Talk Talk Talk Talk Talk Myself to Death: January 2007

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Nightmare Scenario

Yesterday in the Chicago Tribune, Maureen Ryan wrote about what seems to be a new fixation in prime time TV: mushroom clouds. Jericho on CBS led it off, then there were hints that one was coming to New York on NBC's Heroes, and finally 24 on FOX did away with Valencia (to the delight of Florida orange growers, no doubt). But if you look at that list, there's an obvious omission. Where's ABC's atomic bomb? We’ve got three of the four major networks covered, but no ABC show.

That got me to thinking. Where would a nuke show up on the ABC network. Lost is an obvious option, because nobody knows what's going on there anyway, and a stray atom bomb could be shoehorned without much difficulty whatsoever. But that's too easy. There must be some other possibilities.

On Desperate Housewives, Edie is manipulative enough that she wouldn't be above at least threatening to use a suitcase nuke. He's supposedly in rehab at the moment, but if pushed to the wall, Isaiah Washington might be willing to go nuclear on his castmates from Gray's Anatomy. And we could easily have a Wife Swap between a family assigned to NORAD and a highly placed North Korean military family. Whatever series would end up being in the center of the bull's-eye, we know we can count on Ty Pennington to rebuild on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. So where would you drop a nuke in ABC's schedule?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Maneuvering Around the Rule of Law

In a discussion I had today about the Scooter Libby trial (which is a rich topic for blogging, but not by me tonight, I'm afraid--scroll through firedoglake for lots of live blogging from the courthouse and trial analysis), someone speculated on the possibility that the Prez might fire Patrick Fitzgerald as Special Counsel. I wouldn't put anything past him at this point, but this reminded me of something I've been intending to talk about for a couple of weeks.

The Bush administration has been on a tear in getting rid of U.S. attorneys lately, including Carol Lam, whose bribery investigation forced Randy "Duke Cunningham to resign from Congress and go behind bars. And no, of course it hasn't been getting much coverage in the mainstream media. Two weeks ago, Dianne Feinstein spoke on the Senate floor and accused the Bushies of forcing out several U.S. attorneys and replacing them with interim appointees that didn't need Senate confirmation. It turns out that Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee while Republicans held the majority in the Senate, slipped the provision into last year's reauthorization of the Patriot Act. This happened at the last minute after both the House and Senate had approved the bill, so it went largely unnoticed until the Justice Department started to put it to use.

A couple of days later, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales appeared before the Judiciary Committee for an oversight hearing (imagine that!), and Feinstein followed up with questions. As is his habit, Gonzales squirmed around direct answers about the number of US attorneys forced out, although he promised he'd get back to them with a number soon. I'm not aware that the Justice Department ever did follow up with that, but at the end of last week, McClatchy Newspapers identified nine Bush political loyalists who had recently been appointed as U.S. attorneys. According to McClatchy:

The newly appointed U.S. attorneys all have impressive legal credentials, but most of them have few, if any, ties to the communities they've been appointed to serve, and some have had little experience as prosecutors.

And no, none of them were available for an interview.

Chuck Schumer is promising hearings next week to look into the matter, specifically "Preserving Prosecutorial Independence: Is the Department of Justice Politicizing the Hiring and Firing of U.S. Attorneys?" And Feinstein has introduced legislation with Pat Leahy and Mark Pryor to undo Specter's little silent amendment to the Patriot Act.

For more information, take a look at TPMmuckraker's collected posts on the subject (from which I've borrowed heavily for this post). And as for the mainstream press? They may be catching on slowly. I already mentioned last week's McClatchy piece. McClatchy Newspapers include the Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Kansas City Star, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, among others. And just this afternoon, Jack Cafferty took on the subject on The Situation Room:

A couple of weeks ago, we alerted you to the fact that several federal prosecutors are suddenly being fired around the country by the Bush administration. Well, it turns out that there's more to the story.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has been filling these positions with members of President Bush's inner circle. Imagine that.

Nine recent appointees held high level positions in the White House or in the Justice Department, and most of them were hand-picked by Gonzales. This was done through a little known provision in the Patriot Act that allows the attorney general to appoint interim U.S. attorneys for an indefinite period of time.

Translation -- there's no deadline for confirmation hearings.

Critics worry Gonzales is trying to skip out on Senate confirmation for these nominees and that the administration is trying to consolidate the power of the executive branch.

Would they do that?

Cafferty asks a good questions. Do you believe the Bush administration is capable of such shenanigans? Maybe Schumer will follow that line of inquiry next week.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Frank Rich on Hillary's Outlook

Frank Rich gets right to the point in discussing Hilary's campaign this week. How does he feel about it? He titles his piece: "Hillary Clinton's Mission Unaccomplished." Despite her huge name recognition, which essentially keeps her at the forefront of the poles for the time being (although in an Iowa poll at the end of last month, she was running fourth, behind Edwards, Obama, and Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack), she's being outflanked by other politicians (such as Jim Webb) and even events themselves.

Polls continue to show Iraq dwarfing every other issue as the nation's No. 1 concern. The Democrats' pre-eminent presidential candidate can't escape the war any more than the president can. And so she was blindsided Tuesday night, just as Mr. Bush was, by an unexpected gate crasher, the rookie senator from Virginia, Jim Webb. Though he's not a candidate for national office, Mr. Webb's nine-minute Democratic response not only upstaged the president but also, in an unintended political drive-by shooting, gave Mrs. Clinton a more pointed State of the Union "contrast" than she had bargained for.

To the political consultants favored by both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Bush, Mr. Webb is an amateur. More than a few Washington insiders initially wrote him off in last year’s race to unseat a star presidential prospect, the incumbent Senator George Allen. Mr. Webb is standoffish. He doesn't care whom he offends, including in his own base. He gives the impression — as he did Tuesday night — that he just might punch out his opponent. When he had his famously testy exchange with Mr. Bush over the war at a White House reception after his victory, Beltway pooh-bahs labeled him a boor, much as they had that other interloper who refused to censor himself before the president last year, Stephen Colbert.

But this country is at a grave crossroads. It craves leadership. When Mr. Webb spoke on Tuesday, he stepped into that vacuum and, for a few minutes anyway, filled it. It's not merely his military credentials as a Vietnam veteran and a former Navy secretary for Ronald Reagan that gave him authority, or the fact that his son, also a marine, is serving in Iraq. It was the simplicity and honesty of Mr. Webb's message. Like Senator Obama, he was a talented professional writer before entering politics, so he could discard whatever risk-averse speech his party handed him and write his own. His exquisitely calibrated threat of Democratic pushback should Mr. Bush fail to change course on the war — "If he does not, we will be showing him the way" — continued to charge the air even as Mrs. Clinton made the post-speech rounds on the networks.

Mrs. Clinton cannot rewrite her own history on Iraq to match Mr. Obama's early opposition to the war, or Mr. Webb's. She was not prescient enough to see, as Mr. Webb wrote in The Washington Post back in September 2002, that "unilateral wars designed to bring about regime change and a long-term occupation should be undertaken only when a nation's existence is clearly at stake." But she's hardly alone in this failing, and the point now is not that she mimic John Edwards with a prostrate apology for her vote to authorize the war. ("You don't get do-overs in life or in politics," she has said.) What matters to the country is what happens next. What matters is the leadership that will take us out of the fiasco.

And that's a theme that Rich returns to again and again in this column. His argument is that while Hillary is looking for a palatable position to take, the country is looking for bold leadership that goes where it needs to, not where it can get away with.

This is how she explains her vote to authorize the war: "I would never have expected any president, if we knew then what we know now, to come to ask for a vote. There would not have been a vote, and I certainly would not have voted for it." John Kerry could not have said it worse himself. No wonder last weekend's "Saturday Night Live" gave us a "Hillary" who said, "Knowing what we know now, that you could vote against the war and still be elected president, I would never have pretended to support it."

. . .

The issue raised by the tragedy of Iraq is not who's on the left or the right, but who is in front and who is behind. Mrs. Clinton has always been a follower of public opinion on the war, not a leader. Now events are outrunning her. Support for the war both in the polls and among Republicans in Congress is plummeting faster than she can recalibrate her rhetoric; unreliable Iraqi troops are already proving no-shows in the new Iraqi-American "joint patrols" of Baghdad; the Congressional showdown over fresh appropriations for Iraq is just weeks away.

This, in other words, is a moment of crisis in our history and there will be no do-overs. Should Mrs. Clinton actually seek unfiltered exposure to voters, she will learn that they are anxiously waiting to see just who in Washington is brave enough to act.

The more we're seeing of Hillary, the more she's looking like another inside-the-Beltway sure thing that can't actually get out of the starting gate. It looks like we won't answer the question of whether America can elect a woman president this year, because it's looking more and more likely that we're not going to elect this woman.

[And a big Thank You goes out this week to donkey o.d. for breaking down the NYTimes subscription curtain; another goes to SC for sending an early e-mail with this column.]

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Life's an Illusion, Love Is a Dream

Is that a little repositioning I sense in the latest AARP commercial? With Buzzcocks' "Everybody's Happy Nowadays" playing in the background, they're trying to appeal to a new generation. A new generation that's old enough to join the AARP, by the way. Pete Shelley has been old enough for a couple of years. I couldn't find Steve Diggle's birthday from just a bit of Googling, but if he was at least 20 when he first played with the Buzzcocks (and it's quite possible he wasn't), then he's old enough, too.

When I first saw this commercial, there was a disconnect--I couldn't immediately place the buzzsaw guitar, and once I did I thought the commercial was for something else, though I can't remember precisely what at the moment--maybe Target or some other sponsor who's been using upbeat pop tunes lately. When the AARP logo came on at the end, that threw me even more. "This isn't an AARP commercial--it's for Target. Or no, it is AARP."

I guess it makes sense for the AARP to appropriate punk, which is quite a ways in the past at this point. This year is the 32nd anniversary of "Blitzkrieg Bop," and the 31st of "Anarchy in the UK" and "Spiral Scratch." Punks may not want to believe themselves to be of an age to join AARP, but the oldest among them are. (I'm not, by the way--that shouldn't matter, but I feel compelled to mention it.) The leading edge of Generation X is in their 40s, and they've got to feel Generation Y (or whatever they're called) breathing down their necks.

So I'm of two minds. Is the AARP using Buzzcocks an effective method of establishing their continuing relevance or the early evidence that punk is in the early stages of being over the hill? Take a look yourself and see what you think.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Equal Time

In a vague year-end wrap up of sorts I wrote a little while ago, I talked about my great appreciation of Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. It's had a lot of attention lately, not all of it positive, and earlier this week, Tim O'Neil wrote a great examination of its strengths and witnesses in his blog, The Hurting. He used it as a jumping-off point to explore different ways that comics work.

Essentially, you've got two ways of reading comics: comics as literature and comics as visual art. For the longest time fans of serious (or, "serious") comics were essentially forced into a bunker mentality, wherein any divisions in reading preferences were essentially swept under the rug by the blanket shared assumption that comics were a valid vehicle for potentially meaningful art. But now the bunker's been blown, and the good guys won. Now it's time to examine the fact that even though mainstream audiences are increasingly interested in the form, they are bringing their own prejudices and preferences to the table -- to a comics insider (and I think most folks reading these words can safely qualify), it may seem inexplicable, but it's only to be expected.

Comics are a complicated art form. The variety of approaches available to any prospective cartoonist on how to tell a story is probably close to infinite. There's an old argument in fanboy circles - usually given in terms of corporate comics' division of labor - about which is more important: art or writing. It makes a certain kind of sense, in a corner of the medium where these tasks are compartmentalized and even, in many instances, in direct competition, to place them at odds. But when discussing the actual product itself, an artistic entity known in the abstract as "Comics", it should be impossible to differentiate between the two. But this isn't how most people probably read comics. Lacking the funds to sponsor an independent academic study on the matter, I'm going to guess that many people who read comics - especially those who came to the form late in life, like anyone who may have initially been exposed to the likes of Ware, Satrapi or Bechdel from magazine articles or newspaper lists - see comics less as a holistic whole and more as simply a hybrid. It may seem like a meaningless distinction but it's actually vital to how people perceive the format. For them, and probably for most, the words in the boxes and balloons are the primary vehicle, and the pictures merely illustrate the action. This is how many people grow up reading super comics, or at least it was in an era (which I very vividly recall) when printing was abysmal and most artists were, at best, journeymen: you read the captions and skimmed the art, and you never missed much by doing this. The interesting action always announced itself.

But that's an unfulfilling approach to comics. Fun Home is a good comic, some might even say a very good comic, but it falls short of truly essential for the very simple reason that throughout the book Bechdel purposefully hampers her own visual vocabulary. Reading the book, it's impossible not to come away with an awareness and appreciation of her pacing and structure. This is a book that has been expertly designed in terms of allowing every step of the plot to unfold with utter precision. Every revelation, every character moment, every allusion reveals itself to the reader in good time, unfolding like a blooming flower. But it seemed to me that, while Bechdel is obviously a keenly talented storyteller, her instincts as a cartoonist were perhaps hobbled by the sobriety of her story. The book reads less like a graphic novel than a prose novel with accompanying pictures - not a problem I've ever noticed with her Dykes to Watch Out For strip, which is far looser in both tone and execution.

Despite the lengthy quote, O'Neil writes quite a bit more, about Fun Home and about comics in general, and the whole thing is worth the read. It's an easily understood discussion of how different readers approach comics and what we should look for when we read them. And he also cites this unrelated piece in which Tom Spurgeon offers some thoughts on how art and writing works together in comics that I was intending to link to myself but never quite got around to it (at least I got this close). Take the opportunity to click over for a look yourself.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Changes Afoot

Blogger has been working on an upgrade for a while now, probably ever since they were absorbed by Google, and they've been offering to let people upgrade their blogs whenever they wanted to. I figured that I ultimately would, because why not? But I wasn't sure how involved it would be, and I didn't know how long it would take, so I was putting it off. I was perfectly happy with the blog and my interface to it as it was, so I was in no hurry to jump in. (Besides, Atrios had enough trouble last month when he tried that he had to go back to the old version, and that wasn't exactly inspiring.)

Well, that's apparently all changed now. I had some warning in that Atrios seemed to be having trouble again this morning. Sure enough, I wasn't allowed to log in this evening until I upgraded the blog, which meant that I had to move everything over to a Google account. I've had a Google mail address for a while, but I've mostly used that for limited purposes, and I had no desire to connect it to this blog. So I set up another one and jumped in. It didn't end up taking that long to migrate, and my first impression is that not too much has changed. The blog seems to look the same. They've changed some of the posting interface, and they've added a number of new features that don't especially do anything for me and that I probably won't use at all (although I'm open to the possibility if it seems like they can serve a good purpose). One new feature is that I can limit who's allowed to access the blog and read my vague musings, so I guess you'd better hope that I don't get all hermitty all of a sudden. For the time being, though, I suppose that I'll keep all of this open to the general public. I'm not particularly anticipating any problems with the posting in the vaguely new format, but this post will function as a test. Keep your fingers crossed.

Two Days Later, the Democratic Response Still Resonates

I've been behind on a number of subjects lately, so I was going to do a bit of link blogging to catch up. The first thing I planned to talk about was Senator Jim Webb's Democratic Response to the Prez's State of the Union Address, and then I had a handful of other subjects I was going to get to. But I started to quote more of the speech than I'd intended (because it was just that good!), and if I'd kept it the first of several items, I'd have had a post almost as long as the one looking back on State of the Union Addresses of yore. So there'll probably be link blogging tomorrow. Tonight it's all Jim Webb.

Webb, of course, is the senator from Virginia who's not George Allen. And he delivered a powerful response to the Prez's State of the Union Address on Tuesday night. I didn't think his presentation was as strong as a number of others did, but the message was certainly firm. Although many commentators have focused on the Iraqi portion, Webb was just as strong on economic matters:

Wages and salaries for our workers are at all-time lows as a percentage of national wealth, even though the productivity of American workers is the highest in the world. Medical costs have skyrocketed. College tuition rates are off the charts. Our manufacturing base is being dismantled and sent overseas. Good American jobs are being sent along with them.

In short, the middle class of this country, our historic backbone and our best hope for a strong society in the future, is losing its place at the table. Our workers know this, through painful experience. Our white-collar professionals are beginning to understand it, as their jobs start disappearing also. And they expect, rightly, that in this age of globalization, their government has a duty to insist that their concerns be dealt with fairly in the international marketplace.

. . .

The House just passed a minimum wage increase, the first in ten years, and the Senate will soon follow. We've introduced a broad legislative package designed to regain the trust of the American people. We've established a tone of cooperation and consensus that extends beyond party lines. We're working to get the right things done, for the right people and for the right reasons.

But, of course, it's hard not to pay attention to the Iraqi portion of his comments:

The President took us into this war recklessly. He disregarded warnings from the national security adviser during the first Gulf War, the chief of staff of the army, two former commanding generals of the Central Command, whose jurisdiction includes Iraq, the director of operations on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and many, many others with great integrity and long experience in national security affairs. We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable - and predicted - disarray that has followed.

The war's costs to our nation have been staggering.


The damage to our reputation around the world.

The lost opportunities to defeat the forces of international terrorism.

And especially the precious blood of our citizens who have stepped forward to serve.

One of his most clever tricks was to adopt a strategy Republicans--and Bush in particular--have been using lately. You may have noticed the Prez compares himself to Truman fairly often, and although I couldn't google a quick reference just now, it seems that he's also name-checked FDR and Wilson, suggesting that he's similarly making the world safe for democracy. Webb called upon a couple of Republican presidents, namely Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. Roosevelt provided inspiration for his targeting of robber barons, and Ike was evoked for recognizing the futility of the Korean War and bringing it to an end. There are a couple of leaders a sitting president would do well to emulate.

But the most explosive segment of the speech was Webb's closing, which continued the inspiration from previous residents of the Oval Office:

These Presidents took the right kind of action, for the benefit of the American people and for the health of our relations around the world. Tonight we are calling on this President to take similar action, in both areas. If he does, we will join him. If he does not, we will be showing him the way.

I think we need to start that "showing him the way" part as soon as possible.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Superheroes with More Stress on the Hero than on the Super (or Something)

Wow, that was a long post. For something stepping away from politics for a moment, take a look at this Slate slideshow about comics featuring different takes on superheroes. The article uses the surprise NBC hit Heroes, in which "regular people" discover that they have extraordinary powers, as its jumping-off point. Slate cites Heroes Tim Kring's claim to be "presenting character-driven stories in which superpowers merely play a supporting role." This kind of statement always throws me a little bit, because it implies that the powers are peripheral to the story he's trying to tell rather than the hook on which the entire series hangs. Would people really be watching a show that features a few minutes of every episode with subtitled Japanese dialogue if the Japanese character didn't jump around through time and space? But anyway, back to the point at hand. Heroes has been putting regular comics stories up on its Web page featuring characters from the show, so Slate uses that as a segue to survey some printed comics that are more character heavy than plot heavy. The deck on the article asserts that these "reinvent the superhero genre," but that's an awfully big claim. I don't read all of the comics they look at, but the ones I do are intriguing and worth a look (and by extension, maybe the ones I don't are, too). See if you can find anything that interests you, and if so, report back.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Echoing Through the Years

Among the legion of people who I heard discussing the Prez's State of the Union Address, a number of them mentioned the alternative energy proposals. Somebody, and I'm sorry to say that I don't remember who, claimed that no matter how good it might've sounded last night, Bush has pretty much said the same thing in every State of the Union. Is that true? It can't be that hard to find out with the Internet at our side, can it? Courtesy of C-SPAN, no it can't. Let's see what he said.

First State of the Union, February 27, 2001:

As we meet tonight, many citizens are struggling with the high cost of energy. We have a serious energy problem that demands a national energy policy. (Applause.) The West is confronting a major energy shortage that has resulted in high prices and uncertainty. I've asked federal agencies to work with California officials to help speed construction of new energy sources, and I have direct Vice President Cheney, Commerce Secretary Evans, Energy Secretary Abraham and other senior members in my administration to develop a national energy policy. (Applause.)

Our energy demand outstrips our supply. We can produce more energy at home while protecting our environment, and we must. (Applause.) We can produce more electricity to meet demand, and we must. (Applause.) We can promote alternative energy sources and conservation, and we must. (Applause.) America must become more energy-independent, and we will. (Applause.)

Second State of the Union, January 29, 2002:

Good jobs also depend on reliable and affordable energy. This Congress must act to encourage conservation, promote technology, build infrastructure, and it must act to increase energy production at home so America is less dependent on foreign oil. (Applause.)

Third State of the Union, January 28, 2003:

Our third goal is to promote energy independence for our country, while dramatically improving the environment.

I have sent you a comprehensive energy plan to promote energy efficiency and conservation, to develop cleaner technology, and to produce more energy at home. I have sent you Clear Skies legislation that mandates a 70 percent cut in air pollution from power plants over the next 15 years. I have sent you a Healthy Forests Initiative, to help prevent the catastrophic fires that devastate communities, kill wildlife, and burn away millions of acres of treasured forest.

I urge you to pass these measures, for the good of both our environment and our economy. Even more, I ask you to take a crucial step, and protect our environment in ways that generations before us could not have imagined. In this century, the greatest environmental progress will come about, not through endless lawsuits or command and control regulations, but through technology and innovation. Tonight I am proposing 1.2 billion dollars in research funding so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles.

A simple chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen generates energy, which can be used to power a car - producing only water, not exhaust fumes. With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom - so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free. Join me in this important innovation - to make our air significantly cleaner, and our country much less dependent on foreign sources of energy.

Fourth State of the Union, January 20, 2004:

Consumers and businesses need reliable supplies of energy to make our economy run -- so I urge you to pass legislation to modernize our electricity system, promote conservation, and make America less dependent on foreign sources of energy. Applause.)

Fifth State of the Union, February 2, 2005:

To keep our economy growing, we also need reliable supplies of affordable, environmentally responsible energy. (Applause.) Nearly four years ago, I submitted a comprehensive energy strategy that encourages conservation, alternative sources, a modernized electricity grid, and more production here at home -- including safe, clean nuclear energy. (Applause.) My Clear Skies legislation will cut power plant pollution and improve the health of our citizens. (Applause.) And my budget provides strong funding for leading-edge technology -- from hydrogen-fueled cars, to clean coal, to renewable sources such as ethanol. (Applause.) Four years of debate is enough: I urge Congress to pass legislation that makes America more secure and less dependent on foreign energy. (Applause.)

Sixth State of the Union, January 31, 2006:

Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. And here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology. Since 2001, we have spent nearly $10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable alternative energy sources -- and we are on the threshold of incredible advances.

So tonight, I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative -- a 22-percent increase in clean-energy research -- at the Department of Energy, to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas. To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies, and clean, safe nuclear energy. (Applause.)

We must also change how we power our automobiles. We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars, and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen. We'll also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn, but from wood chips and stalks, or switch grass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years. (Applause.)

Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025. (Applause.) By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment, move beyond a petroleum-based economy, and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past. (Applause.)

Seventh State of the Union, January 23, 2007:

Extending hope and opportunity depends on a stable supply of energy that keeps America's economy running and America's environment clean. For too long our nation has been dependent on foreign oil. And this dependence leaves us more vulnerable to hostile regimes, and to terrorists -- who could cause huge disruptions of oil shipments, and raise the price of oil, and do great harm to our economy.

It's in our vital interest to diversify America's energy supply -- the way forward is through technology. We must continue changing the way America generates electric power, by even greater use of clean coal technology, solar and wind energy, and clean, safe nuclear power. (Applause.) We need to press on with battery research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles, and expand the use of clean diesel vehicles and biodiesel fuel. (Applause.) We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol -- (applause) -- using everything from wood chips to grasses, to agricultural wastes.

We made a lot of progress, thanks to good policies here in Washington and the strong response of the market. And now even more dramatic advances are within reach. Tonight, I ask Congress to join me in pursuing a great goal. Let us build on the work we've done and reduce gasoline usage in the United States by 20 percent in the next 10 years. (Applause.) When we do that we will have cut our total imports by the equivalent of three-quarters of all the oil we now import from the Middle East.

To reach this goal, we must increase the supply of alternative fuels, by setting a mandatory fuels standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017 -- and that is nearly five times the current target. (Applause.) At the same time, we need to reform and modernize fuel economy standards for cars the way we did for light trucks -- and conserve up to 8.5 billion more gallons of gasoline by 2017.

Achieving these ambitious goals will dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but it's not going to eliminate it. And so as we continue to diversify our fuel supply, we must step up domestic oil production in environmentally sensitive ways. (Applause.) And to further protect America against severe disruptions to our oil supply, I ask Congress to double the current capacity of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. (Applause.)

Dikembe Mutombo of the Houston Rockets is recognized by President George W. Bush during the State of the Union Address at U.S. Capitol Tuesday , Jan. 23, 2007. "Dikembe became a star in the NBA, and a citizen of the United States," said President Bush. "But he never forgot the land of his birth, or the duty to share his blessings with others. He built a brand new hospital in his old hometown. A friend has said of this good-hearted man: "Mutombo believes that God has given him this opportunity to do great things." And we are proud to call this son of the Congo a citizen of the United States of America. White House photo by Eric Draper America is on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will enable us to live our lives less dependent on oil. And these technologies will help us be better stewards of the environment, and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change. (Applause.)

So no, he hasn't talked about supporting alternative energy in every State of the Union, but he has claimed he wanted to lower our dependence on foreign oil. That seems to be going well.

There has been enough innuendo about new sources of energy, though, that shouldn't we have made some progress up to this point? I don't have the time or energy to actually look for any energy legislation that's been actually been proposed, and all I can think of off the top of my head concerned expanding oil drilling, so whatever they've been doing, it's not exactly high profile.

I can verify, though, that this is the first time in any of his State of the Unions that the Prez has even mentioned the climate in any context whatsoever, so I guess it's a good sign that he did so when talking about "the serious challenge of global climate change." But maybe it was just a shout out to Al Gore for his two Oscar noms. (On second thought, maybe not.) Perhaps Bush will start addressing climate change with the same purity of vision that he's dealt with alternative energy sources.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

How to Survive the State of the Union Address

I've been far too busy lately and haven't had the time to really focus on interesting subjects in this blog the way I'd like to. For instance, I haven't had a chance to really take a close look at what we should expect tonight when the Prez addresses the nation to talk about the State of the Union. So instead of trenchant analysis, we'll have to content ourselves with the State of the Union Address drinking game (with a tip of the hat to Professor Irwin Corey). And don't forget to include the Democratic Response Bonus Game.

Bottoms up!

Monday, January 22, 2007

It's a Local Thing

So the Bears pulled it out and got to the Super Bowl. I have to admit that I was one of those who didn't think Rex Grossman had it in him to lead his team to this kind of victory, but he's done an admirable job in the post season. Chicago is certainly feeling very pleased with its team at the moment. But as far as I'm concerned, the vast majority of credit for this victory goes to Lovie Smith. To borrow a hoary old--yet applicable--cliche, this Bears team is far more than the sum of its parts. Lovie has brought out the players strengths to shine together at precisely the same moment, and it's certainly paying off for the time being.

Over in the other league, Peyton Manning came through against the expectations of just about everybody. His reputation for not having enough to win the big game now serves as a punch line along the lines of "Is the Pope Catholic" in totally unrelated contexts. If a couple of plays had gone the other way, he'd still have that reputation, but he came through when it was important, and that's all that matters in the long run.

But what's that going to mean for the big game in a couple of weeks? The two quarterbacks are each on the top of their games (for the moment), but they could slip at any minute. Grossman can be erratic, and Manning just might not rise to the occasion--if we're not careful, it could be a race to the bottom.

One thing that does make Super Bowl XLI significant (and no, you definitely haven't heard it here first) is that it's the first one that will involve a team helmed by a black coach. And look, it's actually two teams with black coaches. So no matter what, we'll have a black coach winning the Super Bowl. Yes, it is about time. Has anybody heard if Rush Limbaugh's had anything to say on the subject? Just a couple of days ago, Atrios quoted him thusly:

Look, let me put it to you this way: the NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons. There, I said it.

Surely he's not going to pass up another chance to weigh in on the subject.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Lies, Lies, Lies, Yeah

Checking in for our weekly dose of Frank Rich, we discover that he's experiencing a spate of deja vu. The recent run of lies from the Bush administration has put him in mind of 2003. In fact, that's even the name he gives his column: "Lying Like It's 2003." Is it desperation causing them to replicate their former bravado? Or maybe they really just don't care.

Those who forget history may be doomed to repeat it, but who could imagine we'd already be in danger of replaying that rotten year 2003?

Scooter Libby, the mastermind behind the White House's bogus scenarios for ginning up the war in Iraq, is back at Washington's center stage, proudly defending the indefensible in a perjury trial. Ahmad Chalabi, the peddler of flawed prewar intelligence hyped by Mr. Libby, is back in clover in Baghdad, where he purports to lead the government's Shiite-Baathist reconciliation efforts in between visits to his pal Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran.

Last but never least is Mr. Libby's former boss and Mr. Chalabi's former patron, Dick Cheney, who is back on Sunday-morning television floating fictions about Iraq and accusing administration critics of aiding Al Qaeda. When the vice president went on a tear like this in 2003, hawking Iraq's nonexistent W.M.D. and nonexistent connections to Mohamed Atta, he set the stage for a war that now kills Iraqi civilians in rising numbers (34,000-plus last year) that are heading into the genocidal realms of Saddam. Mr. Cheney's latest sales pitch is for a new plan for "victory" promising an even bigger bloodbath.

Mr. Cheney was honest, at least, when he said that the White House's Iraq policy would remain "full speed ahead!" no matter what happened on Nov. 7.

. . .

Mr. Cheney's performance last week on "Fox News Sunday" illustrates the problem; his lying is nowhere near its last throes. Asked by Chris Wallace about the White House's decision to overrule commanders who recommended against a troop escalation, the vice president said, "I don't think we've overruled the commanders." He claimed we've made "enormous progress" in Iraq. He said the administration is not "embattled." (Well, maybe that one is denial.)

This White House gang is so practiced in lying with a straight face that it never thinks twice about recycling its greatest hits. Hours after Mr. Cheney's Fox interview, President Bush was on "60 Minutes," claiming that before the war "everybody was wrong on weapons of mass destruction" and that "the minute we found out" the W.M.D. didn't exist he "was the first to say so." Everybody, of course, was not wrong on W.M.D., starting with the United Nations weapons inspection team in Iraq. Nor was Mr. Bush the first to come clean once the truth became apparent after the invasion. On May 29, 2003 - two days after a secret Defense Intelligence Agency-sponsored mission found no biological weapons in trailers captured by American forces - Mr. Bush declared: "We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories."

The new lies aren't particularly any better. Rich shoots them down, so you can get the details from his column, but they're all in service to continuing the policy of refusing to admit mistakes or considering a change in military policy. Keep sending troops over to Iraq time and time again. Now we're trying to send a few more at a time, but that's highly unlikely to change the domestic situation in Iraq itself.

Once again, Rich is optimistic about opposition to the Prez.

Now it is our patriotic duty - politicians, the press and the public alike - to apply the brakes. Our failure to check the administration when it rushed into Iraq in 2003 will look even more shameful to history if we roll over again for a reboot in 2007. For all the belated Washington scrutiny of the war since the election, and for all the heralded (if so far symbolic) Congressional efforts to challenge it, too much lip service is still being paid to the deceptive P.R. strategies used by the administration to sell its reckless policies. This time we must do what too few did the first time: call the White House on its lies. Lies should not be confused with euphemisms like "incompetence" and "denial."

. . .

The next push on the "way forward" propaganda campaign arrives Tuesday night, with the State of the Union address. The good news is that the Democrats have chosen Jim Webb, the new Virginia senator, to give their official response. Mr. Webb, a Reagan administration Navy secretary and the father of a son serving in Iraq, has already provoked a testy exchange about the war with the president at a White House reception for freshmen in Congress. He's the kind of guy likely to keep a scorecard of the lies on Tuesday night. But whether he does or not, it's incumbent on all those talking heads who fell for "shock and awe" and "Mission Accomplished" in 2003 to not let history repeat itself in 2007. Facing the truth is the only way forward in Iraq.

I fear that he has more faith in those talking heads than I do. There might be a bit of a chance that they'll look at the truth, but my sense of it is that's only because they enjoy piling on to a lame duck president. This may be pointlessly idealistic, but we need to find a punditocracy interested in truth for its own sake.

(Truthout is responsible for our no-charge glimpse of Frank Rich this week.)

Saturday, January 20, 2007

How to Do a Heck of a Job

Via Andrew Sullivan, we've got confirmation from Brownie that there was more going on with the delayed federal response to Katrina than we realized.

[Former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael] Brown told a group of graduate students Friday that some in the White House had suggested the federal government should take charge in Louisiana because [Governor Kathleen] Blanco was a Democrat, while leaving Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, in control in his state.

. . .

Unbeknownst to me, certain people in the White House were thinking, 'We had to federalize Louisiana because she's a white, female Democratic governor, and we have a chance to rub her nose in it,'" he said, without naming names. "'We can't do it to Haley (Barbour) because Haley's a white male Republican governor. And we can't do a thing to him. So we're just gonna federalize Louisiana.'"

Not that this is particularly surprising. Did any of us really think that the Bush administration is that inept? If they just weren't good enough to be effective, we would've seen them trying and failing to help the situation on the Gulf coast. But this may have been the point when Karl Rove's political instincts abandoned him. Maneuvering the federal response while the city drowned didn't make political winners of anybody.

Perhaps a more interesting question, though, would be why Brownie is making these statements to grad students at the Metropolitan College of New York rather than, oh, maybe Congress or something. Oh, yeah, I forgot--Joe Lieberman thinks it's more important to move forward than replow old ground. Let's just hope that Henry Waxman's paying attention.

By the way, the Saints have certainly done well for themselves this year, but how much does the fact that they're playing for the NFC championship tomorrow bring attention to the difficult conditions that remain in New Orleans? It's on our minds a bit more, but is it just a feel-good story about the football team, or are we really interested in examining how much still needs to be done? Maybe the fact that I'm in Chicago, where the Bears have to defeat the Saints to get to the Super Bowl. Tonight on the local NBC affiliate, after showing a Saints fan in town for the game tomorrow pointing out, "Other teams are playing for a trophy, but we're playing to rebuild a city," the anchor awkwardly responded, "Well, the Saints may have our sympathy, but the Bears have our support." Perhaps other parts of the country are paying attention to the plight of actual New Orleanians.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Information Is Out There

This Web thing of ours sure moves quickly. A couple of years ago, I had a disagreement with a friend of mine about the opponents of the Harlem Globetrotters. He made a reference to the Washington Generals, but I said that the one time I saw the Globetrotters as a child, they’d played the Boston Shamrocks. He’d never heard of such a team, but I knew what I remembered. I went online to confirm my recollection and could find nothing. Lots about the Washington Generals, but the Boston Shamrocks? Nada. I don’t remember the last time I looked, but I checked at least another couple of times and got no hits.

The Harlem Globetrotters are playing around town this weekend (coming home—despite their name, they were always a Chicago-based team until they were sold after the death of Abe Saperstein), and the Chicago Tribune had a handful of articles about them. One of the sidebars mentioned that the Washington Generals were also sometimes known as the Boston Shamrocks. I was going to write to thank the Trib for finally confirming my memory, but before I did, I did another Google search to confirm that there was still no information on the Web. This time, though, in searching Boston Shamrocks and Globetrotters, I got 127 hits, and you can get through 46 of them before it shuts down on account of repetitive results. As a result, I’ve really got nothing to write about. The Trib is just repeating what anybody could’ve found on Wikipedia, and I look incredibly lame for not having long since confirmed the existence of the Boston Shamrocks as an opponent of the Harlem Globetrotters.

Oh, well. I guess the experience wasn’t a complete loss. In looking around the Web, I discovered that the Globetrotters have a particularly unsavory connection to politics. In 1976, they added their very first honorary team member, Henry Kissinger. Eeeeew.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Spreading the Discord

Yesterday a friend of mine sent me this paragraph from Wednesday's New York Times:

"The reality of the current situation is that we are approaching an open Sunni-Shiite conflict in the region," said Emad Gad, a specialist in international relations at the government-financed Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "And Egypt will also be a part of it as a part of the Sunni axis. No one will be able to avoid or escape it."

You can read the whole article, but I'll tell you right now it doesn't get any less bleak. The Prez and his advisors are looking to escalate their war and, with Bush's threatening language toward Iran and Syria, possibly expand it beyond the borders of Iraq. They should be careful what they wish for.

The sectarian divisions between Sunnis and Shiites are not finding themselves limited to the various factions in Iraq. Shiite Iran and the government it influences in Iraq are making their Sunni neighbors--such nations as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan--extremely nervous. Those neighbors are starting to use some muscle to reinstate their influence.

Now, fueled by state controlled media in many Sunni Muslim states, a divide, or at least an estrangement, is growing across the Middle East between Sunni Muslims and Shiites. Egyptians, for example, are inundated nearly daily with headlines, commentaries and television reports alleging Shiite transgressions.

An Egyptian-government controlled satellite service, called Nilesat, has been broadcasting across the Arab world Al Zawraa, a television station that shows what is billed as heroic footage of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, American soldiers being killed and wounded, and unflattering images of Shiite leaders.

"Raising the ugly face of Shiites, expanding Iranian influence in the region," read a headline in a recent edition of Rose el-Youssef, a pro-government Egyptian newspaper.

In December, a top religious leader close to the Saudi royal family, Abdul Rahman al-Barak, said that Shiites, whom he called rejectionists, were worse than Jews or Christians.

"By and large, rejectionists are the most evil sect of the nation and they have all the ingredients of the infidels," he wrote.

These differences have been present in Islam for centuries, but Bush's bumbling around in Iraq has exacerbated them, brought them back to the surface. The Prez's decisions about Iraq are based almost exclusively on our domestic politics, as if there's no awareness that those choices have consequences around the world. As the animosity between Sunnis and Shiites expands outside of Iraq, will the fighting it inspires spread to other countries as well? The sectarian violence can draw other governments into the morass currently headquartered in Iraq without cooler heads to calm things down. Does anybody have any ideas about where those cooler heads might come from?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

They Can't Handle the Truthiness

Almost a year after Stephen Colbert delighted the crowd at last year's White House Correspondents Association dinner, his effects are still being felt. As quoted by Editor & Publisher, White House Correspondents Association president Steve Scully is out to make this year's bash "a comfortable venue that is enjoyable, funny and interesting." Wow, that's something to look forward to. But to make sure no one gets the wrong idea, he adds, "But you don't want to offend anyone." Not that anyone was offended last year. No, sir. "I think some of the criticism of Colbert was overblown. We didn't hear anything from the White House."

And to make sure they don't hear anything from the White House this year, either, Scully has made a very shrewd choice. Fresh from David Letterman's Impressionists Week, this year's host is Rich Little. Scully did indeed get the idea of booking Little after seeing him on Letterman (you can see Little's performance on his Web page).

I don't actually mean to be hard on Rich Little. I always enjoyed him back in the day, and he does good impressions of Johnny Carson and Richard Nixon. He's offered a gig, so why shouldn't he accept it? My only problem is that he's not exactly a timely choice. I'd love nothing more, though, than for Little to step up with some challenging material. Maybe he can do a Stephen Colbert impression.

Scully only failed in one aspect of his self-imposed mission. He told Yeas and Nays at the Washington Examiner that he wanted to select someone who had never headlined the event. Unfortunately, according to E&P, Little will be celebrating the 23rd anniversary of the last time he was the host. Oh, well. As long as he keeps the Bob Novaks of the world happy.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

One Step Closer


It's starting to look all but inevitable. This morning Barack Obama moved a little bit more in the direction of running for president. He set up an exploratory committee, which means more than that he's simply thinking about it a bit more closely. Now he can start raising money while he thinks about it a bit more closely. And Evan Bayh's experience notwithstanding, it's virtually certain that this will lead to actual announcement of his campaign within a few weeks (actually, Obama's already promised to make another public announcement one way or another on February 10).

I've expressed my reservations about an Obama candidacy before (more than once, actually), but even I've got to admit that the zeitgeist just seems to be swirling in his direction. While I'm somewhat concerned about his lack of experience, my biggest concern is our lack of experience with him. Obama is an empty vessel, and we're free in our imaginations to fill him with all of our hopes and dreams. There's no reason not to load him up with our expectations, to make him our perfect candidate. The problem, though, is that my hopes and dreams are not the same as your hopes and dreams. My perfect candidate is going to differ from your perfect candidate. I've got no illusions that he's going turn out to be exactly what I want him to be, I have to wonder how much we'll each allow him to stray from that before we start turning away from him, before we look for someone else to be our political savior.

In looking around the political environment, though, Obama probably didn't think he had much choice. The feeling that this is his time is almost becoming palpable. If he hadn't decided to run (and, truth be told, we don't really know he has, yet), I suspect it would've been felt that he missed his chance, and he'd look even more like yesterday's news in another campaign than if he'd quietly closed out his term and run for reelection to the Senate.

As to the charge of inexperience, I saw one of Obama's mentors, Newton Minnow, on the local news tonight, and he pointed out that the person with the most experience currently serving in the Bush administration would be Dick Cheney. I don't know you need a stronger argument than that.

UPDATE--I forgot to put in a link to Obama's video announcement of his exploratory committee, where he explains his thinking in somewhat broad terms.

UPDATE 2--The Beat posted a timely photo from Obama's own Web site of a visit the senator made to Metropolis.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Concrete Benefits of Diversity

Just in time for Martin Luther King Day, Shankar Vedantam takes a look at diversity in the workplace in his weekly behavioral column at The Washington Post. Beyond the normal paean to diversity that one might expect today, Vedantam related some intriguing data on the psychological effects of being part of a diverse group. The studies he cites have found that white people think differently when they're part of a diverse group rather than one that is all white. And this happens even before group members have a chance to interact.

Tufts University psychologist Sam Sommers recently created mock juries -- either all white or diverse -- with volunteers from the public. He then provided the groups with ambiguous information about a crime involving a sexual assault and a black defendant. Sommers asked his "jurors" to judge whether the defendant was guilty.

About a third of whites in juries that were diverse thought the defendant was guilty, while 50 percent of the jurors in all-white groups reached that conclusion. What was really interesting, however, is that Sommers had people draw their conclusions before the groups had any discussions. The mere presence of people of color in the diverse groups caused whites to think differently about the case.

This is fascinating to me. If we're willing to think differently when in the presence of others who are not like us, why don't we carry over that same kind of thinking when we are among people who are like us. And is there a sort of sliding scale? Do we think a little bit differently if the group is, say, 10 percent diverse; does that expand if the group becomes 30 percent diverse? I'd also be interested to see if the thinking of minority individuals changes depending on the level of diversity. And is this an American phenomenon, or is this true in other parts of the world that have different majority groups?

Vedantam was also on Morning Edition this morning talking about his column. Click through to listen.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Ever-Shrinking George W. Bush

The one subject we can't stop talking about this week is the Prez's plan to "surge" in Iraq and escalate the conflict. And sure enough, that's what Frank Rich writes about in this week's column. Before getting started, though, he sets the scene with his title: "He's in the Bunker Now." And apparently, the Prez is hiding from reality there. That single image conveys both his isolation and his desperation. Much of the column today echoes with the diminished power of George W. Bush.

President Bush always had one asset he could fall back on: the self-confidence of a born salesman. Like Harold Hill in "The Music Man," he knew how to roll out a new product, however deceptive or useless, with conviction and stagecraft. What the world saw on Wednesday night was a defeated Willy Loman who looked as broken as his war. His flop sweat was palpable even if you turned down the sound to deflect despair-inducing phrases like "Prime Minister Maliki has pledged ..." and “Secretary Rice will leave for the region. ..."

Mr. Bush seemed to know his product was snake oil, and his White House handlers did too. In the past, they made a fetish of situating their star in telegenic settings, from aircraft carriers to Ellis Island. Or they placed him against Orwellian backdrops shrieking "Plan for Victory." But this time even the audio stuttered, as if in solidarity with Baghdad’s continuing electricity blackout, and the Oval Office was ditched, lest it summon up memories of all those past presidential sightings of light at the end of the Iraqi tunnel. Mr. Bush was banished to the White House library, where the backdrop was acres of books, to signify the studiousness of his rethinking of the "way forward."

. . .

"Victory" also received short shrift, downsized by the president to the paltry goal of getting "closer to success." The "benchmarks" he cited were so vague that they'd be a disgrace to No Child Left Behind. And no wonder: in November, Mr. Bush couldn't even get our devoted ally, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, to show up for dinner at their summit in Amman, let alone induce him to root out Shiite militias. The most muscle the former Mr. Bring-'Em-On could muster in Wednesday's speech was this: "If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people." Since that support vanished long ago, it's hard to imagine an emptier threat or a more naked confession of American impotence, all the more pathetic in a speech rattling sabers against Syria and Iran.

Like a lot of people these days, Rich compares the current Bush presidency with the latter days of the Nixon administration. The deterioration, both personal and political, experienced by Nixon is echoed in our current situation. Unfortunately, I'm not sure I see the same quick resolution.

I have long felt that it will be up to Mr. Bush's own party to ring down the curtain on his failed policy, and after the 2006 midterms, that is more true than ever. The lame-duck president, having lost both houses of Congress and at least one war (Afghanistan awaits), has nothing left to lose. That is far from true of his party.

Even conservatives like Sam Brownback of Kansas and Norm Coleman of Minnesota started backing away from Iraq last week. Mr. Brownback is running for president in 2008, and Mr. Coleman faces a tough re-election fight. But Republicans not in direct electoral jeopardy (George Voinovich of Ohio, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska) are also starting to waver. It's another Vietnam-Watergate era flashback. It wasn't Democrats or the press that forced Richard Nixon's abdication in 1974; it was dwindling Republican support. Though he had vowed to fight his way through a Senate trial, Nixon folded once he lost the patriarchal leader of his party’s right wing.

That leader was Barry Goldwater, who had been one of Nixon's most loyal and aggressive defenders until he finally realized he’d been lied to once too often. If John McCain won't play the role his Arizona predecessor once did, we must hope that John Warner or some patriot like him will, for the good of the country, answer the call of conscience. A dangerous president must be saved from himself, so that the American kids he's about to hurl into the hell of Baghdad can be saved along with him.

What's distressing about calling on the spirit of Barry Goldwater is that he has no obvious successor in the contemporary Republican party. Rich suggests John Warner, but although he may have the integrity to confront the Prez with the reality of his situation, he doesn't have the stature necessary to force Bush to listen. Who would Bush pay attention to? Almost certainly not his father, or anyone from that earlier administration. We already had James Baker step forward with something resembling a more responsible policy, and he was almost utterly ignored. I can think of no one in the Senate who could pull it off. When we get to elder statesmen, who's left? I suppose I could imagine Bush taking Henry Kissinger's advice into account, but by all reports, he's encouraging the Prez to do precisely what he's doing now. When it comes down to it, the most encouraging recommendation I can make is that we all hold on very tightly for another two years.

Thanks go this week to The Unknown Candidate for the free and unfettered view of Frank Rich.

Lieberman Loses Interest

According to Newsweek, Joe Lieberman, chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, has decided maybe it's not so important to hold an investigation into how the Bush administration handled the calamity of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. This is quite a change from his stance as the Connecticut for Lieberman candidate for Senate. At that time, fighting for his political life, he strongly criticized the Bushies for keeping a lid on vital records that might explain just what happened.

Asserting that there were "too many important questions that cannot be answered," Lieberman and other committee Democrats complained in a statement last year that the panel "did not receive information or documents showing what actually was going on in the White House."

Among the missing material: the record of a videoconference in the White House Situation Room in which former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown said he warned senior officials about the dire situation in New Orleans, but was greeted with "deafening silence." Also missing: records believed to include messages and conversations involving the president, Vice President Dick Cheney and their top aides during the days in late August and early September 2005 when the Katrina disaster was unfolding and thousands of city residents were flocking to overcrowded shelters and hanging onto rooftops awaiting rescue.

Now that he's safely ensconced back in the Senate, where he continues to insist that he's an independent Democrat, it's not so important. Take a look at this excuse that his spokesperson, Leslie Philips, gave to the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

The senator believes a more productive use of his time and that of his staff is to make sure legislative fixes are implemented and ensure that a response to a future catastrophe is better. The senator feels the American public has already concluded that the White House response was sorely lacking. Rather than take on the White House and open an old fight, he believes he can be more productive by moving forward.

We all long ago decided that the Bush administration response to the devastation along the Gulf Coast sucked, so what more is there to talk about. Aren't we better off spending our energy in trying to make sure it doesn't happen again? Of course, without examining what happened last time, I'm not sure how we can ever figure out how to avoid it next time.

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, one of the few Democrats who stood by Lieberman when he dropped the party to remain in his Senate race, going so far as to campaign with him in Connecticut, didn't quite seem to believe this latest turn of events when contacted by the Times-Picayune:

Knowing Sen. Lieberman the way I do, I know he will work with us, as he has in the past, to get all of the facts about the federal, state and local response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Or not.

There may still be some possibility of investigations in the House, but that's not clear yet. The Times-Picayune seems optimistic, although Newsweek is not so much. Both point out that, while Katrina does not seem to be at the top of the House Government Reform Committee's agenda, at least chair Henry Waxman hasn't ruled it out.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Too Much Attention on Iran

Oooops. Perhaps someone said too much. In what otherwise was an anticlimactic, by-the-book exercise in frustration, the Prez laced his address to the nation the other night with vague threats about Iran and Syria. Perhaps it was because he didn't offer much that everybody wasn't already expecting, but commentators not only noticed the odd statements about those other countries, they latched onto them and, in some cases, talked about nothing else. Dan Froomkin focused in on the problem:

After more than a month of frenzied anticipation, President Bush's speech last night was such a limp letdown -- with the notable exception of provocative, bellicose words aimed at Iran and Syria -- that it raises the question: What is he really up to?

Could his secret goal be to run out the clock, and leave Iraq to his successor? Might he be setting the stage for an exit on his terms -- giving the Iraqis one last chance, and if they blow it, then he withdraws? Is it even possible that he is beginning the process of shifting the attention of the military -- and the American public -- from Iraq to Iran?

Those theories may sound a bit conspiratorial, but Bush's new proposal is so internally contradictory, so incremental, so problematically dependent on Iraqi good behavior, and so unlikely to galvanize public support that it seems to me that it's open season on alternate explanations of his motivation.

We talked about the Iranian threats a couple of times, but I was far from the only one. Enough people noticed Steve Clemons's speculation about a secret presidential order authorizing military operations against Iran that Condi addressed it today before heading out to the Middle East. She specified that the order was focused against Iranians inside Iraq, but even that much strengthened speculation that the administration focus was shifting from Iraq to Iran. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Peter Pace, were on Capitol Hill trying to defuse that kind of talk. Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee:

We believe that we can interrupt these networks that are providing support through actions inside the territory of Iraq, that there is no need to attack targets in Iran itself.

At this point I don't trust the word of anyone in this administration, but at least if there are any plans for an incursion into Iran, they're no longer covert.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Iranian Whispers

There was some more speculation about the Prez's plans for Iran and Syria (but mostly Iran) today. Last night, he leaned on the two countries with vague threats. Bill Arkin also picked up on that, and he noted that, given the chance by Matt Lauer on Today, Condi refused to rule out attacking inside Iran's borders.

She also faced a few questions on just that subject when she appeared in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. As I first noticed from Josh Marshall, Chairman Joe Biden even warned an attack on Iran would cause a "constitutional confrontation in the Senate."

In the meantime, troops in Erbil in the Kurdish area of Northern Iraq, raided an Iranian office in the early hours of the morning and took up to six Iranians into custody. Some reports have said it was the day after the Prez spoke to the nation, but if you figure in the time change, it seems to me that the raid was pretty much instantaneous with the speech. Embassies and consulates are considered the soil of the nation they represent, and it's against international law for another country to invade. The Iranians are upset over the incident (yeah, I know, they don't have a lot of room to complain), but U.S. officials begged to differ:

A senior State Department official said that the Iranian office in Erbil was not technically a consulate, but rather a liaison office which also provided some consular services.

He said that American officials believed that the Iranians intended to turn the office into a consulate at some point, but that had not yet happened. Therefore, he said, the State Department does not consider the office to be Iranian territory.

Certain Kurdish soldiers seemed to think it was an official diplomatic office. About 100 of them with arms drawn surrounded American military vehicles in a tense stand off for about two hours this morning. The Times reports that the Kurds were "possibly angered by the earlier raid." It's worth a reminder that it's among the Kurds where Americans are most appreciated. Are we starting to alienate them now?

Steve Clemons at The Washington Note passes on speculation from "Washington intelligence, military and foreign policy circles" that the Prez has issued a secret order to both the Defense Department and the CIA allowing military operations against Iran and Syria. Although it may be informed speculation, it's still just speculation, so we'll have to see if anyone comes up with something more solid in the next few days. But it does raise the question: If Iraq is Vietnam, does that mean Iran is Cambodia?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

All for One and One for All

Here's a nice, little graphic that shows what the Earth looked like 200 million years ago and then morphs into what it might look like 250 million years from now. It was in The New York Times earlier this week, but other events kept pushing their way into these posts before I could talk about it. This Flash animation shows how the continents were joined into Pangea, how they broke apart and then drifted to become the seven continents we know today, and how they are likely to join together once again. They start drifting together again in the next 100 million years, with Africa smashing into Europe and decimating the Mediterranean Sea. In 250 million years, we'll be back to one continent, this time called Pangea Ultima. Of course, the accompanying article puts a damper on all this, pointing out that geologists really don't have any faith in such predictions more than about 50 million years in the future. For all we know, this whole Flash animation might be the figment of some scientist's deranged imagination.

One thing that's not clear is whether this takes global warming into account. I suppose it might help the Mediterranean Sea withstand the onslaught of Africa moving north if it has more water from the Arctic and Antarctic. And sure enough, the very next day, the Times reported that 2006 was the hottest year since records have been kept more than 125 years ago. It beat out 1998, which at least had an El Nino to blame. Last year had no atmospheric oddity to cause the heat, and the Times notes that for the first time, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officially acknowledges that human activity is responsible. They're still not suggesting that we do anything about it, but I guess we've got to be happy with the baby steps that we get.

Between the Lines of the "Surge"

No real surprises tonight, but there may be a couple of things that push the boundaries of where they've been before. As expected, the Prez escalated the conflict in Iraq by promising more troops into Iraq to . . . well, do pretty much what they've been doing so far, clearing out neighborhoods and trying to keep the "bad guys" from coming back in. So what was new? He sort of accepted responsibility for what's gone wrong in the operation so far: "Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me." Of course, he didn't necessarily say mistakes were made, and if they were, he's certainly not giving any indication of what they might have been. But this is the closest he's come yet to saying he did anything wrong, so I guess we should be happy with what we can get.

The other thing that concerns me to some extent is a very vague statement he made about Iran and Syria.

These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.

He didn't specify where we'd seek out and destroy these networks--will we enter Iran and attack there if we feel it necessary? Was this the Prez marking his territory to invade Iran on the timetable of his choosing? That would explain the otherwise odd decision of putting an admiral in charge of two land wars in the Middle East and Asia. The new CENTCOM commander doesn't seem a shoo-in for that, but if you need somebody to lead an air-and-sea attack against Iran, he's your guy. The Prez also mentioned that he's deploying more Patriot missile systems into the area. Just in case they're needed.

The most ridiculous notion in the new "surge" plan is this:

The Iraqi government will appoint a military commander and two deputy commanders for their capital. The Iraqi government will deploy Iraqi Army and National Police brigades across Baghdad's nine districts.

When these forces are fully deployed, there will be 18 Iraqi Army and National Police brigades committed to this effort, along with local police. These Iraqi forces will operate from local police stations; conducting patrols, setting up checkpoints, and going door- to-door to gain the trust of Baghdad residents.

That's right. This whole plan depends on the Iraqis stepping up. Isn't that what we've been waiting for since the beginning of this whole mess? Why do we think it'll work at this point? Well, the Prez offered this:

Prime Minister Maliki has pledged that political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated.

There you go: because Maliki promised that it would. But, and I'm just playing the devil's advocate here for a moment, what happens if it doesn't work? What kind of consequences is the Prez willing to put on the table?

I have made it clear to the prime minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people. And it will lose the support of the Iraqi people.

You know what? I don't see how that can possibly function as an effective threat. Maybe it's just me, but I think it's already lost the support of the American people. And from the sound of things, it may no longer have the Iraqi people backing it, either.

Aside from the veiled threats, is this plan a nonstarter? Democrats have been making noise about offering opposition, but will they finally be ready to step up?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

McCain Painting Himself into a Corner?

After writing yesterday about John McCain and his efforts to clarify the differences between his plan and whatever it is the Prez is going to announce tonight, I got to thinking about his position some more. It's been a common theme among right-leaning politicians and commentators to paint liberals and even moderate Democrats as hoping for the military to fail in Iraq. Whenever Democratic support is less than what conservatives insist it should be, they simply paint the other side as unpatriotic losers who don't just lack the resolve to win, but who don't even want to win in the first place. Tony Snow hinted at just that in yesterday's press briefing:

Well, look, Democrats are going to have to make a choice here and they're going to have to decide where they stand in terms of two issues: Number one, do you want Iraq to succeed, and, if so, what does that mean? And, number two, do you believe in supporting the troops as you say, and how do you express that support? Those are questions that will be answered in the process of public debate and also -- and a lot of other considerations. So we'll just have to see how it plays out.

That's ridiculous, of course, but in considering McCain and his recent gymnastics to find a position more hawkish than the Prez without coming up with something so extreme no one will take him seriously, I had to wonder if the charge of hoping for defeat now applies to him. McCain completely seems to be setting up a "You should've listened to me" or "I told you so" strategy for himself to run for president in a scant twenty-two months. Along with Joe Lieberman, who seems intent on playing Bucky to McCain's uberhawk Captain America, he's one of the few on the national scene actively lobbying for more troops. A lot of Republicans are willing to go along (although it's not like old times, as 30 percent of Republicans oppose a "surge"), but there aren't many leading the charge or trying to outdo the Prez. In the link above, McCain says he's happy to stand or fall on his call for additional troops, but we'll have to see whether he's still distancing himself from the administration after tonight when at least some of his proposals are likely to become presidential policy.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Correct Use of Air Quotes

As an editor and writer, I'm far more interested than I probably should be in unusual uses of vocabulary and punctuation. You may have noticed this as well, but when a lot of newswriters are talking about the Prez's anticipated plan to add troops in Iraq, they're putting the word surge in quotation marks. The trend is all over the place: The Washington Post, CNN, The Boston Globe, and Newsday all did it. USA Today even referred to the "so-called 'surge.'" The Financial Times makes it international. Of course the editorial pages are getting into the act, and Wes Clark uses the technique in The Washington Post as he argues for increased diplomatic efforts over increased troop strength. But et tu, George Will?

What does any of this mean? Quotation marks serve a number of functions in written language, but one that's becoming more and more popular is as the international symbol for irony. In the current context, in which Bush's expected plan faces so much opposition, journalists can't help but realize that these quote marks will make people look at surge ironically. So is this just some kind of passive-aggressive reporting in which journalists can't actually spell out the truth but can only hint at it? Or are all these sources picking up the argument by some liberal bloggers that surge should be seen as a euphemism for escalation? Maybe they're using the quotes to imply that the whole policy is nothing more than political posturing. This all seems evocative of something, the newspeople are sending some sort of message, but I'm really not sure precisely what it is. Maybe it's as simple as that they're all trying to jump on the snark train. What do you think?

One person who's not using the quotes is John McCain. He has a column in Sunday's Washington Post in which he tries to position himself as separate and distinct from whatever it is the Prez is going to suggest on Wednesday. Although the senator has himself called for another 20,000 or so troops, now that it seems that's the new administration plan, McCain's suggesting that it isn't enough: "The worst of all worlds would be a small, short surge of U.S. forces." Thanks John, but you can't duck responsibility that easily. The best name of all for our new initiative may be John Edwards's verbal slight of hand, "The McCain Doctrine." If you haven't been following closely with your own scorecard, Media Matters has a concise little rundown of the Straight Talker's zigging and zagging on a possible "surge" in Iraq.

Monday, January 08, 2007

A Couple of New York Stories

The smell wafting its way through New York City and parts of New Jersey makes an awfully odd story. According to tomorrow's Newsday, the smell originated somewhere in New Jersey, but officials couldn't find a specific source location and so couldn't conduct tests to identify the odor's cause. The best Charles Sturcken, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, could come up with was, "We think it emanates somewhere between Secaucus and Jersey City." I haven't been following any of this, but it seems that this isn't the first time a smell has overtaken the city. Previous scents have been more pleasing (an unidentified maple-syrup odor appeared twice in 2005, and another scent came through in August of last year), but the whole thing has dangerous implications that no one quite seems to be voicing. The fact that it's happened more than a couple of times now (though there seems to be no suggestion that the various instances have been related) without anyone coming up with a reason why can't sit well with NYC residents.

While I was looking at that over at Newsday, I couldn't help but notice the following headline: "Warm Weather Translates to More Kittens." Now that we've upped the cute quotient on global warming, maybe we'll start paying more attention.

Take a Look at the Lawman Beating Up the Wrong Guy

We're finding out more and more about Mars. Who knows--Dan Quayle might've been right a couple of President Bushes ago when he talked about water flowing through the canals. In its year-end roundup, Astrobiology Magazine named this story from December about water apparently having flowed on Mars within the last seven years as its story of the year. Now, at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle, it's being theorized that we've already encountered Martian life-forms but didn't recognize it. Unfortunately, the downside of not recognizing life is that it's easy to kill it unintentionally, and that may have happened, as well.

Dirk Schulze-Makuch of Washington State University and Joop Houtkooper of Justus Liebig University in Germany have theorized that scientists looking for water-based life could easily overlook life based on hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide has a lower freezing point, so it would make sense if it existed in the frigid environment of Mars. Bacteria and microbes that exist on hydrogen peroxide have been found in extreme environments such as undersea volcanoes on Earth, so there's no reason to think that they couldn't also exist on other planets, as well.

But how do we jump from there to the assumption that Earth exploration killed such Martian microbes? Tom Paulson, science reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer explains:

A previously confusing finding on Mars by the Viking Landers was evidence of chemical oxidation. Scientists at the time assumed this meant the Martian surface was a highly reactive place, but further missions to Mars failed to find any evidence of oxidative chemistry.

Schulze-Makuch and Houtkooper suggest that the hydrogen peroxide detected by Viking could have come from killing Martian microbes that, like some peculiar creatures on Earth, use hydrogen peroxide the same way humans use water.

The Mars landers did all their chemical analyses by mixing samples with water -- a step that would have prompted a powerful chemical reaction in any microbe full of hydrogen peroxide, killing it and releasing the peroxide.

"Something had to oxidize for Viking to get those results," Schulze-Makuch said. Since nothing in Mars' soil or atmosphere appears capable of causing such a reaction, he said it's reasonable to suggest that it could have been a Martian microbe.

Armed with this information, the next mission to Mars can expand the parameters of what it's looking for to find out if there's any substance to this theory. The universe is large enough and we know little enough about it that there's no reason to expect that every possible form of life must be based on water.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Reading the Past as a Comment on the Present

Frank Rich took the holidays off, but he used that time to rest and rejuvenate so he could take off right out of the blocks for the new year. Today's column, "The Timely Death of Gerald Ford," looks at the subtext of all that Gerry Ford funeral coverage we were inundated with. Apparently the mainstream media can only address the vital issues of the day through innuendo.

What the Ford obsequies were most about was the Beltway establishment's grim verdict on George W. Bush and his war in Iraq. Every Ford attribute, big and small, was trotted out by Washington eulogists with a wink, as an implicit rebuke of the White House's current occupant. Mr. Ford was a healer, not a partisan divider. He was an all-American football star, not a cheerleader. He didn't fritter away time on pranks at his college fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, because he had to work his way through school as a dishwasher. He was in the top third of his class at Yale Law. He fought his way into dangerous combat service during World War II rather than accept his cushy original posting. He was pals with reporters and Democrats. He encouraged dissent in his inner circle. He had no enemies, no ego, no agenda, no ideology, no concern for his image. He described himself as "a Ford, not a Lincoln," rather than likening himself to, say, Truman.

Under the guise of not speaking ill of a dead president, the bevy of bloviators so relentlessly trashed the living incumbent that it bordered on farce. No wonder President Bush, who once hustled from Crawford to Washington to sign a bill interfering in Terri Schiavo's medical treatment, remained at his ranch last weekend rather than join Betty Ford and Dick Cheney for the state ceremony in the Capitol rotunda.

Yet for all the media acreage bestowed on the funeral, the day in Mr. Ford's presidency that most stalks Mr. Bush was given surprisingly short shrift — perhaps because it was the most painful. That day was not Sept. 8, 1974, when Mr. Ford pardoned his predecessor, but April 30, 1975, when the last American helicopters hightailed it out of Saigon, ending our involvement in a catastrophic war. Mr. Ford had been a consistent Vietnam hawk, but upon inheriting the final throes of the fiasco, he recognized reality when he saw it.

. . .

The awful power of the Hussein snuff film derives not just from its illustration of the barbarity of capital punishment, even in a case where the condemned is a mass murderer undeserving of pity. What really makes the video terrifying is its glimpse into the abyss of an irreversible and lethal breakdown in civic order. It sends the same message as those images of helicopters fleeing our embassy in April 1975: Iraq, like Vietnam before it, is in chaos, beyond the control of our government or the regime we're desperately trying to prop up. The security apparatus of Iraq's "unity government" was powerless to prevent the video, let alone the chaos, and can't even get its story straight about what happened and why.

Actually, it's even worse than that. Perhaps the video's most chilling notes are the chants of "Moktada! Moktada! Moktada!" They are further confirmation, as if any were needed, that our principal achievement in Iraq over four years has been to empower a jihadist mini-Saddam in place of the secular original. The radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr, an ally of Hezbollah and Hamas, is a thug responsible for the deaths of untold Iraqis and Americans alike.

Of course, Rich can't bring up the subject of Iraq without taking a look at the Prez's upcoming plans, expected to be announced this week.

It's against the backdrop of both the Hussein video and the Ford presidency that we must examine the prospect of that much-previewed "surge" in Iraq — a surge, by the way, that the press should start calling by its rightful name, escalation. As Mr. Ford had it, America cannot regain its pride by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned and, for that matter, as far as Iraq is concerned. By large margins, the citizens of both countries want us not to escalate but to start disengaging. So do America's top military commanders, who are now being cast aside just as Gen. Eric Shinseki was when he dared assert before the invasion that securing Iraq would require several hundred thousand troops.

It would still take that many troops, not the 20,000 we might scrape together now. Last month the Army and Marines issued an updated field manual on counterinsurgency (PDF) supervised by none other than Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the next top American military commander in Iraq. It endorsed the formula that "20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 residents" is "the minimum troop density required." By that yardstick, it would take the addition of 100,000-plus troops to secure Baghdad alone.

The "surge," then, is a sham. It is not meant to achieve that undefined "victory" Mr. Bush keeps talking about but to serve his own political spin. His real mission is to float the "we're not winning, we're not losing" status quo until Jan. 20, 2009. After that, as Joseph Biden put it last week, a new president will "be the guy landing helicopters inside the Green Zone, taking people off the roof." This is nothing but a replay of the cynical Nixon-Kissinger "decent interval”" exit strategy concocted to pass the political buck (to Mr. Ford, as it happened) on Vietnam.

As the White House tries to sell this flimflam, picture fresh American troops being tossed into Baghdad's caldron to work alongside the Maliki-Sadr Shiite lynch mob that presided over the Saddam hanging. Contemplate as well Gerald Ford's most famous words, spoken as he assumed the presidency after the Nixon resignation: "Our Constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule."

This time the people do not rule. Two months after Americans spoke decisively on Election Day, the president is determined to overrule them. Our long national nightmare in Iraq, far from being over, is about to get a second wind.

This brings us back to what I was talking about last night. How much power will the Democrats, as well as whatever interested Republicans may join them, have to keep the war in Iraq from not only lingering but from escalating? I have no doubt that the people will have the last word, but I just hope we don't have to waste too much time (and lives) getting to that point.

(Thanks to donkey o.d. for providing unfettered access to this week's Frank Rich column.)