Saturday, June 14, 2008

The tragically premature death of Tim Russert

Portrait of a Perfectly Perplexed Pundit
Tim Russert, 1950-2008, RIP

I originally uploaded this screen capture to Flickr after the Ohio primary under the title "Portrait of a Perfectly Perplexed Pundit," and it was part of one of my many wrangles with Tim Russert. Now that he has died far too young, I treasure this image, because it goes to the heart of what I think about the man.

Tim Russert was seen very differently by different people. Inside the Beltway, the Washington insiders recalled him as a powerful player, honest, dedicated and diligent in his pursuit of the truth. A political junkie who had worked for two of the most respected centrist Democratic politicians of their time, Pat Moynihan and Mario Cuomo. A bright, hard-working man who loved his family, believed in his country, and worked his way up to the pinnacle of media power from his working class origins in Buffalo, and who never forgot where he came from or what he owed his dad, Big Russ.

In the left blogosphere, there was polite concern for his family -- and an amazing amount of vitriol. Recalling the respectful, unquestioning audiences he gave Dick Cheney, many saw him as a propagandist for the Iraq war and a tool of the administration. Some held him personally accountable for the war, arguing that he was more responsible than any other single individual, which struck me as naive in the extreme -- if he hadn't been there, NBC would have found another cheerleader in the runup to the war.

My views were somewhere in the middle, I suppose. And I miss him the way you miss someone you always liked to argue with who is suddenly gone. I think he really was a straight arrow, and a mean, hard and cynical time is terribly hard on a straight arrow who rises from humble roots and achieves the American Dream, in this case success in the Washington media establishment. He was raised to respect legitimate authority and love the U.S. The U.S. he loved was not a country that tortured prisoners, suspended habeus corpus and waged unprovoked aggressive war based on a tissue of lies. And then he found himself serving the ends of an administration that tortured prisoners, suspended habeus corpus and waged unprovoked aggressive war based on a tissue of lies. I think he was aware of the contradictions, and the effect was corrosive.

During the Scooter Libby trial, he had to endure an entire nation hearing testimony about how he had been used by the administration and how they viewed him as nothing more than a useful tool. As the war went from bad to worse, and more and more of the lies were exposed, he must have wondered about the role he had played in helping facilitate the tragic fiasco.

That's why I treasure this image now in a very different sense from when I put it up on Flickr. I think it shows a perplexity that surfaced more and more during the last years of his life. I think he was starting to question why everything was going wrong and why so much of what he believed in had turned so tragically dark.

Our lives are stories whose meaning is determined in large part by how they end. Tim Russert deserved a chance to live long enough to grow from what he seemed to be learning at the time of his death, and to put his hard-won knowledge to better use.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Shamed by the famous words on a bumper sticker, a selfish, aggressive commuter does the right thing

When I'm driving to work, I'm a single-minded commuter who pushes straight ahead and is not, for example, fond of people cutting in just ahead of me to gain a momentary advantage. Within the bounds of safe driving (of course), I'm not going to make it easy for them. Except this morning.

I'm also an inveterate bumper sticker reader. I'm not going to tailgate to read a bumper sticker, but when I have an opportunity to pull up just behind another car in two lanes of traffic to get a better view of a bumper sticker that caught my eye, I always do. What had caught my attention was the word "Evil" in all capital letters. As I drew closer I saw that the headline read, "EVIL THRIVES."

I relaxed into the sort of warm glow you feel when confronted by a familiar, comfortable platitude. It's like slipping into an old shoe. I could see that the bumper sticker was a variant of the old chestnut attributed to Edmund Burke, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." And, sure enough, the words under the headline in smaller type were "when good men do nothing." Just as I was verifying that, I noticed that the other car's tail light was signaling a turn into my lane.

The car was just in front of me in the lane to my left, and already starting to turn (maybe I was in their blind spot). Clearly they had found they were in a turn lane they didn't want to be in, and were determined to get back on course. In a situation like that, when a car is already starting to drift into your lane, you have two options for avoiding a collision, and you have to act quickly: Either pull ahead to get out of the way, or brake to let them in. My normal instinct as a single-minded road warrior is to accelerate and pull safely ahead. In a situation like this, I normally figure it was the other driver's inattentive driving that left them in the wrong lane, and that I had no obligation to help solve their petty little problem.

But I had just been reading the paraphrase of Burke's famous words. Here was a driver in absent-minded distress. Was I going to be one of those good people doing nothing? I hit the brakes. The other driver pulled in as if entitled to the space -- without acknowledging, or probably even noticing, my little gesture. "Jerk," I would normally have thought. But I didn't care. I was a good person who had done something.

Score one for the power of literature. Or at least bumper stickers.

Wingra Park, Madison: If this is what Noah saw, no wonder he built an ark

Prelude to a Storm
What it looked like when the storms were moving in last Saturday -- an eerie silence, and then the deluge. More rain is on the way, supposedly not as much -- but on the other hand, they weren't predicting more than six inches of rain in Madison last weekend either, let alone the even greater downpours elsewhere. We can only hope it's not as bad this time.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Bailing out after the storm

We had more than four inches of rain in Madison Sunday, coming on top of a couple more the day before -- some of which ended up in our basement. But it could have been worse, and for a lot of folks it was -- especially to our west, north and east (maybe that magical phallic ornament aimed at the sky helped after all). Driving east of Madison this morning on Highway 12, there were lakes where I had never seen lakes before, where corn and soybean fields used to be. Coming into Cambridge, there was another one of those lakes between Cruisin' Fried Chicken and Subway. Local fire engines displayed their versatility by pumping water, not into the buildings but away from them, stretching their hoses up over a slight incline and pouring the surplus water into the storm sewers on the other side.

Madison erects giant phallic tower to pierce the cloud cover and ward off the storm gods

Madison Erects Giant Phallic Tower to Ward off Storm Gods
There are many ways to cope with the kind of storms we've been having in Madison. The good citizens of Madison (capably represented by the University of Wisconsin Athletic Department) finally resorted to primitive magic thinking, when they decided to pierce the clouds and erect a giant phallic tower filled with footballs aimed directly at the the stormy heart of the sky. This cutaway photo reveals the giant obelisk at the entrance of Camp Randall Stadium filled with its potent cargo. In an attempt to take the storm gods by surprise, the builders of the tower attempted to disguise it as a mere work of public art and thus harmless, but few observers were fooled. This was an act of hubris aimed at magically stealing the lightning of the storm gods and depriving them of their power. Unfortunately, it didn't work. It rained cats and dogs -- and maybe a few footballs.