Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Torture Light

For a number of years, I have felt that two issues should predominate in any political debate. In no order, they have been: How are we doing in the department of getting and keeping peace? and How are we doing at keeping the economy running smoothly? Your answers to these two questions, I have felt, should determine your vote, whether to vote change or no change.
I'm not sure why, but now I seem to be rethinking these two criteria. The first question assumes that peace is even possible. As I look over the past 40 years or so, it's starting to look more and more like a period of continuous conflict. When we're not at war, someone, you can be sure, is clamoring for it, almost always those with little or no personal stake in actual combat. Perhaps future historians will be more inclined to label the peaceful periods between wars as a way of marking different time epochs.
As for our economy, well, cycles happen, and nothing has kept them from recurring every few years, though we've thus far avoided anything like The Great Depression for over 70 years. That doesn't mean it couldn't happen again. But the cycles themselves seem less connected to political ideology, and more simply to overreaching greed, a temptation we'll never lose.
If we can't change these two great determinants of our lives' quality, then what are the small changes left for us to make in order to measure progress?
I believe right now that we should renounce torture in all its forms, by us or anyone else performing nasty things on our behalf, as a way of showing the world that we have not sunk to the level of past empires, hanging on to their top spot in desperation. Some things, we tell our children, are always wrong, and we are correct. My generation (at least a part of it) rose up vocally and took a modest risk to oppose the War in Vietnam. That, I believe, was correct.
We now have our turn at wielding authority, but cannot quite get ourselves to renounce things we have known to be barbaric and cruel for a century or more. A judge described as "principled" is nominated as Attorney General, then, safely in office, is sickened by torture, though not enough to renounce his powerful employer (the President) and give up a spot in the Cabinet. The soon to be Republican nominee, a one-time victim of torture in North Vietnam, makes a faustian bargain whereby prisoners scream in pain somewhere under the authority of the CIA, but it's all legal and the "base is secured" politically when he is seen as "strong" enough to do The USA's dirty work, personal or religious convictions notwithstanding. Those most anxious to identify themselves as "Christians" are first in line with their support, because they had had their doubts - about McCain, not about torture.
The civilized world looks on, and cannot decide - should they be repulsed at this course taken by the world's self-appointed moral leader or relieved that someone is willing to take on the fanatic Muslims on their own terms?
The more complex the situation seems, the easier it gets to make decisions that just seem to be part of the context of war. But I am sickened by it. The torture light is still green, and the grim orders come from members of my generation, who were supposed to have learned better, but, in the American tradition, seem to have no historical memory at all. Trouble is, the folks on the other side have a tradition, too. They don't forget anything.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

McCain the Candidate

If you had bet on John McCain as the GOP presidential candidate last year at this time, you would have received VERY good odds. But McCain beat the odds, and some formidable opponents, despite a lack of money, a moribund staff and what looked like a case of bad burnout. Now he basks as the presumed nominee, though the hardest part of being elected is yet to come.
At some point you could normally expect the candidate to start reaching to the middle of the electorate and give uncommitted voters, who tend to gather in the center of the political spectrum, some reasons to come your way. I think that day will still come, but McCain's got work in his own party's back yard first.
It's called (in Karl Rovian terms) "solidifying the base", which means you can't go after any "I"s or "D"s until all the "R"s are all rounded up and put safely in the corral. This year it won't be easy, not only because McCain used to be thought of as less orthodox than most GOP faithful, but also because the base itself has taken a licking seldom seen, as the Bush crowd's approval ratings did a face plant from the 80's to the current 30 or so.
Here's what McCain must do. First, he's been mending fences with the sometimes ferocious religious Right. In 2000 he referred to the Falwell/Robertson types as "agents of intolerance". Not so now. Falwell died and Robertson tied his wagon to what turned out to be a dud star (Giuliani), but McCain has the endorsement of Rev. John Hagee, a hate-spewing, Israel -defending, human caricature who would like us to attack Iran TODAY. McCain also has Rod Parsley on his side, with credentials similar to Hagee's AND an Ohio base that could prove handy in that battleground state. Parsley says we're "at war with Islam", though McCain may not go quite that far.
The moment of McCain showing a small candle opposing torture is gone, blown away by presidential politics. He's now on board for those popular "advanced interrogation techniques" which never seem to be defined, at least not by the Attorney General, Roberto, I mean, Bob Mukasey. Don't listen for the word "torture" to pass McCain's lips again.
The last three elections have featured plenty of fear mongering by the GOP. Last week McCain , in reply to a question, gave an answer Cheney would have been proud of: Big John's worried that Al Qaeda may try to influence the election by attacking as the election draws near. This is masterful because it shows 1. He knows what Al Qaeda's thinking, 2. That Al Qaeda wants a
Democrat in the White House, and 3. It's not too early to be scared. Brilliant!
Of course, not every moment is magic. McCain had to be reminded yesterday that Al Qaeda troops could not have been trained in Iran, because they (A.Q.) are 100% Sunni, and therefore about as popular in Shi'ite Iran as anthrax. Well, my friends, you can't win 'em all.
We may never find out what kind of president McCain would be. But running the country and campaigning to run the country are two very different things.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Hypocrite Hall of Fame

I admit it. Writing about hypocrisy is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. Sins of a hypocritical nature have been with us since we began as a species. The Bible records that Lot (Abraham's nephew) , a reasonably good man in his own right, nevertheless "pitched his tent toward Sodom", probably in an effort to get better TV reception of the racy programs of those pre-cable days. In other words, we're not really talking about anything new here.
Still, the news this week brings notice of a level of hypocrisy only achievable in New York, where Governor Eliot Spitzer (former state Attorney General!) is resigning his office over the discovery of his practice of hiring some very expensive female companions. Money laundering may be involved as well. If the Governor didn't think he'd ever be caught, then it's a sad commentary on American Society as a whole. Maybe it's also true that love (or lust) makes you stupid. Too bad. From the Democratic view, he's a person who "coulda been a contenda" for even higher office.
As I say, hypocrisy is as old and as common as humanity. But a few individuals take the level of their sins to a point which makes them eligible for the (unfortunately non-existent) Hypocrite Hall of Fame. Here are a few other nominees. For the purpose of making this piece shorter, let's just concentrate on American sinners of the past few years:
Senator David Vitter - Outspoken Republican from the swingin' state of Louisiana who's a champion of chidren and women, but also a sometime client of a Washington-based madame. He's still in office.
Mark Foley - Former well-connected GOP Florida congressman, a champion of the House's teenage pages. Turns out he was fond of the pages in the wrong way, and is no longer in Congress, though higher-up House Republicans were sorry to see him and his rich donors go.
Rev. Ted Haggard - A candidate for the religious wing of the Hall of Fame, he was exposed as gay even while decrying the sin as being against biblical principles. He's still in rehab.
Senator Larry Craig - Republican of Idaho, Senator Craig had strong words opposing everything ever attempted by Bill Clinton. He pled guilty to what amounts to soliciting gay sex in a Minneapolis airport mens' room. He's serving out his term.
Rudy Giuliani - Rudy was never much of a family guy. He's on his third marriage and has children who emphatically declined to support him in his run for the GOP presidential nomination. Nevertheless, he had the Rev. Pat Robertson's endorsement.
Newt Gingerich - Big opponent of Bill Clinton on moral grounds. Former Speaker of the House. Dumped his first wife while she was still in the hospital following cancer surgery. Dumped wife #2 as well.
John McCain - The GOP presumptive nominee for president. Dumped wife #1 (who had waited for his release from a North Vietnamese prison) after she suffered injury in a traffic accident. Married the current younger and much richer Mrs. McCain ONE month later.

No party, not surprisingly, has a monopoly here. But if forced to name one individual as The King of hypocrisy, my nod would go to the late Senator Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina. The Senator, as a member of different parties, opposed every piece of legislation designed to help the lives of black Americans during a career of elected office that went about 70 years. He lived to age 100, finally passing away earlier this decade. His crowning piece of hypocrisy was that he had fathered, by a domestic household servant, an illegitimate black daughter as a young man, a woman who lived a modest, though contributing life as a teacher. She only made known her status after Thurmond's passing. She was by then in her seventies.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Good Stories

A few weeks ago I wrote about aging, hinting at some of the dangers. I wouldn't recant any of that, but the older folks also have an advantage or two going for them as life goes from afternoon to twilight. Collecting and swapping stories is a huge one.
Naturally, it's better when you share more with the person hearing the story. As a lifelong Hawkeye guy, my stories of great Hawkeye moments of the past wouldn't do much for those whose expertise is Wolverines, Cyclones or (around here) Lumberjacks. The same is true for other aspects of life. Movie fans need other movie fans to get the most from quoting a decades-old movie line. I just can't fully appreciate stories of pheasant hunting, short wave radios, auto repair or alcoholic concoctions because I just don't have the background.
Should all Americans have a taste for a good political yarn? My tendency is to say they should, since we all live in the same politics-soaked atmosphere of a US election year. But sadly, it just isn't so, and it's sometimes a fine line that separates good stories from booorrriiinggg. You have to know the audience.
I'm a political guy. A junky? That's not a nice term, but if you can name all the winners AND losers going back 100 years in presidential elections, maybe you qualify. Gosh knows I wouldn't be writing this blog AT ALL without a more than normal political fixation.
It's a little like wine experts who go nuts for particular vintages and can't be kept from telling you WHY - even if you didn't ask. Ask me about the 1972 election. Thanks for asking. On the surface it seems like a pretty straight Republican blowout - until you look a little closer and notice that Nixon didn't seem to even care that Congress stayed Democratic. He didn't care much about or for Congress. But he cared about his own reelection so much that he was willing to overreach to gain unfair advantage. Hence, 1972 contains the seeds of what grew into the Watergate scandal, a fascinating (and looonng) story itself.
Do I hear other years? 1980? That's the year from which we get the term "October Surprise". The story still has plenty of unanswered questions. 1996? Bill Clinton cruises to victory, but underneath the surface are plans to bring down his entire administration. They almost succeed.
1964? Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats manage to put Barry Goldwater in a corner from which he cannot emerge, and his party is swamped by a tsunami of fearmongering. And so forth.
What do these things, I hear you grumbling, have to do with ME? Hey, look deep enough and you can tell how every election has its impact on ALL our lives. But there's something else going on. 2008, I believe, is shaping up as one of those years that the junkies just love to recall. The characters are compelling, the story line unpredictable, the stakes, as usual, huge.
Keep track of what happens with things like the Superdelegates on the Democratic side, and the handling of the botched primaries in Michigan and Florida, also a Democratic hornet's nest. See if McCain's need for money softens his scruples a bit. And how desperate will the TV ads get, and why. If your children grow up to care, they are going to love getting the answers from you - especially if you know how to tell them.