Monday, March 20, 2006

Vietnam, the sequel

That's what one former U.S. official, a man at least passingly familiar with the last national quagmire, suggests about the current conflict in Iraq. Former Reagan Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who after all was once In Control at the White House, said as much on March 11, at a conference in Boston. Victory -- or at least an achievement of some set objective -- requires a commitment to win, a national consensus, that Haig finds absent today.

“Every asset of the nation must be applied to the conflict to bring about a quick and successful outcome, or don’t do it,” Haig said, according to Associated Press reports. “We’re in the midst of another struggle where it appears to me we haven’t learned very much.”

Haig spoke at a conference at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, an event meant to look at how the Vietnam War and the American presidency were intertwined. It was an occasion to gather some of the best & brightest from previous administrations.

Besides Haig and Vietnam War architect and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, there was Jack Valenti, adviser during the Johnson administration and former head of the Motion Picture Association of America.

Valenti observed what the current occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue seem to have overlooked despite hang-tough pronouncements, that the lessons of Vietnam have been “forgotten or ignored” in Iraq, and that “no president can win a war when public support for that war begins to decline and evaporate.”

Valenti's assessment is that much more problematic when support for both the president and the war he engineered decline at practically the same time. On this, the third anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, the president faces a restive Congress, an equally querulous electorate and an intractable insurgency that shows every sign of digging in. And as the Republican Haig's comments and the reactions from some in the GOP Congress indicate, the problems for the Bush presidency no longer hew conveniently along party lines. Even presumed allies are finding fault.

It's the kind of situation that makes possible results from the latest poll by Pew Research Center for People and the Press, which put it in perspective: "Bush’s overall approval measure stands at 33 [percent], the lowest rating of his presidency." In other data from the same poll, Pew reported that 70 percent of Americans think President Bush "does not have a clear plan for bringing the Iraq conflict to a successful conclusion." Again, it's not a party-line conclusion: Pew reports that "40 [percent] of Republicans share this opinion."

That train wreck of leadership numbers has a nasty parallel in the personality department. "The president’s personal image also has weakened noticeably, which is reflected in people’s one-word descriptions of the president," stated another part of the Pew report, released March 15. "Honesty had been the single trait most closely associated with Bush, but in the current survey 'incompetent' is the descriptor used most frequently."

It gets worse than that. In a riotous extension of its usual businesslike polling approach, Pew got into the word association game, offering respondents a range of one-word descriptor choices, including "selfish," "ass," "jerk," "idiot," "liar" and other language we can charitably call less than presidential.

I'm forgoing the raw numbers and which words placed highest in respondents' reaction. In some ways the range of words used to describe the commander-in-chief, the highs and lows of such scoring, don't even matter. The very idea that those words could or should be used in juxtaposition with the phrase "President of the United States" is a strong indicator of just how far Bush has fallen in recent months -- to say nothing of his decline from just after Sept. 11, 2001, when George Bush the Younger commanded approval ratings in the 80th percentile, the highest such approval ratings for a sitting president since, believe it, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The rise and fall of George Bush as president parallels the rise and fall of a war effort that was problematic from the start. The fact that the administration is staking so much of its reputation and historical standing on the outcome of the war must be a given at this point. The one thing that's in play now, where the debate engages, is in the analyses of whether Iraq is or is not now in the midst of a civil war.

The administration's perspective is, understandably, in the negative, with various administration talking pointed heads insisting that there is no civil war -- that the challenges, admittedly serious, are still short of that level of catastrophe. The vested interest in the administration's view of there being no civil war can't be ignored.

But there's also no ignoring the viewpoint of one man in a singular position. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said it plain yesterday in an interview with the BBC, calling it "unfortunate that we are in civil war. We are losing each day as an average 50 to 60 people throughout the country, if not more. If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is."

There in a succinct, articulate nutshell is the dilemma for the United States: In the face of mounting sectarian depravities, how can the U.S. go on insisting that the same situation Allawi says has already started doesn't yet exist? Allawi's assessment is frightening enough -- with words that have the ruthlessly pragmatic ring of the Truth, and by virtue of their perspective, coming from a man who's certainly in a position to know what he's talking about.

But it gets worse: Allawi told the BBC that if Iraq were to fold, the same ethnic violence that's tearing that country apart would surely metastasize throughout the Middle East, in such a way that Europe and the United States would feel it too.

Various Americans, from Ted Kennedy to gold star mom/activist Cindy Sheehan, have long been calling the Iraq war a sequel to the debacle of Vietnam. Today, the third anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, the comparisons are that much brighter, clearer, starker and harder to deny -- even for cold warriors like Haig and Valenti. Their grim assessment of the present is based on an intimate knowledge of and participation in the past. Their conclusions deserve to be heard amid the shock and awe of our uncertain future.

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Boom! Pow! 'Crash'!

This year's edition of Oscar Season was a departure from past observances of the appearance of the Golden Dude, but the kind of departure that points to Hollywood's future as a kind of hopeful thing, a time in which Hobbits and Wookies coexist with spies and arms dealers, and just maybe, red states and blue states learn to just get along. Maybe anyway. With "Brokeback Mountain" denied the Best Picture Oscar, the blue states licked their wounds and went home, and the red states had a laugh.

But as the smoke clears around the Kodak Theater, the question persists: Why did "Brokeback Mountain" -- all but coronated Best Picture beforehand -- fail and the more diffidently received "Crash" succeed? Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan observed that despite "Brokeback's" success, “you could not take the pulse of the industry without realizing that this film made people distinctly uncomfortable.”

“In the privacy of the voting booth," Turan wrote, "people are free to act out the unspoken fears and unconscious prejudices that they would never breathe to another soul, or likely, acknowledge to themselves. And at least this year, that acting out doomed ‘Brokeback Mountain.”’

Still, despite "Brokeback's" fate, and whether Sunday's Oscar outcome was a reaction to the undercurrent of conservatism in post-9/11 America, or a more organic shift in understanding how the nation thinks and feels today, the Oscar Experience 2006 was more open-minded, emotionally and stylistically democratic, unabashedly liberal and multicultural than it's been in some years.

"Brokeback Mountain," the story of two cowboys and their romantic experience over twenty years, was odds-on favorite to win for Best Picture. Had been all this year and part of last year, too. But all the talk about "Brokeback" obscured other nominated films exploring other lives in the American dynamic.

"Capote" stars Philip Seymour Hoffman in a true star turn as Truman Capote, in a story about the writer's journalistic coverage of the Clutter family murders and the two men responsible for them. Hoffman, for some time now considered an actor's actor, is spot on as Capote; the fact that Hoffman was nominated for his portrayal of a gay cultural icon, as well as a celebrated figure of American letters, is a refreshing departure for the Academy.

Another one was the nomination of Felicity Huffman as Best Supporting Actress, for her role in "Transamerica," the story of a man preparing for sex-change surgery.

And the Academy clearly had a wet spot for agent provocateur George Clooney, double-nominated for Best Director for "Good Night, and Good Luck," his story of the clash between CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and for Best Supporting Actor for "Syriana," a story of intrigue and government deception set in today's Middle East.

You had a sense of where things were going when Ang Lee won as Best Director for "Brokeback." That discomfort some Academy members had about the film didn't extend to the director, who we understand is genuinely loved in Hollywood. But clearly the wheels were turning: How to honor the director and benignly register the discomfort about the film he directed? And how best to give due props to "Crash," a film whose look at contemporary Los Angeles resonates both as reality and urban myth to the Academy voters, who live there?

The Academy split the difference, making Ang Lee the first nonwhite guy to win as Best Director, and elevating "Crash" to Best Picture in an upset win that cemented its little-engine-that-could status, a victory that partially redeemed the train-schedule regularity of the broadcast.

Again, the Academy's willingness this year to accommodate stories on a man switching genders, a flamboyant gay writer, two secretly gay cowboys, a liberal take on Republican Joe McCarthy and a less than flattering look at U.S. intelligence in the Middle East may be nothing more than the Academy response to great performances of great roles by great actresses and actors. But nothing in America happens without a context. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but popular culture loves an echo chamber.

It's hard to buy the idea that these films arriving on the American scene at this time is just coincidence. It takes too long to make and market a movie to rely on happenstance; for better or worse, the making of a motion picture may be our abiding pop-cultural example of what psychologist Irving Janis, in 1972, called groupthink: a situation "when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action."

But the arrival now of these films, whose subjects and stories run counter to the conservative groupthink of today's America, suggests that some creative forces in American life think the wheel is starting to turn -- that the lives of gays, lesbians and transgendereds deserve equal cinematic opportunity; that the duplicities of American spycraft generate a host of unintended victims this nation would rather not know about; that a story of journalists battling the U.S. government of fifty years ago is as pertinent today as it was back then, and maybe more so.

As always, Clooney got it just about right -- pitch-perfect, really -- after winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for "Syriana." Accepting the award, he relished the role of the artist (Academy member, actually) as an outsider in American society. Clooney deftly turned the conservative indictment of the entertainment industry -- that they're "out of touch" with mainstream America -- back on itself, in a masterful embrace of outsider status Hillary Clinton would do well to evaluate.

In a nutshell Clooney gave artists, writers and all free thinkers reason to hold their heads high.

"I would say that, you know, we are a little bit out of touch in Hollywood every once in a while, I think. It’s probably a good thing. Uhm, we’re the ones who talk about AIDS when it was just being whispered. And we talked about civil rights when it wasn’t really popular. And we, uh, you know, we bring up subjects…we are the ones…this Academy, this group of people gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters. I’m proud to be a part of this Academy. I’m proud to be part of this community. I’m proud to be out of touch."

Maybe it was the heat of the moment, but he didn't get it exactly right. On the March 6 edition of MSNBC's "Countdown" with Keith Olbermann, Village Voice writer and pop-cultural bete noire Michael Musto pointed out that black people were seated in the back of the hall when Hattie McDaniel won her Oscar -- the winner herself was escorted to a table in the rear of the Coconut Grove of the Ambassador Hotel -- and that Hollywood, far from being out in front on AIDS, came years late to the matter of addressing that dread disease (look how long after the epidemic hit before Tom Hanks won the Oscar for his work in "Philadelphia").

But in some other important ways, Clooney was right: It's the job of artists, he seemed to say, to act as the sentinels, the mavericks, the canaries in the coal mines of society, the little kid in the crowd who's not afraid to call the emperor on his wardrobe. And never mind the concerns about industry grosses and box-office receipts, and the other typical retorts of those who can't see what really stands for progress:

From all the nominated films to other films like "Lords of War" and "God Sleeps in Rwanda" that didn't get the Academy's attention this time, to other films still in the brains and keyboards of writers we haven't heard from yet, there's abundant evidence that the old laws of who wins, who loses and who participates in Oscar Hollywood have changed permanently.

Sometimes -- usually, even -- the Big Picture emerges from the smaller ones.
Image credits: Ang Lee: Taiwan Government (public domain); Syriana: Warner Bros. Brokeback Mountain: Universal Pictures

Sunday, March 5, 2006

Note to POTUS: Laura to Taj Mahal ASAP

By all the conventional metrics of politics, President Bush's recent trip to India has been a consummate success. In meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the president shored up one of the still-enduring American alliances with Asia, watching out for an emerging powerhouse, a comer if there ever was one.

Bush and Singh agreed on a landmark nuclear energy agreement, a pact that goes a long way to furthering the ties between the world's oldest democracy and the world's biggest. india agreed to open many of its nuclear reactors to international inspection The trip deflected, if only for a Washington minute, the attention to his various other disasters, from the progress of the Iraq war to the equally slow unwinding of the CIA leak investigation and its proximity, or lack of same, to the Oval Office.

President Bush brought along the first lady, Laura, on a trip whose political purpose was obvious but whose emotional potential was apparently unimpressive. The president, you see, has conducted the whole trip -- his entire time spent in India -- without going to the Taj Mahal.

You know the place. That utterly arresting, 17th-century white marble mausoleum, an architectural tribute to love, built by an emperor in the memory of his favorite wife. One of maybe two or three of the most recognizable buildings on earth.

When pressed on why they didn't go there, Bush said it was basically unavoidable.

In an interview with Indian reporters before the trip, recorded by the Associated Press, he blamed his scheduler for the situation.

"Look, if I were the scheduler, perhaps I'd be doing things differently," he said. "But you want me doing one thing. I'll be the president, we've got the scheduler being the scheduler.

Singh didn't let him off the hook. "I am truly sorry the president is not taking you to Taj Mahal this time," the prime minister said. "I hope he will be more chivalrous next time you are here."

Bush had apparently already caught a load of grief about it. "I've been hearing about it from Laura ever since I told her that we weren't going," he told AP.

And rightfully so. Leaving India without touring the Taj Mahal? And blaming his scheduler? Sorry, mister sir, but there's just something cheap and hollow and weird about that. You do India, you visit the Taj Mahal. It's that simple. A kid with wanderlust and a credit card near its limit would find a way to do it on the cheap.

And scheduling issues? What scheduling issues? When the world dances to your Rolodex, more or less, there are no scheduling problems you can't get around. What's the point of being the POTUS -- Mover of armies! Swayer of nations! Steward of the public purse! -- if you can't tweak your timetable to accommodate your wife, the first lady, the one person on the planet willing to put up with you and everything about you for the rest of her life?

And no, coming back in a year or six on a repeat visit doesn't cut it. It's just not the same, having to double back and do what you should have done the first time. Sorry, Mr. President, sir. There's just some things a man's supposed to do for his wife. No excuses, no pressing engagements, no blaming your minions and handlers. When you are within spitting distance of one of the world's signature structures, as exotic and dramatic and romantic an object as humans have ever devised ... you're supposed to go.

Thursday, March 2, 2006

Five Simpsons, five freedoms

American popular culture is a wonderful thing. Any place in the world you might go, someone there will recognize something you wear or do or say -- some fundamental aspect of leisure and entertainment -- that identifies you, for better or worse, as an American.

And those same indelibly American artifacts are just as likely to turn up on their own anywhere on our green beleaguered planet, with little or no explanation or context for how they got there. A street urchin in Tangier sprints down the street wearing a logo T-shirt from the "Thriller" era of Michael Jackson. Children dodging bullets in the West Bank wear jerseys and T-shirts recalling Michael Jordan's time astride the world of professional basketball.

To borrow and tweak a phrase from the (otherwise forgettable) movie "Buckaroo Banzai," wherever you go, America ... there you are.

That kind of ubiquity of pop-cultural knowledge exists right here at home, too, apparently to the exclusion of things American citizens should probably know at least as much about.

A new study by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum found that 22 percent of Americans could name all five family members of "The Simpsons" animated TV show, compared with just one in 1,000 people who could name all five First Amendment freedoms.

Only one in four Americans, the survey found, can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment (for the record, they are freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition for redress of grievances).

It gets worse (or stranger). The McCormick survey found that more people could identify the three judges on Fox's “American Idol” reality show than could identify three First Amendment rights.

Weirder still? About one in five people thought the right to own a pet was protected under the Constitution.

It would be too easy, almost a reflex, to shake our heads and call it a low-down civic shame. But there's an opportunity here: Constitutional scholars should enlist the assistance of Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons animation and marketing empirium, in creating a videoclass on the basic workings of the U.S. Constitution. Why? In order to improve on a more or less imperfectly informed union, by reaching people where they live.
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