Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ladies and gentlemen, the Whigs

The $3.4 trillion federal budget, the first of the Obama administration, passed in the Congress on Wednesday without a single Republican vote behind it. The Senate voted 53-43 for the Obama plan after the House voted 233-193, again without one Republican vote in support.

That’s zero. Zilch. Nada. Sound and fury signifying (literally) nothing. Maybe they were too busy sulking in the Senate cloakroom, or they were hunkering down in strategy sessions around the Senate figuring out other ways to tell the president No, No & Hell No.

Whatever the reasons, the absence of the GOP’s support for one of the biggest and most important budgets in the nation’s history was another sign of the utter and willful irrelevance of the Republican Party. The votes on Wednesday symbolize their standing in the great American scheme of things. Right now they’re nonentities. Anachronisms. They might as well be the Whigs.

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Students of history will recall the Whigs — not the incredibly excellent garage-rock band from Athens, Ga., nor the Afghan Whigs, the equally excellent grunge & soul band from Cincinnati, but the political party that was in many ways the antecedent to today’s Republican Party, right down to the GOP’s current and uncanny appetite for self-destruction.

Like the Republicans, the Whigs had an innate appeal to the business classes, and adopted an aristocratic mein that excluded as many people as it included.

Like the Republicans, the Whigs championed moralism as a fundamental component of social relationships and interactions.

Like the Republicans, the Whigs would come to ally themselves philosophically with xenophobes who would do their best to Keep America Ethnically Pure.

And like the Republicans, the Whigs’ ranks would be rife with infighting, disloyalty and an increasing inability to define themselves for a steadily growing electorate — a formula for political extinction.

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The Whig Party began about 1833 when it was founded by Henry Clay, the brilliant orator, congressman, Senator, Secretary of State and three times the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

As king of the Whigs, Clay hailed the "American system" of government, reinforcing the need for high tariffs on imported goods, the development of so-called "internal improvements" and the primacy of the Congress as the legitimate will of the American people.

The Whigs’ early platform had to do with expansion of some basic functions of government, such as the building of roads, schools and infrastructure. United in their opposition to the increasingly autocratic aspects of President Andrew Jackson, the Whigs made a convincing case against an imperialist America. Abraham Lincoln was a Whig before he entered presidential politics as a Republican.

After the death of William Henry Harrison (who in political terms was in the White House just long enough to have a cup of coffee) and the renunciation of their economic policies by turncoat Whig President John Tyler, the Whigs displayed internal dissension over those policies and other matters. As the country’s economic fortunes increased, as well as the political fortunes of the Democrats, the Whigs were shown the door in the 1842 Congressional elections.

In the 1850s, some Whigs desperate for political traction flirted with the Know-Nothing Party, lulled by its seductive nativist campaigns against “corrupt” Irish and German immigrants — a distinct parallel with modern conservatives’ nativist thinking about Mexican and Central American immigrants.

It was pretty much over for the Whigs in 1854, as the issue of the expansion of slavery reached fever pitch. That year Whig Winfield Scott was soundly defeated by Democrat Franklin Pierce for the presidency.

Ohio Rep. Lewis D. Campbell of Ohio, deeply affected by his party’s defeat that year, was quoted saying something that might well ring in the ear of Republicans now: “We are slain. The party is dead, dead, dead!”

Campbell later ran for office, and won, as a Democrat. Make of that what you will.

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Maybe the Republicans should tie up with The Modern Whig Party, a movement of avowed moderates that, according to its Web site, "represents moderate voters from all walks of life who cherry-pick between traditional Democratic and Republican ideals ... This includes general principles of fiscal responsibility, strong national defense and bold social progression.”

Or they could just come up with their own tweak on the Whig moniker. The EarWhig Party has a nice ring to it. They could make it look real postmodern by running the words “ear” and “Whig” together, in one of those hip, shiny word ligatures CorporateAmerica is so fond of.

Whatever. They need something. CNN’s reporting today that a range of Republican Party leaders will help spearhead a new GOP outreach initiative, the National Council for a New America. The principals in this redesign of a retrofit, announced today, are many of the party’s usual suspects (Romney, Jindal, McCain, Barbour, among others). It’s the second rebranding effort the Republicans have mounted in about four months.

But Olympia Snowe knows what’s up, and what’s really needed: “There is no plausible scenario under which Republicans can grow into a majority while shrinking our ideological confines and continuing to retract into a regional party,” the Maine senator wrote on Wednesday in an op-ed in The New York Times. “Ideological purity is not the ticket back to the promised land of governing majorities — indeed, it was when we began to emphasize social issues to the detriment of some of our basic tenets as a party that we encountered an electoral backlash.”

Nature abhors a vacuum and so does modern American politics. With the Republicans surrendering the high ground of contributing to the debate over the future of the country, by taking what’s left of their ball and going home, the GOP isn’t advancing its agenda so much as it’s advancing no agenda. And with an obsession with holding on to the Republican brand, and its managers in Congress and on talk radio, the GOP has lost sight of the importance of something more crucial than the name on the label: the product inside the can.
Image credits: Republican Party logo: Republican Party. Mission Control cover: © 2008 ATO Records. Henry Clay: Public domain. Zachary Taylor-Millard Fillmore banner: Republished under GNU Free Documentation License. Modern Whig logo:

Backstreet bird makes good

Just when it seems like we're at war with nature, a little bit of nature walks our way. Or dances. Or struts, or just plain rocks.

This is Snowball, a cockatoo who lives with his owners somewhere in Indiana, and living proof that nature has a sense of humor.

Snowball's favorite song is the Backstreet Boys' "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)." Watch him go; this parrot with a Billy Idol pompadour keeps the beat, totally in the pocket. The scientists are trying to make sense of it all; Snowball was recently the subject of tests proving that, rather than mimickry of someone else in the room, Snowball's mad skills actually reflect a recognition of rhythm and nuance (knowing when to pause from time to time, consistent with the music, for example), as well as a sense of stagecraft. Snowball owns the space at the top of that loveseat, moving about with the cock-o'-the-walk abandon of the best rock singers. Jagger hasn't strutted like this in years.

There've been no reports on how Snowball has performed under different auditory conditions. We don't know if he can do this with Kanye or Nine Inch Nails on the box. But it's a start. Snowball's a hit on YouTube. He's been approached about the development of a Snowball situation comedy; a six-figure book deal is reportedly in the works. And negotiations are underway for Snowball to mount a national tour. He'll be working with the Backstreet Boys.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Day 1(00)

The roads and turnpikes of the state of Pennsylvania will probably be a joy to drive on very soon. Besides receiving its part of the stimulus money devoted to the national infrastructure, the Keystone State can be expected to gain other benefits from the party in power, the Democrats, whose ranks swelled by one on Tuesday, when Republican Senator Arlen Specter walked across the aisle, apparently for good.

Specter’s reverberant action on Tuesday conveyed unto the Democrats the numerical bragging right, the legislative tipping point of a 60th seat in the United States Senate. In ways we’ve yet to see, that lever of a decided majority may be the most powerful weapon at the disposal of President Barack Obama.

Today — the 100th day of an Obama administration poised for action on a number of vital fronts — can also mark the first day of a truly productive phase of an administration suddenly liberated from the prospect of indefinite senatorial gridlock.

It took him a hundred days, but now, today, Barack Obama may well have achieved his first chance to truly, fully govern this nation.

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We’ve been waiting for today — the 100-Day Milestone Benchmark Touchstone — almost as long as we had to wait for the dog. Both wings of the punditburo will cough up bulletized hairballs, “report cards” and subjective checklists of promises kept and promises shunted, for now, to the back or the side of the first-term agenda.

Even by the twisted, elastic, utterly partisan yardstick of the Republicans who oppose him as a conditioned reflex, President Obama has so far been more than game to the challenge of the presidency, a thoroughbred whose biggest shortcoming may be an outsize sense of what’s possible in a nation whose largest institutions — the ones right now most in need of various rescues — are the ones that move the slowest.

He’s moved on several fronts: repealing restrictions on stem-cell research; rolling back destructive Bush White House initiatives on energy and the environment; closing the Guantanamo Bay prison and torture facility; and endeavoring to impose a finality — an end time if not an end date — on the tragic, costly and unnecessary war in Iraq.

But what’s important isn’t so much what Obama has achieved legislatively or by executive order; what predominates in these 100 days has to do with what he represents to the American people: a sense of the possible, that indelible embrace of the future we haven’t had in quite a while. It’s not tangible, it doesn’t lower your mortgage interest rate, and it sure as hell isn’t folding money.

But that feeling of things improving, the ability to impart that intrinsically American sense of Yes is as central to the presidency as the nuclear launch codes. This appeal reflects not the cult of personality, as the conservatives insist, but the power of personality. And there’s a profound difference between the two.

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The American people are able to make that distinction. The latest Associated Press poll finds public approval of Obama in the 60 percent range, up there with heavy hitters like Roosevelt, Reagan and Clinton at similar points in their presidencies. And the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, sampling Americans’ feelings towards Obama, found that 51 percent approve of him and his policies, while another 30 percent approve of him personally even though they disagree with those policies.

That’s why the end of the “honeymoon” expected by the punditburo and the Republicans may not come to pass in the usual way. Americans understand that the listing ship of our economy didn’t take on water overnight, and couldn’t possibly be righted in a hundred days, or two hundred or maybe even three.

That doesn’t mean President Obama gets a pass. Style points alone don’t a president make. Some of his most important campaign pledges — an insistence on the rule of law; a refusal to turn a blind eye to lawbreakers — have yet to fully materialize. As Obama’s taken up the baton of leadership, he’s found himself squaring the circle between the rhetoric of the campaign and the reality of governing.

Sen. Specter’s defection will make that reconciling of principle and practice an easier thing to accomplish. But President Obama must going forward continue to stay out in front of the American experience, holding himself accountable for the nation’s policies, staying in touch with the country he leads and doing it with the visible accessibility we associate with the nation’s best leaders.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s like when you’re riding the New York City subway or the BART train in San Francisco, and midway through your journey, the train … slows … to a stop somewhere under the heaving bowels of Manhattan or some point under the cold water of San Francisco Bay.

You don’t know why you’ve stopped. You’re sure it’s for a good reason. But it’s reassuring to hear the voice of the engineer, telling you: Everybody chill, we have a technical difficulty, we’ll be moving soon. You can’t do anything about it, but it’s just good to hear someone’s on the case doing his level best to get things moving again. Somebody’s at the helm. Someone’s in charge.

Whatever happens over the next 1,363 days, President Obama will do himself a lot of good by maintaining and building on the visceral connection he has with the American people. No doubt, his legislative agenda will advance in fits and starts; setbacks and missteps are coming that he won’t be able to do anything about; we can count on coming global upheavals that Obama can neither predict nor prevent.

But as long as Obama maintains his dialogue with the American people, and continues working to pursue the agenda that won him election, he’ll be able to make withdrawals from the tranche of national goodwill he now enjoys.

There’s no challenge he’ll face in the future that can’t be first addressed by his being the communicator-in-chief, the kind of communicator he’s been for the last hundred days, the kind this Bushed nation has desperately needed for the last eight years.
Image credits: Obama top, Obama crowd: Pete Souza, The White House. NBC News/Wall Street Journal snapshot: © 2009 The Wall Street Journal/Dow Jones.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Arlen Specter’s great migration

The nation’s capital rarely experiences earthquakes of any detectable magnitude. The last one in the area occurred on May 6, 2008. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, that temblor measured 1.8 on the Richter scale. The epicenter was about a mile west-southwest of Annandale, Va. (38.828°N, 77.234°W). That quake jostled Northern Virginia. Some people in nearby Silver Spring and Bethesda, Md., felt it too.

That seismological event pales in comparison with the earthquake that occurred early this afternoon East Coast time. The epicenter was in one of the meeting rooms on Capitol Hill, where Arlen Specter, for 29 years a Senator and until now the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced his switch to the Democratic Party. The USGS didn’t record anything, but on the Richter scale of politics, the shock waves of this event will be felt across the country.

“I found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more with the philosophy of the Democratic Party,” Specter said at a press conference.

“I have traveled the state and surveyed the sentiments of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania and public opinion polls … and have found that the prospects for winning the Republican primary are bleak. I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate. … I’m prepared to take on all comers in the general election.”

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There’s no denying that Specter’s decision was politically pragmatic. Specter was looking down the barrel of a serious primary challenge from former GOP Rep. Pat Twoomey. “Former Pennsylvania Congressman Patrick Toomey was seen as a strong candidate who could possibly have defeated Specter in the Republican primary. Additionally, Toomey is widely acknowledged as the more conservative candidate,” Talk Radio News Service reported today.

But there was more than a little principle behind his decision. Specter’s prepared statement said: “I have been a Republican since 1966. I have been working extremely hard for the Party, for its candidates and for the ideals of a Republican Party whose tent is big enough to welcome diverse points of view. While I have been comfortable being a Republican, my Party has not defined who I am. I have taken each issue one at a time and have exercised independent judgment to do what I thought was best for Pennsylvania and the nation. …

“I have decided to run for re-election in 2010 in the Democratic primary.”

If Al Franken wins his never-ending court case in Minnesota against Norm Coleman, as fully expected, Democrats would have achieved the numerical Holy Grail of congressional politics: the filibuster-proof level of 60 votes, and thus the ability to advance the agenda of the Obama administration in a period of national urgency that screams for action, not gridlock, in the Congress.

It’s not clear when Specter would start formally caucusing with Democrats, but since Specter has reportedly been talking to a number of high party officials — Vice President Biden, among them — for weeks now, it’s safe to say that as a political matter, caucusing has already begun.

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As you might expect, the Republican long knives have been drawn. All the usual mouthpieces of the party weighed in against Arlen the Apostate.

Talk-radio Doberman and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh jumped in early. "A lot of people said, ‘well, Specter, take McCain with you, and his daughter with you," he fumed this morning.

"Senator Specter didn't leave the GOP based on principles of any kind,” said RNC Chairman and erstwhile GOP ambassador to hiphop America Michael Steele. “He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record."

Steele, jabbering in hip-argot mode again, told CNN later that Specter would definitely be in the crosshairs. "[I]f Senator Specter survives into the fall, get ready to go to the mat, baby, because we're coming after you and we're taking you out."

The Hill reported Tuesday that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Specter's decision was a "threat to the country.”

McConnell accused Specter of having practiced naked politics (imagine that).

"I think the threat to the country presented by this defection really relates to the issue of whether or not in the United States of America our people want the majority to have whatever it wants without restraint, without a check or a balance," McConnell said at a press availability attended by The Hill.

◊ ◊ ◊

But some on the right side of the political ledger were more practical.

“This is a sad day for the GOP,” Michael Smerconish, a conservative Philadelphia radio host, told Sam Stein of The Huffington Post. “He is what the party needed to be. They need to cultivate more Specters instead of deriding him as a RINO [Republican In Name Only].”

“On the national level of the Republican Party, we haven’t certainly heard warm, encouraging words about how they view moderates, ‘either you are with us or against us,’” said Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of the few remaining so-called moderates left standing.

Snowe told The New York Times that Republican leaders didn’t get the idea that “political diversity makes a party stronger, and ultimately we are heading to having the smallest political tent in history for any political party the way things are unfolding.”

Specter said as much himself. “Well, the party has shifted very far to the right. It was pretty far to the right in 2004.”

“This is a painful decision,” he said. But “[d]isappointment runs in both directions.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Burnishing his reputation as an iconoclast willing to break with party orthodoxy, Specter said he wouldn’t be sitting in the Democrats’ amen corner on every piece of their legislation. “I will not be an automatic 60th vote,” he said at the press conference. “I will not hesitate to disagree and vote my individual thinking.” To reinforce this, Specter mentioned that he would continue to oppose the Employee Free Choice Act, a darling bill of the Democrats — the so-called “card check” proposal that would make it easier for workers to form unions.

At least one other Democrat played down the idea of lockstep party-line votes.

“Sixty members doesn't translate to 60 votes, so it doesn't really change anything for me," said conservative Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska to Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post. “The automatic assumption that people will take from this is, ‘Ah, things are changing.’ And maybe they will, but it's not automatic.”

But there’s no denying the impact this top-shelf defection will have on the Republicans, already in deep existential crisis, and on an Obama administration, which today, a day early, realized perhaps the perfect political capstone on a breakthrough first 100 days.

And there’s no way the Republican party can overlook the story that’s bigger than Specter’s flight to the Democrats: the fact that 200,000 Pennsylvania Republicans made the same migration before the presidential election last year.

There’s your aftershock. What matters isn’t what Arlen Specter did, it’s the seismic shift in political thinking that Arlen Specter now represents.
Image credit: Specter top: Still from MSNBC brodcast. Specter bottom: Still from CNN broadcast.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Waterboarding II: Days of hair on fire

… such are promises,
All lies and jest.
Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest.
— from “The Boxer” by Paul Simon

It's the kind of journalistic red meat we scarcely seem to get in the Internet era: a scandal with vast political and constitutional implications. That's the multicourse feast that journalists are just beginning, in the wake of a widening gyre of disclosures about the rationalization and use of torture methods by the Bush White House.

It was about a week or so ago when Attorney General Eric Holder released four of the Justice Department torture memos dating to August 2002, documents thought to be the blueprint for a legal rationale for torturing terrorist suspects under the grand pretext of national security.

These of course followed the infamous John Yoo memo of March 2003, up until recently the rhetorical smoking gun of the Bush White House reasoning for the torture of terrorist suspects.

Into the past: Today's Washington Post reports that the timeline for this panoramic criminality reaches back even further. The Post is reporting that the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, the government agency responsible for training military interrogators, advised William J. Haynes, lawyer for then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in July 2002 that using methods of torture such as sleep deprivation, exploitation of phobias, forced nudity and waterboarding were “unreliable” as a way of getting information.

"The requirement to obtain information from an uncooperative source as quickly as possible — in time to prevent, for example, an impending terrorist attack that could result in loss of life — has been forwarded as a compelling argument for the use of torture," the document said.

“In essence, physical and/or psychological duress are viewed as an alternative to the more time-consuming conventional interrogation process. The error inherent in this line of thinking is the assumption that, through torture, the interrogator can extract reliable and accurate information. History and a consideration of human behavior would appear to refute this assumption.”

The JPRA recommendation was disregarded. That same month, Rumsfeld and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, later secretary of state, gave their blessing to CIA operatives’ use of so-called “alternative interrogation methods” when interrogating Zubaydah. Methods that included waterboarding.

◊ ◊ ◊

But that just gets you to July 2002. Turns out you can wind the clock back even further. The blogger Invictus did. In a blog entry from last Dec. 12, detailing his own personal coverage of Senate Armed Services Committee hearings in September, Invictus noted:
one document produced from the December 2001 contact — a fax cover sheet from the Pentagon's Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), sent from “Lt. Col. Dan Baumgartner” to “Mr. Richard Shiffrin,” who worked for Haynes in Rumsfeld's DoD General Counsel office — introduces a theme of aggressive courting by [JPRA] personnel to take on the interrogations/exploitation task.

Baumgartner was a training expert with JPRA. Shiffrin was a deputy general counsel in the Defense Department.

Invictus quotes from Baumgartner’s opening statement before the Senate committee in June 2008:
My recollection of my first communication with [Defense Department Office of General Counsel] relative to [interrogation] techniques was with Mr. Richard Shiffrin in July 2002. However, during my two interviews with Committee staff members last year, I was shown documents that indicated I had some communication with Mr. Shiffrin related to this matter in approximately December 2001. Although I do not specifically recall Mr. Shiffrin’s request to the JPRA for information in late 2001, my previous interviews with Committee staff members and review of documents connected with Mr. Shiffrin’s December 2001 request have confirmed to me the JPRA, at that time, provided Mr. Shiffrin information related to this Committee’s inquiry.

Baumgartner’s recall was pretty good. Borrowing from the Senate Committee report, The New York Times reported on April 22 that in December 2001, Baumgartner warned in a memo that physical pressure (read: torture) was “less reliable” than other interrogation approaches, could backfire by raising prisoner resistance, and would have an “intolerable public and political backlash when discovered.” But his memo somehow got routed to the Defense Department, Haynes’ domain, instead of the C.I.A.

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For those of you keeping score at home, trying to make sense of things, this is what this means:

Just months after the horrors of Sept. 11 — well before our military invasion of Iraq, before the high-value terrorist suspects were captured, before torture could have been used on those suspects, before torture could possibly have been a last-ditch way to extract information from those suspects — the Bush administration, in the anguished hair-on-fire days after the worst attack on American soil, had already begun to build a rationale for torture as part of the American arsenal.

This puts the lie to the notion that the notorious abuses at Abu Ghraib prison that seared the conscience of the world were the work of a few bad military actors, a handful of soldiers with a mean streak and blood in their eyes, avenging 9/11.

This puts the lie to the notion that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah were subject to waterboarding only when CIA and military personnel were at their teeth-gnashing wit’s end to extract intelligence.

Torture was in the cards as a weapon for the Bush White House well before the bombs started falling in March 2003, before Mohammed or Zubaydah were captured. The plans for that shock & awe by invasion were long preceded by plans to induce shock and the fear of death by drowning — one of the methods of torturing prisoners the Bush White House quietly embraced in the name of national security, and in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the United Nations Convention Against Torture, Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and the basic decency that binds us together as human beings.

◊ ◊ ◊

The unraveling of that great lie takes place in the midst of the overwhelming opinion of analysts, psychiatrists and intelligence-gathering experts that torture almost always fails to elicit the results intended.

Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times; Zubaydah 83 times. You don’t have to be an intel specialist to see the unpromising inverse proportionality of such a practice; it’s the law of diminishing returns according to Gitmo: the more one tortures, the less likely the torturer gets anything meaningful — or even anything real.

“The reliability and accuracy of this information is in doubt” if it’s obtained through “physical or psychological duress,” the JPRA warned in July 2002. “In other words, a subject in extreme pain may provide an answer, any answer, or many answers in order to get the pain to stop.”

It’s of course anyone’s guess as to how far back this evolving reverse chronology of Bush-era torture techniques really goes. Vice President Dick Cheney’s been on board with the practice since at least October 2006. “It's a no-brainer for me,” he said on a conservative talk radio program from Fargo N.D., “but for a while there, I was criticized as being the vice president 'for torture.’”

Watergate, among any other celebrated political scandals, showed us how such flagrant excesses of constitutional authority are never spasmodic exercises in freelancing; they’re really planned, systematic strategeries devised by the guy in the grey suit who looks out the window all day. The fish stinks from the head down.

As the Senate committee report reverberates around Washington, as dominoes fall and smart, hungry journalists fill in the gaps, the former Vice President for Torture and the figures in the administration he once worked for will find there's no reverse-engineering of the history that reveals itself one document, one backtrack, one revelation at a time. A clock that runs backwards can tell time very well.
Image credits: Waterboarded man: Still from Amnesty International video. William Haynes: Public domain. Shiffrin and Baumgartner: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images. Fair use rationale: Subjects figure in matters of national policy. Bush and advisers, New York skyline on Sept. 11: Public domain. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: Public domain.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Waterboarding seeks its own level

In the past eight days, Attorney General Eric Holder has released four of the Justice Department torture memos dating to August 2002, documents thought to be the blueprint for a legal rationale for torturing terrorist suspects under the grand pretext of national security.

In the last week, a tidal wave of a report from the Senate Armed Services Committee, a 232-page document, reveals in greater detail the chain of command responsible for that circumvention of national and international law.

Here’s a link to the summary.

And today, the American Civil Liberties Union announced that the Defense Department will by May 28 release photographs showing prisoner abuse in sites in Iraq and Afghanistan, torture of suspects at the hands of the U.S. military and intelligence personnel. The photos will be released in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by the ACLU in 2004.

Waterboarding seeks its own level. There’s an inexorable drip-drip-drip to these disclosures; revelation by revelation they spell further political problems for a Republican party already beleaguered by an utter smackdown in November, a paucity of new ideas and an absence of philosophical leadership. And they thoroughly complicate the desperate attempts to sanitize the historical record of the Bush administration.

But these disclosures also present new geopolitical challenges for the Obama administration just hitting its stride. Even as President Obama makes his own mark on American diplomacy with an accessible, open-door approach at odds with the Bush White House, he discovers there’s more damage by his predecessor to be undone.

By necessity, Obama’s first term will be defined historically as much by what he inherits as what he initiates.

◊ ◊ ◊

For days now the Republican Party has defended the torturing of suspects at Bagram Air Base, the Guantanamo Bay facility and the infamous Abu Ghraib prison with a tautological rationale: The ends thoroughly justified the means. It was necessary to protect the nation. They were Keeping the Homeland Safe.

That’s been the kernel of the justification mounted by Republicans, various GOP lawmakers and thought leaders in the right-hand drawer of the punditburo, and especially by former Vice President Dick Cheney, a man who looks more and more like the soldier who won’t leave the battlefield, long after the war he lost was over.

Cheney and other conservatives have been clamoring for release of other Justice Department memos that Holder hasn’t released yet; they claim that those other memos will reveal that torture works, that such practices as sleep deprivation, use of phobias such as fear of insects and dogs, forced nudity, physical assaults and the use of waterboarding — flooding the nose and mouth with a controlled but steady amount of water in a way that induces a sense of drowning — yielded results crucial to fighting the war in Iraq and … Keeping the Homeland Safe.

And they miss the point. In their eyes, if torture works, it justifies its use despite the act that a range of former intelligence operatives, military scholars and analysts and others have established that it doesn’t. Their insistence that torture works is itself the problem. It points to a willingness to circumvent national and international law to suit the narrow dictates of national politics.

It also ignores the findings of the U.S. military itself. Maj. Paul Burney, an Army psychiatrist, told investigators in June 2002 that “[w]hile we were there [Guantanamo Bay], a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al-Qaida and Iraq, and we were not successful in establishing a link between al-Qaida and Iraq.

“The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link … there was more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results,” Burney said.

It was that frustration that ultimately led to Cheney, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and their enablers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to rationalize and authorize the use of torture.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the reputed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, had to undergo waterboarding 183 times. Abu Zubaydah, said to be a high-ranking member of al-Qaida, endured the procedure 83 times.

◊ ◊ ◊

For the Bushies, the worst thing about the gathering storm of revelations of torture on their watch may be the systematic nature to these abuses. This wasn’t something done every now and then.

“The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of ‘a few bad apples’ acting on their own,” the Senate committee report said. “The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.”

For the Obama administration, this is the damage to be undone. And the best way to do that is to let justice take its course. President Obama has separated himself from the process of an investigation of Bush White House torture going forward, though he’s on the record as being opposed to such an inquiry.

Apparently, the decision to press ahead rests largely in the hands of Attorney General Holder. The fact that the president and the attorney general may be at odds over this issue is itself a cause for calm, maybe even celebration. Think of it: a Justice Department unafraid to assert its independence from the White House in pursuit of truth and the rule of law. It’s been a while since we had that.

It’s that kind of a country that Gen. David Petraeus wants to represent. He said as much in a letter he wrote to his troops in May 2007:

“Our values and the laws governing warfare teach us to respect human dignity, maintain our integrity, and do what is right,” the general wrote. “Adherence to our values distinguishes us from our enemy. This fight depends on securing the population, which must understand that we — not our enemies — occupy the moral high ground.”

That’s the high ground that Obama must work hard to recapture, the moral high ground the Bush administration conceded to the expediencies of the moment. It begins with a clear understanding that there‘s no way to chart a path to the potential of the future without first coming to grips with the crimes of the past.
Image credit: Waterboarded man: Still from Amnesty International video. Holder: Justice Department photo.

Monday, April 20, 2009

And a child shall lead them: Meghan McCain rocks the house

The Republican Party, eager if not straight-up desperate to find someone to fill its existential vacuum and speak truth to power in the age of Twitter, may have found its salvation in an apple who did not fall far from the tree.

Meghan McCain? You go girl.

With a steadily escalating profile in interviews and online, the 24-year-old daughter of Arizona Sen. John McCain is proving herself to be that rarity in Republican politics: someone with the ovarian fortitude to stand up and dismiss the old guard, saying things about the GOP the GOP leadership wouldn’t dare volunteer. With no promises to keep or fears of excommunication from the rock-ribbed right, she’s been speaking with a candor that spans generational lines — just what the Republicans need. If only they’ll listen.

Hurricane Meghan most recently surfaced at a weekend address before the Log Cabin Republicans in Washington, McCain squarely confronted the generational divide the GOP has failed to either acknowledge or work to correct. The high point of the address was a three-point cri de coeur, one the party elders can’t sweep under the rug.

“Number one, most of our nation wants our nation to succeed. Number two, most people are ready to move on to the future, not live in the past. Number three, most of the old-school Republicans are scared shitless of that future.”

It doesn’t get much plainer than that, folks. All the GOP position papers and think-tank studies, all the surveys and talking points and speculations about the Future of the Party come down to those forty-one words.

◊ ◊ ◊

With that succinct call to arms, McCain issued a firm slap to the head of conservative voice box Jabba the Rush Limbaugh, presented a sketch (if not a blueprint) for the party’s future, and put the graybeards of the GOP on notice that anything less than openly embracing that American future would court more of the disasters the party’s endured since 2006.

Some party water carriers get the point. “Some of the things she articulated are really emblematic of the issues the party’s facing right now,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye, today on MSNBC. “What she said should give Republicans something to think about.”

McCain has taken rhetorical 2x4s to the heads of conservative darlings before. In recent months in interviews and in her writing on The Daily Beast and other appearances, she’s taken on conservative pit-bull apologists Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham, and the rigidity of Republican thinking generally.

She made many of the same Log Cabin address points in a March 23 interview with Larry King on CNN. “I think that’s the problem right now, is that the party is without a leader and sort of without a vision.”

Clearly, outspokenness isn’t specific to the Y chromosome of the McCain family DNA. Sen. McCain has long developed a reputation as something of a too-plain-spoken battler in Congress; the halls of the Senate ring with stories of McCain’s mercurial temper showing itself, the senator involved in one rhetorical or physical scrap or another. As we know.

But with the younger McCain, that scrappiness is wrapped in a package of smoothly delivered political pragmatism that belies the youth of the one expressing it. And maybe that’s the point — that someone so young gets it, understands intuitively what the Republicans need to be contenders again, makes this viewpoint exactly what they need. This is more than reaching across the proverbial aisle; Meghan McCain’s throwdown is a dare to the GOP to rethink what it is, from the ground up. If she decides to go that way, she may be a better politician than her father ever was.

Hey Boehner, Kantor, Gingrich, Rush the Hutt! Want a vision for the possible future of the GOP? Meghan McCain may have laid one out in the King interview, when the Venerable One on CNN asked her how she defined herself politically. “I consider myself a progressive Republican. I am liberal on social issues, and I think the party is at a place where social issues shouldn’t be the issues that define the party.”

Want another blueprint to the future? Listen to what Meghan McCain told the Log Cabin Republicans on Saturday — the way she blends party orthodoxy with the individuality of the electorate:

“I am proud to join you in challenging this mold and the notions of what being what a Republican means. I am concerned about the environment. I wear a lot of black. I think that government is best when it stays out of people’s lives and businesses as much as possible. I love punk rock music. I believe in a strong national defense. I have a tattoo. I believe government should always be efficient and accountable. I have lots and lots of gay friends, and yes, I am a Republican.”

Maybe the Republicans need a tweak of the Bible’s advice, something straight outta Isaiah, more or less:

If thou seekest to depart from thy wilderness, yea, take ye the hand of the fair maiden who cometh from the desert, and the child shall lead ye out. And the lion shall dwell with the lamb, and the elephant shall lie down with the donkey — for thy party’s sake.
Image credits: Meghan McCain: Still from MSNBC video. McCain statement: From MSNBC.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Barry and the pirates

Leon, somewhere in Libya right now there’s a janitor working the night shift at the Libyan Intelligence Headquarters. He’s going about his job 'cause he has no idea that in about an hour he’s gonna die in a massive explosion. He’s just going about his job 'cause he has no idea that an hour ago I gave an order to have him killed. You just saw me do the least presidential thing I do.

— From “The American President,” screenplay by Aaron Sorkin

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Intellectually, we know it’s true, of course, but emotionally it still stuns us a little when we see it actually happen: for all the pomp and majesty of his office, despite his ability to impart small-d democratic benevolence and values around the globe, the President of the United States of America has a frighteningly awesome power to get people killed.

We saw this play out over the last week, in one of the too-often repeated acts of piracy off the coast of Somalia, after Richard Phillips, the captain of the 17,000-ton container ship Maersk Alabama, was kidnapped by four Somali pirates who held him in one of the Alabama’s lifeboats. As the drama played out over three days, it captured the world’s attention, and that of President Obama, and that of the United States Navy, which sent the destroyer USS Bainbridge to the region to rescue the captain and bring the situation to a close.

Shortly after tying up with the drifting lifeboat to stop its drift toward the Somali coastline, the Bainbridge dispatched three Navy snipers to its deck. There, in the dark and on the deck of a rolling ship, said snipers calmly aimed high-powered rifles at the lifeboat, fired and killed three of the pirates with apparently simultaneous shots to the head. (The fourth pirate was captured by the Navy after jumping off the lifeboat earlier.)

Numerous news reports made the point of mentioning that President Obama “personally approved” the operation, and the administration gained generally high marks for the surgical performance of a mission that could have gone horribly wrong.

◊ ◊ ◊

But for this president, an entirely necessary demonstration of presidential authority may have had an especially barbed resonance attached.

There’s no escaping the fact that the Navy snipers, doing the job they were trained to do, nonetheless killed three Somalis who were apparently only teenagers, three people who took a desperately criminal path to acquiring food, self-respect and economic self-sufficiency. Three young black men executed by the United States, on the authority of the black man who runs the United States.

Yes, there’s no getting around the fact that when Barack Obama took the oath of office 89 days ago, he swore to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution — and by extension, to do the same for his country and the people living under the Constitution.

Word is bond: “We must continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks, be prepared to interdict acts of piracy, and ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes,” the president said on April 13.

But for this first African American president, even if he never said as much, there’s bound to have been at least one hot flare of deep regret at having to effectively execute three Africans, people whose lives had barely begun. People with a common ancestral heritage. The authorization of sudden and impersonal death shouldn’t be an easy, rote thing to do, even when legally justified; we can be sure it was not for President Obama, as vulnerable and empathic and human as any of his 43 predecessors, and more so than some of them.

◊ ◊ ◊

Leave it to conservative malcontents of the moment to put an ugly spin on things. GOP voice box Rush Limbuagh took crassness to a whole new level on Tuesday, when the former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast offered the following analysis on his talk-radio show:

“You know what we have learned about the Somali pirates, the merchant marine organizers that were wiped out at the order of Barack Obama, you know what we learned about them? They were teenagers. The Somali pirates, the merchant marine organizers who took a U.S. merchant captain hostage for five days were inexperienced youths, the defense secretary, Robert Gates, said yesterday, adding that the hijackers were between 17 and 19 years old. Now, just imagine the hue and cry had a Republican president ordered the shooting of black teenagers on the high seas. …”

Thus, by playing a race card of his own invention, Jabba the Rush racialized the issue of protecting American citizens abroad; laughably rebranded the Somali pirates as “merchant marine organizers”; and actually dared to align the killing of these freelance buccaneers with the killing of African Americans here at home.

“If only President Obama had known that the three Somali community organizers were actually young black Muslim teenagers, I’m sure he wouldn’t have given the order to shoot,” Limbaugh said. “That’s the correct way to look at it. If only Obama had known.”

Rush the Hutt’s perverted calculus of course fails to pass the muster of reality at many levels. The U.S. military isn’t in the habit of checking IDs before conducting a military operation; nor do they vet the targets of such operations for their race or socioeconomic status. When necessary, U.S. armed forces are an equal opportunity destroyer. Often, tragically so.

It’s a tribute to Obama’s deliberate style of conducting its business that this event was resolved in an orderly fashion, and conducted with such deft surgical use of military resources that, to this point, conservative thought leaders and the reflexively-opposed Republicans in Congress haven’t had that much to say negatively about the rescue of Phillips.

◊ ◊ ◊

In his first emergency international crisis occasioning the use of armed force to save American lives, President Obama has an unqualified success, if a tragic one. The rescue of Captain Phillips shows that Obama means to chart a new course in America’s relationship with the world, even as he intends to continue the defense of American interests — like American citizens — with force, if required.

This grim, low-key triumph puts the lie to statements by obstreperous, duplicitous French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who said privately that Obama was “weak” and “inexperienced.” France had a similar hostage rescue situation days before the Maersk Alabama was seized, one that ended with the death of one of the hostages.

But this wasn’t a Bring It On moment for Obama; while the mission was accomplished, you won’t be a banner screaming those words on the USS Bainbridge. The Obama administration has shown itself to be that rarity, something we haven’t had in the White House in far too long: a team that respects the use of force, uses it reluctantly, and uses it precisely, with a response tailored to the threat.

Of all the three o’ clock mornings he’s had since Jan. 20 (and count on it, he’s had at least a few), Obama no doubt had a singular one on Easter Sunday, that special date in the Christian calendar. By the time he and the First Family had finished attending church, it was all over. The crisis was done, American interests had been defended, emergency food relief meant for Africa’s impoverished got to its destination … and somewhere in Somalia three families mourned three lives they would never see again.

It may have been the least presidential thing a president does. In other equally compelling ways, it’s also the most presidential thing a president is forced to do.
Image credits: Phillips aboard USS Bainbridge: U.S. Navy. Somali pirate: Spec. 2nd Class Jason R. Zalasky, U.S. Navy. Limbaugh: Still from video of "The Rush Limbaugh Show." Obama: White House photo by Chuck Kennedy.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Weak tea from the GOP

Today across our great land, conservative leaders, their bespoke media and a ragtag core of dead-enders did their best to come up with the launch of a movement renouncing big government and wasteful spending. But today’s Tea Bag Tax Day events revealed not much more than the depth of Republican disaffection with anything the Obama administration does, as well as the ways in which that reflexive opposition is the GOP idée fixe of the moment, and apparently the future.

It’s been planned for weeks now, and today, in demonstrations from Oak Harbor, Wash., to Sag Harbor, N.Y., protesters rallied to express opposition to big government in general, and specifically the multitrillion-dollar Obama budget, a budget made necessary in every way by the profligacies of his predecessor in the White House.

Officials in the nation’s capital prevented what could have been a waste-disposal nightmare: the planned dumping of 1 million tea bags on the city — an attempt foiled because some organizers couldn’t get the required permits (let’s set aside for now the curious fact that you can even get a permit to conduct a dumping operation in front of the White House).

But right out of the gate, the big problem for the events was the source for much of the organizational acumen behind them. Lobbyists and business interests were behind the scenes, as well as former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

News Corporation, the misinformation conglomerate piloted by tireless media buccaneer Rupert Murdoch, did its part as Official Media Mouthpiece to the Tea Bag Games. Continuing the profligate spending that saw News Corp. lose more than $6 billion in the last quarter of 2008, News Corp offshoot Fox News spent many thousands of dollars sending its anchors and staff to various Tea Party locations around the country, capping it all off with a prime-time special from Atlanta. “Thomas Paine,” a craggy actor in a powdered wig, made some overbroad connections between the first Tea Party in 1773 and the current event, then introduced Fox’s cavalcade of ideologues: Sean Hannity! Newt Gingrich! Mike Huckabee! Joe the Plumber!

This clearly orchestrated, top-down, big-budget promotion put the lie to the idea, advanced by conservatives, that Tea Bag Day was some explosive expression of pent-up American frustration and rage. (We just had one of those on Nov. 4; it turned out rather well.) With such heavy hitters aboard, Tea Bag Day was weakened at the start by the intimate involvement of the very government and corporate insiders the event was intended to protest against.

There was a populist element to all this; you can’t ignore it when American citizens gather to peacefully air their grievances in a unified chain of protests across the country. But there was a deep partisanship to it, some of it ugly and personal and even disturbing (OBAMA = HITLER, read one sign at the rally in Washington). The mix of lobbyists and insiders responsible for the Tea Bag protest, as well as anti-immigrationists, nativists and even white supremacists in Arizona made for one hell of a cocktail: tea mixed with the bile of agendaless conservatives bent on derailing a corrective to the mess their leadership created. And a hearty dash of snake oil.

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The protesters’ boilerplate complaint seemed to be a philosophical platform you could write in big letters on a 3x5 index card: Taxes are bad, the budget is too big, we can’t afford it, Obama has no clue, and we’re taking our country back! You don’t have to drill down terribly far to see the Tea Party protests as another transparent example of the GOP’s current bankruptcy of ideas beyond the reflex of just saying No.

The people who attended these anti-tax rallies, and the monied interests who lashed this together, have to contend with some inconvenient facts that undercut the emotional, populist, quasi-hysteric rationale for the Tea Parties in the first place:

Effective April 1, the tax rate for 95 percent of all American wage earners went down, increasing their take-home pay. For the remaining 5 percent of American workers — those probable Tea Bag Day no-shows who earn $250,000 or more — taxes went up slightly, to previous levels of the Reagan administration.

All across America today, people protested that their taxes were too high two weeks to the day after their taxes went down. And this earnest attempt to dovetail the angst of Tax Day with a protest against those taxes didn’t take something else into account: About 70 percent of Americans already get tax refunds from the IRS.

Then there was President Obama’s well-timed announcement today of his plans to provide a tax credit of $2,500 for students to get college educations, and his plans to simplify the “monstrous” tax code itself.

Let’s see, now … tax refunds, a new tax cut and, just maybe, aid to cash-strapped families of college students … Question to protesters: what the hell’s wrong with that?

◊ ◊ ◊

Clearly, what’s driving this thing is politics. It’s elder statesmen like Gingrich and Armey, along with party climbers like Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, who characterized the Tea Parties as “a building movement in this country … a growing tidal wave of discontent.” It’s built into the rhetoric of those farthest on the Republican right, some of them congressmen unalterably committed to both opposing President Obama’s initiatives for repairing the economy, and opposing attempts at bipartisan outreach on that and other issues that urgently need attention.

The facts are as simple as a chronology of events: the Bush administration preceded the Obama administration. The problem with the economy didn’t begin eighty days ago when Obama took office. The actions of the Obama White House are, for all the astronomical numbers in the budget, nothing more or less than a sober, measured attempt at correcting the policies and practices of the past eight years — a bid at correction that emphasizes the importance of the middle class.

But it’s hard to hear that when your ears are stuffed with tea bags.

We’ll see if this tea-lovers event actually is the first burst of the kind of truly viral, grassroots movement the Republicans need to revive their flagging political fortunes. We’ll wait to find out if the one-issue identity of this protest develops into the principled, dedicated opposition that makes our democracy not just functional, but possible.

For now, though, Tea Bag Day was a sound and fury signifying nothing but Republican desperation and a buying opportunity for investors in Unilever, the parent concern of the Thomas J. Lipton Company.
Image credits: Tea bag lady: Still from MSNBC. Snake oil: Still from "The Hoaxters" © 1952 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Obama sign: Still from Dittopost video via YouTube.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Permanent marker

Lord Acton, the famed 19th century British historian, is often quoted (to the exclusion of just about anything else he wrote) that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” His 1887 observation, as true today as it was then, is one of those lessons that captains of industry, and leaders of governments, somehow fail to learn.

We hope the elegant simplicity of Lord Acton’s most celebrated statement whispers in the inner inner ears of the Obama White House and the Democratic leadership right now, as a new salvo of scholarly studies suggests, with exhaustive statistical evidence, that the Democrats might actually realize what the Republicans could only dream of: a permanent political majority.

Thomas B. Edsall made the case today in The Huffington Post:

“A growing number of political scientists, analysts and strategists are making the case for a realignment of political power in the U.S. to a new Democratic majority based on two trends: 1) the increasing numbers of black and Hispanic voters, and 2) a decisive shift away from the Republican Party by the suburban and well-educated constituencies that once formed the backbone of the GOP.”

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Edsall’s persuasive story and analysis distill the recent findings of three political scholars: Ruy Texiera of the Center for American Progress, Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz, and John Judis of The New Republic.

Texeira makes his case in his March research paper for the Center:
”[A] new progressive America has emerged with a new demography, a new geography, and a new agenda.

The new demography refers to the array of growing demographic groups that have aligned themselves with progressives and swelled their ranks. The new geography refers to the close relationship between pro-progressive political shifts and dynamic growth areas across the country, particularly within contested states. The new agenda is the current tilt of the public toward progressive ideas and policy priorities—a tilt that is being accentuated by the strong support for this agenda among growing demographic groups.”

Abramowitz, in an April research paper, makes a similarly conclusive case:

“Without question, the most important change in the composition of the American electorate over the past several decades has been a steady increase in the proportion of nonwhite voters. This trend has been evident for at least 50 years but it has accelerated in the last quarter century.

It is a result of increased immigration from Asia, Africa and Latin America, higher birth rates among minority groups, and increased registration and turnout among African-Americans, Hispanics, and other nonwhite citizens. Moreover, this shift is almost certain to continue for the foreseeable future based on generational differences in the racial and ethnic composition of the current electorate and Census Bureau projections of the racial and ethnic makeup of the American population between now and 2050.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The problem for Republicans may not be repaired for awhile. Texiera told Edsall:

“The problem at the moment is they have nothing much to sell at this point that the rising demographic groups and areas are interested in buying. And they still seem pretty far away from recognizing that fact.”

Frankly, “nothing much to sell” is an overstatement of what’s now at the GOP’s disposal. Outflanked at every turn by a nimble, responsive, proactive and innovative White House, the Republican Party has entrenched itself in the rigid party ideology that’s defined it for generations, retreating to the safe harbor of a reflex to be more opposition than loyal. “Circling the wagons” would be an apt metaphor, if there were any wagons to do it with.

Philosophically scattered to the four winds, the GOP has conceded the philosophical high ground to such incendiary figures as talk-radio windbag Rush Limbaugh and McCarthyite mouthbreathers like Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, and to GOP talking-points Xerox machines like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck of Fox News. The daily operations of the party are overseen by Michael Steele, the new and largely ineffectual national committee chairman. And national figures like Arizona Sen. John McCain have been reduced to sideshow attractions, with McCain (a frequent guest on Leno and Letterman) apparently seeking to take over where Larry ‘Bud’ Melman left off.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s high cotton for the Democrats. But the prospect of seemingly endless political prospects can give rise to some dangerous thinking. It was Karl Rove, the Bush chief strategist, who once advanced the idea of a “permanent Republican majority.”

Judis told Edsall: “The only circumstances that could bring back the Republicans is Obama's failure to stem the recession. Obama does have to succeed, and so far, he's pretty much on the right track, and the Republicans are definitely not. That suggests to me that he and the Democrats will be able to solidify their majority in 2010 and 2012,” Judis said. “But again, I don't fully understand what is going on in the world, and events could defy demography.”

The Obama White House gets this. Some have complained that Obama is trying to do too much too soon, missing the need for the urgency. The mess he’s been left to clean up is enough for two administrations; its impact is felt widely enough after eight years, across every stratum of American society, that it just makes sense that the Democrats command a strong wind at their backs — the overwhelming support of the American people.

But, same as it ever was: Winds change direction. The unpredictable is the only predictable. If the Democrats are smart, or at least practical, the only permanent majority they’re focused on is the one they can reliably count on between now and the next election.

That shouldn’t determine their approach to governing, but it must govern their approach to electoral politics. There’s an election next year, and we’re halfway through April already. The Republicans may find the strike zone after all; after generations of relative stasis, the scales might still fall from their eyes about how to reach the people they would govern again, how to evolve as a party.

The Texiera-Judis-Abramowitz studies should be welcome news for the Democratic Party, and a sobering challenge at the same time: While permanence is too much to expect, nothing ensures a lasting political foundation like proven results.

“Republican hegemony is now expected to last for years, maybe decades,” the conservative commentator Fred Barnes crowed in 2004. We know how that turned out. There’s a lesson there. Absolutely.
Image credits: Flag illustration: Noam Fridman for The New York Times. © 2009 The New York Times Company. Chart: Alan Abramowitz, Emory University. Weathervane:

Monday, April 13, 2009

San Diego hosts the Wast Supper

It’s the sort of in-your-face challenge to our orthodox religious perceptions that was just begging for an obligatorily outraged reaction from conservatives and the religious right. And you do have to wonder: What would Jesus say?

Easter Sunday apparently came and went without incident in the Old Town district of San Diego, where the Chuck Jones Gallery, one of the local art galleries, has since mid-March drawn more than casual glances at a painting that’s a parody of Leonardo da Vinci's “The Last Supper.” And guess who does the honors.

In the convincingly rendered tableau by Texas artist Glen Tarnowski, Bugs Bunny stands in for Our Lord & Saviour, accompanied by the Looney Tunes galaxy of characters. Elmer Fudd, Wile E. Coyote, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig — they’re all here, subbing for the disciples. All at once it makes sense that the painting, named “The Gathering,” would show up at a gallery named for Chuck Jones, the legendary Warner Bros. animator — a gallery that’s part of a California-based chain of art galleries featuring Jones’ work.

◊ ◊ ◊

The reaction, if you go by one press account, has been robust but not turbulent. Diane Bell of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported April 2 that, after some criticism of the painting, the gallery decided to add a biography of Tarnowski, explaining his artistic intent, and documenting the personal narrative of life as both a Christian and an alumnus of California Lutheran University.

Craig Kausen, the gallery chain's CEO and Jones’ grandson, told the Union-Tribune he’d gone so far as to consult a local priest who said he wasn’t upset by the idea, even though he hadn't seen the artwork. “There is nothing irreverent about it whatsoever,” Kausen said.

Which just can’t be true. At its core, “The Gathering” is nothing but irreverent — it’s necessarily irreverent given the cast of characters it contains. Irreverence is what the stars of Looney Tunes do, and do very well. Tarnowski knew this from brush stroke one.

◊ ◊ ◊

But let’s be real; there’s nothing new about this kind of animal anthropomorphism in the culture. Someone’s making a fortune right now on oil paintings of dogs playing poker. From Tony the Tiger to the Honey Nut Cheerios bee, we’ve gotten used to animals selling us things.

Matters of faith are something else again. The emotional tripwire of how the principals of the Christian faith are depicted in our society would seem to be the threshold for a call to arms, the line one dare not cross. But with the agenda of the religious right declining in favor with the American public, and as a baseline of greater social interaction seems to be taking hold, the door’s open for a tolerance we haven’t seen before. And it's open more than a crack: this is hardly the first Last Supper parody in recent years. With Jesus surrogates from Ronald McDonald to Marilyn Monroe, we've been here before.

There’s always been a thin line between the secular religion of commerce and the ecclesiastical religion of religion. That line, like the one that’s blurring distinctions between news and advertising in a bad economy, is drawn in an increasingly shifting sand.

So in all likelihood, the big deal in Old Town blows over quietly (unless someone steps up and pays the $20,000 asking price, or talk radio Doberman Rush Limbaugh has something to say) and nothing untoward happens. No noisy protests. No threatening 4 a.m. phone calls. There’s simply too much else going on that needs fixing. Move on, people. Nothing to see here.

That’s all, folks.
Image credit: “The Gathering”: Chuck Jones Gallery. © 2009 Glen Tarnowski of Katy, Texas. Sesame Street Last Supper: Via Stray Thoughts & Ruminations; click the link above.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Habemos canis primus!

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a First Dog. Bo, a Portuguese water dog, is expected to take the oath of office on Tuesday, after perhaps the longest vetting process in the history of American politics.

The Washington Post reported in its online editions Saturday night that Bo, a gift from Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy was named Bo by the First Daughters Malia and Sasha because Michelle Obama’s late father, Fraser Robinson, was nicknamed Diddley. The pooch’s name plays off the name of the late rock icon Bo Diddley.

The identity of Bo as the First Dog was long suspected but not previously confirmed, as the administration completed the process of vetting Bo’s tax returns and conducting a thorough allergen-background investigation.

Bo, who’s said to have already hit the carpet running, is expected be in consultation with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on ways to strengthen Portuguese-American relations; an ambassadorial role has apparently been discussed, but nothing has been confirmed at this time.

Queen Elizabeth’s corgis sent congratulations from Buckingham Palace, as did Koni, representing Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Barney, the First Dog during the Bush administration, called Bo to offer best wishes as well.

This latest appointment to the administration fulfills a longtime campaign promise that candidate Obama made to the girls, and continues the steady-as-she-goes narrative of an Obama White House completing a range of objectives in its first 100 days.
Image credit: Bo: Pete Souza, The White House.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

War’s ultimate cost, visible

On Friday, a suicide truck driver set off more than 2,000 pounds of explosives near the Iraqi National Police headquarters in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, killing, among others, five American soldiers. It was the deadliest attack against U.S. forces in more than a year, the Army Times reported.

The process has already started: Five more American families will soon endure the grim visitation of uniformed officers arriving in the driveway with the worst possible news. Five more families will reckon with memories, and thwarted promise, and the need for closure.

Closure. That’s the word employed so often to describe the needs of those affected by tragedy, families that seek the resolution of some outstanding issue — a fugitive suspect, a legal technicality, a judicial complication — that prevents them from grieving properly for the dear departed.

◊ ◊ ◊

For 18 years now, military families and the nation they represent have had that emotional finality abridged when it comes to the visible repatriation of American armed forces killed fighting either of two wars in the Middle East. Those families have seen their heroes, our heroes, return to America under cover of an official darkness that has made their homecoming almost invisible. For 18 years, photos of the caskets of slain servicemembers were prohibited.

No more. The United States has reversed its policy of not allowing media coverage of fallen servicemen and women killed in action. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on April 1 approved a policy change that, under strict conditions, allows the media to record the transfer of the bodies of fallen servicemembers' remains at the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

The reversal went into effect on Monday.

Gates had already announced his intention to change the bitterly debated policy last month, at a March 18 news conference. “We are committed to seeing that America's fallen heroes are received back to their loved ones and their country with the honor, respect and recognition that they and their families have earned,” he said.

Media access to the Dover transfer ceremonies will be “modified to allow media access, when approved by the immediate families of the individual fallen," Gates said in a March 25 press release.

That fast, with not much more than the stroke of a pen, the policy begun in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush, during the Gulf War is retired. It’s scant comfort for many families of the 4,263 other American servicemembers killed in Iraq, or the 677 Americans killed, to this date, in Afghanistan. But Gates’ order undoes one of our government’s more hotly debated and emotionally disturbing policies.

The Bush #41 policy reinforced the obscenely preposterous idea that war is an antiseptic exercise of political will, one whose devastating personal impact can be mitigated by invisible ceremonies far from public scrutiny. The thanks of a grateful nation recorded secretly and surgically. Bush #43 continued the policy, set it in stone even as the casualties from the Iraq war escalated.

Gates’ reversal of policy wisely recognizes the relentless intrusions of a 24/7 media; and perhaps somewhat cannily understands the shift of the American people’s attitude toward the war in Iraq, and what it’s costing us.

◊ ◊ ◊

But mostly Gates’ change in policy seems to get who this war is costing us. The individuals. The people, from cities and small towns on both coasts and everywhere in between. By opening the door of media exposure to this most solemn series of events, it opens the door to letting the nation grieve, openly and properly and with a full acknowledgment of exactly what’s at stake when this nation goes to war.

The issue’s bigger than the crawl line at the bottom of the TV screen. It’s bigger than the ten seconds of reporting from the talking heads at 11 o’clock. It’s bigger than these things because when the story is properly told, in images and in words, it sharply distills for our visual culture the bigness of small things, of individual human beings we won’t see again, people whose passing diminishes us all.

So many lives have been absented suddenly, lives that in too many cases had hardly begun. They’re lives to which we barely had a chance to say hello. The new policy of the United States rightly, finally, gives the nation at least a chance at a proper goodbye.
Image credits: Top: Still from MSNBC. Gates: Still from C-SPAN. Bottom: Still from Department of Defense via AP.
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