Saturday, September 30, 2006

The lightweight president with the jiggly legs

A long time ago, in what seems to be another life, back before the trauma of 9/11 and long before the Iraq war fiasco, a Grownup -- an experienced vice president and former senator -- was running for president against the Kid -- an obvious lightweight, a political neophyte with no apparent qualifications for the highest office in the land. The Grownup was originally the favorite, actually won the popular vote, but after the chaos of Florida, with a little nudge from the Supreme Court, the Kid became president.

Utterly lacking in gravitas, how could he lead the most powerful nation in the world? Not to worry. The consensus seemed to be that he had a competent, experienced team of grownups who could take care of things -- Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, etc.

But I used to wonder, what if the grownups disagree? In the aftermath of 9/11, much of the nation seemed to project onto the Kid a completely unearned aura of leadership. It was like a gravitas transplant. But my question never went away. What happens if the advisors disagree? What inner resources would the Kid draw on to lead the nation if all his people were pulling in different directions?

With Bob Woodward's "State of Denial" I finally got my answer.
There were "surreal" meetings where Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former Secretary of State Colin Powell refused to look at each other while making their presentations to a fidgety President, Woodward writes.

Powell and Rumsfeld were like "bulls" who "staked out their ground, almost snorting defiantly, hoofs pawing the table, daring a challenge that never came," Woodward wrote. "And the President, whose legs often jiggled under the table, did not force a discussion."
How would the Kid lead a divided administration while thousands died? Now we know. George Bush wouldn't lead. He would abdicate.

Friday, September 29, 2006

You know things are bad when the court stenographer starts to bite the hand that has been feeding him

Bob Woodward's two previous books about the Bush administration helped contribute to the perception of Bushco as tough, decisive terror warriors. Now, not so much.
The White House ignored an urgent warning in September 2003 from a top Iraq adviser who said that thousands of additional American troops were desperately needed to quell the insurgency there, according to a new book by Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporter and author. The book describes a White House riven by dysfunction and division over the war.

The warning is described in “State of Denial,” scheduled for publication on Monday by Simon & Schuster. The book says President Bush’s top advisers were often at odds among themselves, and sometimes were barely on speaking terms, but shared a tendency to dismiss as too pessimistic assessments from American commanders and others about the situation in Iraq.
We're ruled by delusional ideologues. Talk about failing your way to success. No wonder they need extraordinary new powers -- which were obligingly granted by their congressional enablers.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Hall of Shame

David Scull for The New York Times

Shame! The attempt to interject some semblance of human rights into the war on terror ended tonight, not with a bang, but a whimper. Democrats produced eloquent speeches but no filibuster. These three senators (McCain, Warner, Graham) preened proudly after brokering this sellout to an out-of-control Executive Branch.

Is waterboarding an acceptable form of interrogation? Sixty-five senators voted to let the president decide. Should policymakers responsible for war crimes pursued in the course of the war on terror be held accountable? No, voted 65 senators. Is habeas corpus for people we don't like an archaic, legalistic luxury we can no longer afford? Get rid of it, voted 65 senators.

The law itself is depressing enough. Even more distressing is the idea that the U.S. Senate would vote to trade away human rights as an election year dirty trick -- pass a law abridging human rights just so you can attack its opponents as unpatriotic.

Just to make sure nobody would miss the point, George Bush rounded out the day by calling the Democratic Party the "cut and run" party.

Here's the Hall of Shame roll call in favor of the bill. Read it and weep.
YEAs ---65

Alexander (R-TN)
Allard (R-CO)
Allen (R-VA)
Bennett (R-UT)
Bond (R-MO)
Brownback (R-KS)
Bunning (R-KY)
Burns (R-MT)
Burr (R-NC)
Carper (D-DE)
Chambliss (R-GA)
Coburn (R-OK)
Cochran (R-MS)
Coleman (R-MN)
Collins (R-ME)
Cornyn (R-TX)
Craig (R-ID)
Crapo (R-ID)
DeMint (R-SC)
DeWine (R-OH)
Dole (R-NC)
Domenici (R-NM)
Ensign (R-NV)
Enzi (R-WY)
Frist (R-TN)
Graham (R-SC)
Grassley (R-IA)
Gregg (R-NH)
Hagel (R-NE)
Hatch (R-UT)
Hutchison (R-TX)
Inhofe (R-OK)
Isakson (R-GA)
Johnson (D-SD)
Kyl (R-AZ)
Landrieu (D-LA)
Lautenberg (D-NJ)
Lieberman (D-CT)
Lott (R-MS)
Lugar (R-IN)
Martinez (R-FL)
McCain (R-AZ)
McConnell (R-KY)
Menendez (D-NJ)
Murkowski (R-AK)
Nelson (D-FL)
Nelson (D-NE)
Pryor (D-AR)
Roberts (R-KS)
Rockefeller (D-WV)
Salazar (D-CO)
Santorum (R-PA)
Sessions (R-AL)
Shelby (R-AL)
Smith (R-OR)
Specter (R-PA)
Stabenow (D-MI)
Stevens (R-AK)
Sununu (R-NH)
Talent (R-MO)
Thomas (R-WY)
Thune (R-SD)
Vitter (R-LA)
Voinovich (R-OH)
Warner (R-VA)
Some of these senators are arch reactionaries, to use one of the kinder terms. Some are blatant political opportunists. Some are cowards, afraid to vote their convictions under intense political pressure to conform or be labeled un-American or worse.

You decide who's who. And remember. Nobody gets a pass on this one.

Bush Peaks flank Clinton Valley when plotting changes in the cost of health insurance against inflation rate

The New York Times has a tradition of "burying the lede," as journalists say, when the thrust of a story conflicts with their institutional prejudices and preconceptions -- many of which seem to involve Bill Clinton. Here's a great example.

The chart, which almost looks like a mountain range, illustrates how annual changes in the cost of health insurance compare to the inflation rate over time. You might call the "Twin Peaks" Bush I and Bush II. They flank what you could call Clinton Valley. See any difference?


For several years in the middle of Clinton's two terms, medical costs increased at a significantly lower rate than inflation. But you wouldn't know that if you just glanced at the article, online or in print. The online version offers a small graphic that crops out the Clinton years altogether (you have to click on it to load the complete chart, but there's nothing to tell you something is missing). In the print version, the chart is relegated to the end of the story, after the jump.

The difference between the Republican and the Democratic years is striking, and you'd think that it might be worthy of note in the story. You'd be wrong. Here's the actual lede:
The cost of living keeps going up, but the cost of healthy living is going up even faster.

A widely followed national survey reported yesterday that the cost of employee health care coverage rose 7.7 percent this year, more than double the overall inflation rate and well ahead of the increase in the incomes of workers.

The 7.7 percent increase was the lowest since 1999. But the average cost to employees continued an upward trend, reaching $2,973 annually for family coverage out of a total cost of $11,481.

Since 2000, the cost of family coverage has risen 87 percent while consumer prices are up 18 percent and the pay of workers has increased 20 percent, the survey noted. That is without counting the cost of deductibles and other out-of-pocket payments, which have also been rising.
The story continues in this vein but never mentions the difference between the Clinton and the Bush years -- which you have to pick out of the chart for yourself, once you find it. It seems a strange approach. After all, for three years under Clinton, health insurance costs rose less than the inflation rate. That did not happen under either Bush. In addition, the rate of increase during all eight Clinton years was less than the lowest rate of increase under either Bush. You'd think the difference might hold some clues about what Bill Clinton did right and what the Bushes did wrong.

But that line of inquiry would, of course, conflict with the paper's devotion to the conventional wisdom that The Clintons Had A Chance To Fix Health Insurance But Screwed It Up. Be that as it may, the chart makes it clearly apparent that the Clinton administration did a lot more right in the field of health policy than two different Bush administrations, with all their free market gimmicks like Health Savings Accounts and their giveaways to Big Pharma and Big Insurance.

Working people and small business are being eaten alive by the soaring cost of health insurance. So are big employers -- just look at the way health insurance costs have helped wreck the American auto industry.

This should be a big issue for the Democrats. They should speak out, set the record straight, and stop running away from the successes of the Clinton years.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Washington Post Update: What Elephant?

I've blogged several times (see here and here for examples) about the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about -- the unsolved anthrax attacks five years ago, which involved "weaponized" anthrax of domestic origin according to the FBI. The attacks were deadly, frightened the entire nation, and played a bigger role in whipping up war hysteria against Iraq than all that flimsy stuff about nukes and mushroom clouds. And we still don't know what happened. We should be talking about it, but we don't.

Now the Washington Post reports that the FBI has a new guy in charge of the investigation and that it turns out the anthrax was not weaponized after all -- and not domestic in origin, either. In other words, there is no elephant in the room.

BooMan has an excellent discussion and comments.

There's one part of the post's article that especially intrigued me (emphasis added):
As a result, after a very public focus on government scientists as the likely source of the attacks, the FBI is today casting a far wider net, as investigators face the daunting prospect of an almost endless list of possible suspects in scores of countries around the globe.

It all worked so well last time: The anthrax attacks helped tip the balance during the run-up to the Iraq war. Everyone knew Saddam had used chemical weapons in the past. There were hints that the anthrax traced back to Iraq. And Colin Powell told the UN that Iraq had mobile weapon labs making the stuff by the tanker truckload.

So far, the buildup to an attack on Iran has been "deja vu all over again" -- the halfhearted attempt to get UN sanctions, the nuclear fear mongering, and the refusal to rule out the use of force as a "last resort."

Is it just a coincidence that we're once again considering the possibility that the 2001 anthrax attacks were foreign in origin? Will there be another anthrax incident? Will fingers point at Iran?

Can you spell October Surprise? Or more likely, November Surprise? (After Republicans win another Diebold-assisted election?)

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Discrimination against women in science

New York Times resident bloviator John Tierney figures he'll have some fun at the expense of the National Academy of Sciences and Donna Shalala, who chaired their committee on discrimination against women in science and engineering. (Times Select link)
I’ve slogged through enough reports from the National Academy of Sciences to know they’re often not shining examples of the scientific method. But — call me na├»ve — I never thought the academy was cynical enough to publish a political tract like “Beyond Bias and Barriers,” the new report on discrimination against female scientists and engineers.
The actual reportisn't so funny.
For 30 years, the report says, women have earned at least 30 percent of the nation’s doctorates in social and behavioral sciences, and at least 20 percent of the doctorates in life sciences. Yet they appear among full professors in those fields at less than half those levels.
Tierney tries to obscure this reality by summoning prejudice, distortion and a biased selection of anecdotal evidence. Like Larry Summers at Harvard before him, he thinks women are just not interested in science and engineering.
“Wherever you go, you will find females far less likely than males to see what is so fascinating about ohms, carburetors or quarks,” Hausman said. “Reinventing the curriculum will not make me more interested in learning how my dishwasher works.”
Think of the enormous effort that goes into acquiring a doctorate in the hard sciences. So, more than half of these women are really not interested, or just lose interest before getting a faculty job after all that study? Yeah, right.

Serenely, Bush sails on, across a sea of commas

The worse Iraq gets, the more serenely confident George Bush seems to be that it will all turn out fine. What does he know that we don't know? Greg Mitchell in Editor & Publisher:
Amid the Sunday uproar over The New York Times' report on a secret intelligence report labeling the war in Iraq an answer to anti-U.S. terrorists' prayers, CNN aired a portion of an interview with President Bush conducted by Wolf Blitzer earlier in the week.

In a report here at E&P, we observed that in this exchange, Blitzer asked about the latest setbacks in Iraq and indications that civil war may be at hand. Bush, with a slight smile, replied, "Yes, you see — you see it on TV, and that’s the power of an enemy that is willing to kill innocent people. But there’s also an unbelievable will and resiliency by the Iraqi people…. I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma because there is -- my point is, there’s a strong will for democracy."
Strange as it sounds, Bush's "comma" reference seems to have a very specific meaning, according to Ian Welsh in The Agonist.
A lot of people have been slamming Bush for his comment that Iraq is "just a comma". As an e-mail correspondent pointed out, this is another case where Bush is using code words to speak directly to his Christian right base.

The phrase is: "Never put a period where God has put a comma." Which is to say - it ain't over yet, and God may well make it better. So Iraq's bad, but if we trust in God, he'll make it better.
It's what Welsh calls "dog whistle politics" -- talking to the base in code only they hear, while the rest of us just think it's another bizarre "Bushism."

In other words, Bush's weird sense of serenity as everything goes to hell around him is based on the knowledge that Iraq isn't a period, it's just a comma. In God's plan, it's all going to turn out great and Bush is going to go down in history (for posterity, if not for today's whiners and negative thinkers) as a great president because he has the guts to go ahead and finish the job by overthrowing those crazy, terroristic mullahs in Iran and finally reshaping the entire Middle East. Once we have the new Iranian government in place, everything will be fine and today's little unpleasantness in Iraq will just be a distant memory.

And when would that be? In the Huffington Post, Gary Hart predicts an attack on Iran will be the "October Surprise" that takes place before the November election.

I doubt it. Starting another war just before the election sounds too risky (for the Republicans). It might work. But it also might not. They're not going to do anything that risks losing control of Congress. Besides, if you're trying to win an election, why use bombers when Diebold voting machines are perfectly capable of doing the job?

No need for an "October Surprise" -- Bush knows there's no hurry. He can easily wait a bit, give the UN stuff a little more time to play itself out, and then launch the cruise missiles.

Prepare for a "November Surprise" instead -- a few weeks after the election. Give the new Congress a fait accompli to think about, and what will probably be an ongoing war by the time they take office in January.

Bush knows everything will be fine. He's working his way through the commas and approaching the end of the sentence. He's the democracy-bringer, and he's doing God's will.

Monday, September 25, 2006

"Lewis Lapham and Sidney Blumenthal really, really dislike George W. Bush."

That's the snide, sarcastic deck copy that runs under the title, "Taking Aim," of Jennifer Senior's review of the collected columns of the two men (Lapham's Pretensions to Empire and Blumenthal's How Bush Rules) in the print version of the New York Times Sunday Book Review -- as if such antipathy were laughable on its face.

The "really, really" crack is dropped from the online version of the review, but just so you don't miss the point, the table of contents states, "George W. Bush, like his predecessor, has an impressive gift for bringing out the yawping worst in those who disagree with him."

Who's really doing the "yawping" around here?

Senior's main criticism of both writers' collected works of opinion seems to be that they're not objective enough. Seems an odd way to critique works of opinion. She also thinks they're not funny enough.
It’s hard to trust a narrator who only and always assumes the worst. There’s a story Blumenthal tells about George W. Bush’s private tour of the brand-new Clinton library in Little Rock, during which the president apparently told his guide, “A submarine could take this place out.” (The structure juts out over the Arkansas River.) The observation sends Blumenthal into a reverie: “Was this a wishful paranoid fantasy of ubiquitous terrorism destroying Clinton’s legacy with one blow?” he asks. “Or a projection of menace and messianism, with only Bush grasping the true danger, standing between submerged threat and civilization?” Either is possible. But it’s also possible that the president was making a joke.

The left has often complained that what it needs isn’t polite speech, but voices as pungent as those on the right. Maybe so. But even the angriest people on the right tend to be funny. Books like this one are a depressing reminder of how important it is for writers to have a slight sense of humor about themselves, if they want to be taken at all seriously.
Earth to Jennifer: As you note of Bush, "it's also possible" Blumenthal was making a joke.

I haven't read either collection in its entirety, but I've read and enjoyed many of their columns by both Lewis Lapham and Sidney Blumenthal. The review, by a writer who never really engages the subject matter of the books she is reviewing, seems to be about writers I've never heard of. Both writers offer penetrating, insightful criticism of the Bush administration, which Senior scarcely addresses, preferring to portray them as monomaniacal, humorless cranks.

Second Note from Earth to Jennifer: They're both funny -- unlike those "funny" people on the angry right, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. Lapham has a dry, urbane wit, while Blumenthal leans more toward outright sarcasm when warranted (which seems understandable for somebody who has been the victim of a wingnut character assassination attempt in the form of Matt Drudge's totally unfounded charge of spousal abuse when Blumenthal was in the Clinton administration).

Newsweek has a Jack Nicholson moment

You want the truth? You can't take the truth! -- Jack Nicholson, "A Few Good Men"

Newsweek doesn't seem to think the American people can take the truth. See Attaturk's post at Rising Hegemon, where he contrasts what Newsweek is telling the rest of the world about Afghanistan on its international covers with what Newsweek is feeding the American people. Wouldn't want to upset people, or anything.

Monday Sunrise Blogging: 9/25/06

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Historical footnote to the breast-blogging flame war

The recent breast-blogging flame war (summary and links here) was a real blast from the past -- from a time when women and their breasts were seen as so provocative and seductive a distraction they had to be kept away from men with serious work to do.

Little more than a month after Richard Nixon resigned, Time magazine published a letter to the editor from science fiction writer and visionary Arthur C. Clarke, agreeing with astronaut Mike Collins on an important matter of public policy.
Collins had told Time that women could never be in the space program, since in zero G a woman's breasts would bounce and keep the men from concentrating. Clarke proudly claimed he had already predicted this "problem." In his novel Rendezvous with Rama he had written, "Some women, Commander Norton had decided long ago, should not be allowed aboard ship: weightlessness did things to their breasts that were too damn distracting."
A certain blogging law professor would have been in her twenties back when NASA suffered from its hang-up about breasts. The space program has moved on since then. Too bad she hasn't.

Note: The passage appears in Julie Phillips' memorable biography of Alice B. Sheldon a.k.a. James Tiptree, Jr. (pages 330-331).