Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bush's Ahab-Like Obsession With Iraq Is Hampering the U.S. Around the World

All the officers were disloyal. They were always fighting me. If the crew wanted their shirt-tails out, they'd let them. Take the tow line ... defective equipment. But they began spreading wild rumours about steaming in circles, -- and then "Old Yellowstain". I was to blame for Maryk's incompetence. Maryk was the perfect officer, but not Queeg. But the strawberries, that's where I had them.
- Lt. Cmdr. Philip Francis Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) breaking down on the witness stand in the 1954 movie "The Caine Mutiny," screenplay by Stanley Roberts, based on the play by Herman Wouk

I have come to a conclusion that I hope, for the good of the country, Americans are rapidly coming to as well: President George W. Bush is Lt. Cmdr. Philip Francis Queeq, the part made famous by Humphrey Bogart, in "The Caine Mutiny."

Okay, most Americans have never heard of Queeg (and, gasp, maybe even Bogart) at this point. But I think Bush is about three setbacks away from pulling out some ball bearings and muttering utter nonsense about Iraq while the country looks on in horror. After all, we're one-third of the way there. Now we just need the ball bearings and the American people to wake up.

Maybe I chose the wrong literary reference in analyzing Bush. Maybe it would have been better to go with Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick," with Bush's single-mindedness over Iraq leading to his destruction, just like Captain Ahab's obsession with the whale brought him down. (Funny that I would choose two sea captains, one a military man, to compare to a guy who couldn't even see out his cushy National Guard duty during the war in Vietnam.)

In the course of an hour or two today, these headlines appeared in Yahoo!'s top stories:

Seven Dead in NATO Helicopter Crash in Afghanistan

Putin: U.S. Has Triggered New Arms Race

Roh: Offer to Aid North Korea Went Unheeded

Three seemingly unrelated stories. But, really, they are all closely linked in that they represent ways Bush has lost touch with the real problems in the world as he has pursued a poorly-planned, doomed-to-fail, globally indefensible war policy in Iraq.

Let's take a step back. On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 Islamic militants, mostly from Saudi Arabia, under the direction of Osama Bin Laden, hijacked and crashed four American planes, crashed them into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, and killed more than 3,000 people. The Islamic militants who were running Afghanistan at the time, the Taliban, allowed Bin Laden to conduct Al Qaeda training and operations inside its borders.

Notice, the previous paragraph does not contain the word "Iraq." On Sept. 11, 2001, there were no Al Qaeda training camps in Iraq, and the Iraqi government had nothing to do with Al Qaeda or the Sept. 11 attacks.

After Sept. 11, with the support of nearly all Americans, both major U.S. political parties, and most of the world (and our allies in NATO), the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban, the regime that had allowed the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks to operate with impunity. There was nearly no dissent to the U.S. actions. You would think that a logical man would continue the work in Afghanistan, make sure the Taliban was destroyed, show the world that anti-American hatred was unfounded, and continue to bask in the glow of world support.

Unfortunately for the United States, the President did not take that logical step. Instead, he pulled U.S. troops out of Afghanistan to pursue a poorly-thought-out overthrow of the Iraqi government. The result, in Iraq, is that the U.S. is bogged down in the middle of a civil war, losing soldiers to attacks on a daily basis while Iraq descends further and further into chaos and ethnic division. But, even more importantly, the invasion shifted attention away from more serious problems in the world, alarmingly stretched the American military to its limits, eliminated support from other countries, and, crucially, fomented anti-Americanism in the Islamic world, leading to more terrorists and more attacks. If Bin Laden had been able to script Bush's decisions beginning in 2003, I'm sure he would not have changed much from what the President actually did. Bush played into Bin Laden's hands.

Which leads us to the headlines. Thanks to Bush's folly in Iraq, the Taliban and Al Qaeda (and its leader, Bin Laden), the true enemies from the Sept. 11 attacks, are growing stronger. The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan, and American soldiers are dying there, with no reinforcements coming (they're all in Iraq for Bush's "surge"). Had Bush stayed out of Iraq and finished the job in Afghanistan, the headline set out above would likely never have existed.

Which leads us to headline number two, Russia's recent missile tests. Now, it is quite clear to Westerners that the placement of NATO missiles in Eastern Europe is meant to protect European countries from attacks by "rogue" nations, mainly Islamic countries that have anti-Western bents (like Iran). It is quite clear to a Westerner that the missiles are not in any way directed towards Russia. But, any 20-year-old politics major can probably see how all of this would be filtered very differently through the lens of the Russians.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has followed an arc of losing money, power and international relevance while it got its house in order, enduring the indignity of its former satellites thumbing their noses at Moscow, and then rebounding in recent years, flush with oil money and a renewed vigor in engaging in the world. And, during the last several years, Bush, with his Ahab-like obsession with Iraq and Queeg-like loss of perspective, did not recognize any of this and acted as if he purposely wanted to piss off the Russians. With the U.S. having lost all its moral authority in the world, not to mention the respect of most of its allies, it is hard to make the argument stick that the missiles pose no threat to Moscow, even though they don't.

I'm a child of the cold war. It is in my genes not to trust the Russians, and it is clear that the NATO missiles were not aimed at them. But, at the same time, unlike during the 1980s, the words to come out of Moscow cannot be easily dismissed as propaganda. Under Bush, the U.S. is running wild and unchecked in the world. It makes me angry what Bush has done, removing the U.S. from the higher moral ground. And, more importantly, the U.S. did not have to do anything substantively different to avoid this run-in with the Russians. Some basic, entry-level diplomatic skills demonstrated over the last few years could have kept the issue from erupting as it has. Unfortunately, based on their record, it's clear that Bush and his foreign policy team have not shown any interest in, or proficiency with, diplomacy.

Finally, the article on North Korea reminded me that while Bush bellowed about nuclear weapons in Iraq that weren't there, there are two nations that actually have different levels of emerging nuclear proficiency, and both of those countries are led by dangerous, certifiable nut jobs. Only, with the American military severely overextended thanks to the war in Iraq, the U.S. lacks the military power to back up any actions against Iran and North Korea. It's like sitting at a poker table, but your two competitors can see all your cards. It's tough to win that way.

It's amazing to me that Republicans like to sell themselves as the party that will keep you safe, and yet every action Bush has taken on Iraq has made us infinitely less safe. How is he allowed to get away with it with no backlash from the country? It helps when the electorate allows itself to be fooled by diversions and talking points. It also helps when the media doesn't make these issues their lead stories.

I watched CNN for a total of about 90 minutes today, and two stories dominated its coverage, taking up somewhere in the neighborhood of two-thirds of the air time: The tuberculosis case and crash test results of convertibles. The tuberculosis case, while interesting, affected no more than 500 Americans (and I'm being generous here), including the man affected and the people he flew with. It's sensational, but it's not important to the daily lives of Americans. Similarly, how many convertibles are on the road? According to a Motor Trend article, in 2002, convertibles made up 3.8 percent of new car registrations.

In other words, with the U.S. fighting a war in Iraq that kills American soldiers on a daily basis, CNN was reporting on stories that actually affect only a fraction of people in the U.S.

The American people have shown sporadic interest in Bush's incompetence, telling pollsters they don't approve of his performance and handing the Congress to the Democrats in 2006. But, with the Bush administration creating scandal upon scandal, and with the war in Iraq becoming more damaging and more obviously poorly run with each day, I can only hope that it will reach a point where the electorate will erupt and demand changes in the way things are run.

Americans may not remember Queeg or Bogart, but they know delusional when they see it. After all, with the massive media coverage of Paris, Nicole, Anna Nicole, Britney and Lindsay, if American citizens know one thing, it's the face of crazy.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Lou Dobbs Makes Me Wonder: Does "CNN" Stand For "Coddling Nationalist Nutjobs"?

An article in today's New York Times contains some disturbing revelations about CNN anchor Lou Dobbs. But, to me, the story raises even bigger questions about CNN.

Dobbs, who was once known primarily as a business anchor, but he is now primarily thought of as "the guy that hates immigrants." I have to admit, when I saw Lou Dobbs on "Real Time With Bill Maher" a few months ago, I was a bit surprised. While I didn't agree with his ardent xenophobia, I did find him to be fairly smart and thoughtful in his remarks on non-immigration issues. I found it interesting that someone so seemingly in touch with reality could be so over-the-top on a single issue, especially immigration, with its history in U.S. culture. (Visiting Ellis Island is a standard stop for most New York City tourists, no?)

It's easy to dismiss an extremist who is obviously crazy, like, say, white supremacist and former serial Louisiana candidate David Duke. But, much of what Dobbs, who is a populist, stands for is in line with liberal principals. The Times article identifies Dobbs's primary enemies of the middle class (besides immigrants, of course) as "corporate lobbyists, greedy executives, wimpy journalists, and corrupt politicians." I am no fan of any of those four classes of people, and most politicians (on the right and on the left) would agree with Dobbs's assessment of those four groups.

That's what makes Dobbs's jihad-like attack on immigrants so perplexing, and it is also what makes it easy for CNN to close its eyes to what Dobbs is doing. According to the Times article, Dobbs said multiple times on his show and in a "60 Minutes" interview that 7,000 new cases of leprosy have been reported in the last three years. On his show, Dobbs had an on-air showdown with two officials from the Southern Poverty Law Center, and had his facts corroborated by an "expert," a woman named Dr. Madeleine Cosman, who CNN identified as a "medical lawyer." Finally, Dobbs insisted the leprosy number was accurate to the Times reporter, saying, "If we reported it, it’s a fact."

Only, it wasn't. The reporter contacted the director of a U.S. government health program, and he said that there had been 7,000 cases of leprosy in the last 30 years, not the last three. In fact, there were 137 cases last year, which represents a lower total than any year between 1975 and 1996. Oh, and Dr. Cosman, it turns out, was not a medical doctor or a leprosy expert. Her title came from her status as a Renaissance studies scholar. And here's the really fun kicker: According to the Times article, Cosman is a white supremacist sympathizer who has given speeches in which she claimed Mexican immigrants like to molest children because back at home, rape was not a serious crime.

It gets better. Cosman was not some kind of aberration on Dobbs's show. According to the article, Dobbs has such a penchant for giving air time to people like Cosman, the Southern Poverty Law Center maintains an online list of such guests.

To me, really, this is not even about Dobbs. It is not a secret that Dobbs has become obsessed with, and defined by, the immigration issue. No, to me, this is about CNN, which, at one time, was a respected news agency whose face was the respected anchor Bernard Shaw.

I took CNN to task in an April article called "Move Over Anna Nicole, Imus Is in the House!" for clogging its airwaves with stories of no significance. But the Dobbs story is worse. CNN has allowed a fringe nut job to repeatedly make false statements on the air to further a racist agenda. After Dobbs first reported the false figure of 7,000 leprosy cases in the last three years, the Southern Law Poverty Center took out ads in the Times and the USA Today demanding that CNN run a correction. You would think that such prompting would lead a responsible news organization to do an investigation to make sure one of its most well-known personalities wasn't vomiting crap on the air. Nope. CNN took no action. Why was it left to a New York Times reporter, weeks later, to make a simple phone call to a government health program to find out the facts?

A conservative friend of mine said over the weekend that CNN espouses liberal views and is every bit as biased as Fox News, calling CNN the "Communist News Network." I responded that CNN is not liberal, because it doesn't spend enough time on real issues to have an ideology. Stories about Anna Nicole, Paris, Britney, and natural disasters (I guess that last item includes the first three) are not liberal or conservative.

Days later, having read the Times story on Dobbs, the fluff issue seems quaint. Ironically, the "wimpy journalists" Dobbs despises include most of CNN, especially in the network's refusal to straighten out the facts of Dobbs's reports. With challenges facing the U.S. like global warming, the war in Iraq, tensions with a handful of other countries, and the fact that we're stuck with the Bush administration to address them (or not, as the case may be), having CNN abdicate its First Amendment role of checking the government is not just irresponsible, it's dangerous. But, of course, how can the network watch the government if it can't even ensure that it's own anchors aren't reporting racist lies?

Here's a tip, CNN. Click on the Southern Poverty Law Center link in the Times article. It might open your eyes a bit, assuming you can pull them away from Lindsay Lohan's rehab stint for a few seconds.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Bush Still Doesn't Get It on Global Warming

I think we have a problem on global warming. I think there is a debate about whether it’s caused by mankind or whether it’s caused naturally, but it’s a worthy debate. It’s a debate, actually, that I’m in the process of solving.
- President Bush to People Magazine, July 6, 2006

They feel their job is to be this censor of information going out to the public.
- James E. Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in the January 29, 2006 edition of the New York Times, referring to the Bush administration in light of a policy instituted to review his work before publication after he gave a speech on the dangers of global warming

President George W. Bush will never, ever learn. While I could be talking about any number of issues, today I am referring to the news that the United States has rejected the European Union's targets for reducing carbon emissions. You might have missed it, since the announcement came buried amidst stories of bloodshed in Iraq, the battle in Congress over immigration reform and how Roger Clemens is doing against minor league batters.

According to a Yahoo!/AP article, James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, rejected the E.U. plan. The administration always comes up with lame, diversionary excuses that mask its basic distaste for doing anything about global warming. This time, Connaughton offered up a cock-and-bull story about wanting to concentrate on different causes of global warming than the E.U. targets. But make no mistake, rejecting environmental moves under the guise of taking a different approach is straight out of the administration's playbook of diversions.

When Bush was running for President in 2000, he would not even admit that global warming was real. He hid behind the "scientists have different opinions" argument for as long as it would carry him. It worked in 2000, but his problem now is that people have been made aware of the incontrovertible nature of the evidence that shows that global warming exists and is caused by man-made factors. While Bush now has to admit that global warming is real, as the quote above illustrates, he is still trying to fudge the causes, trying to leave just enough of an opening to continue to do absolutely nothing useful to address the problem. The New York Times article quoted above shows that as recently as 17 months ago, the administration was still trying to keep wraps on talk about the global warming issue.

The U.S. rejecting E.U. standards on carbon emissions, taken in light of Bush's history on global warming, shows that the administration still refuses to take the issue seriously, despite the cavalcade of evidence that action needs to be taken.

But make no mistake: When it comes to issues, Bush's number one priority is not finding the facts, protecting the environment, or ensuring the safety of Americans. Rather, the President wants to protect business, especially his oil buddies, above all.

Connaughton's announcement of the U.S. decision (made during a trip to Europe with members of Congress) has gotten little media attention. The article says that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) "said she wants to work with the Bush administration rather than provoke it." Why? Why are the Democrats so terrified of a President with such a horrendous record on the environment (so bad it drove his first head of the EPA, Christine Todd Whitman, straight out of office)?

Whether it was Jimmy Carter backtracking on his comments critical of Bush, or Congressional leaders caving to Bush on the Iraq funding bill, the Democrats insist, time and time again, on showing the world that they are too weak to stand up to a President with an approval rating below the freezing mark. Americans now believe in global warming. The Democrats need to take a leadership role in promoting measures to lower greenhouse gases, not worry about "provoking" a President who is in full-on ostrich pose, his head firmly planted in the ground.

Bush may, as the quote above relates, think he's in the process of solving the causes of global warming. I'm not sure a lot of people are breathing a sigh of relief at that one. It's not like the President has a great record of solving most of the problems the country faces. The minute he puts up the "Mission Accomplished" banner on global warming, that's when we'll know for sure that we are in big trouble.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye, Carl Pavano

He needs to show a lot of people that he wants to go out there and pitch for us. ... It didn’t look good from a player’s and a teammate’s standpoint. … As another starting pitcher who has not been 100 percent all of the last two years, I know what it takes to go out there and pitch. … Actions speak louder than words.
- Yankee starting pitcher Mike Mussina on Carl Pavano during spring training in February 2007 (Article by Yankee beat writer Peter Abraham)

He hasn't been here. You can't really miss someone that hasn't been here.

- Yankee captain Derek Jeter during spring training in February 2007 when asked about Carl Pavano (Link to Article)

My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.
- Gerald Ford after taking the Presidential oath of office on August 9, 1974 (Link to Speech)

More than $2 million a start. No, that is not what Roger Clemens will cost the New York Yankees this year. It is the return on the team's investment in Carl Anthony Pavano.

Prior to the 2005 season, the Yankees fought off the Boston Red Sox and other suitors to land Pavano on a four-year contract for just less than $40 million. Not bad for a guy who, while coming off an 18-8 season for the Florida Marlins, had a career record of 57-58 and a propensity to spend time on the disabled list (in his first five years in the big leagues, his highest single-season inning total was an underwhelming 136).

For its $40 million, the Yankees got 19 starts and a 5-6 record over the last two plus seasons, including one improbable opening day start this season when Andy Pettitte suffered an injury late in spring training. Now it looks like Pavano's career Yankee stats will be frozen right there, as he is about to undergo ligament-replacement surgery (known in baseball circles as Tommy John surgery), which, in a best-case scenario, would have Pavano pitching again in August of 2008, with two or three baseball months left on his Yankee contract. ( Article)

And, really, with Carl Pavano, when has anything followed the best-case scenario?

The guy made 17 starts his first year with the team, putting up a 4-6 record, before shutting himself down with a mysterious arm ailment that at first didn't seem to be season-ending, but ended up being just that. He proceeded to miss his entire second season with the team, succumbing to a series of injuries that had teammates questioning his toughness and desire to pitch. This year he managed two starts before hitting the disabled list with pain in his forearm.

Mike Mussina's quote set out above seemed to be a common view in the clubhouse. Last season, after one of his endless comebacks was derailed by two broken ribs sustained in a car accident (that he failed to report to team officials for several days), a teammate hung a newspaper with the headline "Crash Test Dummy" in Pavano's Yankee Stadium locker. ( Article) Of course, Pavano wasn't there to see the prank, because for most of his Yankee career, he was anywhere but with the team.

The unique aspect of baseball is that it features the longest season of any sport (162 games), with the fewest teams making the playoffs at the end of the campaign (four in each league). The season is a grind, with teams rewarded for being able to sustain excellence for long stretches. Short-term winning and losing streaks are less important, often balanced out over the course of a long season.

As a result, while baseball lacks the violent body contact of football or hockey, or the constant movement and cutting of basketball, the daily grind of playing every day takes its toll on players' bodies, and nearly every player is forced to deal with some kind of pain. The ability to go out and help your teammates when you are less than 100 percent is a valued trait among baseball players. Pavano was never viewed as being that guy.

The Yankees clubhouse is often called "business-like." It's used as both a compliment (the guys know what it takes to win) and an insult (it can be stodgy and less fun than in other cities). The result, though, is that there are not a lot of petty agendas amongst the players. Did you testify to a grand jury that you knowingly (Jason Giambi) or unknowingly (Gary Sheffield) did steroids? Didn't seem to matter. If you were a good teammate, you were welcome in the Yankee clubhouse. What about a history of drug abuse (Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry)? Again, are you a good teammate? Then, you are welcome.

For Pavano to make enemies and have it rise to the level of a quiet guy like Mike Mussina burying him to the press, he had to be doing something fairly extraordinary. He will be forever tagged as one of those guys who got his contract and put his engine on cruise control.

It is no secret in baseball circles that long-term contracts can be dangerous to players' psyches. Competitors like Derek Jeter (who is in the midst of a 10-year, $189 million contract) seem unaffected, driven to win regardless of his contractual situation. Other players seem to play for their contract and then relax once they have it. Third baseman Adrian Beltre, for example, signed a five-year, $64 million contract with the Seattle Mariners after batting .334 with 48 home runs and 121 runs batted in for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004. He proceeded to hit a total of 44 home runs in his next two seasons while his batting average plummeted to the .260 range.

Sure, Pavano may have been unlucky and suffered injury after injury through no fault of his own. But the fact remains that he signed a long-term deal and then disappeared. When the news hits the Yankee locker room tomorrow (they're off today) that Pavano's Yankee career is probably over, I'm sure it will get no more than shrugs from his teammates. As Jeter said in the quote at the top of this article, you can't miss someone who hasn't been around.

But the closure of the Pavano issue, whether his teammates admit it or not, should provide them with a bit of an exhale, giving them some hope that they can stop answering questions about him or deal with him as an issue. For them, President Ford's quote of the nightmare being over may be more appropriate. Only, don't look for the players to issue Pavano any pardons.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Bush Keeps Appointing Cronies, But Dems Fight Back on CPSC Appointee

He has done nothing wrong.
- President George Bush on Alberto Gonzales, as reported by a Yahoo!/AP article, May 21, 2007

You would think that competence would rise above partisanship. But if you are talking about President Bush, you would be wrong.

Buried at the heart of the disaster that has been the Bush presidency is a fundamental way of doing business that differs from all of Bush's recent predecessors, regardless of party affiliation. It's a no-brainer that a Republican President will appoint conservatives to office, while a Democratic President will look for more liberal candidates. That's fine. But, until this President, both sides looked for candidates that were qualified.

President Bush, on the other hand, puts cronyism ahead of competency. He judges his candidates for appointment not on whether they have the skills and experience to do their jobs, but rather if they will be loyal to the White House, keep their mouths shut, and carry out the administration's policies, regardless of their job descriptions or responsibilities to the American people and the Constitution. That's why cronies score higher than unknowns with skill and experience.

It wasn't always like that.

For example, Robert H. Bork was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Senate did not confirm him. Bork was conservative and an advocate of an "original intent" approach to applying the Constitution, an approach that severely limited the protections afforded by the document. A majority of Senators found his judicial philosophy odious, and Bork was blocked from taking his seat on the nation's highest court.

But, nobody claimed that Bork was not competent. Before he was nominated, he had served as Solicitor General, Acting Attorney General (he was the one during the "Saturday Night Massacre" who finally heeded President Richard Nixon's demand to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox after Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus refused to do so and resigned), and a judge on the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. He earned his law degree at the prestigious University of Chicago School of Law.

Compare Bork's record to the one sported by one of President Bush's Supreme Court nominees, Harriet Miers. She received her law degree from Southern Methodist University, nothing to be ashamed of, but not an institution noted for Constitutional scholarship. She spent virtually her entire career until she went to work for Bush when he was elected President at a Dallas law firm as a commercial litigator. Again, nothing to be ashamed of, but not the background that would qualify someone to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court where one is expected to have substantial experience with, and knowledge of, Constitutional law issues. However, as part of Bush's crew of loyal Texans, he thought she should be a justice. The way baseball owners hire their kids and buddies to executive positions, Bush acts like he thinks he is still the owner of the Texas Rangers, and government offices are there for his buddies to fill.

Even in a Senate controlled by Republicans, Miers's nomination was so inappropriate she was forced to withdraw herself from consideration when the level of opposition to her appointment became clear.

Miers was far from the only Bush choice of cronyism over competency. Rather, it has been the norm in this White House. The administration is littered with officials who were qualified only because they were from Texas, or they were affiliated with the right religious leader. (An April blog entry of mine discussed the competence issue, specifically regarding Monica Goodling serving as the number three person at the Justice Department without any prosecutorial experience, but she did graduate from Pat Robertson's Messiah College.)

Despite Bush's expression of confidence in Alberto Gonzales, he is one of the few people who think he should remain as Attorney General. Republicans rubber-stamped his appointment by Bush even though Gonzales, too, seemed only to be qualified based on his membership in Bush's Texas cronies club.

And, Bush has not learned. Even after watching the American people hand Congress over to the control of the Democrats, Bush keeps appointing cronies. Today, according to a Yahoo!/AP article, his nominee to run the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Michael Baroody, was forced to withdraw his nomination in the face of protests from Senate Democrats. Why were they upset? It seems that Mr. Baroody, according to a Yahoo!/AP article, is a lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers, pursued anti-consumer policies, and was set to receive a $150,000 payment from the group before he headed off to government service.

So, let's get this straight: Bush appointed a man whose job has been to get around consumer protection rules, and who will be paid a lot of money by the main group who doesn't want consumer protection rules enforced, to enforce consumer protection rules. This is the proverbial wolf guarding the henhouse. Of course, Bush doesn't see it that way, with a White House spokesperson saying in the Yahoo!/AP article, that it's "unfortunate" that the Democratic Senators are judging Baroody "by press reports instead of personal conversations." What could he say? That he wasn't a lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers? That he didn't work against consumer interests? That he wasn't set to receive $150,000? That he's a new man?

What really is irking Bush is that when the Republicans controlled Congress, he was allowed, as a matter of course, to appoint wolves to watch the federal government's henhouses. You know, like having the Vice President put together a task force to determine energy policy, but conveniently leaving out that the energy companies, including Enron, made up the members of the task force. ( Article) Or, the way Christine Todd Whitman decided to leave as head of the Environmental Protection Agency after being prevented from actually trying to protect the environment (Here is one of many articles on the topic.)

But now, with the Democrats controlling the Senate, Bush can no longer just slide a crony or an industry tool into office. With all the "bigger" stories out there (the Iraq funding bill, rocketing gas prices, Paris Hilton's impending incarceration), the Baroody story seems to be off the media's radar, save for a quick mention.

To me, the story is important because it stands as a symbolic changing of the guard. The Democrats, who need some positive press after surrendering on the Iraq war funding legislation battle, acted to stop the White House from putting yet another crony into office. Hopefully, they will continue to stand firm and bat incompetent appointees back into the administration's lap. Bush can keep offering as much blind, idiotic support for Alberto Gonzales as he wants. The job of the Democrats is to keep the next Gonzales-like appointment from being confirmed.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Democrats Surrender to Bush on Iraq Funding

... we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender ...
- Prime Minister Winston Churchill in a speech to the House of Commons, June 4, 1940 (from the Churchill Centre site)

President George Bush finally accomplished something he has long been unable to do in Iraq: He got an enemy to lay down and give up the fight. The Democrats indicated yesterday that they will send an Iraq war funding bill to the President without any timetables or limitations, according to a Yahoo!/AP article. In other words, after a bruising fight, the Democrats are going to hand Bush exactly what he has wanted all along.

Some will say Congress made a statement, letting the White House know that there is substantial discontent with the war and the way it has been conducted. I would argue that the message is actually the opposite. Bush will take from this that it may take a little effort, but even with Democratic majorities in both houses, he can do exactly what he wants.

I am gutted that the Democrats have laid down and quit.

I fully acknowledge that the Democrats were in a very difficult position. Their majorities in both houses are very narrow. Many Democrats are worried (and not without reason) that any failure to put funding in place would be successfully spun by the Republicans as the Democrats failing to support the troops. And, there are a lot of conservative Democrats who are conflicted about how to handle the war. In the Senate, there really is no edge at all, since Sen. Joe "I Think I Represent Red Alabama, Not Blue Connecticut" Lieberman seems to love the Iraq war more than Donald Trump loves himself. (If you live in Connecticut and do not want a Republican Senator, this Yahoo!/Bloomberg article on Lieberman will terrify you.)

Fighting on would have been a risk, but I believe it was a risk the Democrats should have taken. As I've said over and over again, the American people handed control of Congress to the Democrats for one and only one reason: They were angry with the country's Iraq war policy. Thus, the Democrats' one and only one marching order was to change that policy. By surrendering, they have failed. And I believe that the American people will not offer them a prize for second place. There will be no brownie points, and no "A" for effort. With more Americans dying, more dangers for America in the world, and more American resources being poured into a bottomless pit of a civil war while real problems rage around the world, the American people will blame the Democrats in Congress for not doing their jobs. Not only that, the surrender will confirm what too many Americans already believe, that the Democrats are weak.

(As an aside, the backlash to Bush and his policies is only beginning. For example, A USA Today article reported that one in four Muslims in the United States think that suicide bombing is acceptable in certain circumstances. It is naive to think that this administration's policies are not creating enemies around the world, not to mention inside our borders.)

I think if the Democrats went down fighting, they would have won in the long run. First of all, they would have been fighting to uphold their beliefs, something the party is too often accused of not doing. Second, they could rightfully argue that they were working to carry out the will of the American people and the mandate of their election, something for which they would ultimately be rewarded by the voters.

Finally, the Democrats should have fought on because it was the right thing to do. History will judge the Bush presidency and the war in Iraq as a tragic, disastrous period of American history, and the Democrats would have been lauded for opposing a corrupt and incompetent administration. Even if the Republicans had been successful in painting the Democrats as obstructionists to the troops, the short-term hit would have been far less damaging than the fundamental blow to the party that will come from the decision to back off and give the President what he wants.

How can any Democratic Presidential candidate who sits in the Senate (which, obviously, includes the two front runners, as well as a handful of also-rans) go in front of the American people and have any credibility in advocating change? How can they claim to be able to have the fortitude necessary to run the country during difficult times when they couldn't even stand up to a President with a 28% approval rating?

The Winston Churchill quote set out at the top of this piece was uttered at a time when his country was under attack by a powerful enemy, and there was a real question as to whether England would be able to survive, let alone prevail. (The entry of the United States into the war was still 18 months away.) I'm sure Bush would use the quote as a rallying cry for sticking with his war, but he would miss the key difference, that he is pursuing a policy that only threatens the security of his nation. I would not want to trivialize Churchill's quote by comparing the sacrifices and risks of the English people with the strategy decisions of a group of politicians, but I wish the Democrats would have adopted some of Churchill's passion and continued the fight against Bush's war. If they did, there would be that much less of a chance that the American people will someday find themselves facing the uncertain future of England in 1940.

The Democrats seem to be listening to Demosthenes, who famously said, "He who fights and runs away will live to fight another day." I fear that the advice is about as current as the quote (338 B.C.). It seems to me that now that the Democrats have run away from this fight, they won't be around for any battles after the November 2008 elections. Their surrender is more likely to give us another stretch of Republican control of the federal government, which certainly does not qualify as a win by any measure.

Within three hours of posting this article, I received two separate mass emails from the Democratic National Committee, neither of which addressed the party's surrender in Congress. One talked about how well Democrats were looking in some contested 2008 U.S. Senate races, and the other was about Alberto Gonzales. While those are important issues, the emails seemed ill-timed. The silence on Iraq was deafening. I would rather have received an explanation of the decision to cave on Iraq with a plan of attack on how the Democrats in Congress would move on the future to check Bush on the war. Alas, that email has not arrived.

And then later, a Yahoo!/AP article about the Iraq war funding bill that is likely to get passed had the following paragraphs:

Republicans said that after weeks of struggle, they had forced Democrats to give up their demand for a date to withdraw the troops.

"I'm optimistic that we will achieve the following: a full four-month funding bill without surrender dates. I think there's a good chance of that," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (news, bio, voting record) of Kentucky.

Rep. John Boehner (news, bio, voting record) of Ohio, the House Republican leader, added, "Democrats have finally conceded defeat in their effort to include mandatory surrender dates in a funding bill for the troops, so forward progress has been made for the first time in this four-month process."

It's only the first day, and already this is being spun as a loss for the Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's defense of the bill was not convincing, saying Democrats would look to other legislation to "continue our battle — and that's what it is — to represent the American people like they want us to represent them, to change the course of the war in Iraq."

It's a nice thought, but I'm afraid that in light of the Democrats' surrender this time, it will only embolden Republicans to fight any future bills.

I hope I am wrong, but already it looks like the Democrats' decision to give the President what he wants in Iraq is going to have long-term, negative represucssions for the party.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Carter Shouldn't Back Off Statements Critical of Bush

The overt reversal of America's basic values as expressed by previous administrations, including (those of) George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon and others, has been the most disturbing to me.
- Jimmy Carter, on President George W. Bush, to the
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, according to a Yahoo!/Reuters article

Former President Jimmy Carter's track record may be lacking in many areas, but history has showed that he is not scared to express his beliefs. So, why is he retreating from his statements on President George W. Bush's presidency faster than a cash-strapped consumer from a gas pump?

Over the weekend, the story broke that in an interview with the
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Carter called the Bush administration, among other things, "the worst in history," according to a Yahoo!/Reuters article. The White House shot back quickly, calling Carter "irrelevant."

Carter, especially in his role as an ex-President, has never shied away from expressing his beliefs, no matter how controversial they were. Late last year he released a book called, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," and he immediately took heat from multiple points on the political spectrum for his critical words for Israel. (Washington Post Article on the Backlash) Despite the heat, Carter stood firm.

Personally, I found Carter's argument (essentially equating Israel's handling of the Palestinians with South Africa's apartheid government) irresponsible, unenlightened and way off base. But, I did admire his guts in taking such an unpopular position, as well as his conviction in standing firm and taking the heat that came with it. I wrote off the incident as one misstep in an otherwise distinguished post-Presidential career.

So I found it shocking how quickly and completely Carter retreated from his assessment of the Bush White House. According to a Yahoo!/AP article, today Carter said he was
"careless or misinterpreted," and that he was only responding to a question asking him to compare Bush's foreign policy with the one employed by the Nixon administration. Carter said, "I wasn't comparing the overall administration and I was certainly not talking personally about any president."

First of all, Carter's latest claim is, to use the scholarly term, a load of revisionist dog crap. The statement "I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history" on its face compares Bush's policies to those of every other presidency. That's what "worst in history" means. If, for whatever reason, Carter felt a need to backtrack, why not at least be honest and say he spoke too quickly? To try and twist his statement, after the fact, into something it wasn't is dishonest and below someone of Carter's stature.

Second, why not? That is, what would be so bad about saying what a ton of Carter's fellow Americans believe? That this administration has been marked by arrogance, deception and incompetence, and has led the country to the edge of an abyss. Why is Carter suddenly timid now?

Outlining the entire list of offenses of the Bush administration could be a post in itself. More of a research paper, really. Maybe even a PhD thesis. But, to kind of shorthand it, SportsCenter style, even if you put aside the litany of Bush administration scandals (Valerie Plame and leaning on a severely ill John Ashcroft to sign off on warantless wiretaps, to name just two), Bush's completely disastrous decision to invade Iraq and his incompetency in running the war, all while dropping the ball on the real war on terror in Afghanistan, certainly puts him in the discussion for the worst President ever.

In 1976, Carter articulated a "Misery Index," representing the sum of the unemployment and inflation rates, on his way to winning his election against President Gerald Ford. Four years later, with the economy in worse shape, Ronald Reagan used the statistic in his campaign against Carter, pointing out that it had grown from 12.5% to more than 20% (1980 Presidential Debate Transcript).

The Misery Index seems quaint today. Maybe the 2008 Democratic nominee for President should come up with the World Image Index or the Body Count Index to articulate the damage that Bush has done to the United States and its place in the world. But, destroying America as a place with the moral high ground on issues like justice, rule of law and defending the Constitution is not something you can easily reduce to a memorable statistic.

Even in the absence of a catchy sound bite, Bush has put the United States in a horrendous position. Carter's quote, cited at the top of this piece, nails the issue right on the head. Bush has taken the most precious, core American values and discarded them in his egomaniacal, religion-fueled mania to pursue his vision of a foreign policy, one that has alienated all but the most loyal (or blind, depending how you look at it) allies. ("Abominable. Loyal, blind, apparently subservient," is how Carter described Blair, according to the Yahoo!/Reuters article.)

I'm sure Carter does not want to be perceived as violating the civility Presidents traditionally show each other. (Don't believe me? Based on how much time they spend together, I think George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton are one natural disaster away from sneaking off to Massachusetts to get married.) But by stating something that is both factually supportable and popularly believed, and then backing off of it so quickly, Carter is sending a message that there was something wrong with his original statement. Such a consequence is far worse than the violation of some outdated notion of not criticizing a fellow President.

I do not stand behind the White House claim that Carter is irrelevant, but I hope on the issue of Bush's performance, his change of heart is not perceived as being important. Irrelevancy for Carter in this one area is fine with me.

Friday, May 18, 2007

My Email to's Bill Simmons

I know I don't usually post on Fridays, but today I was reading Bill Simmons's column on, and he started it by running the current American League East standings that show his beloved Red Sox nine-and-a-half games ahead of my beloved Yankees. And then he ran them again in bigger print.

I think Bill Simmons is a funny writer, and he sometimes makes interesting observations about sports (and sometimes writes things that make as much sense as a former crappy Texas Rangers owner running the country).

But, considering that baseball is a 162-game season with ups and downs, I thought it was very silly for him to be gloating about the Red Sox so early in the season. So, I decided to email him. And, of course, I made sure the email took on the general snarky tone of his column. It was meant as a compliment to him, even as I was kind of ripping him a new one. (Not that he gives a damn what I think or knows me from a hole in the Green Monster.)

I figured, since I don't usually write on Fridays, I might as well post the email here. Here goes:

Hi Bill.

Did you enjoy showing the A.L. East standings (twice)? In May?

Let's list all of the teams that were handed tickets to the playoffs in May: Okay, we're done.

Where were the Twins in May last year? Much in the same place as the Yanks now.

Look, I know so far the Red Sox have looked bulletproof, and the Yanks have looked old, broken down, and passionless (except for Jeter and Posada, who are just amazing). And, it won't be easy for the Yanks to catch the Sox at this point.

But, again, it's May. The season ends in October, four and a half months from now. That's enough time for Paris Hilton to serve her sentence, get out, and get busted again for doing something brainless.

Professionals (i.e., Yankee fans who have been there many times before) know the time to celebrate is October (or November, as MLB has decided ... Hey Bud, why not play 12 months a year and have the World Series in December every year?). Amateurs (i.e. Red Sox fans, who have seen fewer World Series victories than Marlins fans) celebrate in May.

I never took you for an amateur, Bill. It's sad.

Enjoy it. Because if the Red Sox blow it, payback will be a Paris Hilton (Paris Hilton and bitch are synonyms, right?).


Thursday, May 17, 2007

Does Anyone Care That Bush Did Wiretaps Without the Justice Department's Permission?

This is Earth. Isn't it hot?
- Paris Hilton, according to

With all the important news stories of the last few days (no, I’m not talking about Paris Hilton’s jail sentence being commuted for “good behavior,” which is funny because she probably thinks “good behavior” means telling somebody who is unattractive that they’re “hot”), it seemed to slip under the radar that in 2004, the Bush administration decided to flush the U.S. Constitution down the toilet like it was a job application from a qualified candidate who was not from Texas or Pat Robertson’s college.

A Yahoo!/AP article reported that former Deputy Attorney General James Comey testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that when he was acting Attorney General while John Aschcroft was in the hospital with pancreatitis in March 2004, he was asked by the White House to certify a program of warrantless wiretaps. He refused, citing his concern, as well as concerns expressed by Ashcroft before he got sick, that the program lacked proper oversight and may not have been constitutional.

This was in the heady days for the Bush administration when Congress, run by Republicans, let the White House run wild, like a spoiled four-year-old with an indulgent babysitter. So, of course, the White House did exactly what you would expect them to do: They went to the hospital to try and get Ashcroft to certify the program from his sick bed, and when that gambit failed, they went ahead with the program anyway, acting for three weeks without the approval of the country’s highest law enforcement official.

Ashcroft only certified the program after he was satisfied by certain modifications. But, Comey told the Senate panel, before the accommodation was reached, he, Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller all considered resigning.

This is the kind of story you expect to hear coming out of a country with questionable freedoms like Russia, not the United States, which was once the symbol of democracy to the world. Thanks to the Bush administration, though, we are now the symbol of toppling sovereign governments, torture, detention camps in Guantanamo Bay, and seizing executive power without regard to the rule of law.

But wait, it gets worse. Who from the White House invaded Ashcroft’s hospital room seeking to authorize the patently un-American practice of spying on citizens without a court order? None other than current Attorney General and then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales. So, to be clear, the current highest law enforcement official in the country tried to lean on the then Attorney General, Sopranos style, to sign off on unconstitutional behavior by the administration. You can almost see Gonzales running his fingers up and down Ashcroft’s IV line while saying, “You getting all the medicine you need? Would you like it to stay that way?”

And yet there has barely been a peep about this in the media, which is outrageous to me, because in so many ways, this story stinks of disgrace.

First of all, how low have you fallen when John Ashcroft, the man who thinks dancing is a sin and covered up a statue in the Justice Department that had been there for years because the woman was too nude for his tastes, tells you that you have gone too far? (I almost wrote he was “to the left of you,” but it occurred to me that upholding the constitution shouldn’t be a liberal-conservative thing, but a not-a-fascist thing.) If you have acted so outrageously that Ashcroft considered resigning, you really have strayed into some extreme waters.

More importantly, this incident demonstrates two flaws in the Bush administration’s outlook on governing that has dragged this country into the sorry state it currently finds itself. First, its idea that the Justice Department is an extension of the Republican Party. The unprecedented midterm firings of the eight U.S. Attorneys were a symptom of the politicization of Justice that was equally visible in the hospital confrontation in 2004. The mind-set of the administration is/was that the Attorney General’s job was to support the White House’s policies, not, you know, enforce the law.

In 2004, Gonzales was the White House Counsel, so his job was to advise and protect the President. While his portfolio has changed, his actions and attitudes have not. Now that he is at Justice, his obligation is to enforce the law, not to support the President. He just does not act that way. If his conflicting explanations, “I do not remember” performance in front of the Senate committee, and lack of competency are not enough for his ousting, the 2004 hospital incident, and all that it symbolizes, should be the last nudge that pushes him out the door and back on a plane to Texas.

Second, the 2004 incident shows the basic administration belief that they know what is best, and anything that gets in the way (from the husband of an undercover CIA agent to the Constitution) is just a roadblock keeping them from their goals, and one that they are allowed to ram over, regardless of the consequences. There is no room for dissent or alternative approaches. It’s the White House’s way or the highway, regardless of the law or the very nature of a democratic society.

This administration took one of the greatest tragedies this country ever faced, the 9/11 attacks, and used them as a convenient excuse to expand the power of the President at the expense of the rights of the citizens and, as importantly, the very open and democratic nature of our form of government. (Not to mention, to start an unjustified, catastrophic war in Iraq.) It’s a disgrace, and the casual discarding of the Constitution in 2004 is just one example of the administration’s hubris.

If the President acting outside of the Justice Department and the law to violate the rights of American citizens is not a news story, what is? The media has dropped the ball on this one. One might say they were anything but "hot."

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Gilmore Girls Say Good-Bye After Seven Years

The final episodes of classic television series too often leave a bad taste in viewers' mouths. For every funny-touching group hug/nose blowing at the end of the "Mary Tyler Moore Show," it seems like there are many more huge misses, like Jerry and his friends being arrested and put on trial in "Seinfeld," or "Hawkeye" being carted off to a mental hospital in "M*A*S*H." In trying to do too much, the show runners sometimes forget what made their shows great.

When the CW announced two weeks ago that "Gilmore Girls" would not return for an eighth season next year, I was convinced that the series finale would more likely be off-key than a tribute to the show's great run.

Executive producer Amy Sherman-Palladino, who departed after the sixth season, had created an array of quirky, interesting characters, hired some of the best actors on television to play them, and given them sharp, witty words to say. A lot of words. Like, twice as many words as the average show. The dialogue flew around the set like pinballs careening off of the walls, challenging viewers to keep up or duck behind a bumper for cover. You were equally responsible for getting references to literary greats and 1980s pop bands.

Centered on the relationship between Lorelai Gilmore (the criminally underrated Lauren Graham) and her daughter/best friend, Rory (Alexis Bledel), and featuring a supporting cast of relatives, like Lorelai's wealthy, conservative, strong-willed (think G. Gordon Liddy) parents, Richard and Emily (Edward Hermann and Kelly Bishop), and an array of quirky-but-somehow-still-human folks in Stars Hollow, Conn., including Lorelai's soul mate, diner owner Luke (Scott Patterson), "Gilmore Girls" was unlike any show on television.

But, after Sherman-Palladino left the show after the sixth season, the writing took a nosedive. Under new executive producer David Rosenthal, the scripts took on the tics of the show, but the heart and soul of the characters were lost. Simply repeating a random word back and forth is no more a piece of "Gilmore Girls" dialogue than spilling a can of paint on a canvas makes a Jackson Pollack painting. The show became a parody of itself. Quirk for the sake of quirk. And, worst of all, it often felt like the writers had never seen the show before. Characters did things that any fan of the show would know they would never do.

Yeah, the second half of the season got better, once Lorelai's short-lived wedding to Rory's father, the flaky, man-child Christopher (David Sutcliffe), was put out of its (and our) misery. But, Rosenthal had not shown enough to convince me that he could handle wrapping up Sherman-Palladino's creation in a satisfying way. Not to mention, the ill-conceived Christopher plotline left only a handful of episodes for Lorelai to reconcile with Luke, a result that was inevitable. Throw in that the official decision to cancel the show only came two weeks ago, and the recipe was in place for a disastrous finale. (Lorelai and Rory join a convent together? Paul Anka, Lorelai's sweet-but-crazy dog, gets a hold of a bad can of dog food and goes crazy, chewing Lorelai and Rory to death? Or, even worse, Christopher comes back and remarries Lorelai?) I assumed nothing good could come of this combination of factors.

As Felix Unger once noted to the court in the classic ticket scalping episode of "The Odd Couple," when you assume, you make an "ass" out of "u" and "me." And, I certainly am looking donkey-like right now. The "Gilmore Girls" finale was pitch-perfect.

If you have TiVoed the show and not watched it yet, I'd advise you to stop reading for a paragraph or eight.

The pilot set up the central conflict of the show: Lorelai makes a deal with the devil (a.k.a. her mother), under which Emily will pay for Rory to go to the prestigious prep school Chilton, but Lorelai and Rory have to join her for dinner every Friday. Lorelai, who would rather eat a salad for dinner than spend time with her mother (for you non-Gilmore aficionados, Lorelai and Rory eat like truckers on a cross-country haul), makes the ultimate sacrifice so that Rory can go to Chilton and have a chance to get into Harvard (she ended up at Yale, but the point is the same) and have a successful career. As silly and immature as Lorelai could be, she was completely devoted to her daughter.

So, any finale had to let us see that Lorelai's sacrifice was worth it. And, Rosenthal recognized this and paid off our expectations in a realistic and satisfying way. In the next-to-last episode, Rory graduated from Yale, but while her longtime friend/rival Paris got into Harvard Medical School (and every other place she applied), Rory didn't get the New York Times internship she had been dreaming about. But, in the final episode, she gets a job covering the Obama campaign for the website she had been freelancing for. Not the Times, but not too shabby. It was an appropriate and satisfying resolution. The cherry on the sundae was that Rory even got to meet her oft-talked about idol, Christiane Amanpour. What the cameo lacked in believability, it more than made up for it in nodding to the show's history.

Even more importantly, the ending didn't try and suddenly make Emily into a warm, fuzzy mother. Let's face it, she did things to Lorelai that would have caused me never to speak with her again if she was my mother. Emily actively tried to break up her daughter's relationship with Luke, and betrayed Lorelai when Rory dropped out of Yale. If Emily and Lorelai had some kind of kiss-and-make-up moment in the finale, it would have been too false for words. At heart, Emily has always wanted to be closer to Lorelai, and her Friday night dinners were the only way she knew how to get what she wanted. So it was perfect how Emily spent the episode trying to get Lorelai to put a spa into her inn, and when Lorelai figures out what is behind it (another loan, another Friday night dinner commitment), Lorelai lets her off the hook and agrees to continue the Friday night dinner tradition. The relationship had a small, reasonable amount of development. It was also true to the characters that when Lorelai made the gesture, Emily had a moment of relief, followed immediately by a put down of Lorelai (telling her not to wear jeans).

Finally, as I mentioned, the biggest pitfall was Lorelai and Luke. Two episodes earlier, Luke had walked into a bar as Lorelai was singing "I Will Always Love You" to Rory, only to have Lorelai lock eyes with him, leading the whole town to talk about the moment. Everyone (including Luke and Lorelai) figured that it was the beginning of their reconciliation. (As an aside, the kind of little thing that makes this show great is Rory noting to her best friend, Lane, during the song that Lorelai was channeling Dolly, not Whitney.)

But, as happens with these star-crossed lovers, miscommunications left both Luke and Lorelai feeling like the moment was meaningless, and they would be nothing more than friends. And, that feeling prevailed until 45 minutes into the finale, when Lorelai learns that Luke was the one behind Rory's surprise send-off by the town.

At the end of the fifth season, Lorelai proposed to Luke after watching him passionately go on about how they were going to stop Rory from dropping out of Yale and living with her grandparents. It was Luke being there for Lorelai and her daughter, over and over again, for years and years, that was at the heart of Lorelai's feelings for him. So, it was only fitting that Luke's herculean efforts to pull together a proper good-bye for Rory would be the thing that pushed Lorelai to break through their static and rekindle their relationship.

But, in a move that was more Sherman-Palladino than Rosenthal, Lorelai kisses Luke, but we only see it for a couple of seconds before the camera moves off to Rory's party in the town square. We never see them talk. We never see Luke give Lorelai the necklace he had planned to give her after the karaoke incident. Instead, we just see Luke open the diner early so Lorelai and Rory can have breakfast on her last day in town, and he is close by but not in the way. And, of course, Lorelai is wearing the necklace.

The vast majority of the posters to the "Gilmore Girls" boards on were up in arms that we were not shown much of the Luke and Lorelai reunion. But, to me, the decision was dead on. It was subtle and, more importantly, true to the characters. It wasn't showy, but, again, finales get into trouble trying to do too much. For this show, the understated reunion was perfectly in character.

It has long been an easy saw to bash television networks for putting crap on the air. But, the truth is, for the last few years, they have actually done a good job of developing quality programming. You can easily make the argument that television has passed the movies in making innovative fiction as Hollywood intensified its pursuit of tent-pole projects. The problem is, most of the quality programming has been restricted to essentially three genres: crime procedurals, serialized action and medical dramas. Comedy is practically gone, and quirky, smart, character-based lighter dramas like "Gilmore Girls" are nonexistent That is why the death of "Gilmore Girls" is so sad to me. If you like "Law and Order," yeah, you would have been sorry to see it go, but it's not like you had to look far to find another police procedural (or, even, one named "Law and Order").

However, with "Gilmore Girls," there is nothing else like it on television. We will find out tomorrow if Sherman-Palladino's new sitcom made Fox's schedule for next year. But, based on the output of the creators of "Friends," even Sherman-Palladino's show is no sure thing (it's hard to believe that the same people who did "Friends" brought us "Veronica's Closet," or that Sherman-Palladino was a writer on "Veronica's Closet" before creating "Gilmore Girls").

For seven years, Tuesday nights have meant watching "Gilmore Girls." I'll miss my weekly visits to Stars Hollow. I guess I should look on the bright side: I no longer have to defend being a "Gilmore Girls" fan. But it was a battle worth fighting. No doubt about it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Gonzales Finds a Scapegoat (With a TV Schedule Update at the End)

Unintelligent people always look for a scapegoat.
- British Labour statesman Ernest Bevin (1881-1951)

Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty has been nominated to join the ranks of Scooter Libby and Mrs. O'Leary's cow as famous scapegoats in history.

Only 18 mere hours after McNulty announced his intention to leave his post as the number two official at the Justice Department, Gonzales, the man who found a way to say some variation of "I don't remember" more than 70 times (I'm not exaggerating, CNN reported it) when testifying in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about the dismissal of eight U.S. Attorneys, has now fingered McNulty as the main guy behind the firings, according to a Yahoo!/AP article.

If Sherlock Holmes was investigating this case, he could figure out Gonzales's motives before his morning coffee and still have time left over to solve a murder or two before lunch.

"You have to remember, at the end of the day, the recommendations reflected the views of the deputy attorney general. He signed off on the names," Gonzales told reporters, according to the Yahoo!/AP article. Whatever Gonzales took to improve his memory, he should market it on the Home Shopping Channel. He'd make a fortune.

Is anyone not going to see through this? How obvious is the chain of events? It amazes me that when stuff like this happens, the news outlets don't stand on their heads and scream about another Bush administration proclamation that has a Pacific Ocean-size hole in it.

At least the Yahoo!/AP article acknowledges that Gonzales's story, on its face, does not hold water, saying, "But documents released by the Justice Department show he [McNulty] was not closely involved in picking all the U.S. attorneys who were put on the list — a job mostly driven by two Gonzales staffers with little prosecutorial experience."

Throw in all the missing documents that have not been turned over to Congress, and you are left with a situation where it is a disgrace that Gonzales is still in office. My April 24 entry, "Rain Bush," lays out, pretty succinctly, why the U.S. Attorney firings constitute a true scandal. But for those few holdouts (and by that, we mean the clueless Republicans in the House who gave him a pass last week (Yahoo! Finance Article), even though their Senate colleagues were far more harsh -- and honest -- in their assessments), this latest move to push the blame onto a departing underling has to be the final straw, doesn't it?

Clearly, the Democrats in Congress have to keep their eye on the ball on the central issue important to voters: Iraq. But, hopefully they can find time to keep the pressure on the White House and their clueless Attorney General. With Republicans controlling Congress, the administration was able to throw Scooter Libby under the bus. Now that the Democrats hold the majority in both chambers, it is up to them to make sure that McNulty isn't the scapegoat du jour.

NBC announced it's fall schedule at its upfront presentation yesterday, and three shows examined in my May 3 article learned their fate. There were no real surprises. "Scrubs" will return for its seventh and, presumably, final season, although the network only committed to an 18-episode order (a full season would be at least 22 episodes). "30 Rock" was also on the schedule, so it seems as though Alec Baldwin's retirement plans will have to be put on a hold for a little while. And, as expected, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" will not be returning, but a very small consolation is that at least one more episode from this season is scheduled to air on Thursday May 24.

With the earlier announcement that "Gilmore Girls" will have its series finale tonight, the only remaining show on my list is "Veronica Mars." The CW announces its schedule on Thursday. As I wrote on May 3, unfortunately, don't expect to see Veronica on it.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Democrats Having Effect on Bush, But They Have to Keep Up the Pressure

Director (Seth Meyers): Okay, well, all I need you to do is stand on your mark and read your lines off those cue cards.
Donald Trump (Darrell Hammond): Here's how I'm gonna do this. I'm gonna stand on my mark. I'm gonna read my lines off the cards.
- Dialogue from a sketch depicting Donald Trump acting on "Days of Our Lives" on the October 29, 2005 episode of "Saturday Night Live" (read the whole sketch here)

Judging from recent news stories, it appears as though the efforts of Congressional Democrats in standing up to President Bush on his Iraq war policy are finally bearing fruit. For the first time, it appears as though the Bush administration is finding that it is forced to make accommodations in the face of external pressure. But, for the Democrats, all this means is that they have to stand firm and keep up its opposition to the White House.

According to a Yahoo!/AP article, The House is supposed to vote today on a bill that would only fund the war in Iraq through July, with Congress making the decision at that point whether or not to continue funding based on the progress on the ground. Of course, Bush has promised to veto this bill, saying, according to the AP, "We reject that idea. It won't work." (Like Bush has been such a good judge of what will and won't work in Iraq.)

But, after weeks of insisting that it was his way or, well, his way, Bush has moved his position on Iraq, even if the advancement is measured in centimeters when it should be calculated in miles (specifically, the distance from the White House to his home in Crawford, Texas). He is now agreeing to the idea of some kind of benchmarks in the funding legislation (Yahoo!/AP article) for the Iraqi government to meet, even though just over a week ago, he was opposed to such an idea (Washington Post Article).

Much like the way Donald Trump is portrayed on "Saturday Night Live," taking the suggestions of others and parroting them back as if they were his own, the administration is taking baby steps forward, but acting like it was their idea all along. In addition to Bush adopting the idea of benchmarks, Vice President Cheney said in a Yahoo!/AP article that success in Iraq "depends on Iraq's leaders themselves, and the ultimate solution in this country will be a political solution." Uh, isn't that what the Democrats in Congress have been saying for weeks? You know, back when the administration was accusing them of not supporting the troops? Of course, it's not like Cheney has taken to wearing tie-dye and love beads. His statement was made while he was defending the extended deployment of American soldiers.

It sounds to me like the administration is preparing to make a compromise that they can pretend was their idea in the first place. But, it's clear that the shift in policy has nothing to do with a change of heart or mind. Instead, their options are starting to narrow.

Moderate Republicans in Congress, who watched as control was wrested away from them in November because of Iraq, met with Bush to make clear to him that their support for his war policy will end soon because they do not want to be tossed out of office by their constituents in 2008. (Yahoo!/AFP Article on the Subject) As I wrote in this space last Wednesday, even though Bush talks like a monarch whose power is absolute, in reality, his power extends only as far as his Republican colleagues in Congress are willing to go to block his vetoes from being overridden.

So, the Bush conversion is not a change of heart (remember, good Republicans don't do that, only flip-flopping Democrats change their positions). No, it's a last grasp at trying to keep as much of his flawed agenda going as possible. And, by co-opting the terminology of his opponents, he hopes to do so while making the Democrats look like whining obstructionists.

That is why the Democrats have to stay strong and not jump on Bush's first quasi-compromise offer in a bid to declare victory. They have to prevent the administration from making it sound like the solution was theirs all along, rather than one that was beaten out of them by their endangered allies in Congress.

The administration's actions inching forward should not be the end of the battle, but just a significant turn of events that keeps the Democrats on the offensive. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would be well-served not to order a "Mission Accomplished" banner, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi should not have her measurements taken for a flight suit. We all know how well that worked out the last time.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

"Waitress" Inspires Joy and Sadness, On and Off Screen

This is not a review of “Waitress,” although if it was, I would say it is a beautiful film deserving of four stars.

As has been widely reported, the writer/director/co-star of the film, Adrienne Shelly, was murdered in November at the age of 40, leaving behind a husband and three-year-old daughter. (For more detail on the case, click here to read a Newsday article on it.) She had completed “Waitress,” and she knew the film would screen at the Sundance Film Festival, but she was denied the opportunity to see how well it would be received by the industry, critics and the public.

I often complain that I do not get to see as many films as I would like, but I pretty much dropped everything to see “Waitress” the second day it was open. Sure, it looked like the kind of film I like to see, a character-based story with drama and comedy, but there have been plenty of movies in the last year that were right up my alley and yet ended up on my Netflix list after I never found my way to a theater to catch them. So, why “Waitress”?

I generally don’t have emotional reactions to the deaths of celebrities I have never met. Sure, it’s always sad when people die, and I get a little bummed when an artist I respect passes away, especially if they are taken at a young age. I just don’t have a visceral reaction. I don’t feel down for any length of time. I can’t connect personally with someone I haven’t met. That is why I was so taken aback when I felt like I lost a close friend when I read that Shelly had been murdered.

In the early 1990s, when I became interested (immersed, really) in the new world of independent film, one of the first movies that grabbed me by the throat and made me take notice was “Trust,” the second feature by Long Island auteur Hal Hartley. I was instantly hooked into Hartley’s mannered world where the dialogue was more stylized than the sets (locations, really, since the film was made on a tiny budget), but the starkness of the visuals fit in perfectly with Hartley’s vision, as did his quirky electronic score and, more than anything, the powerful performances by the leads, Martin Donovan and Shelly.

I then sought out Hartley’s first feature, “The Unbelievable Truth,” which also starred Shelly, and was equally impressed. My discovery of Hartley and his new-to-my-eyes approach to filmmaking set me on a path, allowing me to figure out for the first time in my life what I really wanted to do. I was inspired by the indie film heyday of the 1990s and the low-budget, New York-centric, character-driven movies like Greg Mottola’s “The Daytrippers,” Nicole Holofcener’s “Walking and Talking” and Noah Baumbach’s “Kicking and Screaming,” just to name a few, that seemed to follow in Hartley’s footsteps. (In some cases, almost literally, as Hartley’s assistant director/line producer, Ted Hope, went on to produce “Walking and Talking.”)

While watching those films hit the theaters, I felt validated. Here were young artists making the kinds of movies I wanted to make, they were doing it on shoestring budgets that didn’t require the investment of the mainstream film industry (until distribution, of course), and they were finding an audience. The era soon passed as the independent distributors were bought up by the majors, and the landscape of independent film was irreparably changed. (That’s not to say that there aren’t great independent films made today, it’s just that the artistic and business models are different.) That time shaped me, and I still feel its loss.

So, it’s not surprising that I feel emotionally invested in those films and with the people who made and performed in them. With Hartley’s movies at the center of my new-found artistic world, Shelly quickly became one of my favorite actresses. While, over time, Hartley veered further and further to the fringe (even directing operas in Europe), and Donovan drifted closer to the mainstream (appearing in “bigger” movies and television shows), Shelly set out on a different path. She did not drop out of acting completely, appearing in some indie films and the occasional New York-based television program, but she started writing and directing her own films.

After cutting her teeth on some shorts and two little-seen features (the pleasant “Sudden Manhattan” and its follow up, “I’ll Take You There,” which I must confess I never heard of until after Shelly died; I added it to my Netflix queue today), “Waitress” was her coming out party. Shelly found her voice, combining the best of what she learned from Hartley with a point of view and sensibility that was uniquely her own. “Waitress” is angry but soft, feminist but romantic, bitter but optimistic, dark but hopeful. The film is every bit the perfect blend of ingredients you would find in one of the protagonist’s much-lauded pies.

I better stop, as I’m veering into movie review territory, but I will add that Shelly guided Keri Russell, Andy Griffith and Cheryl Hines to pitch-perfect performances that will change the way they are perceived by the public and the movie powers-that-be. Watching “Waitress” really makes you want to see the filmmaker’s next movie. Of course, sadly, we will never know what Shelly would have done next. There is no guarantee it would have exceeded “Waitress,” but you can be sure a stampede of performers, especially actresses, would have been beating down her door for the chance to be a part of it.

When the film was over, I felt nourished by it. It was as if I had been transported back to a place and time that I have strong feelings about. For one night, it was the mid-1990s again, and I remembered what it felt like to be excited about discovering something important to me. But, at the same time, I was sad. Seeing the lost potential, and thinking about how senseless her death was (the police have accused a 19-year-old immigrant construction worker with killing her over a dispute over construction noise and then making it look like a suicide to cover his tracks), was depressing. Shelly had demonstrated that she was ready for a bigger stage, and that despite her indie sensibilities, she had something to say that would appeal to a mass audience.

My feeling of sadness was the kind of emotional reaction I had made fun of when I saw people on television mourning the death of a celebrity. Thankfully, I did not lay flowers anywhere, cry with my fellow mourners, or generally do anything that would embarrass those close to me. I just went to see her film on the second day it was out. When I left the theater, I dealt with my sadness the way I handled disappointments when I was drawn to independent films in the 1990s: I indulged my angst, drowned myself in music (Walkman then, iPod now), and went on with my life.

“Waitress” stands on its own as a smaller, well-written, spot-on-acted, fully realized, smart and entertaining movie experience. But, the combination of Shelly’s murder and my affinity with the era that launched her career has made it something more for me and, I’m guessing, a decent amount of other people my age. It’s a legacy that Shelly can be proud of, and one, I hope, her family and friends can find some comfort in. I know I did.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

We Could Learn Something From France (It Hurt to Type That)

Now, like any country, France has its faults, like all that ridiculous accordion music. But, their health care is the best in the industrialized world. As is their poverty rate. And they're completely independent of Mid East oil. And they're the greenest country. And they're not fat. And they have public intellectuals in France. We have Dr. Phil!
- Bill Maher in his final "New Rule" on the May 4 edition of "Real Time With Bill Maher"

I am no Francophile. In fact, my one and only experience at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris was about as pleasant as being locked in a closet with Pepe Le Pew. The layout was maze-like, the employees were as helpful as “Brownie” in the Lower Ninth Ward after Katrina, and they lost my luggage. Which is why I find it so infuriating that watching the French electoral process unfold the last few days made me look on with envy.

The French race for president came down to a run-off between the conservative candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the socialist candidate, Segolene Royal. More than 84 percent of French citizens eligible to vote cast a ballot in the election, a victory for Sarkozy. To put that in perspective, in 2004, with a war going on in Iraq, only 55 percent of Americans bothered to show up at the polls, which was an improvement from the 51 percent turnout in 2000 and 49 percent participation rate in 1996. (Click here for a chart of voter turnout rates from 1960 to 2004.)

Not only did the French people show up, they also cared about the issues. The election was a battle between two views of the country. Sarkozy, in an effort to modernize France’s economy, promised to blow up French sacred cows like the 35-hour work week while threatening to keep services running during strikes. He also wanted to reassert French influence in the world and forge stronger ties with the U.S. (Yahoo!/AP Article on Sarkozy's Election) Royal, on the other hand, wanted to use the government to stimulate the economy while preserving France’s extensive welfare system. (Yahoo!/AFP Article on Royal's Campaign)

It was a debate between ideals, not about the personal lives of the candidates. Royal is an unmarried mother of four, while Sarkozy lives apart from his wife. Assuming for a second that somehow two candidates in those positions managed to get presidential nominations in this country, how much of the campaign rhetoric and advertising would be spent on their personal lives? As an electorate, we know more about Britney Spears’s tattoos than we do about the policies of our elected officials.

The reaction to the election was also telling. Some supporters of Royal were moved to riot and burn Sarkozy in effigy after the election. Not that rioting in the streets is necessarily a good thing. After all, part of enjoying the benefits of living in a democracy is accepting the results of a legally conducted election. But the passion showed by those who feel that Sarkozy’s ascendancy will mean the end to a certain way of life in France is actually a breath of fresh air. Despite Bush’s mismanagement of the Iraq war and the series of scandals and acts of incompetence that have plagued the administration, the most Americans could do was vote in a handful of new members of Congress in 2006 (when only 40 percent of citizens managed to pry themselves from their couches to cast a ballot, according to MSNBC). To get U.S. citizens into the streets in any number, you would have to make it a stunt on a reality television show.

Plus, Sarkozy, a hard-line conservative, said, "A great nation, like the United States, has a duty not to block the battle against global warming but — on the contrary — to take the lead in this battle, because the fate of the whole of humanity is at stake," according to a Yahoo!/AP Article. If a conservative in the U.S. even admits that global warming exists, it is likely a recent, post-"Inconvenient Truth" development. After all, three of the ten Republican presidential candidates happily admitted in a televised debate that they did not believe in evolution.

Look at what is going on now in America. The American people voted the Republicans out of power in November 2006 based entirely on the issue of Iraq. According to a Pew poll, only 24 percent of Americans think that the president’s beloved “surge” is working. In a Newsweek poll, Bush’s approval rating is down to an all-time-low 28 percent. So what does Bush do? He plows ahead with his failed and unpopular war, ignoring the message of the American people, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, Congress and virtually anyone not from Texas or a supreme being. In fact, the AP reported that the Pentagon has notified 35,000 soldiers to be prepared to be deployed to Iraq in the fall. Under legislation passed by Congress and vetoed by the president, the troops would be moving in the opposite direction.

Instead of asking what Bush has done, it might be time to ask Americans what they have done. Because really, despite the president all but flipping the bird to the American people and ignoring their wishes, is there any sign of mass outrage? Any massive demonstrations and protests? The administration is arrogant, but can you blame them for continuing on? What do they have to lose? There are no consequences for their misbehavior.

As hard as it is to admit, in this regard, U.S. citizens should be more like the French. France was right to oppose the war in Iraq from the beginning, and its citizens feel a sense of obligation to be politically engaged, look at the issues and vote accordingly that is sorely lacking in the U.S. If the single-mindedness of the Bush administration isn’t enough to move the American people, maybe the realization that the president has caused us to be jealous of France is enough to inspire citizens to action. After all, the French are responsible for an airport in Paris that is a pool of arrogance, incompetence and chaos. Sounds more like something the Bush administration would be responsible for, no?

Monday, May 7, 2007

Jeter Consistent in the Eye of the Storm

I have the greatest job in the world. Only one person can have it. You have shortstops on other teams-I'm not knocking other teams-but there's only one shortstop on the Yankees.
- Derek Jeter (according to

The baseball season is just more than a month old, but in that brief time, there has been no shortage of big stories surrounding the Yankees. Alex Rodriguez had a historic first three weeks before rediscovering his humanity, the Yankees starting pitchers sustained more injuries than NASCAR faces in a season, Joe Torre was nearly fired, and Roger Clemens played Evita and addressed the masses from George Steinbrenner’s luxury box behind home plate to announce that he had agreed to act as staff savior (for the low, low price of $4.5 million per month, which is a bargain when you consider that the Yankees paid Carl Pavano almost $40 million for four years just to provide drama and comedy). The team started 9-14, but has bounced back to within a game of .500.

And while reporters scrambled from story to story, trying to keep up with all the goings on in the Bronx, Derek Jeter just kept playing remarkably consistent baseball. While it seems nearly impossible for a Yankee shortstop earning more than $20 million this season with a reputation for dating Hollywood starlets to fly under the radar, he has. Almost no attention has been paid to the fact that he has been batting over .300 since the sixth game of the season, has compiled a 20-game hitting streak, and has hit safely in a staggering 61 of his last 64 games going back to last year. After a rough start defensively, making six errors in the team’s first 11 games, he has played error-free ball since, including making some big defensive plays in key situations.

Jeter’s 20-game hitting streak was snapped on Friday night by Seattle, when, oddly, the Yanks managed 11 runs and 15 hits while Jeter went zero-for-five. But, in typical Jeter fashion, the failure seemed only to make him more determined. In the next two games against the Mariners, he went five-for-seven with three runs batted in, a run scored, and two walks. Against ex-Yankee Jeff Weaver on Saturday, his double driving in two runs put the game out of reach (and brought out the world-famous Weaver Face (sorry, the Yahoo! link died) that is so much fun to see).

As Jeter has put up great numbers over the course of the year, the media has been more interested in A Rod, the rookie pitchers that have come and gone, Joe Torre’s job status, and Roger Clemens’s arrival. And, I suspect, Jeter would be the first in line to thank the press for leaving him alone, since from the time he stepped on the big stage as a rookie starter in 1996, he has been consistent in his insistence that he only cares about winning. Individual accolades have not been important to him, even when he was robbed (in my opinion) of the A.L. Most Valuable Player Award last season.

Jeter has been accused of not speaking up enough, especially in support of Alex Rodriguez when the third baseman was taking a beating from the fans. But most great sports leaders, Jeter included, lead by example. He plays the game the way it is supposed to be played. He works the count at the plate and runs the bases with an instinct and knowledge of the game that makes him dangerous to opponents. He performs in the clutch, and, as importantly, gives full effort no matter what the score is, running out ground balls whether the Yankees are losing by one run or by ten. Any young player watching the Yankee captain busting it up the line when the game is out of reach has been taught a lesson on how to do things in the Bronx. No words need be spoken.

Besides, Jeter has spoken up when he felt it was necessary. His passionate defense of Joe Torre last week had to be a factor in Steinbrenner’s decision not to fire the Yankee skipper. Jeter never hides from the press, standing at his locker and answering questions whether he is the game’s hero or (far less frequently) goat.

As the quote at the start of this piece demonstrates, he has an appreciation and respect for the Yankees and the history of baseball. Even as a soon-to-be 33-year-old captain of his team, Jeter still refuses to call his manager by his first name (although “Mr. Torre” has evolved to “Mr. T”).

When Clemens was interviewed after his big announcement yesterday, he listed three people in uniform by name as draws to playing for the Yankees: He cited Joe Torre as a manager and man he respected immensely, Mariano Rivera as the best relief pitcher in baseball, and Derek Jeter as one of the greatest clutch hitters of all time.

The Yankees would be in real trouble if Jorge Posada or Rivera missed a significant stretch of time due to injury, because there is nobody on the roster to replace them at their positions. But you can make an argument that if the team was to lose Jeter, it would be even worse. More than any other player on the roster, the Yankees are his team. He is not just the team’s face to the world, but he dictates the attitude and tone in the locker room. Clemens’s quote demonstrates the respect he generates from his peers.

In the weeks ahead, the papers will track every Roger Clemens workout, and then every one of his minor league starts. ("The Office" should film a special episode where the Dunder-Mifflin crew heads to the stadium in Scranton to watch Clemens pitch for the Yankees' AAA affiliate. Can't you see Jim tricking Dwight into running on the field and making a fool of himself?) Any losing streak will have the media wondering who will get fired and traded. If A Rod goes into a funk and starts getting booed, the chatter will start over his opt-out clause. No matter what happens, if history is a guide, Jeter will just play through it, getting his more-than-a-hit per game, making smart decisions, and performing in the clutch. And few people will notice, exactly how he would want it.