Monday, June 30, 2008

Business and Politics Don't Mix

I worked for an AFT campaign in the mid-90s that successfully organized a diverse group of professional state employees (WPEC), located all over the state. During an organizing trip to Green Bay in 1996, I stopped by a Chili John’s restaurant to partake in some of my favorite traveling comfort food. I’ve always missed the Chili John’s that used to be on Milwaukee's East Side a long time ago and never miss a chance to have a three-way (chili, spaghetti and cheese – now, stop that).

Looking at the menu, I was surprised to see that it was filled with juvenile political cheap-shots against then-President Bill Clinton and anyone else who wasn’t a right wing lunatic. This particular shop in the small chain, you see, had declared itself a "Rush Room"; a place where all the sadly-delusional local ditto-heads could meet to share the Rush Limbaugh experience with others who appreciated the radical-right screeds of the failed DJ from Missouri. I wasn’t there in time to share the joys of Rush with the no-doubt charming pitchfork-and-torch crew that day ("Didya hear that, Maude? He called him ‘Slick Willy’! Hoo-hah!"), but, apparently, the same menu is used all day to entertain others of similar ilk who might stumble in for a little racism and hate with their chili dogs.

Silly me – I always thought maybe restaurants selling good-to-great food might not want to exclude half of their potential customer base with offensive political diatribes. I sat there and read the menu while I reveled in my favorite chili. I don’t remember the specifics, but the menu featured sandwiches named for supposedly unpleasant characteristics of sitting presidents, vice presidents, first ladies, etc. When I was done, I found the guy who looked like he was in charge. "Is there some reason you don’t want me to eat here?" I asked. I explained to him that I didn’t appreciate having Limbaugh’s stupid politics shoved down my throat (so to speak) while I was trying to eat his delicious food. I mean, businesses make choices all the time – draperies, logos, colors – but all of them are trying to get you to come in, not to make fun of your beliefs and keep you out. It’s like walking into a McDonalds and seeing a menu making fun of Catholics or Jews or something. What’s the point? Anyway, it was the first time I had been at the place, so I left and forgot about it.

A couple of month’s later, I found myself back up in Green Bay and back at the same place. I really had forgotten the whole Rush Room thing. Then the manager walked up to me. "See, we fixed it," he said. "Fixed what?" I asked. "Well, I thought it over and figured you were right and dumped the Rush thing," he said. "Really?" I was flabbergasted. The guy got one customer complaint (at least, that’s the impression he gave me) and figured he didn’t want to lose customers to divisive politics. "Good, uh, thanks," I mumbled. He didn’t look happy about it, but, there you go – another place safe for better digestion.

I was reminded of this reading IT’s fine exposition about Judith Faulkner of Epic Systems, who took a principled stand against those companies who support the extreme right-wing agenda of WMC. This (at least) encouraged a major construction firm, J.P. Cullen, to resign from the WMC board and quit the organization altogether. Earlier this year, while WMC was pouring millions of dollars from unknown sources into their unfortunately successful campaign to buy another seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Madison hero Paul Soglin took the lead on giving WMC board members a head-up about what the renegade staff of the organization was up to. As usual, the most dangerous thing to under-the-rock slugs like those running the WMC political agenda is the light of day.

Given the industry-heavy make-up of the WMC board, it is hard for simple consumers to have the same kind of impact as Faulkner or Cullen. Boycotts as such are tough to organize and tougher to make successful. It gets down to exposing those involved, hoping for better individual choices, ripples creating waves, etc. I do know that I am off of Johnsonville brats. There – I said it. I’ll stop by in a month or two and see if they are still on the WMC board.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Justice Scalia: Whatever Works

The last month of the Supreme Court term presented the Court’s right-wing prima donna, Antonin Scalia, with two primary opportunities to show us all how smart he is and how stupid you are. Condescension, rather than logic or historical accuracy, is his primary method of "persuasion" – if that’s what you call being hit over the head with his self-proclaimed superior intellect.

Scalia’s primary gift to the Republican political agenda came on the last day of the term with his 5-4 majority opinion in D.C. v. Heller, in which he not only twists and ignores but actually re-drafts the text of the Second Amendment to suit the purposes of the NRA. Unable to explain his conclusion that the right to "keep and bear arms" is an individual rather than a collective right, despite the actual state-militia-facilitating language of the amendment, the Great One (oh, yes he is -- just ask him) simply substitutes his own language for the actual text of the amendment. "The Amendment could be rephrased, ‘Because a well regulated Militia is necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed,’" he writes. Fine, except that’s not what it says and his job is to interpret the actual language, not a convenient paraphrase. Likewise, later on, Scalia suddenly blurts out that "the phrase ‘security of a free state’ meant ‘security of a free polity,’ not security of each of the several States". Well, if you say so, Mr. Justice.

This new judicial device of re-imagining the language you are interpreting certainly opens the door for more creative decisions in the future, does it not? Heck, let’s rephrase the whole damn Constitution, why don’t we, like some new translation of the Bible (Thou shalt not kill, except for the government, with due process protections...or not). Maybe this explains the decision in Bush v. Gore – Article 2, Sec. 1: "The Person having the greatest Number of [Electoral] Votes shall be the President" except when we stop the counting of votes in any given State in order to reach a desired result. See, isn’t that easier?

Scalia also leaps into comparison with the absurd. ‘The Second Amendment would be nonsensical if it read, ‘A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to petition for redress of grievances shall not be infringed.’" Well...duh. But doesn’t that example show that the Founders meant something when they attached the militia phrase to the arms phrase? Oh, boy, are you stupid for asking, says Scalia. The militia phrase, you see, is "a prefatory statement of purpose". Such a "prefatory" phrase can "resolve an ambiguity in the operative clause" but "does not limit or expand the scope of the operative clause." Well, which is it? Does not "resolving an ambiguity" necessarily "limit or expand the scope" of the now-unambiguous language? To, Scalia, this is silly-talk. "It [the prefatory clause] fits perfectly [with his conclusion], once one knows the history that the founding generation knew and that we have described above." Oh, if only you were as smart as he was.

Scalia also can’t be bothered with the drafting history of the amendment. After summarily casting the only other Second Amendment case (U.S. v. Miller, 1939) aside because it did not review enough history of the amendment, he criticizes the dissenters for doing just that. "It is dubious to rely on such history to interpret a text that was widely understood to codify a pre-existing right, rather than to fashion a new one," he writes. Again, says him. His claim that an individual right to keep arms was "pre-existing" comes after a selective review of history in England and, besides, who says such a review of history is "dubious" just for that reason?

But, this wasn’t the first time this month that Mr. Originalist was beat over the head with the fact that history was not on his side. In the most historically significant decision of the term – the habeas corpus case, Boumediene v. Bush – Scalia waxed hysterical that the majority would let something like the history of the Great Writ and the unambiguous language of the Constitution get in the way of the whims of the president he helped appoint. In a dissent bathed in the warm, soapy water of his own failed argument, he can’t believe that five of his brethren and sistren would dare to deny the Bush administration their royal prerogative to lock up whoever they want based on whatever they say. Stewing in his own juices and drowning in his beer, Justice "Get Over It" just can’t, complaining about "the disastrous consequences of what the Court has done today", while ignoring the far worse legal and international disaster that would have occurred if the razor-thin majority had gone the other way.

Hundreds of thousands more people have been killed and injured by handguns than anything done or imagined by the cab drivers and bystanders who make up the majority of those locked in our scandalous Guantanamo limbo for lo these many years. Yet Scalia was willing to overlook the clear language of the essential Constitutional protection that allows anyone held by the government to challenge their detention in court to protect against the imaginary hordes, finding the Great Writ just too damn 9/10. He refuses to make the same emotional accommodation for the once and future victims of handgun violence, finding the desperate efforts of big-city politicians to be "policy choices" that are to taken "off the table" by stern Constitutional dictates that only he can see.

If such a tortured history-defying, precedent-ignoring, amendment-redrafting opinion as Heller had been written by someone on the other side of the Court’s Great Divide about some issue near and dear to their black hearts, the hounds of the wing-nut echo-chamber would be howling about "legislating from the bench" and other such false concepts of judicial overreach. But, what both these cases show is not so much legislating (the paraphrasing of language notwithstanding) as it does strained contortions to make the square peg of a desired result fit the round hole of the law. Scalia and his three slightly less-egotistical brethren in the Court’s remarkably monolithic hard-right block are willing to stretch and twist to get where they think they need to go. If they need to say that "the right to keep and bear arms" is unrelated to the "well-regulated militia" identified as the right’s purpose in the same sentence, they’ll do it with a straight face. If they need to ignore the requirements of the Great Writ – a far clearer and historically-based right – they’ll do that, too.

All four of them are there for a reason. If you don’t know what it is, you haven’t been paying attention.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The McGee Verdict

The conviction of Michael McGee at his federal trial last night has led to tiresome clucking by the usual suspects. Some of them, overwhelmed by seeing a story about black people and then another story about black people in one week, predictably joined the two and suggested that McGee supporters now "can go back to rioting for non-existent food stamps". This is what happens when racist know-nothings try to use two sad situations to beat up on a community reeling from entrenched material poverty and the moral poverty of self-appointed opinion-shapers who need to stand on the grave of their dreams for their own selfish ends.

From everything I’ve read about it, the McGee trial ended as it should have. It was fairly clear that he was using his position to pad his pockets, and was stupid enough to push so hard on the business owners involved that they got pissed enough to call the authorities. Thus did his personal financial issues overcome his obvious interest and occasional good work in the community. There wasn’t much my talented friend, McGee’s defense attorney Calvin Malone, could do about this. It sounded like another talented friend, prosecutor Joe Wall, played it straight down the middle and let the tapes speak for themselves. With all that ammunition, it would have been fruitless to put McGee on the stand to try to explain all this. He had no explanation and Wall would have eaten him alive.

But McGee’s defenders never made predictions about how the case would end – their concerns, including mine, was how the case began. Unlike other white-collar cases involving government corruption, McGee was swept up off the streets on Memorial Day weekend and kept in stir for the entire year before his trial. The process was different than other aldermen and alderwomen who got in trouble, and the differences could only be explained by McGee’s race and his aggressive stance on issues facing the community. He became (and, to a lesser extent, remains) a martyr and a victim only because of this unwarranted treatment, giving him and his supporters a rallying point when he would otherwise have little as the facts became known. The government’s failure to recognize this – phone calls made from the jail notwithstanding – was their biggest mistake in the process, creating unnecessary controversy in an otherwise solid case against him.

Other than that, though, there is nothing to complain about in his conviction. Malone’s best shot was casting aspersions on star witness Jack Adel, but Adel didn’t put words in McGee’s foolish mouth. An alderman using power over liquor licenses to shake down business owners to the extent that McGee did (and he was apparently planning to take it city-wide after he got on the licensing committee late in his last term) is as bad as it’s ever gotten in this town.

But, in the end, McGee’s crimes are isolated and unique to him. The conviction says nothing about corruption in City Hall, conditions in the inner city or anything other than McGee himself. McGee ends up as a victim of nothing but his own greed and arrogance. The rest of us have already moved on; not that those who thrive on generating racial tension won't continue to try to stir the poisonous pot.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

There's a Riot Going On -- NOT!

Nothing brings out the racist inclinations in right-wingers like a line of poor black people trying to get food assistance. From exaggerating minor line-impatient scuffling into a "riot" to ignorant comments about cell phones and weight issues, the line forming on 12th and Vliet for food assistance yesterday had it all for those looking to take pot-shots at the underclass.

First of all, it wasn’t a riot. After reading that it was, I looked at the news footage from the local stations (who had their eager cameras trained on the line all day) and found nothing even slightly violent or all that unusual for a line of thousands that show up where the authorities running the show are woefully unprepared for the predictable mass of people. I’ve seen ten times worse in lines for rock concerts. You want a riot, I’ll show you a riot. This was no riot.

But that didn’t stop local embarrassment James T. Harris from calling it a riot and using it as an excuse to heap more dirt on what he says is his own community. "In one day, thuggish ugliness raised its shiftless head as Americans of African descent in Milwaukee managed to reinforce every negative stereotype under the sun." Well, only if you are there to help the reinforcement, J.T. "The riot very well could have been a rally for Barack Obama. Maybe not. Too early in the morning, and there was nothing in it for the greedy, except false hope and misguided pride." Man, you just can’t make idiocy like that up. Best of the Blogs, indeed.

But for outright racist crap, you had to hand it to gun-porn purveyor and MSM right-blog golden boy Owen Robinson. Robinson finds a picture of the line on the internets and plays the tiresome game of Find the Leaching Negro. He is outraged to see a "woman talking on cell phone." Oh, Owen, tell me it isn’t true! Is it a nice one? What kind of service does she have? How much food could she have purchased with those pre-paid minutes? Oh, the shame of it. His trained spot-the-leach eye finds a "man with designer jeans". No, not that! What are designer jeans these days, anyway? Anything other than Wrangler? Alright, Owen, now sit down and write what people looking for food assistance should be wearing. Sackcloth and ashes? If they are wearing bed sheets, will you criticize them for excessive thread counts?

And that’s not all. Robinson also sees "fat people" in the line. This is a well-tested racist device in the kick-the-fat-people-off-welfare wars of the ‘90s. What do they need food for if they ate so much yesterday? seems to be the logic. And then there is my favorite: "stylish pink-streaked hair". Methinks Robinson is a bit too easily impressed by not-in-nature hair color. Yeah, that woman definitely has it all goin’ on, doesn’t she? Are you thinking L’Oreal, Owen? Looking at it, I’m thinking cherry Kool-Aid, myself.

The fact that a long line of poor people showed up for just a little food assistance is a sign of distress, not of greedy avarice by people don’t need it. And, unlike what Harris and some of Robinson’s sheep-like commenters say, the same line – or longer – will appear when good jobs are declared available. But, again, when the opportunity for racist stereotyping knocks, Harris and Robinson are there to open the door. The real question is why both race-bomb throwers are accepted as legitimate commentators on TV or anywhere else in the mainstream media.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Long Live Carlin

This morning comes the news that George Carlin died yesterday.

Carlin brought the smart-and-funny to the cultural revolution in the early ‘70s, evolving from a clever, square suit-and-tie comedian in the Ed Sullivan stable into a quietly revolutionary long-hair-and-jeans rapper (as in “hey, man, let’s rap”) - pretty ironic since one of his greatest bits as a square was "The Hippy-Dippy Weatherman". His ability to discuss the life-style changes going on in the country during and after Vietnam had a great impact on the national discussion generally and on my young life in particular.

I was somewhat aware of Carlin’s new shtick when I showed up at the old old Main Stage (before the giant yellow tits, even) at one of the first Summerfests in 1972. He was headlining (contest: name the other three acts also on the bill that night) and he was right at the height of his “hey, man, didya ever notice” stage. He was out there, just rapping to 50,000 of his friends. None of us thought anything of it when he started the glorious riff on the Seven Words, but there was a sense of nervousness on the stage when Carlin’s wife suddenly walked over to him on the giant stage, supposedly to give him some water. Legend has it that she was actually there to tell him the police were waiting in the wings to, er, discuss the little matter of him sending vulgar words echoing off the buildings of downtown Milwaukee. Carlin took it all in and it definitely messed with his rhythm late in the set. He then called her out again and had an important message for her – go in the dressing room and ditch the pot.

After his arrest that night, Carlin gained national attention and street cred and Milwaukee looked like a silly, puritanical backwater. Both deserved it. After that, I was a huge Carlin fan, wearing the vinyl off of the Class Clown album. Around that time, when he appeared at the Riverside Theater in downtown Milwaukee, a friend of mine and I hung around in the back stage alley, drinking Brass Monkey and listening to him (and opening guitarist Kenny Rankin) through a slightly open door (try doing something like that these days).

Carlin spent the rest of his career pushing boundaries on subjects like religion, drugs, language and politics, although I can’t recall him getting very specific on any particular politician. But he didn’t have to. His revolution was in recognizing the diversity of lifestyle and the silliness of efforts to put restraints on anyone’s personal liberty. We all knew who was on what side - he didn't have to hit you over the head with it, and he didn't.

I last saw him about five years ago. He had definitely lost a step and, on some subjects, he was downright cranky. In his later career, he would be very up-front with his audience and he was that night: he was prepping for his annual HBO show and was just trying some things out on us, as he read from notes. It was Carlin, alright, but not the full-Carlin.

It is just a coincidence, I suppose, that just a couple of nights ago, I was channel-flipping and found an early Carlin HBO special (George Carlin Again!) and watched it all the way through. It was Carlin at his peak, working in the round, joyful, mugging, almost dancing, expanding on the Seven Words (adding three). Wow, I thought, that guy was good!

Yes, he was.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The New White House Horrors

Back in the good ol’ days of Richard Nixon’s White House, soggy old John Mitchell – Nixon’s henchman and erstwhile Attorney General – looked down his drunken nose and told us all that he had a phrase for all the political crimes of his hapless and psychotic president. He called the manipulation of agencies of the government to "get" enemies and protect themselves, bag-jobs, burglaries, and assorted other high crimes and misdemeanors the "White House Horrors". Of course, it was only horrible when they got caught and only horrible to Mitchell because he ended up in the slammer for a time, a fate that escaped Nixon only by the negotiated stroke of Jerry Ford’s pardon pen.

The sins of Watergate, though still serious, seem so quaint now. All Nixon did was use his power over public agencies and private plumbers to extract petty vengeance on his imagined enemies (although their existence drove him mad, none of them, I’m sure, gave him any thought whatsoever); order the ludicrous investigation and surveillance of political threats that existed only in his fevered imagination; and then cover it all up with lies, altered and "deep-sixed" documents and tapes and stonewalling. Surely, the Constitution was threatened, especially when no one could predict whether or not the unbalanced president would obey the unanimous Supreme Court order that he, at last, give up the tapes.

But the crisis passed, with little permanent damage to the institutions Nixon considered his personal playthings. It was all about him, you see – all about those who crossed him and those who were he thought were after him. When he went away, his stain did too, for the most part (although Pat Buchanan, unfortunately, can still find work). His were the more-or-less solitary crimes of an arrogant paranoid, who saw spies behind the sofas and thought the eyes in White House paintings followed him around the room, and then pushed Henry Kissenger to pray to them to save him from his own tragic excess.

The White House Horrors of Junior Bush that are now being fleshed out by brave former lackeys and crowbar-wielding congressional committees are of a different nature. For one thing, they are not driven by the empty-suited president. Bush signed up to act as a figurehead for the radical cabal headed by Dick Cheney and will not be sulking off in disgrace to scheme about his historical rehabilitation. If it is possible to care less when he finally vacates the mansion, he certainly will. His name will forever be attached to a historically bad presidency, the Stupidest War in American history, and a legacy of Constitution in tatters, and a shattered government that President Obama can only begin to repair. To this, you can expect to call him in Crawford two years down the line and hear the laughter of the uninterested.

Although the self-involved Nixon Horrors led to articles of impeachment and certain conviction (if only he would have stuck around and taken it like a man), the Bush Horrors are, ultimately, much more damaging to the nation in the long and short term. The Bushies have group arrogance without the singular paranoia of Nixon – a dangerous combination that does not have the built-in protection of potentially outraged bystanders. As a group, the neo-conservative regime came in with a radical plan for the accumulation of imperial power and the rewarding of their wealthy contributors. Disliked and distrusted from the beginning (especially after they seized power in a bloodless coup in Florida), they seized the ultimate opportunity after 9/11 to drive a wedge into America’s wounded heart. We are at war, they declared the afternoon of the attack, after flying the flummoxed Bush around the country while they got their talking points together. Which side are you on?

They used the carte blanche of tragedy to claim unprecedented power, cut taxes for their wealthy friends (and themselves) and otherwise drive their radical agenda. Previously uncontroversial requests for information such as Secret Service visitors logs and details of meeting held in the White House were covered up tight under a the false blanket of executive privilege (imagine, if you will, Clinton trying to pull the same thing). They used the federal rule-making process to loosen the yoke of regulation from the poor necks of America’s top polluters and money-changers, leaving it to the rest of us to sort out the increasing treacherous world of the Bush economy.

All of this would have been expected from tools of the rich such as the Bushies, although they went at it with a zeal and sense of entitlement unseen in modern times. But no one could have foreseen the lurch into torture and indefinite detention of those allegedly loitering on the undefined battlefields of the "war on terror". It is for them the Bushies reserved their ugliest behavior and damaged the U.S. the most in the important eyes of the rest of the world.

"If the detainee dies, you're doing it wrong." These words, spoken by some CIA torture "lawyer" at a Gitmo meeting in October 2002 and finally disclosed during a congressional hearing this week, should join the pantheon of outrageous political speech – up there with nostalgic Nixon-era classics like "I am not a crook" and "cancer on the presidency". There, in a nutshell, is everything wrong with everything in BushWorld, a bizarro place where the law, the facts and the truth must bend to meet their grand designs.

It is not surprising that military lawyers in all four branches of the service advised against the reckless, lawless and, most importantly, ineffective methods of interrogation-by-torture proposed by the overheated Bushies. As they have in every other aspect of their pathetic rule (foreign policy, the environment, stem cell research, etc.), the small cadre of too-smart-by-half imperialists overrode the concerns of those who they no doubt termed the bureaucrats who tried to warn them off of the wayward path of their own flagrant arrogance. Throughout, the Bushies claimed they were dealing with things No One Had Seen Before and that naive notions of international law, the Constitution and common sense were soooo 9/10.

When I was in law school, I took a seminar on Watergate taught by Frank Tuerkheimer, one of the special prosecutors in the office of Archibald Cox. I researched some middle school history texts to see how Watergate was being played. Even back then, in 1985, the history in the school books had already deteriorated into portraying Watergate as some kind of political battle that Nixon lost. Because Nixon was not impeached and was pardoned, the historical record will never be as clear as it should be about his blatant criminality.

Perhaps Dennis Kucinich’s articles of impeachment do not come too late after all. It wouldn’t hurt to proceed with the hearings and continue the process even after the reigns of power are pried from Dick Cheney’s cold, dead hands. A completed impeachment and conviction in the Senate, even if it doesn’t happen until next year, will at least set the record straight. That, and a special prosecutor with Ken Starr’s budget, a bad attitude and lots of steely handcuffs for the Perp Walk Of History. The Bush enablers deserve no less.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Obama's Role Model

There is no one who has been treated worse in presidential politics than Hillary Clinton.

The coverage of her historic campaign started and ended snarky, unforgiving and suspicious. Nothing was accepted at face value. That's fine if you are going to treat everyone that way. Imagine if the prior careers of Junior Bush were held up to the same scrutiny back in 2000. What would it have been like if his every move were interpreted as clever subterfuge and his every proclamation scoffed at as so much manipulative claptrap? But, no. Junior got a pass just like Reagan got a pass and Bush Senior got a pass, and so on. We are used to Democrats being held to a higher standard, but the Clintons are presumed to be trouble just by showing up.

Assumptions about Hillary's expectations in the race made by people who had no idea or interest in what she really thought hounded her at every turn. She viewed her nomination as "inevitable"; she felt it was "owed" to her because of her husband’s Lewinsky embarrassment; the "16 years of Clinton" was planned back when Bill was back in Arkansas. All complete nonsense, none of it sourced with anyone close to the Clintons, and all accepted as conventional wisdom throughout the campaign, with a knowing wink from those who, you know, just know.

After Obama won Iowa and just before New Hampshire, the long knives of the punditocracy were dripping with the blood of the victorious. They celebrated the fall they failed to predict, dancing and spitting on the freshly-dug grave, waiting on the edge for her to walk by so they could push her in and heap dirt on her candy-yellow suit. Alas, she showed emotion for her good causes the day before the NH primary and spit in the face of their dire, celebratory predictions. They appeared on cable shows near and far, beating their breasts and insincerely apologizing for their sexist and anti-Hillary attitudes. Then, they spent the next four moths wishing she would go away again, asking each other, night after tiresome night, why she stayed so annoyingly in and What the Hell Does Hillary Want.

Hillary righted her message, found her voice and started reaching real voters with real issues just before the Pennsylvania primary. So, when it looked like Hillary might be succeeding, they turned on Bill. Any time he got off script at all, they ran out the story-line of the out-of-control ex-president who kept saying uncomfortable things at uncomfortable times. It didn't matter that what he said about the brutal media coverage of his wife and the relative pass given to Obama happened to be true. The last gasp of this tired tack was when he went off on the "writer" of a piece in Vanity Fair this month. Well, have you read the damn thing? The article is a miserable hack-job. Todd Purdum doesn’t even pretend to prove anything, but uses the anti-Clinton mystique to let his readers make broad leaps from innocuous trips in planes with rich guys to...oh, you know, don’t you? Clinton was right – anyone who would write such a piece of crap – to say nothing of the editors who published it – is a "scumbag". But, as always, the truth is not a defense for the Clintons.

I always wondered what would have happened if it was Hillary, rather than Obama, who got the 150-delegate lead in February and then ran out the clock for four months. You could imagine the clucking of the commentariat at the temerity of it all, especially if it was she who lost 7 of the last 11 contests. You would have commentators shouting all hours of the day and night, begging the super-delegates to save us from this failed democratic result. Instead, they celebrated when Obama reached the threshold and scolded Clinton for not taking it like a man soon enough.

I could never figure out why media personalities who are otherwise sympathetic to Democratic causes and principles bought so readily into the right-wing anti-Clinton caricatures and agenda. I think it’s because Bill Clinton came to Washington, much like Jimmy Carter, as an unapproved outsider governor, who was able to beat established Washington candidates on the ground. Bill didn’t toe any party line – he triangulated, getting what he could through a hostile Congress. The Washington Dems went running for cover when they got too much heat from their health industry lobbyist friends on universal health care. They held their nose and fought off the ridiculously partisan Clinton impeachment, but used the incident to joke around about Bill's supposed proclivities with their all-too-amused friends.

When Hillary made her move, which they knew she would, they were happy to see Obama rise up and squish her, regardless of his unknown qualities and his vulnerability to unwanted and unwarranted definition by the desperate right.

I supported Hillary until this past weekend and I’m more than happy to back Obama in the fall. I supported her because I did think she was more electable. But, with the pathetic McCain on the GOP ticket (Republicans – see Reagan and Junior Bush – always get a pass by the setting of extremely low expectations, but even that won't save McCain), even an Obama weakened by the 24/7 wing-nut echo-chamber that has already raised his negatives 30 points (so much for Hillary being the one who will do anything to win) is destined to win in a landslide .

He will come in with an even stronger Democratic Senate and House, and then it will truly be our turn. I've always thought -- for all of the name-calling of "radical" and "socialist" that will rain down on him from the right-wing between now and election day -- that Obama kept it a bit vague about what he is actually going to do as president. This is a good thing. It leaves him open to work for the evolving solutions that the Democrats will put together by consensus to fix the mess left by the radical Bushies and face the nation's many challenges. Obama would be wise to follow the example of the last great Democratic president; to work for change he can get, while standing on principles he believes.

Barack Obama, meet Bill Clinton. Now, let's get to work.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Agenda for Right-Wing Blogger Training

The right-wing front-group Americans for "Prosperity" is sponsoring a blogger training next week in Oshkosh and Madison. It’s free and open to anyone, I assume, so I look forward to learning much when I attend either or both.

Don’t ask me how, but I managed to acquire a copy of the agenda:
  • Introduction: Bringing the 19th Century Mentality to a 21st Century Medium: A Primer
  • Originality...What Is It Good For? Absolutely Nothin’! – The Importance of Message Discipline
  • PC Stands for Pelosi and Clinton – Finding Words That Rhyme With "Witch"
  • Breaking News: How to Embed GOP Commercials and Memos From Scott Walker in Your Blog
  • Gun Lust for Amateurs – Feeling the Heat (featured speaker: Owen Robinson)
  • A Case Study: The Importance of Nancy Pelosi’s Scarf
  • The Freedom of Diversity – Using Racist Language Against Your Own Race (featured speaker: James T. Harris)
  • Hit and Run for Fun: Anonymous Posting on Liberal Comment Threads
  • Repeating the Lie – Why We All Say The Same Things All The Time
  • The Rove E-Mail – A Message A Day Keeps The Dems Away
  • Bashing Obama – Who Needs Truth When Innuendo and Guilt-by Association Will Do?
  • The McCain Conundrum – Holding Your Nose and Typing With One Hand
  • After the Fall – What to Do After November 4th, When No One Cares What We Think

Reception to follow...

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Recount Redux

My review of the HBO movie Recount sparked a just few comments. But they are so predictable and tedious, I thought I would answer them out front. Both long comments are from my frequent tormentor (he thinks), the ubiquitous Prosqtor.
  • "Let's ignore for the moment that several independent recounts of the very rejected ballots Gore sought to have (improperly, in my opinion) counted revealed....Bush won Florida. Even if you deny that (which I'm sure you will, if for no other reason than I asserted it), Gore made a tremendous legal error by only moving the courts to count certain counties' ballots. This legal strategy paved the way for the Equal Protection Clause-based decision by the Supremes. See, when you peel back the bias, there is the law. Gore's team sought to do an end-run around counting rejected ballots in places it would hurt them, in favor of only counting in certain counties. This was far more abusive than the Supreme Court following the Fourteenth Amendment. And making James Baker of all people out to be Darth Vader-esque is a joke. Baker continually surprises Republicans by not coming out with a McClellan-like book "telling all" about the Bushes. I await your assertion that I give nothing but "Talk Radio Talking Points," while refusing to address my argument."

  • "The only way Al Gore wins a statewide recount in Florida -- and remember, he wasn't asking for that -- is if you count the "overvotes," where some moron both punched a selection on the ballot AND WROTE A NAME IN. These are by any standard improper votes.It's time to move past 2000, Mike. Your guy lost the Electoral College, and your guy lost worse in 2004. We're in '08 now; maybe some of the bitterness should be purged?(If only you had guns and religion to cling to, to help with the bitterness) ;)"
My response:

Yes, although I yearn for the comfort of guns and religion, I am made of stronger stuff.

Prosqtor has the details of the specious equal protection argument wrong. It wasn't that the Gore legal team had cherry-picked hand recounts in friendly counties -- by the time it got to the U.S. Supreme Court, it was a state-wide hand recount of undervotes. It was the different interpretation of the ballots -- some counties counting dimpled chads, some not. He's also wrong about what scenario would have had Gore ahead. It was not only overvotes on optical ballots -- it was also if "a statewide recount of all disqualified ballots was undertaken using the standards that each county's election officials have said they would use in a recount." That's exactly the standard the Florida Supremes ordered and that the U.S. Supremes stopped in its tracks.

You know, I was as surprised as Prosqtor was (and you know he was) when the media consortium that (finally) counted the votes found that Bush won under some scenarios, Gore in only some others. Certainly, if not for pre-election blunders (the butterfly ballots) and deviousness (Harris' overly-broad-on-purpose felon purge list), Gore wins Florida in a walk. No one believes that more people didn't go to the polls there on election day intending to vote for Gore.

But whether Gore comes out on top or not is not really the point. At the time the Bushies were fighting to stop the recount, no one knew who won. The outrage of the Bushies being able to stop the recount and run out the clock is not, necessarily, that Gore would have surely won. It was that they would go to such outrageous lengths to stop and hijack the process of democracy. As Spacey/Klain screams in a bar at the height of Recount, "Who WON??!" No one would have denied even Junior Bush electoral legitimacy if his henchmen had let the process play out to answer that question.

Let's review just some of the Republican tactics, shall we? 1) Sending congressional aides from Washington to start a riot during the Miami-Dade counting. 2) Sending in a lobbyist to sit on Katherine Harris so she'll do what you want. 3) Getting their election monitors to object to every ballot not because they had a legitimate concerns, but to slow the process. 4) Getting the legislature to vote to give Bush the electoral votes no matter what happened. 5) Using the U.S. Supreme Court to take the counting process away from the State of Florida. 6) Treating what should be a delicate matter like a scorched-earth political battle instead of a sacred protection of the voters' intent.

Now, let's play one of my favorite games: What If a Democrat Did It? If Gore was ahead by 500 votes and in control of the Florida political apparatus and pulled any one of the stunts listed above, do you think Bush would have graciously conceded, as Gore did? Do you think the (then) GOP House of Representatives and Senate would have certified the election results? Do you think Gore would have been impeached for these shenanigans in his first year?

Come on. But my favorite comments -- from anonymous pipsqueaks like Prosqtor and especially from people like Justice Scalia -- are that we should "get over it". This - yes - talking point emerged immediately after Gore's concession. This from people who never "got over" a stain on a blue dress. The hijacking of democracy in Florida is not something your "get over". It is a historical outrage. It is something that you (and your children, forever in history books) study and understand how it happened. It is something that you work to prevent. It is something that you never let happen again.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Recounting History

It is eerie watching Recount, the new TV film about the Bush campaign’s hijacking of democracy in Florida in 2000. The nightmare I watched on cable with my mouth hanging open in amazement for five long weeks as the Bushies committed election theft in slow motion and in broad daylight flies by in two hours on HBO. It has its moments, but it is the kind of Hollywood recent-history epic that tries to play it right down the middle. The Republican thugs who gleefully got Junior installed don’t deserve to be treated so well.

Not that the Bushies don’t look bad – they do. As portrayed in the film, the Republicans immediately saw the battle as political and pulled out all the stops to use every one of their Bush-friendly Florida resources to put the fix in. By the time they brought in the Silver Hammer – Bush family fixer James Baker – they had already locked down every law firm in Florida and, combined with the brother-governor, the legislature and the extremely needy Katherine Harris, it was over before it started. The Democrats, for some reason playing with a bunch of second-stringers – what, did Jeb shut down the airports too? – took the high road, looking for the diplomatic concessions they would have easily allowed if the tables were turned. The Republicans who supported the film (James Baker even hosted a screening) probably think it makes them look brilliant because of their brutal manipulation of the law, the facts and the politics. That’s how they roll, I guess, but they are wrong. The crisis in Florida called for the GOP to call up their better natures and do what was best for the country. As I suspected and as we know now far too well, they don’t have them.

As entertainment, the movie tries to have it three different ways and succeeds and fails in equal measure. 1) It wants to build suspense, but we all know the ending and most of the ugly details how it got there. Besides, the facts are so ridiculous, no one would believe it if it were fiction. 2) It wants to be respectable historically, but, although the main character is on the Democratic side, it fails to bring home the true Dark Side of the Republicans as they shut down the democratic process. And 3) it wants to show how smart it is by dropping little bomblets even recount connoisseurs may be unaware of, such as Bush shill Ben Ginsberg’s pathetic whining about Democrats "stealing elections". It is emblematic of the movie’s failings that his comments are not drenched in irony.

The actors involved are some of the best talents working, but the casting suffers from dominant personalities that often overwhelm their subjects and some mismatches. At this point in his career, Kevin Spacey is always Kevin Spacey; just like Jimmy Stewart was always Jimmy Stewart and Jack Lemmon was always Jack Lemmon. He could no more be believed as real-guy Ron Klain than Gary Cooper was Lou Gehrig. Same with Dennis Leary, who plays some other real guy with a weird Southern/Eastern accent, but is always his own smart-ass self. Tom Wilkinson, who was all over HBO a couple of months ago as a hilariously debauched Ben Franklin, plays James Baker as the center of the Republican universe, which gives the real-life line-reading thug a bit too much credit. (Karl Rove, who probably had more to do with the Bushies’ scorched-earth tactics in Florida as anyone else, gets only one mention in the film, when someone says he wants Al Gore’s house picketed. Wilkinson/Baker is more than happy to oblige.) John Hurt is even more of a waste than he plays Warren Christopher to be and the washed-up Ed Begley, Jr. can’t do justice to Gore lawyer David Boies, who kicked legal ass as best he could, with the deck stacked high against him.

And then there is Laura Dern as Katherine Harris, who has received universal and well-deserved praise for her dead-on, over-the-top portrayal. As a result, Harris comes out looking the worst in all this and she deserves almost all of it. But Dern is the only one in the whole picture that is allowed to tell the truth about her character. For a movie that is at least partially a product of Hollywood-style political compromise, it appears that even Republicans agreed that it was OK to hold Harris up to dramatic ridicule. Even Wilkinson/Baker, seeing her on TV, scoffs at her mere existence. I suppose it is not surprising that, in a self-serving story about greedy, power-mad men, it is the one woman in the room who bears the mark of the buffoon.

Sure, Harris was an easy target – the only thing that you can criticize about Dern’s performance is that she wasn’t weird enough – but why stop there? Recount would have been so much more of an artistic triumph if it didn’t play it so damn safe; if all of the characters were painted in broad caricatures. Get someone to play Baker like the smarmy back-room Bush-enabler he is – maybe James Cromwell. Let’s see those punk kids who shut down the counting in Miami-Dade the day before, as they left their congressional staffing offices in Washington and got on the Enron plane headed for Florida. How about digging into the dark world of the Bush legal team – I can see Nicholson as Scalia. Every close-up of someone in the Bush war room should be accompanied by bad-guy music. Every gathering of the naive Democrats should be preceded by something suitably naive and uplifting, like "I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke".

Well, maybe someday someone will make that movie. In the meantime, as a homogenized history lesson, Recount does just fine. This was the first grown-up adult talking-head movie my 13-year-old son has managed to sit through, and he seemed to get a lot out of it. After the first half-hour, he stopped asking me if this or that "really happened" and I had to dig up some YouTube videos to show him how good Dern had nailed the real Katherine Harris. After it was over, he announced that the bloodless Bush coup had landed on his top five outrageous things that happened in his lifetime, up there with the Iraq War, the Bush presidency generally, 9/11 and – I forget – maybe the Favre retirement (he reminds me in the comments below - it was Katrina).

When I was his age in 1968, I was living through the height of Vietnam/LBJ/Bobby-Martin/Nixon madness. It was an edgier time to be sure, but today is no less an essential moment in time. I can’t blame him for wanting hope, change and competence – something sorely missing from his national government during the politically-conscious part of his lifetime. Living through and understanding the worst prepares us to fight for better.

The circumstances in Recount were, as it turns out, the perfect start to the Bush presidency, which never stopped acting as if its rule were a result of providence and divine entitlement. With a wide swath of devastation in their wake, the Bushies will get what they deserve eventually – in the history books, at least. You can say we won’t get fooled again but, as Recount makes clear, not enough of us were fooled in the first place for this band of reckless bandits to assume power by one vote in the Supreme Court.