Monday, November 27, 2006

"Thinking About My Lobotomy"

Charles McCarry penned a series of espionage thrillers several decades ago. His reputation seems to have vanished into thin air, but at the time there were reviewers who praised him as a writer surpassing John Le CarrĂ©. I hadn’t thought of McCarry’s work for years, until events of the last two election campaigns triggered a faint memory, sending me rummaging through dusty shelves in search of The Better Angels.

Published in 1979, McCarry’s The Better Angels is set “in the last decade of the twentieth century.” Like Orwell’s 1984, it appears to have been bleakly prescient about the near-future, if slightly off mark with its calendar.

In brief, the story turns on a presidential election in the United States and a terrorist plot launched from the Middle East. The election, close and bitterly contested, pits a hard-right conservative against a liberal populist. The conservative candidate, former president Franklin Mallory, had installed centralized computer voting in his first term, using conventional telephone circuits. Although the network is incomplete, the largest cities in key states such as New York, Michigan, and California are on board.

Horace Hubbard, whose half-brother is chief aide to Lockwood, the current president and other candidate, has a lover who is a computer expert with U.S. intelligence. He sounds her out on the possibility of using her access and skill to swing the election. She approaches it as an intellectual challenge.

“It’s possible, then?” he said. “I mean, possible with no
conceivable trace being left?”
“I’ve already said so.”
“You don’t mind using the machines for this?”
Rose laughed. “It’ll do them good. They’ll have to stretch a

When Rose’s computerized analysis of polling data shows that Lockwood is going to lose the election, they set out to steal it—and succeed. As voting returns are routed through her computer, a small percentage in key precincts is switched from Mallory to Lockwood. The total number of votes cast remains the same, matching the number of voters who went to the polls. There are no false voters, and there is no paper trail. “At the instant the polls closed, Rose would erase from the memory of the election computers all traces of her invasion. ‘A lobotomy,’ Rose said, smiling.”

In a Rolling Stone article in June of this year [picked up on a number of Internet sites, including], Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. lays out the case—exhaustively researched and thoroughly documented—that the 2004 election was claimed by George Bush not only through a systematic process of vote suppression and voter disenfranchisement in key states, but also through just the kind of electronic vote shifting that The Better Angels had depicted a quarter of a century earlier.

Exit polls the night of the 2004 election showed Kerry winning in a landslide. He was ahead in ten out of the eleven battleground states and—most importantly—held a commanding lead in the pivotal states of Ohio and Florida. The statistical odds for a Bush victory, based on the exit polls, were 1 in 450,000.

But when the official vote tallies began to come in, they varied widely from the exit polls. Kennedy’s sources document that in precincts where Bush was credited with winning at least 80% of the vote, exit polls showed Bush receiving, on the average, 10% fewer votes than the official tally. In precincts where John Kerry was credited with winning at least 80% of the vote, exit polls matched the official tally within 3/10 of 1%. Discrepancies were highest in battleground states and states where there were Republican governors.

Ohio, home of Diebold, is the most flagrant example. In almost half of the Ohio precincts where exit polls were conducted, they were wildly at odds with the official results—the most egregious being a precinct where exit polls showed Kerry receiving 67% of the vote, while the official total awarded him only 38%.

All of this is electronic. No paper trail. “A lobotomy.”

Kennedy ends this portion of his article by quoting Ron Baiman, a public policy analyst at Loyola University in Chicago. "No rigorous statistical explanation," says Baiman, can account for the "completely nonrandom" disparities between exit polls and official vote counts. Baiman concludes that results in which the discrepancies almost invariably show votes transferred to Bush are "completely consistent with election fraud - specifically vote shifting."

Charges like these must have been alarming for Bush forces. If you are trying to steal an election, and the disparity between exit polls and official vote counts is a telltale sign of the theft, what should your next step be? Clearly, the task is to eliminate exit polls, or make them so difficult to conduct that they lose their validity. And in light of the discussion above, what states would you target to curb exit polls? Bingo! Ohio and Florida!

In 2004, Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State, Kenneth Blackwell, attempted to bar exit pollsters from operating within 100 feet of a polling place. Florida tried the same thing in 2005. The reason supplied? Exit polling was “annoying to voters,” so it would be restricted to make voting a more enjoyable experience, thus encouraging voter turnout. Paul Huck, the District Court judge who ruled against the state, found that the restriction violated the Constitutional rights to free speech and freedom of the press. He also noted, after a review of 5,000 current complaints about harassment at the polls, that not a single one was because of exit polling. Huck’s point, implicitly, is that there may indeed be someone annoyed by the exit polls, but it’s not the voters.

In a separate study, one which turns not on exit polls but on vote projections, a research team at the University of California-Berkeley examined the 2004 Florida presidential election results. They used voter demographic and turnout data to project vote totals in Florida counties. In counties using various traditional voting methods, the projected votes matched the reported votes almost exactly. But in the 15 counties using electronic voting machines, Bush’s reported votes significantly exceeded the projected vote, especially in large, heavily Democratic counties like Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach.

And 2004 was not the end of oddness in the Sunshine State. Christine Jennings is going to court to challenge her “loss” in FL-13, the Congressional district in Florida where Republican Vern Buchanan defeated her by 369 votes.

That’s “loss” in quotation marks because, oddly enough, in the Democratic-leaning city of Sarasota, where Jennings could be expected to have done well, a whopping 15% of voters—we are asked to believe—faithfully ticked off their votes for agriculture commissioner and governor and county commissioners and so on, but somehow decided to skip entering a choice for this intense, hard-fought, much-publicized race. Not only that, but the huge undervote was entirely confined to Sarasota. A comparison of precinct results shows the undervote there was more than 6 times the “undervote” in the remainder of the district.

These voting machines, it should be noted, were supplied by a company called Election Systems and Software, not Diebold. But, again, there’s no paper trail. Another lobotomy.

In The Better Angels, you will remember, Hubbard presses Rose: “It’s possible then?” We ask the same question, not in the pages of fiction, but in a flesh and blood election: “Could this happen? Can our voting machines actually be used with to turn a loser into a winner?”

From a technical standpoint, it turns out, it’s not only feasible, but much simpler than depicted in McCarry’s work.

This past spring, computer scientists found a gaping security hole in Diebold Election Systems’ touch-screen voting machines. Ian Hoffman, writing in Inside Bay Area, says, “The hole allows someone with a common computer component [think “memory card”] and knowledge of Diebold systems to load almost any software without a password or proof of authenticity and potentially without leaving telltale signs of the change.” Hoffman quotes Michael Shamos, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University and electronic voting expert, as saying, "It's the most serious security breach that's ever been discovered in a voting system. On this one, the probability of success is extremely high because there's no residue.... Any kind of cursory inspection of the machine would not reveal it." We have found the locus of our “lobotomy.”

So far as getting inside the machines is concerned, computer scientists at Princeton University discovered that the access panel door on a Dielbold AccuVote-TS machine can be opened with the standard key that many companies supply to open office desks, file cabinets, computers, jukeboxes, and hotel minibars! If you don’t happen to have a key already that opens the voting machines, you can buy one at your local office furniture store. Or order one online. Once a machine is breached, the hacker can install a program that will impact not only the results of that machine, but act as a virus, spreading from one machine to another.

Diebold’s assurances to the contrary, we now know that it is possible—even disturbingly simple—to hack the voting machines. There is a way to steal our elections. (Read the Princeton report online at

Once we know there is a way, it is almost beside the point to ask ourselves if there is a will. How many bankers leave the entrance to their institution unlocked overnight, with the vault door standing open, and rely on the honesty of passersby to assure that nothing will be stolen? Given the disparity between exit polls and machine totals in ’04 and ‘06, there are compelling reasons to think about the will of our politicians. Would they commit the ultimate sin against democracy by predetermining an election’s outcome?

Let’s look at the record. This is an administration that lied to launch an invasion of Iraq. That brought waterboarding into the mainstream. That sicced attack dogs on naked prisoners. That held suspects indefinitely, without charge, with no chance to see an attorney or contact their families. That created a network of secret overseas prisons to hide and torture suspects. That kidnapped people off the streets. That monitors the library books you read. That illegally eavesdrops on your conversations and rummages through your e-mails. That withheld information from Congress. That gutted government agencies to install yes-men and –women at the top. That fed huge no-bid contracts to corporations that supported it. That coerced lobbying firms to donate exclusively to Republicans, on pain of losing all access. That systematically suppressed voting among African-Americans.

Is there any reason to believe, given the will to absolute power evident in these acts, that these same people would hesitate to fix an election? That they would torture human beings but not tamper with voting machines?

Heading into Election Day 2006, Karl Rove had an eerie confidence about him, while other Republicans were wringing their hands. The media’s polls were wrong, he said. Republicans would confound the experts by holding on to both houses of Congress. He had his own internal polling data, he claimed, his own secret recipe. You have to wonder if his confidence was encoded on a memory chip.

And if it did, what went wrong? If the election was rigged, how did Democrats pick up enough seats to take over both the House and the Senate?

The explanation offered by an organization called Election Defense Alliance (EDA) is plausible. When you rig an election, they point out, you want to switch just enough votes to win; otherwise things look too fishy. Organizing tampering nationwide takes time, so the voting machines had to be programmed several weeks prior to November 7. And during those weeks leading up to this year’s election, everything went south for the administration. Republican poll numbers fell over a cliff, and the thin margin needed for victory a few weeks earlier was suddenly ancient history.

The Mark Foley scandal exposed House Republican leaders’ collusion in concealing Foley’s lust for congressional pages. Ken Adelman, Richard Perle, Michael Ledeen, and Frank Gaffney—all early cheerleaders for the war—blamed Rumsfeld and Bush for the mess in Iraq. Daily corpse counts from Baghdad were staggering. David Kuo’s book Tempting Faith showed party leaders’ private contempt for the religious right. Kathleen Harris, Kenneth Blackwell, and George Allen tripped over their own tongues, committing gaffe after ugly gaffe.

Come election night, Democrats were winners. But in the House, especially, they lost a number of races by thin margins. Jonathan Simon, co-founder of EDA, compared the unadjusted National Election Pool (NEP) exit polling data with final vote counts, and found that 3,000,000 votes had been mysteriously shifted—almost 4% of the total votes cast. If those votes had not been shifted, what would the House look like? Or the Senate?

Even the Republican political consultant Dick Morris declared, shortly after the 2004 election, that the pattern of “mistaken” exit polls in battleground state after battleground state was “virtually inconceivable.” “Exit polls are almost never wrong," he wrote. "So reliable are the surveys that actually tap voters as they leave the polling places that they are used as guides to the relative honesty of elections in Third World countries....”

One wonders why the media, the Democratic Party, or we, as citizens, hasn’t taken the next logical step, which would be to conclude, “If exit polls are that reliable, and are routinely used to gauge the honesty of elections, then we are being ruled by an illegitimate government, installed in a fraudulent election.”

Part of the answer may be that, for all of our national macho posturing, we’ve become a timid bunch. The simple threat of being labeled “paranoid” or a “conspiracy theorist” is enough to bring us to heel. Someone sets the boundaries for the thinkable, and we obey them like a dog trained to stay in the yard, confined by an invisible fence. Stolen elections? That’s crazy talk!

And part of the answer may be that we’re a victim of our own self-image. We’re not some former Soviet republic or Latin American loony bin, for cryin’ out loud, we’re the United States! We’re spreading democracy abroad, not squandering it at home.

When Rose refers to a “lobotomy” in The Better Angels, she is signifying a scrubbing of the machine’s memory, or history. But the most powerful effect of the actual medical procedure is on affect, not memory. The lobotomist P. MacDonald Tow’s summary may be more apt—and more chilling—as a description of our political situation: "Possibly the truest and most accurate way of describing the net effect [of a lobotomy] on the total personality is to say that he is more simple; and being more simple he has rather less insight into his own performance. The mental impairment is greater in the higher and more peculiarly human functions. Deprived of their autonomy, initiative, or willpower, their performance is considerably better in a structured situation.” -Personality Changes Following Frontal Leukotomy

“Structured situation” indeed. And growing more “structured” all the time. Contrast our own indifferent response to fraud in the last presidential election with the behavior of one of those former Soviet republics, Ukraine, likewise in that November of ‘04.

Hundreds of thousands of citizens braved bitter cold to gather day after day in the main square of Kiev. They came to protest voter intimidation, disenfranchisement, and electoral fraud in their presidential election. Viktor Yushchenko, the candidate trailing in the “official” vote, claimed victory, called for international recognition, and launched a civil disobedience campaign. The opposition organized sit-ins and general strikes. Their resistance came to be called “the Orange Revolution,” and it culminated with the inauguration of Yushchenko on January 23, 2005.

Here in the U.S., John Kerry conceded defeat. George Bush declared that he had political capital and was going to spend it. Americans starving for change concluded that the nation had changed under their feet, “moved in the wrong direction,” and turned dispiritedly to distraction or talk of emigration.

In an odd, roundabout way, the dark forces manipulating elections may have been lucky this time around. Democrats won enough to celebrate, so show little inclination to question the election’s outcome. And they didn’t win enough to force any change through Congress that the administration doesn’t want. Like the release valve on a pressure canner, Democratic victories took the steam out of election reform. Victory became yet another lobotomy.

© Tony Russell, 2006

Sunday, November 12, 2006

"Some Thoughts on the 2006 Election"

We live in a Ten Percent Democracy. Despite national revulsion against a host of horrors—the war, corruption, hypocrisy, and the whole posturing, bragging, macho nature of this administration—only ten percent of House seats were actually in play. Ten percent—approximately 40 out of 435. The other 405 seats (90%) were safely out of the voters’ reach. Victory in that 90% was automatic, those House seats as secure as a seat on the Supreme Court. The House has been so gerrymandered that it comes close to being democracy-proof.

Consider this: In the 40 seats where there was a meaningful election, Democrats won 75%. In the Senate, which can’t be gerrymandered, 33 seats were up for election, and Democrats (including the two Independents who will caucus with them), won 24, or 72%. That’s the real scope of the rejection of right wing government, a rejection masked by the gerrymandering in the House, and by the fact that only a third of the Senate had to face the voters.

* * * * *

Democrats remain hopelessly inept at countering Republican attacks. Bush and company yell that Democrats have no exit plan for Iraq. That’s like a guy who insists he can drive his new pickup through a swampy stretch of red clay road, jeering at warnings about how deep the water is and how thick the mud. He plows full speed ahead, pigheadedly ignoring the advice and pleas of his wife and kids. When the truck begins to bog down, he says “No problem,” gives it the gas, spins his wheels, guns the engine again, tries to rock back and forth (“changing his tactics”}, digs himself deeper and deeper, and buries the truck to the hubs. He wades out to look things over, and discovers that the truck’s frame is resting on the ground. Then he turns around and screams at everybody sitting in the truck because they can’t tell him how to get out?

* * * * *

The election was an overwhelming rejection of “rubber stamp Republicans.” It must have seemed like a great deal once: Take your marching orders from the White House, and climb aboard the Gravy Train. Every lobbyist in Washington wants to stuff dollar bills in your pocket, and your destination is Permanent Power. All you have to do is close your ears to the lies, your eyes to the torture, your faith to the poor, and your patriotism to the loss of liberties. A classic Faustian bargain—and the Devil came around to collect.

* * * * *

Can it be that folks have finally seen through Karl Rove’s use of smear, fear, queer, and racial prejudice? (Granted, however, that racist ads may have tipped the scales in Tennessee.) Polls consistently showed voters worried the country was “headed in the wrong direction,” and Rove’s brand of putrid politics gets a lot of credit for that perception. This election wasn’t ideological; it was visceral. Millions of people couldn’t stomach this administration any longer, and in the election booth, they did what they could to vomit it out.

* * * * *

Evangelicals have finally lost their faith—in Republican politicians. For more than two decades, the Republican party has been building victory on three bases—first, corporate support (including most major media); second, the well-to-do and people who aspire to be well-to-do (Bush: “I call you ‘my base.’”); and third, evangelicals and fundamentalists of all stripes. To put it plainly, evangelicals were useful dupes for the other two groups, voting—can we say it?—religiously for Republicans. Mention abortion or gay marriage, and they salivated like Pavlov’s dog—then yanked the Republican lever at the polls. Believing that Mr. Bush and his cronies shared and would act on their vision, zealous Christians swallowed an unjust war, ignored the assault on Creation by corporate predators, and blinked at the abandonment of the common good for policies to fatten the rich. (Don’t forget abortion and gay marriage!) But in the last couple of months, as revelations of corruption and hypocrisy and the contempt Republican insiders felt for the ‘religious nuts’ flooded out, many evangelicals became independent thinkers. Bless them.

* * * * *

On a related note, Democratic candidates benefited from the flare-up of a dying faith—faith that ordinary people can still bring about a response to their strongest hopes for their country; faith that liberties already traded away can be regained; faith that a planet in peril can yet be saved; faith that the right to vote and have your vote counted will be guaranteed; faith that light will be shone in dark places, and hidden crimes will be revealed; faith that we can find our way back from an illegal, immoral, unwinnable war. That is the faith that lifted Democrats, deserving and undeserving alike, to victory last Tuesday. The victory was given in hope, not out of trust. Democrats have to earn that.

© Tony Russell, 2006

Monday, October 16, 2006

“Moral Values”

“Hello. You’ve reached the Moral Values Speakers Bureau, specializing in providing moral leaders and keynote speakers for your church rallies, political fundraisers, business conventions, and get-out-the-vote drives. This is Jason. How may I help you?”

“Jason, this is Martha Billingsgate from Ohio. I hate to call on such short notice, but we’re looking for a dynamic speaker Friday night to kick off the last month of the Congressman’s campaign. Who do you have available?”

“Give me a second while I check our bookings on the computer here, Martha. Let’s see…. You’re in luck. I can get you Tom DeLay. He’s the whole package! A born-again Christian, staunch supporter of the conservative agenda, and one of the most powerful men in Washington. But shoot, you know all that. A lot of your big givers already have a history with him, and he has an opening this weekend.”

“I’m sure he does. The man is under indictment for laundering corporate money, Jason. Once upon a time Tom was golden, but we’d prefer to avoid his Midas touch at this point.”

“After all the cash Mr. DeLay raised for the Congressman in the past?”

“Jason, I will forget you said that, and I suggest you forget that inconvenient fact as well. Do I make myself clear?”

“Sure, sure. Sorry, Martha. Look, let’s go with Ralph Reed. The shining star of the party’s moral values agenda. Former leader of the Christian Coalition, currently running for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia. I think I can get him booked on a flight into Columbus, if you can pick him up there.”

“The man has a suit against him charging that he ran a fake moral crusade to squeeze out an Indian tribe competing against one of Jack Abramoff’s clients, for Christ’s sake! He took millions of dollars in fees and scammed the churches who trusted him. The Congressman already has enough hanging over him; do you think he wants Ralph Reed coming to town? Where is your head?”

“Oh. Well, thanks for the information, Martha. I’ll just jot myself a note here to update Ralph’s bio. We can substitute Grover Norquist. He’s the genius behind the party’s economic platform. Your base loves to hear him talk about cutting taxes and ‘starving the government beast.’ He’ll really draw a crowd for you.”

“I’ll bet he will. A crowd of auditors and investigators. A Senate committee just reported that Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform appear to have laundered money for Jack Abramoff. The Congressman has enough problems of his own, Jason, without importing new ones.”

“Come on, Martha, that’s just business as usual! It’s not like Grover’s been indicted yet. But if you’re going to be squeamish, let’s see who else we have. Hmmm…. I can get you a real stemwinder! Duke Cunningham. Recently resigned from the House of Representatives. The guy’s a former hotshot pilot, and a real red meat conservative.”

“Who also admitted he sold his vote and influence to the highest bidder, betrayed his oath and office, and brought disgrace on himself and his family. Don’t you even read the news, Jason?”

“Was that Duke? I wondered why his fee had dropped. Oh, I see that Don Sherwood, one of your guy’s fellow Congressmen from Pennsylvania, could make it that night.”

“When he could be out abusing his mistress?”

“They reached a settlement on that choking thing, Martha. No legal action pending that I know of.”

“Just the same, Jason….”

“Okay, okay. Let me scroll down here. Say, why don’t you use Bob Ney? He’s a Buckeye too, and he and your guy have been good buddies since Bob did him a few favors as chair of the House Administration Committee. Bob would probably cut you a good deal on the speaker’s fee, too.”

“We’re already paying Bob Ney to stay away from the campaign, Jason, and shredding every photo we can find that shows him standing on a golf course with his arm around our candidate.”

“Personally, I think Bob should have fought those charges rather than pleading guilty, Martha.”

“Your legal opinions are noted, Jason, but if we could move along….”

“What about Mark Foley, Martha? He’s a hell of a fundraiser, and the chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children.”

“That’s ‘former chairman,’ Jason. And when the person charged with watching out for young people is actually sending them smutty e-mails and asking for their photos….”

“Hey, don’t blame me. How was I to know?”

“What are you, out of the loop? It looks as if everybody else in Washington knew about Foley for years.”

“To be honest, Martha, there’s such a demand for lecturers on moral values that I have a hard time keeping up with the news.”

© Tony Russell, 2006

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

"Movie Review: Election 2000"

There is a grand tradition of “heist films”—classics like The Sting, Heist, Three Kings, and The Thomas Crown Affair, and lesser fare like Femme Fatale and Oceans Twelve. Add somewhere in the middle of that list a new blockbuster, Election 2000.

Election 2000, like other “heist films,” turns on a few staple ingredients—a larcenous but likeable central figure (or two); a hugely valuable or precious article to be stolen; and a complex scheme which dazzles the viewer with its ingenuity as it unfolds. Here, the moviemakers lay out a seemingly-impossible task: George W. Bush and his cronies attempt to steal a presidential election in plain view of more than two hundred million Americans, under round-the-clock media coverage.

This premise doesn’t disturb us, because the entire “heist” genre is essentially amoral. We are asked to disregard a conventional societal viewpoint, which takes a dim view of theft, and instead admire the thieves’ guile and audacity as sheer entertainment. No surprise here: the strategy works. Ever since sly Odysseus got Polyphemus drunk, drove a stake into his eye, and stole his sheep, audiences have traded in their moral yardsticks for marvelous yarns. Election 2000, by the latter standard, succeeds admirably, holding the audience enrapt for more than eight days—an unprecedented length for a feature film.

At the peak of the genre, our appreciation of the cleverness of the thieves is heightened by the intelligence of those they must outwit, and it is here that Election 2000 falls short. We expect the antagonists to be watchful, organized, sophisticated, even cunning—worthy opponents whose eventual defeat magnifies the achievement of the successful thief. The Democrats in this film—Al Gore and the mucilaginous Joe Lieberman— are befuddled and passionless, with Lieberman actually enabling the heist at each turn.

The name ‘George W. Bush’ hardly carries the star power of a Redford or Newman, or even a Pierce Brosnan. But Bush puts on a believable performance as a would-be President of the United States, aided by a powerful supporting cast which includes Jeb Bush as the Florida governor and Katherine Harris as his loyal secretary of state, who conspire together to suppress the black vote, disenfranchise voters in predominantly Democratic districts, and include dubious military votes. Jim Baker operates as the deus ex machina.

Most of the key scenes in Election 2000 were shot in Florida, a novel location for a film with politics at its center. As fans of Wag the Dog know, the real political center of the United States is a studio in Hollywood.

I won’t reveal the torturous twists of the plot, or its outcome. Viewers’ suspense is somewhat abated, however, by widespread reports that a sequel was in production before the first film was even released. Filmmakers being the opportunists they are, and fans the ever-gullible optimists they are, a second film was inevitable. The follow-up—tentatively titled (what else?) Election 2004—also stars Bush, with the surly Dick Cheney once again cast as his sidekick, “the Veep.” Can 2008 be far behind?

© Tony Russell, 2006

Sunday, October 01, 2006

“You Make Me Ashamed of Myself”

I looked over the fence to see what all the hammering and sawing was about in my neighbor’s backyard. “Hey Tom!” I called. “What’re you up to?”

“Come on over and take a look!” he hollered.

I let myself through the gate and went to inspect his work. “Whadya think?” he said, with typical handyman’s pride.

“Looks like you’re remodeling the kid’s teeter-totter,” I offered.

“Come on, Ace,” he said with a grin. “You’ve got to do better than that. This is cutting edge stuff here. We’re ahead of the curve.”

I was baffled. It still looked like a teeter-totter, but he’d added some straps and hinged supports on the bottom of each end. “Why did you move the kids’ wading pool under this end, and mount a holder for your water hose over here?” I asked.

“It’s a waterboard,” he said impatiently. “Don’t you keep up with the news?”

“Guess not,” I admitted. “What’s a waterboard?”

“It’s one of the favorite tortures—I’m sorry, one of the favorite interrogation methods the CIA uses,” he said. “You just strap somebody to a board, cover his face with a thin plastic film, lower his head, and then flood him with water. It’s like drowning and suffocating at the same time! People can’t stand it. They’ll tell you anything after just a few minutes.”

“And you’ve been able to duplicate that with these simple materials you have in your own backyard!” I said admiringly.

“That’s the beauty of it,” he said. “I’m almost done. I’m anxious to have Timmy and Tina try it out on their friends.”

“Gosh, aren’t you afraid somebody will get hurt?” I worried.

He looked at me, dumbfounded. “Well duh! That’s the whole idea, Ace.”

“But they seem like such nice kids,” I said. “It’s hard to picture them waterboarding their friends.”

“Well, you have to work at it,” he admitted. “But I think they’ll come around. I promised Timmy a new video game if he got good at it, and Bev told Tina she’d send her to soccer camp if she mastered the waterboard.”

“What got you started on this anyway?” I asked.

“If you’d been following the debate in Congress, Ace, you’d know that the President insisted Congress had to give him the power to torture—I mean, combat terrorism with aggressive interrogation techniques. And Congress gave him the thumbs up. Isn’t that great!”

“So you’re going to teach Timmy and Tina how it’s done?”

“Right. We’ll start with the waterboard and then move on to some other techniques.”

“Such as?”

“Well, I’ve been reading up on this stuff. One thing that caught my eye was when right wingers overthrew the government of Chile. A favorite of theirs was just to smash somebody in the mouth with a hammer, splitting and breaking off a bunch of teeth.”

“That’s even simpler than a waterboard,” I said. “‘Do-it-yourself torture: Only tool required is a hammer.’ But don’t you think the other parents in the neighborhood would object?”

“I don’t know. It’s a heck of a lot cheaper than braces. But seriously, it’s my job as a parent to prepare my kids to serve their country, and if the neighbors have a patriotic bone in their body, they’ll be glad to see Timmy and Tina getting the practice.”

“You really take your duty as a parent seriously,” I said.

“My duty as a parent, and as a citizen,” he said. “I’ve talked with Timmy’s scoutmaster about getting the Boy Scouts to offer a Citizenship merit badge for aggressive interrogation techniques. He likes the idea. Not only would kids be learning new American values, but they’d be mastering skills their country can use when they become adults.”

“You make me ashamed of myself, Tom,” I said. “I wish I’d been following the news more closely. “

“Hey, it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon,” he said.

© Tony Russell, 2006

Monday, September 04, 2006


Excited linguists have been poring over the president’s latest Fourth of July speech at Fort Bragg. “He’s been giving the same speech, year after year, about Iraq, saying he’s ‘not gonna cut and run,’ says Reg Watson of Marshall University’s Language and Rhetoric Institute. “That provides an extraordinary opportunity to compare his language patterns over a period of time.”

Watson has detected what he calls “a strange inverse relationship” in the president’s speech. “The longer Bush stays in Washington,” he says, “the more he sounds like he’s from the backwoods. As he repeats the same phrases and slogans, you can just hear his grammar deteriorate, and notice his dropping more and more ‘g’s’ from the end of words.”

Researchers are still trying to pinpoint the exact nature of the president’s accent. “It’s not Texas,” said one. “More like a Texas accent as spoken at a costume party in Kennebunkport, Maine.”

One school of thought is that the president spent too many formative years watching “The Andy Griffith Show.” Another is that he is being privately tutored by a “speech coach” of the sort who work with country and western singers from Canada, California, and New Jersey.

The tutoring theory has come under fire from Horace Bradley of Shepherd University, who contends that the president is self-taught. “Did you ever hear Ramblin’ Jack Elliot?” he asks. “There he is, a Jew from New York City, who’s remade himself into a big plains drifter. Or Bob Dylan, a Jewish kid from Minnesota, who adopted what he understood to be the speech of the ‘folk.’ George W. Bush did the same thing—repackaged himself as ‘the common man.’ Nobody taught them; they just put an accent together on their own. Reinventing yourself is more American than apple pie.”

Linguists aren’t the only ones puzzled by the president’s patois. “Where did he learn to talk like that?” wonders Percy Phillips III, who has known Bush since their prep school days. “He didn’t sound like that when we were together at Andover, or when we were inducted into Skull and Bones at Yale, or even when we were classmates in Harvard Business School.” Phillips notes that Bush’s younger brother Jeb speaks perfectly grammatical English with a standard American accent.

Bonnie Weiler, chair of the linguistics department at Potomac State, suggests that Bush is employing a generic “shitkicker” accent similar to that used for years by long-haul truckers over their CBs. “I’ve filed a Freedom of Information request to find out if he has a pickup with a CB mounted in it,” she says in frustration, “but so far they’re stonewalling me.”

It jars some to hear Bush, the multimillionaire son of a U.S. president and grandson of Prescott Bush, a U.S. senator from Connecticut, inveigh against “elites” in a cornpone accent implying that his parents could have been a long haul trucker and a truck stop waitress.

Although his accent has been derided by some of his fellow performers, it continues to serve Bush well in his political career. “When he speaks extemporaneously, using that accent,” says Weiler, “it’s a tour de force—vapid, inane, clumsy, almost devoid of logic and coherence. Millions of voters, desensitized to language and ideas by years of television, connect with it in a visceral way.”

© Tony Russell, 2006

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

“Polishing My Campaign Resume”

“Boss, I was checking over your bio, and it says that you’re forty-five years old, but you graduated from high school in 1958.”

“Did I forget to change that high school date? Make that—let’s see, if I’m forty-five years old that would mean I graduated in—1978. Change that to 1978.”

“Okay, that’s easy enough. Change one digit. What about your religion? I see you had ‘Methodist’ in there, but you’ve crossed it out. I can’t quite make out what you’ve scribbled in above it. Is that ‘Baptist’?”

“Right, Baptist. No votes in being a Buddhist Quaker. Where’s the nearest Baptist church? I’ll start going this Sunday. Do you suppose they need a Sunday school teacher or anything?”

“I’ll check. I’m sure there’s one nearby.”

“How about the education section?”

“Uh, here it is. You say you got your BA in History from West Virginia University, and an MA in Philosophy at Harvard, where you were fifteenth in your class.”

“I think Chris Wakim already claimed he was fifteenth. Make me tenth.”

[Making change on text] “Got it; tenth. Do you really have a BA in History from WVU?”

“I have a history with WVU. For campaign purposes, it’s the same thing.”

“How about your military service?”

“What did I say? I want to be sure I stay consistent.”

[Flipping through pages] “You fought overseas during Vietnam, and were wounded several times.” [Laughs]

[Defensively] “I did fight overseas during Vietnam. I worked for the Agency for International Development in Nigeria. I fought boredom, I fought mosquitoes, I fought culture shock. Don’t tell me I didn’t fight. Say, when was the war in Vietnam over? Do I need to adjust my age and graduation date?”

“I’ll Google it before I run off the final version. What about your wounds?”

“Hey, I was wounded constantly. My pride was wounded every time a woman turned me down. Where did Wakim say he was wounded?”

[Checking file] “It doesn’t say how his injuries occurred.”

[Reminiscing] “I got carpal tunnel syndrome from repeatedly lifting those heavy pitchers of Guiness stout. I had to drink to relieve the pain.”

“Maybe we should do the same thing Wakim did, and be vague about the nature of your wounds. You could just get a tortured look on your face and say that you don’t want to relive those painful memories—something like that.”

“That sounds good.” [Checks his watch] “We’re going to have to leave in ten minutes for my speech at the Kiwanis Club. Let’s run over my main talking points again. I want to be sure I stay on message.”

“Sure. Number one, you want to restore honor and integrity to Congress. Number two…”

© Tony Russell, 2006

Thursday, August 17, 2006

“Brushing Off Minimum Wage”

Crawford, Texas, August 17-

[Concerned] “Mr. President, don’t you think you ought to stop? It’s 105 degrees in the sun, and you’ve been cutting brush for nine hours straight.”

[President, wiping brow with a bandana] “Has it been that long already? Listen, Ken, I can’t knock off yet. I need the overtime.”

“Why do you have to push yourself this way, sir?”

“To tell the truth, Ken, our family counts on the extra income. I actually get paid minimum wage out of the ranch’s weed eradication fund for every hour I ‘m whacking brush.”

“With the Middle East sliding into chaos, and North Korea testing missiles, and hurricanes and heat waves battering us, and the budget falling off a cliff… Well, just let me say that I’d be glad to float you a loan if you need it, sir, so you could concentrate on your presidential duties.”

“No thanks, Ken. That’s not the way we do things in the Bush family. We don’t take any handouts. I’ll earn this on my own. It’s just that Laura hasn’t had a job for a few years, and things have gotten sorta tight. Another $5.15 an hour makes a difference to the Bushes, but even that’s not enough for folks like us with a family to support. Pass me that canteen, will ya?” [Stuffs bandana back in pocket]

[Light of understanding dawns] “Oh! Well that explains a lot, Mr. President. So that’s why you come down here every chance you get, calling it ‘vacation,’ and then get in some moonlighting. [Realizes he’s rapidly broiling under the Texas sun] Make that ‘sunlighting.’”

[Takes another swig, then screws top back on canteen] “You got it.”

[Doing some quick mental calculations] “So if we figure you make…what, at $400,000 a year as president, that figures out to almost $8,000 a week—call it a little under $200 an hour for a forty-hour week….”

[President interrupting] “It’s actually only $192.31 an hour.”

“Okay. So if you’re double dipping and add your $5.15 minimum wage to it, that makes it $197.46 per hour. Wow! Even with the full $2.15 an hour raise, you’d be pulling in less than $200 an hour!”

[Bitterly] “It’s those damned Democrats, Ken. Me and the Republicans in Congress tried to get an increase in minimum wage approved, but the Democrats turned their backs on us working people.”

[Sympathetically] “That must have really hurt.”

[Begins whetting the blade of his scythe with a sharpening stone] “I can’t tell you how disappointed I am. Our party offered a win-win proposition—two dollars and fifteen cents an hour for minimum wage workers, phased in over three years, and the elimination of inheritance taxes for multi-millionaires. That was a typical example of Republican fairness in my time in office: something for everybody. But Democrats just don’t get it.”

[Hesitantly] “Uh, yessir, but increasing the minimum wage might just mean that working people like yourself could eat every day instead of doing without. On the other hand, though, eliminating the inheritance tax would mean rich people could pass on their huge estates to their kids, who didn’t lift a finger to earn anything.”

[Disinterested] “So?”

“Well, sir, when you cut taxes for the rich, you’re cutting federal income. Then you end up cutting education, health care, housing—things working class people really need—because Congress worries that government is in the red. Minimum wage workers like yourself would gain a little but end up losing a lot. Rich people wouldn’t lose anything and they’d really cash in.”

[President opens lunch pail and unwraps a baloney sandwich] “Guess I might as well eat if I’m takin’ a break. You want part of this?”

“No thanks, sir. I ate just before I came out.”

[Talking while eating] “Ken, before we had this little talk, why did you think I spend so much time cutting brush when I’m in Texas? Tell it like it is, now, partner. Give it to me straight.”

[Hems and haws] “Um, well, to be honest, sir, I thought it was because your handlers remembered how well that stuff worked for Ronald Reagan. I thought they realized that those pictures of your dad at the helm of his yacht just didn’t cut it, so they set up photo ops of you cutting brush to make people forget you’re the millionaire son of millionaires. Trying to make you look like a down-home, hard-working, macho, sweat-of-your-brow kind of guy. A crass appeal to the Bubba vote.” [Now Ken is sweating]

[Closing lunch box and wiping mouth with back of hand] “Well I’m glad that you understand the truth now, Ken. Help me out here. Tell your friends what an increase in minimum wage would have meant to workers like me. The minimum wage buys less than it has any time in over fifty years. I’m halfway through my second term, and it still hasn’t gone up a penny since I came into office. The price of gas has skyrocketed, housing is out of sight… it’s damned frustrating.”

[Sympathetically] “Isn’t there anything you can do, sir? You’ve been able to push so many of your other projects through Congress; it must make you sick not to be able to do something to benefit people who really need it.”

“I tried, Ken. We offered the Democrats a good deal. They shot it down out of pure partisan politics. They just couldn’t stand to see Republicans get credit for helping the working class.”

“But you’ll try again, won’t you? You’ve been so persistent on all the things that matter to you, never taking a ‘no’ for a final answer. Opening up Alaska for drilling. Getting conservative judges. Tax cut after tax cut. This is where that famous stubbornness of yours can pay off, sir. Don’t be discouraged. You’ve still got more than two years left in office. You’re bound to get an increase in minimum wage if you keep at it.”

[Shaking his head] “No, Ken, this was my first and last shot. If I keep hammering on minimum wage, people will complain I’m only doing it to benefit myself.”

© Tony Russell, 2006

Thursday, August 10, 2006

“Straw Men R Us”

“Hello, Straw Men R Us! How may I help you?”

“Hi. I’m calling from the White House. I hate to ask you for another rush job, but the president is giving a speech on Social Security tomorrow night, and he needs some straw men to attack.”

“That’s pretty short notice, but we try to oblige you folks. You’re our best customer, and we’ll do what we can. What time is the performance?”

“They’ll introduce him at 8 o’clock. We’d like to have the straw men here no later than 6, so the president can get acquainted with them before they all have to leave for the auditorium.”

“How many were you thinking of?”

“It doesn’t have to be many—half a dozen would probably do it, if they’re made of the right stuff.”

“No problem there. We use nothing but frequently recycled, highly inflammable material. I’m sure they’ll suit your needs.”

“We’ll have them seated right in the center of the audience. Can you make sure the legs bend at the knees and hips?”

“Can do, but it’ll cost you a little extra.”

“Doesn’t it always?”

“I assume you want them with our EZ-Tote lightweight carrying case that takes all the work out of transporting them from one venue to another?”

“Definitely. The president will be using them in eighteen cities in the next ten days, so ease of handling is a must.”

“Gotcha. Do you have any preferences on what you’d like to have come out of the straw men’s mouths? Something on the order of ‘There are those who say Social Security isn’t important enough to worry about in times like these,’ or ‘Some of my opponents say that we can put off dealing with Social Security indefinitely,’ or ‘Some people say that Americans can’t be trusted to manage their own retirement income, but I say…’?”

“Those are all excellent. The president gets really fired up when he can attack extreme positions that nobody actually holds. It’s a lot easier than dealing with the pluses and minuses of real debate.”

“I understand completely. That’s why we’re in business! By the way, how did the last set go over—the ones on national security?”

“Those were great! They went everywhere with the president and argued with him constantly. The straw man who said, ‘We ought to pull out of Iraq right this minute, abandoning our dead and wounded on the battlefield and in the streets of Baghdad…’—the one in the yellow shirt?—he was just super! The president beat on him in fifteen cities, and got tremendous applause every time.”

“I thought he’d like that one.”

“He sure did. I was afraid the president was going to wear him out.”

“Oh, one thing you can’t do is wear them out. They may be made of straw, but they’re unbelievably durable. You can use them over and over again. We guarantee them for a full term in office or until the owner dies, whichever comes first, and we haven’t had to replace one yet.”

“Well, ours have certainly held up well.”

“And how do you want their messages to begin? ‘There are some who argue…,’ ‘Some people say…,’ ‘Some of my opponents believe…’?”

“We’d like to order your deluxe mixture. The president prefers a variety to work from.”

“A wise choice. We’ll have them delivered by 6.”

“Wonderful! Listen, I appreciate everything you do. You know, when the president debates straw men, in speeches somebody else wrote, at conservative Christian universities or military bases, to audiences that have all the questioners and skeptics excluded, it makes everything so simple. God, I love my job!”

© Tony Russell, 2006

Monday, August 07, 2006

“Second Annual Faith-Based Press Conference”

Washington, August 7 –

“Good morning. Welcome to our Second Annual Faith-Based Press Conference. We’re a little late getting started, so we’ll skip the opening prayer and go straight to the question-and-answer session. Our first conference last year got off to a bumpy start, but I feel confident that we’ve got the right kind of religious leaders here this time to ask the right kind of questions. Am I right? Who wants to kick it off?”

“Mr. President, our Bible study group has been focusing on the Beatitudes this month, and it’s generated a lot of questions. It would be a big help if you could explain how your role in starting the war in Iraq, and in supporting Israel’s invasions of Palestine and Lebanon, squares with Christ’s words in Matthew, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’”

“Tom, I’ve found that dropping a few hundred ‘widowmakers’ on the enemy works wonders in converting the survivors into peacemakers.”

“Begging your pardon, sir, but hasn’t our occupation of Iraq had exactly the opposite effect? A lot of our commanders are saying that we have converted Iraq into a breeding ground for terrorists, and that we’ve enflamed the entire Middle East with hatred, not just of Muslim versus Christian and Muslim versus Jew, but Shi’ite Muslim versus Sunni Muslim.”

“Tom, what can you expect? These aren’t people who’ve read the Beatitudes. They don’t follow the script.”

“Well, no, they don’t, Mr. President. But if you don’t mind my saying so, I don’t think it’s our job to make other people do what God wants. I was thinking more along the lines of our following the script. Maybe if we stopped worrying about how we could claim a victory in this war, and started worrying about our mandate to be peacemakers….”

“There’s only one person here with a mandate, and I got mine from forty million voters. Let’s give somebody else a chance. David?”

“Our church has been studying the Beatitudes as well, sir. The opening verse, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’—that’s created an awful lot of discussion. I’m afraid that when we really prayed about it, it just didn’t look as if giving tax break after tax break to the rich, and cultivating them as ‘your base,’ was consistent with the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“What the devil is going on here? I thought we were here to talk about stem cells and gay marriage. Those are the chief religious issues of our times. That’s all you and I have talked about for the past five years. Now, if somebody will steer us that way, I’ve got a great little PowerPoint prepared on stem cell lines.”

“Mr. President, with all due respect, we’ve been heavily involved in scripture study in our church as well, and I’ll be honest with you, it’s disturbing to flip past hundreds of references to caring for the poor and sick and widowed and orphaned, and to establishing justice, and to being merciful, in order to get to the passages on stem cells and gay marriage. In fact we just can’t find any Biblical passages on stem cells and gay marriage.”

“Keep looking, Art. I’m sure they’re in there.”

“No sir, they aren’t. I’ll give it to you straight. We’ve always been ‘strict constructionists’ of the Bible in our church, and there’s a growing sense that as fundamentalists, we need to get back to the fundamentals. We’ve discovered that things like giving a raise to the minimum wage for the poor only if you can eliminate the estate tax for the rich, or spending so much of our budget to wage global war, violate both the letter and the spirit of Holy Scripture.”

“Holy cow! What’s got into you people?! You’ve been with me through thick and thin—never a doubt, never a complaint. And I’ve been good to you. I’ve steered millions of federal dollars to your churches so you could offer social services that attract people like ants to a picnic. I’ve ripped a hole in the wall between church and state that you could drive a church bus through. And this is the thanks I get? I thought I could count on you to keep the faith!”

“We are, sir. But ultimately our allegiance isn’t to the president. We’re accountable to a Higher Power.”

“Dick? Dick Cheney? Since when have you been dealing with Dick Cheney?”

© Tony Russell, 2006

Thursday, August 03, 2006

“Golly, Todo, What If This Were Kansas!”

We’ve been living on pins and needles ever since our legislature here in Kansas passed a law prohibiting virtually all sexual activity by people under the age of sixteen. Sexual activity includes “lewd fondling or touching” done with “the intent to arouse.” The law includes a mandate for educators and health care professionals to report any suspected violations.

Our son Kevin is fifteen, and of course we trust him, but he is, after all, bigger than I am, starts at guard on the football team, and has his learner’s permit. So Patty attempts to provide gentle guidance for Kevin. I got home today just as she was feeding him an after-school snack.

“How was your day?” Patty asked him.

“Fine,” mumbled Kevin, his mouth full of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

“I knew it!” screeched my wife. “You held her hand, didn’t you!”

Kevin gulped and looked guilty. “It was just for a couple of blocks, Mom,” he pleaded. “We let go when we got close to the school. I swear, nobody saw us.”

“Kevin,” said my wife, “don’t you know the risk you’re taking here? You’re putting the whole family in jeopardy. Next thing you know, you’ll be kissing her.”

Kevin turned beet red.

“You didn’t!” she shrieked.

Kevin hung his head. “Once,” he admitted.

“Tell me you both kept your lips closed,” begged my wife. “Tell me you didn’t open your lips, Kevin.”

“Mom, it’s okay,” he protested. “I kept mine pressed really hard together. She opened hers just a little bit, but I didn’t do anything. Honest I didn’t.”

“Your hands, Kevin, where were your hands!”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Mom, you know they were firmly on her waist, where they belonged.”

“You didn’t—you know—move them around?”

“Mom, I already told you, they were on her waist. They may have slid around a little when my palms started to sweat, but they didn’t move at all as long as they were under my control.”

“Remember what I told you, Kevin,” she said. “Just hook your hands on her belt. Think of it as a safety belt. You didn’t do anything else you haven’t told us about, did you?”

“Of course not,” he said indignantly. “What do you think I am, Mom?”

“We’ve tried so hard to raise you as a normal, healthy boy,” said my wife. “We worry about you. Kids get to experimenting with holding hands, and before you know it, it leads to kisses and hugs. You think you’ll just try it once, and then you’re hooked. It’s addictive, Kevin. And it’s not just a prank, it’s a crime.”

“Mom, will you quit worrying?” said Kevin. “I’ve got to go. I promised the army recruiter I’d meet him before practice.”

© Tony Russell, 2006

Monday, July 31, 2006

“Seven True Things You Aren't Supposed to Say"

It feels strange, at this point in my life, to find myself biting my tongue. And yet there it is. It’s not as if I feel overtly threatened. My e-mail might be screened, and my telephone calls monitored, and my bank transactions scanned, and my medical records accessed, but nobody is likely to come looking for me (since I’m neither Muslim nor of Arab descent). I don’t work in the media (like Bill Maher or Phil Donohue), so I probably won’t be fired. I’m not an entertainer (like the Dixie Chicks), so I probably won’t be boycotted and shunned. I’m not in politics, so I won’t be derided (like Howard Dean) or abused by Ann Coulter and a host of right wing hatemongers.

No, it’s just that I’m aware of a mood, a climate, a state of mind, that labels my contrarian opinions as unpatriotic. Even unspeakable. If I want to remain an ordinary Joe in good standing, I can hide these ideas like Anne Frank’s family in the attic of my mind, but it would be dangerous for them to show themselves on the street.

Grant the Bush administration this: They’ve been great at mind control. If facts and logic indicate the administration has lied about one thing or another—say Iraq, to take an obvious example—, you may, like me, find yourself hesitating to say so at work, or at church, or over the backyard fence.

So, like a patient in group therapy, struggling to make his way to health, I have a need to say the unspeakable, and to say it with the forcefulness I actually feel. Here are seven true things about Iraq it’s not okay to think, let alone speak:

1) The war in Iraq isn’t a noble cause; it’s a naked crime. The war was never about spreading democracy; it has always been about controlling oil supplies—or, more accurately, about ensuring U.S. global dominance by controlling the Persian Gulf. It’s the fulfillment of a plan for imperial expansion originally hatched by Henry Kissinger more than thirty years ago.

Kissinger’s scheme was revived by Paul Wolfowitz in 1992 in a policy proposal titled “Defense Policy Guidance,” and then again by the Project for the New American Century (a right wing think tank which has included Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Scooter Libby, Richard Perle, and John Bolton, among others) in a 2000 report called “Rebuilding American Defenses.”

With George W. Bush’s rise to the presidency, those men became his military and foreign policy team. When the attack came on September 11, they finally had both the clout and the chance to fulfill their dream.

Connecting the dots is child’s play: The Bush officials I’ve named laid out specific plans for the Persian Gulf—which anyone can read if they wish—and now they are carrying them out. People who can’t see the dots because they are blinded by stars and stripes are the kind of Americans the Bush people count on— good-hearted, God-fearing, and gullible.

The war was illegal and immoral from its conception, the neoconservatives’ bastard baby, birthed with a campaign of lies, swaddled with American flags, and laid in a TV tube. We invaded and occupied a country that had neither the intent nor the means to harm us. The war is hardly a legitimate source of American pride. Guilt, shame, and remorse are more appropriate emotions. But those seem as scarce as Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs).

2) The inspections were working perfectly; that’s why they had to be stopped. U.N. inspectors weren’t finding any WMDs because there were none to be found. There was a danger that they might actually complete their work and conclude that Iraq had no WMDs, blowing the cover for our planned assault. That would never do, so the U.S. gave them a deadline to leave the country.

This whole run-up to the war was marked by clumsy lies and a compliant American media. Administration officials (including Donald Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell in his obscene performance at the U.N.) claimed that we knew what weapons of mass destruction Iraq had, in what amounts, and where they were located. If all of that were true, the simplest course would have been to share some of that “intelligence” with the weapons inspectors. What kind of media fails to ask such an obvious question as “Why don’t you tell the inspectors where they are?”

The media failed to remark on an even bigger lie, this one mouthed by both President Bush and Senator Pat Roberts: that Saddam Hussein wouldn’t let the inspectors in. When the inspectors were in and running all over Iraq! The inspectors weren’t forced out by Saddam Hussein; they were run out by the U.S. so the bombing campaign could begin. What kind of media lets something so big go unremarked, and literally lets the administration get away with murder?

3) Our early whirlwind “victory” was a mirage in the desert. The race to Baghdad encountered minimal opposition. U.S. forces seemed to be a juggernaut as they raced to secure oil fields and the Interior Ministry. The oil was the goal; the Interior Ministry would provide Saddam Hussein’s spy files, which could then be used to manipulate and blackmail figures in the new government. Grabbing those files would also prevent details of U.S. support for Saddam from falling into the wrong hands.

The problem? The token opposition was part of Iraqi strategy. Most Iraqi soldiers simply took off their uniforms, hid their weapons, and melted into the landscape, to begin a well-organized resistance. The resistance was greatly aided by the U.S., which focused on the oil and the spy files, and ignored the rest. “The rest” included schools, museums, businesses, and office buildings, which were left to looters; water, power, and communications installations, which were likewise left to looters; and weapon depots and ammunition dumps, which were quickly emptied and supplied the firepower for the insurgents. Dumb, dumb, and dumb!

4) The war in Iraq is already lost—but not if you judge it by the administration’s real aims rather than the reasons it gives publicly for the war. If the war is to be judged by its success in combating terrorism or installing a model democracy—the current public excuses— then it’s an obvious disaster. The occupation is breeding insurgents faster than mosquitoes spawn in a stagnant pond, and Iraq has devolved into a chaotic, violent, hopelessly-divided state. Those conditions are steadily worsening.

The irony is that while the administration is losing the war in the terms it sold it to the public, it’s doing just fine in terms of its actual goals. No doubt they had hoped to succeed at both.

If you judge the war from the Cheney/Rumsfeld realpolitik, they’re within reach of most of what they aimed for. Our occupation forces, with Halliburton’s help, are racing to complete five mammoth permanent bases, which will allow us to dominate the region militarily for the foreseeable future. There’s no strong central Iraqi government to oppose us; we’ve replaced it with a federation of three weak, largely self-governing regions. The oil-rich territories are in the hands of the Shiites and our clients the Kurds; the minority Sunnis get sand and a dipstick. They’re furious, but who cares?

Mr. Bush asserted once again, in his Fourth of July speech to troops at Fort Bragg, that he’s not leaving Iraq with anything less than victory—this against a background of multiplying murders and massacres in Baghdad, as the situation continues to deteriorate. Mr. Bush isn’t actually anticipating victory; he’s just buying time until the permanent bases are completed and our colonial garrisons are in place, along with a weak and compliant Iraqi government. His refusal to accept anything other than a clear victory is, in fact, a way to set the table for an extended occupation, in the range of fifteen to twenty years.

The only victory here is of greed and arrogance over decency and common sense. This president is too small a man with too big an agenda. Thousands more will die, many thousands more will be crippled, and billions of dollars will be squandered before he struts out of office. Sooner or later, somebody else will have to call it quits and clean up his mess—at which point Mr. Bush’s backers can attack the new leader for having “lost Iraq.”

5) Handwringing over “intelligence failures” leading up to the war is a joke. Are we really supposed to take seriously all of these media pseudo-efforts to explain “how we could get it so wrong”? Do people really believe that intelligence agencies with hundreds of thousands of employees and billions of dollars in their budgets are so totally incompetent that teenage kids surfing the Internet can easily come up with better information than we used to launch the invasion of Iraq?

“We got it so wrong” because the administration demanded that we get it wrong, and intelligence agencies fell into line. It’s almost humorous to read the same explanation being trotted out by each of the countries joining in the invasion—Britain, Italy, Australia… incompetent intelligence agencies everywhere. Really, you might ask, what are we getting for our money? Why don’t we just give a couple of computer-savvy high school kids a part-time after-school job digging up facts, and use the billions of dollars we save to pay for providing health care, or feeding the hungry, or housing the homeless?

6) The “noble men and women of our armed forces” are an ordinary group of people, with the same virtues and vices as people elsewhere. Many are decent, honorable, and well-intentioned —good citizens who willingly risk their lives to defend the rest of us. The trust of those good people has been abused in the most cynical, calculated, and evil way possible.

On the other hand, some of those troops are lazy, incompetent, violent, brutal, or cruel. If you know several soldiers, you know some you would be glad to have as your sons and daughters—and some you wouldn’t trust to shovel out a chicken house if you couldn’t keep them under your eye.

Thomas Ricks, senior Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post, said in a Fresh Air interview that one of the things he discovered and found most dismaying during hundreds of interviews with military personnel was that Abu Ghraib wasn’t a rare exception—that, in fact, abuse and mistreatment of Iraqis by American troops was widespread. What kind of blinkers do people wear to avoid seeing the atrocities in Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Samarra, Haditha, Ishaqi, Mahmoudia—the list goes on and on—for what they are: the natural corollary of a brutal occupation?

Yet ultimately, the question isn’t “What are the soldiers like?” so much as it is “What are they being used for?” An army is a tool of the state, and can be judged by the purpose for which it’s turned loose. See #1 above.

7) “Support our troops” means “support our policies.” It seems like a nice gesture: Support all those kids you know, the sons and daughters of friends and neighbors. But the unspoken part of the neocon’s message is: “or shut up.” The effect is to transform people’s worry for friends and family who are in the military into support for the invasion and occupation. How do you support troops whose love for their country is being callously exploited? Who are being deceived into dying?

Those aren’t rhetorical questions. The best support is to tell the truth. Yesterday I came across a hopeful sign: The dollar store in town isn’t stocking “Support Our Troops” ribbons anymore. Instead, they have a box of ribbons reading “Bring Our Troops Home Safely.” I’ll gladly slap one of those on my tailgate.

© Tony Russell, 2006

Monday, July 24, 2006

“You’re Not Supposed to Know”

“We’d better stop at the store,” said Patty. “We’re about out of potatoes, and Kevin wanted potato soup for supper.”

“Okay,” I said. “No problem. We’re going right by Wall-Market.”

“Do you have your driver’s license with you?” she worried.

“Sure,” I said. “It’s in my billfold, like it always is.”

“Do you have your official notarized copy of your birth certificate, your social security card, and a utility bill with our current mailing address on it?” she fussed. “You know they won’t let you shop without them.”

“Got it all,” I said. “What about you?”

She was rummaging through her purse. “Darn it, I can’t seem to find my birth certificate,” she said. “I know I had it Friday, because I had to show it when I went for my hair appointment. And I had it when I went to the post office afterwards, because the security guard who checked it when I entered was Rhonda Wilford. You remember Rhonda; she was prom queen the year after I was. We got to talking about how the gowns have changed, and then she picked up a piece of trash and wadded it all up and threw it in a wastebasket, and I remember thinking when she bent over that she sure wouldn’t fit into her gown anymore. Wastebasket! Ohmigosh! I’ll bet she threw my birth certificate away!” She let out a shriek.

“Relax, Patty,” I said. “What’s the big deal? You can just get another one.”

“Oh sure,” she said. “You talk as if it’s nothing. Remember when I lost my social security card, and they wanted to see my driver’s license and my birth certificate and my social security card before they’d issue another one? And I said, ‘If I could show you my social security card, I wouldn’t be asking you for another one.’”

“That was a real headache, wasn’t it?” I said. “You thought they’d laugh and see how absurd it was, but you ended up having to get affidavits from our bank and your boss swearing that you’d actually shown them your social security card when you opened your account and when you were hired.”

“Right,” she said grimly. “Then the bank froze our checking and savings accounts until I could produce my new card.”

“And your company suspended you without pay until your new card came,” I recalled.

“I don’t know what the big deal was about our bank account,” she complained. “It turns out the government has copies of all our transactions anyway.”

“Patty!” I said. “You’re not supposed to know that!”

“Then it took almost six weeks for the new card to come,” she went on, ignoring me. “If my parents hadn’t loaned us enough money to make our house and car payments, I don’t know how we would have made it.”

“Reminds me of when the library said you had an overdue book, and you claimed you’d returned it,” I joked.

“That wasn’t funny, Ace. I was positive I’d returned that copy of American Dynasty. I told them if they’d just check the National Security Agency records, they’d find I’d returned it the day before it was due.”

“Patty,” I said. “You’re not supposed to know the NSA monitors what library materials you check out!”

“Well what’s the difference, Ace?” she snapped. “I already told my cousin Louise in an e-mail that I was reading it, and of course they screen everybody’s e-mail.”

“Patty!” I said, exasperated, “You’re not supposed to know the government reads your e-mail.”

“They already know I know,” she said, “because I mentioned it in a phone call to my brother Dave when he called from Jerusalem.”

“Patty!” I said. “You’re not supposed to know the government is eavesdropping on people’s phone calls!”

“Ace,” she said, “do you ever wonder if all of this is really necessary?”

“Of course it’s necessary,” I said. “Otherwise, terrorists or illegal immigrants might shop at Wall-Market or get their hair done or pay their bills.”

“All the same,” said Patty, “there’s something … I don’t know, something crummy about it. There are all the long lines and the waits and the metal detectors and the security guards. To tell the truth, none of it makes me feel any safer. It just makes me feel anxious. Like I’m being watched all the time. It makes me feel as if somebody has his eye on me, has me under control.”

“Well, isn’t that a good thing?” I asked. “If you feel that way, and you’re innocent, think how terrorists must feel.”

“I was thinking more of how blacks must have felt in South Africa when they had to carry those passbooks with them everywhere. We all thought that was so despicable—what whites were doing to them. And now we’re doing so much worse to ourselves. We’ve become our own second class citizens. Everybody’s a ‘kaffir’ now.”

© Tony Russell, 2006

Monday, May 15, 2006

“Bush’s Brain to Be Removed”


Washington, May 15 -
The White House announced today that President Bush will be undergoing what it terms a “minor surgical procedure” for the removal of Bush’s brain. The surgery is “normal health care maintenance” and “simply a precaution,” said press secretary Tony Snow.

Patrick Fitzgerald, the surgeon heading up the brain removal team, explains that the removal will relieve cranial congestion. “It’s a common mistake,” said Fitzgerald, “to speak of ‘Bush’s brain’ in the singular. The president’s skull actually contains three separate ‘brains’—the brain we will be removing; a second brain, which we call ‘Cheney,’ that exercises enormous control over major presidential functions; and, thirdly, the president’s original or ‘birth brain.’ The second brain will probably expand somewhat as new space becomes available. The original brain is rigid and difficult to penetrate from outside, and we doubt the operation will have much impact on it organically.”

Despite White House descriptions of the procedure as ‘routine,’ Fitzgerald sounds a note of caution about the risks involved.

“The brain we are removing is tricky,” he says. “Surgery will be complicated by the vast number of tentacles the brain has branching throughout the entire system. In addition, the brain has been leaking dirt into the media and infecting the body politic. We have to guard against the possibility that it has undermined not just the president’s political health, but that of our democracy in general.”

Since rumors of the procedure began to circulate, speculation has focused on two questions: Can the president continue to function normally without his brain? and Is it possible for the brain to continue to devise plans for the president and then have them carried out by remote control?

The White House has moved swiftly to address the first question, with his press secretary assuring that the president will be back on the job the day after the removal. “He may feel some minor political discomfort,” said Snow, “but it will not affect his ability to perform his presidential duties.”

Other observers suggest that the president’s brain has long been dysfunctional, and that losing it will result in fewer changes than expected. Charles Liddy, of the Mussolini Society think tank, notes that the brain functioned brilliantly on the political side, seizing control of all the major institutions of government, but was stunningly incompetent when it came to delivering any actual government services.

Liddy goes on to argue that there is, in fact, a direct link between the seizures and the government’s paralysis. “Just look at the way the president has lurched in the polls,” he says. “You can tell a lot from the way a person walks. It’s obvious there’s an issue with his central nervous system. His wiring just hasn’t been working right.”

Opinions are sharply divided as to whether the president’s brain can continue to do his planning from a distance,. Republican senator Trent Lott sees no reason why the brain cannot continue to operate while it roves outside the White House fence. “It’s absurd to think that the brain actually has to be on site. The brain has numerous pathways to transmit its impulses,” he points out.

Post-operation plans for the brain are uncertain, however. No alternative host has stepped forward to request the organ, and it may simply be cooled in a cell until a compatible recipient can be found.

Political hopefuls who are interested in becoming transplant hosts can submit samples of their own brain matter for an issue match.

© Tony Russell, 2006

Saturday, May 13, 2006

“Talking Iranian War Blues”

I was walking home from work and saw our neighbor, Bobby Barefoot, sitting out on his porch, picking a guitar and singing to himself. “Hey, Bobby,” I yelled, “how’s it going?”

“Okay,” he said, “if I could just get this darned song finished. I’ve been fooling around with it and fooling around with it, and I can’t quite get it where I want it. Say, you being a writer and all, would you mind listening to it and see if you’ve got any suggestions?”

“Well, I don’t know if reporting the garden news makes me a writer,” I said, “but I’d be glad to do what I can.” So I perched on the railing and waited for him to start.

“Huhhmmm,” he cleared his throat. “I call it ‘Talkin’ Iranian War Blues’.” Then he began.

Woke up this mornin’, Iran was on my mind.
Yeah I said woke up this mornin’, and Iran was on my mind.
When I hear those drumbeats rollin’,
I know for sure our leader’s lyin’.

‘We’ll give diplomacy a chance,’ that’s what they say.
‘Oh we’ll give diplomacy a chance,’ yeah, so they say.
But you know the plans are drawn up,
And there’ll be bombs fallin’ any day.

Well, a letter from Iran came in the mail,
Yeah yesterday there was a letter in the mail.
Guess they thought we’d bother to answer,
But we’re hell-bent that peace will fail.

Losin’ two wars at a time, let’s try for three.
Oh why are ‘easy’ wars so hard, let’s try for three,
While rivers of other people’s blood
Change into oil for you and me.

Blood into oil, like water into wine,
Yeah I heard that somewhere, water turnin’ into wine.
I just know that blood a-runnin’
Helps Halliburton’s bottom line.

Oil for you and me, and ready cash,
Yeah it’s oil for you and me, and beaucoup cash.
Keep the oil and profits rollin’,
And we’ll have ourselves a bash.

I wonder what it’s like down on the ground,
Oh yeah sometimes I wonder what it’s like down on the ground.
They say there’s people cryin’,
But I just can’t hear a sound.

He played a final chord and then looked up at me. “Well, what do you think?” he asked.

“Uh, the rhythm’s a little rough,” I said, trying to be polite.

“Nah, nah, talkin’ blues you can fudge the rhythm,” he said. “It’s not like scanning a poem. You can phrase it and make it come out all right.”

“What about the perspective?” I said. “It seems to shift a lot.”

“I take sort of a Picasso approach to perspective,” he said.

Then I cut to what was really bothering me. “Do you actually think the administration is so flat-out nuts as to start another war, when we’re already stretched too thin in Iraq and Afghanistan?” I asked. “I mean, the whole premise of your song is that they’re going to do it, and that the real reason isn’t Iran’s nuclear program, it’s oil. You’re taking a pretty cynical attitude, aren’t you?”

“Ace,” he said, “I’m not cynical. I’m trying to be realistic about the most cynical administration in American history. That makes me sound cynical when I describe them.”

“If I believed they were as reckless and as ruthless as you make them out to be,” I said, “I’d be scared out of my britches.”

He hesitated. “In that case,” he said, “I’m glad I didn’t write about what worries me most.”

“Well don’t stop now,” I said.

[Okay, reader, maybe we WILL stop now. What do YOU think is worrying him most?]

© Tony Russell, 2006

Thursday, April 27, 2006

“I Have a Lighter Side”


Washington, April 24 -
The White House announced today that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will be a guest on “Meet the Press” this Sunday. Rumsfeld’s appearance is an attempt to counter charges that he was directly involved in supervising the abuse of a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay.

According to the announcement, “special staging arrangements” have been made with network staff for the broadcast. Although full details were not disclosed, highly placed sources within the administration, speaking on background, have said that Rumsfeld will reproduce for the studio audience various practices he authorized for the interrogation of prisoners.

Prior to his appearance, Rumsfeld will be forced to kneel for eight hours with his hands behind his back. He will also be inundated for forty-eight hours by high-decibel rap music from three different stations played simultaneously, and will be awakened every 45 minutes if he manages to fall asleep.

Once the program begins, the Secretary will stand naked before a panel of female reporters while they badger him with accusations that he is a homosexual. Then he will don a bra and bikini underpants while guards urinate on the Bible and the panel screams that his mother and sister are whores. Snarling guard dogs will be sicced onto the Secretary to lend authenticity to his performance, but will be kept leashed and muzzled at all times. The release cautions that “anything Secretary Rumsfeld says, under the circumstances, cannot be taken seriously.”

For the grand finale, he will perform a series of dog tricks on the end of a leash. “Fetch! Roll over! Beg! Sit! Speak! Heel! You name it, he can do it,” said one aide who has been present at rehearsals. “He picked it all up in no time. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?”

The program is expected to attract a record audience. “I’m looking forward to it,” said Rumsfeld. “It will give people a chance to see another part of me. I’m not always the inflexible, arrogant misanthrope the public is accustomed to. I have a lighter side.”

In the past, treatment of the kind described, whether carried out by Nazis or by communists, has been greeted with opprobrium, scorn, and contempt by the American public. Rumsfeld, however, will argue that the events, far from being psychological torture, were simply “an attempt to provide entertainment” for guards and prisoners at Guantanamo. “It’s hot down there, they’re wedged into those tiny cells, they get almost no exercise.… I just felt they needed something to break the monotony,” he said.

The Secretary hopes, with this appearance, to persuade skeptics that he was being truthful in his earlier claim that “…the treatment of the detainees in Guantanamo Bay is proper, it's humane, it's appropriate, and it is fully consistent with international conventions. No detainee has been harmed; no detainee has been mistreated in any way.”

Nonetheless, some observers have had misgivings about the acts portrayed on the show. “I feel so sorry for him, going through all that,” said a network associate who has watched rehearsals. “I don’t know how he can stand it.”

“I feel the same way,” said a technician who has also been present. “And he’s only doing it for one day. A lot of the prisoners have been there for three years. No wonder so many have tried to commit suicide.”

The program will be preceded by the following message:

Warning: Because conduct displayed on this program may violate national and international standards of decency, viewer discretion is advised. Videotaping or audio taping of the program, in whole or in part, is expressly prohibited, and use of any description of the program is forbidden without written consent from the Secretary of Defense.
© Tony Russell, 2006

Monday, April 24, 2006

“A Mindlessness of Its Own”

Patty looked up from the newspaper with a worried frown on her face. “Did you see this, Ace? President Bush went to California to talk about war with members of the Hoover Institution.”

“So the president went to a meeting. He goes to lots of meetings.”

“But the Hoover Institution has been pushing hard for an attack on Iran. It has a lot of pull on the country’s editorial pages. Guys like Thomas Sowell.”

“Patty, the president’s not crazy enough to attack Iran! We’re stretched too thin in Iraq and Afghanistan without taking on somebody else, for cryin’ out loud. Even I can figure that out. A lot of troops are already going back for their third tour of duty, both countries are trying to stave off chaos, Iraq is sliding into civil war, and some people are projecting now that the war there will cost over a trillion dollars. You’d have to be nuts to start another war when you can’t win two that you’re already in!”

“Ace, remember what you said before we invaded Iraq? ‘The president will give the weapons inspectors a chance to finish the job,’ you said. ‘That only makes sense.’ ‘Diplomacy will be the first option,’ you said. ‘No sane person wants a war,’ you said.

Three billion women in the world, and I had to marry one with a tape recorder in her brain.

“Okay, so no sane person wants war, and these bozos at the Hoover Institution want to start a war with Iran…. I can do the logic on that,” I said. “But why would he go and have a private powwow with them? You don’t suppose he’d take them seriously, do you?”

“Well, they take themselves seriously. And even though they’ve been wrong again and again on Iraq—in fact, they have an unbroken streak of being wrong for the past five years—they’re still the standard talking heads. You claim an attack on Iran is unthinkable, but there are people thinking it, and they have a lot of influence in the media and with this administration.”

“Look, Patty, I know I blew it on Iraq, but there’s no way I could be wrong about Iran. If Bush hit Iran, the Shi’ites in Iraq would go berserk! All the factions in Iraq have had the devil of a time trying to put a government together, and Sunnis and Shi’ites are slaughtering each other in the streets. It’d take an idiot to pull that house of cards down right now.”

“Maybe you’re right,” she said. “I sure hope so.”

“Sure I am,” I said. “Muslims around the world would go bananas. Pakistan would go up in flames. And China just signed a big oil agreement with Iran. If we attack Iran, we’ll be into it with Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan, all at the same time, and who knows what the Russians and Chinese would do with their oil supply threatened?

“Besides, who’s left to support us?” I went on. “Tony Blair is hanging by a thread in England. The Italians just booted out Berlusconi. One after another, everybody’s pulling their troops out of Iraq. If we bomb Iran, the ‘coalition of the willing’ will be Utah, Mississippi, and Alabama.”

“The scary thing for me is, I’m not sure it matters,” said Patty, her voice choking. I looked at her, and tears were welling in her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” I asked in alarm.

“I just feel like such an idiot,” she sniffled. “Growing up, I really did believe all they taught us in school about ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people.’ Now it seems more like ‘government of the people, without the people, despite the people.’ I think the overwhelming majority of people in this country want something saner and more decent than they’re getting from their government —Democrats or Republicans. I’m so frustrated that our political leadership carries us along regardless of what the majority of us think and feel. But more than that, I’m just plain angry. I don’t see many politicians willing to speak truth to power, or to the people either. It feels as if the government has a mind of its own. A mindlessness of its own.”

“Gee, Patty,” I said, “that’s what you’re always saying about me.”

© Tony Russell, 2006

Thursday, April 13, 2006

“Miracles on 35th Street”

Neighbors are flocking to the apartment of Mrs. Eleanor Plymale, 429 W. 35th St., to see her newly restored carpet. “It’s a miracle!” enthused Mrs. Plymale. “You can see the lilies and orchids in all their original color and luster! I rented the carpet-cleaning machine and purchased a gallon of the cleanser at Homemaker’s Hardware on W. 19th St., but I didn’t really believe it could restore life to my old carpet.”

Her neighbor, Mrs. Darlene Thomas, 3438 Jefferson Ave., agreed. “It’s nothing short of miraculous,” she said. “When Ellie called me, I was really skeptical. I rushed right over and stuck my fingers in the pile to convince myself that it was real. The carpet was still damp from the cleansing, and it was spotless. It was like her kids had never spilled pop in the living room, and they hadn’t had that unfortunate experience with the miniature schnauzer they never could housebreak. It’s completely without stain!”

Another neighbor, Mrs. Audra Bishop, of 3623 Madison Ave, said, shaking her head, “It just goes to show you. I told her for years, ‘Ellie, why don’t you throw out that old thing and get yourself some wall-to-wall shag carpeting like I have in my living room?’” Mrs. Bishop added, “That carpet was soiled, faded, and had spots all over it—a real eyesore. Then she brings it back to life with the help of modern technology. I’m going to rent that machine myself next weekend.”

Mrs. Bishop may have to wait longer than expected. According to sales personnel at Homemaker’s Hardware, calls have been pouring in since rumors of the miracle began to circulate in the neighborhood. “We only keep three of the machines in the store,” said the assistant manager, Vivian Flores, “and two of them are broken at the minute. The other one is booked up from now through Easter.”

News of the alleged miracle has spread across the west end of the city by word of mouth, e-mail, and telephone. A line of visitors extends down the hallway of Mrs. Plymale’s apartment and halfway around the block. Visitors are asked to remove their shoes before entering the apartment, and may leave an offering in coffee cans placed on stands on either side of the door.

Everyone who tours the apartment is also treated with what Mrs. Plymale describes as an earlier miracle, a square of her fudge brownies. “The company claimed that it was a miracle,” she admits, “but I didn’t believe it until I tried it myself. You just add water and two eggs, stir thoroughly, and pour the batter into a greased 9 by 9 baking pan, then bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. The brownies are always rich and moist, with a deep chocolaty taste. It never fails me.”

Additional miracles reported by Mrs. Plymale include her toilet bowl cleaner, which removes even the deepest and most persistent yellowing; her liquid dishwashing detergent, which cuts grease and removes stubborn stains from pots and pans; and her toothpaste, which prevents cavities, freshens her breath, and whitens as it cleans.

© Tony Russell, 2006

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

“From the Mailbag”

Ace’s Wild

Time for another question and answer session with our man Ace, OPP’s version of Dr. Laura. Let’s head right to the mailbag and see what our readers have on their minds.

* * * * * *

Q. Ace, where did your nickname come from? Is it short for “ace reporter,” a reference to your fondness for poker, or a mispronunciation?
Del McDonald ~ Chagrin Falls, Ohio

A. Mispronunciation?

* * * * * *

Q. Hey, Ace! In the run-up to the invasion of Iran, the Bush administration went through the motions of using the UN while constantly issuing threats. They insisted that they were trying to solve the problem diplomatically and that all their preparations for a military attack were just normal contingency planning. Now they’re issuing threats against Iran while using the UN as a forum. They claim that they’re trying to resolve the problem diplomatically, and insist that their preparations for a military attack—including a potential nuclear strike—are just normal contingency planning. Do I see a pattern here?
Whitney McKenzie, Palo Alto, California

A. I’m trying to avoid that mindset, Whitney. Save the patterns for wallpaper, not newspaper.

* * * * * *

Q. Dear Answer Man: According to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the president, in his role as commander-in-chief, can do anything he wants in time of war. The president has also said that the war against terrorism will last into the foreseeable future. Putting two and two together, I keep coming up with 666. Is my math correct?
Donna Aprilla ~ Sacramento, California

A. My calculator says “4,” Donna, but I never studied the new math.

* * * * * *

Q. Dear Sir: As a committed Christian, I am having a hard time deciding which is worse—having oral sex with someone who is not your wife and then lying about it, or lying in order to launch an invasion which results in the deaths of over 100,000 people. They both involve lying. Can you help me resolve this moral dilemma?
Ralph Lowbody ~ Ashland, Kentucky

A. When did they have you committed?

* * * * * *

Q. Ace — The president said he would fire anyone in his administration who was involved in leaking the information intended to discredit Joseph Wilson. Now it turns out that Mr. Bush gave Dick Cheney the go-ahead to leak the information. I don’t understand how this would work; can the president fire himself?
Leroy Heim ~ Madison, Wisconsin

A. Leroy, do you remember the myth where the snake opens its mouth and swallows its tail?

* * * * * *

Q. Sir: According to a story in last week’s issue of our local newspaper, the rock strata exposed during highway construction in this area are mostly Devonian and 370 million years old. How can a world that’s only six thousand years old contain rocks that are 370 million years old? Please explain this for my seven-year-old daughter in terms of simple theological geology. Thank you for your assistance.
Wanda Pepper ~ Monroe, Louisiana

A. See previous question and answer.

* * * * * *

Q. Congress seems to be having a tough time putting together an immigration bill that everyone can agree on. As far as I can tell, you have members who variously
· Want to make all the little brown-skinned Spanish-speakers go away
· Want to maintain a steady supply of cheap labor that can be paid under the table
· Want to exploit people’s paranoia about security
· Want to criminalize good deeds
· Want to keep hard-working young people coming to fund their Social Security checks
· Want to lay the foundation for a Latino voting bloc
There may be some idealism tucked away somewhere in there, but basically, it’s a grab bag of ugly motives. What kind of compromise would you suggest?
Dan McLaughlin, Waycross, Georgia

A. Let’s think outside the box, Dan: Would Mexico be willing to annex the U.S.?

* * * * * *

Q. Ace. The administration has promised a shake up of its staff. The obvious first step would be to dump a deeply unpopular vice president whose approval rating has plummeted to 18%. So why is he still around?
Marvin Stern ~ Utica, New York

A. Cheap impeachment insurance.

* * * * * *

No question about it; we’re scraping bottom. Readers, keep your questions coming. Patty, put a cold one in the fridge, I’m heading out the door.

© Tony Russell, 2006

Monday, April 03, 2006

“A Large Number of Unknowns”


Washington, April 3 –

The White House announced today that President Bush has decided to extend his term in office until the war on terrorism has been won. The war is currently being waged against an unidentified number of terrorists in an undisclosed number of countries to achieve unspecified goals at an indeterminate time.

The large number of unknowns involved has encouraged Congress to write an endless number of blank checks for hundreds of billions of dollars, since, as Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn) put it, “With that many unknowns, you don’t want to tie the administration’s hands.”

Provisions in the Constitution for periodic elections and term limits are being suspended, said the announcement, until the war on terrorism has been brought to a successful conclusion. “Successful conclusion” was undefined.

The president’s decision, which has long been expected, will not require approval by Congress, said the announcement, since the president’s powers are unlimited when he is acting as Commander-in-Chief in time of war. “God bless America,” the announcement concluded. “Let freedom ring.”

Congressional Republicans hailed the news. “With our alliances in tatters, Iraq going to hell in a handbasket, the Taliban revived in Afghanistan, the entire Middle East threatening to explode in sectarian chaos, and the budget in free fall, we need someone with President Bush’s nerve and experience to see this thing out,” said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA).

When Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc) pointed out that all of these situations were actually created by the current administration, he was roundly denounced not only by Republicans, but by members of his own party, who argue that it is not the role of the opposition to oppose the party in power. “Snakes and worms keep a low profile,” cautioned one party veteran.

© Tony Russell, 2006