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"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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Sunday, 28 May 2006
Hot of the Virtual Press
Topic: Announcements

Hot of the Virtual Press

Just Above Sunset, the weekly magazine-format site that is parent to this daily web log, begins its fourth year with a new issue, now online. This is Volume 4, Number 22 for the week of May 28, 2006. Click here to go there...The rather tacky Volume 1, Number 1, was posted on May 26, 2003, and the contents, such as they are, can be accessed by drilling down through the archives options. Since then the site has evolved, becoming a current events "week in review" - and also a photographic record of life here in Southern California, and too, almost every week, a place to find a photo essay from Paris (the London and Tel Aviv items have been irregular at best).

As for this week's issue, this was the week that was? A hidden key player at the White House behind all the power moves, and he hates wimps? And then, you thought as a voter and citizen you had some say in things? What were you thinking? And for those into political theory, if there are such people, there's a long item on what might really be going on with the executive staging raids on the legislative and all that. The big news? The Enron convictions, or maybe it's that the president finally admits one or two mistakes, or something, but he might have been kidding. And all this silliness about "connecting dots" is thrashed out - you have to attend to the right dots. And, for a change of pace, there's some political photography.

To balance the political, four Hollywood items - the classic theaters on the boulevard (where Richard Nixon meets Dumbo, oddly enough), and Kermit the Frog at Charlie Chaplin's place (really), and really specific architecture, and a tribute to Miles Davis on his birthday with a visit to his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Additionally there are the usual Los Angeles views, two very strange businesses out here, an anti-Ferrari study, and this week's botanicals, extra-fancy this week.

Our friend from Texas brings us more of the weird of course, and the quotes this week will get you thinking in new ways about the whole Memorial Day thing,

Direct links to specific pages -

Extended Observations on Current Events ______________________

Key Players: Who's Your Daddy?
Participatory Democracy: Start With a False Premise
Wonk Stuff: Authority as an End in Itself Regardless of Outcome
Big News, Small News
Connecting Dots: The Whole Idea is to See the Pattern
Visual Commentary

Hollywood Matters ______________________

Classic Hollywood
Fame: Kermit the Frog at Charlie Chaplin's Place
Places: Hollywood Lived Here, Hollywood Worked Here
A Birthday: An Odd Hollywood Star

Southern California Photography ______________________

Oddities: Things That Aren't What They Seem, or Are
Grit: Not a Ferrari
Botanicals: Starburst Patterns

Quotes for the week of May 14, 2006 - America, Memorial Day

Posted by Alan at 16:47 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink

Saturday, 27 May 2006
Connecting Dots: The Whole Idea is to See the Pattern
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Connecting Dots: The Whole Idea is to See the Pattern

Sometimes in trying to get some perspective on events it helps to just build an array, or in the simple-minded metaphor used so often since the first days of all the questions after the two towers at the World Trade Center fell and that 757 slammed into the Pentagon, it helps to "connect the dots." Yes, dots. The FBI had its files on the bad guys, the CIA had its information, the president had his daily briefing document at the right time, "Osama bin Laden Plans to Attack the United States," and the "airplane attack" idea had been floating around for years. No one connected the dots, and the National Security Advisor at the time, Condoleezza Rice, famously testified to congress that "no one imagined" that terrorists would use airplanes as weapons, even though it was on record that various intelligence organizations of the government had, and put it on paper. Obviously dots can be tricky.

So things had to change. What to do? A commission suggested reorganizing things to create a dot-connecting organizational structure, and along with a new Department of Homeland Security, which the administration initially strongly opposed, we got a new office - we got a National Security Director, a position layered above all the intelligence gathering agencies in all the various parts of the government. What the CIA found out, or the NSA, or the FBI, or the State Department services, or the Pentagon (eighty percent of all funds for gathering intelligence goes to them) would go to the Director, the Lord of the Dots. The job went to John Negroponte, once our ambassador to Honduras and perhaps involved in supporting the secret death squads down that way when we seem to have funded the murder of certain left-leaning folks and some nuns here and priests there, our ambassador to the United Nations at the time most nations thought our preemptive war with Iraq was a rather dumb idea, and our first ambassador to the new Iraq, back in the days when we said the new Iraq had sovereignty even if they didn't have any sort of government. Is Negroponte the right man to be the top dot-connecter? Who knows? That's his job now. He's got his new man at the CIA, Michael Hayden, the man who ran the secret NSA program to scan all the phone records of all Americans without any warrants or any oversight, and the temp, Porter Goss is gone, having done his job of purging the CIA of those who were disloyal to the White House with all their pesky reports of facts that didn't support the policy agenda down on Pennsylvania Avenue. Negroponte also seems to get along fine with the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. The FBI is getting in line. Condoleezza Rice is now at State, and not like her predecessor Colin Powell at all - she's removing or marginalizing anyone there who reports the wrong things up the chain.

Of course all this consolidation and obligatory policy discipline seems to indicate not so much an effort to "connect the dots" in a startling, new and effective way. It's more an effort to limit the number of dots you have to consider. Some dots you just don't want to see. And if something happens with one of the ignored dots - say someone sneaks a dirty bomb into Houston in a freight container and the city is rendered radioactive for a few decades - well, you can say it's not your fault - the agency in question failed and didn't tell you about that particular dot, or the Department of Homeland Security messed up, or something. Cool. You're covered.

So we have new national ability, a professional connect-the-dots-we-choose-to-acknowledge organization overseeing all. We all feel safer.

But anyone can connect dots. You don't have to be a professional.

Of course non-professional dot-connecters, the amateurs, are usually called tin-foil hat conspiracy theorists and considered quite deluded. They're just mad, and angry too. Such things are to be expected when you're not actually paid to look at dots in a mildly paranoid way and report on the connections and show the pattern that emerges. Who would do such things for free? Crackpots.

And high on the crackpot list of alarming connections is what seems like evidence of a slow-motion coup as the executive branch, and the focused and angry simple-minded president in particular, work on rendering his office all-powerful and making the constitution as we have known it for the last two-hundred nineteen years just an historical curiosity. The crackpot theorists toss around terms like "dictator" and "king" and "fascist" and all the rest. That's not terribly useful. In fact, it's counterproductive. Americans don't like those terms. That's not us. That's not how anyone, even the angry, dry-drunk, born-again, idea-hating, detail-scorning man now in the Oval Office, would operate. We're a nation of laws and all that - and he's our public servant reporting to us, not some tin-pot third-world tyrant drunk on his own power from a Woody Allen movie. This is not Bananas (the movie, that is). The crackpot theorists are bananas, of course.

But drop the name-calling. You can add a label later, if you'd like. Some find that necessary, of course, but it doesn't matter much. Just look at the pattern. Connect the dots. Then, if it makes you happy, call it what you will.

The diplomatic "term of art" here will be a slow-motion coup, but that's just a marker. The supporters of the president would call it "doing what's necessary in a time of national danger unlike anything we've ever faced before" - what must be done due to the unprecedented crisis we now face. This is not the Soviets with thousands of missiles aimed at us and tens of thousands of nuclear warheads this is a few thousand guys who blow up trains and have flow airlines into large buildings. The neoconservatives, political theorists and attorneys in the executive branch would argue it's something else entirely - the White House just correcting a long-standing misunderstanding about the constitution, as it clearly says in Article II that the president need not obey laws that he finds limit him in implementing whatever he decides must be done, and that the congress that passes laws about what can be done and how, and the courts that rule on such laws, are somewhere between totally irrelevant and, being nice about it, merely advisory.

Much has been said of the record-setting seven hundred fifty presidential signing statements and all the rest, and these pages this week are full of discussion of this "radical redistribution of power within Washington." Something is up. The week gave us the executive branch purposely intimating congress with criminal threats for the first time in our history - the FBI raiding the offices of a congressman and the Justice Department announcing the opening of a probe into who said what to the press about the NSA warrantless spying on citizens and other matters that somehow made it into the news - our secret chain of prisons in the former Soviet prisons in eastern Europe, how we kidnap some people off the street and make them disappear forever (extraordinary rendition), and so on. Like torturing prisoners, all this may have been illegal and immoral and generally crappy - but it was secret, after all. Congress is on notice. Get with the program. Know your place.

At the end of the week there were just a few more dots. The usual Friday afternoon dump of what you really don't want in the news cycle, what you hold until the reporters and commentators have gone off for the long weekend in this case, gave us this -
The Bush administration asked federal judges in New York and Michigan to dismiss a pair of lawsuits filed over the National Security Agency's domestic eavesdropping program, saying litigation would jeopardize state secrets.

In legal papers filed late Friday, Justice Department lawyers said it would be impossible to defend the legality of the spying program without disclosing classified information that could be of value to suspected terrorists.

National Intelligence Director John Negroponte invoked the state secrets privilege on behalf of the administration, writing that disclosure of such information would cause "exceptionally grave damage" to national security.

The administration laid out some of its supporting arguments in classified memoranda that were filed under seal.
Oh. That sort of fits with previous dots.

Dot: As mentioned previously, the Justice Department is charged with investigating the NSA "domestic eavesdropping program." The National Security Agency, with, it seems, the approval of the Attorney General, decides not to grant the Justice Department investigators security clearances. The Justice Department investigators cannot be trusted with the classified data. The investigation is cancelled. The news item is here.

Dot: As mentioned previously, the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC, refuses to investigate whether the phone companies illegally turned over data to the NSA. We should know, but they just can't see that they have the authority to ask to see classified data The news item is here.

Dot: Little noticed, but by our high-powered Wall Street attorney friend, the president grants John Negroponte the authority to waive the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) accounting and reporting rules for any company involved in any of this, so they can hide whatever they wish on their financial statements - and this completely eliminates any possible "follow the money" trail for any investigators. The news item is here.

The late Friday item and the three dots. Call it what you will.

Want another dot? See the first amendment attorney, Glenn Greenwald, on Saturday, May 27, here -
The United States Congress openly debated yesterday whether the federal government should begin imprisoning journalists who publish stories containing information which the Bush administration wants to conceal. At a House Intelligence Committee hearing, several Republicans expressly urged that our country start throwing reporters in jail:

The criticism focused on articles in The New York Times concerning a National Security Agency surveillance program and, to a lesser extent, on disclosures in The Washington Post about secret C.I.A. prisons overseas.

Some Republicans on the committee advocated the criminal prosecution of The Times. Their comments partly echoed and partly amplified recent statements by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales that the Justice Department had the authority to prosecute reporters for publishing classified information...

"I believe the attorney general and the president should use all of the power of existing law to bring criminal charges," said Representative Rick Renzi, Republican of Arizona
He notes that some members of the committee pointed out that this is not a country which imprisons journalists for stories which they publish about controversial government actions, and our congresswoman from out here Jane Harman, said "If anyone here wants to imprison journalists, I invite them to spend some time in China, Cuba or North Korea and see whether they feel safer." Harman had said in Febraury that the jouralists should be jailed. She calmed down. She changed her mind.

Greenwald reviews all the argument, each way. It's depressing.

His conclusion? That's easy -
As one can say for so many core American political principles, the U.S. Government under forty-two different Presidents has thrived and defended the nation for two hundred twenty years without the need to imprison journalists for the stories they publish, but the Bush administration is the first to claim that it has to dismantle these liberties because it is too weak - and America is too weak - to maintain national security unless we radically change the kind of country we are.

... That's how this group of Bush followers thinks America is supposed to work. If you are a U.S. citizen, the President can unilaterally order you abducted and imprisoned; does not have to charge you with any crime; can block you from speaking with anyone, including a lawyer; can keep you incarcerated indefinitely (meaning forever); and can deny you the right to any judicial review of your imprisonment or any mechanism for challenging the accuracy of the accusations. And oh - while it would be nice if we could preserve all of that abstract lawyer nonsense about the right to a jury trial and all that, we're really scared that Al Qaeda is going to kill us, so we can't.

... What do you do with people who never learned that American citizens can't be imprisoned by executive decree and without a trial, or that American journalists aren't imprisoned for stories they write about the Government's conduct? People like this plainly do not embrace, or comprehend, even the most basic principles of what America is.
What do you do? Don't know. Connect the dots. See the slow-motion coup. Note it. Publish it. The people will decide.

Posted by Alan at 15:46 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 27 May 2006 16:14 PDT home

Friday, 26 May 2006
Visual Commentary
Topic: In these times...

Visual Commentary

No detailed commentary today. It was a day for driving around Los Angeles and taking photographs for this weekend's Just Above Sunset, the magazine-format parent site to this daily web log. And it was Miles Davis' eightieth birthday, so at Just Above Sunset Photography there's this, some words on his life and his music, and a photo of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and two shots of what's right there with the star. It seemed like the right thing to do on his birthday.

But then, while driving around, you snap something that's just political commentary in and of itself. Below? In Marina del Rey, the underclass illustrated at the yard where they sell and service extraordinarily expensive yachts. It's so California, the rich above, and the Hispanic workers below, having lunch. All as it should be, or something.

In Marina del Rey, in Los Angeles, the underclass illustrated at the yard where they sell and service extraordinarily expensive yachts.

And it's Memorial Day weekend. It used to be Decoration Day, a day to commemorate the men and women who died in military service for this country. It began as a holiday to honor Union soldiers who died during the Civil War, but after the First World War it was expanded to include anyone who died in any war or military action. The Veterans Memorial Park in Westwood, just west of UCLA, is crowded now. Below you see just a fraction of the grounds Friday morning. The photo is from nine in the morning. Deep marine layer with ground fog. The holiday begins.

Can we return to peaceful times, the good old days when we weren't at war? No. We always were at war somewhere or other. The pauses were anomalies, and they were brief. The contention that peace is that natural state of man is simply false. It's the exception. The evidence, all of history, proves it. Below is just some visual evidence.

But to be clear, this is not to say it is Americans, unfortunately, that can be best be defined by war - that's what we Americans do. Every nation is the same, every people. We're not exceptional, nor exceptionally bellicose. Man can be defined as the species that wars. It's what we do. You can glorify it. You can be sad. It hardly matters. Every nation and every people make war to define who they are, and who they are not. It gives us meaning. What else does?

Veterans Memorial Park in Westwood, California, just west of UCLA

A final shot, tourists on Hollywood Boulevard as Memorial Day weekend begins. Flashy patriotism meets tacky commerce. America.

Tourists on Hollywood Boulevard as Memorial Day weekend begins...

Posted by Alan at 19:56 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 26 May 2006 19:59 PDT home

Thursday, 25 May 2006
Big News, Small News
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Big News, Small News

Thursday, May 25, 2006, 7:30 in the evening in Washington, and half past midnight in London, the President Bush and Prime Minister Blair hold a joint press conference at the White House, the Prime Minster on his way back to Downing Street after a visit to Iraq. (If you fly west it's sort of on the way home.) Blair had been visiting with the new government there, almost complete but for someone to head two key ministries, one Interior, in charge of whatever sort of police force can be cobbled together to replace the religious and tribal militias all in black driving the streets and doing those revenge killings with the twenty or more bodies showing up each day here and there. It a bit of a problem. But the claim is there's now a working government there, elected by the people, and it has organized itself, or close enough. It's a turning point, just like killing Saddam Hussein's sons and displaying their bodies, Mussolini style, just like capturing their father, just like the trial of the father, just like the three previous elections. But this one is a real turning point, the others being false alarms or something. That's a hard sell. It's not exactly a "the boy who cried wolf" thing, but something like it. Cynics wait for the next real turning point, or the one after. Collect the series.

This press conference was supposed to be the big news event of the day, even though all the speculation that there would be some sort of announcement of troop reductions had, earlier in the day, been blown away. The press secretary, Tony Snow late of Fox News, had said no way - that wouldn't be the big news. But what would? He has a cool grin.

The problem was that there was competition for the big news of the day, things not on the schedule and hard to top.

The Enron trial ended unexpectedly with former CEO Ken Lay and his business buddy Jeff Skilling being convicted on almost all counts and facing at a minimum twenty years in jail each, with more likely longer sentences. Lay, formerly a key Bush supporter and the one who gave the most money to the man over all the long years, is going to jail. Out here in California we think of Enron for the year of the massive power shortages when they manipulated the energy market for fun and profit and our electric bills more than tripled. Others remember being told to hold on to their Enron stock by the folks who ran the company while those guys were dumping everything - and many Enron people lost all their assets and pretty much a lifetime of savings, as did investors who relied on analysts who had been basing their projection on cooked books. So this, the bad guys going to jail, was big news for lots of people. You might have caught Bill O'Reilly on Fox News arguing with the Fox business editor, that Cavuto fellow, that these guys didn't deserve jail time, asking Cavuto, over and over, what did they do to you after all? Bill was outraged. Cavuto looked depressed. He didn't want to fight, not with O'Reilly. Who does? O'Reilly was being the contrarian again, of course. It's a ratings thing. Or he's out of touch. Or he's mad.

Then too Senate finally passed an immigration bill, with a guest worker provision and offering some illegal immigrants a way to become citizens, setting up the mother of all conference committee fights as the House bill explicitly has none of that and calls for building a giant wall along the whole border with Mexico with armed guards and all that, for making anyone here without proper papers guilty of an aggravated felony, and all the rest. This won't be pretty - angry Republicans calling each other names and being outraged, while the Democrats run errands and catch up on the sports pages. The public? They must realize this means no legislation will go to the president for his signature and they're be no new law, and as much as Lou Dobbs on CNN and all the rest have whipped everyone into a frenzy that this is an immediate and dire problem that had to be solved now, it won't be, and life will go on, and tables will be bussed and lettuce won't cost three hundred dollars a head and the world won't end. Next year will be fine, or the year after. But the news was the Senate had just set up a big Republican showdown and there'd be a whole lot of screaming and posturing to come.

Then too, just before the George and Tony Show, there were new developments in the CIA leak case. The vice president could be called as a witness, as the prosecutor, Fitzgerald, wants to ask him, under oath this time, if what the defendant, his former chief of staff, said is true. Did he tell Scooter Libby that the pesky Wilson's wife was an undercover CIA agent who worked on uncovering secret nuclear proliferation deals and he should look into whether she set up the trip and then he should talk to the press? That seems to be what Libby testified to. Fitzgerald wants to know if this motivated Libby to lie to the grand jury, saying he didn't leak to anyone and he didn't know when or where he heard about the woman. The sly thing is that this is not about Cheney at all, just about the other guy's motivation. But then, if and when Cheney testifies, the whole effort to find out who illegally exposed a CIA agent and ruined her operations and thus damaged the nation would seem to point to one man. That man is not the defendant. But that's not Fitzgerald's aim, of course. This is just part of his case against Libby for perjury and obstruction of justice, just investigating the underlying motivation of the man charged. But it's hot. The story started here and was the buzz all over, all day. Fitzgerald is purposely not connecting the dots here. That's not what he's working on - he's methodical and focused on the one case. Everyone else is connecting the dots, of course. And just for the fun of it, the same day there was this - Fitzgerald wanting to understand a phone call from the reporter who wrote the column telling the world the woman was a CIA agent, Robert Novak, to the president's key advisor, Karl Rove, as the investigation started. It sure looks like Novak and Rove got together and tried to coordinate their stories to keep each other out of hot water, making sure no one would know anything. Just something to look into. The George and Tony Show - Iraq is a wonderful success story, we were right, but we're staying there and can't say when anyone gets to come home - seemed minor stuff, small beer as it were.

And congress was still ticked about the FBI's search of William Jefferson's office (the executive branch trying to intimidate and thus neuter the legislative branch and all that), and ABC reports they're after House Speaker Hastert on another matter, and the FBI says they're not, and Hastert wants to sue ABC for defamation or whatever, and ABC stands by their story, and Hastert suggests maybe someone at the FBI is planting stories about him because he complained about the Jefferson thing. It's all here, in all its silly detail. But there's the obvious bigger issue. Is the executive branch, for the first time in our history, trying to intimidate and thus neuter the legislative branch, essentially changing the way our government has worked for the last two hundred nineteen years. Many say yes, and this is big news, a fundamental change, a strategic move toward a unity executive government where the legislature and courts are somewhere between subordinate and irrelevant. Others say no, it's just a criminal matter or two handled in a new and exciting and much more effective way than the stuffy "separation of powers" traditions. Maybe so. But there is this - the FBI now wants to interview members of the House and Senate to determine whether they were responsible for leaking information about the Bush administration's warrantless spying program to the New York Times. What next? The IRS goes after tax records? So senators and congressmen (and congresswomen) are learning just who's the boss, and that what they and everyone else thought about the constitution was, apparently, quite wrong. The George and Tony Show - Iraq is a wonderful success story, we were right, but we're staying there and can't say when anyone gets to come home - seemed minor stuff, small beer as it were, compare to this, a kind of a slow motion coup if you think about it. Or maybe it's nothing. After all, there was this - the president ordered all the documents the FBI seized from congressman Jefferson's office sealed for forty-five days - so people could calm down. If it really is a slow motion coup, then going slow is important. People might forget the issue by July. Other things will come up. Have to be careful. Very clever.

As for the George and Tony Show, Tim Grieve offers a pleasant summary here -
Bush and Blair both described the formation of a government in Iraq as a chance for a fresh start for Iraq and what's left of the coalition that invaded it, but they had little fresh to say about their own plans. The first question out of the box: Does the formation of a government put the U.S. on a "sound footing" to bring its troops home? Bush seemed to be caught flat-footed, as if he didn't know that the question would be coming. He didn't have much of an answer.

The president was ready, however, when he was asked a variation of a question he's failed to answer before: What mistakes do you most regret about Iraq? "Saying, 'Bring it on,'" Bush said. "Kind of tough talk, sent the wrong signal to people. I learned some lessons about expressing myself in a more sophisticated manner. 'Wanted dead or alive,' that kind of talk. I think in certain parts of the world, it was misinterpreted. So I learned from that." Continuing, Bush said the "biggest mistake" from "our country's involvement in Iraq" was Abu Ghraib. "We've been paying for that for a long time," Bush said.

So far as we could tell, that was the extent of the news here.

For much of the press conference - really, right up until Bush abruptly cut it short by asking Blair if he could buy him dinner - the president seemed tired and a little listless. The reporters just seemed bored. There were other, more important stories they could be covering... But the reporters were stuck with the Blair-Bush Project, where they seemed to feel constrained to ask mostly about Iraq. There were no questions about immigration, nothing about upcoming midterm elections, nothing about Plamegate, not a word about the showdown between members of Congress and the Bush administration over the search of William Jefferson's office. The members of the White House press corps were right there in the room with two of the most powerful men in the world, but they were as far from the news of the day as they were the other day on Air Force One, where they were strapped in their seats watching "King Kong" during Michael Hayden's CIA confirmation hearings.

At one point in the sleepy proceedings tonight, Bush reminded a reporter that he'll be the commander in chief for another two-and-a-half years. A few minutes later, a British reporter asked Blair and Bush what they'll miss about one another once they're out of office. Bush said he'd miss Blair's red ties, and then he talked briefly about the prime minister's vision and resolve. Blair laughed, said he should leave it at that, then gently chided his countrymen for not asking more serious questions. If there's something he'll miss about Bush, he didn't bother to say what it is.
That was cold, but overall it was dull. The talking heads on television, doing the "instant analysis" were all over the only news - two years ago the president was embarrassed to admit he could not think of one mistake he made in office, and on Thursday, May 25, 2006, he admits three - he didn't realize that "Bring it on!" and "Wanted Dead or Alive" could be misinterpreted, and what happened at Abu Ghraib made us look bad. Of course you had to see it (video here) - he looked sad and thoughtful, and that had been carefully rehearsed. The soulful profile gaze that ceiling was masterful. Great theater. And it might have been effectible. Maybe he'll get some support now from the "reality based" folks, as he did alight on this earth briefly, but, on MSNBC, Newsweek's White House correspondent said just after he finished and the cameras moved to Blair, Bush leaned over to the reporters in the front row and gave them all a big sarcastic grin.

It's a game. He's winning.

Or he's not? See Howard Fineman on the Enron verdict here -
If you want a date to mark the beginning of the end of the Bush Era in American life, you may as well make it this one: May 25, 2006. The Enron jury in Houston didn't just put the wood to Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling. The jurors took a chain saw to the moral claims of the Texas-based corporate culture that had helped fuel the rise to power of President George W. Bush.
Ben Adler says that's horseshit here -
Ha! I would that it were so, but this is utter nonsense. If Enron was going to bring down the Bush presidency, it would have done so a long time ago. It was a much bigger news story a few years ago when it broke. And remember, back then Enron was Bush's largest donor throughout his political career. He still won re-election, and Enron barely even figured into the 2004 campaign. Now, several years of continued federal fiscal mismanagement later, and this unsurprising verdict is supposed to be the nail in Bush's coffin? All this really proves is the mainstream media's pile-on-him-when-he's-down-because-now-it's-safe-to mentality.
But really, it doesn't matter. Lay and Skilling are old history. Other things are happening.

But that was the big news on Thursday, May 25, 2006.

What about the small news?

The movie about how Jesus had a son by Mary Magdalene and now Opus Dei is trying to take over the world is still a hot topic.

Who cares?

Stanley Kurtz in the National Review here -
This movie is a salutary kick in the teeth for conservatives. There's no gainsaying the fact that the Narnia movie was a big deal. Having conceded that, the fact remains that when it comes to exercising influence on the fundamental levers of American culture, conservatives remain in a pathetically weakened position.

... I feel in a particularly strong position to reveal the entirely unsecret conspiracy against patriotism, tradition, and religion hiding in plain sight on our movie and television screens, in our universities, and on the pages of the mainstream press. Conservatives have forgotten just how precarious our position is. One cable news channel, talk radio, and the blogosphere do not an invincible army make. It only seems that way because we also have nominal control of the reigns of power. But lose our foothold in government, and conservatives are up a creek. The other side controls the levers of cultural power in this country, and we are the enemy in their eyes (and on their screens).

Conservatives need to face the fact that our position in this culture is genuinely precarious. If we lose our hold on power, we'll scream bloody murder on our outlets at everything the other side does. Yet those screams may only confirm our helplessness. The deep cultural dimension of our political battles makes an ordinary transfer of political power far more consequential than it was in the days when America had a bipartisan foreign policy and a broad cultural consensus. We can dream about forcing Republicans to the right and then riding back into power two years later, but one big loss could easily turn conservatives back into a marginal cultural force for some time.

Why have Democrats been so angry? It's because their taken-for-granted cultural superiority has been called into question by 9/11, the return of patriotism, a tough foreign policy, and the open defense of the sort of traditional values they thought were on the way out. Republican victories have punctured the cultural left's sense of the historical inevitability of their triumph, and that is at the root of their rage. By controlling the political agenda, conservatives control the cultural agenda as well (or at least a large part of it). But the truth is, other than the government, the left is still in control of our critical cultural institutions. Should the left recapture the government as well, it may well succeed in pushing traditionalists aside in the culture at large.

The battle is radicalizing. Big Love and The Da Vinci Code are far more direct and brazen attacks on tradition than we might have anticipated just a few years ago. Conservatives are the targets, and Hollywood is aiming and shooting repeatedly. Give credit to Tom Hanks, by the way. As producer of Big Love and star of The Da Vinci Code, he is clearly one of the captains of the not-so-secret conspiracy.
What? It's just a movie, and it seems not that good a movie. But it's a conspiracy against the beleaguered and outnumbered true conservatives. Right.

James Wolcott here -
It's entertaining watching Kurtz thrash around in frustration, making a silly spectacle of himself. "Why have Democrats been so angry?" he asks, then answers his own question as if the lies and horror of the botched Iraq occupation and the Katrina catastrophe played no part. I don't know any liberal Democrat who cleaves to a notion of "historical inevitability" - it's only the radicals of the far right and left who adhere to such absolute certitudes, while the vast majority believe that civilization muddles along in fits and starts, advancing here, retreating there. I bet Kurtz has never caught more than a glimpse of HBO's Big Love, for if he had he would realize that far from glamorizing or normalizing polygamy, the show depicts the financial and emotional pitfalls and cobweb complications of juggling wives and household arrangements, leading a secret life, and suffering the whims and schemes of a patriarchal leader (portrayed with gnawed mendacity and petty cruelty by Harry Dean Stanton). Like The Sopranos, it trains its attention on a snakepit of conspiratorial activity hidden behind a suburban facade. (If any show undermines Kurtzian notions of "tradition," it's Deadwood, and I never hear conservatives complain about it.)

Note that Kurtz neglects to mention that Hanks' credits also include producing and directing Band of Brothers, an HBO series of unimpeachable heroism and patriotism - hardly products of cultural subversion. Co-exec producer of Band of Brothers was Steven Spielberg, and just as his star-spangled work was heaved overboard by neocons and cultural conservatives after he offended their hawkish sensibilities with Munich, Hanks too is now being tarred as a cultural malefactor for his participation in The Da Vinci Code. Give it up, guys. You're never going to sour America on Tom Hanks; you're never, in short, going to be able to Swift Boat him.

If this is what Kurtz and his kind are like with The Da Vinci Code, I don't want to be around to hear the caterwauling that may occur should Oliver Stone's World Trade Center become a hit. It'll be like karoke night among the coyotes.
And there's Peggy Noonan, former Reagan speechwriter, in the Wall Street Journal here -
I do not understand the thinking of a studio that would make, for the amusement of a nation 85% to 90% of whose people identify themselves as Christian, a major movie aimed at attacking the central tenets of that faith, and insulting as poor fools its gulled adherents. Why would Tom Hanks lend his prestige to such a film? Why would Ron Howard? They're both already rich and relevant. A desire to seem fresh and in the middle of a big national conversation? But they don't seem young, they seem immature and destructive. And ungracious. They've been given so much by their country and era, such rich rewards and adulation throughout their long careers. This was no way to say thanks.
Be grateful for what the Christians gave you, you Hollywood Jews! It's so sad you can't be grateful.

Amazing. But a cool diversion from the real issues.

Posted by Alan at 23:05 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 26 May 2006 07:01 PDT home

Wednesday, 24 May 2006
Wonk Stuff: Authority as an End in Itself Regardless of Outcome
Topic: For policy wonks...

Wonk Stuff: Authority as an End in Itself Regardless of Outcome

Glancing through what that NYU journalism professor and big-time author Eric Alterman has to say on Wednesday, May 24, on his MSNBC web log, that day you would see Alterman quoting Andrew Bacevich.

Who's he? Well, Bacevich was born in Normal, Illinois, so he is, by default, or by birth, a normal person. And Normal is a real American place, even if Mitsubishi Motors North America now has their big factory there. Bacevich attended West Point, fought in the Vietnam War, and then had a twenty-year military career that ended in 1992. Now he's a professor of history at Boston University. That's all in the normal range.

But do normal people say this about how the troika of Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, the three key architects of current war (no, George Bush didn't think it up all by himself), felt about what happened on September 11, 2001, in New York and at the Pentagon? This is how he assumes they were thinking that day -
Yes, it was a disaster. Yes, it was terrible. But by God, this was a disaster that could be turned to enormous advantage. Here lay the chance to remove constraints on the exercise of American military power, enabling the Bush administration to shore up, expand, and perpetuate U.S. global hegemony. Toward that end, senior officials concocted this notion of a Global War on Terror, really a cover story for an effort to pacify and transform the broader Middle East, a gargantuan project which is doomed to fail. Committing the United States to that project presumed a radical redistribution of power within Washington. The hawks had to cut off at the knees institutions or people uncomfortable with the unconstrained exercise of American power. And who was that? Well, that was the CIA. That was the State Department, especially the State Department of Secretary Colin Powell. That was the Congress.
And so they did. Under Porter Goss the CIA was purged of anyone unwilling to provide only that intelligence that supported the administration's position. You supported the concept of how things were that the White House had, or you were gone. The new guy, Hayden, now inherits a neutered and compliant organization after Goss did the dirty work and really couldn't stay - his work was done at a high cost to morale, and "hatchet men" of course don't have the skill set to rebuild the organization into something more obedient. It's a narrow talent.

Of course Colin Powell was neutered in place, cut out of discussions and decisions, and Condoleezza Rice took his place at State, to bend the diplomats to the will of the policy makers. There had been many a tale of mid-level State Department people, asked for their analysis of how things were going in Iraq, sending back cables that things weren't going well and could be getting worse. They were forced out, or reassigned to Portugal or wherever. Under Rice there'd be no more of that.

Congress, with both houses firmly in control of the president's party, didn't need to be jerked around that much, but they got those background briefings on the small drone planes full of nasty chemicals and biological agents heading for Miami, and tightly edited versions of what the CIA had churned out, if they were thinking of balking at starting our first preemptive war. And the Democrats were not much of a problem - all you had to do was ask if they really wanted to be on the side of the terrorists who want to kill us all, or whether they thought Saddam Hussein was a good man. Raise questions and that's what the public would think, helped along by Fox News. It was a classic trap, and just about every major Democrat is still in it, or thinks they are. That's where the New York senator who would be the next president, Hillary Clinton, is now - supporting the war. What choice does she have? She can't say, now, that back then she was a just a silly woman who was manipulated by information she wasn't smart enough to see was rigged. No one votes for anyone who admits that. So congress was cut off at the knees, and rather easily.

The historian Andrew Bacevich is concerned with the "radical redistribution of power within Washington" in regard to what the war was really about - not terror around the world, not some sort of justice or revenge for what happened at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, not about bringing democracy and Wal-Mart to Baghdad, and not that much about securing oil reserves. It was about power, as he puts it, about securing US "global hegemony" - attaining the position in the world where no one can tell us what to do or what not to do, where no laws that apply to others apply to us, nor do any treaties. So in an odd way it all was about freedom, after all. The freedom to do what we want no matter what anyone thinks. That may be the real core of what the neoconservatives and their Project for the New American Century was about. All else - Iran, Iraq, Syria, this war, that war, and how we wage each and all - is just detail.

So the aim of it all - the nation's plan - became the unconstrained exercise of American power, not for anything in particular (the rubes would buy anything proposed), but for the power itself. Think of it as meta-policy, or if you will, policy about policy. Systems people deal all the time with meta-data, the high-level data describing the actual data. Same sort of thing.

And it led to people like Thomas Freidman of the New York Times arguing we had to go to war, just to show we would - maybe Iraq was the wrong target entirely but it didn't matter. Freidman argued we couldn't appear weak, or passive, in this awful world. With that sort of thing who needs Fox News?

The interesting thing is the domestic mirror of the foreign policy that is not really policy at all. Just as militarily and diplomatically it doesn't much matter just what we do so long as whatever we do establishes we can do whatever it is and no one can stop us, it doesn't seem to matter whether how the nation is governed domestically as the real effort is to establish that the administration can do what it wishes and no one can limit the administration. All else is just detail.

There's an interesting discussion of that here from Kevin Drum, with this at its core -
This is actually my Grand Unified Theory of Bush. Pundits keep trying to figure out just what it is that makes Bush so different from other presidents, but most of them start by trying to figure out what he values. For example, maybe he's far more dedicated to hardline conservative ideology than any other president? That seems reasonable at first glance, but even a cursory look at the evidence turns up way too many exceptions for this to account for his record.

Pure, ruthless political calculation? There's plenty of that, but it really doesn't explain things like No Child Left Behind, the Iraq war, or his immigration policy.

Pandering to the Christian right? Nah. In fact, Bush's most striking feature in this regard is his cynical willingness to promise the Christian right the moon and then deliver almost nothing. They're right to be pissed off at him.

Unbridled fealty to business interests? That's probably the closest to the truth, but what about Sarbanes-Oxley or McCain-Feingold?

... So what is it that makes Bush so different? Just this: until Bush they also all cared about serious policy analysis. This was obviously more striking in some (Clinton) than in others (Reagan), but they all paid attention to it and it informed their actions.

But not Bush. He's subject to the same stew of competing interests and factions as any other president, but what truly makes him unique is what's missing: a respect for policy analysis. After eight months of working in the Bush White House, John DiIulio reported that "the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking."

Paul O'Neill described Bush in cabinet meetings as "a blind man in a roomful of deaf people." A senior White House official told Ron Suskind that the Bush White House is "just kids on Big Wheels who talk politics and know nothing. It's depressing." The meltdown at FEMA, the war with the CIA for being insufficiently hawkish, the lack of a serious plan for Social Security privatization, the staffing of postwar Iraq with inexperienced ideologues - all of these things have the same root cause: a belief that ideas are all that matter.
So the unconstrained exercise of executive power, not for anything in particular (the rubes would buy anything proposed), but for the power itself, is the idea that matters - establishing a domestic "radical redistribution of power within Washington" - a domestic homogony if you will. This would not be the unconstrained exercise of American power around the world, but the unconstrained exercise of executive plenary power. It really doesn't matter just what you do. What matters is fighting hard to establish the idea that you can do whatever it is you do and no one can stop you. It the local version of the global big idea.

Thus you have the warrantless spying on Americans business - saying yes, there is a law that forbids that, and yes it was broken on purpose, and yes, it continues to be broken, but the law doesn't really apply if you think of the constitution a certain way, and you're all wimps who can't do a thing about it anyway, so accept your role. You are just children who don't have the will, nor obviously the power, to do anything meaningful other than to agree with daddy. Just as we have pretty much said that to all the nations of the world, even our allies, that's the message to congress. The seven hundred fifty presidential signing statements explaining how what congress passed is fine, but in the real world of adults don't mean much, is part of the message. As for the courts? Just argue they really have no jurisdiction over executive decisions, or invoke the "state secrets" thing so they have to back off. No problem.

Of course things fall apart as actually governing is a bore and not seriously attempted. Nothing works out because no one planned? Details. Beside the point. FEMA a mess as the next hurricane season begins? Boring. Baghdad burning. Yeah, so? Think of the big picture.

For those of us who live in the real world, this is a bit frustrating. We pay taxes for this? We don't live in a theoretical world where it's important to establish a condition in which no one can question the country or the president. It's nice and all that, but some things still need attention - the economy, education, healthcare and health insurance, this immigration mess, energy costs, and all the rest. The White House and the neoconservative crowd may find all that just detail, but that's where most of us live. We like to call it reality. Yeah, it's boring.

But the administration's meta-policy actions can be just irritating. Yes, the president's poll numbers, the approval ratings, are about as low as those of Richard Nixon when he resigned, and his base is angry and Republicans running for office don't want him around on their campaign trails, and are opposing him on issue after issue in congress. But the president has to do the power thing and remind them he's the boss, the daddy, "the decider" - so on a Friday night (May 19) the administration puts on a little show of who's boss and has the FBI raid the office of a congressman. This is the first time in our history the executive branch has ever done that. It's a clear warning. This president is not like any other before. He doesn't give a hoot about this co-equal branches of government crap. Know the FBI is outside the door, and the FBI reports to the president. As does the IRS, and all sort of agencies that can make things bad for those who misbehave.

Of course the warning was tempered by the fact the congressman in question, William J. Jefferson of Louisiana, is a Democrat, accused of various payola schemes somehow involving Africa. And they have him on tape taking money as a bribe, and they found nine thousand of the marked bills in his freezer, so who's going to publicly protest a little raid on his office documents? You get the message and shut up. Such a thing has never been done before but times have changed.

Initially the story had been spun in the press as proof the Democrats were just as corrupt as the Republicans, and that got some traction until people started think about it. Abramoff ran a criminal enterprise that involved scores of major Republican politicians, the "Duke" Cunningham scandal sucked in the number three guy at the CIA and may involve Goss, the former director, Senator Frist, majority leader, may have done funny things with selling stock and insider information, and so on an so forth. Jefferson was a crook, but a freelancer, and not even slick - cash in the freezer in the kitchen offers no returns, nor does it accrue value. What was he thinking. Amateur.

But since the raid the unexpected has happened. The children don't seem to know their place, and, in fact, are saying they're not children. They're saying the executive branch just can't do this - legislative workspace is constitutionally off-limits to the Justice Department. Uppity kids.

Wednesday, May 24, the uproar was covered by the Washington Post here and Associated Press here -
In rare, election-year harmony, House Republican and Democratic leaders jointly demanded on Wednesday that the FBI return documents taken in a Capitol Hill raid that has quickly grown into a constitutional turf fight beyond party politics.

"The Justice Department must immediately return the papers it unconstitutionally seized," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement.

After that, they said, Democratic Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana must cooperate with the Justice Department's bribery investigation against him.

The leaders also said the Justice Department should not look at the documents or give them to investigators in the Jefferson case.

The developments capped a day of escalating charges, demands and behind-the-scene talks between House leaders and the Justice Department that ended with no resolution, according to officials of both parties.

House officials were drafting a joint resolution frowning on the raid. And Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., announced a hearing next week titled, "Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?"
The message backfired. It's akin to our "shock and awe" and liberation of Iraq more than three years ago - instead of being awed the locals were pissed, and they keep saying their liberation looks like our occupation to them. We say we made things better, and they see a civil war, little power, not much drinkable water and sewage in the streets. They're not buying the message.

In the Jefferson business here, Pelosi said Jefferson should resign from the Ways and Means committee. He refused and filed a motion asking the federal judge in the case to order the FBI to return the material it seized from his office.

But that's minor stuff now -
Hastert, Pelosi and several other leaders of both parties in the Senate say the weekend raid violated the Constitution's separation of powers doctrine.

"These constitutional principles were not designed by the Founding Fathers to place anyone above the law," Hastert and Pelosi said. "Rather, they were designed to protect the Congress and the American people from abuses of power, and those principles deserve to be vigorously defended."
It wasn't supposed to work out this way - "Hastert on Tuesday complained directly to Bush that the raid violated the Constitution's separation of powers doctrine."

And the doctrine? See Matthew Yglesias here -
I know this is an out of season remark and all good liberals should be both distancing themselves from corrupt Rep. William Jefferson and mocking the GOP leadership for suddenly taking issue with the problem of executive branch overreach under circumstances that appear designed to make it easier for congressmen to take bribes, but Dennis Hastert and the other congressional leaders are right on the merits here.

There's a reason why security for Congress (and the Supreme Court) is provided neither by the Secret Service, nor by the FBI, nor by the DC Police Department, but rather by a special Capitol Police Department (or Supreme Court PD for the SCOTUS). This is also why the Constitution stipulates that members "shall in all cases, except treason, felony and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any speech or debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other place." There's a real separation of powers principle at stake here; the executive branch is not supposed to be charged with policing the behavior of the members of other branches of government. I'll shed no tears for Jefferson, but this is not unlike if the Bush administration were to use an illegal secret wiretap to catch an actual terrorist.

Now, of course, the flipside of this dynamic is that the legislative branch is supposed to police its own members. The House can vote to expel people for misconduct. The House has an ethics committee precisely because it's supposed to police its members. When push comes to shove in separation of powers cases, the executive always has the preponderance of power on its side. The only way to maintain the privileges of the Congress is for public opinion to support Congress. That's simply not going to happen in this instance because Hastert and the rest of the leadership have made it eminently clear that they're not going to keep corruption in check if left to their own devices. Virtually nobody respects Congress as an institution, or the congressional leadership as individuals at this point, and nobody should. So you get what we had here last week; I don't like it any more than Hastert does, but it wouldn't have happened if he'd been doing his job.
It's complicated. Or it's about the right of the president to have his agencies keep congress in line.

And late in the day, this -
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, is under investigation by the FBI, which is seeking to determine his role in an ongoing public corruption probe into members of Congress, ABC News has learned from high level official sources.

Federal officials say the information implicating Hastert was developed from convicted lobbyists who are now cooperating with the government.

Part of the investigation involves a letter Hastert wrote three years ago, urging the Secretary of the Interior to block a casino on an Indian reservation that would have competed with other tribes.

The other tribes were represented by convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff who reportedly has provided details of his dealings with Hastert as part of his plea agreement with the government.

The letter was written shortly after a fund-raiser for Hastert at a restaurant owned by Abramoff. Abramoff and his clients contributed more than $26,000 at the time.
Hastert shouldn't have complained to the president personally the day before? No, just a coincidence.

Okay, the issue is authority. Sometimes daddy has to assert his authority, even if he's wrong, just because authority is important. Everyone knows that. This may be "a radical redistribution of power within Washington" as the historian from Boston calls it, but it's all family dynamics.

There is that funny, minor movie, Matilda, directed by Danny DeVito, and the father's line in the film, disciplining his grade school daughter - "I'm smart; you're dumb. I'm big; you're little. And there's nothing you can do about it." He says that a lot. It doesn't work out so well for him.

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." - Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, Chapter 1, the very first line...

It's too bad there is so much the government should be doing. But we get this.

Posted by Alan at 23:23 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 25 May 2006 06:44 PDT home

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