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, 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