necessary.” Our regent in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, says the high cost is proof of “commitment”: The request, Bremer said, “Amounts to more than 10 times more than the United States has ever spent in a year in any country.”

Though the president is lucky in his enemies and in his Democratic competition, his Achilles’ heel in the 2004 election will be his administration’s overall competence. And to do what Bush says he will do, both at home and in the Middle East, will take more than simple competence, it will take genius.


Being a Supreme Court justice must be a great job, one of the best. It is obviously a job no one wants to give up. Popes usually die in office, but no such tradition exists for members of the high court. The current justices enjoy their work so much they convened early this year, to hear four hours of oral arguments on the constitutionality of campaign finance law.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Lewis Powell have served for 32 and 28 years respectively (Rehnquist joined the court in 1971, Powell in ‘75.) Sandra Day O’Connor and Antonin Scalia have been aboard for about two decades (O’Connor joined in ’81, Scalia ’86.) Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg have all served a decade or more, and Stephen Breyer will hit that mark next year.

Though many thought that at least two justices would have retired after the court’s last session, those predictions (mine among them) have been proved wrong. I thought Sandra Day O’Connor would resign after casting the swing vote in the U. of Michigan affirmative action case, which preserved the notion – barely—of affirmative action in deed, if not in thought.

Now O’Connor is said to be the swing vote on the question of whether to gut the nascent campaign finance law, so she has another chance to bow out after the curtain comes down on an historic decision.

Judges and members of Congress aren’t good role models for those who champion the benefits of retirement. Many public servants cling to their safe seats forever—perhaps larger pensions would get them to leave. Nonetheless, they are not eager to make way for new blood. In fact, in O’Connor’s case, that may be why she isn’t resigning.

She might be afraid of who President Bush will nominate to take her place.

After the 2000 presidential campaign it was alleged that O’Connor was upset when it appeared that Al Gore was the election-night winner: she was stuck on the court for four more years if that happened. Now, it appears that she still is stuck.

O’Connor doubtless has taken note of the troubles President Bush has had with some of his most flamboyant appeals court designees, one of whom, Miguel Estrada, recently threw in the towel and removed his name from consideration. The other contentious ultra-conservative nominees, Mississippi’s Charles Pickering, Texas’s Priscilla Owen, Alabama’s William Pryor, and California’s Carolyn Kuhl, remain in the wings, still kept from their positions by effective Democratic filibustering.

What O’Connor may well have concluded is not that the Democrats are so obstructionist, but rather that President Bush is obdurately committed to naming extreme candidates for these lifetime appointments.

Since O’Connor has become so used to being the swing vote, she may want her successor to be someone not on the edge, like Pickering et al., but in the middle, such as herself, a person who could get 60 Senate confirmation votes.

Chief Justice Rehnquist is less likely to share O’Connor’s qualms, since he seems just as happy as Pope John Paul II to ride into his final sunset in office. But the chief justice could have such concerns, too.

The lack of resignations by these former Republican stalwarts might be the one poll that counts the most in President Bush’s future. If O’Connor and Rehnquist are hesitant to leave the bench because they fear who Bush will choose to replace them, that lack of confidence in the president’s judgment may well mirror Bush’s current fall in the polls on domestic issues that has taken place over the last couple of weeks.

If Sandra Day O’Connor and William Rehnquist want to show support for President Bush, they could do him a favor and retire forthwith. At this point, every month they linger on the court reveals their lack of confidence that Bush would honor their service by filling their vacancies with the same sort of distinguished, irreplaceable individuals they consider themselves to be.


General Wesley Clark hasn’t so much thrown his hat in the ring for the Democratic presidential nomination, as thrown it off a cliff and jumped after it. Clark’s launch as a candidate has been one of the rockiest in memory. He did manage to knock Sen. John Edwards’ official declaration speech to the bottom of the page with only a promise of announcing, but since then it hasn’t been pretty. Nonetheless, Clark leads the Democratic presidential field and beats Bush head to head in a USAToday/CNN/Gallup poll.

But we see why it took the general so long to decide whether or not to run. It turns out that Clark was a late convert to the Democratic party and the missionary that made him see the light was none other than his former commander in chief, Bill Clinton.

Many state workers change their party affiliation, depending on who is governor, but it doesn’t happen quite so often at the federal level. Clark seems to be the opposite case of that other four star general, Colin Powell, who voted for LBJ and Jimmy Carter before he turned Republican. Clark voted, he said, for Dick Nixon, and twice for Ronald Reagan.

General Clark also went back and forth on the Iraq war: One day he offered he would have voted for the congressional resolution allowing Bush to attack Iraq, the next he would have done no such thing.

And though Clark pronounces words with no difficulty, he promised on Sept. 17th to talk to the American people in “plain and simple language”—though he will have a lot of competition in that regard from the sitting president.

In an eerie way the Clark candidacy resembles the 2000 candidacy of George W. Bush, but with a twist. George W. was a retooled populist version of his father, one that the public found appealing. His father’s style was patrician and young George’s the opposite: down home to a fault, the regular guy through and through.

Now we have “Wes” Clark announcing his quest in Little Rock, Arkansas, of all places. Does that jog anyone’s memory? On October 3, 1991 Bill Clinton announced his intention to seek the presidency from the same city. Indeed, given that timetable, Clark didn’t enter the race late, but two weeks early. And Clark has claimed that Bill Clinton is responsible for his born-again Democratic paternity.

In the same way George W. Bush is his father corrected—reshaped for an electorate that had grown inhospitable to the trappings of the eastern elite establishment—Wesley Clark is Bill Clinton corrected, in one specific aspect: He’s Bill Clinton shorn of Clinton’s most stubborn disadvantage, Clinton’s absence of military service and bearing. Bill Clinton was the world’s most comfortable president. He worked well with both the high and the low, knew them like few other politicians of his generation. The only place he wasn’t comfortable or welcomed was the military and at the level of the presidency that proved a great weakness. Clinton could have been tough with the military, demonstrably proud of his anti-war past. But it was clear early on Clinton wasn’t proud of it and the military did intimidate him. He was a commander in chief who was warned away from visiting a number of bases and ships for fear of the absence of a warm reception by the officers and enlisted men.

General Clark’s biography in Arkansas is a bit more standard than the rococo one Bill Clinton sported, but they were both equal victors in the world of the meritocracy. Just as George H. W. Bush was able to proudly watch his son gain the White House because George W. was free of his father’s elitist liabilities, Bill Clinton (who has touted Clark as one of the “two stars” of the Democratic party—the other being his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton) would like to see the warrior candidate achieve the office because Clark has in abundance what Bill Clinton sorely lacked. The only problem is that Wesley Clark seems to be without what Clinton did have in abundance: talent as a politician, if not medals for valor.


The entertainment capital’s latest entertainment is about to come to an end. The whole country should thank California for the temporary comic relief it has provided from more serious matters: the continuing difficulties in Iraq and the White House’s mismanagement both at home and abroad.

From a safe distance, one of the amusing things about the Golden State’s recall spectacle is the variety of likely outcomes and political possibilities. The daily double is Gray Davis being recalled and a new face chosen. What voter could resist such a two-fer?

Well, some so-called “disaffected” Democrats in California can, apparently. They plan to vote “yes” to recall Davis and then not vote for any successor.

These Democrats are the same sort who went out of their way to vote for Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election. Their precious disaffection trumps common sense, but there will be a lot of them voting in California, it is feared. “Give the budget mess to the Republicans!” is their cry. And it is a mess: Californians profligately pass propositions that cost money and then recoil at the idea of paying taxes to fund them.

Politics as entertainment is now the norm. That was made clear by the nationally televised debate of a handful of aspirants for the governorship held a week ago. Afterward, on Fox News, Darrell Issa, the midwife of this whole extravaganza, who assisted the recall’s birth by his deft infusion of cash, listed first and foremost Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “humor” as the most laudable quality the randy actor-candidate displayed. Just why those few debate candidates were chosen remains mysterious, given the inclusion of Arianna Huffington, the author and socialite. Her presence set the bar pretty low (2% in the polls), but not low enough for any other vivid candidates to jump over: not the porn actress, Mary Carey, the porn publisher, Larry Flynt, or the short TV performer, Gary Coleman.

Yet, observing the field of ten at the last Democratic primary debate, it appears just as easy to be a presidential candidate as it is to be running for governor of California. Did Gen. Wesley Clark have to pay $3,500 and get 65 signatures? At least there aren’t 135 Democratic candidates contending. The California debate was amusing, degenerating rapidly into a lively dinner party dispute, with Arnold and Arianna cordially insulting each other. Huffington is a late convert to liberal religion, after a life of conservative Republican debauchery. But her powers as a gracious hostess have even wooed old-time lefties—who evidently don’t get invited to fancy Brentwood parties that often—to her side. Who cares if one moment she strives to be elected governor, the next she quits and calls for the recall to fail? Such a turnaround is nothing new to Arianna.

Huffington raised her public profile by entering the race and gained yet more publicity by bowing out before losing badly. Ditto for Rep. Darrell Issa. He is no longer an obscure right-wing California Congressman from a sleepy district; he is now a king maker, of a sort, a new face of the Republican party on cable news, another rich man willing to make trouble.

One hopes some local documentary film makers have been at work, for this short sprint to glory for its mob of candidates would make a great show.

It will end Tuesday with the dice throw of voter participation with either Gray Davis remaining in office (the least expected), or Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante or Arnold Schwarzenegger ascending to the governorship. Then the hangover after all the partying will take hold.

If it is Arnold, “California,” the reality TV show, will be renewed for at least another year. If it is Bustamante or Davis, the program will be cancelled. Given the state’s lagging economy and the mood of the electorate, it’s likely that Californians will vote for the show to go on.


The White House is full of secrets, even secrets predating 9/11. The list of corporate cronies who wrote the Bush/Cheney energy policy hasn’t been divulged yet. President Bush made “loyalty” the chief virtue of his administration and loyalty’s first test is the ability to keep a secret.

After 9/11 White House secrecy wasn’t just a matter of personal, partisan loyalty, it became a matter of national patriotism and the Patriot Act is all about secrets: how to keep the government’s and how to find out yours.

The Bush administration’s leak of the name of a CIA officer wasn’t so much as a secret being disclosed as a fact that the “senior” leaker wanted made known. The leak dove-tailed with another reigning aspect of the Bush administration: the predominant male culture of the White House’s inner circle.

The import of the leak of Joseph Wilson wife’s profession wasn’t that she was a CIA operative, but that she got her husband a job: the trip to Niger to investigate Iraq’s nuclear ambitions. It’s a schoolyard put-down, if you went to an all boy’s school like Phillips Academy: Wilson couldn’t even get a job without his wife’s help.

Secrets and testosterone are a powerful mix. Ambassador Wilson, apparently, is aware of the combination’s potency. He, too, seems to be supplied with an excess of each. Wilson outed in the N.Y. Times the Bush administration’s bogus claim about the Niger yellowcake that President Bush used in his State of the Union address and the Bush White House outed Wilson’s wife for that display of alpha-male behavior. Tit for tat.

That it took nearly three months for the leak to become a big story is a story in itself. In July, when Wilson’s commentary ran, followed by Robert Novak’s column containing the information about Wilson’s wife and her alleged help in getting her husband employment, President Bush still seemed ready to cakewalk into a second term. But the facade of great competence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was already beginning to crack. Where was Saddam? Where was Osama? Where were the weapons of mass destruction? Where were the jobs lost in America?

The Novak-Wilson-CIA story grew out of one of those cracks. In the three months since Novak’s leak-inspired column, the news that six journalists in all had been fed the leak leaked. And the Democratic primary contest became more serious. Gen. Wesley Clark’s late entry into the field underscored the change: a political race is too serious to be left to civilians. The Bush administration has made a much better show of being civil to women than the new governor-elect of California, but President Bush sets the overall tone: the White House is a very guy place. It is his most attractive attribute. Bush looks good in a flight suit. His national security adviser Condi Rice is single, which allows her to run with the boys. Karen Hughes, once part of the inner circle, had to return to her family in Texas.

The claim that Wilson needed his wife’s help to be taken seriously is the sort of off-handed insult that the guy-world produces. The leaker most likely was being no more malicious than that: he was putting Wilson down, not putting out a contract on his wife.

But, in 2003, wives do work for the CIA—and even for the Bush administration, though some of the president’s men chose to forget it or overlook it. The story has risen from a personal insult to a political insult. Bush’s continuing decline in the polls has given previously timid Democrats permission to lash out and they have.

The president has come a long way in a short time from last May’s flight deck celebration aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. Cracks are multiplying and new weeds are sprouting. Political life has become more serious all around.


It’s fitting that Howard Dean is famous for being an internet phenomena: the best political fund-raising ever seen on the Web, the favorite candidate of the poll last summer. Gov. Dean has taken his past stewardship of Vermont virtual. He’s become the preferred presidential contender of cyberspace—in the Democratic sector, at least.

But, Dean is more than just the internet candidate. The connection is deeper. His candidacy is a version of the internet speculative stock bubble at the end of the 20th century.

The rush of capital into technology stocks then was itself an internet phenomena, a real case of an industry chasing its own tail. First-time investors, hordes of day traders, all ignoring the fundamentals of judging equities, leaped on various tech company bandwagons. Some of them paid off big—for the people at the top of the particular pyramid schemes, the dot-com entrepreneurs who profited from the initial public offerings.

The Dean campaign has shown many of the qualities of a successful IPO: he’s a new product, full of potential. Though you could fit Vermont into Silicon Valley, Dean looked fresh and feisty compared to the other Democratic contenders, the crowd from Congress.

Rep. Dick Gephardt and Senators John Kerry, Joe Lieberman are certainly the old economy, epitomes of bricks and mortar. Dean possessed the lure of something different. It didn’t matter early on that there weren’t any profits to be seen, little hope of actually winning. Dean was the “new new thing” and attracted voters back to the party and to politics.

Recently, during the Arizona Democratic debate, Dean bragged, “Why do you think I am where I am, having come from no place at the end of January? It’s because I’ve gone out and given 50 percent of Americans who have given up on voting in this country a reason to vote again.” Dean’s early and persistent problems, his difficulties with mainstream Democratic concerns, saving Social Security, reforming Medicare, were dealt with the way a number of tech companies fixed things: with improbable accounting practices. Dean went from wanting to raise the retirement age of Social Security recipients to 70 and above, to never wanting to do anything like that; and from cutting Medicare’s budget by Newt Gingrich proportions, to only wanting to do whatever it was Bill Clinton wanted to do.

Dean’s critics are dismissed by his supporters the same way the doom-sayers who claimed the internet stock bubble was all “irrational exuberance” were ignored.

All those first time, virgin investors who lost their shirts howled. But they had been warned, told not to overlook the blue chip stocks, the GEs and the GMs—the John Kerry’s, the Dick Gephardt’s—but they went with their hearts, not their heads.

Plenty of people cheered on the irrational exuberance of the late 90s. Financial journalists, many cleverer than their audiences, became enablers who found how to profit from the bubble and knew enough to get clear before it blew.

Dean’s rise, too, has been further puffed up by commentators bored with the old political faces. Dean is not only fresh, lively, with it, but a guy who spends a lot of time appearing human, getting mad, spouting off.

And another constituency has been building up Dean. He’s the GOP’s favorite candidate; Republicans of all stripes have been finding ways to say nice things about him.

One political stock-fundamental to note is: who does the opposition want to run against? Buy another. Yet Gen. Wesley Clark’s IPO launch hasn’t been as successful as Howard Dean’s. Comparisons only go so far. Dean’s hopeful supporters aren’t dreaming of huge financial rewards, so much as a salutary change in leadership. If the political internet bubble holds—and Bush-Cheney stock continues to disappoint benchmark indexes on the economy, Iraq, etc.—the most exciting public offering may be Dean-Clark, even though a Kerry-Clark investment would more likely pay dividends.


Supporters of the Iraq war have largely settled on one thing: overthrowing Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do. The discredited reasons President Bush gave—primarily to rid the world of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and end his “links” to al-Qaida’s terrorists—have been largely set aside by both pro-war conservatives and liberals.

The rationale for the war is now put more simply by its defenders: that it was “a good thing,” as lefty writer Paul Berman, quoted last Sunday in the N.Y. Times, characterized it. Indeed, hearing the new Causa Belli expressed by many, one could only conclude the war in Iraq was a humanitarian adventure, void of self-interest, carried out for the noblest of motives.

The difficulty with the “noble deed” theory, is that what follows has to stay true to the original high purpose. The initial Bush administration reasons, Hussein as an imminent or eventual threat, his untrustworthiness as an ally against radical Islamic fundamentalists, were closer to the truth.

But, given the lack of evidence of Saddam’s ability to menace America or his lack of involvement with international terrorism until after his regime fell, even President Bush now says that the war was necessary to free the Iraqi people from Saddam’s misrule, though preemption is still Bush’s chief doctrine. “We will strike our enemies before they strike us again,” he said in a speech last week in California.

Of course, Saddam hadn’t struck us before, though we struck him when he invaded Kuwait. The Iraq war and the war on terror has been about the use of American power.

The terrorists of 9/11 were far too successful for their own good. Though Bill Clinton now claims he told President Bush in an “exit” interview the chief threat to the nation was Osama bin Laden, it was clear by the mid-90s that bin Laden was a dire threat.

When the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building took place, it was assumed by many law enforcement officials that it was the work of Muslim terrorists, the same crowd with links to al-Qaida that first tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993. Only the almost accidental arrest of Timothy McVeigh for a traffic violation nipped that line of inquiry in the bud.

After 9/11 the Bush administration wanted to make clear the terrorists had awakened a giant and the message sent to rulers in the Middle East couldn’t be clearer: we will take over and destroy your countries one by one until you do something about your fundamentalist terrorists. All other reasons were secondary.

It sounds noble for Bush and other members of his administration to claim we are bringing “democracy” to Iraq and intend to spread it to other countries in the region. It also sounds a bit mad, since those nations have never had much or any history of American, or Western-style, democracy.

What we are really bringing to Iraq is American might, in order to make that clear neither the UN nor anyone else will deter us from inflicting as much pain and suffering as we care to for what was done to us. But the Bush administration can hardly be forthright about the dark side of his preemption doctrine, his willingness to “strike our enemies before they strike us again.”

And so, noble reasons are given: the Iraqis are better off, we are building schools, spending gold as well as blood.

Meanwhile, the strategy of the still hard-to-find Saddam Hussein—if he had any strategy—is to have ended the war before many Iraqis were killed. The State Department’s recently disclosed report that predicted major looting had called for force to be used to curtail it. Killing and brutality are the norm during war. But, once the regime fell, it was clear the military had no taste to equal Saddam in methods of oppression. Our soldiers could have stopped the looting by shooting anyone they saw doing it, man, woman or child. War is hell, but nation building is noble—and deadly and dangerous to us, half-conquerors that we are.


Last week’s Detroit Democratic debate brought to mind a remark attributed to the political consultant James Carville. Carville, after watching a 1992 primary debate, supposedly said he saw only one possible president on the stage, that person being Bill Clinton, his client.

The most recent Democratic candidate get-together produced the opposite verdict: there wasn’t one obvious president on the stage, but there were nine good prospects for vice-president.

Without a doubt, one stellar candidate could be made out of the nine available: A mixture of John Kerry and Wesley Clark’s military experience, along with Dick Gephardt’s labor credentials and support of American workers, a touch of Howard Dean’s pragmatism and sense of upper-class entitlement, some of John Edwards’ unflappableness in the face of criticism, a bit of Al Sharpton’s wit and Carol Moseley Braun’s commonsense, plus a dollop of Dennis Kucinich’s utopian dreams. If a political creature could be manufactured out of those pieces of eight, then Joe Lieberman could hitch a ride again as candidate for vice president.

Unlike ‘92, there is no clear Clinton-like choice, but it isn’t as bad as the president’s mother, Barbara Bush, claims: she called her son’s competition “a pretty sorry group” recently on the “Today” show. President Bush is “presidential” by default. It’s barely November, but the race is already tightening: Clark and Lieberman have been scratched from the Iowa card. Gephardt seems to be closing there, though Dean is ahead by a nose, since he alone has managed to step foot in every county in the state. On to New Hampshire: John Kerry has proximity going for him, so he might come in second behind Dean, but second may resemble a lot of golf tournaments, where a large group shares the runner-up spot. But only winning counts: And that looks like the former governor of Vermont—indeed, if Dean doesn’t win neighboring New Hampshire, it will be interpreted as a rejection by people who know him well.

Then quickly there’s South Carolina and a handful of others. John Edwards claimed gamely in the Detroit debate that South Carolina would be his best showing. But, it might be his best chance to bow out when people are still looking.

The early primaries may make things no clearer than they are now, even though there have been more Democratic debates aired than episodes of some new fall TV programs before they were yanked. NBC’s “Coupling” is gone, but “Debating” continues on. The differences in the debates have been slight, the changes subtle enough to become a tea-leaves-reading exercise. Who is attacked? Who is feared? Dean? Clark? What does change is the questioners and the formats.

Whatever form the eventual debates between President Bush and the survivor Democrat take, one hopes it will not be as rigid and limited as it was in 2000. The format then of one questioner, the gentlemanly Jim Lehrer, coupled with mandated brief responses, favored George W. Bush as much as did the low expectations Bush brought with him into the debates.

In last Sunday’s Detroit encounter, the Fox News political reporter Carl Cameron was decidedly prosecutorial in his questions, a style he doesn’t use when quizzing President Bush. The local Fox anchor, Huel Perkins, distinguished himself by asking probing questions. The moderator, PBS’s Gwen Ifill, was as feisty as Cameron, asking Gephardt, “Has your moment passed?” and John Edwards why, after starting out so well, was he at “the bottom of the pack” in a new poll?

Given the importance of the 2000 televised debates to Bush’s ultimate victory, he will doubtlessly try to limit once again their effectiveness. One positive result from all the Democratic debating is that the eventual contender will have had a lot of practice. But this time around, it won’t be President Bush’s debate performance that will matter, as much as the voters’ judgment of Bush’s performance as president.


Rush Limbaugh’s 30 day self-imposed exile is about to come to an end and if he returns immediately to the airways, it’ll be interesting to see—hear—if whatever recovery spa he went to made any difference.

Not in his political views, necessarily, but in his overall outlook, his notorious lack of empathy for the benighted, the addicted, the less than self reliant. In 1996 I spent a lot of time listening to and writing about Limbaugh for my book, Campaign America ’96: The View From the Couch. That year I even watched him, since he had a cable television show overseen by Roger Ailes, the current Fox News head honcho.

Back then, I thought Limbaugh an overweight overachiever. But what was touching about him was his obvious, flop-sweat producing, discomfort in the company of powerful people. It appeared Limbaugh realized he was not much more than hot air and was demonstrably ill at ease around those who were truly accomplished.

Evidently, it was shortly after 1996 that his addiction to pain killers became a problem. “Back surgery” (though not all the time he spent on the golf links) became the excuse. But, as the years went by, I did notice that Rush grew more and more contented with his success. He seemed to lose his hick-ish insecurity at not being all that he was cracked up to be. He became more comfortable in his skin—though now it is clear the comfort was pharmacologically induced.

Given the nature of Limbaugh’s rants, his various attacks on elites, one branch of medicine Rush wasn’t going to seek out was psychoanalysis. That’s the sort of thing the targets of his scorn—“feminazis,” soccer (“sucker”) moms, liberals—would do. “Back surgery” is still a manly hardship, not socially stigmatizing in Rush’s world like psychological problems, feelings of inferiority. So, Rush had to self-medicate, recycling his expensive cigar boxes as carriers of cash for parking lot pickups of shocking amounts of prescription pain-killers.

Rush’s two announced previous attempts to wring himself free of his dependency were unsuccessful, neither long enough to handle any sort of talk therapy that might have proved helpful. Rush’s shtick has always been an act. He was a natural for radio, as are a lot of conceited introverts: he could talk and talk and not have to face anyone, especially himself.

Though his former cable TV show’s audience was handpicked, he was never at ease in front of a group of strangers. His first appearance in the early 90s as a network TV talk show host was a disaster (the audience rebelled and Rush kicked the crowd out), as was his recent short-lived stint on ESPN. Rush’s biases are too visible on TV: He is what you see.

But, on the radio, Rush took his basic libertarian bent and coated it with even more conservatism than his native middle Missouri upbringing brought him naturally. His populist style was to become the anti-intellectuals’ intellectual. Added to that was his knack of making common sense king. And Rush made the king mean. Americans enjoy making fun of others. Nothing travels faster in this country than a joke, most often one at someone else’s expense.

Now Rush has become something of a joke. He joins William Bennett, the master of morality and moderation in all things except gambling, becoming the latest right-wing blowhard exposed for proclaiming, “Do as I say, not as I do.” But people of good will can hope that Rush got some decent therapy during the last 30 days, perhaps helping him to locate his inner feminazi, the personal demons and insecurities that led him to take more mood-altering drugs than many of his most ridiculed targets.

But 30 days might not be long enough to change his world-view, especially one that has been so profitable to him for over a decade. His drug abuse already may have robbed Limbaugh of his hearing and if its cure requires him to change his mind about a few things—both social and political—he might end up losing his audience.


Often the leaking of one memo inspires the leaking of another: to counter it, or, at least, to take its place in the news cycle. First, there was the leaked Donald Rumsfeld memo, the “long, hard slog” one, that offered a sober assessment—in contrast to his usual upbeat pronouncements—of the Iraq war and the war on terror. The second, two weeks later, was the leak of the draft memo written by a staffer for Sen. Jay Rockefeller on the political uses of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s review of the classified information used to bring about the Iraq war, by including the material’s manipulation by the White House.

Both memos had the audacity to state something that appeared to be the truth and both were soundly roughed up in the press for doing so, Rumsfeld’s by the Democrats, Rockefeller’s by the Republicans. Dueling memos have replaced the other sort—the kind with pistols—in Washington, D.C. these days. They too are matters of honor, settled in the fields of newsprint and video clips.

Ambassador Joseph Wilson “leaked” his own report on the White House’s bogus Niger uranium claim, then “senior” administration officials leaked his wife’s CIA employment. Rumsfeld has been able to walk away from his leaked memo without much damage—despite calls for his removal from 26 Democratic House members. After all, Rumsfeld told the truth and the memo’s revelations acted as a healthy course correction to all the gung-ho Iraq war rhetoric of the president and vice president. So much so, the leak appeared to be a friendly one, offering some crumbs of rationality to the press and public.

The second memo’s leak, out of the Intelligence Committee, doesn’t seem as friendly. It was meant to blunt the report the committee eventually issues. The Bush administration is preemptive not just in fighting wars, but in waging paper wars.

Whatever criticisms of the White House the Democrats manage to squeeze into the final document will be dismissed by administration officials and right-wing propagandists as tainted goods, politically inspired, hardly worthy of comment. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the committee’s chair, has been on TV decrying the lack of bipartisanship shown by the memo. Bush backer and titular Democrat, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, said the Intelligence Committee should never be “politicized,” calling the memo itself a “treasonous act.”

The claim that the Republican-controlled committee was a bastion of impartiality is a bit hard to swallow, since it has been dragging its feet and doing the bidding of the Bush administration since it began its investigation.

The last thing the White House wants is an impartial bipartisan report on the intelligence failures leading up to the Iraq war.

The Bush administration opposed both the Intelligence Committee’s work and the Kean 9/11 Commission, which began last December and spends its days subpoenaing the government for withheld documents. This week it reached an agreement with the White House to have limited “access” to classified presidential briefings, but the Intelligence Committee still waits for a response to its letter to President Bush complaining that requests for information have gone unanswered since July.

“Mistakes were made” is all the bad news the White House wants to hear, or will tolerate hearing, from either body.

The leaked Intelligence Committee memo, supposedly plucked from a wastebasket, makes clear that such general fault finding is not what the memo’s writer desires. He or she wants to question the White House’s own conduct, to point the finger of blame. Why? Because the president isn’t a Democrat—if he was, Republican staff would be urging the same tactics.

Though this particular memo, like Rumsfeld’s, stated the obvious, its writer will not be able to walk away unscathed: that person is a lowly staffer, not the secretary of defense. The Intelligence Committee and 9/11 Commission’s reports will be political documents, both contested and debated. Whereas the Iraq occupation is not politics as usual: And the public prefers Rumsfeld the truth-teller, to Rumsfeld the fantasist.


If anyone had lingering doubts about George W. Bush being a leader they should be gone by now. He even has the major Democratic presidential contenders following him. In the 2000 campaign Bush spurned campaign public financing, in order to make use of the huge amounts his corporate friends were pitching his way and not be fettered by pesky primary spending limits. Bush got away scot-free in 2000 for his insult to campaign finance reform. Too many members of the press corps were worried about Al Gore visiting a Buddhist temple to find fault with candidate Bush’s brazen act of noblesse oblige.

But, the public wasn’t much offended either: coming off a decade of stock market manipulation by both corporations and individuals, the ethic of “get-it-and-flaunt-it” was well established. So what if Bush attracts money? Isn’t that good? If Bill Clinton could have run for a third term, he too likely would have run away from free federal matching funds.

Abandoning primary public financing was Bush’s first step in his plan to privatize as much of the government as possible. And in this case, all he needed to do was walk away from it.

Now, Howard Dean has done the same, followed by John Kerry, who seems destined to continue to come in second behind Dean.

No longer does money control politics in the old fashion way, but in a new, turn-of-the-century way: boldly, shamelessly, proudly. Bush is now gathering $200 million for his unopposed primary race. Even exceptions prove the rule. Take the Huffingtons in California: Arianna opted out of the governor recall election when it was clear that she had squeezed every bit of publicity possible from it and before she spent any more than necessary. But her millionaire former husband, Michael, lost his Senate bid in 1994 after squandering nearly $30 million on it. There is a line of appeal below which even money will not lift you over. Michael Huffington set that line.

Voters will rebel if a candidate is too strange: Steve Forbes hit that barrier in his Republican primary runs. But every millionaire minimally acceptable now has a shot.

California’s Governor Schwarzenegeer moved into the job on the strength of his fame and fortune. During the last decade many rich senators and congress members have bought their seats with far less voter appeal than the action film star possesses.

This trend will continue: Conventional wisdom now judges “the money primary” the most important on—he who has the most money will have the most votes.

President Bush hopes to effectively lead in his other privatizing schemes, but they are more difficult to implement.

Since the electoral college is Bush’s friend, he hopes to achieve a “mandate” through its good offices in 2004. As he said the-hell-with public financing, he also said the-hell-with the popular vote in 2000. Though, this time around, he hopes to win the majority of votes, it’s the electoral college number that he wants to be impressive. If it is, Bush’s plans to privatize Social Security will move forward. Doubtless he will allude to it in his campaign: It will be styled the “Save Social Security” plan, similar to his “No Child Left Behind” program, or his “Clear Skies” environmental act, another fraudulently-titled initiative, named for what it won’t do, false labeling his administration is famous for.

Medicare privatization is underway: the Republican prescription drug plan is the camel’s nose poking under the tent. Sen. Ted Kennedy has finally stopped lauding the “bipartisan” bill he previously championed; he now sees it as fatally flawed. But Kennedy’s reborn opposition may be too little too late. The AARP has bought a plan it calls “far from perfect.”

President Bush can lead. Look at where he has taken us: Afghanistan, Iraq. That show of leadership began with his early preemptive strike in 2000 on campaign public financing. The privatizing cliff looms ahead. And many so-called “moderate” Democrats are lemming-like running after Bush toward it.


President Bush is a becoming a world traveler, not an avocation that had much interested him his first forty years of life. Presidents often use foreign travel as a means to get away from domestic troubles, but Bush’s trip to the United Kingdom only highlighted his foreign policy problems, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on terror.

Prominent in the news coverage of Iraq was a photograph of a sad donkey and the beast’s burden: a cart with a brightly colored box housing rocket launchers. Two such donkey-pulled armaments had been used to attack Baghdad’s Palestine and Sheraton Hotels (filled with journalists, CIA operatives, various contractors and Halliburton employees), and one was discovered before its rockets were fired.

The Iraqi donkey cart was reminiscent of a conveyance used in an earlier terrorist attack in Great Britain: an IRA van, with its roof cut out. Its rocket launchers almost decapitated the British cabinet, along with John Major, the prime minister, at 10 Downing Street in 1991. The munitions fell a few yards short.

Another reminder of terrorist troubles during Bush’s trip was the coverage given to the fraudulent footman, a London tabloid reporter who had joined the staff at Buckingham Palace and served the queen her meager breakfast, the man who supposedly would have served the president and the first lady the next day, if the reporter had not quit to write about it (with photos) in his paper, the Daily Mirror.

That episode recalled the American 20-year-old college student who recently managed to hide box cutters aboard two Southwest Airlines planes. In both episodes, the individuals were polar opposites from the likely terrorist profile, which goes far to explain how they accomplished their subterfuges, while confirming that profiling is in effect. The British have been praised as the more adept occupiers in their small corner of Southern Iraq, the explanation being their many years of service during hostilities in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland, last I looked, was a democracy of a sort and bloodshed has decreased during the last few years, one reason being the mutual disgust years of indiscriminate killing by both sides involved in the conflict generated.

It is hard to picture Iraqi citizens becoming disgusted at the level of violence perpetrated against the American military in their country. Talk in Washington is now heard of the desirability of finding a strong-armed leader like Saddam, only a warm-hearted one, a compassionate Saddam, to control the country.

The recent killing and despoiling of two U.S. soldiers driving in Mosul presents the problem sharply: talk about bad neighborhoods. Every Iraq city, even the friendliest, can at any minute produce a raging mob. Our military finds itself in a much worse situation than did the British troops in Northern Ireland (though we have more substantial motivation: oil and presidential resolve). In Iraq there are the same checkpoints and razor wire, but in Ireland at least both sides spoke the same language. American’s track record of occupying countries where English is not the native language has not been good. The American military is as fluent in Arabic as it was in Vietnamese.

President Bush’s October whirlwind trip to a number of Southeast Asian countries was, like his visit to Britain, a largely cloistered affair, where he was kept far from the madding crowds. Bush skipped China on that trip, though he would have had a better reception from its general population. There isn’t much democracy in China and its rulers know how to handle unruly populations. They are very much of the barrel-of-a-gun school. Bush would not have had to worry about protesting crowds and rude commentary by prominent citizens.

Since Bush and company are attempting to remake the world, it is only fitting that the president is finally getting out and seeing a little of it. Seeing might be believing, but it is clear President Bush continues to see only what he believes.


President Bush’s under-cloak-of-darkness Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad has become many things to many people. What it won’t become is a wedge issue, one that wins converts to one side or the other in the 2004 campaign. It isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind about George W. Bush, though the episode is certainly emblematic of the man and his presidency and it will serve as a marker for both Bush’s supporters and detractors. A number of commentators have compared the trip to Bush’s landing aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, where the flight-suit-attired commander-in-chief mixed with a happy crowd of sailors and marines.

Indeed, both episodes reinforce the president’s strengths and weaknesses. The aircraft carrier landing, however appreciated by the those who got to meet and greet Bush, did resurrect the president’s own dismal service record during the Vietnam war period, when he stopped reporting to and flying in his National Guard unit for nearly a year, under still unresolved circumstances.

But most of the critical attention that followed the carrier event centered on the “Mission Accomplished” banner. The White House’s reaction to that misstep has not displayed its usual aggressiveness: Bush and Co. should have said the mission had been to end Saddam’s regime and that certainly had been accomplished. Instead, even President Bush recently backed away from responsibility for generating the banner.

The Thanksgiving trip, though, was seen as win-win. As the president’s father could have said: “Message—we care.” The major Democratic candidates were check-mated, unable to criticize the event, given the need to endorse the wisdom of a leader wishing to comfort and thank the military serving in Iraq. Sen. Joe Lieberman said, “I don’t have anything political or partisan to say about it,” and Sen. John Edwards gave a statement saying the president’s trip was, “a nice thing to do.”

Doubtless Sen. Hillary Clinton’s contemporaneous trip to Afghanistan and Iraq would have been attacked more voraciously as cheap politics by the still active legions of Hillary haters and the right-wing press, if not for the president’s own visit.

But what is similar about both of President Bush’s landings—the carrier and the Baghdad airport—was the daring-do of them. What Bush is willing—wants—to do is show fearlessness.

He is a risk taker—has been all his life. That was what was at the heart of his first forty years of hard drinking and carousing. One DUI ticket doesn’t mean only one occasion of driving drunk. All the Bush biographies published in 2000 report on his crashing a car into trash cans and drunkenly confronting his father.

But Bush’s father has also been a risk taker, though a more private one. He hasn’t courted danger for public relation stunts. His fearlessness is a matter of record, the well-documented airplane crash and recovery at sea during WWII being only the first and most well known. The latest are the birthday parachute jumps the former president still indulges in, despite the protestations of his wife. So, his son’s landing on an aircraft carrier, decked out as a dashing jet pilot, his spiriting off to Baghdad, fighting for the first time in ten years the perils of ordinary Texas traffic en route, staying at the well-protected base for two-plus hours, help to erase the memory of young Bush’s lackadaisical military career.

But, more importantly, a lot of Americans want a risk taker in the White House now. The carnage and humiliation of 9/11 still calls out for retribution, not prudence.

Who better to deliver on that than the notorious former prep-school and fraternity cut-up, now devil-may-care president? Actual war veterans, like Sen. John Kerry and Gen. Wesley Clark, are seen as too tempered by real combat to deploy troops as readily as George W. Bush deploys himself, for maximum publicity and political profit.


The fortieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy that came and went last month revealed that more than half the country’s population wasn’t alive the day Kennedy was shot. That was one reason given for the general lack of interest in the many television remembrances that were aired: the events of November 22, 1963, in Dallas are no longer living history, except for the generation that came of age when they occurred. And by the time the fiftieth anniversary comes around there will be very few closely involved individuals left to interview.

Similarly, the controversy over the Vietnam-era military service—or the lack of it—of the Democratic contenders for the presidency, as well as the president’s own service, seems to be of interest only to those who were draft-eligible during that conflict. No one else much cares. The question, “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” no longer has strong resonance.

Excepting Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun, all running were available for duty during the Vietnam war. The most striking case is the Democrat’s current front-runner, Gov. Howard Dean. Dean, showing that he was already interested in a career in medicine at 18, came to his draft physical equipped with X-rays and a report on back problems. He got his safe 1-Y classification and gratefully went skiing in Colorado for a year.

But that doesn’t much matter to—perhaps—a majority of the voting public. Who is to thank for that? Not George W. Bush—whose history of service with the National Guard rates in retrospect only a few degrees higher than skiing on the slopes of Aspen—but Bush’s father, former President Bush, for his selection of Dan Quayle as his vice president in 1988.

American voters spoke on the military issue when they elected Bush/Quayle in ‘88. Dan Quayle’s loyal service guarding the golf courses of Indiana prepared the nation for an even greater equivocal choice, Bill Clinton in 1992. Few anti-war activists expected a draft avoider and dovish peace-nik to be elected president quite so soon in the post-Vietnam period.

But Dan Quayle’s record had been a battleground in the ’88 race and the dirt was turned over. If George H.W. Bush had selected someone with a stronger military background than Quayle for his veep in ’88, Clinton would have found that soil very hard to plow, given his history.

By the 2000 race, the fact that Al Gore had actually served in Vietnam was hardly a boost in his race against the state-side, semi-serving George W. Gore might have made it more of an issue if he had chosen John Kerry for his running mate then, instead of Joe Lieberman, but that is all history, even deader history than the assassination of JFK.

In 2004 the present and the future will be on most people’s minds: The continuing garrisoning of Iraq, the deteriorating state of Afghanistan, the future skirmishes in the war on terror. President Bush has demonstrated his clear willingness to have others fight in his behalf, though he had shown that when he was a youth, too.

Howard Dean’s preemptive rise in popularity, it is held, began with his anti-Iraq war stance. In fact, his lack of military service may be seen as a credential burnishing that position. And Al Gore has bolted the door against his own candidacy with his endorsement of Dean, once again stiffing Sen. Kerry.

Nonetheless, Kerry is taken to task for using a very grunt-like expletive in a “Rolling Stone” interview by the president’s chief of staff, the keeper of presidential grammar and syntax, Andrew Card. What other sort of language would one expect in a magazine like “Rolling Stone”? But that is the least of Sen. Kerry’s problems. When both Kerry and Gen. Wesley Clark speak about their Vietnam experience these days it sounds weirdly like boasting.

That is the ludicrous full-circle that Vietnam-era service has come to. Could it be that when George H. W. Bush selected Quayle in ’88, he was thinking ahead to his oldest son, also a National Guard homeland veteran? Yet one more thing the president can thank his father for.


Al Gore’s endorsement of Howard Dean was a dispiriting event for many Democrats: on one hand it was Gore’s own personal coup de grace on any chance that he might be drafted to run in ‘04; on the other, it confirmed once again Gore’s bad campaign instincts, his ability to gain publicity, but only for large mistakes.

Neither Gore, nor a great number of Democrats, have recovered from the trauma of the 2000 election. Added to that unhappy state was the national trauma of 9/11. One of the consequences of that day was the transformation of the Bush presidency in the eyes of so many Americans, a transformation that has made life difficult for the Democratic party. No one personifies those troubles better than Al Gore. When Gore decided a year ago to not run, he seemed a man still beaten, emerging from a self-imposed exile, complete with a beard, misreading his chances of success, George W. Bush riding high at the time after a relatively quick victory in Afghanistan.

One could see that Gore had lost the heart for campaigning. He also miscalculated the strength of Bush’s support, just as some Democrats had for the 1992 race, overestimating George H. W. Bush’s popularity, sky high after a short Gulf War I.

Gore had been a phantom of a sort in the Democratic party, still number two (or, actually, three) to the leading figures, Bill and Hillary Clinton. Though Gore had gotten more votes than Bill Clinton ever received, he still lived in Clinton’s shadow, emerging now and then from undisclosed locations to give the occasional fiery speech, only to retire to the shadows.

This time Gore surfaced to endorse Howard Dean, who had done a textbook PR case of paying personal attention to the guy no one was noticing much: Letters, phone calls, visits.

So Gore wandered onto a Harlem stage and endorsed the candidate that Republicans most want to run against. A Gore blessing, though, is more likely a curse than a boon. Talk about twisted karma: the man who lost a race he actually won is a powerful talisman of bad luck.

And the endorsement wasn’t just strong support for Howard Dean, but it was also an insult to the Clintons as well. Gore, obviously, can blame himself for his loss in 2000, but when he isn’t doing that, he can rightfully blame Bill Clinton.

Bill Clinton doesn’t have a bone of self-sacrifice in his body and to make up for that absence his veep took on the role of the sacrificial victim. The idea that Gore is planning to run in ’08 and his endorsement of Dean is part of that elaborate scheme is far-fetched at best, crazy at worst.

In this Christmas season, Gore appears to be the ghost of the Democratic past: Fulfilling that role he is reaching into the past to drag forward Howard Dean.

If what appears to be probable comes true and Howard Dean captures the Democratic nomination, Al Gore will be Dean’s dark cloud, reminding the electorate not of the sins of the 2000 campaign, but of himself, the man who lost what was rightfully his: the presidency, the legacy of the progressive tradition, the protection of civic enhancement, the environment, of government programs such as Social Security and Medicare, all under attack or neglect in the Bush administration. Finding Saddam Hussein in a hole in Iraq has all but replaced Al Gore’s short-lived re-emergence in the news and dampened Howard Dean’s front-runner momentum. Iraq’s former ruler had eight months wandering in the wilderness of his own country, hiding like the sort of frightened peasant Saddam often menaced himself. Hussein, apparently, had no more thoughtful Iraq exit strategy than did the White House. When captured he was described by soldiers as “disoriented”.

How the mighty have fallen. In an entirely different way, Al Gore remains disoriented, too, having lost the prize that should have been his. The only way Al Gore could have freed himself from the hole he has been hiding in would have been to run again. Instead, he has handed the specter of his loss to Howard Dean.


Christmas buying is said to be part of a “binge and purge” cycle. The purge cycle is now beginning: back to the stores go the rejects, the wrong sized, the bad choices. A lot of those things purchased will go back to Wal-Mart, which safely can be described as the Grinch who Stole Christmas.

Wal-Mart made off with a great deal of it, meaning a lot of Christmas money from consumers’ pockets, and more than its share from communities around the country in terms of competitive small businesses no longer in existence and in setting the prevailing wage about as low as it can go. In fact, Wal-Mart has been so egregious in its save-a-buck-squeeze-the-employee ethos, the Bush administration condoned federal officials staging early morning raids in October, netting close to 250 illegal aliens employed as janitors and cleaning crews in 61 Wal-Marts scattered throughout 21 states.

Wal-Mart, though, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal, is fighting back. In the same way Vice President Dick Cheney’s old firm, Halliburton, says not only does it not overcharge our government for services in Iraq, but actually saves taxpayers money, Wal-Mart puts on an equally brazen face. It claims that it was actually participating in a form of a sting operation, employing illegals so that the government could catch them and put a stop to it.

Brazenness goes a long way in this culture and we’ll see how far Wal-Mart can take this line of defense. It has good company in the world of the I-can-do-no-wrong school. The head of AARP, William Novelli, cast his organization’s lot with the Republican-fashioned Medicare legislation, and, it is said, that AARP’s endorsement is what convinced wavering Democrats and Republicans to go along with this give-away to insurance and pharmaceutical companies and vote for this take-away from most seniors. In a brief but revealing interview Mr. Novelli gave to the New York Times Magazine early this month, he claimed he couldn’t remember if he had ever been a Republican. He says he is now a registered Independent. The forgetful Mr. Novelli also said he doesn’t know if he has any investments in health-insurance-related businesses. His wife handles all that, he said, which is somewhat hard to believe, given that he is the CEO of a major player in the health-related insurance industry.

Nonetheless, he did say he once worked for “the November Group,” which he called an “in-house advertising agency for the re-election of Richard Nixon in 1972.”

Mr. Novelli short-changes the tasks of the rather infamous November Group, since it was used and abused by CREEP and Nixon’s more famous band of ne’r-do-wells, such as Chuck Colson and Donald Segretti and other luminaries of the Watergate-era scandals. See J. Anthony Lukas’s Nightmare: the Underside of the Nixon Years for the details. But, Mr. Novelli can’t recall if he was a Republican.

One of the more alarming measures of the Medicare bill is the provision which prevents using the government’s buying power to bargain to reduce the cost of drugs.

Now, in that way, Congress has made itself the opposite of Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart uses its size to crush not only its competitors with low prices, but also its suppliers. It bargains with them to shave a few cents off their prices, thereby allowing Wal-Mart’s purchasing power to undersell any other retailer. It’s yet another race to the bottom. Recently, Wal-Mart was able to shake down the credit card company Visa for further reductions of its fees, denying MasterCard the same coverage in its stores, since it wouldn’t do Wal-Mart’s bidding.

Why Wal-Mart gets to squeeze its suppliers and the federal government does not is because there were more lobbyists for pharmaceutical and insurance companies working the halls of Congress. They got what they wanted in the Medicare bill.

AARP’s Mr. Novelli brought to his aging lobbying group skills honed during his days with the crafty November Group. Perhaps the Chinese government and the other foreign suppliers of Wal-Mart’s goods, along with MasterCard and many small American businesses, should hire his services, as effective as he shown them to be.