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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Friday, 10 March 2006
The State of Play: Things Collapsing and the Old Woman Uses the D-Word
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

The State of Play: Things Collapsing and the Old Woman Uses the D-Word

Stormy sunset in Hollywood, Friday, March 10, 2006Friday, March 10th, as the sun sinks slowly in the west... well, on that particular day that didn't happen here in Los Angeles. Sure, the sun went down, but no one saw it. Dark clouds rolling in off the Pacific, rain on the way, shadowing a weekend of gloom - snow levels down to two thousand feet, just above Pasadena, warnings of mudslides where last year's fires stripped the hills, a cold wind from the north and, of course, the freeways perpetually jammed. All we need in an earthquake, but no one can yet predict those, so all we were told was that it would be a good weekend to stay home, or at least do something indoors. Snow had shut state Highway 58 through Tehachapi Friday morning - a potent Alaska storm blowing into the Los Angeles Basin - the California Highway Patrol closed the Grapevine, the high point of Interstate 5 leaving Los Angeles northward, early Friday morning - snow and hazardous conditions. They reopened it a few hours later. We're told Saturday will be the worst - but James DePreist conducts the LA Philharmonic in William Schuman's "New England Triptych" and Beethoven's "Emperor" piano concerto and Bartók's concerto for orchestra, down at Disney Hall in the afternoon, and in the evening Pharaoh Sanders will be down at the Jazz Bakery in Venice. Screw the beach.

Gloom. Seemed pervasive. Almost national.

This was the day after Dubai Ports World said they'd sell their management contacts for operations at six key US ports to "an American entity" - but no one knows who, and people are whispering Halliburton. After the 62-2 vote in the House Appropriations Committee to craft legislation blocking the deal and attach it to the bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and funding extra money for hurricane relief down New Orleans way, the hand-writing was on the wall. Something had to be done. The president said he would veto any bill to which they attached such a prohibition, and the Republican congress said something like "bring it on."

What's going on? Taylor Marsh here argues that while the Democrats been leading on the port issue from the start (really?) also this was "a head-on collision "between the president and "his rubber stamping subjects" - the Republicans who control Congress decided it was "more important to take cover" than back the boss. Still the idea is "collapse" really is the operative word on so many issues where the Republicans are involved - "while they've been kissing the king's ring, Democrats have taken the lead on national security. It's shaken the rubber stampers to their core."

Well, there has been a shift in something, maybe not a "collapse," but a change.

The White House is not happy, saying this sends the wrong message. We "need moderate" allies in the Arab world, like the United Arab Emirates, "to win the global war on terrorism."

Of course, we've befuddled and offended almost all our traditional allies. And the "coalition of the willing" always seemed a motley crew - the Brits, a few Italians and small contingents from Australia and Japan (no combat role for the Japanese as their constitution forbids it - only support and logistics), all the way down to a handful of folks from Fiji. The idea that the White House knows how to build effective alliances and, from their deep well of sage diplomatic comprehension, is lecturing congress on the niceties of the same is amusing, or something.

At the end of the week even the previously pro-Bush folks were sighing a strained "whatever." He can say anything he likes. They face voters in November, who, after being fed a four-year diet of we're-all-going-to-die scenarios of what would happen without George at the rudder, are saying this smells. The idea of a firm owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates managing the movement of cargo in and out of our ports just "feels" wrong. Hey, you play on their feelings, fear and anger, and what did you think the reaction to this would be?

"Trust me" - after the WMD weren't there (and after that joking skit about it at the Nation Press Club dinner where the president looked for them under pillows and behind curtains and got big laughs), after the admission that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the three-thousand dead at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, after the videotapes showing the president was warned about the drowning of New Orleans after he said he wasn't, after this, after that - feels a lots like Nixon in the seventies saying "I am not a crook." Sure, you want to trust your president. But you don't want to be jerked around. When someone with something to propose that seems a little odd is reduced to saying "trust me" and little more (maybe "it's kind of complicated and you probably don't have the real experience to understand the idea") you don't trust them. It's human nature. And when you've been burned before...

But it gets even more complicated. The president is "troubled" by what just happened. We could lose a key ally. We could lose jobs - they might not buy Boeing but go with Airbus and all that. A new round of trade talks between the United States and the United Arab Emirates was postponed. This was important!

But then ABC reports this - "The White House asked Dubai Ports World, a company owned by the United Arab Emirates, to give up its management stake in U.S. ports, to save President Bush from the politically difficult position of vetoing a key piece of legislation to protect America's ports..."

It seems Karl Rove had a heart-to heart with the president. Rove is, after all, the president's chief political advisor, and sometimes called Bush's Brain. (James Moore, the co-author of that book, is now on the federal 'no fly' list and thus no doing lectures, readings or book signing, except very locally, so you can trust Rove.) It is a solution of sorts.

But then which is it? This deal was important to the "war on terrorism" and important to the economy. So you call the long-time family friends who run the joint overt there and tell them to save your butt and pull out?

You want the terrorists to win? You want America to lose jobs?

This is a tad confusing. It just adds another subtle layer of skepticism to the multi-layered pervasive grumpiness of even your own supporters.

Not that it matters. Things are still bad.

Late Friday - House To Vote On Ports Despite Company Promise - they want to go on record saying this was astoundingly dumb idea and legislate that no foreign government own any company that manages the ports, or any key part of the country's infrastructure. They won't let it go.

And the week runs down to a Friday of bad news. New polls, AP-Ipsos here - "More and more people, particularly Republicans, disapprove of President Bush's performance, question his character and no longer consider him a strong leader against terrorism, according to an AP-Ipsos poll documenting one of the bleakest points of his presidency."

Approval rating at thirty-seven percent, the lowest of this presidency for this polling method - and thirty-six percent approval of the handling domestic stuff - and only forty-three percent approval on foreign policy and terrorism. Bummer.

And the Washington Post here chatted with Republicans running for office in November. They fear this president will be "more albatross than advantage." It's mostly the Dubai business and "a perception of weakness that has liberated Republicans who once would never have dared" to cross the White House. Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio said you have "no political capital" left. Bummer times two.

Business Week says here that the Dubai thing seems like "the thread that could unravel" everything on the agenda. They quote Frank Luntz, the hard-right polling guy even NBC fired to being too much of a Bush cheerleader saying this - "It's an electoral disaster. This is potent because it legitimizes all the Democratic attacks of the past three years that the President isn't paying attention." Bummer times three.

Ah, the Wall Street Journal wouldn't end the week with a downer, would they? Well, yes - this congress may start questioning the details of those requests for defense funding. "Deficit pressures, scandals involving defense contracts, congressional unease with administration bookkeeping for war costs" seem to have them spooked. That and the low poll numbers "are combining to end defense spending's status as the budget's sacred cow." Bummer times four.

Other business folks? Over at Bloomberg News there's this about "deteriorating relations" between the White House and "fellow Republicans," something abuut the Dubai business "underscoring a perception of incompetence stemming from the government's response to Hurricane Katrina." Even the strange senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum is quoted as saying that that the administration "didn't handle this very well." And he's not handling his own stuff that well himself. Bummer times five.

[Note: Tim Grieve at SALON.COM provided pointers to these items here in his "War Room" roundup. Highly recommended.]

What to do with all this gloom? Say strong leaders have deep convictions that aren't shaken by what anyone else thinks. That's what makes you so good at what you do. Reuters covers that here, but you had to see it on television to get a sense of the noble snarl that went with the words. "You see, a real leader..." Amazing.

One thinks of that quip from Mark Twain - "I am not one of those who in expressing opinions confine themselves to facts." Or this - "He speaks to the audience as if they're idiots. I think the reason he does that is because that's the way these issues were explained to him."

But maybe it's not just him. Thursday Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee. Iraq seem to be on the verge of, or in, a sectarian civil war, and, given that eighty percent of us think that is so, as the polls show, committee members pressed him again and again on what the plan is for dealing with that. Can a full-scale civil war be prevented somehow, and if not, as seems to be the case, what do we do - stand back, choose sides (which side and why>), get out, call in other Arab countries, protect what and abandon what? What is the plan? Rumsfeld - "The plan is to prevent a civil war, and to the extent one were to occur, to have the, from a security standpoint, have the Iraqi security forces deal with it to the extent they're able to."

That's it. Let them handle it. No big deal. It'll be fine. Or not. But it's not our problem, trust me. So he too speaks to the audience as if they're idiots.

Is anyone fed up with this? Note the letter here - a veteran turns in his medals -
... I return enclosed the symbols of my years of service: the shoulder boards of my rank and my Naval Aviator's wings.

Until your administration, I believed it was inconceivable that the United States would ever initiate an aggressive and preemptive war against a country that posed no threat to us. Until your administration, I thought it was impossible for our nation to take hundreds of persons into custody without provable charges of any kind, and to "disappear" them into holes like Gitmo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram. Until your administration, in my wildest legal fantasy I could not imagine a U.S. Attorney General seeking to justify torture or a President first stating his intent to veto an anti-torture law, and then adding a "signing statement" that he intends to ignore such law as he sees fit. I do not want these things done in my name.

As a citizen, a patriot, a parent and grandparent, a lawyer and law teacher I am left with such a feeling of loss and helplessness. I think of myself as a good American and I ask myself what can I do when I see the face of evil? Illegal and immoral war, torture and confinement for life without trial have never been part of our Constitutional tradition. But my vote has become meaningless because I live in a safe district drawn by your political party. My congressman is unresponsive to my concerns because his time is filled with lobbyists' largess. Protests are limited to your "free speech zones," out of sight of the parade. Even speaking openly is to risk being labeled un-American, pro-terrorist or anti-troops. And I am a disciplined pacifist, so any violent act is out of the question.

Nevertheless, to remain silent is to let you think I approve or support your actions. I do not. So, I am saddened to give up my wings and bars. They were hard won and my parents and wife were as proud as I was when I earned them over forty years ago. But I hate the torture and death you have caused more than I value their symbolism. Giving them up makes me cry for my beloved country.
But the lawyer and law teacher here knows this is pointless. And he didn't even mention this - "In the first action of its kind, a federal jury found Thursday that a private security company bilked the U.S.-led government in Iraq out of millions of dollars." Custer Battles - shell companies, fake invoices and stolen forklifts - it all adds up. And it'll cost them ten million now.

And the war goes on, as described by a visitor here in a quick email from Baghdad -
Getting here was far less complicated than I had imagined, but with 48 hours of life on the Tigris under my belt, I feel blessed with the marvelous array of experiences this city offers. Multiple encounters with white Toyota Landcruisers filled with black outfitted AK-47 totting Interior Ministry irregulars (a/k/a death squads), even more encounters with US and South African security contractors, which are even more threatening - each of these is enough to stop your heart. According to some here, the US contractors are the dumbest and the South Africans the meanest - what a hierarchy.

Today I witnessed - from a safe distance - my first car-bomb. Then went back to read reports of 13 judicially sanctioned executions, 32 extrajudicial killings discovered, 50 bodyguards taken hostage ... Westerners talk about their hotels not in terms of spa amenities and availability of Starbucks, but based on the number of blast walls between the building and the street. So imagine where on earth people would think the arrival of a massive sandstorm was a blessing. I was amused to see Condi and Rumsfeld on TV - carried live on a local TV feed. I watched it in a crowded lobby. I'll just say the reaction of those around me was derisive - no difference in that between the locals and the Americans, all of whom (except me and the journos) seem to be DOD contractors. Possibly they're even right about the use of the term "civil war." If that evokes memories of Spain in the 30's or America in the 1860's it would be misleading. What's going on here is something very different from that. It's more a communal disintegration. But 48 hours doesn't turn one into an expert.
The reaction of those around me was derisive? Must have been Rumsfeld explain how we'd handle a civil war there, if it ever came to that, which it won't.

Well, some may be derisive, but one White House aide told Jim Hoagland of the Post (here) that most people know we need one strong leader who is above the law and isn't afraid to do what's necessary - the NSA warrantless surveillance program, those torture-like Guantánamo things, the secret renditions. The public is with that concept -
The powers of the presidency have been eroded and usurped to the breaking point. We are engaged in a new kind of war that cannot be fought by old methods. It can only be directed by a strong executive who alone is not subject to the conflicting pressures that legislators or judges face. The public understands and supports that unpleasant reality, whatever the media and intellectuals say.
That might call for a bit more polling. Is that what we signed up for? Is that what we think is necessary? It'd be nice to know. But it is the working assumption.

But what about the old woman using the d-word, which would be, in this case, "dictatorship."

Some Cindy Sheehan wannabe nutcase? Not exactly. And she used the word at least twice.

This would be former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, life-long Republican, appointed to the court by Ronald Reagan. Now that's she no longer on the bench she can let her frustrations out, and she let it rip in speech at Georgetown University.

It was the lead Friday evening on MSNBC's Countdown, but seems to have not made too many waves. No transcript or audio or video, just what an NPR report heard as noted here (emphases added) -
Nina Totenberg: In an unusually forceful and forthright speech, O'Connor said that attacks on the judiciary by some Republican leaders pose a direct threat to our constitutional freedoms. O;Connor began by conceding that courts do have the power to make presidents or the Congress or governors, as she put it "really, really angry." But, she continued, if we don't make them mad some of the time we probably aren't doing our jobs as judges, and our effectiveness, she said, is premised on the notion that we won't be subject to retaliation for our judicial acts. The nation's founders wrote repeatedly, she said, that without an independent judiciary to protect individual rights from the other branches of government those rights and privileges would amount to nothing. But, said O'Connor, as the founding fathers knew statutes and constitutions don't protect judicial independence, people do.

And then she took aim at former House GOP leader Tom DeLay. She didn't name him, but she quoted his attacks on the courts at a meeting of the conservative Christian group Justice Sunday last year when DeLay took out after the courts for rulings on abortions, prayer and the Terri Schiavo case. This, said O'Connor, was after the federal courts had applied Congress' onetime only statute about Schiavo as it was written. Not, said O'Connor, as the congressman might have wished it were written. This response to this flagrant display of judicial restraint, said O'Connor, her voice dripping with sarcasm, was that the congressman blasted the courts.

It gets worse, she said, noting that death threats against judges are increasing. It doesn't help, she said, when a high-profile senator suggests there may be a connection between violence against judges and decisions that the senator disagrees with. She didn't name him, but it was Texas senator John Cornyn who made that statement, after a Georgia judge was murdered in the courtroom and the family of a federal judge in Illinois murdered in the judge's home. O'Connor observed that there have been a lot of suggestions lately for so-called judicial reforms, recommendations for the massive impeachment of judges, stripping the courts of jurisdiction and cutting judicial budgets to punish offending judges. Any of these might be debatable, she said, as long as they are not retaliation for decisions that political leaders disagree with.

I, said O'Connor, am against judicial reforms driven by nakedly partisan reasoning. Pointing to the experiences of developing countries and former communist countries where interference with an independent judiciary has allowed dictatorship to flourish, O'Connor said we must be ever-vigilant against those who would strongarm the judiciary into adopting their preferred policies. It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship, she said, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings.
What was that about? NBC reports that at the Friday big Republican meeting in Memphis, when asked, the eight who would be president in 2008 generally said this was silly - she's retired and no one now cares a bit what she thinks.

Kerry was "swift-boated" and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was just "Sheehaned."

It's just an odd warning to add to the end-of-week gloom.

Oh yes, minor gloom at the end of the week. The Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, resigned. What?

She told the Denver Post here there aren't any problems - she just wants to "go home for a while." The Rocky Mountain News here says her name had come up in the Jack Abramoff business. MSNBC here says he sent money her way to get the right things for his clients.

From the Denver Post -
Norton cleared her top deputy, former lobbyist J. Steven Griles, after her inspector general said his conduct showed that the department's ethics system was "a train wreck waiting to happen." Griles is now under investigation for allegations that he did the bidding of convicted Indian casino lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Norton is still supporting him.
And this -
Abramoff's tribal clients donated $50,000 to a conservative environmental group founded by Norton, hoping to win face time with the Secretary. They eventually did.

Former DeLay deputy chief of staff Tony Rudy helped Abramoff arrange a meeting with Norton, and within months, the lobbyist's clients were making huge contributions to the environmental group Norton started, the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy.

Norton's BLM director Kathleen Clarke remained after apparently violating her recusals from a Utah land-swap that investigators said would have shortchanged the federal government. Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley said the deal involved a "jaw-dropping ... apparent cover-up" within Norton's department.
AP and Reuters are digging deeper. Next week should be interesting. She did so want to open up that Alaska wilderness land to oil drilling, as she had been a lobbyist for the oil and mining industries for a all those years. She got tangled up with Jack. Oh well.

Even more minor but gloom still?

There's this -
When Claude Allen, President Bush's longtime domestic-policy adviser, resigned suddenly on Feb. 9, it baffled administration critics and fans. The White House claimed that Allen was leaving to spend more time with his family, while the Washington Times speculated that the 45-year-old aide, a noted social conservative, might have quit to protest a new Pentagon policy about military chaplains. Allen himself never publicly explained the reason for his departure.

News today may shed light on the mystery of Allen's resignation. According to the Montgomery County Police Department, Allen was arrested yesterday and charged in a felony theft and a felony theft scheme. According to a department press release, Allen conducted approximately 25 fraudulent "refunds" in Target and Hecht's stores in Maryland. On Jan. 2, a Target employee apprehended Allen after observing him receive a refund for merchandise he had not purchased. Target then contacted the Montgomery County Police. According to a source familiar with the case, Target and the police had been observing Allen since October 2005.

Allen is charged with practicing a form of shoplifting called "refund fraud."
Target? Shoplifting? The man who led the government effort to replace science-based sex education with teaching that only abstinence prevents AIDS? That guy? The former aid to Senator Jesse Helms, both of who just hate gay folks? The guy who opposed health insurance for children of the working poor because the program involved covered abortion services for rape and incest victims under the age of eighteen? (Details here.) Yep, that guy.

Even more minor but gloom still?

There's also this -
Faith Hill and Tim McGraw - two stars who usually stay out of politics - blasted the Hurricane Katrina cleanup effort, with Hill calling the slow progress in Louisiana and Mississippi "embarrassing" and "humiliating."

The country music artists - who are natives of the storm-ravaged states - were at times close to tears, and clearly angry when the subject of Katrina came up during a news conference today. They had met with reporters in Nashville to promote their upcoming Soul2Soul II Tour, but when asked about the hurricane cleanup, the stars pulled no punches.

"To me, there's a lot of politics being played and a lot of people trying to put people in bad positions in order to further their agendas," McGraw, a 38-year-old native of Delhi, La., said after ABC News Radio's Dan Gordon asked about Katrina.

"When you have people dying because they're poor and black or poor and white, or because of whatever they are - if that's a number on a political scale - then that is the most wrong thing. That erases everything that's great about our country."

McGraw specifically criticized President Bush. "There's no reason why someone can't go down there who's supposed to be the leader of the free world ... and say, 'I'm giving you a job to do and I'm not leaving here until it's done. And you're held accountable, and you're held accountable, and you're held accountable.

"'This is what I've given you to do, and if it's not done by the time I get back on my plane, then you're fired and someone else will be in your place...'"

Hill, who grew up in Jackson, Miss., echoed those sentiments. So overwhelmed, she uncharacteristically unleashed an epithet, calling the situation, "Bull[shit]."

"It is a huge, huge problem and it's embarrassing," she said.

"I fear for our country if we can't handle our people [during] a natural disaster. And I can't stand to see it. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out point A to point B. . . . And they can't even skip from point A to point B. "It's just screwed up."
It's no longer the Dixie Chicks. Damn. Lost the Country and Western idols. Bummer.

Host and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough on MSNBC as the week ended - "The lack of leadership in Washington, D.C., is sickening. If you look at what Republicans did-promised to do in 1994, when they took control of Congress, and see how they've been acting over the past three or four years, the biggest debt and deficit ever. They are irresponsible and reckless on so many levels. I'm embarrassed right now to be a Republican. It's a disgrace because of the lack of leadership."

There's a link to the transcript and video here. Bummer.

Paul Krugman in the Friday New York Times here on such things -
Never mind; better late than never. We should welcome the recent epiphanies by conservative commentators who have finally realized that the Bush administration isn't trustworthy. But we should guard against a conventional wisdom that seems to be taking hold in some quarters, which says there's something praiseworthy about having initially been taken in by Mr. Bush's deceptions, even though the administration's mendacity was obvious from the beginning.

According to this view, if you're a former Bush supporter who now says, as Mr. Bartlett did at the Cato event, that "the administration lies about budget numbers," you're a brave truth-teller. But if you've been saying that since the early days of the Bush administration, you were unpleasantly shrill.

Similarly, if you're a former worshipful admirer of George W. Bush who now says, as Mr. Sullivan did at Cato, that "the people in this administration have no principles," you're taking a courageous stand. If you said the same thing back when Mr. Bush had an 80 percent approval rating, you were blinded by Bush-hatred.

And if you're a former hawk who now concedes that the administration exaggerated the threat from Iraq, you're to be applauded for your open-mindedness. But if you warned three years ago that the administration was hyping the case for war, you were a conspiracy theorist.

The truth is that everything the new wave of Bush critics has to say was obvious long ago to any commentator who was willing to look at the facts.
But as he said, better late than never.

Friday the 10th was gloomy in Los Angeles. It looks like a gloomy weekend. It must be gloomy in DC too.

Stormy sunset in Hollywood, Friday, March 10, 2006

Posted by Alan at 22:14 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 10 March 2006 22:18 PST home

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