Thursday, September 27, 2007

CBS’s Monday Night Sitcom Lineup Runs From Brilliant to Awful

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

On Monday nights, from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., CBS airs four, half-hour, multi-camera situation comedies. This fact would elicit a yawn and incredulous “So what?” just ten short years ago. Now? It’s newsworthy. As I wrote on August 30, traditional sitcoms are a dying breed, and the CBS Monday night lineup represents the only four half-hour comedies the network currently airs.

I tuned into the season premieres on Monday night, hoping that nothing I saw would give credence to the “sitcom is dead” proponents. While I was generally happy when 10:00 p.m. rolled around, there were some causes for concern.

The night began with the return of “How I Met Your Mother,” which literally picked up at the exact moment that last season ended, with Barney (Emmy nominee Neil Patrick Harris) in mid-word. In May, Barney promised Ted (Josh Radnor) that his newfound single life after his breakup with Robin (Cobie Smulders) would be “legen-“, and this season began with the ensuing “-ary.” My August 30 article outlined in detail why I love this program, and Monday’s season premiere did not disappoint.

Newly single Robin returns from Argentina with her perfect rebound guy (played by Enrique Iglesias), who is so hot that both Lily and Marshall (Alyson Hannigan and Jason Segal) can’t help but succumb to his charms. Meanwhile, Ted decides to try and “win” his breakup with Robin, leading to his hookup with rocker chick Amy (Mandy Moore, playing very against type), much to Barney’s dismay, since Ted found her without Barney’s help.

The premiere was as funny and twisty as any episode from last season and set up what looks to be the overriding plot arc for this season: Finally seeing the woman that will become Ted’s wife (the “your mother” of the show’s title). So far, she is just a yellow umbrella walking down the street. Written by show-runners Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, the latest installment of “How I Met Your Mother” shows just why it’s the best multi-camera sitcom on television. It doesn’t look like the show has lost any steam, and it appears we’re in for another season filled with lots of laughs and great storytelling.

Next up was the series bow of “The Big Bang Theory,” a new offering from “Two and a Half Men” creator Chuck Lorre (more on all of that later). “Bang” follows what happens when Penny, a ditsy, pretty waitress (Kaley Cuoco of “8 Simple Rules”), moves in next door to science geniuses Leonard (Johnny Galecki best known from “Roseanne,” but unforgettable as Trouty in “My Boys”) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons of “Judging Amy”).

I had tempered expectations for “Bang,” since I’m not a big fan of “Two and a Half Men” (again, more later), but I was pleasantly surprised by the entertaining pilot. It was jam-packed with sharp, funny one-liners, deftly handled by Galecki, Parsons and Cuoco. Like when after Leonard awkwardly asks Penny to join the boys for an Indian take-out lunch, complete with an endorsement of the colon-cleansing effect of curry, Sheldon calmly observes, “I’m no expert here, but I believe in the context of a luncheon invitation, you may want to skip the reference to bowel movements.” Yeah, it’s a poop joke, but at least it’s a clever one. And it’s funny. Or, when Leonard finally admits to having a crush on Penny and says their children will be smart and beautiful, Sheldon replies, “Not to mention imaginary.” The half hour contained a lot of good laughs in this vein.

Sure, Sheldon and Leonard are written way too over-the-top as nerds (their clothing is beyond geekiness, dripping into color blindness), and their nerdy friends, one Jewish and one Indian, fall into boring, accepted stereotypes (the Jewish guy thinks he’s cooler than he is, the Indian guy is so shy around women he can’t even respond to Penny’s simple question to him and sports an accent so exaggerated it makes Borat look tame by comparison). But the actors do their best to humanize these uber-nerds, and the jokes were funny and clever enough for you to let it go.

My only question is whether there is enough here to support an ongoing show. Will the science-speak and the nerds-hanging-with-the-hot-girl premise get old after a few weeks? Time will tell. But, I’m willing to watch and find out. The “Bang” pilot was absolutely entertaining, offering exactly what one expects from a traditional sitcom: laughs, with some heart.

Which cannot be said about “Two and a Half Men.” Ratings and awards are no more judges of a show’s quality than rating a band by the number of MySpace friends it has. But with its big audience and Emmy nominations, I figured I must be missing something. As I watched the season premiere of “Men,” I went in with the attitude, “I’m sure the show is funnier than I remember.” Oh, was I wrong. By the time the end credits ran, two thoughts raced through my head: 1) “Okay, so this is why sitcoms are dying.” 2) “I would have spent the last 30 minutes more fruitfully if I had stared at my ceiling doing nothing, since at least I might noticed a leak.”

“Men” is one of the least funny, least interesting, least imaginative, crass (in a bad way, not in an “American Pie” way), cliche-filled, lazy, joyless, formulaic and off-putting sitcoms I have ever laid eyes on. Ever. I have expressed my disdain for “The Bill Engvall Show” (look for yourself here), but “Men” is even worse. How? Where to begin? It’s kind of like trying to describe why Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a nut job. The possibilities are endless.

The opening scene of the season premiere of “Men” featured the machine-gun delivery of attempted jokes that fell flat. Some just weren’t funny, while others lazily repackaged old lines that weren’t funny when they were first thrown out there, sometime around the Reagan administration. Jon Cryer’s Alan, defending the size of his manhood in front of his young son, declares, “I’m a grower, not a shower.” If just being not funny isn’t enough for you, what about going for offensive, too? Alan tells his son not to be black or white at school, advising him, “If anyone asks you’re mulatto.” It gets better (worse, actually). When Alan insists his son only buy beige clothing so nobody mistakes him for a gang member, Charlie Sheen’s Charlie tells his nephew, “Instead of being mistaken for a Crip or a Blood, you’ll be mistaken for a Band-Aid.” I sat staring at the television, wondering to myself, “People watch this? Voluntarily?”

I’ve just scratched the surface of this crap storm. The secondary plot of the season premiere centers on Charlie having a rash on his groin, causing him to rub his crotch on various objects throughout the episode. If you have a sixth-grade education, “Men” is a tough 30 minutes to endure.

Then again, if you believe the ridiculously intrusive laugh track, each time Sheen dry humps an inanimate object, it is raucously funny. Of course, the laugh track seems to kick in non-stop, especially after lines that don’t even seem to be punch lines. It kind of reminded me of the “Scrubs” episode in which J.D. imagines life in the hospital as a traditional sitcom. One of the running jokes is the loud canned laughter after not-funny lines. In “Men,” that exact phenomenon happened, only it wasn’t a joke. The producers really expect you to think that their lame attempts at humor are funny, because they’ve punctuated it with canned laughs. They’re wrong.

“Men” represents everything that is wrong with the modern sitcom. Sure, if you present me with “Two and a Half Men,” “According to Jim” and the like, I’ll say it’s a dead genre, too. The sooner “Men” is off the air, the better the chance that half-hour comedies can try and regain a foothold on network schedules.

Now, I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Is he just a snob? Sometimes we just want some silly laughs. Not everything has to be as smart as ‘The Office’ or ’30 Rock.’” I can assure you, I like a silly sitcom as much as the next guy, so long it contains the “com” part of “sitcom” and makes me laugh. Don’t believe me? Well, I laughed often during the season premiere of “Rules of Engagement.”

Nobody will mistake “Rules” for a member of NBC’s Thursday night lineup of single-camera, quirky comedies. “Rules” is a straight-forward, battle-of-the-sexes, set-up-punch-line sitcom. It’s about two couples, one married for more than a decade and the other newly engaged, navigating the waters of coupledom, with a single friend on hand to remind them of everything they are missing out on (or not, as the case may be). Unlike “Men,” “Rules” is funny. Again, no new ground is being broken, and I wouldn’t expect critics to start waxing rhapsodic about this sitcom, but “Rules” provides a solid 30 minutes of laughs and entertainment.

In addition to good, old-fashioned joke writing, “Rules” has two stellar leads: Patrick Warburton (Elaine’s Devils-watching, car-selling, Jesus-worshipping boyfriend Puddy on “Seinfeld”) and Megyn Price (a refugee from the awful “Grounded for Life”) as Jeff and Audrey, the long-time married couple. In the season debut, Jeff’s snoring drives Audrey to banish him to the guest room (she has an important presentation she needs to rest up for), where he taps into his long-lost college self, eating junk food in bed, listening to records (not CDs, but actual vinyl, and bonus points to the writers for choosing “(Ain't Nothin' But A) House Party” by the J. Geils Band) and watching Steven Seagal movies (he observes that when he fell asleep, Seagal was skinny, but when he woke up, Seagal was fat, but still couldn’t act). Of course, by the end, Audrey admits she wants Jeff back in bed with her, and Jeff admits he wants to be there and will have the surgery she suggested to correct his snoring (it is a traditional sitcom, nonetheless). But, the combination of love and aggravation that Jeff and Audrey feel for each other, while exaggerated a bit (again, a sitcom), resonates with anyone who’s been in their shoes.

The younger couple, Adam and Jennifer (Oliver Hudson and Bianca Kajlich), are not quite as interesting, but are serviceably funny. The look on Jennifer’s face when she catches Adam off-handedly admitting he was flirting with a diner waitress is funnier than anything said or done in the entire half hour of “Two and a Half Men.” The rowdy single guy is played by David Spade, which means he’s, well, David Spade. I’m not going to pretend that I run to the theater to see a Spade movie, but he has been entertaining on television (more on “Just Shoot Me” than on “8 Simple Rules”). And a dollop of Spade’s id-gone-wild persona works well surrounded by the two committed couples. When Spade’s character gets revenge on Adam for flirting with the waitress he was interested in, it may be a classic Spade moment, but it is also undeniably funny.

“Rules” may not be Must See TV, but it certainly qualifies as Decent Way to Kill Half an Hour Fun.

Three out of four isn’t too bad. CBS’s Monday night schedule will never approach its 1973 Saturday night (remember when networks actually offered original programming on Saturdays?) lineup of “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Bob Newhart Show” (topped off by “The Carol Burnett Show”). More realistically, it should look to challenge the network’s 1991 Monday night offering of “Evening Shade,” “Major Dad,” “Murphy Brown” and “Designing Women” (topped off by “Northern Exposure”).

“How I Met Your Mother” is of superior quality, “The Big Bang Theory” has a chance of being good, and “Rules of Engagement” will keep the laughs going. And as bad as “Two and a Half Men” is, it is also the highest rated show in the bunch. So CBS is off to a pretty good start. Now, if only they would add a second night of half-hour comedies. That would really be newsworthy.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

It's Not Fair, But the Fate of the Sitcom May Be Riding on "Back to You"

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Last night marked an event that was once considered routine, but now merits both celebration and close scrutiny: A traditional multi-camera sitcom had its series debut.

And not just any sitcom. It’s like the old guard of half-hour comedies decided to throw all of its resources into one mega-program to prove once and for all that the genre is not dying. “Back to You” is like the All-American team of sitcoms. Kelsey Grammer, who played Dr. Frasier Crane for 20 years in two of the most successful sitcoms of all time, “Cheers” and “Frasier,” is one of the stars, and Patricia Heaton, who spent nine years as Ray Romano’s wife on the mega-hit “Everybody Loves Raymond,” is the other lead. That’s a combined six Emmy wins and 16 nominations (that’s not even counting Grammer’s Emmy for his voice work on “The Simpsons”) on one show. The cast also features comedy legend Fred Willard, which provides “Back to You” with a kind of comedy street cred.

The luminaries behind the scenes are equally impressive. “Back to You” was created by former “Frasier” executive producer Christopher Lloyd and “Frasier” writer and “Just Shoot Me” executive producer Steven Levitan. The director is the king of sitcom directing, James Burrows (just a sampling of the shows he has helmed include, “Cheers,” “News Radio,” “Frasier,” “Friends,” and “Will & Grace”).

With so few multi-camera sitcoms on the air, the appearance of any new one causes a mixture of hope and fear. Hope that it’s good, fear that if it’s not, sitcoms will disappear from network television. That’s a lot of pressure for 22 minutes of jokes to bear.

Last night, I tuned into the pilot of “Back to You” seriously hoping it had some life, some edge, and, most of all, some laughs. There were lots of places for the show to go wrong. Grammer is so associated with the character of Frasier Crane, could he be believable and accepted as another character? While Levitan wrote for “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Frasier,” he also unleashed “Men Behaving Badly,” “Stark Raving Mad” and “Stacked” on a defenseless American public. And while Burrows is a comedy deity, he also directed “The Class” last season, which while not terrible, was very deliberate and forced, way more clinical than joyful, a trap that was potentially waiting for an all-star-laden program like “Back to You.” A stiff, lifeless sitcom is the last thing we need on the air now.

For those of you that managed to successfully avoid Fox’s media blitz promoting “Back to You” (please email me immediately with how you managed to accomplish this feat), the plot set-up is pretty simple: Grammer plays Chuck Darling, an L.A. news anchor who, after unleashing an expletive-laced attack on a co-anchor when he mistakenly thought the cameras were off, returns to the station where he got his start in Pittsburgh, and he is reunited with his nemesis and former co-anchor, Kelly Carr (Heaton), who never made it out of the small market.

As the pilot began, one element of the opening made me smile and demonstrated to me that Levitan, Lloyd and Burrows understood that the bar had been raised and they needed to bring their “A” games. Chuck’s meltdown is viewed not live, initially, but through a YouTube window, just as a majority of people would experience an embarrassing on-screen moment like that today. It’s a small thing, but it really affected the tone in a positive way. It showed that the creators could take a classic sitcom look and feel and give it enough of a 21st century jolt so that it felt fresh and current.

Most of the show works. There were more jokes-per-second in the pilot than you would find in most sitcoms, and, more importantly, the completion percentage was high. I laughed. A lot. Which, while you would think would be a given in a sitcom, is not (just watch an episode of “The Bill Engvall Show” and see for yourself). A running gag involving the reporter with anchor aspirations, Gary Crezyzewski (Ty Burrell, last seen in last year’s “Out of Practice”), landing drive-by put-downs at the expense of the libido of the weather girl, Montana Stevens (Ayda Field; good to see Jeannie of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” finding another gig so quickly), was consistently clever, even if the underlying concept has been done a million times before. Similarly, Montana’s strategic use of her Latin heritage to get what she wants is an inspired spin on the cliche of the sexy weather girl.

There were also some exceptionally sharp turns of dialogue that you wouldn’t find in the average episode of “Two and a Half Men” or “According to Jim.” When Kelly learns that Chuck thought she had fallen in love with him after their one-night stand the night before he left Pittsburgh, causing her to get pregnant, Kelly sarcastically agrees, telling him, “It was Beatlemania in my ovaries.”

"Enough about the writing," you’re probably thinking by now. "Tell me if Grammer is believable as another character!" Well, yes and no. It was shaky at first. In a scene that was used often to promote the series, Chuck and Kelly do a tease for the newscast, hurling insults at each other as soon as they are off the air. When Chuck precedes a missive with an upper crust, over-enunciated “Good Lord!”, it was straight out of the Frasier Crane vocabulary book.

But as the episode wore on, Grammer showed colors of the character that were decidedly un-Crane-like. Where Frasier was a life-long nerd, Darling exhibits far more confidence, like there isn’t a woman in American who wouldn’t want some quality time with him. And while Frasier was an intellectual, Darling is more street smart, at least if the street is Main Street in suburbia. Grammer can’t really put the ghost of Frasier totally to rest (give him a break; counting reruns, the character has been on the screen longer than most of the cast of “High School Musical” has been alive), but he is able to separate himself enough to let “Back to You” work on its own merits.

As for Heaton, I was never a “Raymond” fan, so I may not be the one to judge here, but she seems different enough in “Back to You” so that those who like her won’t be disappointed. Willard is, not surprisingly, outstanding. He was born to play the not-too-bright-but-friendly, preening, ex-jock (as he did in “Best in Show”), and his quirky, off-beat performance is a great counterweight to the more traditional sitcom leads. Burrell and Field are also effective, avoiding overplaying the jokes and recognizing the subtleties in their potentially stock characters.

The only misstep in the cast is Josh Gad as Ryan, the 26-year-old news director with an Internet background, who is so youthful in appearance that Chuck, upon his arrival, mistakes him for an intern and asks him to park his car. (Upon finding out his true position, Chuck still expects Ryan to park the car.) Gad’s Ryan seems to be on a different show than the rest of the cast, huffing and puffing around the set (with sweat stains covering most of his shirt) like some kind of nerdy fat guy cliche. It’s not Gad’s fault completely, as the exasperated, in-over-his-head news director seems like a 21st Century, dumbed down version of Miles Silverberg of “Murphy Brown.” But something will have to be done in the future with this character.

At first, I thought “Back to You” would struggle being compared to the classic newsroom sitcoms, “Murphy Brown” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (one of the greatest shows ever). It’s not fair to judge from the pilot, but “Back to You” doesn’t seem to be destined for that lofty company. Then I realized that most younger viewers have probably not seen either “Murphy” or “Mary,” so maybe that won’t even be an issue.

In the end, the real hurdle for “Back to You” is to avoid being thought of as stale and musty, and everyone seems to be working hard to prevent that from happening. There is a moment early in the pilot when Chuck and Kelly walk from the news room to the anchor desk together, and they are followed, seemingly with a Steadicam, in a shot that looked more like an episode of a single-camera half-hour like “Scrubs” or “Sports Night” than like “Frasier.” It was just a few seconds, but in that moment, it’s as if “Back to You” was reassuring its young, Fox audience, “We’re not your parents’ sitcom!”

The bottom line, though, is that “Back to You” is funny, and definitely entertaining. It has a sophistication of storytelling (there is a twist at the end that I had not seen in any of the promos this summer), and the show, though not afraid to be silly, ends on a kind of sweet note. I think there is some real potential here, and I am actually kind of excited to see where “Back to You” goes in the coming weeks.

Will it be enough? For the sake of the future of sitcoms, let’s hope so. It would be nice if the debut of a multi-camera sitcom didn’t warrant a column.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

CNN - The O.J. and Madeleine Network (Just Don't Ask Them About Iraq)

[NOTE: I also posted this article on www.dailykos.com. If you like it, please go to it here and recommend it, comment on it, etc. Thanks.]

I turned on CNN just before 7:00 a.m. yesterday morning, just as the network was previewing its lead three stories of the day (in order):

- The spokesperson for the parents of missing British four-year-old Madeleine McCann was quitting his government job to work for the McCanns full time (this was termed "Breaking News").

- Three accomplices were charged with O.J. Simpson over the alleged armed robbery of sports memorabilia in a Las Vegas hotel room.

- A bag of Dole lettuce in Michigan tested positive for E. coli.

According to CNN, these were the three most important stories to report to the American people: A British girl that has been missing for months, a squabble over souvenirs that happened to include a famous athlete that many people think got away with murder 13 years ago, and one incidence of E. coli. (I know food safety is a very important issue, but that was not the slant of the CNN story.)

Can you imagine a U.S. soldier, returning home after spending 15 months dodging IEDs in Iraq, waking up in his bed for the first time in more than a year, turning on the television, and seeing CNN's valuation of what is important and what the American people want to see (presuming, of course, that CNN is catering to the wishes of their viewers by covering Madeleine McCann and O.J.)? He would probably say to himself something like, "I and 165,000 other soldiers are fighting a war, and nobody here gives a crap what's happening over there." And when it comes to the media, at least, he would be right.

After I had gotten going with my day and had the opportunity to look at the news online, I saw two stories that didn't make CNN's top three:

- The U.S. barred civilians from traveling outside of the Green Zone after Blackwater, a private U.S. security contractor doing business in Iraq for the government, was accused of shooting 11 civilians.

- Senate Democrats indicated that they would aggressively pursue legislation to bring the troops home from Iraq.

I'll bet that most Americans aren't even aware that there are nearly as many private contractors in Iraq as there are military personnel, and that these contractors tend to make a ton more money than our troops do. The Pentagon has essentially outsourced big chunks of the war. (Two examples of coverage of this topic are a CNN article from 2006, so the network does know about this issue, and a PBS "Frontline" piece from 2005.) The contractors, and their ability to operate outside of governmental control, have been a dirty little secret of the war that none of the major news outlets have seemed to want to devote any significant time to.

You would think that a news agency like CNN might want to investigate this story, especially after Blackwater's alleged actions have affected the ability of civilians and diplomats to travel in Iraq. I'm sure most Americans, until this story broke, believed that military personnel took care of this function. Although, since CNN barely covered the issue, it's probably still unknown to most Americans. You would think CNN might want to let the American people know what these contractors are doing in our name.

Of course, you (which includes me) would be both wrong and naive.

No, CNN is too preoccupied with Madeleine McCann and O.J. to cover real news stories. Like, for example, the looming battle in Congress over the war. A USA Today/Gallup poll released yesterday showed that Bush's speech supporting the surge and the Congressional testimony of Gen. David Petraeus failed to sway the views of the American people, who still support bringing the troops home.

It seems as though the battle over Iraq, which began in earnest when the American people kicked the Republicans out of power based entirely on the issue in November 2006, has been inevitably headed to the upcoming showdown in Congress. In the early part of this year, with the 2008 election nearly two years away, Republicans in Congress almost uniformly backed the president, keeping nearly every piece of anti-war legislation from leaving Capitol Hill. But, with the 2008 elections just over a year away, and with the recent polls showing that Americans have not changed their minds, there is tremendous pressure on Republicans in Congress. Now, supporting the president could be a one-way ticket to election defeat. But, it seems, the Republicans in the Senate and House would rather watch an "According to Jim" marathon than give in to the Democrats.

Assuming the Democrats don't roll over like they usually do, the stage is set for an epic battle. You would think that a major news agency like CNN would throw a ton of its airtime and resources at this very important story, one that may be the defining debate of the time, with major implications for the country's future. Again, you (and I) would be very disappointed.

No, in CNN's view it is Madeleine McCann and O.J. that merit massive coverage, complete with expert commentaries, illustrative graphics, and endless airing of photos of the victim (in the case of the McCann case) and alleged audio from the crime scene (in the case of the O.J. matter). The fight over the course of the war in Iraq? That gets a big yawn from CNN.

I am exceptionally hard on CNN, mainly because the network is supposed to be the standard-bearer for 24-hour news coverage, both based on its long history (or at least as long as there has been a history of 24-hour cable news) and its reputation. While I am not prepared to cut CNN any slack, I will note that if people wanted to watch political news instead of stories of celebrities gone awry and attractive females involved in crimes (CNN's two go-to news topics), CNN would comply. The network is just meeting the demands of its customers. That does not absolve CNN, though, since a drug dealer could make the same argument. But it does mean that people need to start taking some responsibility for watching and insisting on real news from their news providers.

If Sen. Chuck Hegel (R-Neb.) is right and the Iraq war is the biggest foreign policy blunder in U.S. history, the course taken by the government in the next year could have dire implications for the future of the nation. The American people, as the electorate in a democracy, will play a large part in affecting how thing move forward in Iraq, most prominently when they go to vote in November 2008. How tragic would it be if people were under-informed because they were too busy following stories about O.J. and Madeleine McCann?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

If They Hate Us For Our Freedom, They Must Hate Us Less Now

[NOTE: I also posted this article on www.dailykos.com. If you like it, please go to it here and recommend it, comment on it, etc. Thanks.]

They hate us, because we're free. They hate the thought that Americans welcome all religions. They can't stand that thought. ... They hate our freedoms. They hate the fact that we hold each individual -- we dignify each individual. We believe in the dignity of every person. They can't stand that. ... You know, the price of freedom is high, but for me it's never too high because we fight for freedom.

- President George W. Bush talking about terrorists at a Connecticut Republican Committee Luncheon on April 9, 2002 (from the White House website)

I hate when presidents (of both parties), during the State of the Union address, point to the gallery and tell us the inspiring tale of someone who has beaten the odds or shown courage and fortitude. It always seemed so false to me. You can find a story to prove any point. I'm sure if you look hard enough, you can find someone selling crystal meth to teenagers to raise money for body armor for the troops. I like to keep an eye on the bigger issues, since individual stories are just that, individual.

So, of course, I am now going to break my rule and do what I just explained I hated to do. (At least I'm honest about it.) The New York Times ran an article yesterday about a British citizen, a musician, who was denied entry into the U.S. after having studied and worked here for 10 years. She earned a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley and has been a music professor at Mills College in Oakland. When she flew into San Francisco in August 2006 from the U.K., she was met by federal agents, taken into custody for hours with no access to an attorney, had her H-1B visa ripped up in front of her and her British passport defaced, got misidentified as "Hispanic" (her parents were Indian Sikhs), suffered groping at the hands of an armed woman officer who told her any movement would be construed as an attack, and was given the option of immediately returning to London or being shipped off to a detention center.

The State Department had revoked her visa, but never informed her or explained why it was taken away from her. Despite requests from the British government and a U.S. Senator, the State Department still has not told her why her visa was revoked. An agent told her it was probably an error and she should just apply for a new visa, but her application has not been acted on yet, even though she submitted it months ago.

As a result, she has had to take an unpaid leave from her job, has been unable to attend academic conferences, and has had her entire life uprooted. Worst of all, she has no idea why, and nobody will give her any explanations.

This is the kind of story you expect a traveler to the Soviet Union in 1980 to relate, not a British musician trying to return to the U.S. in 2007. Again, I'm not a fan of holding up a single story and saying, "Look, this is how things are," but it seems like ... this is how things are.

This story is, I'm afraid, what the United States of America has become under the leadership of George W. Bush. How does it feel?

The article explains that the British musician had no known political activities and is engaged to an American (an opera singer and director). There is also no evidence that her art was in any way anti-American or controversial (she is an expert on the composer Edward Elgar, the guy who wrote "Pomp and Circumstance" -- about as mainstream as you can get). Why should this matter, you ask? It shouldn't. But, the article says, many have charged the Bush administration with regularly using the anti-terrorist apparatus to revoke visas from artists whose views they don't like. How American does that sound to you?

I wonder if President Bush still believes what he said in the the 2002 speech quoted above. He really played that whole "they hate us for our freedom" for all it was worth for years, but I feel like he's moved on to other pieces of meaningless rhetoric.

I'm sure he abandoned the "they hate us for our freedom" theme because his spinmasters found more effective ways to hoodwink the American public. I'm sure the decision was in no way substantive. But, thanks to the president's policies over the last few years, it seems to me that we have a whole lot less freedom than we did when The Decider took office.

Bush is not the first leader in history to use fear of an enemy as a way to seize executive power. Unfortunately, he won't be the last, either. But make no mistake: He has done so. Since 9/11 the White House, with the complicity of Congress and the American people, has used Islamic terrorists as the bogeyman to scare the country into accepting whatever attack on the Constitution the administration felt like advancing that week.

The Patriot Act, no matter how you feel about it, is, objectively speaking, a law that gives the executive branch increased power and authority at the expense of Congress, judges and the rights of the American people.

There are lots of contradictions here. For one, thanks to the idiotic decision to invade Iraq and topple the government without an understanding of the repercussions or a solid plan for the future, Bush has made America less safe than it was the day before the invasion. Put another way, the president has exacerbated a threat, and then used that very threat to increase his power.

Taking the point one step further, Bush spent several years telling us we had to fight these terrorists because they hate us for our freedom, but to fight them, he advocated taking away big chunks of our freedom. From warrantless wiretaps to maintaining an extra-constitutional prison in Guantanamo Bay to sending suspects to rogue nations to be tortured to arbitrarily keeping people out of the country, Bush has implemented government intrusions into the freedom he supposedly loves that have been unmatched since the disgusting internment policies adopted during World War II.

Right about now, some of you might be screaming, "Don't you understand? There are bad men trying to kill us! They committed the heinous acts of 9/11! Whatever is needed to get them is what we should be doing."

Here's the problems with that:

By overreacting, the administration is playing into the hands of the very terrorists that Bush talks so ardently about defeating (even though he decided it was more important to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq than to keep up the pressure on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan). The very purpose of a terrorist attack like 9/11 is to provoke the U.S. into taking rash action that would undermine its own interests. If bin Laden had the chance to script Bush's response to the attacks, I doubt it would differ much from what Bush actually did. The Iraq invasion was a gift to Al-Qaeda's recruiting efforts. Not to mention that before the Iraq invasion there was no Al-Qaeda presence in Iraq, but there is now. And there is decidedly less heat on the Al-Qaeda leadership along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border now that we are bogged down in Iraq. Bush is to thank for all of that. If bin Laden wasn't a crazy, religiously delusional, vicious murderer, you would think he should send Bush a thank you note.

Also, the attacks turned Bush into a leader who took away freedoms. Didn't Bush say this is what the terrorists wanted us to do? Would it not be more in line with his "they hate us for our freedom" theory to maintain our way of life in the face of the Al-Qaeda threat? Didn't they tell us to go about our business, spending money off our credit cards, or the terrorists would win? Bush isn't taking his own advice.

And by turning us into a nation that tortures and imprisons individuals without any judicial oversight, hasn't Bush again fallen into the trap of the terrorists? Thanks to our reaction to 9/11, the world now views us as just another nation that flouts the rule of law, rather than the beacon of democracy that we used to be viewed as (I know we didn't always behave that way, but it was the perception)? Again, if bin Laden could have painted a path for Bush, it would have looked a lot like what Bush actually did.

When you read stories like the one in the Times about the deported British musician, it is striking how much Bush has changed the fundamental nature of our country. He can say it's to keep us safer, but how does preventing a British woman from telling me about the history of "Pomp and Circumstance" protect me?

So much of the debate now is about what to do in Iraq, but, really, the bigger issue is what to do about our country. Will Bush's eight years in office be a blip, much like the demagoguery practiced by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s? Or, has Bush's transgressions been so deep that the very fabric and nature of the United States has been altered beyond repair?

I think how the country reacts to the Bush presidency, most notably in who it raises to power in 2008, will go a long way toward determining the long-term effects of the last eight years. It is often said that the number one issue in that election will be Iraq. Maybe it should be identity. Who are we? What kind of country do we want to be? What do we want to stand for? And what roll do we want to take in the world? It's hard to believe that many citizens want the country to be what Bush has turned it into. And I can't imagine anyone reading the Times story and feeling particularly proud.

It's clear that Bush has no interest in protecting the very freedoms he loved to talk about so much, like in the quote at the top of this article. With the election coming, it seems to me that the most important question you can ask of the candidates is, What kind of America do they want?

To borrow a phrase from the NFL and NBA drafts, America, you're on the clock. Whose America do you want to live in? Do you want more fear mongering (I'm talking to you Mayor Giuliani), or do you want an America you can be proud of. You have a big decision to make. Don't screw it up.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Bush Has Squandered Republican Claims to Superiority on Security and the Economy

Republicans can be trusted with the country's defense and economy.

You may not agree with that statement (I know I certainly don't), but for a very long period of time it was an oft-repeated sentiment and, many would argue, the prevailing view in the United States. It was also an effective idea for the Republicans, who managed to win five of the six presidential elections held between 1968 and 1988. It took the perfect storm of Watergate and a massive recession to hand the Democrats their one win, in 1976. You can also argue that the idea that Republicans handle security better helped Bush to victory in 2004 while the U.S. was engaged in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though the electorate had started to see the holes in the president's cloak of leadership.

Leave it to George W. Bush to destroy the long-held edge the Republicans maintained in the public's mind on these two important issues. (He has blundered virtually everything else he has touched, so why should this issue be any different?)

An August 2007 Rasmussen poll found that more Americans trust the Democrats with the economy than the Republicans (42% to 41%), and the Democrats ranked only one percentage point behind the GOP on the issue of national security and the "war on terror" (44% to 43%). Democrats were also preferred on the Iraq issue, 44% to 40%.

If you had told a Republican in 1984 that the GOP was within a percentage point of the Democrats on the economy and defense, he would have thought you had rejected the first lady's advice to just say "no." But what our skinny-tied, feathered-haired Republican friend would not have had any way of knowing is that the Republicans would send to the White House a man who has excelled at incompetence.

The Bush presidency has featured one stupendous blunder after another, especially in the area of national security. History will regard Bush's decision to remove resources from Afghanistan and tie up a majority of the country's military capability in a voluntary war that had nothing to do with the war against Islamic fundamentalism (Iraq was ruled by a dictator who was a strict secularist) as completely against any thoughtful logic.

And you can build that argument pretty well only citing the thoughts of his fellow Republicans.

On Friday's episode of "Real Time With Bill Maher," Sen. Chuck Hegel (R-Neb.) called Iraq the biggest foreign policy blunder in U.S. history. On Sunday's "Meet the Press," the central argument of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as to why the U.S. should continue the surge was that Bush's handling of the war was horrible, and the current policy should have been put into place years ago and needs time to work. He had no qualms about saying that the war in Iraq "was very badly mismanaged by the former secretary of defense and this administration." He also kept trying to run down the proposals of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) by tarring them with the ultimate insult -- that they were a continuation of the Bush policy. (You can read the transcript of the whole interview here.)

With Al-Qaeda using the war in Iraq as a sensationally successful recruiting tool, the Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan, and the government in Iraq failing to meet even the most basic goals of making progress toward political reconciliation, it is virtually universally accepted that Bush completely bungled the nation's security policy after the initial gains in Afghanistan.

If Bush thought he could sit back and coast on the success of the economy, in the last few weeks he has found himself under siege on this front, too. The collapse of the subprime mortgage market has caused a stock market downturn and credit crunch. A Yahoo!/AP article from September 7 reported that for the first time in four years, employers cut jobs, with 4,000 positions lost in August, out of fear of an upcoming recession.

Again, the complaints about Bush's handling of the economy have not just been from Democrats. In his new book and in an interview on "60 Minutes," former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, a Republican who testified to Congress early in Bush's first term supporting the president's proposed tax cuts (or, more accurately, the general idea of tax cuts), said that the administration was "wrong" for not adjusting the tax cuts after the surplus evaporated. Greenspan blames Bush for not cutting spending, leading to the largest deficits since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president.

See, it's not just Democrats who accuse Bush of being stubborn to a fault.

Greenspan also spoke against Bush's Iraq policy, saying in his book, according to a New York Times article, that he is "saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil."

Thanks to Bush's stubbornness and incompetence, Republicans no longer have the presumptive edge with the American people on the issues of security and the economy. Democrats can now compete on a level playing field, allowing the electorate to judge which set of policies would be better for the country. Does that mean the Democrats will win the presidency and retain Congress in 2008? Hardly. It's still up to the party to articulate plans that will appeal to the voters. But the chance is there, should they decide to take it. And they have an unlikely person to thank for the opportunity.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Networks’ Lack of Patience Makes People Wary About Watching New Shows

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]


You can feel the new television season coming. With the on-air promos, billboards, print and Web site ads, newspaper and magazine features, and actors on talk shows discussing their new shows, you can’t escape the publicity blitz.

But here is a dirty little fact that the networks don’t want you to focus on about their new programs: A vast majority of them won’t be around by the end of the season. Some won’t survive the first month, falling victim to the shockingly quick hook of television executives. The days of letting writers and producers settle in, find a voice, and solidify an audience are long gone. Success has to be instantaneous now. There is no adjustment period.

The industry is in a full-on panic, trying to retain ad revenues in the face of the declining audience for network television. Faced with competition from cable, the Web, cell phones, and other modern content-delivery methods that were not significant factors 10 years ago, the networks are under tremendous pressure to maintain and bolster revenues. So, you can see why programmers would think that they need to jettison any program that is not pulling its financial weight.

At the same time, maybe the networks should take a look at the possibility that their lack of patience with new offerings is actually helping to fuel the decline of traditional television.

As recently as ten years ago, choosing whether or not to watch one of the cavalcade of new programs from the networks was as simple as asking yourself, “Does this look like a show I may like?” There was no real down side to taking a chance and watching some of the new programs. The worst thing that could happen was that you hated what you saw, so you just stopped watching.

That point of view on the new season seems quite naïve in 2007. Now, if you decide to watch a new program, you run the risk that you will invest in the storyline and characters, only to have the show pulled off the air before the major issues in the show are resolved. This is especially true for serials that feature an overriding plot arc that is supposed to stretch over the length of an entire season. Just ask fans of last year’s “The Nine,” who were mid-story when the hostage drama was shown the door by ABC after less than two months.

Would you go to a movie if you knew there was a chance that 30 minutes into it, the distributor would shut down the projector and throw you out of the theater? Of course not. And yet, that is exactly what network programmers do with their new shows on a regular basis. The effect is that viewers are wary of emotionally investing in new programs.

In fact, potential fans know that episodes will be available online (legally and illegally), and will also probably eventually be released on DVD. The thinking is, “I’ll wait and see if the show catches on. If it does, I’ll catch up. But why watch now, when the show might be gone in a few weeks, anyway?”

See if any of these titles ring a bell: “The Class,” “Runaway,” “Standoff,” “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” “Help Me Help You,” “Smith,” “Kidnapped,” “20 Good Years,” “Big Day,” “Six Degrees,” “Happy Hour,” “The Black Donnelys,” and the aptly named “Vanished.” All of these shows were hyped by the networks as new offerings last season, only to die early deaths. I know I felt left cold when NBC abandoned “Studio 60” halfway through its run. History says that most of the new programs being heavily promoted now will be gone when the season is over.

Television history is filled with late bloomers, with shows like “Seinfeld” taking time before finding an audience. If “Seinfeld” was a new show this year and generated the same relative ratings (more people watched primetime television back then) in its first four post-pilot episodes as it did back in 1990 (the pilot ran in 1989), it would be canceled. The same would apply to many other hit shows from the last 20 years.

Don’t get me wrong: Some shows reveal themselves to be dogs, with no hope of redemption. I’m not arguing that no shows should be canceled. Instead, what if fewer of them were? What if canceling a show before it has gone at least half a season was something that was considered unusual? I have to believe that there is at least a chance that if the networks were to commit to staying with shows that exhibit promise, more viewers would be willing to take a chance on getting hooked.

The quick trigger finger of network executives has led to a gun-shy audience. I look forward to the new shows premiering in the next few weeks, but when I watch a program, instead of just asking myself, “Do I like this?”, I will also be wondering, “Will it be successful enough to stay on the air?” And I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Media Drops the Ball in Reporting Bush's Policy as a Troop Reduction

Let me lay out a scenario for you:

Your next-door neighbor has a termite problem, so he starts setting off bug bombs that emit 100 pounds of chemicals each day. The smell wafts over to your house, making you and your family sick. You say to your neighbor, "Dude, you're killing me with the bug bombs. Stop it." But, despite years of complaining, he keeps releasing the deadly chemicals. Finally, the EPA comes in and tells your neighbor he has to change his plan, or they will shut down his house. So, the neighbor decides he's going to use 125 pounds a day, because the extra chemicals will finally kill the termites off. You protest, "Hey, the chemicals aren't working, increasing the dosage will only do more damage to us than the termites. Enough already!" But your pleas fall on deaf ears. After eight months of the increased chemical use, you are in really bad shape. Your pet fish are all dead, your children have asthma, and your wife is having hallucinations. So, you go to your neighbor and say, "Enough! The chemicals have to stop." Your neighbor tells you, "Don't worry. I have 5 percent fewer termites now. The extra chemicals have been a success! So, in ten months, I will reduce my daily output by 25 pounds, assuming, of course, my good results continue."

How would you feel? Would you say, "Wow, he's reducing his output! That's great!", and invite him over for a celebratory barbecue? Unlikely. It is far more realistic that you would begin beating your neighbor with a lead pipe, all while yelling, "You idiot! Lowering your daily output of deadly chemicals by 25 pounds puts you in exactly the same place you were eight months ago when you were screwing up my life! How dare you call that a reduction. I'm not an idiot. Don't talk to me like I am a moron."

Well, ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States of America, George W. Bush, is that neighbor. In January 2007, after his party was thrown out of power in Congress based entirely on dissatisfaction with his Iraq policy, he came up with the plan for his "surge," adding more troops to Iraq. As I wrote on Monday, you really have to read the text of Bush's January 10, 2007 address to the American people, in which he makes clear that the surge was to be temporary and was intended to give the Iraqi government "room to breathe" so they could reach the benchmarks they themselves set.

Of course, we know now that the Iraqi government has been horrendous, carrying out sectarian revenge and going on vacation rather than doing the hard work of addressing sectarian conflict, and the surge, even if has been tactically successful (many would argue it has not been), has failed, since the Iraqi government failed to do its job.

Just like the termite fighting neighbor in my story, Bush is talking to the American people like we are idiots. In January 2007, the American people wanted a policy change in Iraq. He didn't give them one. Instead, he kept at his current policy, only throwing more troops and money at it. Then, eight months later, he tells us that in ten further months, he'll go back to the status quo of January 2007, and he has the nerve to call that a "reduction" of troops.

It is nothing short of a disgrace.

It was gratifying to see in a Yahoo!/AP article today that both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) immediately came out against Bush's more-of-the-same plan, calling it, in Reid's words, "unacceptable" to him and the American people. Let's hope that they stay in the fight instead of rolling over, the way they did on the war funding bill in the spring and the warrantless surveillance bill in the summer.

But, what I found to be the most disturbing about this whole sordid affair was the way every media outlet talked about Bush's plan to "reduce troops." By no fair definition of the term was the White House proposing a troop reduction. How can you expect the White House to stop lying when the media is its ultimate enabler? By reporting the administration's bogus terminology verbatim, despite it being so obviously a load of crap, the media is helping shape the debate in favor of the president. The American people hear the words "troop reduction" and "Bush" in the same sentence, and unless they do further research, they think, "Good, the president is reducing the number of troops in Iraq." Even though he is doing nothing of the sort.

Is it too much to ask of the media to report the facts? Is it too much to expect them to report the story as the president maintaining the surge for a further ten months, and then possibly going back to the same full level of troop deployment after that? Apparently it is. I know it's pithier and easier to just report the simpler three-word propaganda from the White House, "President reducing troops," than to actually, you know, do their jobs. But their jobs, keeping the electorate informed about what its government is doing, is essential to the maintaining of a democracy.

The media dropping the ball in how it characterizes the president's plan in Iraq is no different than a member of Congress casting a vote after being too lazy to actually read the research on the issue. Both are acts of incompetency, and both are an affront to our democratic system of government.

As the Democrats and some Republicans in Congress come out against Bush's plan and call it what it is, rather than what the White House wants you to think it is, I hope the media's coverage will reflect the scam that the administration is trying to pull. If the media fails in this regard, the American people face a fate like the family next to the bug bomb neighbor, spending years suffering at the hands of their tormentor. It's bad enough that we have to fight Bush's twisting of the facts, but it's maddening that the media is his biggest ally. Liberal media? Hardly. More like a lapdog media. And we all pay the price.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Britney Stumbles Around the Stage, I Smile Heartily

I admit it. In certain circumstances, I am a gleeful practitioner of the art of schadenfreude (defined by dictionary.com as "satisfaction or pleasure felt at someone else's misfortune").

In my defense, I never enjoy the misfortune of innocent people. On the contrary, I am empathetic to the point of illness when I hear about bad things happening to people that don't deserve it. But I have a very acute sense of justice. I cannot abide unfairness, and it bugs me that too often there are no reprecussions for those in society who do bad things (see, e.g., Bush, George W.).

So, on the odd occasion that somebody deserving gets some comeuppance, for better or worse, you can be sure that I am going to be in the front row, cheering as if I was watching Derek Jeter single in the winning run in Game 7 of the World Series. Justice, as I see it anyway, is meted out so infrequently, you have to savor it when it happens.

I have written on several occasions about my die-hard aversion to boy bands, and how their ascension buried the last great era of rock music, the post-Nirvana run of bands in the early-to-mid-1990s. And the female pop singers of the boy band era were no less odious to me than the boy bands themselves.

So it was with schadenfreude-induced glee that I watched as Britney Spears opened the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards (you can watch the show, in its entirety, on MTV.com) by sleepwalking through a badly lip-synced performance of her new single "Gimme More" (to watch it, click here). This was supposed to be Britney's big comeback appearance after a year dominated by talk of her divorce from a white-trash loser, alleged child abuse and indifference, stints in rehab, and spectacular meltdown that included her personally shaving off every bit of hair on her head.

Dressed in a black sequined bra and panty set and knee-high boots with spiked heels (very subtle), and with long blonde hair that, based on the ubiquitous photos of her post-shave, had to be extensions or a wig, Britney wandered around unsteadily for the length of the song like she was out for a walk and accidentally stumbled onto the stage during someone else's performance. She had trouble lip-syncing to the backing track, showed no emotion on her face, barely moved when she attempted to dance, and usually found herself out of step with the backing performers (and there were a lot of them, which could only lead one to believe that somebody thought this might happen and wanted to provide cover for the clueless singer).

It was such a disaster, Ashlee Simpson had to suddenly feel better about herself. "At least when I was exposed as a fraud, I danced." (If you don't get the reference, click here.)

It's bad enough that performers like Britney have become famous even though they can't sing, how pathetic is it that at this point in her existence, she can't even match her fake vocals to the music blaring around her?

Thanks to my schadenfreude, her performance was one of the most entertaining four minutes I've spent in a while. Why was I enjoying the on-view-for-all career crash and burn of a woman with obvious mental deficiencies? Because it is disgusting to me that this woman achieved any kind of success in the music business in the first place, and it is only right -- there is that pesky sense of justice again -- that she be exposed (and I'm not talking about her revealing outfit).

Britney has sold millions of records and has earned hundreds of millions of dollars, even though she has no discernible talent (other than dancing, but you wouldn't know it from watching her VMA debacle). She can't sing, and her vanity project, "Crossroads," proved she can't act. Where artists like Madonna learned and grew over time, going from the image-first singer of "Like a Virgin" to an accomplished singer and performer, Britney has coasted on her willingness to dance while displaying her formerly desired body in slutty clothing (and not much of it).

I think one of the reasons I especially have it out for Britney is that she doesn't seem to be in on the joke. History is filled with bubble gum pop stars with limited talent, but Britney has always held herself out like she mattered. Like she knew something we didn't. When she did her car-wreck reality show about her car-wreck marriage, her underlying thought was, "People will find me and my life interesting." Nobody did, so nobody watched. It's her lack of talent combined with her attitude that makes her my public enemy number one of crappy pop singers.

It sounds naive, I know, but it just seems wrong that Britney is rewarded with millions of dollars while talented musicians and singers struggle to get or maintain a record deal and scrape by in the music business. I mean, there is no shortage of places to go and watch decently attractive women dressed in very little, from the Internet to strip clubs to late night cable television. (I'm not complaining.) Do we really need to give a career to a woman whose only claim to fame seems to be her willingness to act that way on the MTV stage?

I'm ranting, I know. And I'm naive, old-fashioned, and yes, maybe even idealistic. Hell, expecting the American public to have standards in its pop culture entertainment may even brand me as delusional. I accept all of those charges. But nobody can take away from me the image of Britney Spears turning in a performance that humiliated her in front of millions of viewers, possibly committing career suicide in the process. It was, yes, I'm going to say it, justice. For once, a purveyor of crap got what she deserved.

I know I can't win the war, but I will enjoy winning this one battle. In fact, the next time a Pussycat Dolls CD goes platinum or Joey Fatone gets a raise to bumble his way through "The Singing Bee," maybe I'll just fire up my computer and watch Britney's deer-in-the-headlights look as she lumbers her way through her VMA performance. And I'll think to myself, "Your day may come, Fatone, oh yes, your day may come." Because if it could happen to Britney, it could happen to any of the no-talents who have lucked into a career. When it does, I'll be waiting, filled to capacity with my schadenfreude. And proud of it.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Media Isn't Reporting That the Surge Isn't Working By Bush's Own Scorecard

[NOTE: I also posted this article on www.dailykos.com. If you like it, please go to it here and vote for it, recommend it, comment on it, etc. Thanks.]

Gen. David Petraeus is reportedly going to tell Congress today that the surge is working and the military just needs more time to finish the job. Putting aside the fact that Petraeus wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post on Sept. 26, 2004 (just over a month before the presidential election) that said he saw "tangible progress" and "Iraqi leaders ... stepping forward" and "leading their country," making his "we're almost there" argument today highly suspect, the real issue is that the media will report the assessment of Gen. Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, in just the way that the Bush administration wants them to, as if the level of security gains was the main issue.

The Petraeus/Crocker (as a Bush appointee, the last two letters of Crocker's name seem unnecessary in this setting) report is just a smoke screen for the White House to hide behind while they stretch the war to the end of the Bush administration.

Instead, the media should be reporting on the real issue at stake, defined not by me, but by President Bush himself in his January 10, 2007 address to the American people. Following Bush's logic from that speech, even if Gen. Petraeus is right, and the surge has been a big success, in reality, the surge has failed.

What I mean by that is that the whole rationale for the surge when President Bush announced it in January was to provide security so the Iraqi government could make political progress in solving the issues that divide the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in the country, mainly how they will govern themselves and how they will divide up the oil revenues and other natural resources of the country.

But why listen to me, when you could read Bush's exact words from the January 10, 2007 address:

"I've made it clear to the Prime Minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people -- and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people."

He went on to note that an increase in security would give the Iraqi government "the breathing space it needs to make progress in other critical areas. Most of Iraq's Sunni and Shia want to live together in peace -- and reducing the violence in Baghdad will help make reconciliation possible."

Finally, he noted:

"A successful strategy for Iraq goes beyond military operations. Ordinary Iraqi citizens must see that military operations are accompanied by visible improvements in their neighborhoods and communities. So America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced."

I really suggest you read Bush's speech in its entirety, because it shoots down virtually every argument his administration is making now to sustain the surge.

As Bush himself noted in January, the benchmarks for the Iraqi government did not come from Congress, but from the Iraqi government itself. So, it is disingenuous now for the administration to try and argue that Congress's expectations were too high and that the benchmarks were unreachable. If they were so tough to get to, why did the Iraqis themselves come up with them?

Even the most generous report has found that the Iraqis have fallen exceptionally short on the vast majority of the benchmarks, and nobody can make an argument that the Iraqi government has shown any willingness to make the hard choices and sacrifices necessary to bring all of the the country's sects together. That is why Bush and the Republicans are talking so much about alleged security gains. It's because they can't point to any political gains.

Let's look at the situation in Iraq now based on Bush's remarks in January: He gave the Iraqis space to come together, and the government has made virtually no progress, spending a month on vacation and acting like it was way more interested in exacting revenge on Sunnis and consolidating Shiite power than coming up with any kind of unification plan. So, by Bush's own scorecard, isn't it time to go?

Bush doesn't like the results of his own game, so now he's changing the rules. But if the media doesn't report his earlier remarks, he might just get away with it.

Even Bush's original formulation -- if we make Baghdad safer, the politicians can solve the country's sectarian problems -- is turning out to be a completely backward assumption. Retired Marine General James Jones, who is now the Chairman of the Iraqi Security Forces Independent Assessment Commission (not exactly someone you would think of as being an anti-war lefty), made the point on "Meet the Press" yesterday (you can read the transcript here) that security will not bring about political reconciliation, but rather only after there is a solution to the sectarian conflict can there be an end to the violence.

Tim Russert quoted a Washington Post article to Gen. Jones about his commission's findings that despite the Bush administration's insistence that security improvements will create "breathing space" for political reconciliation of the sects, the commission turned the “national reconciliation ... equation on its head, saying that long-term security advances are impossible without political progress. Despite all that remains to be done on the military front, the commission says, ‘the single most important event that could immediately and favorably affect Iraq’s direction and security is political reconciliation. Sustained progress within the Iraqi Security Forces depends on such a political agreement.'"

Gen. Jones responded that the Washington Post's characterization of the commission's findings was "fair," and that the commission started from that point of view. He said, "the reconciliation is absolutely the key to measurable and rapid progress."

What about all the White House mantra about withdrawing American troops leading to more violence? Gen. Jones also has something to say about that:

"[I]n general, we think that the, the notion that we’re not going to be there forever is—flies in the face of what we see on the ground. It is a massive footprint. We, we do—we have occupied Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. That in itself sends a, a mixed message to, to the Iraqis. We believe that the, the idea of transition should be captured more centrally and focused with greater focus to, to give the, the direction and the progress on a measured rate about how we’re going to hand things over to Iraqis and on what time frame. And, and we think that we are arriving at a strategic point where, with the ability of the Iraqi army and the—hopefully the police force to take over the internal problems of Iraq, that we can—the commanders can take another look at how we use our forces, what their mission set is, what they do, and that will, that will contribute to a force reshaping and rebalancing."

That "reshaping and rebalancing" would include some reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq. Gen. Jones embraces the obvious fact that the Bush administration does not seem to understand that our very presence in Iraq incites violence.

Gen. Jones was interviewed on "Meet the Press" with fellow commission member Charles Ramsey, a former Washington, D.C. police commissioner, who related an incident that demonstrates how the Iraqi government is failing to move towards reconciliation. He said that national police leadership recommended that a new brigade of national police in the area of Samarra should be made up of 55 percent Shiites and 45 percent Sunnis. But when the Iraqi government went to actually make up the force, they decided it should be 99 percent Shia and 1 percent Sunni.

It is clear that while American soldiers have fought, been wounded, and died for the cause of allowing the Iraqis to come together and overcome their sectarian divisions, the Iraqis themselves have been more interested in looking out for their own sects.

There will be a lot of talk after Gen. Petraeus gives his report today about measurable security progress due to the surge, with Republicans, as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" yesterday, arguing, "Look, we're making Iraq safer! We have to keep at it. The price of losing is too high."

While the media robotically reports these claims, most news outlets will not talk about how the alleged security gains do not involve Shiites and Sunnis putting their differences aside. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) made the point on the same edition of "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," pointing out that while the administration cites Anbar province as a place where violence has been reduced, that transformation involved conflicts of Sunnis against other Sunnis. There was no Sunni-Shiite reconciliation in Anbar.

The problem is, even if the administration is right about the military progress (and there is a lot of evidence they are wrong, including a great article on the front page of the New York Times yesterday), the real issue is the lack of political reconciliation going on. All this talk about alleged gains is just political theater. The bottom line is that the Iraqi government's conduct has not warranted our continued military support.

Our military is stretched to its limits. We think of the U.S. as having limitless capability, with the ability to take on any challenge we want. But the reality is that without a draft and/or more extensions of tours of duty (which present a set of problems of their own), there is a limit to what the American armed forces can do. Bush decided to dedicate a huge chunk of our military capability to a foolish and damaging war in Iraq. There will be no easy solutions for getting out of this mess, but I know one thing for sure: The answer is not to ignore the evidence on the ground and continue to sacrifice American military lives and trillions of dollars. No matter what Gen. Petraeus reports today, there is nothing the U.S. military can do if the Iraqis aren't willing to overcome their own sectarian conflicts.

By the terms Bush laid out in his own speech to the American people in January, the underlying purpose of the surge has failed, even if the military has done what it set out to do. But instead of the president admitting he was wrong (does he ever?), he is changing the scoring system, trying to buy more time for a "we're almost there" policy that has failed for nearly five years.

It's time for the media to hold Bush to his earlier remarks and stop reporting the administration's claims like they were facts, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

It's also time for members of both parties to finally stand up and say "no" to the president. And if they don't, it's time for the American electorate to hold those who fail to act accountable. Holding politicians accountable for their actions is the job of the voters in an election, right? Let's hope they do their job better than the administration has running the government.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Five New TV Shows I Look Forward to Seeing

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

The new television season starts later this month, and the networks will finally be unveiling the new shows they have been flogging since the schedules were announced in May. While I will no doubt sample many of the new offerings, the following are the five new programs I am most interested in checking out (in reverse order of excitement level):

5. “Samantha Who?” (ABC, Mondays at 9:30 p.m., debuts October 15)

While multiple title changes are never a good sign (“Sam I Am” to “Samantha Be Good” to “Samantha Who?,” all of which are immediately forgettable), the bad karma is outweighed by a lot of elements that have piqued my interest about this program. First of all, it’s a sitcom, and as a dying breed, I feel a responsibility to support any offering from the genre that looks at all promising.

I also like the premise: A woman wakes up from a coma with amnesia, only to discover that she was a very unlikable person. Handled correctly, there is a lot of humor and insight to be mined from that set-up. Christina Applegate is well-cast as the titular amnesiac, and the always entertaining Jean Smart, who is too often buried in bad projects, is a series regular. Bonus points to the producers for using a “Gilmore Girls” cast member (Melissa McCarthy, who played Sookie). And straight from the “Really?” department, the pilot was directed by the actor who played Tom Paris on “Star Trek: Voyager,” Robert Duncan McNeill, which explains how “Voyager”’s Vulcan, Tim Russ, also has a lead role.

The show was created by an unlikely pair: veteran television writer Donald Todd and Irish novelist Cecelia Ahern. How often do you get to write the phrase “Irish novelist” when describing a sitcom? Based on the previews and the cast, “Samantha Who?” looks like it could be sharply funny.

4. “Private Practice” (ABC, Wednesdays at 9:00 p.m., debuts September 26)

On the surface, a soapy drama about a bunch of doctors sharing a practice in Southern California is not a show that would normally make this list. A guilty pleasure TiVo? Sure. But one of the new programs I’m looking forward to the most? No way. So what has landed “Private Practice” on my list? Two words for you: Kate Walsh.

I am a somewhat conflicted “Grey’s Anatomy” viewer. Aside from the distractingly unrealistic constant stream of disasters that occur in and around Seattle Grace Hospital, my biggest pet peeve about the show is that I could never understand why anyone would even consider dumping Kate Walsh for Ellen Pompeo. Walsh’s Addison Montgomery is a smart, driven, empathetic, warm and deeply human character and, in my eyes, the best thing about “Grey’s.” Pompeo’s Meredith Grey is a self-involved, cold, whiny mess. I watch the show despite Meredith, not because of her.

With Walsh getting her own spin-off, it was time for me to put my eyeballs where my mouth is, right? I certainly can’t continue watching “Grey’s” while snubbing “Private Practice,” could I? I’m a victim of my own words. And, despite the fact that the episode of “Grey’s” that served as the pilot for the spin-off was less than scintillating, I’m ready to give Dr. Montgomery a chance at her new place of work. After all, if the Addison Montgomery of “Private Practice” is the same Addison Montgomery we got to know on “Grey’s Anatomy,” the show is already off to a good start.

3. “Aliens in America” (CW, Mondays at 8:30 p.m., debuts October 1)

The inclusion of this one took me by surprise, since before I started my research, I barely remembered that “Aliens in America” existed. As I’ve written before, I am a big fan of “How I Met Your Mother.” When CBS announced that it was going to air a new sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory,” about two science nerds who befriend the beautiful woman who moves in next door, in the slot after “How I Met Your Mother,” I thought it was a no-brainer that “Big Bang” would make my list. Now, thanks to the miracles of modern technology (a.k.a. TiVo), I’m sure I will watch “Big Bang.” But, when I looked at the schedule and did a little digging, I found that a different show will be my number one priority Mondays at 8:30: “Aliens in America.”

My first clue that “Big Bang” may not be all puppies and rainbows was my discovery that it is executive produced by Chuck Lorre, the man who unleashed onto the world the mind-bogglingly overrated “Two and a Half Men.” “Aliens,” on the other hand, is executive produced by, among others, Tim Doyle, whose voluminous credits include two of my favorite (and criminally canceled too soon) sitcoms of all time, “Sports Night” and “Andy Richter Controls the Universe.” The show’s producers have also worked on classic half-hour offerings like “Arrested Development” and “The Larry Sanders Show,” as well as a personal favorite of mine, “Mad About You.”

I’m a little unsure about the premise of “Aliens” (a Muslim exchange student comes to a family in Wisconsin that was expecting someone more Nordic). It’s original, but seems like it might be a bit heavy-handed. And other than another “Gilmore Girls” refugee (Scott Patterson, who was diner owner Luke on “Gilmore,” and is the dad in “Aliens”), I’m not familiar with anyone in the cast. But with the pedigree of the writers and the originality of the premise, I have a feeling “Aliens” might be a pleasant surprise of the season. Assuming, of course, anyone bothers to find it on the CW.

2. “Carpoolers” (ABC, Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m., debuts October 2)

This is another one that required a bit of digging to grab my attention. First of all, it is in the time block vacated by the demise of “Gilmore Girls,” and I have to watch something during that time since I am under psychiatric orders not to spend every Tuesday night between 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. in the fetal position on the floor in front of my television. And, again, I want to support new sitcoms, so my mind was open, even though Jerry O’Connell is one of the leads (I’m not a fan). I decided to be an optimist, remembering that series regular Faith Ford was on one of the great sitcoms of all time, “Murphy Brown,” rather than acknowledge that she was on one of the worst half-hour comedies, too (“Hope and Faith”).

And then I remembered something I had read over the summer in an article about the latest reunion of the Canadian comedy troupe Kids in the Hall: Kids member Bruce McCulloch is a writer and executive producer on “Carpoolers.” Given how off the wall the Kids’ comedy could be, it seems unlikely that “Carpoolers” will be a brain dead, “According to Jim”-style cliché-fest. Throw in that Anthony and Joe Russo, veterans of “Arrested Development,” are also executive producers and my desire to support worthy sitcoms, and I am in.

What is the show about? Four guys carpool together to work. It’s a benign enough premise, nothing to write home about, but the show will live and die, like most sitcoms, based on the writing and performances. After all, “The Office” is just about a bunch of employees of a paper company. I don’t think that “Carpoolers” will be up to the level of “The Office,” but it doesn’t have to be. It just has to be funny enough. And I think it will be.

1. “Pushing Daisies” (ABC, Wednesdays at 8:00 p.m., debuts October 3)

No, I am not an employee of ABC. Yes, as a kid, I did always root for ABC in the “Battle of the Network Stars” (Go Gabe Kaplan, go!). But, I swear, I didn’t even realize four of my five picks were ABC shows until I was done. Seriously? Seriously (to borrow a favorite exasperation from “Grey’s Anatomy,” a hit show on ... ABC).

I fully understand that putting “Pushing Daisies” on my list is like picking New England to win the Super Bowl and U.S.C. to win the NCAA football championship. Writers have been rhapsodizing about this show since the schedule was announced in May. I’m going with the early favorite, and there is no risk involved. But you see, favorites are favorites for a reason. Just like the Patriots and Trojans have great teams, “Pushing Daisies” looks like it could be one of the best shows of the season.

The set-up for this one-hour romantic drama/crime procedural/science fiction program is truly unique. Ned can bring people back to life by touching them, but if they stay alive for a minute, someone else close by will die. Oh, and if he touches someone he has brought back to life, they die, this time for good. Ned brings his childhood sweetheart back to life, which is great, until you consider that they can never touch each other again.

The executive producers of “Pushing Daisies” include film director Barry Sonnenfeld and Bryan Fuller, who has written and produced for several shows, including “Heroes,” “Wonderfalls,” and two Star Trek series (“Voyager” and “Deep Space Nine”), and he also adapted the script for the television remake of the horror film “Carrie.”

Rather than assembling a group of typical television stars, the producers have put together a cast that would be as at home in an issue of Playbill as they are in the credits of a network television show. Indie film actor Lee Pace plays Ned, Anna Friel plays Ned’s sweetheart, and Kristen Chenoweth, Jim Dale, Swoosie Kurtz and Chi McBride are also series regulars.

Everything is in place for “Pushing Daisies” to be a hit, both with the critics and in the ratings. Sure, maybe the show will not live up to the hype, but I know I’ll be watching to see which way it goes.

Honorable Mention

“The Big Bang Theory” (CBS, Mondays at 8:30 p.m., debuts on September 24). It looks like it could be funny, but I nixed it from the list for being a Chuck Lorre show on at the same time as “Aliens in America.”

“Chuck” (NBC, Mondays at 8:00 p.m., debuts September 24). The premise, a comedy-adventure about a computer geek who has government secrets downloaded into his brain, looks like it could be entertaining, but it’s on at the same time as “How I Met Your Mother,” so it was off the list.

“The Next Great American Band” (Fox, Fridays at 8:00 p.m., debuts on October 19). I watched “Rock Star: INXS” and “Rock Star: Supernova” because I like watching people cover rock songs.So this “American Idol” for rock bands is right up my alley. I’ll watch it, but, as a reality show, I couldn’t justify placing it on my top-five list.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Media Focusing on Wrong Revelation From Bush Biography

I do tears. I've got God's shoulder to cry on. And I cry a lot. I do a lot of crying in this job. I'll bet I've shed more tears than you can count, as president. I'll shed some tomorrow.
- President Bush in a biography about him written by Robert Draper, as quoted in an AP story published on Time magazine's website

So, Bush cries. Seems only fair, given all the tears he's caused in others, from the families of soldiers killed in Iraq, to the dependants of National Guard troops backdoor drafted into multiple tours of duty, to anyone affected by a disease or condition that could be cured through stem cell research ... I could go on for 1000 words and not run out of miseries caused by this president (though his Iraq policy has caused little or no tears for Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, Iran and Al-Qaeda recruiters, to name just a few beneficiaries of Bush's failed expedition in Iraq).

Okay, so now that I've got that cheap shot out of my system, what really struck me about this non-story is that there was actual news buried inside of it that nobody seemed to really notice or talk about. Instead of blasting a headline about Bush's obviously calculated admission of being human (imagine having to prove that to a country), why aren't there front page headlines and "Breaking News" updates on CNN about the true news contained in the early excerpts from the Bush biography written by Robert Draper?

For example, the AP/Time article contains the revelation from the book that Bush:

"Acknowledged that sectarian violence after the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein was 'something we didn't spend a lot of time planning for. We planned for what happens if Saddam and his people dug into Baghdad,' and we figured the Iraqi leader was fomenting ethnic divisions that would ease when he was gone. The opposite happened."

Go back and read that again. The president of the United States, often called the most powerful man in the world, freely admitted that he invaded another country and deposed its leader, against the wishes of nearly every country in the world (he spoke of the "Coalition of the Willing," but really most of the world's nations were members of the "Group Wondering If Bush Has Lost His Freaking Mind"), without planning for what to do about the ethnic divisions that had been kept in place by the leader for the last 40 years.

The real story is, in black and white, that Bush is acknowledging what we already know: That he is so certain about everything, he acts with the underlying understanding that he is never wrong. Only, he is nearly always wrong. He has been wrong about nearly every single action and prediction regarding Iraq. And, he was wrong about the sectarian divide, which has caused the U.S. to be bogged down in a quagmire in Iraq.

Now, you might say, "Come on Mitchell, aren't you playing Monday morning quarterback? Who knew that the sects would fight rather than come together in joy at the ouster of Saddam Hussein?" Uh, everyone. I'm playing Sunday at 1 p.m. quarterback. At game time, everyone knew that the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds were not ready to kiss and make nice in Iraq.

It's not like it was a crazy theory that the ethnic divisions in Iraq would prevent a peaceful, united government from replacing Hussein. And it wasn't just a group of lefty peaceniks who were saying that. The president only had to look to the vice president for that information. Bush's father's administration chose not to take out Hussein in the first Gulf War for that very reason. As everyone knows by now, Vice President Cheney explained the rationale in 1994 (he was defense secretary under Bush 41):

"Once you got to Iraq and took it over, took down Saddam Hussein's government, then what are you going to put in its place? That's a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government of Iraq, you could very easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off: part of it, the Syrians would like to have to the west, part of it -- eastern Iraq -- the Iranians would like to claim, they fought over it for eight years. In the north you've got the Kurds, and if the Kurds spin loose and join with the Kurds in Turkey, then you threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey. It's a quagmire if you go that far and try to take over Iraq."

(Watch Cheney say it for yourself in this YouTube clip.)

So, in a nutshell, everyone, including the president's most trusted advisor, the vice president, knew that there was potential (I'm being kind here, go with it) for the ethnic divide to sink Iraq into civil war once Hussein was deposed. Even if Cheney claims that 9/11 changed everything, causing him to believe that taking out Hussein was worth the risk, it's not like he forgot about the very real possibility of ethnic clashes. He should have known there could be conflict between the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds and planned for that contingency.

And yet, Bush admits he did not plan for that very eventuality.

In virtually any other job on the planet, such negligence would result in instant dismissal. What if a store manager failed to protect his store from a hurricane, even though every television station ran non-stop news items warning of an impending hit from the storm for the previous 72 hours? Fired. What if a chief financial officer failed to instruct her company to put money aside for back taxes, even though the government had notified her that the company was about to be audited for missed tax payments? Fired. What if a football team's defensive coordinator didn't install a single pass defense in the game plan for a contest against Peyton Manning? Fired.

But with Bush, it wasn't a damaged store, business going bankrupt, or lost football game that was at stake. It was nearly 4,000 American soldiers killed, tens of thousands of American soldiers wounded, and hundreds of thousands of American soldiers having their lives irreparably changed, not to mention the hundreds of trillions of dollars thrown away and the severe damage done to the U.S.'s place in the world. And yet, not only is Bush not fired, he is walking around as if he was just given a raise and a promotion. Because, you see, he knows he's right, even when he's wrong, and even when he admits he was wrong. He continues to cling to his wrong beliefs, doing more and more damage to the country.

As an aside, even the writer of the biography fits perfectly into the Bush playbook. The president clearly believes that if you're not from Texas, you're not worthy of a key job (or, conversely, if you're part of his Texas posse, you are qualified for any job, even if you're not, really). So, how how surprised should anybody be that Draper, the biographer, is a former writer for Texas Monthly, for whom he profiled Bush when he was governor. Good thing President Clinton didn't have the same home state obsession, or instead of Stephen Breyer on the Supreme Court, we would be reading opinions from Justice Amy Lee (the lead singer of Evanescence; it's not like there are a whole lot of famous people from Arkansas).

So as you look at those headlines, stamped with Bush's approval, about the president's private tears, think instead about his admission of his indefensible failure to plan for the aftermath of the war in Iraq. The media doesn't seem to want to look past the tabloid-friendly image of the president weeping, and they have failed in their job to report the true news to the American people. I guess there is only one explanation: None of the major news outlets are based in Texas. At least that would be Bush's explanation. And he would be 100 percent certain that his assessment was correct. Facts be damned.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Bush White House Is Incapable of Saying "We Were Wrong"

What a difference ten years makes.

In 1997, after security guard Richard Jewell had wrongly been identified as the main suspect in the fatal bomb attack at the Olympics in Atlanta the previous year, Attorney General Janet Reno said (as quoted in an MSNBC article on Jewell's death last week): "I’m very sorry it happened ...I think we owe him an apology."

Imagine that, a senior administration official taking responsibility for a major mistake. It was only ten years ago, but it might as well have been a millennium, given how much has changed in how the White House goes about its business.

When I read Reno's quote, my first thought was how out of time it felt. If you listen to the Bush administration, it never does anything wrong. Just look at the Alberto Gonzales resignation last week. The "Attorney Generalisimo" (as Bill Maher calls him) was revealed over the last six months to be incompetent, an administration flunky and, possibly, a felon (for perjury). He lacked support from senators in his own party. In general, he was nearly universally derided for his performance and his less-than-effective testimony to Congress (saying some variation on "I don't remember" more often than a fraternity pledge after a drinking contest). And yet, upon Gonzales's resignation, Bush seemed to be living in a different world than the rest of the country, saying, according to CNN.com, that Gonzales's "good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons."

Good name? Good how? Sure, Alberto Gonzales is a good name for a shortstop (no hate mail, please, as the Yankees do have a shortstop prospect named Alberto Gonzalez). But assuming Bush meant "good name" in the traditional sense, as in someone who is respected, well, then he would be hard pressed to find anyone not residing on Pennsylvania Avenue or in the Gonzales household who thinks the former attorney general's name is anywhere approaching good.

If we could just chalk Bush's stubbornness up to his loyalty to his Texas posse of semi-competents and boot-lickers, that would be one thing. But the president's inability to adjust his view on anything is having a devastating effect on this country on so many issues, nowhere more obvious than in Iraq.

On Wednesday, Reuters/Yahoo! wrote that a report indicated that Bush was going to be requesting an additional $50 billion to continue his failed misadventure in Iraq. That is on top of the $460 billion in the fiscal 2008 budget and $147 billion in a pending supplemental war spending bill. All together, that is more than $650 billion dollars in spending on a war policy that has proven to be a colossal failure. That's like a Hollywood producer asking a studio for $300 million to produce a sequel to a $200 million-budgeted movie that made four dollars at the box office. It defies all logic and sense, which means that it makes perfect sense to the Bush administration.

Let's take a step back. The purpose of the president's "surge" strategy was to give the Iraqi government the time and space it needed to work out the differences between the warring sects and figure out how to govern and divide the country's resources. How is that working out? Well, considering that most of the Sunni lawmakers are boycotting or have left the legislature, the government took the month of August off, and the ruling Shiites have done virtually nothing to try and bridge any of the gaps with their rivals, it's not looking too good.

Don't believe me? Well, how about listening to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, whose draft report, according to press reports last week (including in the Washington Post), found that the Iraqi government has failed to meet 15 of the 18 benchmarks for progress agreed upon by Congress and the president. Apparently, the draft report questions the accuracy of some aspects of the White House's more upbeat assessment of progress in Iraq. Big surprise there.

So, with the seemingly negative GAO report and all the other setbacks, the White House will be more likely to adjust its policy in light of the obvious facts on the ground, right? Uh, if you thought I was going to write "right," you must have been on a Rip Van Winkle-like nap since 2000.

For starters, the administration has already started a campaign to marginalize the report, with the propaganda ministers (soon-to-be-ex propaganda minister Tony Snow, and soon-to-be propaganda minister Dana Perino) trying a three-front assault. First, they argued that the benchmarks were set too high. Second, they changed the scoring system, saying that the benchmarks weren't meant to be met, but that they were goals, and that significant progress has been made towards the goals. Finally, they will choose to ignore the GAO and get behind the reports later this month of Iraq war commander General David Petraeus and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker.

Considering that the president signed off on the benchmarks, the Iraqi government has been inept and self-interested, and the GAO is nonpartisan while Crocker is a political appointee, the White House strategy is, as usual, operating outside of reality. So does that mean that when the battle is fought later this month over future war funding, the Democrats in Congress will be able to steamroll the president? Uh, again, where have you been the last six-and-a-half years?

In fact, the New York Times reported last Wednesday that the White House is now more confident than it was in July that it will be able to beat back the Democrats and be able to continue its war strategy unabated. Maybe the administration is trying to create such an atmosphere through propaganda, or maybe they really believe it to be true. Either way, given how the Democrats have rolled over in Congress on every key issue, including the war and warrantless wiretaps, it's not a stretch to think that the president will, again, get whatever he wants.

When I read the Reno quote apologizing to Jewell, it really hit me how much things have changed in ten short years. It's as if the American people have become accustomed to an administration that refuses to change course despite a record filled almost exclusively with failures, mismanagement and scandals. It is almost like the American people are resigned to it. Like the attitude is, "Yeah, the president is a moron, and his policies haven't worked, but really, what can we do about it now? We voted out the Republicans from Congress in November, and that didn't help at all."

I don't know if it is a post-9/11 fear of challenging authority or a vague sense that somehow Bush's "toughness" in Iraq will help protect the country, even as all evidence points to the president's policies creating more terrorists and making the nation less safe in the future.

I think the American people have forgotten one key point: It wasn't always like this. In 1997, the biggest scandal involving the White House had to do with the president having oral sex with an intern. It seems almost quaint now, given how effective President Clinton was, and how much damage President Bush has done with his incompetence and stubbornness in his last six plus years in office.

The Reno quote served as a reminder that there was a time not so long ago when there was a semblance of competency and responsibility in the White House. The American people need that reminder, so they stop accepting the onslaught of arrogance from the administration as if they don't have a choice. There are options. The electorate will wield enormous power in November 2008, when it chooses not just a president, but also which party will control the two houses of Congress. Letters and emails can be written to the these lawmakers that are terrified of losing their jobs. At the very least, the American people have to stop acting like the status quo is
acceptable. It's not. And one ten-year-old apology shows that it wasn't always like this.