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