Thursday, November 30, 2006

News You May Have Missed

  • Thousands protest Ga. military school:
    Opponents of the School of the Americas think that with the new make-up of Congress, they might have the votes to shut down the controversial training center for foreign military officers. Last weekend, thousands of protesters returned to Fort Benning, Georgia, for the 17th consecutive year to call for the closure of the school, whose training manuals advocate torture, extortion and execution.
  • European Report Details Flights By CIA Aircraft:
    European report details the secret CIA flights to detention facilities in Poland and Romania. Airport directors were offered large sums of cash to land planes from faraway places like Afghanistan.
  • Christian Coalition leader leaves in frustration:
    CC disses his ideas to fight poverty and go green.
  • Despite a Year of Ire and Angst, Little Has Changed on Wiretaps:
    For all the sound and fury in the last year, the National Security Agency's wiretapping program continues uninterrupted, with no definitive action by either Congress or the courts on what, if anything, to do about it, and little chance of a breakthrough in the lame-duck Congress.
  • Rights and Liberties: Justice Department Quashes Wiretapping Inquiries:
    "The Department of Justice's response to inquiries sent by Maine, Connecticut, Vermont and New Jersey about possible illegal wiretapping has been to sue."
  • Whistle-blowers tell of cost of conscience:
    He knew there were problems. He didn't think he was one of them. At the time, Coleen Rowley, the FBI agent who had raised concerns about how the pre-9/11 arrest of al-Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui was handled, was being hailed as a national hero. FBI Special Agent Mike German says he had also just received a mass email from FBI Director Robert Mueller, urging other whistleblowers to come forward. "I was assuming he'd protect me," German says. Instead, German says his accusations were ignored, his reputation ruined and his career obliterated.
  • Rumsfeld okayed abuses says former U.S. general�:
    Outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorized the mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the prison's former U.S. commander said in an interview on Saturday.
  • Firms Crimping Oil Supplies:
    An Associated Press analysis suggests that big oil companies have been crimping supplies in subtler ways across the country for years. The analysis, based on data from the US Energy Information Administration, indicates that the industry slacked off supplying oil and gasoline during the prolonged price boom between early 1999 and last summer, when prices began to fall.
  • Cheney and Neo-Cons Plotting More Wars:
    They are now preparing to survive the fall of the House of Bush, and are already making plans for the next confrontations: against Iran and Russia, to name the top two targets du jour.
  • Secret Pentagon Documents Classify Central Coast Group as a "Threat":
    New details tonight about a secret Pentagon database used to monitor anti-war protests and activists. Recently-disclosed documents reveal that some of the surveillance targets include an organization with ties to the Central Coast.
  • Military Documents Hold Tips on Antiwar Activities
    Ben Wizner, a lawyer for the ACLU in New York, said the new documents suggested that the military’s efforts to glean intelligence on protesters went beyond what was previously known. If intelligence officials "are going to be doing investigations or monitoring in a place where people gather to worship or to study, they should have a pretty clear indication that a crime has occurred," Mr. Wizner added.
  • US dollar 'will keep falling':
    The US dollar has reached a 'tipping point' as foreign exchange markets wake up to the threat that the Federal Reserve will have to slash interest rates in the new year to stave off recession, analysts say. After a sharp sell-off on Friday took the greenback to 18-month lows against the euro, and pushed the pound to $1.93, economists warned that there was worse to come for the US currency.
  • The U.S. Dollar is the Week's Biggest Turkey:
    While Americans were busy digesting their Thanksgiving feasts, the rest of the world was barfing up dollars. As a result of our massive trade deficits, foreigners certainly have their bellies full of them.
  • State police eyed as hubs of terrorism data network:
    A new plan from the U.S. intelligence czar will use intelligence centers run by state police as the hubs for a national network of officials from different agencies and levels of government sharing information about terrorism.
  • Dean Baker | Free Trade Arithmetic for Progressives:
    Dean Baker writes: "When manufacturing workers in the United States have to compete with workers in Mexico and China who earn a dollar an hour, it puts downward pressure on their wages. Because manufacturing traditionally has been a source of relatively high-paying jobs for less-educated workers, the loss of manufacturing jobs and the downward pressure on wages in the sector has the effect of lowering wages for the entire 70 percent of the workforce that lacks a college degree."
  • A Step Shy of Book-Burning:
    "The White House has begun closing the Enviromental Protection Agency's research libraries to the public and to its own staff, cementing Bush's reputation as usher of a new dark age."
  • Democrats' Victory Is Felt On K Street:
    The Democrats' takeover of Congress this month has turned official Washington upside down. Labor and environmental representatives, once also-rans in congressional influence, are meeting frequently with Capitol Hill's incoming Democratic leaders. Corporations that once boasted about their Republican ties are busily hiring Democratic lobbyists. And industries worried about reprisals from the new Democrats-in-charge, especially the pharmaceutical industry, are sending out woe-is-me memos and hoping their GOP connections will protect them in the crunch.
  • Bush's Dr. Abstinence forgot to get board certified:
    While he [Dr. Eric Keroack] is an M.D., it turns out he's "not currently certified as an obstetrician-gynecologist." According to an HHS spokesperson, he was certified but "inadvertently missed the recertification deadline."
  • Iran Offers Nuclear Access To IAEA
    Iran On Thursday agreed to give the United Nations nuclear agency, the IAEA, access to equipment and records from two of its nuclear sites. Mohamed ElBaradei, the Chief of the IAEA, said that Iran has agreed to allow the IAEA inspectors take environmental samples from equipment at a former military site at Lavizan. He added that Iran has also offered the UN access to records from a uranium enrichment plant in Natanz.
  • Olmert and the Baker Boys:
    James Baker, the consiglieri of the Bush crime family, brings Syria and Iran to the table and they hammer out an understanding on Iraq and, horror stacked upon horror, “some kind of long-term Israeli-Arab diplomatic agreement,” as the Jerusalem Post puts it.
  • Waxman Has Bush Administration in Sights:
    Congressman Henry Waxman has spent the last six years waging a guerrilla campaign against the White House and its corporate allies, launching searing investigations into everything from military contracts to Medicare prices from his perch on the Government Reform Committee. In January, Waxman becomes committee chairman - and thus the lead Congressional hound of an administration many Democrats feel has blundered badly as it expanded the power of the executive branch.
  • Press Freedom: US Drops To 53rd Place:
    The US dropped 9 places in the 2006 Index of Press Freedom by Reporters Without Borders issued last month.

    52 countries ranked higher and 115 ranked lower.

    Finland, Iceland, Ireland and the Netherlands tied for first, with no recorded censorship, threats, intimidation or physical reprisals -- criterion that the Paris-based group uses to rank countries.

    The US was outranked by most of the European counties, but also by such unlikely nations as Slovakia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Namibia, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Botswana.
  • Chertoff's 'Chilling Vision':
    "Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who runs the giant agency that keeps track of threats to the United States, has shared what he calls his "chilling vision" of the future -- a time when U.S. government actions might be constrained by international law.

    Chertoff outlined his nightmare scenario in a Nov. 17 speech to the Federalist Society, an organization of right-wing lawyers who spearheaded the legal arguments for granting President George W. Bush authority unbound by any law, including the constitutional rights of Americans."
  • Drug Industry Is on Defensive as Power Shifts:
    "Alarmed at the prospect of Democratic control of Congress, top executives from two dozen drug companies met here last week to assess what appears to them to be a harsh new political climate, and to draft a battle plan.

    Hoping to prevent Congress from letting the government negotiate lower drug prices for millions of older Americans on Medicare, the pharmaceutical companies have been recruiting Democratic lobbyists, lining up allies in the Bush administration and Congress, and renewing ties with organizations of patients who depend on brand-name drugs."

Torture Update

Dodd Urges Bush to Delay Implementation of Torture Bill:
"Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) yesterday called on George W. Bush to postpone putting the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (MCA) into place until a new Secretary of Defense is confirmed and can examine the hideous piece of legislation passed by the Republican Congress in September...."
Judge strikes down Bush on terror groups:
"A federal judge struck down President Bush's authority to designate groups as terrorists, saying his post-Sept. 11 executive order was unconstitutional and vague.

Some parts of the Sept. 24, 2001 order tagging 27 groups and individuals as "specially designated global terrorists" were too vague and could impinge on First Amendment rights of free association, U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins said.

The order gave the president "unfettered discretion" to label groups without giving them a way to challenge the designations, she said in a Nov. 21 ruling that was made public Tuesday.

The judge, who two years ago invalidated portions of the U.S. Patriot Act, rejected several sections of Bush's Executive Order 13224 and enjoined the government from blocking the assets of two foreign groups...."
In Letter, Radical Cleric Details CIA Abduction, Egyptian Torture
In an account smuggled out of prison, a radical Muslim cleric has detailed how he was kidnapped by the CIA from a northern Italian city and flown to Cairo, where he was tortured for months with electric shocks and shackled to an iron rack known as "the Bride."
Bush Admin shielded from War Crimes [VIDEO]
Buried deep within the torture bill is this:

... no court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider any other action against the United States or its agents relating to any aspect of the detention, transfer, treatment, trial, or conditions of confinement of an alien detained by the United States who--

(A) is currently in United States custody; and

(B) has been determined by the United States to have been properly detained as an enemy combatant or is awaiting such determination.'.

(b) Effective Date- The amendments made by subsection (a) shall take effect on the date of the enactment of this Act, and shall apply to all cases, without exception, pending on or after the date of the enactment of this Act which relate to any aspect of the detention, transfer, treatment, trial, or conditions of detention of an alien detained by the United States since September 11, 2001.

In English: Any war crime committed by the Bush administration since 9/11 cannot be prosecuted.

Nice job congress.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Senseless Killings in a Sick Society

Bob Herbert, on the continuing saga of innocents gunned down by trigger-happy police, is right to insist that "the mayor and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have an obligation to develop effective new strategies for reining in reckless police behavior" and "that police officers, including those who are black, recognize the essential humanity of all the people they are supposed to be protecting and serving."

Given the excessively violent society we currently live in, given the 24/7 violence blaring from TV's into our family rooms, given the glorification of violent criminals starring nearly every night on "investigative news" shows, given the ever present images of war - both real and concocted for box-office extravaganzas, given our insatiable appetite for ever more realistic, bloody, video games; given all of this -- have we perhaps weakened our ability to distinguish reality from fantasy, right from wrong, the good guy from the bad, justified killing from unjustified?

I grew up watching "Father Knows Best" and "Leave it to Beaver." What are our kids growing up watching? What values are they learning from what they watch?

My generation fought against the objectification of women. Today's young women are fighting for it. Rape, sex, and the humiliation of women are constant themes in TV dramas and movies. Even fashion designers, taking bottoms to new below-the-hip lows, and tops to cheap lingerie highs, are contributers to the revival of woman-as-sex-object. Yet today's women don't object to their own objectification.

Our society has been catering to an ever lower common denominator for so long that it has reached rock bottom. We have become overly inured to violence to the point where our judgement is impaired, our ability to react is perverted.

TV, movies, games, reality shows are all a reflection of us, of our values, our aspirations. We have the freedom not to watch, not to buy, not to participate in that which offends our values and debases us as a society. So far, we have been feeding hungrily at whatever is thrown into the trough.

How many senseless killings, wars, and violent crimes will it take before we demand more of ourselves?

Photo Credit: In the above undated family photo, Sean Bell and his fiancée, Nicole Paultre, pose with their daughter. (Family photo via the Daily News via

Badges, Guns and Another Unarmed Victim
By Bob Herbert
The New York Times
This time it was 50 shots from five officers. With Amadou Diallo it was 41 shots from four officers. With Eleanor Bumpurs, an aging, overweight, disoriented grandmother, it was a pair of shotgun blasts from a single officer — inside her apartment!

The decades pass. The stories remain the same. Nathaniel Gaines Jr., a 25-year-old Navy veteran, was shot to death by a cop on a subway platform in the Bronx on the Fourth of July in 1996. The mayor at the time, Rudolph Giuliani, no softy on crime, said of the shooting: “There does not seem to be any reason for it.”

On an April morning in 1973 a veteran cop named Thomas Shea pulled his service revolver and blew away a black kid on a street in Jamaica, Queens. There was no reason on God’s glittering earth for that killing. The kid, Clifford Glover, was 10 years old. The cop shot him in the back.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1976 an officer named Robert Torsney fired a bullet into the head of Randolph Evans, 15, outside a housing project in Brooklyn. No one could explain that killing, either.

Yesterday, under an overcast sky and with a crush of reporters around them, the relatives and fiancée of Sean Bell visited the narrow street in Queens where he was killed in a sudden frantic fusillade of police bullets early last Saturday morning, just a few hours before he was to be married.

Mr. Bell and two friends who had attended his bachelor party at a nearby club were in his car when they were set upon by a group of undercover cops who had been staking out the club. The two friends were seriously wounded in the shooting.

Here is my first quick take on this case: If I was in my car outside a rowdy nightclub in the wee hours of the morning and someone who looked like a club patron came running toward me, screaming and waving a gun, I would immediately slam the gearshift into drive, hit the accelerator and try to get the hell out of there.

This appears to be what happened. The cops, dressed to blend in with the club crowd, were single-mindedly looking for trouble — evidence of prostitution, underage drinking, illegal guns, and so forth. They were looking so hard for criminal behavior that they seem to have imagined it where none was occurring.

One officer is said to have believed that one of Mr. Bell’s companions may have had a gun. No gun was found and there is no evidence that any of the three men were armed at any time.

“It sounds to me like excessive force was used,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who characterized the 50-shot barrage as “unacceptable” and “inexplicable.” Referring to Mr. Bell and his two friends, the mayor said, “There is no evidence that they were doing anything wrong.”

The thing that is most unacceptable about this case is not the total number of shots fired, but the fact that five New York City cops were so willing to begin firing at all — willing to take the life of another human being, and maybe a number of human beings — without ever establishing that there was a good reason for doing so.

Under Mayor Bloomberg, there is a much better tone in the city with regard to police-community relations, and race relations in general. But when it comes to the Police Department, an improved tone won’t count for much if policies and procedures aren’t changed to prevent cops from blowing away innocent individuals with impunity.

This has gone on for far too many decades. Yet there is still no sense among public officials that big changes are necessary. The cops who killed Sean Bell and wounded his two friends haven’t even been questioned yet by the police or investigators from the Queens district attorney’s office. The D.A., Richard Brown, is preparing a grand jury investigation but he told me it could still be weeks before the cops are questioned.

Meanwhile, the community, which is sick of these killings, is simmering. Along with the candles and flower arrangements that have been placed at the site of the shooting were bitter signs denouncing “police murder” and, in some instances, calling for violence.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who represents the Bell family, has publicly called for patience and calm. But he added, and I agree, that the mayor and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have an obligation to develop effective new strategies for reining in reckless police behavior.

The crucial first step, in my opinion, is to insist that police officers, including those who are black, recognize the essential humanity of all the people they are supposed to be protecting and serving. Not everyone with dark skin is a perp.

Photo credit: Bob Herbert. (The New York Times)

Wallflower Dave

In his latest Times op ed, David Brooks drops his proverbial hankie at the political dance in hopes that the Republican Party will woo him back into its fold; he has strayed it seems to the No Man's Land of Independents, estranged from the nouveau neo Republican crowd.

He offers Republicans some surprisingly good tips on how to win back his favor....

Waiting to Be Wooed
By David Brooks
The New York Times
I’ve never been a swing voter before. For most of my adult life I’ve felt the Republicans tended to have the best approaches to expand economic opportunity, meet foreign threats and restore a culture of personal responsibility. But over the past few years I’ve grown estranged from many Republicans, especially the ones leading the House. I’m one of those suburbanites who thought the G.O.P. deserved to lose the last election, and now I find myself floating out there in independent-land, not a Democrat, just looking for something new.

It’s like being the belle of the ball, because the Republicans really need to woo back people like me. I hope they won’t mind if I offer a little advice on how to do it.

First, don’t listen to your consultants. Over the next few months, pollsters are going to pick out the key demographic groups (left-handed Catholic orthopedists) and offer advice on how to kiss up to those people. Majorities are never built that way. You end up proposing inconsequential micropolicies and selling your soul.

Don’t focus on groups, focus on problems. If you have persuasive proposals to address big problems, the majority coalition will build itself.

Second, be policy-centric, not philosophy-centric. American conservatism grew up out of power and has always placed great emphasis on doctrine. Today, in the wake of this month’s defeat, Republicans are firing up the old debate among social conservatives, free-market conservatives and others about the proper role of the state. This stale, abstract debate will never lead anywhere and only inhibits creative thinking.

The Republican weakness is not a lack of grand principles, it’s a lack of concrete policies commensurate with the size of 21st-century problems. If they would shelve the doctrinal debate for a second, Republicans — while not doing violence to their belief in the market, traditional values or anything else — could find plenty of policy ideas to deal with China and India, the entitlement crisis and so on.

Third, create a Republican Leadership Council. In the realm of ideas, Democrats own the center. Moderate Democrats have the Democratic Leadership Council, the Third Way and various cells within the Brookings Institution, such as the Hamilton Project. Republican moderates are intellectual weaklings. They have no independent identity, so it’s no wonder centrist voters prefer Democrats on one domestic issue after another.

Fourth, support stem cell research. This has become a symbolic issue denoting fundamental attitudes about science and progress. Moderates can understand why somebody is anti-abortion. But opposing stem cell work seems to close off research that could alleviate human suffering for the sake of a theoretical abstraction.

Fifth, support free trade, while responding to the downside of globalization. When the industrial age kicked in, many European nations built an elaborate welfare state, but didn’t aggressively expand educational opportunity. Americans didn’t build as big a welfare system, but, as the blogger Reihan Salam pointed out recently, we spent a lot on schools to foster social mobility.

The American way is to help people compete, not shield them from competition. Today that means nurturing stable families in which children can develop the social and cultural capital they need to thrive. (A significant expansion of the child tax credit would ease the burden on young parents.) It means publicly funded, though not necessarily publicly run, preschool programs in which children from disorganized homes can learn how to learn. It means radical school reform: performance pay for teachers, an end to the stupid certification rules, urban boarding schools where educators can set up local cultures of achievement, locally run neighborhood child centers to service an array of health and day-care needs.

Sixth, spread assets. Every citizen, from birth, should have an I.R.A.-type savings account. The tax code should encourage personal and employer contributions. These accounts would enhance savings and encourage an investor mentality, and once Americans became comfortable with them, they could be used as tools to reform Social Security and health care funding.

Seventh, raise taxes on carbon emissions and use the revenue to make the tax cuts on capital gains and dividends permanent. This would spur energy innovation and encourage investment more generally.

Over the past few years, the G.O.P. has become like a company with a great mission statement, but no domestic policy products to sell. Now’s the time to get granular. And the thing to remember is, we disaffected voters are easy. We want to go home with you if you’ll give us a reason.

Photo Credit: David Brooks. (The New York Times)

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Friedman's False Choice

According to Thomas Friedman's latest op ed in the New York Times, the time has come to face the facts in Iraq. The situation there, as Friedman correctly describes, is worse than civil war: "it's gone from breaking apart to breaking down."

Given this, Friedman presents us with a choice: "10 months or 10 years. Either we just get out of Iraq in a phased withdrawal over 10 months, and try to stabilize it some other way, or we accept the fact that the only way it will not be a failed state is if we start over and rebuild it from the ground up, which would take 10 years. This would require reinvading Iraq, with at least 150,000 more troops, crushing the Sunni and Shiite militias, controlling borders, and building Iraq’s institutions and political culture from scratch."

Putting aside my astonishment that Friedman would even consider the "10 year" scenario, and putting aside the fact that we would have to kill just about everyone in Iraq to "win" (we have no idea who the enemy is at this point, so everyone would be fair game), it has been obvious for some time to most reasonably sane and informed Americans that we need to get our troops out of Iraq as quickly as possible.

I would argue with Bush's latest propaganda that Al Qaeda is "fomenting" the insurgencies in Iraq. No, Mr. Bush, we are the prime "fomenters" of both Al Qaeda and the insurgencies in Iraq. And it is for that reason that we must leave.

One might justifiably ask, why is Bush still, given the obvious mounting catastrophe in Iraq, so intent on staying the very course that created that catastrophe? The answer is that, like "the Sunnis of Iraq, whose violence, from the start, has had only one goal: America must fail ... no matter how many Iraqis have to be killed," Bush has the same face-saving goal: America must succeed ... no matter how many Americans and Iraqis have to be killed. Of course when asked to define "success" or "completing the mission" Bush has no comprehensible answer. We are beyond answers, even if Bush were to finally attempt to give us an honest one; Iraq has self-destructed to a point of 'no mission possible.'

The sad fact is that this war was fought needlessly and recklessly for Machiavellian motives never divulged to the American people -- and that those motives still have not been admitted or discussed honestly in the mainstream media. It was the wrong war, fought for the wrong reasons, under false pretexts -- and hundreds of thousands have died as a result.

It is past time for the American people to face those facts, make the tough choices, and bring our troops home.

There is, in fact, only one way to help stabilize the situation in the Middle East caused by Bush's invasion of Iraq. It starts with the American people demanding that George Bush and Dick Cheney resign or face impeachment.

The only way to restore American credibility and good faith in the world, the only way for us to credibly try to re-engage Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and the other nations in the region, the only way to restore trust in America as a peace-loving nation is for Americans to demand a complete change in foreign policy -- from the current fiasco of American domination and its accompanying wars of aggression to a policy of promoting world cooperation and peace.

We, the people, are the United States of America. And it is we, the people, who have the responsibility to take it back and work to tear down the destructive walls erected over the last six years and build new bridges of peaceful cooperation and friendship with the international community.

We, the people, voted for change. Bush and Cheney won't give us change; that much they have made quite clear. It is now up to us to demand that Congress hold Bush and Cheney responsible for the damage they have done internationally and to our own country.

Ten months or ten years? No, Mr. Friedman. The only choice we have is to change our leadership and its aggressive neocon foreign policy. And we must demand that change now.

Ten Months or Ten Years
By Thomas L. Friedman
The New York Times
Here is the central truth about Iraq today: This country is so broken it can’t even have a proper civil war.

There are so many people killing so many other people for so many different reasons — religion, crime, politics — that all the proposals for how to settle this problem seem laughable. It was possible to settle Bosnia’s civil war by turning the country into a loose federation, because the main parties to that conflict were reasonably coherent, with leaders who could cut a deal and deliver their faction.

But Iraq is in so many little pieces now, divided among warlords, foreign terrorists, gangs, militias, parties, the police and the army, that nobody seems able to deliver anybody. Iraq has entered a stage beyond civil war — it’s gone from breaking apart to breaking down. This is not the Arab Yugoslavia anymore. It’s Hobbes’s jungle.

Given this, we need to face our real choices in Iraq, which are: 10 months or 10 years. Either we just get out of Iraq in a phased withdrawal over 10 months, and try to stabilize it some other way, or we accept the fact that the only way it will not be a failed state is if we start over and rebuild it from the ground up, which would take 10 years. This would require reinvading Iraq, with at least 150,000 more troops, crushing the Sunni and Shiite militias, controlling borders, and building Iraq’s institutions and political culture from scratch.

Anyone who tells you that we can just train a few more Iraqi troops and police officers and then slip out in two or three years is either lying or a fool. The minute we would leave, Iraq would collapse. There is nothing we can do by the end of the Bush presidency that would produce a self-sustaining stable Iraq — and “self-sustaining” is the key metric.

In his must-read new book about the impact of culture on politics and economic development, “The Central Liberal Truth,” Lawrence Harrison notes that some cultures are “progress-prone” and others are “progress- resistant.” In the Arab-Muslim world today the progress-resistant cultural forces seem to be just too strong, especially in Iraq, which is why it is so hard to establish durable democratic institutions in that soil, he says.

“Some may hark back to our successful imposition of democracy on West Germany and Japan after World War II,” adds Mr. Harrison. “But the people on whom democracy was imposed in those two countries were highly literate and entrepreneurial members of unified, institutionalized societies with strong traditions of association — what we refer to today as ‘social capital.’ Iraq was social capital-poor to start with and it now verges on bankruptcy.”

On Feb. 12, 2003, before the war, I wrote a column offering what I called my “pottery store” rule for Iraq: “You break it, you own it.” It was not an argument against the war, but rather a cautionary note about the need to do it with allies, because transforming Iraq would be such a huge undertaking. (Colin Powell later picked up on this and used the phrase to try to get President Bush to act with more caution, but Mr. Bush did not heed Mr. Powell’s advice.)

But my Pottery Barn rule was wrong, because Iraq was already pretty broken before we got there — broken, it seems, by 1,000 years of Arab-Muslim authoritarianism, three brutal decades of Sunni Baathist rule, and a crippling decade of U.N. sanctions. It was held together only by Saddam’s iron fist. Had we properly occupied the country, and begun political therapy, it is possible an American iron fist could have held Iraq together long enough to put it on a new course. But instead we created a vacuum by not deploying enough troops.

That vacuum was filled by murderous Sunni Baathists and Al Qaeda types, who butchered Iraqi Shiites until they finally wouldn’t take it any longer and started butchering back, which brought us to where we are today. The Sunni Muslim world should hang its head in shame for the barbarism it has tolerated and tacitly supported by the Sunnis of Iraq, whose violence, from the start, has had only one goal: America must fail in its effort to bring progressive politics or democracy to this region. America must fail — no matter how many Iraqis have to be killed, America must fail.

This has left us with two impossible choices. If we’re not ready to do what is necessary to crush the dark forces in Iraq and properly rebuild it, then we need to leave — because to just keep stumbling along as we have been makes no sense. It will only mean throwing more good lives after good lives into a deeper and deeper hole filled with more and more broken pieces.

Photo Credit: Thomas Friedman. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)
Poster Credit:

Related Articles:

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    "There will be no victory or defeat for the United States in Iraq. These terms do not reflect the reality of what is going to happen there. The future of Iraq was always going to be determined by the Iraqis -- not the Americans.Iraq is not a prize to be won or lost."
  • Deeper Crisis, Less U.S. Sway in Iraq
    "When President Bush meets in Jordan on Wednesday with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq, it will be a moment of bitter paradox: at a time of heightened urgency in the Bush administration's quest for solutions, American military and political leverage in Iraq has fallen sharply."
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    "NBC's decision to call the violence in Iraq a 'civil war' has launched civil wars within a number of news outlets. But are they ready to challenge the Bush administration?"

Turning on the Puppet

By Maureen Dowd
The New York Times
The pictures show a handsome blond kid. Nick Rapavi’s family and friends described him as a tough guy with a selfless streak. He’d wanted to be a marine since high school, and his dress uniform had a parade of medals for heroism in Afghanistan and Iraq, including a Purple Heart. He was on his third overseas deployment, and planned to go to college when he finished this stint in the spring.

The 22-year-old corporal, the oldest son of a dentist, grew up in Northern Virginia in the shadow of the Pentagon. The kid described as being “full of life” died Friday in Anbar Province, the heartless heart of darkness in western Iraq, the hole-in-the-desert stronghold of the Sunni insurgency and Al Qaeda fighters.

His mother told The Washington Post that her son’s squad had approached a gate on patrol, and Nick told his men to “stay back while he went through.” He was shot in the neck by a spectral enemy that melted away, one of 2,874 brave Americans to die fighting in Iraq.

In Latvia, President Bush vowed yesterday that “I’m not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete.” But his words about Iraq long ago lost their meaning. Especially the words “mission” and “complete.”

At least in Anbar, the Pentagon may be about to pull troops off the battlefield. In another article yesterday, The Post, reporting on a classified Marine Corps intelligence report, said that “the U.S. military is no longer able to defeat a bloody insurgency in western Iraq or counter Al Qaeda’s rising popularity there.”

The Post went on: “The report describes Iraq’s Sunni minority as ‘embroiled in a daily fight for survival,’ fearful of ‘pogroms’ by the Shiite majority and increasingly dependent on Al Qaeda in Iraq as its only hope against growing Iranian dominance across the capital.”

ABC Nightly News went even further last night, reporting that the Pentagon is “writing off” Anbar and will send the 30,000 marines stationed there to Baghdad. “If we are not going to do a better job doing what we are doing out there,” a military official told Jonathan Karl, “what’s the point of having them out there?”

President Bush is still playing games, trying to link the need to stay in Iraq with Al Qaeda. “No question it’s tough,” Mr. Bush said at a news conference. “There’s a lot of sectarian violence taking place, fomented, in my opinion, because of the attacks by Al Qaeda, causing people to seek reprisal.”

Never mind that W. dropped the ball on Osama, and that his own commanders have estimated that Al Qaeda forces represent only a fraction of the foe in Iraq. Al Qaeda wasn’t even in Iraq until the Bush invasion.

The administration still won’t admit the obvious, that our soldiers are stuck in the middle of a civil war and that it’s going to take more than Dick Cheney powwowing with the Saudis to get us out of it. Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, gingerly talks of “a new phase” in the conflict.

But reality does break through at moments. As Mr. Bush and Mr. Hadley head to Jordan to try to tell Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki not to go all wobbly, a stunning secret memo from Mr. Hadley has surfaced, expressing severe skepticism about whether our latest puppet can cut it.

Michael Gordon reveals in today’s Times that in a classified assessment, Mr. Hadley wrote that the Iraqi leader, who is getting pushed around by Moktada al-Sadr, was having trouble figuring out how to be strong.

“The memo suggests that if Mr. Maliki fails to carry out a series of specified steps,” he writes, “it may ultimately be necessary to press him to reconfigure his parliamentary bloc, a step the United States could support by providing ‘monetary support to moderate groups,’ and by sending thousands of additional American troops into Baghdad to make up for what the document suggests is current shortage of Iraqi forces.”

Just what the election said Americans want: More kids at risk in Baghdad. (W.’s kids, of course, are running their own risks, partying their way through Argentina.)

Mr. Hadley bluntly mused about Mr. Malaki: “His intentions seem good when he talks with Americans, and sensitive reporting suggests he is trying to stand up to the Shi’a hierarchy and force positive change. But the reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action.”

It’s bad enough to say that about the Iraqi puppet. But what about when the same is true of the American president?

Photo Credit: Maureen Dowd. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)

DOJ Probes NSA Spying, Democrats Suspicious

As well they should be ....

Jason Leopold reports:
"The Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General announced Monday that it will immediately launch a probe into the agency's involvement with the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program, raising suspicions among Democrats, who believe the timing of the investigation is an attempt by the Bush administration to circumvent Congressional hearings into the issue when they assume control of the House in January."
Photo Credit: Jason Leopold (Wikipedia)

To MSNBC: Give Olbermann a Big Raise

His ratings on the rise (up 21% in the ratings since this time last year), his "Special Comments" circulating all over cyberspace, his outspokenness a sanity-saver for disenfranchised liberals and anti-neocons everywhere -- these are reason enough for NBC to reward Keith Olbermann amply.

It will be interesting to see what the network does, now that Olbermann's contract is up for re-negotiation in March.

Dubbed by many as a modern day Edward R. Murrow, criticized by others as the Left-Wing' answer to Rush Limbaugh, Olbermann has said of himself, "I'm not trying to whip up a political frenzy. If I was out there every night beating people over the head with this, I would become a Rush Limbaugh. That's not my goal. I don't make the facts up to fit the political viewpoint that happens to parallel what it is I'm trying to express."

My own feeling is that all of America owes Olbermann thanks for, as Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson put it, all he has done "to reenergize the fourth estate and its role to be a skeptic of authority."

According to Aaron Barnhart, "it's worth asking if [Olbermann's] brand of journalism will be, and should be, the future of TV journalism." The answer is a deafening "yes" -- with the caveat that Olbermann continue to use the facts to keep everyone, regardless of party or ideology, honest.

Photo Credit: Keith "Bloggermann" Olbermann. (


Monday, November 27, 2006

The Democrat's Dilemma

Interesting op ed by Thomas Edsall in the Times today regarding what Edsall sees as an eventual confict between the pro- and anti-immigration wings of the Democratic Party.

Republicans, I believe, will face the same dilemmas.

The solution -- politics aside -- will not come from pointing out the views on either extreme. Unlike the two dimensional either-or argument presented by Edsall and so many others in the media, meaningful immigration reform will involve new ideas and compromises to be born by all parties and to partially benefit each: U.S. workers, U.S. Corporations, International Trade, and illegal immigrants.

Reform is never easy, but if the politicians would approach the problem seriously instead of politically, some serious progress might finally be made.

Speed Bump at the Border
By Thomas B. Edsall
The New York Times
Democrats preparing to take over Congress appear to have a perfect issue for the party of the left: the rich are getting richer, but sizable productivity gains and rising corporate profits are not paying off for the working and middle classes. All boats are not rising with the tide.

The picture is a paint-by-the-numbers portrait of the greedy picking the pockets of the needy. The villains are C.E.O.s, investment bankers and corporate managers who refuse to pass on profits in the form of higher wages. The victims are workers who struggle to deal with an increasingly unreliable and, for many, unrewarding marketplace — producing more while under the constant threat of job, health care and pension loss.

The success of candidates attacking outsourcing and trade agreements like Nafta, combined with high Democratic margins among economically pessimistic voters, clearly point to middle-class wage stagnation and growing inequality as significant factors in the election this month.

Politically, the result has shifted the balance of power within the Democratic Party in favor of the protectionist wing, and especially in favor of such major unions as the Teamsters, the steelworkers and the autoworkers, all key party supporters with money and manpower.

The strengthening of the Democrats’ protectionist wing is virtually certain to force to the surface a second, and closely related, internal conflict between the party’s pro- and anti-immigration wings. This conflict among Democrats remained submerged while President Bush and the Republican House and Senate majorities fought without resolution over the same issue.

“Immigration is a difficult issue for the Democrats; it cuts in complicated ways,” says Stephen Ansolabehere, an M.I.T. political scientist who helped conduct an Internet survey of 37,000 voters. The Democratic Party made major gains in the Mountain West, he says, and many of these voters are “populist with a lot of nativism,” firmly opposed to the more liberal immigration policies of key party leaders.

A solid block of Democrats who won this month — Jon Tester, James Webb, Sherrod Brown and Heath Shuler included — is inclined to put the brakes on all cross-border activity (otherwise known as globalization): trade, outsourcing and the flow of human labor. Nolan McCarty of Princeton, writing with two colleagues, has provided some empirical data supporting the argument that immigration has led “to policies that increase economic inequality.” Significant numbers within the Democratic Party agree with this reasoning.

Globalization “needs to be controlled and slowed down because of the brutal destruction and vast imbalances of wealth it causes,” Jeff Faux, a stalwart of the protectionist wing on the Democratic left, writes in Dissent magazine. “The nihilistic vision of the world as an accelerating treadmill of constant insecurity, jobs with longer hours and shorter pay ... the triumph of dog-eat-dog competition ... is a vision of hell.”

The protectionist wing will likely hold sway at least in the first few months of the 110th Congress. Over time, however, Faux and his allies are likely to fail. The forces of international competition have proved more powerful than any government, and advocates of aggressive policies to constrain them face a porous, borderless and now highly electronic international economy. Legislation can require American companies to distribute profits to workers, but it will be virtually impossible to enforce as competition razes companies playing by those rules. For the moment, Democratic chances of restoring more equal patterns in the growth of wages are bleak.

Barney Frank, representing members of the House who would like to stake out middle ground, has proposed a “grand bargain.” If corporate America agrees to equitable wages, Democrats will back free trade and eased regulations. "What we want to do is to look at public policies that’ll get some bigger share of the increased wealth into wages, and in return you’ll see Democrats as internationalists,” he said.

Even if the deal were cut, the odds are strong that the global economy would prevent American business from keeping its promise. The sooner Democrats realize that they — and, more important, their constituents — are up against a wall, the sooner they will seriously focus their attention on how to climb it.

Thomas B. Edsall holds the Pulitzer-Moore Chair at Columbia University. He is a guest columnist this month.

Photo Credit: Thomas Edsall. (Mount Holyoke College/College Street Journal)

The "Cowards" Vs. The "Chicken Hawks"

The Cowards Turned Out to Be Right
By Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times
For several years, the White House and its Dobermans helpfully pointed out the real enemy in Iraq: those lazy, wimpish foreign correspondents who were so foolish and unpatriotic that they reported that we faced grave difficulties in Iraq.

To Paul Wolfowitz, the essential problem was that journalists were cowards. “Part of our problem is a lot of the press are afraid to travel very much, so they sit in Baghdad and they publish rumors,” Mr. Wolfowitz said in 2004. He later added, “The story isn’t being described accurately.”

Don Rumsfeld agreed but suggested that the problem was treason: “Interestingly, all of the exaggerations seem to be on one side. It isn’t as though there simply have been a series of random errors on both sides of issues. On the contrary, the steady stream of errors all seem to be of a nature to inflame the situation and to give heart to the terrorists and to discourage those who hope for success in Iraq.”

As for Dick Cheney, he saw the flaw in journalists as indolence. “The press is, with all due respect — there are exceptions — oftentimes lazy, often simply reports what someone else in the press says without doing their homework.”

Mr. Cheney and the others might have better spent their time reading the coverage of Iraq rather than insulting it, because in retrospect those brave reporters based in Baghdad got the downward spiral right.

“Many correspondents feel a sense of vindication that the administration finally accepts what we were screaming two years ago,” notes Farnaz Fassihi, who provided excellent Iraq coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Now Ms. Fassihi wonders how long it will take for the administration to acknowledge the reality of 2006 that Iraq correspondents are writing about: the incipient civil war.

Dexter Filkins, who covered Iraq brilliantly for this newspaper until his departure this summer to take up a fellowship at Harvard, says he was constantly accused of reporting only the bad news, of being unpatriotic, and of getting Americans killed.

“I don’t think it ever affected our reporting,” he said. “But I did find it demoralizing, the idea that the truth — the reality on the ground that we were seeing every day — did not matter, that these overfed people sitting in TV studios and in their living rooms could just turn up the volume on what they wanted to be happening in Iraq and that that could overwhelm the reality.”

Mr. Filkins added: “I have almost been killed in Iraq 20 or 30 times — really almost killed. “I’ve lost count. Do these people really believe that we were all risking our lives for some political agenda?”

Richard Engel of NBC says he was taken aback when pundits accused him of standing on a balcony in the Green Zone and simply feeding the world bad news. “Like most journalists in Iraq, I have never lived in the Green Zone,” he notes, adding: “To imply from afar we were just lazy was missing the point, and also dangerous. I know several reporters who were so incensed by similar criticism, they took extra risks.”

While it’s the right that led those toxic attacks, the left is also vulnerable to letting ideology trump empiricism. Mr. Filkins notes that while he used to get nasty letters and e-mail primarily from conservatives, much of the fire more recently has come from liberals accusing him of covering up atrocities — all of it from people whose ideological certitude is proportional to their distance from Baghdad.

As we try to extricate ourselves from Iraq, a basic lesson for the administration is that it should deal with bad news in ways more creative than clobbering the messenger. From the beginning of the war, the Pentagon has had an incredibly sophisticated news operation (now including its own news channel, carried on some cable networks), but it has often seemed more concerned with disseminating propaganda than with gathering facts.

Take the Defense Department’s Early Bird news clipping service, which traditionally had been a dispassionate collection of outside articles to keep senior military officers informed. Lately it has been leading with in-house spin. The Early Bird of Nov. 20, for example, began with three separate unpublished letters to the editor by Pentagon officials before getting to the news from around the world.

So how about if the administration devotes itself less to managing the news and more to trying to manage Iraq?

Photo Credit: Nicholas D. Kristof. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)

Sunday, November 26, 2006

America Shops ...

... with the exuberance
of greed
above need
squealing zealots
on a rampage
while the soldier fears
for his limbs
popping beers
with the whites of his eyes
like expoding sins
America shops ...
for the tops in toys
for its girls and boys
oblivious to the band of brothers
and sisters and all the others
over there
is spent living
just living
one more day
away from mom and pop
and all the fine families
well stocked with gizmos
and videos
and war games
and more and more and more
of the same
what a shame
what a shame ...
America shops.

-- The Unknown Candidate ©2006

(Inspired by Bob Herbert's op ed below and John Lennon's "So This is Christmas" -- Click the Arrow Below to Play)

While Iraq Burns
By Bob Herbert
The New York Times
Americans are shopping while Iraq burns.

The competing television news images on the morning after Thanksgiving were of the unspeakable carnage in Sadr City — where more than 200 Iraqi civilians were killed by a series of coordinated car bombs — and the long lines of cars filled with holiday shopping zealots that jammed the highway approaches to American malls that had opened for business at midnight.

A Wal-Mart in Union, N.J., was besieged by customers even before it opened its doors at 5 a.m. on Friday. “All I can tell you,” said a Wal-Mart employee, “is that they were fired up and ready to spend money.”

There is something terribly wrong with this juxtaposition of gleeful Americans with fistfuls of dollars storming the department store barricades and the slaughter by the thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians, including old people, children and babies. The war was started by the U.S., but most Americans feel absolutely no sense of personal responsibility for it.

Representative Charles Rangel recently proposed that the draft be reinstated, suggesting that politicians would be more reluctant to take the country to war if they understood that their constituents might be called up to fight. What struck me was not the uniform opposition to the congressman’s proposal — it has long been clear that there is zero sentiment in favor of a draft in the U.S. — but the fact that it never provoked even the briefest discussion of the responsibilities and obligations of ordinary Americans in a time of war.

With no obvious personal stake in the war in Iraq, most Americans are indifferent to its consequences. In an interview last week, Alex Racheotes, a 19-year-old history major at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, said: “I definitely don’t know anyone who would want to fight in Iraq. But beyond that, I get the feeling that most people at school don’t even think about the war. They’re more concerned with what grade they got on yesterday’s test.”

His thoughts were echoed by other students, including John Cafarelli, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of New Hampshire, who was asked if he had any friends who would be willing to join the Army. “No, definitely not,” he said. “None of my friends even really care about what’s going on in Iraq.”

This indifference is widespread. It enables most Americans to go about their daily lives completely unconcerned about the atrocities resulting from a war being waged in their name. While shoppers here are scrambling to put the perfect touch to their holidays with the purchase of a giant flat-screen TV or a PlayStation 3, the news out of Baghdad is of a society in the midst of a meltdown.

According to the United Nations, more than 7,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in September and October. Nearly 5,000 of those killings occurred in Baghdad, a staggering figure.

In a demoralizing reprise of life in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, the U.N. reported that in Iraq: “The situation of women has continued to deteriorate. Increasing numbers of women were recorded to be either victims of religious extremists or ‘honor killings.’ Some non-Muslim women are forced to wear a headscarf and to be accompanied by spouses or male relatives.”

Journalists in Iraq are being “assassinated with utmost impunity,” the U.N. report said, with 18 murdered in the last two months.

Iraq burns. We shop. The Americans dying in Iraq are barely mentioned in the press anymore. They warrant maybe one sentence in a long roundup article out of Baghdad, or a passing reference — no longer than a few seconds — in a television news account of the latest political ditherings.

Since the vast majority of Americans do not want anything to do with the military or the war, the burden of fighting has fallen on a small cadre of volunteers who are being sent into the war zone again and again. Nearly 3,000 have been killed, and many thousands more have been maimed.

The war has now lasted as long as the American involvement in World War II. But there is no sense of collective sacrifice in this war, no shared burden of responsibility. The soldiers in Iraq are fighting, suffering and dying in a war in which there are no clear objectives and no end in sight, and which a majority of Americans do not support.

They are dying anonymously and pointlessly, while the rest of us are free to buckle ourselves into the family vehicle and head off to the malls and shop.

Photo Credit: Bob Herbert. (The New York Times)

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Saturday, November 25, 2006

Brutality, Courage, and Indifference

Nicholas Kristof tells a story of supreme heroism in the face of cruel brutality. How long do we let courageous women like Halima Simih and Suad Ahmed shoulder the horror of genocide while we look on with indifference -- or merely close our eyes to it in a callous effort to make it go away -- along with our guilt?

A Sister's Sacrifice
By Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times

When the janjaweed militia attacked Fareeda, a village here in southeastern Chad near Darfur, an elderly man named Simih Yahya didn’t run because that would have meant leaving his frail wife behind. So the janjaweed grabbed Mr. Simih and, shouting insults against blacks, threw him to the ground and piled grass on his back.

Then they started a bonfire on top of him.

But his wife, Halima, normally fragile and submissive, furiously tried to tug the laughing militia members from her husband. She pleaded with them to spare his life. Finally, she threw herself on top of the fire, burning herself but eventually extinguishing it with her own body.

The janjaweed may have been shamed by her courage, for Mr. Simih recalls them then walking away and saying, “Oh, he will die anyway.” He told me the story as he was treated at a hospital where doctors peeled burned flesh from his back.

Atrocities like this make up the news and constitute the Sudanese-sponsored genocide here in the region surrounding Darfur, but it is also stories like this — of superhuman courage — that keep me going through my reporting here. Invariably, the most memorable stories to emerge from genocide aren’t those of the Adolf Eichmanns, but those of the Anne Franks and Raoul Wallenbergs. Side by side with the most nauseating evil, you stumble across the most exhilarating humanity.

So this is a column about the uplifting side of genocide.

I see examples all the time, from the aid workers who persevere against impossible odds (13 have been murdered in Darfur since May) to the children who carry bows and arrows to try to protect their parents from men with machine guns.

One of the most inspiring people here is Suad Ahmed, a 25-year-old mother of two from Darfur. She lives here in the Goz Amir refugee camp, and last month she was collecting firewood with her beloved little sister, Halima, when a band of janjaweed ambushed them.

The janjaweed regularly attack women and girls — part of a Sudanese policy of rape to terrorize and drive away black African tribes — and Ms. Suad knew how brutal the attacks are. A 12-year-old neighbor girl had been kidnapped by the janjaweed and gang-raped for a week; the girl’s legs were pulled so far apart that she is now crippled.

But Ms. Suad’s thoughts were only for her sister, who is just 10. “You are a virgin, and you must escape,” she told her. “Run! I’ll let myself be captured, but you must run and escape.”

The local culture is such that if the little girl were raped, she might never be able to marry. So Ms. Suad made herself a decoy and allowed herself to be caught, while her sister escaped back to the camp.

Ms. Suad plays down her heroism, saying that even if she had tried to escape, she might have been caught anyway, for she was five months pregnant. Or, she says, maybe she and her sister both would have been captured.

In any case, however, the janjaweed beat Ms. Suad, and seven of them gang-raped her despite her pregnancy. “You black people have no land,” she recalls them telling her. “This land is not for you.”

People from the camp found Ms. Suad in the hills that evening, too injured to walk, and carried her back. Ms. Suad said she didn’t seek medical treatment, because she wanted to keep the rape as much of a secret as possible and didn’t even tell her husband, although he eventually found out along with a few others. He accepted that it was not her fault.

(She found the courage to give an on-the-record interview, a video of which is with the online version of this column, after a tribal leader told her that it might help other Darfuris if the world knew what was happening to women here.)

The gang rape and beating were excruciating, she says, but her sacrifice was worth it. “When my sister saw me brought back and saw what had happened to me, she understood,” Ms. Suad says. “She is very grateful to me.”

So, yes, this is a land of numbing brutality, scarred by what may be the ugliest crime of all, genocide — abetted by indifference abroad. But it has elicited the best of humanity along with the worst. In Ms. Suad and those like her, I find a courage, nobility and compassion that offer a perfect contrast to the fecklessness of the rest of the world.

Photo Credit: Suad Ahmed allowed herself to be caught by the janjaweed, so her sister could escape. (Nicholas Kristof/The New York Times)

"Classic" Brooksie

Feel free to interpret the title of this post as sarcastic, ironic, tragic or in any way other you see fit. Can you guess how I intended it and why?

The Education of Robert Kennedy
By David Brooks
The New York Times
Emilio Estevez’s movie, “Bobby,” introduces the martyrdom of Robert Kennedy to another generation of Americans, but it was Robert’s reaction to his brother’s death that is really most instructive to the young.

Robert Kennedy was dining at home on Nov. 22, 1963, when J. Edgar Hoover called. “I have news for you,” Hoover began coldly. “The president’s been shot.” Kennedy turned away from his lunch companions, his hand to his mouth and his face twisted in pain.

In the ensuing months, he was devoured by grief. One of his biographers, Evan Thomas, writes: “He literally shrank, until he appeared wasted and gaunt. His clothes no longer fit, especially his brother’s old clothes — an old blue topcoat, a tuxedo, a leather bomber jacket with the presidential seal — which he insisted on wearing and which hung on his narrowing frame.”

But during March 1964, he visited Bunny Mellon’s estate in Antigua, and spent the vacation in his room, reading a book Jackie Kennedy had given him, “The Greek Way,” by Edith Hamilton.

“The Greek Way” contains essays on the great figures of Athenian history and literature, and Kennedy found a worldview that helped him explain and recover from the tragedy that had befallen him. “When the world is storm-driven and the bad that happens and the worse that threatens are so urgent as to shut out everything else from view,” Hamilton writes, “then we need to know all the strong fortresses of the spirit which men have built through the ages.”

Classical scholars often scorn Hamilton because she wrote in a breathless “all the glory that was Greece” mode, but her book changed Robert Kennedy’s life. He carried his beaten, underlined and annotated copy around with him for years, pulling it from his pocket, reading sections aloud to audiences in what Thomas calls “a flat, unrhythmic voice with a mournful edge.”

Kennedy found in the Greeks a sensibility similar to his own — heroic and battle-scarred but also mystical. He shared the awful sense of foreboding that pervades the work of Aeschylus and Sophocles, and that distinctly Greek awareness of the invisible patterns that connect events to one another, how the arrogance men and women show at one moment will twist back and bring agony later on.

Hamilton is at her best describing the tragic sensibility, the strange mixture of doom and exaltation that marks Greek drama. It was based on the conviction that good grows out of bad, virtue out of hardship, and that wisdom is born in suffering. Kennedy memorized a passage from Aeschylus, which Hamilton quotes twice in her book:

“God, whose law it is that he who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

Kennedy, recovering from his brother’s murder, found in the ancient Greeks a civilization that was eager to look death in the face, but which seemed to draw strength from what it found there. The Greeks seemed more convinced of the dignity and significance of life the more they brooded on the pain and precariousness of it.

Kennedy underlined a passage of Hamilton’s book in which she summarizes the rippled nature of Greek optimism: “Life for him was an adventure, perilous indeed, but men are not made for safe havens. The fullness of life is in the hazards of life. And, at the worst, there is that in us which can turn defeat into victory.” If they were doctors of the spirit, the Greeks’ specialty was to take grief and turn it into resolution.

The story of Kennedy’s grief is the story of a man stepping out of his time and fetching from the past a sturdier ethic. He developed a bit of that quality, which greater leaders like Churchill possessed in abundance, of seeming to step from another age. Kennedy became a figure in the 1960s, but was never really of the ’60s. He promoted many liberal policies but was never a member of a team since he drew strength from somewhere else.

And the lesson, of course, is about the need to step outside your own immediate experience into the past, to learn about the problems that never change, and bring back some of that inheritance. The leaders who founded the country were steeped in the classics, Kennedy found them in crisis, and today’s students are lucky if they stumble on them by happenstance.

Photo Credit: David Brooks. (The New York Times)

Friday, November 24, 2006

Edsall's Tired Old Tirade

According to Thomas Edsall in today's Times op ed, the only way "the Democratic Party can secure its 2006 gains" is by "abandoning a decades-long willingness to indulge pressure groups on the left."

Edsall parrots an old, hackneyed argument most often propagated by those on right. It is a view many in the Democratic leadership have come to erroneously believe.

I couldn't disagree more.

I would challenge Mr. Edsall to go see Emilio Estevez's "Bobby" this weekend. Perhaps it will help him recall what once made the Democratic party so appealing to so many -- and why many who once embraced the Democratic message of peace and hope and social reform now lack passion for the current 'Republican-lite' Democratic flock. Where are the messages of inspiration? Where are the messages of hope? Where are the ideas that bridge the divides rather than seek to create ever bigger canyons of division?

The way for the Democratic Party to succeed, is to stand strong for the kind of positive vision Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King offered.

The way for the Democratic Party to sustain itself is to set the record straight: War does not beget peace. Class divides will not be mended by trickle down tax breaks for the rich. Corruption and waste can be weeded out of government.

We need meaningful reforms -- the kind that Bobby Kennedy exemplified by his establishment of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, during his years as a senator, "to improve living conditions and employment opportunities in depressed areas of Brooklyn". To this day, "the program remains a model for communities all across the nation."

We need leaders who seek to bridge the gaps between corporate America and the dispossessed, as RFK did when he encouraged private industry to locate in poverty stricken areas in order to create jobs for the jobless, empowering them to pull themselves out of poverty.

We need leaders that lead us to a better place, that urge us to be our best. What we don't need is more divisiveness, more catering to the lowest common denominator. What we don't need is more phony promises, more hypocrisy, more deceit.

Mr. Edsall's column is all too typical of the political poppycock offered by journalists today who continually harp about political parties and political strategies and bastardized political labels that only serve to obscure the real issues that Americans want to see addressed: affordable health care for all, quality education for all, an end to poverty, environmental reforms, alternative energy development, affordable quality childcare, election reform, responsible government, a peaceful world, and on and on.

Americans spoke in the last election -- and they would have spoken louder, it now seems, without the latest voting shenanigans. It's just that Mr. Edsall chooses not to look at the voting statistics which practically scream for a new, dare I say more liberal direction and real visionary leadership. That new direction is anything but the "centrist" AKA right-of-center mentality that Republicans and Democrats alike have been harping on for far too many years.

It's difficult enough these days to distinguish between the two parties. They both skew to the right. It seems Mr. Edsall and the political "establishment" would like to keep it that way.

The American people are way ahead of them.

Anyone out there considering a successful run for President in 2008 had best listen hard to what the people -- not the political operatives -- want.

Photo credit: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial (

The Struggle Within
By Thomas B. Edsall
The New York Times
Can the Democratic Party become fully competitive? Is American liberalism dead, the 2006 election a last twitch of life before rigor mortis sets in? The answer to both questions is yes. (More on this next week.)

For the Democratic Party to revive, major tenets of American liberalism, economic and sociocultural, will have to be discarded. The party can join Studebaker and the Glass Bottle Blowers union, it can trudge along as No. 2, or it can undergo a painful transformation — without guarantee of success.

To stay in the fight, Democratic leaders will have to acknowledge political realities affirmed by the electorate in 1994 and 2006. Many Democratic constituencies — organized labor, minority advocacy organizations, reproductive- and sexual-rights proponents — are reliving battles of a decade or more ago, not the more subtle disputes of today. Public sector unions, for example, at a time of wide distrust of government, are consistently pressing to enlarge the state. For these players, adapting to a re-emergent center will be costly.

Democrats won on Nov. 7 by carrying a 59 percent majority of independent, moderate voters angered by the Iraq war and Republican corruption. These voters demonstrated 12 years ago that they can easily turn against Democrats.

An example of the reality that Democrats refused to face the last time they had a shot at consolidating power materialized during the fight to pass Clinton’s 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill, legislation that sought to burnish the party’s justice credentials by increasing the number of felonies subject to the death penalty. Instead, amendments added to win support from the left — most visibly, $40 million for midnight basketball leagues — caught fire on conservative talk radio, spread to the establishment media, and soon became a liability.

When Democrats bend to the will of liberal interest groups, even in pursuit of laudable goals, the damage to the party’s credibility can be devastating. President Clinton succumbed to such pressure, and Democrats in the House and Senate paid the price. Democrats now have a chance to regain public trust, but even a minor miscalculation can push the party off the tightrope. Its House majority is tenuous: 17 of the new Democrats represent districts that voted for Bush in 2004 by at least 54 percent, according to the political scientist Gary Jacobson.

The public will desert Democrats placing a disputed cultural or spending agenda above the broader public interest. This is especially true at a time of extreme uncertainty: lethal struggle in the Mideast, nuclear proliferation, mounting skepticism toward free trade, and a rising non-marital birthrate — now at 37 percent — that concerns moderate voters.

The potential for an incendiary controversy to engulf the Democratic left has sharply escalated with Web access to each committee and floor vote under new Congressional transparency rules, and the development of aggressively partisan outlets in the blogosphere. An army of conservative media is determined to recreate the political climate so advantageous to the G.O.P. in 1994. At the same time, very liberal senior House Democrats now have vastly enhanced power to add inflammatory provisions to bills moving through their committees (think Rangel and the draft).

Nancy Pelosi and her closest advisers in the House are more likely to support such radioactive amendments than to serve as guard dogs protecting a slender Democratic majority. The first test of Pelosi’s ability to distinguish between broad-based and special interests will be when she decides whether to appoint Alcee Hastings, the once-impeached federal judge, to head the House Intelligence Committee.

Only two members of the House leadership are intuitively attuned to such problems: Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic caucus, and Steny Hoyer, the majority leader. But Emanuel has limited influence, and relations between Pelosi and Hoyer are distant at best.

Still, the vigilance of Hoyer and Emanuel will be crucial to a party whose renewal could easily be stillborn. Congressional leaders are not all-powerful, but they can set the stage for a successful presidential candidate, or lay waste to the center-left, dooming the nominee.

The Democratic Party can secure its 2006 gains, but to do so will require abandoning a decades-long willingness to indulge pressure groups on the left that no longer command broad popular allegiance.

Thomas B. Edsall holds the Pulitzer-Moore Chair at Columbia University. He is a guest columnist this month.

Photo Credit: Thomas Edsall. (Mt. Holyoke College/College Street Journal)

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