Sunday, November 28, 2004

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

In the Nov. 15 issue of Newsweek, in an essay hopefully titled "A President Who Listens," columnist Anna Quindlen lays out the case for President Bush to make changes in his second term -- mainly, to work hard to be a conciliatory figure, someone who, having achieved the Holy Grail of presidential politics (a second term and a like-minded Congress), might now be inclined to work hard at binding up the nation's wounds, closing the bicolor divide that defines these United States today.

All props to Quindlen (a former denizen of The New York Times who, like your humble narrator, moved on to something better), but even a casual reading of the Bush mindset, and particularly the Bush zeitgeist, will point to how unlikely that sea change is.

"Bush rarely strayed from the reservation of in-house affirmation or cheering crowds," Quindlen writes. "He made up his mind and it stayed made. There was thus no premium and no point in listening to those who had other points of view. ... A second term is terrifying to his opponents, who believe he will use the freedom of incumbency to do everything from loading the [Supreme] court to reinstating the draft ... He could consider how bitter the division in this country are and vow to try to mend them. Lest this sound too altruistic, he might also remember that being a two-term president who leaves behind a nation in which half its citizens can barely tolerate the other half is a surefire way to leave alegacy of colossal failure."

Quindlen's noble, hopeful viewpoint, however, is likely to run up against the political realities of the moment. The most pressing of those realities is the national state of war. We're a country at war right now, for better or worse, and that fact alone has been at the root of the Bush administration world-view. Since so much of the Bush world-view stems from that easy, comfortable us-against-them polarity, the available evidence suggests that it's likely to be a waste of time waiting and hoping for any fraction of a wholesale repudiation of his previous identity.

All year long George Bush campaigned with a pitbull zeal against his immediate opponent, Massachusetts senator John Kerry. But in the wider sense Bush was campaigning against a stronger, more problematic opponent. Bush was campaigning against change, against deviating from the course he set this nation on in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. His intransigence, his unwillingness to shift from that course in the slightest, has come to be seen as a strength -- maybe the strength he could most effectively bring to bear against opponents foreign and domestic.

Change is contrary to his world-view, his and that of the proxies and handlers he works with. For George Bush to, effectively, perform an about-face, for him to morph into Ted Kennedy and make sweeping changes in his policies and initiatives at this point would be to contradict much, if not everything, he stood for throughout his first term. It would amount to an admission of failure -- an admission that, considering his still narrow but decisive-enough victory at the polls Nov. 2, would be not only a political blunder but also a sound repudiation of the 59 million red-state voters that put him over the top.

There's probably no better, more convincing proof of Bush's intention to stay the course than Condoleezza Rice, now the National Security Adviser and soon to be Secretary of State. Rice has always been one of the administration's most resolute hawks, and from her new perch she'll be in an even more solid position to impose her policies and her will on an administration already in lockstep with her thinking.

George Bush won't make any wholesale changes in his strategy for two more fundamental reasons. First, such changes are beyond his capability. We've known since 2000 that George Bush set great score by the idea of having an idea and sticking with it, no matter what. Despite his reputation as a Texas governor who was willing to reach across the statehouse aisle to achieve some degree of bipartisan consensus, George Bush as president has consistently defended his own personal focus on a national objective, and how best to achieve it.

That focus was reflected in his steadfast resistance to the Kyoto Accords, his antipathy to the United States being subject to rulings from the International Court in The Hague, his ringing rebuff of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Any hope of him offering an olive branch to his opponents here and abroad, of rejecting his own still-emerging conservative stance and becoming the Kum Ba Yah president, went out the window on Sept. 11, 2001. In those terrible moments, George Bush's constitutional conviction of a binary, dualistic, us-vs.-them sense of the world, maybe to that point still subject to suasion, was vindicated, confirmed and hardened forever. It was ratified again on Nov. 2, 2004.

Why should he throw over such proof of his rightness, his certainty, even if he could?

The second reason, stemming in some ways from the first, is more frightening. George Bush doesn't really care. He stormed back into power on Election Day having made pledges to a base of supporters, and he intends to honor those pledges, and by extension his own sense of mission, no matter what. Opponents be damned. The act of listening presumes that one cares about what somebody else has to say; the Bush doctrine has convincingly shown that is not the case. With no further political horizons to survey, why on earth would he even care about changing now? George Bush can't see the divisive course he has set this nation on. With such short-sightedness as a big component of his own identity, there's no real hope of any centrist transformation when this administration has made so many formidable gains by appealing to the starker, grimmer, more ideologically animated aspects of the national identity.

Anna Quindlen is of the era of the baby boomers, those Americans born between 1946 and 1964, that demographic for whom rock & roll was not just diversion but cultural signpost. Quindlen no doubt remembers that Who classic "Won't Get Fooled Again" -- maybe she (like the rest of us) copped a buzz in a long-ago dormitory room and shouted the song's signature phrase -- "Meet the new boss ... same as the old boss!" Pete Townshend was a more astute political thinker than he knew when he wrote it. That phrase expresses what we're likely left with in these edgy days: a president who, emboldened by a political victory narrower than a mandate but broader than a photo-finish, will stick to his guns. "America has spoken ... I gained political capital," he said after the election, "and I intend to spend it." We face a greater danger than before, if that's possible to imagine: a president of the United States with nothing to lose.

Tony Blankley was right. Fat Tony. What a guy.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Happy Trytophan Day!

Thanksgiving 2004: Many thanks for life, liberty, family, a fine job, stout martinis and the new U2. Many thanks also for the chance meeting, at a Seattle exhibit of Bob Dylan memorabilia, of Bruce Langhorne, the acknowledged inspiration for “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

Langhorne, a cool ponytailed brother up from L.A. for the proceedings, spotted me (the only other brother at the show) and we talked about Dylan, his music and style, and how we related to him as African Americans. Enlightening to say the least. We pledged to stay in touch, traded e-mails and went our separate ways, our bootheels to be wandering.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Ecclesiastical bean burrito: Bids start at $1 million

Much has been made about a partially-eaten grilled cheese sandwich bearing the image of the Virgin Mary, bid up on eBay in recent days and finally sold today for $28,000.

That’s nothing! I have in my possession the likeness of Our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ on a Taco Bell bean burrito, uneaten since its purchase seven months ago.

Only serious inquiries will be entertained.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

The buffalo joins the card game

Glimpsed last night on television while channel-surfing: a surprising concession to the bottom-line fervor of these times. It’s an ad for the just-released CD, “Neil Young’s Greatest Hits.” (!) Yes, folks, it’s finally happened; the last buffalo on the prairie has joined the card game. With this compendium of many of Young’s best (and/or most chartworthy) individual songs, Neil Young joins Barry Manilow, Andrea Bocelli, the indelible Zamfir and everyone else out there in Musicworld with a musically competent but utterly predictable package appearing, needless to say, to coincide with the holidays, released with all the kinetic, rapid-fire earmarks of modern mercantilism the phrase “greatest hits” imparts.

There are most of the recognizable songs from early in his solo career, but most of the choices are so, well, anticipated that it seems to run counter to the music-industry rebel who, to his eternal credit, told the people at Budweiser to fuck off when they wanted his music for an ad campaign some years back. “Cinnamon Girl” (from “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”) is a lock for a retrospective collection, of course, but why not some of “Everybody’s” other expressions — less immediately recognized but more evocative of Young’s deeper, less-commercially-motivated side?

There’s nothing here from “Trans” or “Re-ac-tor,” two of his more experimental efforts. The work from “Zuma,” “Time Fades Away” and “On the Beach” is missing, as well as anything from his period with Buffalo Springfield. Curiously, though, “Greatest Hits” includes “The Needle and the Damage Done” from the brilliant “Harvest” collection, a song whose personal underpinnings — as a tribute to close friend and charter Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, who died of a heroin overdose in November 1972 — run counter to the snappy, radio-ready dictates of the greatest-hits construct.

Maybe this is all sour grapes on my part; maybe I’m not willing to concede the idea that, like any popular performer with a considerable catalog built up over a number of years, Neil Young has both options and responsibilities. He’s got to move laser-compatible goods available at Best Buy like everyone else. Perhaps my beef is with the greatest-hits idea itself; for an artist of Neil Young’s stature, it would seem that the buying public would be just as receptive, or maybe more receptive, to getting their hands on Neil Young music they hadn’t already heard many times before.

A happy thought: It could be that the maverick is already plotting his next move — Yeah! Next Christmas we’ll get a retrospective of the other side of Neil Young’s musical and narrative ambitions, everything right on up to “Greendale”!

If that doesn’t get you up and out of bed in the brand-new official Era of Bush II, maybe nothing will.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Victory of the raptors (2nd verse same as the 1st)

Having done all he could do to moderate the doctrinaire raptors and neocon pterodactyls that have haunted and circled his office for four years, Colin Powell has had enough. Today Powell, in his customarily succinct, direct, professional style, announced his resignation as Secretary of State, arguably the best since Marshall. That he could submerge for four years his own gut centrist-humanist instincts, to the betterment of a foreign policy devised and practiced by the most ideologically animated president of our time, speaks volumes about the nobility and tragedy that loyalty engenders.

Colin Powell’s departure is maybe the clearest, most dramatic indication that the generals have won, at least in the short term; the pterodactyls are morphing into hawks, and from there into fighters and Hueys destined for one of the wars we are fighting. Condoleezza Rice, the hawk perched permanently, it seems, on George Bush’s shoulder in all his public appearances, is in line to suceeed Powell as Secretary of State. The confirmation hearings are a done deal — bet that. Rice, along with Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton and Douglas Feith, are the architects of the unilateral-action imperative whose primacy at the White House has just been assured.

This would not seem to be a good time to buy real estate in Tehran.

Powell’s exit is one of several at the White House; previously John Ashcroft and Don Evans made their departures known, and others leaving include Energy Secretary Spencer Abrahams, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, and Education Secretary Rod Paige, who, of the three, was something of an embarassment to the administration. This happens all the time in the second term of an administration, the literal housecleaning that, we’re led to believe, points to fresh thinking for the next four years. But you think about the ideological promises made before the election, and you wonder how many of the new occupants of these musical chairs will be bound up more by partisan inclinations than by their basic competence for the job? Will Ashcroft’s replacement be more insensitive to civil liberties than he’s been?

And then there is the X factor, the element that squares the equation — the likely, almost certain, imminent retirements from the Supreme Court. William Rehnquist and, possibly, Sandra Day O’Connor, are probable departures, one surely by the recess in June, the other before that first week in October. And Bush’s nominee, just as sure as Condi to be confirmed, will complete the payback to the most conservative elements of the Republican party.

One nominee at a time, George Bush is serving notice that, mostly, the second verse will be the same as the first. In the process of literally rebuilding itself, the administration is reflecting a paradox of modern American government: stasis within change, immobility within transition. Them changes at the top may be no changes at all. And for a president seemingly at odds with the world — and a world at war, at that — no change isn’t progress, or even stability. No change is falling behind.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Fallujah

The battle for Fallujah, long awaited, long dreaded, is underway. U.S. and coalition forces are engaged in a street-by-street, block-by-block ballistic canvass of the holy city of Iraq. The casualties for Americans are mounting; estimates from the U.S. military say 10 Americans were killed Tuesday, the worst single day for American forces in the country in about six months.

What, of course, emerges from the American military spokesman is the boilerplate retreat to the powers of the American armed forces and our resolve to see it through. More than one news report of the day crows that U.S. forces have contained “70 per cent” of Fallujah. Implicit in the statistic is the John Wayne aspect of American might. It suggests a redux of the annihilation of the first Gulf War, an easy dispatch of an enemy whose challenge was the mother of all follies.

But it may be, probably is, a deception. You can’t escape the unsettling fact that the long interregnum between announcement and action has put a lot of people in motion. For weeks the coalition and the interim prime minister Ayad Allawi had issued ominous warnings about the then-impending attack. Every day, it seems, there was talk of Allawi losing his patience, threats of the closing of the window of opportunity. And in that time, mercifully, many of the ordinary people of Fallujah got the hell out. But not so mercifully, so did many of the insurgents that American forces are pouring into Fallujah just dying to find.

The problem with being the world’s sole military leviathan is mainly an inability to conceal your intentions. When you’re that big, you’re not real subtle. You can’t be. You are subject to your own mass and power, you can’t get out of your own way. So your enemy knows what to do to avoid you, and when to do it. That begins to explain the relative ease with which the U.S.-led coalition has taken so much of the city. Analysts have begun to offer dire scenarios, perfectly plausible, of how the bulk of the insurgents had already made good their escape days, if not weeks, before the United States forces got there. It would be, the reasoning goes, like trying to contain a blob of mercury in a bathroom sink basin on a moving train.

This should be no surprise when you engage in the second longest telegraphed punch in the history of American warfare — the first being the eternity of time between the “axis of evil” State of the Union and the beginning of the shock & awe days. If we’d given the Nazis this much advance warning before the D-Day invasion, we’d never have gotten ashore, or if or when we did, the cost, already horrific, would have increased by orders of magnitude.

That 70 percent containment in Fallujah could be 90 percent by the weekend. The unaddressed question, or at least the underaddressed question, is a good one: Where have all the insurgents gone?

To Samarra, maybe, or Mosul, or Baiji, the site of a major refinery. There’s been new violence in all of them, and others, in recent days.

Arafat dies

Yasser Arafat has died in Paris. The Rashomon symbol of the Middle East — for some electrifying statesman, for others unrepentant terrorist — passes from the scene with almost perversely perfect timing. With his departure, from more or less natural causes, the equation for action among the purportedly major players shifts in a big way. It’s put up or shut up time. Tony Blair said as much to George Bush in their whirlwind summit at the White House. This was a time, maybe the best time, to re-engage with the long-derailed road-map plan. It will require something the Bush administration has been loathe to do — put the Middle East on the front-burner of pending initiatives.

The feet of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are similarly in the fire. For Sharon, Arafat was the one inescapable roadblock to peace efforts in the region. For Ariel Sharon, it was personal, or as close to personal as you can get. Now, with Arafat gone, the most obvious, and in some ways most convenient justification for diplomatic intransigence has vanished. This may prove to be a put-up-or-shut-up moment for Sharon; a door may soon open, beckoning him to have the courage to step through — in much the same way Arafat was summoned, unsuccessfully, to make history at Camp David in 2000.

Much depends now on the new Palestinian leadership, and how readily the predictable chaos will play itself out. Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qureia are the point men for the new Palestinian power structure, but the jockeying among others has no doubt begun. Whoever is chosen, though, the burden of proof is on the established powers in the region: Israel and the United States. Those two forces can effect the incentives and wield the authority necessary, in equal measure, to underscore their faith in the peace-making process and undercut the symbolic aspect of terrorism’s persuasive powers.

Nature abhors a vacuum, the axiom goes. Nowhere is that more true than in the fractious Middle East. Whether the vacuum that occurred today persists or is transformed into hope, or something approaching hope, for the Palestinian people depends on how aggressively the two power brokers in the region busy themselves with resolving the urgency of the situation.

Tuesday, November 9, 2004

Mr. Division checks out

Late this afternoon comes some rather welcome news: John Ashcroft has announced plans to resign as U.S. attorney general. Ashcroft is reportedly set to take his divisive world view and his purportedly melodious singing voice back to Missouri. Commerce Secretary Don Evans also announced his plans to step down, but Ashcroft is the day’s big trophy. The architect of the USA Patriot Act and enforcer of the extrajudicial imprisonments at Guantanamo Bay has been no friend of civil libertarians and generally reasonable people everywhere.

But in his rush to leave, Ashcroft takes credit for the end of a long twilight struggle most people would say we haven’t really even started yet. In his resignation letter, he notes that “[t]he objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved.” Thanks, John, we can all relax now. The war on terorrism is history and you’ve refreshed your resume.

I’m glad you’re going, John. There’s the door. Don’t let the Constitution hit you in the ass on the way out.

You have to wonder who’s next. Powell? Condi? Thompson at HHS? Rumsfeld, our very own Dr. Strangelove? Much should be known in the coming days. The handicapping has already begun, of course, the better no doubt to have all the musical chairs accounted for by Jan. 20 of next year. So the administration (already being given the shorthand acronym of “W2″) hits the ground running.

You also have to wonder, though, if this early shuffle to the Cabinet is, just maybe, the first attempt on the part of the administration to tack more to the political center? Speaking shortly after John Kerry’s concession speech the morning of Nov. 3, President Bush made much of the idea of reaching out to the other side, offering an open hand, binding up wounds [insert your making-peace metaphor here]. It’s far too early to come to any conclusions about what may or may not even be overtures to “the loyal opposition.” There’s no getting away, however, from the hardliners like The Washington Times’ Tony Blankley, who insists, with his customary pitbull ideological zeal, that since the Republicans won and won handily, they don’t have to offer an olive branch to anyone on the other side. Fat Tony. What a guy.
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