Friday, October 28, 2005

The first shoe drops

With stunning speed after a seemingly endless 22-month investigation, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald today finally put someone’s ass in his briefcase in connection with the CIA leak inquiry [see “Waiting for Fitzgerald”]. The first shoe has dropped and it landed squarely on Irving Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the chief of staff for Vice President Cheney, who was indicted by a federal grand jury, on Fitzgerald's recommendation, on five counts of perjury, false statements and obstruction of justice.

Libby, lately glimpsed coming in and out of the White House on crutches, resigned his position in the White House, surrendering his access pass and, presumably, all the perks and privileges connected to his high-profile, maximum security clearance position in the Bush administration. The man known as “Dick Cheney’s Dick Cheney,” the first White House staffer indicted while in office in 130 years, is looking down the barrel of a possible maximum sentence of 30 years in the slammer and $1.25 million in fines. Scooter was last seen scooting his Yale-educated ass out of the White House, probably for the last time without a visitor’s pass.

President Bush, the gravity of the situation evident on his face, appeared to offer a terse, six- or seven-sentence statement he might as well have phoned in: We’re sorry to see Scooter go; like everyone in America, he’s entitled to a presumption of innocence until proven guilty; we’ve got a job to do on behalf of the American people and we’re going back to work. He turned and practically fled from the microphones and headed for Marine One for his weekend trip to Camp David, where he’s no doubt hunkering down with aides to try and pull a distracting rabbit out of his hat – most likely the name of a new nominee for the Supreme Court, most likely to be released to great fanfare on Monday.

What followed on the television talk shows and news programs was one of the most immediate and orchestrated exercises in damage control this White House has ever undertaken, and there have been plenty. Right-wing apologists of every stripe emerged to defend the administration, some of them with the nerve to say that, paraphrasing now, “things could have been worse; all in all, this is actually a great day for the administration.” The thinking seemed to be that, with Libby out of the way, things could get back to something approaching normal for the Bushies.

MSNBC analyst and former Republican apparatchik Pat Buchnan called the president’s statement on the White House lawn “brilliant and savvy.” It was neither. In Bush’s brief comments there was nothing more or less than an example of boilerplate butt-covering, hardly anything akin to brilliant, not so much savvy as politically instinctive CYA.

Questions remain. At a 66-minute news conference announcing the indictment, Fitzgerald repeatedly made it clear that the investigation continues and that more indictments were possible. Fitzgerald didn’t mention administration architect Karl Rove by name, but Fitzgerald spoke of a shadowy “Official A” who may be the source of the leak, and possibly the linchpin to the outcome of this sordid mess. Could it be Rove? Could it even be Cheney?

There's much to compel that suspicion. Newsweek reporters Howard Fineman and Richard Wolff, in the magazine's newest issue, offer a plausible connecting of the dots: "Fitzgerald will inevitably have to shine a light on the machinery that sold the Iraq war and that sought to discredit critics of it, particularly Joseph Wilson. And that, in turn, could lead to Cheney and to the Cheney-run effort to make Iraq the central battleground in the war on terror."

Thus are second presidential terms frozen in place. It damn near happened to Reagan; it did happen to Nixon and Clinton -- that slow unraveling of noble intentions and grand agendas, made the victim of hubris in high places.

Some people in Washington must surely know this, or at least sense it. There’s a strong probability, for example, that junior White House staffers are working this weekend at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, though not so much working as pursuing their own form of damage control: updating their resumes to remove all mention of employment there.

Next week should be entertaining, if not instructive. The wheels of Fitzgerald’s investigation are grinding forward, with no telling where all this will end up. This bit of political theater is revealing the seams and patches of the Bush administration mindset more tellingly than any of the Bushies’ official policy statements. The Libby indictment, along with the Harriet Miers debacle and the long-running agony of the Iraq war, show the Bush White House in the position of reacting to events, rather than directing them. The flight to Camp David will lead, mark our words, to a transparent attempt to regain the high ground of public attention next week.

Regardless of those attempts, the historical parallels between this administration and another presidency are inescapable and have been for some time. A new parallel is lately emerging.

It’s been obvious for some time that Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam; what remains to be seen is whether or not the president and his associates can prevent this current domestic meltdown from becoming George Bush's Watergate.

The betting window is open.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The 'pit bull' in the kennel

George Bush’s annus horribilis just keeps rolling along. An announcement today reveals just how high the burn rate really is on that “political capital” he claimed to have inherited two days after the 2004 election. With White House counsel Harriet Miers’ voluntary withdrawal from consideration to fill the pending vacancy of Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, President Bush has experienced the latest in a series of body blows to whatever vestige of Leadership & Prestige he has left. In the world of bad-luck presidential poker, George Bush keeps doubling down – by accident.
It’s anyone’s guess if the president’s nomination of Miers was meant as a real, honest validation of his estimation of her as a litigator and a champion of the law, or as a flattering but calculated maneuver meant to buy him time to build momentum for naming Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to the high court, which is what he’s thought to have wanted all along. Whatever the real reason, it has backfired in a way that underscores the image of an administration in a free fall – a government waiting on what may or may not be the next blow to the head from some guy named Fitzgerald.

You’re tempting to blame his handlers and advisers, but something about the nomination of Miers from the beginning seemed to be so stunningly off the wall, it was quite clear in this instance that the president was taking no one’s bad advice but his own. It was always hard to imagine Harriet Miers as an especially brilliant mind, with anything close to withering erudition, anything faintly resembling the rapier insights of Holmes, Brandeis, Frankfurter and Warren.

There were, in the early going, some people (me included) who were willing to give her the benefit of the doubt on the grounds of bringing to the high judiciary a lived-in life, with experiences and viewpoints off the beaten track; we knew she was a lawyer, one who worked capably and efficiently in the pressure cooker of the post-Sept. 11 White House, and she was in some personal respects refreshingly out of the mold [in both spatial and fungal contexts] of those who ascend to the closest thing we have to a throne in America.

Then the Senate Judiciary Committee began the process of drilling down into the nominee’s substance – as much for her positions on topics of the day as for a sense of her grasp of constitutional law. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, a mensch on the Hill if there’s ever been one, gave her more than one benefit of the doubt, saying at first that she could be the consensus candidate they were dreaming of. Schumer later met with her, made nice … and kept digging, and not digging so terribly far before he found himself coming up on dry wells of constitutional scholarship where there should have been gushers.

Others in the Senate said much the same. A groundswell of bipartisan opposition emerged, rude and smug, strident and talk-radio mean. You half expected a crowd with torches and pitchforks to roll the tumbrels up onto the White House lawn in a hunt for her office, her staff and herself.

Harriet Miers had the inescapable bad luck to be the juggling act to follow a performance by the judicial equivalent of Lord Olivier. The nimble, polished presentation of John G. Roberts Jr. at his confirmation hearings set an incredibly high bar, and anyone following his act in front of the senators would have paled by comparison.

But there were shortcomings. The senators on the committee knew it. Harriet Miers probably knew it. The press knew it (or they said they knew it, but of course they say they know everything). Maybe even the president knew it (he wouldn’t say he knew it, but frankly sometimes we wonder if he knows anything).

The “pit bull in size 6 shoes” who stormed out of the gate with such promise– what, two weeks ago? – is back at her desk in the White House kennel again, one of many people lately dispatched to the doghouse, and not likely to be the last.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Waiting for Fitzgerald

All apologies to the late great Samuel Beckett, but one can't resist appropriating the title of his most famous play and tweaking it a little, in honor of the most intense, excruciating waiting game Washington has seen in at least five years -- one that's likely to have a big impact on the Bush administration's domestic agenda for the next three years.

The nation's capital waits -- in what MSNBC's Chris Matthews turgidly called "a tangy meringue of the maudlin and the giddy" -- on the indict/no-indict decision by U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special counsel appointed more than two years ago to investigate the possible complicity of certain figures in the Bush White House in the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity, as an act of political retribution against her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, for his failure to toe the mark on the White House party-line policy of Iraq as nuclear-capable boogeyman.

The administration is in the unlikely position of being at the mercy of an outside force; long used to being the catalyst of events, the Bushies are compelled to wait and see what transpires. In the balance: possible indictments for perjury and obstruction of justice for Karl Rove, White House deputy chief of staff and by all estimations one of two powers behind the throne; and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, chief of staff for Vice President Cheney, the shadow president of the United States, who walks the corridors of power with the smirk of a man giddy with the realization of being the one who runs the country without getting the heat of the man elected to run the country.

The prospect of losing the architect of the Bush presidency and another high-ranking official a heartbeat away from the man an irregular heartbeat away from the presidency has Foggy Bottom Republicans in a quiet panic. Some have already retreated into defensive postures that owe more to instinct than to intellect. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Texas senator herself under a past ethical cloud, has already gone on the record saying that the possible perjury charges amounted to a "technicality." Bow-tied right-wing apologist Tucker Carlson said as much to Matthews on the same show last night.

These reflexive political crouches beg the question of why perjury was an impeachable offense for President Bill Clinton, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but is now no more than a minor flaw in the judicial process and one to be overlooked this time. What can you say? It's automatic, about as automatic and scripted as the probable response from the White House if indictments do come down (possibly tomorrow). The Los Angeles Times Web site has a story up by the excellent Doyle McManus reporting the likely strategy if the shithammer comes down: try to do the backstroke in the toilet bowl, work to serenely rise above the situation and come up with a suitable distraction.

As if they haven't adopted that approach in the past. Like yesterday, when the 2,000th known U.S. military fatality was reported. President Bush, in as close to a pre-emptive strategy as he's ever ventured, spoke before an audience of military spouses at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, and admitted the agony of the nation's mounting losses affected him as well -- all the while insisting that America stay the course in Iraq.

These strategies may fail to work if Fitzgerald finds a true bill in this case. If he brings indictments against Rove, Libby or possibly even Cheney for being the source of the leak of Valerie Plame's identity, the mendacity of this administration will be laid bare on a global scale. The very underpinnings of the rationale for pre-emptive war will be questioned again, but with an urgency and a foundational skepticism from the national judiciary not seen before. And indictments will sure as hell embolden the already growing number of Americans against the war in Iraq, giving weight to their longstanding belief that the war on terrorism as prosecuted in Iraq was a fiction from start to finish.

Even if Fitzgerald doesn't indict them, or anyone else, there's a sentiment out there that suggests Fitzgerald -- by all indications something of a Boy Scout, a single, single-minded Irish-immigrant's son from Brooklyn utterly dedicated to the case at hand, whatever the case is -- may feel compelled to release some kind of statement of progress, a disclosure of what he did and didn't find, if for no other reason than to justify his expenditure of the taxpayers' money for two years.

Unlike the situation in Beckett's play, in which the two characters wait for someone who never comes, at least two of the protagonists in this little drama will realize a very real finalilty, one way or the other. Will Vladimir Libby and Estragon Rove be the subject of target letters? Let's wait and see.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

2,000 points of light

The news came across the wires at 12:07 p.m. West Coast time: The U.S. armed forces fatality count reached 2,000 today. Army Staff Sgt. George T. Alexander Jr., 34, of Killeen, Texas, died over the weekend in San Antonio, Texas. Alexander, assigned to the 1st Batallion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Benning, Ga., was wounded by a roadside bomb on Oct. 17 in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad.

The 2,000th-death event was expected for some time; newspapers and Web sites were for weeks preparing special sections to make note of that grim, presumably inevitable numerical signpost. Editors and reporters probably had the phrase "grim milestone" coded into macro keys on their computers; so many of them used those words for previous somber war-related anniversaries -- like when 100 troops died, and when 500 died, and when 1,000 died.


Today the chief spokesman for the American-led coalition, Army Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, asked reporters covering the conflict not to read too much into a single number, actually having the nerve to describe the number as an “artificial mark.”

“The 2,000 service members killed in Iraq supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom is not a milestone," Boylan said presumably with a straight face, given the gravity of the circumstances. "It is an artificial mark on the wall set by individuals or groups with specific agendas and ulterior motives."

Boylan's half-right. It's an artificial mark not unlike the convenient numerical benchmarks the press relishes as a way to make their lives easier. Another one the press is fond of has happened with every administration of the past thirty years: the 100-day "report card" that's such a bane of our existence it begs the question of why we even bother to do it any more.

But in another way Boylan, like so many others seeking to legitimize an illegitimate conflict, misses the point. To call it artificial is to minimize the impact, individually and collectively, on the people involved. In our society we use numbers as an index to our joy and our pain, our triumphs and our sadness. That's how we keep score ... of everything that matters. There's nothing artificial about reaching the level of two thousand Americans killed in the prosecution of an unnecessary war.

“The 2,000th Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine that is killed in action is just as important as the first that died and will be just as important as the last to die in this war against terrorism and to ensure freedom for a people who have not known freedom in over two generations,” Boylan e-wrote to reporters with an eloquence that would be profound if it weren't so self-serving.

The statement overlooks the fact that if the first soldier to die wasn't sent to die -- wasn't dispatched to perform a politician's errand -- the 1,999 to follow wouldn't have had to die either. Those deaths, either the first or the most recent, would be somewhat easier to take if the mission that Boylan parrots -- "to ensure freedom for a people who have not known freedom in over two generations" -- was the real reason those soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are over there in the first place.

And it's not. And the continuing deception practiced by the Bush administration -- its very own "specific agenda," pursued for the administration's own "ulterior motive" -- only makes our great national agony that much worse.
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Photo credit: Department of Defense

Monday, October 24, 2005

Rosa Parks (1913-2005)

It was on a day in December 1955 when a black seamstress in Alabama got uppity in the Deep South, boarded a city bus and, by taking a seat in the wrong place, took a stand for the right thing.

Rosa Louise McCauley Parks died today at her home in Detroit, at the age of 92. In the rapidly passing parade of events -- a relentless cascade of tragedy and folly that makes it hard to keep track of what happened fifty hours ago, let alone fifty years -- Rosa Parks' statement endures, resonates in ways that many Americans, and just as certainly many black Americans, may have forgotten.

They never lived a life in which they had no choice about where to sit on a city bus or a commuter train; they've never had to contend with ridiculous distinctions made between one water fountain and another, or one bathroom on another, or one lunch counter seat or another.

Those distinctions began to be erased with Parks' stand on principle in December 1955. From that action, and her arrest afterward, the black residents of Montgomery, Ala., began a boycott that underscored the economic power of African Americans living under siege. For 381 days, blacks boycotted Montgomery buses, in an action spurred on by a relatively unknown minister named Martin Luther King.

With the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling of the year before her sitdown statement, and the bus boycott that lasted more than a year after, the groundwork was laid for what became the modern civil rights movement, a concatenation of events, legislation and acts of personal courage that rings in the nation's ears today, regardless of whether or not the nation really wants to hear.

What more to say? Thank you, Sister Rosa; go to your rest, your job well done.
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Image credit: Montgomery (Ala.) Sheriff's Department

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Doc Rice & the contractors

Sometimes the fallacy in an argument, a policy, a world-view is revealed in the smallest, slightest way. Walls of rationale and well-thought-out positions fall apart with a single word, one word that points to how weak the whole structure is.

Dr. Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, was testifying on Capitol Hill today, offering senators a blueprint for the foreseeable future of Iraq, flush with the apparent success of the Oct. 15 referendum on a draft constitution, despite vote certification irregularities that at this writing are yet to be fully identified -- is this the Middle Eastern equivalent of the hanging chad controversy?

In the course of her appearance -- customarily categorical, abrasive and dismissive, sometimes in the same sentence -- Doc Rice responded to a question from Massachusetts senator John Kerry. Madame Secretary spoke of the future of Iraq and how Iraqis' assumption of their own affairs, in the embrace of a Western-style democracy, would constitute "victory in this war."

Victory. The word summons every outmoded, antediluvian image you can think of. There's a 17th- or 18th- or 19th-century feel to its usage in this context, a subscribing to a polar, binary, us-vs.-them view of the world that properly ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Doc Rice's use of the word, maybe more than any other, illustrates the anachronistic thinking behind much of the planning and execution of the war in Iraq.

The present conflict is fundamentally at odds with traditional conceptions of warfare, the comfortable framing devices of past conflicts that defined success in terms of geography, loot, empire in the most martially atavistic terms. Doc Rice's embrace of the word as a level of achievement suggests she's overlooked the ways that ideology, religion and faith have become the new yardsticks of success and failure. The war in Iraq is not a turf battle; this is hearts and minds writ large, and the danger is in this country's failure to see that indelible message, and to see how we ignored or overlooked that message before.

Doc Rice's simplification is one that the architects of the current conflict continue to embrace. On PBS' "News Hour With Jim Lehrer," one of the prevailing thinkers on the right gave a glimpse into the way the conservatives have distilled the contours of this conflict into something innocuous, and not a little elitist.

Walter Russell Mead, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, defended Doc Rice against the barrage of questions on the timetable of the war, and explained, or tried to, the futility of coming up with a timetable for getting out. "Fighting a war is a little like having a contractor come in and redo your kitchen," Mead said. "You want to know the deadline and you want to know the cost and you want everything to be done on time, and if things go over budget, you're very irate."

In Mead's "contractor mentality" cosmology, war is a willfully improvisational exercise in which armies are "testing their srength and trying strategies and looking for weak points in the opposition." (Much like you look for weak spots when you're trying to shore up your home's foundation.)

Mead's is a perfectly plausible, articulately expressed, readily accessible argument. It is also complete and unmitigated bullshit.

The basic wrong-headedness of his position stems from making an assumption based on his apparent past experiences with unscrupulous contractors. Despite what Mead believes, there's not a contractor worth his Better Business Bureau recommendation that doesn't really know what it takes to complete a job. It's not that the contractor doesn't know what the job will cost or how long it'll take -- it's just that he won't share that knowledge with you.

This begins to explain the dancing Doc Rice got into when asked, point-blank by Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes, for something resembling a timetable for extraction from the land of George's miseries. Will we start to be out in five years? In ten?

"We are moving on a course in which Iraqi security forces are rather rapidly able to take care of their own security concerns," she said. "...And as they are able to do certain tasks, as they are able to hold their own territory, they will not need us to do that."

The sharp reader will of course notice Doc Rice's use of the word -- that single undermining word again -- rapidly. That word, by its very nature, implies an action in some chronological framework, one in apposition to another, longer chronological framework. You don't think of things happening rapidly in a theoretical vacuum. It's always "rapidly" in relation to "slowly." The adverb preceding "rapidly," "rather," makes the sense of a prospective timetable even more obvious.

But clearly, this is a timetable that head contractor Doc Rice would prefer to keep to herself. It takes as long as it takes; it costs what it costs.

For Mead, the idea of a defined timetable for exit from Iraq isn't possible because of the precarious, unpredictable nature of warfare. "It's not one of those simple controllable processes," he said on "News Hour." Mead overlooks just how controllable a situation can be when you create it in the first place. His insistence that a timetable for gradual withdrawal is neither prudent nor possible runs up against the way the United States got into the war: by slow degrees, through incremental deceptions that happened so slowly but methodically it was hard to discern them as a building wave, until the wave was upon us.

Over more than a year the United States accrued the intelligence, materiel and popular support for beginning a war, then slowly developed plans for attack and invasion, then slowly executed those plans. The documentable metrics for starting military action were arrived at over a period of time; how can developing a documentable plan for ending that military action be unsound or difficult?

Like we said, it's not that the contractor doesn't know what the job will cost or how long it'll take -- it's just that he won't share that knowledge with you.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser under President Carter, understands what's at stake. On the same "News Hour" segment, Brzezinski made the case for full disclosure. "We have to take a critical look at the overall costs of the war, for America's legitimacy in the world, for our moral standing and, indeed, even for our resources, both military and economic."

Doc Rice and the contractors have the high ground right now, and they can charge whatever they want. But for the American people, the bill comes due too frequently. It shows up somewhere in America every day, a bill that doesn't come in the mail, a bill that shows up on the front porch, in uniform and somber expressions that say, without a word being said, that we regret to inform you ...

It's a bill the nation won't be willing to pay forever.

Subject to change

All props to the Swedish Academy, the august and righteous body of intellectuals responsible for selecting the Nobel laureates, and one of the few groups on the planet apparently able to keep a secret in the Internet age.

Within the last ten days, the Academy has made two inspired laureate selections that, when revealed, had the appearance of nothing less than magic (def. the art of elegant misdirection). The likely winner of the Nobel Peace Prize kept the people at Ladbrokes and the Las Vegas Sports Book crazy for days. A multitude of names were tossed around, including some of the academy's customarily compelling choices from the developing world -- as well as a few zingers, for the sake of sexing up an awards ritual quite long in the tooth.

For their own personal endeavors for addressing some of the world's enduring problems -- debt relief, famine relief, affordable AIDS therapies -- Live Aid architect Bob Geldof and Bono of U No Who 2 were nominated. Theirs were long-shot chances; Bono graciously admitted as much the night before the announcement, telling Conan O'Brien it was just an honor to have been nominated.

The winner of the Nobel, a man who was said to be on the short list but somehow got lost in the wash of current events, hit like a clap of thunder: The director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed ElBaradei, shared the $1.3 million prize with the agency that tried to act as an honest, reasonably non-ideological broker between the Middle East and a fractious Washington. ElBaradei's award was widely perceived as a global/philanthropic two-by-four to the head of the administration, which had done battle with ElBaradei in the past, as recently as the summer, when the United States opposed ElBaradei's reappointment as IAEA director. The choice was, well, inspired. And there was more.

Harold Pinter, long acknowledged as the lion of British theater for the second half of the twentieth century, and lately an avowed opponent of the U.S.-led initiative in Iraq, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Academy hailed Pinter as a playwright "who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms."

A kind of prolonged howling was observed coming from the West Wing that evening, followed in short order by the customary conservative outrage. It was the second pointed rebuff-by-proxy of the American misadventure in the Middle East.

And what might be seen in isolation as the rogue reflex of intellectuals in one of the world's enduring pacifist nations is actually something wider. When culture is pushed, sooner or later, culture pushes back. It's happening now, building on previous successes, and taking advantage of a slow groundswell of opposition to the war in Iraq. And not just at the investiture-and-morning-coat level of the Nobel Prize. It's happening, again, at the multiplex near you.

With "Good Night, and Good Luck," George Clooney's masterful glimpse at one high point in the clash between Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joe McCarthy, the reigning device of popular culture managed to tell a contemporary American story through the images of an older one, the demagoguery of an earlier uncertain age suddenly a mirror on the slicker, more camera-ready demagogues of the present day. "We will not walk in fear," Murrow says. "We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home." The linkage of then and now couldn't be more real, more pointed, more indicative of a tide beginning to turn.

Then there's "Jarhead," Sam Mendes' treatment of Anthony Swofford's chronicle of a Marine's wrenching, emotionally expensive transition from raw boot-camp recruit to sniper in the first Gulf War. And on Dec. 9, we'll have "Syriana," Clooney's next film, a political thriller that plumbs the interplay of rapacious U.S. oil companies and the disillusioned of the Middle East, who find solace and meaning in pursuing violent work against the West. The film, written and directed by Stephen Gaghan ("Traffic"), seems likely to be a project to exercise Clooney's maverick streak for candor, and opposition to policies and practices the administration holds dear.

So what's different? "Fahrenheit 9/11," released in early 2004, couldn't have the benefit of hindsight. For all its impressive splash into the culture (it was the first documentary to gross more than $100 million at the box office), Michael Moore's masterpiece could only take us so far into events that were occurring as the film went into post-production. Now, there's a sense, broadly supported by numerous opinion polls, that the populist underpinning of antiwar sentiment is way broader than before, in the angrily heady months after Sept. 11.

What's different? More and more Americans are against the war in Iraq, and unlike before, they're increasingly willing to say so. And since culture, high and low, is the basis for so much of our everyday identification -- the fabric of the national conversation -- that antiwar sentiment takes on a life and a resonance it didn't have before.

Our culture, like our society, is always subject to change; the slow perforation of a tissue of lies is underway, and you get to watch it with popcorn in your lap.

When culture's pushed, sooner or later, culture pushes back.
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Image credits: ElBaradei: IAEA. Jarhead poster: Universal Studios.

Monday, October 17, 2005

American Tsunami V

Like we didn't know already: Today, courtesy of memos obtained by the Associated Press, we get a fuller picture of the ineptitude of the Federal Emergency Mismanagement Agency -- FEMA -- as the magnet for taxpayer dollars struggled to prepare for the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. The memos showed an agency woefully out of touch with the gravity of the situation, an organization that failed to get it before the storm made landfall and didn't fully understand things days after the storm devastated the Gulf Coast.

Among other tragic missteps: FEMA could not find food, ice, water and even the necessary body bags in the days after Katrina hit the city. The agency charged with stockpiling such basic emergency provisions in advance apparently couldn't track them down when the real deal hit.

The AP story recounts running e-mail conversations, policy discussions, bureaucratic infighting and concerns about how the agency would be perceived in the press -- the usual shortcomings of a government agency increased by orders of magntiude by the greatest natural disaster to hit the United States since the Galveston hurricane of 1900.

Of particular note are the shortcomings of Michael Brown, then director of the agency, a man who, on the weight of available evidence, could not find his ass in the Category 3 windstorm that ultimately cost him his job. Five days after the storm hit on Aug. 29, Brown sent an e-mail to an aide saying there had been “no action from us” to evacuate storm victims using planes that airlines had provided.

“This is flat wrong. We have been flying planes all afternoon and evening,” said a subordinate, Michael Lowder, in an e-mail sent half an hour later. The question is an obvious one: How can the director of an agency not know whether planes are in the air or not?

AP: "A day earlier, a FEMA official in Mississippi received an e-mail asking for Brown’s satellite phone number so a senior Pentagon official in the Gulf Coast could call him. 'Not here in MS (Mississippi). Is in LA (Louisiana) as far as I know,' FEMA official William Carwile e-mailed back, seemingly uncertain on the whereabouts of the administration’s point man for responding to the disaster."

The late Dr. Laurence J. Peter was the author of "The Peter Principle," a celebrated bible for business management before bibles for business management became the rage. One of the book's core principles is instructive when considering the FEMA debacle: [paraphrasing now] Ineptitude -- what Dr. Peter describes as "occupational incompetence" -- rises to its own level of authority in a given organization.

The curious rise and utterly predictable fall of Michael Brown reveals again how the trajectory of a disaster is something discernible from a long way off -- sometimes, even often, from before the disaster even takes place. FEMA's lack of imagination combined with a lack of resources and a lack of willingness to step outside the usual boxes of procedure and routine resulted in a perfect storm within a storm: the hurricane of bureaucratic chaos that doomed hundreds of people as surely as the waters themselves.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

iWorld

With his customary fanfare and flair for the theatrical, Apple Computer Chief Executive Steve Jobs on Thursday announced the release of the video-enabled iPod, the latest tweak on the music recall device everyone seems to have today. With Jobs' latest bold move, the entertainment industry is again on notice that the relationship between producer and consumer is changing more quickly than ever; and that, regardless of market share and gross capitalization relative to other corporations in the space, Apple continues to enjoy an almost mythic high ground among devotees of the cutting edge.

As with other Apple products, the introduction of the video iPod will likely terrify the business world of personal entertainment technology. The rollout ads and at least some of Jobs' presentation were impressive. One ad for the new iPod showcases a video starring U2 (fast becoming Apple's house band); the camera pulls back slightly to frame up the video not in the spatial context of an actual performance but as an image on the screen of the New Device. And justhatfast, entertainment changes.

Microsoft, Apple's eternal bete noire, was late to the party, having introduced mobile video in 2004, about two years after the introduction of the iPod. In a story in yesterday's Seattle Post-Intelligencer, analysts told reporter Todd Bishop that sales of Microsoft's Portable Media Center "have been sluggish and consumer awareness is low."

Bishop asked a tech-savvy lawyer what he thought of the Microsoft product. "Never heard of them," the lawyer said. But he was hot to maybe buy the new iPod.

This begins to explain the differences one encounters when comparing Microsoft and Apple; both are visionary companies with enviable track records and reliable products; both are immediately recognized around the world; both are adapting technology to the human experience in compelling ways. But in the look & feel world of marketing, in the way the public experiences the product, Apple comes out on top.

Why? Let's call it the JNSQ Factor. Those four letters are fom the words in the French phrase "je ne sais quoi," which more or less literally translates to "I know not what," an expression used to describe the ineffable, ephemeral, something quality that makes a person, an idea, a performance, a device stand apart from, and usually above, the competition.

Apple has always held down that lofty perch. From the beginning, when the Macintosh was introduced, Apple set the pace for weaving art and computer technology in a way Microsoft couldn't hope to achieve. One reason for this is very much rooted in what each company is and what each company sells.

Apple's stock in trade is the development of the computer and tangible devices -- objects that, like all objects, summon a personal identification with the owner, a sense of individuality, a personality. Apple's core products reinforce our proprietary instincts, our embrace of things -- things we can hold and touch and manipulate and feel. Microsoft's business is software, arrays of code and markup language, ones and zeroes designed to improve efficiency, enhance productivity, streamline operations -- all utterly necessary in the modern world, but in the end not seen being as personal, as individual, as downright cuddly as that work of art sitting on your desktop, blinking every so often to remind you just how cool it looks.

JNSQ for sho. It's that extra element in an Apple product rollout that a Microsoft rollout doesn't seem to have. That edge. That mystery. That cool, elegant visual vocabulary that appears to owe as much to Zen-monastery simplicity as to the technology that embodies that simplicity. Want proof? Walk through an Apple retail store, like the one hard by the campus of the University of Washington. Watch people handling the new products. They play with them like at any consumer electronics store, of course. But there's often an extra lingering glance, the sweep of a hand across the monitor that's less the act of a consumer than it is the act of a suitor, one truly desirous of the object of his or her affections.

Sorry -- you don't feel that way about software, no matter how enabling it is. It's hard to fall in love with tags and code.

Not that Microsoft isn't subject to people's emotional reactions. One problem for MSFT is the still-lingering perception of the company as technological bully, that perception arising from the landmark civil trial in which the U.S. government sued the company for stifling competition, and despite a settlement in the case in 2004. With baggage like that trailing and preceding you, as well as a longstanding reputation for playing hardball with everyone from competitors to your own contract workers, it's hard for the public to embrace you, even if your product is in every facet of their daily lives. It all comes down to perception.

Apple has always played up its reputation as the mouse that roared; Microsoft has always positioned itself as an unstoppable force. Little guy vs. big guy. David vs. Goliath. And the public has voted, about 30 million times at last count, for the iPod from the little guy, while the big guy's Portable Media Center goes wanting. Reason? It's partly, or even mostly, human nature: People respect Goliath but their hearts, and regions south of their hearts, are with the underdog.

Apple's made missteps too -- can you say "Lisa"? Ironically enough, the video iPod Jobs rolled out this week was the result of a change of mind; as recently as last year, Bishop reported Friday, Jobs had come to the conclusion "that video may be the wrong direction to go." Jobs presumably got religion when he saw the market-share bite that Sony's PlayStation enjoys, and considered the prospect of a groundbreaking distribution deal with Disney (and by extension the best programming on ABC).

And Apple innovates more frequently (almost too frequently). That's great for running rings around the competition, but it can be pleasantly maddening if you're a Macintosh devotee. Apple zealously tweaks and upgrades hardware and operating systems so often it can be hard to keep up. Case in point: I bought a new iMac computer with 75GB, Bluetooth wireless mouse and 17-inch all-in-one display for about $1,900 in February. By July, if memory serves, Apple had dropped the price: had I waited, I could have bought a 20-inch iMac for the same as my 17-inch five months earlier. Then they did it again: When Jobs announced the video iPod, he also took wraps off the new iMac, which features a remote control for access to music and images from across the room, and a built-in web camera -- all for about what I paid, months earlier, for less.

That's the cost of keeping up. And the 30 million who ponied up for the iPod understand that, and they're willing to pay even more. They can't get enough. They're in the gym and at the coffee shops and in their cars and on the street, listening to whatever they want whenever they want, every one caught up in their own little world.

But not really. It's Steve Jobs' world, actually. We just boot it up.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

White House of Pain

The escalating cost of war in lives and dollars comes home on the eve of the next stab at democracy in Iraq. With the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum dead ahead, the Pentagon announced Oct. 7 that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq has mushroomed to 152,000. A Pentagon official told the AP that troop strength probably will hold near that level at least through the election.

At almost the same time we get the money hit: A paper by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service determined that the average monthly costs of waging war in Iraq has gone from below $5 billion to $6 billion. The confllict in Afghanistan costs another $1 billion a month. The research service concluded that war costs could total $570 billion by the end of 2010, assuming those 152,000 troops are gradually, eventually brought home.

This begins to explain the haggard, beaten look lately on the face of George Bush. The cocksure certainties of the Ivy League jokester who changed into a governor who morphed into a president in a flight suit have given way to the insecurities of a man under siege. The political capital he announced with a smirk after the election is gone, like the billions already poured into Iraq, like the global capital of goodwill expended at a white-hot burn rate over the last three years.

The last three years. You want proof of how the presidency, this presidency has aged George Bush? Compare pictures from Bush's Cocksure Period -- the State of the Union 2002; even from the summer of 2003, before the grim slide began -- to shots taken today. His hair was dramatically darker then, his face less drawn, more animated, the gait of his walk sturdier, more aggressive, like the stride of a good ol' boy spoiling for a parking-lot fight. In that first year in office, and even after the horrors of Sept. 11, George Bush nearly bounded off of Air Force One and Marine One, walking with a jauntiness that underscored a joy of those marvelous perks of the presidency, pointed to an embrace of the levers of the most formidable power on earth.

Fast forward to the Blue Period: Nowadays when Bush alights from Marine One, he looks like a man painfully going through the motions, returning the salute from the Marine at the foot of the chopper's staircase like he'd rather be doing anything else. There's an aspect of sourness to some of his more recent public appearances, what looks like a foundational disappointment ... or maybe it's the look of a man who realizes that, as bad as it's been so far, he's staring down the barrel of another three years of the same.

It's tempting to write this off as the obligatory second-year jinx common to second-term presidents: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss, talking to Don Imus on MSNBC this morning, called it "almost an eternal part of the modern presidency." But there are factors in play that are specific, things particular to this administration that give the president's current straits a singular status in the annals of second-term debacle.

A new poll brought that home today. A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that Bush’s approval rating has fallen to below 40 percent, a new low, while the percentage of Americans thinking the country is moving in the right direction has dropped below 30 percent. A plurality of poll respondents would prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress, and fewer than one in three -- just 29 percent -- think White House counsel Harriet Miers is qualified to serve on the Supreme Court.

What makes it especially damning for the Bushies is the fact that the poll was taken after a period of small triumphs. Bush delivered a prime-time speech from New Orleans, promising to rebuild the Gulf Coast after the damage caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. He made no fewer than eight visits to the region, pressing the flesh, wielding the odd hammer, doing his best to build goodwill among the locals. And earlier he witnessed the Senate confirm walking Caucasian archetype John Roberts to the Supreme Court with relatively little fanfare or controversy.

It'd be easier to commiserate with a president going through a bad patch if so much of this agony weren't self-inflicted. The president and his crew have stubbornly resisted a rising tide of popular opposition to the war in Iraq. They've resisted learning the lessons of our peculiar American history and the grim Santayanaesque course of events that is playing itself out in Iraq: that ultimately, democracy cannot be imposed, even by proxy, and still be called democracy. They've turned deaf ears to the thousands of American families who have suffered losses in the Iraq engagement, and called on the United States to leave a place we should never have entered in the first place.

They have even disregarded the admissions of the generals charged with prosecuting that war, generals and officials who have said the primary objectives of the war are unattainable [see post "Great(ly lowered) expectations"]. And they will no doubt be ready to disregard or ignore the gravity of the report from the Congressional Research Service, continuing to exhaust our childrens' childrens' treasure in the name of a chimera.

John Lee Hooker got it right: "Serve you right to suffer ... "

With all due respect to whatever football stadium that first acquired the nickname -- Lambeau Field? Applied Materials/Amgen/Unilever Park? -- there's a new house of pain in America, and its address is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Its current occupants will be there until the lease runs out in January 2009, unless the current occupants decide to sublet the place in the meantime -- most likely to a vice president with a bad ticker, an implanted pacemaker and orders to stay away from microwaves.

We don't really want to go there.

Three more years! Three more years!

Saturday, October 8, 2005

Bennett's Folly, defended

We knew William Bennett would inevitably surface again, after his recent talk-radio appearance in which he effectively imputed original sin to black children born and unborn [see the post "Bennett's Folly"]. And we frankly expected at least a smidgen of mea culpa from the oversize ego of the author of "The Book of Virtues."

But no! Today, in a classic example of blaming the messenger, and preaching before His Kind of Crowd in Bakersfield, Calif., the former education secretary -- a champion of social and political conservatism -- blamed the news media for having distorted his remarks about the societal benefit of aborting black babies as a pre-emptive approach to short-circuiting crime.

Bennett, making his first public fulminations since the comment was broadcast on his "Morning in America" radio show last month, told a crowd of 4,500 like-minded mushwits at the Bakersfield Business Conference that he purposely made "a bad argument in order to put it down."

"I was putting forward a bad argument in order to put it down," he said, drawing sustained applause, according to The Associated Press. "They reported and emphasized only the abhorrent argument, not my shooting it down."

We might have expected this. As we remember from how he handled public reaction to his little ... preoccupation with the gaming table -- one that reportedly cost him $8 million over a decade -- William Bennett is loathe to admit ever having done wrong. It's natural, of course, to get your back up when someone catches you committing a transgression. But contrition is anathema to Bennett; perhaps it's to be expected from a man who long ago appointed himself the Values Czar of America, king of the finger-waggers, a moralistic Aesop for our time.

Bennett dug in his heels even during a meeting with some black community leaders, who naturally expressed their outrage. It was all the press' fault. He was taken out of context, he was presumed to be saying what he believed when he was just deliberately positing an over-the-top argument for the sake of argument.

All of which would be easier to swallow if this darling of the GOP hadn't started his little exercise in anti-social roleplay with the words "I do know that it's true." [Again, see "Bennett's Folly" for the full flatulent remark.]

Where this mess goes from here is anyone's guess; there's never been any love lost between Bennett and African Americans anyway, and this will only make things worse. But black folks have long memories (even sometimes when we shouldn't), and Bennett's commentary -- coming so soon on the heels of the disastrous federal response to Katrina, and as part and parcel of blacks' old suspicions of the GOP's racial initiatives -- is the kind of thing that tends to be remembered at election time.

We do know that's true.

Thursday, October 6, 2005

A 'pit bull' revealed?

Well ... maybe she's not so rasa a tabula after all. The Associated Press -- no doubt feeling the same kind of gauntlet throwdown as with Gary Hart all those years ago -- began sifting through the public life of Harriet Miers; they're reporting now that Miers has had a documentedly vibrant public life, with enough deviations from anyone's political script to make her, perhaps, the kind of jurist whose life experiences and passion for evolution the Supreme Court couldn't do without.

The AP's Donna Cassata and Calvin Woodward report that "Miers’ footprints on contentious social issues suggest a moderate position on gay rights, an interest in advancing women and minorities, and sympathy for anti-abortion efforts." She used to pack a piece too, they reported. Miers apparently didn't use the Smith & Wesson .45-cal pistol her brother gave her for protection very often or very long. But throwing that fact in with other aspects of her public persona, what may be shaping up is the public's discovery of the most interesting nominee to the Supreme Court since William Rehnquist. If living an at least marginally fascinating life -- one more average, one slightly out of step with the usual judicial career path -- counts for anything, Miers may be more qualified than we know.

What makes her somewhat more than mildly interesting is what makes her dangerous to the Republican right: She's unpredictable within the context of the predictable. The right wing knows she's a conservative, they can bank on that. But it's those doggone little spasms of philosophical and political originality that have Republicans terrified right now.

Just when everyone got comfortable with her philosophical throughline, something breaks ranks with the okey-doke. Consider her past championing of individual rights, something the GOP publicly endorses but doesn't want to go too far. In 1991, a decade before the Sept. 11 2001, attacks, Miers defended constitutional freedoms in a time of peril, AP reported.

“The same liberties that ensure a free society make the innocent vulnerable to those who prevent rights and privileges and commit senseless and cruel acts,” she wrote in Texas Lawyer as the president of the state bar association. “Those precious liberties include free speech, freedom to assemble ... access to public places, the right to bear arms and freedom from constant surveillance. We are not willing to sacrifice these rights because of the acts of maniacs.”

Cassata and Woodward reported that, "[i]n one of the few head-on expositions of her views on public policy, a short gay-rights survey she filled out during her city council campaign in 1989, Miers backed equal civil rights for homosexuals and spending on AIDS education while defending a Texas law — since overturned by the Supreme Court — that made gay sex a crime."

She contradicts herself? Very well, she contradicts herself. Guess what? It's human and it reflects the fallibility of just about everything we know, and absolutely everything we are.

And anyway, it's just interesting for Chrizake! The judiciary hearings for John Glover Roberts, the blandest, most frighteningly generic white man in the United States, were basically a love feast, a mildly abrasive coronation of a man whose name was probably being painted in gold leaf on his Supreme Court office door before the hearings even started. Drama is rarely found in a slam dunk -- outside the realm of basketball, anyway.

That's why the Roberts hearings weren't terribly interesting; there was much stonewalling and obligatorily refusing to speak about one topic or another that could come before him on the bench -- but through it all, Roberts presented the image of the Company Man from central casting, fulfilling a role that years of experience on the bench had made perfectly clear. It had all the drama of watching grass grow.

John Roberts was, to a greater or lesser extent, a known quantity and predictable as mashed potatoes, and sooner or later predictable is boring. Harriet Miers is all over the lot in many compelling ways, and that's unpredictable, and that has the GOP strategem machinery nervously ordering takeout from the West Wing on weekends -- wondering, like all of us, what's next.

Can't wait for the hearings.

Monday, October 3, 2005

'A pit bull in size 6 shoes'

That's someone's characterization of Harriet Miers, White House counsel and, as of a few hours ago, the second Bush administration nominee for the Supreme Court. Bush formally named her today, listing (as has been his habit with other appointees) her "heart" and her "character" as qualifying characteristics for the highest court in the land. It's fair to say those qualities count (how did Scalia get that job?), but there's an absence of other factors that have already made Miers' nomination a lightning rod -- not for controversy, but for curiosity.

Miers would be one of the 39 previous justices who came to the bench with no previous judicial experience, and the first since William Rehnquist not to be a judge. Miers, a longtime friend of the Bushies, a native Texan and previously the director of the Texas State Lottery, would bring to the court someone without the baggage of past judicial decisions.

Harriet Miers is also a mystery for exactly that reason. Because she's never been a judge, there's precious little of the paper trail for journalists, court-watchers in general and the Senate Judiciary Committee in particular to sift through hoping to divine the way she'd rule on Case X or Appeal Y. For now, at least, Harriet Miers is as close to a tabula rasa as they come in Washington.

But there have been glimpses of an at least historical willingness to think outside the lines. In younger years a Democrat, Miers made contributions to the 1988 campaigns of Democrats Al Gore and Lloyd Bentsen. By 1999 all that had changed; she contributed to campaigns of Republican candidates. Somewhere in that eleven years she switched, but that past inclination toward Democratic philosophy suggests there may be a centrist in the works -- someone with the kind of "first-rate intelligence" that F. Scott Fitzgerald described as a person with "the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

Maybe it's that prospect that's got the knickers of some of the GOP punditocracy in a serious twist. Bill Kristol, conservative columnist, is reportedly "disappointed, depressed and demoralized" by Bush's selection of Miers. "Surely, this is a pick from weakness," he said on the Weekly Standard. In a statement, Manuel Miranda, a conservative strategist and former aide to Senate Majority Leader & Stock Trading Enthusiast Bill Frist, called Miers "possibly the most unqualified choice since Abe Fortas," referring to the personal attorney of President Lyndon Johnson.

Pat Buchanan is equally dismayed: "Bush recoils from greatness," he screams on the MSNBC.com Hardblogger. "Bush may have tossed away his and our last chance to roll back the social revolution imposed on us by our judicial dictatorship since the days of Earl Warren. ... He blew it."

Maybe it's this reaction from conservatives that has the Democrats cautiously optimistic, and given to thinking how a negative may really be a positive, how "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Sen. Charles Schumer, part of the judiciary committee, was upbeat. "It could have been a lot worse," he said today, invoking a sentiment more often used after a root canal that wasn't as painful as you feared it would be. And Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said that Miers' status as a non-judge "is a plus, not a minus," presumably underscoring his sense of how refreshing it would be not to cross swords with an ideologue.

Schumer's admission that Miers "has the potential to be a consensus nominee" suggest that the Democrats on the committee may be inclined to move quickly on her nomination -- early thinking is that the Miers hearings will be done & done by Thanksgiving.

We expect those hearings will be somewhere between a pitched battle and a love feast, but it's anyone's guess as to which party will do what. It's encouraging that Miers' own party feels left out, outsiders with scant knowledge of the nominee's position on weighty matters. All to the good: That indicates something positive about Miers, despite a lack of traditional qualifications.

Harriet E. Miers may be from outside the mainstream, and it is true, someone needs to gently take her by the hand and tell her the Tammy Faye Bakker eyeliner treatment isn't really working. But she's right where she needs to be right: She's apparently as willing to keep her private beliefs private outside the judicial chambers as she would be constitutionally expected to keep them private as the next associate justice of the Supreme Court.

So far, what's not to like?
-----
Image credit: Miers: Public domain

Sunday, October 2, 2005

A century in blacks and blues

When August Wilson’s play “Fences” opened on Broadway in March 1987, in a New York City in the throes of racial conflicts that seemed to permeate every aspect of daily life, the play was hailed as a revelation in American theater. Simply put, the play reached people.

Though its characters were African American, the play’s central clash — the chafing between a father and son on differing but parallel courses in search of themselves — brought multiracial audiences to tears night after night.

Wilson, who died today at age 60 of inoperable liver cancer, thus enjoyed a wide renown as a playwright unrivaled in the 20th century he documented. And that’s not just as a black playwright; assessments of his talent so narrowly defined miss the point of what made his plays work, what made them so eagerly anticipated by theatergoers of every persuasion.



In creating his sweeping 10-play cycle of black American life, Wilson worked in the idiom of black America, but his genius lay both in universalizing that experience for theatergoers largely unaccustomed to black America on stage, and in investing those plays with a deft weave of reality and myth.

Until “Fences,” mainstream American theater received black plays with painful infrequency, in indifferently-regarded works that either isolated the black American experience from everything else, or celebrated black life in the trappings of the musical, a theatrical form that fixes narrative and context in a frothier, more dramatically insubstantial framework.

Not that music was alien to Wilson: One of his triumphs of invention was how he used the blues. A music mostly relegated to the national past forms the emotional underpinning for many of his plays. Wilson explained for this reporter in a 1991 interview its importance as soundtrack and spiritual touchstone.

“The music is a specific cultural response of black America to the world, the circumstances and the situation in which they’ve found themselves,” said Wilson, charming and generous of spirit, a man of constant energy whose chain smoking formed a counterpoint to his comments.

“If you didn’t know anything about African people and nothing about black people in America, and someone gave you blues records, you could listen and find out what kind of people these were … their symmetry, this grace … you’d be able to construct their daily lives.”

That he as a playwright found and articulated universal truths is a given; that’s the mission of all playwrights. But Wilson’s gift was to find the universal within the largely overlooked backdrop of African American life, and to lift that expression of America — subtleties and nuances intact — into view for a wider playgoing audience, one that recognized his name more readily than many other playwrights, black or white.

Wilson crossed over in a way no African American playwright did before or since. Lorraine Hansberry died too young and too soon for her work to have articulated the full dimensions of the civil rights movement, or the role of black Americans in charting their destiny as a result of that movement.

The work of Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) was too often received by theatergoers as angry examples of racial propaganda, mythic exercises long on political education and short on emotional texture. Playwright Ed Bullins began his own naturalistic “Twentieth-Century Cycle” of black life in 1968, years before Wilson’s work saw light of day.

But it was Wilson’s plays that exploded into wider recognition through his blend of naturalism and poetics, the music of his language, the social forces of his heyday, and that utterly ephemeral aspect of good luck — being in the right place at the right time with the right play.

And in leapfrogging around the black American twentieth century, Wilson made his plays timely for modern audiences with stories that ran counter to the glitzy, mega-scale productions that characterized Broadway for much of the 1980s and early 1990s. Wilson worked in the small scale, found the drama within a smaller circle of intimates: family, friends and acquaintances.

In “Fences,” which won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for drama, the story of conflicts between a bitter, overprotective father and a son intent on accepting a football scholarship assumes wider dimension as the wrenching story of a battle between generations, and the power of sports in American culture.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” examines one woman’s struggle to nurture her music in the first throes of the mass marketing of communication. “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” looks at black Americans battling to achieve a sense of self-worth in the period of the first generations after the upheaval of the Civil War.

“The Piano Lesson,” which won the 1990 Pulitzer for drama, studies the conflicts that arise when a family faces a choice of whether to part with a treasured family heirloom in order to acquire a patch of land in the South.

In “Radio Golf,” a wealthy realtor poised to be Pittsburgh's first black mayor dreams of developing a decaying inner city — a dream that confronts the reality of people unwilling to demolish the past.

In these and other plays, the overriding theme of Wilson’s work comes through: the African American search for identity and connection, for self-awareness in a world and a country at odds with such discoveries.

In that 1991 interview, Wilson was asked “Is there life after the cycle?” The answer from this charitable, passionate, driven lion of the theater, the most-celebrated American playwright of the past quarter-century, revealed the breadth of his vision as a writer, and the scope of his aspirations for his people and his nation.

“Maybe I’ll start over,” he said. “I intend to write as least 15 more plays about black folks in America. My biggest problem is to find the time to sit down and do the work. But what is there to do except to write another play?”

As published Oct. 2 on msnbc.com. Photographer unknown

Saturday, October 1, 2005

Bennett's Folly

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse – that race relations in America couldn’t sink lower than the naked dichotomies revealed by Hurricane Katrina – it gets worse. We have William Bennett to thank for the latest nadir in the racial dynamic. Bennett, the former secretary of education with a presumably former gambling jones, was on talk radio Friday. With one ridiculous and monstrously damaging utterance, Bennett has probably done more to galvanize the African American vote against the Republicans – after having made slight inroads in the 2004 election – than any five of the likely Democratic contenders for the presidency in 2008.

Bennett, on his call-in radio show, “Morning in America,” was answering a caller’s question when he took issue with the recently-published idea that one reason the national crime rate is in decline is that abortions have increased in frequency.

“But I do know that it’s true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down,” said Bennett, whose 1993 book, “The Book of Virtues,” reached #1,777 in sales on the amazon.com sales list the day after the comments.

Bennett went on to call that “an impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down.”

Check my previous word usage: What Bennett said wasn’t an utterance; the word “utterance” suggests something truly off the cuff, a brief spastic mumbling, a genuine conversational misstep. Bennett’s statement was a Statement, fully articulated, partially redacted and then repeated, with all the deliberation of an expression of one’s deeply-held values. He really believes this shit!

It of course goes without saying that Bennett’s immediate defense was the reflexive claim of being taken out of context, which begs the question of what context such a poisonous statement -- a perverse endorsement of the notion of the "criminal type" -- could possibly be taken in. As the days unfold this week, we can count on Bennett doing some kind of Mea Culpa Tour of the TV talk shows and interviews in newspapers – probably even a return to talk radio to, um, better explain himself. In spite of his constitutional antipathy to contrition, he’ll be singing “Kum Ba Yah” in some public place, sooner or later. You watch.

But there’s still no escaping the damage that Bennett’s folly has done to the Republican party’s bid to broaden its ethnic reach. African American voters turned out for the GOP in dramatically greater numbers in 2004. Even though much of that increase was due to an evangelical expression of revulsion at the rise of gay rights and the prospect of same-sex marriages, it was the kind of thing Republicans could point to as indicative of a change in the old animosities of the political past.

Now? Not so fast. It’s probable, all but certain that many African American voters were incensed by the slow federal reaction to the suffering after Hurricane Katrina; their perception of how the federal government responded ran counter to some of those same traditional, protect-the-least-among-us Christian values the GOP relied on in 2004. Bennett’s utero-genocidal commentary, and his elder statesman/rabid dog reputation within the Republican party, is the kind of disaster of perceptions that could help put the African American vote in play – certainly by the midterm elections next year.

The wild card is this emerging fiascette is the administration itself. Bennett has long been a champion of various conservative initatives, serving as education secretary in the Reagan administration and director of drug control policy under Bush the Elder. So people were understandably waiting for the official White House response to Bennett’s comments, since (1) there had to be one FAST and (2) the White House knew it. This was a gut check for the Bushies, if not a reality check (one of several over the past four years).

The administration responded with very weak tea on Friday. “The president believes the comments were not appropriate,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

With those two words, the White House again demonstrates a lack of connection with the true gravity of events swirling around them. GOP strategists angling for the African American vote in 2006, and again two years later, have heroic work cut out for them. The phrase “damage control” doesn’t begin to express what’s necessary.

One would hope for some kind of amplification or enlargement of the tepid White House response. That reaction alone to Bennett’s comments will be perceived, right or wrong, as another barometer of the deeper Republican feelings about race in this country; it will say a lot about how big that hypothetical “big tent” of Republican inclusion really is.

And as sure as any Republican candidate running in 2006 will be seen as a proxy for the White House, the White House reaction to Bennett’s venom will be among the factors that may make or break the candidacies of any number of GOP hopefuls running for Congress next year.
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