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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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Saturday, 22 April 2006
Boredom: More Useful Than You Thought
Topic: Backgrounder

Boredom: More Useful Than You Thought

So it's a dark rainy April afternoon in Rochester, New York, in the late seventies, and you're teaching your English class something or other about a key passage in Hamlet, asking questions about what they think is going on with this moody prince and his inability to get his ass in gear and do something about his unhappiness. Does he over-think things, being too smart for his own good? Is he afraid to take responsibility, or, in some smug, self-satisfied way, does he just love thinking there's nothing he can do? The roomful of sixteen-year-olds doesn't care. Whatever they bolted down for lunch has them groggy, and faint pattering of the rain outside has put them in their own moody trance. Some stare out the windows and others draw nothings in their notebooks.

Then it comes. It always does. In a dead spot among the few grudging responses - one or two of them testing if they can actually say the words they think are the words they may be supposed to say - one of the kids, in a fit of frustration and a flash of sincerity, blurts out "but Shakespeare is so boring."

The room comes alive.

You have your stock response - nothing is in itself boring. It would be more accurate to say the you are bored. That puzzles them all for a moment, when they all had thought this was "case closed" - a definitive judgment had been uttered by someone in the class who just cut through all the pretense. Now they have something to think about. And you can do a quick shift in the lesson plan, to a consideration of why some find Shakespeare, or anything else, boring, while others think it's fine stuff. They can dig into that, and discuss punk music and what they watch on television, and you can get to where you were going by the backdoor. It works.

But the sixteen-year-olds were bored. Even back then, thirty years ago, they were overloaded. Too much was going on. In addition to the social-sexual complexity of navigating their world of constant crises, and six or more classes each day in wildly different disciplines (chemistry and French and math and history and all - taught by some very odd adults who for some reason weren't in the "real world"), and after-school sports or music or clubs, their parents had them signed-up for this and that, and too there was keeping up on music and anything else that was supposed to be cool. And that's not even to mention dressing properly - disengaging from what the patents thought was appropriate and choosing what was distinctive and individual, but would be seen as cool within the parameters of the moment, what they saw on television and in the music videos and the ads everywhere. It was all exhausting. And Shakespeare was a pain, and boring.

But then, if the Brits who gave use Shakespeare are to be considered, boring may be good.

An item appeared in The Daily Mail (UK) in early April this year, summarized in Discovery Health thusly -
Psychology lecturer Dr Richard Ralley of Edge Hill College in Lancashire has embarked on a study of boredom - and says that a little thumb twiddling might be a good thing. Dr Ralley said that boredom could be useful because, at times when nothing is happening, humans conserve their energy for when they are able to re-engage. He advised that children should be left to their own devices to recover from a school term - or parents could involve them in their own activities in a challenging way, instead of "overwhelming" them with children's activities during the holidays. He began to collect case studies in 1999, and to date has received information from more than 300 young adults who have written about boredom. He hopes to present his findings this summer. He warned against parents "overcompensating" their children for having so much free time during holidays. Dr Ralley says boredom is associated with guilt about not having anything productive to do, but is a "natural" emotion and exists for a reason.
Okay then - you could have told the English class that, sure, Shakespeare really is boring, and they should be grateful for being in the class, as bored is good for you.

That may not have worked, but it's a thought. Riazat Butt in The Guardian (UK) had more detail on Thursday, April 13, 2006 with Boredom Could Be Good For Children - "It was Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote 'Against boredom the gods themselves fight in vain.' Although the musings of the German philosopher will certainly be lost on the millions of schoolchildren over the Easter holiday, their parents can find comfort in his words as they struggle to keep their kids entertained for a fortnight."

Did Nietzsche say that? Who knew?

In any event, the idea floating around is that boredom is a naturally occurring emotion that should not be suppressed. And this Ralley chap, a psychology lecturer at Edge Hill College in Ormskirk, Lancashire, has launched his study of boredom.

Riazat Butt, not a boring name at all, gives us quotes from the psychology lecturer at Edge Hill College in Ormskirk, Lancashire -
Boredom can be a good thing. In psychology we think of emotions as being functional. Fear, anger and jealousy all serve a purpose but they're painted in a bad light even though they exist for a reason. It's the same with boredom, which also has a bad name.

We get bored because we get fed up when we have nothing to do and feel the need to be productive. We feel bad when we're not productive and that's what boredom is associated with.

"Boredom is something, it's not just switching off. It can be useful. When there's nothing rewarding going on we conserve energy, so that when we want to re-engage we can. There's a balance between doing something that's rewarding and doing something that's rewarding but not being happy about doing it.
So the problem is the result of some emotional need to be productive, and sometimes there is just no need to be productive, and that upsets us.

Here's where we part with the Brits, and the rest of Europe it would seem, and especially the French. Americans worship productivity, all this making and doing. We work more hours per year than anyone else in the world, except for maybe the Japanese. We take little or no vacation. Successful mothers and fathers may seldom see their children, and when home be on the laptop or Blackberry catching up on email, reviewing data or tinkering with the next report. The kids are scheduled for this special lesson or that, or off to computer camp or whatever, so that's no problem. Meals are refueling stops - the idea of a leisurely dinner with friends and four hours of chit-chat is torture - and actually having to sleep is just an annoyance that messes everything up. We don't do bored.

Ralley says "Boredom is natural, so let's deal with it." It doesn't seem natural on this side of the pond.

And too, the fellow thought of this study, which he thinks he'll call "Boredom," six years ago, in 1999, and he's only now getting around to collecting case studies. Now he has more than three hundred from "young adults" who say things about boredom. And he "hopes" to present his findings this summer. So he may not. Or he may. Yep, he's not like us.

And the comments in the UK have been mixed, like Caitlin Moran in the Times (London) on April 21 with this -
All goes well in the halls of academia. Presumably reflecting a world where our major problems have been solved and nothing bad has happened for at least 50 years, a psychology lecturer at Edge Hill College, Lancashire, is embarking on a study of boredom. Dr Richard Ralley hopes to present his eventual findings over the summer - traditionally a time when teachers experience great boredom themselves, what with there being no marking, or small boys to remove from big bins.

Dr Ralley, it seems, believes that boredom has been underestimated. While humanity has acknowledged its enjoyment of other negative emotions - blind murderous fury, say, or the kind of moping self-pity that involves wearing unwashed bed-socks for a week - it seems that boredom, like communism or Supertramp, is one of the few things not to have enjoyed a modish rediscovery trumpeted by Dazed and Confused.

"Boredom is something - it's not just switching off," Dr Ralley is quoted as saying, presumably in a perversely excited tone of voice. "Boredom has a bad name ... but it can be a good thing. It can be useful." He is particularly concerned that the large, grey estuary-like stretches of boredom that characterised the childhoods of previous generations might be lost to the modern child.

... Of course, however laudable Dr Ralley's aims, the layman can observe a few flaws in his project. First, one wonders how he will actually find any bored subjects to study. As he suggests, the combination of PlayStation, Sky+, contraceptives and skunkweed have surely eliminated the pockets of ennui that previous generations will have so readily not-enjoyed. Sunday trading alone has irrevocably altered the current generation. I can recall being so bored on Sundays - empty streets, tolling bells, a million identical roasts slowly drying in their ovens - that I had competitions with my seven siblings over who could hold their breath the longest. Often we passed out and fell to the floor whilst the others looked on, purple-faced and impassive. On other occasions we tried to eat small snacks with pugilistic slowness.
And it goes on, suggesting "any number of swimming lessons, activity schools and instruction on the piano would have been more useful." Being bored, is, of course, boring.

And the British bloggers have taken up the topic, as in this, and review of others who seem to agree with the psychology lecturer at Edge Hill College in Ormskirk, Lancashire.

That item concludes with this -
Lack of purpose leads to boredom; boredom leads to the discovery of new purpose. Boredom is therefore a mechanism (which, like most mechanisms, doesn't work always but does work sometimes) for turning no-purpose into purpose.
Oh. That clears it all up.

See also Zoe Williams in The Guardian on April 14 (Good Friday) with this -
Strictly speaking, you should not have a newspaper yet. You should not even be out of bed. It is a holy day. You should be lolling about on that tightrope of boredom where you are at a perfect equipoise between getting up and going back to sleep. Oh, you have children, you say. They are on holiday. You need to teach them Greek, and fast, because they've got kayaking in the afternoon, and the interactive "What Does The Inside of My Intestine Look Like?" exhibition at the Science Museum closes at a quarter to midnight.

Parents worry a lot about keeping their children entertained. In the holiday season especially, the thought process goes: we are a lot older than their fun little friends, plus we both have a hangover. Must entertain little bleeders. Must entertain and improve.

In fact, you could not be more wrong.

... The interesting thing about boredom, Ralley says, is that: "Boredom is unpleasant. You would expect an unpleasant emotion to have a really straightforward motivational effect, so being bored would make you get up and do something. But that doesn't seem to be the case - where people have written about being bored, they describe just sitting about more. You withdraw from things, so maybe there's an energy-conservation function going on. But at the same time, it is still unpleasant, and the unpleasantness could be a protection against your withdrawing completely." What a delightful emotional knife-edge.

Naturally, you don't need an academic to tell you there's a causal link between being bored and sitting about not doing anything. My office friend used to describe this as the Three Bs: Busy, Bored and Behind. Interestingly, neither of us has a job anymore.

... And ha! I haven't even got to school, which I genuinely, at 13, thought was designed, not for learning, but as some kind of preparation, some breakage of the spirit, for the appalling boringness that would later constitute the world of work.

I was totally wrong, of course, since school is way more boring than work will ever be.
That is a taste of what they used to call a "rollicking good read." But the real point is this -
What I would say, though, is that boredom is like olives, or antiques, or green vegetables, or black-and-white films. Children might get force-fed with boredom just in the run of things, and it might actively be good for children, but only adults will really appreciate it. Only adults realise what a valuable place it is, this emotional state of not actually being asleep that is to all intents and purposes, being asleep. Only adults realise that the 70s chant "Why don't you just switch off the television set and go out and do something less boring instead?" was actually meant ironically (like, why on earth would you?). Expecting a child to understand is like expecting it to have a mature and thorough grasp of Freud, or agricultural policy. Though possibly, the more bored you make your children, the quicker they will pick this stuff up.
Good point. Bore them. They'll acquire a taste for it. And it'll do them good.

And make them discuss Hamlet.

Posted by Alan at 15:41 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 22 April 2006 15:42 PDT home

Friday, 21 April 2006
Shutting Things Down
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Shutting Things Down

Of the stories that break Friday afternoon, after the news cycles have run their course and no more will be published in "the majors" until Monday, removing these stories from much discussion as the weekend is for things other that "current events," this one was curious - "In a rare occurrence, the CIA fired an officer who acknowledged giving classified information to a reporter, NBC News learned Friday."

They got one of the leakers. How did NBC News break the story? Someone at the CIA leaked the news to NBC's Andrea Mitchell.

The irony is obvious - "CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Millerwise confirmed the dismissal. Millerwise said she was unsure whether there had ever been a firing before at the agency for leaking to the media."

Does the CIA now go after the person who leaked the dismissal of the person who leaked to the press in the first place, for leaking news of the firing before the CIA was able to officially announce it?

Probably not. Some leaks are worth pursuing, and some are not. It seems this, the first one, was.

The basics -
The officer flunked a polygraph exam before being fired on Thursday and is now under investigation by the Justice Department, NBC has learned.

Intelligence sources tell NBC News the accused officer, Mary McCarthy, worked in the CIA's inspector general's office and had worked for the National Security Council under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

The leak pertained to stories on the CIA's rumored secret prisons in Eastern Europe, sources told NBC. The information was allegedly provided to Dana Priest of the Washington Post, who wrote about CIA prisons in November and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize on Monday for her reporting.

Sources said the CIA believes McCarthy had more than a dozen unauthorized contacts with Priest. Information about subjects other than the prisons may have been leaked as well.

The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the firing.
So there you have it. Dana Priest wins a Pulitzer for investigative reporting, digging in and letting the American public know what is secretly being down in our name with our tax dollars, disappearing people forever in chain of secret foreign prisons - no charges or chance to dispute the reason for removing them from life for life, with "enhanced interrogation" or whatever you choose to call waterboarding, beatings and carefully planned humiliation - and often people we find out did nothing and know nothing and were grabbed by mistake or misplaced enthusiasm, like the useless German fellow we later dumped in the woods in the Balkans who wants to sue us. It seems some think it was good reporting to uncover this, as it violates any number of treaties we recognize and thus have the force of law, and contradicts what the administrations has said publicly. Some think it was not good reporting, but rather something like treason.

But the Justice Department is now investigating New York Times stories about the National Security Agency's domestic warrantless eavesdropping - that NSA spying business. Those Times reporters, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, won a Pulitzer on Monday the 17th for their reporting that. The NSA and a bunch of agencies asked Justice to find out who spilled the beans.

Of course this Mary McCarthy, late of the CIA, doesn't have a leg to stand on. No "whistleblower" law will probably protect her, as at the very least she did sign an employment agreement to never divulge classified information to anyone who was not authorized to receive it. So they have her on breach of contract or something, if not some sort of violation of the Espionage Act (and everything you might want to know about that is here).

And of course the idea floating around is that maybe the Post should be charged under the Espionage Act for publishing classified information (and the Times too one supposes). The idea is that damage has been done, as in this -
The CIA has had several leaks during the war on terror, including a particularly damaging one that revealed CIA detention centers in Europe for interrogating captured terrorists. Not only did this cause political damage among our European allies regarding their support of our war efforts, it also apparently caused the program's termination, at least delaying the acquisition of intel from detainees that could have impacted American and Western security. Worst of all, other intel agencies had to rethink their cooperation with American agencies in light of the fact that people within them couldn't keep their mouths shut.
Isn't the Post as guilty as this Mary McCarthy woman?

Late Friday afternoon you could have seen the panel on CNN's Situation Room, their in-house Republican experts, Victoria Clark, J.C. Watts and Bill Bennett, being interviewed by the host, Wolf Biltzer, on this woman being fired from the CIA, and too on "secrets" being exposed in the other item.

Bennett did his thing, saying pretty much what he said on his radio show a few days earlier (and he's going to ride this one for all it's worth) -
These reporters took classified information, secret information, published it in their newspapers, against the wishes of the president, against the request of the president and others, that they not release it. They not only released it, they publicized it - they put it on the front page, and it damaged us, it hurt us.

How do we know it damaged us? Well, it revealed the existence of the surveillance program, so people are going to stop making calls. Since they are now aware of this, they're going to adjust their behavior.

... on the secret sites, the CIA sites, we embarrassed our allies. So it hurt us there.

As a result, are they punished, are they in shame, are they embarrassed, are they arrested? No, they win Pulitzer prizes - they win Pulitzer prizes. I don't think what they did was worthy of an award - I think what they did is worthy of jail, and I think this investigation needs to go forward.
Torri Clark, a pleasant woman who used to be the press person for the Pentagon, looked really worried. She said she didn't want to disagree with Bennett as he was really smart and all, but she seemed reluctant to get involved with anything that seemed like punishing the press for what the print. Bennett would have none of it. Watts looked uncomfortable.

But one suspects this is an opening the pro-Bush right cannot pass up, a call for the government to shut down the Washington Post and New York Times for aiding and abetting the enemy. No more Maureen Dowd! It's not for nothing Fox News' Tony Snow will likely become the next White House spokesman. There's the news that supports the administration, and news that undermines it, and the argument is, implicitly, to disagree with the administration, or to suggest they might have perhaps overstepped or made a mistake, is to disagree with America itself.

It's rather classic. It's important to have a free press, but the press cannot report what the government doesn't want them to report, or what the should know the government might not want them to report. They call that "responsibility." If the bad guys see that some part of the population here disagrees with something the government has done, even on tax policy one suppose, then the bad guys will be emboldened, thinking we're a country divided and real pushovers and all that. Disagreement endangers us? Something like that.

And this fits a general pattern.

There have been arguments that things changed after September 11, 2001, and that in this new world we need to end "transparency" in the government, as it's too dangerous, and shift to making people's personal lives transparent to the government, so that their personal decisions don't do public harm - thus the push to ban gay marriage, end abortion as the decision of the woman involved, and to make sure no husband carries out his wife's wishes and pulls the plug keeping her body alive after her brain has shriveled to the size of a walnut and she's been effectively dead for more than ten years. Heck, the president himself flew back in the middle of the night from his vacation on his ranch in Texas to sign into law the act to keep Terri Schiavo's remaining lower-level functions going. (There's a back and forth on the transparency shift here.)

So stop the leaks, and shut down the irresponsible press, and, well, could you go after those who receive information they are told is classified.

Who would that be? That would be the readers of the Priest story of the CIA's network of "secret prisons" in Europe, here, and the Risen and Eric Lichtblau story of the NSA's secret domestic wiretapping program, here (and made into that book you might have read,
State of War).

Did you read any of that? You were receiving classified information, without the authority to receive that information. And the writers told you it was classified. You're in trouble.

Or you're in trouble if you follow the logic of Bennett and that crowd.

As for leaks, the other late Friday news was this -
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leaked national defense information to a pro-Israel lobbyist in the same manner that landed a lower-level Pentagon official a 12-year prison sentence, the lobbyist's lawyer said Friday.

Prosecutors disputed the claim.

The allegations against Rice came as a federal judge granted a defense request to issue subpoenas sought by the defense for Rice and three other government officials in the trial of Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman. The two are former lobbyists with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who are charged with receiving and disclosing national defense information.
Oh my. Will Condoleezza Rice have to testify under oath about when a leak is good (like the president telling Scooter Libby to show a cooperative reporter selected passages from a classified document so the reporter can go after one his enemies), and when a leak is bad?

This is getting ridiculous. And of course this is the case that has more than a few first amendment scholars worried. Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman are not being charged with leaking classified information. They are being charged with being told information they knew was classified - someone else's crime - then talking about it, in this case with folks in the Israeli government. That was their crime, or so the charges stand.

Think about it. That's just what the Post and Times did, but they didn't slip the inside dope to agents of a foreign power. They did something even worse, publishing it for anyone at all to read.

So this case is one where some worry that, if successfully prosecuted, this could be used to shut down the press, except for Fox News. But the administration would never do that, of course. But they could.

It's an old conflict. See What Some Call Treason, Others Call Truth from Friday, April 21, where he reviews all the 2006 Pulitzer Prize winners and wonders what Bennett would say about each winning story.

He adds this -
Bennett isn't alone. Other conservatives, such as the Powerline blog (who called the Risen and Lichtblau piece "treasonous" and columnist Mark Steyn, who says that even though he's ineligible to win a Pulitzer, he "wouldn't want the thing in the house" anyway), rail against the awards because they feel the reporters have hurt national security. Unsurprisingly, none of these conservative attackers felt compelled to explain why these leaks should be punishable by prison while, say, leaks lovingly dealt out to administration-friendly reporters like the Post's Bob Woodward or the Times' Judith Miller that dealt with no less secretive or sensitive matters should be celebrated.
And he quotes Marc Fisher at the Post - "The stories that won [the Pulitzer] prizes were reported and written for the best of reasons, the reason that drew most of us into this craft: To use the power of light to force the bad guys out of the shadows."

The counterargument is that they aren't the bad guys, one supposes, and that's just a fact, and not opinion. Some disagree.

The award-winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina?
God help up us if the conservatives who seek to intimidate the media into reporting only happy news about our government had succeeded in the case of Katrina. Americans would be even less prepared for its next disaster - or attack - as the reporters who tried to warn us might likely be in jail. Here's to their courage, and let's hope it is matched in the future by a commitment on the part of the stewards of our media institutions to fight this administration's attempts to weaken the very qualities that make this country great - like the freedom to tell the truth, "without fear or favor."
The counterargument is of course that's a luxury we can no longer afford. Everything changed on September 11, 2001.

But stuff keeps bubbling up. On CBS there will be more. Sunday, April 23, Tyler Drumheller, the CIA's former head in Europe, tells Sixty Minutes that the White House ignored intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war. Drumheller says George Tenet told the president and the vice president that Iraq's foreign minister, with whom we had struck a deal, was saying that Saddam Hussein had no active WMD programs. None. And they blew it off - "The [White House] group that was dealing with preparation for the Iraq war came back and said they were no longer interested and we said, 'Well, what about the intel?' And they said, 'Well, this isn't about intel anymore. This is about regime change.'" (See the teaser here.)

Should he say such things? Doesn't that shake the confidence we need to do the job. Doesn't it aid the enemy to make the inside crew at the White House look like, well, people who just lied to the American pubic because they had aims the public would see as dubious?

It's like the late Vietnam War years all over again, but this time without something big, like the Pentagon Papers the government tried to suppress, going after both the Times and Daniel Ellsberg. This time, however, it's no one big document. It's one small detail after another.

So how did we get back there again?

Well, some of the Nixon/Ford crew is back - folks who lived through it at the White House the last time, Cheney and Rumsfeld, trying to get it right this time.

And who should be all over the airwaves? Why it's John Dean on MSNBC's Countdown, Friday, April 21, explaining things. John Dean? Yes, he was White House Counsel to President Nixon from July 1970 to April 1973. And on June 25, 1973, he began his testimony to the Senate Watergate Committee - he implicated administration officials, including himself, Nixon fundraiser and former Attorney General John Mitchell, and Nixon too.

Ah, those were the days.

And what's he saying now? This: If Past Is Prologue, George Bush Is Becoming An Increasingly Dangerous President

Oh great.

And he's been reading, again, James David Barber's The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House, an analysis of the psychology of presidents, kind of a classic from 1972, recently revised. Yes, "Barber first wrote - long before Richard Nixon's troubles had fully unfolded but based on his scrutiny of Nixon's personality and character traits - that Nixon would self-destruct in his second term. Since then, Barber has tested and retested his analytical tools, applying them to all the modern presidents up to and including George Herbert Walker Bush."

Dean just extends it. It's time again.

Here's the premise -
Barber, after analyzing all the presidents through Bush's father, George H. W. Bush, found repeating patterns of common elements relating to character, worldview, style, approach to dealing with power, and expectations. Based on these findings, Barber concluded that presidents fell into clusters of characteristics.

He also found in this data Presidential work patterns which he described as "active" or "passive." For example, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were highly active; Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan were highly passive.

Barber further analyzed the emotional relationship of presidents toward their work - dividing them into presidents who found their work an emotionally satisfying experience, and thus "positive," and those who found the job emotionally taxing, and thus "negative." Franklin Roosevelt and Reagan, for example, were presidents who enjoyed their work; Thomas Jefferson and Richard Nixon had "negative" feeling toward it.

From these measurements, Barber developed four repeating categories into which he was able to place all presidents: those like FDR who actively pursued their work and had positive feelings about their efforts (active/positives); those like Nixon who actively pursued the job but had negative feelings about it (active/negatives); those like Reagan who were passive about the job but enjoyed it (passive/positives); and, finally, those who followed the pattern of Thomas Jefferson - who both was passive and did not enjoy the work (passive/negatives).
And we have another "active/negative" on our hands, and character matters.

The core -
Active/negative presidents are risk-takers. (Consider the colossal risk Bush took with the Iraq invasion). And once they have taken a position, they lock on to failed courses of action and insist on rigidly holding steady, even when new facts indicate that flexibility is required.

The source of their rigidity is that they've become emotionally attached to their own positions; to change them, in their minds, would be to change their personal identity, their very essence. That, they are not willing to do at any cost.

Wilson rode his unpopular League of Nations proposal to his ruin; Hoover refused to let the federal government intervene to prevent or lessen a fiscal depression; Johnson escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam while misleading Americans (thereby making himself unelectable); and Nixon went down with his bogus defense of Watergate.

George Bush has misled America into a preemptive war in Iraq; he is using terrorism to claim that as Commander-in-Chief, he is above the law; and he refuses to acknowledge that American law prohibits torturing our enemies and warrantlessly wiretapping Americans.

Americans, increasingly, are not buying his justifications for any of these positions. Yet Bush has made no effort to persuade them that his actions are sound, prudent or productive; rather, he takes offense when anyone questions his unilateral powers. He responds as if personally insulted.

And this may be his only option: With Bush's limited rhetorical skills, it would be all but impossible for him to persuade any others than his most loyal supporters of his positions. His single salient virtue - as a campaigner - was the ability to stay on-message. He effectively (though inaccurately) portrayed both Al Gore and John Kerry as wafflers, whereas he found consistency in (over)simplifying the issues. But now, he cannot absorb the fact that his message is not one Americans want to hear - that he is being questioned, severely, and that staying on-message will be his downfall.

Other Presidents - other leaders, generally - have been able to listen to critics relatively impassively, believing that there is nothing personal about a debate about how best to achieve shared goals. Some have even turned detractors into supporters - something it's virtually impossible to imagine Bush doing. But not active/negative presidents. And not likely Bush.
So that's it.

Driven, persistent, and emphatic - their pervasive feeling is "I must." Wilson, Hoover, Johnson and Nixon, and now the fellow we have now.

Barber says of the type - "He sees himself as having begun with a high purpose, but as being continually forced to compromise in order to achieve the end state he vaguely envisions. Battered from all sides he begins to feel his integrity slipping away from him [and] after enduring all this for longer than any mortal should, he rebels and stands his ground. Masking his decision in whatever rhetoric is necessary, he rides the tiger to the end."

Dean extends that to our man -
He took the risk that he could capture Osama bin Laden with a small group of CIA operatives and U.S. Army Special forces - and he failed. He took the risk that he could invade Iraq and control the country with fewer troops and less planning than the generals and State Department told him would be possible - and he failed. He took the risk that he could ignore the criminal laws prohibiting torture and the warrantless wiretapping of Americans without being caught - he failed. And he's taken the risk that he can cut the taxes for the rich and run up huge financial deficits without hurting the economy. This, too, will fail, though the consequences will likely fall on future presidents and generations who must repay Bush's debts.
Great, And here's the prediction -
As the 2006 midterm elections approach, this active/negative president can be expected to take further risks. If anyone doubts that Bush, Cheney, Rove and their confidants are planning an "October Surprise" to prevent the Republicans from losing control of Congress, then he or she has not been observing this presidency very closely.

What will that surprise be? It's the most closely held secret of the Administration.

How risky will it be? Bush is a whatever-it-takes risk-taker, the consequences be damned.

One possibility is that Dick Cheney will resign as Vice President for "health reasons," and become a senior counselor to the president. And Bush will name a new vice president - a choice geared to increase his popularity, as well as someone electable in 2008. It would give his sinking administration a new face, and new life.

The immensely popular Rudy Giuliani seems the most likely pick, if Giuliani is willing. (A better option for Giuliani might be to hold off, and tacitly position himself as the Republican anti-Bush in 2008.) But Condoleezza Rice, John McCain, Bill Frist, and more are possibilities.

Bush's second and more likely, surprise could be in the area of national security: If he could achieve a Great Powers coalition (of Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and so on) presenting a united-front "no nukes" stance to Iran, it would be his first diplomatic coup and a political triumph.

But more likely, Bush may mount a unilateral attack on Iran's nuclear facilities - hoping to rev up his popularity. (It's a risky strategy: A unilateral hit on Iran may both trigger devastating Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks in Iraq, with high death tolls, and increase international dislike of Bush for his bypass of the U.N. But as an active/negative President, Bush hardly shies away from risk.) Another rabbit-out-of-the-hat possibility: the capture of Osama bin Laden.

If there is no "October Surprise," I would be shocked. And if it is not a high-risk undertaking, it would be a first. Without such a gambit, and the public always falls for them, Bush is going to lose control of Congress. Should that happen, his presidency will have effectively ended, and he will spend the last two years of it defending all the mistakes he has made during the first six, and covering up the errors of his ways.

There is, however, the possibility of another terrorist attack, and if one occurred, Americans would again rally around the president - wrongly so, since this is a presidency that lives on fear-mongering about terror, but does little to truly address it. The possibility that we might both suffer an attack, and see a boost to Bush come from it, is truly a terrifying thought.
Oh well. What happens will happen. But you can see why they hate leaks and would like to intimidate the press into just not nosing around. Being able to listen to critics relatively impassively, believing that there is nothing personal about a debate about how best to achieve shared goals?

Not possible.

And they like changing things, as Digby at Hullabaloo notes here -
First, they declare that the taboo against wars of aggression, formed in the blood of more than 70 million dead people in the 20th century's two world wars, is out. Not even a second glance at that taboo. They simply repackage it as "pre-emptive" war, changing the previous definition of (troops gathering on the border) to somebody some day might want to attack us so we must attack them first.

Then there's torture. This society used to teach its children that there is no excuse for torture. Indeed, until recently, people who torture were considered to be either evil or sick. We didn't make exceptions for "except when you suspect the person is a really bad person." We said torture is wrong. Now we have sent a message far and wide that torture is necessary and even good if the person who is committing it is doing it for the right reasons. Those right reasons are usually that we "know" that the victim has information but is refusing to tell us what it is. How we "know" this is never spelled out. All we know is that the person is on our side they are "good" and the ones who are refusing to tell are "evil" and that should be good enough for anybody.

Finally, we seem to have crossed the Rubicon with respect to nukes. We are openly discussing using them on television, much as otherwise decent people tossed around the idea of torture after 9/11. People like Joe Klein think it's not only ok for George W. Bush to say nukes are on the table - but it's desirable because then people will think we are crazy and run like hell when we say boo. However, just as with torture, once you start talking about how it might be ok in certain circumstances, then you have begun to break down the taboo against it.

Much of our safety in the post-Hiroshima world has relied on the fact that nuclear war is too horrible to contemplate. It's not just the horror of the explosions themselves, it's the visions of radiation sickness and cancer and deformities and half lives of thousands of years. It's apocalyptic (which may be why the Left Behind faction thinks this is such a great idea.) For the sane among us, letting the nuclear genie out of the bottle is simply unthinkable. It's not and never can be "on the table" because once you start talking about it as if it's just another form of warfare somebody is going to do it.

I'm trying hard to think if there are any taboos left after endorsing launching pre-emptive nuclear war and I don't think there are. The only thing left is actually exploding a "tactical" nuke and considering this administration's determination to break as many civilized norms as possible we would be fools not to take them seriously.
Well, the norm of a free press is long gone.

It's a new world.

Posted by Alan at 22:44 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 21 April 2006 22:49 PDT home

Thursday, 20 April 2006
Alarmists and Others: When to Worry, When to Not Worry
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Alarmists and Others: When to Worry, When to Not Worry

The alarmist, an often angry and impulsive man, is Scott Ritter, the former United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq who was ticked Saddam Hussein was making it hard for the inspectors, then said there were no weapons of mass destruction and something else must be going on - the war was a bad idea and he said "don't do it." Then we "did it" he became a major critic of the administration. He's a military man - twelve years in the Marines as in intelligence officer, advisor to General Norman Schwarzkopf in the first Gulf War, voted for Bush first time around, was a security and military consultant for the Fox News folks. But he got fed up.

And he was ridiculed mercilessly in the days before the current Iraq War was launched - charges he was a child molester and, if not, at least unhinged, and maybe he was gay. The war crowd couldn't say he was French. He came from a military family and went to college in Pennsylvania (Franklin and Marshall), but he got hammered. He was not happy. Unfortunately, he was right. Fox News dropped him of course.

Should we listen to him? Perhaps he has the right to say "told you so" and all that.

Now with the new war with Iran about to begin, he's saying the same sort of thing.

Well, actually, fourteen months ago he was saying the Iran War was in the works. On February 18th, 2005 he told an audience in Washington that George Bush had signed-off on preparations to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, and that these preparations would be completed by June of 2005.

But we didn't drop the big one on them. That was almost a year ago. So he can be wrong.

But see this -
I was very clear, based upon the information given to me, and it's 100% accurate, that in October 2004, the President of the United States ordered the Pentagon to be prepared to launch military strikes against Iran as of June 2005. That means, have all the resources in place so that if the President orders it, the bombing can begin. It doesn't mean that the bombing is going begin in June. And a lot of people went, "Ah, you said they were going to attack in June." Absolutely not.
Of course there may be nothing wrong with that. We should be prepared for anything - think of the Boy Scout motto.

But what to make of what he said just two months ago (February 6)?

Ritter says it's going to play out the same way. The UN will say Iran won't have nukes for a long time and we'll say we have evidence they could have them next week or something, and our new "call them all fools and mock them" UN ambassador, John Bolton, will say we'll do what we must - "We just don't know when, but it's going to happen. [Bolton] will deliver a speech that has already been written. It says America cannot allow Iran to threaten the United States and we must unilaterally defend ourselves. How do I know this? I've talked to Bolton's speechwriter."

Ritter is an alarmist. We seek a diplomatic solution. All else is "wild speculation." Yeah, we said that the last time. But this time we mean it.

But Ritter is at it again, with this, pointing out that Iran isn't close to developing a nuclear weapon, and is still a member of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, so we're where we were before. War is in the air, for no good reason.

There's this -
It has been more than a week now since the Iranian government announced that it had "joined the nuclear club" by successfully enriching uranium, albeit for nuclear fuel, not a weapon. Once a nation has the capacity to enrich to the former, enrichment to the latter is simply a matter of time; the technology is the same. Iran's declaration immediately made headlines around the world, with stunned punditry engaging in wild speculation about the potential ramifications of this turn of events. From a simple laboratory-scale enrichment experiment, a massive nuclear weapons program grew Phoenix-like from the ashes, prompting dire warnings from US Government officials such as Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Stephen Rademaker, who told a press conference in Moscow, where he was visiting to discuss the Iranian nuclear issue with Russian officials, that Iran "... may be capable of making a nuclear bomb within 16 days."

... In all fairness to Mr. Rademaker, the full 16 days window he postulated remains open, and so it is perhaps too harsh to pass criticism until it is known whether or not his prediction will come to pass. But I'll wager a dime to a dollar that come 16 days - or even 271 days - the world will find Iran no closer to a nuclear bomb than it is today, because the reality is Iran does not possess an active, ongoing, viable nuclear weapons program. In all reality, Iran does not yet even possess the capability to enrich uranium on an industrial scale.
The details are at the link, but that's the general idea. But we're off to war again. And that's because -
The problems that plague Washington DC on the issue of Iran are the same problems that haunt America overall regarding Iraq - no clear understanding of why we as a nation are doing what we are doing where we are doing it, and absolutely no system of accountability for those who are implicated, directly through their actions or indirectly through abrogation of duties and responsibilities, in embroiling America in such senseless conflict.

... The American system has been in collapse for many decades now, with the rise of corporate power occurring in direct relationship with the demise of concept and reality of individual citizenship. How America as a nation reacted to the horrific events of September 11, 2001 clearly put the manifestation of this collapse on center stage. Americans for the most part remained mute and motionless as the rights of the individual were infringed on irrationally by the so-called Patriot Act. The various economic and political power nodes, once held in check by a Congress which at one time recognized its responsibilities to the individual citizen, now ran roughshod over the elected representatives of the people by exploiting the fear of the people generated by the people's own ignorance of the world they lived in. In short, the current war in Iraq, and the looming war with Iran, can be explained as a manifestation of American capitalism gone mad.
Yes, but he's an alarmist.

Of course, the thought of the United States launching a nuclear war on a nation that hasn't attacked us, but might attack us, or attack Israel, does alarm some people. And the thought of what seems inevitable following that - a regional all-out war over there, or an actually third world war, and every nation in the world deciding we're a "rouge state" and hoards of new terrorists blowing up this and that across America and Europe - does alarm some folks. The administration can argue all they want that the western world would actually applaud us for being so decisive and bold, removing a real threat to all, and the Arab world would realize no one messes with us and finally behave, and the Persians in Iran (they're not Arabs) would rise up and overthrow their leaders who got them into the whole mess and got them irradiated. Stranger things have happened. But people are still alarmed. The administration can argue that even if all that happens, we had to do what we had to do, and the price, even world war, was worth it. That's more comforting?

It seems the administration does recognize the idea of war with Iran - massive bombing to take out their nuclear faculties, and the matching airstrikes to take out their air defenses (their air force, ground radar and antiaircraft missiles), and the necessary airstrikes to take out their command, control and communications centers - even without the nukes could seem a bit counterproductive.

So we get this, Thursday, April 20 - "US intelligence chief John Negroponte said Iran's resumption of uranium enrichment is "troublesome" but the country is still years away from having enough fissile material to make a nuclear weapon."

That should get people to relax, unless it part of a sucker-punch. You never know.

But then, we will not talk with Iran, one-on-one. Yes, the Republican head of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Richard Lugar, has said we should. We do have a State Department that does such things. But not any longer. We ask the UN to talk, and the European nations. We sit back and wait for them to fail. What's up with that?

Kevin Drum over at the Washington Monthly has some ideas here. As typical of what's on the net these days, he digs up old stuff and puts two and two together.

First, back in 2003, six days after that "Mission Accomplished" business on the deck of the aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego, he recalls that the Associated Press reported without elaboration that Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman had confirmed that "Iran has exchanged messages with U.S. officials about Iraq through the Swiss Embassy, which represents U.S. interests in Tehran. He declined to give details."

But no one was thinking of Iran back then, right?

Then, from January of this year, he finds, from Flynt Leverett, who worked for Condoleezza Rice when she was the National Security Advisor, before she moved over to State, this -
In the spring of 2003, shortly before I left government, the Iranian Foreign Ministry sent Washington a detailed proposal for comprehensive negotiations to resolve bilateral differences. The document acknowledged that Iran would have to address concerns about its weapons programs and support for anti-Israeli terrorist organizations. It was presented as having support from all major players in Iran's power structure, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A conversation I had shortly after leaving the government with a senior conservative Iranian official strongly suggested that this was the case. Unfortunately, the administration's response was to complain that the Swiss diplomats who passed the document from Tehran to Washington were out of line.
Third, a month later in Newsday, he finds this -
The fax was one of a series of informal soundings that emanated from Tehran in the months after the United States invasion of Iraq. Iran's envoys to Sweden and Britain also began sending signals that the regime was ready to negotiate a deal, according to a former Western diplomat closely familiar with the messages. Iran was sending messages through other back-channels as well, according to Paul Pillar, who served as the CIA's national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005.

... "No one at a senior level was willing to push Iran on diplomacy," said Leverett. "Was there at least a chance that we could have gotten something going? Yes, there was a chance."
And fourth, three weeks ago there was this -
Realists, led by Powell and his Deputy Richard Armitage, were inclined to respond positively to the Iranian offer. Nevertheless, within a few days of its receipt, the State Department had rebuked the Swiss ambassador for having passed on the offer.

Exactly how the decision was made is not known. "As with many of these issues of national security decision-making, there are no fingerprints," [Lawrence] Wilkerson told IPS. "But I would guess Dick Cheney with the blessing of George W. Bush."

As Wilkerson observes, however, the mysterious death of what became known among Iran specialists as Iran's "grand bargain" initiative was a result of the administration's inability to agree on a policy toward Tehran.

A draft National Security Policy Directive (NSPD) on Iran calling for diplomatic engagement had been in the process of interagency coordination for more than a year, according to a source who asks to remain unidentified.

But it was impossible to get formal agreement on the NSPD, the source recalls, because officials in Cheney's office and in Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith's Office of Special Plans wanted a policy of regime change and kept trying to amend it.
What's that all add up to? The Iranians want to talk and work things out. We don't. For three years we've refused, or Cheney and Feith have, and it doesn't really matter what Iran does or doesn't do - the objective is not to stop their nuclear program at all, but to remove their government. So the whole "realist" thing, working with another nation to figure out a way so both sides get some of what they want and no one looks foolish or weak, sometimes called diplomacy, is not what we do.

Drum - "With that as background, here's my suggestion: quit letting Cheney's crackpots run foreign policy and talk to Iran. After all, the administration's ideologues killed an opportunity to ratchet down tensions three years ago, and since then things have only gotten worse: Iran has elected a wingnut president, they've made progress on nuclear enrichment, gained considerable influence in Iraq, and increased their global economic leverage as oil supplies have gotten tighter. So why blow another chance? If the talks fail, then they fail. But what possible reason can there be to refuse to even discuss things with Iran - unless you're trying to leave no alternative to war?"


So is this "capitalism gone mad," as Ritter would have it - a new war is necessary to feed the beast? Or is this a Cheney thing - he has a theory of how to deal with the world, and a small team to back him up, and a simple-minded, easily-manipulated figurehead president he can push around, so we just don't do that girly-men diplomacy crap but rather remove the governments around the world that bother us and get something more pliant in their place?

Or is it political, as on Thursday, April 20, there was new polling - "President Bush's job approval rating slipped this week and stands at a new low of 33 percent approve, down from 36 percent two weeks ago and 39 percent in mid-March." And that was the Fox News poll.

People always rally around the president in times of war. Maybe that's the last resort here, a war.

And what to make of Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan speechwriter, who now writes for the Wall Street Journal, saying things like this -
The presidency can break you - we've seen it break presidents - and [Bush] does not intend to be broken. But one senses he fears to bend because if he bends, he breaks.

The odd thing is sometimes the bravest thing is to question yourself, question the wisdom around you, reach out, tolerate a hellacious argument, or series of arguments. Yes there is a feeling of safety in decisiveness, but if it's the wrong decision, the safety doesn't last. And safety isn't the point in any case. Governing well is. That involves arguments. It means considering you may be wrong about some things. This isn't weak - it's humble. It's not breaking, it's bending, tacking, steadying yourself in a wind.

... Inside the White House they say, "We think big." Maybe. But maybe they're not thinking. They say, "We're bold." But maybe they're just unknowing, which is not the same thing. The bold weigh the price and pay it, get the lay of the land and move within it. The dreamy just spurt along on emotions.
Yipes. The political climate is not nice these days.

How bad? People are worrying about the next thirty-three months, like Greg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher saying here that "no matter which party they generally favor or political stripes they wear" we all need to confront the fact that "America faces a crisis almost without equal in recent decades."


Here's the idea -
Our president, in a time of war, terrorism and nuclear intrigue, will likely remain in office for another 33 months, with crushingly low approval ratings that are still inching lower. Facing a similar problem, voters had a chance to quickly toss Jimmy Carter out of office, and did so. With a similar lengthy period left on his White House lease, Richard Nixon quit, facing impeachment. Neither outcome is at hand this time.

The alarm should be bi-partisan. Many Republicans fear their president's image as a bumbler will hurt their party for years. The rest may fret about the almost certain paralysis within the administration, or a reversal of certain favorite policies. A Gallup poll this week revealed that 44% of Republicans want some or all troops brought home from Iraq. Do they really believe that their president will do that any time soon, if ever? In any case, a Fox News poll this week shows his approval rating sinking to 33%, with grassroots Republicans abandoning Bush in droves.

Democrats, meanwhile, cross their fingers that Bush doesn't do something really stupid -- i.e. nuke Iran -- while they try to win control of at least one house in Congress by doing nothing yet somehow earning (they hope) the anti-Bush vote.

Meanwhile, a severely weakened president retains, and has shown he is willing to use, all of his commander-in-chief authority, and then some.
Oh. That.

Well, yes, that may be why Republicans want some high-level staff changes at the White House, but then Mitchell points out the Democrats have no incentive to wish anything changes. That's their ticket to getting the House and Senate back.

But the changes are cosmetic and of course the Democrats are saying little and doing less.

Now what do we have?

A mess -
... let's assume, as Nixon might put it, that we will have George Bush to kick around for another almost-three-years. How worried should we be about the possible damage he might inflict - and what can the press do about it?

Consider Thomas Friedman's column in The New York Times today, and its implications.

Friedman, who still supports the Iraq war, opens by declaring that given a choice between a nuclear Iran and an attack on that country engineered by the White House, he would choose the former. That's how little he trusts the diplomatic and military chops of Bush, Rumsfeld, Condi and Co. He cites "the level of incompetence that the Bush team has displayed in Iraq, and its refusal to acknowledge any mistakes or remove those who made them."

But then he goes on: "I look at the Bush national security officials much the way I look at drunken drivers. I just want to take away their foreign policy driver's licenses for the next three years. Sorry, boys and girls, you have to stay home now -- or take a taxi. ... You will not be driving alone. Not with my car."

The problem - the crisis - is that Bush and Co. likely WILL be driving the "car" for 33 more months.

Friedman knows this: "If ours were a parliamentary democracy, the entire Bush team would be out of office by now, and deservedly so. ... But ours is not a parliamentary system, and while some may feel as if this administration's over, it isn't. So what to do? We can't just take a foreign policy timeout."
Friedman has his suggestions. Dump Rumsfeld. Talk with Iran. Get some new players at the White House, not the same guys at different desks.

Mitchell says this backs away from "the scary wider view." It "leaves hanging the reality of Bush continuing to serve as Master and Commander of the Iraq war and all other foreign policy into 2009."

Yep, it does. What to do?

Mitchell has no idea, "although all pleas for serious probes, journalistic or official, of the many alleged White House misdeeds should be heeded." He just thinks its time to say we really do have a crisis and starting some sort of national dialogue about "exploring ways to confront it" might be a good idea.

But then these are alarmists.

Maybe everything is fine. That would be either the optimist's view, or that of the delusional - it hardly matters which. What's the problem?

Then again, maybe there's nothing that can be done, as our system is set up the way it is, and those in power will remain there for a few more years, no matter what anyone thinks, doing whatever they wish with no opposition, as the nominal opposition finds it useful to let them sink. That would be the cynic's view, or that of the coldly realistic - we will nuke Iran and what happens after that just happens. One deals with it.

And two influential journalists say something should be done, but the first offers what is really minor and probably what will not ever happen anyway, and the second says he has no idea what should be done, but we all ought to talk.

And Scott Ritter is angry again.

And that's the report. Where do you fall?

Posted by Alan at 23:29 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 21 April 2006 06:20 PDT home

America and China
Topic: Announcements

America and China

President Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao met in Washington on Thursday, April 20, 2006. It didn't go that well.

The details, with six appropriate photographs, have been posted at the other Just Above Sunset web log, here.

Posted by Alan at 19:35 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink

Wednesday, 19 April 2006
Perspective: Making Much of News of Superficial Changes
Topic: Reality-Based Woes

Perspective: Making Much of News of Superficial Changes

Sometimes it's just hard to comment on the major political story of the day, when the big news Wednesday, April 19th, was just not very interesting. It was "more of the same," as the Los Angeles Times account opened with this succinct sentence - "President Bush on Wednesday reduced the official role that Karl Rove, his chief political strategist, will play in setting policy, and he accepted the resignation of spokesman Scott McClellan, in the latest moves aimed at reinvigorating his presidency and recovering from low public approval ratings."


Oil prices hit a record high, again, Iraq is a mess and doesn't yet have a government, we may be about to launch a preemptive nuclear war on Iran, and there was this. It's for political junkies, "inside baseball" stuff. The new chief of staff at the White House, Joshua Bolten, replacing the earnest and utterly forgettable Andrew Card, is going to "energize an administration that has been beset by a lack of progress on a number of second-term initiatives and has left Republicans nervous about losing control of Congress."


Yep, get rid of the press flak, McClellan, who since June of 2003 had the job of saying as little as possible, defending what had been done or not done, when he himself was kept out of the loop. Best he not know too much. He might say the wrong thing. He's been with the president since 1999 back in Texas, an old friend used up and sent on his way. On television he looked relieved. He's worked for Bush since he was thirty, and maybe now he gets to have a life. Seven years of humiliation, pretending he could explain what he was never really told, takes its toll. He seems like a nice fellow. It wasn't hard to feel good for him. The job is a miserable one when, in this case, it was to say as little as possible to a press corps that wanted to know as much as possible. Some change is good.

As for Karl Rove, he "will no longer have direct operational responsibility over White House policy decision-making." After the last election he had been elevated - he decided what the policies should be, as he had a finely tuned political sensibility. He knew what could be sold to America. Maybe it was Social Security reform that did him in (no one wanted that), or his advice on how to handle things when Hurricane Katrina hit (stay away). Who knows? Now his sole job will be political strategy - on the taxpayers' dime he needs to make sure the Republicans don't lost control of the House or the Senate, or both, this November. Your tax dollars at work, buying dirty tricks.

The Times explains -
Rove has been the master strategist for Bush's four consecutive victories in his races for governor of Texas and the presidency. He is known by the president variously as "the architect," for his role in plotting Bush's stunning electoral success, "boy wonder" for his political acumen, and "turd blossom," a teasing reference to the flower that blooms from Texas cow pies and to Rove's ability to turn messy situations into political triumphs.
Yeah, well, there are reports he advised Silvio Berlusconi this spring, but that didn't go so well - "Italy's highest court yesterday cleared the way for Romano Prodi, the centre-left leader, to take over as prime minister by confirming his victory in last week's hotly disputed general election." Where's Justice Scalia when you need him? Rove is having a run of bad luck. Making him a fulltime political strategist may not be the best thing.

But this is all tinkering with insiders. No one new is coming in. This administration doesn't do change. People change offices and get new business cards.

This nugget is interesting -
A former White House official who talked recently with Bolten said the moves resulted from Bolten's view that he needed to address three serious problems facing Bush: Deteriorating press coverage, souring relations with Congress and increasingly uncomfortable interactions between the White House and GOP political candidates nationwide. The former official asked not to be identified because of concern the White House might not appreciate his comments during a difficult time.
Why? That seems to be the assessment. The current troika is committed to their policies - preemptive war, regime change in nations that are troublesome, massive tax cuts for the wealthy, fighting back those who would protect the environment and all the rest. The problem, as they see it, is all this has been marketed poorly, so we get a new marketing team.

What do you do when no one buys your product? If you have no other product in the pipeline, and you just can't see how anyone would be so stupid as to refuse to buy what you're selling, you change the marketing team a little, using existing staff of course. The president has an MBA and they don't call him the "CEO President" for nothing. Cynics may call this "putting lipstick on the pig" but the idea seems to be that you can sell anyone anything with clever marketing. That is objectively just not true. Remember the New Coke? The Edsel? But you have to admire their faith in the power of "message control" and banners and speeches. Expect an ad blitz.

There's more here from Time Magazine, explaining "what's behind the White House shuffling," as if it matters. They say McClellan's predecessor, Ari Fleischer, told them the departure was "a selfless recognition by McClellan of the importance of change." Fleischer - "The American people are going to give the President a second look here in his sixth year because he's engineering these changes. That's helpful. He needs the country to give him a second look."

No, it's too late.

And the guy who takes over the Karl Rove task of direct operational responsibility over White House policy decision-making? The job they took away from Rove?

Time explains who that is -
In a second announcement that hit like an earthquake internally, the White House said that wunderkind Joel Kaplan will be Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy, taking over some day-to-day non-political turf that once had been the province of his now-fellow Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove, who retains the title of senior adviser.

... Kaplan, the new third Deputy Chief of Staff, was Bolten's deputy in the policy shop in Austin during the President's first national campaign, worked in the Chief of Staff's office when Bolten was one of the two deputies in the first term, and was most recently his deputy at the Office of Management and Budget. Kaplan, who has two Harvard degrees, was an artillery officer in the Marine Corps and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, was scheduled to return today from his honeymoon.
Scalia? How odd. One gets the feeling the new marketing team is the old one, with more energy as they've not been ground down quite as much.

This is the big story - more of the same thing, with new guys who are just like the old guys, but who haven't been beat up for the last six years. It's not much of a story.

There may be more to it, if you like rumors. You might want to glace at this - "Has Rove's Security Clearance Been Revoked?" The idea is he cannot do policy stuff anymore because he doesn't have clearance, or soon will not have clearance. That happens when you're involved in revealing the name of a secret government agent to "get" your political opponents, or seem to be. The law is clear.

And Wednesday there was this - "I'm hearing rumors that Fitz met with the Valerie Plame grand jury this morning. and Rove was the topic of discussion." Will Patrick Fitzgerald indict Rove this week? That would explain a lot. But this is just rumor.

As for the new policy guy, Joel Kaplan, who won't be indicted, there's this -
The man Bush tapped to fill Karl Rove's spot as his policy wizard is none other than Joel Kaplan, who took part in the infamous "Brooks Brothers riot" of 2000. That's when a bunch of Washington GOP operatives, posing as outraged Floridians, waved fists, chanted "Stop the fraud!" and pounded windows in an effort to intimidate officials engaged in the Florida recount effort.

In George Bush's Washington, there's no shame in staging a fake protest to undermine a democratic election, apparently: last year, the Washington Post's Al Kamen noted that "the "rioters" proudly note their participation on resumes and in interviews." Kaplan was even the one to cheekily dub the fracas the "Brooks Brothers Riot."
Same tune, second verse.

Howard Fineman sums it up here - "White House rearranges the deck chairs, but policy course stays the same."

The core of that? This -
Bush has become a one-man holding action.

Some officials were upset when the president said that it would be up to his successor to decide when to end America's military involvement in Iraq. At least one of them told me that Bush hadn't meant to say such a thing, and didn't mean what he seemed to be saying. But it's true: He's not leaving Iraq anytime soon, or even winding the war down dramatically. Yes, there are generals who think we never should have gone there, or that the way we went was horribly botched. But that's not enough to make Bush willing to pull the plug, or even fire Donald Rumsfeld. On Iraq, in poker terms, Bush is doubling down.

Nor is he likely to make wholesale changes in his foreign policy and defense team. Bolten can rearrange the deck chairs all he wants to on domestic and economic policy. But the Axis of Believers - Cheney-Rummy-Rove-Condi - remains. The more the media and its band of Republican allies complain, the more dug in Bush will become. He's as stubborn as Slim Pickens in "Dr. Strangelove": He'd rather ride Rummy to Armageddon than seem to concede that Iraq was a botched project.

Reining in runaway federal spending is on the Bush to-do list. But it isn't going to happen on his watch. He's unlikely to hit even his graded-on-a-curve target of cutting the annual deficit in half by the end of his second term. "Domestic discretionary" spending is flat, true, but everything else is through the roof: defense, of course, but also a list of entitlements recently expanded to include the president's expensive new prescription drug-benefit program.

Albeit gingerly, Bush has blamed Congress. But he doesn't dare get too nasty. After all, his own Republican Party has been in charge of the teller window throughout his presidency. And the GOP is unlikely to put a clamp on spending in the run-up to midterm congressional elections.

Sen. John McCain hates earmarks, and rightfully so. They are an abuse of process. But the GOP is trailing in generic congressional polls by huge margins. They are as far behind as the Democrats were in 1994, when Newt Gingrich led his rebels over the wall and into the citadel.

In House and Senate races, many Republicans will be left with only one argument: Don't you love the federal dollars I bring you?

And, by the way, remember Social Security reform? That was going to be the big one, the big domestic initiative of the second term. It went nowhere. A president with a job-approval rating in the 30s can't do much - certainly not revamp the most costly and crucial social welfare program on the planet.

Finally, Iran: a nightmare waiting to happen. I'm not a global intel guy, but the people I know and trust tell me that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the real deal; that is, a real menace - and not just to Israel, but to our other major client/partners/sort-of-friends in the region, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon.

But the president is hemmed in; his erstwhile British buddy, Prime Minister Tony Blair, preventively has said "count me out" of any military action.
When you're hemmed in? Improve marketing.

As for riding Rummy to Armageddon, this is curious, Tim Russert on MSNBC's Imus show saying this -
Well, I knew something was happening when I had John Murtha on several months ago and he talked about his plan for a timetable. And I got several calls from people at the Pentagon and others and they said, "You know Murtha's right." And I was stunned because you don't usually get those kinds of calls. They were obviously people who would not allow me to broadcast their names. And then it continued with General Zinni who came on "Meet the Press" and said that Secretary Rumsfeld should resign. So the last couple of weeks, as I talked to people, one former general said we have the equivalent of a civil war going on at the Pentagon. The generals are trying to reclaim control of the war because they do believe serious mistakes were made. That's a very serious statement. And then, someone very close to the President said to me, you know, he won't fire Rumsfeld because it would be the equivalent of firing himself. He can't acknowledge that it was such a big mistake, in so many ways. And so Rumsfeld will stay. And that's the decision that the President has made and I think Rumsfeld will stay and try to see this through.
The link has the video of that. The president can't fire Rumsfeld "because it would be the equivalent of firing himself."

So we need better marketing. Rumsfeld is right. Bush is doing all the right things. Sell that.

The problem is, of course, the counter-marketing, somewhat reality-based.

An example might be this week's issue of Rolling Stone, the one with the drawing of George Bush on the cover, in a dunce cap in the corner, illustrating the cover story by the historian Sean Wilentz of Princeton - The Worst President in History?

That opens with this -
George W. Bush's presidency appears headed for colossal historical disgrace. Barring a cataclysmic event on the order of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, after which the public might rally around the White House once again, there seems to be little the administration can do to avoid being ranked on the lowest tier of U.S. presidents. And that may be the best-case scenario. Many historians are now wondering whether Bush, in fact, will be remembered as the very worst president in all of American history.

From time to time, after hours, I kick back with my colleagues at Princeton to argue idly about which president really was the worst of them all. For years, these perennial debates have largely focused on the same handful of chief executives whom national polls of historians, from across the ideological and political spectrum, routinely cite as the bottom of the presidential barrel. Was the lousiest James Buchanan, who, confronted with Southern secession in 1860, dithered to a degree that, as his most recent biographer has said, probably amounted to disloyalty - and who handed to his successor, Abraham Lincoln, a nation already torn asunder? Was it Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, who actively sided with former Confederates and undermined Reconstruction? What about the amiably incompetent Warren G. Harding, whose administration was fabulously corrupt? Or, though he has his defenders, Herbert Hoover, who tried some reforms but remained imprisoned in his own outmoded individualist ethic and collapsed under the weight of the stock-market crash of 1929 and the Depression's onset? The younger historians always put in a word for Richard M. Nixon, the only American president forced to resign from office.

Now, though, George W. Bush is in serious contention for the title of worst ever. In early 2004, an informal survey of 415 historians conducted by the nonpartisan History News Network found that eighty-one percent considered the Bush administration a "failure." Among those who called Bush a success, many gave the president high marks only for his ability to mobilize public support and get Congress to go along with what one historian called the administration's "pursuit of disastrous policies." In fact, roughly one in ten of those who called Bush a success was being facetious, rating him only as the best president since Bill Clinton - a category in which Bush is the only contestant.

The lopsided decision of historians should give everyone pause. Contrary to popular stereotypes, historians are generally a cautious bunch. We assess the past from widely divergent points of view and are deeply concerned about being viewed as fair and accurate by our colleagues. When we make historical judgments, we are acting not as voters or even pundits, but as scholars who must evaluate all the evidence, good, bad or indifferent.
And the extremely long and devastating argument follows. The answer is yes. Worst ever.

As for this showdown with Iran, see William Beeman, a professor of Middle East studies at Brown University, here -
Indeed, the danger in this situation could be dismissed if there were other leaders in power. However, in both nations the leadership needs this conflict. President Bush and the Republican Party face defeat in November without an issue to galvanize the voting public behind their assertion that they are best able to protect the United States from attack - the only point on which they have outscored Democrats in recent polls. President Ahmadinejad also needs public support for his domestic political agenda - an agenda that is paradoxically opposed by a large number of the ruling clerics in Iran. Every time he makes a defiant assertion against the United States, the public rallies behind him.

This creates what political scientist Richard Cottam termed a "spiral conflict" in which both parties escalate each other's extreme positions to new heights. It is entirely possible that Iran could goad President Bush into a disastrous military action, and that action would result in an equally disastrous Iranian reaction.
Ah, eggheads. What do they know?

Here's more -
Thirteen of the nation's most prominent physicists have written a letter to President Bush, calling U.S. plans to reportedly use nuclear weapons against Iran "gravely irresponsible" and warning that such action would have "disastrous consequences for the security of the United States and the world."

The physicists include five Nobel laureates, a recipient of the National Medal of Science and three past presidents of the American Physical Society, the nation's preeminent professional society for physicists.

Their letter was prompted by recent articles in the Washington Post, New Yorker and other publications that one of the options being considered by Pentagon planners and the White House in a military confrontation with Iran includes the use of nuclear bunker busters against underground facilities. These reports were neither confirmed nor denied by White House and Pentagon officials.
Who are these guys?

– Philip Anderson, professor of physics at Princeton University and Nobel Laureate in Physics
– Michael Fisher, professor of physics at the Institute for Physical Science and Technology, University of Maryland and Wolf Laureate in Physics
– David Gross, professor of theoretical physics and director of the Kavli Institute of Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Nobel Laureate in Physics
– Jorge Hirsch, professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego
– Leo Kadanoff, professor of physics and mathematics at the University of Chicago and recipient of the National Medal of Science
– Joel Lebowitz, professor of mathematics and physics, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey and Boltzmann Medalist
– Anthony Leggett, professor of physics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Nobel Laureate, Physics
– Eugen Merzbacher, professor of physics, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and former president, American Physical Society
– Douglas Osheroff, professor of physics and applied physics, Stanford University and Nobel Laureate, Physics
– Andrew Sessler, former director of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and former president, American Physical Society
– George Trilling, professor of physics, University of California, Berkeley, and former president, American Physical Society
– Frank Wilczek, professor of physics, MIT and Nobel Laureate, Physics
– Edward Witten, professor of physics, Institute for Advanced Study and Fields Medalist.

Meanwhile they're rearranging the deck chairs at the White House, as Fineman puts it. Saw the movie and loved the computer-generated iceberg. Impressive.

Or there's the other metaphor - the guys just reassigned to marketing are "putting lipstick on this pig," hoping we'll think this one, and all the others, are real babes.

No change, really. The big news story of the week just wasn't that interesting.

Posted by Alan at 22:39 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 19 April 2006 22:41 PDT home

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