Wealthy Frenchman

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Live From Baghdad: More Dying


James Brolan, the CBS soundman who was blown up in Baghdad on Memorial Day, was cute and funny and cheated at Scrabble. The 42-year-old former British soldier left a wife, an 18-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter. Paul Douglas, the cameraman, was a slab of a man with a great smile and gentle charm, a whiz of a cook who lived in London, where he liked to ride his motorcycle and cruise in an old Bentley that he'd restored himself. The 48-year-old left a wife, two daughters, three grandchildren and a mother.

Several teams of doctors have been fighting to save the life, and the legs, of Kimberly Dozier, the CBS correspondent who was hurt by the roadside bomb. The single 39-year-old was a headstrong, generous reporter who had spent years covering Iraq and Afghanistan.

''People rarely think of a woman as pretty as Kimberly as being strong,'' Dan Rather blogged on the CBS Web site. ''She is.''

Mr. Rather recalled that she had kept a kayak in her room in Baghdad, hoping she could someday persuade the military to let her row on the Tigris, near where she almost died while embedded with the American infantry, reporting a story about what the troops were doing on Memorial Day.

Doctors said that her heart had stopped beating and her blood pressure had plummeted. But somehow, with the help of blood donations from those in the combat hospital, they stabilized her. (Soldiers dragged Mr. Douglas away from the burning vehicle and put a tourniquet on one of his legs that had been blasted off, but it was too late to save him.)

The administration and some right-wing commentators have blamed the press for not reporting positive news in Iraq. The radio host Laura Ingraham has suggested that the press is ''invested in America's defeat'' and has mocked TV journalists for ''reporting from hotel balconies about the latest I.E.D.'s going off.''

Conservative chatterers have parroted President Bush's complaint that ''people resuming their normal lives will never be as dramatic as the footage of an I.E.D. explosion.''

But now two network personalities -- Ms. Dozier and Bob Woodruff -- have been severely injured by roadside bombs while embedded with the military, trying to do the sort of stories the administration wants.

''One thing I don't want to hear anymore,'' Steve Capus, the president of NBC News, told The Times's Bill Carter, ''is people like Laura Ingraham spewing about us not leaving our balconies in the Green Zone to cover what's really happening in Iraq.''

Even with constricted coverage, the tally of journalists killed in Iraq is now 71, more than the number killed in Vietnam or World War II. (This war is now six months short of the United States involvement in World War II, but at least then we knew we were winning by this point.)

Shaken by the CBS losses, networks were reassessing how to cover a story with such excruciating risks. Journalists in Iraq are hamstrung in Iraq just as the troops are, struggling, with ever greater frustration and higher costs, to do the job they were sent in to do.

As the CBS war correspondent Lara Logan told CNN recently, American officials often reject her requests for optimistic stories, saying: ''Oh, sorry, we can't take you to that school project, because if you put that on TV, they're going to be attacked, the teachers are going to be killed, the children might be the victims of attack. Oh, sorry, we can't show this reconstruction project because then that's going to expose it to sabotage.''

An American soldier was killed in the blast that killed the CBS cameraman and soundman and injured Ms. Dozier. But more than a day after we knew everything about the CBS victims, no information had been released about him.

There is a tragic anonymity about this war. Kids die but we don't know who they are, other than their names, which turn up in small print. They do not touch everyone's lives because, without a draft, they are not drawn from every part of American society. The administration tries to play down any sense of individual loss; the president has not attended a single funeral, and the government banned pictures of their returning coffins. The Iraqi civilians who die don't even get their names in the small print.

Journalists die and we know who they are. We know they liked to cook and play Scrabble. But we don't know who killed them, and their killers will never be brought to justice. The enemy has no face, just a finger on a detonator.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Consider the Living


Pretty soon this war in Iraq will have lasted as long as our involvement in World War II, with absolutely no evidence of any sort of conclusion in sight.

The point of Memorial Day is to honor the service and the sacrifice of those who have given their lives in the nation's wars. But I suggest that we take a little time today to consider the living.

Look around and ask yourself if you believe that stability or democracy in Iraq — or whatever goal you choose to assert as the reason for this war — is worth the life of your son or your daughter, or your husband or your wife, or the co-worker who rides to the office with you in the morning, or your friendly neighbor next door.

Before you gather up the hot dogs and head out to the barbecue this afternoon, look in a mirror and ask yourself honestly if Iraq is something you would be willing to die for.

There is no shortage of weaselly politicians and misguided commentators ready to tell us that we can't leave Iraq — we just can't. Chaos will ensue. Maybe even a civil war. But what they really mean is that we can't leave as long as the war can continue to be fought by other people's children, and as long as we can continue to put this George W. Bush-inspired madness on a credit card.

Start sending the children of the well-to-do to Baghdad, and start raising taxes to pay off the many hundreds of billions that the war is costing, and watch how quickly this tragic fiasco is brought to an end.

At an embarrassing press conference last week, President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain looked for all the world like a couple of hapless schoolboys who, while playing with fire, had set off a conflagration that is still raging out of control. Their recklessness has so far cost the lives of nearly 2,500 Americans and tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis, many of them children.

Among the regrets voiced by the president at the press conference was his absurd challenge to the insurgents in 2003 to "bring 'em on." But Mr. Bush gave no hint as to when the madness might end.

How many more healthy young people will we shovel into the fires of Iraq before finally deciding it's time to stop? How many dead are enough?

There is no good news coming out of Iraq. Sabrina Tavernise of The Times recently wrote: "In the latest indication of the crushing hardships weighing on the lives of Iraqis, increasing portions of the middle class seem to be doing everything they can to leave the country."

The middle class is all but panicked at the inability of the Iraqi government or American forces to quell the relentless violence. Ms. Tavernise quoted a businessman who is planning to move to Jordan: "We're like sheep at a slaughter farm."

Iraqis continue to be terrorized by kidnappers, roving death squads and, in a term perhaps coined by Mr. Bush, "suiciders."

The American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, acknowledged last week that even at this late date, there are parts of western Iraq that are not controlled by American forces, but rather "are under the control of terrorists and insurgents."

Now we get word that U.S. marines may have murdered two dozen Iraqis in cold blood last November.

No one should be surprised that such an atrocity could occur. That's what happens in war. The killing gets out of control, which is yet another reason why it's important to have mature leaders who will do everything possible to avoid war, rather than cavalierly sending the young and the healthy off to combat as if it were no more serious an enterprise than a big-time sporting event.

Nothing new came out of the Bush-Blair press conference. After more than three years these two men are as clueless as ever about what to do in Iraq. Are we doomed to follow the same pointless script for the next three years? And for three years after that?

Leadership does not get more pathetic than this. Once there was F.D.R. and Churchill. Now there's Bush and Blair.

Reacting to the allegations about the murder of civilians, the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Michael Hagee, went to Iraq last week to warn his troops about the danger of becoming "indifferent to the loss of a human life."

Somehow that message needs to be conveyed to the top leaders of this country, and to the public at large. There is no better day than Memorial Day to reflect on it. As we remember the dead, we should consider the living, and stop sending people by the thousands to pointless, unnecessary deaths.

Swift Boating the Planet


A brief segment in "An Inconvenient Truth" shows Senator Al Gore questioning James Hansen, a climatologist at NASA, during a 1989 hearing. But the movie doesn't give you much context, or tell you what happened to Dr. Hansen later.

And that's a story worth telling, for two reasons. It's a good illustration of the way interest groups can create the appearance of doubt even when the facts are clear and cloud the reputations of people who should be regarded as heroes. And it's a warning for Mr. Gore and others who hope to turn global warming into a real political issue: you're going to have to get tougher, because the other side doesn't play by any known rules.

Dr. Hansen was one of the first climate scientists to say publicly that global warming was under way. In 1988, he made headlines with Senate testimony in which he declared that "the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now." When he testified again the following year, officials in the first Bush administration altered his prepared statement to downplay the threat. Mr. Gore's movie shows the moment when the administration's tampering was revealed.

In 1988, Dr. Hansen was well out in front of his scientific colleagues, but over the years that followed he was vindicated by a growing body of evidence. By rights, Dr. Hansen should have been universally acclaimed for both his prescience and his courage.

But soon after Dr. Hansen's 1988 testimony, energy companies began a campaign to create doubt about global warming, in spite of the increasingly overwhelming evidence. And in the late 1990's, climate skeptics began a smear campaign against Dr. Hansen himself.

Leading the charge was Patrick Michaels, a professor at the University of Virginia who has received substantial financial support from the energy industry. In Senate testimony, and then in numerous presentations, Dr. Michaels claimed that the actual pace of global warming was falling far short of Dr. Hansen's predictions. As evidence, he presented a chart supposedly taken from a 1988 paper written by Dr. Hansen and others, which showed a curve of rising temperatures considerably steeper than the trend that has actually taken place.

In fact, the chart Dr. Michaels showed was a fraud — that is, it wasn't what Dr. Hansen actually predicted. The original paper showed a range of possibilities, and the actual rise in temperature has fallen squarely in the middle of that range. So how did Dr. Michaels make it seem as if Dr. Hansen's prediction was wildly off? Why, he erased all the lower curves, leaving only the curve that the original paper described as being "on the high side of reality."

The experts at www.realclimate.org, the go-to site for climate science, suggest that the smears against Dr. Hansen "might be viewed by some as a positive sign, indicative of just how intellectually bankrupt the contrarian movement has become." But I think they're misreading the situation. In fact, the smears have been around for a long time, and Dr. Hansen has been trying to correct the record for years. Yet the claim that Dr. Hansen vastly overpredicted global warming has remained in circulation, and has become a staple of climate change skeptics, from Michael Crichton to Robert Novak.

There's a concise way to describe what happened to Dr. Hansen: he was Swift-boated.

John Kerry, a genuine war hero, didn't realize that he could successfully be portrayed as a coward. And it seems to me that Dr. Hansen, whose predictions about global warming have proved remarkably accurate, didn't believe that he could successfully be portrayed as an unreliable exaggerator. His first response to Dr. Michaels, in January 1999, was astonishingly diffident. He pointed out that Dr. Michaels misrepresented his work, but rather than denouncing the fraud involved, he offered a rather plaintive appeal for better behavior.

Even now, Dr. Hansen seems reluctant to say the obvious. "Is this treading close to scientific fraud?" he recently asked about Dr. Michaels's smear. The answer is no: it isn't "treading close," it's fraud pure and simple.

Now, Dr. Hansen isn't running for office. But Mr. Gore might be, and even if he isn't, he hopes to promote global warming as a political issue. And if he wants to do that, he and those on his side will have to learn to call liars what they are.

The Cannes Landslide for Al Gore


LET it never be said that the Democrats don't believe in anything. They still believe in Hollywood and they still believe in miracles. Witness the magical mystery comeback tour of Al Gore.

Like Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" before it, Mr. Gore's new documentary about global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth," has wowed the liberal caucus at Cannes (who needs landlocked Iowa?) and fueled fantasies of political victory back home. "Al Gore Takes Cannes by Storm — Will the Oval Office Be Next?" Arianna Huffington asks on her blog, reporting that the former vice president was hotter on the Croisette than Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis and Penelope Cruz. In a "fantasy" presidential poll on the liberal Web site Daily Kos, Mr. Gore racks up a landslide 68 percent, with the closest also-ran, Russ Feingold, at 15. Liberal Washington pundits wonder whether the wonkishness that seemed off-putting in 2000 may actually be a virtue. In choosing a president, Margaret Carlson writes on Bloomberg.com, maybe "we should give a rest to that old saw about likeability."

Still, the unexpected rebirth of Al Gore says more about the desperation of the Democrats than it does about him. He is most of all the beneficiary of a perfect storm of events, the right man in the right place at the right time. It was just after Mr. Gore appeared on "Saturday Night Live" to kick off his movie's publicity campaign that long-rumbling discontent with the party's presumptive (if unannounced) presidential front-runner, Hillary Clinton, boiled over. Last week both New York magazine and The New Yorker ran lead articles quoting party insiders who described a Clinton candidacy in 2008 as a pox tantamount to avian flu. The Times jumped in with a front-page remembrance of headlines past: a dissection of the Clinton marriage.

If Senator Clinton is the Antichrist, might not it be time for a resurrected messiah to inherit (and save) the earth? Enter Mr. Gore, celebrated by New York on its cover as "The Un-Hillary."

There's a certain logic to this. Mrs. Clinton does look like a weak candidate — not so much because of her marriage, her gender or her liberalism, but because of her eagerness to fudge her stands on anything and everything to appeal to any and all potential voters. Where once she inspired passions pro and con, now she often induces apathy. Her most excited constituency seems to be the right-wing pundits who still hope to make a killing with books excoriating her. At least eight fresh titles are listed at Amazon.com, including my own personal favorite, "Liberal Fascism: The Totalitarian Temptation From Mussolini to Hillary Clinton." (Why settle for Il Duce when you can go for Hitler?)

Since no crowd-pleasing Democratic challenger has emerged at this early date to disrupt Mrs. Clinton's presumed coronation, the newly crowned movie star who won the popular vote in 2000 is the quick fix. Better the defeated devil the Democrats know than the losers they don't. Besides, there are at least two strong arguments in favor of Mr. Gore. He was way ahead of the Washington curve, not just on greenhouse gases but on another issue far more pressing than Mrs. Clinton's spirited crusade to stamp out flag burning: Iraq.

An anti-Hussein hawk who was among the rare Senate Democrats to vote for the first gulf war, Mr. Gore forecast the disasters lying in wait for the second when he spoke out at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on Sept. 23, 2002. He saw that the administration was jumping "from one unfinished task to another" and risked letting Afghanistan destabilize and Osama bin Laden flee. He saw that the White House was recklessly putting politics over policy by hurrying a Congressional war resolution before the midterm elections (and before securing international support). Most important, he noticed then that the administration had "not said much of anything" about "what would follow regime change." He imagined how "chaos in the aftermath of a military victory in Iraq could easily pose a far greater danger to the United States than we presently face from Saddam."

At the time, the White House professed to ignore Mr. Gore's speech, but on cue in the next five days Condoleezza Rice, Ari Fleischer, Donald Rumsfeld and the president all stepped up the hype of what Mr. Rumsfeld falsely called "bulletproof" evidence of links between Saddam and Al Qaeda. Democratic leaders in Congress, meanwhile, blew off Mr. Gore for fear that talk of Iraq might distract the electorate from all those compelling domestic issues that would guarantee victory in the midterms. (That brilliant strategy cost Democrats the Senate.) On CNN, a representative from The New Republic, a frequent Gore cheerleader, reported that "the vast majority of the staff" condemned his speech as "the bitter rantings of a guy who is being politically motivated and disingenuous in his arguments."

But in truth, as with global warming, Mr. Gore's stands on Iraq (both in 1991 and 2002) were manifestations of leadership — the single attribute most missing from the current Democrats with presidential ambitions. Of the potential candidates for 2008, only Senator Feingold raised similar questions about the war so articulately so early. The Gore stand on the environment, though still rejected by the president and his oil-industry base, has become a bipartisan cause: 86 evangelical Christian leaders broke with the administration's do-nothing policy in February.

If this were the whole picture, Mr. Gore would seem the perfect antidote to the Democrats' ills. But it's not. The less flattering aspect of Mr. Gore has not gone away: the cautious and contrived presidential candidate who, like Mrs. Clinton now, was so in thrall to consultants that he ran away from his own administration's record and muted his views, even about pet subjects like science. (He waffled on the teaching of creationism in August 1999, after the Kansas Board of Education struck down the teaching of evolution.) That Gore is actually accentuated, not obscured, by "An Inconvenient Truth." The more hard-hitting his onscreen slide show about global warming, the more he reminds you of how much less he focused on the issue in 2000. Gore the uninhibited private citizen is not the same as Gore the timid candidate.

Though many of the rave reviews don't mention it, there are also considerable chunks of "An Inconvenient Truth" that are more about hawking Mr. Gore's image than his cause. They also bring back unflattering memories of him as a politician. The movie contains no other voices that might upstage him, not even those of scientists supporting his argument. It is instead larded with sycophantic audiences, as meticulously multicultural as any Benetton ad, who dote on every word and laugh at every joke, like the studio audience at "Live With Regis and Kelly."

We are also treated to a heavy-handed, grainy glimpse of Katherine Harris, Michael Moore-style, and are reminded that Mr. Gore is not a rigid blue-state N.R.A. foe (he shows us where he shot his rifle as a farm kid in Tennessee). There's even an ingenious bit of fearmongering to go head to head with the Republicans' exploitation of 9/11: in a worst-case climactic scenario, we're told, the World Trade Center memorial "would be under water." Given so blatant a political context, the film's big emotional digressions — Mr. Gore's tragic near-loss of his young son and the death of his revered older sister from lung cancer — are as discomforting as they were in his 1992 and 1996 convention speeches.

If "An Inconvenient Truth" isn't actually a test drive for a presidential run, it's the biggest tease since Colin Powell encouraged speculation about his political aspirations during his 1995 book tour. Mr. Gore's nondenial denials about his ambitions (he has "no plans" to run) are Clintonesque. Told by John Heilemann of New York magazine that his movie sometimes feels like a campaign film, Mr. Gore gives a disingenuous answer that triggers an instant flashback to his equivocation about weightier matters during the 2000 debates: "Audiences don't see the movie as political. Paramount did a number of focus-group screenings, and that was very clear." You want to scream: stop this man before he listens to a focus group again!

Even so, let's hope Mr. Gore runs. He may not be able to pull off the Nixon-style comeback of some bloggers' fantasies, but by pounding away on his best issues, he could at the very least play the role of an Adlai Stevenson or Wendell Willkie, patriotically goading the national debate onto higher ground. "I think the war looms over everything," said Karl Rove this month in bemoaning his boss's poll numbers. It looms over the Democrats, too. But the party's leaders would rather let John Murtha take the heat on Iraq; they don't even have the guts to endorse tougher fuel economy standards in their "new" energy policy. While a Gore candidacy could not single-handedly save the Democrats from themselves any more than his movie can vanquish "X-Men" at the multiplex, it might at least force the party powers that be to start facing some inconvenient but necessary truths.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Don't Become Them


When I started in newspapers, I shied away from police brutality stories, letting other reporters cover them.

I knew there were cops who had no right to be cops. But I also knew, because my dad was a detective, the sort of blistering pressure men and women in uniform were under as they made snap life-and-death decisions. I'd cringed at the 60's refrain that the military and the police were "pigs."

After my dad killed a robber in self-defense — the man had tried to shoot him point-blank in the face, but that chamber of the gun was empty — he told a police psychologist that he could not swallow or eat because he felt as though he had fish bones in his throat.

So I felt sickened to hear about the marines who allegedly snapped in Haditha, Iraq, and wantonly killed two dozen civilians — including two families full of women and children, among them a 3-year-old girl. Nine-year-old Eman Waleed told Time that she'd watched the marines go in to execute her father as he read the Koran, and then shoot her grandfather and grandmother, still in their nightclothes. Other members of her family, including her mother, were shot dead; she said that she and her younger brother had been wounded but survived because they were shielded by adults who died.

It's a My Lai acid flashback. The force that sacked Saddam to stop him from killing innocents is now accused of killing innocents. Under pressure from the president to restore law, but making little progress, marines from Camp Pendleton, many deployed in Iraq for the third time, reportedly resorted to lawlessness themselves.

The investigation indicates that members of the Third Battalion, First Marines, lost it after one of their men was killed by a roadside bomb, going on a vengeful killing spree over about five hours, shooting five men who had been riding in a taxi and mowing down the residents of two nearby houses.

They blew off the Geneva Conventions, following the lead of the president's lawyer.

It was inevitable. Marines are trained to take the hill and destroy the enemy. It is not their forte to be policemen while battling a ghostly foe, suicide bombers, ever more ingenious explosive devices, insurgents embedded among civilians, and rifle blasts fired from behind closed doors and minarets. They don't know who the enemy is. Is it a pregnant woman? A child? An Iraqi policeman? They don't know how to win, or what a win would entail.

Gen. Michael Hagee, the Marine Corps commandant, who has flown to Iraq to talk to his troops about "core values" in the wake of Haditha and a second incident being investigated, noted that the effect of this combat "can be numbing."

A new A&E documentary chronicles the searing story of the marines of Lima Company, 184 Ohio reservists who won 59 Purple Hearts, 23 posthumously. Sgt. Guy Zierk recounts kicking in a door after an insurgent attack. Enraged over the death of his pals, he says he nearly killed two women and a 16-year-old boy. "I am so close, so close to shooting, but I don't." he says. "It would make me no better than the people we're trying to fight."

Retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, one of those who called for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation, told Chris Matthews that blame for Haditha and Abu Ghraib lay with "the incredible strain bad decisions and bad judgment is putting on our incredible military."

While it was nice to hear President Bush admit he had made mistakes, he was talking mostly about mistakes of tone. Saying he wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" would have been O.K. if he had acted on it, rather than letting Osama go at Tora Bora and diverting the Army to Iraq.

At his news conference with a tired-looking Tony Blair, Mr. Bush seemed chastened by Iraq, at least. But he continued to have the same hallucination about how to get out: turning things over to the Iraqi security forces after achieving total victory over insurgents and terrorists.

Stories in The Times this week show that Iraqi security forces are so infiltrated by Shiite militias, Sunni militias, death squads and officers with ties to insurgents that the idea of entrusting anything to them is ludicrous.

By ignoring predictions of an insurgency and refusing to do homework before charging into Iraq on trumped-up pretenses, W. left our troops undermanned, inadequately armored and psychologically unprepared.

It was maddening to see the prime minister of Britain — of all places — express surprise at the difficulty of imposing a democracy on a country that has had a complex and ferocious tribal culture since the Gardens of Babylon were still hanging.

A Test of Our Character


In his new movie, ''An Inconvenient Truth,'' Al Gore suggests that there are three reasons it's hard to get action on global warming. The first is boiled-frog syndrome: because the effects of greenhouse gases build up gradually, at any given moment it's easier to do nothing. The second is the perception, nurtured by a careful disinformation campaign, that there's still a lot of uncertainty about whether man-made global warming is a serious problem. The third is the belief, again fostered by disinformation, that trying to curb global warming would have devastating economic effects. I'd add a fourth reason, which I'll talk about in a minute. But first, let's notice that Mr. Gore couldn't have asked for a better illustration of disinformation campaigns than the reaction of energy-industry lobbyists and right-wing media organizations to his film.

The cover story in the current issue of National Review is titled ''Scare of the Century.'' As evidence that global warming isn't really happening, it offers the fact that some Antarctic ice sheets are getting thicker -- a point also emphasized in a TV ad by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is partly financed by large oil companies, whose interests it reliably represents.

Curt Davis, a scientist whose work is cited both by the institute and by National Review, has already protested. ''These television ads,'' he declared in a press release, ''are a deliberate effort to confuse and mislead the public about the global warming debate.'' He points out that an initial increase in the thickness of Antarctica's interior ice sheets is a predicted consequence of a warming planet, so that his results actually support global warming rather than refuting it.

Even as the usual suspects describe well-founded concerns about global warming as hysteria, they issue hysterical warnings about the economic consequences of environmentalism. ''Al Gore's global warming movie: could it destroy the economy?'' Fox News asked.

Well, no, it couldn't. There's some dispute among economists over how forcefully we should act to curb greenhouse gases, but there's broad consensus that even a very strong program to reduce emissions would have only modest effects on economic growth. At worst, G.D.P. growth might be, say, one-tenth or two-tenths of a percentage point lower over the next 20 years. And while some industries would lose jobs, others would gain.

Actually, the right's panicky response to Mr. Gore's film is probably a good thing, because it reveals for all to see the dishonesty and fear-mongering on which the opposition to doing something about climate change rests.

But ''An Inconvenient Truth'' isn't just about global warming, of course. It's also about Mr. Gore. And it is, implicitly, a cautionary tale about what's been wrong with our politics.

Why, after all, was Mr. Gore's popular-vote margin in the 2000 election narrow enough that he could be denied the White House? Any account that neglects the determination of some journalists to make him a figure of ridicule misses a key part of the story. Why were those journalists so determined to jeer Mr. Gore? Because of the very qualities that allowed him to realize the importance of global warming, many years before any other major political figure: his earnestness, and his genuine interest in facts, numbers and serious analysis.

And so the 2000 campaign ended up being about the candidates' clothing, their mannerisms, anything but the issues, on which Mr. Gore had a clear advantage (and about which his opponent was clearly both ill informed and dishonest).

I won't join the sudden surge of speculation about whether ''An Inconvenient Truth'' will make Mr. Gore a presidential contender. But the film does make a powerful case that Mr. Gore is the sort of person who ought to be running the country.

Since 2000, we've seen what happens when people who aren't interested in the facts, who believe what they want to believe, sit in the White House. Osama bin Laden is still at large, Iraq is a mess, New Orleans is a wreck. And, of course, we've done nothing about global warming.

But can the sort of person who would act on global warming get elected? Are we -- by which I mean both the public and the press -- ready for political leaders who don't pander, who are willing to talk about complicated issues and call for responsible policies? That's a test of national character. I wonder whether we'll pass.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Laid Off And Left Out


You don't hear much from the American worker anymore. Like battered soldiers at the end of a lost war, ordinary workers seem resigned to their diminished status. The grim terms imposed on them include wage stagnation, the widespread confiscation of benefits (including pensions they once believed were guaranteed), and a permanent state of employment insecurity.

For an unnecessarily large number of Americans, the workplace has become a hub of anxiety and fear, an essential but capricious environment in which you might be shown the door at any moment.

In his new book, ''The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences,'' Louis Uchitelle tells us that since 1984, when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics started monitoring ''worker displacement,'' at least 30 million full-time workers have been ''permanently separated from their jobs and their paychecks against their wishes.''

Mr. Uchitelle writes on economic issues for The Times. In his book, he traces the evolution of that increasingly endangered species, the secure job, and the effect that the current culture of corporate layoffs is having on ordinary men and women.

He said he was surprised, as he did the reporting for the book, by the extensive emotional fallout that accompanies layoffs. ''There's a lot of mental health damage,'' he said. ''The act of being laid off is such a blow to the self-esteem. Layoffs are a national phenomenon, a societal problem -- but the laid-off workers blame themselves.''

In addition to being financially strapped, laid-off workers and their families are often emotionally strapped as well. Common problems include depression, domestic strife and divorce.

Mr. Uchitelle's thesis is that corporate layoffs have been carried much too far, that they have gone beyond a legitimate and necessary response to a changing economy.

''What started as a necessary response to the intrusion of foreign manufacturers into the American marketplace got out of hand,'' he writes. ''By the late 1990's, getting rid of workers had become normal practice, ingrained behavior, just as job security had been 25 years earlier.''

In many cases, a thousand workers were fired when 500 might have been sufficient, or 10,000 were let go when 5,000 would have been enough. We pay a price for these excesses. The losses that accrue to companies and communities when many years of improving skills and valuable experience are casually and unnecessarily tossed on a scrap heap are incalculable.

''The majority of the people who are laid off,'' said Mr. Uchitelle, ''end up in jobs that pay significantly less than they earned before, or they drop out altogether.''

At the heart of the layoff phenomenon is the myth, endlessly repeated by corporate leaders and politicians of both parties, that workers who are thrown out of their jobs can save themselves, can latch onto spiffy new jobs by becoming better educated and acquiring new skills.

''Education and training create the jobs, according to this way of thinking,'' writes Mr. Uchitelle. ''Or, put another way, a job materializes for every trained or educated worker, a job commensurate with his or her skills, for which he or she is appropriately paid.''

That is just not so, and the corporate and political elite need to stop feeding that bogus line to the public.

There is no doubt that the better-educated and better-trained get better jobs. But the reality is that there are not enough good jobs currently available to meet the demand of college-educated and well-trained workers in the United States, which is why so many are working in jobs for which they are overqualified.

A chapter in ''The Disposable American'' details the plight of exquisitely trained airline mechanics who found themselves laid off from jobs that had paid up to $31 an hour. Mr. Uchitelle writes: ''Not enough jobs exist at $31 an hour -- or at $16 an hour, for that matter -- to meet the demand for them. Jobs just don't materialize at cost-conscious companies to absorb all the qualified people who want them.''

The most provocative question raised by Mr. Uchitelle is whether the private sector is capable of generating enough good jobs at good pay to meet the demand of everyone who is qualified and wants to work.

If it cannot (and so far it has not), then what? If education and training are not the building blocks to solid employment, what is? These are public policy questions of the highest importance, and so far they are being ignored.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Enter Ozone Woman

Source: The New York Times

WASHINGTON -- Al Gore must want to punch Hillary Clinton right through the hole in the ozone layer. At the National Press Club here yesterday, the New York senator finally took a passionate stand. After giving a courteous nod to her old rival Al as ''a committed visionary on global warming,'' she purloined his issue and his revolution, going his Earth Tones in the Balance one better by wearing a blinding yellow pantsuit that looked as if it could provide solar power to all of Tennessee.

Apologizing for, while really wallowing in, her ''wonkish speech,'' Hillary waxed rhapsodic about ''unlocking the full potential of cellulosic ethanol'' and getting ''the low-sulfur diesel rule fully implemented.'' She droned on numbingly about carbon dioxide sequestration, biomass liquid fuel bases, ''feebate'' tax incentives, hybrid plug-ins, flex-fueled vehicles, continuous reheat furnaces, renewable portfolio standards, Danish wind power, Brazilian ethanol and Kyoto greenhouse targets. (And you thought she was incomprehensible on health care.)

She got so far down in the weeds -- or switch grass -- that she advised her listeners about weatherizing their homes and checking their tires to save fuel. ''At every gas station,'' she chirped, ''there ought to be a little sign which says, 'Have you checked to see if your tires are inflated to the right pressure?' ''

She made it clear who's in power and who's in Cannes when she ostentatiously promised to take her motorcade back to Capitol Hill and introduce legislation for a strategic energy fund to jolt inert government and insatiable Big Oil into action.

Her timing is cunning. This is supposed to be Ozone Man's moment in the sun. His movie, ''An Inconvenient Truth,'' opens today, buoyed by such raves that his supporters believe his green crusade could net him both a gold statuette and a white house.

He's being hailed as the new Comeback Kid, as New York magazine calls him, a passionate pedant. (Better than a compassionate conservative.)

Shaken by the Asian tsunami, Katrina, gas prices and a literally explosive Middle East, many Americans now see the environment and conservation as the scintillating, life-and-death subjects that Al Gore has always presented them as, rather than the domain of cartoonish sandal-wearing, tree-hugging, New Age-y, antibusiness wackos.

As John Heilemann notes in New York, the Gore boomlet is also driven by ''the creeping sense of foreboding about the prospect of Hillary Clinton's march to her party's nomination.'' Hollywood's top environmental campaigner, Laurie David, a producer on the Gore movie, argued, ''It's not time to experiment with trying to put in office the first female president or with somebody people feel is such a polarizing figure.''

Some Democrats are secretly compiling data to prove that Hillary is unelectable to derail the notion that she's inevitable. Gore loyalists suggest that they could be co-front-runners -- a couple of raccoons in a bag.

The two hall monitors have always bumped against each other, first competing to be Bill Clinton's co-president, and then over Democratic money in the 2000 election.

So we are left with the prospect of a race between these two Democrats (Al, a popularly elected president; Hillary, a co-ruler). Neither was president, but both think they have been. Al's a seeker and Hillary's a triangulator (or you might say she's inflating her tires to the right pressure). They have shared the problem of stiff, situational personae, when they seemed to wake up every morning trying to figure out who they should be, how they should appear or how they should position themselves. By fashioning their identities all the time, they condemned themselves to being seen merely as identity fashioners.

Hillary is keeping Bill at a distance so he doesn't overshadow her, contradict her, embarrass her or hurt her attempt to pander to the right. But Al, who says he and Bill have made up and are now brotherly, may want to embrace the Big Dog this time, realizing the cost of muzzling him in 2000 (and the cost of taking hired guns' advice to soft-peddle the environment).

Since Hillary and Bill often rendezvous to watch ''Grey's Anatomy'' on Sunday nights, that's a good time for her to soak up his unmatched political smarts.

But as someone in Bill's circle wryly told Mr. Heilemann, the boy can't help himself: ''You can see him talking to Hillary one minute, then ducking into his study to take Gore's call and advise him on how to beat her.''

What a contest: two ersatz ex-presidents vying for the support of a real one.

Monday, May 22, 2006

These Guns for Hire



THERE is something terribly seductive about the notion of a mercenary army. Perhaps it is the inevitable response of a market economy to a host of seemingly intractable public policy and security problems.

Consider only a partial list of factors that would make a force of latter-day Hessians seem attractive. Among them are these:

• Growing public disenchantment with the war in Iraq;

• The prospect of an endless campaign against global terrorism;

• An over-extended military backed by an exhausted, even depleted force of reservists and National Guardsmen;

• The unwillingness or inability of the United Nations or other multinational organizations to dispatch adequate forces to deal quickly with hideous, large-scale atrocities (see Darfur and Congo);

• The expansion of American corporations into more remote, fractious and potentially hostile settings.

Just as the all-volunteer military relieved the government of much of the political pressure that had accompanied the draft, so a rent-a-force, harnessing the privilege of every putative warrior to hire himself out for more than he could ever make in the direct service of Uncle Sam, might relieve us of an array of current political pressures.

In the areas of logistics and support, this proposition is already more than theoretical. In addition to the roughly 130,000 American troops now serving in Iraq, private contractors have their own army of approximately 50,000 employees performing functions that used to be the province of the military. The army used to cook its own meals, do its own laundry, drive its own trucks. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Pentagon reduced American armed forces by some 36 percent, anticipating a peace dividend that was never fully realized.

So, if there are personnel shortages in the military (and with units in their second and third rotations into Iraq and Afghanistan, there are), then what's wrong with having civilian contractors? Expense is a possible issue; but a resumption of the draft would be significantly more controversial.

Moreover, contractors provide the bodyguards (most of them veterans of the American, British, Australian, Nepalese or South African military) and, in some cases, the armored vehicles and even helicopters that have become so necessary for the conduct of business by foreign civilians in Iraq. Such protective services are employed by practically every American news agency and, indeed, are responsible for the security of the American ambassador himself.

So, what about the inevitable next step — a defensive military force paid for directly by the corporations that would most benefit from its protection? If, for example, an insurrection in Nigeria threatens that nation's ability to export oil (and it does), why not have Chevron or Exxon Mobil underwrite the dispatch of a battalion or two of mercenaries?

Chris Taylor, the vice president for strategic initiatives and corporate strategy for Blackwater USA, wanted to be sure I understood that such a thing could only happen with the approval of the Nigerian government and at least the tacit understanding of Washington. But could Blackwater provide a couple of battalions under those circumstances? "600 people in a battalion," he answered. "I could source 1,200 people, yes. There are people all over the world who have honorably served in their military or police organizations. I can go find honorable, vetted people, recruit them, train them to the standard we require."

It could have the merit of stabilizing oil prices, thereby serving the American national interest, without even tapping into the federal budget. Meanwhile, oil companies could protect some of their more vulnerable overseas interests without the need to embroil Congress in the tiresome question of whether Americans should be militarily engaged in a sovereign third world nation.

There are limits, of course. None of these security companies is likely to undertake the full-scale military burden presented by an Iran or a North Korea. But their horizons are expanding. Cofer Black, formerly a high-ranking C.I.A. officer and now a senior executive with Blackwater USA, has publicly said that his company would be prepared to take on the Darfur account.

At whose expense and to what ultimate end is not altogether clear. But Blackwater and other leading security companies are seriously proposing to officials at very high levels of the government that their private forces could relieve a number of the burdens now being shouldered (or not) by American troops. The underlying theory seems to be that where a host government is unable to protect American business interests overseas and where the American government may be reluctant or unable to intervene, there is another option conveniently available.

The Pentagon, which is anything but enamored of the prospect of private armies operating outside its chain of command, is nonetheless struggling to come to terms with what it now calls "the long war." There is every expectation that the fight against global terrorism and the most extreme forms of Islamic fundamentalism will last for many years. This is a war that will not necessarily require aircraft carriers, strategic bombers, fighter jets or heavily armored tanks. It will certainly not enable the United States to exploit its advantages in nuclear weapons.

It is a war, indeed, that favors the highly mobile and adaptive fighting skills of the former Special Forces soldiers and other ex-commandos who have already taken early retirement from the military in order to serve their country less directly, if more profitably.

The United States may not be about to subcontract out the actual fighting in the war on terrorism, but the growing role of security companies on behalf of a wide range of corporate interests is a harbinger of things to come. Is what's good for companies like Exxon Mobil, Freeport-McMoRan (the mining company that has paid the Indonesian military to maintain security) or even General Motors necessarily good for the United States?

The other morning on NBC's "Today" program, Rex Tillerson, chairman and chief executive of Exxon, was asked by Matt Lauer if his company would consider lowering profits to help consumers this summer. Mr. Tillerson had the good manners not to laugh. "We work for the shareholder," he said, adding, "Our job is to go out and make the most money for ... those people."

What then if the commercial interests of a company or foreign government hiring one of these security contractors comes into conflict with the interests of the United States government? Mr. Taylor of Blackwater doesn't even concede the possibility. "At the end of the day," he said, "we consider ourselves responsible to be strategic partners of the U.S. government." To which he then added, perhaps a little more convincingly: "If we went against U.S. government interests we would never get another contract."

It is, however, an evolving relationship that requires far greater scrutiny. There is, in the final analysis, no direct chain of command from the government to units of Blackwater or other security companies that have been hired by private corporations or foreign governments. Chris Taylor insists: "We are accountable. We are transparent." That's debatable. But, he adds: "Given the global war on terror, this is a way that a lot of these retirees (from the military) can contribute. We want to have a discussion into how we fit into the total solution set."

By all means. Let the discussion begin.

Talk-Show Joe

Source: The New York Times

Friday was a bad day for Senator Joseph Lieberman. The Connecticut Democratic Party's nominating convention endorsed him, but that was a given for an incumbent with a lot of political chips to cash in. The real news was that Ned Lamont, an almost unknown challenger, received a third of the votes. This gave Mr. Lamont the right to run against Mr. Lieberman in a primary, and suggests that Mr. Lamont may even win. What happened to Mr. Lieberman? Some news reports may lead you to believe that he is in trouble solely because of his support for the Iraq war. But there's much more to it than that. Mr. Lieberman has consistently supported Republican talking points. This has made him a lion of the Sunday talk shows, but has put him out of touch with his constituents -- and with reality.

Mr. Lieberman isn't the only nationally known Democrat who still supports the Iraq war. But he isn't just an unrepentant hawk, he has joined the Bush administration by insisting on an upbeat picture of the situation in Iraq that is increasingly delusional.

Moreover, Mr. Lieberman has supported the attempt to label questions about why we invaded Iraq and criticism of the administration's policies since the invasion as unpatriotic. How else is one to interpret his warning, late last year, that ''it is time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be Commander-in-Chief for three more critical years, and that in matters of war we undermine Presidential credibility at our nation's peril''?

And it's not just Iraq. A letter sent by Hillary Clinton to Connecticut Democrats credited Mr. Lieberman with defending Social Security ''tooth and nail.'' Well, I watched last year's Social Security debate pretty closely, and that's not what happened.

In fact, Mr. Lieberman repeatedly supported the administration's scare tactics. ''Every year we wait to come up with a solution to the Social Security problem,'' he declared in March 2005, ''costs our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren $600 billion more.''

This claim echoed a Bush administration talking point, and President Bush wasted little time citing Mr. Lieberman's statement as vindication. But the talking point was simply false, so Mr. Lieberman was providing cover for an administration lie.

There's more. Mr. Lieberman supported Congressional intervention in the Terri Schiavo affair, back when Republican leaders were trying to manufacture a ''values'' issue out of thin air.

And let's not forget that Mr. Lieberman showed far more outrage over Bill Clinton's personal life than he has ever shown over Mr. Bush's catastrophic failures as commander in chief.

On each of these issues Mr. Lieberman, who is often described as a ''centrist,'' is or was very much at odds not just with the Democratic base but with public opinion as a whole. According to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, only 40 percent of the public believes that we were right to go to war with Iraq.

Mr. Lieberman's tender concern for the president's credibility comes far too late: according to a USA Today/Gallup poll, only 41 percent of Americans consider Mr. Bush honest and trustworthy. By huge margins, the public believed that Congress should have stayed out of the Schiavo case. And so on.

Mr. Lieberman's defenders would have you believe that his increasingly unpopular positions reflect his principles. But his Bushlike inability to face reality on Iraq looks less like a stand on principle than the behavior of a narcissist who can't admit error. And the common theme in Mr. Lieberman's positions seems to be this: In each case he has taken the stand that is most likely to get him on TV.

You see, the talking-head circuit loves centrists. But a centrist, as defined inside the Beltway, doesn't mean someone whose views are actually in the center, as judged by public opinion.

Instead, a Democrat is considered centrist to the extent that he does what Mr. Lieberman does: lends his support to Republican talking points, even if those talking points don't correspond at all to what most of the public wants or believes.

But this ''center'' cannot hold. And that's the larger lesson of what happened Friday. Mr. Lieberman has been playing to a Washington echo chamber that is increasingly out of touch with the country's real concerns. The nation, which rallied around Mr. Bush after 9/11 simply because he was there, has moved on -- and it has left Mr. Lieberman behind.

Justice Derailed

Source: The New York Times

The murder happened in snow-covered Rochester, N.Y., on New Year's Day in 1996. As the police and prosecutors told it, a 63-year-old activist named William Beason was stabbed to death in his home by a young sex hustler and ex-convict named Douglas Warney. The case was solid, the authorities said. They had a confession.

Not only were the authorities wrong, it was almost immediately clear that they were wrong.

I wrote in a column less than a month after the murder: ''The closer one looks at the case, the more it appears that Douglas Warney did not kill William Beason.''

Under the headline ''Slay Confession Is Full of Holes,'' Jim Dwyer, who is now at The Times but was then at The Daily News, wrote:

''[Warney's] confession is contradicted by virtually all the physical evidence made public, including a trail of blood apparently left by the killer, but which did not come from Warney.''

I wondered then, and I still wonder, why so many seemingly decent people in law enforcement are willing to participate in the evil practice of sending people to prison -- or, worse -- who are demonstrably innocent of the charges against them.

The prosecutors who went after Douglas Warney were seeking the death penalty. It didn't matter to them:

That Mr. Warney was delusional.

That Mr. Warney said that he had killed Mr. Beason in a struggle in the kitchen, when in fact the victim had been murdered in his bed.

That Mr. Warney said he had cut himself during the attack, but a medical exam showed no evidence of a cut.

That Mr. Warney claimed to have driven his brother's brown Chevrolet to the murder scene, a car that his brother had gotten rid of years earlier.

And so on and so forth.

There was no physical evidence -- none -- linking Mr. Warney to the crime. The only evidence against him was the confession, conveniently typed up by a detective.

Mr. Warney, who was retarded and suffered from AIDS-related dementia, signed the confession. That flimsy document, which bore approximately the same relationship to reality as an episode of ''Desperate Housewives,'' was enough to get Mr. Warney convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to a minimum of 25 years.

Last week, after serving 10 years, Mr. Warney was released. More than a decade after the murder, DNA testing had led to a match between blood found at the scene and an incarcerated killer named Eldred Johnson Jr. Mr. Johnson admitted to investigators that he had, indeed, killed Mr. Beason, that he had done it alone, and that he did not know Douglas Warney.

Mr. Warney's case reminded me of one recounted by Arthur Miller in his autobiography, ''Timebends.''

Back in 1973, an 18-year-old named Peter Reilly returned from church to find the bloodied body of his mother, Barbara Gibbons, on the kitchen floor of their home in rural Canaan, Conn. She had been killed in what Miller described as a ''fiendish'' attack. Under intense interrogation, Mr. Reilly confessed to the murder. Although he quickly retracted the confession, he was tried and convicted.

Miller and others, convinced of Mr. Reilly's innocence, spent years trying to help him. It was finally proved, Miller wrote, ''that Peter had been five miles from his home at the very moment his mother was murdered.''

The witnesses who vouched for the alibi were considered substantial: a local police officer and his wife.

''Their affidavit,'' Miller wrote, ''of which the state police had to have been aware, was discovered in the files of the prosecutor after he suddenly died of a heart attack.''

Peter Reilly was exonerated. An investigation determined that there had been law-enforcement misconduct in the case, and that Mr. Reilly's confession had apparently been coerced.

It was ever thus. Law-enforcement officers tend to fight to the very limits of their strength against any and all evidence that would exonerate defendants or convicts.

Most people in prison have committed crimes. But it's also true that there are many, many inmates who were wrongly convicted. And the recent record of people being released from death row as a result of DNA evidence is itself evidence of horrifying law-enforcement abuses.

Don't expect much in the way of change. Indifference to injustice in the criminal justice system is so pervasive, and so difficult to counteract, as to seem part of society's DNA.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Rove Da Vinci Code


IF we're to believe the reviews, "The Da Vinci Code" is the most exciting summer blockbuster since, well, "Poseidon." But the "Da Vinci Code" marketing strategy is a masterpiece: a perfect Hollywood metaphor for the American political culture of our day.

The Machiavellian mission for the hit-deprived Sony studio was to co-opt conservative religious critics who might depress turnout for a $125-million-plus thriller portraying the Roman Catholic Church as a fraud. To this end, as The New Yorker reported, Sony hired a bevy of P.R. consultants, including a faith-based flack whose Christian Rolodex previously helped sell such inspirational testaments to Hollywood spirituality as "Bruce Almighty" and "Christmas With the Kranks."

Among Sony's ingenious strategies was an elaborate Web site, The Da Vinci Dialogue, which gave many of the movie's prominent critics a platform to vent on the studio's dime. Thus was "The Da Vinci Code" repositioned as a "teaching moment" for Christian evangelists — a bit of hype "completely concocted by the Sony Pictures marketing machine," as Barbara Nicolosi, a former nun and current Hollywood screenwriter, explained to The Times. The more "students" who could be roped into this teaching moment, of course, the bigger the gross.

Ms. Nicolosi remains a vociferous opponent of the film. On her blog she chastises Sony's heavenly P.R. helpers for coaxing "legions of well-meaning Christians into subsidizing a movie that makes their own Savior out to be a sham." But you do have to admire the studio's chutzpah, if the word may be used in this context. It rivals Tom Sawyer's bamboozling of his friends into painting that fence. The Sony scheme also echoes much of the past decade's Washington playbook. Politicians, particularly but not exclusively in the Karl Rove camp, seem to believe that voters of "faith" are suckers who can be lured into the big tent and then abandoned once their votes and campaign cash have been pocketed by the party for secular profit.

Nowhere is this game more naked than in the Jack Abramoff scandal: the felonious Washington lobbyist engaged his pal Ralph Reed, the former leader of the Christian Coalition, to shepherd Christian conservative leaders like James Dobson, Gary Bauer and the Rev. Donald Wildmon and their flocks into ostensibly "anti-gambling" letter-writing campaigns. They were all duped: in reality these campaigns were engineered to support Mr. Abramoff's Indian casino clients by attacking competing casinos. While that scam may be the most venal exploitation of "faith" voters by Washington operatives, it's all too typical. This history repeats itself every political cycle: the conservative religious base turns out for its party and soon finds itself betrayed. The right's leaders are already threatening to stay home this election year because all they got for their support of Republicans in the previous election year was a lousy Bush-Cheney T-shirt. Actually, they also got two Supreme Court justices, but their wish list was far longer. Dr. Dobson, the child psychologist who invented Focus on the Family, set the tone with a tantrum on Fox, whining that Republicans were "ignoring those that put them in office" and warning of "some trouble down the road" if they didn't hop-to.

The doctor's diagnosis is not wrong. He has been punk'd — or Da Vinci'd — since 2004. Though President Bush endorsed the federal marriage amendment then, there's a reason he hasn't pushed it since. Not Gonna Happen, however many times it is dragged onto the Senate floor. The number of Americans who "strongly oppose" same-sex marriage keeps dropping — from 42 percent two years ago to 28 percent today, according to the Pew Research Center — and there will never be the votes to "write discrimination into the Constitution," as Mary Cheney puts it.

The real Republican establishment — including Laura Bush, who has repeatedly refused to disown the many gay families at this year's White House Easter Egg Roll — senses the drift of the culture. "Will & Grace" may have retired to reruns last week, but it's been supplanted by a gay "Sopranos" tough guy who out-brokebacks Jack and Ennis.

The religious right's hope for taming that culture is also doomed, however much Congress ceremoniously raises indecency fines in an election year. The major media companies, heavy donors to both parties, first get such bills watered down, then challenge the Federal Communications Commission's enforcement in court.

The mogul most ostentatiously supportive of Republican causes, Rupert Murdoch, may perennially fan the flames of a bogus "war on Christmas" on Fox, but he's waging his own, far more lethal war on the Christian right by starting a companion TV network this fall to match MySpace.com, his hugely popular and hugely libidinous Internet portal. Mr. Murdoch's new gift to America's youth, My Network TV, "will showcase greed, lust, sex," according to The Wall Street Journal. Conservatives fretting about his fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton don't even know what's about to hit them.

But for all these betrayals, Dr. Dobson and Company won't desert the Republicans come Election Day. If Mr. Rove steps up his usual gay-baiting late in the campaign, as is his wont, maybe the turnout of those on the hard-core right will eke out a victory for the party that double-crossed them not just on cultural issues but also on secular conservative principles (like fiscal responsibility and immigration-law enforcement). If so, they'll promptly be Da Vinci'd yet again. A Republican retreat on stem-cell research is already under way. If there's electoral fallout from the South Dakota Legislature's Draconian abortion ban — the Republican governor's job-approval rating fell from 72 percent to 58 percent in a single month after he signed it — the pro-life checklist in Congress will suffer as well.

Whatever happens in November, the good news is that the religious right leaders most stroked by Mr. Rove, many of them past 70, may no longer command such large blocs of voters anyway. As Amy Sullivan writes in the latest New Republic, Mr. Rove has reason to worry about "another group of evangelicals: the nearly 40 percent who identify themselves as politically moderate and who are just as likely to get energized about AIDS in Africa or melting ice caps as partial-birth abortion and lesbian couples in Massachusetts." The bad news is that no sooner does the religious-right base show signs of cracking in a youthquake than the Democrats trot out their own doomed Da Vinci strategy.

This idiocy began the morning after Election Day 2004, when a vaguely worded exit-poll question persuaded credulous party leaders that "moral values" determined their defeat (as opposed to, say, their standard-bearer's campaign). Their immediate response was to seek out faith-based consultants not unlike those recruited by Sony, and practice dropping the word "values" and biblical quotations into their public pronouncements. In the House, they organized, heaven help us, a Democratic Faith Working Group.

As the next election approaches, they're renewing this effort, to farcical effect. The Democrats' chairman, Howard Dean, who proved his faith-based bona fides in the 2004 primary season by citing Job as his favorite book in the New Testament, went on the Pat Robertson TV network this month and yanked his party's position on same-sex marriage to the right. (He apologized for his "misstatement" once off the air.)

Not to be left behind, Senator Clinton gave a speech last week knocking young people for thinking "work is a four-letter word" and for having TV's in their rooms, home Internet access and, worst of all, that ultimate instrument of the devil, iPods. "I hope that we start thinking some very old-fashioned thoughts," she said. (She also subsequently apologized, once her daughter complained, joining the general chorus of ridicule.) However "old-fashioned" Mrs. Clinton's thoughts, don't expect her to turn back Mr. Murdoch's campaign cash in protest against his steamy new TV channel.

The one New York politician even more disingenuous in this racket is Rudolph Giuliani. He outdid John McCain's appearance with Jerry Falwell by campaigning last week for Ralph Reed in the lieutenant governor's race in Georgia. Any religious conservative who mistakes "America's mayor," an adamant supporter of abortion rights and gay rights, for a fellow traveler is in desperate need of an intervention, if not an exorcism.

But that hypothetical, easily duped voter may no longer exist. Like the Bush era, the cynical Rove strategy of exploiting faith-based voters may be nearing its end. For proof, just take a look at the most craven figure in American politics: the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist. To flatter the far right, this Harvard-trained surgeon misdiagnosed Terri Schiavo's vegetative state from the Senate floor, and justified abstinence-only sex education in AIDS prevention by telling ABC's George Stephanopoulos that he didn't know for certain that tears and sweat couldn't transmit H.I.V. But increasingly it's not only liberals who see through him. One of his latest stunts, a proposed $100 gas-tax rebate, provoked Rush Limbaugh to condemn him for "treating us like we're a bunch of whores."

When senators as different as Mr. Frist and Mrs. Clinton both earn bipartisan ridicule for their pandering, you have to believe that there's a god other than Karl Rove watching over American politics after all.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Make Poetry, Not War


It was a rough crowd for agents of American imperialism.

At the New School commencement at Madison Square Garden's theater yesterday afternoon, dozens of the red-and-black-gowned graduates and some faculty were heckling, cackling, hissing, booing, jeering, whooping, bolting, turning their backs and holding up orange signs that read, "Our commencement is not your platform." As for John McCain, he spoke about how the "passion for self-expression sometimes overwhelms our civility."

"We're graduating, not voting," one young man yelled.

"This is all about you," another called out. "We don't care."

A little while after the senator quoted Yeats about the fleeting nature of beauty, a student sarcastically called out, "More poetry."

First, Mr. McCain and the New School's president, Bob Kerrey, were slapped around by a student speaker, Jean Sara Rohe, a 21-year-old from Nutley, N.J., who sang a lyric from a peace song and then abandoned her original remarks to talk about the "outrage" over Mr. McCain's speaking gig.

"The senator does not reflect the ideals upon which this university was founded," Ms. Rohe said, adding: "I am young, and although I don't profess to possess the wisdom that time affords us, I do know that preemptive war is dangerous and wrong."

She continued: "And I know that despite all the havoc that my country has wrought overseas in my name, Osama bin Laden still has not been found, nor have those weapons of mass destruction."

The New School, of course, makes New York University seem like Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., where Mr. McCain kowtowed last weekend to Jerry Falwell, the looney-toon he formerly deemed an agent of intolerance. (Just as Rudy buddy-buddied with Ralph Reed in Atlanta.)

The ultraliberal kids at the New School, the pacifist Greenwich Village university, think of themselves as free-thinking rabble-rousers in a world where many college kids, complacently cocooned under iPods, don't even like to debate, much less protest.

When a rigid-faced Mr. Kerrey chided the audience for being rude, a young woman yelled out, "You're a war criminal!" And a guy chimed in, "Yes, you are!"

It was a remarkable tableau to see the two iconoclastic vets, their bodies beneath the black gowns still bearing broken pieces from Vietnam, being pilloried by kids angry about another endless war, faceless enemy and feckless defense secretary.

Senator McCain came to Mr. Kerrey's defense in 2001. That's when graduate students called for the New School president to resign and for Congress to investigate him because a Times magazine piece had revealed that he had led a Seals unit that killed up to 20 unarmed civilians, most of them women and children.

(The Pentagon is now investigating a case in Haditha, Iraq, where marines are accused of killing 15 unarmed Iraqis from two families, including 7 women and 3 children.)

Yesterday, Mr. Kerrey returned the favor, admonishing the students that when they are "heckling from an audience ... no bravery is required."

The Arizona senator did not depart from his text and engage the students, as Bill Clinton might have done, with a passionate exegesis of his stance. And, still trying to show his temper is under control, he did not push back, as Rudy Giuliani might have.

He may have even found the screaming students useful, as a liberal hippie foil that will endear him to the evangelical base he's smooching up. Mr. McCain's adviser, John Weaver, talked dismissively of the West Village students, saying they should get out more and hear opposing viewpoints.

Mr. McCain's panderthon grew even more absurd this week. He let the Wyly brothers — the Texas businessmen who financed a $2.5 million ad campaign in 2000 trashing his environmental record, a move that enraged Mr. McCain and spurred him to call the Wylys W.'s "sleazy Texas buddies" — hold a fund-raiser for him in Dallas.

The senator may have wanted to give the same commencement speech at Liberty, the New School and Columbia as a way of showing those disillusioned by his snuggling with old enemies that he is still a straight-talker, willing to say the same thing to Southern conservatives and Northern liberals.

But Bob Kerrey better summed up the feeling of many of us about the New McCain in the new issue of Men's Vogue. He mocked the senator's coziness with W., telling Ned Martel: "He kissed him! McCain let Bush's lips touch him. Yuck!"

Coming Down To Earth


Um, wasn't the stock market supposed to bounce back after Wednesday's big drop? We shouldn't read too much into a couple of days' movements in stock prices. But it seems that investors are suddenly feeling uneasy about the state of the economy. They should be; the puzzle is why they haven't been uneasy all along.

The rise in stock prices that began last fall was essentially based on the belief that the U.S. economy can defy gravity -- that both individuals and the nation as a whole can spend more than their income, not on a temporary basis, but more or less indefinitely.

To be fair, for a while the data seemed to confirm that belief. In 2005, the trade deficit passed $700 billion, yet the dollar actually rose against the euro and the yen. Housing prices soared, yet houses kept selling. The price of gasoline neared $3 a gallon, yet consumers kept buying both gas and other items, even though they had to borrow to keep spending (the personal savings rate went negative for the first time since the 1930's).

Over the last few weeks, however, gravity seems to have started reasserting itself.

The dollar began falling about a month ago. So far it's down less than 10 percent against the euro and the yen, but there's a definite sense that foreign governments, in particular, are becoming less willing to keep the dollar strong by buying lots of U.S. debt.

The housing market seems to be weakening rapidly. As late as last October, the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo housing market index, a measure of builders' confidence, was still close to the high point it reached last summer. But on Monday the association announced that the index had fallen to its lowest level since 1995.

Finally, there are preliminary indications that consumers, hard-pressed by high gasoline prices, may be reaching their limit.

The National Retail Federation, reporting on a new survey, warns that ''while consumers have seemed resilient in the face of higher energy costs, a tipping point may soon be in sight.''

I can't resist pointing out that the Bush administration's response to the squeeze on working families has been, you guessed it, to accuse the news media of biased reporting.

On May 10 the White House issued a press release titled ''Setting the Record Straight: The New York Times Continues to Ignore America's Economic Progress.'' The release attacked The Times for asserting that paychecks weren't keeping up with fixed costs like medical care and gasoline. The White House declared, ''But average hourly earnings have risen 3.8 percent over the past 12 months, their largest increase in nearly five years.''

On Wednesday Treasury Secretary John Snow repeated that boast before a House committee. However, Representative Barney Frank was ready. He asked whether the number was adjusted for inflation; after flailing about, Mr. Snow admitted, sheepishly, that it wasn't. In fact, nearly all of the wage increase was negated by higher prices.

Meanwhile, the return of economic gravity poses a definite threat to U.S. economic growth. After all, growth over the past three years was driven mainly by a housing boom and rapid growth in consumer spending. People were able to buy houses, even though housing prices rose much faster than incomes, because foreign purchases of U.S. debt kept interest rates low. People were able to keep spending, even though wages didn't keep up with inflation, because mortgage refinancing let them turn the rising value of their houses into ready cash.

As I summarized it awhile back, we became a nation in which people make a living by selling one another houses, and they pay for the houses with money borrowed from China.

Now that game seems to be coming to an end. We're going to have to find other ways to make a living -- in particular, we're going to have to start selling goods and services, not just I.O.U.'s, to the rest of the world, and/or replace imports with domestic production. And adjusting to that new way of making a living will take time.

Will we have that time? Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, contends that what's happening in the housing market is ''a very orderly and moderate kind of cooling.'' Maybe he's right. But if he isn't, the stock market drop of the last two days will be remembered as the start of a serious economic slowdown.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Hillary Can Run, but Can She Win?

If you talk to strategists in the two major parties, you will hear again and again that Hillary Rodham Clinton is all but certain to capture the Democratic presidential nomination. Many of these strategists and party bigwigs — not all, but many — speak as though there is something inevitable about Mrs. Clinton ascending to the nomination.

A prominent Democratic operative, who asked not to be identified, told me yesterday, "I do think she's inevitable as the nominee, or pretty close to it. Put it this way: she's as strong a front-runner as any non-incumbent presidential candidate has been in modern history."

Mrs. Clinton has not said publicly that she is running for president. But those who think she has an iron grip on the nomination make a strong case. First (and for many of the strategists, most important), she has tremendous financial resources to go along with her Hollywood-like celebrity.

In addition, the Democratic primaries tend to be dominated by groups that are very favorably disposed toward Mrs. Clinton and her husband. (You've heard of him. His name is Bill.) Think labor, pro-choice advocates, environmental organizations and groups that look out for the interests of blacks and other minorities.

As these groups see the Clinton Express leaving the station, there is every reason to believe there will be a rush to hop onboard.

And then there are the qualities Mrs. Clinton would bring to a presidential run. She's smart, hard-working, disciplined and aggressive. Said one observer: "When they start campaigning, people will see that she's a better talent than a lot of the other people who will be running in this field. She'll be formidable. She should not be underestimated."

The senator also has a very big advantage that nearly everyone points to — Bill Clinton is the most gifted and best-connected Democratic strategist in the country.

So Mrs. Clinton's perceived pluses are enormous. But I wouldn't crown the candidate yet.

There are ominous stirrings in the tea leaves.

A WNBC/Marist Poll released this week found that 60 percent of registered voters in Mrs. Clinton's home state of New York believe that she will make a run for the White House. But 66 percent of the voters do not think she will be elected president. Even Democratic voters seemed skeptical. Fifty-seven percent of the Democrats surveyed said it was "not very likely" or "not likely at all" that she would be elected.

Numbers like that coming out of New York, a heavily Democratic state in which Mrs. Clinton is extremely popular, are a recipe for anxiety. "It might give Democrats pause," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the poll. He said the numbers might indicate that she had some "repair work" to do on the all-important matter of electability.

She has other problems.

Democratic voters, fed up with the policies and the incompetence of the Bush administration, are looking for genuine leadership this time around. They are tired of Democrats who seem to have mortgaged their core principles and put their courage in cold storage.

So they worry when Mrs. Clinton, in an era when civil liberties are being eroded in the United States, goes out of her way to co-sponsor a bill that would criminalize the burning of the American flag. And they worry about her support for President Bush's war in Iraq. And they really worry when they hear that Rupert Murdoch, of all people, will be hosting a fund-raiser for her.

It's way early. The presidential primaries are more than a year and a half away. But whether it's fair or not, the candidate perceived to be in the lead gets the closest early scrutiny.

When the crunch comes, the toughest issue for Mrs. Clinton may be the one that so far has been talked about the least. If she runs, she'll be handicapped by her gender. Anyone who thinks it won't be difficult for a woman to get elected president of the United States should go home, take a nap, wake up refreshed and think again.

Being a woman will cost Mrs. Clinton. How much is anybody's guess. In a close race, it might be two percentage points, or four, or more.

The curtain has already gone up on this drama. And while the strategists may claim that this or that development is inevitable, the only thing we can really be sure of is that history is full of surprises.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

From McBeal to McDreamy


I hope the N.S.A. isn't tapping my phone at The Times, or tracing my calls, or whatever it calls its maniacal military-industrial civil liberties transgressions. I'm not worried that it'll overhear meaty -- or fishy -- exchanges with sources at the Bush White House. I don't have any sources at the Bush White House. If I'm talking container problems, it's ice cream, not ports. If I mention Scooter, I'm merely making plans for a Saturday Vespa picnic.

Alas, I fret that Gen. Michael Hayden and Crazy Dick Cheney will not hear anything to make all their illegal snooping and Caine Mutiny-style hunting for leakers worthwhile.

Just consider how my transcript from yesterday morning would read:

Me calling my colleague Julie: ''Hey, the transmission went out on the TV at the hotel last night. Why on earth did Meredith sleep with Dr. McDreamy again?''

Julie hissed: ''You witch! I was out and TiVo'd it. Now you ruined it!''

Just a couple of snarky, competitive, ambitious, complex, confused women obsessing about sex -- exactly like the ones who have saved ABC after a decade in the gutter.

As the administration has gotten more hypermasculine and martial (when will Dick Cheney order us to change all our clocks to military time?) prime time is getting more feminine and seductive.

One gift W. reported this week was a chain saw from Robert Nardelli, Home Depot's chief executive. But far from W.'s Texas Chain Saw Massacre -- a swaggering foreign policy built on blowing off most relationships -- ABC was rescued by relationship shows with desperate housewives, hotblooded female hospital interns and down-on-their-luck people weeping over their lavishly remodeled homes.

''Grey's Anatomy'' tops the girls' list, the successor to ''Mary Tyler Moore,'' ''Murphy Brown,'' ''Ally McBeal'' and ''Sex and the City.''

The series revolves around a young white woman at a Seattle hospital and is written by a young black woman in Los Angeles, Shonda Rhimes. She's the first African-American woman to be the creator and executive producer of a network series in Nielsen's Top 10 -- a series she wrote with her adopted infant daughter, Harper, on her lap.

She resisted pressure to make the women nicer, she told Nikki Finke for Elle Magazine. And she told Time that she wanted to write about real women who are ''a little snarky'' and don't ''exist purely in relation to the men in their lives.'' With the male characters, she followed Jane Austen's lead and conjured up her fantasy men.

Susan Lyne, the former president of ABC Entertainment who advanced ''Grey's Anatomy'' and ''Desperate Housewives,'' explained to my colleague Bill Carter for his book ''Desperate Networks'' that women had been shortchanged by an overdose of ''C.S.I.'' cop shows and wanted more relationship shows with lots of hot horizontal action -- shows, Ms. Lyne said, that ''women love to talk to their girlfriends about the next day.''

Predictably, Ms. Lyne lost her job even before ''Grey's Anatomy'' went on the air -- a victim of backstabbing by male colleagues.

Yesterday, at a preview for advertisers and reporters, the man who replaced her, Stephen McPherson, bragged that his network is now the leader among women 18 to 34.

At its Lincoln Center presentation, ABC, owned by Disney, could not put up enough video of Meredith Grey and Dr. McDreamy staring lustfully at each other or of Dr. McDreamy in a shower with other cute male doctors. (What would Walt think?) It paraded a Chippendales chorus line of tuxedoed leading men, from Patrick Dempsey to the burly heartthrob of ''Lost,'' Jorge Garcia. In a tribute to ''Dancing With the Stars,'' a show women love, Mr. McPherson did a sinuous cha-cha.

He also unleashed a slate of gooey girls' fare, including one whole night of reality shows like ''Wife Swap'' and ''Supernanny.'' Chick-coms include ''Big Day,'' a comedy that looks like ''24'' crossed with ''Meet the Parents''; ''Notes From the Underbelly,'' about a young married woman's trauma over getting pregnant; ''Betty the Ugly,'' about a young woman with braces, glasses and a unibrow who works at a high-fashion magazine full of mean girls; and ''Six Degrees,'' a soapy show about six attractive strangers who seem destined to become ''Friends'' with privileges.

Ally McBeal herself is back in a drama, ''Brothers and Sisters.'' Calista Flockhart plays a political commentator whose views are diametrically different than those of her brothers and sister, provoking clashes at family dinners.

Wait a minute! That sounds like my life. I want residuals.

Monday, May 15, 2006

D for Debacle


Today is the last day to sign up for Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit. It appears that millions of Americans, confused by the array of competing plans or simply unaware of the cutoff date, will miss the deadline. This will leave them without drug coverage for the rest of the year, and subject to financial penalties for the rest of their lives. President Bush refuses to extend the sign-up period. ''Deadlines,'' he said last week, ''help people understand there's finality, and people need to get after it, you know?'' His real objection to extending the deadline is probably that this would be an implicit admission that his administration botched the program's start-up. And Mr. Bush never, ever admits mistakes.

But Part D's bad start isn't just another illustration of the administration's trademark incompetence. It's also an object lesson in what happens when the government is run by people who aren't interested in the business of governing.

Before we get there, let's talk for a moment about the problems older Americans have encountered over the past few months.

Even Mr. Bush has acknowledged that signing up for the program is a confusing process. But, he says, ''there is plenty of help for you.'' Yeah, right.

There's a number that people needing help with Part D can call. But when the program first went into effect, there were only 300 customer service representatives standing by. (Remember, there are 43 million Medicare recipients.)

There are now 7,500 representatives, making it easier to reach someone. But should you believe what you're told? Maybe not. A survey by the Government Accountability Office found that when Medicare recipients asked for help in determining which plan would cover their medications at the lowest cost, they were given the right answer only 41 percent of the time.

Clearly, nobody in the Bush administration took responsibility for making Part D's start-up work. But then you can say the same thing about the whole program.

After all, prescription drug coverage didn't have to be bafflingly complex. Drug coverage could simply have been added to traditional Medicare. If the government had done that, everyone currently covered by Medicare would automatically have been enrolled in the drug benefit.

Adding drug coverage as part of ordinary Medicare would also have saved a lot of money, both by eliminating the cost of employing private insurance companies as middlemen and by allowing the government to negotiate lower drug prices. This would have made it possible to offer a better benefit at much less cost to taxpayers.

But while a straightforward addition of drug coverage to Medicare would have been good policy, it would have been bad politics from the point of view of conservatives, who want to privatize traditional social insurance programs, not make them better.

Moreover, administration officials and their allies in Congress had both political and personal incentives not to do anything that might reduce the profits of insurance and drug companies. Both the insurance industry and, especially, the pharmaceutical industry are major campaign contributors. And soon after the drug bill was passed, the congressman and the administration official most responsible for drafting the legislation both left public service to become lobbyists.

So what we got was a drug program set up to serve the administration's friends and its political agenda, not the alleged beneficiaries. Instead of providing drug coverage directly, Part D is a complex system of subsidies to private insurance companies. The administration's insistence on running the program through these companies, which provide little if any additional value beyond what Medicare could easily have provided directly, is what makes the whole thing so complicated. And that complication, combined with an obvious lack of interest in making the system work, is what led to the disastrous start-up.

All of this is, alas, terribly familiar. As John DiIulio, the former head of Mr. Bush's faith-based initiative, told Esquire, ''What you've got is everything -- and I mean everything -- being run by the political arm.'' Ideology and cronyism take complete precedence over the business of governing.

And that's why when it comes to actual policy as opposed to politics, the Bush administration has turned out to have the reverse Midas touch. Everything it gets its hands on, from the reconstruction of Iraq to the rescue of New Orleans, from the drug benefit to the reform of the C.I.A., turns to crud.

America The Fearful


In the dark days of the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt counseled Americans to avoid fear. George W. Bush is his polar opposite. The public's fear is this president's most potent political asset. Perhaps his only asset. Mr. Bush wants ordinary Americans to remain in a perpetual state of fear -- so terrified, in fact, that they will not object to the steady erosion of their rights and liberties, and will not notice the many ways in which their fear is being manipulated to feed an unconscionable expansion of presidential power.

If voters can be kept frightened enough of terrorism, they might even overlook the monumental incompetence of one of the worst administrations the nation has ever known.

Four marines drowned Thursday when their 60-ton tank rolled off a bridge and sank in a canal about 50 miles west of Baghdad. Three American soldiers in Iraq were killed by roadside bombs the same day. But those tragic and wholly unnecessary deaths were not the big news. The big news was the latest leak of yet another presidential power grab: the administration's collection of the telephone records of tens of millions of American citizens.

The Bush crowd, which gets together each morning to participate in a highly secret ritual of formalized ineptitude, is trying to get its creepy hands on all the telephone records of everybody in the entire country. It supposedly wants these records, which contain crucial documentation of calls for Chinese takeout in Terre Haute, Ind., and birthday greetings to Grandma in Talladega, Ala., to help in the search for Osama bin Laden.

Hey, the president has made it clear that when Al Qaeda is calling, he wants to be listening, and you never know where that lead may turn up.

The problem (besides the fact that the president has been as effective hunting bin Laden as Dick Cheney was in hunting quail) is that in its fearmongering and power-grabbing the Bush administration has trampled all over the Constitution, the democratic process and the hallowed American tradition of government checks and balances.

Short of having them taken away from us, there is probably no way to fully appreciate the wonder and the glory of our rights and liberties here in the United States, including the right to privacy.

The Constitution and the elaborate system of checks and balances were meant to protect us against the possibility of a clownish gang of small men and women amassing excessive power and behaving like tyrants or kings. But the normal safeguards have not been working since the Bush crowd came to power, starting with the hijacked presidential election in 2000.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, all bets were off. John Kennedy once said, ''The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war.'' But George W. Bush, employing an outrageous propaganda campaign (''Shock and awe,'' ''We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud''), started an utterly pointless war in Iraq that he still doesn't know how to win or how to end.

If you listen to the Bush version of reality, the president is all powerful. In that version, we are fighting a war against terrorism, which is a war that will never end. And as long as we are at war (forever), there is no limit to the war-fighting powers the president can claim as commander in chief.

So we've kidnapped people and sent them off to be tortured in the extraordinary rendition program; and we've incarcerated people at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere without trial or even the right to know the charges against them; and we're allowing the C.I.A. to operate super-secret prisons where God-knows-what-all is going on; and we're listening in on the phone calls and reading the e-mail of innocent Americans without warrants; and on and on and on.

The Bushies will tell you that it is dangerous and even against the law to inquire into these nefarious activities. We just have to trust the king.

Well, I give you fair warning. This is a road map to totalitarianism. Hallmarks of totalitarian regimes have always included an excessive reliance on secrecy, the deliberate stoking of fear in the general population, a preference for military rather than diplomatic solutions in foreign policy, the promotion of blind patriotism, the denial of human rights, the curtailment of the rule of law, hostility to a free press and the systematic invasion of the privacy of ordinary people.

There are not enough pretty words in all the world to cover up the damage that George W. Bush has done to his country. If the United States could look at itself in a mirror, it would be both alarmed and ashamed at what it saw.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Will the Real Traitors Please Stand Up?


WHEN America panics, it goes hunting for scapegoats. But from Salem onward, we've more often than not ended up pillorying the innocent. Abe Rosenthal, the legendary Times editor who died last week, and his publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, were denounced as treasonous in 1971 when they defied the Nixon administration to publish the Pentagon Papers, the secret government history of the Vietnam War. Today we know who the real traitors were: the officials who squandered American blood and treasure on an ill-considered war and then tried to cover up their lies and mistakes. It was precisely those lies and mistakes, of course, that were laid bare by the thousands of pages of classified Pentagon documents leaked to both The Times and The Washington Post.

This history is predictably repeating itself now that the public has turned on the war in Iraq. The administration's die-hard defenders are desperate to deflect blame for the fiasco, and, guess what, the traitors once again are The Times and The Post. This time the newspapers committed the crime of exposing warrantless spying on Americans by the National Security Agency (The Times) and the C.I.A.'s secret "black site" Eastern European prisons (The Post). Aping the Nixon template, the current White House tried to stop both papers from publishing and when that failed impugned their patriotism.

President Bush, himself a sometime leaker of intelligence, called the leaking of the N.S.A. surveillance program a "shameful act" that is "helping the enemy." Porter Goss, who was then still C.I.A. director, piled on in February with a Times Op-Ed piece denouncing leakers for potentially risking American lives and compromising national security. When reporters at both papers were awarded Pulitzer Prizes last month, administration surrogates, led by bloviator in chief William Bennett, called for them to be charged under the 1917 Espionage Act.

We can see this charade for what it is: a Hail Mary pass by the leaders who bungled a war and want to change the subject to the journalists who caught them in the act. What really angers the White House and its defenders about both the Post and Times scoops are not the legal questions the stories raise about unregulated gulags and unconstitutional domestic snooping, but the unmasking of yet more administration failures in a war effort riddled with ineptitude. It's the recklessness at the top of our government, not the press's exposure of it, that has truly aided the enemy, put American lives at risk and potentially sabotaged national security. That's where the buck stops, and if there's to be a witch hunt for traitors, that's where it should begin.

Well before Dana Priest of The Post uncovered the secret prisons last November, the C.I.A. had failed to keep its detention "secrets" secret. Having obtained flight logs, The Sunday Times of London first reported in November 2004 that the United States was flying detainees "to countries that routinely use torture." Six months later, The New York Times added many details, noting that "plane-spotting hobbyists, activists and journalists in a dozen countries have tracked the mysterious planes' movements." These articles, capped by Ms. Priest's, do not impede our ability to detain terrorists. But they do show how the administration, by condoning torture, has surrendered the moral high ground to anti-American jihadists and botched the war of ideas that we can't afford to lose.

The N.S.A. eavesdropping exposed in December by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of The Times is another American debacle. Hoping to suggest otherwise and cast the paper as treasonous, Dick Cheney immediately claimed that the program had saved "thousands of lives." The White House's journalistic mouthpiece, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, wrote that the Times exposé "may have ruined one of our most effective anti-Al Qaeda surveillance programs."

Surely they jest. If this is one of our "most effective" programs, we're in worse trouble than we thought. Our enemy is smart enough to figure out on its own that its phone calls are monitored 24/7, since even under existing law the government can eavesdrop for 72 hours before seeking a warrant (which is almost always granted). As The Times subsequently reported, the N.S.A. program was worse than ineffective; it was counterproductive. Its gusher of data wasted F.B.I. time and manpower on wild-goose chases and minor leads while uncovering no new active Qaeda plots in the United States. Like the N.S.A. database on 200 million American phone customers that was described last week by USA Today, this program may have more to do with monitoring "traitors" like reporters and leakers than with tracking terrorists.

Journalists and whistle-blowers who relay such government blunders are easily defended against the charge of treason. It's often those who make the accusations we should be most worried about. Mr. Goss, a particularly vivid example, should not escape into retirement unexamined. He was so inept that an overzealous witch hunter might mistake him for a Qaeda double agent.

Even before he went to the C.I.A., he was a drag on national security. In "Breakdown," a book about intelligence failures before the 9/11 attacks, the conservative journalist Bill Gertz delineates how Mr. Goss, then chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, played a major role in abdicating Congressional oversight of the C.I.A., trying to cover up its poor performance while terrorists plotted with impunity. After 9/11, his committee's "investigation" of what went wrong was notoriously toothless.

Once he ascended to the C.I.A. in 2004, Mr. Goss behaved like most other Bush appointees: he put politics ahead of the national interest, and stashed cronies and partisan hacks in crucial positions. On Friday, the F.B.I. searched the home and office of one of them, Dusty Foggo, the No. 3 agency official in the Goss regime. Mr. Foggo is being investigated by four federal agencies pursuing the bribery scandal that has already landed former Congressman Randy (Duke) Cunningham in jail. Though Washington is titillated by gossip about prostitutes and Watergate "poker parties" swirling around this Warren Harding-like tale, at least the grafters of Teapot Dome didn't play games with the nation's defense during wartime.

Besides driving out career employees, underperforming on Iran intelligence and scaling back a daily cross-agency meeting on terrorism, Mr. Goss's only other apparent accomplishment at the C.I.A. was his war on those traitorous leakers. Intriguingly, this was a new cause for him. "There's a leak every day in the paper," he told The Sarasota Herald-Tribune when the identity of the officer Valerie Wilson was exposed in 2003. He argued then that there was no point in tracking leaks down because "that's all we'd do."

What prompted Mr. Goss's about-face was revealed in his early memo instructing C.I.A. employees to "support the administration and its policies in our work." His mission was not to protect our country but to prevent the airing of administration dirty laundry, including leaks detailing how the White House ignored accurate C.I.A. intelligence on Iraq before the war. On his watch, C.I.A. lawyers also tried to halt publication of "Jawbreaker," the former clandestine officer Gary Berntsen's account of how the American command let Osama bin Laden escape when Mr. Berntsen's team had him trapped in Tora Bora in December 2001. The one officer fired for alleged leaking during the Goss purge had no access to classified intelligence about secret prisons but was presumably a witness to her boss's management disasters.

Soon to come are the Senate's hearings on Mr. Goss's successor, Gen. Michael Hayden, the former head of the N.S.A. As Jon Stewart reminded us last week, Mr. Bush endorsed his new C.I.A. choice with the same encomium he had bestowed on Mr. Goss: He's "the right man" to lead the C.I.A. "at this critical moment in our nation's history." That's not exactly reassuring.

This being an election year, Karl Rove hopes the hearings can portray Bush opponents as soft on terrorism when they question any national security move. It was this bullying that led so many Democrats to rubber-stamp the Iraq war resolution in the 2002 election season and Mr. Goss's appointment in the autumn of 2004.

Will they fall into the same trap in 2006? Will they be so busy soliloquizing about civil liberties that they'll fail to investigate the nominee's record? It was under General Hayden, a self-styled electronic surveillance whiz, that the N.S.A. intercepted actual Qaeda messages on Sept. 10, 2001 — "Tomorrow is zero hour" for one — and failed to translate them until Sept. 12. That same fateful summer, General Hayden's N.S.A. also failed to recognize that "some of the terrorists had set up shop literally under its nose," as the national-security authority James Bamford wrote in The Washington Post in 2002. The Qaeda cell that hijacked American Flight 77 and plowed into the Pentagon was based in the same town, Laurel, Md., as the N.S.A., and "for months, the terrorists and the N.S.A. employees exercised in some of the same local health clubs and shopped in the same grocery stores."

If Democrats — and, for that matter, Republicans — let a president with a Nixonesque approval rating install yet another second-rate sycophant at yet another security agency, even one as diminished as the C.I.A., someone should charge those senators with treason, too.

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