Friday, April 27, 2007

Taking Debate

We're Going to be Just Fine

I have to say, after watching the first Democratic primary debate last night, I felt pretty good about the lineup. It's no longer the hardest time to be a Democrat; the debate happened to take place one day after the Democratic majority on the Hill voted to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq -- a decision most Americans now support. Everyone knows Bush will veto, so looking at those eight people on stage, I thought of the lives that would be saved if these people didn't have to work with that asshole.

You could say that the first Democratic primary debate should inspire thoughts other than "God, Bush really is an asshole;" fortunately, it did.

First of all, at one point when the camera cut to a two-shot of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, I thought, that's the ticket. Barring a surprise (please, Al Gore, please), I think that's going to be the ticket. I think that the recent buddy act Clinton and Obama have been putting on suggests that a deal has been struck, and that the decision Democratic primary voters will be making is who's on the top of the ticket and who's on the bottom.

I also think that, although each candidate came off fairly well, Clinton was the winner if there was one. I have not been terribly enthusiastic about her candidacy. But if I had watched the debate with no awareness of her ideological maneuvering, or of the ongoing debate about her viability, I would probably have emerged from the experience a supporter. I thought she was quite impressive in nearly every department.

But it's not as though she trampled the others; the most striking thing about the debate was that nobody came off badly. Joseph Biden, of course, is the Democratic contender most likely to say something embarrassing, but he used this expectation to his advantage. During a sequence of questions he called "elephants in the room," moderator Brian Williams told Biden, "An editorial in the Los Angeles Times said. 'In addition to his uncontrolled verbosity, Biden is a gaffe machine.' Can you reassure voters in this country that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage, Senator?" Biden, with a comic's perfect timing: "Yes." It brought down the house.

Barack Obama performed well but didn't dazzle; not until his after-speech to supporters did he really show the oratorical shimmer we've seen in the past. (Most striking statement: "I think the Confederate flag should be put in a museum. That's where it belongs.") Obama sometimes has a tendency to wander when he's speaking extemporaneously, and he knows it; sometimes you can see him forcing himself back on track. But because he's usually so interesting to listen to, I felt his performance last night reflected badly on the rhetorically crippling format of these televised debates, and not on him.

John Edwards, who has grown a lot since his last time around as a candidate, still has an unfortunate quality. Since leaving the Senate, he's proven, I believe, that he's acting out of a genuine desire to do good. I sort of disliked him in 2004, and I cringed throughout his debate with Cheney. I was surprised that he remained in the race after the recent medical announcement of his wife Elizabeth Edwards. I think he will be eclipsed by Clinton, Obama, and perhaps a surprise bump to third place by Richardson. But I hope he stays in public service, and just as he seems more viable now than he did last time, I could see him maturing into a formidable candidate in the future.

As usual, the most engaging and compelling candidates were the ones who have little or no chance of winning the nomination. Former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, playing the role of the cantankerous firebrand, made provocative points no electoral mathematician would dare venture. "Some of these people frighten me," he exclaimed, referring to his fellow candidates. He made the evening's most forceful case for complete and immediate withdrawal from Iraq: "You hear the statement, 'Oh my god, well, the soldiers will have died in vain.' Well, the entire deaths of Vietnam died in vain! And they're dying in vain right this second! You know what's worse than a soldier dying in vain? More soldiers dying in vain." Explaining that Obama, Biden, Clinton, and Edwards were speaking in "code" about Iran, Gravel shouted, "Tell me, Barack, who are you going to nuke?" The junior senator from Illinois calmly replied, "I'm not planning to nuke anybody right now, Mike."

Dennis Kucinich is as easy to love as he is difficult to elect. When Williams pointed out that of the eight candidates, only Kucinich supported the impeachment of Dick Cheney, and asked him why, Kucinich reached into his pocket and took out a copy of the Constitution. He is the only candidate who makes sense when discussing terrorism. Kucinich, incidentally, is married to a strikingly beautiful woman, and is very pleased about it. During his post-debate chat with Joe Scarborough, Kucinich gushed blissfully about their deep love and her political acumen.

Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut has been a leader on many issues throughout a long and distinguished career, and that seems to be the biggest strike against him. He responded to Williams' questions in careful, measured tones, articulate and composed and not terribly inspiring. If Christopher Dodd were President of the United States, I'm sure he'd do a good solid job.

In terms of that certain kind of charisma -- the kind that has nothing to do with running the country and everything to do with getting elected -- New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson could be our George W. Bush. Now, when I'm sizing up presidential candidates, it never even occurs to me to think about whether I'd like to have a beer with them. The answer in every possible case is no, I wouldn't. But it's my understanding that a great many Americans make their choice based on this single criterion. And I believe those people would like to have a beer with Bill Richardson.

MSNBC has the video. And if you're disappointed that nobody in the debate came across as a blubbering fool, hopelessly out of touch and incapable of basic compassion, let alone leadership, don't worry -- the Republicans debate next week.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bush Against the World

Why, hello! Where have you been?

I've been settling into a new apartment and writing the next NERO FIDDLED show. I can't tell you much about it yet, but I don't think you've ever seen anything like it...I know I haven't. As the process continues, this is where you'll find news, performance information, and exclusive song previews. I could write paragraph after paragraph about the show right now, but then how would I explain it when the whole thing is rewritten moments before opening? And besides, there are other things to talk about.

Last night, the House voted 218 to 208 to approve a $124 war spending bill. Yes, they've agreed to send $124 billion more to the Iraq effort. But the funding is predicated on terms we haven't seen yet in anything the House has voted to approve -- troop withdrawal begins October 1. And by the spring of 2008, the withdrawal of "most combat forces" must be complete. The Senate is expected to pass identical legislation today.

Bush, of course, has spent a lot of time lately stumbling in the general direction of podiums, and declaring in broken sentences that he will veto any such bill. His people have been saying that a public event is the likely forum -- so the American people can see him opt to continue the slaughter of thousands. Yeah, that'll be good.

Since there's no doubt that Bush will veto the bill -- and since the narrow majority which passed it cannot muster the two-thirds vote it would need to override Bush's veto -- this victory is symbolic. It establishes new opposition to the war on the part of the legislative branch -- the people's branch -- and it probably paves the way for a future withdrawal resolution.

Democratic leaders plan to formally present the bill to Bush on Wednesday -- one day away from the four-year anniversary of the infamous "Mission Accomplished" photo op on the aircraft carrier. Four years ago, this intellectual invalid declared, "Major combat operations have ended." Today, Iraq commander General David Petraeus explains that "the ability of al Qaeda to conduct horrific, sensational attacks obviously has represented a setback."

Gee, that's an interesting point. It has taken four years for this war machine to correctly identify the enemy, and before we could do that, we had to obligingly create a terrorist playground for them. Americans United for Change, according to the Times, is about to unveil a TV spot featuring footage from the "Mission Accomplished" stunt, accompanied by the message, "He was wrong then. And he's wrong now. It's the will of one nation versus the stubbornness of one man."

But it's more than that. It's the innocent people of two nations versus the lust for money and blood of an American junta whose reign should long ago have ended in criminal prosecution.

Let's catch up with the numbers briefly. American military deaths in Iraq: 3,335. American military wounded: 24,764. Minimum estimated Iraqi civilian deaths: 62,417. Maximum estimated Iraqi civilian deaths: 655,000.

But if you were to ask the First Lady about this -- as The Today Show's Ann Curry did yesterday -- Laura Bush would say, "No one suffers more than the president and I do."

So can we pass a bill saying they must withdraw?


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Iraq = Indiana

Last week, appearing on Bill Bennett's radio show, war candidate John McCain enthusiastically declared, "There are neighborhoods in Baghdad where you and I could walk through those neighborhoods today." On Sunday, just to prove his point, Senator McCain showed up in Baghdad for a lovely stroll through the central market known as Shorja. And he was absolutely right -- you can walk through that neighborhood. All you need is a bulletproof vest, one hundred soldiers in armored Humvees, sharpshooters stationed on nearby rooftops, armed helicopters circling overhead, and traffic redirected for American-only access.

With those simple safety precautions in place, you and I can walk right through the central market of Baghdad! It is amazing how much progress has been made in this war. Why, there was a time when you needed two hundred soldiers backing you up on a walk through Shorja. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Indiana), who accompanied McCain, was thrilled with the minimal security. "The most deeply moving thing for me," Pence explained, "was to mix and mingle unfettered." Shorja, he said, is "like a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime."

Of course, there are some incidental differences. Shorja, for example, has been bombed multiple times in the last year; there is no outdoor market in Indiana about which this can be said. In February, sixty-one people were killed at Shorja in a triple-bombing; again, not the case at any known Indiana outdoor market. Just in the last few weeks, snipers have killed several people at the market -- that's in Baghdad, not Muncie; I know, it's hard to tell the difference.

If you're traveling to Indiana, and you find yourself in an outdoor market, you may become confused: "Wait a minute...where am I? Is this Baghdad?" There are a few helpful signs to watch for to help you stay oriented. For one thing, look for blast walls erected around the perimeter of the shopping district. Blast walls are a sure sign you're not in Fort Wayne but in Iraq.

Another good way to tell the difference is by conversing with the local merchants. If they say things like, "This area here is very dangerous; they cannot secure it" (Ali Youssef, New York Times, 4/3/07), or "Every time the government announces anything -- that the electricity is good or the water supply is good -- the insurgents come to attack it immediately" (Abu Samer, op cit) then you are probably not in Gary, Indiana.

McCain and the rest of the American delegation "paralyzed the market when they came," according to Shorja merchant Ali Jassim Faiyad. "This was only for the media. This will not change anything." His colleague, Mr. Samer, told the Times that McCain "is just using this visit for publicity. He is just using it for himself. They'll just take a photo of him at our market and they will just show it in the United States. He will win in America and we will have nothing."


Friday, March 30, 2007

Sampson and Dementia

You would think that in order to be chief of staff to a high-ranking government official, you'd have to have a quick mind and a sharp eye for detail. But apparently not. It was surprising, during the Scooter Libby trial, to learn just how much the Vice President's chief of staff could not recall. One wondered how he possibly could have been doing his job all those years.

But yesterday, testifying about the firing of federal prosecutors, Kyle Sampson outdid Libby many times over. Sampson, former chief of staff to Alberto Gonzales, impressed everyone with his total inability to remember anything at all. He was up-front about this, beginning his testimony with the warning, "I can't pretend to know or remember every fact that may be of relevance."

But could he know or remember any fact that may be of relevance? "Since the 2004 election," asked Patrick Leahy, "did you speak with the president about replacing U.S. attorneys?" Sampson confidently replied, "I don't ever remember speaking to the president after the 2004 election." Leahy: "Did you have further communications with the White House regarding the plan to regard and replace several U.S. attorneys?" Sampson: "I don't remember specifically." According to the Washington Post, Sampson "used the phrase 'I don't remember' a memorable 122 times."

He was also clearly there to take the fall for his boss -- echoes, again, of the Libby trial, and of virtually any testimony from a second banana. Sampson was quick to admit that "I could have and should have helped to prevent this," that "I let the attorney general and the department down," that "I failed to organize a more effective response." So the firing of all those prosecutors was...? "It was a failure on my part," Sampson insisted. On this one point there was no question in his mind.

From the Post:

"But the self-sacrificing witness still managed -- inadvertently, perhaps -- to implicate Gonzales and Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove. Sampson, who resigned from the Justice Department earlier this month, admitted that Gonzales 'had received a complaint from Karl Rove about U.S. attorneys in three jurisdictions.' Asked about the accuracy of Gonzales's claim of non-involvement, Sampson confessed: 'I don't think it's entirely accurate what he said.'"

Regarding Karl Rove, Sampson's testimony merely affirmed what we've known since Wednesday, when the Justice Department released a statement deeming inaccurate a previous assertion that Rove had not been involved in the firings. Meanwhile, Rove is being investigated for his apparent plot to destroy twenty Democratic candidates in 2008. Hours after this news broke, Rove could be seen dancing and rapping in an appalling display at the Radio and TV Correspondents' Dinner.

While Rove and Gonzales are drowning in a sea of their own dirty tricks, the Democratic-controlled Congress is slowly inching toward progress. Yesterday, the Senate approved a call for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq by March of 2008. The Senate, like the House, is daring Bush to veto. Unfortunately, the close votes suggest that neither house could muster the two-thirds majority required to overturn a presidential veto.