Tuesday, October 26, 2004

“Golden Calves and the Ballot Box”

I grew up in the Methodist Church. Some of my clearest memories of my boyhood are of sitting in Sunday School, listening to our teacher, Mr. Dolby, talk about the Bible stories that were the center of each week’s lesson, lessons spanning the Bible, from Genesis to Revelations.

In the New Testament, we learned how entering God’s kingdom meant a reversal of the old order, with blessings for the poor and the peacemakers. In the Old Testament, we learned how, time and again, the kings of the Israelites enticed their people to follow after false gods. We learned of those heroes of faith, the prophets, who risked everything by opposing the phony religion of the kings.

That Sunday School, that church community, and my family shaped the values I have tried to live by—a love that translates into responsibility for others (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”); a mistrust of earthly rulers, who lead their people to worship golden calves; and a skepticism that belief in a particular dogma determines whether you are one of the elect (“What does the Lord require of thee, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God?”).

So I have been sickened by the way millions of good people have allowed their evangelical faith to be co-opted by the Republican party, sickened by the sight of well-intentioned people—people desirous of being faithful—following pastoral counsel that to be Christian is to vote Republican.

God doesn’t belong to any particular party. The Holy Spirit doesn’t register as a Republican or a Democrat, isn’t even pro-American. But there are particular themes that recur in the Bible, over and over and over again. And the theme the Bible sounds most is this: How do you treat the poor among you, the powerless, the widow, the orphan, the sick, the hungry, the outcast, the despised Samaritan? That, I would suggest, is the central test for a Christian to apply to a candidate or a policy—not whether the candidate attacks homosexuals or wears his faith on his sleeve.

Sojourners, the committed evangelical community headquartered in Washington, D.C., has called on political parties to stop using bad theology to exploit religion for partisan political purposes. To that end, they invite people to reconsider what constitutes “responsible Christian citizenship” and to sign the following petition. If you want to join the thousands who have already signed, go to www.sojo.net/petition.

* * * * *

We believe that poverty—caring for the poor and vulnerable—is a religious issue. Do the candidates budget and tax policies reward the rich or show compassion for poor families? Do their foreign policies include fair trade and debt cancellation for the poorest countries? (Matthew 25:35-40; Isaiah 10:1-2)

We believe that the environment—caring for God’s earth—is a religious issue. Do the candidates’ policies protect the creation or serve corporate interests that damage it? (Genesis 2:15; Psalm 24:1)

We believe that war—and our call to be peacemakers—is a religious issue. Do the candidates policies pursue “wars of choice” or respect international law and cooperation in responding to real global threats? (Matthew 5:9)

We believe that truth-telling is a religious issue. Do the candidates tell the truth in justifying war and in other foreign and domestic policies? (John 8:32)

We believe that human rights—respecting the image of God in every person—is a religious issue. How do the candidates propose to change the attitudes and policies that led to the abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners? (Genesis 1:27)

We believe that our response to terrorism is a religious issue. Do the candidates adopt the dangerous language of righteous empire in the war on terrorism and confuse the roles of God, church, and nation? Do the candidates see evil only in our enemies but never in our own policies? (Matthew 6:33; Proverbs 8:12-13)

We believe that a consistent ethic of human life is a religious issue. Do the candidates’ postions on abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, weapons of mass destruction, HIV/AIDS—and other pandemics—and genocide around the world obey the biblical injunction to choose life? (Deuteronomy 30:19)

© Tony Russell, 2004

Monday, October 25, 2004

“Living in Oz”

The three Presidential debates were an eyeopener. For almost four years, Mr. Bush’s handlers have stage-managed every aspect of his public image. Nowadays, of course, every politician has a speechwriter, but the extent to which Mr. Bush is screened from a representative public—and the public is screened from the real Mr. Bush—has been unprecedented. He gives carefully rehearsed speeches in front of carefully selected audiences in carefully selected locations. To use the sports argot he favors, he only appears when the game is fixed.

. That near-total control of his public appearances has enabled the Bush team to craft the image they want—of a President who is tough but compassionate, resolute but good-humored, not an intellectual but full of common sense. And it has been enormously effective. Who wouldn’t want a President like that?

But when the fix isn’t in, when Mr. Bush has to face real questions or a real opponent, we get a look at the real George Bush. Which is like looking behind the curtain and discovering the real Wizard of Oz. Not a powerful, dominating presence, but a weak and shallow man, blown into larger-than-life dimensions by publicity machinery. Think back to the interview with Tim Russert, which even devout partisans admitted was a disaster. Look at the response to the first debate, where only 19% of those polled felt he was the winner.

The real George Bush, it turns out, is a whiner, not a winner. Nothing is ever his fault. If things went wrong, it was the Clinton administration’s fault. Or the CIA’s. Or Donald Rumsfeld’s. Not his. Never his.

Mr. Bush is also exposed as intellectually lazy. He can’t be bothered to try and understand complicated issues. His answers are bumper-sticker slogans, and he expects to get by with them. Nor will he think back over his past performance and learn from his mistakes. In fact, he can’t recall a single mistake he’s made. Not one. Apparently he is as infallible as the Pope, speaking ex cathedra.

The real George Bush, we discover, is not a commanding presence. He’s a nervous fumbler who squirms when questioned or criticized. He’s as programmed as an early robot, trotting out the same lines again and again. No matter that they don’t apply to a given issue or question. They’re all he has. He has no resources of his own, no reservoirs of knowledge or character to draw from. All he has is his script, and when the debate is unscripted or runs too long, he’s lost.

It may be that the election will turn less on issues than on the public’s perception of the candidates themselves. If that is the case, we have the debates to thank for showing us we’re living in Oz.

© Tony Russell, 2004

Saturday, July 17, 2004

“Nixon’s Ghost”

[Nixon’s ghost] “Ooo-ooo-ooo. Who summoned me from the beyond?”

“It’s just you and me, sir. Thanks so much for coming.”

“What doo-oo you-oo want?”

“I just have a few questions, sir, and I was afraid they wouldn’t be answered this side of the grave.”

“Can I claim executive privilege if I don’t like the questions?”

“I’m afraid not, sir, but I guess you can vanish again if you take a notion.”

“What the heck, I’m game. Shoo-oot.”

“Well, the first one is about that eighteen-and-a-half minute gap on that tape…”

[Nixon laughs.] “Number three forty two-oo. I knew-oo you-oo’d want to ask about that.”

“Yessir, the one where you were talking with Haldeman about the Watergate break-in.”

“What do-oo you-oo want to-oo know?”

“First of all, the White House claimed that that eighteen-and-a-half minute stretch had been ‘accidentally erased’….”


“…but experts said that whoever erased the tape stopped and started ‘Record’ between five and nine times, so the erasure could hardly have been accidental.”

“Damned experts. Who-oo would have thought they could tell that much?”

“So it wasn’t an accident?”

“Of course not! Jesus, son, use your brain! The tape was incriminating. It was in White House custody. I erased it. But who-oo’s going to call the President a liar, even when he is one? It was a win-win situation! Or at least I thought so at the time.”

“Well, that’s what everyone but your most partisan supporters thought, but it’s nice to have it confirmed.”

[Nixon chuckles.] “Last time I looked, you-oo couldn’t enter an admission from a ghost.”

“The other thing I wanted to ask about was President Bush’s military records.”

“Stole a page from the old master, didn’t he?”


“You-oo-’re talking about the microfilm containing the payroll records for the Texas Air National Guard? The microfilm that was ‘accidentally destroyed’? For the exact time period when people claim he went AWOL during time of war?”


“I love the way they handled it. Got some underling in the Defense Department to issue a statement that ‘The Defense Finance and Accounting Service has advised of the inadvertent destruction of microfilm containing certain National Guard payroll record’—followed by a statement that ‘Searches for back-up paper copies of the missing records were unsuccessful.’ In other words, ‘All the evidence has been destroyed, and there’s not a damned thing you-oo can do-oo about it’!”

“Sir? I have to ask. Did you have anything to do with the destruction of this second tape—the Bush tape?”

“You-oo flatter me, son. No, the most I can claim is to have been an inspiration to some.”

© Tony Russell, 2004

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

“Let’s Pretend Again”

Announcer: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome once again to “Let’s Pretend!” the new Unreality TV show that the whole nation is talking about! And now, here’s our host, Blip Barker!” [Applause, digitally amplified to the level of thunder]

Blip: “Thank you, and good evening everyone! Welcome to the show that explores the ways millions of Americans turn their backs on reality! Tonight we’re going to focus our show on the economic accomplishments of the Bush administration. As usual, we’ve gathered a great set of panelists, all ready to share their lives and the lessons they’ve learned with you, our viewers. We’ll get to it right after this important message from our sponsors." [Cut to commercial.]

Blip [Addressing panelists]: “All right! Here we go! We have an exciting list of questions submitted by our viewing audience! I’ll read each question, and those of you panelists who want to take a swing at it, just jump right in.”

Blip [Looking directly into the camera]: “Our first question is from a viewer in Vinegar Bend, Arkansas. She writes, ‘Mr. Bush has launched a hugely expensive war, increased farm subsidies, and created a costly new Medicare entitlement, at the same time he has pushed through two huge tax cuts. Most economists say this is worse than irresponsible, it’s economic suicide. Republicans have traditionally been fiscal conservatives. How do your panelists manage to accept this?’ Well, look at the hands shoot up! Go ahead, ma'am. You first.”

Panelist #1: “I just shut my eyes to the facts, Blip. It’s sort of like a traffic accident, where you see a big SUV on your side of the road, about to crash into your car. The safest thing to do is just close your eyes, relax, and think of something else.”

Blip: “Techniques like that sound so simple, but they can be enormously helpful. Thanks for sharing that with us, #1. What about you there, in the back row?”

Panelist #2: “Blip, I think your questioner needs to remember that not everybody is poor. My husband and I have an income of over half a million dollars a year, and we’re just thrilled by the administration’s policies!”

Blip: “What is it about those policies you like?”

Panelist #2: “Well, basically, they’ve shifted a huge portion of the tax burden off our backs onto the poor and the middle class. We just think that’s great! We’ve finally been able to upgrade our yacht and remodel our vacation home in the Hamptons without worrying about disrupting our cash flow. So their policies may not work for everybody, but they work for us. I say, ‘Keep up the good work, George, and God bless you!’”

Blip: “An American success story. Terrific!

“Here’s our next question. 'The Bush administration inherited a budget surplus, and in three years has converted that into an annual deficit of five hundred billion dollars ($500,000,000,000). How do you deal with this colossal mishandling of America’s finances?'”

Panelist #3: “Blip, I just take the position that it’s not the administration’s fault. The dot.com bubble had to burst at some point, and 9/ll dealt a real blow to the economy.”

Blip: “And the fact that more than 60% of the huge budget gap is directly due to the Bush tax cuts?”

Panelist #3: “I just refuse to acknowledge unpleasant facts like that and keep talking about that dot.com bubble and September 11. It’s like the two-headed calf—you go on and on about how pretty its coat is, and how well it’s eating.”

Blip: “Does that work?”

Panelist #3: “With people who aren’t paying much attention. It’s not really lying, because the dot.com bubble and September 11 actually were factors. So I just keep repeating the same partial truth over and over again, and you’d be surprised how many people buy it!”

Blip: “Cynicism! You can’t beat it!

“How about another question? A viewer from Ball's Gap, West Virginia, writes, 'My husband has been out of work for nine months. Our car has been repossessed, we’ve lost our health insurance, and our son needs an operation. Apparently our story is not that unusual; 40% of the people out of work have been unemployed for more than 15 weeks, which sets a 20-year record. According to the Economic Policy Institute, if people like my husband hadn’t given up on looking for work, the official unemployment rate would be 7.4 percent. How does all that square with Mr. Bush’s rosy predictions that things are getting better and better?' Okay, panelists, that’s a toughy. Who wants to go first?”

Panelist #2: “Before we get to that, Biff, let me say first to the questioner that her story is just heart-wrenching, and my husband and I will put her on our prayer list.”

Blip: “Wonderful, wonderful.”

Panelist #4: “I’m surprised nobody has mentioned the obvious, Blip. Whenever people bring up this economic stuff or the mess in Iraq, I just start talking about gay marriage!”

Blip: “Gay marriage?”

Panelist #4: “Right. You wouldn’t believe how well that works! People get all fired up about it, and they stop worrying about their kids getting killed in Iraq or their husbands or wives losing their jobs. It’s fantastic!”

Panelist #3: “It’s too bad about all those poor people out of work, Blip, but I try to do the right thing—as the President’s spokesmen are always urging—and avoid the blame game and stop finger pointing.”

Blip: “In other words, you agree with them they shouldn’t be held accountable?”

Panelist #3: “Is that what they mean when they say that? Oh dear. I’m not sure I can go along with that.”

Blip: “Whoops! Looks as if our time is up. All right, that’s it for tonight. Hope you enjoyed our show. Join us again next week as we continue the unending battle to think well of ourselves on ‘Let’s Pretend!’

© Tony Russell, 2004

Friday, July 09, 2004

“And Tonight’s Winner Is …”

Tonight the twentieth annual Al Qaeda Convention conferred its Achievement Award, in absentia, on George W. Bush “For His Outstanding Efforts in Furthering the Cause of Terrorism Worldwide.”

In prepared remarks accompanying the award, the organization cited Mr. Bush’s “unrelenting efforts to undermine U.S. prestige and moral authority,” saying “he has done more than any other single person to make the world an unsafe place to live and raise a family.”

Following the prepared remarks, an organization spokesman said, “This has been a banner year for us, and Mr. Bush deserves a lot of the credit. The American invasion of Iraq has been exposed to the entire world as a fraud, based on lies. The needless deaths of thousands of Muslims, the desecration of holy sites, the administration’s lopsided support of Israel, the revelations accompanying the torture photos, the references to the war as a ‘crusade’—these things have galvanized Muslims all over the world to support our cause.

“But when you add to all those things Mr. Bush’s efforts to weaken the historic alliances between Europe and the U.S., his attempts to undermine the Geneva Convention, his opposition to the World Court, and his dismissal of the United Nations and the Security Council, it’s hard to see how this administration could have done more on our behalf!

“On top of all that, Mr. Bush obligingly spent most of his first months in office on vacation, helpfully ignoring the warnings about al Qaeda plans to use hijacked domestic aircraft to strike at the United States. In a very real sense, then, he helped make the success of September 11 possible.

“Terrorism breeds in poverty, in powerlessness, in lack of hope,” he continued. “That fits the Bush agenda to a ‘t.’ His administration has fattened the rich at the expense of everyone else. They have cloaked government in secrecy. They have stripped their own citizens of the basic freedoms they are always prattling about. And they are draining the treasury of their country for foreign adventures. The country is devouring itself! It’s tempting just to stand aside and watch the U.S self-destruct!”

“With enemies like this,” he quipped, “who needs friends?”

The spokesman noted that terrorism is now firmly rooted in Iraq and that recruits are flocking to al Qaeda in droves. “Plus,” he said, “we’re stronger in places like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Afghanistan, and Jordan than we have ever been! It seems as if every other kid you meet wants to be a suicide bomber!”

The climax of the evening was a set of simultaneous car bombings in Fallujah, Baghdad, and Kabul, broadcast live in the convention center on giant closed circuit TVs.

© Tony Russell, 2004

Thursday, July 01, 2004

“Let’s Pretend”

Announcer: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome, once again, to “Let’s Pretend,” the new Unreality TV show that the whole nation is talking about! And now, here’s our host, Blip Barker!” [Applause, digitally amplified to the level of thunder]

Blip: “Thank you! Good evening, everyone! Welcome to the show that explores the ways millions of Americans turn their backs on reality! Tonight we’re going to focus our show on Gulf War II. We’ve gathered a great set of panelists, all ready to share their techniques with you. We hope each of you out there watching can take something away from the show that you can use in your own life. We’ll get to it right after this important message from our sponsors.” [Cut to commercial by utility companies extolling the health benefits of mercury emissions]

Blip [Addressing panelists]: “All right! Let’s get started! We have an exciting list of questions this week, submitted by our viewing audience! I’ll read each question, and those of you who want to take a swing at it raise your hand, identify yourself, and jump right in.”

Blip [Looking directly into the camera]: “Our first question is from a viewer in Strawberry Plains, Tennessee. He writes, ‘I am having a hard time dealing with the fact that both of the major reasons we went to war against Iraq turn out to have been false. No weapons of mass destruction have been found, and the bipartisan 9/11 commission says definitively that there were no ties between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Can your panelists explain how they are able to continue to support an administration guilty of either criminal deception or inexcusable incompetence?’

“Well, panelists, there’s a tough one for openers! Who wants to take the first crack at it?”

Panelist #1: “I’ll give it a stab, Blip. What works best for me is blind faith. I just ignore the facts and put my trust in the President. When he says, ‘The reason we said that there is a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda is that there’s a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda,’ that settles it for me! I mean, the whole definition of faith is ‘trust in things unseen,’ and nobody has actually seen any connection—or any weapons of mass destruction. You’ve just got to believe!”

Blip: “That’s just great! Panelist number two, you had your hand up?”

Panelist #2: “Yes. I wanted to say that labeling and name-calling work really well for me. When somebody criticizes the President or his administration, I just dismiss it all as liberal propaganda. That way I don’t even have to bother dealing with their facts and arguments, because I know they’re wrong to begin with!”

Blip: “Good, good. Let me just ask a follow-up question, number two. If the criticism is from Republicans or former administration officials or bipartisan groups or retired military officers or former ambassadors or anonymous intelligence analysts, is it any harder to dismiss them?”

Panelist #2: “No, it isn’t, Blip. Of course the liberal label doesn’t work in those cases, but I’m able to dismiss critics like that on a variety of other grounds—people trying to promote a book they wrote, people disgruntled because they’re out of the loop now, et cetera.”

Blip: “And so that keeps you from hearing anything they might have to say?”

Panelist #2: “It does. It works great. In one ear and out the other!”

Blip: “Terrific! That’s terrific! Before we tackle another question, let’s hear from the people who bring you our show. Don’t go away!” [Cut to commercial by Halliburton showing smiling employees in immaculate kitchens and dining halls, preparing and serving sumptuous feasts to delighted men and women in uniform.]

Blip: “Welcome back to ‘Let’s Pretend!’ Our next question is from a viewer in Cut and Shoot, Texas. He writes, ‘I would like to know, from those panelists like me who voted for this administration, contributed money to its campaign, and support it politically, how they avoid feeling they have blood on their hands, now that it’s clear the war in Iraq was totally unnecessary, and we’re left with over 800 American soldiers dead, as well as maybe 10,000 Iraqi civilians—women and children as well as men, people who would be alive today if we hadn’t invaded Iraq.'

[Blip looks up.] “Well, how about it, Bush backers? Do you feel responsible in any way for all those corpses, those amputees, those body bags?”

Panelist #3: “Blip, I’d have to say I find that question offensive. So that’s the way I deal with it. I get really defensive. The bodies don’t bother me, but the question does. No way am I taking responsibility for the consequences of my political choices. I just disconnect. That way I can enjoy my politics without regard to their results.”

Blip: “That’s got to be a big help: just cut your conscience out of the equation! Thanks for passing that on, number three. Our audience is looking for tips like these that can help them navigate life’s tougher challenges.”

Panelist #4: “Blip, I’ve got to say that this whole Gulf War thing is just playing out the Biblical scenario for the end times and the Rapture. So none of it bothers me, because it’s all working to fulfill God’s plan.”

Blip: “So you believe the war has a Divine Sponsor?”

Panelist #4 [Laughing]: “If you want to frame it in television terms, I guess you could put it that way.”

Blip: “All right, I guess that about wraps it up for tonight. Hope you enjoyed our show. Join us again next week as we continue the unending battle to think well of ourselves on ‘Let’s Pretend!’

[Audience cheers as photo of huge American flag is gradually superimposed on screen while camera pans over the group of panelists. Fade to commercial featuring Enron executives encouraging people to invest in their company and ‘America’s Energy Future.’]

© Tony Russell, 2004

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

“Sauce for the Goose”

[Cringingly] “Excellency, pardon me for interrupting your morning session in the harem with the Playmates, but we have received an urgent communiqué from the American ambassador.”

“No harm done, Abdul, we needed a break anyway. [Aside: “Girls, take ten.”] What’s this about a message from the American ambassador?”

“He wishes to lodge a formal protest about our treatment of American prisoners, Excellency.”

[Astonished] “Whatever in the world for?”

[Apologetically] “He alleges that we are routinely torturing them, Excellency.”

“In what ways?”

“He says that we have been forcing U.S. prisoners to kneel for hours on end, depriving them of sleep for days on end, forcing them to strip naked and masturbate in front of women, hooding them for long periods of time, feeding them bread and water, attaching wires to their genitals and shocking them, and subjecting them to near-asphyxiation. He alleges that a number of U.S. prisoners have died as a result of this treatment.”

“Of course. What of it?”

“He claimed such treatment was a violation of the Geneva Convention.”

“I hope you told him that I, as commander-in-chief, am empowered to make any decisions necessary for our nation’s defense, and that included ignoring the Geneva Convention?”

“I told him, Your Excellency, though he scoffed at the notion. Then I told him that, in fact, none of the actions he mentioned could properly be considered ‘torture.’ I told him that him that for physical pain to amount to torture, it must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”

“What did he say?”

“He heaped scorn on the definition. He said—begging your pardon, Excellency—that he knew torture when he saw it, that the definition was poppycock, and wondered where we ever came up with a definition that violated both common sense and civilized norms. He claimed that it was simply legal gobbledygook served up to justify inhumane treatment. He said we were—begging your pardon again, Excellency—nothing but war criminals, and he hoped to see us hanged.”

“You told him, I hope, that we had a sound legal basis for our actions?”

“I did, Your Excellency. I told him how much we had admired the interrogation techniques employed by the U.S. in Iraq, Afghanistan, and at Guantanamo Bay. I said that, accordingly, we had taken our guidance, word for word, from the memo used to justify interrogation methods used by the U.S.—the one Mr. Bush requested from his legal counsel, Alberto Gonzales.”

“And his response?”

“He was quiet for a moment, Excellency. Then he said, ‘Excuse me. I see I am protesting in the wrong place.’ And he left.”

[Potentate laughs.] “Thanks for keeping me posted, Abdul. Okay, girls. Time to get back to work.”

© Tony Russell, 2004

Thursday, June 03, 2004

“Metaphors Are Sprouting Everywhere”

The Bush administration’s propaganda curtain over Iraq is finally lifting. Colorful metaphors are sprouting everywhere, like blossoms of truth after a long winter of lies and deception.

· Gen. Anthony Zinni said on “60 Minutes” that the problem with the administration’s “stay the course” plan for Iraq is that "the course is headed over
Niagara Falls."

· General Joseph Hoar, a former commander in chief of US central command, told the Senate foreign relations committee, "I believe we are absolutely on the brink of failure. We are looking into the abyss.”

· Bob Herbert, writing in the New York Times, says, “…we all may be passengers in a vehicle that has made a radically wrong turn and is barreling along a dark road, with its headlights off and with someone behind the wheel who may not know how to drive.”

· Byron Williams, a pastor in Oakland, California, uses a medical metaphor: “What the president now has is an obstinate policy that is allergic to self-reflection.”

This administration came into office as the self-proclaimed “grown ups,” the mature, competent managers who would give the rest of us a demonstration of how things are supposed to be done. Instead, their failures in Iraq exemplify their record across the board. In a mere three and a half years, they have managed to screw up so many things so badly that whoever follows them will have to work day and night just to clean up their mess.

Interestingly, the most withering criticism of the administration isn’t coming from Democrats. It’s coming from Republicans, from retired military officers now free to speak their minds, even from former Bush administration officials. Mark Helprin, for example, is a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, now a contributing editor to the Wall Street Journal (not exactly a bastion of liberalism). Helprin writes that Abu Ghraib is "a symbol of the inescapable fact that the war has been run incompetently, with an apparently deliberate contempt for history, strategy, and thought." (Personally, I would add to that list “an apparently deliberate contempt” for justice, respect for other cultures and religions, and empathy for other human beings.)

Or take Gen. Zinni again, who collaborated with Tom Clancy, long a darling of the militarists in the administration, on a forthcoming book, Battle Ready. Zinni’s judgment on the administration’s handling of Iraq? "In the lead-up to the Iraq war and its later conduct, I saw, at minimum, true dereliction, negligence and irresponsibility; at worst, lying, incompetence and corruption.”

Say ‘Amen!’ Who would have believed that in less than one term of office, ANY administration could: Inherit a balanced budget, and turn it into annual deficits approaching half a trillion dollars? Shed American jobs in the millions? Replace well-paying, secure, rewarding work with marginal, low-wage service jobs? Alienate traditional allies? Undermine the United Nations? Withdraw from vital international treaties? Sully America’s reputation? Give the green light to torture and abuse? Fuel a global religious conflict? Spur the growth of terrorism? Make the strategically vital Middle East dangerously unstable? Botch the aftermath of military conquest in Iraq? Assault basic American rights with the wildly-misnamed “Patriot Act”? Shift the tax burden more and more onto the shoulders of the middle class and the poor?

And on and on. The Bush administration record is so thoroughly dismal, its actions so offensive to America’s core beliefs and values, that supporting it takes denial to an extreme never seen before in our country. Over and over, the same words have been used by Republicans and Democrats alike to describe this crew—words like “arrogant,” “obstinate,” “stubborn,” and “deceptive.” Let’s close with one more metaphor, from a friend of mine, writing from Virginia: “Arrogance and secrecy have spread through this administration like a cancer, and it’s eating out America’s core.”

© Tony Russell, 2004

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

“Public Service Is a Public Trust”

“It looks like we’re about out of Chateau Ste. Michelle Chardonnay, John, and we’re having friends over for dinner tonight. Could you have your secretary call the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers and ask them to send over a few bottles of unsolicited gifts?”

“Sure thing, sweetheart. How many?”

“About eight cases should do it for now. Be sure and have her tell them that it will add to the ‘elegant ambience at the residence.’”

“Will do. Should I have her order some beer at the same time?”

“Gosh, thanks for the reminder. Yes, have her call Anheuser-Busch and tell them we’d like three unsolicited cases from them, too. And she could order some of those free expensive Cuban cigars you and your friends like, while she’s at it.”

“Who’s coming, anyway?”

“Oh, just the usual lobbyists. Dave and his wife couldn’t make it because he’s tied up supervising the remodeling at our summer cottage.”

“That’s a shame. We haven’t seen them since we all got those free lift tickets up in Vermont. Darned white of him to do all that remodeling work for nothing, out of the goodness of his heart.”

“It is, isn’t it? Maybe you could steer a state contract his way or something, just as a reward.”

“You know, I’ve been thinking the same thing. What’s the good of being governor if you can’t do something nice once in a while for your friends?”

“It’s like a religious obligation, isn’t it? ‘Do unto others as they have done unto you.’”

“We phrase it a little differently in politics. We say, ‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.’ Same idea, though. What do you have in mind to do afterwards?”

“There’s a big Michael Bolton concert in town, starting at 8. I thought that would be a great way to cap off the evening.”

“Might be kind of tough to get tickets at this late date.”

“Tickets? Since when do we need tickets?”

[Embarrassed.] “What was I thinking of? I’ll just have my secretary notify them that I’ll be attending the opening night ceremonies in my official capacity as governor with—what, my wife and six guests?”

“Make that eight guests. And don’t forget about next weekend.”

“Next weekend?”

“I thought we’d take advantage of that honorary membership they gave you to the Essex Yacht Club.”

“Sounds good to me. Is there anything else before I head back to the office?”

“Oh yes. What should I do about these four pairs of socks someone upstate sent as a gift?”

“I’m surprised you even asked! Return them immediately, with a note of regret that we want to avoid all appearances of impropriety. Public service is a public trust.”

© Tony Russell, 2004

Saturday, May 29, 2004

“Life Ends at Birth”

I was talking with a friend who is heavily into the “pro-life” movement.

“Weren’t you once called the ‘anti-abortion’ movement’?” I asked.

“Gosh,” she said, “that was years ago. I’m surprised anybody even remembers that any more.”

“What was the reason for the change?” I wondered.

“Well, partly it was just a matter of changing people’s perceptions of us. We wanted to be seen as bringing a positive message, not a negative one. We’re for something, not against something. And then, nobody wants to be lumped in with all those ‘anti’ groups. The grape boycotters, the anti-globalization crew, the anti-apartheid bunch, etc.”

“’Pro-life’ certainly does sound positive,” I agreed. “And pretty all-encompassing. It must be a challenge to match the movement’s actions with its rhetoric.”

“What do you mean?” she said.

“Well, you know. Life! I mean, nobody could be pro-life and for the death penalty, for example. That lays it out pretty plainly, doesn’t it? ‘Life’ versus ‘death’? If a person is pro-life he couldn’t be pro-death, could he?”

“Oh, sure he could,” she responded. “Take the President. He’s strongly pro-life, and he signed execution warrants for over two hundred people when he was governor of Texas.”

“What about war, then?” I asked. “Nobody knows how many people have been killed in the latest Gulf War—maybe twenty-five thousand or so. And that war is a poster child for stupid wars—illegal, unnecessary, brutal, giving rise to more terrorism, more hatred, more instability. Surely a person couldn’t be pro-life and support a war where thousands and thousands of lives have been squandered.”

She said uneasily, “This administration is staunchly pro-life. We support them wholeheartedly.”

“Well, I was wondering if you were going to expand your line of bumper stickers and billboards?”

“Like what?”

“I was thinking of bumper stickers like ‘I’m 4 Life. Stop the War.’ Or ‘Vote Pro-Life. End the Death Penalty.’ And maybe, in addition to those pictures of fetuses with captions like ‘Abortion Stops a Beating Heart,’ you could put up billboards with children cut in half or decapitated by cluster bombs, and captions like ‘Cluster Bombs Stop Beating Hearts.’”

“We’d really rather not go there,” she said. “With abortion, you’re talking about innocent life. With the death penalty, some of those people executed have committed crimes—vicious ones. And some of the people killed in war are really bad guys.”

“Let me see if I get this straight, then. When you say you’re ‘pro-life,’ you’re actually only talking about fetal life. ‘Life’ essentially ends at…”



© Tony Russell, 2004

Sunday, May 23, 2004

“A Man Who Makes His Own Luck”

We were all sitting around the barbershop, conducting our usual grassroots political symposium.

“This prisoner-abuse thing is really gonna hurt Bush,” said Easy Ed. “It looks like him and Rumsfeld are in it up to their eyeballs.”

“The average man-in-the-street thinks it’ll hurt him,” said Bunson, “but it ain’t necessarily so.”

The barbershop grew quiet. You could have heard a hair drop.

“How do you figure?” Ed asked cautiously.

“Look at it this way,” said Bunson. “Bush was getting clobbered on ignoring all those warnings about terrorists—how they were planning attacks using airplanes. He got some of the warnings right before September 11, and then he took off for a month’s vacation. This business about Al Ghraib takes him off the hook.”

“Actually,” said Lum, “he was lucky that thing about ignoring warnings came up, because before that all people were talking about was his going AWOL from National Guard duty during the Vietnam war.”

“I see what you mean,” I said. “That National Guard thing was bad business. He was vulnerable on that that all right.”

“Naw,” said Lum, “you’ve got it all wrong. That National Guard controversy was actually a piece of luck,” because until that came up, everybody was focused on that lie in the State of the Union speech. The one about Iraq’s nuclear program.”

Ed jumped in to disagree. “Use your head!” he said. “That whole ‘sixteen words’ controversy was a godsend. It took people’s minds off those missing weapons of mass destruction. That was getting to be a real embarrassment. I mean, that was supposed to be the whole reason for starting the war.”

Bunson guffawed. “Are you crazy? That ‘weapons of mass destruction’ fiasco was the best thing that could have happened to him. It took everybody’s attention away from the Enron mess. Enron and Kenneth Lay bankrolled Bush’s whole political career. They were by far his biggest campaign backers, and half the people in his administration were dipping from the Enron honey pot.”

Lum disagreed. “That Enron scandal was just what he needed. Once that broke, people stopped talking about his pushing huge tax breaks for the rich when the economy was shedding jobs like needles off an old Christmas tree.”

“That uproar over the tax cuts and unemployment actually worked to his advantage,” claimed Ed. “People stopped talking about how his operatives and right-wingers on the Supreme Court stole the election.”

Bunson held up his hand. “Boys,” he said, “you’re acting as if these breaks just dropped out of the skies. But when you look at it, he’s a man who makes his own luck.”

© Tony Russell, 2004

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

“Faith-Based Science”

We were taking a break in my adult computer class, just shooting the breeze, when one of the women, Dwanella, said, “Did you see that the park superintendent at the Grand Canyon tried to keep their store from stocking a creationist version of the history of the canyon?”

“Why in the world would he do a thing like that?” wondered Willemena, a housewife trying to get ready to enter the work force.

“He claimed that they were legally bound to offer interpretive materials that had a sound scientific base.”

“What kind of heathen is he, do you suppose?”

“I don’t know, but I’m sure glad the administration set him straight.”

“Isn’t it great to have a President who actually believes the world was created in six days?” said Willemena enthusiastically.

“It is. I know that, with all these so-called environmental crises, like global warming, it’s reassuring to have a President who’ll tackle the tough scientific issues in a responsible way,” said Dwanella, with just as much enthusiasm.

I noticed that the other class members had been listening intently to this exchange.

Finally, Binkley couldn’t restrain himself. “I wonder if they’d stock my book laying out scientific proof that the earth is flat?” he said.

“You wrote a book too?” exclaimed Norvell. “I just completed one on Elvis sightings in national parks!”

“This is an incredible coincidence!” said Lou. “I have a book ready to go to print on how the Grand Canyon was created by alien miners who hauled millions of tons of rock from the site and deposited them in another galaxy!”

My cousin Grover had his ears perked up. “I wasn’t going to say anything,” he said, “but I can see I’m in the company of like-minded people. I’ve just finished a book on a new scientific method for dating fossils.”

“I didn’t know you were a scientist, Grover,” said Norvell.

“Got dual degrees in archaeology and anthropology from Bible college,” said Grover. “Mostly close reading in Genesis.”

“What’s your method?” asked Lou. “If it’s not too technical for laypeople.”

“I think it can put it in language the nonscientist can understand,” said Grover. “You gently remove all foreign matter from the fossil, scrub it with a toothbrush dipped in a paste made from water and baking soda, and when it dries, wrap it in pages from the Old Testament. Let it sit for six days, then unwrap the fossil, throw the fossil away, and read the Old Testament. The fossil will be just over 6,000 years old.”

“That sounds fascinating,” said Dwanella. “Do you think you can get it published?”

“I’m talking to somebody in Karl Rove’s office,” said Grover. “They have a strong interest in faith-based science at the White House. Especially in an election year.”

© Tony Russell, 2004

Saturday, February 21, 2004

“Show Me the Numbers”

Patty pulls together our annual budget, and then we try to fit into it. It’s like my putting on the swimming trunks I wore in high school—an ugly picture. I was really stewing about this year’s budget, with the cost of everything going up and neither one of us getting a raise.

“How’s it look, Patty?” I asked.

She stopped chewing on her eraser for a minute. “Not too bad,” she said. “I think I’ve got it finagled so we can still eat.”

“That’s a joke, right?” I said nervously.

“There’s nothing humorous about this budget,” she grunted. “We’ll have to borrow some to make it work, but it could have been a lot worse. If I hadn’t had the White House budget for a guide, I don’t know how we could have done it.”

“Show me what you’ve got there,” I said.

“Okay,” she said. “First, under medical care, I’ve put the cost of our insurance premiums, as well as what we usually spend on co-payments and deductibles. That usually runs us in the neighborhood of $8,000, so I estimated $6,000.”

“If it’s likely to cost $8,000, why did you put in $6,000?” I asked.

“Well, that’s what the administration did with the costs for the new Medicare bill,” she said. “It makes the budget more manageable.”

“Oh, okay,” I said.

“Then I just set aside housing expenses—the mortgage, maintenance, repairs, home owner’s insurance, that kind of thing—until 2005. That way it doesn’t throw this year’s budget out of whack.”

“Can you do that?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said. “That’s what the administration did with the cost of the war in Iraq. They didn’t include it in the budget at all.”

“But don’t we still have to pay for housing expenses as we go along?”

“Of course,” she said, looking at me as if I were an idiot. “You don’t think the bank is going to sit there while we skip our payments, do you? We just don’t show any of it until next year. Got it?”

“Boy, I’m glad it’s you doing this,” I confessed. “It’s all too complicated for me. If you had asked me, I would have said there was something screwy about this budget, and we ought to be really worried about all those expenses you aren’t showing.”

“Well, I did have to cut some things,” she admitted. “The food budget is down, no braces for the girls’ teeth, no more dance lessons, church and charity contributions, trash disposal, museum membership, vet services, septic system cleaning, things like that. But I really upped money for the burglary alarm system, your gun collection, and a trip abroad.”

“At least you’ve got your priorities straight,” I said with relief.

“And think of the jobs we’re helping to create,” she said.

“I hadn’t thought of that,” I admitted. “The economy can use the help. What kinds of jobs are we giving a boost?”

“Bill collectors, gun dealers, and loan sharks.”

© Tony Russell, 2004

Saturday, February 14, 2004

“Parallel Universe”

“Thanks for meeting with me, Dr. Zweistein. My editor thought that having a Nobel Prize-winning physicist in town was an opportunity too good to be missed.”

“It is my pleasure, Mr. …”

“Ace. Just call me Ace.”

“Fine. How may I help you, Mr. Ace?”

“Well, maybe you could just explain to me what your research was about. And could you kind of keep it simple? My last science course was in the 9th grade, and I got a ‘D’ then. After that I sort of majored in football and girls.”

“I see. I’ll do my best. Um, first off, my research is still ongoing, so your reference to it in the past tense is misleading. But that small detail aside, I would say, generally speaking, that the Nobel committee was intrigued by my pioneering work in an entirely new scientific field, where physics intersects with psychology.”

“Doc, that doesn’t say a whole lot to me. Could you break that down a little bit?”

“Certainly. My studies in physics early on were of a theoretical nature, dealing with the possibility of parallel universes. My interest in the political dimension was aroused by the complete mismatch between what we might call the ‘historical record’ –that is, the document trail, the photographic and audio archives, and the observations of a variety of participants—on the one hand, and the pronouncements of the Bush administration on the other. What I came to realize was that most of us, most of the time, live in what I have called ‘the real world,’ while the Bush administration does indeed operate in a ‘parallel universe.’ To find this tangible illustration of my physics theories was an incredible stroke of luck.”

“I’m not sure I follow you, Doc. Could you give me a ‘for instance’ or two?”

“Of course. Take the issue of the weapons inspectors in Iraq. Now, in the ‘real world,’ we know that those inspectors were there, working hard, and only left because the U.S. was preparing to attack. We have their reports, we have their names and credentials, we have lists of sites they visited and inspected. But President Bush said that one of the reasons he had to go to war was that Saddam Hussein wouldn’t let the weapons inspectors in. And Senator Pat Roberts, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the same thing. Remember, these are people in the highest levels of government, briefed constantly on the latest developments, dealing with life-and-death issues. Now, what would a person in the real world conclude from Mr. Bush and Mr. Roberts’s statements?”

“Gee, I don’t know. I guess I’d have to say they were either totally clueless about what was going on, or they were so cynical they thought they could say anything and it wouldn’t come back to bite them.”

“Aha! That’s a typical layman’s response. But I began to see so many examples of this phenomenon that I told myself, ‘Surely no one in such responsible positions could possibly be that ignorant or that cynical. There must be an alternative explanation.’”

“I think I’m starting to see where you’re headed. Could you give me any more examples?”

“Easily. Take the questions about Mr. Bush’s National Guard service during the Vietnam War. Now in the ‘real world,’ it appears that Mr. Bush simply, as young people would put it, ‘blew off’ his obligation for about a year. His commanding officers say they never saw him; nobody can turn up anybody who says he was ever around. But he has pay stubs for some of the time, and an honorable discharge. How do you square those things?

“Well, before we started talking, I would have said that he never showed up, and he got paid and an honorable discharge because his connections pulled strings. But if I understand what you’re saying, he did fulfill his obligation—not in the ‘real world,’ but in that ‘parallel universe.’

“Bravo, Mr. Ace! Let’s look at one more example. This one is a little more complex—the
budget deficit. Mr. Bush says that the deficit is caused by having to respond to the terrorist threat after September 11, and by drops in income after the stock market fell. That’s the view from the parallel universe. In the ‘real world,’ –for example, in reports by the Congressional Budget Office—the picture is entirely different.”

“Different how?”

“Well, in the ‘real world,’ the primary cause was something that Mr. Bush didn’t mention at all. His tax cuts for the rich. The government’s revenue from individual income taxes was actually less in 2004 than it was in the year 2000. Can you imagine that? And that decrease accounts for almost 60 percent of the shift from a surplus to a deficit.”

“So somehow the way those tax cuts are killing the budget just doesn’t get into Mr. Bush’s explanation?”

“That’s right. But as a scientist, I must always ask ‘Why?’”

“Well, I’m no expert here, Doc. I guess I’d have to say, ‘It looks like the tax cuts were terrible policy, and he won’t admit it. He thinks we’re too dumb or apathetic to actually look at the budget.’”

“There you are again. But once more I told myself, ‘No President could possibly be so irresponsible as to deliberately cut revenues and then attempt to mask the effects.’”

“So if we rule out ignorance or cynicism or irresponsibility as explanations for things like these, we’re left with ….”

“Yes! This is where my ‘Parallel Universe Theory’ comes in! The ‘parallel universe’ looks like the ‘real world,’ but the rules of logic and evidence are totally different. They intersect at many points, so studying the areas where they touch and interact has been fascinating from a scientific viewpoint. Just fascinating.”

“How are the rules of logic and evidence different?”

“That’s the elegant part of my theory. Both worlds have the appearance of functioning logically. And in fact, they both do. But in the Bush world, logic flows in the opposite direction. Instead of starting with facts and working toward a conclusion, as things operate in the ‘real world,’ they start with the conclusion and work backwards to create the facts they need. ‘Facts’ and ‘evidence’ are created or disappear, based on whether they support the conclusion with which they began.”

“I think I’m getting it. So that’s the whole ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ thing!”

“You do get it! Right! They started with the conclusion—they wanted to go to war—and created the facts and evidence they wanted. Tons of chemicals. Nuclear weapons. Anthrax and botulism. Iraq was full of them—in the parallel universe.”

“And once they had the war, and our soldiers were on the ground, we were in the real world, where none of that stuff existed!”

“You do understand! It all works out in a way consistent with my theory!”

“Wow! Thanks, Doc. I can’t wait to get home and explain this all to Patty! She always accuses me of lying about where I go on Saturday nights, and here I’ve been entering a parallel universe!”

© Tony Russell, 2004

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

“Return of The Emperor’s New Clothes”

It’s not true that everyone admired the emperor’s new clothes. Oh, Fox News ran nightly specials with its correspondents praising the emperor’s fashion judgment. The Wall Street Journal declared that he had “grown into his new garments.”

But occasionally a boy or girl would glance up from a computer screen and say, “What are you all talking about? He’s as bare as the day he was born!” Adults were shocked at the young people’s cynicism. “Every generation seems worse than the last,” they would complain, and throw up their hands.

And in the Senate, venerable Sir Robert would rise to point out that, despite all the hoopla about the emperor’s clothes, one could still tell the size of the Jockey cup he needed, and could still see the scar where he had had his appendix removed. When Sir Robert began to speak, however, the other nobles would yawn, stretch, and look at their watches. “Let’s go read the polls,” they would say, and walk out of the chamber, leaving Sir Robert talking to empty seats.

The emperor’s friends and staff attacked the critics of his clothes. “Jealous,” they said, “and unpatriotic as well. Those garments are made out of our nation’s flags and sewn with threads of gold.” They trotted out tailors who swore they knew where the thread and material had come from. “The evidence for the existence of these garments is massive and undeniable,” they trumpeted. The Prime Minister of an ally declared, “These new garments are fantastic! I must have a set for myself!”

The bill for the new garments was astronomical, but the emperor was unconcerned. He decreed that taxes on the nobles be radically reduced. The peasants cheered, although the burden of paying the kingdom’s bills now fell more heavily on their shoulders.

The emperor’s brother, Prince Neil, and his uncle, Lord William, made their fortunes as “consultants” to companies that worked on the clothes. Billions of dollars of no-bid contracts went to the vice emperor’s old firm, which cleaned, maintained, and repaired the imperial garments; transported them from place to place; and fed the army of tailors at work on them.

Nonetheless, the emperor seems less inclined now to parade his new clothes. “I was given bad advice on the selection of material and on piecing the sections together,” he explains. Only this week he announced that he is creating a committee of inquiry to determine how his tailors could have made something so shoddy.

Of course, the emperor had commissioned the new garments. He and his vice emperor had demanded a certain design and specific materials. They had refused to wait for the royal inspectors to examine the pattern and cloth. “We can’t wait,” they had declared. “The emperor is throwing a big party; it’s been in planning for years.” When some of their tailors and seamstresses had looked at the material and complained, “There’s nothing here to work with,” they had been dismissed, or told to be quiet and get busy spinning and sewing.

There has been no single moment when a child exclaimed, “But he’s not wearing any clothes!” and the whole charade collapsed. Enlightenment has been slow. In fact, 45% of the empire refuses to believe to this day that a “born again” emperor would wear nothing but his birthday suit in public. Millions still look at his goosepimpled skin and see silk and ermine, with golden thread gleaming so brightly it blinds their eyes. One partisan declared, “Of course he’s dressed in new clothes. The proof is the weather. If he were trotting around naked in this freezing cold, he’d catch his death of pneumonia!” Imperial spokesmen have announced that coughing, sneezing, and wheezing heard coming from the palace are caused by allergies. “He’s allergic to criticism,” they explain. “He always has this reaction.”

© Tony Russell, 2004

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

“Security Comes With a Price Tag”

Our Friday night bridge club met at the Cobbs’ this week. We pulled into their place at five after eight, and Patty let out a gasp. “What have they done?” she said. She was staring at a bulldozed strip between the parking lot and their gate. Not so much as a blade of grass stuck up from the frozen dirt.

“Webb must have been working on his perimeter defense,” I said. “Created a little no-man’s land.”

“But I loved that patch of woods,” lamented Patty. “That pretty little creek, and all the shade where the wildflowers grew in the spring. Spring beauties, violets, trillium, wild irises . …”

We climbed out of the car and headed for the tall block wall surrounding their compound. Searchlights swept the air, and I could hear their guard dogs snarling; the other card players must have got there just ahead of us.

“Have you emptied your pockets?” worried Patty. “You know what happened with Hazel and Ray.”

“I checked ‘em twice,” I said. “How about your purse?”

When we reached their steel gates. Patty grabbed the phone from a niche in the wall, punched in some numbers, and said loudly, “Stella, it’s us, Alpha Condor and Beta Zebra. Do you read me?”

“What’d she say?” I asked, when she hung up.

“She said she’d call me back in a minute on a secure line.”

A minute later, the phone rang. Patty picked it up. “Okay, Ace,” she said when she was finished. “Listen to me carefully for once. The gates will open in thirty seconds. They’ll only be open for five seconds, so don’t poke along the way you do. Once we’re inside, walk directly to the house on the sidewalk. The dogs won’t bother you if you stay on the walk. If you step off the walk, on the other hand ….” I got the picture.

We made it to the front door and stuck our thumbs in the identification device. I surveyed the house. It sure looked different from the way it had a few years ago. Bars over all the windows. Searchlights mounted on the roof. Gun ports every few feet along the walls.

“Home sweet home,” I said.

“Now Ace, don’t you start,” Patty said warningly.

Just then the door opened. “Ace, Patty, it’s so good to see you!” said Stella.

“Would you put your keys, your purse, and any other metal objects on this tray and set it on the conveyor belt,” said Webb, as he waved a wand over my person, then did the same to Patty.

“Good to see you too, old buddy,” I said. Patty glared and sent a command via marital telepathy: Behave yourself.

“What happened to your arm, Webb?” I asked, staring at the blood-soaked gauze wrapped around his forearm. His face flushed.

“Webb was shoveling the snow off the walk for you all, when he slipped on a patch of ice,” Stella said brightly. “He fell off the walk, and one of the dogs went for his throat. But he got his arm up, just in time.”

“That looks pretty ugly,” said Patty. “Shouldn’t you have a doctor check it?”

“I’m afraid we had to drop our health insurance,” said Stella. “We just couldn’t make the payments anymore. All those electronic gizmos, the electric bill for the searchlights, the food for the Dobermans, the dozer work… it all adds up.”

“I’ll bet it does,” said Patty. “I don’t see how you manage to keep it all up.”

“Well, you know that bumper sticker,” laughed Stella. “We’ve spent our children’s inheritance. Plus all of Webb’s retirement. This place is mortgaged to the hilt.”

“No health insurance, no retirement, and up to your ears in debt. You must be worried sick,” said Patty sympathetically.

“Security comes with a price tag,” said Webb.

“Yeah, insecurity,” I said.

“How are Hazel and Ray?” asked Patty, trying to change the subject.

There was an awkward silence. Then Webb said, “Officially, we don’t know who you’re talking about.”

“But unofficially,” said Stella, “they’re doing fine. Hazel’s lost twenty-five pounds on the soda crackers and water. She says she’d like for us to hold her until she gets down to a size six. Ray gripes about being awakened every forty-five minutes for interrogation, but you know Ray. He’s not happy unless he has something to complain about.”

“Why don’t you just let them go?” I said. “I know Ray was carrying a pocket knife. But lots of guys do. They’re handy. Cut the string on packages, make shavings to start a campfire, all kinds of stuff.”

Webb snorted. “So much for your security IQ,” he said. “I guess you didn’t know they just got back from the Middle East. I have reason to believe he was attending a terrorist training camp.”

“But they went with their church group on a tour of the Holy Land,” I yelped.

“A dummy organization, set up to funnel funds to terrorists,” scoffed Webb.

“Their daughter called me yesterday from Colorado,” said Patty. “She’s worried sick that she hasn’t heard from them for a month.”

“Sorry, but we can’t release any information on the prisoners,” said Webb.

“What about a lawyer?” said Patty.  “Shouldn’t they be able to talk with somebody?”

“This is a whole new ballgame,” said Webb. “In the face of the terrorist menace, all the rules have changed.”

“Which rules are those, Webb?” I asked. “The Golden Rule? The rules of hospitality? The Bill of Rights? I thought those were all still in effect.”

“Patty,” said Stella, “would you mind setting out the bridge mix and plugging in the coffee pot? Otherwise, I’m afraid these men will talk politics all night.”

© Tony Russell, 2004

Thursday, January 08, 2004

“Safety and Shame”

Joe Lieberman and John Kerry have been lambasting Howard Dean for saying that the capture of Saddam Hussein “did not make America safer.” Their attacks are shameless, but, in politics, shame takes a back seat to survival.

Why “shameless”? Because, given the information that is now part of the public record, Dean’s comment is so obviously true.

Look at it logically. America would be safer if three conditions were in effect. The first would be if Iraq had actually possessed chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, and the means to deliver them. But Iraq had neither the weapons nor the means. After eight months as masters of Iraq, the U.S. has nothing to show of either. The evidence—or lack of it—is indisputable.

America would be safer if Iraq had networked with al-Qaeda in launching the September 11 attack. But there was no such connection. Saddam Hussein was not involved in that attack. Even Mr. Bush now admits that.

America would be safer if Saddam Hussein had, from his hiding places, exerted command control over forces bent on attacking the United States. Instead, he was on the defense, running from hidey-hole to hidey-hole, without so much as a cell phone.

This whole bloody, expensive, disastrous war was built on lies, and on
demonizing Saddam. Saddam Hussein was a cruel despot, yes. One armed and supported for years, in fact by the U.S. government and the CIA. Like Noriega and Osama bin Laden (earlier demons), Saddam Hussein was one of our guys, even when he was torturing and assassinating people, gassing Kurds, and all the rest of it. But a menace to the U.S. at this point? No way.

If Saddam was not a real threat, removing him makes us no safer than we were before. That’s elementary logic.

Except when your campaign is in desperate straits.

So Lieberman and Kerry are willing to lend the administration’s lies some credibility, surrender on a central issue in the unlikely event either wins the nomination; and hand Republicans a club to use on the likely Democratic nominee—all in order to gain ground in the polls. Dean’s comment, they claim, shows he “lacks the experience” to lead the country in foreign affairs. For many voters, however, their responses only underline that they have been tainted by their own Washington experience.

Lieberman may believe what he says, which isn’t necessarily a virtue. Kerry clearly knows better. He has been busy explaining to reporters that he authorized the President to go to war because the President deceived him. The President lied about his willingness to consult with others, Kerry has said, as well as about using war only as a last resort. And he has said that he and other senators were briefed by the administration with intelligence—later proven to be concocted—which seemed to document the immediate threat posed by Saddam Hussein. I took the high-minded, bipartisan route of loyalty, he says in effect, and was used like a fool.

But Kerry can’t have it both ways. He can’t excuse his vote authorizing the President to go to war against Iraq by claiming he was deceived, and then attack Howard Dean by acting as if those lies were all true. And if he or Senator Lieberman should win the Democratic nomination, what would they have left to run on? In their search for a way to wound Dean, they will have already conceded the most contentious issue of the campaign to Mr. Bush.

© Tony Russell, 2004