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