Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Rest In Peace

Paul Wolfowitz was one of the chief "neocon" thinkers who promoted the invasion/occupation of Iraq from his post as assistant Secretary of State. After the first Bush term, he took the job (government appointed) as head of the World Bank. His tenure there was brief owing to a conflict of interst problem with his girlfriend, also a high level WB employee.
Now he again has a foot in the White House door as the unpayed head of an advisory committee which deals with arms proliferation. This is a bit like getting civics lessons from Rodney King. I only mention it in hopes that there is another committee out there with the job of getting decision makers to ignore anything which comes from the Wolfowitz crowd.

It's a tough week for Latter Day Saints, Mitt Romney's co-religionists, the Mormons. The Church's president for almost 13 years, Gordon B. Hinckley, passed away Sunday evening. He was 97 years old, so he wasn't cheated from a full life. Happily, he seemed to enjoy good health even in advanced years, and never lost the ability to communicate with church members, a good number of whom he met in his travels all over the world.
Mormons believe that the Church's president receives revelations regarding church matters. This being the case, it is sometimes difficult to separate the message from the messenger. But there can't be any doubt that, from whatever source, the Hinckley years were good ones for the church. Membership grew by almost half, and the Word was spread to countries which had been part of the Communist Bloc and through large areas of Africa. Temples, buildings of great importance to faithful Mormons , were begun and finished in all inhabited continents by the dozen. Other changes, large and small, were undertaken at a pace which seemed to give the lie to the old image of Mormon leaders as hidebound and otherworldly.
President Hinckley naturally grew older through all this, but never seemed too much like an old man. He could sternly emphasize something without seeming to be a nag, he had very little bad to say about other churches, and seemed genuinely concerned about the church's future even when recalling its past. He always seemed happy, and that helped us be happy. He even had a role in making friends for the church through media interviews with Mike Wallace and other newsmen, or serving as a kind of unofficial host of the 2002 Winter Olympics held in and around Salt Lake City.
He wasn't perfect. When he spoke following 9/11 or on war and peace, he seemed over his head. A botched attempt to bring President Bush to the BYU Provo campus last spring became an invitation to Dick Cheney to speak at graduation. The whole affair had to be turned inside out to accommodate the VEEP, whose address was only 15 minutes but, thankfully, not political. Personnel changes, especially at BYU, often seemed heavy-handed. The church's media properties were allowed to move editorially even further to the right.
The church will go on. President Hinckley's successor will be the 7th church president since 1970. Changes will continue, but the church's message and appeal to Americans and those in other countries will persist. The funeral for President Hinckley will be broadcast to meeting houses in about 150 countries in 69 languages. We'll be able to see it (and hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir) in our local building, a five minute drive away. I didn't know him personally, but I heard him give dozens of addresses aimed at members and families all over the world. I didn't like everything he said, but I have to marvel that someone in his nineties could still command such attention and respect for what he stood for TODAY. So, rest in peace, President Hinckley.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

An Unnatural Act

Last week I implied that the Bush administration was less than truthful to the public in the period preceding the Iraq invasion/occupation. Yesterday it was reported that a group had actually sat down to try and put a number on these untruths. I'm not sure how many calculator batteries they burned up, but the final number of "misstatements" was a mind-blowing 935 during a two year period. By any standard, that's a lot of whoppers. Maybe we should see which GOP candidate is first to renounce this great cascade of mendacity. On second thought, don't hold your breath.

In fact, let's talk about something else. In case you were locked in solitary confinement over the weekend, you know the teams are set for the next Super Bowl a week from Sunday. Parties are being planned, TV commercials fine-tuned, bets made and revenue to one and all anticipated. This is where I timidly raise one hand to say what few are brave enough to admit - football is an unnatural act, and I don't much like the NFL, though I consider myself a sports fan.
The human body is designed to do certain things easily. Walking, talking, running (at a reasonable speed on an unobstructed path), even throwing and catching a ball. Football is more like a series of violent collisions, any one of which might land you on the DL (disabled list) for weeks or forever.
The NFL is a good living financially, but the employees, I mean players, have a playing life that's nasty, brutish and short. The average career runs all of four years, and each year the players seem to get bigger, stronger and faster. Something has to give, and that something is human body parts, especially those in the lower body. On days they bring in retired players to wave at the crowds, you see lots of canes.
I'm willing to give the League some credit. They put on some great games. I don't think, however, that the games are somehow more dramatic when they are played in sub-zero weather conditions. No doubt they are more painful, and frozen ground is even less forgiving than the regular turf. But the rules are set up in such a way as to encourage tight games. The outcomes usually depend on the success of just a few prominent names among the hundred odd players taking part.
There is huge gambling interest which the League both profits from and tries to deny has any impact. I don't believe, however, that any games could be successfully fixed without being discovered. They certainly could get the games completed without sexy cheerleaders on the sidelines, but I don't want to be accused of prudery since I'm pretty hip - for an old guy.
There's one more thing in the nature of the game that I dislike. The physical contact increases the tendency to want to "get back" against someone who may have clobbered you on a play. I think this is a trait that's overplayed in the US and spills over into movies, TV, neighborhoods and schools, and even families. It almost as if the Christians were given another chance later in the season to get "payback" against the favored Lions. Maybe every country needs semi-violence of some kind as a kind of national stress reliever, but that doesn't make it good.
Think I'll put my hand down now. Look for it again this time next year.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Honeymoon's Kaput

One of the nicer attributes of Americans in general is their tendency to let new presidents get things going without much objection as a way of collectively saying "Well, we voted for the guy, so let's let him have what he wants until something goes wrong". Journalists even have a name for the phenomenon - It's called the "Honeymoon period." When things get a bit more contentious, someone is bound to announce that "The honeymoon's over."
Two things have happened recently that reveal how little trust remains these days between our major parties and their major players. First, it's customary for Congress to adjourn in December to break for the Holidays.
Not this year.The Democrats are aware that Mr. Bush has taken advantage of this little break to make "recess appointments" of certain people in order to avoid the process of Senate confirmation. John "The 'Stache" Bolton was the most prominent of these, appointed during a Congressional recess as U.N. Ambassador. Since Democrats now control both houses of Congress, the rules were played in such a way that technically there was NO holiday recess at all. In other words, the Democrats felt better about making sure there would be no such appointments than if they had simply asked the president to refrain. No trust.
Have you ever tried to find the Strait of Hormuz on a map? It isn't very large, but it is the primary sea route of Mideast oil to refining facilities all over the world. Traffic there's even a bit tighter now since our hostility towards Iran prompted sending two aircraft carrier groups to the area with a kind of vague mission. You probably heard about the incident with the destroyer beset by what looked like miniature speedboats in a "threatening" manor.
What's surprising this time around is the broad disbelief that the incident went as reported, no doubt aided by the fact that the "facts" about the incident keep changing. We hear the President loudly declare that the incident is proof that the Iranians are bad guys putting in jeopardy the "free" flow of oil.
But the reaction just isn't the same. We've been this way before, and not just with this administration. Since the Strait of Hormuz isn't a sightseeing spot, we are called on to believe what were are being told. But having been misled (that's the kind expression for "lied to") before, we can't help asking questions, even though the answers are again vague. Given the choice of trusting President Bush or Iran's tieless president who's usually described in the media as "crazy", we are slower, much slower, to reach for the key to the gun case again. Given what Bush has told us before, Mr. Tieless may actually be telling the TRUTH. It's a bit like the old saying from the sixties - "Suppose they gave a war and nobody came".
I think there will be other attempts to generate a military standoff with Iran. The goal is (and here's that euphemistic phrase again) "regime change". Thank God there is a regular regime change here taking place week by week as the next election approaches. But gosh knows, the honeymoon's over, or, as the Germans say, kaput.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

As They Really Are

You have all met the type of person who wishes to impress upon you his own superiority with a rant that goes something like this:
Tell you what. I think they should take all a'them politicians and put em in a big ole line. Then you get yerself a big ole automatic weapon, and then you just blah, blah blah.
This isn't wisdom. It's FAKE wisdom, otherwise just called cynicism, the belief that everyone else is corrupt, out to serve only themselves, and just no damned good. Maybe you can tell - I have no use for such people.
In fact, I'll prove they are wrong. Here are the REAL lives of some of our current presidential candidates, almost all of them very impressive people who do the astonishing thing of making their lives, souls and values public in order to be judged by the kind of dopes found everywhere. Just the act of running itself amazes me. Anyway, here they are.
Imagine you serve a certain corporation as an attorney, and today you are in court. You are not only not comfortable, you're sweating bullets and dreading the confrontation to come. Why? Representing the other side is John Edwards, a guy who knows his way around a courtroom so well that he's made himself a multimillionaire by representing humble, voiceless people and beating the hell out of people like YOU. You'd better have your "A" game on today, because you KNOW he will.
How does it come to him? Is there a whiff of undervalued assets coming from the numbers on a balance sheet? Is there something to be understood that no one else notices about an aging factory in a near-forgotten community? Is there some undefinable ability to discern truth from lies in what the current bosses are claiming about this company? To Mitt Romney, this type of decision must be as simple as opening a series of doors and just...looking. Sure, he had a head start on the rest of us, but really, how many of us could amass a fortune of nine figures just by making good decisions?
Sure, it was a long time ago, but John McCain, as a captured fighter pilot in North Vietnam, saw and heard things so scary that the prospect of losing an election just doesn't matter much. He doesn't need your agreement on EVERYTHING, and he knows you can't please everyone every time, but there he is, past seventy, able to laugh at himself a little, trying (with some success) to be the latest Comeback Kid. He will admit that he's something of a Senate hot dog, but that's why you run for president, scars and all.
Ambassador, Cabinet-level official (twice), member of Congress and governor. Bill Richardson has been all these things. In the NBA, your go-to guy is the player who has to get the ball when the other plans haven't worked and someone HAS to score. Time after time, Richardson was Bill Clinton's go-to guy in tight situations during the nineties. Now he wants to be our first Hispanic president.
Hillary Clinton wants you to like her, but she can't be gushy or phony or people will feel she's not "tough enough" for the REAL job in the White House. It isn't really fair, but she's not going to complain or whine. She already has performed the miracle of covering up the fact that she has the skin of a African rhino, and needs it just to live from day to day. She hasn't forgotten working as a lawyer to sustain the family when the governor of Arkansas was paid a secretary's wage, or
the combined forces which she called the "vast right wing conspiracy"trying to tear her life apart at any cost. She has taken some blows that would have buckled the knees of a strong man, but she isn't giving up.
What do you do when your city is so complex, so corrupt and so mistrusted in spite of its worldly power that the prospect of ruin isn't just a prospect? You turn to the Boss, Rudy Giuliani, a man who has already gone mano a mano with the Mafia, and promise that things will be done HIS way. The results? There are some bumpy days, but the city of New York overall can say it was well served by this difficult guy who you think might explode any second, but hasn't yet. Does it seem crazy that Pat Robertson endorsed Giuliani, a man with which he would apparently have nothing in common? Whatchagonnadoaboutit, huh? Rudy, it goes without saying, is a results kind of guy. Don't stand in his way.
And so you have it. What voters have to guess, of course, is what kind of problems are going to be prominent in the next four years, and what kind of candidate will make the best president for those problems? Sometimes, thank God, we choose well. No one could have expected Lincoln would have been the leader he was. Sometimes, we choose poorly, as with Harding/Coolidge, who had no idea they were heading the world toward the Great Depression.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Caucus Night

Happy New Year. If I was a mean-spirited, partisan old guy, this would be the ideal spot for a "10 Worst Blah, Blah of the Bush Administration" or something along that line. Maybe I should save that for 1/09, but there's something looming out there which screams for attention. It's the Iowa Caucus. Unlike the great majority of pundit wannabes out there, I have actually attended the caucus more than once, and can describe how it works.
You may have already determined that way too few people there get way too much attention for way too little. I wouldn't quibble that it's not a great number of people. Iowa is just short of 3 million people, and each major party will draw 100,000 plus to these caucuses, held all over the state in churches, schools, bars and even private homes in the country. We're talking about a quarter million people total, a ridiculously small number to start the election cycle, but there it is.
Some things you would never think of have an effect on caucus attendence. First, there's the weather. No question it'll be cold in early January, but HOW cold? Below zero starts to hurt attendence. Ditto if there's a statewide basketball broadcast that night. This year's complicating factor is that the date of the caucus (1/3) is so early that many college students won't be back from their holiday vacations, and so many a plea for young voters will have been simply wasted, because this is one thing you have to show up for - no write ins, on-line signups or rain checks. Ya gotta be there in person.
The caucus starts by electing a chairman and counting attendence, which is important, as you will see. There may be a chance for short speeches on behalf of candidates. A local candidate, usually seeking a spot in the state legislature, may stop by, and there may be a plea for funds. There is time alloted for platform proposals, but that comes AFTER the choice of county delegates who represent the candidates themselves. The crowd splits into candidate preference groups. You must have 15% to be considered "viable". I was once part of a group of 50 or so John Glenn fans on a night we needed about 80 to be viable. When that happens, you can take offers from other groups, combine with another group (including "undecided"), or simply dissolve and go your separate ways to groups representing your your 2nd choice. Most of the Glenn group ended that night (in '84) with Walter Mondale, the eventual nominee.
Odd things can happen when you're trying to pump up your numbers. Four years ago I found myself working on behalf of Kerry (they had asked, and were well-organized), and when we broke into groups I noted that we could get half of our precinct's delegates (a great result that night) by adding just a few more people. I went in search of non-viable stragglers and finally happened upon what should have been a good-sized group, the Dick Gephardt bunch. I'm not sure just what had gone wrong, but the loads of guys in those funny satin labor union jackets just weren't there. I scooped up a handful of them like last night's trash and succeeded in my goal of half the delegates from our 100-person caucus. I didn't know it at the time, but the same thing had happened all over the state, and Gephardt, the guy who had almost been Speaker of the House, was gone from the race the next morning. I guarantee you have not heard his name since then.
Don't confuse Caucus Night with seeing the Grand Canyon or the Playoffs in Yankee Stadium. It isn't scenic or really dramatic, but no question it is fun. Would it be worth moving back to Iowa? Maybe not, but I'm glad to have been a part of it in the 30 odd years we lived in the Hawkeye State.