Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Irresponsible Speculation and Predictions

We’ll set thee to school to an ant, to teach thee there’s no laboring i’ th’ winter. All that follow their noses are led by their eyes but blind men, and there’s not a nose among twenty but can smell him that’s stinking. Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following. But the great one that goes upward, let him draw thee after.
— The Fool to Kent in the stocks, King Lear, 2.4, 66-72

(The Fool’s words are incredibly ironic, and demand a fuller post, but he’d still make one hell of a political advisor.)

While pundits and commentators exist who clearly embrace their apparent ideology, when it comes to the “chattering class,” their true love is almost always for a good political storyline above all else. Some tale or angle or event that will yield a strong column or some witty bon mots on the talk show circuit, that’s where it’s really at. Don’t you think Jay Leno wept when he had to say goodbye to Clinton and another thousand Lewinsky blow job jokes? (He still tromps them out from time to time.) Reagan might have argued that trees caused pollution and that ketchup and relish should count as vegetables in children’s school lunches, but even his detractors in the press would say he was a colorful character to write about. After George H.W. Bush was elected, Gary Trudeau in Doonesbury announced that political cartoonists were giving Bush a honeymoon week of no negative panels, “to give him a chance to get a handle on that ‘vision thing,’” and “as a way of formally thanking him for Dan Quayle.”

Many liberal bloggers are referring to tomorrow, the latest likely day for Fitzgerald to announce indictments, as Fitzmas. However, the truth is that it’s a bonanza for chatterers everywhere, with juicy material to last many a news cycle, to yield many a column or book, and to allow plenty of opportunity to posture as a sage insider on a news program. Granted, it’s a more fun time for liberals than conservatives (at least until Bush nominates another candidate for The Supreme Court). Consider the situation. Republicans hold power in all three branches of government. However, currently, the top aide to the President and the Vice President are facing possible indictment, the Vice President may face trouble as well, and at the least he appears to have publicly lied yet again. The House Majority Leader, Tom Delay, has been indicted. The Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist, is being investigated for impropriety with his not-so-blind trust and has publicly lied. This is not to mention the indictments of Republicans Bob Noe in Ohio, super lobbyist Jack Abramoff (tight with Delay), and David Safavian. Add to this the Harriet Miers debacle and the truly shocking, shameful way Hurricane Katrina was mishandled. Oh yeah, and then there’s Iraq.

Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post aptly observed that the passions about Plamegate run so high because “We're re-fighting the war through this case.” (Slate’s Mickey Kaus agrees somewhat but adds several other reasons). Previous details of the path to war are coming out as a result of Fitzgerald’s inquiry. Normally the real story of an administration takes time to unveil. We know much more about Nixon now than we did even five years ago, and similarly, the full truth of the Bush administration may not come out until a decade or two later. However, we may now get to know much more, much sooner than anyone anticipated. While many of the statements and rationales for the war are currently being re-examined by chatterers, now the general public seems to be taking a greater interest as well.

Kurtz’s column of Thursday, 10/27/05 did a fantastic job of providing a timeline of some key leaks in the Plamegate case, and touches on why many of these leaks likely occurred. As he observes:

...virtually every bit of information, confirmed and alleged, comes from unnamed sources -- ironically, in an investigation of who anonymously outed a CIA operative -- who are trying to shape public understanding of a complicated narrative to someone's advantage.

The result is that after two years of near-total secrecy about the CIA leak investigation, a steady stream of sometimes-conflicting information is now flowing, invariably attributed to "lawyers close to the case" or similarly opaque sources.

As special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald nears a decision on whether to seek indictments of top White House officials, lawyers involved in the inquiry are using the news media to float bits of evidence or interpretations that are favorable to their high-level clients. The maneuvering makes clear that these lawyers are fighting a two-front war, trying simultaneously to avert criminal charges while seeking acquittal in the court of public opinion.

The rush of disclosures in the closing days of an investigation is a time-tested ritual of Washington scandals, and each time the questions are the same: Who leaked and for what reason?

As a mere blogger (and a tardy, intermittent one at that), currently ranked 775,745 by Technorati in terms of influence (sorry, I find it very funny), I can’t yet pretend to full membership in the chattering class. However, I certainly can join in the chatterer tradition of wild speculation and completely off-base predictions. In fact, this is an area where bloggers often outstrip the feeble Mainstream Media (tm), or MSM, as all oh-so-hip bloggers call it. The key word in opinion journalism is not journalism, it’s opinion. Did Novak admit he was wrong about his authoritative yet wildly incorrect statement on the exact date Rehnquist would announce his retirement? No! He came up with a new opinion for a new deadline. With chatterers chaffing at the bit for Fitzgerald’s likely announcement tomorrow, now is the deadline for irresponsible prognostication, and I cannot shirk my duty. (Until, of course, there’s a new deadline and we can all shamelessly offer new opinions.)


Most chatterers think it likely that Libby will be indicted on two to three counts: perjury, obstruction to justice, and possibly conspiracy. I’ll agree. He appears to have lied at least twice, but they are also likely compound lies. If news accounts are to be believed, it appears he lied to the grand jury about divulging Valerie Plame Wilson’s status as a CIA operative to reporters... he spoke about the matter three times with The New York Times’ Judy Miller. Most importantly, he spoke with her on the matter on June 23, 2003, before Novak’s now infamous column. Libby apparently claimed he learned of Plame’s identity from reporters, specifically NBC’s Tim Russert. Russert has publicly stated that there’s no way that could be the case, because he didn’t know Plame’s name until Novak’s column. While this is bad enough, The New York Times reported this week that Libby learned Plame’s identity from none other than Dick Cheney, about a month before Novak’s column. While Libby and Cheney would of course have the security clearance to discuss a CIA agent, they’re both experienced enough to at least say, wait, is she undercover or not? Unless, of course, anger clouded their judgment. Regardless, this would involve a compound lie from Libby... the obvious storyline would be, he tried to cover for his boss and blamed the leak on those irresponsible liberal reporters. If Cheney lied as well, then Libby had a clear motive for such action, and he wasn’t innocently mistaken... not that I find the massive memory lapses that have been claimed by many parties plausible in the first place.

In an online chat, Washington Post national political editor John F. Harris responded to a poster:

On this point, I tend to be more believing of the White House line. It has always seemed clear to me--and the evidence coming out over time has strengthened the point--that the White House motive in talking about Plame was not "to get back at Wilson." This was not about revenge. It was about trying to persuade reporters not to write about Wilson's allegations or take them seriously, because his mission to Niger was a low-level endeavor that had been cooked up lower down in the bureaucracy (with the assistance of his wife) and was not something that was done with White House knowledge. Remember, at the time, Wilson's suggestion was that of course the vice president knew about the results of his trip to Niger, because he had ordered it.

In the course of trying to knock down a damaging story--a routine activity in Washington--they obviously stepped over a line...quite possibly without fully appreciating that they were stepping across.

I think Harris nails one of the key reasons for the leak, but I feel he discounts the revenge angle too quickly. Judy Miller reports Libby as irate about Wilson. The current leaks about Libby also paint him as very upset, even obsessed. Many key members of the Bush administration, notably Rove and Cheney, are very much into the politics of revenge and retribution. If Rove did indeed tell Chris Matthews that Wilson’s wife was “fair game” (and was Matthews even subpoenaed?), then there’s a very different picture (Harris is also a bit imprecise above; Wilson never said that Cheney ordered his trip, he said that Cheney's request for more information was the reason the CIA sent him... but hey, it's a chat).

My take has always been that the Plame leak, in addition to being damage control as usual, was dirty politics as usual from the Bush administration. The problem this time is that, in addition to being unethical, this time their actions were actually illegal as well, and they got caught.

Rove. This one’s trickier. News reports state that on his fourth trip to the grand jury he told them he may well have heard Plame’s name from Libby. While this clearly seems like a move to save his own ass, this may also be a White House strategy... Libby is doomed, so let’s make him the fall guy, and blame everything on him. I would not be surprised if Rove was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice. He did in fact reveal Plame’s identity to Time’s Matt Cooper, but I think at least a false statement charge is looming. Some folks feels he’s flipped on everyone, while others say he’s fighting the charges furiously and refused a plea bargain. Some say he won’t be indicted but he will continue to be investigated by Fitzgerald. Rove can claim faulty memory, but I don’t find that plausible... does the grand jury buy it? I feel one indictment at least is likely, but if indictments do not come, I would be surprised if he was not investigated further. I don’t think he sails through this clean legally (not in the short term, at least).

Rove has made many enemies over the years, who have dared not cross him further for fear of not working in the party anymore. If he topples, there will be a lot of buzzards. Large amounts of dirty laundry will come out if he is seen as through, or vulnerable. (And I’m sure I could mix in another overused metaphor if it weren’t so late now.) It sure would be nice to know if Rove was indeed directly involved with events such as the slanderous push-polling in South Carolina against John McCain.

Cheney. Some folks feel Cheney may be named as an unindicted co-conspirator. I find it hard to believe that Libby would undertake anything major without Cheney’s knowledge, but I also find it hard to believe that Cheney, despite his repeated disregard for the truth, would knowingly lie under oath if he knew he could get caught. News sources disagree as to whether his interview with Fitzgerald was under oath or not, and they also disagree about whether he met with Tenet or not. One story, from The New York Times, has Tenet telling Cheney about Plame, which would almost certainly mean Cheney requested the information. But MSNBC reported that Tenet denies he told Cheney this. So, my take is that Cheney’s hands are dirty, but may not be filthy, and he will likely not face any serious legal action. I do think his past misstatements will get some new scrutiny from the press, however.

There are other figures such as John Hannah, Stephen Hadley, Wurmer and the usual gang of Rice, Bolton, and all who also may be indicted, but this is all murkier. If someone flipped and went for a plea, it’s most likely a lower-rung (but perhaps central) person.

I would guess that one or two more people beside Libby and Rove would be indicted, although if reports are to be believed, they will not be in the White House proper, but instead from the Pentagon or even the State Department.

Is there further damning or exonerating evidence we don’t know about? Most definitely. It’ll be interesting to see how everything plays out, but more importantly... what the truth is.

To bring it back to Shakespeare, and fools and knaves... I have no doubt that while Cheney is a knave, Libby will fall on his sword to save him (as folks as Halliburton did for him before when it was discovered they were illegally dealing with America’s sworn enemy Iran). I’m less sure of Rove, and the next days, weeks, and months will be revealing. He’s always seemed like something of a craven bully to me. Supposedly he’s vicious when cornered, but would he go down for Bush? Maybe. But for Libby or Cheney? I don’t know, but I think that’s less likely. And I think Bush especially would want to save Rove, and other folks of course know that.

Regardless, no one seems "foolish" enough to be an "honest broker" with Bush, who accounts depict as increasingly angry and frustrated, blaming everyone around him. No one has said to him what he has so sorely needed, something in the spirit of:

See better Lear, and let me still remain
The true blank of thine eye.
— Kent to Lear, King Lear, 1.1, 161-162

(Wild Miers replacement speculation to follow shortly!)

Monday, October 24, 2005

Behind the Curtain of Bad Government Decisions

A trio of good articles illuminate the process of some really bad decisions and bad government.

First up, from The Wall Street Journal’s free opinion site, John Fund explains why the vetting of Harriet Miers and her subsequent selection by George Bush as his Supreme Court nominee was so very poor. He paints a picture that will be familiar to anyone who read about Paul O’Neill’s stint in the Bush administration in The Price of Loyalty, and other accounts... This is a place where dissent is seen as disloyalty and speaking truth to power is difficult if not outright discouraged. Beyond matters of ideology, the question of competence continually reappears in all in-depth accounts of the Bush administration (in order to make good decisions, one must first set up a system that encourages rather than discourages accurate information).

Meanwhile, The Washington Monthly’s cover story is a fascinating (and chilling) portrait of Patrick McHenry, a young Republican congressman from North Carolina. The article gives great insight into the crucial role the College Republicans play in the GOP as well as offering a rather scathing view of McHenry. Author Benjamin Wallace-Wells notes:

Like most of the post-Gingrich generation, McHenry's ultimate loyalty is less to principle or ideology than to the machine itself.

One of the most striking passages in the article reports that:

McHenry's credit union bill, a high priority for the banking lobby, has received strong backing from DeLay. The Republican leadership awarded McHenry a seat on the House Financial Services Committee upon his arrival in Washington. “Most people would say it's the most plum assignment you can get,” one conservative lobbyist told me, “because you can leverage it to do so much in fundraising.” But first you have to prove yourself. Asking McHenry to author a bill that undermines the interest of half his constituents is the political equivalent of demanding a young Mafia enforcer kill his cousin as a test of loyalty. “It's a bill that a lot of us are watching,” a conservative activist from Mecklenberg County who has been skeptical about McHenry told me. “It's pretty clear that here McHenry is picking Washington over his district, and we're interested to see if he pays any price for it.”

Subsequent paragraphs describe how McHenry lies to his constituents (say “he deliberately misleads them” if you like, but I call it lying). His campaign tactic, twice, consists purely of claiming he’s the more conservative candidate, even when he’s not, while offering no real policy.

The resulting portrait is of a young man who is all slogan and no substance, who views power as a goal unto itself, and who feels his constituents serve him, not the other way around. He is precisely that sort of politician who gives politicians a bad name.

Still, McHenry’s self-serving moves are as nothing compared to the master machinations of The Hammer and his buddies. A long but rewarding article from The Washington Post by Susan Schmidt and James V. Grimaldi explains how fellow “indictees” Jack Abramoff, Tom Delay and David Safavian worked to kill an anti-gambling bill in the House in 2000. Essentially they falsely portrayed the bill as pro-gambling to the conservative Christian groups that supported it, and also used intimidation and a series of bribes or “donations” to grease things along. Delay in particular comes off as someone who preaches social conservatism (anti-gambling) while his true loyalty lies with selected businesses (online gambling company eLottery, for one). Abramoff of course was taking money from Indian tribes to lobby for them even as he actually lobbied against them. Tony C. Rudy, a senior aide to Delay who later worked for Abramoff, served as a crucial link, and his actions provide a compelling picture for how Abramoff and Delay were simpatico and how the ol’ boy network works when it comes to money and legislation. Also implicated, of course is:

Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, and the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition. Both kept in close contact with Abramoff about the arrangement, e-mails show. Abramoff also turned to prominent anti-tax conservative Grover Norquist, arranging to route some of eLottery's money for Reed through Norquist's group, Americans for Tax Reform.

(Norquist, of course, is close friends with Karl Rove, Rove’s secretary used to work for Norquist, and supposedly Norquist advised her as to which phone calls Rove should take. Rove has not been drawn into the Abramoff or Delay scandals as of yet, and has his own glaring problems right now... but I mention him to show this old boy social network is very real.)

Honestly, I find it’s hard to untangle all the stories of Abramoff’s villainy, so I’ve been waiting for the court cases to get under way and the eventual postmortem to make sense of it all. In-depth features like this, though, serve an invaluable function by explaining not only why these men are scoundrels but how they achieve their skullduggery.

Portrait of a Whistleblower

It’s been easy enough to lose track of the story of Bunny Greenhouse, the government employee who blew the whistle on Halliburton’s no-bid contract for reconstruction work in Iraq. Even though she was demoted and transferred, there’s been little coverage in the media, and most shamefully, no investigation or follow-up from the supervising Inspector General, let alone Congress.

Everyone agrees that Bunny Greenhouse is a stickler for detail. She may not be the easiest woman to work with. However, after reading this portrait by Neely Tucker in The Washington Post, I find it hard to question her integrity. Her personal history strongly suggests this is a woman of character. No one has ever accused her of being stupid (she has three master’s degrees), and few people (other than Sherron Watkins at Enron) become whistleblowers to improve their job security. Yet when it came to the Halliburton deals (technically with their subsidiary KBR), Bunny Greenhouse testified to the Senate Democratic Policy Committee:

"I can unequivocally state that the abuse related to contracts awarded to KBR represents the most blatant and improper contract abuse I have witnessed during the course of my professional career."

The contracts were unorthodox. There has been horrendous overbilling by Halliburton. Greenhouse has been punished, yet her supervisors claim this action is not retribution. Wouldn’t these factors necessitate further inquiry? Regarding Greenhouse’s allegations, and her demotion, the Post reports:

A Corps spokesman declined to address the specifics. Instead, the Corps issued a written statement that says the agency followed the law in its dealings with Halliburton. As for Greenhouse's EEOC complaint, the statement said the agency "takes seriously" its employees' right of privacy, and thus could not comment.

Any further investigation appears to be minimal.

This, from another DPC hearing last month, after Greenhouse was demoted:

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.): "Ms. Greenhouse, has the Inspector General's Office made any attempt to interview you?"

Greenhouse: "None whatsoever."

Dorgan: "None?"

Greenhouse: "None whatsoever."

Dorgan: "That's unbelievable to me."

I don’t buy the portrayal of Greenhouse by her supervisors as a petty bureaucrat or an incompetent. A more accurate view of her would come from her peers and her subordinates (if they would talk), not just her current bosses, who have every motive to undermine her. The portrait offered by the man who hired her, her former boss, Lt. Gen. Joe Ballard, strongly contrasts any negative accounts. Additionally, the paper trail of past evaluations point to someone who may be demanding but is dedicated... frankly, exactly the sort of person needed to supervise spending of the taxpayer’s money.

My take is that Bunny Greenhouse ran afoul of the ol’ boy network, spoke truth to power, and is now being punished for it. Perhaps that’s not the case. But why has there been no little to follow-up on her case? Why does there remain little to no cost-tracking and accountability for the billions of dollars that continue to be spent in Iraq?

Sunday, October 23, 2005


In a story worthy of News of the Weird, a man requested more jail time because he’s a fan of Larry Bird. The very short AP item reports:

The lawyers reached a plea agreement Tuesday for a 30-year term for a man accused of shooting with an intent to kill and robbery. But Eric James Torpy wanted his prison term to match Bird's jersey number 33.

``He said if he was going to go down, he was going to go down in Larry Bird's jersey,'' Oklahoma County District Judge Ray Elliott said Wednesday. ``We accommodated his request and he was just as happy as he could be.

``I've never seen anything like this in 26 years in the courthouse. But, I know the DA is happy about it.''

Boy. Good thing for him he wasn’t a Jason Williams fan!

Just the Porn, Ma’am

There are times when governmental action is to be lauded. And then there are those times it should be mocked relentlessly.

In what’s most likely a symbolic move to appease social conservatives, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has asked the FBI to form an anti-porn vice squad. It will be small — eight to ten agents — but doubtless dedicated, as it ferrets out materials of prurient interest made for consenting adults.

Thankfully, FBI agents are treating the vice squad with the gravitas it, uh, demands. On 9/20/05, The Washington Post reported:

"I guess this means we've won the war on terror," said one exasperated FBI agent, speaking on the condition of anonymity because poking fun at headquarters is not regarded as career-enhancing. "We must not need any more resources for espionage."

Among friends and trusted colleagues, an experienced national security analyst said, "it's a running joke for us."

A few of the printable samples:

"Things I Don't Want On My Resume, Volume Four."

"I already gave at home."

"Honestly, most of the guys would have to recuse themselves."

It’s safe to say that social conservatives are still more than a little hung-up on sex. The Bush administration has funded programs promoting marriage (not a bad goal per se, but the cost-value and effectiveness of these programs is questionable). Certainly some in the administration do not approve of sex outside of marriage, although with Ashcroft gone a certain zealotry may have vanished (interesting that this Meese-like push is under Gonzales!). Nor do they apparently want even married couples to use porn... the less sex, the better, it seems. Teenagers should not be taught about birth control, nor should those who live in poor, emerging nations. When a teenager gets pregnant, she should be forced to have the child. However, supporting the child is the new mother’s own damn problem. That’ll teach her.

I just have difficulty making sense of that world view. Continuing on this theme, website Crooked Timber has a fun and insightful dissection of Professor Leon Cass’ laments about the loss of feminine virtue and how, as a result — wait for it — society is going down the tubes. Basically, if young women had less sex and held out for marriage like they did in the good ol’ days, America would be a better place. The Crooked Timber poster, Kieran Healy, keenly pegs Cass’ view as a “desire to return to some kind of Victorian nightmare.” While Cass does not mention Victorian sexual mores (he's only posted part one of his three part series on "The End of Courtship"), it’s painfully apparent that he holds them in high ideal. Of course, I doubt Cass would be aware that the British Victorian prudishness is historically something of an aberration (earlier eras were less uptight), or that he would know of the stunning sexual hypocrisy of the era (prostitution was absolutely rampant in Victorian London). In other words, were the world suddenly to change and become as Cass thinks he wants it to be, I think he would be extremely dismayed. (The tip for the Crooked Timber post came from an Atrios post from Friday 10/21/05).

Frankly, if I want some insight into the destructiveness of contemporary dating rituals, I’ll read Patrick Marber’s Closer yet again.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Bill O'Reilly, Philosopher

There are times when little commentary is needed. If I were still teaching philosophy, where we often discussed current events, I might well present the following gem of wisdom from Bill O’Reilly for dissection. I guarantee that nearly all (if not all) of my students would have been able to identify the key flaw in his reasoning. On 10/4/05, a caller to O’Reilly’s radio show posited a theory about the high rate of crime among African-Americans:

CALLER: [It’s] because of slavery. If you take someone's language, someone's history, and someone's culture, and then you just release them out into the world, you think they're going to be successful as a people?

O'REILLY: All right. But let me counter that, [caller], and you can comment on my comment. That's the prevailing wisdom in a lot of the precincts, is that because blacks were in slavery in the United States, they were never able to develop an infrastructure of education and culture to compete with the white majority. That is the prevailing wisdom in lots and lots of places. Let me submit this to you, and then you can comment on it.

My people came from County Cavan in Ireland. All right? And the British Crown marched in there with their henchman, Oliver Cromwell, and they seized all of my ancestors' lands, everything. And they threw them into slavery, pretty much indentured servitude on the land. And then the land collapsed, all right? And everybody was starving in Ireland. They had to leave the country, just as Africans had to leave -- African-Americans had to leave Africa and come over on a boat and try to make in the New World with nothing. Nothing. And succeeded, succeeded. As did Italians, as did -- and I'll submit to you, African-Americans are succeeding as well. So all of these things can be overcome I think, [caller]. Go ahead.

(Media Matters for America has the audio here.)

Wow. The thing that gets me is he’s obviously put some thought into this. He’s come up with this idea, pondered it for a while, and thinks it’s convincing — without ever spotted the glaringly obvious flaw in his argument.

Now, I am part Irish, and I know some of the persecution the Irish have faced over the years. It’s hard to conceive that early Irish immigrants were sometimes faced with employment signs that said, “Whites Only — Irish Need Not Apply.” However, PBS had a good documentary on the Irish immigrant experience, and they attributed their success to two main factors. The first was that almost all of them spoke English. The second is that, unusually for an immigrant group, the women tended to outnumber the men, and thus many Irish immigrant women (most often working as maids) wound up getting married and raising families in America. Nowadays, of course, Irish-Americans outnumber the Irish.

Now, as brutal or inspiring as the American immigrant experience can be, is it analogous to abduction and slavery? Hmmm.

Howard Dean's Way with Words

I sort of enjoyed Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, because he really stirred the pot for the Democrats with brashness, frankness, and a grass-roots appeal (much as McCain tends to do with Republicans). Some Republicans were openly salivating at the prospect of Dean facing off against Bush, thinking he could be easily caricatured, but I suspect that if Dean kept his head he could have given the Bush folks a real headache. Still, I’ve always felt Dean would make a great college professor or activist but just doesn’t have the temperament for national leadership. He’s made an interesting front man for the Democratic National Committee. This year I’ve seen him make some very intelligent, reasoned points on the news shows, yet with alarming frequency he’ll come out with some gaffe. His latest occurred on Hardball on 10/5/05 while discussing Harriet Miers and how she really needs to reveal her true legal views (video here and more fully here):

I think with a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, you can’t play, you know, hide the salami, or whatever it’s called.

Now, he does laugh, perhaps because he realizes what the hell he said and the absurdity of it... but I have to wonder, is “hide the salami” ever not sexual innuendo? It’s not like, “hide the Easter eggs” or something. It’s ultimately a silly, harmless gaffe, bearing repetition at the water cooler but not a formal apology by Dean. Still, it doesn’t elevate his credibility. What the hell is on his mind? I suppose it does play into the assumption that liberals have more sex (and better sex) than conservatives, certainly more than the religious right, unless you’re counting the persistent figure of the hypocritical moral crusader (the latest appears to be Lou Beres).

Now, despite my concerns about Dean, I still contend that Dean got a raw deal with the whole “scream” thing. I attribute that to several factors:

1. Video and Audio. The scream made for a quick, memorable clip that could be (and was) played over and over again. In our sound byte culture, it made for a quick teaser for the evening news and something to be dissected endlessly on the weekend news talk shows, not to mention countless sophomoric radio shows. Diane Sawyer showed it about five times to Dean during her subsequent interview with him. Imagine if Cheney’s “go fuck yourself” to Senator Leahy on the Senate floor had been on camera how much more press that would have gotten.

2. The Seductive, Easy Storyline. Most news outlets did not cover the context of “the scream,” that Dean was yelling over a crowd of rowdy young campaign workers, and as he tells it, was trying to buck them up after the disappointment of losing the Iowa caucus. Because Dean had been the frontrunner, the easy storyline was “has Dean lost it?” “Has he blown his chances?” “Is this his Dukakis moment?” “The frontrunner has toppled,” and so on. This was The Moment Dean Blew It, and when the media’s conventional wisdom gels like that, their storyline often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Never mind that the media was much, much more obsessed with the whole incident that the vast majority of the public... as with Jessica Lynch and Scott Peterson, when the media decides the public wants a story, they don’t bother to consult the public. Plus, I also think journalists, more even than most people, like to think they’re smart. It’s similar to the saying that an idea can very dangerous when it’s the only one you have. Especially under the pressure of a deadline, when a theory or decent storyline pops into a journalist’s head, that’s what he or she is liable to push forward with, damn the torpedoes. The idea of a Dukakis Willie Horton moment for Dean (never mind that Dukakis’ flub occurred during a presidential debate, not the primaries) was just too sweet to pass up; many outlets projected into the future Dean’s collapse, proclaiming with barely restrained glee, ‘if Dean fails, this is the moment where it all turned.'

3. The Aesthetic Quality of the Scream. Frankly, as with the salami comment, I thought the scream was cause to laugh at Dean, but not something to disqualify him from the presidency. Wasn’t it good to have a leader with some actual passion? The problem with Dean’s scream was that it sounded like a strangled cat, which made it prime material for replaying over and over, and to raise eyebrows. Imagine if Dean had instead uttered a suitably macho, cheering-on-your-favorite-sports-team sort of “YEAH!” If Schwarzenegger had done something like that, he might have been briefly mocked, but many people wouldn’t even have blinked. Meanwhile, if Kerry had bellowed a “yeah!” like that during the course of the Democratic National Convention, and it sounded authentic and not forced, I imagine his poll numbers would have jumped.

So, Howard Dean — ready for the national spotlight? At times it seems he’s not, but I have to give him credit for being honestly entertaining.

(Based on information given to her by Ahmed Chalabi, Judy Miller wrote a story that Saddam Hussein sought high-yield "redcake" salami only suitable for use in nuclear centrifuges... then decided to push the fraudulent aluminum tubing story instead.)

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Republican Talking Points Network

(You mean Fox News? Well, sure, but besides that.)

It’s no secret that both parties have their talking points, and any news junkies will quickly note recurring phrases, such as New Orleans “dodging a bullet” or hear several pundits make the same ridiculous assertion that Bill Bennett was really decrying abortion when he made his recent thoughtless remarks. Divining the talking points can make for a fun game (of course, it works better with Republicans, as Democrats aren’t as keen on the whole lockstep, keep on message thing).

Still, I’ve been a bit surprised that the Republican’s D.C. Talkers network has not gotten more press, since it suggests a higher level of coordination than might be suspected. On 9/26/05, U.S. News & World Report’s Washington Whispers column reported:

Another Win for 'Friends & Allies'
When John G. Roberts is approved as chief justice of the United States, as expected, he can thank President Bush 's "Friends & Allies" program, which went to work on him immediately after he was nominated. The project, started by the Republican National Committee in the 2004 re-election campaign, is simple and effective: Give opinion makers, media friends, and even cocktail party hosts insider info on the topic of the day. How? Through E-mailed talking points, called D.C. Talkers, and conference calls. For Roberts, it worked this way: A daily conference call to about 80 pundits, GOP-leaning radio and TV hosts, and newsmakers was made around 9 a.m. On the other end were the main Roberts gunslingers like Steve Schmidt at the White House and Ken Mehlman and Brian Jones at the RNC. D.C. Talkers would then be distributed to an even larger list filled with positive info about Roberts and lines of attack on his critics. "The idea," said one of those involved, "is to feed them information and have them invested in us." It has even created addicts, he added. "Now they come to us before going on TV."

Some of those 80 must be ideologues eager for ammunition, but some must also be journalists (or faux journalists) eager for content, motivated by laziness more than ideology. After all, the beast must be fed every day.

Ever since I read about D.C. Talkers, I wanted to see a copy of one of their missives — wouldn’t it be fun to compare it the subsequent conservative chatter? Credit The Raw Story with getting a hold of what certainly looks to be an authentic copy of the D.C. Talkers sheet on Joe Wilson and Plamegate.

Anyone who’s followed Plamegate will recognize many of these lines. What I find particularly interesting is that the actual talking points are not only misleading in places, but inaccurate. Wilson never claimed that Cheney sent him to Niger. He did make a fumbling statement that could be quoted out of context to suggest that, but he quickly clarified that Cheney requested more information from the CIA, and the CIA’s response was to send Wilson.

I find it fascinating that whoever puts the D.C. Talkers together either does not respect their readers enough to tell the truth, or that they just don’t give a damn. I’m sure having a pundit argue a falsehood while certain it’s true makes for more convincing television than telling that same pundit, “this is a lie, but it’ll play well.” Of course, I’m sure many wouldn’t need much convincing... virtually everything Rush Limbaugh says is based on how it will play, not whether it’s true.

And who exactly puts together the Talkers? The report mentions Ken Mehlman, and Raw Story also provides a copy of Mehlman's very similar Plamegate talking points. Still, it would be surprising if Rove was not somehow involved. If so, then the Plamegate sheet would one more attempt to smear Wilson and cover his own ass.

It’s also fun to see how, after one tactic fails, a new set of talking points emerges. Crooks and Liars posts a great video clip showing what appears to be the new Republican talking points on Plamegate. The post also quotes Larry Johnson’s analysis of the talking points. My personal favorite? That Fitzgerald really shouldn’t be hounding poor Rove because, after all, everyone leaks. Yeah. Just too bad in this case of leaking for political retribution it’s both illegal and treason. (Just imagine how bad it would be if this administration hadn’t promised to restore honor and integrity to the White House!)

UPDATE: Currently, with the Miers nomination, it’s been fascinating to watch the Republicans stray from the public groupthink. I personally feel it’s fantastic. If only it were always the case. If you watch the video here, you’ll see Bill Kristol gently scolded for breaking from the herd. Tell me Brit Hume isn’t receiving D.C. Talkers... Kristol all but accuses him of parroting White House talking points, and Hume backpedals.

Friday, October 07, 2005

The Appearance of Justice

The always entertaining and occasionally crude blog Wonkette recently sponsored a Harriet Miers look-a-like contest. Like the majority of folks, I picked Amy Sedaris' alter ego Jerri Blank from the show Strangers with Candy (you can see more choices if you follow the links). However, Wonkette (snarkmistress Anne Marie Cox) allowed write-in candidates, and Emperor Palpatine made a spendid showing. Never underestimate the power of The Dark Side of The Force.

I must confess I'm a sucker for that ever popular Star Wars-SCOTUS humor, uniting geeks of divergent tribes... and the end of Wonkette's post, considering write-in candidates ranging from Florence Henderson to Zell Miller, made me laugh:

We'll consider doing a run-off between the poll winner and Palpatine if the Emperor's surge continues, though we will refrain from commmenting on the aptness of the write-ins otherwise. Except to say that there are all just as qualified to serve as Miers is.

Come to think of it, Palpatine and Scalia would make a great team.

On a slightly more serious note, it shouldn't be a shocker that the female Miers' appearance has gotten much more scrunity than that of John Roberts. Emily Messner's Washington Post blog "The Debate"
makes a quick, witty evaluation of the fairness of this double standard.

(Note: The Messner link above screws up the text display on some browsers. If this occurs for you, click here and just look up the 10/6/05 entry, "Appearances Matter - At Least for Female Nominees.")

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Updated Update: Dylan and Clooney

The Washington Post features great online discussions every weekday on a variety of subjects. One of them last week featured the producers of No Direction Home, the great PBS documentary on Bob Dylan directed by Martin Scorsese. The discussion answers the question of why the doc focused so much only on the early years of Dylan’s long career— there’s a ton of footage from then and very little from the 70s and 80s. However, the producers also offer the tantalizing info that they wish to do a follow-up doc (or two) on Dylan’s later work. Count me salivating.

Meawhile, George Clooney, who definitely knows how to work the circuit, has a new interview about his forthcoming film Good Night, and Good Luck. You can also see WP's short video (4:34) of Clooney and Strathairn discussing the film here.

Over at Slate, Jack Shafer takes Clooney to task for historical inaccuracies and suspect artistic choices such as making Murrow a saint and overstating Murrow's importance in bringing down McCarthy. I always appreciate background on historical films. The documentaries I’ve seen on McCarthy (and my father’s account) have always pointed to the Army hearings as the crucial event that effectively killed McCarthy’s crusade - in large part by letting Americans see what McCarthy was really like. This jives with Shafer’s account (which does get a bit cranky, but is quite valuable nonetheless for those of us too young to remember these events). His colleague, film reviewer David Edelstein, acknowledges Shafer’s criticisms, but says that for all that, it’s still a good film.

Finally, Clooney is planning a live broadcast remake of the seminal 70s film Network.

Updated Update: Bennett and Gibson

Back to the Bennett incident. Eugene Robinson offers a good editorial on the subject. He observes,

If he was citing Levitt's work [Freakonomics], Bennett could have said that to lower the crime rate "you could abort every white baby" or "you could abort every Hispanic baby" or "you could abort every Asian baby," since every group has unwanted, poor children being raised by single mothers.

So now that we have Bennett on the couch, shouldn't we conclude that he mentioned only black children because, perhaps on a subconscious level, he associates "black" with "criminal''?

Robinson also hosted a chat online that can be read here.

Meanwhile, Slate’s science writer William Saletan has a fantastic article on Bennett as well, exploring the actual science and research behind all the claims being thrown around about crime, abortion, and race. He also considers and quite authoritatively dismisses all the key claims made in defense of Bennett. It’s a great read. The paragraph that stunned me the most was:

So, where did Bennett get the idea? [Fox News’ John] Gibson blames "all those arguments white liberals have with white conservatives about abortion, in which the white liberal eventually defends his pro-abortion position by saying, 'Well, they'll just grow up poor and be criminals anyway.' " Really? I've heard a lot of white liberals talk about abortion, and I've never heard one of them say that.

Wow. My apologies for running with this slight tangent, as Gibson rears his insensate head again and just spouts inanity. He follows up an ineffective attempt to change the subject with an unconvincing argument. I’d only read some of Gibson’s comments prior to seeing the video I linked to in the earlier Bennett post, so I have a newfound awe for his plummeting intellect. Currently, he’s my leading contender for Idiot News Commentator of the Year (Idiot of the Year is a competitive race this year, however, so it’s unlikely that Gibson can win more than his admittedly distinguished subcategory). With folks like Gibson, I have to wonder if he actually believes what he’s saying or if he’s aware he’s bullshitting. I think he just makes most of it up as he goes along, since he seems to pull one unpersuasive lie after another out of his ass. (I expect a higher caliber of liar from the prestigious Fox News, Mr. Gibson!) Gibson seems fond of an argument pattern often employed by George Bush, the Straw Man argument, where one props up a weak counterargument to pummel, such as the idea that “some people” want to give comfort to terrorists. However, in both their cases they can’t seem to find anyone who actually holds the view they want to deride, so they just make up a Straw Man. We can further call this the Invented Straw Man argument. In a variation of the old news conference axiom that a speaker answers the question he wishes he’d been asked, with the Invented Straw Man the speaker attacks the view he wishes his opponent had. Thus, we are introduced to the mythical liberals who wish to give comfort to terrorists and abort the fetuses of poor couples since it’s inevitable that if born those children will grow up to be criminals... which would mean we might as well lower the social program spending we all know diehard liberals despise... Wait.

Since we’re talking about unfair debate techniques, it must be pointed out that I’m engaging in some ad hominem attacks on Gibson... although of course I’m not just saying he’s an idiot, I’m stating why he’s an idiot. Frankly, I think the political cartoonist approach is the best — when someone offers you hogwash, the best response is to laugh at them, the louder and longer the better.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Bennett Controversy

I have to say, nothing eases my mind more than a rich, middle-aged white man assuring me that the comments of another rich, middle-aged white man were not in fact racist. Whew! What a load off there. Pass another wine cooler and the clam dip.

I just had to post on this subject after seeing the remarkable video of Fox News’ Brit Hume and The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol explaining to NPR’s Juan Williams (who is black) why former education William Bennett’s comments about aborting black babies to lower the crime rate were not in fact racist. Thanks to Crooks and Liars for posting it (and many of the other videos linked below).

You can read and hear Bennett’s comments here at Media Matters for America if you haven’t encountered them already. Now, in Bennett’s defense, he was speaking off the cuff and these were not planned remarks. And, he condemns the idea that he invokes, which as Kristol observes is using the classic debate technique of reductio ad absurdum. However, his choice of example remains deeply insensitive. I was rather stunned reading his words, much as I was when I heard Trent Lott’s infamous remarks praising Strom Thurmond— my god, did he really say that? Am I hearing this out of context? I must have misheard him... But in Bennett’s case, I also had to wonder — what possible context would excuse them?

Is Bennett a raging racist? No. Do his comments reveal some racist attitudes? You betcha. I think that’s a fair charge, and it’s fair to challenge him for his comments and demand an apology.

As to the Fox News clip, you can see it here. You’ll notice Kristol ducks the direct question about whether he thinks Bennett’s comments were offensive — gutless. Meanwhile, Brit Hume charges that the real problem is that the left has seized upon these comments and blown things out of proportion. (Remember, the problem is not racism, it’s the damn left making a big deal out of it.) At one point someone asks if Bennett should apologize and there’s a loud, somewhat irate “why?” that sounds like it’s from Hume, who’s cut to next, seemingly peeved at all these foolishness. I just had to laugh in horror at the whole spectacle, feeling for poor Williams. The man is clearly upset and frankly, has every right to be.

If Bennett apologizes, fine, move on — but he hasn’t, so please, conservatives, stop being apologists for his refusal to apologize. When one considers that this very conservative White House has already condemned Bennett’s comments, you’ve got the cover to do the right thing, unless, like Hume, you really don’t see anything wrong with Bennett’s comments.

Several years ago an official was fired (and later re-hired) for using the word “niggardly” at a press conference, because some people mistakenly thought the word had a racist origin. It doesn’t. That was a case of political correct oversensitivity. In contrast, the Bennett incident, while not an earth-shaker, deserves some attention.

There’s no doubt that in polite society, at least, being called a racist is one of the worst labels imaginable. It’s not something to be tossed off blithely. But telling a black person, yet alone any person of conscience, he shouldn’t be offended by Bennett’s remarks — now that’s offensive.


Crooks and Liars has another staggering Fox News clip featuring John Gibson’s defense of Bennett, which is that Bennett wasn’t talking about the crime rate, he was instead bemoaning the abortion rate among blacks. Huh? He goes on:

Gibson: I think liberals are worried that blacks are going to start worrying about abortion...liberals don't want blacks thinking about abortion because they don't want those people peeling away from the support from abortion which is a liberal, sacred cow.

Please, please, why give this guy a mike? He’s clearly engaged in disingenuous bullshit, he’s an idiot, or both. Rather than a balance of right and left, can we instead focus on having an imbalance of smart versus dumb? With the seething mass of conservative commentators out there, huddled and yearning to be paid, surely even Fox News can do better than John Gibson.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported on Saturday that Bennett still had not apologized. In line with Hume:

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who has been reaching out to African Americans and other minorities, called Bennett's comments "regrettable and inappropriate." But Mehlman also lashed out at liberals whom he accused of engaging in racially divisive rhetoric when it suits their interests: "What's much worse is the hypocrisy . . . from the left."

I’m curious as to what racial hypocrisy Mehlman is talking about, but then, substance and logic have never been his strong points.

The same article ends with a quotation that many of the chattering class could take to heart:

Robert Woodson Sr., president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, said "it was stupid" for Bennett to even ruminate on such an explosive topic but defended him as a good man. "Sometimes intellectuals become detached from common sense," he said.

BONUS: Because you never can have enough conservative white boys lecturing black folks about race, here’s an older segment, if you’ve got the stomach, on race and Katrina. It’s the second item down, titled: “Mark Williams sinks to a new Low.” I’m much less worried about William Bennett than a bullying ignoramus and asshole like this (sorry, a politer term will not do for this guy). Remember: the louder and more self-righteous you are, the closer you must be to The Truth. In relation to my characterization above: Bennett made some racially insensitive remarks. Mark Williams is a racist.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Robert Wise Remembered

In addition to familiar culprits like Star Wars, one of my favorite films from the age of 5 to 12 was The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), directed by Robert Wise, who recently died at the age of 81 (obituary here). The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet are easily the best sci-fi films of their era, featuring several memorable scenes while managing to be quite thought-provoking as well. I’m sure growing up in the DC area made The Day the Earth Stood Still stick in my head all the more, as many of the events seemed to be taking place in very familiar locations, such as the Smithsonian Mall... it was if Klaatu and Gort the robot had landed in my backyard.

The Day the Earth Stood Still was based on Harry Bates’ short story “Farewell to the Master,” written in the late 30s or early 40s, and well-known to sci-fans of the era, who remember it mostly for its striking, four-word twist ending. The film only uses the short story as a launching point, however. Gort is large, green, human-featured and speaks in the story, while his towering, mute, visored form and the phrase “Klaatu Barada Nikto!” from the film have become icons of pop culture (probably referenced most notably in Army of Darkness). I believe the score, by Bernard Hermann, was the first to use a theremin (that electronic waver sound), which of course was used in virtually every sci-fi film or TV show afterwards. The scene with Patricia Neal panicking and ineffectively fleeing from Gort was tense for us as kids, but even then we never understood why the hell she didn’t just say the damn words to call him off first thing (or at least a little earlier, as we hollered them at the screen).

I admire Robert Wise for his ability to create classics in several genres. Few directors have ever had his range. In addition to The Day the Earth Stood Still, he directed one of horror’s classics, the first film adaptation of The Haunting (1963). It remains a masterpiece of mood and atmosphere, in which really, very little happens. However, Wise’s artful use of camera angles, shadowy black and white compositions, and a brilliant sound design create a sense of foreboding and menace, most memorably in a scene where some ghost or other entity tries to get into the room where two women are cowering. Wise rarely lost sight of human emotion, regardless of the landscape it occupied. In The Haunting, the audience begins to worry less about the spirits in the house, and more about one of the women, who is so lonely and alienated she drifts towards choosing to join the spirits. Murder is horrible, but watching someone essentially choose suicide can be far more terrifying.

There can be no doubt, however, that most people remember Robert Wise for his two Oscar-winning, landmark musicals, West Side Story(1961) and The Sound of Music(1965). The Sound of Music remains one of the most financially successful films of all time (in adjusted dollars), and the number of parodies of its sweeping opening shot testify again to its iconic stature.

While I’ve never been a huge fan of musicals (most are far too sappy), there’s no denying the energy of the genre and Wise’s skill and artistry. The scene I remember the most from West Side Story is the “little red riding hood rape sequence,” where Anita, donning a red scarf, is accosted by the rival gang and her wounded, raging response sets in motion the final conflict. It’s a brutal, disturbing scene, where in a bow to restraint, a rape does not literally occur, but there can be no doubt about the power dynamic and the emotional impact on Anita. It’s really masterfully done, and an artistic coup over that era's prudish censors. With West Side Story often staged and the film often viewed, and with The Sound of Music sing-a-longs popping up all around the country, it’s safe to say that Robert Wise will be missed but his work not soon forgotten.