Sunday, July 20, 2014

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Signs of Age

I guess you have to be of a certain generation that it makes you shiver just a little when you read about the president planning a two-day trip to Dallas.

And another generation probably wondered “what the…?” yesterday when social media exploded with “Hooray for Germany!”

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Glorious Fourth

Flags in the Rain 07-03-14When I was a kid I was very outgoing in putting up displays for the holidays — Memorial Day, Christmas, the Fourth of July — I liked the flags, the lights, the stuff. It was cool to make a big splash. But as I grew up I grew out of it, and today I don’t go much for things like that. I don’t have a flag to fly on national holidays, and the most I’ll do for Christmas is a wreath on the door because it has good memories and the scent of pine is rare in subtropical Florida.

I suppose it has something to do with my Quaker notions of shunning iconography — outward symbols can’t show how you truly feel about something on the inside — and more often than not they are used to make up for the lack of a true belief. This is also true of patriotism: waving the flag — or wrapping yourself in it — is a poor and false measure of how you truly feel about your country.

There’s an old saying that there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. As Benjamin Franklin noted, no country had ever been formed because of an idea. But when the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1776 and passed the resolution embodied in the Declaration of Independence, that was what was being done. To create a nation not based on geographical boundaries, property, tribalism, or religion, but on the idea of forming a new government to replace the present form because the rulers were incompetent, uncaring, and cruel. The American Revolution wasn’t so much a rebellion as it was a cry for attention. Most of the Declaration is a punch-list, if you will, of grievances both petty and grand against the Crown, and once the revolution was over and the new government was formed, the Constitution contained many remedies to prevent the slights and injuries inflicted under colonialism: the Bill of Rights is a direct response to many of the complaints listed in the Declaration.

But the Declaration of Independence goes beyond complaints. Its preamble is a mission statement. It proclaims our goals and what we hope to achieve. No nation had ever done that before, and to this day we are still struggling to achieve life and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness goes on with no sign of let-up.

That is the true glory of America. Not that we complain — and we do — but that we work to fix those complaints. To put them right. To make things better than they were. To give hope to people who feel that they have no voice, and to assure that regardless of who they are, where they come from, what they look like, who they love, or what they believe, there will be room for them to grow, do, and become whatever it is that they have the capacity to be. It’s a simple idea, but the simplest ideas often have the most powerful impact.

This nation has achieved many great things. We’ve inspired other nations and drawn millions to our shores not to just escape their own country but to participate in what we’re doing. And we’ve made mistakes. We’ve blundered and fumbled and bullied and injured. We’ve treated some of our own citizens with contempt, and shown the same kind of disregard for the rights of others that we enumerated in our own Declaration of Independence. We have been guilty of arrogance and hypocrisy. But these are all human traits, and we are, after all, human. The goal of government is to rise above humanity, and the goal of humanity is to strive for perfection. So if we stumble on the road to that goal, it is only because we are moving forward.

I love this country not for what it is but for what it could be. In my own way I show my patriotism not by waving a flag from my front porch but by working to make things work in our system and by adding to the discussion that will bring forth ideas to improve our lives and call into question the ideas of others. It is all a part of what makes the simple idea of life, liberty, and that elusive happiness so compelling and so inspiring, and what makes me very proud to be a part of this grand experiment.

Go forth!

Photo: The Avenue in the Rain by Frederick Childe Hassam 1917

This post originally appeared on July 4, 2005.

The Declaration of Independence

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Friday, June 13, 2014

A Little Night Music

Via commenter Ice, memories of Miami.  Even though I lived here from 1971 to 1974 and didn’t move back until 2001, a lot of the old places and names were around back then and bring back good times.

Monday, June 9, 2014

On This Date

Forty years ago today — June 9, 1974 — I started out on a National Outdoor Leadership School wilderness course through the Uinta Mountains of Utah.  It lasted six weeks.

Uinta Mountains 06-09-14

I learned a lot about wilderness camping and survival skills, things that came in handy two years later when I went to work at a Rocky Mountain summer camp.  I also kept a detailed diary in a little notepad that I bought at Stapleton Airport in Denver on my way to Lander, Wyoming, where the trip began.  That’s the only time in my life that I’ve kept a diary (unless you count this blog).  It came in handy in 1976 when I wrote my first produced play about a wilderness course gone horribly wrong.

But mine was mostly uneventful — no one died.  I learned how to climb up and then rappel down a cliff, how to ford a stream with a fully-loaded pack, how to do what bears do in the woods, saw some amazing scenery — the photo is of Kings Peak, the highest point in Utah, and we crossed by it through Gunsight Pass — and learned that freeze-dried food and mountain bluebells can make a pretty good dinner.

We emerged from the wilderness in mid-July just in time for Watergate to blow up, and I made it home in time to watch the impeachment hearings on TV and see Richard Nixon resign a few weeks later.

The only souvenirs I have of the trip are that diary, a walking stick that I carved out of a ponderosa pine branch, and my mustache.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Sunday Reading

Impossible Choices — David Rohde, a former Taliban captive explains why we’re demonizing the wrong people.

I’m biased about Bergdahl. Five years ago, I was kidnapped by the same Afghan Taliban faction along with two Afghan colleagues while I was on leave from The New York Times, researching a book in Afghanistan. An offer for an interview from a Taliban commander who had previously met twice with European journalists proved to be a ruse. We were abducted at the meeting point and then transported to the tribal areas of Pakistan.

My decision to go to the interview thrust my family and editors into a world where there are no good choices. Kidnapping cases vary, but they all center on the same tortuous questions. Was the kidnap victim innocent or somehow at fault—and does it matter? Is it right to pay a ransom that could encourage kidnappings or fund future terrorist attacks? When is it morally acceptable to let a captive die?

One brave Afghan and one brave Pakistani allowed me to avoid answering those questions. While our guards slept, the Afghan journalist and I managed to escape and reach a nearby Pakistani military compound. After we were nearly shot by sentries, a Pakistani Army captain allowed us to enter the base and saved our lives. (The other Afghan kidnapped with me returned home safely six weeks later.)

Ten days after our escape, Bergdahl was captured by the same Taliban group. Over the last four years, I have talked regularly with Bergdahl’s family and those of other kidnapped Americans. One of them is the family of Warren Weinstein, an aid worker abducted in Pakistan nearly three years ago. His family fears he will die in captivity. In July, he will be 73.

The Bergdahls, the Weinsteins, and every other family I have spoken with express the same sense of desperation, isolation, and crushing responsibility. They incessantly ask themselves if they are doing enough. The sad truth hanging over every conversation is that they do not have the power to save them.

Five years later, the situation has gotten worse.

In every case I know of, the U.S. government has refused to pay ransom and, until Bergdahl, refused to release prisoners. Over the last three years, however, European governments have paid $100 million in ransom to various al-Qaeda splinter groups across the Middle East and North Africa, according to British officials. Israel released 1,000 prisoners in exchange for one Israel soldier.

[...]

During the Iraq war, security consultants began recommending that the abduction of journalists be kept secret. A media blackout, it was hoped, would reduce captors’ ransom demands. It would also, in theory, discourage would-be abductors from seeing kidnappings as a way to gain worldwide publicity for their cause.

When we were abducted in Afghanistan, my family and editors followed that advice. My captors also initially demanded that the case remain secret as well. As had occurred in a half-dozen previous instances, media outlets agreed not to report on our kidnapping.

We will never know the impact of the blackout on my captors, but throughout the seven months I was held captive, they remained convinced that I was a “big fish.” By the time we escaped, their price for my release included $7 million in cash and seven prisoners from Guantánamo—a drop from the $25 million and 15 Guantánamo prisoners they started with.

In the years since I’ve returned home, it’s become clear that one unintended consequence of this blackout strategy is that U.S. officials are under little pressure to address the problem. Anguished families say they regularly visit Washington only to be “patted on the head” by U.S. officials.

[...]

The outcry over the Bergdahl case could create the worst of both worlds. Jihadists will expect prisoner exchanges or large ransoms. U.S. officials will be ever more hesitant to act in kidnapping cases.

Both sides in the furor over the Bergdahl case offer simplistic answers to the growing problem of abductions. Those who say the release of the five prisoners sets no precedent are downplaying the scope of this propaganda coup for the Taliban. Other militants around the globe will likely emulate them.

[...]

The focus of our anger should be the kidnappers. They are the problem, not hostages, their families, or a government that meets a demand. We must unite in fighting the perpetrators of a craven crime—not each other.

A Simple Wedding — John Nichols at The Nation on why each marriage equality ruling is historic.

Shari Roll was clutching the marriage certificate. Renee Currie was clutching Shari Roll. And when their designated officiant, Mike Quieto, pronounced them married, they smiled so perfectly, so naturally, that it seemed as if this was just another wedding on the courthouse steps.

And, of course, it was.

The only distinction was that this was the first legally-recognized marriage of two women in Wisconsin, the first same-sex marriage in Madison, the one of the initial celebrations of the marriage equality ruling issued by a federal judge Friday afternoon. By the end of the night in Madison, 61 same-sex couples had been issued marriage licenses by Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell, while 68 had been issued by Milwaukee County Joe Czarnezki.

Together for years and very much in love, Roll and Currie could easily have driven to the neighboring state of Iowa, which has since 2009 recognized marriage equality. Thousands of Wisconsin couples, including Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Madison, and his husband, Phil Frank, married outside the state after a ban on same-sex marriages was enacted in 2006. But Roll and Currie decided to wait for a future when the state could no longer restrict the most basic rights of loving couples.

“We wanted to get married where we live,” explained Shari Roll.

I understand that. A lot of us who choose to marry in the place where we live, embraced by the people we know, grounded in the values and the unique interactions of the very different communities and states that make up America.

Madison’s uniqueness was evident Friday night, as dozens of couples got their licenses and married on the steps of the downtown building that serves both as the Madison City Hall and the Dane County Courthouse. Judges in robes waited on the steps, meeting couples and performing the marriages as cheers went up from the ever-expanding crowd of well-wishers. Children showed up, brimming with bouquets. I asked who the wedding flowers were for and they replied, “For everyone who is getting married today.” Then they starting handing flowers out to couples who had rushed to the courthouse without much preparation but suddenly felt quite special and very loved.

Then the cops showed up with the wedding cakes. Several Madison Police officers who had been assigned to keep an eye on the proceedings raced off to a nearby grocery store and bought three large cakes. Everyone was eating cake and cheering as the Klezmer band arrived and a fiddler played “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” for a pair of women who waited 30 years to marry.

[...]

Today, polling shows Wisconsinites overwhelmingly support marriage equality – a May Marquette Law School poll found 55 percent of voters favor allowing same-sex marriage, while just 37 percent are opposed. Unfortunately, Governor Scott Walker and his Republican-controlled legislature have refused to allow the voters to revisit the issue. Walker was still backing efforts by Attorney General JB Van Hollen to block marriages, even as the clerks started issuing licenses.

So it was appropriate that a senior jurist with her own deep roots in Wisconsin, Federal Judge Barbara Crabb, would determine that, “Quite simply, this case is about liberty and equality, the two cornerstones of the rights protected by the United States Constitution.” In an 88-page decision that was hailed as one of the most though yet produced by a federal jurist ruling on the issue, Crabb explained that states cannot trump federal guarantees of equality and equal protection with their own discriminatory amendments. And, while Walker and Van Hollen will continue to cling to a past that has been rejected by the courts and the great mass of Wisconsinites and Americans, the future is fast arriving.

And that future allows people to marry the people they love in the places they love.

In their rush to get to the courthouse Friday afternoon, Shari Roll and Renee Currie forgot to bring any cash for the license fee. Roll handed her credit card to friend who ran off to a nearby bank machine and returned with the cash. It was no problem. Shari and Renee were getting married where they live, and everyone was helping out.

The Day the Giants Walked — Lt. Col. Robert Bateman on one soldier’s landing on D-Day.

In the smoke and dust kicked up by the massive pre-landing naval bombardment, the markers leading the way into the beach were missed by the men piloting the landing craft. Sure, they were heading ashore, but unbeknownst to them they were heading for the wrong section of the shore. The place they were supposed to land was more than a mile, some 2,000 yards, to the north. With confusion created by smoke, dust, noise, and fear, the landing craft were well off-target. But time and tide wait for no man, and so when they grounded on the gently sloping sands and the ramps dropped, the men of the 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, and the diminutive general accompanying them, stepped ashore.

Even today Utah Beach is unremarkable. This stretch of the coast is at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula, and it is low, with just a single light sand dune abutting the beach. Go there off-season and you can walk these sands, alone, lost in the memories of 100,000 men. You can wander the beaches imagining the approach and the arrival all those decades ago, with not a single person in sight. If you have a vivid imagination, and know your history, it can border on the spiritual. There are no beachside cafes, nor bustling hotels or tourist shops selling kitschy D-Day schlock to interrupt you, as at some of the other landing sites. There is only the beach, where the first of the allies waded ashore, and the world started to change.

Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was the deputy division commander of the units that landed in the first wave. He had to pull strings to be allowed to land with the dogfaces, but when your cousin is the President of the United States, some of your “strings” can be quite substantial. Roosevelt only played that card, significantly, in order to get in to combat, not to avoid it. Eventually General Bradley caved, and so Roosevelt was there, in the first confusing moments. Confusing, of course, because the terrain did not match what the infantry was expecting. They had maps, but the ground did not match the maps they were issued. What to do?

Two battalions of American infantry were now ashore, and the battalion commanders were wondering, “what do we do now?” And this is the moment when that wizened little man who was not supposed to be there, using a walking stick, made his mark upon the history of the world.

[...]

Roosevelt was not long for this earth, and he probably knew it. I suspect that he did not care. What he cared about were the men, the mission, and the countless memories recorded by the men who served with or under him substantiate that. He was a worthy successor to his father, and might have left a mark known to more, had there been more time. He was not to have that time.

Less than 60 days later, having just been appointed as the commander of his own Division, he died of a heart attack. But on this day, this morning, 70 years ago, he made history. He gave an order, and the men followed, and the world began to change.

“We start…from here.”

Doonesbury — Pay attention.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Friday, June 6, 2014

D-Day

Today marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of Normandy by the Allies during World War II.

It has been immortalized in American history through film (The Longest Day, Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan).  As Bryan notes, so many things could have gone wrong that it’s amazing that it was a success.

As I noted on Memorial Day, my great-uncle Cary G. Dunn served in the Army in the war and came ashore on that day.  Thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed or injured during the invasion, but it was the beginning of the push to end the war in Europe.  Paris would be liberated in August 1944, and the war would end eleven months later with the surrender of Germany.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Monday, May 19, 2014

On This Date

Forty years ago today — May 19, 1974 — I graduated from the University of Miami with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in drama.

UM Commencement Cover 05-19-74

A year later I was accepted at the University of Minnesota to begin my Masters degree.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Restoration Comedy

Over the last week or so there’s been an effort on the part of a couple of Beltway kids to restore the legacy of George W. Bush.  No, really.

First there was Ron Fournier with this wistful recollection:

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer walked into the media cabin of Air Force One on May 24, 2002, and dropped identical envelopes in the laps of two reporters, myself and Steve Holland of Reuters. Inside each was a manila card – marked by a small presidential seal and, in a simple font, “THE PRESIDENT.”

Handwritten in the tight script of President George W. Bush, both notes said essentially the same thing: “Thank you for the respect you showed for the office of the President, and, therefore, the respect you showed for our country.”

What had we done? Not much, really. An hour earlier, at a rare outdoor news conference in Germany, Steve and I decided to abide by the U.S. media tradition of rising from our seats when the president entered our presence. The snickering German press corps remained seated. “What a contrast!” Bush wrote. “What class.”

[...]

Bush’s note, a simple gesture, spoke volumes about his respect for the office of the presidency. He did not thank us for respecting him. He knew it wasn’t about George W. Bush. He was touched instead by the small measure of respect we showed “for our country.”

The same sense of dignity compelled Bush to forbid his staff to wear blue jeans in the White House. Male aides were required to wear jackets and ties in the Oval Office.

Then there was this love note from Matt Bai:

The truth is that Bush was never anything close to the ogre or the imbecile his most fevered detractors insisted he was. Read “Days of Fire,” the excellent and exhaustive book on Bush’s presidency by Peter Baker, my former colleague at the New York Times. Bush comes off there as compassionate and well-intentioned — a man who came into office underprepared and overly reliant on his wily vice president and who found his footing only after making some tragically bad decisions. Baker’s Bush is a flawed character you find yourself rooting for, even as you wince at his judgment.

But as is the way in modern Washington, it was never enough for Bush’s political opponents that he was miscast or misguided. He had to be something worse than that — or, more precisely, a lot of things worse. He had to be the most catastrophic president ever, in the history of ever. He had to be a messianic war criminal. Or a corporate plant looking to trade blood for oil. Or a doofus barely able to construct a sentence.

That was the way Will Ferrell portrayed Bush in a one-man Broadway show that, for a while after Bush’s departure, thrilled the enlightened set. For a lot of urban Americans, the ones who bought little books of Bush’s mangled syntax at the Barnes & Noble checkout line, Ferrell’s comic version of Bush became more real than the man himself. You know something’s wrong when the most nuanced portrayal of a political figure comes from Oliver Stone.

So George W. Bush may have lied us into a war that killed 5,000 American soldiers and destabilized an entire region of the world, he may have initiated warrantless wiretapping on civilians and poisoned the Justice Department with political hacks, outed a CIA operative for political revenge, let a major U.S. city drown, blown a huge whole in the budget, and let Wall Street rob the nation blind, but he wrote thank-you notes and enforced a gentleman’s dress code in the White House.  So it’s all good.

Aside from the irrelevancy of whether or not the West Wing was a showplace for the Jos. A. Bank catalogue or the president was always punctual, these paeans to the legacy of the man who was arguably the worst president since Warren G. Harding make the point that other than what a nice guy Mr. Bush was as president, there is nothing else nice that anyone, regardless of political affiliation, can say about the history of his administration.  Handed a budget surplus, he demolished it and threw us into debt.  Warned about terrorists lurking even in our own country, he ignored them until it was too late, then exploited the nation’s fears and loathing to pass draconian laws that violate civil rights.  He used a devastating act of terror to go after a peripheral enemy who, aside from being a dictator, had nothing to do with the attack.  It was as if FDR, in retaliation for Pearl Harbor in 1941, invaded Italy.

Both of these articles smell of the sardonically laughable attempt to put a good face on a really bad legacy and try to humanize Mr. Bush in the same way some historians remind us that for all their faults certain figures in history had their lighter and genuine moments.  That’s done to give them dimension and perspective in contrast to the horrors and flaws they all too clearly demonstrated in office: Richard Nixon was paranoid and a crook but he got us the EPA and liked Elvis; LBJ lost Vietnam and 50,000 lives but gave us the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, and raised beagles; Ronald Reagan… well, there’s already a full-blown industry dedicated to turning him into a saint to the point that even he wouldn’t recognize himself, so putting a man on Mars and turning the Soviet Union into a model of Jeffersonian democracy will just have to stand on their own.

But held to the same measure, what did George W. Bush actually accomplish to counter all of his flaws, errors, and calculated political attacks on the people who didn’t vote for him?  Name one thing, one bill, one act that left the country better off, more cohesive, and more capable of leading the world by the example of America’s aspirations for peace and freedom that his administration gave us that rises above the pall of incompetence and revenge politics that forged a barely-disguised hatred on the part of the white Christian patriarchy that gave us the likes of Karl Rove and the Koch brothers.  Go ahead, we can wait.

About the only good thing that came out of eight years of George W. Bush in the White House was such a revulsion on the part of the American electorate for his politics of personal destruction that they voted twice to elect the first black man as president.  Mr. Bush can also lay claim to the demolition of whatever was left of the moderate and thoughtful wing of the Republican Party, finishing off the work started by Ronald Reagan.  Mission accomplished.

HT to DougJ and mistermix at Balloon Juice.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Reagan’s Benghazi

Jane Mayer in The New Yorker:

Around dawn on October 23, 1983, I was in Beirut, Lebanon, when a suicide bomber drove a truck laden with the equivalent of twenty-one thousand pounds of TNT into the heart of a U.S. Marine compound, killing two hundred and forty-one servicemen. The U.S. military command, which regarded the Marines’ presence as a non-combative, “peace-keeping mission,” had left a vehicle gate wide open, and ordered the sentries to keep their weapons unloaded. The only real resistance the suicide bomber had encountered was a scrim of concertina wire. When I arrived on the scene a short while later to report on it for the Wall Street Journal, the Marine barracks were flattened. From beneath the dusty, smoking slabs of collapsed concrete, piteous American voices could be heard, begging for help. Thirteen more American servicemen later died from injuries, making it the single deadliest attack on American Marines since the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Six months earlier, militants had bombed the U.S. embassy in Beirut, too, killing sixty-three more people, including seventeen Americans. Among the dead were seven C.I.A. officers, including the agency’s top analyst in the Middle East, an immensely valuable intelligence asset, and the Beirut station chief.

There were more than enough opportunities to lay blame for the horrific losses at high U.S. officials’ feet. But unlike today’s Congress, congressmen did not talk of impeaching Ronald Reagan, who was then President, nor were any subpoenas sent to cabinet members. This was true even though then, as now, the opposition party controlled the majority in the House. Tip O’Neill, the Democratic Speaker of the House, was no pushover. He, like today’s opposition leaders in the House, demanded an investigation—but a real one, and only one. Instead of playing it for political points, a House committee undertook a serious investigation into what went wrong at the barracks in Beirut. Two months later, it issued a report finding “very serious errors in judgment” by officers on the ground, as well as responsibility up through the military chain of command, and called for better security measures against terrorism in U.S. government installations throughout the world.

In other words, Congress actually undertook a useful investigation and made helpful recommendations. The report’s findings, by the way, were bipartisan. (The Pentagon, too, launched an investigation, issuing a report that was widely accepted by both parties.)

In March of 1984, three months after Congress issued its report, militants struck American officials in Beirut again, this time kidnapping the C.I.A.’s station chief, Bill Buckley. Buckley was tortured and, eventually, murdered. Reagan, who was tormented by a tape of Buckley being tortured, blamed himself. Congress held no public hearings, and pointed fingers at the perpetrators, not at political rivals.

If you compare the costs of the Reagan Administration’s serial security lapses in Beirut to the costs of Benghazi, it’s clear what has really deteriorated in the intervening three decades. It’s not the security of American government personnel working abroad. It’s the behavior of American congressmen at home.

I fully expect the Republicans to blame the bombings in Beirut on Hillary Clinton.

HT to Anne Laurie at Balloon Juice.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Saturday, April 19, 2014

So Long At The Fair

The Unisphere

The Unisphere

Fifty years ago next week the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair opened in Flushing Meadows.  The New York Times looks back at the fair and the times.

The grounds of the 1964 New York World’s Fair were a blur of perpetual motion: Gondolas dangled above the crowds from the Swiss Sky Ride, a monorail glided in the Lake Amusement area, Greyhound Escorters ferried fatigued visitors, helicopters landed on the Port Authority’s helipad and a giant tire Ferris wheel spun.

On the 50th anniversary of the fair’s opening, we asked readers to share their memories of the event and photographs from their visits. We got more than 1,200 responses, which included many snapshots of visitors with the Unisphere and recollections of eating Belgian waffles, being entranced by new technology (the touch tone phone!) and feeling moved by Michelangelo’s Pietà.

The fair, with pavilions sponsored by car companies and insurance giants and with special effects by Disney, may have been as corporate as a modern Olympics, but it still sparked the imaginations of those who attended.

My family went to see the fair in early September of 1964.  I was eleven, about to turn twelve, and it was my first trip to New York City.  We flew into Newark and stayed in a hotel in Manhattan — The Waldorf, I think — and then went out to the fair on the subway; the fare was fifteen cents.

It was, to this kid from Ohio, amazing.  We saw all the famous exhibits: IBM, GE, Ford, Bell System, GM, Kodak (and that damn song that has been bored into the brain since then), the Vatican, Pakistan, Africa, the Belgian Village, and just about everything in between.  We must have spent two or three days at the fair to see all that I remember seeing.

We did other things, too, including hitting the usual tourist sites in New York City, including the Empire State Building and my first Broadway musical, High Spirits, by Noel Coward starring Tammy Grimes and Beatrice Lillie.  On our last full day we went to Radio City Music Hall and saw the Rockettes.

Did you go?  Share your memories.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sunday Reading

Supreme Being — Ta-Nehisi Coates on why progressives misunderstand the role of white supremacy in America’s history and present.

​Arguing that poor black people are not “holding up their end of the bargain,” or that they are in need of moral instruction is an old and dubious tradition in America. There is a conservative and a liberal rendition of this tradition. The conservative version eliminates white supremacy as a factor and leaves the question of the culture’s origin ominously unanswered. This version can never be regarded seriously. Life is short. Black life is shorter.

On y va.

The liberal version of the cultural argument points to “a tangle of pathologies” haunting black America born of oppression. This argument—which Barack Obama embraces—is more sincere, honest, and seductive. Chait helpfully summarizes:

The argument is that structural conditions shape culture, and culture, in turn, can take on a life of its own independent of the forces that created it. It would be bizarre to imagine that centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on did not leave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success.

The “structural conditions” Chait outlines above can be summed up under the phrase “white supremacy.” I have spent the past two days searching for an era when black culture could be said to be “independent” of white supremacy. I have not found one. Certainly the antebellum period, when one third of all enslaved black people found themselves on the auction block, is not such an era. And surely we would not consider postbellum America, when freedpeople were regularly subjected to terrorism, to be such an era….

Beyond Hobby Lobby — Stephanie Mencimer at Mother Jones takes a look at what the implications of the Supreme Court case concerning Obamacare vs. corporate religious freedom could mean for other interpretations of the law and Constitution.

…Of course, the case isn’t just about Hobby Lobby. The Supreme Court is using it to address dozens of similar lawsuits by other companies that, unlike Hobby Lobby, object to all forms of contraception. But the inconvenient set of facts here are just one reason why the case hasn’t garnered a lot of support outside the evangelical community. Many religious people are uneasy with the idea of corporations being equated with a spiritual institution. At a recent forum on the case sponsored by the American Constitution Society, the Mormon legal scholar Frederick Gedicks, from Brigham Young University, said he was offended by the notion that selling glue and crepe paper was equivalent to his religious practice. “I’m a religious person, and I think my tradition is a little different from an arts and craft store,” he said.

Women’s groups fear a ruling that would gut the ACA’s contraceptive mandate. The business community, meanwhile, doesn’t want to see the court rule that a corporation is no different from its owners because it would open up CEOs and board members to lawsuits that corporate law now protects them from, upending a century’s worth of established legal precedent.

No one seems to really have a sense of how the court might rule. On one side, court watchers have speculated that with six Catholics on the bench, Hobby Lobby has a decent shot of prevailing. But then again, one of those Catholics, Chief Justice John Roberts, is also sensitive to the interests of corporate America. He seems unlikely to do anything that might disrupt the orderly conduct of business in this country and make the US Chamber of Commerce unhappy, as a victory for Hobby Lobby could. Scalia is an ardent abortion foe, but his view of Native American peyote users might incline him to find for the government.

Finding a reasonable way out of this case won’t be easy. The litany of bad outcomes has some legal scholars rooting for what might be called “the Lederman solution“—a punt. Georgetown law professor Martin Lederman has suggested that the lower courts have misread the contraceptive-mandate cases by assuming firms such as Hobby Lobby have only two choices: provide birth control coverage or pay huge fines to avoid violating their religious beliefs. He argues that while the ACA requires individuals to purchase health insurance, it doesn’t require employers to provide it. If companies choose to do so then the insurance companies must cover contraception without co-pays. Hobby Lobby and the other companies currently suing the Obama administration can resolve their problems by simply jettisoning their health insurance plans and letting their employees purchase coverage through the exchanges.

An employer that drops its health plan would have to pay a tax to help subsidize its employees’ coverage obtained through the exchange or Medicaid, but this option is actually far cheaper than providing health insurance. And if a company doesn’t even have to provide insurance, much less a plan that covers contraception, Hobby Lobby doesn’t have much of a case that the ACA burdens its free exercise of religion…..

Mark Twain, Stand-Up Comic — In an excerpt from The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature, Ben Tarnoff tells how Samuel L. Clemens, the writer that defined American literature, became Mark Twain.

…On the evening of October 2, 1866, the Academy of Music swelled to capacity. From the footlights to the family circle, the house was packed. “It is perhaps fortunate that the King of Hawaii did not arrive in time to attend,” cracked a journalist, “for unless he had gone early he must have been turned away.” The fashionable men and women of “the regular opera ‘set’ ” turned out in full. The wife of the current California governor, Mrs. Frederick Low, sat in a box. Even Harte came to show his support. He arrived with “a big claque,” an observer later recalled, almost certainly with Stoddard in tow.

At eight o’clock, the crowd started stomping its feet. When Twain appeared in the wings, they broke into thunderous applause. He ambled forward with a lurching, graceless gait, his hands thrust in his pockets. “I was in the middle of the stage,” he recalled, “staring at a sea of faces, bewildered by the fierce glare of the lights, and quaking in every limb with a terror that seemed like to take my life away.” For several moments he stood silently staring, as the energy in the house ripened to an unbearable pitch. Then the words came: slow and deliberate, quirky and crude—the voice of the frontier, drawing its listeners under.

For seventy-five minutes, they laughed, clapped, and cheered. A “brilliant success,” raved the next day’s Evening Bulletin. Twain met the demands of a “serious” lecture by covering the islands’ economy, politics, history—yet he deftly interwove these with a current of comic tension that kept his audience on a hair trigger, primed to ignite at any moment. An absurdity might slip discreetly into the stream of his story, and then another, sparking laughter that rose and crested just as he suddenly shifted gears, delivering a passage of such heartfelt eloquence that the house fell solemn and silent. This was more than humor: it was “word painting,” said a reporter, a tapestry of anecdotes and images recorded by Twain’s all-seeing eye. He didn’t just make people laugh. As with “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” he brought a faraway place to life.

Ever since Twain first began writing, he had tried to give his words the flavor of living speech. Dashes, italics, phonetically transcribed dialect—these were meant to make readers hear a speaker’s special vibrations, the glottal tics of different tongues. Onstage, he could do this directly, breaking free of the filter that confined his written voice. He could feel out his audience, refine his rhythms. Unlike the spiritualists, suffragists, and fake scientists then sweeping lyceum halls across the country, he didn’t declaim in the usual authoritative style. He took a more intimate tone. He wanted to connect. He gazed at people’s faces. He played with his hair, kneaded his hands. He looked nervous, and dressed carelessly. He wasn’t a smooth performer, and this was the key to his peculiar charm. He didn’t hold himself apart; he talked plainly, unpretentiously. He brought people inside the joke. He made them feel like he belonged to them.

Doonesbury — Speak to me.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Lost and Found

History takes a beating at Fox News.

Fox News host Bill Hemmer on Wednesday referenced a peculiar hoax in order to help explain just how long it might take to find the missing Malaysian Airlines jet.

“So what it took us what 100 years to find the Titanic? It took us 2,000 years to find Noah’s Ark. Do we ever find flight 370?” Hemmer asked his guest, aviation attorney Salvatore Lagonia.

Lagonia didn’t seem to think it would take that long.

“Oh, I think we find flight 370 much sooner than those two things, thank God,” Lagonia said. “Until then, it’s the greatest reality show in the world.”

Some claim they found remnants of Noah’s Ark in Turkey, however that has been debunked by multiple scientists.

Well, first, it didn’t take 100 years to “find” the Titanic.  It took 73 years (1912-1985), and it wasn’t really lost in the first place; we knew approximately where it was the whole time.  It took that long to develop a submersible that could go down to 12,000 feet underwater.

Second, no one’s ever found Noah’s Ark because it’s a fable.  It’s like saying “Well, it took 2,000 years for Gollum to find the One Ring.”  So unless Mr. Hemmer was being clever with his metaphors, he should stick to reporting about the latest unicorn sightings.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Saturday, March 15, 2014