Wealthy Frenchman

Saturday, September 22, 2007

As it began, so now it ends

Pardon Poor Larry Craig

I DID nothing wrong," said Larry Craig at the start of his long national nightmare as America's favorite running, or perhaps sitting, gag. That's the truth. Justice lovers of all sexual persuasions must rally to save the Idaho senator before he is forced to prematurely evacuate his seat.

Time's running out. The final reckoning may arrive this week. On Wednesday, a Minnesota court will hear Mr. Craig's argument to throw out the guilty plea he submitted by mail after being caught in a June sex sting in the Minneapolis airport. If he succeeds, there's a chance he might rescind his decision to resign from the Senate on Sept. 30. Either way, he should hold tight.

Not only did the senator do nothing wrong, but in scandal he has proved the national treasure that he never was in his salad days as a pork-seeking party hack. In the past month he has served as an invaluable human Geiger counter for hypocrisy on the left and right alike. He has been an unexpected boon not just to the nation's double-entendre comedy industry but to the imploding Republican Party. Gays, not all of them closeted, may be among the last minority groups with some representation in the increasingly monochromatic G.O.P. If it is to muster even a rainbow-lite coalition for 2008, it could use Larry Craig in the trenches.

On the legal front, Mr. Craig is not without his semi-spirited defenders, an eclectic group including Arlen Specter, the A.C.L.U., The Washington Post's editorial page and scattered Democrats. While there's widespread agreement that Mr. Craig was an idiot not to consult a lawyer before entering a guilty plea (for disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor carrying a $575 fine), idiocy is no more a federal offense than hypocrisy, especially in Washington.

What Mr. Craig did in that men's room isn't an offense either. He didn't have sex in a public place. He didn't expose himself. His toe tapping, hand signals and "wide stance" were at most a form of flirtation. As George Will has rightly argued, if deviancy can be defined down to "signaling an interest in sex," then deviancy is what "goes on in 10,000 bars every Saturday night in our country." It's free speech even if the toes and fingers do the talking.

The Minnesota sting operation may well be unconstitutional, as the A.C.L.U. says. Yet gay civil rights organizations, eager to see a family-values phony like Mr. Craig brought down, have been often muted or silent on this point. They stood idly by while Republicans gathered their lynching party, thereby short-circuiting public debate about the legitimacy of the brand of police entrapment that took place in Minnesota. Surely that airport could have hired a uniformed guard to police a public restroom rather than train a cop to enact a punitive "Cage aux Folles" pantomime.

A rare gay activist to stand up forthrightly for Mr. Craig is Franklin Kameny, whom the Smithsonian Institution recently honored with an exhibition documenting his lonely Washington protests for gay civil rights in the pre-Stonewall 1960s. When I spoke to him last week, the 82-year-old Mr. Kameny said that many Americans don't seem to know how much the law has changed in recent years. Though he's no admirer of Mr. Craig, whom he describes as "a self-deluding hypocritical homophobic bigot," he publicly made the case for the senator's innocence in a letter to the conservative Web site WorldNetDaily.com.

"Fair is fair," Mr. Kameny wrote. Mr. Craig, guilty of no public sex act, "was the victim of a false arrest and a malfeasant prosecution." Even had he invited the police officer to a hotel room, there still would have been no crime. The last American laws criminalizing gay sex between consenting adults were thrown out by the Supreme Court in 2003.

The hypocrisy in some quarters of the left about the Craig case is arguably outstripped by that on the right, heaven knows. It has been priceless to watch conservative politicians and bloggers defend their condemnation of Mr. Craig in contrast to the wide stance of tolerance they've taken toward David Vitter, the inimitable senator from the Big Easy.

On the same day Mr. Vitter was deploring MoveOn.org at the Petraeus-Crocker hearings two weeks ago, a (female) prostitute was holding a California press conference with Larry Flynt about her alleged participation in the unspecified sins to which the senator has publicly confessed. "He was a very clean man," she helpfully explained to The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. "He came in, took a shower, did his business and would leave."

Mr. Vitter, a shrill defender of marriage, still has the support of the G.O.P. hierarchy. Many believe that the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, and his posse tried to Imus Mr. Craig and send him packing in a single week because Idaho has a Republican governor (nicknamed "Butch," no less) who would appoint a Republican successor. (The governor of Louisiana is a Democrat.) Others argue simply that Republican leaders are homophobes who practice a double standard for heterosexual offenders. But the reality is more complicated.

As we learned in the revelations surrounding the years-long cover up of the Mark Foley scandal, there may be more gay men in the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill than there are among the Democrats. Even Rick Santorum, the now-departed senator who likened homosexuality to "man on dog" sex, had a gay director of communications. Homophilia and homophobia have been twin fixtures in the modern G.O.P. at least since the McCarthy-era heyday of Roy Cohn.

As Rich Tafel, the former executive director of the gay Log Cabin Republicans, points out, this internal contradiction could not hold once Karl Rove and President Bush decided to demagogue the issue of same-sex marriage by pushing it into center stage of a national political campaign. That meanspirited and cynical election-year exploitation of homophobia accelerated the outing of Republicans by activists on the left.

"It made gay Republicans targets," Mr. Tafel told me last week. (Stories about Mr. Craig percolated on the Internet long before the airport incident.) In response, Mr. Tafel said, fearful gay Republicans on the Hill have retreated deeper into the closet. The Bush-Rove strategy "created the Larry Craigs," he said. "It created that man crawling around toilets."

Mr. Craig has denied being gay. Perhaps someone might believe him had he not, in 1982, gratuitously proclaimed his innocence in a pre-Foley page scandal, even though no one had accused him of anything. But whatever Mr. Craig's orientation, many closeted Republicans remain in place on Capitol Hill, easy targets for political opponents who want to expose G.O.P. hypocrisy.

Were Mr. Craig now to keep his seat, maybe his trial by fire would drive him to end his perennial gay baiting and become a latent proselytizer for a return to a more open, live-and-let-live Republicanism in the retro style of Barry Goldwater. Granted, Mr. Craig has shown no leadership of any kind in his career to date. But if Trent Lott can have a second chance after seeming to embrace the Dixiecrat racialism of Strom Thurmond, why not the toe-tapper from Idaho?

The G.O.P. needs at least one minority group in its ranks if it's going to be a viable political party in the 21st century. As the former vice-presidential nominee Jack Kemp asked rhetorically last week, "What are we going to do — meet in a country club in the suburbs one day?" His comment was prompted by the news that the major Republican candidates had claimed "scheduling conflicts" to avoid a debate at a historically black college in Baltimore. This was so obvious a slight that even Newt Gingrich labeled the candidates' excuses "baloney," and the usually controversy-averse Jay Leno was moved to call for the Republicans to "change their minds" after the debate's moderator, Tavis Smiley, aired the issue on "The Tonight Show."

The brushoff of that debate followed a similar rejection by the same candidates (except John McCain) of a debate sponsored by Univision, the country's most-watched Spanish-language network. It's only the latest insult to Hispanic voters, the fastest-growing American minority. Without Hispanics, the G.O.P. is doomed in swing states from Florida to Nevada. If you have any doubts, just look at the panic at the staunchly Republican Wall Street Journal editorial page. It has now even started attacking its own cohort — what it calls "Fox News populists and obsessive bloggers" — for driving away once-Republican Hispanic votes with over-the-top invective about illegal immigrants.

It would be unfair to say that the G.O.P. is devoid of sensitivity to all minorities. True, Peter King, the Long Island congressman, said last week that America has "too many mosques," but he was balanced by Mitt Romney, who sent out a press release wishing "the Jewish people" a hearty "L'Shanah Tovah" for the New Year. And let no one fault the Republican presidential field for not looking like America: Alan Keyes is back!

But the last minority with at least a modicum of influence in the party's power structure seems to be closeted gay men. As an alternative to cruising men's rooms, the least they could do is use their clout to stay the manifestly unjust execution of Larry Craig.

The Women Behind the Men


Daisy Bates had to march with the wives.

When the nation observes the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock school desegregation on Monday, there will undoubtedly be a great deal said about Bates, who was head of the city’s N.A.A.C.P. chapter. She helped recruit nine black teenagers and escorted them through irate mobs of white adults and into their first classes. As a result, she and her husband, Lucius, lost their business. She was jailed, threatened and the Ku Klux Klan burned an 8-foot cross on her lawn.

Bates was invited, of course, to the famous March on Washington in 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Rosa Parks was invited, too, and Pauli Murray, the lawyer and feminist who had staged the first sit-in at a Washington restaurant during World War II.

When they got there, they were all assigned to walk with the wives of the male civil rights leaders, far away from the cameras. “Not a single woman was invited to make one of the major speeches or be part of the delegation of leaders who went to the White House. The omission was deliberate,” Murray said later.

Dorothy Height, the head of the National Council of Negro Women, and others begged that at least one woman be included among the speakers. They nominated Diane Nash, the student leader who had been perhaps the one person most responsible for the success of the Freedom Riders in the South. No dice.

“Nothing that women said or did broke the impasse blocking their participation. I’ve never seen a more unmovable force,” Height wrote. The men kept telling her that women already had participation — both Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson were going to sing. In the end, A. Philip Randolph delivered a “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” while the female civil rights legends sat on the stage.

We’ve learned, with some pain, to celebrate all our national heroes through clear eyes, as people whose great hearts and minds still did not take the dream of freedom and equality past their own immediate cause. The Declaration of Independence is our noblest piece of prose even though Thomas Jefferson kept slaves. Susan B. Anthony is my favorite Founding Mother, but I know she broke her old friend Frederick Douglass’s heart when she lashed out at a government that would give the vote to “Sambo” and ignore well-educated, middle-class white women. Dr. King and the other male leaders and martyrs of the civil rights movement are always going to be a beacon in the center of our history. But they generally believed women’s place was in the home, and most were privately looking forward to the moment when they would all go back there.

The women of the civil rights movement who are most celebrated tend to be the brave victims, like Rosa Parks, who dutifully played the simple seamstress too tired to give up her seat on the bus, even though she had in fact been an activist for longer than almost any of the men. Still, in her autobiography she remembered that March on Washington and noted that these days “women wouldn’t stand for being kept so much in the background.”

The women who men were less enthusiastic about were the ones who led. Martin Luther King Jr.’s first triumph as the public face of the Montgomery bus boycott was possible because a group of middle-class black women led by a college teacher, Jo Ann Robinson, had organized it. They had been preparing for the opportunity so long that when Rosa Parks went to jail, they had 35,000 fliers ready the next morning, to deliver to black households through their children at school. Yet now they have practically vanished from our history.

You do not have to dismiss the men to believe that Ella Baker was the greatest organizer the civil rights movement ever knew. When she was passed over for the directorate of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which she helped found and ran as acting director, she attributed the rejection to the fact that “I was female; I was old. I didn’t have a Ph.D.” Then she went right on organizing, guiding the black college students into forming the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which she would direct throughout its glory years as adviser and unpaid spiritual leader.

Baker also got it — the moment of recognition that all the previous movements for American social justice had not quite grasped. “Remember,” she told the young people, “we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit, a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind.”

You watch the reports from Jena this week and you wonder where women like Bates and Baker and Robinson would be if they were alive today. Wherever it was, it would be at the front of the parade.

In 2008, Bush v. Gore Redux?


Right now it’s just a petition drive on its way to becoming a ballot initiative in California. But you should think of it as a tropical depression that could develop into a major storm that blows away the Democrats’ chances of winning the White House next year.

And it could become a constitutional crisis.

It’s panic time in Republican circles. The G.O.P. could go into next year’s election burdened by the twin demons of an unpopular war and an economic downturn. The party that took the White House in 2000 while losing the popular vote figures it may have to do it again.

The Presidential Election Reform Act is the name of a devious proposal that Republican operatives have dreamed up to siphon off 20 or more of the 55 electoral votes that the Democrats would get if, as expected, they win California in 2008.

That’s a lot of electoral votes, the equivalent of winning the state of Ohio. If this proposed change makes it onto the ballot and becomes law, those 20 or so electoral votes could well be enough to hand the White House to a Republican candidate who loses the popular vote nationwide.

Even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has suggested that the initiative is a form of dirty pool. While not explicitly opposing it, Mr. Schwarzenegger said it smacks of changing the rules “in the middle of the game.”

Democrats are saying it’s unconstitutional.

The proposal would rewrite the rules for the distribution of electoral votes in California. Under current law, all of California’s 55 electoral votes go to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote statewide. That “winner-take-all” system is the norm in the U.S.

Under the proposed change, electoral votes would be apportioned according to the winner of the popular vote in each of California’s Congressional districts. That would likely throw 20 or more electoral votes to the Republican candidate, even if the Democrat carries the state.

A sign of the bad faith in this proposal is the fact that there is no similar effort by the G.O.P. to apportion electoral votes by Congressional districts in, for example, Texas, a state with 34 electoral votes that is likely to go Republican next year.

Longtime observers in California believe the proponents of this change — lawyers with close ties to the Republican Party statewide and nationally — will have no trouble collecting enough signatures to get it on the ballot in June. The first poll taken on the measure, which is not yet widely understood by voters, showed that it would pass.

Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor and one of the nation’s pre-eminent constitutional scholars, believes the initiative is blatantly unconstitutional. “Entirely apart from the politics,” he said, “this clearly violates Article II of the Constitution, which very explicitly requires that the electors for president be selected ‘in such manner as the Legislature’ of the state directs.”

In Mr. Tribe’s view, the “one and only way” for California to change the manner in which its electoral votes are apportioned is through an act of the State Legislature.

Professor Tribe is not a disinterested party. He represented Al Gore in the disputed 2000 presidential election. And not all constitutional experts agree that this would be such an easy call. “This is not an open-and-shut case,” said Richard Pildes, a professor at the New York University School of Law.

What is undisputed is that the Democrats will mount a ferocious legal challenge if the ballot initiative passes — “maybe even before it has a chance to pass,” a Democratic source said yesterday — thus opening the door to an ugly constitutional fight reminiscent of Bush v. Gore in 2000.

The potential for trouble in the event of a close election is huge. Said Professor Tribe: “This is really a prescription for a possible constitutional crisis in which we have one president if California electors act in accord with the method set out by the State Legislature, and another president if the electors are divided according to this ballot initiative.”

The operatives behind the initiative are experts at causing trouble. The effort is being led by Thomas Hiltachk, a lawyer who was one of the leaders of the successful effort to recall California Gov. Gray Davis in 2003. Politics is not just hardball to this crowd; it’s almost literally a fight to the death.

The proponents of the initiative understand completely that a constitutional crisis could damage the nation’s democratic process and undermine the legitimacy of a presidential election. In their view that’s preferable to a Republican defeat.

California voters would be doing themselves and the nation a favor by soundly defeating this poisonous initiative if it makes it onto the ballot in June.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Health Care Hopes


All the evidence suggests that it has finally become politically possible to give Americans what citizens of every other advanced nation already have: guaranteed health insurance. The economics of universal health care are sound, and polls show strong public support for guaranteed care. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that around.

True, one kind of fear seems, provisionally, to have been overcome: the timidity of Democratic politicians scarred by the failure of the original Clinton health plan.

To see how much things have changed, consider Hillary Clinton’s evolution. Just 15 months ago, The New York Times reported that “her plans to expand coverage are tempered and incremental,” and that “she continues to shy from the ultimate challenge: describing what a comprehensive Democratic health care plan would look like.”

Indeed, when she was asked how costs might be controlled, she demurred: “It depends on what kind of system you’re devising. And that’s still not at all clear to me, what the body politic will bear.”

But that was then.

John Edwards broke the issue of health care reform open in February, when he proposed a smart and serious plan for universal health insurance — and bravely announced his willingness to pay for the plan by letting some of the Bush tax cuts expire. Suddenly, universal health care went from being a distant progressive dream to something you could actually envision happening in the next administration.

Senator Clinton delayed a long time before coming out with her own plan — a delay that created a lot of anxiety among health care reformers, and may, as I’ll explain in a minute, be a bad omen for the future. Still, this week she did deliver a plan, and it’s as strong as the Edwards plan — because unless you get deep into the fine print, the Clinton plan basically is the Edwards plan.

That’s not a criticism; it’s much more important that a politician get health care right than that he or she score points for originality. Senator Clinton may be politically cautious, but she does understand health care economics and she knows a good thing when she sees it.

The Edwards and Clinton plans as well as the slightly weaker but similar Obama plan achieve universal-or-near-universal coverage through a well-thought-out combination of insurance regulation, subsidies and public-private competition. These plans may disappoint advocates of a cleaner, simpler single-payer system. But it’s hard to see how Medicare for all could get through Congress any time in the near future, whereas Edwards-type plans offer a reasonable second best that you can actually envision being enacted by a Democratic Congress and signed by a Democratic president just two years from now.

To get there, however, would require overcoming a lot more fear.

There won’t be a serious Republican alternative. The health care plans of the leading Republican candidates, such as they are, are the same old, same old: they principally rely on tax breaks that go mainly to the well-off, but will supposedly conjure up the magic of the market. As Ezra Klein of The American Prospect cruelly but accurately puts it: “The Republican vision is for a world in which the sick and dying get to deduct some of the cost of health insurance that they don’t have — and can’t get — on their taxes.”

But the G.O.P. nominee, whoever he is, won’t be trying to persuade the public of the merits of his own plan. Instead, he’ll try to scare the dwindling fraction of Americans who still have good health insurance by claiming that the Democrats will take it away.

The smear-and-fear campaign has already started. The Democratic plans all bear a strong resemblance to the health care plan that Mitt Romney signed into law as governor of Massachusetts, differing mainly in offering Americans additional choices. But that didn’t stop Mr. Romney from denouncing the Clinton plan as “European-style socialized medicine.” And Fred Thompson claims that the Clinton plan denies choice — which it actually offers in abundance — and relies on “punishment” instead.

These attacks probably won’t be effective enough to prevent a Democrat from winning next year. But that won’t be the end of the story: even if the Democrats take the White House and expand their Congressional majorities, the insurance and drug lobbies will try to bully them into backing down on their campaign promises.

That’s why the long delay before Senator Clinton announced her health care plan made supporters of universal care, myself included, so nervous — a nervousness that is not completely assuaged by the fact that she finally did deliver. It’s good to know that whoever gets the Democratic nomination will run on a very good health care plan. What remains is the question of whether he or she will have the determination to turn that plan into reality.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A site announcement

To all those who have hit on me these last 2+ years.

Thank You!

It is my intention to keep posting a few more days that I may close out this blog with a final post of the man who was the first post and namesake of this blog, Frank Rich. After that I will leave the blog up for any historians who may be interested. And so I may resurrerect it if the Times management should once again slip a cog.

My future efforts will be concentrated on my other little blog, in hopes that I may find my voice and develop a following there. And so I end with this one wish.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Bush fulfills H.L. Mencken's prophecy

By Joseph L. Galloway

It took just eight decades but H.L. Mencken's astute prediction on the future course of American presidential politics and the electorate's taste in candidates came true:

On July 26th, 1920, the acerbic and cranky scribe wrote in The Baltimore Sun: "...all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily (and) adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."

My late good buddy Leon Daniel, a wire service legend for 40 years at United Press International dredged up that Mencken quote several years ago and found that it was a perfect fit for George W. Bush, The Decider. MSNBC's Keith Olberman highlighted the same quote this week. A tip of the hat to both of them, and to Mencken.

The White House is now so adorned by Mencken's downright moron, and has been for more than six excruciatingly painful years. It wouldn't be so bad if the occupant had at least enough common sense to surround himself with smart, competent and honest advisers and listen to them. But he hasn't.

We inflicted George W. Bush on ourselves — with a little help from Republican spin-meisters, slippery lawyers, hanging chads and some judicial jiggery pokery — and he has stubbornly marched to the beat of his own broken drum year after year, piling up an unparalleled record of failures and disasters without equal in the nation's long history.

He inherited a balanced budget and a manageable national debt, and in just over six years has virtually bankrupted the United States of America and put us in hock to the tune of nine trillion dollars — sum larger than that accumulated by all the 42 other Presidents we had in two and a quarter centuries.

The man from Crawford, Texas, stood Robin Hood on his head almost from Day One, robbing the poor and the middle class so he could give to the rich and Republican. When the bills for those selective tax cuts, and his war of choice in Iraq, began coming due our President simply signed IOU's for a trillion dollars, with those markers now held by our traditional ally Communist China.

Although he titillated the Republican conservative base with talk of his opposition to big government Bush has presided over a far more grandiose expansion of government than even Franklin D. Roosevelt with his New Deal.

Faced with the tragedy of the 9/11 terror attacks — due in part to a dense and impenetrable federal bureaucracy which didn't know what it knew and wouldn't have shared it if it had known — the President created a far denser, far less efficient and far more expensive mega-bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security.

Having made one good move, attacking and toppling the Taliban and running al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden out of Afghanistan in retaliation for 9/11, the President and his crowd then turned away, half-finished with Job One, and decided to "preemptively invade" Iraq which had precisely nothing to do with the attacks on America.

In one stroke of George W. Bush's pen America went from being a nation that distrusted foreign entanglements and fought wars only when grossly provoked to a nation that attacked first and without credible reason.

That same stroke — and the ensuing five years of war in Iraq — wiped out whatever remained of our reservoir of good will with the rest of the world. The shining city on the hill donned camouflage paint and went to war in the wrong place at the wrong time against the wrong people.

Now George Bush could posture and strut as a wartime President; could style himself The Decider, and could decide which parts of the Constitution and Bill of Rights bought so dearly by generations of Americans he would give or take away.

The mills of the military-industrial complex went into high gear, as the defense contractors jostled for their place at a trough filled each year with half a trillion dollars of taxpayer money. The Republican political operatives milked them all like so many Holstein cows and the Republican lobbyists romped over to Capitol Hill buying Congressmen by the baker's dozen to keep the pumps primed.

When one raison du jure for the war in Iraq failed — and all have failed — resident Bush and his general-of-the-month could always came up with another to appease the Gods of War and keep the machinery turning.

Throughout this ongoing national catastrophe Bush has kept close around him a coterie of incompetents and ideologues always on guard to defend the indefensible and justify the unjustifiable. They brush the lapels of the emperor's suit of gold and whisper that he is right and God will make him shine in American history.

Perhaps the crowning blow came when it was revealed that The Decider is now getting his strategic advice and counsel from none other than Henry Kissinger, the author of genocide in Cambodia; wholesale slaughter in Chile; abandonment of American POWs in Laos; betrayal of South Vietnam, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

God help us.

Alan (Not Atlas) Shrugged



It’s a lost art, slinking away.

Now the fashion is slinking back.

Nobody wants to simply admit they made a mistake and disappear for awhile. Nobody even wants to use the weasel words: “Mistakes were made.” No, far better to pop right back up and get in the face of those who were savoring your absence.

We should think of a name for this appalling modern phenomenon. Kissingering, perhaps.

In Las Vegas, there’s the loathsome O.J., a proper candidate for shunning and stun-gunning, barging back into the picture.

And on Capitol Hill, Larry Craig shocked mortified Republicans by bounding into their weekly lunch. You’d think the conservative 62-year-old Idaho senator would have some shame, going from fervently opposing gay rights to provocatively tapping his toe in a Minneapolis airport toilet. (The toilet stall, now known as the Larry Craig bathroom, has become a hot local tourist attraction.)

But no.

As though Republicans don’t have enough problems, Mr. Craig said he is ready to go back to work while the legal hotshots he hired appeal his case. He even cast a couple votes, one against D.C. voting rights. (This creep gets to decide about my representation?)

Even if President Bush is “the cockiest guy” around, as the former Mexican President Vicente Fox writes in a new memoir critical of W.’s “grade-school-level” Spanish and his grade-school-level Iraq policy, he can’t be feeling good about the barbs being hurled his way by former supporters and enablers.

Rummy’s back in the news, giving interviews about a planned memoir and foundation designed to encourage “reasoned and civil debate” about global challenges and to spur more young people to go into government.

It’s rich. Maybe more young people would go into government if they didn’t have to work for devious bullies like Rummy who make huge life-and-death mistakes and then don’t apologize.

In The Washington Post, he blamed the press and Congress for creating an inhospitable atmosphere that drives good people away from public service. Maybe that’s why he and his evil twin, Dick Cheney, did their best to undermine the constitutional system of checks and balances so they could get more fine young people to serve.

Does the man blamed for creating civil disorder in Iraq even know what the word “civil” means? Wasn’t he the prickly Pentagon chief who got furious with anyone who didn’t agree with him on “global challenges”?

He shoved Gen. Eric Shinseki into retirement — and failed to show up at his retirement party — after the good general correctly told Congress that it would take several hundred thousand troops to invade and control Iraq. And he snubbed the German defense minister when Germany joined the Coalition of the Unwilling.

Interviewed by GQ’s Lisa DePaulo on his ranch in Taos, N.M., with another mule named Gus nearby, the “75-year-old package of waning testosterone,” as the writer called him, was asked if he misses W. Offering a wry smile, he replied, “Um, no.”

He now treats the son with the same contempt he treated the father with, which is why it’s so odd that the son hired his dad’s nemesis in the first place.

He actually had the gall to imply to Ms. DePaulo that he was out of the loop on Iraq and dragged out a copy of a memo he had written outlining all the things that could go wrong.

In fact, he was the one, right after 9/11, who began pushing to go after Saddam. He and Cheney were orchestrating the invasion from the start, guiding the dauphin with warnings about how weak he would seem if he let Saddam mock him.

The ultimate bureaucratic infighter wrote the memo as part of his Socratic strategy, asking a lot of questions when he was already pushing to go into Iraq. He never did any contingency planning in case those things went wrong; the memo was there simply so that someday he could pull it out for a reporter.

In the same issue of GQ, Colin Powell tried to build up the objections he made to the president, too, in an interview with Walter Isaacson. But nobody’s buying.

Even though he rubber-stamped W.’s tax cuts, Alan Greenspan is now upbraiding the president and vice president for profligate spending and putting politics ahead of sound economics.

He also says in his new memoir that “the Iraq war is largely about oil,” telling Bob Woodward that he had privately told W. and Cheney that ousting Saddam was “essential” to keeping world oil supplies safe.

Irrational exuberance, indeed.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

G.O.P.’s Dirty Tricks Begin


The folks who gave us the Willie Horton ads, the Swift boat campaign, the purges of black voters in Florida and endless other dirty electoral tricks are at it again.

Like crack addicts confronting the irresistible vial, the evil geniuses of the G.O.P. can’t seem to help themselves. This time — with an eye toward seizing the White House again next year, even if they lose the popular vote — they’re trying to rewrite the rules for the distribution of electoral votes in California.

Under current law, all of California’s 55 electoral votes go to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote statewide. This “winner take all” system is the norm in the U.S. It’s in place in all but two states, Maine and Nebraska, which have just four and five electoral votes, respectively.

Now comes a move, from lawyers with close ties to the Republican Party, to scrap the current system in California and replace it with one that would divide up the electoral votes in a way that would likely give 20 or more of them to the candidate who loses the popular vote in the state.

Democrats fear, correctly, that this maneuver could checkmate even their best efforts to win back the White House next year.

California is widely expected to go Democratic in the presidential election. Its 55 electoral votes are a hefty chunk of the 270 needed to win, and thus crucial to Democratic hopes.

Under this new proposal, the 20 or more electoral votes that would be denied the winner of the statewide vote in California, could well be enough to hand the White House to a Republican candidate who loses the popular vote nationally.

“Their idea is to have California be the only big state to do this,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who is supporting Senator Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. “If the Republicans can poach 20 electoral votes from the Democrats in California, that’s the same as winning all the electoral votes in Ohio. You’re basically giving them the election.”

The effort to change the way Californians vote for president has been cloaked in the typically deceptive garb that the G.O.P. pulls out for its underhanded maneuvering. The proposal has been dubbed the “Presidential Election Reform Act.” It is being led by Thomas Hiltachk of Bell, McAndrews and Hiltachk, a law firm that has represented both the state Republican Party and G.O.P. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

According to The Associated Press, the firm was also linked to a political committee, largely funded by Bob Perry, that targeted Democratic candidates in 2006. Mr. Perry, a longtime supporter of George W. Bush, contributed millions of dollars to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, whose intense and deceptive campaign in 2004 was so damaging to the candidacy of John Kerry.

This crowd is no more interested in genuine electoral reform than Britney Spears is.

Mr. Hiltachk and his operatives are trying to gather enough signatures to get their proposal before the voters as a California ballot initiative next June. If they succeed, and the voters approve the initiative, the rules for apportioning the state’s electoral votes would be changed for the 2008 presidential election.

Instead of “winner take all,” 53 of the state’s 55 electoral votes would be apportioned according to the winner of the presidential popular vote in each of the state’s 53 Congressional districts. A single vote would be awarded to the winner in each district. (The other two votes would still go to the statewide winner.)

John Kerry defeated George W. Bush in California in 2004 and collected all of the state’s electoral votes. But Mr. Bush won the popular vote in 22 of the state’s Congressional districts. If this proposed system had been in effect, 22 electoral votes would have been withheld from Mr. Kerry and given to Mr. Bush.

“This clearly is a power grab by the Republican Party,” said John Travis, a longtime political science professor at Humboldt State University in California. Mr. Travis believes that while there may be problems with the Electoral College system, this is not the way to fix it.

“This is simply a way for the Republicans to manipulate California’s electoral votes to their advantage,” he said.

Democrats do not have perfectly clean hands when it comes to this sort of thing. A similar effort by Democrats in North Carolina was scrapped at the insistence of national party leaders, and not a moment too soon.

What the Democrats need to do now is make sure that California voters understand that they are the latest targeted pawns in the G.O.P.’s longstanding efforts to undermine not just the Democrats but democracy itself.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Sad Alan’s Lament


When President Bush first took office, it seemed unlikely that he would succeed in getting his proposed tax cuts enacted. The questionable nature of his installation in the White House seemed to leave him in a weak political position, while the Senate was evenly balanced between the parties. It was hard to see how a huge, controversial tax cut, which delivered most of its benefits to a wealthy elite, could get through Congress.

Then Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, testified before the Senate Budget Committee.

Until then Mr. Greenspan had presented himself as the voice of fiscal responsibility, warning the Clinton administration not to endanger its hard-won budget surpluses. But now Republicans held the White House, and the Greenspan who appeared before the Budget Committee was a very different man.

Suddenly, his greatest concern — the “emerging key fiscal policy need,” he told Congress — was to avert the threat that the federal government might actually pay off all its debt. To avoid this awful outcome, he advocated tax cuts. And the floodgates were opened.

As it turns out, Mr. Greenspan’s fears that the federal government would quickly pay off its debt were, shall we say, exaggerated. And Mr. Greenspan has just published a book in which he castigates the Bush administration for its fiscal irresponsibility.

Well, I’m sorry, but that criticism comes six years late and a trillion dollars short.

Mr. Greenspan now says that he didn’t mean to give the Bush tax cuts a green light, and that he was surprised at the political reaction to his remarks. There were, indeed, rumors at the time — which Mr. Greenspan now says were true — that the Fed chairman was upset about the response to his initial statement.

But the fact is that if Mr. Greenspan wasn’t intending to lend crucial support to the Bush tax cuts, he had ample opportunity to set the record straight when it could have made a difference.

His first big chance to clarify himself came a few weeks after that initial testimony, when he appeared before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.

Here’s what I wrote following that appearance: “Mr. Greenspan’s performance yesterday, in his first official testimony since he let the genie out of the bottle, was a profile in cowardice. Again and again he was offered the opportunity to say something that would help rein in runaway tax-cutting; each time he evaded the question, often replying by reading from his own previous testimony. He declared once again that he was speaking only for himself, thus granting himself leeway to pronounce on subjects far afield of his role as Federal Reserve chairman. But when pressed on the crucial question of whether the huge tax cuts that now seem inevitable are too large, he said it was inappropriate for him to comment on particular proposals.

“In short, Mr. Greenspan defined the rules of the game in a way that allows him to intervene as he likes in the political debate, but to retreat behind the veil of his office whenever anyone tries to hold him accountable for the results of those interventions.”

I received an irate phone call from Mr. Greenspan after that article, in which he demanded to know what he had said that was wrong. In his book, he claims that Robert Rubin, the former Treasury secretary, was stumped by that question. That’s hard to believe, because I certainly wasn’t: Mr. Greenspan’s argument for tax cuts was contorted and in places self-contradictory, not to mention based on budget projections that everyone knew, even then, were wildly overoptimistic.

If anyone had doubts about Mr. Greenspan’s determination not to inconvenience the Bush administration, those doubts were resolved two years later, when the administration proposed another round of tax cuts, even though the budget was now deep in deficit. And guess what? The former high priest of fiscal responsibility did not object.

And in 2004 he expressed support for making the Bush tax cuts permanent — remember, these are the tax cuts he now says he didn’t endorse — and argued that the budget should be balanced with cuts in entitlement spending, including Social Security benefits, instead. Of course, back in 2001 he specifically assured Congress that cutting taxes would not threaten Social Security.

In retrospect, Mr. Greenspan’s moral collapse in 2001 was a portent. It foreshadowed the way many people in the foreign policy community would put their critical faculties on hold and support the invasion of Iraq, despite ample evidence that it was a really bad idea.

And like enthusiastic war supporters who have started describing themselves as war critics now that the Iraq venture has gone wrong, Mr. Greenspan has started portraying himself as a critic of administration fiscal irresponsibility now that President Bush has become deeply unpopular and Democrats control Congress.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Will the Democrats Betray Us?

SIR, I don't know, actually": The fact that America's surrogate commander in chief, David Petraeus, could not say whether the war in Iraq is making America safer was all you needed to take away from last week's festivities in Washington. Everything else was a verbal quagmire, as administration spin and senatorial preening fought to a numbing standoff.

Not that many Americans were watching. The country knew going in that the White House would win its latest campaign to stay its course of indefinitely shoveling our troops and treasure into the bottomless pit of Iraq. The only troops coming home alive or with their limbs intact in President Bush's troop "reduction" are those who were scheduled to be withdrawn by April anyway. Otherwise the president would have had to extend combat tours yet again, mobilize more reserves or bring back the draft.

On the sixth anniversary of the day that did not change everything, General Petraeus couldn't say we are safer because he knows we are not. Last Sunday, Michael Scheuer, the former chief of the C.I.A.'s Osama bin Laden unit, explained why. He wrote in The Daily News that Al Qaeda, under the de facto protection of Pervez Musharraf, is "on balance" more threatening today that it was on 9/11. And as goes Pakistan, so goes Afghanistan. On Tuesday, just as the Senate hearings began, Lisa Myers of NBC News reported on a Taliban camp near Kabul in an area nominally controlled by the Afghan government we installed. It is training bomb makers to attack America.

Little of this registered in or beyond the Beltway. New bin Laden tapes and the latest 9/11 memorial rites notwithstanding, we're back in a 9/10 mind-set. Bin Laden, said Frances Townsend, the top White House homeland security official, "is virtually impotent." Karen Hughes, the Bush crony in charge of America's P.R. in the jihadists' world, recently held a press conference anointing Cal Ripken Jr. our international "special sports envoy." We are once more sleepwalking through history, fiddling while the Qaeda not in Iraq prepares to burn.

This is why the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, including those more accurate than Mr. Bush's recent false analogies, can take us only so far. Our situation is graver than it was during Vietnam.

Certainly there were some eerie symmetries between General Petraeus's sales pitch last week and its often-noted historical antecedent: Gen. William Westmoreland's similar mission for L.B.J. before Congress on April 28, 1967. Westmoreland, too, refused to acknowledge that our troops were caught in a civil war. He spoke as well of the "repeated successes" of the American-trained South Vietnamese military and ticked off its growing number of combat-ready battalions. "The strategy we're following at this time is the proper one," the general assured America, and "is producing results."

Those fabulous results delayed our final departure from Vietnam for another eight years — just short of the nine to 10 years General Petraeus has said may be needed for a counterinsurgency in Iraq. But there's a crucial difference between the Westmoreland show of 1967 and the 2007 revival by General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Westmoreland played to a full and largely enthusiastic house. Most Americans still supported the war in Vietnam and trusted him; so did all but a few members of Congress, regardless of party. All three networks pre-empted their midday programming for Westmoreland's Congressional appearance.

Our Iraq commander, by contrast, appeared before a divided and stalemated Congress just as an ABC News-Washington Post poll found that most Americans believed he would overhype progress in Iraq. No network interrupted a soap opera for his testimony. On cable the hearings fought for coverage with Britney Spears's latest self-immolation and the fate of Madeleine McCann, our latest JonBenet Ramsey stand-in.

General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker could grab an hour of prime television time only by slinking into the safe foxhole of Fox News, where Brit Hume chaperoned them on a gloomy, bunkerlike set before an audience of merely 1.5 million true believers. Their "Briefing for America," as Fox titled it, was all too fittingly interrupted early on for a commercial promising pharmaceutical relief from erectile dysfunction.

Even if military "victory" were achievable in Iraq, America could not win a war abandoned by its own citizens. The evaporation of that support was ratified by voters last November. For that, they were rewarded with the "surge." Now their mood has turned darker. Americans have not merely abandoned the war; they don't want to hear anything that might remind them of it, or of war in general. Katie Couric's much-promoted weeklong visit to the front produced ratings matching the CBS newscast's all-time low. Angelina Jolie's movie about Daniel Pearl sank without a trace. Even Clint Eastwood's wildly acclaimed movies about World War II went begging. Over its latest season, "24" lost a third of its viewers, just as Mr. Bush did between January's prime-time address and last week's.

You can't blame the public for changing the channel. People realize that the president's real "plan for victory" is to let his successor clean up the mess. They don't want to see American troops dying for that cause, but what can be done? Americans voted the G.O.P. out of power in Congress; a clear majority consistently tell pollsters they want out of Iraq. And still every day is Groundhog Day. Our America, unlike Vietnam-era America, is more often resigned than angry. Though the latest New York Times-CBS News poll finds that only 5 percent trust the president to wrap up the war, the figure for the (barely) Democratic-controlled Congress, 21 percent, is an almost-as-resounding vote of no confidence.

Last week Democrats often earned that rating, especially those running for president. It is true that they do not have the votes to overcome a Bush veto of any war legislation. But that doesn't mean the Democrats have to go on holiday. Few used their time to cross-examine General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker on their disingenuous talking points, choosing instead to regurgitate stump sentiments or ask uncoordinated, redundant questions. It's telling that the one question that drew blood — are we safer? — was asked by a Republican, John Warner, who is retiring from the Senate.

Americans are looking for leadership, somewhere, anywhere. At least one of the Democratic presidential contenders might have shown the guts to soundly slap the "General Betray-Us" headline on the ad placed by MoveOn.org in The Times, if only to deflate a counterproductive distraction. This left-wing brand of juvenile name-calling is as witless as the "Defeatocrats" and "cut and run" McCarthyism from the right; it at once undermined the serious charges against the data in the Petraeus progress report (including those charges in the same MoveOn ad) and allowed the war's cheerleaders to hyperventilate about a sideshow. "General Betray-Us" gave Republicans a furlough to avoid ownership of an Iraq policy that now has us supporting both sides of the Shiite-vs.-Sunni blood bath while simultaneously shutting America's doors on the millions of Iraqi refugees the blood bath has so far created.

It's also past time for the Democratic presidential candidates to stop getting bogged down in bickering about who has the faster timeline for withdrawal or the more enforceable deadline. Every one of these plans is academic anyway as long as Mr. Bush has a veto pen. The security of America is more important — dare one say it? — than trying to outpander one another in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate need all the unity and focus they can muster to move this story forward, and that starts with the two marquee draws, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It's essential to turn up the heat full time in Washington for any and every legislative roadblock to administration policy that they and their peers can induce principled or frightened Republicans to endorse.

They should summon the new chief of central command (and General Petraeus's boss), Adm. William Fallon, for tough questioning; he is reportedly concerned about our lapsed military readiness should trouble strike beyond Iraq. And why not grill the Joint Chiefs and those half-dozen or so generals who turned down the White House post of "war czar" last fall? The war should be front and center in Congress every day.

Mr. Bush, confident that he got away with repackaging the same bankrupt policies with a nonsensical new slogan ("Return on Success") Thursday night, is counting on the public's continued apathy as he kicks the can down the road and bides his time until Jan. 20, 2009; he, after all, has nothing more to lose. The job for real leaders is to wake up America to the urgent reality. We can't afford to punt until Inauguration Day in a war that each day drains America of resources and will. Our national security can't be held hostage indefinitely to a president's narcissistic need to compound his errors rather than admit them.

The enemy votes, too. Cataclysmic events on the ground in Iraq, including Thursday's murder of the Sunni tribal leader Mr. Bush embraced two weeks ago as a symbol of hope, have never arrived according to this administration's optimistic timetable. Nor have major Qaeda attacks in the West. It's national suicide to entertain the daydream that they will start doing so now.

Will Rudy Let Her Rudy-Up?


It’s on.

Or, rather, it’s back on.

Rudy versus Hillary, a New York steel-cage match pitting two eye-gouging, hair-pulling, kick-em-till-they’re-dead brawlers.

For months, Hillary’s comely male rivals for the Democratic nomination have tiptoed around her, letting their wives take shots at the front-runner.

Barack Obama looks wary when he’s on stage with Hillary, but Michelle stepped up: “Some women feel it’s a woman’s turn, you know? They just feel like it’s Hillary’s turn. That, I reject, because democracy isn’t supposed to be about whose turn it is.”

That followed Elizabeth Edwards’s takedown of Hillary: “She’s just not as vocal a women’s advocate as I want to see. John is.”

Obama and Edwards probably figured the criticism would sound less Lazio coming from their wives. But it just made them seem as though they were hiding behind their wives’ skirts.

Enter Rudy. He may wear skirts, but he’s not afraid to take down a skirt.

He put up an ad Friday on his campaign Web site slamming her as a hypocrite for running an antiwar campaign after supporting the president on the authorization for war.

Obama has been trying to make this point for quite a while, but so gingerly that every time he sneaks up on it, Hillary surges ahead.

Rudy doesn’t do ginger.

Hillary has been trying to Rudy-up, corralling ground zero and playing the fear card, saying that if there were a terrorist attack before the election, only she could stop Republicans from keeping the White House. But Rudy aims to de-Rudy her. His ad is an instant cult classic, with a solemn trumpet that is reminiscent of “Taps” and a narrator who sounds like the guy who does trailers for “In a World Gone Wrong” disaster flicks.

Just when Hillary was basking in her reinvention of herself, Rudy sprang out of the Republican primary shadows and shoved her back.

He ignores her attempts to be New Hillary, a senator who loves men in uniform, who is not afraid to use military power, and who is tough enough to deal with bin Laden. He recasts her as Old Hillary, a Code Pink pinko first lady and opportunist from a White House that had a reputation for having a flower-child distaste for the military, a left-wing shrew who made a secret socialist health care plan and let gays into the military and certainly can’t be trusted to fight the jihadists.

“In 2002,” the white words flash on a black screen, “Hillary Clinton voted to authorize military action in Iraq because she believed it was the right thing to do.”

Then it goes to a clip of Hillary speaking on the Senate floor during the war authorization debate that Obama has been too refined to highlight.

“If left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons,” she said, an echo of Condi. “He has also given aid and comfort and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members. So it is with conviction that I support this resolution as being in the best interests of our nation.”

Then the narrator intones, “But now that she’s running for president, Hillary Clinton has changed her position, even joining with the radical group MoveOn .org in attacking American General Petraeus” when she said it would require “a willing suspension of disbelief” to believe him.

“Just when our troops need all our support to finish the job, Hillary Clinton is turning her back on them,” the narrator concludes.

There are harsh images of Hillary, looking brittle in dark glasses, to go with the harsh words.

Rudy has decided that the best way to win his primary is to show he can beat the woman on the way to winning hers.

He can’t campaign on family values or the sanctity of marriage. He can’t whip up any fears on abortion or gays.

He can’t campaign on his plan to get out of Iraq because he doesn’t have one. He can’t campaign as the tough-guy heir to Bush because nobody likes Bush. He can’t campaign on attacking Iran because he’ll sound like crazy Dick Cheney.

He can’t campaign on the economy because he’s W. redux, facing a possible recession because of the mortgage crisis. He can’t campaign on Rudy’s from-the-mountaintop “12 Commitments” because no one knows what they are, and they don’t mention the word “Iraq.”

But he can be the only man in the field tough enough to slap around a woman.

The irony is that if you could loosen up Hillary with a few Jack and gingers, she would probably be closer to her reinvention than to his caricature. She probably secretly supports the surge, knowing that after it sputters, she may reap the whirlwind. And then the Republicans, who have lied, stalled and mismanaged in every way imaginable, will paint her as Ms. Cut and Run, turning her back on the military again.

Iraq, deep in your bones

A war that isn't really a war, the great humiliation that's ours forever. Is there any upside?

Friday, September 14, 2007

We are, of course, mostly fighting against ourselves.

It must be repeated every so often, just as a painful, necessary, ego-tweaking reminder: Iraq was never a war. Not really, not in any sense that mattered or that we could actually define and understand or to which we could truly submit ourselves or our national identity.

It never mattered how many little American flags appeared on how many bloated Chevy Avalanches, how many right-wing radio shows found a new reason to pule, how many furiously blindered uber-patriots happily ignored all the harsh words from all those naysaying generals or even all the "turncoat" anti-war Republicans and insisted we're really over there to fight some sort of great Islamic demon no one can actually see or locate or define but that we must, somehow, attempt to destroy -- even though doing so only seems to make the situation far, far worse.

There was never any coherent, justifiable heroic cause. Indeed, the truth about Iraq, as evidenced by Gen. David Petreaus' muted, bleak testimony before Congress just this week, is much more simple, nefarious, pathetic. Iraq is, was, and forever will be our very own massive strategic blunder, a failed land grab for position and power in a tinderbox region defined by furious instability and corruption and death.

It's the great unspoken subtext. Iraq has always been a war between our dueling national identities, a battle over how we are to move and breathe and behave in the new millennium. Are we really this violently paranoid bully, this rogue pre-emptive screw-em-all ideological war machine defined by the dystopian Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld vision of permanent, ongoing global conflict?

Or do we try, instead, to move forward and reinvent ourselves over and over again as the world's most commited, forceful peacekeeper, ever striving for balance and cooperation and tact, even in the face of hardship and fundamentalist rage, refusing to be taunted and dragged down lest we take the bait and lose our minds and engage in torture and misprision and ultraviolence and become little better, ideologically speaking, than our taunters? Have we already made our choice?

Because the truth is, we are well past the point of salvaging anything noble or honest from Bush's massive, historic debacle. We have only this brutal reality: Iraq is, and forever will be, one of the most extraordinary wastes in all of American history.

A waste of money. A waste of time. A stunning, almost unspeakable waste of life. A waste of resources and intellectual capital and a massive waste of national spirit. A waste of energy and hope and a giant squandering of any goodwill or empathy our former allies might've had for America in its post-9/11 state. Heard it all before? Sure you have.

Some scenes remain almost comical in their absurdity. Perhaps you saw that money, those enormous, ridiculous piles of American cash, the photos floating around of American soldiers guarding giant, shrink-wrapped pallets of U.S. currency known as "cashpaks," each reportedly containing about $1.6 million in stacks of $100 bills, all airlifted by the ton straight from the Federal Reserve and set down in the Iraqi sun like rotting fruit, small mountains of your tax dollars earmarked to buy off various warlords and pay for covert, unauthorized operations all over the Middle East in an attempt to buy our way into some sort of impossible, forced stability. Right.

Or maybe it's the bodies, the sheer waste of American flesh, not merely the thousands of U.S. dead or even the countless tens of thousands of dead Iraqi citizens but also the lesser-known horrors, like the epidemic of brain-damaged U.S. soldiers, thousands of them, so many that they're becoming their own category of study in medical textbooks given how they're beginning to exhibit combinations of trauma doctors have never seen before.

What a recruitment poster this is. Come fight in the American military. We're exhausted, overstretched, bewildered, have lowered our entrance barrier to accept D-grade students and former inmates, have almost zero idea what we're actually fighting for, and serve under a Commander in Chief who cares more about trying to shore up his wretched legacy than for the loss of American life. Oh and by the way, odds are extremely high you will return home permanently wounded, traumatized, or brain damaged. How very proud we are.

We all know the current reality: We are not safer. We are not better off in any measurable way. We are not stronger or more unified or prouder or more respected or healthier or wealthier or wiser and we have done exactly zero to stem the flood of radical Islam or the general outpouring of global disgust at what America has become under this president. This is our scar. This is our great American shame.

So, what do you do with it? Or with the prospect of still more weeks, months, even years of this dull slog of war? Because the fact is, as Petreaus' testimony essentially confirmed, we will be in Iraq at least through the (blessed) end of Bush's nightmare term, and likely well beyond, given how entrenched and ensnared our forces have become.

Perhaps we can take the long view, the wide view, the spiritual or karmic view, even, insofar as the short and linear view has become so stifling and deadly and useless. Perhaps this is the only way.

Because truly, many in the alternative set, the lightworkers and the gurus and the healers and the deep teachers, those who think outside the war room and beyond the bland academic platitudes, these people tend see Iraq, BushCo, the American right and all the sanctimonious bleakness surrounding them as merely the inky remnants of a passing disease, the last, vicious gasp of a dying ideology, the violent struggle of resistance that always erupts before any great cosmic shift.

Which is to say: The screeching of the Christian right, the shrill alarmism from cultural conservatives regarding everything from sex and drugs and music to gays and nipples and creationism, the rejection of science, the attacks on women's rights, the abuse of the environment, all the way up to the bleakest and ugliest manisfestation of all, a brutal and unwinnable war -- taken as a whole, these can, if you so choose, be seen as merely the embers of a hugely failed -- and yes, nearly extinct -- worldview.

Here is the hesitant optimism, the hint of the new, the tentative suggestion that all is not lost: By many measures, the worst of it is over. There really is light coming, a new awareness, a shift away from the bleakness and the rot and the wallowing in bland violence. Perhaps you can feel it. Or perhaps you need to be ready to feel it. Either way, it's there. You have but to do the most easy/difficult thing of all: you must look behind the veil, see the two dueling Americas, and make your choice.

Bush's war of false pretenses

By Derrick Z. Jackson

PRESIDENT BUSH told the nation Thursday night that General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker have "concluded that conditions in Iraq are improving, that we are seizing the initiative from the enemy, and that the troop surge is working."

Because of that, Bush added, "our success in meeting these objectives now allows us to begin bringing some of our troops home." He said Baghdad is being saved.

"One year ago, Baghdad was under siege," he said. "Schools were closed, markets were shuttered, and sectarian violence was spiraling out of control. Today . . . many schools and markets are reopening. Citizens are coming forward with vital intelligence. Sectarian killings are down. And ordinary life is beginning to return."

Never mind that 1,099 US soldiers died from September 2006 to August 2007, the highest 12-month total and disproportionately accounting for 29 percent of the 3,780 recorded fatalities since the March 2003 invasion. The lowest number of monthly fatalities in that period was 70 in November, according to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count (icasualties.org/oif/).

As needless as the war has always been, there previously were no more than three straight months of 70 or more US deaths. This month, the United States is on pace to lose another 76 service people.

Never mind either that the government's own National Intelligence Estimate last month was nowhere as rosy as Bush's assessment. The report said "there have been measurable but uneven improvements . . . the level of overall violence, including attacks on and casualties among civilians, remains high; Iraq's sectarian groups remain unreconciled; AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks."

The report did not use the word "quagmire." But it said that Iraqi security forces "have not improved enough to conduct major operations independent of the Coalition." That means that the US military presence "remains critical."

It remains so critical that Bush proposes to pull back only 20,000 troops, still leaving 140,000 in Iraq, still higher than when his "surge" began. To deflect from this deflating development, Bush once again tied the fear of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to Iraq even though Iraq and the executed Saddam Hussein had no tie to it.

"If we were to be driven out of Iraq," Bush said, "extremists of all strains would be emboldened . . . We would leave our children to face a far more dangerous world. And as we saw on September 11, 2001, those dangers can reach our cities and kill our people."

But in an amazing moment of candor, Petraeus said he could not say whether Bush's war has mattered on this account. When Senator John Warner of Virginia, a member of Bush's own Republican Party, asked Petraeus if the current strategy is making America safer, Petraeus said, "I don't know, actually. I have not sat down and sorted that out in my own mind."

We are 4 1/2 years into this war, and the Bush administration has not sorted out what we have done. Bush, by citing isolated examples of "how our strategy is working" and deluding himself about "the progress I have reported tonight," is no different than when General William Westmoreland told the National Press Club about Vietnam War in 1967, "I am absolutely certain that where as in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing."

Just like Bush, citing the reopening of schools, Westmoreland boasted that the United States "saw a civilian government installed, stabilized prices, opened roads and canals."

Westmoreland's assessment led President Johnson to declare three months later in a press conference, "so far as changing our basic strategy, the answer would be no. We see nothing that would require any change of great consequence. I see nothing in the developments that would indicate that the evaluation that I have had of this situation throughout the month should be changed."

Bush, seeing no need for major changes other than his recent escalation, said Thursday, "Our troops in Iraq are performing brilliantly. Along with Iraqi forces, they have captured or killed an average of more than 1,500 enemy fighters per month since January."

That is no different than Johnson bragging to the media in February of 1968 that 10,000 communist fighters were killed and 2,300 detained in the latest battles, compared to only 249 US fatalities. "I can count," Johnson said. ". . . is that a great enemy victory?"

Johnson won the body count and lost the war. Bush has yet to see that his war is down for the count.

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