Thursday, June 30, 2005

“I’ll Meet You in the Lobby”

“Chuck, how’s it going, buddy? Long time no see!”

“Hey, Jack, good to see you! I’m just so damned busy since I joined the Congressman’s staff that I haven’t had time to do much of anything except milk the system and churn out public relations. I’m on the go all the time.”

“So you’ve been doing some traveling, eh? Where’ve you been?”

“Let’s see. The National Association of Real Estate Agents and Diamond News Network each paid for a trip to New York City; banking company DRT gave me a ticket to a Mets game; the American Satellite TV Dealers Trade Association flew me to Phoenix, Arizona; and Big Time Bank Corps sent me to The Lakes, Nev., to tour a credit-card center. The National Association of Previously-Owned Automobile Dealers and the Pharmaceutical Marketing Agency paid for separate trips to Charleston, South Carolina, during the Spoleto Festival and Ripley, West Virginia, during the Mountain State Arts & Crafts Fair. Diamond News Network sent me to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, Lone Star State National Savings and Home Loan Bank took me to San Antonio during the NBA finals, and the Hawaiian Visitor Recruitment Agency flew me to Oahu for a five-day conference on beach erosion. God, I just love being in power! Ever since we took control of Congress, the lobbyists have outdone themselves.”

“Is it all travel?”

“No way! Take this outing right here. A buddy and I decided to organize happy hour. But who wants to pony up their own money, right? So I called up Lou—the sour looking guy in the pinstripe shirt—and invited him. He’s a lobbyist, and we’ll end up sticking him with the bill for the beer. Order yourself another pitcher; it’s on him!”

“Thanks. I guess having somebody pick up your beer tab really cuts your expenses, huh?”

“What expenses? This isn’t just about beer. When it’s time to eat, I pick a restaurant I want to eat at, call a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry or the energy industry, tell them I want a lunch meeting, eat, and hand’em the bill. Sometimes if I’m feeling generous, I bring the rest of the staff along.”

“Don’t the lobbyists get upset when you call them like that and then stick’em with the tab for your food?”

“Are you serious? They’re dying for you to call. The money’s not out of their pockets, and it’s something they can show their clients. ‘Sure we’ve got access to Congressman Sellout. I had lunch with one of his senior aides three times last week.’”

“Your overhead must be awfully low!”

“Jack, somebody else pays for everything. I got turned down for a mortgage last spring. They claimed my salary was too low for the house I wanted to buy. I said, ‘What do you mean my salary is too low? The only expenses I have are rent and utilities. The lobbyists pay for everything else.’ They said, ‘Oh, sorry, we didn’t realize you were with Congress,’ and the mortgage sailed right on through.”

“Don’t these industry lobbyists expect something in return?”

“You’re joking, right? For a few hundred thousand bucks worth of favors and campaign contributions, almost any industry can get legislation written that will be worth millions, maybe even billions of dollars. Hell, usually we let them write it themselves, to save ourselves the work. I’m ashamed we sell out so cheap; we’re the best deal in Washington! But listen to me go on. Enough about me, Jack. What are you doing these days?”

“I work as an investigator for the Government Accounting Office.”

© Tony Russell, 2005

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

“Uncle Sam’s Birthday”

Shorty was sitting in the barbershop, chewing the fat with Bert, when I stopped in for my daily dose of local news. “Hey,” I said, “how’s Uncle Sam doing? He’s got a birthday coming up, hasn’t he?”

“To tell the truth, he’s not doin’ that well, Ace,” Shorty said. “But what can you expect? He’s gonna be two hundred and twenty-nine years old. You can’t expect him to act like a young nation forever.”

“I always thought he had an iron constitution,” I said.

“Me too,” confessed Shorty. “But his constitution’s not what it used to be. Jailing people without charging them with a crime. Not allowing them to see a lawyer. Torturing people. Feeding lies to the public. Forking out money to religions. I’ll tell ya, he’s changed. It’s pathetic to see him go downhill like that.”

“I heard he’s having blackouts,” said Bert.

“Yeah, he just had one that lasted about six weeks,” said Shorty. “Proof that the President had lied to drag us into war. The story broke in England, and for six weeks, not a single major network, newspaper, or news magazine in this country gave it any notice.”

“That’s scary,” said Bert. “Anything could happen to him if he’s having episodes like that.”

“It’s funny how it came on him all of a sudden,” I reflected.

“Well, you know, he had that war fever a few years back, and then that patriotic fever right after that,” said Shorty, “and he’s never been the same since.”

“I don’t know that he’s over those fevers yet,” said Bert. “I think it’s like malaria. Once you get it in your system, you have these recurrent attacks.”

“You might be right,” said Shorty. “But the family has called in all kinds of specialists—Dr. Rice, Wolfowitz, Feith, Rumsfeld—and they all say to stick with their prescription.”

“Gee, I’d have to think twice about that,” said Bert. “If something’s not working, maybe it’s time to try something different.”

“A couple of people have suggested that,” said Shorty, “but these specialists insist their new treatment will work if you give it enough time.”

“Their treatment seems pretty harsh,” said Bert. “Are you sure that’s what Uncle Sam wants?”

“They’re hard on the poor and the middle class,” admitted Shorty. “But that’s what you get when you choose those guys.”

“Wolfowitz, Feith, Rumsfeld, Rice. Boy,” I mused, “their bills must really be something. Help like that doesn’t come cheap!”

“You can say that again,” agreed Shorty. “Over two hundred billion dollars is what I’ve heard.”

I whistled. “That much! I’ve heard the family has money, but how can they afford bills like that?”

“They can’t in the long term,” said Shorty. “They’re mortgaged their future to the hilt, they’re saddling their children and grandchildren with debt, and they’re in hock to China and other Asian nations for huge sums. And it’s not just money. It’s the human cost too. Over a hundred thousand people dead. People blinded, crippled, maimed, and emotionally devastated. Cities leveled, homes gutted, futures ruined, families destroyed.”

“Is that what the specialists said would happen?” I asked.

“No, it’s not,” said Shorty, after thinking about it for a minute. “They painted a pretty rosy picture at the start. They said the treatment would be cheap and practically pay for itself. They figured the war would be over in no time.”

“You know,” said Bert, “if they were so wrong about that, maybe they’re wrong about the rest of it too. Uncle Sam’s old ways worked pretty well. Maybe he knew what he was doing all along.”

“If he’s in that kind of shape,” I said, “it’s a good thing he’s got Medicare and his Social Security.”

“Oh yeah,” began Shorty. “I forgot to mention ….”

© Tony Russell, 2005

Saturday, June 18, 2005

“Picking an Editor/Editor’s Pick”

“What’s going on?” I asked Chet, staring at the crowd gathered around a row of plate glass windows.

“Are you just getting here, Ace?” said Chet. “If you’d get to work when you’re supposed to, you’d know that today is the finals of the competition to pick a new editor for the paper.”

“Oh, that’s right,” I said. “I forgot today was the day. How’s it going?”

“It’s down to the final four contestants,” said Chet. “They’re taking a lap around the course right now.” The crowd suddenly broke into loud, sustained cheers. “Sounds like something big!” he said.

We hurried over to the nearest window. “What happened?” asked Chet.

“Ol’ Norb blew’em away,” said Dale, who was standing near the front. “He jogged past the 500-pound gorilla without breaking stride, kept his eyes straight ahead as he stepped between the whales thrashing on the beach, and finished by walking right between the legs of the giant blue elephant without so much as giving it a glance! It was just like he didn’t see a thing!”

“Sounds like he’s got the right instincts,” I admitted. “Was that the final event?”

“Nah, one more to go,” said Dale, turning back around, anxious not to miss it. “In this event they have one minute to look through four stories, then pick the one they would feature on the front page of the evening edition.”

“What are the stories?” asked Chet.

“Let’s see. There’s one on Brad and Angelina, claiming she bought him a ring. There’s another about the mother in the Michael Jackson case. There’s one where Paris Hilton says she’s in love. And there’s one about a leaked memo showing that the Bush administration had secret plans to attack Iraq, and was manipulating the intelligence to make a phony case for the war.”

“Wow!” said Chet. “That’s a toughie!”

“Are you serious?” asked Dale scornfully. “It’s a slam-dunk.”

While the other three contestants were still brooding over their choice, Norb, without hesitation, held up the story about the mother in the Michael Jackson case. The judge glanced at the story, grabbed Norb’s hand, and lifted it in triumph.

“Yes! My man!” said Dale, pumping his fist in the air.

I looked at Chet. He must have seen the doubt on my face. “Now come on, Ace,” said Chet defensively. “You’ve got to admit he has a nose for news. His decision puts him in select company. The New York Times, the L A Times, the Washington Post, all of those big papers had editors who made the same choice.”

“I just don’t get it,” I said, shaking my head. “Michael Jackson is yesterday’s news. Paris Hilton is what’s happening. She’s hot!”

© Tony Russell, 2005

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

“The Case of the Disappearing Dateline”

“Next. Yes sir, how can I help you?”

The guy was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt. His clothes were rumpled and his eyes were haggard, as if he had been staring too long at possibilities that frightened him. He stepped up closer to the desk. “I want to report a missing story, Officer,” he said.

The officer at the desk, McSweeney, pulled the proper form out of the drawer. “How long has this story been missing?” he asked.

“Well, it was seen in England on May 1st, but it disappeared immediately after that.”

“May 1st!” said McSweeney. “And you’re just now reporting it missing?”

“I know, I know,” said the guy. “I kept thinking it would turn up someplace, and one day went by and then another. After a while I just lost track.”

“May 1st,” said McSweeney accusingly. “That’s six weeks. With every day that goes by in a case like this, it gets harder to revive the story.”

“I know,” said the guy again. “But it’s been all over the Internet; surely something can still be done.”

“We’ll see,” grunted McSweeney. “A cold case like this, it’s dicey. Can you describe this missing story to me?”

“Sure,” said the guy. “It’s big. Really big. Or it ought to be big. It’s nearly three years old. It’s the minutes from a meeting of Tony Blair’s cabinet in London. It was written eight months before the invasion of Iraq, and it basically says that the U.S. and Britain are planning to attack Iraq, and that the Bush administration is rigging the intelligence reports in a way to justify what the administration wants to do.”

McSweeney was scribbling notes rapidly. “That’s a pretty good description. We should be able to identify it with those details. How could something that big be missing? Where have you looked for the story?”

“I’ve looked everywhere,” said the guy pleadingly. “I’ve looked at CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, and all the major newspapers—the New York Times, the L A Times, the Washington Post and on and on. None of them carried the story. Not a trace!”

“You’re kidding, right?” said McSweeney. “A story that big and not a major news outlet in the country touches it?”

“It’s hard to understand,” admitted the guy.

“Do you have any theories on why it disappeared?”

The guy looked troubled. “None I want to believe,” he finally said.

“Come on,” said McSweeney. “A story this big doesn’t disappear on its own. It had some help.”

“What are the alternatives?” asked the guy. “A giant conspiracy involving all the major media? The Bush administration has them scared speechless? Collective blindness? A bias so pervasive it’s staggering?”

“We’re not ruling anything out at this point,” said McSweeney. “What kind of value do you set on the story?” he asked, going down to the next line on his form.

“It’s hard to set a price on something so central to a functioning democracy,” said the guy. “It’s almost priceless.”

“That’s what they all say,” said McSweeney cynically. “You think nobody’s ever set a price on truth?”

“I’ve been trying to keep tabs on what the war is costing us in dollars,” said the guy hesitantly. “I think it’s about $208 billion so far.”

“Value… $208 billion…,” said McSweeney as he wrote.

“Well, then there are the dead and wounded,” said the guy, almost apologizing. “I think it’s getting close to 1,700 Americans killed, and somewhere between 20,000 and 100,000 Iraqis.”

“That’s another department,” said McSweeney, looking up. “You’ll have to take that up with Homicide.”

© Tony Russell, 2005

Friday, June 10, 2005

“Drivers’ Rights”

Patty and I had just finished paying some bills and were ready to head into “Agatha’s Ashtray,” the friendly little coffee shop which functions as the town’s communication center, when out rushed Darrin Godsey, almost bowling Patty over. “I’m running late,” he blurted out. “I’m trying to get this petition over to the newspaper office in time to make this week’s edition, and you got in my way.”

“Must be a pretty hot issue to get you all fired up like that,” I observed.

“Fired up?” he said. “Oh, you must mean the smoke trailing from my jacket and shoes. No, that’s just a little remnant from the air inside. It’ll blow away in a few minutes.”

“So what’s the petition about?” I asked.

“Drivers’ rights,” he said triumphantly. “It’s the new hot button issue for the angry white male!”

“Well, congratulations,” I said. “I thought maybe you were about to run out of personal rights issues.”

“Not likely,” he scoffed. “As long as mushheads keep trying to push regulations down our throat based on some silly notion like ‘the common good’ or ‘a shared space,’ there’ll always be a cause for me to champion.”

“I hate to confess my ignorance,” said Patty, “but what exactly is this ‘drivers’ rights’ issue?”

“The county’s trying to set speed limits on the roadways and eliminate drunken driving,” he said. “They claim it’s a public health issue. Have you ever heard of such a crazy thing? It’s not a health issue, it’s a freedom issue. We ought to be able to drive where we want, when we want, as fast as we want, in any condition we want. That’s what freedom is all about, and we’re ready to defend our freedom. ”

Patty looked at him as if she were examining something self-motivated that had just crawled out of a glass of lemonade. “What is it that you find controversial about those proposals?” she asked carefully. I gave her a warning look. Maybe I should have given it to Darrin. When Patty gets careful, it’s time to lower your windows, because manure and fan are about to meet.

“Hey!” yelled somebody from inside just then. “Would you mind closing the door? You’re letting the smoke out!”

“Sorry for the fresh air,” coughed Darrin, turning toward the complainer. “It was an accident.”

“You ought to know about accidents,” said Patty. “Wasn’t your aunt killed a few years back by a drunk driver on Rt. 5? And didn’t a speeding pickup ram your cousin’s motorcycle and paralyze him from the neck down?”

Darrin scoffed. “Could happen to anybody any time any place,” he said. “Those are acts of God. You have to look at the big picture. You need statistics—real statistics. You can’t trust government numbers on driving. They’re all bogus. Drunken driving and speeding are perfectly safe. Go to a source you can trust, like the Institute for Freedom in Motoring.”

“Isn’t that supposed to be a front group for the Alcoholic Beverages Distributors Association?” asked Patty.

“It’s a private organization. Their funding sources are their own business,” said Darrin. “And their results are confirmed by the Motorists Liberty Forum.”

“I thought that was a front group for the National Association of Automobile Marketers,” said Patty.

“Are you going to discount the truth just because of who paid for it?” said Darrin disgustedly.

Just then Darrin’s wife came up with their two grandkids, Kayla and Kylie.

“Hey, Liz, what’d the doctor say?” asked Darrin.

“He said Kayla’s got another upper respiratory infection,” she said. “Kylie needed stronger medication for her asthma. I’m going to the pharmacy as soon as we’re done here. I promised them if they were good at the doctor’s, I’d buy them a dish of ice cream.”

Darrin dotes on those kids. “My treat,” he said. “What flavor do you want?”

“They didn’t hesitate. “I want Salem Light®!” said Kayla. “Winston® filters in the soft pack!” yelled Kylie.

Liz shook her head. “I’ve already told them twice,” she said. “You can’t tell what flavor your food’s going to be until you see who you’re sitting beside.”

© Tony Russell, 2005