Friday, March 30, 2007

If This Is Protecting the Troops, Stop Protecting Them!

Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.
- The now-famous line uttered by Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks to the crowd at a show in London in March 2003

This morning when I read the headline that the Yankees had officially announced that Carl Pavano, he of the $40 million contract and 14-cent body, would pitch Opening Day at Yankee Stadium on Monday, I figured I had seen the most depressing headline I would read all day. But, I severely underestimated the Bush administration's ability to lie, deceive, and run a war poorly. Natalie Maines's career was greatly altered by that one line, but it seems to me that if she said it now, for most of the country, it wouldn't even rate as news. It would engender one big shrug.

Later in the day, I saw a headline on Yahoo! News that a general tried to warn Bush seven days after Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan in April 2004 that it likely resulted from friendly fire. AP/Yahoo! Tillman Article According to the article, army officials were more concerned with their public image than getting the truth to Tillman's family.

Another Yahoo! headline was how Bush apologized to the soldiers directly for the conditions they suffered through while recovering at Walter Reed. AP/Yahoo! Walter Reed Article For one of the rare times in Bush's tenure in the White House, he admitted that his people did something wrong. But, it was not even a half-hearted mea culpa. More like a quarter-hearted one. You see, it was not people close to him that messed up. No, the soldiers were let down by "bureaucratic and administrative failures," according to the article. It is like he is saying, "It was not someone important, like Rove or Cheney, but a bunch of pencil-pushers that probably voted for Kerry anyway."

Oh, and of course, Bush also did not leave before getting a photo op of him shaking the artificial hand of one of the affected soldiers. What's wrong? Wasn't there a baby for him to hold to show how sensitive he is? Oh, wait, there was? Baby Photo My bad.

Here is what pisses me off most of all about all of this: The guy won the 2004 election by convincing Americans that he was the man to lead the war effort. That he, Joe Sorta National Guard, was a better choice than the guy who volunteered to go to Vietnam and got wounded for his efforts. Bush and his administration have, at every turn, portrayed themselves as the ones that want to help the troops, while critics of their war policies, by having the audacity not to agree with them, were hurting the troops.

Think I'm exaggerating? It was just two days ago, after the Senate rejected a move to pull a timetable for an Iraq withdrawal from a war spending bill, that Bush said, according to an AP/Yahoo! article on his veto threat, "If Congress fails to pass a bill to fund our troops on the front lines, the American people will know who to hold responsible." In the Bush view, he is looking out for the troops, but the people trying to pull them out of harm's way are not.

But, if we get away from the rhetoric, we see that Bush was and continues to be an abject failure to the troops. For him to take the position that he is looking out for soldiers shows, to use a technical term, chutzpah. Bush saying he is the protector of the troops is like Michael Jackson claiming to be a child welfare advocate. It's perverse.

Let's take a little look at the Bush record protecting the troops:

- He committed them to a war in Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction that never existed. He now claims to have been an innocent victim of bad intelligence, but how would he explain what Dick Cheney and Karl Rove did to Valerie Plame because her husband said there were no weapons of mass destruction? That's like saying you don't care who wins a baseball game, but then you drop a $1000 bet on one of the teams.

- He sent the troops into Iraq without an exit plan, banking on the fact that the Iraqis would all be happy to see the American troops, but he did not even begin to understand the long-held hostilities between the Shias and Sunnis. How come nobody ever discusses anymore that when Bush's father chose not to go after Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War, his stated reasons were that he felt that there was no stable entity to fill the power vacuum, and the street fighting in Baghdad would be costly in terms of life and was not the type of fighting the American military was trained for. Or, in other words, he wanted to avoid the exact mess we are in now.

As an aside, who articulated Bush Sr.'s point of view on the first Gulf War? None other than Dick Cheney, then the Secretary of Defense. Link to Article The hypocrisy of this administration is so delicious, you can't make this stuff up. Wait, since Cheney changed his view, does that make him a flip-flopper? And, based on the 2004 campaign, shouldn't he retroactively step down from office? After all, they accused Kerry of being a flip-flopper like changing his view was akin to murdering babies.

- Bush sent the troops into combat without enough equipment. Most notably, we have read reports of troops lacking body armor (USA Today) and waiting too long to order bomb-resistant vehicles (USA Today).

- He sent National Guard and Reserve troops back for multiple tours of duty in what has been termed a "back-door draft." CBS News Story With the military so overextended, these soldiers, who often lack the training they need, and who never envisioned such long stretches of duty, are forced into multiple tours at the expense of their jobs and families.

- He even sent injured troops back to Iraq. Article Can you protect troops and send injured troops into a war zone at the same time? That sounds like one of those "There are eight people on the side of a river ..." riddles to me.

- He has refused to recognize the quagmire he has gotten the military into in Iraq, preventing the U.S. from protecting vital interests in Afghanistan and keeping pressure on Iran. Despite the obvious call of the American people to change his policy, he has done nothing except propose sending some more troops in. That's like losing all your cash in a casino, but saying you have it under control because a loan shark is going to give you money to keep playing.

- Throw in Walter Reed, the admission that the no plan was made for the care of so many wounded soldiers with the war going on this long (AP/Yahoo! Article), and the Pat Tillman debacle, and I am left to ask: This is looking out for the troops? With that track record, I wouldn't trust Bush and his people looking after our pet bunny let alone my son or daughter if he/she was a member of the military.

It seems like a day can't go by now without some scandal or embarrassment for the executive branch hitting the news. While I'm grateful that Bush seems to be slipping in his ability to deflect his misdoings, it is a depressing state of affairs. Natalie Maines was really ahead of the curve on this one.

It's a good thing for Carl Pavano that Joe Torre is the manager of the Yankees. When Pavano inevitably falls apart on Opening Day, if Bush was the manager, he would just send him back into the game. No matter what the sold out crowd thought, and no matter how many hits Pavano had absorbed. After all, Bush would say, he is the decider. What he never mentions is that he is not a very good one.

Please note that this blog will not publish again until Thursday April 5, 2007

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Sampson Outs Gonzales

The question before this House is rather simple. It's not about sex ... The matter before the House is lying under oath. This is called perjury. ... (Perjury) cannot be reconciled with the office of the president of the United States ... The people's trust has been betrayed.

- Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) quoted in a Dec. 19, 1998 CNN article on why he voted for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton

If you saw smoke rising in the air today, it might have come directly from a gun in the U.S. Capitol. In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff to (soon to be ex-?) Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, according to an AP/Yahoo! article, said, "I don't think the attorney general's statement that he was not involved in any discussions of U.S. attorney removals was accurate."

Clearly, all the Senate Republicans will immediately demand Gonzales's resignation. And, if he refuses, the House Republicans will bring impeachment charges against him with immediate effect. Yes, I wrote "Republicans." After all, as the quote at the top of this piece illustrates, it was less than nine years ago that the GOP demanded Clinton's resignation for lying under oath about his sexual activities. Clearly, if lying about sex in a deposition relating to a sexual harassment case is grounds for dismissal or impeachment, falsely telling a Senate committee that you had nothing to do with firing eight U.S. attorneys when, in fact, you were one of the two people who actually made the decision is the basis for dismissal and, what? A public flogging? A prison cell in Gitmo? Forced viewing of an "According to Jim" marathon?

Of course, I do not expect the Republicans to treat Gonzales the way they treated Clinton, but if Sampson's statement is true, I don't see how Gonzales can avoid being asked for his resignation.

According to the AP/Yahoo! article, Sampson said, "The decision makers in this case were the attorney general and the counsel to the president." The Republicans have been playing down the Gonzales scandal, saying it is much ado about nothing, with no evidence of wrongdoing. Well, maybe (and I do mean maybe) there was no illegal activity in the actual removal of the U.S. attorneys. But, on the post-firings machinations, as to how Gonzales handled questions from Congress, Sampson, much to the chagrin of those saying the Democrats in the Senate were overreacting, provided the smoking gun. If Sampson is telling the truth, the attorney general lied when he said he was not involved.

As I wrote yesterday, Bush has spent six years with no Congressional oversight, allowing him to do whatever he wanted with no checks on his actions. Part and parcel of that attitude of entitlement is the feeling that members of the administration can give any explanation they want to get out of a sticky situation. Only, with the Democrats now in control of Congress, the old ways of lying and evading to divert attention from other lies and misdoings no longer work. Even the Scooter Libby trial taught the administration nothing, since Libby was their fall guy. His conviction (and future pardon, of course) was the plan to make sure the vice president and Karl Rove would not be held responsible for the deplorable outing of Valerie Plame.

No, Sampson's testimony today, if true, will be a watershed moment in the Bush presidency: The day the administration was finally busted for thinking it could do and say what it wanted with no repercussions. Unless the administration can come up with a plausible case that Sampson is lying, Gonzales's support among Republicans will become as weak as Bush's Iraq plan.

If true, Sampson's testimony will be the first true dent in the Bush administration's armor of invincibility. If they don't change their ways, there will be many more to come. After all, Bush has another 663 days in office. Unless Henry Hyde comes after him when he's caught lying.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Senate Democrats Find Their, Um, Nerve

Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty, or your recklessness. ... Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?
- Special Counsel for the Army Joseph Welch to Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisc.) during a hearing of the Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Committee on Government Operations on March 11, 1954 Transcript

It happens in a ton of teen comedies: The hero confronts his tormentor at the end of the film, the bully backs down, and the previously-nerdy guy gets the girl. I thought of this quintessential movie paradigm when I read that the Democrats in the U.S. Senate (minus Joe “Iron Guts” Lieberman), with the help of two Republican senators, rejected a Republican effort to strip an Iraq withdrawal timetable from the bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yahoo! Article

For years now, the Democrats have been the wimpy protagonist, watching as the Republicans mistreated the girl they liked (which, in this case, is the United States of America). Deep in their hearts they knew they could treat her better, but they didn't have the guts to stand up to the big, bad bully. Instead, they sat in the corner and cowered, hoping no one would notice.

Then, the girl (again, the U.S.) was pushed too far, until she finally told our hero that she'd had it with the bully (by voting the bully's party out of office in Congress). Emboldened, the Democrats, with a renewed vigor at the prospect of getting the girl (they don't have her yet, the election just meant that she hated the bully, not that she actually liked the protagonist), went forth and confronted the big bully, even getting two of his henchmen, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Oreg.) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), to back him up.

At this point in the movie, the bully backs down in shame, ending the confrontation. Think Peter Facinelli skulking out of the party to the derisive laughs of his classmates in "Can't Hardly Wait" IMDB Link. Or Craig Sheffer backpedaling from Elias Koteas faster than a Walter Reed orderly from a rat at the big climactic party in "Some Kind of Wonderful" IMBD Link. All that is left is for the hero to go off and woo the girl of his dreams.

Unfortunately, real life does not generally resolve itself as reel life does. When confronted with a 2006 election where the American people tossed the Republicans out of Congress on the single issue of Iraq, Iraq in a civil war, national support for the war plummeting, comments from the Acting Surgeon General that poor planning has left the military short on resources for the long-term care of the troops coming home from combat AP/Yahoo! Link, and the military bogged down in Iraq, leaving the Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan and Iran running amok (just ask the 15 British Navy crew members currently enjoying an all-expenses-paid tour of a Tehran jail cell), Bush, unlike his cinematic counterparts, is not backing down.

Instead, he continues to spit out nonsense, like how the Democrats don't want to fund the troops. He actually said, according to an AP/Yahoo! story, "If Congress fails to pass a bill to fund our troops on the front lines, the American people will know who to hold responsible." Uh, Mr. President, they have already decided who is responsible. Need a clue? Notice how you haven't heard from some of your buddies in Congress lately? Maybe it is because they are back home. Yes, Mr. President. The American people have decided who to hold responsible, and it is the guy with the smirk you see in the mirror when you shave in the morning.

The movie bullies knew they were beat. Bush hasn't gotten the message yet. He keeps saying that he will veto anything with a timetable for a withdrawal. No negotiations. Other than his stubborn adherence to his failed policies, he has nothing to lean on to back his position. For six years he was able to do whatever he wanted. He viewed a difference of opinion as an act of disloyalty at best, treason at worst. He never learned to listen to the opposition, because he didn't have to. His presidential report card, in big, bold letters, would read, "Georgie absolutely cannot play well with others who disagree with him."

So, in the face of such overwhelming opposition, it's not that shocking that he would take such a hard-line stance. Sure, it's easy to dismiss his out-of-touch declarations of purpose as being just another example of Bush believing he knows best, no matter what anyone else says. But, I think there is more to it.

I think at the heart of Bush's defiance is one thought: That the Democrats would cave. Or, less delicately, that the Democrats lack balls. And you can't blame the guy. For every piece of evidence of Bush's single-mindedness, you can find a counter-example of the Democrats failing to provide any opposition. The Democrats were like the North Korean soldier in a M*A*S*H episode I saw recently who spent the whole episode trying to surrender to an unarmed, uninterested Hawkeye and B.J. Bush figured, "If I just stand firm, the Democrats will cave." And, if you had asked me two weeks ago, I would have agreed with him.

But, right about now, I owe the Democrats in Congress an apology. Sorry ladies and gentlemen, I didn't think you had it in you. But, you did. A charge like "you're not supporting the troops" would have driven the pre-November 2006 Democrats to run looking for a military bill to vote for and a photo op with an M-16. But now, when Bush tried to divert the issue by accusing the Democrats of not funding the troops, the Democratic leadership, whether invigorated by their marching orders from the voters, or tired of playing the wimp, found their sea legs and, finally, stood up to the bully.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was quoted in the AP/Yahoo! story as saying, "Why doesn't he get real with what's going on with the world? We're not holding up funding in Iraq and he knows that. Why doesn't he deal with the real issues facing the American people?" No panic, no fear that the American people will think that the Democrats are trying to hurt the troops. Just a declaration that Bush is diverting the issue.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was also quoted in the AP/Yahoo! article, saying, "On this very important matter, I would extend a hand of friendship to the president, just to say to him, 'Calm down with the threats. We accept your constitutional role. We want you to accept ours.'" Okay, now the Democrats are feeling sorry for Bush and giving him advice? Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

I am the first to admit that I often write unflattering things about the American people as a democratic (lower case "d") citizenry. But, I want to be fair and give the American people their due when they, as a citizenry, decide to take action. When the tipping point is reached, they act. (My complaint would be how long they wait, but I digress.) And, in turn, politicians and public officials are given the cover to follow suit. The quote that started this piece is often viewed as the beginning of the end for McCarthy. The moment at which the American people had had enough, and that feeling was finally expressed on national television by Joseph Welch. Somebody finally stood up to the bully.

Well, coming off the election in November 2006, it seems that the tipping point on Iraq -- and maybe Bush's demagoguery as a whole -- has come. The Democrats, emboldened, have stepped forward. Maybe they will stay with it, putting aside their record over the last six years of showing the courage and fortitude of Sir Robin in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

This is the part of the movie where the hero steps up, challenges the bully, wins, and gets the girl. Joseph Welch new it. The characters played by Ethan Embry and Eric Stoltz knew it. Maybe the Democrats are starting to get it, too. I hope they stick with it, even if the bully doesn't follow the script and skulk away. After all, isn't getting Jennifer Love Hewitt or Mary Stuart Masterson worth it?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Your Heart Medication, Brought to You by the Wall Street Journal

We must address the low standing of America test scores amongst industrialized nations in math and science, the very subjects most likely to affect our future competitiveness.
- George W. Bush at a press conference introducing his education program, Jan. 23, 2001 Link to Transcript

Do labels matter? Maybe not. But, the way we label things does say a lot about our values and priorities.

I was riding on an elevator yesterday, and as I glanced up to the news monitor to avoid having to make eye contact with any of my fellow passengers in the packed car, I read that a new Pfizer cholesterol drug had not performed well in studies. Link to UPI Story After I finished the one-sentence item, I kept staring at it, again, doing anything I could to look away from the people crowding my personal space. And that’s when I noticed that the heading on the story was “business news.”

I defy anyone to tell me that this label doesn’t matter.

The U.S. used to be a world leader in science. That is clearly not the case anymore. As the quote that started this piece shows, Bush may have paid lip service to this fact, but he has done nothing but help the very people perpetuating the current healthcare system. After all, it is hard to trust a guy pledging to help science studies, when his actions on stem cell research and global warming, among other issues, show he treats science like you would treat a snake in your bedroom – with fear and loathing.

In a 2003 study of the math, science and reading skills of 15-year-olds worldwide, the U.S. ranked 28th, with countries like Latvia (27th), Hungary (25th), Poland (24th), and the Slovak Republic (21st) ahead of us. The Russians were 29th, which should give some solace to octogenarians who think that we are still fighting the Cold War.

For science, we did a little better, placing 22nd, still trailing Iceland (21st), Belgium (14th), the Czech Republic (9th), and those pesky Slovaks (20th). Just think at how high the old Czechoslovakia would have ranked? Again, the Greatest Generation will be happy, as the Russians were two spots behind us.

Oh, and if you are saying to yourself, “It’s okay, American kids have become more interested in other subjects, I’ll bet we ranked right at the top in reading skills!”, guess again. The U.S. placed 18th, but at least we crushed the Slovaks this time, who ranked 31st.

Link to Study Data

Obviously, it would be foolish to latch onto any one reason as to why American students have a ranking that would get many NCAA basketball coaches fired. But, I think it shows a bit of a window into the national thought process when the failure of a new drug is business news, not health news, or, heaven forbid, just news. No, we know what hard news is: the result of the autopsy of Anna Nicole Smith’s son (at least that was the story on CNN when I walked past the television this morning).

People have written entire books on the evils of the pharmaceutical industry. I am not going to tackle that behemoth of a subject here. It is clear, however, that the pharmaceutical industry is a very large, very successful money-making machine. As a rule, I would rather trust my health to people who have as a goal finding cures, not maximizing profits.

The fact that a drug failing is business news speaks volumes as to the nation’s values on health and science.

Maybe the tide is turning. All three leading Democratic presidential contenders have announced comprehensive health plans. Link to AP/Yahoo! Article Edwards has even admitted, straight out, that he will raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans to pay for his plan. What a difference 14 years makes. Hillary Clinton, until recently, was trying to live down the Clintons’ failed healthcare initiative. Now, having a healthcare plan is virtually required of all the Democratic candidates. Maybe it’s a sign that people are waking up, that the way this country handles its healthcare issues, from research to how patients seek treatment, has to change.

The current system is so ingrained, and so profitable, that there is a virtually unscalable mountain to climb. But, I look forward to the day, sometime in my lifetime, when drug research is not categorized as business news. Maybe by then, American students will have even overtaken their Slovak counterparts, with the Belgians and Czechs in sight. You never know.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Joan Jett Rocks Staten Island

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
Saturday March 24, 2007
College of Staten Island Center for the Arts

Joan Jett may be the nicest punk of all time. Despite the tattoos, leather clothing, Goth eye makeup and aggressive poses, there is an inherent warmth and positivity to her raspy, Lawng Island-tinged vocals, one of the signature, immediately recognizable voices in rock music. She always introduces the band as "The Blackhearts" (not, "Joan Jett and ..."), and her between-songs patter, a mix of encouraging and praising her fans, left her sounding as much like a tough-chick cheerleader as the leader of one of the longest-lasting punk rock bands around.

The setting for her sold-out Saturday show at the College of Staten Island Center for the Arts aptly set off this contradiction, as she rocked the house, even though the house wasn't a dingy club, but an upholstered-seat-filled, college auditorium more appropriate for a student production of "Fiddler on the Roof."

At 48, Jett has settled into a comfortable groove. In her leather pants and midriff-bearing tank top, she looks to be in fighting shape (although, when you see her live, you are reminded at how small she really is), and, as she repeatedly told the crowd, her goal was to put on a fun show that kept the audience singing and dancing throughout. She succeeded, despite fighting a flu bug that sent her into coughing fits several times between songs. Leading her band through a 70-minute, 17-song set, Jett showed that few can challenge her ability to put on a great, garagey rock show.

As the introductory music came to a close, Jett wasted no time announcing her presence with authority (as Nuke Laloosh told Crash Davis in "Bull Durham"), launching into her signature anthem, "Bad Reputation," from her debut solo album of the same title. A blend of the angry, driving guitars of 1970's punk rock and Jett's upbeat, "be proud to be yourself" lyrics, "Bad Reputation" had the 850 spectators up and moving. The demographic of Jett's fans is like no act I have ever seen, with young girls in stripper bustiers and belly shirts, and middle-aged men and women who looked like they wandered in from a Neil Diamond concert, dancing side-by-side, surrounded by old-school punks, middle-aged women trying to recapture their youth through questionable clothing choices and music geeks.

The current version of the Blackhearts -- drummer Thommy Price, guitarist Dougie Needles and bassist Enzo Penizzotto -- was comfortable and tight, avoiding speeding up songs like too many bands do live, and keeping the riffs coming, with Jett and Needles trading off lead lines and Price providing the signature pounding on songs like "Do You Wanna Touch Me" and "I Love Rock and Roll." Kenny Laguna, Jett's longtime producer and friend, stood tucked out of the way in the back corner of the stage, providing backing vocals and keyboards. It looked a bit odd, but his placement did make sense. Needles and Penizzotto cut the figures of classic punk rockers, tall and thin, with their spiked hair, black clothing and chain wallet holders, and their guitars slung low with their legs spread wide. Laguna, on the other hand, looked like your Great Uncle Morty in the card room at Del Boca Vista telling his poker buddies how he spent a summer selling T-shirts for the Jefferson Airplane.

The show opened with a burst of adrenaline. The band followed "Bad Reputation" with Jett's hit from her Runaways days "Cherry Bomb," the Bruce Springsteen-penned theme song to Jett's 1987 movie "Light of Day," and her cover of Gary Glitter's "Do You Wanna Touch Me," featuring the audience loudly providing the "yeah, oh yeah" refrain. The four songs ran into each other with barely a break in-between, and the crowd was up, moving and screaming throughout. It felt like the most noise the staid auditorium had seen in a while.

The band then segued into a section of the show largely consisting of songs from their 2006 release "Sinner." "Change the World," and "Five" were driving, old-school punk anthems that served as a reminder that Jett was churning out radio-friendly punk before Green Day and The Offspring arrived on the scene. Jett's strong and familiar voice and the catchiness of the melodies allowed the songs to fit seamlessly into the set with her classic hits.

Other selections from the new album reached for more lyrical depth. The introspective "Naked" and political commentary "Riddles" were strong, mid-tempo songs in the classic rock style. The sexually adventurous "Fetish," with its explicit lyrics and angry guitars, was engaging and a bit dark. "Androgynous" was light, musically anyway, sounding, as my wife observed, like a lost Schoolhouse Rock cut, which was a bit odd, given the subject matter of the song.

Tucked into the run of cuts from "Sinner" was the second best cover I've every heard of "Love Is All Around," the theme song to the "Mary Tyler Moore Show," which Jett recorded for promotional spots for the WNBA. The version by Minneapolis punk rockers Husker Du is my favorite, but Jett does a nice job on it, as well.

The familiar drum-roll intro to "I Love Rock and Roll" ushered in the final section of the set, kicking off a run of hits to finish out the show. Jett's mega-hit, which spent eight weeks on top of the Billboard singles chart, represented the only time during the night that the band did not seem especially inspired. It is very interesting to me how bands have such a love-hate relationship with their biggest hits, and instead of making the song the centerpiece of the set, Jett pretty much buried it, treating it more like an appetizer than a main course.

She followed up with an inspired take on the Tommy James and the Shondells classic "Crimson and Clover," adding the wah-wah effect to the concluding run of the chorus that appears on the James version but not on Jett's recording on the "I Love Rock and Roll" album. The band concluded the main part of the set with an energetic "I Hate Myself For Loving You." Like the opening of the show, the three-song run to end the set came rapid-fire, with the capacity crowd singing and dancing along.

The band began the encore with "A.C.D.C." from "Sinner," an exuberant rave-up with nearly-shouted vocals, an infectious melody, a sing-along chorus and enough false endings to make James Brown proud. Jett capped the night with her cover of Sly Stone's "Everyday People."

It always struck me as funny that Jett's signature anthem is called "Bad Reputation," given that you would be hard-pressed to find someone to say something bad about her. But her ability to be unapologetically real and raw, no matter how nice she is, leaves no doubt that she has every right to take her place in the pantheon of punk rock. The eclectic crowd that made the trek to Staten Island to see one of rock's jewels left happy and satisfied, just like Jett would want them to.

Set List:
Bad Reputation
Cherry Bomb
Light of Day
Do You Wanna Touch Me
Change the World
Love Is Pain
Love Is All Around
I Love Rock and Roll
Crimson and Clover
I Hate Myself for Loving You
Everyday People

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Democrats' Turn to Spend Political Capital

I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style. That's what happened in the -- after the 2000 election, I earned some capital. I've earned capital in this election -- and I'm going to spend it for what I told the people I'd spend it on ...
- George W. Bush at a press conference shortly after winning the 2004 election Link to Transcript

There is an old truism that if someone tells you to think of anything except pink elephants, you will immediately think of pink elephants. I told myself to write about anything else besides the White House going Britney over something, so, of course, all I can think of is how hypocritical and disingenuous the administration is being in light of the House vote including a provision in the bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that the troops had to be pulled out of Iraq no later than September 2008.

When Bush won the 2004 election, as the quote at the head of this piece illustrates, he was very quick to say that his victory meant the American people had given him the right -- political capital -- to follow through on the agenda he put forth in his campaign. What a difference two years make. In November 2006, the Democrats were handed both houses of Congress by the American people with one loud, clear, unmistakable, and unequivocal message: Bush has screwed us in Iraq, and we are pissed off, so go do something about it. That is it. The voters were not voting for the Democrats, they were voting against the president.

Now that the political capital is on the other side of the aisle, Bush no longer wants to hear about it. When the Democrats went to spend their very limited capital by voting for a limit to the commitment of troops in Iraq, just as they were instructed to by the voters, Bush called the Democrats' actions "political theater." Yahoo!/AP Story How is it that when the president wins at the polls, he has political capital, but when the Democrats try and carry out the mandate from their election, they are engaging in political theater?

Bush's logic is, well, illogical. His argument is that since he has said he would veto any bill with a timetable, the Democrats know they can't win, so to pass a bill they know won't be signed into law is just grandstanding. In other words, Bush told them that he won't let them win, so they shouldn't try and win. As usual, disagreement with the administration's policies is not viewed as a difference in opinion, but as an attack on the administration.

Bush said, "These Democrats believe that the longer they can delay funding for our troops, the more likely they are to force me to accept restrictions on our commanders, an artificial timetable for withdrawal and their pet spending projects." Yahoo!/AP Story Like I have been writing for days, the Bush administration is far more interested in diverting attention from the facts on the ground than having to debate the actual facts, because they would be left with a losing case in front of the electorate. I don't believe Bush (or nearly anyone else, for that matter), honestly believes the Democrats are trying to delay funding the troops, restrict the commanders or in some other way hurt the soldiers or the country.

But to hear Bush talk about, it is obvious that the Democrats are just playing politics. I mean, what else could possibly explain the Democrats' actions? Let's give House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) a shot at answering that question: "The American people have lost faith in the president's conduct of this war. The American people see the reality of the war, the president does not." Yes, right, the American people voted the Democrats into office to do this very thing. See, with all of the administration's diversion tactics, I nearly forgot.

The Democrats won the 2006 election with a very narrow set of marching orders: Check the president on Iraq. The Democrats, much to my surprise and delight, got the message and are doing what they were elected to do. Bush can try and make people forget that fact by throwing out accusations like "political theater" all he wants. None of that changes the fact that the Democrats are simply doing what they were elected to do.

So, Mr. President, what comes around, goes around. You had your political capital in 2004, and you spent it, leaving us with two extremist right wing Supreme Court justices, tax cuts for the rich, a spiraling national debt, no curbs on greenhouse gases, a chain of scandals in the executive branch and a quagmire in Iraq that has paralyzed U.S. military and foreign policy options, resulting in a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and Iran completely unchecked. The American people spoke in November 2006, and your political capital account is down to zero.

But, the Democrats' political capital coffers have a small balance, and they are about to spend it on the exact budget item it was put there for: stopping Bush from maintaining a disastrous war in Iraq. To accuse the Democrats of playing politics by following the mandate of the American people is disingenuous. This president is out of political capital. The problem is, he doesn't realize it. And it is the American people who are paying the price.

All News, All the Time, Especially if You're Obese and Seven

We can do the innuendo/ We can dance and sing
When its said and done we haven't told you a thing
We all know that crap is king/ Give us dirty laundry
- "Dirty Laundry" by Don Henley, from his 1982 album "I Can't Stand Still"

I didn't eat yesterday/And I'm not going to eat today/And I'm not going to eat tomorrow
'Cuz I'm going to be a supermodel'
Cuz I'm young, and I'm hip and so beautiful
I'm gonna be a supermodel
- "Supermodel" by Jill Sobule, from her 1995 album "Jill Sobule"

I walked by a television set this morning, and I saw a 275-pound seven-year-old on the screen. It would be natural to assume that the set was tuned to MTV ("Mega Boy Speaks!") or TLC ("Death of an Obese Child"), but, as Felix Unger told the court in a classic "Odd Couple" episode, you would be making an ass out of, well, nobody but CNN (sorry, Felix).

That's right, at 9:15 a.m. on a Thursday morning, CNN, the first 24-hour cable news network, the place where Bernard Shaw plied his trade, may not have been reporting on the battle over White House subpoenas, the new findings at Walter Reed Army Hospital or the Justice Department making Jack Bauer look like a champion of the Geneva Accords. But, they were all over the obese kid with the mother who doesn't think there is a problem. Not to worry. I'm sure if I waited long enough, they would have moved on to more important news stories, like Britney leaving rehab, a ruling in the Anna Nicole Smith paternity case, and people calling Tyra Banks fat.

Okay, I know taking the position that news outlets air a steady diet of celebrity gossip and lurid crimes and tragedies as a way of boosting ratings is hardly news (bad pun intended). Don Henley recorded a Top 10 song about it 25 years ago, "Dirty Laundry." Although, he was talking about the local news in L.A., and I don't think it was a social statement, but more a reaction to the media's treatment of his arrest for drug possession and contributing to the delinquency of a minor after a 16-year-old girl overdosed at a party at his house. Article Containing the Whole Story, Scroll Down

You could make an argument that in 1982, local news was already touched (or overrun) with a tabloid mentality, but at least the network news departments were trusted resources for information. Dan Rather had just replaced Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw had just been made anchor, and Peter Jennings was a respected foreign correspondent about to be tapped for the big chair. It would be hard to picture Cronkite, who was often named the most trusted man in the country in viewer polls, allowing his vaunted Tiffany Network to air stories about pop stars gone wild.

Yesterday, I wrote about Tony Snow raising the smoke screen that Democrats in Congress were pursuing subpoenas in the U.S. attorney firings investigation to make a political spectacle, not to get to the bottom of the issue. When the Senate Judiciary Committee voted today to subpoena White House aides, Snow repeated the charge on the CBS Early Show, saying the Democrats want "a Perry Mason scene where people are hot-dogging and grandstanding and trying to score political points." Yahoo!/AP Link

As I argued yesterday, the White House position is not based on a reasonable difference of opinion, but on a strategy to divert attention away from the very unflattering facts on the ground. Why does that work? Because CNN is showing a story on a 275-pound seven-year-old. Okay, so I am exaggerating, but the underlying point is true. When Anna Nicole Smith died, the news outlets (including CNN) dedicated a boatload of its schedule to covering that story. What if CNN did the same thing with the White House subpoenas issue? Yes, I know, its ratings would plummet. But, putting aside the ratings hit (and the financial insolvency of the network) for a minute, would the White House be able to try and sound bite its way out of this one if news coverage was all subpoenas, all the time? Doubtful.

I really was not going to mention the subpoena issue again today, but seeing CNN devote time to the obese kid, I really wanted to make the connection. As I have written before, I like juxtaposing things. Which leads me to what I really did want to write about: The obese kid and his enabling mother. Seriously, but it is not what you think. What interests me is that the story broke the same week that Tyra Banks appeared on television and in People magazine to argue that she was not fat. It reminded me of something I had recently discussed with a friend: America has a messed up relationship with food and body image.

On the one hand, as a society, we have completely unrealistic expectations about weight and our bodies, especially for women. I mean, we live in a time when a supermodel has to defend her body because she no longer becomes invisible when she turns sideways. And we wonder why young women become anorexic and bulimic? Link to a CNN Story on Body Image

And yet, we are a fat country. According to the American Obesity Association, approximately 127 million adults in the U.S. are overweight. Than includes 60 million obese Americans and nine million more who are severely obese. Put another way, 64.5 percent of U.S. adults are overweight, while 20 years earlier, that figure was 46 percent. AOA Online Fact Sheet

So, more Americans are overweight than vote. That explains a lot, actually.

Let me try to get a handle on this. We eat too much, we do not exercise enough, we get fat, but then we make people feel crappy that they have gotten fat, but not crappy enough to actually do anything about it. I'm dizzy. But, based on the statistics, obviously not from a lack of food.

What really gets me is how dangerous both ends of the equation are. It's shocking to me that Tyra Banks would have to defend her body. I do not think you have to be a medical professional to figure out that her current body is way healthier than the one she had when she was starving herself to pose in bathing suits and dresses measured in microns.

At the same time, how do people walk into stores and buy food they know (or should know) is laden with high fructose corn syrup and other garbage that will do nothing but make them fat? You do not need to be a nutritionist to know that if every day you eat half a bag of Doritos, drink a six-pack of Coke, and call a Big Mac and fries dinner, you are going to be fat. And, likely, declared a Superfund site.

My friend pointed out that the power of big corporations and their influence on government regulations and standards makes it very hard for people to eat healthy. I completely agree with her that the health of Americans is very low on the priority list of these entities, and it takes a lot of work for people to eat truly healthy diets.

But, I am also a big believer in personal responsibility. And, again, while arriving at the perfect diet can be a challenge in our current corrupt system, the average person should realize that two donuts and Frappuccino is not breakfast, it's a suicide plan.

So, I guess what I am saying is, CNN was showing the right story, but for the wrong reasons, kind of like Don Henley's motivation for writing "Dirty Laundry." As usual, we have things all twisted around until they are virtually unfixable. I have no idea what it will take to make people eat healthier, or to stop making healthy people feel fat. But, whatever the odds of Americans coming to terms with their food and body issues, they are probably better than the chances that CNN will cut away from Britney's next freak-out to discuss the constitutional law implications of the Senate Judiciary Committee's issuance of subpoenas.

As Henley identified, "we all know that crap is king," so the news networks will pump out dirty laundry. Sadly, it seems that Americans are all out of quarters for the washing machines. After all, they need them for the vending machines.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Differing With Unreasonable Minds in the White House

Third time I've said that. I'll probably say it three more times. See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.
-George W. Bush in a speech given in May 2005 at Greece Athena Middle and High School in Greece, N.Y. (

Reasonable minds will differ. But what about unreasonable ones? What do they do? Deny, destroy and divert, apparently.

Tony Snow, who on a day-to-day basis is sounding more and more like Baghdad Bob threatening death to the Americans in the dying days of the Hussein regime, today responded to a House Judiciary subcommittee vote to authorize the issuing of subpoenas to White House officials over the U.S. attorney firings with the statement that Democrats had to decide if they were more interested in "a political spectacle" than finding the truth. Yahoo!/AP Link

Now, it is true that every issue has two sides. But, in the case of the Bush administration, the two sides are "ours" and the "terrorists-loving, freedom-hating, cut-and-run-advocating, family-values-killing, tax-and-spend, dividing-not-uniting weaklings."

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), head of the House Judiciary Committee, justified the authorization of the subpoenas by arguing that the White House's offer to have members of the administration, including former White House counsel Harriet Miers and top advisor Karl Rove, talk with members of Congress in private and not under oath was not sufficient. Conyers said, "We could meet at the local pub to have that kind of conversation. But in my judgment it would not advance us toward uncovering the simple truth in this matter." CNN Link

Rep. Tom Feeney (R-FL), who sits on the House committee that authorized the subpoenas, said that he voted against the measure because he "would strongly prefer that we postpone the issuance of subpoenas until we've had a chance to get the White House, who has made an offer to comply, to review the Department of Justice documents." He went on to say, "I for one would be prepared at the proper time to vote if there was any potential that misconduct occurred." CNN Link

Again, reasonable minds can differ. Assuming Feeney is being honest, he has expressed an honest, reasonable counter-position to Conyers's argument. He acknowledged the possibility of wrongdoing but expressed a more conservative (no pun intended) approach to investigating the matter.

I may agree with Conyers, you may agree with Freeney, and most Americans may be talking about whether Sanjaya Malakar should be voted off of "American Idol." But, in any case, there is an exchange of ideas. Not at the White House, though. Tony Snow claimed that the White House did not want Rove, Miers and others testifying under oath because it would create a "media spectacle." Yahoo!/AP Link Does anyone really believe that this the reason why the White House says it will fight any subpoenas issued? This is not reasonable minds differing. This is gamesmanship, pure and simple.

What's particularly galling about the White House's position and rhetoric is that they are accusing the Democrats of acting politically in investigating members of the administration when there is no doubt that the Attorney General was less-than truthful in explaining the U.S. attorney firings to Congress, and there is real evidence that there may have been inappropriate or illegal activity in the White House regarding the dismissals and the subsequent explanations. It is a no-brainer that government (regardless of party) has an obligation to look into this mess. Put another way, the White House is crying politics to try and impede a legitimate investigation into whether or not the White House acted politically in an inappropriate way. Or, to paraphrase something Phoebe once said to Monica on "Friends," "Hello kettle? This is the White House. You're black."

Not to mention, the Republicans, when they were in power, were the Muhammad Alis of politically motivated investigations. They were "the greatest of all time." The Democrats, after taking back Congress, have focused their attention on issues like the U.S. attorney firings, the Justice Department abuses of the Patriot Act and the city dog pound-like conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital. The Republicans under Clinton were concerned with 20-year-old land deals, travel office personnel matters and presidential sex acts, and other than Clinton not copping to getting oral sex from an intern, they came up with nothing. The Clinton investigations were all political, top to bottom.

Having witnesses and key figures in an investigation testify under oath is hardly an un-American course of action. Our open democracy depends on reasonable people making reasonable arguments. Conyers and his backers can trade points with Feeney and his compatriots, until the sides are clear and a vote is taken. While most votes fall close to party lines, there is, more often than not, defectors on both sides. The process really works, to an extent at least.

But what does Tony Snow throwing off attention-diverting, now-you-see-it-now-you-don't, we'll-say-it-three-times-and-it-will-be-true smoke bombs do for democracy? Nothing. But, unfortunately, the White House knows that by invoking some key phrases, they can gain the upper hand in a sound-bite society like ours, regardless of the facts on the ground. It doesn't matter if the facts are 100 percent against you, just say "political witch hunt," "the terrorists win," or "gay marriage," and you will gain traction with an audience too busy watching Jeff Foxworthy to find if if they're smarter than a fifth grader. I have news for you: If the American people allow the White House to escape a real investigation of the U.S. attorney firings by using smoke and mirrors, the answer to Foxworthy's question will be an unequivocal "no."

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Temple Beth Baseball

I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary. And, there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there's no guilt in baseball, and it's never boring.
- The opening voice-over of Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) in the screenplay for "Bull Durham" by Ron Shelton (

Late Saturday afternoon, with the sun outside starting to melt the inches of ice that had fallen the previous night, I sat nervously inside my apartment watching the television, hoping against hope that Kevin Reese, Ramiro Pena and Chris Basak could find a way to tie their team's game in the dying moments. No, Reese, Pena and Basak do not play for an NCAA tournament team. They were wearing the batting practice jerseys of the New York Yankees, playing the final innings of a Grapefruit League exhibition game against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Don't know who these guys are? Well, that probably means you have a social life. Reese, Pena and Basak will not be Yankees when the team opens up its season on April 2 in the Bronx against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. No, they'll be in Scranton, Penn. or Trenton, N.J., playing for one of the Yankees' minor league affiliates. But on March 17, they had made the bus ride from the Yankees' base in Tampa up the road to the Phillies' spring home in Clearwater. Pena subbed in for Derek Jeter after the captain had taken his three turns at plate, and Basak was the back-up for a back-up, coming in after veteran utility player Miguel Cairo played the first half of the game. Reese actually got to start and play all nine innings.

For Reese, Pena and Basak, the game was very meaningful, as it is one of their few opportunities to show the Yankees (or some other team) that they belong in the Show. For Jeter, Cairo and anyone with a life, the game was meaningless. And yet, there I was, on the couch, watching the game and wincing as the Yanks were unable to muster a final run and fell to a 3-2 defeat, even as Georgetown and Boston College battled in an East Regional pairing of former Big East rivals. Normally, I love watching one of the greedy, soul-less schools that fled the Big East for the ACC lose to a former conference-mate. But not today.

I really did not care that the Yanks lost. Well, maybe I cared a little. No, I was really watching to see Carl Pavano pitch, waiting to find out how he would injure himself and make the $39.95 million invested him continue to spin down the toilet. He survived the outing, but got hammered, taking the loss. He is such a waste of money, Halliburton has to blush.

But still, was it the freak show factor Pavano brings to the table that pulled me away from a day of March Madness? No. Truth be told, if Jeff Karstens and Darrell Rasner (don't worry if these, too, are unfamiliar names, since odds are they won't be on the opening day roster, either) were pitching, I would have watched the Yankees anyway. Why? Because Annie Savoy was right. I don't care about modern dance, so the Isadora Duncan reference is lost on me, I have no desire to worship Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva, and the closest I'll ever get to metaphysics is reading the message in a fortune cookie. But, I do believe in the Church of Baseball, even though a ton of evidence suggests that too many of its clergymen are jacking themselves up on enough HGH and steroids to take down Rosie O'Donnell.

Yeah, yeah, you've heard it all before. How baseball is pastoral, or a symbol of a simpler time, or something else that would get George Will aroused. That's not it for me. I like watching the game. People say it's slow, but these are the same people that watch football games, even though there is five seconds of action for every 45 seconds of standing around (not counting the endless television time-outs). I like trying to manage from my couch. I like watching the chess match between the pitcher and the batter. I like watching a fielder making an improbable catch or throw. I like watching a batter crush a line drive. I also like when bizarre stuff happens, like a home run bouncing off of Jose Canseco's head or Len Barker throwing a pitch onto the netting behind home plate.

Sure, some of the sappy stuff Will gets excited about can be true. I remember watching and going to millions of games with my dad. I was a baseball savant as a kid. I went to my first game at the age of four-and-a-half, and I still remember it. Sal Bando stroked a single past a lunging Gene Michael to give the A's a 1-0 win over the Yanks. A sad afternoon in the Bard household, and one that would be repeated as the Yanks proceeded to lose something like 13 of the next 14 games I attended. But, I came back, again and again. There have been very few things that have stayed constant through more than 35 years of my life. Baseball has watched as people, bad clothing and worse haircuts have come and gone.

So, for the next few weeks, I'll continue to watch Bronson Sardinha, Kevin Thompson and Colter Bean take their last shots at making names for themselves before they head to Scranton, even as Florida and Ohio State try for the chance to play each other in their second championship game in a major sport this year. Sure, Joakim Noah's hair and Greg Oden's 19-year-old-kid-in-a-42-year-old-man's-body routine can be entertaining, but I'd rather watch to see if Kei Igawa really is the Japanese David Wells. It's an odd comparison, since even if their pitching styles are similar, Igawa is so small that Wells drinks his weight in beer every day.

It's baseball for me. If I want to follow March Madness, I'll keep an eye on what Bush and his cronies are doing. On Saturday afternoon you will find me on my couch, watching the Bronx Bombers playing the Blue Jays and continuing to wonder why the Yanks are going to have three first basemen on the opening day roster. Maybe I'll flip through a William Blake poetry collection between innings. It would make Annie Savoy so proud.

Monday, March 19, 2007

But Can Sen. Cronyn Shoot the Three?

Sometimes at the end of a sentence, I'll come out with the wrong fusebox.
- Burrows (Eric Idle) describing his speech malady in episode #36 of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" (

This weekend featured some of the best use of misdirection I have seen in a long time. And it had nothing to do with the NCAA basketball tournament.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), a member of the committee, were interviewed together on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" yesterday morning. The topic was the investigation into the U.S. Attorney firings that rocketed to the number one slot on this week's Billboard Hot 100 Scandals in the Bush Administration chart, pushing the mold and rodent infestation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to the second position. The statement by Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, that homosexuality is immoral, debuted at number three. Holding firm at number four is Vice President Dick Cheney's existence, marking its 324th straight week on the chart.

The U.S. Attorney firings is hardly a strictly partisan issue. Sen. John E. Sununu (R-NH) called this week for the dismissal of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales ( Even President Bush told the press he was disappointed with Gonzales's handling of the issue ( I'll bet at the next cabinet meeting, Bush will mete out his most stringent punishment, referring to Gonzales as "Mr. Attorney General" instead of the usual "Gonzo." He may even forgo the morning ritual of patting Gonzales's back and telling him, "Subtract the 'O', and you have the same name as the guy whose butt I kicked in 2000. Loser!"

When Leahy expressed his willingness to use his committee's subpoena power to compel members of the Bush administration to testify, Cronyn respectfully disagreed, using a detailed explanation of constitutional law and the history of the U.S. Senate to illustrate his contrary position. And if you believe that, you also probably had Cal Tech, M.I.T., Harvard and Brandeis in the NCAA Final Four. No, Cronyn, who earlier in the show admitted that there were very real questions about Gonzales's handling of Congress's look into the U.S. Attorney firings, said using the subpoena power was tantamount to allowing Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, to conduct a "witch hunt." He proceeded to answer several other questions with that same contention. If you heard a faint loud noise in the distance yesterday morning, it was the sound of my head exploding.

Where to begin? First of all, this is not a Monica-gate situation where only one of the parties acknowledged an issue. Republicans, including Cronyn himself, admitted that an investigation was appropriate. So, while reasonable men can differ as to the proper extent of an investigation, how can you admit there is a problem, and then call an attempt to get to the bottom of it a "witch hunt"? The implication of a witch hunt is that there is no real wrongdoing, but a transgression is being invented for the gain of the people investigating it. For example, like spending years and millions of dollars to determine if the President was not truthful when he said he did not receive oral sex from an intern. If everyone agrees the U.S. Attorney firings is a real issue, the investigation of that issue cannot be a witch hunt. I kept waiting for Stephanopoulos to point this out and explain what a witch hunt was, but I forgot that since more people attend the average knitting circle than watch his show, he cannot afford to alienate his guests.

Even more importantly, there are 19 members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but to hear Cronyn tell it, a hearing would consist of Schumer on a witch hunt while the other 18 members shoot craps in the corner. Other than misdirecting the issue from the very uncomfortable fact that there is real evidence that not only did the administration do something bad, but the Attorney General got proverbially caught with his pants around his ankles as he botched his explanation to Congress, there is no constructive reason for bringing up Schumer's name. It was gamesmanship and diversion, pure and simple. Stephanopoulos didn't feel the need to point this out, either. What does he do while his guests speak? Check his tournament bracket? Work on his next book? Read over his contract with the devil?

And, putting aside how inappropriate it was to raise Schumer's role in the first place, is Cronyn making the argument that because Schumer is the chair of the DSCC, he is banned from taking part in any Senate investigations? Is he promising that John Ensign (R-NV), the current chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, will not get involved in any investigations of Democrats while in office? And, of course, he is arguing that no RSCC chairman has ever been involved in the investigation of a Democrat, right? I mean, I'm sure Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was silent on the Clinton investigations when he served as RSCC chairman from 1997-2001, right? I'm sure McConnell had the Clintons over for a pancake breakfast every morning where they traded recipes for key lime pie.

To me, the most outrageous aspect of Cronyn's LeBron James-level misdirection move was that he was making the implication that Schumer, as the DSCC chairman, would be too biased to act fairly, when Cronyn is a Republican from Texas talking about the role of the Attorney General, a Republican from Texas, and the rest of the administration of a president who is, say it with me, a Republican from Texas. Not to mention that some of the key people Leahy may want to subpoena are Harriet Miers, Bush's counsel, who is from Texas, and Karl Rove, who has worked for Bush since his campaign in Texas. Cronyn accusing Schumer of being biased in this matter holds as much integrity as Ted Haggard. Look in the mirror, Senator.

Cronyn's song-and-dance routine was shameful. But, you cannot blame him. Remember, this is the party that successfully convinced the American people in 2004 that the guy who went to Vietnam despite coming from a wealthy family and got wounded while on duty was somehow less credible on military issues than a guy who got his father to pull strings to get him into the National Guard where, evidence suggests, he promptly failed to even finish his service. Hell, when the host of the damn show, who worked on Clinton's first presidential campaign, does not call you on your hypocrisy, why not spin the issue so far and so fast that anyone in viewing distance gets motion sickness? It's not like the American people are really paying attention when they have more important things on their minds, like how they are doing in their office tournament pool. As I have written in this space before, if your neighbor sends his dog into your yard everyday to do his business, you cannot blame the dog.

National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley displayed some of his own NBA All-Star caliber misdirection moves on his Sunday morning talk show appearance yesterday, but as the hosts of those shows like to say, "Sorry, we are out of time."

Hopefully, as the Judiciary Committee pursues the truth behind the U.S. Attorney firings, more responsible Republicans like Sununu will join the pursuit of the true story, whatever it is. And, issue-dodging loyalists like Cronyn will find their acts "out of time," too.

Eric Idle's Monty Python character who uttered the quote at the top of this piece had a sickness that caused him to confuse his audience. Alas, Republicans like Cronyn don't have that excuse. Then again, Idle wasn't trying to protect his cronies from his home state. Cronyn should choose his battles more carefully, though. Not one of Stephanopoulos's panel members, including noted conservative George Will, thought Gonzales would survive this scandal. It looks like even the Knights Who Say "Ni," the Holy Grail and a shrubbery could not get him out of this mess.


I have to offer a mea culpa relating to my March 15 piece Hey Hey, My My, Rock and Roll Will Never Die ... Right?. In it, I named "critically-acclaimed, out-of-the-mainstream critics' (and geeks') darlings" the "Arcade Fire clan." While I stand by my larger point about the current state of rock music, it seems that I chose poorly in tapping Arcade Fire as the poster boys and girls for non-commercial critics' darlings. The band's new album, "Neon Bible," debuted at the number two spot on the Billboard album chart ( Granted, it was a week with very few major new releases, but it is an impressive achievement nonetheless. Maybe I should rename the category the "Wolf Parade clan," keeping things in the Montreal indie rock family. I like Wolf Parade better than Arcade Fire, so hopefully now their next album will debut in the top spot.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Long Live "Scrubs"

Nothing ever changes. The "Artist Formerly Known As Prince" is still just "Prince," my ex-wife is still pretty much my wife, "Grey's Anatomy" always wraps up every episode with some cheesy voice-over that ties up all of the story lines, which, incidentally, is my least favorite story device on television ...
- The beginning of a rant by Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley) on the "My Scrubs" episode of "Scrubs" that aired last night (March 15)

Jump the Shark is a website that asks fans to weigh in on the exact moment that a television show reached its peak and started heading downhill. It is cleverly named after the episode of "Happy Days" in which the Fonz, on a trip to Los Angeles, successfully, yes, jumps over a shark on water skis.

The success of the site and the insertion of the phrase "jumped the shark" into the cultural vocabulary for shows on the back nine of their runs demonstrate the widespread belief in the basic idea that, at some point, shows stop being good. Or, at least, they stop being as good or as interesting as they were.

I pretty much agree with this assumption. The life graph of every show is not the same. Some start at a high peak and drop quickly and severely. I'm thinking of "Will & Grace," which was a sharply-written, funny show about two close friends who were roommates, before the four lead characters turned shrill, ridiculously broad and generally unlikable. Other shows start slower, take some time to build, hit a real peak, and then drop off from there. "Friends" fits this model, taking some time to find the right tones for each of the characters, peaking, and then falling off as the characters became more defined by their idiosyncrasies. Still others ping-pong up and down, with some seasons that are stronger than others. As much as I adore "Frasier," it fits into this category.

Of all the shows on my TiVo season pass list, there is only one that has been on the air for a long time and has not only not jumped the shark, but has been remarkably consistent in its tone and quality-level throughout its run: "Scrubs."

There is a good chance many of you have not seen "Scrubs." How do I know? First of all, it has never garnered very high ratings, flying under the radar and yet somehow getting picked up for another season each year. It is the kind of show you have probably heard is good, but have never actually seen for yourself. Nobody knows this story better than I do. After all, I never even saw the show until midway through its fourth season, even though, from the beginning, multiple people told me how well-done it was. Once I finally watched an episode, and got hooked, I went back and watched the first three-and-a-half seasons on DVD, while catching the new installments as they aired.

Since I crammed five-and-a-half years of "Scrubs" into a less than two-year period, and since the show entered syndication this year and is challenging the "Law & Order" franchise for the title of the most omnipresent show on television, I have had the opportunity to be able to compare different seasons of the show on a virtually side-by-side basis. Several things amazed me.

First, the cast has stayed completely intact. Not a single regular has left. "Scrubs" is the U2 of the sitcom world. The characters have developed in the way that people would develop over six years. The doctors have gone from interns to residents to attending physicians, Dr. Christopher Turk and nurse Carla Espinosa have gone from dating to engaged to married to married with a baby, and the janitor (he has no name, he is just "Janitor," which is fine since he doesn't know almost anyone else's name, for example calling Turk, "Bald Black Doctor") has gone from a mean tormentor of the lead character, Dr. John "J.D." Dorian, to ... okay, not much has changed there. But, at least now he interacts with all of the characters, not just J.D.

Second, the characters have stayed true to themselves. They have developed as people in a realistic way, but there have been no massive character swings (like Karen's evolving shriek on "Will & Grace"). J.D. still daydreams, but he is less naive than he was. Dr. Elliot Reid, J.D.'s on-again, off-again (off now for several seasons) crush, still has self-esteem issues, but she's hardly the basket case that started the internship program. Their development seemed logical for people in their situations.

In what is a very tricky maneuver, the show has been able to integrate "name" guest stars, who have stopped by for one episode, multi-installment arcs, or hit-and-miss appearances throughout the years, without it ever feeling like it was a gimmick. I hate to pick on "Will & Grace," because I liked the show, but more often than not their guest spots reeked of stunt casting.

Matthew Perry was nowhere near Chandler-land as a son living in his father's shadow who had to decide whether or not to donate a kidney to him. Colin Farrell was surprisingly funny playing an Irish guy who charmed the hospital staff while holding vigil at the bedside of a guy he knocked out in a bar. Heather Graham, Tara Reid, Mandy Moore, Amy Smart and Elizabeth Banks have done time as love interests for J.D., while Heather Locklear spent several episodes as the girlfriend of Dr. Perry Cox, J.D.'s cranky, reluctant mentor (before Cox got back together with his ex-wife, the tough-as-nails plastic-surgery junkie, Jordan). Brendan Fraser stopped by twice as Jordan's brother, a quirky, doomed leukemia patient; Michael J. Fox took up residency (I know it's a lame pun, but I'm running out of synonyms for "did some episodes") as a physician suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder; Tom Cavanagh pops in nearly every season as J.D.'s ne'er-do-well brother; Sean Hayes played against type as an overly optimistic intern; Dave Foley killed as a snooty grief counselor; Freddy Rodriguez (from "Six Feet Under") had a blast as Carla's jealous brother who despised Turk; Nicole Sullivan went from annoying to tragic in several episodes as a neurotic patient with a hapless love life; and John Ritter played J.D.'s father, with the actor's tragic death touchingly written into the show. Scott Foley, Rick Schroder and Josh Randall all spent significant time as Elliott's love interests.

Oh, and since series creator Bill Lawrence was a writer on "Spin City," nearly every major member of that cast (Fox, Locklear, Alan Ruck, Richard Kind, Barry Bostwick, Michael Boatman and Alexander Chaplin) has appeared on "Scrubs." Plus, the writers have paid tribute to doctors from classic television shows, casting Bernie Koppell ("The Love Boat") and William Daniels, Stephen Furst and Eric Laneuville ("St. Elsewhere," only Laneuville played an orderly on that show) as physician-patients.

Then there are the classic television icons that have played themselves, including Jimmie "J.J." Walker, Billy Dee Williams, Fred "Rerun" Berry, Chuck Woolery, George "Mr. Sulu" Takei and Maureen "Marcia Brady" McCormick.

I know it's a long list. That's why I laid it out. Because while the list of name guests is overwhelming, the performances never were. Everyone fit seamlessly into the wacky world of Sacred Heart Hospital.

The writers have been able to pull off something that even a classic sitcom like "Cheers" could not: Navigating the will-they-or-won't-they conundrum of the two lead characters. J.D. and Elliot hooked up several times early on, J.D. thought he loved her at one point, he told her and got her to dump Scott Foley, and then he decided he didn't love her after all. She held a grudge for a while, then they slowly became friends again, and now the issue of will-they-or-won't-they is mostly dead. It felt real, it felt seamless, and it worked. Sam and Diane would be jealous.

But, what I think has stayed most consistent about "Scrubs," and what has set it apart from other sitcoms, is its ability to go from silly, physical comedy that is still somehow smart, to real, emotional drama that never feels overcooked, without the shift in tone feeling unnatural. For example, the fourth season episode "My Hypocritical Oath" opens with a silly but funny sequence involving J.D., mango body butter and a scooter accident, while the last three minutes of fifth season episode "My Lunch" will break your heart. Yet, both feel like quintessential "Scrubs" moments. And sometimes, the show can touch you and be silly at the same time (rest in peace, Brad Delp).

"Scrubs" has the ability to poke fun of other doctor shows that have come after it ("House" and "Grey's Anatomy" are frequent targets), as well as the guts to make fun of itself (the quote that opened this piece is as much a dig at "Scrubs" as it is at "Grey's"). Nobody who deserves it is safe. Outside of "South Park," how many programs can make that claim?

Rather than falling off, the show has maintained its quality, an amazing achievement for such a long run. In fact, it was during this latest sixth season that the long-awaited musical episode appeared (entitled, not surprisingly, "My Musical"), which received raves from critics and fans alike ("Guy Love," the best-known song from the episode, can be found here). I'm no fan of musicals, but I was impressed at how the writers were able to come up with a premise that actually made sense (a patient claims to hear everyone singing). And, the songs made me laugh.

The musical outing was just the latest in a series of efforts to shake up the show's format, whether it was an episode that morphs into a traditional multi-camera sitcom (when a "Cheers" writer comes in for treatment), or one of the several installments that shifted the internal monologue voice-over from J.D. to one of the other lead characters.

In the last two seasons, "Scrubs" was dumped into impossible time slots as a mid-season replacement. This season all it was asked to do was take on "Grey's Anatomy" and "CSI." Not surprisingly, the show has gotten pummelled in the ratings. But, for whatever reason, I read recently that NBC is considering bringing it back for a seventh season.

When Dr. Cox said "nothing ever changes," he was annoyed, but in the world of "Scrubs," I think it is a good thing. With many older shows that are brought back for another season, I cringe and worry that maybe the network should quit while it is ahead and end the show before it jumps the shark (or jumps it even further). But Bill Lawrence and his crew have earned my trust. Now I'm rooting for a seventh season. Bring on the guest stars. Bring on the classic rock songs. I'm ready.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Hey Hey, My My, Rock and Roll Will Never Die ... Right?

Everybody's talkin' 'bout the new sound/Funny, but it's still rock and roll to me
- Billy Joel, "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," from his 1980 album "Glass Houses"

I recently added a feature to my blog page in which I will keep a running list of the last ten songs I've downloaded. As I looked over the list, and as I wrote my piece on the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, I started to think about my lifelong relationship with rock music, the current decline facing the music industry, and the traditional explanations as to what is wrong.

Sales in the music industry, even taking into account legal downloads, have fallen. Major institutions, like Tower Records (where I worked for a year right after college) have gone under. Labels have undergone consolidations, sales and cuts. Rock albums make up a small fraction of the album sales charts each week. For someone like me for whom rock music has been such an integral part of my life, it is more than a bit sad.

For a long time, the "it's cyclical" argument made everyone feel better. People were quick to say, "Look, rock was dead, and then Nirvana's 'Nevermind' was released, and everything changed." Sure, but "Nevermind" came out in 1991. Or, put another way, it has been a lifetime for one of those horrible girls having her Sweet Sixteen bash on MTV since rock's last moment in the sun. Sixteen years is not a cycle. It's a death knell.

The thing about rock music has been that there was always a new generation waiting to take over. What was "rock" today became "oldies" or "classics" tomorrow. In the 1950's, Elvis was viewed as scandalous, with a fear that his hips would remind girls they had sexuality. Within ten years, Elvis was singing in family-friendly movies. "My Generation" was shocking when it came out in 1965, with Roger Daltrey's stuttering and declaration of "I hope I die before I get old." Now, "My Generation" sounds quaint and is a staple on classic rock and oldies stations.

And the pattern went on. When I was in high school, Led Zeppelin was the band that worshiped the devil, and if you didn't believe it, you were told to just play the records backwards; Ozzy Osbourne was a danger to us all; and Iggy Pop was so subversive you couldn't even hear his music on the radio. Now, they all have been used in car commercials. But, that's okay. From Elvis to the Who to Zeppelin to Ozzy to Nine Inch Nails to Marilyn Manson, there was always someone waiting in the wings to carry things forward. And, of course, the same lines could be drawn in other kinds of rock music, say from the politics of John Lennon to Patti Smith to the Clash to Rage Against the Machine.

Except, the lines are ending. When "Nevermind" came out, the result was a renaissance in rock. You can argue the merits and originality of this class of artists, but you can't argue that the era produced bands that would have an impact. Pearl Jam and Green Day are still together, continue to produce music on a regular basis, and still matter. Green Day's last CD, "American Idiot," was nominated for the Grammy for Album of the Year, sold very well, and, more importantly, was really, really good. Fans and critics agreed that Pearl Jam's eponymous last offering was one of their strongest efforts in years, and it sold better than its immediate predecessors. Bands like Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins made great records that still feel relevant. There are more examples, but the point is the same. The period after "Nevermind" was a fertile one for rock music.

But what about now? Where are the Pearl Jams and Green Days today? I looked at my iTunes list of recent downloads and saw that I had bought more than one song from the following artists: The Subways, The Coral, The Sounds, The Reason, The Shins, The Thermals, the Plain White T's and Camera Obscura. Will anyone be talking about any of these bands in ten years? The Shins have a shot. After that, I'm dubious.

Looking at my list (as well as at reviews of recent rock records), I feel like rock has split off into two groups, with very little crossover potential between them: Disposable artists that produce a hit or two before flaming into oblivion (let's call them The Darkness brigade, after the band behind the infectious one-hit wonder "I Believe in a Thing Called Love") and critically-acclaimed, out-of-the-mainstream critics' (and geeks') darlings (let's call them the Arcade Fire clan).

The thing is, there were always one-hit wonders and too-cool-for-school sensations. But, there was also a third category: Artists that were both. It was possible to be critically-acclaimed, geek-approved and still sell records. Elvis was cool. The Who were cool. The Clash were cool. Nirvana was cool. And, they old sold millions of records. That is what I see missing from rock music today, and, more importantly, that is what I think is fueling all the "rock is dead" feelings.

How did this happen? My first instinct is to blame boy bands. For everything, not just the decline of rock. I know that if I just put my mind to it, I can pin 9/11 and global warming on the Backstreet Boys. But, since boy bands have been out of fashion for several years now, even I have to admit that the current problems in the music industry are not their fault.

I think the problem is a lack of artist development, which comes from a total move to short-sightedness in business. I don't have an MBA (I barely know what an MBA is), but I have worked in corporations before. The one thing you learn working in the business world is that nothing matters beyond that quarter. Making the numbers for the current quarter trumps any long-term concerns. I once worked for a publishing company that had a bizarrely-high percentage of its updates come out in December. Why? Because every release from the first quarter was eventually pushed back to the previous fourth quarter to boost the year's profit numbers. The fact that the volume of releases meant lower sales for the titles did not seem to matter. It was all about getting the numbers for that quarter and that year.

The entertainment business is no different. In the current music industry environment, artists like Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Bryan Adams and Marvin Gaye would be working odd jobs to get by, because they would have been dropped by their labels after their initial recordings did not sell well. (Yeah, I know, we might be better off without Bryan Adams, but I like the guy, so sue me.) "Appetite for Destruction" by Guns N' Roses took more than a year to break. If it was released now, the label would have killed promotion for the album (and maybe dropped the band) when it didn't hit after a couple of months.

The music industry now goes for the quick hit. Artists have become disposable. I know that companies have to serve their bottom lines and their stockholders. I get it. That does not change the fact that their policies have caused a fundamental shift in the kind of music that is produced. And, this shift does not allow for innovation and prevents the development of the next generation of rock artists. Everything in life has a price, and this is the fee the music industry will have to pay. Based on sales numbers and trends, this decision is not serving the long-term financial health of the industry.

When Billy Joel wrote the line I quoted at the top of this piece from "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," he was facing, for the first time in his career, the emergence of a new crop of artists that were pushing him and his peers aside to be the next generation of rock stars. I can't imagine any rock singer writing a song like that now.

When they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Patti Smith had Zack de la Rocha and REM had Eddie Vedder to do the honors. But, if/when the days come for Rage Against the Machine and Pearl Jam to enter the Hall, who will induct them? And, more importantly, 25 years from today, who will be worthy of induction? At the current pace, it will be critically-acclaimed artists that people have barely heard of now, and will probably be completely unknown then. Is that where rock and roll is leading? I really hope not.

Suddenly, the whole cycle argument isn't sounding so bad after all.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Going the Distance

This is the message the American people delivered to Congress on Nov. 7, 2006, and this is the message we must send to President Bush.
- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to the AP, on getting out of of Iraq, published March 14, 2007

Can things really be coming around on Iraq? Senate Republicans finally ended their procedural games preventing debate on a Democratic bill calling for all troops to be pulled out of Iraq by March 2008. I heavily doubt Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) read my thoughts from last Thursday in this space, but it is nice to see that the Democrats are starting to get the message, nonetheless. Bush will undoubtedly veto any such bill, but putting the Republicans on the record as supporters of this sinking-ship of a war is very valuable.

The American people are like an out-of-shape former heavyweight boxing champion: They do not have much interest in fighting, but if they do get mad, you better watch out. Americans can be amazingly apathetic, but when critical mass on an issue is reached, no politician is safe. Just ask the Republican Congressional incumbents voted out of office in November. I fully believe the weight of the American people is behind getting the U.S. out of Iraq. I think that the perception now is, except in the most partisan, Ann Coulter-infested corners of the culture, that the war was, at best, a huge mistake and, at worst, one of the biggest frauds perpetrated on the American people since Bobby Ewing stepped out of the shower and revealed that an entire season of Dallas was a dream.

So, I should be happy, right? Not quite. Iraq is one symptom of a greater disease: The wholesale lack of respect for democracy, the constitution and American values that an arrogant, single-minded, simple-minded presidential administration has imposed on the American people. That's right, I am aiming the right wing buzzwords "American values" right at its co-opters. Decency tells us that even if for some misguided reason someone sees same-sex marriage as threatening to the American way of life, disregarding the basic tenets of democracy, constitutional law and a responsive, representative government has to be acknowledged as a greater threat.

As I have written before, the administration was allowed to run wild for one and only one reason: The American people let them. I mean, if your neighbor sends his dog into your yard every day to do his business, is it the dog's fault?

It seems as though the American people have woken up on Iraq, but I am waiting for them to wake up and realize that Iraq is just one of a series of messes this administration has gotten us into. As a result, I am looking very carefully at how the current Justice Department saga plays out, with Bush's longtime right-hand man, Alberto Gonzales, smack in the middle of it.

In short, the Attorney General of the United States, despite earlier assurances to Congress, systematically set out to evaluate and, in some cases fire, U.S. Attorneys across the country based on how loyal they were to the President's policies. That is, the evaluations and decisions were based on politics. How much further this policy goes up the ladder is unclear. But, it is nearly universally accepted that no other administration, Democratic or Republican, has ever politicized the justice department in this way. Political gain was put ahead of the rule of law. I got nauseated just typing that line.

An encroachment on our freedom (again, using one of the right wing's favorite words against them) is an affront to what it means (or, at least, has meant) to be an American. Sen. Charles Schumer has called for Gonzales to resign. Every Democrat (and Republican, for that matter) in the Senate should follow Schumer's lead.

Bush was quoted today in a AP story as saying he was "troubled" by the Justice Department's misleading explanations about why the U.S. Attorneys were fired. I smiled when I read that. Just like he said that he would be angry with anyone who was responsible for the Joseph Wilson/Valerie Plame leak, as if he had nothing to do with it. Even if he didn't, he must have gotten over his anger, seeing as he defended Scooter Libby after he was convicted for lying about it.

So, you will forgive me for not trusting Bush's claim that he is "troubled." Okay, Mr. President, show us you are troubled: Either demand Gonzales's resignation or fire him. Prove to the American people that you understand the magnitude (and mangle-tude) of what has happened. Anything less mocks the idea of America being a place of freedom and democracy. It is doubtful Bush will sack Gonzales unless he thinks Gonzales can be a Scooter Libby scapegoat. That is why the Democrats have a responsibility to not only go after Gonzales, but to dig deeper and see how far up in the administration this behavior went.

The American people landed a hay maker in November. I would love to see them follow it up with a barrage of rights and lefts that knock this administration through the ropes, out of the ring and onto the first row of big-money spectators (I'm guessing they would be Halliburton executives). It can happen, but it will take the Democrats standing in the American people's corner and yelling out, in their best Mickey voice, "You can do it, Rock!" The Democrats should work fast, though. After tonight, the American people have five days off from their real priority, watching American Idol.