Tuesday, December 24, 2002

“Worming the Cat”

Election after election, Democrats take a thumping. The latest debacle may have been the most humiliating. And the talking heads offer the same analysis: Democrats need to abandon their far-out liberal views and move to the center—i.e., become more like Republicans. The Democratic Leadership Council was formed with just that intent—to jerk the party to the right, making it more business-friendly and acceptable to corporate fat cats.

So what has that shift to the right done for the party? Let’s see…. It has lost the Presidency. It has lost control of the Senate. It has lost the House of Representatives. In practical terms, it has lost the Supreme Court. Most importantly, however, it has lost its voters. We now have a turnout of only about one-third of eligible voters. Republican participation is up; Democratic turnout is way down. What do the pundits suggest? Move even farther to the right. They’re like the friends who tell you to worm your cat with arsenic. “He’s still not looking too good,” you say. “In fact, he looks worse than he did before.” “You just need to increase the dose,” they say.

Where are the Democrats who care about the bottom 75% of the population? Who will fight for more spending on education and health care? Who will demand a higher minimum wage? Who will oppose tax cuts that benefit the rich and shift the burden to the middle class and poor? Who will strengthen the regulation of Wall Street, and enforce the tougher regulations? Who will oppose unilateral military adventures? Who will campaign for an intelligent peace rather than a stupid war? Who will support Constitutional rights? Who will support human rights rather than dictators? Who not only take those positions, but are passionate about them? Who have a little courage to go with their convictions?

Julian Bond said that “when the shameless compete against the spineless, the shameless always win.” “Always” is an exaggeration. A shameless panderer like Joe Lieberman lost his bid for Vice President, and may have cost Gore the Presidency, but he still has his Senate seat, as well as ambitions to be the 2004 Democratic nominee. Dick Gephardt helped Bush pass the Iraqi resolution in the House, thereby undermining the attempt by Senator Byrd and a few others to delay or limit the war authority it contained. For having thus hamstrung his party, and having led House Democrats to inglorious defeat in the midterm election, Gephardt sees himself as another potential President. Courage is such a rare commodity in the Democratic party that a few of its members have hoped John McCain could be talked into switching parties and running against George Bush.

“How’s your cat?”

“He’s free of worms. Unfortunately, he died.”

© Tony Russell, 2002

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

“Shell Game”

“Hey, Ace!” called my buddy, Bob Spinner, as I was strolling around the Molasses Festival. “Come take a look at this guy. He’s great!”

I pushed my way through the crowd gathered in front of a small stage set up behind the Community Building. The stage was draped with red, white, and blue bunting, and on both sides of the stage were huge American flags, the flagpoles topped with vicious-looking eagles with their talons clutching missiles and bombs. In the center of the stage was a man wearing cowboy garb, standing behind a counter and making his pitch as he whipped three large shells around on the countertop.

“It’s easy,” he shouted. “Everybody’s a winner! Just keep your eye on the pea and tell me where it ended up! You there, sir,” he said, looking right at me, “you have a confident look to you. Come on up here and give it a try. Just plunk down 30% of your income for the next ten years! It’s no gamble at all; you just have to watch this little pea. Nothing to it!”

Bob had shoved his way up behind me, puffing slightly from the exertion. “This is goofy,” I told him. “I don’t want to get up in front of all these people and make a fool of myself. Besides, I might lose. And if I lost 30% of our income, Patty would pitch a fit.”

Bob scoffed. “The guy’s an idiot,” he said. “It’s almost a shame to go up there and take his money. You’ve got a quick eye, and he’s got a slow hand. Go for it!” He grabbed my arm and tugged me toward the stage. “He’ll do it,” he yelled.

I found myself standing in front of the counter, while people in the audience hooted and shouted encouragement. The cowboy smiled at me, but the skin around his eyes never wrinkled. I’d seen the same look on our housecat’s face as it sat immobile, its eyes on a chickadee.

He launched into his patter, starting to slowly shift the shells around. “Just keep your eye on the pea,” he reminded me. “We’re attacking Iraq because a bunch of Saudi Arabians headquartered in Afghanistan flew planes into buildings in the United States.”

“Huh?” I said, bewildered. “Can you go back and make that move again? I lost sight of the pea for a minute.”

“Sorry,” he smirked. “Gotta keep moving on. Maybe you’ll see it again in a minute.” He began to move the shells a little faster. “Saddam Hussein is a vicious dictator, cruel to his own people. He possesses weapons of mass destruction. He’s part of an axis of evil, and good is always at war with evil.”

“Oh come on, get real,” I protested. “There are lousy dictators all over the globe, too many of them allied with and bankrolled by the United States government. In fact, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were both our guys, and we’re the people who supplied Saddam with the materials for his chemical and biological weapons! That’s how we know what he had; we sold it to him!”

The cowboy slapped my hand aside. “Don’t touch those peas,” he warned me.

“But it’s not right to invade another country that isn’t at war with us, hasn’t attacked us, poses no real threat to us, and hasn’t even made a threatening gesture toward us,” I argued. “How in the world can you justify that? That’s the same kind of thing Hitler did with Poland and Czechoslovakia!”

“You just compared me with Hitler,” he said. “Big mistake. Unpatriotic. Overwrought. You’re discredited.” His hands moved faster.

“But I wasn’t talking about you as a person,” I objected. “I just said that invading other countries without justification was the same thing Hitler did. It’s true. How can you argue with that? You compared Saddam to Hitler, and your father compared Noriega to Hitler. In fact, for the past twenty years, every time an administration wants to attack somebody, they begin by demonizing the leader and comparing him with Hitler. It’s part of the public relations campaign to prepare the U.S. public for war!”

He ignored me, continuing to shuffle the shells.

“What about international law? What about the U.N. Charter? What about religious and ethical teaching? What about Congress and the U.S. Constitution? Invading Iraq violates everything we’re supposed to believe and stand for!”

“Glad you mentioned Congress,” he said. “Elections are coming up. I don’t think we’ll have any trouble getting a resolution from that spineless bunch. As for a U.N. resolution, we’ll push one through. But to tell the truth, who cares? They’re irrelevant. We’re still going to attack Iraq.” With that, he lifted one of the shells to reveal the pea; then his hands speeded up again.

“What about the weapons inspectors? What if they don’t find any weapons of mass destruction?”

“Those don’t really matter. We KNOW he has them. If he says he doesn’t, he’s lying and the weapons inspectors are incompetent.”

“If you know he’s lying, why don’t you give your evidence to the weapons inspectors?”

“We’d like to, but that would tip the Iraqis off to our intelligence sources. You’ll have to take our word for it.”

“Not meaning any disrespect,” I said, “but before we launch a war that will probably kill over 10,000 human beings, most of them poor Iraqi civilians, and further burden the U.S. economy with a war bill for over 190 billion dollars, when we say we don’t have enough money for health care and prescription drugs, I think we need something better than your word for it that something’s rotten in Iraq.”

Suddenly he stopped shuffling the shells. “Okay,” he said, “where’s the pea?”

He had taken me by surprise. I just stared at the shells. I didn’t have the slightest idea. Hesitating, I pointed to the one in the middle. Lifting it slowly to stretch out the suspense, he pointed to… nothing. “Sorry,” he said, grinning triumphantly. He lifted the shell on the right; there lay the pea. “You lose,” he said. “It’s war!”

The audience roared with laughter as I stumbled back down the steps. Bob met me at the bottom. “Boy, did he get you,” he chortled. “All the time the pea was whether it was right to go to war, and he got you to talking about one damned thing after another! Congressional resolutions. U.N. resolutions. Regime change. Inspection teams. He got you to where you didn’t know whether you were coming or going!”

“It’s just hard,” I said, “when he’s the one who’s always moving the shells.”

Bob grinned at me. “It’s a carnival,” he said. “What did you expect?”

© Tony Russell, 2002

Thursday, December 12, 2002

“Man Overboard!”

I’ve stuck my foot in my mouth so many times over the years that my wife thinks that’s how I polish my shoes. So I have a strange sympathy for Trent Lott, who, in a rare moment of unguarded honesty, spoke straight from his crooked little heart, and now finds himself a political pariah.

It’s too bad that reaction to Mr. Lott’s remarks honoring Strom Thurmond will focus on Mr. Lott himself, and ignore the whole class of Southern politicians who rode the racist bandwagon throughout their careers, jumping off only when it was clear that segregation was a losing position, and often jumping parties as well. When overt racism lost its respectability, the Republican Party built its southern strategy on covert racism, capitalizing on southern reaction against Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act. The party has succeeded, in the past three decades, in translating what was a solid Democratic bloc into a solid Republican bloc. The political abandonment of open segregation was a mass conversion unparalleled since Constantine’s vision at the Tiber. Like Constantine, they saw what it took to win.

The depth of their conversion has always been an open question. It’s hard not to think back to Jesse Helms’ campaign against Harvey Gant in North Carolina. Trailing in the final weeks, Helms didn’t hesitate to play his old race card. It worked; Helms won going away. Latent racism is an important asset, something this whole class of politicians counts on. The bubba vote knows in its heart that these men are still with them, even if they have to mouth moderate sentiments to maintain respectability. Mr. Lott simply forgot himself, speaking among friends.

My guess as to Lott’s future? I doubt he’ll become the new Majority Leader in January. The Bush team views government as a matter of manipulating public opinion about policy, and four-apologies-and-still-counting into the aftermath of Lott’s remarks, Lott looks less salvageable every day. Bush is trying to enlarge the Republican voter base by attracting suburban white women and Hispanic voters, and the last thing he needs is a reminder that the southern base of the party is still racist at its core. He and his supporters in the Senate will toss Lott overboard faster than an undersized bass when the game warden is walking down the dock.

© Tony Russell, 2002

Thursday, September 26, 2002

“Why We’re Going to War with Iraq”

Sometimes I can’t think my way out of a revolving door. Yesterday was a prime example. I just haven’t been able to understand why we’re hell-bent on attacking Iraq, so I finally asked my buddy Joe Ragland, who’s a pretty good barbershop political scientist. “Joe,” I said, “I just don’t get it. Where’s the justification for invading Iraq?”

“What is it you don’t understand, good buddy?”

“The World Trade Center was destroyed by nineteen guys. Most of them were from Saudi Arabia, right?”


“So we blamed Osama bin Laden and attacked Afghanistan, right?”

“Right again.”

“But we don’t know what happened to bin Laden, whether he’s alive or dead, right?”


“So we have unfinished business with bin Laden. But Iraq didn’t have anything to do with the attack on the World Trade Center, right?”


“Iraq didn’t attack us, has no plans to attack us, and hasn’t threatened us, right?”


“So Bush wants to invade a country that didn’t attack us, has no plans to attack us, and hasn’t threatened us, right?”

“I suppose you could put it that way.”

“Joe,” I said, “does that seem right to you? I mean, isn’t it against the law or something? Hitting back when somebody hits you, sure, anybody would do that. And Saddam Hussein may be a rotten excuse for a human being. But we’ve sent money and guns and CIA agents to prop up the governments of some really despicable characters over the last fifty years. So what gives us the right to just decide we’re going to overthrow the government of another country?”

“Well, Ace,” he said, “I’ll give you this much. It’s true that a unilateral, unprovoked attack on Iraq would violate international law and the United Nations Charter, and be indefensible from a moral and religious standpoint.”

“But I don’t get it! If it’s illegal and immoral, and most of the rest of the civilized world is condemning it, and Congress is getting an overwhelming amount of mail opposing it, why does it sound like a done deal? Like it’s going to happen no matter what anybody says or does?”

“Ace,” he said, “grow up. Look at the facts of life. You can play psychologist and claim Bush wants to do it because his daddy didn’t finish the job. But the real story is that an administration bought, paid for, and staffed by giant energy corporations is slobbering all over itself to storm into Iraq and install a puppet government. Iraq has the second largest known oil reserves on the planet. The big oil companies would do anything to privatize that oil. Plus we’ll build permanent bases there that will allow us to intimidate the whole region. Britain will suck up to us and go along with anything we say because we’ll cut them in on the deal. We’ll buy, bribe, bully, or bulldoze anybody else who objects. You can do that when you’re the five hundred pound gorilla in the house. We’re the world’s only superpower, and if we want to take a walk on the wrong side of the street, who’s going to stop us?”

“But why would Congress and the public go along with something like that? I don’t think most Americans want our country to be the world’s biggest bully, or for our soldiers to die so big oil can get even richer.”

“Of course not,” he said. “So if you’re the administration, that’s not how you play it. You never mention oil. Perish the thought that something as lowdown as greed might be the motive for an invasion. You claim we’re at war, even though we’re not. You keep warning people of attacks that never take place. You keep ranting about “weapons of mass destruction,” as if we didn’t have any. You drape the flag over everything you do, and make it look unpatriotic to oppose the President. You get Congress to roll over and authorize a resolution that lets you do anything you want, and then tell them to fluff off. The Democrats, with the exception of Byrd, couldn’t muster a full backbone between them. It’s a done deal.”

“Joe,” I said, “I can’t believe it’s really that bad. You have to be cynical or sick to think things like that about the leaders of the free world.”

“Ace,” he said, “when they make you think that the only way to be a patriot is to be a sucker and like it, democracy is a memory.”

© Tony Russell, 2002

Monday, August 19, 2002

“Greed and Lead”

It had been a month or so since I’d been in Darrell’s health food store, and I’d been itching to see how his business was doing.

“Howdy, Darrell,” I said. “Got any sesame tahini hidden around here?”

“I’m fresh out,” he declared. “Had a big run on it. But I should be getting some more in on the truck tomorrow.”

“I guess I can wait. So how’s business?” I asked. “Still following the Enron model? All those ‘round trip’ sales to Wendell? Stock options to your auditing firm?”

“Those pikers!” he scoffed. “All they did was get filthy rich. I’ve got my sights set higher than that.”

That took me by surprise. “Just how high do you have in mind, Darrell?”

“The Big Cabin in Washington,” he announced proudly.

“The White House!” I said incredulously. “How in the world do you think you can pull that off?”

“The same way I’ve built this business,” he said. “Study the techniques of the masters, and then put the pedal to the metal.”

“So you’ve been studying …?”

“George W. Bush’s rise in the world.”

“I see. So you’re combining corporate business dealings and politics.”

“You’ve got it. ‘Greed and lead’.”

“What’s your plan?”

“I’m negotiating with a giant food distribution firm to buy me out at three times what this store is worth; they’re also giving me a seat on their Board of Directors and their auditing committee.”

“No offense, Darrell, but why would they want to buy a piddlin’ little outfit like this?”

“Because of my name and my connections, of course!”

“I know folks around here think a lot of your family, Darrell, but once you get beyond Leatherbark and Broomstick, I’m not sure a whole lot of people know who they are.”

“You’d be surprised. Daddy was president of the Back Fork Coonhunters Club for years, and when your daddy is president, it tends to open doors for you.”

“Say that’s true, for argument’s sake. What happens next?”

“Then I get a bargain-basement ‘loan’ from the company that I’ll never repay.
I use that to buy company stock. I sign an agreement that I won’t sell the stock for at least six months, but two months later, knowing that the stock is going to take a nosedive, I sell it at a huge profit, and use that money to buy into the Charleston Alley Cats. Then I get my buddies to maneuver the city into using $150,000,000 of taxpayers’ money to build me a new stadium. Then we sell the Alley Cats for three times what we paid for them to a guy I coincidentally just steered $9,000,000,000 of public assets to. My partners, who are all hardheaded businessmen, insist that, even though my share of the sale should only be $2.3 million, I just have to take $14.9 million. I’ll protest, but what can I do? So I start with nothing, really, and end up a multi-millionaire. Is this a great country or what?”

“That’s really inspiring, Darrell. It just goes to show what someone can do if they’re willing to work hard and play by the rules.”

© Tony Russell, 2002

Saturday, August 17, 2002

“Stormin’ German”

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said today that war with the United States is “inevitable.” “We have undeniable proof that American ruler George Bush possesses weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear and biological weapons, as well as the means to deliver them,” he declared. Schroeder pointed to the belligerent nature of the Bush regime, calling it “a rogue state which poses an immediate threat to its neighbors and the region,” and repeatedly called for “a regime change.”

Germany has long suspected the U.S. of manufacturing weapons of mass destruction in facilities carefully masked from public and international view. Schroeder demanded that the U.S. allow teams of “weapons inspectors” unlimited access at once to sites anywhere in the country where weapons of mass destruction might be manufactured, stored, or concealed. American ruler George Bush denounced this as an intolerable infringement of U.S. sovereignty.

Schroeder went on to accuse the U.S. of long supporting terrorism on a global scale, citing its invasions of Panama, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and numerous other “incursions,” as well as attempts to overthrow democratically elected governments throughout the world, most notably in Chile and Nicaragua, and most recently in Venezuela. A notorious arm of the U.S. secret police, known as the CIA, has conducted clandestine operations involving disinformation, torture, and political assassination on a continent-wide scale. Schroeder also cited Bush’s contempt for and mistreatment of his own people, including Native American minorities concentrated on so-called “reservations” in the western part of the country, and immigrant groups settled in many large cities.

As evidence of the regime’s “rogue status,” he pointed to America’s attempt to scuttle an anti-torture protocol in the United Nations Economic and Social Council because of Bush administration interest in torturing captives it suspects of terrorism. The Bush administration is also attempting to derail an international treaty on the rights of women, and has “unsigned” the treaty creating the International Criminal Court, announcing it has no intention of ever honoring the treaty. Schroeder noted that nearly every other government on the planet has denounced the American action, including not only America’s former allies in Europe, but Canada, Mexico, and Costa Rica, speaking on behalf of most of Latin America.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, in another widely reported speech, declared that “Doing nothing is not an option.” “It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ there will be a war with the U.S.,” he said, “but ‘when.’”

In an attempt to demonstrate that an overthrow of Bush would be welcomed by his own citizens, Germany recently hosted a gathering of representatives from American opposition groups. The meeting was rebuffed by a number of opposition leaders, but included Joseph Lieberman from the Democratic Party, Ralph Nader from the Green Party, Ross Perot from the Reform Party, and other figures such as Jesse Ventura and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Infighting broke out among the group, and it is unclear if any of them commands enough of a following within the U.S. to be installed as leader of the interim government should Germany succeed in deposing Bush.

There is virtually no international support for the German attempt to manufacture a war with the U.S., and Germany would have to both man and fund an invasion of American territory entirely on its own. Even members of the Chancellor’s own Social Democratic Party (SPD) have voiced hesitation over Schroeder’s seeming determination to have a war. They point out that launching an attack against a country that has not committed any aggressive act toward Germany puts Germany in the untenable position of an international bully. They question what the ultimate cost will be for a sustained military offensive and military presence (i.e., occupation) in the U.S., at a time when the German budget is already running heavily in the red. They also question how the Chancellor can drag the country into war when the German constitution details that right to the Bundestag.

© Tony Russell, 2002

Sunday, July 21, 2002

“Me Overweight?”

My annual physical was yesterday. Doc Ramsey just looked at me and shook his head. “Scoop,” he said, “you’re carrying at least double the weight recommended for your height and frame. You should be at 160, and you’re packing almost 350 pounds around. It’s hard on you, and it’s hard on anybody you might run into, too.”

“Doc,” I said, “what’s the problem? I’ve been running the roads with 350, sometimes even 400 pounds, depending on what kind of bedtime snacks I’ve been munching lately. I need the extra weight. My body’s adapted to it; it’s a comfortable weight for me.”

“Don’t try to shit a shitter, Scoop,” he said. “You’ve got cholesterol and triglyceride levels higher than Tiny Tim’s falsetto. Has anybody tried putting you on a diet before?”

I laughed. “Doc, dozens of doctors have given me handouts with diets on them, but I just wadded them up and threw them in the trash. Nobody ever checked back to see how I was doing on their diet; I just figured they weren’t serious about it.”

“Well I’m serious about it,” he said. “Your wife has called at least a dozen times to tell me I need to get on you to cut your weight. I’m tired of picking up the phone and having Patty scream in my ear.”

“You think you’re tired of listening to her,” I said. “Listen, Doc, I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we have a weight-control team evaluate my case and make a recommendation to you?”

“Where are you coming from, Scoop? What good would that do?”

“Just hear me out, Doc,” I said. “It’ll solve everything. I’ve got some buddies at the health care center. You name them to the weight-control team. They take six months to review my medical records; then they recommend a compromise. No more 400 pounds for me; it’s 350 tops. I weigh in once a month at your office. If I go over 350, you take me off beer and potato chips until I’m back under the wire. I’m happy. Patty can’t call and complain, because it’s all official, so you’re happy. It’s a win-win situation.”

He just looked at me. “Are you completely bonkers?” he said. “No honest medical professional could go along with a scheme like that! Do you know what your life expectancy is at 350 pounds?”

“It may be short, but it sure is sweet,” I said. “In fact, I’ve got friends from Kentucky waiting to see if I can pull this off. They can’t wait to get in on the scam!”

© Tony Russell, 2002

Monday, July 15, 2002

“No Mistake”

An Army spokesman today angrily denied claims by Mountain State residents that as many as 48 innocent civilians were killed, and 117 injured, in a July incident. “Our aircraft have repeatedly come under fire from anti-aircraft weapons in and around Ripley,” said Maj. Gary A. Pologist. “This was a precise military action against a carefully-selected military target.”

Residents of Ripley claim that they were celebrating the country’s birthday, and that fireworks, both formal displays and random informal displays, were the only rockets being fired from the ground. The town was crowded for an Independence Day visit from President Bush, and the attack by a helicopter gunship sent thousands scurrying for cover. The President himself was not injured, and is reported to have thought that the explosions were part of the elaborate welcome celebration local dignitaries had planned.

Maj. Pologist said that the Army had sent a team of investigators to the site of the alleged incident, and they could find no credible evidence that innocent victims had perished in the attack. “We sent in a team of highly-trained forensic experts for three days,” he said, “and they found nothing that would substantiate these rumors.” However, an Associated Press reporter wandering around town yesterday says that a dozen people he met on the street conducted him to a local cemetery and showed him numerous mounds of freshly-disturbed dirt which, in his words, “certainly had the appearance of newly-dug graves.”

Gov. Wise has demanded that Army officials clear any future strikes with his office, a demand rejected by the Army. “Such a policy would severely restrict our ability to respond to terrorism with the swiftness and flexibility that anti-terrorism action requires,” said the spokesman.

© Tony Russell, 2002

Wednesday, June 26, 2002

“Feeling More Secure”

I was having lunch with my friend Weldon at a local diner yesterday. We didn’t mean to be eavesdropping, but we couldn’t help but overhear the conversation between the two women in the booth behind us. Like everyone else nowadays, all they could talk about was security—how insecure they felt, and how happy they were that the President was doing all he could to make them safer.

“The whole 9-11 thing was so unsettling,” lamented one. “I had Dave go right out and put a new bulb in our yard light.”

“I know what you mean,” said the other. “We had intended to go to the Bridge Day festivities this year, but Jim said no way. He usually jumps off with his bungee cords at least three times, but he said he just didn’t feel safe doing it this year.”

“I’ll tell you,” confided the first, “I’ve been sleeping a whole lot better since the President and the Attorney General began rounding up these terrorists.”

“Oh definitely,” said her friend. “It’s such a relief just to have them in jail. And it doesn’t look as if they’re going to get out any time soon, either.”

“It doesn’t, does it?” agreed the first. “I’m so impressed with the manly way they
cut through all that red tape. No evidence, no charges, no judge, no hearing, no sentence—just threw them in jail.”

“Well, that’s the American way, isn’t it?” said her friend. “Practical. Just do
what needs to be done, and let other people quibble over their little procedural hang-ups.”

I had been watching Weldon get redder and redder. At that point, he blew. He turned around and jumped right in. “Ladies,” he said, “those ‘little procedural hang-ups’ you’re blowing off happen to be the Bill of Rights. And if the administration gets away with shitcanning them, we’re all in trouble.”

Loretta trotted over at that point. “Weldon,” she said, “if you’re going to get loud and vulgar, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“It’s okay, Loretta,” I intervened. “He’ll calm down. Won’t you Weldon?”

But before he could answer, the first lady jumped back in. “Listen, Mr. Butt-insky,” she said heatedly, “we’re already in trouble, in case you didn’t know it. This country is at war, and the commander-in-chief can do whatever he needs to do in wartime.”

That really lit Weldon’s fuse. “Lady,” he said, “I’d like to draw a few things to your attention. One, Congress happens not to have declared war. Two, the Constitution doesn’t authorize the President to become a dictator even if war is declared.” As he ticked off his points, his voice kept getting louder and louder. I looked over at Loretta, who was scribbling furiously on her check pad. “Three, these power-grabs by politicians are a hell of a lot more dangerous than anything a terrorist could do to this country. The freedoms of three hundred million people are being stripped away! They’re substituting presidential decrees for the rule of law!”

Loretta threw our check on the table. “That’s it,” she said. “You’ve done it again. Now out with you. And don’t come back until you can sit and eat a peaceful meal, for a change.”

Weldon threw a five on the table and grabbed his Red Devils ball cap. He knows that when Loretta makes up her mind, there’s no appeal.

© Tony Russell, 2002

Friday, June 21, 2002

“Behind the News at NPR”

Lately I’ve been puzzled by the nature of the news coverage on National Public Radio. But on Friday a friend was able to arrange for me to sit in on the daily editorial conference where they decide what stories to air that evening, and what angle they’ll approach the stories from. Jack made me promise to sit there with my notebook and keep my mouth shut. I thought it would be a tough promise to keep, but I was so busy scribbling that I couldn’t have said anything anyway. Here, for what it’s worth, are my notes.

Walt: I think we ought to run something on the Padilla story. Ashcroft pushed it pretty hard, and made a big deal of the ‘dirty bomb’ threat.

Trevor: How about something on the name thing? He calls himself Abdullah al Muhajir, but the government keeps referring to him as Jose Padilla. We could check on whether he ever legally changed his name.

Walt: That’s not a bad angle. We could get a psychologist to talk about the significance of name changes, do a follow-up story on prison converts to Islam. I like it!

Nigel: What about approaching it from the Puerto Rican angle? We could interview other New York Puerto Ricans and they could talk about how they love this country, are shocked to see one of their own turn against it, et cetera.

Walt: That’s good. It’s got the ethnic diversity, the melting pot idea, and it plucks all the right patriotic chords. Donna?

Donna: I know I’m just a summer intern, but isn’t there really just ONE story here? I mean, the guy’s a US citizen—born in the USA—and Bush and Ashcroft are throwing him in a military brig with no charges, no lawyer, no evidence, and basically saying they’ll hold him as long as they want! If they can do that, the Constitution goes out the window! You might as well use it as toilet paper!

Walt: Donna, can you tone down the inflammatory rhetoric?

Donna: Sorry. I just think there’s a danger that running all these peripheral stories will distract people from what’s really important.

Walt: Suppose you let people who’ve covered the news for thirty years decide if something is ‘peripheral,’ as you put it. We’re not into partisan politics here. Our job is to present the news objectively, and we like to come at it with an offbeat approach that gives our coverage a certain cachet.

Donna: What do you mean, partisan politics? It’s the Constitution we’re talking about, for cryin’ out loud! That thing that’s supposed to be the foundation of our democracy!

Walt: [Exasperated] We’ve all heard your opinion now, Donna. Could we move on? Anybody else got any ideas?

Heloise: Padilla did so much traveling. I wonder if we could do one of those travel-in-his-footsteps stories where we retrace his route, talk about tourist accommodations and little-known scenic spots people might want to visit along the way.

Basil: If we did that, we could accompany it with an international cuisine feature. Highlight exotic local dishes, have people with interesting accents give their recipes, and so forth.

Walt: [Laughs] You guys are always looking to get away from the office, aren’t you?

Donna: [Belligerent now] If you’re going to do an international story, why don’t you do one on how this story, and the war on terrorism in general, are being covered in countries not controlled by US media conglomerates? There’s a whole other world out there that thinks we’ve lost our freaking minds!

Walt: [Really ticked] Donna, this isn’t the place for you to air your own particular adolescent views. We’re just a bunch of team players, putting on the best damned news show anywhere, so could you suit up or shut up!

Trevor: [Attempting to smooth things over] Walt, maybe the Constitutional issue would be worth looking at. On a scale of one to ten, I’d give it at least a six.

Walt: As long as we’re talking numbers, Trevor, suppose you remember what the administration’s piece of our budget happens to be.

Trevor: [Laughing] As if I could forget! Think of it this way, Walt. We could lead off with Ashcroft’s announcement and the administration’s position, and then get some law school professors to comment on them.

Walt: [Grudgingly] That’d do it, I guess. We could get the usual commentators—Stanford, Yale, the University of Chicago….

Donna: [Over the edge] Chicago! Stanford! You can’t get any real critique from those guys! They’re spawning grounds for the administration! They’re to universities what Enron was to business!

Walt: [With exaggerated patience] Listen, Donna, why don’t you run out and get us all some coffee and doughnuts while the grownups finish putting together the show?

© Tony Russell, 2002

Sunday, June 16, 2002

“Volunteer Industry Leaders for Education”

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It is my pleasure to act as your host this evening. As you know, over the past twenty years or so, we have heard a rising chorus of criticism for the work of public schools. Much of that chorus has been made up of business and industry spokespeople, united in their assertion that our educational factories--to use their metaphor--have been turning out an unacceptable number of defective products. Tonight we are gathered to honor some of the voices in that chorus.

“Already these leaders have made a remarkable impact on our approach to public education. The ultimate goal of such schooling, in my own youth, was to prepare citizens equipped to handle their role in a democracy. Now, the goal is to prepare employees to function properly in the workplace. The emphasis is on marketable skills, on training students to think of their educational program, from the middle school years on, strictly in terms of how their courses will prepare them for a career. This is real progress!

“In more subtle ways, these leaders have also helped lay the groundwork for transitioning students from school to work. Strict new attendance policies, longer school years, and tougher graduation requirements all let students know, subliminally, that youth is not a time to goof off; it’s a training ground for fitting into the workforce. That message has been reinforced by virtually eliminating recreation and physical education from their schedules, along with such distractions as art, band, choir, etc. If students want to run around wildly or tootle on a horn, they can do it like any other worker—after the job, on their own time!

“One of the key elements in all this change has been a group of top-level executives who had the vision to create a business think-tank to influence policy-makers and public opinion on educational issues. And it is that organization—“Volunteer Industry Leaders for Education” – which we find ourselves members of, gathered tonight to celebrate the successes of the past two decades. V.I.L.E. has been a catalyst for transforming public education. Its members, despite the demands of their enormous responsibilities in the military-industrial complex, have dedicated themselves to this task. At the same time, we have created a new culture-hero for our times—the brash, dynamic, can-do CEO.

“So join with me now in recognizing the contributions certain of our members have made to American education, as they exemplify the qualities they seek to instill in our young people.

“The first honoree tonight is L. Dennis Kozlowski, who built Tyco International into a major international conglomerate. Dennis sends his regrets. He had a prior commitment, meeting with Manhattan prosecutors who have indicted him for sales tax evasion. Good luck, Dennis! Loved your art collection!

“Our second honoree, Kenneth Lay, former CEO of Enron, pioneered in trading energy futures, and helped build Enron into one of the largest corporations in the world. His Houston-based corporation is known for its aggressive courting of political allies and for its insider status. Mr. Lay has been the principal financial backer for the political career of another Texan, our current ‘national CEO,’ Mr. George Bush! Unfortunately, Mr. Lay had other obligations, and cannot be here this evening. Kenny Boy, I’m sure your old friends will stick by you!

“Our third honoree, the corporate leadership of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, is also unable to be here this evening. They are preparing an appeal to the $20 million fine they were levied for violating an agreement to stop marketing tobacco to youth, and say it is eating up all their time. Guys, we miss you!

Our fourth honoree, H. Ross Perot, led the fight for educational reform in Texas. Ross planned to be here, but at the last minute he had to help prepare a response to a subpoena from the California attorney general’s office. Legislators there have alleged that Perot Systems coached energy traders in ways to manipulate the state’s energy markets, costing California consumers and taxpayers billions of dollars. Befuddle ‘em with flipcharts, Ross!

Our fifth honoree, Ken Kurtzman, CEO of Ashford.com, the online jewelry sellers, had a prior engagement. Ken was able to settle his fraud accusation with the S.E.C. by paying a penalty of only $60,000. Way to play hardball, Ken!

“Our sixth honorees, the Rigas family, control Adelphia Communications, the giant cable operators. Unfortunately, they had to meet with investigators concerned about huge undisclosed transactions between Adelphia and other family ‘entities.’ Good move, firing your auditors, folks!

Our seventh honorees are those ever-reliable investment counselors at Merrill Lynch. Unfortunately, they’re working overtime on damage control, and also send their regrets. Those internal memos in which their analysts trashed stocks they were recommending to customers jumped up and bit them. Cheer up, guys and gals; that $100 million settlement was less than you spend on office supplies and postage!

Our eighth and final honoree is Sam Waksal, CEO of ImClone Systems. We thought Sam was going to be able to make it, once he was released on bail, but then came that subpoena from that House subcommittee, and he had to go to Washington. It’s embarrassing to have somebody ask if you ‘put personal profiteering ahead of patients’; I wouldn’t answer it either! Keep pleading the Fifth Amendment, Sam. That’s what it’s there for!

So it’s a clean sweep! None of them could make it! But these empty chairs on the stage represent so much that corporate leadership has meant, not only in shaping our current educational agenda, but American society as a whole. I’m sure you’ll join me now in putting your hands together for all of our honorees, and not just for them, but the countless others who have worked just as diligently toward the same ends. Before we close, we’d like to ask Wendy Gramm to lead us in ‘God Bless America.’ That will conclude our program, and you can return to your caviar. Thank you, and good night.”

© Tony Russell, 2002

Monday, June 10, 2002


Note: The following column is satire, based on a June 10 press conference at which Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the arrest of Abdullah al Muhajir, a US citizen born in New York, formerly known as Jose Padilla. The point of the satire is that if one US citizen can be jailed with no charges, with no presentation of evidence, with no legal representation, with no end to his imprisonment, then no one is safe-including mainstream political opponents. Ashcroft’s announcement actually was made in Moscow, where he was meeting with Russian police and security officials.

In a dramatic announcement this evening at a hastily-called primetime press conference, Attorney General John Ashcroft revealed the arrest of Senator Tom Daschle as a key figure in a plot to bring down the Bush administration.

In announcing the arrest, Ashcroft termed Daschle “an undercover terrorist who was exploring a plan to build and explode a radiological dispersion device, or ‘dirty bomb,’ in the United States.” President Bush has issued an executive order, in his capacity as commander in chief, declaring Daschle an “enemy combatant who poses a serious and continued threat to the American people and our national security.” The prisoner was taken from his Washington, DC jail cell, put on a government plane, and flown to Charleston, South Carolina, where he was incarcerated in a US Navy brig.

No evidence has been produced by the government to substantiate its charges. Ashcroft gave no indication that such evidence will be forthcoming. Legal experts say that the absence of evidence is of little moment, since Daschle will not be given a trial or opportunity to defend himself in an adversarial proceeding. Indeed, until contacted by reporters, Daschle’s own attorney was unaware of his transfer, and has been denied all access to his client.

Under the executive order, Daschle can be jailed indefinitely-i.e., until the “war on terrorism” ends. Key figures in the Bush administration say that the “war” is likely to go on for decades.

Asked about what appear to be clear violations of such elementary legal principles as the presumption of innocence and the right of habeas corpus, Ashcroft replied that it was vital “to balance the security needs of the American people against the small sacrifices necessary to successfully prosecute this war.” Calling Daschle’s arrest “a significant step forward in the preservation of our freedoms,” Ashcroft declared this “a day when we can all be proud to be Americans.”

Daschle's arrest will tip the balance of the Senate to Republican control, giving dominance of all branches of government to the most rabid conservative figures. Administration spokesmen brushed off any hints that the arrest might be politically motivated. Ashcroft made the announcement in Red Square, Moscow, where he was surrounded by admiring Russian media personnel. “This all sounds so familiar,” said one Russian bystander, who declined to be identified.

© Tony Russell, 2002

Wednesday, February 20, 2002

“The New Mayor’s Bid for Job Security”

I don’t hold with drinking myself. But my neighbor George Duncan is a hardliner on the subject. He’s the new mayor, and he was having a tough time with the job until a drunk driver smashed into a family of five, and killed them all. Drinking has become the big issue for him—in fact, his only issue. “Anybody who drinks, or who manufactures spirits, or sells them, or serves them, or finances them, or advertises them, or tolerates or harbors anyone who does any of those things, deserves the worst that can happen to them,” he told me.

“Gee, George,” I said hesitantly, “that means almost anybody who works for a newspaper or magazine, almost anybody who work in a grocery or convenience store, anybody who works for a bank or savings and loan, almost all ad agencies, most of my relatives, and most of my neighbors. That could get to be a pretty long list, couldn’t it?”

“When you get serious about fighting evil,” he said, “you can find it almost anywhere.”

“That’s one of the things that worries me, George. I mean, how can you be sure your own motives are pure? Let’s face it. If some of those stores and banks go out of business, you’re in a position to snap them up.”

“I have no intention of ‘snapping them up’,” he said. “I’m not into ‘business building.’ I would simply install new management that was sympathetic to my point of view.”

“Well, what about the old owners and employees and customers and so forth. What exactly did you mean when you said ‘deserves the worst that can happen to them’?” I asked.

“Just what I said. Imprisonment. Death. That kind of thing.”

“George,” I said nervously, “are you sure all of that is absolutely necessary? “Nobody can deny that what happened to the Rosenzweigs was terrible. But aren’t there some less drastic steps we could take? An increased patrol effort? Stiffer fines? Education? Counseling? Funding support groups? Organizing prevention campaigns? Increasing the taxes on liquor? Focusing on problem drinkers? And aren’t you sort of overstepping your bounds? I mean, you were elected mayor, not God.”

“Hey, the city’s with me,” he said. “I’ve got 85% approval ratings. The city council passed new ordinances giving me the powers I need to stamp out drinking, and they increased the anti-alcohol budget by 40%.”

“But they cut the budgets for the library, street paving, building inspections, the emergency squad, and the health department,” I pointed out. “Some people are getting uneasy that the budget is out of kilter.”

He shrugged. “This is a war on drinking,” he said. “It won’t be easy. Sacrifices are required.”

“That’s what I don’t understand,” I admitted. “You talk constantly as if there’s a war going on, but I never noticed that war was declared. And I can’t find anybody on the other side. What the hell kind of war is that, when you can’t even name your opponent?”

“We’ll find an enemy,” he said, “and we’re determined to fight until evil is stamped out.”

“Good luck,” I said. “Christ, Mohammed, and the Buddha couldn’t do that. I guess you’ve got job security.”

© Tony Russell, 2002

Friday, February 15, 2002

“The Perils of Campaign Finance Reform”

My buddy Lou, a substance abuse specialist, called and woke me up last night close to midnight.

“What’s up, Lou?” I asked groggily.

“Look, Ace,” he said, “I know you were asleep, but I’ve been called out on an emergency, and I’ve got to catch a plane out of Pittsburgh at 6 a.m. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone, and I need somebody to feed my cats and water my plants while I’m away.”

“Sure, I’ll take care of your cats and plants,” I said. “Key still hidden under the doormat?”

“Nah, everybody looks there,” he said. “I keep it in the mailbox now.”

“Gotcha,” I said. Then the ace reporter in me snapped to attention. “What’s the big emergency?” I asked.

“I don’t know if I’m supposed to talk about it,” he said. “Addiction is generally a private matter. But in this case…,” his voice trailed off.

“You’re sitting on something big!” I yelled. “Out with it! Or the leaves on your geraniums can curl up and die!”

He hesitated. “It’s Congress,” he finally said. “They’ve got hundreds of Senators and Representatives looking at the prospect of having their soft money supply cut off, and they’re developing withdrawal symptoms. They’ve set up cots in the Congressional cloakrooms, but the numbers are overwhelming. They’ve got members just lying on the floor, shivering, sweating, and trembling uncontrollably.”

“But I heard Tom DeLay say last night on the news that not one member of the House or Senate, not one liberal or conservative, had been corrupted by soft money,” I protested.

Lou laughed. “You’ve got to understand that an addict will say or do anything to keep his fix coming,” he said. “He’ll lie, he’ll steal, he’ll hitch his mother to a dogsled if it will keep that supply coming in.”

“What about a wallet-exchange program, so the disease won’t spread?” I suggested. “They could turn in their dirty purses and billfolds and get clean ones.”

“It’s proven to be effective,” he admitted, “but conservatives won’t stand for it.”

“Have they tried methadone?”

“Not strong enough,” he said. “Money in politics gets you…,” he paused meaningfully, “incredibly high.”

“How high?” I demanded.

“To the top,” he said.

© Tony Russell, 2002

Saturday, February 02, 2002

“Not Even a Blip on the Radar Screen”

My coverage of the Republican National Committee meeting was cut off yesterday by our press deadline. I gave Bob a call first thing this morning to fill him in on the rest of the story.

“Just checking in to wrap up last night’s story, Chief,” I began.

“It’s about time,” he said. “Do you realize how much it’s costing us to have you cover that meeting?”

“Come on, Chief,” I complained. “You put me up at a Motel 6 and furnished me with three days worth of coupons at Hardee’s. You’re getting your money’s worth.”

“You haven’t even begun to justify your salary, Ace, let alone your expenses. Look, what’s been the mood at the meeting?”

“Really upbeat, Chief. They think they’re gonna do well in the midterm elections. This war has been a godsend for them. If they can drag it out long enough, they figure the President’s poll numbers will stay high, and he can carry the rest of the party along on his coat tails. Plus they have their usual huge advantage in money raising.”

“What about that Enron business?”

“They just laughed it off, Chief. I talked to all kinds of delegates—governors, secretaries of state, and so forth. They claim they’ve been checking their mail and talking to their constituents. They all say the same thing: Nobody gives a damn about Enron. It’s not even a blip on the radar screen.”

“How the hell can that be? This is the biggest bankruptcy in American history, involving half the leaders in the administration, including the Vice President. They’ve been Bush’s biggest contributor his entire career, and his administration has done everything possible to line Enron’s pockets, as well as conceal its impending collapse.”

“Look, Chief, I’m just telling you what they told me. They think in a few weeks this will all just go away.”

“Ace, for fourteen solid months we ran from three to ten items a day, counting news stories, cartoons, and editorials, on Clinton’s thing with Monica Lewinsky. We ran daily reports for six months on Elian Gonzalez. We averaged at least three reports a week on some aspect of Whitewater for over eight YEARS, and that was on a measly $100,000 investment. Do you think we’re gonna let this thing just go away?”

“Could be, Chief. There’s precedent for it. How long did we cover the savings and loan debacle?”

© Tony Russell, 2002

Sunday, January 27, 2002

“One More Pig at the Trough”

I called in my report on the meeting of the Republican National Committee last night after I got back to the motel.

“Where’ve you been, Ace?” demanded Bob. “We’ve been holding the presses for your story.”

“They ran a little over schedule, Chief. I got back as quick as I could.”

“Okay, okay. Just give me the main details. Who did they elect as Chairman?”

“Well, that’s one of the funny things, Chief. They elected Mark Racicot. I thought that they wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole after news broke that he took a $50,000 bribe from Enron.”

Bob exploded. “Damn it, Ace!” he yelled, “That was NOT a bribe! It was a $50,000 consultant’s fee! Get your facts straight!”

“What exactly IS a bribe, Chief?” I asked. “I can’t seem to grasp the distinction.”

“A bribe is illegal, you dunce. A consultant’s fee is completely legitimate.”

“And the two million dollars Lay and Enron gave Bush?”

“Campaign contributions. Never to be construed as bribes.”

“Dick Cheney’s meetings with Kenneth Lay to find out what Lay wanted in the administration’s energy bill? And letting Lay handpick the head of the SEC, which is supposed to be regulating his company?”

“Just service to a constituent. Nothing to do with campaign contributions.”

“I think I’m getting it now, Chief. And the job Wendy Gramm got on Enron’s board after the government commission she headed gave Enron a special break that earned Enron millions and millions?”

“They were just tapping her expertise. Perfectly legitimate.”

“Larry Lindsey’s consulting fee?”

“Same as Racicot’s. Why even ask?”

“So as far as the Republican National Committee is concerned ….?”

“You’ve got it. Racicot’s not tainted. He was just one more pig at the trough.”

© Tony Russell, 2002

Monday, January 21, 2002

“Friends of Enron”

“Hello, Senator Gramm? This is Mavis Beanfield calling. I have good news for you, sir!”

“I’m surely in need of some good news, ma’am. How can I help you?”

“Oh, I’m not looking for help, Senator. In fact, I’m calling to thank you for help you’ve already given, you and your lovely wife.”

“What kind of help was that, Ms. …Brownfield, was it?”

“Beanfield, Senator. I’m with the Friends of Enron Foundation, and we’re just so pleased with all the help you and Mrs. Gramm have given us over the years. We’re having our Annual Awards Dinner next month, and I’m pleased to report that you and your wife were co-winners of this year’s “Friends of Enron Award,” for your long history of outstanding assistance to the corporation.”

“Uhm, look Ms. Beanpole, ….”

“Beanfield, Senator. We already have the plaques prepared. Let me read the inscription to you; I know you’ll be thrilled! ‘To Senator Phil Gramm and Wendy Gramm, For Their Dedicated Efforts On Behalf Of Enron. Senator Gramm provided leadership in exempting Enron’s energy derivatives business from regulation under the act governing commodities trading, thus bringing the corporation a windfall of over $250,000,000. Not to be outdone, Mrs. Gramm, during her term as chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, allowed for an exemption in the trading of energy derivatives. After resigning from the Commission, she assumed a seat on Enron’s Board of Directors.”

“That’s very flattering, Ms. Brownfield ….”

“Just call me Mavis, Senator. Please.”

“…but I’m afraid my schedule is full on that date.”

“But I haven’t mentioned a date yet, Senator!”

“Yes, well, whatever. Listen, I just can’t accept the award when there are others so much more deserving. Dick Cheney, for instance. Jim Baker. Karl Rove. Larry Lindsey. Heck, even the President himself. Those guys have all carried the water for you folks.”

[Embarrassed pause] “I didn’t want to have to get into this, Senator, but we’ve already approached all of the people you mentioned. We thought they were all deserving as well. But can you imagine this, their schedules were all full too. I just don’t understand it; we never had this problem in previous years. [Gives a little laugh] Heck, last year people were almost fighting to get the award!”

© Tony Russell, 2002

Saturday, January 19, 2002

“What Recession?”

At the potluck dinner at church last night, I noticed that Arnie Landers was looking pretty peaked. It was the first time I’d seen him in weeks.

“What’s up, Arnie?” I said.

“Boy, my job is running me ragged,” he said. “Sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, and I still can’t keep up.”

I was surprised. “I wouldn’t think an office supply firm would be booming in the middle of a recession,” I said. “I thought businesses were cutting employees, suffering from sagging sales, and trimming overhead.”

“Oh, in general, our sales are lousy,” he said tiredly. “It’s specialty sales that are off the chart.”

“That’s interesting,” I said. “What kind of specialty sales?”

“Paper shredders,” he said. “Industrial-strength paper shredders. We can’t keep them in stock. In fact, some of our models are on back order. The manufacturers say they’ve kicked up production, but they can’t keep up with the demand.”

“Who’s buying all the paper shredders?” I wondered.

“We got a huge initial order from Enron,” he said. “I know they’re the seventh largest corporation in the country, but you wouldn’t think they’d need so many paper shredders all at one time. And then their accounting firm called in a rush order on fifty of the things.”

“Is that it?” I asked. “Sounds as if things ought to be getting back to normal.”

“Humph!” he snorted. “That was just the beginning. It’s all government office orders now, and we’re getting more every day.”

“What kind of government offices?”

“We got a huge early order from Dick Cheney’s secretary; we had to ship those air express. Phil Gramm and his wife ordered ten. James Baker and Karl Rove got a half dozen apiece. The White House ordered a dozen. Hell, half the administration has called in the past two weeks, and they all want them ASAP. I don’t know why there’s such a demand, but this is turning into the biggest quarter we’ve ever had. We’ve hired four full time people just this month.”

“Haven’t you been following the news?” I asked.

“When business is this good,” he said, “who has time to read a paper or watch TV?”

© Tony Russell, 2002

Tuesday, January 15, 2002

“Whose Ox Is Being Gored?”

It’s frustrating, as I get older, to find myself having trouble coming up with the names of people I know perfectly well. My friend Melvin, who’s a few years my senior, seems to be going through the same kind of thing.

We were sitting in “Greg’s Greasy Spoon,” having some scrambled tofu and a cup of herbal tea, when I chanced to ask him what he thought about the latest Washington scandal. He turned red, puffed up, and sputtered, “It’s a damned outrage!”

Other diners glanced our way. “Could you hold it down a little bit, Melvin?” I said. “I don’t want us to get tossed out of here again.”

“That’s the trouble with this country!” he yelled a little louder. “Everybody’s afraid to speak his mind and call a spade a spade. They’re a bunch of damned crooks! They’ve defrauded investors, robbed their own employees, written national energy policy for their own benefit, and corrupted Congress. Our President has been bought and sold like a pound of baloney! He ought to be impeached, along with half his cabinet! Centralizing the investigation in the Justice Department is just a way of controlling the cover-up. We need an independent prosecutor to go after those so-and-so’s and nail their skins to the side of a barn!”

I looked around nervously. Greg was easing down the counter in our direction. “Gee, Melvin,” I said, “I’m sort of surprised. You’ve been such a strong Bush supporter.”

He glanced up at me, a look of confusion clouding his eyes. “Bush?” he said. “I don’t know how that happened. I was thinking Clinton was still President. What was I saying?”

“We were talking about the Enron scandal,” I reminded him.

“Scandal?” he scoffed. “There’s no scandal. It’s all a creation of the liberal media, trying to undermine the greatest wartime leader since Abraham Lincoln. This thing doesn’t begin to compare with Whitewater.”

“Well, I don’t know, Melvin,” I said dubiously. “You remember how the Rush Limbaughs and William Safires and Trent Lotts and Phil Gramms hammered Clinton and his wife for eight years with accusations and endless stories and fourteen million dollars worth of independent prosecutors, all over a $100,000 investment they once made.”

“And well they should have,” he said belligerently.

“But this is about looting a company of sixty billion dollars, Melvin!” I objected. “From a company that bankrolled the Bush family’s political careers since W’s father was running for office! That’s been the big money behind George W’s campaign for governor AND President! There’s no suspicion of a cover-up; Enron’s auditing firm has already admitted shredding thousands of documents the day after investigators asked for records. James Baker, the guy who was all over the news maneuvering the Florida recount—he was with Enron. Karl Rove, the other guy who was masterminding Bush’s election, owned a quarter of a million dollars worth of Enron stock. Bob Mosbacher, the Commerce Secretary, was with Enron. Bush’s top economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsey, was an Enron consultant. The list goes on and on. And it’s not a bunch of nobodies. These are Bush’s main handlers, the guys who tell him what to do and where to go and what to say.”

He looked at me shrewdly. “You know as well as I do,” he said, “that this is all just a big smear campaign orchestrated by Hilary Clinton.”

“That’s enough, you two,” said Greg at my elbow. “You’re outa here again.”

© Tony Russell, 2002

Monday, January 14, 2002

“West Virginia Fruits”

My friend Melvin Anglekey follows the fortunes of energy corporations the way most men follow baseball teams, and monitors oil and gas production like a fan tracking batting averages. So who better to help me understand the implications of the unfolding Enron scandal? I gave him a call.

“Are all these revelations giving you second thoughts on the wisdom of having Enron dictate energy and economic policy for the United States?” I began.

He snorted. “Certainly not. This has all been blown out of proportion. We need to keep things in perspective, and remember the contributions energy corporations have always made to our society. Unfortunately, the American public has no sense of history.”

“What aspect of history did you have in mind?” I asked.

“You’re as bad as the rest! You don’t have to look any farther than your own backyard!” he said in exasperation. Here in Wirt, Ritchie, Calhoun, and Gilmer Counties we’re sitting smackdab on top of one of the world’s first major oil discoveries.”

“And?” I said.

“Just look around you,” he directed. “Growing, vibrant communities. Healthy, prosperous citizens. Broad, beautiful highways. An elaborate infrastructure. With careful corporate stewardship, all that wealth has made a lasting impact.”

“Do you think so?” I asked.

He was warming to his topic. “It’s obvious,” he said. “But don’t just focus on our part of the state. Look at the southern coalfields. That’s the thing in its purest form. Total domination of the economy by a single industry for a century and a half, right down through the present day. They started with the largest, richest coal deposits in the world—a resource so vast that a king would turn green with envy. Look what they’ve done with it, what they’ve made of the region. They deserve every bit of credit for what it’s become.”

“Which is…?” I asked.

“Nothing less than one of the cultural and commercial centers of the entire eastern half of the United States,” he said triumphantly.

“I think I see where you’re heading with this,” I said thoughtfully. “Logan, Mingo, McDowell ….”

“Exactly,” he said. “The very names conjure up the images I’m looking for. Beautiful mountain vistas unsullied by the hand of man, maintained in all their natural glory by careful mining practices. Streams so pure and clear you can dip your hands in them and drink. Thriving towns, wonderful schools, and county governments remarkable for their honesty and forward-thinking. An industry renowned for its long, honorable history of enlightened labor practices.”

“Your point, I take it, is that Enron has just been doing on a national scale what energy corporations have always done in West Virginia,” I ventured.

“You’ve got it,” he said. “The Bible says, ‘By their fruits shall ye know them.’ Just look at their fruits in West Virginia, and pray that they can do the same thing for the rest of the country.”

“Melvin,” I said, “it appears your prayers have been answered.”

© Tony Russell, 2002

Tuesday, January 01, 2002

“Talking Freedom”

I ran into my friend Bill Wentz down at the auto parts store yesterday. When I said “Hello,” he just kept staring straight ahead with a glazed look in his eyes. After waiting an uncomfortable minute for him to respond, I snapped my fingers in front of his face. He gave a start. “Oh, hi,” he said. “Sorry. Didn’t see you there.”

“You sure didn’t,” I laughed. “What were you seeing?”

He reddened. “It’s something that happened to me yesterday afternoon in Parkersburg,” he said. “I’m still in a daze.”

“‘You look it,” I said. “What happened?”

He hesitated. “It started with me making an assumption,” he said. “It was all downhill from there.”

“What kind of assumption?”

“Well, I was looking for a thermocouple for my furnace, and running around to different heating and air conditioning shops. I went into this little one-man operation, and there was a sign in big letters on the wall behind the counter. It was that quotation from Benjamin Franklin about liberty and security, warning that focusing on security can cost you your liberty. It’s always been one of my favorites. So I gave the guy at the counter a thumbs-up: ‘Those words ring as true now as they did two hundred years ago,’ I said.”

“‘Amen to that,’ he said. ‘Maybe more true, considering what we’re going through.’”

“A kindred spirit, I thought. It was good to find somebody else who was passionate about freedom. ‘The Bill of Rights is the heart of our democracy,’ I said. ‘It’s scary how people are willing to see those rights ripped away with nary a peep.’”

“‘Well I’m sure not giving up without a struggle,’ he said. ‘And I’ve got plenty of friends who feel the same way.’”

“‘Have you gotten anything organized?’ I asked.”

“‘Damned straight,’ he said. ‘Letters to the editor, phone calls to Congress, call-ins to radio talk shows, bumper stickers, the works.’”

“‘Wow! That’s impressive!’ I said. ‘A few of us are trying to get something organized in Calhoun County. Maybe somebody from your group can come and help us get started.’”

“‘We’d be glad to come,’ he said. ‘Any friend of liberty’s a friend of mine.’”

“‘How about some evening next week?’ I suggested.”

“‘Sounds good to me,’ he said. ‘I’ll bring some pamphlets and literature. Maybe we can get somebody from the NRA to come too.’”

“‘The NRA?’ I said.”

“‘Sure,’ he said. ‘The NRA. They’ll bring copies of the Constitution with the Second Amendment in red letters. The red-letter edition. They’ll give you all kinds of material and support.’”

“‘I didn’t know they cared about due process protection, habeas corpus, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, things like that,’ I ventured doubtfully.”

“‘Due process? Habeas corpus? What the hell are you talking about?’”

“‘You know. Due process. Where the legal system has to give everybody the opportunity to know the charges against them, have effective counsel of their own choosing, the right to cross-examine witnesses, the right to appeal. All those basic protections that keep the government from grabbing anybody they want, tossing them in the clink, and throwing away the key.’”

“‘Listen,’ he reassured me, “as long as John Ashcroft is Attorney General, you don’t have to worry about the Constitution. He’s the best friend the Second Amendment ever had.’”

“‘John Ashcroft!’ I said incredulously. ‘The man is frightening! When it comes to the Bill of Rights, he’s deaf and dumb! If the country follows the route he charts, America will become a police state!’”

“‘You can’t be serious,’ he said. ‘When people wanted records of gun purchases by the airplane hijackers, he turned ‘em down flat. No way he was going to trample on their Second Amendment rights.’”

“‘The Bill of Rights has ten amendments! TEN!’ I screamed. ‘You can’t even count past TWO, and you skip ONE!’”

“That got him hot. ‘I can’t say as I like your attitude,’ he said. ‘People like you are almost as big a threat as the terrorists. You know what Ashcroft said: “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.”’”

“So basically he implied that you were pro-terrorist because you supported the Bill of Rights,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s what it comes down to. The scary part is that when he told me that I was aiding terrorists, and that a well-armed citizenry is the backbone of our freedom, not our system of guaranteed legal protections, I could have shot him if I’d had a gun.’’

“What’s your point?” I said.

“He wasn’t apathetic. He cared about freedom in his own way. We started out using the same language, thinking we were talking about the same thing. I used to worry about guys like him. Now I worry about me too.”

© Tony Russell, 2002