Friday, October 29, 2010

“Congressional Candy Company Commences Clearance Campaign” 

Writer’s note: This is a slightly modified version of a column that originally ran several years ago.  Unfortunately, the issue appears timeless.
* * * *

Radio ad: Congressional Candy Company Commences Clearance Campaign

Directions: Read breathlessly, just below shouting pitch.
* * * *
Midterm elections are only days away, and the Congressional Candy Company is staging a once-in-a-lifetime sales event! Members locked in tight races as well as those trailing badly in the polls have joined together to bring you this unprecedented clearance sale! Prices will never be lower! Pay just pennies on the dollar! Take advantage of these gigantic savings now!
Prices have been slashed to the bone on items such as:
· Sugar and tobacco subsidies!
· Highway construction funds!
· Timbering, drilling, and mining permits in national parks and forests!
· Tax breaks for your firm or industry!
· Grazing rights on range land!
· Water diversion for irrigation, development, and industrial expansion!
· Oil drilling in pristine areas and wildlife refuges!
· Defense contracts!
· Drainage and development of coastal wetlands!
· Deregulation!
· Maintaining high fuel consumption standards!
· Licenses for the emission or discharge of pollutants!
· Broadcasting licenses and market monopolies!
· Unneeded military bases!
· Federal judgeships
· No-bid, no-risk construction contracts!
· Mercenary assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan!
Yes, you heard me right! All of these things and more are for sale at unheard of low prices! This is just a sampling of the items available in our mammoth national warehouse! They won’t last long at these prices! Call our congressional offices today to see what is available in your area! 
Is your accountant a nuisance about traceable purchases of influence?
Not to worry! No cash needed! We accept:
· Seats on your Board of Directors!
· Lobbying assignments for your industry!
· Positions at think tanks!
· Endowed chairs at colleges and universities!
· Jobs for our spouses and children (Sorry, $60,000 minimum applies.)!
· Use of yachts and private jets!
· Golf outings!
· Presidencies of foundations and universities
· Bulk orders of our memoirs!
And that’s only the beginning! Let your imagination run wild!. Surprise us with what you have to offer! Make us YOUR candy store—CONGRESS! “How sweet it is!”
© Tony Russell, 2010

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

“An Acoustics Problem in Congress”

        “Government leaders are amazing.  So often it seems they are the last to 
          know what the people want.”     - Aung San Suu Kyi
It was halftime at the high school game, and I was standing in line waiting to buy a veggieburger and a glass of cider.  Turned out the guy in front of me was Dave Crawford, one of my high school classmates, who has a commercial electronics business.  We got to jawing, and I asked him if he was getting much work with the economy still in a nosedive.
“I can’t complain, Ace,” he said.  “Things have been slow for the past year and a half, and I had to lay off most of my crew, but I landed a job in DC that’s been keeping me pretty busy right now.”
“Yeah?” I said.  “What are you doing?”
“Actually,” he said, “I’m working on an acoustics problem they’re having in both the House and the Senate.  Something’s not working right.  They talk, and the public can hear them just fine, but when the public talks to them, they can hardly hear a word.  Or if something gets through, the sound is completely distorted.”
“Distorted?” I said, puzzled.  “Whaddya mean?”
“Let me give you a for instance,” he said.  “The public says, ‘Help!  Hundreds of thousands of us are losing our homes!’”
“Sure,” I said.  “That’s a huge issue.”
“Yeah, but what Congress hears is ‘Help the banks and investment firms!  They’re losing their bonuses!’”
“That’s weird,” I said.  
“Isn’t it?” he agreed.  “And it’s a constant problem.  Right now the public is saying, ‘Create more jobs, even if it means an increase in spending,’ and Congress hears, ‘Cut more jobs in order to reduce spending.’”
“Bizarre,” I said.
“It’s just constant,” he affirmed.  “The public says, ‘Tax the rich to help balance the budget,’ and Congress hears, ‘Cut taxes to line the wealthy’s pocket.’”
“How could the public’s voice get so distorted?” I wondered, shaking my head.  “Is it a design problem in the audio system?  Some flaw in the original?”
“No, no, the design seems fine,” said Dave.  “In fact, a lot of other countries liked it so much that they’ve used it themselves.  And evidently the acoustics were okay for a long time.  Not terrific, maybe, but at least the public could make themselves understood.”
“How about the sound equipment?”
“That’s the first thing we looked at.  It’s kind of old, but it’s all still serviceable.  The mikes, amps, control panel, all that stuff checked out.”
“When did the problem crop up then?”
“Well,” he laughed, “they’re kind of embarrassed about that.  They don’t know.  One member said she thought it might have started after the Supreme Court ruled that money was a form of speech, and people could talk with all the money they wanted to spend. But most of her colleagues swore that hadn’t impacted their hearing at all.  To tell the truth, congress members hadn’t even noticed there was a problem, but finally so many people were complaining that they asked us to come in and look over their setup.”
“Where do you go from here?” I asked.
“We did find a problem in the wiring system,” he said.  “There’s a real rats’ nest in the lobbying network.  There’s shredded money all over the place where they’ve made themselves at home.”
“I’ll bet that’s a mess,” I said.
“You’d better believe it,” said Dave.  “Urine and feces everywhere, and they’ve actually gnawed at the fabric of the Union itself.”
“Sounds like that could be the source of your problem,” I said.  “Are you replacing the wiring?
“That’s a tough one,” he said, shaking his head.  “A lot of it is concealed and hard to get at, and the layers of insulation shielding that stuff are just unbelievably thick.”
“Boy, I’m glad that’s your problem and not mine,” I said, and then told the lady at the counter, “Mustard and lots of onion on that burger, if you don’t mind.”
© Tony Russell, 2010

Thursday, October 21, 2010

“Restoring Honor: A Beginning”

Writer’s Note: 
In the aftermath of Glenn Beck’s Washington rally, I’ve drawn a picture of what “restoring honor” in this country might actually mean, using the example of Colin Powell.  The column, as harsh as it may seem, isn’t intended to sit in judgment of Powell; that’s a matter between him and his Maker.  What he did, however, was public, and the consequences likewise. Moreover, Powell admitted, in a 2005 interview with Barbara Walters, that his performance at the UN was a “blot” on his record, adding that “It was painful.  It’s painful now.”  Clearly, the enormity of the wrong he committed was far more than a “blot,” and it had far greater consequences than marring his personnel record.  
“Honor” is about measuring oneself against a code of conduct.  This column goes beyond that to portray a man confronting his own conscience.  In delivering “his” speech on Glenn Beck’s show, I’ve tried to imagine myself in Powell’s place: a man with intelligence and a conscience confronting the wasteland of his own history.   
* * * * * *
Fox TV host Glenn Beck declared himself “overwhelmed” today by the response to his giant rally calling for the restoration of America’s honor.  His show is already booked through the end of 2011 with Bush administration officials, members of Congress from both parties, executives from major investment firms and pharmaceutical companies, people from the young Obama administration, and other media figures--all eager, Beck said, to confess their roles in tarnishing the nation’s image.
A vast nationwide audience was held rapt by Beck’s first guest, Colin Powell.  Appearing thin and worn, the former Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and four-star general launched the effort to recapture the nation’s honor.
“Thank you for giving me the opportunity to begin the restoration process,” Powell began.  “As a man with a long military career, and as a soldier who has been awarded at one time or another a Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, a Soldier’s Medal, the Distinguished Service Medal, as well as numerous others, I, more than most, might be expected to understand honor--what it consists of, what it means to the individual and to the country he serves, and what a high price one may have to pay to retain it.”
He paused, removed his glasses, and wiped them.  “I have learned that price dearly,” he went on, “because I sold my honor so cheaply--for the title of Secretary of State, for the advancement of my son’s career, for a future of well-paid sinecures on corporate boards, and out of a misguided loyalty to the administration I was a part of.
“I went before the UN Security Council, on February 5, 2003, and with the eyes of the world upon me, made perhaps the most dishonorable speech in the troubled annals of American history.  
“It was dishonorable because it was a panoply of lies, from beginning to end.  It was dishonorable because it betrayed every man and woman serving in our armed forces, dispatching them to fight, suffer, or die under the illusion that they were defending their families and country.  It was dishonorable because it was the major factor in selling an unjust war of aggression to a skeptical American public.  It was dishonorable because it irrevocably destroyed our country’s claim to history’s moral high ground.
“I said, before the UN, that ‘there can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce many, many more.’  That was a lie, designed to frighten my country into war.  I said that I had no doubt that Saddam Hussein was gathering materials to produce nuclear weapons.  That too was a lie, designed to justify a war.  I listed seventeen indictments in my speech.  Every one was a lie, intended to propel us into war.
“In another time, and in another culture,” Powell said, “a man who has so dishonored himself and his country would have simply thrown himself on his sword.  In my own way, I have been doing that since I left office.  I am doing it tonight.
“There is no way I can make amends for the suffering and devastation I helped create.  Since my retirement, I spend part of each day visiting VA hospitals, and every depressed, suicidal veteran; every amputee; every brain-damaged victim, is seared into my soul.  I also do my best to visit and comfort the families of more than four thousand men and women in our armed forces whose lives have been needlessly wasted in Iraq.  When I am met with the tears of mothers and fathers, of wives and husbands; when I see the broken lives of families; when I look into the uncomprehending eyes of orphans, I think of myself delivering the words that set the horrific machinery of war in motion.
“But the scale of the suffering caused by the war is beyond any human comprehension, and far beyond anything for which I can make amends.  At least 1.6 million Iraqis have been set adrift as refugees, struggling to survive.  Six hundred thousand civilians have died from illnesses or injuries attributable to the war and occupation.  One fourth of all Iraqi children are chronically undernourished, and two thirds of them have unsafe drinking water.”
He faltered.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  “This is so hard.”  He took a deep breath and then continued.  “The Iraqi health care system, their educational system, their transportation system, their water and electrical supply--all the necessities to keep a modern society viable--have been turned into ruins.  
“Shias and Sunnis who once lived together as neighbors and friends have been cast as bitter enemies, murdering and torturing one another, setting off waves of ethnic cleansing.  The Iraqi countryside is strewn with fragments of depleted uranium from armor-piercing shells.  Generations of Iraqis will suffer the agonies of cancers caused by their radiation.
“We have plundered the resources of our own country to pillage another.  We have cheated our youth of education, our elderly of retirement security, our sick of needed care, and our citizens of fundamental rights--all to pursue an unnecessary, useless war.
“That is our world now, and I bear its full weight on my shoulders.  Restoring our nation’s honor will be a task for real heroes.  It will be a colossal task, and it may take decades.  It will demand that we tell the truth, that we confront ourselves at our weakest and worst.  We must take responsibility for our acts.  We must make what reparations we are able.  Tonight is only a beginning.”
Finally, the old general began to weep, tears running freely down his cheeks.  “My guilt,” he said, “is more than I can bear.”
Following the show, Beck was quoted as saying that “This wasn’t quite the direction I had in mind.  But the ratings have been terrific!”
© Tony Russell, 2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

"The Enthusiasm Deficit"

As soon as Janet stepped through the kitchen door, she could hear the sound of crying--deep, gasping, soul-wrenching sobs.  “Oh no,” she sighed to herself.  “Not again.” 
  She put the tea kettle on and then walked over to put her arm around her friend’s shoulders.  “Brenda, honey, what is it?  What’s wrong?”
Brenda kept her head bent, tears pouring down her cheeks, as she stared at the kitchen table.  “It’s Barry,” she finally managed to choke out.  “He and his friends are saying the meanest things about me.”
“What kind of things, Brenda?”
Brenda had temporarily brought her crying under control.  “He accused me of being unfaithful.  He said I didn’t really love him, that I didn’t understand all the things he has to struggle with.  He acted as if I was stupid and ungrateful!”  And she burst into a new round of tears.
Angry on her friend’s behalf, Janet said, “What’s the matter with him?  Why is he saying those things?”
Brenda looked up, distraught.  “I don’t know!  I don’t know!  Oh, I think I’m going to be sick....  She jumped up and raced to the bathroom.
As she pulled two cups from the cupboard, Janet could hear Brenda retching.  “What would be best at a time like this?” she asked herself.  “Mint?  Chamomile?”  Finally she settled on Tension Tamer™.  “When will she ever learn?” she thought.
Brenda finally emerged, looking wan and shaken.  She sat, cuddling the warm teacup with both hands.  “Thanks, Janet,” she whispered.  “You’re such a good friend.  I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
She seemed to settle herself, and then reflected, “He seemed so perfect.  Not just tall, dark, and handsome, but so articulate, so intelligent, so sensitive.  He convinced me that we shared so many hopes, so many dreams.  We were going to walk together into a new world.  And now it’s all gone wrong.”  She raised her eyes, and she had the look of someone staring into an infinite, sucking void.
“It’s not fair!” she screamed, and then burst into a new set of tears, this time hot, scalding tears of rage.  “He betrayed me, he turned his back on me, he acted as if I didn’t even exist!  And now he expects me to be enthusiastic when he turns up at my door.  When I’m not, he accuses me of being unfaithful!  After all the money I gave him, after all the calls I made on his behalf, all the friends I nagged to give him a job!  I walked the streets for him!”  
“You gave him money?  How much money, Brenda?” demanded Janet, shocked.
“I don’t know,” said Brenda despondently.  “A lot.  Sometimes a check.  Sometimes my credit card.  He just always needed a little more.  Every bit was critical, you know.  He kept saying he was desperate.  He depended on me.”
“Brenda, you work in a daycare center.  He’s a lawyer.  And you were giving him money?  When this is all over, he’ll be even richer, and you’ll be no better off than you are now.”
“It was never about me,” Brenda said.  “It was always about making the world a better place.  The common good.”  She looked up.  “You think I’m hopelessly naive, don’t you?  You think I’ve been a sucker for the same old line.  As soon as he was elected, he stopped calling.  He found new friends.  But I just thought that he was really busy getting settled in, that he still cared, that he was still true, that he would keep his promises to me.
“But I finally got tired of waiting.  He never had time for me and my friends.  He surrounded himself with the same people I thought we were hoping to replace.  He kept so many of the same policies he attacked during his campaign.  I still gave him the benefit of the doubt.  I told myself I might be exaggerating.  Blowing minor things out of proportion.  So I made myself sit down and put together a list of ways he had changed.  When I finished, I could hardly stand to look at it, it hurt so much. Now he’s in trouble, and he’s angry because I’m not satisfied with the way things are going.  He says that I need to fall in line, that I’m hurting him, and I’m the only hope he has.”
“Oh, Brenda,” said Janet sadly.  “Sweetie, we’ve been through this before.  You’ve got to learn sometime.”
I don’t know what to do!” shrieked Brenda.  “Why does it always come down to a choice between being assaulted by people whose entire political philosophy revolves around greed and aggression, or being betrayed by people who claim to care about fairness, community, and peace?”
© Tony Russell, 2010
Brenda’s list (admittedly incomplete and a work in progress) :
  • Instead of the change he campaigned on, he actually kept Bush’s Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, and Bush’s favorite warrior, Gen. Petraeus, as his leading voices on national security policy.  For all the rhetoric, we are still at war in Iraq, and waging expanded campaigns now in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  • Instead of repudiating Bush’s landmark embrace of  “preemptive war,” Obama used the occasion of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance in Oslo to specifically endorse it as a strategy.  His “Peace Prize” speech was seen over most of the globe as a glorification of militarism.
  • After criticizing the Bush administration for its use of torture and promising to comply with a court order to release Pentagon torture photos , Obama moved to block any investigation of the torture, denied the release of the photos, and has worked hard to help cover up this violation of human rights and international law.
  • Obama has incorporated the most heinous and undemocratic features of the Bush administration’s police-state policies, including support for “extraordinary rendition,” domestic spying, and the holding of terror suspects indefinitely, without charges.
  • Despite campaigning on behalf of the struggling middle class, with its millions of unemployed and underemployed, he has shown none of the urgency his administration demonstrated when Wall Street investment firms, banks, and auto makers were threatened.
  • Instead of taking steps to embody the hope he campaigned on, he has done nothing to stop the endless drumroll of home foreclosures.
  • Instead of using his “stimulus bill” to drive work on alternative energy expansion, environmental improvement and restoration, or to build permanent social assets, as did the CCC and the WPA, he aimed 90% of the new jobs created toward traditional, existing private businesses.
  • During his campaign, Obama championed the public option for health care and opposed forcing people to purchase private insurance; once elected, he ruled out the public option before negotiations on health care even began, and supported mandating the purchase of private insurance.
  • During his campaign, Obama promised to negotiate health care reform in public sessions televised on C-SPAN; once elected, he negotiated behind closed doors.
  • Instead of the change he campaigned on, he turned his economic policy over to Tim Geithner and Larry Summers--the same Wall Street corporate insiders who helped get us into our current mess--and only accelerated the widening of the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
  • Obama promised to close Guantánamo within a year; that hasn’t happened.
  • During his campaign, Obama supported ending the Cuban embargo; in office, he has ignored the embargo, allowing it to continue.
  • During his campaign, Obama promised to reopen negotiations on NAFTA; once in office, he has done nothing, perpetuating the status quo.
  • As a Senator and candidate, Obama courted labor and supported the Employee Free Choice Act; since being elected, he has done nothing to secure passage of EFCA, which will be dead in the water once these mid-term elections hand Congress over to the GOP.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

“Get Inside the Box”

“I’ve called you all together because we’re facing a major challenge.  Fox News has put four potential presidential nominees on its payroll--four!  We don’t have a single candidate of our own, and something has to be done about it.  Now!”
“What’s the problem, Steve?” asked Jeff, the VP for programming.  “All four of their people are far right Tea Party darlings.   I mean, give me a break.  Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum?  A lineup like that completely undercuts their claim to be ‘fair and balanced.’”
Immediately, the infighting began.  This was a TV network, after all.
“What you fail to understand, Jeff,” began Monica, the chief operating officer, “is that even though Fox is outrageously biased, you can’t stop them from telling people otherwise.  Trot out all the statistics you want showing how lopsided their coverage is, and it doesn’t faze them.   God could speak in a voice of thunder, calling them liars, and when the thunder finished rolling, Fox would still be plastering their claim on the airwaves, hundreds of times a day.”
Jeff ‘failed to understand’ something Monica clearly understood.  Well played, thought the others around the table
“Right.  Get real, Jeff,” chimed in Arnie, the head of the entertainment section.  “You act as if you don’t understand the power of TV.  No wonder this network is in a tailspin.”
Ouch.  All eyes shifted quickly toward Steve to see if Arnie’s low blow did more damage to Jeff or to Arnie himself.
“We’re getting sidetracked,” said Steve.  “Focus on the real issue.”
“Look, Steve,” piped up Lyle, the head of the sports division, “I don’t see the problem here.  Fox isn’t exactly fielding an all-world team.  Palin was a feisty point guard, but she didn’t even make all-Alaska.  Santorum will mix it up and do the dirty work, but he can’t score.  And Gingrich is a shooter who misfires most of the time.”
Groans and winces.  The usual reactions to Lyle’s contributions.
“Let me spell it out for you, Lyle,” said Steve.  “Fox has contracts with all four potential candidates forbidding them from appearing on any other network.  How do you suggest we cover the presidential race when there’s a boatload of candidates who won’t even appear on our shows?”
Having brushed Lyle aside, Steve moved on.  “Time to get serious, people.  I want us to settle on at least one candidate of our own by the time this meeting is over, and two would be even better.” 
Okay.  Time to shift gears and move on.
“We need somebody who screams ‘not Fox’,” offered Arnie.  “Somebody with a positive vision, somebody who cares about the climate catastrophe facing our planet, somebody who will direct our resources toward our common problems instead of mutually destructive wars....”
“You’re thinking outside the box,” snapped Steve, cutting him short.  “Get inside the box!  There’ve got to be plenty of politicians with bizarre, discredited views who are available and viable presidential candidates.”
Ah, an acceptable direction to move in.
“Steve,” said Rahim tentatively, “what if Fox already has the good ones sewn up?  I mean, crazy is flat-out entertaining, and Fox may have cornered the market.  I’m not sure anybody as wacky as Palin or Gingrich is still available.”
Monica was quick to pounce.  “Well, Steve,” she said, “Christine O’Donnell just jumps out at you.  If she wins Delaware, there’s going to be an enormous amount of buzz about her and a possible presidential bid.”
Wouldn’t you know it?  Got to give Monica credit, she’s a quick study.
“I think she puts Palin in the pale,” she continued--winging it, but sounding good.  “For my money, she’s better looking than Sarah Palin, and she’s even more quotable.  She has a track record of looney, anti-intellectual positions that endears her to right wingers and fascinates the media.  That makes her an ideal candidate to be our candidate.”
A gleam came into Jeff’s eyes.  “Uh, Monica,” he said, “what you fail to understand is the extent of Christine O’Donnell’s history with Fox News--or maybe you were just completely unaware of it.  She’s spouted political commentary for shows like The Live Desk and The O’Reilly Factor.  If she entered the presidential race--God forbid--she’d become Fox’s fifth entry, not our first.”
Silence, as that soaked in.  Monica momentarily stunned.
“Ya know,” mused Lyle, “I’m not sure we ought to put this game on our schedule.”
“What?!” said Steve.  “What the devil are you talking about?”  
“It’s sort of like a football game,” began Lyle.  But then everything was sort of like a football game for Lyle.
“How do you figure?” inquired Monica, recovered and willing to help him hang himself.
“Well, think of the two political parties as teams,” said Lyle.  “And news media are kind of the referees.  They’re supposed to be neutral, see, not favoring one team or the other.  Just call ‘em the way they see ‘em.  But here you have Fox owning a team and paying the players and still pretending they’re gonna referee the game fairly.  So if we buy a team and pay the players, we’d be doing the same thing.  It’s disrespecting the game.”
Talk about being out in left field!  But that’s baseball, not football.  Anyhow, who will set Lyle straight?
“Look,” said Monica dismissively, “it’s simple economics.  “Corporations donate money to campaigns, they buy ads, they lobby, they spend millions to bend politicians to their will.  Then the politicians do what they’re paid to do in Washington.  This just simplifies the process.  You eliminate the middleman by hiring him.”
Lyle couldn’t seem to let it go.  “Let’s say the Constitution is the rule book,” he argued.  “This is a way to get around the rules.  It might not break any rules, but it violates the spirit of the game.”
“Oh, for cryin’ out loud!” exploded Steve.  “Think of it as the introduction of the forward pass--something new that changes the nature of the game.  It’s progress!”  
“All progress isn’t progress,” countered Lyle.  “This is more like blue artificial turf.”
© Tony Russell, 2010