October 24th, 2005

Announcing the New Bush Administration “Piece of Work” Awards

by Philip Baruth

VDB would like to announce a coveted new award, limited to those either in the Bush adminstration or the extended Bush family. The Vermont Daily Briefing “Piece of Work” Awards (VDB/POW!) will be awarded on a semi-regular basis to administration types exhibiting semi-consciousness in their public statements or actions. The award is memorialized in an 18-karat gold statuette of former-First Lady Barbara Bush, barbara bushwho set the standard for once and future POW! recipients with her remarks to reporters during her trip to the crowded Houston Astrodome following Hurricane Katrina. Asked about the plight of the hurricane’s victims, Barbara was refreshingly upbeat: “So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this — this is working very well for them.”

Bravo, former-First Lady Barbara Bush. You are — by any standard — truly a Piece of Work.

October 24th, 2005

The New Rove Spin

by Philip Baruth

The Times reports on the new Rove spin, designed to soften his image in advance of indictment:

“But even as White House officials and Republicans say that Mr. Rove is human and that the leak investigation has taken an enormous toll on his family, they also insist that everyone is focused on the work at hand, and that Mr. Rove is good at compartmentalizing his life.”

I love the fact that the very first thing they need to sell the world on is that the guy is, in fact, human.

October 23rd, 2005

What, My Ethics Aren’t Lax Enough?

by Philip Baruth

So I just learned that the pharmaceutical lobby commissioned a novelist to write a thriller in which terrorists use — yes, indeed — cheap imported Canadian drugs to poison unwitting Americans. Damn! What a sweet idea:

“In a tale worthy of a zany Washington satire - except for the lamentable fact that it’s true - the rich and powerful pharmaceutical lobby secretly commissioned a thriller novel whose aim was to scare the living daylights out of folks who might want to buy cheap drugs from Canada.

Work began in April, after [publishers] hired veteran ghostwriter Julie Chrystyn. Her story concerned a Croatian terrorist cell that uses Canadian Web sites to murder millions of unwitting Americans looking for cut-rate pharmaceuticals.”

The article goes on to connect the dots, which are huge enough to need little connecting, and to demonstrate the level of literary expertise at work here:

“PhRMA [the drug lobby] has vigorously fought all efforts to legalize the purchase of cheap drugs from Canada. Even though the lobby has found some success, the underground business still takes an estimated $1 billion in annual profits from American drug behemoths.

Chrystyn titled her thriller-in-progress ‘The Spivak Conspiracy,’ an homage to her friend Kenin Spivak, an L.A. telecomm entrepreneur and onetime Hollywood exec.

Spivak said he became Chrystyn’s co-writer after she delivered the first 50 pages, and PhRMA made several editorial suggestions.

‘They said they wanted it somewhat dumbed down for women, with a lot more fluff in it, and more about the wife of the head Croatian terrorist, who is a former Miss Mexico,’ Spivak told me.”

You can read the whole article here. I, for one, find myself outraged: Who, may I ask, is Julie Chrystyn, and why did she get the nod?

I don’t want to brag, but I like to think that in the fiction world, I’m fairly well-known for second-rate plot and lax ethical standards. I’m not saying that the drug kingpins should have come immediately to me, but what about a chance to underbid and/or demonstrate a lower level of integrity than Miss High-and-Mighty Julie Chrystyn?

Believe me, if the job had come my way, no one would have had to “dumb it down” after the fact. It’d be dumb as all hell, from the get-go.

This is all particularly annoying because when the project was scuttled, the drug boys offered the Stupendous Miss Julie Chrystyn $100,000 to keep the whole doomed idea quiet. Clearly, since I just linked up every VDB reader with the skinny, JC didn’t do such a hot job of keeping her generously lipsticked Hollywood yap closed.

So let me just put it out there: Pfizer, where’s the love? Work with VDB next time, and I promise you this — you’ll get a page-turner you can be proud of, one that will give Americans night-sweats at the thought of cheap Canadian prescription drugs.

And if not, I melt away like an October frost. No investigations, no indictments, no news stories — just the competence and professionalism you expect in a fake novelist. Word is bond.

October 21st, 2005

Winning in 2006

by Philip Baruth

Faced with their own increasingly apparent corruption, cronyism, and incompetence, the national Republican party has adopted a unified talking point: yes, we’re horrible, but the Democrats certainly aren’t offering anything better.

Faced with this unified talking point on the Right, many thoughtful and chin-pulling Democrats have taken to writing strategy-pieces offering a milder version of the same wisdom: yes, Republicans are horrible, but Democrats shouldn’t revel too much in their misery, and must come out with a Contract-With-America-style compendium of legislation in order to retake the House or the Senate or both.

As you might have guessed by this point, I think all of this is so much malarkey.

Let’s take Bush’s Social Security Privitization scheme, as a targeted case in point. Bush’s strategy was to talk down the current system, and propose private accounts in their place — with those over 55 grandfatheredbush, hands up through with the old system. The idea was that with Bush’s idea floated, Democrats would then be enticed to the table, where they would offer some patchwork of private accounts and payroll tax hikes. Then, in conference, Republicans would gut any Democratic ideas, and Bush would sign something much like his own original plan.

Except that Democrats refused — entirely — to come to the table. Drop privitization, they said, and then we’ll come break bread. Bush flew angrily around the country, and swore in some 60 cities that Democrats would pay a “political price” for failing to offer their own proposal. Republicans called them “do-nothing” critics. In the end, Bush stood on principle, as did the Democrats. And what was the result? Bush’s numbers on Social Security sank like a stone; the Republican Congress’s numbers on the issue dropped likewise. Social Security privitization is now a bad memory, and voters prefer the idea of a Democratic congress in 2006 by a margin of 9%.

And it was in fact the Democrats’ lack of policy input that allowed the “debate” to consist entirely of bad Republican policy, which the media relentlessly exposed for what it was — a radical rewriting of the system that wouldn’t even begin to address the far-flung financial problems.

So is it enough simply to point out that the leaders of both houses of Congress are manifestly corrupt? That the war in Iraq is a boondoggle, with 2,000 American dead to its credit? That the Bush White House is under threat of indictment, and that cronyism now clearly runs from FEMA to the US Supreme Court? That all Congress can muster the energy to do is protect gun manufacturers and credit-card companies from harm, and build the occasional bridge to nowhere?

In a word, yes. That’s enough.

Not that Democrats shouldn’t or won’t talk policy during the upcoming midterms elections — of course they will and should. The bankruptcy legislation should be overhauled; the minimum wage, and the wages for Gulf Coast workers, raised; FEMA should be stripped out of the DHS; prescription drug benefits should be made more affordable for both the country and the average American by mandating that Medicare/Medicaid negotiate price with drug companies, or import cheaper versions. And so on.

But there’s an old principle in politics: when your opponent is taking a beating, stay the hell out of the way.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m glad that Democrats nationwide are cooling their jets just a bit. No one likes an early victory celebration, and certainly not voters who’ve yet to go to the polls. But allowing the discussion to segue so quickly from Tom Delay’s indictment to the way that Democrats have purportedly failed somehow in nationalizing their agenda strikes me as exactly the sort of self-victimization for which the Left has become famous. We’ll take back Congress in 2006 because the Republican Party has betrayed the idea of the balanced budget; because their corruption is manifest and runs both deep and wide; but also because they’ve made themselves a party that demonizes and hinders science and research, which should leave an opening for the Democratic party to re-court the support of high-tech industry, even as it moves to answer the pressing needs of working-class Americans facing mandatory cuts in health care, or living without housing on the Gulf Coast.

In short, we don’t need a Contract with America. Republicans already had one, and they broke it. Pointing that out should be job #1 throughout the coming year.

October 20th, 2005

Scott McClellan: The “Bite Me” Dialogues

by Philip Baruth

How difficult it must be, to keep a world spinning when its orbit is so clearly in decay. Here is Scott McClellan answering questions about a report in the New York Daily News which suggested that Bush knew of Rove’s involvement in the Plame leak a long, long time ago. Like two years ago. Like before he told the American people that he didn’t know. And — here’s where it gets interesting — like maybe before he told the Plame investigators that he didn’t know. So reporters were, understandably I think, psyched. Here’s some of the back and forth:

* *

QUESTION: Scott, is it true that the President –

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Welcome back.

QUESTION: Thanks. Is it true that the President slapped Karl Rove upside the head a couple of years ago over the CIA leak?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Are you referring to, what, a New York Daily News report? Two things: One, we’re not commenting on an ongoing investigation; two, and I would challenge the overall accuracy of that news account.

QUESTION: That’s a comment.

QUESTION: Which part of it?

QUESTION: Yes, that is.

QUESTION: Which facts –

SCOTT McCLELLAN: No, I’m just saying — no, I’m just trying to help you all.

QUESTION: So what facts are you challenging?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Again, I’m not going to comment on an ongoing investigation.

QUESTION: You can’t say you’re challenging the facts and then not say which ones you’re challenging.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Yes, I can. I just did.

* *

Of course: the old comment-as-you-swear-you-can’t-comment scam. This exchange was widely reported, for good reason — it makes clear that the White House is deeply wed to a public strategy of snipe-and-cover, and a private strategy of tearing down the facts and the people uncovering those facts. The Special Prosecutor will, of course, be next on the list (he was described as Ahab fanatically seeking the white whale by George Will yesterday). But most people who read the transcript missed the following exchange, way down near the bottom, which casts all of this in an even clearer light:

* *

QUESTION: Scott, at an Oval Office appearance with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski last week, the president was asked about his changing, what seem to some his changing statements on whether he would or would not fire anyone in his administration connected with the leaking of classified information. He originally said —

SCOTT McCLELLAN: The President’s position has remained consistent here.

QUESTION: He originally said that he’d fire anyone who leaked the information, then he said — you know this as well as we do — that he’d fire someone only if they committed a crime.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: That is debatable. But go ahead with the question.

QUESTION: But with the Polish President Bush said, and I’ll go ahead and quote here, he said, “There’s an ongoing investigation and it’s a serious one, and if anyone in my administration is eventually jailed for this — I mean hard time, penitentiary, not minimum-security — then they will no longer work for me, or at least not physically here in the White House. And if people, the media, if people can’t understand that, then they can bite me.” Those were his words last week. Now clearly, there’s a further distancing from the original vow here —

SCOTT McCLELLAN: It’s you in the media who have created this idea of a vow somehow. This is a media-driven urban myth.

QUESTION: But what we’re asking today really — and here we’re hoping you can get us into the President’s head sort of — when he says “They can bite me” there, how literal does that seem to you to be meant?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: The President is a plain-spoken man. I think it’s very clear what he means. John, over there in the back.

QUESTION: Scott, I guess I want to hang on to this “bite me” line. I wondered about that too . . . is there some metaphorical sense here? Or was, do you think the President was really somehow offering, that people could bite him? Actually bite him, like in some primitive way of atoning for some transgression he or Rove might have committed? Or do you think it was more in the sense of, of in say the old Happy Days sit-com, where that one character would say that people could or should “sit on it”? Scott?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Well, there’s an ongoing investigation, and as you know, our policy is not to comment on it. So that’s where we are.

QUESTION: Follow up. Scott, we weren’t talking about Plame per se, the question was on bite-me still. So you can’t just duck behind that line about —

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Plame or bite-me, all of these matters are in the province of the special investigator, Helen. Like I said, I’ll be glad to talk about the investigation once it has come to a conclusion, but until that time –

QUESTION: Scott, the President of Poland, Mr. Kwasniewski, he seemed confused by the exchange. So completely outside of either the Plame or bite-me areas, did the President later have any sort of exchange with his Polish counterpart, going over the metaphorical or literal implications of his comments to reporters? This is purely informational stuff, so if you can’t answer, why can’t you answer when this is a question about what one head of state said to another head of state? If Plame or bite-me is discussed it’s in the public province, isn’t it?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Again, you have my comment on it and I’ll leave it there.

October 19th, 2005

How Low Can They Go? *Wicked* Low

by Philip Baruth

Here’s how badly the nomination of Harriet Miers is faring: not only has the White House been forced to 86 its stealth strategy on abortion and other hot-button issues, it’s been forced to aggressively market Miers not only as a Kool-Aid-drinking right-to-lifer but a standard-issue bigot, as well.

What made Miers attractive to Bush was that she, like Roberts, was willing to play ball but had no record of being on the team. Of course, that proved to be the problem — Miers lacks not simply a record, but training, experience, independence, etc. And conservatives began to push back on the nomination, wicked hard.

bush in slippersHence yesterday’s latest sales-push: among the documents Miers turned in to the Judiciary committee was a 1989 questionnaire in which she promised, if elected to a City Council seat, to “actively” pursue a Constitutional Amendment outlawing abortion, in all cases excluding those threatening the life (not the health) of the mother.

So that’s horrible, I agree with you. That Bush would sell Miers up front as someone who would remove the right to choose, forcing Congress and the country into a melt-down, is callous and self-serving. Of course, it’s really Bush’s only chance here; unless and until the issue is recast as pro-Choice Democrats vs. pro-Life Republicans, Miers will remain merely a dotty crony that Bush happened upon somewhere between the Stairmaster and the Oval office.

But that’s not the lowest of the depths to which these people have sunk. No, not the lowest, not by a good long shot.

The lowest is that Miers and the White House also pointed fairly energetically to her responses to a questionnaire on AIDS. Two snippets from this morning’s LA Times:

“While running successfully for the Dallas City Council, Miers told the Dallas Eagle Forum, another conservative group, that she would not support a local ordinance to force individuals and business owners to accommodate ‘persons with AIDS and those perceived to have AIDS.’”

And this, for the kicker:

“White House aides called attention to the abortion questionnaire — and to a similar one on AIDS — in an apparent effort to shore up the president’s conservative base, which has been waffling over whether Miers is right for the Supreme Court.”

Just read those two paragraphs again, one after the other. They’re truly enough to stop your heart.

Just imagine that you’re the President of the United States of America, in the early years of the 21st century. You need to fill a spot on the Supreme Court, the institution charged with overseeing the interpretation of the Constitution, a document designed to enshrine the rights of all Americans. And your nominee is in trouble, mostly because she has too little experience with the Constitution, and too much experience flakking for you.

So you take the High Road, of course: you point out to the least attractive wing of your party that she’s more or less an anti-gay bigot with a publicly-avowed distaste for AIDS sufferers, just like themselves.

I thought I had seen low, but I realize now that I hadn’t, not really. This is wicked low.

If you strapped yourself into one of those steel submersibles that the Russians use to explore deep-sea hydrothermal vents, and you descended as far below sea-level as it is possible to descend — say, 15,500 feet or so — you’d still implode long before you reached the ill-lighted little strategy room of the White House where they put this latest Miers pitch together.

I make light of it here because that’s my job, but there’s nothing funny about it really. Nothing at all. Bush and his people are in full circle-the-wagons mode, and it will only get uglier, and more self-serving, from here on out.

If you can believe that.

October 18th, 2005

Hey Kids — It’s a Colorado Torture Update!

by Philip Baruth

Having just spent a few days in Denver, I’m prepared to offer some preliminary findings: a lot of people out in Colorado simply cannot believe that Senator Wayne Allard joined eight other Senators in voting against John McCain’s anti-torture bill. I’ll help out with the math here: 9 voting against McCain’s bill means that — you got it — 90 US Senators voted for it, and its mandated limits on the amount of physical and psychological damage that interrogators can inflict in the name of national security. That’s as bipartisan as it gets post-2000, which is to say that McCain has both fostered and revealed a strong consensus in line with traditional American values (such as not inserting IV tubes into detainees and filling their bodies rapidly with fluid for the express purpose of forcing them to urinate on themselves).

Allard, on the other hand, joined Bush and Cheney in a very small, and clearly shrinking, minority. So when you start doing your possible-Senate-takeover math, and you’re figuring KatrinaMichael Brown drowning (Bush currently at 2% with African American voters), gas prices ($3.35 in Denver/Boulder), and the GOPs burgeoning legal troubles (Dick Cheney himself apparently under the lens of the Special Prosecutor), don’t forget that very special wedge issue — to torture, or not to torture. Makes a fairly clean sound-bite, I think.

But lest you think that most GOP-types oppose torture, here are some bits from an email I got this morning from an outfit called the Center for Individual Freedom, one of the many right-wing nut-factories who began sending me email when my Republican cousin Paul sent my name to a Gingrich PAC as a joke. Under the heading “Senators Vote 90-9 to Aid Terrorists,” the email reads in part:

“The GOP-controlled Senate added an amendment to the $440-billion military spending bill that would extend to spies, terrorists, and Islamic jihadists the same rights U.S. citizens enjoy under the Constitution.

In other words, our military interrogators can no longer question suspected suicide bombers and murderers of women and children without the ACLU looking over their shoulder — ready to haul some poor enlisted man into court just because he yelled at a terrorist or hurt a terrorist’s feelings.

This evil, suicidal bill — if implemented — would expose Americans to the greatest danger in the history of our nation: The planting of explosives on our subways. Suicide bombers killing American women and children. Airline hijackings. Assassinations.

Do you realize that not a single terrorist attack has occurred on American soil since 9/11 — despite the dark, dire predictions of the political know-it-alls.”

I’d quote more but that pretty much sums it up: those 90 Senators who voted for that bill, sponsored by that guy who was himself tortured relentlessly for 5 years outside Hanoi, they’re all in favor of suicide bombers killing our wives and children. And this is not just whack-job propaganda. This is the sort of swill that Dick Cheney himself has been peddling on the Hill for months now, in an attempt to stop the McCain bill. One final point — and then I’ll have to stop because I get a rash if I handle these CIF emails too much — and that concerns the fact that we haven’t had a major terrorist attack on US soil for the last 4 years.

Please. There was almost a decade between the first attack on the World Trade Center, which failed, and the second, which succeeded. Go ask Dick Cheney if that can be attributed to Bill Clinton’s relentless efforts to keep America safe. The truth is that Al Queda has a long-term plan, and if it takes them 10 years to inflict thousands of casualties and billions of dollars in losses on America, they’ll take 10 years. Or 20. So the fact that we’ve made it through 5 years of the Bush presidency with only one devastating attack in a major metropolitan area is not really something to crow about.

Neither is voting pro-torture, like Big Wayne Allard.

But if you followed the election results in Colorado last time out, you saw some fairly big wind at the backs of the Democrats out there. And so I’ve added Allard to my list of Those I Will See Humiliated, come some fine election day — Allard, Santorum (now 15 points back with a year to go), Delay. And when Allard loses, I will drive as far as I need to drive in order to find a bar that stocks Coors. I’ll order up one of these Coors, and then I will drink it, and as I do I’ll think about how Ken Salazar beat out empty-suit Pete Coors for Colorado’s other Senate seat in 2004, and I’ll smack my lips with great and robust satisfaction.

October 16th, 2005

Bush’s Brain, My Ass

by Philip Baruth

I’ve been doing some thinking lately about the myth of Karl Rove, aka The Architect, aka Bush’s Brain, etc. I’ve always had a hard time with this legend, in that it seems specifically formed to counterbalance another: the Idiot George Bush, the man who’s too stupid to tie his own shoes. George Bush is one of the most consistently underestimated politicians of the last 100 years, and while he may not know much about philosophy or science or the liberal arts, he is perfectly capable of drafting the blueprints for his own political house. When he referred to Rove as the Architect, it was in front of reporters, and clearly meant to be seen by those reporters as ironic: what irks Bush is not that the world sees him as a bumbling idiot, but that they see him as a bumbling idiot in the world of politics.

But let’s examine the high points of Rove’s post-2000 track record:

1) His candidate, son of an ex-President, in the direct aftermath of the Clinton scandal/impeachment tsunami, can’t put away a Vice President thought of by most Americans as wooden and ethically challenged. Bush has to wrest the election away from Gore in a very, very messy showdown that revealed more about the Supreme Court and the Republican Party than the world wanted to know. So yes, Bush eventually became President, but it’s hard to see how his 2000 campaign was a triumph of strategy; that he found himself locked in a death struggle in Florida marked the weakness of the strategy, in fact.

2) With the resources of the White House at his command (Bush has allowed Rove to mix policy and politics to an unprecedented extent), Rove pointedly does not move his candidate to the political center. Eschewing common wisdom only makes sense when you have uncommon wisdom to put in its place. In this case, Rove’s strategy — to massage the base, and very occasionally throw out a steel tariff here, or a conservative Hispanic justice there — resulted in exactly what you might expect: a sharp division in the country, between the parties, and among Independents. So when 2004 rolls around, Bush finds himself again in front of a television biting his nails, this time over Ohio, where a turnaround of 60,000 votes would have cost him the election.

3) And now we find ourselves in 2005, with Rove testifying ad infinitum before the Grand Jury in the Plame case. I’m sorry, but if you can’t leak effectively and deniably when you’ve been doing it as long as Rove has, you should have your shingle as a spin doctor revoked. Rove and Libby have been systematically discredited, regardless of the state of the Special Prosecutor’s investigation, and no reporter will ever receive their oily information in quite the same way again.

Sure, you can argue that Rove had larger strategies in place (an outreach to Jewish voters after 9/11, linking security here and security in Israel; outreach to African-American voters; to Hispanics, to unions, etc.) that were disrupted by the war in Iraq, but I don’t buy it. When you look at the specifics of each of those outreach campaigns, you come to the same bottom line: Rove and Bush were never offering those traditionally Democratic constituencies anything they really wanted.

And that’s the core of the failure of Bush’s presidency. His move, backed by Rove, is always to sell what he has to sell, whether it’s fresh or foul, whether people want to buy it or not. I waited, in the run-up to the 2004 election, for Bush to move to the Center, that is, to move left: to dedicate a few natural monuments, to champion one more or less Liberal cause. But no. He sold what he had, and tore down everything else. That is the story on Iraq, and most recently, on Social Security: he was selling privitization, and everything else was not worth the paper it was printed on.

Now, as I said above, Bush obviously puts together a lot of his own strategy, based on his own long experience in the political realm. But it’s Rove who’s responsible for the big picture, the overall blueprint. And this blueprint you’d have to call pigheaded, and doomed either to failure or nail-biting-near-failure.

If an architect built my house, and it leaned right as much as Bush’s and leaked when it rained as much as Bush’s, I wouldn’t just fire the fool, believe me.

I’d sue.

October 14th, 2005

Securing Dick Cheney

by Philip Baruth

Okay, so last Wednesday I’m home cleaning out the refrigerator when the front doorbell rings. Standing there are two guys in dark suits and tinted glasses; both have little curly flesh-colored wires trailing down out of one ear.

Now I’m no idiot, I know Secret Service when I see it. So I ask them in, and it turns out Dick Cheney is coming to Burlington the next day for a rally out at the airport. His guards are planning a high-security bait-and-switch: the media thinks Cheney’s going to fly onto the tarmac tomorrow noon, but for security reasons he’ll be here all along. They’re looking for a secure location in Burlington to stash him until the rally begins.

“Why me,” I ask.

“We understand you’ve upgraded security at your home recently.”

They had me there. For weeks, we’d had a skunk problem: this huge albino skunk had been grubbing in the back yard, just tearing it to pieces every night, and then retreating under our deck when the sun came up. So last weekend I’d made that back porch about as secure as a place gets, boards nailed everywhere and only one little padlocked maintenance hatch up top to get down in there.

So I showed these guys the deck and the hatchway down into the crawlspace, and they seemed satisfied. About four hours after sunset, a big shiny new car pulls up — one of those PT cruisers, the kind that look like they just drove out of a ZZTop video. And sure enough, Dick Cheney gets out and he and the Secret Service guys chat a minute, and then they drive off.

Well, it turns out Cheney isn’t wild about going into the crawlspace right away, so he and I sit down at the table. There’s not much in the fridge, but we finally rip open a bag of Bugles, those little pointy corn snacks, and we get talking about world affairs and such. Finally Dick asks if I mind if he changes into his pajamas and slippers. Mi casa es su casa, I tell him.

Once he’s back at the table, I figure this is probably the only chance I’ll ever have to ask what I’ve always wanted to ask.

“Dick,” I begin.

“Call me Big-time,” he insists.

“How do you know an evil-doer when you see one, Big-time? I mean, you guys just always seem so positive.”

Now, you have to remind yourself all the time when you’re talking to Dick that the little curled lip thing he’s got going has nothing to do with your question. That’s just his face. He narrows an eye at me. “You just know, Phil. cheney shaking his fistBecause there are good-doers and evil-doers, and on the evil-doers there’s a scent of evil, as it were, something that doesn’t require evidence or proof or smoking guns. It’s a feeling, here,” he taps his pee-jays, right above the pacemaker, “a wrongness that some of us can sense.”

He takes another sip of his Sprite and then says, “Better hit the hay. I’ve got a twenty-minute speech to give tomorrow.” Dick chuckles a little, and he slowly shuffles out onto the porch in his slippers.

I turn the back light on while he levers his big body down into the secure crawlspace beneath the deck. I hear him turning in the small space, trying to get comfortable, and I can’t help but think of the albino skunk, out there somewhere in the night, angry and forlorn, with no place now to sleep.

October 12th, 2005

Gollum Eyes the Precious

by Philip Baruth

A follow-up on the post below (”Goodbye to Yellow Brick Road”), in which I suggested — maybe that’s not a strong enough verb — that the Bush administration had dangled some seemingly choice terror threat info in front of Candidate Bloomberg, and then savaged the Mayor after he ran with it. I suggested — okay, insisted — that if ever a terror-alert was constructed for primetime, this was it.

Always nice to get it right.

Today’s NYTIMES has some sweet nuggets:

“The New York Police Department first learned of the possible threat against the city’s subways as far back as Sept. 27, according to law enforcement officials in New York and Washington . . . .

In the end, there was no attack, there were no bombs hidden in baby strollers, and now there are serious questions about the quality of the intelligence that drove the investigation, and the city’s reaction.

Not surprising, then, the threat, how it washed out, and the timing of its announcement — just over an hour before a mayoral debate in Harlem that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg had already chosen to skip — have combined to raise some concerns among experts on antiterrorism and at least some of Mr. Bloomberg’s political opponents.”

So hmmm, let’s see: A) the “specific” information/threat was allowed to sit for a good many days before any of New York’s Finest snapped into man-the-subways mode, and B) the “specific” threat was released as breaking news only an hour before a debate at the Apollo which Bloomberg had chosen to skip, and only just after a major speech by Bush on foiling domestic terrorist plots. A convenient juxtaposition for the Mayor: here his opponents are jawboning about this, that, and the other thing in Harlem, while Mike is in the Command Center saving the City. And convenient for Bush as well. The only difference is that Bush got a two-fer: he got the breaking news that drove his speech home, and he got to look judicious compared to Bloomberg, whose hand actually pulled the alarm bell.

Another way to look at this flagrant misuse of the terror-alert system, both at the City and Federal levels, maybe the way of the novelist:

Imagine that you’re George Bush, or Karl Rove. If you’re Bush, you grew up in a household where your father was always a candidate, endlessly, and those who opposed him were the enemy. You came to understand elections the way other kids understand soccer tournaments. Bush pathetically waving his armsAnd winning was everything. As you grew in sophistication, you learned that controlling media was the key to elections, but unfortunately even with huge amounts of money, the media was uncontrollable — a problem that worsened with the advent of the 24-hour news cycle.

In Rove’s case, the story is much the same: he dropped out of school to further his career in the Young Republicans. Winning elections was life; controlling message and media was the key.

And suddenly these two men — born and bred to control message and media as a means to victory — these two men in the days following 9/11 get a good look at a very special ring. It sits in a locked room. All you have to do is slip this ring over your finger, and every media outlet in America plays one message, and it happens to be a message that indirectly causes your poll numbers to rise. But the ring is kept locked up, and you can only access it if you have information suggesting an imminent threat to an American city or institution.

This ring would be in the back of your mind forever.

No doubt you would develop a constant stream of threat information — stuff you could dip into at a moment’s notice if need be. How hard would it be, really, with most of the world muttering anti-American slogans? It wouldn’t matter if the information ultimately panned out; it could be a stray comment written in a chat room, or something a detainee shouts just after you pull him off the waterboard. What would matter is that the door to the ring would swing open.

In fact, after a while you might tell yourself that false terror alerts are really on the order of fire drills — they keep the country alert, sharp, vigilant. The false alarm begets actual security. From there it’s only a stone’s throw to Nixon’s final logic: that ensuring a Republican administration is itself essential to national security, and hence subordinate concerns (like legality, transparency, civil rights) are dispensable. You’d become an ethical shadow of your former self.

But you’d be very, very careful not to get caught, because then your access to the ring might be cut off for good. So you’d no doubt get very creative in your use of it. You might, for example, tempt someone else to use it for their own gain, at a moment when you’d stand to gain as well. And then, once the media has done your bidding, rat the other person out as quickly as possible.

Think of this ring as the Precious. Think of yourself, in short, as Gollum.

Granted, I’m a novelist, but after sitting down with the morning papers today — and seeing that NY got played for fools, played nine ways from Sunday — this reads like realism to me.

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