Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sunday Reading

Quote of the Day:

I’m very tired of hearing people who are unwilling to change the constitution, but seem more than willing to change the holy word of God as it relates to the definition of marriage.”

So saith Gov. Mike Huckabee at the convention of Christian conservatives. Perhaps someone should point out to Mr. Huckabee that neither “God” nor the “definition of marriage” is in the Constitution in the first place. The United States Constitution is not a religious manifesto. Second, the definition of marriage has been changing throughout history, as most recently as forty years ago when the Supreme Court overturned bans on interracial marriage. If Mr. Huckabee truly wishes to return us to the biblical model of marriage, he’d better be ready to accept polygamy and women being sold off by their fathers to the highest bidder.

Mr. Huckabee may come off as folksy and charming, but under that veneer is just another right-wing wacko with some truly medieval ideas and who also compares abortion to the Holocaust and laments the loss of 35 million “lives” because of their contribution to the tax base. Truly another compassionate conservative.

Howard Who? Whatever happened to Howard Dean?

ST. PAUL, Oct. 16 — There has never been a Democratic chairman with as much firsthand knowledge about running for president as Howard Dean.

Four years ago, at this stage in the race, he was flying high. Now, Mr. Dean is being sued by Democrats in Florida and second-guessed over how he is spending the party’s money. He seldom receives so much as a call seeking advice from this year’s candidates.

The rise and abrupt fall of his campaign now seems to hold lessons for some of the current contenders, from what it means to assume an air of inevitability to the dangers of counting on grass-roots energy to translate into votes. But Mr. Dean also sees ways in which the field has adopted elements of his candidacy, like its strong opposition to the war in Iraq.

“I often find myself ahead of the curve,” he said, a satisfied smile falling over his face. “Unfortunately, ‘I told you so,’ is an incredibly unsuccessful campaign slogan.”

For Mr. Dean, this could be a moment of great prominence, a chance to tower over the party at a buoyant moment. But most days, he conducts business in near obscurity, rarely appearing on television or at public events. It is a sharp departure from chairmen like Ronald H. Brown, a power broker known for firing off strategy memorandums in 1992, or Terry McAuliffe, a highly visible figure and one of the party’s most successful fund-raisers, who stepped down in 2005.

Mr. Dean travels the country without an entourage, often stopping in state capitals like here in Minnesota, inspecting the progress of projects like a door-knocking program that encourages people to stop by 25 houses three times before Election Day. To a room filled with activists, he declares, “We need to knock on most of the doors in America in the next year!”

Mr. Dean appears content with his role, talking about the past and the present with a relaxed air of confidence. For more than an hour, over lunch at the St. Paul Grill, he scoops up details about the race, asking questions only a former candidate who spent months in Iowa and New Hampshire might know.

“The only wistful moments I’ve had are at the debates,” said Mr. Dean, who has been seated in the audience for many of them. “I relish the combat and I miss it.”

He avoids mentioning specific names of Democratic candidates — “I try to stay out of the business of the campaigns,” he said — but ultimately slips in a reference to Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware.

“I know what it’s like to be where they are — all of them, from Biden to Clinton,” Mr. Dean said, pushing his fork through a platter of Caesar salad. “Because I’ve been in all of their positions: bottom, middle and top.”

A conversation today with Mr. Dean is a study in discipline compared with his offhand remarks that were prone to generate headlines four years ago. He does not disagree with the assessment, saying he is “unlike the old me.” Why such caution? “You live and you learn, right?” he replies.

Frank Rich: The cost of lives lost off the battlefield.

IT was one of those stories lost in the newspaper’s inside pages. Last week a man you’ve never heard of — Charles D. Riechers, 47, the second-highest-ranking procurement officer in the United States Air Force — killed himself by running his car’s engine in his suburban Virginia garage.

Mr. Riechers’s suicide occurred just two weeks after his appearance in a front-page exposé in The Washington Post. The Post reported that the Air Force had asked a defense contractor, Commonwealth Research Institute, to give him a job with no known duties while he waited for official clearance for his new Pentagon assignment. Mr. Riechers, a decorated Air Force officer earlier in his career, told The Post: “I really didn’t do anything for C.R.I. I got a paycheck from them.” The question, of course, was whether the contractor might expect favors in return once he arrived at the Pentagon last January.

Set against the epic corruption that has defined the war in Iraq, Mr. Riechers’s tragic tale is but a passing anecdote, his infraction at most a misdemeanor. The $26,788 he received for two months in a non-job doesn’t rise even to a rounding error in the Iraq-Afghanistan money pit. So far some $6 billion worth of contracts are being investigated for waste and fraud, however slowly, by the Pentagon and the Justice Department. That doesn’t include the unaccounted-for piles of cash, some $9 billion in Iraqi funds, that vanished during L. Paul Bremer’s short but disastrous reign in the Green Zone. Yet Mr. Riechers, not the first suicide connected to the war’s corruption scandals, is a window into the culture of the whole debacle.

Through his story you can see how America has routinely betrayed the very values of democratic governance that it hoped to export to Iraq. Look deeper and you can see how the wholesale corruption of government contracting sabotaged the crucial mission that might have enabled us to secure the country: the rebuilding of the Iraqi infrastructure, from electricity to hospitals. You can also see just why the heretofore press-shy Erik Prince, the owner of Blackwater USA, staged a rapid-fire media blitz a week ago, sitting down with Charlie Rose, Lara Logan, Lisa Myers and Wolf Blitzer.

Mr. Prince wasn’t trying to save his employees from legal culpability in the deaths of 17 innocent Iraqis mowed down on Sept. 16 in Baghdad. He knows that the legal loopholes granted contractors by Mr. Bremer back in 2004 amount to a get-out-of-jail-free card. He knows that Americans will forget about another 17 Iraqi casualties as soon as Blackwater gets some wrist-slapping punishment.

Instead, Mr. Prince is moving on, salivating over the next payday. As he told The Wall Street Journal last week, Blackwater no longer cares much about its security business; it is expanding into a “full spectrum” defense contractor offering a “one-stop shop” for everything from remotely piloted blimps to armored trucks. The point of his P.R. offensive was to smooth his quest for more billions of Pentagon loot.

Which brings us back to Mr. Riechers. As it happens, he was only about three degrees of separation from Blackwater. His Pentagon job, managing a $30 billion Air Force procurement budget, had been previously held by an officer named Darleen Druyun, who in 2004 was sentenced to nine months in prison for securing jobs for herself, her daughter and her son-in-law at Boeing while favoring the company with billions of dollars of contracts. Ms. Druyun’s Pentagon post remained vacant until Mr. Riechers was appointed. He was brought in to clean up the corruption.


The cost cannot be measured only in lost opportunities, lives and money. There will be a long hangover of shame. Its essence was summed up by Col. Ted Westhusing, an Army scholar of military ethics who was an innocent witness to corruption, not a participant, when he died at age 44 of a gunshot wound to the head while working for Gen. David Petraeus training Iraqi security forces in Baghdad in 2005. He was at the time the highest-ranking officer to die in Iraq.

Colonel Westhusing’s death was ruled a suicide, though some believe he was murdered by contractors fearing a whistle-blower, according to T. Christian Miller, the Los Angeles Times reporter who documents the case in his book “Blood Money.” Either way, the angry four-page letter the officer left behind for General Petraeus and his other commander, Gen. Joseph Fil, is as much an epitaph for America’s engagement in Iraq as a suicide note.

“I cannot support a msn that leads to corruption, human rights abuse and liars,” Colonel Westhusing wrote, abbreviating the word mission. “I am sullied.”

Fight on the Right: The battle in Ohio between the Republicans to succeed the late Congressman Paul Gillmor (R-OH5) is getting nasty.

The fight between state Sen. Steve Buehrer and state Rep. Bob Latta for the seat solidly held for two decades by the late Paul Gillmor has drawn warnings from Columbus.

“A negative, divisive primary campaign will not only harm our efforts to retain this important seat in the December general election but also will hurt the winner’s ability to unify the base and avoid unnecessary future challenges,” reads a letter the Ohio GOP sent Friday.

With less than three weeks to campaign for the Nov. 6 primary, Mr. Buehrer and Mr. Latta have aggressively sniped at each other over who really bears the mantle of conservatism. Gone is the solemnity that marked the passing of Mr. Gillmor, a Republican stalwart whose death last month sparked the intraparty skirmish.

“The short time frame has perhaps intensified the fervor of the race, meaning that you’ve got a much shorter time to get your message out, draw contrasts, and talk about your record,” Mr. Buehrer (R., Delta) said.

Also running in the primary are Fred Pieper of Paulding, Mike Smitley of Van Wert, and Mark Hollenbaugh of Bowling Green.

Mr. Latta (R., Bowling Green) said negativity usually crops up when a candidate’s polling indicates that he lacks name recognition. A recent poll of 300 likely Republican primary voters commissioned by the Latta campaign gave Mr. Latta a 41 percent to 20 percent edge over Mr. Buehrer, with 31 percent of voters undecided.

As the son of Delbert Latta, the district’s congressman between 1959 and 1989, Mr. Latta definitely enjoyed more public awareness at the start of the campaign. But Mr. Buehrer said his name recognition is growing.

One of the reasons for Mr. Buehrer’s heightened recognition is a TV ad blitz by the Club for Growth, which endorsed him after screening both candidates.

The Washington-based PAC attacks Mr. Latta for a 2003 budget vote that temporarily raised the state sales tax. In defiance of Republican leadership, Mr. Buehrer voted against the increase.

Mr. Latta responded with an equally hostile ad. It criticized Mr. Buehrer for sponsoring a tax increase of his own, a gasoline tax increase, and accepting almost $8,000 in donations from Tom Noe, a disgraced Republican fund-raiser who stole from a $50 million rare-coin investment made by the state’s injured workers’ fund.

The ad neglects to mention that Mr. Latta voted for the gasoline tax increase as well and received more than $1,000 from Noe.

“When you’re attacked, the rules of engagement change, unfortunately,” Mr. Latta said last week.

Meanwhile, there is a race for the Democratic candidate too, but apparently they can all play well together.

Remembering Pan Am: Recalling the glory days of the airline eighty years after its first flight.

More than just a corporate entity, Pan Am played an important role in history: introducing new aircraft, pioneering international routes and heralding a time of excitement and discovery in aviation, former employees say.

“The thing that is very unique about Pan Am is I don’t know many other companies that go bankrupt or shut down and 16 years later we are still together and celebrating what would have been an 80th anniversary,” said Al Topping, who, as director of Vietnam and Cambodia for Pan Am, arranged the last flight out of Saigon in 1975, continued working for the airline until 1991, and is organizing the Miami reunion. “It’s just a special kind of a family.”

Pan Am, which began flying in 1927, ceased operations and liquidated in late 1991.

It had suffered from the lack of a domestic route network, poor management decisions and insufficient capital to weather intense competition from both U.S. and foreign carriers. The Lockerbie bombing and the Gulf War also put pressure on fares, which exacerbated its losses, Kriendler said.

In the end, the airline succumbed to overwhelming debt, and did not have any major assets left to sell.

In the beginning, Pan Am’s roots were firmly planted in South Florida.

The airline was founded by Juan Trippe in Key West, and its first flight, on a Fokker-7, was on Oct. 28, 1927, from Key West to Havana.

Coconut Grove’s Dinner Key originally served as the base of operations of Pan Am’s “flying boats.”

And it was from there, in 1931, that Charles Lindbergh piloted test flights on Pan Am’s “American Clipper” to Cienfuegos, Cuba, and to Panama and other points in Central America and the Caribbean.

“They had a giant role in the development of aviation in South Florida, and really instilling a sense of pride in South Floridians in the business,” said Paul S. George, a history professor at Miami Dade College, whose father, aunt and uncle worked for the airline, overall, from the late 1930s through early 1970s.

“When you worked for Pan Am it was more than a job, it was your everything,” he said. “So many families felt that way in the area.”

Doonesbury: Hold that thought; I have another call.

Opus: Out, damned spot.

Who cares about football — especially the Dolphins — when there’s still baseball?