Saturday, May 27, 2006

Retiring the cowboy

Have you heard the latest news about the president? Did you watch him on Thursday night, and see his kinder, gentler side? At long last, is this compassionate conservatism? How can this be?

It seems the President of the United States, whose DNA is seemingly hard-wired for conversational swagger and braggadocio, apparently has a more circumspect dimension. It was briefly evident on Thursday when the president spoke at a joint news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The thrust of the joint appearance was to shore up public support for the war in Iraq and to explain once again the need for staying the course in the conflict, regardless of the cost to each nation's respective treasury and global standing.

In the rough-and-tumble of the obligatory Q & A with the Washington press, President Bush was asked, once again, if there were anything, any actions or statements, that he regretted in the way he helped the United States prosecute the Iraq war.

Regrets? He's had a few, and for the first time, in a burst of candor and self-assessment uncommon for the commander-in-chief, Bush laid them out in public.

Bush admitted that some of his more ineloquent phrases -- including the infamous "Bring 'em on," uttered in July 2003 were "kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong signal to people."

"I learned," said our newly-discovered empath-in-chief, "some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner, you know. 'Wanted, dead or alive,' that kind of talk. I think in certain parts of the world it was misinterpreted."

Almost as soon as Bush had expressed his feelings -- the closest thing to a mea culpa for his trademark cowboy rhetoric we've heard from this president -- the bloggers and mandarins of talk radio weighed in. Some of the more strident conservative voices jumped into the debate with less than complimentary reaction.

"Sad day in Crawford, they're hanging their heads," said William Bennett, former education secretary, values czar and once-rabid gambling enthusiast. "One of the attractive things about the president is that he talks Texas," Bennett said to the New York Times' Elizabeth Bumiller. "But what broke my heart is when he said, 'I need to be more sophisticated.' What is this, Kerry talk? Is he going to use the word 'elan' the next time he speaks?"

Bennett told Bumiller that many of the listeners on his call-in radio show expressed a similar distaste for "what they considered the president's groveling."

The reactions of at least some conservatives begs the question of why, apparently, circumspection and consideration for others aren't thought of as worthwhile values. Why, when the president admits his own human frailty, is it seen as weakness rather than strength? Aren't reflection and honesty with oneself to be found in your Book of Virtues, Mr. Bennett?

The dissatisfaction that conservatives have lately developed for President Bush may be a hopeful sign for the rest of a presidency lagging badly in the opinion polls. It's unlikely in the extreme that George Bush will morph into a liberal any time between now and 2009, when his gig is over.

But Bush's comments on Thursday suggest at least a willingness to retire some of the language powering the cowboy aspect of America's foreign policy. The fact that his shrinking base finds conciliatory language to be a problem may be a hopeful sign for the rest of the country, a country hungry for both a leader, and a foreign policy, they can again be proud of.
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Image credit: Shawn Clark, Lazyeights Photography, (permission to use granted under GNU Free Documentation License, v1.2)

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

#715

Barry Bonds hit a line-drive home run off Oakland Athletics pitcher Brad Halsey on May 20 to reach 714 home runs in his career, after a long dry spell finally tying the career home-run record of one George Herman Ruth.

Whenever Bonds digs in and blasts career home run No. 715 into the bleachers of some stadium sometime this year, and bet the mortgage that he will, no one from the stands will be on the field to run the bases with Bonds, as some exuberant souls did on April 8, 1974, when Hank Aaron banged out One Past Ruth. Security will see to that.

And after it happens, you can be just as sure that baseball's numerical hierophants will warm up the asterisk-printing machine, placing what some have called the most significant typographical symbol in baseball right next to Barry Bonds' name.

The reason, of course, will be Bonds' alleged use of steroids in recent seasons, in defiance of federal laws and the hallowed traditions of baseball. But even as the Bonds drama heads toward its conclusion, it's high time to step back from the media and the public’s relentless focus on Barry Bonds to take a more comprehensive view of cheating, even a broader sense of how "cheating" itself is defined for a game whose past is as much one that is checkered as it is one to be cherished.

Dictionary definitions aside, in the context of baseball, it's fair to say that to cheat is to compromise the values of the game. By that perfectly reasonable yardstick, you can make the case that Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the monstrously intransigent commissioner of baseball, stained the game in his fashion, by continually barring black players from participating in the National Pastime for the 24 years of his stewardship, with at least some acquiescence of the team owners. Landis’ action for none other than purely racial reasons blocked such great players as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Buck O'Neill and others from playing in the major leagues.

Had players like Gibson and others been allowed to play in the majors, had their statistics been weaved into the folklore and nomenclature of the game, we would no doubt have seen a completely different statistical baseline for setting records. The single-season records for Babe Ruth and Roger Maris, for example, might very well never have been the sequoias of achievement they became. Don Larsen’s El Perfecto might have taken a back seat to one thrown by Satchel Paige.


That’s not to excuse what substance or substances (erythropoietin? human chorionic gonadotropin?) Barry Bonds may have taken to give himself an illegal edge; that’s not to say that what Bonds may or may not have done wasn’t cheating. It is to say that cheating in baseball needs to be put in a broader historical context than just Barry Bonds 2006. In a game whose history is rife with embroideries of the truth of inches the game lives and dies by, it won’t do to pillory Barry Bonds forever.

From the 1919 Black Sox scandal to Mark McGwire’s pumped-up single-season record to past (and present?) literal tweaks of the surface of the baseball itself, the game has seen more than its share of cheating. Barry Bonds’ tainted achievement, when it comes, will join a pantheon of prevarication that’s hand in fielder’s glove part of the same game as that which we more loudly celebrate -- at Cooperstown.
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Image credits: Top: Sports Illustrated magazine. © 2006 Time Inc. Bottom: Onetwo1 (public domain), through Wikipedia

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Seniors of sound

What is it about the sixties that's so freakin' cool? Some recent birthdays or record releases by sexagenarians bear witness to the idea that we get better with age (well, some of us, anyway).

Tomorrow -- in a world at war, a place consumed with strife and militarism and people loose with dangerous agendas and bad wiring -- is Bob Dylan's 65th birthday, and that, friends, is reason enough to celebrate, despite all the amputations of the most dangerous time in our time. He was our prophet, Woody Guthrie with an edge. With grace, wit and an unassailable belief in the power of a single steadfast voice, Bob Dylan has transformed America and, maybe more importantly, America's sense of itself.

He set the terms of engagement early, pointing out the social, sexual and racial polarities and divisions that polite America would just as soon have left alone. At the dawn of the national traumas that too much of America knows from the history books, Bob Dylan both framed the social debate and acted -- writing muscular, indelible music -- as our American seismograph, charting the rumblings of "the collective unconscious," telling us what was coming, if only we bothered to listen.

It's a sign of his continued vitality that he still works -- touring constantly, actively recording -- and still works with the mystery that animated his early career. Dylan is the host of his own radio show on the XM satellite network. His “Theme Time Radio Hour” airs at 10 a.m. ET Wednesdays on XM, with Dylan doing double duty as both curator and narrator.

"Much like his concerts, Dylan’s radio shows are a journey through 20th century musical Americana, the sort of thing he would have heard growing up in Minnesota with a transistor radio hidden under his pillow when he went to bed," reported the Associated Press.

But he's no conventional DJ operating from a specific studio every day. Ever the mystery, Dylan reportedly tapes his program from a variety of locations known only to him.

It's also a sign of how America changed that his earliest fiery protestaions -- "Masters of War," "The Times They Are A Changin,'" "Ballad of a Thin Man" -- are now part of the American songbook, fibers in the fabric of the national self-image. We can't imagine America without Bob Dylan any more than we think of this country without folk music, rock music, protest, passion and a sense of humor.

May your bootheels keep wandering, sir ... on this side of the stars, for as long as possible.

* * * * *

Neil Young, that master rock troubadour just turned 60 last November, has a new record that proves his continuing vitality on the scne, as well as a willingness not to pull punches with the power brokers of Washington. The man who immortalized in song the four students killed at Kent State in 1970 ("This summer I hear the drumming ... Four dead in Ohio") is in the lead again.

With his new album, "Living With War," Young returns to his incendiary form of his musical past. With much the same populist passion brought to 2003's "Greendale," Young proves a willingness to stay on point in the cultural/political free-fire zone that is contemporary America.

"Even if you don't agree with Neil Young's politics, you can't help but be daunted by the intersection of his genius and ire," writes Jaan Uhelski on the amazon.com Web site, adding that what animates the record is the "pure, naked, visceral reaction to the Bush administration's foreign policy."

In its 10 songs -- one of them a moving, choir-driven version of "America the Beautiful," another a song with the nerve to be titled "Let's Impeach the President" -- Young has created nothing less than a document of these times, separate and distinct from an earlier, equally bloody era.

It's been much the same with him for a number of years. During the grim time of Gulf War I, Young fought the powers that be on his Arc/Weld tour, often playing Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" onstage. And, of course, during the grim era of the Richard Nixon administration, Young's "Ohio" called the question of how a nation could persist in an unjust war with a angrily eloquent song that holds up today, more than 30 years after its release.

To his eternal credit, Neil Young's never been about just phoning it in. Peep this excerpt from a May 2003 interview with Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune:

"I don't believe in just doing my hits, because you can only do that so many times, and then you just repeat yourself. At this stage in my career, that would be the kiss of death. You might as well go to Vegas and just collect. I don't want to do that yet, and hopefully I can avoid doing that for a long time."

With the creative efforts of Dylan, Young and others, including Paul Simon (making concert appearances behind a new and much-acclaimed record), Leonard Cohen and Joan Baez, it's clear the sixties -- the age range, not the era -- are in very good hands.

Maybe the older we get, the more we have to look forward to.
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Image credits: Dylan: Ketil Blom (permission to use granted under GNU Free Documentation License, v1.2). Young: Adrian M. Buss (permission to use granted under GNU Free Documentation License, v1.2)

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Act II set to begin, Shoe II set to drop

Some of the netizens of the blogosphere have been weighing in over the weekend with what's likely to be -- will almost certainly be -- Bigass News next week: The hammer may be about to come down, in fact may have already landed, on the head of Karl Rove, the Architect, special counselor to President Bush and Democratic bete noire. The hammer blow was/will be delivered courtesy of one Patrick Fitzgerald, Special Prosecutor.

The blog Truthout, is partly directed by Jason Leopold, a journalist with two years as Los Angeles bureau chief at Dow Jones Newswires under his belt. We can't be sure yet, but the blog seemed to state the situation plainly on May 13:

"Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald spent more than half a day Friday at the offices of Patton Boggs, the law firm representing Karl Rove.

"During the course of that meeting, Fitzgerald served attorneys for former Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove with an indictment charging the embattled White House official with perjury and lying to investigators related to his role in the CIA leak case, and instructed one of the attorneys to tell Rove that he has 24 business hours to get his affairs in order, high level sources with direct knowledge of the meeting said Saturday morning.

"Robert Luskin, Rove's attorney, did not return a call for comment. Sources said Fitzgerald was in Washington, DC, Friday and met with Luskin for about 15 hours to go over the charges against Rove, which include perjury and lying to investigators about how and when Rove discovered that Valerie Plame Wilson was a covert CIA operative and whether he shared that information with reporters, sources with direct knowledge of the meeting said.

"It was still unknown Saturday whether Fitzgerald charged Rove with a more serious obstruction of justice charge. Sources close to the case said Friday that it appeared very likely that an obstruction charge against Rove would be included with charges of perjury and lying to investigators.

"An announcement by Fitzgerald is expected to come [next] week, sources close to the case said."

Truthout had been staking out the story even before then. On Friday, the Weblog reported the following:

"Rove told President Bush and Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten, as well as a few other high level administration officials, that he will be indicted in the CIA leak case and will immediately resign his White House job when the special counsel publicly announces the charges against him, according to sources."

Setting aside all the partisan recriminations that Truthout's report will create, the reflexive howls from the conservatives that the Truthout story is a tissue of bullshit, there's no escaping the steady, unemotional approach to the way the story was told. No leaps of logic, no moralistic striving to parse What It All Means. There's a doggedly procedural march to the endgame, a connecting of the dots that just makes sense, given how this whole story has played itself out over the last two years.

David Shuster, Washington correspondent for MSNBC's "Hardball" and as avid a student of the CIA leak scandal as any journalist in D.C., came to much the same conclusion earlier this month, breaking it down logically and categorically on the airt:

"Well, Karl Rove's legal team has told me that they expect that a decision will come sometime in the next two weeks. And I am convinced that Karl Rove will, in fact, be indicted. And there are a couple of reasons why.

"First of all, you don't put somebody in front of a grand jury at the end of an investigation or for the fifth time, as Karl Rove testified a couple, a week and a half ago, unless you feel that's your only chance of avoiding indictment. So in other words, the burden starts with Karl Rove to stop the charges.

"Secondly, it's now been 13 days since Rove testified. After testifying for three and a half hours, prosecutors refused to give him any indication that he was clear. He has not gotten any indication since then. And the lawyers that I've spoken with outside of this case say that if Rove had gotten himself out of the jam, he would have heard something by now.

"And then the third issue is something we've talked about before. And that is, in the Scooter Libby indictment, Karl Rove was identified as 'Official A.' It's the term that prosecutors use when they try to get around restrictions on naming somebody in an indictment.

"We've looked through the records of Patrick Fitzgerald from when he was prosecuting cases in New York and from when he's been US attorney in Chicago. And in every single investigation, whenever Fitzgerald has identified somebody as Official A, that person eventually gets indicted themselves, in every single investigation."

While Shuster's "third issue" may be nothing at all, and it's true that past performance is no guarantee of future results, it shows that Fitzgerald has been nothing if not a stickler for consistency and relentless pursuit of the facts.

So the outcome, if it comes as expected, will probably turn out to be as welcome by conservatives as by liberals, given Bush's dead stick at the controls of his own administration. Right now, for better or worse, George Bush is increasingly seen as damaged goods, a president at the mercy of a debacle of his own creation, an initiative that both renders the national treasure subject to unending hemorrhage, alienates our oldest allies, and further divides an already polarized nation.

Pending what Fitzgerald decides -- and that's hardly a slam dunk -- it's perhaps fitting that Karl Rove, the symbol behind the symbol, the Architect, be the first pillar of the administration subject to collapse.
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Image credit: Rove & Bushies: Joyce N. Boghosian (U.S. Government, public domain); Fitzgerald: Justice Department (Public domain)

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Outta his tree

"Time is on my side," Mick Jagger tells us in the song of the same name, and for 40-odd years Jagger and his band the Rolling Stones have lived out that adage. In the world of modern music, the sound of the Rolling Stones has been the rock of ages.

Increasingly, though, the Stones' music has been the rock of the aged, with its two principal creative talents, Jagger and guitarist/songwriter/walking medical exhibit Keith Richards, pushing retirement age (not that "retirement age" will mean anything to them when they get there).

When you're 62 years old, as Richards is, there's certain things you probably can't do as well as when you scorched the earth in your twenties, or your thirties. Or your forties. For Richards, one of these things, apparently, is the act of climbing a tree.

Richards was injured in this way on April 27 while vacationing in Fiji. News reports from various sources have variously stated that he either fell out of a palm tree or off a Jet Ski. One Web site, Fijilive.com, reported that the accident was believed to have occurred at the exclusive Wakaya Club resort.



But then it got serious. After injuring his head in the tumble, Richards was taken to the Ascot Hospital in Auckland, New Zealand, for brain surgery. Clearly there was concern that something heavy was afoot.

Richards reportedly had headaches after the incident, said his London publicists, who refused to comment on a report in a New Zealand paper that the surgery was to relieve a subdural hematoma -- a blood clot on the brain.

It got heavier still. There were ominous reports that a second operation was necessary after Richards passed out and continued suffering headaches. “Keith Richards did not undergo a second operation. The first and only operation was done on Monday, May 8, and was 100 percent successful,” said a statement from the band. “There was no brain damage ...”

(That last statement has occasioned a lot of wags to ask the inevitable question: How could they tell? But we'll let that go for now.)

The bottom line for now is, apparently, all's well that ends well. The Stones' "Bigger Bang" tour dates have been rescheduled for July and, at this writing, Keith Richards continues to walk upright among us, still on this side of the clouds. A good thing. But next time, though, considering his net worth (estimated at around $300 million), when Keith wants to climb a tree of promises, maybe he'll hire someone to do it for him.
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Image credit: Machocarioca (Public domain)

Tuesday, May 2, 2006

La mirada del futuro

The May Day immigration protests are coming! That's been the unstated but obvious message rippling across America over the last week, with everyone from politicians to the press speaking of the protests in the context of a national Chicken Little Event. The last time people in the United States got so pre-emptively terrified of a chain of events was on the eve of Y2K.

You remember Y2K. In the runup to the millennium changeover, a broad fear spread across the country that at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, 1999, as the odometer rolled over into 2000, the nation and maybe the world would be plunged into primordial night, leaving us with our bottled water, duct tape and freeze-dried chicken to stumble in the darkness with no electrical grid to help us get to where we needed to go.

In the end, though, it was sound & fury signifying not a damn thing; the fears were groundless, and even comical, and not long after it all happened Americans looked back ruefully and wondered how they could have ever been so gullible.

Fast forward to Y2K6. Yesterday, a significant number of the nation's immigrants, and almost certainly many of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, marched in cities throughout the U.S., calling for immigration rights and reform -- including, one assumes, the right not to be presumptively criminalized for seeking a better life for themselves and their families.



It seemed to catch the country almost by surprise, despite the anticipation on the part of politicians, police and, no doubt, immigration officials. More than 1 million people, including Latinos, other immigrants and their supporters, took the day off and hit the streets, showing off their increasing economic clout in a nationwide boycott that slowed work down or shut work off at farms, factories, markets, restaurants and the Port of Los Angeles.

The police departments of more than two dozen U.S. cities contacted by The Associated Press -- from L.A. to Chicago, Houston to Miami -- provided crowd estimates that totaled about 1.1 million marchers.

And just in case there's any confusion about Latino Americans understanding What It All Means, Melanie Lugo, who attended a rally in Denver with her husband, their third-grade daughter and 75,000 other people, clearly gets it.

“We are the backbone of what America is, legal or illegal, it doesn’t matter,” she told the Associated Press. “We butter each other’s bread. They need us as much as we need them.”

That's the assessment of one of the people making a bottom-line difference in America, one of the people who, according to The Washington Post, have a combined purchasing power in the United States of almost $800 billion. And that's expected to rise to about $1 trillion by 2010.

It's facts of that kind that will ultimately frustrate the hard-core ideologues, the Sensenbrenners and Tancredos who can't or won't see past the letter of the law to gain an appreciation for its spirit, and how this country's 42 million Latino Americans are transforming America with their belief in America, their unshakeable faith in what that Emma Lazarus poem is all about.

The challenge going forward will be to balance the legitimate concerns that many Americans have -- scarily porous borders, the potential for terrorism, the risk of increased drug trafficking and other social ills -- with recognition of immigrants' contributions to the national economy and culture, as well as a need for the pluralism and diversity that make this country what it's always been, or at least what it's long purported to be.

So enough of this silly, emotional discussion of constructing a miles-long, yards-high wall along the southern border with Mexico -- a proposal that offers nothing so much as the prospect of turning the southernmost United States into a North American version of the West Bank.

Like it or not, the unruly, exuberant, genially amped-up hordes that demonstrated across the nation is the look of the American future. And quiet as it's been kept, it's hardly a new look. The Latino impact on the United States has been happening for generations.

It's obvious on any sweltering uptown summer night in New York City, when you're as likely to hear Spanish-language radio out on the street as anything in English.

It's clear to any baseball fan who's observed the steadily inclining arc of excellence as Latino players have become more of a critical mass in the majors than ever before.

It's as plain as la nariz en su cara. The United States has a future with an accent. Make your reservations for Spanish 101 now ... avoid the rush.
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Image credit: Andy Thayer (released to public domain)
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