Monday, January 30, 2006

“An Open Letter to Senator Robert C. Byrd”

January 29, 2006

Dear Senator Byrd:

It is with considerable dismay that I have read reports listing you as one of the few Democratic senators who will support Samuel Alito’s elevation to the Supreme Court.

Over the past five years, you have been one of the most clear-sighted and courageous men in public life. Time after time you have risen in the Senate to raise objections to the course of this administration, objections based not on politics but on a keen sense of the history of this country and an unparalleled love and knowledge of our Constitution.

So I am simply at a loss to understand your willingness to support the Alito nomination. By most accounts, Judge Alito is a polite, hard-working, and decent man. But polite, hard-working, and decent men can be so wrong in their approach to Constitutional issues that they threaten the very nature of our republic. And Judge Alito seems to be just such a man.

I have read your book Losing America. In fact, it is in the small stack of books I keep by my bedside to turn to during restless nights. In that book you excoriate “a reckless and arrogant presidency.” I do not think Judge Alito is personally arrogant, but every pronouncement and indication we have is that he is willing to dramatically alter the balance of power between the branches of government, exalting the executive branch at the expense of the legislative in particular. Ultimately, that is the most reckless approach toward our government one can imagine.

With Judge Alito’s endorsement of the unitary executive theory, he strengthens, emboldens, and legitimizes just that arrogance you have decried. The unitary executive theory runs counter to everything you believe and have fought for. I genuinely cannot understand, then; how can you support Judge Alito’s nomination?

If this theory were to be implemented, the power of Congress to create independent agencies and counsels would immediately disappear. As the Senate’s foremost Constitutional scholar, I thought you would be zealous in defending these Congressional prerogatives, not supporting someone whose ultimate intent is to destroy them.

Judge Alito also takes a genuinely radical approach toward presidential 'signing statements.' His position has been that the President's interpretation of legislation matters as much as the will of Congress' in determining legislative intent. If that is to be the case, then Congress might as well nail its doors shut. And again, knowing how much you love the Senate, and how zealous you have been in trying to preserve Congressional power against executive overreaching, I cannot understand how you can support Judge Alito’s nomination.

Some have argued that the Senate has too much other important work to do to squander any more time in discussing or filibustering Judge Alito’s nomination. That is such a shortsighted approach toward a lifetime appointment, where he will deal year after year with bedrock principles of our nation, that the argument seems almost intentionally specious, an excuse for hurrying past a shameful act.

You were one of a small bipartisan group that earlier preserved the right to filibuster by crafting a careful compromise. It may be that you fear a filibuster will tempt Senator Frist to employ the ‘nuclear option’ which he threatened before. But if the price of maintaining the filibuster in theory is that one cannot use it in practice, then one has sold his soul for a mess of pottage.

I share your heartfelt concern that we are “losing America.” I think the elevation of Judge Alito would be a giant step toward making that loss permanent and irretrievable. I hope that, after further consideration of the Constitutional issues involved, you will reconsider your endorsement, and oppose his nomination.


Tony Russell

Thursday, January 26, 2006

“The Idiot Defense”


Washington, Jan. 26 –

The impeachment trial of President Bush, opening October 5 in Washington, will feature the most high-level application of the so-called “idiot defense” in legal history. In the idiot defense—sometimes called the “ostrich defense”—the defendant argues that he should not be held accountable because he was ignorant of what was taking place. With high-ranking officials, the normal strategy is to blame underlings for wrongdoing.

Accordingly, President Bush plans to tell the House Committee on Impeachment that he knew nothing about the numerous crimes and unconstitutional measures taken during his time in the White House. In a tour of carefully selected friendly venues, Bush has contended that his only mistake was in trusting Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Condoleezza Rice, all of whom, he says, gave him faulty advice or knowingly misled him.

“No President knows everything going on in his administration,” Bush argued in a speech at the War College, “so no one should expect me to take responsibility for the crimes Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the others were committing. The torture, the kidnappings, the unconstitutional detaining of prisoners without charge, the unlawful wiretappings, the illegal invasion of Iraq—all those were undertaken without my knowledge.”

Mr. Bush admitted that he had made numerous speeches advocating and defending those crimes, but claimed such remarks should be inadmissible as evidence. “Everyone understands that I didn’t write those speeches,” he said. “I just read what somebody put in front of me. They could have been cookie recipes, for all I knew.”

When shown his signature on various incriminating documents, such as those authorizing the unlawful wiretappings, Mr. Bush said, “Look, every morning Dick [Vice President Cheney] brought in a pile of things for me to sign, and then I could go work out in the gym. I might as well have been autographing souvenir baseballs. If Dick slipped something in the pile that shouldn’t have been there, shame on him.”

As it happens, the idiot defense is also the legal strategy being employed by the defense team for Kenneth Lay, former Enron Chairman and Mr. Bush’s biggest financial backer throughout his political career. As with Lay, the key question is obvious: How could an experienced executive—Bush, after all, served five years as governor of Texas prior to his two terms in the White House—claim ignorance about such monumental crimes carried out over such an extended period of time?

“We’re not talking about governmental trivia. These were major policy decisions driven against public opinion by pressure from the very highest levels,” said Mark Spott, a presidential performance expert at Potomac State College. “If the President isn’t responsible for these things, what in hell is he responsible for?”

Ben Snidegood, a former presidential prosecutor, concurs. “It’s a tough sell to claim that somebody whose father was President, who is a former governor, and who has served five years in the Presidency himself, could be that ignorant. This is a high-risk defense.”

Nonetheless, many legal scholars believe the impeachment committee has its work cut out for it. They will require conclusive proof that Mr. Bush knew what was going on when the crimes were committed. “Saying ‘It’s as plain as the nose on your face’ and ‘He had to be aware of it’ won’t cut the mustard,” said Snidegood.

That standard of proof may be difficult to attain. Mr. Bush has been on vacation at least twenty per cent of the time while in office. He has a reputation for exhibiting no intellectual or scholarly interests. His only contact with newspapers or news magazines is said to be his daily reading of the sports section, and he receives all his briefings and options from a small, tightly knit circle of advisors. Preliminary surveys of his calendar over a period of several months show only half an hour a day devoted to meetings with cabinet officials and others, with the bulk of his brief workday taken up by photo ops, exercise, personal grooming, and watching sports events on TV.

Snidegood admitted, “He’s a perfect candidate for the idiot defense.”

- © Tony Russell, 2006

Monday, January 23, 2006

“Counter Space”


County merchants have sounded an alarm. “We’re running out of space for homemade signs and donor cups on our counters,” said Noel Harmon, spokesman for the local Retailers Association.

“In a survey last month, we learned that the average checkout counter now has less than ten inches of clear space for customers to put items they want to purchase, and that space is shrinking all the time. The rest of the counter is completely taken up by homemade signs showing families facing ruin because of medical emergencies,” said Harmon.

A visit to area businesses confirmed details of the report. At Angela’s Ashtray, a popular local coffee shop, the counter held two signs and donor cups for children suffering from leukemia, one for an infant needing a kidney transplant, three for men seriously injured in ATV accidents, two for people burned in house fires, one for a stroke victim, and one for an elderly woman with Parkinson’s Disease.

Waitress Beverly Leach said, “Nobody working here has health insurance. It’s reassuring for us to look down the counter and see that there’s still space available if something should happen to us or our families. But as the amount of clear counter space keeps getting smaller, some of us are worried that it won’t be there when we need it.”

Public health officials agree. “These signs and cups are really the backbone of our health care system,” said Dr. Donald Wiseman. “If we run out of counter space, I’m not sure there are any alternatives left for families.”

Store window space is likewise facing heavy demands. Several merchants have had to remove announcements of various benefit events, such as concerts, dip-and-donates, car washes, poker runs, quilt raffles, cornbread and bean dinners, and turkey shoots in order to make room for their “Going Out of Business” signs.

“I feel so guilty taking them down,” said one proprietor, who asked to remain anonymous. “I know people are dependent on these events to save their homes, feed their families, and get the medical treatment they need.”

A spokesperson for Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) said, “Representative Capito is well aware of the counter space crisis, and is preparing to introduce legislation requiring that all checkout counters be a minimum of ten feet long.”

Critics immediately pointed to what they called a “giant loophole” in Capito’s bill. “It completely ignores the growing trend toward conveyor-belt style counters,” said Donna Watson, a health care advocate. “If you put a sign and cup on one of these counters, they’re dumped on the floor as soon as the clerk advances the belt.”

Proponents of the current health care model say that newspaper articles describing families’ plights and asking for contributions provide adequate backup for checkout counter solicitations.

But Watson disagrees. “Newspaper articles have only limited effectiveness,” she says. “They’re just no substitute for point-of-purchase appeals. When you’re standing there with your change in your hand, looking at a picture of a four-year-old girl needing treatment for leukemia, what are you going to do? Pretend you don’t see it? You read that the father works in a sawmill, the mother works at Wal-Mart, they have no health insurance, and their little girl will die if she doesn’t get the treatment.

“That’s a real ‘giving moment,’” says Watson. “That impulse is what we depend on to provide quality health care in this country. We appreciate the efforts of the Hur Herald and the Calhoun Chronicle, but newspapers alone just can’t do the job. We need more counter space.”

© Tony Russell, 2006

Thursday, January 19, 2006

“Columnist Charged in Slaying”


Big Springs, December 26, 2015 –

Federal agents today arrested Tony Russell, local political satirist and blogger, for his role in the state-style execution of former president George W. Bush. Russell is alleged to be the mastermind behind a column detailing the former president’s death by lethal injection.

Neighbors describe the accused as an eccentric recluse, given to wandering area hills at night, accompanied by a pack of dogs and armed with a rifle.

Responding early on to charges that his column was “over the edge,” Russell contended that he was the victim of “an innocent navigational error.”

“I didn’t think my instruments were working properly,” he said. “When the Bush administration gave us shackled prisoners set upon by dogs, nursing home residents abandoned to drown as flood waters rose, civilians burned to death by bombardments with white phosphorus, and suspects kidnapped off foreign streets to be tortured in Poland and Rumania, I thought my moral compass was out of whack. I had no idea I was sailing so close to the edge.”

Readers worldwide were horrified by the column, which appeared on December 15. One veteran crime reporter called it a “copycat killing,” noting parallels with news accounts of the 2005 California execution of convicted slayer Stanley “Tookie” Williams.

Editors and publishers around the country have moved swiftly to distance themselves from the growing scandal. The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post have all announced that Russell’s column will no longer appear on their editorial pages.

The publisher of the Hur Herald released a statement late this afternoon deploring the incident, saying that the graphic images and brutal behavior depicted in the column were the work of “a single bad apple.”

“It is not our corporate policy to execute presidents or former presidents,” he said. “Our policy with presidents has always been ‘Live and let live.’” He promised an immediate investigation as to how the presidential fatality could have occurred on the Herald’s pages.

In a Newsweek/CBS poll taken shortly after the column appeared, respondents were divided on why they found it so objectionable:

· 41% felt it was the prerogative of presidents and governors to execute, not political columnists;
· 54% objected to graphic details in the account, saying executions are palatable in reality but distasteful in fiction;
· 58% recoiled from any comparison of the impoverished, poorly educated, disadvantaged black co-founder of the Crips with a wealthy, well-educated, privileged white ex-governor and -president;
· 73%--by far the largest group—felt that it was unpatriotic to imagine a president held accountable for deaths he has caused, in effect treating him like any other citizen.

Media critic Ben Warmwiener suggests that Russell would have done well to follow his victim’s example. During Gulf War II, then-President Bush had casualties flown in at night to remote corners of airfields, prohibited photographs of the flag-draped coffins, controlled media coverage of the war through a system of “embedded reporters,” and declined to attend funerals for the thousands of slain troops, all to avoid arousing the public.

“Out of sight, out of mind,” said Warmwiener. “If Russell had simply executed Mr. Bush in the privacy of his own mind, rather than on the editorial pages of millions of newspapers, nothing would have been said about it.”

Russell, however, has repeatedly insisted that he was not calling for Bush’s execution in the column, but was only using depictions of state-sponsored murder, as treated in the mainstream media, to make another point.

His column paralleled reports on Williams’s execution, he has claimed, to raise doubts about the fairness of a system that ruthlessly executes one man, who may or may not have been guilty of causing four deaths, and honors another man, responsible for twenty-five thousand times as many killings, not to mention the maiming and mutilation of thousands more.

“I’m firmly opposed to capital punishment,” Russell has argued. “The column was really intended to raise a question, not offer a solution—specifically, why was Tookie Williams killed by the state, while Bush went untouched?”

“What does it take to make Bush’s victims real?” Russell is said to have asked. “More than one hundred thousand people—men, women, children, and babies—died because of him. Bush is just as guilty of their deaths as a thief would be who gunned people down in a stickup—which is what the war in Iraq was, on a grand scale.”

As he was led away, Russell shouted, ““I spoke the unthinkable; he did the unspeakable. I spilled ink; he spilled blood!”

Members of the Bush family retinue have rejected Russell’s claim as overly dramatic and special pleading. “He could have saved George Bush’s life with the flick of an eraser, with one brushstroke of WhiteOut®, with the merest use of the ‘Delete’ key, and he didn’t move a finger,” said James Baker. “He just left him to die on the page.”

“He knowingly brought death and the former president together in sentence after sentence,” said Martha Maples, 74. “I have no pity for him.”

Russell, referencing not just Gulf War II but Bush’s years as Texas governor, has noted that his column was hardly the first time death and the former president were joined in a sentence. While he was governor of Texas, Bush presided over the execution of 147 inmates.

Then-Governor Bush averaged killing slightly more than one prisoner every two weeks over a span of five years, including four juveniles (Joseph Cannon, Gary Graham, Robert Carter, and Glen McGinnis), three men who were mentally handicapped (Oliver Cruz, Terry Washington, and Charles Boyd), and two women (Karla Faye Tucker and Betty Lou Beets).

Bush may claim the honor of being the only governor in the history of the United States to execute a great-grandmother (Beets). The 38 prisoners he dispatched in the year 2000 were the most ever recorded in an American state. He is reported to have spent an average of five minutes per case reviewing records before rejecting pleas for clemency.

“This from a self-advertised ‘compassionate conservative’!” said Russell. “And people think I have a sense of irony!”

Those killed were disproportionately poor, disproportionately black, and disproportionately Hispanic. “Bush’s execution,” said Russell, “is one small step in creating a more inclusive balance. Let’s put things in proportion here,” he urged.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denounced Russell’s attempt to shift the focus of the case to deaths for which Bush was responsible, saying, “This is a classic example of blaming the victim.”

A plea of “temporary insanity” by the satirist appears foredoomed. Prosecutors plan to present as evidence a long series of Russell’s columns attacking Bush, tracing what they describe as “a rising trajectory of hostility and violence.”

Early on, they will claim, the columns were good-natured gibes at Bush’s policies and the corruption within his administration. Over time the columns grew shriller and more aggressive, calling first for Bush’s defeat, then for his impeachment, and eventually—in the charges just levied—for his execution. Russell’s most recent work, it is said, has brought the escalation to its logical culmination, envisioning Bush and his cronies roasting in Hell.

“It’s vile enough that he executed the former President,” said Rawgene Akers, 42, “but his greater crime is imagining the unimaginable, and enticing others to do the same.”

According to reports issuing from an unidentified detention facility, Russell has already admitted attempting to destroy the veil of respectability behind which politicians lie, steal, and plot mass murder with impunity.

Federal authorities deny that torture was used to extract Russell’s confession. One spokesman, however, speaking on condition of anonymity, has been quoted as saying, “It all depends on what you mean by ‘torture.’”

Defense attorneys are likely to claim that poor taste, in and of itself, is not sufficient legal grounds to warrant the death penalty. If Russell should be found guilty, with no recommendation for mercy, his own execution is likely to become a major media event.

Media critic Warmwiener says the reason Russell is floundering so badly is that he “has failed to grasp the underlying dynamic here. People rejected his execution column for the very same reason they turned a blind eye to Bush’s monstrous crimes in the first place. It’s that form of middle class denial we call ‘being nice.’

“It’s not ‘nice’ to say someone is a mass murderer,” says Warmwiener, “even when—as in this case—it happens to be true.”

Today’s arrest demonstrates the hard line approach to satire taken by successive Republican administrations. “He’ll find that we take it seriously when people make fun of us,” warned former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Russell will also find little sympathy from the current president, who has described the execution of Bush as “nothing less than regicide.” By a bizarre twist of fate, it was President Schwarzenegger who ten years ago rejected Tookie Williams’s plea for clemency, and gave the go-ahead for his execution.

© Tony Russell, 2006

Monday, January 16, 2006

“How Was Your Day?”

Wife [Giving husband an obligatory peck on the cheek]: “How was your day at the office, dear?”

Husband [Handing coat to her]: “It’s not like I work in just any office, honey. It’s the White House. It’s my job to protect the most important human being on the planet. Every day the weight of the world is on my shoulders. [Glances around the living room] Say, is that armchair out of line? You must not have gotten it back in its place when you vacuumed this morning.” [Walks over and turns it a fraction of an inch]

Wife [Gritting her teeth as she hangs up his coat]: “So, anything new at work?”

Husband: “I’ll say! The President blew his top today. I’ve never seen him so upset.”

Wife [Reaching for husband’s necktie]: “What got into him?”

Husband [Grabbing tie]: “That’s okay, I’ll take care of my tie. [Chuckles] You’re such a klutz! Last time you helped me off with it, you got confused and tightened it instead of loosening it. You almost strangled me! [They both give a light laugh at the absurdity of it all.] Have you fed the fish yet? No? You’ve got a memory like a sieve. That’s alright, you can do it after supper.”

Wife: “Sorry about the fish. I’ll add it to my list. What was the President upset about?”

Husband [Grabbing her wrist]: “Here, I’ll get my shoulder holster off myself.
Remember when you tried to help me with it and the gun accidentally went off?
Somebody could have been hurt! I’ll just put it in my gun safe.”

Wife [Snaps her fingers behind his back]: “You were saying that the President….”

Husband: “Oh, yeah. The Vice-President brought him in copies of news reports that the CIA has been kidnapping people, flying them to remote prisons in foreign countries, and torturing them.”

Wife: “How horrible!”

Husband: “It sure is. And the President felt the same way. He was just livid. His face turned as red as the stripes on the flag. He said he’d be damned if such an outrage would go unpunished on his watch. He went on and on about it. He swears he’s going to find out who leaked that story if it’s the last thing he does. Say, run the bath water for me, will you? I’d like to soak a little before supper. And would you unplug that hair dryer and the radio you sat on the edge? If those fell in the water, somebody could get electrocuted.”

Wife [Flinches]: “I’ll see to it, dear. Did anything else exciting happen at work?”

Husband: “Yep. The President just had a bad day. Shortly after the Vice-President left, the Attorney General [Attorney General] came storming in with a
newspaper headline saying that the National Security Agency has been illegally
eavesdropping on thousands—maybe millions—of American citizens.”

Wife: “That’s detestable!”

Husband: “The President thought so too. He stormed around and threw
things and said he’d have somebody’s head. Said whoever was responsible for that leak would be imprisoned so long he’d think he was buried alive.”

Wife: “I’m glad the President has you protecting him.”

Husband: “Thanks, sweetheart. Say, you missed a spot on the end table here when you were polishing the furniture.”

Wife: “Did I? I’m such a dummy. I’ll get it while you’re taking your bath.”

Husband: “Let’s see, you were asking if anything else exciting happened today. In fact, there was another big dustup. The Secretary of Defense brought in some news photos of U.S. troops setting dogs on helpless Iraqi prisoners, forcing them into huge piles of naked bodies, attaching electrodes to their genitals, and laughing about it!”

Wife: “That’s sickening!”

Husband: “Those were the President’s exact words. He said he’d make an example of that newspaper so anybody else would think twice about printing an exposế like that.”

Wife: “Why don’t we go out in the kitchen, and you can finish telling me about your day while I carve the roast.”

Husband [Heartily]: “Better let me handle that roast. Remember the last time you carved one? Just as I was pointing out that you were making the slices too thick, your hand slipped. We were really lucky that time. The doc in the emergency room said the point of the knife only missed my heart by half an inch. Say, is that a streak on the window pane?”

Wife: “I’ll check it out. Here, I fixed you a martini. You can drink it while you’re cutting the meat.”

Husband [Jocularly]: “Well, you’re far from perfect, but you’re getting better. [Takes a large sip] Honey, you’d better check the vermouth; this drink has a little bit of a funny taste to it.” [Takes another sip as he cuts thin slices from the roast]

© Tony Russell, 2006

Thursday, January 12, 2006

“A Stadium for Arnie”

Host: “Good evening. Our guest tonight is Norb Maybite, who’s heading up a drive to replace Arnold Schwarzenegger’s stadium. Norb, could you fill us in on what’s behind this campaign you’ve launched?”

Guest: “Sure thing, Mel. The situation, in a nutshell, is this. Some folks back in Arnie’s hometown, Graz, Austria, got upset when Arnie pulled the plug on ‘Tookie’ Williams. Over there in Europe, a lot of folks think there’s something wrong with killing people in cold blood, even when it’s state sanctioned.

“So the way it developed, the people in Graz were gonna pull Arnie’s name off the stadium they had named in his honor earlier. That would have been pretty embarrassing for the guv, so he beat ‘em to the punch and demanded they take his name off. But that leaves Arnie without a stadium.”

Host: “Are you saying you think people in Austria are out of touch with California values, Norb?”

Guest: “You bet your life. Over here, it’s just not justice unless there’s a body to show you mean business.”

Host: “What kind of stadium are we talking about, Norb?”

Guest: “Well, the one in Graz was a nice little fifteen-thousand seater. What we’d like to do is get him a stadium on more of an American scale, say an eighty- to a hundred-thousand seater.”

Host: “Are we talking about a new stadium here, Norb, or a used one?”

Guest: “The problem with a new stadium, Mel, is the construction time. We’d like something where we could stage major events within, oh, the next six months. We think we could get a reconditioned stadium with a five-year warranty for less than half the price of a new one. It’d be suitable for religious revivals, right-wing rantfests, things of that nature, and if you rented it out for weddings and other sports events, it would practically pay for itself.”

Host: “I don’t know if you can talk about it at this stage, but do you have any prospects in mind?”

Guest: “It’s no secret, Mel, that we’re in negotiations with the Rose Bowl folks. That’s a nice stadium, got a good tradition we could tap into, a huge upside.”

Host” “That’s pretty exciting stuff. If you can swing the deal, what kinds of changes do you have in mind?”

Guest: “We’d like to get beyond the premise they started with there in Graz. I mean, trying to capitalize on a guy’s fame just because he juiced up some huge biceps? Come on! Whatya have here now is a guy with life and death power over people!”

Host: “If you get the Rose Bowl, you’re not gonna rename it with one of those ridiculous drawn-out names like those bowls, are you? Something like ‘The Arnold Schwarzenegger Pro-Lethal-Injection Death Bowl’?”

Guest: “No way. Arnie has too much media savvy for anything like that. He knows the public gets turned off by long names.”

Host: “Is there anything to rumors the stadium might be used to stage public executions?”

Guest: “I think it’s premature to speculate on that right now, Mel. But there’s a huge untapped market out there for that kind of event. And if the public pays for ‘em, I say the public has a right to see ‘em.”

Host: “Have you thought about gladiators, lions, martyrs, that kind of thing?”

Guest: “Nothing firm. We’ve kicked it around a bit. As the empire takes shape, it makes a crazy kind of historical sense. But we don’t want to turn this whole thing into some kind of costume drama.”

Host: “What about the political pressures on the governor, Norb?”

Guest: “Oh, there’s no doubt he’s feeling the heat. The whole pro-life wing of the Republican party is gung-ho for the death penalty. People in Graz have to understand the concept of appeasing your base.”

Host: “I’m not sure what you’re saying here, Norb.”

Guest: “I’m saying that to breathe some life into his political career, he had to snuff out ‘Tookie’ Williams. It’s tough, but that’s the price you’ve got to pay in politics.”

Host: “Actually, it looks as if ‘Tookie’ Williams had to pay the price for him.”

Guest: “Whatever.”

Host: “Gosh, it’s been fascinating, but it looks like our time is almost up. I want to wish you good luck on your stadium project. One last question before we go: Can we look forward to more executions?”

Guest: “Hey, is Arnold the Terminator, or ain’t he?”

- Tony Russell, 2006

Monday, January 09, 2006

“Adding an Auction Chamber”

“Ace, why bother coming to Washington during the Christmas break?” complained Patty. “Nobody’s here. They’ve all gone home for the holidays.”

Patty’s a little slow sometimes, but I try to be patient with her. “Of course,” I said. “That’s the point. Everybody’s gone, so you don’t have all the traffic, all the crowds, the standing in line.”

She gritted her teeth, which ought to be worn down to nubbins by now. “The reason there are no crowds, Ace, is there’s nothing to see. Congress is shut down. The circus has left town.”

She was wrong.

We arrived at the Capitol, and the place was a madhouse. Panel trucks and pickups parked everywhere, workmen scurrying, extension cords tangled and stretching in all directions. I grabbed a guy in coveralls who looked as if he’d been finishing drywall. “Hey, what’s going on?” I inquired.

“Rush construction project,” he grunted. “Gotta get it done before the bigwigs roll back in.”

“What is it?” I asked. “New security measures for the Congress? I know terrorism is their top priority.”

“You’ve got it,” he said. “It’s all about financial security for the members of Congress. They’re terrified an opportunity will pass them by. We’re installing an auction chamber for the House and Senate. It’s gonna be official now: government to the highest bidder.”

“Say,” I said, “Patty here loves auctions. She picked up my vibrating recliner when she was at an auction last October. Got it for twenty-five bucks, and it had to be worth twice that much! Any chance she could sit in and bid on whatever comes up?”

“I doubt it,” he said. “The way I understand it, it’s a closed deal, only open to lobbyists. There’s probably nothing going up for auction she’d want anyway—it’s just the Congress members’ votes and influence.”

“I’ll bet you could still pick up some bargains,” I grumped.

“Sure you can,” he admitted. “These energy conglomerates and pharmaceutical companies generate billions in profits from loopholes and favored treatment they worm out of Congress, and they get those things for a pittance. Corporations have been able to buy a bill for less than they spend in a week on advertising.”

“Why do they need an auction chamber?” I asked. “I thought Congresspeople were making out pretty well with the current system.”

“It’s this Abramoff scandal,” he said. “A lot of them have been embarrassed into giving their payoffs to charity, so they ended up selling their votes for nothing. It’s got them all upset. And then, when the figures started coming out in the papers, some members got really ticked. They’d been pricing their votes as low as five thousand bucks. That’s not even enough to buy a good used car.

“Now they learn there were other members getting $60,000 a pop. Conrad Burns got $150,000 from Abramoff, his associates and tribal clients. When the other members heard how they’d been shortchanged, it just undermined their faith in the whole system.”

“No wonder,” I said. “So putting in an auction chamber is a bid for fairness, so to speak.”

“Sure,” he said. “That way, everybody gets an equal shot at it. It’s one of the reform measures pushed through by the Republican leadership.”

“Will they have the know-how to make it work?” I asked.

“In some ways the process is already pretty much in place,” he said, “but a lot of them have signed up for a quickie course in auctioneering over the break.”

“Won’t all of this drive up the price of government?” worried Patty.

“That’s the whole idea,” said the drywaller.

“Do you think you’ll get finished on time?”

“Looks like it,” he said, “the way everybody’s pitchin’ in. Some of the members and their staff even came back to help.”

“I thought that guy over there looked familiar,” said Patty, pointing.

He glanced to his right. “The guy with the hammer?” he asked. “That’s Tom DeLay. He’s the architect for this project, but he’s always willing to pitch in and bend a few nails.”

© Tony Russell, 2006

Thursday, January 05, 2006

“One Branch Too Many”

I fear the vermin that shall undermine
Senate and citadel and school and shrine—
The Worm of Greed, the fatted Worm of Ease,
And all the crawling progeny of these—
The vermin that shall honeycomb the towers
And walls of State in unsuspecting hours.

- Edwin Markham, “I Fear for Thee, My Country,” quoted
by Sen. Robert Byrd in Losing America

In a development that came as no surprise to Washington insiders, Congressional leaders announced this morning that they would not be returning to the capital after the holiday recess.

Standing on the White House lawn and flanked by President Bush and Vice President Cheney, House Majority Leader Dennis Hastert said, “It has become obvious over the past few years that three branches of government are at least one too many. The executive branch, led by this President, has proven itself willing and perfectly able to operate without input from the Congress.” His next line drew good-natured laughs from reporters and White House staffers. “You have to know when it’s time to go,” he said. “Personally, I’d rather play a few rubbers of bridge than serve as a rubber stamp.”

Speaking off the record, Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) made the same point, though in blunter terms. “We give the thumbs up to whatever Bush and Rove want anyway, so what’s the point of attending all these committee meetings, hearings, and sessions? I’d rather be watching NASCAR.”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), who earlier had said that he was not qualified to make a technical judgment as to whether disbanding Congress was “the appropriate step to take,” said only that he was concerned whether needy members of Congress would still be able to draw a government check if they were no longer performing any work. He suggested that there might well be a legal distinction between simply not doing anything useful and officially shutting down a branch of government.

Senate leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn), noting that the President has taken upon himself the power to attack other nations at his will; the authority to ignore the Geneva Conventions; the ability to detain citizens without charge or legal representation for as long as he chooses; the right to spy on any American citizen he designates despite specific federal legislation forbidding it, and without seeking permission from the courts; and the power to torture at his discretion despite a Congressional prohibition of such acts, urged the federal judiciary to abolish itself as well.

“When you stop and think about it,” said Frist, “it’s inefficient to have nine Supreme Court justices arguing over issues when the President can handle them alone.” Frist added that “Getting rid of the Court would eliminate many long, frustrating delays. The President really doesn’t need the courts to tell him what’s constitutional. He already decides those matters on his own, or asks his Attorney General to devise justifications for any action he chooses.”

Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) called on the judiciary to follow the lead of Congress immediately, saying “We came into office on a platform of reducing the size of government, and eliminating two of its three main branches would be a huge step in fulfilling that pledge.”

Asked if these changes would require amendments to various portions of the Constitution, Sen. Rockefeller said that, although he lacked the training to offer a competent legal opinion on the matter, it was his feeling that the President’s habit of simply ignoring those portions of the Constitution which he finds irksome probably renders the matter moot. “After all,” he said, “the Constitution isn’t self-enforcing. If the President chooses to override provisions of the Constitution, who’s going to make him stop? I can’t find it in my job description.”

The morning’s festivities were capped when the President read a message he described as a “belated Christmas gift”—a blanket pardon to all members of Congress, as well as their current and former staffers, for any and all crimes they might have committed while in office. White House press secretary Scott McClellan later insisted that there was no “quid pro quo” linking the two announcements.

Mr. Bush said he spoke for a grateful nation in thanking members of Congress for their many years in Washington. “You have made your mark,” he declared, “leaving the country dramatically different from the one you inherited when you came into office.”

The celebratory mood of the occasion was marred only briefly when a pale and shaken Sen. Robert Byrd (also D-WV) attempted to grab the microphone, and was removed from the grounds by Secret Service agents. Byrd’s wife and friends are reportedly unable to locate the elderly solon, but rumors have him en route to a vacation of indeterminate length in an undisclosed country of the former eastern bloc—possibly Poland or Rumania.

© Tony Russell, 2006

Monday, January 02, 2006

“Any Day with My Grandbaby”

The minister at Rah’s funeral said to look at your life as a book and stop wasting pages complaining, worrying, and gossiping. That’s some deep shit right there.
- Allen Iverson

The streets of downtown Hur were jammed with post-holiday pedestrians. It was that peculiar week after Christmas when shopping slips into reverse gear, and everybody hauls back the presents somebody lugged out the week before. It reminds me of a film running in reverse, watching shoppers leave their cars and carry goods back into the stores, where clerks take money out of their registers and put it back into the customers’ hands, and then other clerks put the merchandise back on shelves.

Most people wore a frown of single-minded fatigue as they queued up at customer service counters, but one face in the store looked out of place. Eileen was wearing a smile so broad it put the sun to shame. Even frazzled people around her looked tinted by its glow.

“What’s got you feeling so fine?” I asked. Eileen and I have been friends for years, close enough that each other’s troubles are as familiar as a home-cooked meal.

“It’s that new grandson, “ she said. “Any day with my grandbaby in it is a beautiful day.”

I hesitated for a minute. Were we talking about the same baby?

“Uh, is this Lisa’s baby we’re talking about?” I asked.

“That’s him,” she said. “Little Emmanuel. He’s just precious.”

Lisa was a lovely girl, talented and bright, but always a bit of a wild child. She drank, got caught up in drugs, left Hur, went to the big city, survived in ways nobody wanted to discuss, slept around, and had hitchhiked home for the holidays.

Eileen pulled out a picture. “Look,” she said. “Isn’t he beautiful?”

He was beautiful. Lots of curly hair, an olive complexion, dark eyes, and the same smile Eileen was wearing. “Did he get that smile from you, or did you get it from him?” I joked.

“Oh, it’s mutual,” she said. “We give it to each other.”

“And his father…?” I said hesitantly.

“Your guess is as good as Lisa’s,” Eileen said. Rock solid.

“Not exactly an immaculate conception,” I ventured.

She shrugged. “You’ve seen plenty of parents and their kids. Different in ways you couldn’t possibly have imagined. It’s all part of the mystery.”

“Lisa is HIV positive,” I said quietly. “What about the baby?”

“We don’t know yet,” she said.

“Are you worried?” Sometimes I seem to specialize in stupid questions. But ‘Stupid questions are the sieve we use to pan for gold,’ according to Patty.

“Ace,” she said, “have you ever been walking along, your head busy with scheming and stewing, and then suddenly looked up at the mountains and vast sky, and thought, ‘What in the world am I doing? How is it even possible to forget this?’”

“All the time,” I admitted. “The last time was about fifteen minutes ago.”

“So should I spend my time with my grandson worrying myself sick, or should I enjoy him every minute I can?” she asked.

“Sometimes it doesn’t feel as if you have a choice. How can you help not worrying or being afraid?”

“I think of each moment as forever,” she said. “This is all there is.”

- Tony Russell, 2006