Saturday, July 5, 2014

Fifth of July: Our not-quite freedom summer


MAYA ANGELOU took to Twitter on May 23 to send us a message, using the uncaged blue bird of the Internet to sing to us one more time. “Listen to yourself,” she tweeted, “and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”

And then, five days later, at the age of 86, she was gone. And like before, like always, she was everywhere.

She was so much and so long a part of our cultural foundation, it’s hard to think of when her voice and grace and style weren’t around to carry us through the rough passages of the national life. Her poetical voice speaks eloquently for itself; what’s been less thoroughly documented in the reservoir of posthumous praise is her standing as a rights activist in the 50’s and 60’s.

From her work with W.E.B. duBois in Ghana to a leadership role in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, elbow to elbow with Martin Luther King Jr., to taking her place with Malcolm X in internationalizing the scope of understanding America’s racial dilemma, she set an example of all of us.

Her absence preceded another, one more deficit in the great American chain. The death of Ruby Dee, on June 11 at the age of 91, was another body blow for anyone who valued her work as an actress (from “Raisin in the Sun” to “American Gangster”) and another civil rights activist at the height of that era of our troubles.

Their losses, their absence on the cusp of this historic American season are measured against those of 50 years earlier, and the gains we’ve made since. Against all odds.

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In its reliable zeal for even-numbered observances, the media takes note of this as the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, the time of the historic voter registration drive meant to emancipate the American South of an undying racially-inspired chicanery at the ballot box.

June 21 marked the 50th anniversary of the disappearance of Michael Henry Schwerner, James Earl Chaney and Andrew Goodman, the triptych saints of Freedom Summer, three men who came south to register African Americans to vote, and who were shot to death sometime that day, their Ford station wagon torched and their bodies bulldozed 17 feet under an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Miss. They wouldn’t be discovered for another six weeks.

In a federal trial in 1967, seven men were convicted of federal charges of conspiracy and violating the workers’ civil rights. They were sentenced to prison terms of from three to 10 years. Edgar Killen, a Baptist minister and former recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan, was tried for the killings, but escaped conviction when a lone juror refused to convict him. Seven others also were acquitted.

In January 2005 Killen was arrested again, this time on state charges. His state trial began in June 2005, and he was convicted of manslaughter later that month. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal of his conviction last November.

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FOR MISSISSIPPI — an epicenter of the nation’s racial upheavals and a barometer of its changing racial tolerance — past is prologue. Benjamin Chaney, James’ younger brother, told me in June 2005: “If there was any interest on the part of the state of Mississippi to bring these people to justice, then all the people still alive and involved in this would have been brought to the grand jury.”

“We have all the evidence showing law enforcement officers involved," said Dave Dennis, the co-organizer of Freedom Summer, in June 2005. "The people who did this were much more widespread. ... This was a conspiracy on the part of the state of Mississippi and its elected officials to deter African Americans from their constitutional right to vote.”

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Tea Party in hot water:
Rewriting the rules in Mississippi, and elsewhere



UNLESS YOU’VE been vacationing under a rock on the floor of the Marianas Trench, you certainly know about the deeply passionate, teeth-grinding rage now endured by the Tea Party movement, in the wake of the latest in a series of embarrassing defeats, one of which recalibrates the received wisdom about race and Republican politics. Conservatives haven’t been this upset in weeks.

The Tea Party’s candidate in Mississippi for the U.S. Senate, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, 42, got schooled on Tuesday by the incumbent, Sen. Thad Cochran, 76, a Republican senator for 35 years; a man with the closest thing to a courtly demeanor the Republicans have had for a long time; a Mississippian who was first elected senator when McDaniel was all of seven venerable years old.

Tea Party defeat was contagious on Tuesday. In Oklahoma, Rep. James Lankford handily defeated former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon in the GOP Senate primary. Shannon, who is Native American and African-American, had the support of Tea Party darlings Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and former Alaska governor and political personality Sarah Palin®, in the race to succeed the retiring Tom Coburn.

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Besides the obvious generational derision McDaniel may be privately enduring — hot damn, Chris, you let that old man beat you? What’s the world coming to? — he and the Tea Partiers are also forced to confront a fallacy in their fundamental distrust in congressional longevity: Since no one gets to be a senator for a single 35-year stretch, what happened in Mississippi on Tuesday was, at the end of the day, Mississippi’s latest vote of confidence in Thad Cochran. Thirty-five years is a long time to keep a job you’re not doing right.

For all the attention on Cochran’s narrow but deafening victory over McDaniel last night (by 2 points, a margin too thin for a sheet of paper to get through), despite the concerns about Cochran’s age and controversy over his campaign tactics and some intemperate statements made on the eve of Tuesday’s vote, you have to look back about eight years to see why he won this week.

In April 2006, Time, in a catalog of profiles of what the magazine called “America's 10 Best Senators,” quoted a senior Republican senator talking about Cochran and what made his strong re-election record possible: “He doesn't get a whole lot of play in terms of coverage,” the senator said, “but he is effectively stubborn doing what needs to be done.”

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LOSING WAS bad enough for McDaniel and the Mississippi Tea Party. What’s made it worse — the sting that’s been resonating throughout conservative ranks in general — is the fact that Cochran’s margin of victory in Tuesday’s open primary was probably made possible by Democratic voters. Black Democratic voters.

They’re still working out the numbers, but it’s apparent that African American voters supported Cochran over McDaniel. In the process, Cochran and those voters have rewritten the longstanding equation that defines the racial politics of Mississippi — and other states too. The enemy of my enemy is my friend indeed.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The NFL’s backward forward progress


PARTLY THROUGH its own intention and partly because of market forces (read: the evolution of modern society), the National Football League has been in a maturation process lately, moving in something between a lurch and a confident stroll toward a future it can only partly predict, and can’t prevent at all. If only the NFL could make up its mind to move consistently in one direction.

On June 12, the St. Louis Rams announced that the team had signed all 11 players it picked in the 2014 draft; that includes Michael Sam, the former Missouri defensive standout and the first openly gay player to be drafted in pro football history. Sam, the 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, has since signed with the Rams for an estimated four-year, $2.65 million deal. Sam tweeted that he was “Grateful, humbled and motivated” after officially signing with the team.

We’ll see how well he does where it counts; the real crucible, Rams training camp, begins on July 25. But the NFL’s already had a role in helping make history nationally and at the state level. The Rams' choice of Michael Sam may have a big legal impact on the lives of gay couples and employees across the state of Missouri, thanks to a measure in the state’s legislature.

“The Missouri Nondiscrimination Act or MONA would extend the existing Missouri Human Rights Statute to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories,” Christina Coleman reported May 12 in USA Today. “It would protect the LGBT community from discrimination in the work place. The bill, HB 1930, went before the house for public hearing on March 13th. It has yet to pass.”

Months earlier, even before the draft happened, the NFL admirably made its feelings known in a Feb. 9 statement: “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”

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THE NFL took another walk into modern times recently; it’s not as important as the league’s official position on Michael Sam, but it’s welcome if you’ve ever tried grappling with Roman numerals.

On June 4, the NFL announced that, effective in 2016, it would abandon use of the Roman numerals for titling of the Super Bowl. The league’s practice of using Roman numerals for every championship game since 1971 has always reflected a pompous, self-important sense of the gladiatorial, as if running backs were centurions and head coaches were emperors. Simply put, it was getting old.

The official title of the Super Bowl earlier this year got its fair share of derision, with people calling it “Super Bowl X-L-V-I-I-I,” pronouncing the letters and skipping the Roman enumeration for the number 48 altogether. The NFL’s change for Super Bowl 50, in MMXVI — sorry, 2016 — will short-circuit that embarrassment.

But apparently, bewilderingly, just for a while: Jack Jorgensen at SI.com reports that the league will go back to Roman numerals again in 2017 (double-M, X-V-I-I). Which begs the question of why they’re making the change in the first place. Some old habits don’t die hard; they just don’t die at all.

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Among these is the NFL’s dogged resistance to join the rest of us in the 21st century in coming to terms with the ugliness of a term for Native Americans that the league, and one of its legacy teams, has attempted to legitimize with innocence.

Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington National Football League team, has repeatedly refused to change the longstanding obscenity of the team’s name, the Washington Redskins. Snyder has used a number of excuses: historical precedent; a fan base that wouldn’t tolerate the change; the divine right of team owners. He’s been given a major assist from ... the NFL itself. Adolpho Birch, the NFL's senior vice president of law and labor policy, and an African American at that, said on May 30 that “the team name is not a slur.”

"The team name is the team name as it has been for 80-plus years," he said on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.” "And what we need to do is get beyond sort of understanding this as a point-blank situation and understand it more as a variety of perspectives that all need to be addressed, that all need to be given some weight, so that at the end of it we can come to some understanding that is appropriate and reflects the opinions of all."

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THE UNITED STATES Patent Office begs to differ. On Wednesday, the government agency’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled, 2-1, that the Washington Redskins name is "disparaging of Native Americans" and that six of the team's Redskins trademarks must be canceled. “We decide, based on the evidence properly before us, that these registrations must be canceled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered,” the TTBA opinion says.

The team won’t immediately lose its trademark protection and can keep it pending an appeal. But the team will lose much of the protection that a federal trademark confers: it now becomes harder for the team to pursue legal claims against anyone who wants to print the name on sweatshirts or other apparel.

And the court of sports-minded public opinion has been weighing in. Keith Olbermann has made the name change issue an almost regular topic on his ESPN program. And in a powerful moral stand, Seattle Times sports editor Don Shelton wrote Wednesday that “It’s time to ban the use of ‘Redskins,’ the absurd, offensive and outdated name of the NFL team in Washington, D.C. Past time, actually. …

“We’re banning the name for one reason: It’s offensive,” Shelton said. “Far from honoring Native Americans, the term colors an entire race. Many Native Americans consider it an outdated label placed on their people.”

Shelton noted that The Times has company. “We’re not the only newspaper that has decided against using it,” he wrote Wednesday. “The Oregonian in Portland and The Kansas City Star banned it in the 1990s, and The Orange County Register recently did, too. I suspect that list will swell.”

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It’s the off-season right now, but just like all the teams that comprise the NFL, the league has some work to do before the 2014 season gets underway. More than anything else, the NFL has to come to grips with the fact that maturity — real maturity — isn’t a situational experience. Either you grow up or you don’t.

It’s the height of hypocrisy to make serious social strides, recognizing that the world doesn’t begin and end on the football field, when the league acknowledges the value of inclusion of gay athletes at the same time it embraces derogatory labels that contradict everything its position on gay athletes represents.

The Michael Sam statement and the Redskins controversy show that the National Football League and its commissioner, Roger S. Goodell, have been trying to have it both ways. That’s not going to work for much longer. A groundswell of popular opinion is sending a message a football-savvy commissioner and the league he represents should understand by now: You can’t make a forward pass and a lateral at the same time.

Image credits: NFL logo, NFL Super Bowl 50 logo: © and ® 2014 National Football League. Michael Sam tweet by its originator.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Anathema inamorata:
Iraq, Iran, the media and U.S. history repeating


THE GORDIAN knot of America’s misadventure in Iraq has re-knotted itself in a way that renounces the received wisdom about the United States’ relationship with its Sworn Nemesis, the Republic of Iran. A quick Google hunt of the phrase “enemy of my enemy is my friend” brings up a full few pages of links to recent stories, new work borrowing the phrase for use in a context whose sudden, tragic irony is inescapable.

You don’t even have to read the stories to know: the tables have turned on our relative certainties of who our friends are — or, if not friends, at least those adversaries whose interests improbably dovetail with our own.

The pending U.S. association with Iran was brought to you by the black-clad, masked Sunni operatives of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS (alternately, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL), who in the past months (and especially weeks) have swept from Syria into Iraq, crashing around the desert, slaughtering scores of captured Iraqi soldiers, intimidating the local populations, siphoning petrodollars from captured refineries, and looting banks of currency and gold bullion to the tune of more than a billion dollars.

Flush with cash, weapons, fundamentalist fervor and some of the American technology left in the hands of the Iraqi soldiers who abandoned their posts (and their uniforms), ISIS forces are continuing a lightning-fast drive toward Baghdad, with the apparent intent of toppling Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, whose Shia government has pledged to “liberate every inch” of land captured by the Sunni invaders.

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Maliki — who has cut Sunnis out of the Iraqi political process at every turn over eight years in office — is reaping the whirlwind, aggressively pursuing a strategy that, left unchecked or unchanged, will almost certainly ensure his transformation from the president of the Republic of Iraq to, in practical terms, not much more than the mayor of Baghdad.

“He isn’t making the gestures to Sunnis,” said David Rohde of Reuters, last week on MSNBC. “He’s deciding, essentially, to fight this out in a sectarian form, and it’ll lead to the division of the country. He can control Baghdad and the south, but not the areas he’s lost.”

“It’s a horrible thing that is happening. It is traumatic and horrible,” retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who commanded U.S. forces in northern Iraq in 2007 and 2008, told McClatchy. “But they knew it was happening. We tried to tell them this would happen unless they were more inclusive.”

Hertling said Iraq without al-Maliki might be an improvement.

“The trust between government and its forces and people is based on past behaviors and performance,” he said. “And in some circles, both inside and outside Iraq, Maliki has lost all trust.”

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IN OTHER ways, though, this Is bigger and more problematic than Maliki. Carne Ross, a former British diplomat who resigned over Britain’s role in the Iraq war, observed: “In a way, what we’re seeing is the epic playing out, the denouement of the neocon project in Iraq. In a sense, the post-invasion order that was established by the U.S. ... is collapsing.”

And in that collapse, in that vacuum, the same neocon voices and positions that pulled the United States into war in 2003 are rising again. They’re baaaack and singing the same old tune, but singing it in a mediasphere that’s more crowded (and by definition more open to rhetoric than to fact) than it ever was before.

In the last two weeks, former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, former Iraqi ambassador J. Paul Bremer III, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and other jurassics from the heyday of the Bush #43 neocon era have gone on a panoramic media offensive, taking to The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, CNN, NBC and ABC to defend the positions that ushered us into war in the first place.

Douglas Feith, former Bush undersecretary of defense for policy, cleared his throat in Politico, taking the Obama White House to task for its Iraq policies. Astonishingly, Feith’s central role in the first Iraq war — as a leading architect of the WMD rationale used to legitimize it — wasn’t even mentioned by Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere, who quoted Feith several times in a June 12 story.

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Once you set aside the reflex musculature of such automatic hawks (and others like Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has for months advocated for a heavier boots-on-soil American military posture in the region), there didn’t seem to be many effective immediate options, besides the ritual consideration of drone strikes — something almost certain to be ineffective with no people on the ground.

“Target-level detail intelligence is hard to come by in the best of conditions,” said retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, on MSNBC. “The problem with ISIS and insurgents is, they hug the population. The bombs don’t discriminate; when you’ve got a lot people in a tight space, not all of [them] are enemy people.”

That absence of options changed when President Obama announced Thursday what was probably inevitable to those in Washington, and probably unthinkable to the American public: Obama notified Congress that he was sending up to 300 U.S. special operations troops, probably Green Berets, “to provide support and security for U.S. personnel and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad” and to assess “how we can best train, advise and support Iraqi security forces going forward.”

Obama also is considering sending as many as 100 to Iraq to advise its armed forces as it battles the insurgents, according to a senior U.S. official, as reported by McClatchy.

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YOU’RE NOW invited to experience that sinking feeling, that pit-of-the-stomach déjà vu that accompanies doing something a second time when it shouldn’t have been done the first time. You’re asked to recall that some of the Iraqi towns taken and now held by ISIS forces have names already burned into the American consciousness, for all the wrong reasons: Tikrit, Mosul, Baqubah, Ramadi ... Fallujah. And you’re inclined not to want to do any of that again.

We have the president’s assurance that that won’t happen. “We’re not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which, while we’re there, we’re keeping a lid on things, and after enormous sacrifices by us, as soon as we’re not there, suddenly people end up acting in ways that are not conducive to the long-term stability and prosperity of the country,” he said last week.

But Iran is the wild card, the possible change agent in the fast-emerging new political calculus of the region. And how the United States engages Iran — diplomatically, politically and, last resort, militarily — over Iraq in the next few months could be the needed reset button for old relationships with old adversaries ... the kind of organically happening event that’s eluded us over years of planned diplomacy and saber-rattling.

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Analysts in the punditburo have advised against the U.S. taking sides in the new conflict, but that’s never been an option. The United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, mothballed the Iraqi army, decapitated the Iraqi government and began the process of de-Baathification that, with the election of al-Maliki, indicated that we were taking a side in the sectarian strife that has shaped and roiled that country and the region for 1,300 years.

Now, the instability that ISIS personifies has reinforced the established U.S. position of support for Maliki, a Shiite who’s getting an assist from ... the Shia government of Iran, and the government of Syria, ruled by Bashar al-Assad and other leaders of the Alawite sect, a more secular Shiite offshoot. The blitzkrieg rise of ISIS also compels the United States to realize that Iran, which has no more desire to watch ISIS destabilize the region than the U.S. does, is now a reluctant bedfellow, an anathema transformed, for the time being, into something closer to a necessary inamorata.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Appeasing the beast, and its consequences:
Eric Cantor and the Tea Party


WELL WE DIDN’T see this coming, now did we? In a 24/7 media environment pretty much inured to everything happening sooner or later, the overnight demolition of the political career of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has the mediasphere scrambling for adjectives and precedent. There’s plenty of the first to go around; we scribes of the interwebs do what we can to make sure of that.

But precedent? There is none. Cantor, who on Tuesday lost his primary congressional race in the Virginia 7th District to a game Tea Party challenger, was the first House Majority Leader to ever lose a primary.

Serving that district since 2001, Cantor was long thought to be heir apparent to the post of Speaker of the House. He lost his primary bid to David Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Mason University and Tea Party evangelist of the moment. The 11-point margin (Brat 55, Cantor 44) can only be characterized as a blowout, and a stunning one for Cantor, whose own internal polling put him well ahead as recently as last week.

Some in the rightward chambers of the punditburo have pointed to Cantor’s thrashing in Virginia and the June 24th runoff between incumbent Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran and his Tea Party challenger, Chris McDaniel, as a renascence of the Tea Party. It is, but in only the narrowest of terms.

The Tea Party movement’s biggest problem since its astroturfed inception in 2009 has been a problem of exportability — of transforming primary-season victories into general-election victories, and that hasn’t changed.

Reaching the demographically broader, more diverse general population of many states, and certainly the nation as a whole, is the challenge the increasingly right-moving TP crowd has no answer for. That’s why, despite regional victories in the early going of this campaign year, the Tea Party may well be — like one of the old incandescent bulbs we’ve been replacing — shining at its brightest in the moment before the bulb burns out.

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Cantor stepped to the microphones on Tuesday night, game but gut-shot in his concession speech to his supporters. “Obviously, we came up short,” he said, in a mastery of understatement.

“Serving as the 7th District congressman, and then having the privlege to be majority leader, has been one of the highest honors of my life,” Cantor said. “And what I set out to do, and what the agenda that I have always said we’re about, is we wanna create a Virginia and an America that works for everybody.”

“And we need to focus our efforts — as conservative, as Republicans — on putting forth our conservative solutions,” he continued, “so that they can help solve the problems for some many working middle-class families that may not have the opportunities that we have.”



These are the kinds of things that I know we’re going to work on,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of long faces here tonight. And, um, it’s disappointing, sure. But I believe in this country, I believe there’s opportunity around the next corner for all of us.”

“So I look forward to continuing to fight with all of you for the things we all believe in, for the conservative cause,” Cantor said, “because those solutions of ours are the answer to the problems that so many people are facing today. Thank you all so very much.”

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CANTOR’S DEFEAT wasn’t a matter of being outspent. Just the opposite: The outgoing House leader (he formally resigns on July 31) spent about $5 million on his primary fight, compared to the couch-cushion-money war chest of $206,000 spent by Brat’s insurgent campaign — a triumph of economic efficiency you might expect from an economist.

As stalwart a Republican as you’d find on Capitol Hill, Cantor had his comeuppance in the Virginia 7 in different ways. He was taken to task by voters on the matter of immigration reform. Cantor stood accused of rank apostasy, and being in league with President Obama on seeking a palatable program for immigration reform via his proposal of the KIDS Act, his GOP version of the DREAM Act.

But that was only part of Cantor’s problem. Another issue for Cantor, thoroughly explained in Christopher Bedford’s story in The Daily Caller, had to do with detachment from the people in his district, and the perception that Cantor was working both sides of the street, being politically disingenuous with the people who mattered most: his constituents.

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“While other leadership candidates, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, spent months courting tea party and base voters, Cantor’s team turned on them in a sustained and unsuccessful campaign that culminated in his Tuesday night defeat,” Bedford wrote Wednesday.

In November 2013, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, Lt. Gov. E.W. Jackson and their candidate for attorney general, Mark Obenshain, were defeated by Democrats in their respective bids for governor and attorney general. It was then that Cantor and his allies mounted a bid to retrieve Virginia politics from the rise of Tea Party activists, beginning the alienation that led to what happened on Tuesday night.

Monday, June 9, 2014

No questions left behind: The Bergdahl matter


THE QUIETLY protracted geopolitical choreography that resulted in the May 31 release of Bowe Robert Bergdahl from almost five years of captivity, by Haqqani allies of the Taliban, was first spun by the White House as an unalloyed triumph of American determination in the face of a shadowy, intractable enemy. What a difference a week makes.

In that time, we’ve seen the Obama White House tweak its rationale for negotiating the release of the only American captured on the Afghan war, in exchange for five Taliban former operatives held at Guantanamo.

We’ve witnessed Bergdahl move in the public eye from hero survivor to probable deserter to possible traitor to likely basket case. And we’ve seen an implicit (and up to now unthinkable) questioning of the idea that Americans don’t leave their soldiers to the mercies of the enemy.

At this point — with the Army investigating Bergdahl’s actions on June 30, 2009, when he went missing; with Bergdahl homecoming celebrations on hold in his Idaho home town; and with Bergdahl himself not saying much on his own behalf (so far) — the matter’s generated almost as many questions as answers.

Question #1: What the hell really happened?

Question #2: What the hell happens now?

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California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss tag-teamed the White House on Tuesday, calling Obama to task for not giving Congress the required 30 days notice of a Gitmo release, and rejecting the administration’s claims of the need for urgency in extracting Bergdahl.

“It comes to us with some surprise and dismay that the transfers went ahead with no consultation, totally not following law,” Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters. “And in an issue with this kind of concern to a committee that bears the oversight responsibility, I think you can see that we're very dismayed about it.”

The Associated Press reported that, in fact, the administration held two briefings for House Speaker John Boehner and key Republicans in November 2011, and January 2012, in which the possibility was raised of exchanging Bergdahl for the five Taliban.

What’s at issue here, then, is the difference between the president’s interpretation of “consultation with Congress” and Congress’ interpretation of “consultation with Congress.”

At the G7 conference in Warsaw, Obama said: “We have consulted with Congress for quite some time about the possibility that we might need to execute a prisoner exchange in order to recover Sergeant Bergdahl. We saw an opportunity, we were concerned about Sergeant Bergdahl’s health. We had the cooperation of the Qataris to execute an exchange, and we seized that opportunity.”

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WHITE HOUSE concerns about Bergdahl’s health could have been real and justified. Until he was seen in the actual U.S.-Taliban exchange, there’d been precious few if any recent photos or video of Bergdahl. He was reportedly last identified in a video from December.

“He looked shriveled,” one senior American official, who saw the video, told The New York Times. “There was a pallor about his skin that looked unhealthy. He didn’t seem alert; he seemed lethargic.”

With no more recent visual evidence of his status — proof of health, if you will — there may have been no compelling evidence one way or the other as to how healthy he really was by the end of May. That’s something only an actual sighting of Bergdahl could have validated, if not confirmed.

Feinstein reportedly had access to information on Bergdahl’s health, enough to have determined that Bergdahl’s health issues were overblown. How did she get this information? What was her source? American doctors? Afghan doctors? And without knowing that source of that intel, even in general terms, is there any reason to fully accept the idea that it was accurate? Feinstein’s dispositive assessment may not be as airtight as she’s led to believe.

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The Bergdahl matter has led to strange — and even unsettling — challenges to a longstanding ethos vis-à-vis the treatment of our military. Certain accepted truths about how we treat our soldiers are now under fire. The rush to the tumbrels, the scream for Bergdahl’s head in a basket at the foot of the guillotine has overlooked the standing principle that the United States doesn’t abandon its servicemen and women.

That principle — basic to our national military lore, our civilian expectations and every good war movie you’ve ever seen — is smartly defined in six words: We Don’t Leave a Soldier Behind.

There’s no asterisk attached. It’s not “We Don’t Leave a Soldier Behind Unless,” or “We Don’t Leave a Soldier Behind, With the Exception Of.” Rear Admiral John Kirby hews to this customary understanding, something that’s the product of years of Americans reared in life during wartime. “I grew up in the Navy,” Kirby told MSNBC on Thursday. “If you fell overboard on a ship, we don’t ask whether you were pushed or whether you jumped. We turn the ship around and we go get you.”

Others haven’t been so charitable in their assessment of Bergdahl’s value. On June 2, Joshua Korder, a former Army sergeant, told CNN that Bergdahl was “at best a deserter and at worse a traitor.” Evan Buetow, a sergeant in Bergdahl’s 2nd Platoon, Blackfoot Company, 1st Battalion, told The AP that Bergdahl should face trial for desertion.

Time magazine — in a provocative move meant to punch up its newsstand numbers as much as anything else — published a cover story on Bergdahl’s return entitled “Was He Worth It?” And in an op-ed by The Wall Street Journal, one former member of the Army Special Forces suggested that a firing squad “might be appropriate.”

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THERE’S ALSO been gnashing of teeth about the release of Mullah Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Khirullah Said Khairkhwa, Abdul Haq Wasi and Mohammad Nabi Omari, the five Taliban dead-enders now sequestered in Qatar for a year of house arrest. Fears are rampant everywhere that they will eventually return to the arms of the Taliban, to renew their subjugation of Afghanistan.

But John Bellinger, Adjunct Senior Fellow in International and National Security Law at the Council on Foreign Relations, recognizes that, in an asymmetrical conflict like the one we’ve been fighting in Afghanistan, there are no pristine options.

Bellinger, who was legal adviser for the Bush #43 State Department from 2005 to 2009, wrote this on June 1, in his Lawfare blog:

“I do not agree, as some Republicans are already arguing, that these individuals should not have been released. In my view, the U.S. would not be able to hold them forever. Indeed, it is likely that the U.S. would be required, as a matter of international law, to release them shortly after the end of 2014, when U.S. combat operations cease in Afghanistan. The Administration appears to have reached a defensible, hold-your-nose compromise by arranging, in exchange for the release of Sergeant Bergdahl, for the individuals to be held in Qatar for a year before they return to Afghanistan.”

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Bellinger followed up on June 6, again writing in Lawfare:

“It is arguably better for the President to get something — the return of an ailing U.S. soldier held in captivity — rather than nothing in return. And it is arguably better to have sent them to Qatar to be held for another year than to have returned them to the Karzai Government, which might have released them immediately.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Beyond Jill Abramson


WHEN JILL Ellen Abramson was dismissed from her position as executive editor of The New York Times on May 14, it sent shock waves through the media world almost immediately, not least of all because of the wild divergence of opinion as to why it happened. The reasons for her dismissal from what’s rightly regarded as the pre-eminent post in American journalism were all over the place:

She was by turns brusque and passionate, abrasive and dedicated; she was cashiered for being a poor newsroom manager; she was let go because she had the nerve to seek parity of financial compensation with her predecessor, Bill Keller.

What was and is disturbingly revelatory, though, is how her ouster from The Times has cast a light on the emerging role of women in positions of power; how their ascension in the places that matter has rankled the status quo — and how, for women and minorities alike, that climb to power is complicated by almost interchangeable assumptions that have little or nothing to do with talent and everything to do with historical precedent.

It’s not just Jill Abramson, and it’s not just women. Intransigence in the halls of power is an equal opportunity experience.

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Abramson’s departure was sweet schadenfreude for those of a conservative bent. DGinCT, commenting on Ken Auletta’s piece on Abramson in The New Yorker, said:

“Gotta love it when liberals get hoisted on their own petards. She should know by now that highly positioned progressives may bleat about equality, equal rights, etc. -- but when it comes to their own conduct, it is strictly do as I say, not as I do. Sounds like how the left reacted when Monica Lewinsky came forth -- every stereotypical name and sexist female cliché were trotted out.”

Gloria Steinem had a different perspective. “It's obvious it is a double standard — a huge, huge double standard,” said Steinem, a co-founder of the Women's Media Center, on the radio show produced by the Center. Steinem, the founder of Ms. Magazine, lamented newspaper editors’ central-casting emotional trait of being difficult, The New York Times' Abe Rosenthal as a case in point.

Steinem said that “people expect better behavior” from The Times. “[They] are going to engender much, much more anger and outrage and disappointment than other news organizations.”

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THIS OUTRAGE has a history that makes Steinem’s comments more than idle complaint. In 1972, Nan Robertson, one of the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters and author of “The Girls in the Balcony” (1992), mounted a class-action lawsuit against the paper for bias against its female employees, a suit settled favorably for the plaintiffs in 1978.

But Steinem made the implicit assumption that Rosenthal’s mercurial management style was somehow universally embraced at The Times just because he was a man — and it wasn’t. Rosenthal was disliked at the Gray Lady for being an equal opportunity shit disturber. This consistency with the in-house perception of Rosenthal’s management style undercuts Steinem’s claims of institutional sexism.

(And for all her problems with the late Rosenthal now, it’s been forgotten or certainly overlooked that, in June 1986, when The Times joined the modern world with acceptance of the honorific “Ms.,” Steinem herself brought flowers and a thank-you note to Rosenthal for making the change in Times editorial policy.)

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A bundle of issues: AT&T, DirecTV and what you watch


WHEN COMCAST announced plans to buy Time Warner Cable on Feb. 13, for $45.2 billion in stock, it was a Godzilla announcement in the business world, one that fully declared Comcast’s intention to dominate in cable like no company ever had before. The deal proposes to combine the country’s two biggest U.S. cable companies into one inescapable media behemoth.

“This leaves Comcast as the sole king of the cable hill,” said Richard Greenfield, an analyst with BTIG LLC, to Bloomberg. “This is a game changer for Comcast.”

Now comes Game Changer #2. On May 19th, AT&T and DirecTV Group Inc. announced a proposed $48.5 billion merger, a monster mashup that would combine the nation’s second-largest telecommunications carrier and the undisputed 8,000-pound gorilla of satellite broadcast television.

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The AT&T-DirecTV deal will require the blessing of the Federal Communications Commission and either the Justice Department or the Federal Trade Commission. But pending the necessary chin-pulling by regulators, the television landscape may be about to undergo its second big shift of the year.

Bloomberg reported that the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable nuptials could face up to a year of scrutiny, but would “probably will end in approval after regulators secure pledges the combined company won’t harm Internet users.” We’ll certainly get the same pledge that AT&T/DirecTV won’t bend satellite subscribers or mobile customers over too far. At least not yet.

But layoffs are another matter. If previous mergers and acquisitions are any guide, and they are, they’re almost inevitable. Count on it: Thanks to the ruthless operational efficiencies that are basic to the economies-of-scale diktat of modern business, an unknown number of people will be filling Bankers Boxes with everything in and on their desks under the watchful eye of large security guards before it’s all said and done. You watch.

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WHILE THIS proposed deal has attained the breathless PR frisson of something new, we might have seen this coming. Visitors to the AT&T web site have long been invited to “Shop DIRECTV satellite TV bundles from AT&T, featuring packages with High Speed Internet, Wireless, and Home Phone services.”

This customer convenience takes on a new significance. AT&T and DirecTV have been in a kind of joint-venture status since AT&T announced it would market and sell co-branded DirecTV services back in January 2009 — in what looks now to have been a protracted courtship before the engagement just announced.

It’s this clout through consolidation, and its impact on consumers, that’s already the biggest concern for lawmakers in Washington. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) expressed his worries on May 19.

“With this latest proposed merger, I am concerned that the telecommunications marketplace is trending even further toward one that favors big companies over consumers," said Leahy, as quoted by the Los Angeles Times. Leahy also suggested “that his panel would bring in top company executives for a hearing as well,” The Times reported.

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THE INDUSTRY needs more competition, not more mergers,” John Bergmayer, senior staff attorney at public-interest group Public Knowledge, said in a statement excerpted on the CNet web site. “The burden is on AT&T and DirecTV to show otherwise.”

In a conference call reported by CNN, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson sought to calm the waters, saying that benefits to AT&T and DirecTV customers will be obvious “right out of the gate,” with new bundles becoming available right after the deal closes, whenever that is.

“The merger with DirecTV would triple AT&T's cable and TV customer base, providing service to more than 30 million people, adding to the company's wireless subscriber base of about 100 million,” CNN’s David Goldman reported on May 19.

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But that breadth of coverage could give AT&T and DirecTV more power over content providers — the networks whose programs you watch. DirecTV's contract with Disney channels, including ESPN and ABC, for example, expires at the end of the year. With a bigger pool of customers beyond the 20 million it has now, a post-acquisition DirecTV would wield fresh leverage over Disney and other networks in a way that doesn’t necessarily work to consumers’ advantage.

Remember what happened in January, when The Weather Channel was blacked out by DirecTV over a dispute over fees and content? “Most consumers don’t want to watch a weather information channel with a forecast of a 40 percent chance of reality TV,” DirecTV said in a statement.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

GOP, the Tea Party and the cage match to come


THE TEA Party movement has been dying by degrees  for years now. Its long defiance of the horticulture of politics — any movement that’s an inch deep and half a mile wide doesn’t really have the deep roots it needs to grow very far — is finally catching up to it.

If what just happened in North Carolina is a sign of what’s to come, the more traditional elements of the Republican Party that spawned the noisy, combative distillation of its most vituperative conservative adherents are ready to put the Tea Party movement behind it, and get on with the business of politics. Starting with the business of winning.

Thom Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House, won his Republican Senate primary on May 6 with 45.7 percent of the vote, kicking to the curb his weak challengers: Libertarian/Tea Party darling Greg Brannon (27 percent) and Charlotte pastor Mark Harris (17 percent).

Tillis was the beneficiary of the open checkbooks of stalwarts such as American Crossroads (the ATM directed by turdblossom generalissimo Karl Rove) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He’ll face down Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan as part of the GOP’s wider strategy to regain control of the United States Senate in November.

Now the stage shifts to primary contests in Kentucky and Georgia on May 20 — a week from today. The outcome of those races could determine whether the North Carolina vote represents a trend for the Republicans, or just more of the philosophical gridlock that’s defined the GOP for the last five years.

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One thing’s unmistakable: Republicans want a winner. If North Carolina’s rejection of Brannon is a bellwether for anything, it’s a signal that Republican patience for heretic outliers — Todd Akin in Missouri, Sharon Engle in Nevada, Ken Buck in Colorado, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware — has worn thin.

Republicans want a winner. That may be what lies behind a series of claims and counterclaims made by Mark Fisher, Tea Party candidate for governor in Massachusetts, and the state Republican Party. On Thursday Fisher claimed that Mass GOP offered him $1 million to drop a lawsuit seeking to let Harris force his way onto the September primary ballot — basically, to quit his own campaign.

Quite understandably, Mass GOP denies this, claiming that it was Fisher who demanded $1 million to drop his suit and name from the party ballot. The Boston Globe and WGBH reported on this last week.

Whatever really happened will all come out in the wash, but you can envision a scenario in which Mass GOP, reading the national tea leaves — and the dwindling national support for Tea Party candidates — decided that cutting Harris out of the herd now would increase the chances of a mainstream Republican to win the September primary, without having Tea Party votes siphoned away from that candidate. With what’s at stake, Mass GOP may have privately reasoned, $1 million was cheap at twice the price.

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THERE’S EVIDENCE that something approaching pragmatism has lifted the scales from the eyes of Republican voters. Politico counted them up state by state, the mainstream Republicans who prevailed in various races.

Rep. Renee Ellmers in North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District beat back a challenge by a conservative radio host. In the North Carolina 7th, Former state Sen. David Rouzer won the GOP primary with the backing of the U.S. Chamber. And in the Ohio 14th, GOP Rep. David Joyce stopped Rep. Matt Lynch, who was supported by the libertarian nonprofit FreedomWorks.

The internal split to be negotiated by Republicans in the coming months is all boiled down in what Ashley Van Wormer, of Cary, N.C., told the News & Observer last week. “We need some change in North Carolina,” said Van Wormer, a Tillis supporter, who called for “conservative values but not too far conservative. We need to elect somebody that can win.”

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But Tillis’ victory may nothing more than “something approaching pragmatism.” The ultimate Republican strategy may be more sleight of hand. After he won, Tillis made all the right noises, promising to “work across party lines to pass an agenda focused on generating growth and opportunities for middle-class families and small businesses.”

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Coming soon: ‘Benghazi the Opera’ (the Sequel)


THANKS TO the GOP’s ruthless political efficiency, we’re getting a preview of two campaign strategies at once right now. With the loss of the Affordable Care Act as a stigmatizing weapon against the Democrats, and with no breakout shining stars to cultivate for 2016, the Republican playbook for the midterms and the presidential election will be filled with one word written in rhetorical highlighter: “Benghazi.”

For many months, defeating Obamacare was the hill Republicans were ready to die on. The Republicans tried to make their opposition personal, using a strategy that was more ad hominem than it should have been, targeting the president himself by way of condemning the closest thing we have to universal health care. But the GOP never found the traction necessary to successfully make that an all-in, overarching election issue (despite Obamacare itself still not having fully gained the critical mass that it needs).

What’s a party in the wilderness to do? As they’ve done before, the Republican leadership will try to reanimate the corpse of the non-scandal we know as “Benghazi.” On Thursday the Republican-led House passed a bill (in a thoroughly party-line vote) to convene a select committee for yet another investigation of the just-as-thoroughly investigated terrorist attacks on Americans in September 2012. The word goes forth among the faithful: The road to the White House will, at least briefly, require a legislative side trip to a port city on the Libyan coast.

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A lot’s being made of the composition of the proposed House Benghazi panel: seven Republicans and five Democrats — an imbalance that guarantees gridlock before the first gavel comes down. To lead the committee, House Speaker John Boehner tapped South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, a second-term conservative and a rhetorical pitbull on the floor of the House.

The obvious political overtones have led House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to consider boycotting the panel, Politico reported Wednesday. “She was backed by South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the assistant Democratic leader, and Rep. Steve Israel, the New York Democrat who chairs the party’s campaign arm.”

For the last 18 months, the name of the Libyan city has been appropriated as a meme of the howling class of the Republican base and the chattering class of the party’s intelligentsia. It’s the latest attempt to call Clinton’s judgment and her leadership style into question, and to push back against the growing perception that, if she runs in 2016, Hillary Clinton would be the presidential frontrunner with a capital F.

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CLINTON WAS secretary of state when Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, Foreign Service Information Officer Sean Smith, and CIA contractors and former Navy SEALS Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed on Sept. 11, 2012, in an attack at the American diplomatic mission by still-unknown assailants. Clinton herself appeared at a January 2013 Senate hearing on the Benghazi attacks — one of the 13 hearings and 50 congressional briefings conducted into the matter.

There are risks for Democrats as the hearing unfold. If they follow Pelosi’s lead and walk away from the hearings altogether, the Democrats would be conceding the field to the Republicans, who’d no doubt run riot over the proceedings (which they’re likely to try to do anyway).

And frankly, it’d send the wrong signal to Democrats looking for a principled resistance to Republican bullying — not exactly what the Democratic leadership wants to communicate to an electorate already expected to be a no-show in November.



But for Republicans desperate for political advantage in the near term, and with no one even close to waiting in the wings as a viable prospect for 2016, pursuit of this backward-looking strategy is their only option right now, and for as long as they can string it out. Benghazi is a new hill to die on, and Steve Schmidt, at least, partly understands the downside in doing it.

The veteran political analyst and McCain ’08 seer told MSNBC this week: “The danger for Republicans here — and this is true of all oversight and investigative committees — is that there is a thin line between a select committee and a kangaroo court. The reality is, it’s usually the overreach that results from investigations like this that hurts the people doing the investigating ... the Republicans have a thin line to walk here.”

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But that’s not entirely right. Fact is, the Republicans crossed that thin line a while back. A new select committee would be an extension of the overreach on Benghazi that the Republican House has all but institutionalized for the last 18 months, under California Rep. Darrell Issa. The committee itself would be the overreach Schmidt warns about, more of what White House press secretary Jay Carney recently called “a conspiracy theory without a conspiracy.”

This new old Republican idée fixe is problematic in ways that dangerously dovetail with the two elections to come. The first is the known unknown of what the Benghazi attacks mean to a midterm electorate. With the economy sputtering back to life, and a number of social and economic issues simmering in various legislatures, midterm voters will be more focused on state and local races — and more predisposed to candidates that focus on state and local concerns.

Given the cratering opinion polls for Congress, those voters aren’t likely to shift their attention to another blatantly political hearing to re-litigate a largely settled matter. There’s simply too much to deal with that’s right in front of them.

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WHICH LEADS to the second problem, the one reserved for 2016. Republicans have already hinted that they’ll do everything they can to prolong the committee hearings, to drag the thing out indefinitely (“Benghazi,” Now Playing Again at the Congressional Opera House! Extended Run!). If they do, they run the risk, in a presidential election year, of exhausting the patience of voters eager for new policy prescriptions and fresh thinking from a party that needs both, and badly.

And they’ll be locking themselves into the very image of rear-view obstructionism they need to overcome to win. A presidential election is, by definition, a referendum on the future. It will be hard as hell for the House Republicans to build credibility as a party of the future while maintaining the obsession with the past that the Benghazi inquiry represents. There’s a price to be paid for driving with your eyes locked on the rear-view mirror.

The third problem for the GOP: The longer it plays out, the more a new Benghazi inquiry will likely reveal the standing schism between moderates and the last of the Tea Party dead-enders — a Republican Party divided with itself. Russell Berman of The Hill reported that Democrats will play on “intraparty tensions in the GOP, arguing that Boehner’s [selection of Gowdy] is a slap at [Issa], the Oversight Committee chairman who has courted controversy in his probe of the Benghazi attack. A Democratic House aide also pointed out that Boehner made the move at a time when he has feuded with conservatives over immigration, and amid positive reports on the job market and the president’s healthcare law.”

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None of this will matter to the Republican leadership in Congress. They can’t help themselves. This partisanship is the itch that must be scratched. But some in the GOP have sent an early warning already.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who’s up for re-election this year, said as much Sunday on CBS's “Face the Nation.” “If we're playing politics with Benghazi, we'll get burned,” Graham said, and he should know. The senator suffered third-degree political embarrassment last year after he signed on — body and soul — to a CBS “60 Minutes” report that largely (and erroneously) laid the blame for the Benghazi assault on the al-Qaeda network.

The panel almost certainly won’t release its report for tree-ring time to come. Texas Republican Mike Conaway told Bloomberg News that “I’d be stunned” if the investigation ends any time this year.

If that’s true, we can thank the GOP for its ruthless thoroughness in Getting to the Bottom of the issue, even if it just means getting to the bottom of a barrel we’ve been to the bottom of before. The House panel on Benghazi may take until some time in 2015 to decide if there is substance to their suspicions — if there’s any there there. Between now and then, whenever “then” is, the American public may well have decided the same thing about the Republican Party.

Until then ... take your seats. The House lights are going down. The show is about to begin. Again.

Image credits: Benghazi inferno: via Mother Jones. Stevens: public domain. Clinton: via You Tube. Issa: ABC News. Graham: CBS News. 
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