Monday, April 30, 2007

Tenet on "60 Minutes" Provides More Ammo for Bush Bashers

It may be hard for younger readers to believe, but there was a time when "60 Minutes" was a blockbuster hit of "American Idol" proportions. From 1978 to 1995, "60 Minutes" finished the ratings year in one of the top-six spots, including finishing first five times and second on three occasions (twice being beaten out by "Dallas"). It was as if Americans winding down their weekends and preparing for the grind of the work week took an hour out to watch the important stories reported by Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, and, until he was made anchor of the CBS Evening News, Dan Rather.

As I watched former CIA head George Tenet spar with Scott Pelley on last night's edition of "60 Minutes," I found myself wishing that it was 1992 and Americans were glued to their screens again, watching. Because anyone listening to what Tenet had to say would be appalled at the Bush administration's lack of integrity, competency and decency. (One advantage of it being 2007 instead of 1992 is that you can go to the CBS website and read a pretty good summary of the interview, as well as look at some other related features.)

Yes, Tenet, who had been silent since his departure from the CIA in 2004, is not doing interviews strictly out of a sense of duty. He is flagging a new book. But, the reason for his decision to start discussing his tenure does not overshadow the content of his statements. And, it is not like Pelley was lobbing him softballs (at no time did he say, "George, tell us how awesome you are ...."). The two sparred in a way rarely seen in modern journalism outside of Comedy Central (kudos to Jon Stewart for calling John McCain on the carpet for his mindless support of the war in Iraq). At times, it felt as if Tenet might walk off the set, or worse, call in one of his old intelligence buddies to take care of Pelley once and for all. Pelley did his job, not letting Tenet dodge the tough questions.

In one exchange, Tenet kept insisting that the U.S. does not torture people, but Pelley would not let him off the hook. Pelley pressed Tenet about the "enhanced interrogation techniques" he approved, asking if they included tactics like water boarding and if they were used on high-profile prisoners like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. At one point, Pelley responded to a Tenet denial with a simple, "Come on, George," and later told Tenet, "It's torture."

Tenet also tried to minimize how his intelligence estimates were so incorrect about Iraq's chemical and biological weapons capability before the war, stressing that they were his best guesses at the time given the intelligence and data he had at his disposal. Pelley pressed him on this issue too.

So, this was not a forum for Tenet to lay out his version of the events from 9/11 to his resignation unchallenged. Through Pelley's tough questioning, and despite Tenet's defensiveness and irritation, there were still some revelations about the Bush administration that I did not find surprising. But, I did find it shocking that they came from a former head of the CIA.

Tenet did not pretend he did not feel betrayed by the administration when someone in the highest seats of the U.S. government leaked to Bob Woodward his now-infamous (and, according to Tenet, misapplied) "slam dunk" comment about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. According to Tenet, the only people in the room who were not CIA agents when he made the comment were Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, then Chief of Staff Andrew Card, and then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. So, one of these people, according to Tenet, had to be the one to leak his remark and use it to "throw him overboard."

Despite Tenet's anger at the administration, and despite his less than responsible views on torture and the intelligence failures, there were certain facts that came through loud and clear about the culpability of the Bush administration. The interview only underscored the irresponsibility of Rudy Giuliani suggesting that the country would be at risk of a massive terrorist attack if a Democrat was elected president in 2008. (Yahoo!/AP Story on the Democratic Response to Giuliani's Remark)

For starters, Tenet tells of how Rice completely dropped the ball on recognizing the threat posed to the U.S. by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. He said he was so alarmed about a potential attack that he sought and got a meeting with Rice where he told her, "There are gonna be multiple spectacular attacks against the United States. We believe these attacks are imminent. Mass casualties are a likelihood. ... We need to consider immediate action inside Afghanistan now. We need to move to the offensive." (CBS Website Article) Rice buried the request with "third-tier officials" and opted not to bring it to the president.

Tenet also noted how the White House on the day after 9/11 had already begun using the tragedy as a pretense for attacking Iraq. He says that he was already well aware of the fact that the attack was the work of Al Qaeda, based on names he recognized on the flight manifests. But, Tenet said on the day after the attacks, Pentagon advisor Richard Perle told him, "
Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday, they bear responsibility." (The CBS Website Article says that Perle has denied Tenet's claim.) Tenet called Iraq "a national tragedy" and said there was no evidence linking Iraq to Al Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks.

He also went on to say how the Bush administration's statements linking Iraq to 9/11 were not backed by intelligence or other evidence. Tenet went on to say that on more than one occasion, he removed incorrect items about Iraq and its activities from Bush's speeches, but he failed to catch Bush's 2003 State of the Union claim that the British had learned that Saddam Hussein had sought uranium in Africa, which, Tenet said, was completely false.

Once the war was started and no weapons of mass destruction were found, Tenet described how his "slam dunk" remark was mischaracterized and used to make him a scapegoat for the decision to go to war. Tenet was adamant that White House had already decided to go to war long before his statement on the evidence of weapons of mass destruction. "I'll never believe that what happened that day informed the president's view or belief of the legitimacy or the timing of this war. Never," Tenet said.

Essentially, Tenet's testimony was just another piece of evidence proving a premise we already knew: The Bush administration is incompetent and hell-bent on its own agenda, and that through the war in Iraq, the failure to follow through in Afghanistan, and its inability to adapt or learn from its mistakes, it has threatened the security of this country. After what Bush has done, Giuliani has it backwards. The U.S. cannot afford to allow a Republican to take over the White House, not if the new president acts anything like the current one.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Two Days in the Life of the Bush Administration

As expected, President Bush has said he will veto the war funding bill passed by Congress because it contains a timetable for troop withdrawals. Unfortunately, according to a Yahoo!/AP article, the Democrats will most likely cave and pass legislation funding the war that does not have a withdrawal provision, but may include benchmarks for the Iraqis to meet with corresponding consequences. While I am disappointed the Democrats are going to roll over, I am not surprised.

Bush has lost all credibility as the leader of this country, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Iraq. I have listed the administration's myriad failures in other posts. I could not help but notice, though, that the news the last two days was filled with items (even more than normal) that are quite unflattering for the administration. So, before the Democrats decide against a fight, they might want to consider the following unflattering portrayals of the executive branch that have popped up recently (on top of the six years of deception, bad judgment and failure already amassed):

Human Rights
One of the many and shifting justifications offered for the Iraq invasion by the administration was that the Iraqi people were suffering under an oppressive dictator. Let's put aside for a minute (after all, the media did) the fact that at the time of the Iraq invasion, there were tens, if not hundreds, of world leaders oppressing their people. Bush's basic argument was: Things were bad for the Iraqi people, so we had to save them.

Well, it is hard to make an argument that we have saved them from much, given that so many of them have fled the country, and the citizens left behind face tens to hundreds of civilian deaths daily. But, some might say, at least there is a democratic government in place, and the Iraqis no longer face torture and oppression from their leaders. Apparently, those people would be wrong.

A New York Times article reported yesterday that the United Nations has accused the Iraqi government of "failing to 'seriously address' problems of detainee abuse, including torture, and to ensure the timely and fair prosecution of detainees."

So, if the government is abusing the citizens, the insurgents are blowing them up, and people are leaving the country in droves, what have we done for the Iraqis? How much of our "help" can they survive?

As an aside, why has the mainstream media not picked up the story on the U.N. report? I did a search at Yahoo! News and got no hits for the issue. When I expanded the search to include all news sources (not just Yahoo!), I only got four hits: The Times, The International Herald Tribune (which runs Times content), Voice of America, and the well-known, hard-hitting publication, the Berkshire Eagle.

General Petraeus's Testimony
Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, was in Washington and spoke about his views on the situation. While he opposes the timetables included in the bill passed by Congress, he still made statements that I don't suspect will win him points with the Bush administration. According to a Yahoo!/AP article, Petraeus said that the war "is an endeavor that clearly is going to require enormous commitment and commitment over time" by the United States. He also noted that the "effort may get harder before it gets easier," and the situation is "exceedingly complex and very tough." He admitted that while sectarian killings may have gone down in recent months, the overall level of violence in Iraq has remained largely the same.

In other words, Bush's hand-picked military leader sees a long haul ahead in Iraq with no end in sight. Do you think the American people support that mission? Given the results of the midterm election, it is doubtful.

Tenet Breaks His Silence
Former CIA head George Tenet, now promoting a new book, has spoken out about Iraq for the first time since he left office. Tenet believes that the White House raced to a decision to invade Iraq without considering the consequences and other options. (Yahoo!/AP Article) Tenet also said that his famous "slam dunk" remark referred to a case that could be made that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, not that he actually did, and that the administration twisted the remark to make him a scapegoat. Oh, and he said that someone in the White House leaked his private remark to the press. Now that doesn't sound like the Bush team, does it? Oh yeah, it is exactly what they do, over and over again.

The White House is, of course, saying Tenet just was not aware of all the planning and deliberations that went on. But, the story is a reminder of how badly Bush and his people botched the entire Iraq war issue.

Rice and Russia
The administration demonstrated its lack of sensitivity and ability to communicate with other countries about issues other than Iraq when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reacted to Russia's concern over missile defenses being planned for the Czech Republic and Poland. While Rice is correct that these systems are meant to protect Europe from an attack by terrorists or a rogue state like Iran, and thus pose no threat to Russia, her approach demonstrated her lack of understanding of recent history. Under Bush, the U.S. has botched relations with Russia, pushing the former superpower away, making it hard to gain their cooperation on key issues like North Korea, Iran and terrorism.

The Russians are sensitive about their loss of influence in Eastern Europe. So, a little diplomacy would seem to be in order to make it clear why NATO is taking action. Rice, instead, opted to mock the Russians, saying, according to a Yahoo!/AP article, that Russian concerns were "ludicrous." She said, "Let's be real about this and realistic about this. The idea that somehow 10 interceptors and a few radars in Eastern Europe are going to threaten the Soviet strategic deterrent is purely ludicrous and everybody knows it."

Her attitude is indicative of the problems the Bush administration has had in the world. First, the arrogance of thinking it can impose its will on other countries whenever it wants to with impunity. Second, the lack of understanding they have of the actual situation on the ground. Rice said "Soviet" to describe the Russian defenses. There has not been a Soviet Union in 13 years. It is a choice of word that the Secretary of State of the Unites States of America should not make.

The Secretary of State, who, by definition, holds a position of diplomacy, failed to exercise a minimum of strategic tact. Russian President Vladimir Putin today announced that Russia will now take measures to counter the new NATO missiles, according to a Yahoo!/Reuters article. The Russians are overreacting, of course, but did it have to be this way? Somehow, I feel like if Madeline Albright were still running the State Department, she would have handled the issue better. The row with Russia is just another failure of the administration, and more evidence that it is out of touch with the rest of the world.

Politicizing Government
On the heels of the scandal over the firing of U.S. Attorneys, the Bush administration has now been forced to admit that it conducted briefings for federal employees on the election prospects of Republican candidates, according to a Yahoo!/AP article. Now the U.S. Office of Special Counsel is investigating to see if, among other things, the briefings violated that Hatch Act that bars federal employees from engaging in political activities with government resources or on government time. It is typical of this administration to treat the White House like the headquarters of the Republican National Committee.

Keep in mind, all of these stories emerged in the last two days. The Democrats should make the case to the American people that Bush had six years to demonstrate his competency and ability to run the war on terror, he has failed miserably, and the Democrats elected to Congress will now step in to fill that breach. They should not roll over and, after putting on a nice show and passing legislation to end the war in Iraq, say, "Nice job," and fund Bush's irresponsible enterprise.

Barack Obama was right when he said that we are one signature away from ending the war. I would say that if Bush does not provide that signature, the Democrats should say they are 51 votes in the senate and 218 votes in the House away from ending the war themselves. It doesn't matter how it happens, as long as it happens.

[NOTE: After I published today's entry, I read a Yahoo!/AP article about how an active duty Army officer has criticized the handling of the entire Iraq war. That's a lot of bad news for two days. The administration is under siege. More reasons for the Democrats to stand firm.]

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Mock India for Charging Gere? Be Ready to Mock Us, Too

I think religion is a neurological disorder.

We are a nation that is unenlightened because of religion. I do believe that. I think religion stops people from thinking. I think it justifies crazies.

- Two quotes attributed to Bill Maher (taken from here)

I have always agreed with a common point about religion: Turned inward, it helps people get through adversity, but when people try to impose it on those around them, it has the capacity to wreak havoc.

It is no secret that religion is at the heart of a huge percentage of the world's conflicts, both past and present, from the Crusades to the current problems in the Middle East and a million examples in-between. We also see evidence every day of the dangers of religious extremism, regardless of the faith. The murder of abortion doctors, 9/11 and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin are all products of religion taken to a violent extreme.

But, I think there is a tendency in the U.S. to dismiss religious extremism as something that happens somewhere else. We look at the story that an Indian court has issued arrest warrants for Richard Gere and and Shilpa Shetty for the crime of kissing in public and think, "How silly. That could never happen here."

Instead, we think stuff like that only happens in places like Iraq, where the Sunnis and Shiites are killing each other, but not in the U.S., where someone like Pat Robertson's power is only felt in the Bible Belt. Except, as we found out, it also extends to the number three position at the U.S. Department of Justice and 150 other jobs in the Bush administration. (I covered this issue in an earlier blog post, so I'll move on.)

As a result, the controversy over the Gere-Shetty kiss is played here as gossip, merely entertainment and light comedy. We laugh and tell ourselves that something like that could never happen here. Only, it already has. More about that later.

Gere and Shetty (a Bollywood star) were at an AIDS awareness event in New Delhi when Gere playfully hugged Shetty and kissed her on the cheek several times. The reaction? Thanking Gere for traveling thousands of miles to educate and inform the Indian people about a serious health risk? Uh, no. Try, instead, crowds of people in several cities burning Gere in effigy, and an Indian judge saying the kiss was "highly sexually erotic" and Gere and Shetty "transgressed all limits of vulgarity and have the tendency to corrupt the society," according to a Yahoo! Movies article.

I understand that I am imposing my beliefs on another culture. However, let's be real. A reaction of this sort is nothing short of religion imposing a set of rules that defy common sense and basic logic. Gere, who is not Indian, showed affection for a fellow human being. Shetty was not offended by his actions. They were together because they were carrying out a public service, informing and educating people about a deadly disease. A disease that causes people to die. But what the mobs of fanatics and the judge took from this event was that Gere and Shetty should go to jail. It is reactions that fail logic like these that lead to statements like the ones attributed to Bill Maher at the top of this piece.

And, again, this did not happen in a theocracy like Iran or Saudi Arabia. India is a country of more than 1.1 billion people and the largest democracy in the world.

Are you still saying, "This could never happen in the U.S."? As I said, it already has. While the specific "offense" (kissing a cheek in public) is not something that can get you arrested here, we have already done something that elicited the same kind of expressions of disbelief from around the world that Americans let out after the Gere incident. I have two words for you: Janet Jackson.

Remember, the government of the United States of America issued millions of dollars in fines to stations and the network when a portion of Janet Jackson's breast was exposed at a wide angle for a split second during a television broadcast. How is that any less crazy than prosecuting Gere and Shetty for doing something that our culture would find innocuous? In countries that have more relaxed views about the human body (and may even allow nudity on television), the entire Jackson incident was mocked every bit as much as Americans snickered at India's reaction to the Gere-Shetty kisses. We are no better than the angry Indians we are making fun of.

It is also interesting to me that the incident is an example of religion-based prudity harming the treatment of a health crisis, in this case AIDS in India. Again, we have the same problem in the U.S. Religious beliefs about sex, contraception and nudity hamper efforts here to educate people about sexually-transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy and sexual abuse.

You can get away with saying a lot of things in the U.S., but saying something bad about religion is not one of them. Candidates for office are expected to answer questions about their faith, and in nearly all cases, the politician is forced to in some way affirm that he is religious. I would argue that this approach is harming our society.

I think it is time that we stand up and make the argument that the U.S. is a place with a First Amendment that guarantees citizens a separation of church and state, and a place where people are free to practice their faith in their homes and houses of worship. But, I would further argue that this freedom also entails being free of people imposing their religious beliefs on others.

The Bush administration has left a legacy of failures and harms to our society, and one of the big ones is the imposition of a president's religious beliefs on the country. The Gere-Shetty story did not make me feel like I was reading about an exotic problem that did not affect me. Instead, I felt like while the triggers are different in the two countries, the same underlying problem exists.

I admire Maher's guts to come out and lambaste religion. I think it is important that people speak out on the dangers of religious extremism. It is too easy for Americans to mock the Indian reaction to Gere kissing Shetty. Instead, the incident should have people in the U.S. looking in the mirror, asking themselves tough questions about how we allow religious standards to be imposed on the society. If we don't, being mocked by more enlightened countries will be the least of our problems.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Using Heroes as Propaganda Pawns is Shameful

You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war.
- William Randolph Hearst to artist Frederic Remington in 1897 when Remington reported to Hearst from Cuba that there would be no war there

With so little good news recently, the Bush administration has to be thinking, "What next?" after the two heroes most associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman, have come back to haunt them.

Tillman was the NFL star who, after 9/11, gave up his multimillion dollar contract to join the elite Army Rangers. He was killed in Afghanistan in 2004, with the government reporting that he was shot by the enemy. Jessica Lynch, meanwhile, was taken captive by the enemy in Iraq during the early days of the war in 2003, with the government reporting that she fired every bullet in her weapon before being seized (she was rescued nine days later).

These were great stories, providing faces of dedication and bravery to an administration that needed to show the American people that its judgment was sound. The only problem was, much of the stories were not true.

Yesterday, Lynch and Tillman's brother, Kevin, testified in front of the House Government Reform Committee, and both reported dismay with the way the military disseminated false information to the American people. Yahoo!/AFP Article

Lynch testified that when she was captured, the story released to the media was of a "little girl Rambo" who engaged in a fight with the enemy, fired all of her bullets, and was then captured. The truth, however, is that she was riding in a vehicle that was attacked, and she did not engage in a battle with the enemy. On CNN this morning, Lynch explained that she was knocked unconscious and woke up in custody.

"It was not true ... I'm still confused as to why they choose to lie and try to make me a legend," Lynch testified, according to the Yahoo!/AFP Article . Lynch's idealism is refreshing, but her naivete is apparent. The turning of a 19-year-old female soldier into a Hollywood war movie character was just one bullet point in the administration's overall plan to sell a bogus war. This effort started long before Lynch ever got to Iraq, and it continues to this day. And, of course, there was the matter of Bush's re-election campaign needing to reassure the American people that Bush was the man to lead the country in a time of war.

Meanwhile, Kevin Tillman, Pat Tillman's brother, also testified at the hearing, telling the committee about the Army's report to the family after Pat Tillman's death. "Our family was told that he was shot in the head by the enemy in a fierce firefight outside a narrow canyon," he said, according to the Yahoo!/AFP Article. But, soon after, the family found out that Pat Tillman was the victim of fratricide, killed by "overzealous" members of another U.S. unit. Kevin Tillman also had joined the service after 9/11, giving up a baseball career to do so.

While Lynch did not accuse the Army of doing anything deliberately or for political purposes, Kevin Tillman had no qualms expressing his view of the situation. "Revealing that Pat's death was a fratricide would have been yet another political disaster during a month already swollen with political disasters, and a brutal truth that the American public would undoubtedly find unacceptable," he told the panel, according to the Yahoo!/AFP Article.

Tillman went on to testify, "A terrible tragedy that might have further undermined support for the war in Iraq was transformed into an inspirational message that served instead to support the nation's foreign policy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was utter fiction" and the product of "deliberate and careful misrepresentations" by the military.

Tillman revealed that soon after his brother's death, the Army destroyed evidence, falsified reports and did not perform the autopsy in accordance with regulations.

The testimony of Lynch and Tillman comes as the President and Congress move towards a showdown on the future of the war in Iraq. As I wrote yesterday, Bush has been essentially saying, "Give me a chance to run the war, and let's see if the surge works." The experiences of Lynch and Pat Tillman just provide more evidence as to why Congress has to stand up to Bush and tell him, "No."

The President loves to talk about how he supports the troops and accuses anyone who disagrees with him of putting U.S. servicepeople in jeopardy. But, in reality, nobody is more of a menace to the troops than Bush himself.

Lynch testified at the hearing, "The bottom line is the American people are capable of determining their own ideals for heroes, and they don't need to be told elaborate lies." Lynch and Tillman were undoubtedly heroes. They voluntarily served their country and paid a heavy price for doing so. Bush, on the other hand, is not. He allowed the use of these heroes to further his ambitions. His administration acted as badly as William Randolph Hearst had. It is as if they said, "You provide the potential heroes, and we'll provide the heroic situation." Only, they forgot that these people were already heroes. And, by using them as tools in a propaganda campaign, the administration was as far from heroic as you can get.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Rain Bush

I'm an excellent driver.
- Raymond Babbit (Dustin Hoffman) in "Rain Man," screenplay by Ronald Bass

After Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified in front of the Senate Judiciary committee and said some variation of "I don't remember" more often than a teenager caught with a bag of pot in his backpack, and after nearly every senator on the committee, Democrat and Republican alike, expressed dismay at Gonzales's performance, the President of the United States said that the Attorney General "increased my confidence" in him by his testimony. Yahoo!/AP Article Link Bush went on to say that he is positive Betamax will beat out VHS to be the standard U.S. video format, Sharon Stone would win an Academy Award someday for "Basic Instinct 2," and the moon is, in fact, made of cheese.

Virtually everyone at the hearing thought Gonzales came off terribly. But, President Bush, as usual, thinks he knows something that nobody else does. Democratic senators are clamoring for the attorney general's dismissal, Republicans want him to resign, but the decider in chief wants to have him over for a barbecue. Bush is about as grounded in reality right now as Rain Man himself.

The Republican talking points on the U.S. Attorney firings say that it is a non-scandal because there has been no allegation or proof of illegal conduct in the dismissals, since the U.S. attorneys serve "at the pleasure of the President." (As an aside, I cringe every time one of these right wing pundits spits that out like a robot reciting a pre-programmed recording.) But, this argument fails on two counts.

First, just because something is not illegal, it does not mean it is right. People, and certainly government officials, are held to a higher standard than the bare minimum of not committing a felony. While the appointment of U.S. Attorneys is political, the operation of the U.S. Department of Justice is certainly not supposed to be, and previous administrations have recognized that fact. President Clinton was not the head of the Janet Reno fan club, but he did not intervene in her work as the top law enforcement official in the country. Bush treats the Attorney General position as if it was his personal counsel (and a tool of the Republican party), down to the fact that he appointed one of his Texas buddies, who used to be his counsel, to the position.

The idea of the separation between politics and the Justice Department is not a new concept. The "Saturday Night Massacre" in the Nixon administration came when Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus resigned rather than heed the president's demand to fire the Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. (then-Solicitor General and future failed Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork finally agreed to dismiss Cox.) It is hard to imagine Gonzales resigning rather than doing the president's bidding. More likely, he would pull a muscle in his haste to comply with the president's request, even bringing him donuts and coffee, too, for good measure.

So, if the U.S. Attorneys were fired because of overtly political reasons, such as who they prosecuted, who they wouldn't prosecute, or how loyal they were perceived to be to the Bush administration, the firings would be wrong and worthy of investigation, even if they were not violative of the law.

Second, even if the underlying dismissals were not illegal, the subsequent cover-up, with shifting explanations by the Attorney General, lost emails, and Gonzales doing a dead-on impression of the guy from "Memento" in front of the Judiciary Committee, is absolutely an appropriate area of investigation. There is nothing "non" about this scandal.

But the most important thing about Bush's defense of Gonzales is that it demonstrates his completed closed-mindedness in light of changing facts. Bush views his steadfast refusal to budge from his positions even in the face of a mountain of contradictory evidence as an example of his integrity. He's wrong. It makes him a stubborn ideologue. We need leaders who can read what is happening and make adjustments on the fly. The enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated the ability to adapt. It would be nice if the President of the United States could keep up.

Without Iraq, Bush's solo defense of Gonzales would be silly and good material for the late-night talk show hosts. But, the problem is, Bush shows the same wrongheaded stubbornness in his handling of Iraq. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) noted that Bush recently gave a speech in which he said that there were signs of progress in Iraq, and that while the "White House transcript says the president made those remarks in the state of Michigan, I believe he made them in the state of denial." Another Yahoo!/AP Article Link While Reid should never, ever try a second career as a stand-up comic, and, I'm quite sure, there may be civil and criminal penalties to be paid for a line that lame, his point is completely accurate.

Since Bush announced his plan for a so-called "surge" of extra troops in Iraq, his position has been, essentially, "Give me this one last chance to show you I'm right and this will work." To which, I (and the American people in the midterm elections) say, "No." Why should we trust Bush? What has he done to earn another chance? As Bill Maher often says on his HBO show "Real Time With Bill Maher," everything the Bush administration has said about the war has turned out to be wrong. To just hit some highlights: They said there were weapons of mass destruction. They said the troops would be greeted as liberators. They said the mission was accomplished. They said the different sects of Muslims would work together having been freed from the yoke of a dictator. They said we had enough troops to do the job in Iraq and still maintain the victory in Afghanistan, as well as handle threats in North Korea and Iran. They said once there were elections in Iraq, things would fall into place. They said the insurgency was in its dying throes. They said that once we trained the Iraqi army, we could let them take over.

The problem is, he was wrong about each and every one of those items. And we are supposed to give him another chance? I don't think so. Because, again, Bush does not listen, and he does not adapt. He has pursued his personal agenda on Iraq to a tragic end. There is no greater evidence of his inability to listen than his rejection of the conclusions by the bipartisan Iraq study group that was co-chaired by James Baker, the man Maher likes to call the Bush family consigliere. Baker is the man, you will recall, who led the Bush strategy team in the legal proceedings following the 2000 election.

If Bush won't listen to a panel of Republican senators on Gonzales and the man who helped him steal an election, who will he listen to? Apparently, if you want Bush to listen, you have to have to be one of two things: Part of the group of Republicans he hung out with in Texas or the Lord. This is not just an issue of a Republican president resisting input from Democrats, since Bush has found himself on Gonzales and/or Iraq in disagreement with Baker, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) (a man who is so religious, Rolling Stone did an article on him called "God's Senator"), Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) ( a man who compared stem cell research to the medical experiments of the Nazis), and a host of other Republicans.

The Iraq issue is now coming to a head, with Congress saying they will pass a funding bill that contains a timetable for withdrawal this week. Bush says he will veto it, sticking to the same line he has held for weeks that the Democrats are playing politics. Yahoo!/AP article on His Latest Statement on the Issue The country cannot afford to allow Bush to single-handedly plunge the country further into a quagmire in Iraq.

In the article about Reid lambasting Bush's failure to adapt on Iraq, Reid said, "I understand the restlessness that some feel. Many who voted for change in November anticipated dramatic and immediate results in January. But like it or not, George W. Bush is still the commander in chief — and this is his war."

As an excuse for a lack of action, that statement may be acceptable. The Democrats in Congress are in a bit of a squeeze since they do not have enough votes to override a veto, and there may not be support to go any further in challenging the President. But, I think Bush, by virtue of his atrocious performance and the vote of the American people in November, has forfeited his right to lead, and Congress needs to step into the void and become more forceful on the issue. Sending Bush a bill he will veto is a good start, but it is not enough. When Bush vetoes the bill, the Democrats better not cave, or else explanation or no explanation, the voters will not be happy.

Raymond Babbit was delusional about his ability to drive, but he had a tremendous memory and the ability to do things like count the number of toothpicks spilled from a box. Bush is equally delusional about everything from Gonzales to Iraq. Unfortunately, his talent is to drag the country into a bottomless pit of death and disaster in Iraq. Raymond would look for his caretaker V-E-R-N Vern when he was agitated. All I can do is call on R-E-I-D Reid and P-E-L-O-S-I Pelosi to stand firm. They were put into power for this very reason. It's time to send Bush back to his Wallbrook, better known as his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Let him have Gonzales, Cheney, Mires and the rest of his posse over for barbecues. So long as they are not running the country into the ground anymore.

Monday, April 23, 2007

It Gets Ratings, But Is It News?

Sunday papers don't ask no questions
Sunday papers don't get no lies
Sunday papers don't raise objection
Sunday papers don't got no eyes
- Joe Jackson's "Sunday Papers" from his 1979 debut album "Look Sharp!"

I recently discovered a use for my TiVo that undoubtedly was not intended by its creators. My TiVo can help me separate real news stories from media-fueled nonsense. No, there is not a macro you can program into your remote to do this. It is way simpler than that.

When I watch something I've recorded on TiVo and use the fast-forward button to skip through the commercials, invariably the last two or three seconds of the break will be visible before the show starts. And, quite often, that time period is filled by a news teaser (e.g., "Dinosaurs at Michael Jackson's house? Find out at eleven."). When a week or so has gone by between the recording of the show and the day I watch it, the news cycle has had a chance to churn a few times, usually leaving the item teased by the breathless newscaster quite out-of-date.

That's the mechanism of the unintended TiVo feature. If the breathlessness of the anchor seems justified, the story was worthy of being covered with such ardor. If not? Well, then the nonsense detector goes off, loud and clear.

I was watching a show over the weekend on TiVo when I caught a newscaster tease, "Will Imus survive? Find out at eleven." Since Imus's suddenly-memory-impaired employers ushered the mean-spirited geezer off the plank, a madman has gone nuts on a Virginia college campus, hundreds of Iraqis have been blown up, Alberto Gonzales revealed himself to be useless to both the Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary committee, and President Bush continued on in a self-deluded, deity-assured haze, expressing confidence in the universally derided Attorney General while failing to admit what is going on in Iraq. In retrospect, the volume and duration of the Imus coverage seems even more ridiculous than it did at the time.

Or, put another way, the Imus story failed the TiVo retroactive breathlessness test. Clearly the Virginia Tech massacre will pass this standard, while Anna Nicole Smith's death will fail it. In 20 years, people will still be talking about the tragedy in Blacksburg, but will anyone care about the overdose of a minor reality television star?

As time passes, how much of the Viriginia Tech coverage will pass the TiVo test? Certainly, the massacre itself will be a news story for years to come. Forty years after the fact, the tower shootings at the University of Texas are a part of our history. And, in the immediate aftermath of the shootings, networks correctly sought to explain the details of the tragedy: Did the gunman know the first victim? What about the professor in the first class he went to? Why was there a break between the two sets of shootings? But now? The networks stepped on their first landmine when they repeatedly aired the video made by the killer. With classes resuming today, it would seem to be a natural end to the actual news story. Will that stop the networks to stop the massive coverage of the murders? Probably not. The coverage in the days to come is likely to fail the TiVo test.

The problem, of course, is that what gets ratings today has nothing to do with what is important or what will resonate in years to come.

So, does it matter? Should we care what the media covers? Absolutely. The media makes decisions all the time that has important, lasting effects. They aired the gunman's rambling rant on the air almost exclusively for a day, but a soldier's flag-draped casket is verboten from the American airwaves. Why? Because it humanizes the soldiers that are dying in Iraq. It's easier for the administration if Americans think of the casualties as nameless, faceless, bodyless, familyless statistics, instead of the living, breathing human lives that were ended.

The Virginia Tech massacre was certainly a profound tragedy and a legitimate news story. But, it was not the only news story. As I listed above, there are some major things going on in this country that strike at the heart of what kind of future we can expect. If 33 deaths in one day in Virginia is a catastrophe (and it is), what about the deaths, usually far more than 33, that happen every day in Iraq? But, like the American soldiers, these Iraqi casualties are nameless and faceless. They are only statistics, just the way the administration wants it.

While the media furiously tries to figure out the "why" of the Blacksburg shootings, we know why Iraqis are dying. A president bursting with arrogance, hubris, a lack of understanding of the world, and the words of the lord in his ear decided to start a foolish, catastrophic war in Iraq, a pit of quicksand that is slowly inching its way above the country's collar line.

The Virginia Tech tragedy is sad, but Iraq is a problem that will plague this country for the foreseeable future. Congress is supposed to provide Bush with a bill this week to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that includes a timetable for troop withdrawals. Bush says he will veto it. The media needs to cover the story so that the White House sound bites and talking points don't throw up smoke and mirrors to divert the story from the truth of what the American people have voted for, and what is really happening in Iraq.

If the media turns into Joe Jackson's Sunday papers and buries the story behind the next Imus or Anna Nicole in waiting, more Americans will die in Iraq. And while we won't see their caskets, the deaths will be every bit as real as the ones in Virginia last week. Iraq is a story that will pass the TiVo test with flying colors. Now if only the networks will treat it that way.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Graffiti and the Supreme Court, An Unlikely Pair

At first glance, it wouldn't seem that a 36-year-old New York graffiti artist and a set of five mostly white Republican men over the age of 50 would have much in common. I'm quite sure that each would be instantly wary of the other, and no cocktail parties featuring all of them will be held anytime soon. And yet, as I read the New York Times this morning, I drew a direct line in my head between Alain MaridueƱa (better known as "Alan Ket") and the five justices on the U.S. Supreme Court that just found a ban on an abortion procedure to be constitutional.

The Times article on Ket described how he faced 14 criminal counts that could bring him decades in jail time. Authorities found photos of graffiti that featured his well-known "tag" on subway cars, and further ascertained that the photos were uploaded to his computer shortly after the trains were vandalized. Ket claims that the cars were painted by a copycat, and that he has "retired" from graffiti, concentrating instead on legitimate commercial art. He said that the circumstantial evidence found by the authorities (tons of graffiti photos, spray paint caps, etc.) were for a book he is doing on graffiti or for his legitimate art work.

Ket is innocent until proven guilty, and it is quite possible that he will be acquitted of the charges. But the fact remains that somebody painted graffiti on those trains (and tons of other public and private sites around New York City), and, even more importantly, in certain circles the defacement of the property is viewed as legitimate art.

Meanwhile, down in Washington, D.C., another kind of destruction was taking place, this time of the rights of women to choose. Or, better put, a door was blown open through which anti-choice legislation will inevitably follow. In a 5-4 decision (with, of course, President Bush's two appointees, neither of which would address the abortion question during their confirmation hearings, voting with the majority), for the first time since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, the Supreme Court approved a flat-out ban on a specific abortion procedure, in this case dilation and extraction. You might know it better by the term used by anti-choice activists, "partial-birth abortion," but I will go with the terminology used by doctors over the propaganda of religious zealots. The ruling was in the combined cases of Gonzales v. Carhart and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood. You can read an AP/Yahoo! article on the decision here.

So, what do the five justices in the majority (Chief Justice John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas) and Ket have in common? Simple. A lack of respect for the rights of their fellow citizens, and a need to impose their beliefs on the society as a whole, despite their opinions being in the minority.

I have no patience for so-called graffiti "artists," and less patience for those in the art world and other sections of society that legitimize their actions. I don't argue that the people who paint graffiti may have artistic talent. But, the expression of their talent is not art, it's vandalism. Look, if I make a movie, it might be a work of art. But, if I wheel a television and DVD player onto the Long Island Expressway at rush hour and try and show it in the center lane, I'm a hazard to society. Similarly, if Micahel Chabon writes a novel, it might be art. But, if he decides to write the words on a tarp and drape it over the Brooklyn Bridge, he becomes a menace to society.

So, why do some people make exceptions for graffiti perpetrators? The governmental or private owner of the property that is painted has not consented to the defacement of that property. What makes a guy with a spray-paint can think he has the right to overrule the wishes of the legal owner? Not everyone wants to look at graffiti. I would venture to say that if it was put on a ballot, a vast majority of New Yorkers would vote that they would rather not look at graffiti. The arrogance of graffiti perpetrators (and their supporters) to believe that they know better is staggering.

If Mr. MaridueƱa is actually innocent of the crimes he is accused of, I hope he is acquitted. But, if he is guilty, I hope he is convicted and sentenced to the maximum prison term allowed by law, and fined the maximum amount, including enough to pay for the restoration of the subway cars he defaced. And, in any event, I applaud the New York authorities who have decided to crack down on graffiti. It is about time somebody stood up to individuals who believe the morals (or lack thereof) of a small minority should be imposed on the majority.

Which brings us to the Supreme Court justices who voted in the majority in Gonzales v. Carhart/Planned Parenthood. I fully understand that the debate over the right to choose comes down to two sides that are passionate about their opinions. Pro-choice people are adamant that the government has no business telling a woman what to do with her body, and those who oppose choice honestly believe abortion to be murder.

However, there is one point about the abortion debate that I will never understand. As long as I can remember, a majority of Americans have favored the right to choose (not that they are in favor of the procedure, per se, but they believe women should have the right to decide for themselves whether to give birth or not). And yet, people who oppose choice seek to impose their belief, which, let's face it, is in most cases a religious belief, down the throats of a majority of Americans.

I want to be clear on this issue: I fully understand the passion of the anti-choice movement, and the adherents' belief that not to act is to stand by while a crime is committed. But, lost in the pro-con debate on the issue is a key point that is not negotiable: When an abortion is performed, a crime is NOT being committed. As a society, we have agreed that murder, rape, robbery, arson and other such acts will not be tolerated, and in those cases we will tell people how to live their lives, mainly because it directly affects the people around them (especially those who have been killed, violated, stolen from or burnt).

With abortion, again putting aside the pro-con debate, a group of people are seeking to impose their moral/religious beliefs on the actions of their fellow citizens, even though no direct effect is registered on the people doing the imposing. Put another way, anti-choice believers are telling women not to have abortions, but pro-choice advocates are not telling anyone to do anything. Instead, they are telling people that the decision is up to them.

And therein lies my equal disgust of Alan Ket and the Supreme Court justices who voted to ban the abortion procedure. They both stand for the idea that they have the right to impose their beliefs over the desires of the citizens around them.

As an aside, I understand that in this particular abortion case, a law passed by Congress, the representatives of the people, was responsible for the ban on the procedure. So, in this case, an argument could be made that the will of the people was on the side of the anti-choice crowd. However, on the larger abortion question, the majority is pro-choice. And, more importantly, this case is not just about one abortion procedure. It is a move in the larger chess game of whether or not American women will have the right to choose. In that context, I stand by everything I've written regarding a minority trying to impose its will on the majority.

I can't help but wonder how Ket would feel as he watched members of the Supreme Court paint pro-Iraq war messages on the outside of his home, or how the justices would feel as Ket spray-painted sex terms on their luxury vehicles. I know I'd like to watch it all happen. All six of them would (rightfully) leap to protest the intrusion on their rights. And, for a second, they might feel what they make millions of others experience by their actions.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Nothing Odd About Loving "The Odd Couple"

On November 13, Felix Unger was asked to remove himself from his place of residence; that request came from his wife. Deep down, he knew she was right, but he also knew that some day he would return to her. With nowhere else to go, he appeared at the home of his friend, Oscar Madison. Several years earlier, Madison's wife had thrown him out, requesting that he never return. Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?
- The narration in the opening credits of "The Odd Couple" television series (you can watch it here)

When people make lists of the greatest situation comedies of all time, the usual suspects appear, from "The Honeymooners" to "The Office." If I had to list my five favorite sitcoms of all time, I think my list would be, in no particular order, "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Seinfeld," "Scrubs" and a show that seems to be forgotten in these kinds of discussions: "The Odd Couple."

I should note that my list would exclude otherwise-deserving shows that did not make it beyond a third season, like "Sports Night" and "Arrested Development," on the idea that part of what makes a program great is its ability to sustain its quality over a significant period of time. And, if you catch me on a different day, the list could be different. But it is highly unlikely that I would ever fail to include "The Odd Couple."

Based on the play and film of the same title (both written by Neil Simon), the television version of "The Odd Couple" starred Jack Klugman and Tony Randall as, respectively, Oscar, a cranky, sloppy sportswriter, and his fussy, neat opera-loving photographer roommate, Felix. The first season of the sitcom, the only one shot in single-camera format on the same set as the movie, will finally be released on DVD on April 24. The series debuted in 1970, and for five seasons, the two divorced men, as the opening said, tried to share an apartment without driving each other crazy.

So, what about "The Odd Couple" has left me such a devoted fan? First and foremost, the show features the sharpest comedy writing I have ever seen on television. The deft use of language in the scripts managed to take essentially silly jokes and render them unforgettable. "The Odd Couple" is arguably the most quotable sitcom of all time, perhaps battling it out with "Seinfeld" for that honor.

For example, after a greyhound co-owned by the roommates loses his first race, Felix, who had originally been against racing him, declares, "He has racing in his blood, and I'm going to race him." Oscar replies, "Yeah? And I'll bet you beat him." Or, when Felix discovers that the woman he has been dating is married to a large professional football player (portrayed by real-life gridiron great Alex Karras) and decides to confront him, he tells Oscar he's not afraid because, "Love has made me strong!" Oscar calmly replies, "But strength has made him stronger."

"The Odd Couple" is the kind of show that no matter what two quotes I decided to relate, fans of the show would reply, "Wait, what about ...." Just say "Aristophanes" to someone, and if they break out laughing, they are an "Odd Couple" fan. (Felix and Oscar go on "Password," and "Aristophanes" is Felix's weird clue to the word "bird" because, of course, Aristophanes wrote a play called "The Birds.") From "When you assume ...", to "I must destroy Nosenstein"; from Howard Cosell saying, "The man is an inane drone," to, well, Howard Cosell saying, "Don't call me Howie!", "Odd Couple" gems are exchanged between fans the way Trekkers trade memorabilia at conventions.

Garry Marshall was the executive producer, before he went on to do "Happy Days," "Laverne and Shirley" and other hit shows, and then made his way to Hollywood to direct films like "Pretty Woman." Watching an episode of "The Odd Couple" is like sitting in on a class on how to perfectly craft a joke. You laugh out loud. Really loud. Be careful, your family will think you've lost it.

The cast of the "Odd Couple" also stands out. In the theatrically-trained Klugman and Randall, the show had two actors that could handle anything, from the silliest comedy to the most poignant moments. It allowed the writers to give the show a depth and three-dimensionality that is not often seen in television comedies. Oscar and Felix cared a great deal for each other, and they would also stick up for each other often, but there was nothing "sitcomy" about their relationship. They fought. They betrayed each other on occasion. Their relationship felt real.

The series finale stayed true to the complicated tone of the show. Felix finally gets Gloria back and they get married in the apartment. Oscar finally has Felix out of the apartment. Most shows would have gone out on the sappy high. Instead, Marshall added a tag before the end credits (as he often did) that made sure the "Odd Couple" went out like it had come in, battling. As Oscar and Felix say goodbye, Felix dumps over a trash bin as a tribute to Oscar. Oscar responds by saying he will clean it up as a tribute to Felix. When Felix leaves, Oscar says, "I'm not going to clean that up" and leaves. A second later, the door opens, Felix comes back in and says: "I knew he wouldn't clean it up." The show ends with Felix cleaning up the mess.

The show's use of guest stars felt as real as the two main characters (in most cases, anyway). Oscar was a sportswriter, so it felt perfectly natural that he would know football greats like Deacon Jones and Bubba Smith, and would be considered for a slot on "Monday Night Football" alongside Howard Cosell. It also was natural that Oscar would know Bobby Riggs, and that "Password" host Allen Ludden would be a fan of Oscar's column. As Felix was an opera buff and classical music aficionado, there was nothing weird about ballet star Edward Villella and opera singers Richard Fredericks and Martina Arroyo dropping in on episodes (Villella and Fredricks as themselves, Arroyo as a shy member of Felix's opera club). Felix also took pictures of David Steinberg and, in a flashback, met Hugh Hefner when he shot his then-girlfriend Gloria for Playboy.

My favorite guest turn might have come when a pre-Laverne Penny Marshall (Garry's sister), who played Oscar's secretary, Myrna, left the show. In her farewell episode, her real-life husband, Rob Reiner, played Myrna's boyfriend Sheldn. No, that's not a typo. Sheldn explained that the "o" was left off his birth certificate. When Oscar sees him and says, "Sheldn?" (dropping the "o"), Sheldn responds, "You got it right."

The celebrity guests, of which there were many more, never felt like stunts as they so often do on shows today. Of course, Richard Dawson serving in the army with Felix, Monty Hall and Jaye P. Morgan being friends of Oscar's, and Rodney Allen Rippy owning Oscar and Felix's apartment building (seriously) were a bit of a stretch. But, in the world of "The Odd Couple," it all worked.

One thing I loved about "The Odd Couple" is that even though it was a silly comedy, there was an underlying dark tone to the characters. The men were divorced. And, in a flashback, we watched Felix's beloved wife, Gloria, leave him. (You can see it here.) Felix dated a married woman and photographed his girlfriend for Playboy (even as he panicked and sued to get the pictures back, leading to one of many riotous courtroom scenes in the show's history).

The men went out with women regularly and, it was implied, had sex. Oscar drank a lot and experienced money problems that led him to do things like give blood for money and turn his saxophone in to a pawn shop. (Spawning the great exchange: Felix, "I didn't know you play the saxophone." Oscar, "I don't. I have it for hocking.")

Oscar also gambled with bookies and, often hung out with a sketchy crowd (which, by the way, led to him ending up with the aforementioned racing greyhound). I'm not arguing that the show was "Mean Streets" on television. But, there was a level of grit associated with Oscar that would never be allowed around the protagonist of a sitcom now. Remember, we only get to see Earl do bad things in flashbacks on "My Name Is Earl." In the present, Earl is all about redemptive acts.

And now, after the release of so many inferior shows, "The Odd Couple" is making its way to DVD. Don't make the mistake Felix did when he said "Aristophanes," and don't gamble your money away on a bad horse like Oscar was prone to do. Instead, buy yourself the first season DVD. You will be as happy as Oscar was when Felix finally moved out.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Angry Islander Fans Make a Stand

All the power's in the hands/Of people rich enough to buy it
While we walk the street/Too chicken to even try it
Everybody's doing/Just what they're told to
Nobody wants/To go to jail!
Are you taking over/or are you taking orders?
Are you going backwards/Or are you going forwards?
- The Clash's "White Riot," from the band's 1977 self-titled debut album

With one minute and 34 seconds remaining in the NHL Eastern Conference quarterfinal playoff game last night between the New York Islanders and the Buffalo Sabres at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, bottles and souvenir towels rained down onto the ice. The Clash's "White Riot" ran in my head as the fans protested a highly-questionable penalty called on the Islanders' Randy Robitaille as his team tried to come back from a 3-2 deficit. The penalty, which was the last in a series of controversial calls that all seemed to break in favor of the Sabres, essentially ended the game. Was I stretching, connecting the anger of a bunch of hockey fans with the protestations of British punks commenting on a decaying social system? Maybe a bit, but maybe not too much.

As I sat in my seat in the upper deck, watching as bottles crashed onto the ice while more than 16,000 angry spectators directed a chant at the referee likening him to a body part essential to the body's excretory function, I surprised myself a bit. Normally, I am the first to condemn fans that do not behave. While I oppose capital punishment, I think I could be swayed that the death penalty is appropriate for idiots who run on the field during baseball games. But as play was stopped while the ice was cleared of debris, I found myself, in my head, cheering on the onslaught. And, almost immediately, I wondered why, after all these years and the hundreds of professional sports events I have attended, I had experienced such a change of heart.

The more I thought about it, the more the issues came into focus. For starters, the bottles in question were plastic bottles. In 2007, no arena official that has had the occasion to walk within 100 feet of a lawyer's office would allow glass bottles to be sold at a hockey game. With the ice mostly empty (most of the players had retreated to their benches), I did not feel for a single second that anyone's health was in danger.

Freed from the fear of injury, the underlying cause of the anger began to emerge in my thoughts. The Islanders, as I wrote about in this space last week, went through an unlikely chain of events just to qualify for the playoffs. The team, the lowest seed in the conference, had earned the right to play the high-flying, high-scoring Buffalo Sabres, the club with the best record in the entire league for the season (the Islanders were 17th) in a best-of-seven series. Most commentators didn't think the Islanders stood a chance. Many thought they could not win more than a game.

After being completely outplayed in the first game and taking the loss, the Islanders bounced back two days later, riding the surprise return of the team's flamboyant star goaltender, Rick DiPietro, to an upset victory. DiPietro had missed the squad's miraculous run to the playoffs at the end of the regular season after he sustained two concussions in a two-week period.

That takes us to last night's third game, which was the first playoff game on the Islanders' home ice since 2004. The game was a rare sell-out, and there seemed to be virtually no no-shows, which is even rarer. Even "sold out" regular season Islander games feel like the building is only three-quarters filled.

The fans for last night's game were excited to be watching playoff hockey. They were loud and animated, creating an atmosphere that makes attending live sporting events fun. While every Islander fan in the building was hoping against hope that their team would find a way to squeak out three more wins and advance to the next round, I have no doubt that most of the people in attendence (like me) just wanted the team to play hard and not embarrass itself. Personally, I was happy that after the win in the second game, they would not be swept. To put it simply, the Islander supporters knew that their team was a big underdog.

So, when on play after play controversial calls went against the Islanders, the building grew angrier. As fans, we didn't expect to win necessarily, but couldn't the officials give us a break? We (or at least, I) started wondering, Does the league want us to lose so the glamorous Sabres can continue on? (As an aside, yes, the NHL is the only organization in the world where you can attach the word "glamorous" to "Buffalo.") Islander players were going down, and there was nearly never a call. Sabre players would go down seemingly under their own power, and yet an Islander would be sent to the box. And, in the second period, after a long video review, the Sabres were awarded a controversial goal when there was a question of whether the puck had made it all the way across the goal line.

So, the stage was set when, late in the game, the Islanders' much-maligned captain Alexi Yashin was slammed into the boards from behind, and defenseman Chris Campoli was taken down on the way to the net after beating several Sabres. In both cases, the referees kept their arms down, allowing play to continue while the fans in the arena screamed in protest. A short time later, with one minute and 34 seconds left to play, Robitaille was sent to the box for barely touching a Sabres player, and the fans exploded.

Islanders star winger Ryan Smyth, who played his whole career until a late-February trade to New York in the hockey hotbed of Edmonton, summed up the fans' reaction simply but accurately in a New York Times article: "They pay to watch good hockey and not to have the officials take over." The referees had robbed the Islanders of a fair shot. We did not think our team would prevail, but we thought at the least we should get to watch a fair fight.

Smyth's quote, which thankfully steered away from the normal, neutral platitudes, raised two issues for me that felt dead-on in analyzing what happened. First, he immediately recognized that the fans have rights. That is, that NHL players would be playing for free in local leagues if not for the money spent by fans. Last night, the fans felt they were being taken advantage of. They felt they had a right to watch a fair hockey game, and they felt the officials had taken that away from them. Powerless, they acted the only way they knew how. While I cannot condone throwing objects on the ice, I also cannot deny that I liked the idea of the fans empowering themselves and taking action. And, I think it is remarkable that in the heat of the moment, nobody crossed a line. Nobody ran on the ice. Nobody threw anything dangerous. As riots go, it was pretty sedate in action, if not in emotion.

Hockey is not important in the scheme of things, but I felt the spirit of the Clash in the unrest. After all, this is a country where the citizenry normally waits for things to fall completely apart before acting. (I'm happy for the results of the 2006 midterm elections, but the main thing voters were concerned about, Iraq, would have been addressed much more easily if they had just not voted for the guy causing the problem in 2004.) In some ways, the country can take a page from the fans last night. Again, not in the actions that were taken, but in the spirit behind them.

Second, Smyth alluded to fans paying money, and in modern sports, that money is significant. I was sitting in the cheapest section of the arena, I had a discount as a season ticket plan holder, and my ticket was still $60 plus service charges. Most of the people in the arena were sitting in seats that ranged in price from $75 to $200. I think the amount fans pay for tickets now (not to mention merchandise), raises expectations and a sense of entitlement. And, it should. I could not help but think that this might be an early salvo in a larger fight, and that the high price of tickets will pop up as an issue all over the sports world. Fans will start feeling the right to assert their authority in light of the bigger burden they are carrying.

In 1976, when Yankee Stadium reopened after two years of renovations, my father paid $7.50 per ticket for our 16-game plan box seats behind home plate. Those seats now? Try $150 each as part of a season ticket plan, $300 if purchased individually, and $400 the day of the game. I do not hold a PhD in economics, but I feel quite sure that the increase is well above the rate of inflation. Of course, it's not like many (any?) of those seats are available. The Yankees come close to selling out every game now, more than doubling their attendance figures from 1976.

The leagues are only too happy to collect the staggeringly high fees for tickets that fans are obviously willing to pay, but they may also have to learn to handle the increased expectations of its supporters.

Yes, I understand that that last night a bunch of hockey fans were mad because they thought that their team got some bum calls. And, the lawyers, salesmen and construction foremen throwing things on the ice were a long way from the kids on the dole the Clash were talking about. But, to dismiss the events of last night as the rantings of a bunch of neanderthal hockey fans would be a mistake. This country can use a bit of the sense of justice I felt in the arena last night.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Bill Maher and Jon Stewart, Today's Walter Cronkites?

New rule: Now that liberals have taken back the word liberal, they also have to take back the word "elite." By now you've heard the constant right-wing attacks on the "elite," or as it's otherwise known, "hating." They've had it up to their red necks with the "elite media." The "liberal elite." Who may or may not be part of the "Washington elite." A subset of the "East Coast elite." Which is influenced by "the Hollywood elite." So basically, unless you're a shitkicker from Kansas, you're with the terrorists. If you played a drinking game in which you did a shot every time Rush Limbaugh attacked someone for being "elite" you'd almost be as wasted as Rush Limbaugh.
- Bill Maher during his "New Rules" segment of "Real Time With Bill Maher" that aired for the first time on April 13, 2007

A well-publicized recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that only 69 percent of respondents could identify the current vice president (too much time in the undisclosed location?), 66 percent could name their state’s governor, and a paltry 15 percent could identify Harry Reid (time for the Senate Majority Leader to get a publicist, I think). More people could identify Peyton Manning (62 percent) than Barack Obama (61 percent).

Let’s face it: Unless the subject matter is pop singers, the American electorate tends to be lazy and unengaged. And, it’s clear that President Bush not only knows this to be true, but he is counting on it.

Bush has stayed on message ever since the House and Senate passed Iraq funding bills that contained timetables for troop withdrawals, casting the Democrats as opponents of the troops, while he claims to be their great supporter. To hear Bush tell it, the Democrats in Congress are sitting in the corner, plotting ways to hurt the troops while passing around a joint, making love beads and tie-dying shirts.

It is a message that worked before the November 2006 elections, and Bush obviously thinks the strategy still has legs. To stay on message despite recent news events, he has to believe that the American electorate is completely checked out. After all, it was just days ago that the administration announced it was extending the tours of soldiers in Iraq to 15 months, just the latest in a line of slaps in the faces of the troops by the administration. But, the Democrats, who are trying to get the troops out of Iraq are the ones not protecting them?

Bush was quoted saying in an Associated Press article, "
Listen, I understand Republicans and Democrats in Washington have differences over the best course in Iraq. That's healthy. That's normal, and we should debate those differences. But our troops should not be caught in the middle." But the question is, who is putting the troops in the middle? Bush's attitude is, "We can talk, but do what I say, or else you are not supporting the troops." Why should the Democrats give in to his view? The electorate told them in November 2006 not to cave. And, as importantly, has Bush earned any respect for his running of the war based on his performance so far? Hardly. If anyone is putting the troops in the middle, it's the Decider in Chief.

Bush could not even keep up the appearance that he believed in the right to exchange ideas. He went on to say in the AP article,
"That's what we're supposed to do — we're supposed to talk out our differences. I'm looking forward to the meeting. I hope the Democratic leadership will drop their unreasonable demands for a precipitous withdrawal." "Unreasonable"? Again, he pays lip service to the separation of powers, only to reveal his true colors in the end. It's an old move of his, one that has brought him great success. Remember in 2000 when he was a "compassionate conservative"? Americans ate that one up. Only, it turned out he was only compassionate to oil companies, extremist Christians and his circle of cronies. There was no compassion for the poor, primarily African-American people in New Orleans hit by Katrina, and certainly none for the largely minority and working class members of the U.S. military.

But, Bush is sticking to the play book. The idea is, tell the Americans that its the Democrats that are threatening the safety of the troops, and they will eventually buy it, no matter how many times the Bush administration fails. Sure, Walter Reed was a mess, the Veterans Administration was unequipped for the surge of wounded, tours were extended, National Guard and Reserve units are being kept for open-ended call-ups in a backdoor draft, troop training is being cut (according to Bill Maher, Iraq-related training has dropped from four weeks to 10 days), and soldiers still don't have nearly enough bomb-resistant vehicles (even though IEDs are the overwhelmingly leading cause of deaths of soldiers in Iraq). None of that matters if the public is not paying attention. And, if you believe the Pew survey, too many are not.

But, the playing field is different now. The Democrats now control Congress, and for a reason I will file under the "don't look a gift horse in the mouth" heading, they are standing firm in supporting their electoral mandate from the midterm elections. Reid was quoted saying in the AP article that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney "
refuse to listen or acknowledge the other voices. They are isolated in their thinking, and are failing our troops and our country." He added that the Democrats will stand firm when meeting Bush, saying that their offer is that "the president sign the bill" Congress passed with the timetable.

Then again, only 15 percent of the people apparently know who Reid is. So, while he may have the facts on his side, the question is if anyone is listening.

Of course, there are some trends in the Pew data that might disturb Bush. Apparently, respondents with the highest scores tended to watch "The Daily Show" and the "Colbert Report" while those with the lowest scores watched the White House's Propaganda Network (a.k.a. Fox News).

I have to admit, though, that my traditional views on the nature of the American electorate have been rocked a bit. It always amused me that higher and higher percentages of citizens, especially younger people, listed comedy programs like "The Daily Show" as their primary news source. I remember a 2004 survey found that fact in the run-up to the election. I was never sure if it was more of an indictment of the traditional media for not doing its job, or of the people for taking the easy way out.

After watching the latest episode of "Real Time With Bill Maher," I have no doubt that the media has to take more of the share of the blame. During his final "New Rule" of the night, Maher talked about how
Monica Goodling, who was the number three person at the Justice Department before she resigned as part of the U.S. Attorney scandal, was 33 and had no prosecutorial experience, even though she was charged with overseeing the performance of the more than 90 U.S. Attorneys around the country (who, in turn, had thousands of attorneys under them). Maher went on to say that Goodling attended college at Messiah College, which is not only Pat Robertson's university, but ranked in the last tier of schools in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. But, the real kicker, was that Maher reported that since 2001, 150 Messiah graduates have been hired by the Bush administration.

I was outraged, on three levels: First, I was outraged that the government, which is supposed to be secular (I know Bush finds the Constitution annoying, but it's still in effect, at least as of my last check of, is hiring so many religiously driven employees. Second, before you jump down my throat and list the many fine institutions that have religious sponsors, I was outraged that the employees came from a university that lacked the pedigree and academic respect of schools like Georgetown or Notre Dame. Clearly, religiously sponsored universities make up a good chunk of the best schools in the country, but they all share the academic independence and freedom of their seculary sponsored counterparts. I am not an expert on Messiah University, but I feel safe in assuming that it does not share the academic freedoms found at Georgetown.

[NOTE: After reading this blog entry, a friend of mine emailed me the following details of Goodling's academic background, as reported in a wire article by Ron Hutcheson of McClatchy Newspapers: Goodling graduated from Messiah College, which describes itself as "committed to an embracing evangelical spirit,"and she went to law school at Regent University, which was founded by Pat Robertson and says its mission is "to produce Christian leaders who will make a difference, who will change the world."]

And, in any event, Messiah is not a top school. It's not even a middle school. As Maher alluded to in his "rule" quoted above, shouldn't the government be recruiting from average schools at the very least?

But, most of all, I was outraged that the first I have ever heard of Messiah University was on "Real Time With Bill Maher." Why hasn't the mainstream media covered this story? I know the answer. I understand that Anna Nicole Smith and Don Imus make for better ratings. But, how has this story slipped under the radar, to the point that I had to learn about it on a comedy show? I think it is a glaring, living, breathing example of how the flow of information to the electorate has been compromised by the ratings-driven nature of the news business.

I did a Google search of "justice department Pat Robertson," and only one of the first 10 hits came from a traditional news outlet (the Boston Globe). The rest were blogs and online publications (a Slate story was the first entry). When I got more specific and searched "Messiah College justice department," the results were no better. Only the Washington Post came up in the first ten results. The rest were blogs, online publications and, of course, in first place, the Messiah College website.

What will it take, short of putting a fake arrow through Brian Williams's head, asking Charles Gibson to read the news in clown makeup or replacing Katie Couric with one of the Naked News anchors, to allow important information about our government to make its way to the electorate? Or, put another way, to get the electorate to seek out these facts?

I guess in the end, it's better to get your news from Maher than not get it at all. At least you can get a laugh, and see a Republican (like Scott McClelland in this episode) squirm as Maher lays out the ugly facts. But, you are left to wonder, didn't we used to count on journalists to challenge the party line of politicians? As much as I like Maher, I would trade him for Walter Cronkite in a minute. And, I'm sure, Maher would take that trade, too.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Move Over Anna Nicole, Imus Is in the House!

I have always been among those who believed that the greatest freedom of speech was the greatest safety, because if a man is a fool, the best thing to do is to encourage him to advertise the fact by speaking. It cannot be so easily discovered if you allow him to remain silent and look wise, but if you let him speak, the secret is out and the world knows that he is a fool. So it is by the exposure of folly that it is defeated; not by the seclusion of folly, and in this free air of free speech men get into that sort of communication with one another which constitutes the basis of all common achievement.
- President Woodrow Wilson, May 10, 1919, in an address at the Institute of France, and cited in the 1949 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Terminiello v. City of Chicago (scroll down)

When a Bahamian court ruled earlier in the week that Larry Birkhead was the biological father of Anna Nicole Smith's daughter, I braced for the onslaught. I pictured CNN changing its name to DBNN (Dead Blondes News Network) and going 24-hours-a-day with its coverage, bringing in child psychologists, DNA experts and psychics.

I had visions of Larry King, looking, as always, like a walking corpse and sounding like your poor Great Uncle Charlie who thinks he is still fighting the Germans in World War II, grilling a guest about the future of the child in a single-parent home before realizing that he is sitting across from Jon Heder who, now looking panicked, just wants to show his "Blades of Glory" clip and get out of there.

It seemed like a no-brainer for Anderson Cooper's employers to take the Anna Nicole ball and run with it. I mean, how many more stories can we extract from this dead woman? "This just in, authorities in the Bahamas are reporting that a bird has defecated on Anna Nicole's grave. No word yet on how the family will respond to this tragedy." But fate stepped in, in the person of a past-his-prime shock jock deciding to make fun of a college basketball team. So, CNN is now All Imus, All the Time.

I guess it is a step up, kind of. The underlying issues of the Imus story are racism and sexism, which are important, unlike wannabe celebrities having sex with each other. However, I find the coverage and reactions to the Imus story hypocritical and distasteful.

Before I go any further, let me note some important things: Don Imus is an idiot. He always was an idiot. What he said about the Rutgers basketball players was not the least bit funny, and was offensive to anyone who understands the barriers facing women and African-Americans in American society. I don't feel the least bit sorry for the backlash he is being hit with. I don't feel the least bit sorry that he has lost his television broadcaster (MSNBC), and that he is in danger of losing his radio station (WFAN) and radio syndicator (CBS). He is an untalented, self-important, lowest-common-denominator-genuflecting blowhard.

Having said all that, when I look beyond my personal feelings for Imus and what he did, I find that on a larger issue, what MSNBC did in firing Imus was worse than what Imus did on the air (and, of course, the same will go for WFAN and CBS if they send the past-it geezer out to pasture).

What people are not talking about in the media is that this latest outburst by Imus was not in any way out of character. He may have used specific terms that put him over a line, but the underlying current of hate and disrespect has been part of his on-air persona for more than 30 years. For MSNBC to act shocked and offended now would be a like a pimp firing his star prostitute after she was arrested by the police for solicitation. "She was doing what? Oh, hell no. I will not be associated with anyone doing that!"

Imus's broadcasters have made a ton of money for years blasting his garbage into the cultural ether. But, now that he's made an error in judgement in how he expressed the garbage, suddenly they are surprised and offended. Too late, I think. In court, an admission of past sins might help lessen your sentence, but it won't get you off for the crimes.

The real money for Imus's show is in the radio part of it. For radio stars, the television simulcast is the cherry on the sundae. MSNBC's general audience, in most cases, can fit comfortably inside a Honda Accord. That is, I suspect, why CBS and WFAN have not booted Imus yet. They are no doubt waiting the situation out, buying time to see if some other celebrity does something stupid enough to push the Imus story off the front pages and free them up to continue raking in the money his show brings in. The two-week suspension isn't a punishment, it's a stall.

But, again, Imus's broadcasters have known what he is all along. If WFAN wants to announce to the world that it was wrong to profit from crap like Imus, and so it has decided to let him go, replace him with a major sports figure (WFAN is a sports station but for Imus's show) and give up the piles of syndication money he brings in, then I am all ears. I will be the first to say the station is acting responsibly. But, I think we all know that the odds of WFAN canning Imus of its own accord is about the same as Imus being asked to introduce Beyonce at her next concert. WFAN will only can Imus if the public pressure on its sponsors gets to the level that it can no longer make money on him.

There is another aspect of Imus-gate that disturbs me. The First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech only applies to the government. That is, the Constitutional right is protection from a governmental entity infringing on citizens' rights to say what they want. Since MSNBC, WFAN and CBS are not governmental entities, they are not bound by the rule. The networks are free to decide, legally speaking, whether or not they want someone saying certain things on their airwaves.

While the amendment may not apply in a private setting, the ideas behind it are just as powerful. The concept, as set out by President Woodrow Wilson above, is that the way to battle bad speech is not through stopping the speech, but by combating it with more speech and forcing it into the light of day. So, if a white supremacist wants to give a speech about why Caucasians are better than other races, we should let him, because he will just make a fool out of himself, and he will be unable to refute the mountains of counter-speech as to why he is wrong.

I think that is a good plan for society. And for that reason, I also think Imus should be allowed to say what he wants. Think about it: Who has sounded more intelligent and rational on this issue, Imus or the Rutgers players? That battle is about as one-sided as a Harlem Globetrotters-Washington Generals game. It is better to let idiots like Imus spew their crap out loud, so that they can be made to look foolish and inconsequential. Making Imus a martyr serves no good interest.

So, I say, "Free Imus," not because I like him, but because he is the very fool Wilson was talking about. I think we are all ready for the next big story on CNN. Britney Spears has been quiet since she left rehab. Maybe she is due to be the next obsession of ABISNN, the Anything But Important Stuff News Network.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

"Grindhouse" Is, Like, Two Movies? No Way!

There was a time when ... [p]eople wrote books and movies. Movies with stories, that made you care about whose ass it was and why it was farting. And I believe that time can come again!
- Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) testifying to Congress in the year 3000 when people had gotten so stupid, an average person in 2006 was a genius by comparison, in Mike Judge's underrated feature film "Idiocracy"

I read something today that made me simultaneously laugh out loud and shake my head at the sad state of the video-game playing, Internet-obsessed, attention-span-challenged American youth.

Harvey Weinstein, head of the Weinstein Company, was lamenting the poor box office opening for his company's film "Grindhouse," the new two-movies-in-one feature directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. After the film's shockingly low opening weekend tally, Weinstein was left with the task of figuring out how a film that got good reviews, tested well with audiences, came from two directors with strong fan bases, and featured the Holy Grail combination of senseless, bloody violence and scantily-clad and nude women, managed to gross a relatively paltry $11.6 million its opening weekend, landing it in fourth place. Box Office Figures

For those of you that have lived in a cave the last couple of weeks and haven't watched a television talk show, picked up an entertainment-related magazine (as if taking direction from Weinstein's marketing department, Entertainment Weekly featured a cover with a provocatively-posed, skin-bearing photo of Rose McGowan and Rosario Dawson sitting on a car with Kurt Russell), or read something on the Internet (which we know isn't true, because you're reading this), "Grindhouse" is a movie that contains two full-length feature films, one directed by Tarantino and one directed by Rodriguez, that are filmed in the style of the tawdry, low-budget productions that filled the "grind-house" theaters in the 1970's. In-between the two features are fake trailers for other make-believe grind-house movies directed by guest directors like Eli Roth.

So, for the price of one movie ticket, you get two full feature films. Or, put another way, you get twice as many movies you normally get for your money. Putting aside the genre and quality of the films, on its face, getting a two-for-one deal is a good thing. Only, somehow, that message failed to get across to the demographic the film was aimed at.

Weinstein said in a New York Post Page Six item, "I don't think people understood what we were doing. The audience didn't get the idea that it is two movies for the price of one."

To which I reply... How? We live in an information-saturated society. Caryn James wrote an article in the New York Times yesterday about how, thanks to the Web and gossip magazines, the existence of a total recluse celebrity in the mold of Howard Hughes or Stanley Kubrick is no longer really possible. Information is everywhere. When you are looking to go to a movie for the weekend, how hard is it to click on one of 14 billion websites to see what the new movies are about?

And yet, apparently, some people were going to "Grindhouse" and then leaving as the credits rolled at the end of the first feature, before the second feature (or the fake trailers) ran, seemingly unaware that there was more than an hour and a half more to go. IMDB Article

Personally, I do not like violent films, and while I have no objection to nudity, I am well past the point in my life where I will go to a film because there are naked women in it. (As an aside, Chris Nashawaty wrote an excellent piece in Entertainment Weekly about his experience as a teenager watching the teen sex movies of the 1980's, and how much harder it was for a teenager to find nudity back then.) So, I had no interest in seeing "Grindhouse." But, this movie was the exact kind of film the younger demographic likes to see, with plenty of pretty girls, blood and things blowing up. That fact makes it hard to dismiss Weinstein's explanation as just bitter, Monday-morning quarterbacking.

In fact, the mogul is putting his corporate money where his mouth is. He is considering dividing up the two features into individual movies and re-releasing them separately. Think about that for a minute. He is going to break the films up, so that people will get half as much for their money, on the (very plausible) assumption that people will be more likely to go. Or, put another way, kids seemingly affirmatively want to pay the same to get less. Why? Because they were too lazy/dense/busy playing World of Warcraft to figure out that "Grindhouse" was two movies. To borrow a saw from an earlier generation, it scares me that these are the people who will be running the country in 20 years. Or, at least, what is left of it.

In the Post piece, Weinstein didn't pretend it made sense. He said, "I don't understand the math, but I want to accommodate the audience." Of course he does. His company made a significant investment, and the finished product met or exceeded expectations, so he has every right to try and recoup his investment. But, really? This is what it has come to? It is not enough that the studios have dumbed down movies and glorified violence in them to appeal to the youth demographic (we live in a post-"Saw" world), but now, are you telling me the studios have to dumb down how the movies are presented, too? Like the youth audience is a two-year-old, and the studio is the mother cutting up their steak for them?

When I see that a segment of the society is so checked out that a company had to do something against the segment's interests to get them to buy its product, I get scared. The implications for the political world, when a disinterested electorate allowed itself to be fooled in 2004, opening the way to a foreign policy debacle, are staggering.

It makes me think that Mike Judge's satiric future in "Idiocracy," with citizens gorging themselves on their easy chairs while watching television shows consisting entirely of people getting kicked in the groin, is more real than any of us would want to admit. In Judge's year 3000, people can barely speak, leaving a prosecutor to say things like, "'Kay. Number one your honor, just look at him. And B, we've got all this, like, evidence, of how, like, this guy didn't even pay at the hospital. And I heard that he doesn't even have his tattoo. ... And I'm all, 'you've gotta be shittin' me!' But check this out man, judge should be like, 'guilty!' Peace." Really, how far off is that from what you see on an MTV dating show like "Parental Control" or "Next"?

It seems to me that we have moved a step further down the mountain when kids can't even figure out what a movie made for them is about. I guess the Weinsteins figure next time, they can advertise on the all-new, all-kicks-to-the-groin show, coming soon to a television set near you.