This Month's Best Lead'In one of the essays in "Regards," John Gregory Dunne recalls attending a screenwriter's funeral in Beverly Hills, Calif. During the service, his friend Gore Vidal leaned over and asked, "are you working?" No, Mr. Dunne thinks, he "had no intention of using the scene in a book," but "yes, it was always there waiting to be retrieved." So, he concludes, "the answer to Gore Vidal's question should have been, 'Always.'"--from a Michiko Kakutani review of John Gregory Dunne's essay collection in last week's New York Times. Meanwhile, we don't want to discriminate against great paragraphs, simply because they happened not to appear at the beginning of an article. Here's a wonderful riff from an article in the current Economist ("Ready, Fire, Aim") on Dick Cheney's hunting accident:
'Mr. Cheney's own expedition was a lot closer to "Gosford Park" than the "Deer Hunter"--a group of fat old toffs waiting for wildlife to be flushed towards them at huge expense. There has also been a huge increase in so-called "exotic hunting"--where guests not only go after indiginous species such as wolves and bears, but also blast away at imported zebras and giraffes. Convenience is essential for the hedge fund crowd. Most exotic hunts take place in ranches from which the animals can't escape (Texas has 600). Exotic hunters can shoot elephants from cars or from the backs of other elephants, sometimes the orphaned calves of the victims of previous hunts. For the truly lazy, there is "just-in-time shooting," where animals are trained to turn up at certain times, and "Internet shooting," where you can guide the gun from your desk. All this removes much of the inconvenience from hunting. It also removes its main justification, that it is the most natural way of culling local wildlife.'
The Numbing Statistics of the Iraq War
Case professor Mano Singham has this illuminating post about civilian casualties in Iraq. It's worth reading and thinking about. I was drawn to it in part because of a telling moment on the HBO Bill Maher program the other evening. One of the guests was former Senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart, who is still taking victory laps (appropriately, I think) for having been a key part of a federal advisory panel that warned we should be preparing for impending terror attacks not long before 9/11. It was ignored, of course. Anyway, at one point of the program, Hart referred to 25,000 U.S. "casualties" from the war, and was corrected by Maher: "you mean 2,500." No, Hart responded, there have been about 25,000 casualties, which is a combination of those who have died and also been wounded (and remember, that's only on the U.S. side). The Bush administration, he went on to say, wants to keep the focus only on the deaths (to the degree they want anyone to focus on anything over there at all), because it's a far smaller number.He's right, of course. It made me think about calling an English professor at Hawken School who once told me something shattering about the war, back when this conflict, now about to enter its fourth year, was only a year old. He said his mother, who lives in the Washington, D.C. area, is a volunteer at the Walter Reed military medical center, where her role is to comfort the wounded. She has been serving in this way since the 1950s. And she told her son, who subsequently told me, that she had never seen the same kind of horrible wounds, on the same scale, in any other war, stretching all the way back to the Korean conflict. Two years later, I'm left wondering what this woman might say now.
One More Excellent Reason to Blog'If it weren't for your blog, I'd have thought you'd fallen off the edge of the Earth...Talk to me.'--my favorite email note thus far this year, from an old work buddy who lives in Washington, D.C. Now, if I could only convince him to hit the comment button every now and then, we could chat that way too...
The Imperial Presidency
The influential National Journal published this excellent cover story on the imperial presidency of George W. It's written by a veteran scribbler, Paul Starobin, who also writes for the NJ's sister pub, the Atlantic Monthly. And he knows his way around arrogant empires: Starobin was once Moscow bureau chief for Business Week. The best part about it may be that it's entirely online. The magazine typically keeps most of its best material behind subscriber-only walls.
Fellow Scribe WatchEileen Beal and Anton Zuiker, a couple of talented friends who have specialized in medical writing, have each recently had special cause to be proud of their achievements. Last fall, Eileen was selected to a prestigious and highly competitive week-long fellowship in New York to attend the Age Boom Academy. It's co-hosted by the Mt. Sinai Medical Center's International Longevity Center and the New York Times Foundation. She got the welcome chance to relax a little from her relentless deadline pressure and marinate in the subject of aging. A series of panels dealt with the issue of how the media is doing in confronting the growing issue of a steadily aging U.S. population. Eileen, a former teacher and Peace Corps veteran who once labored on the staff of the Cleveland Jewish News, is widely published. Though her friends sometimes tease her about her web phobia, her writing can be found all over the Internet (here, here, here and here, for starters).Meanwhile, Anton, a.k.a. Mistersugar, (also a Peace Corps vet), has been invited to speak to the American Medical Association's annual Medical Communications Conference when it gathers in Arizona in April. His topic? Blogging. Congratulations, Eileen and Anton.
The Bush Administration's Legacy: Militarizing American Intelligence
Late last year, the New York Times broke one of the most important national security stories in many years: the news that the Bush White House had chosen to unilaterally circumvent a law which obligated it to seek court approval to secretly spy on Americans. Since then, we've heard endless debate about whether the newspaper was or was not right to have held the story (either for additional reporting or to assess the danger of ignoring the government's request to suppress it) for a year. We saw endless debate about whether the impending publication of a book (State of War--The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration) by the same author was what really got the paper off the fence. What we haven't heard enough about, I think, is what, precisely, is contained in the book. And so, gentle reader, I purchased it, read it, marked it up and will now tell you about what I consider the high points.To his credit, author James Risen makes a number of unequivocal statements that helps readers understand what happened. He argues that "the CIA has been so deeply politicized by the Bush Administration that its credibiility has vanished." He nicely describes how, time and time again, Secretary of Defense Donald "Rumsfeld simply ignored decisions made by the president in front of his war cabinet," so that "the president of the United States did not always have the last word in the Bush Administration." He writes that "officials at the White House and the Pentagon convinced themselves that the lack of planning (for post-invasion Iraq scenarios) was in reality a visionary approach."He tells the unbelievable story of a Cleveland physician of Iraqi descent, Dr. Sawsan Alhaddad (as it happens, a first cousin of my friend, the writer Ayad Rahim), who was recruited by the CIA to go to Iraq before the war to gather intelligence on the country's nuclear program from her brother, who worked as an engineer in Sadaam's system. He explained to her that there was no weapons program: the UN embargo had worked only too well, choking off the country's access to all the ingredients needed for a bomb. There was only one problem: all the 30 or so such first-hand eyewitness reports gathered by the CIA were later ignored.
All of them--some thirty--had said the same thing. They all reported to the CIA that the scientists had said that Iraq's programs to develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons had long since been abandoned. Charlie Allen's program to use family members to contact dozens of Iraqi scientists had garnered remarkable results and given the CIA an accurate assessment of the abandoned state of Iraq's weapons programs months before the U.S. invasion in March 2003. CIA officials ignored the evidence and refused to even disseminate the reports from the family members to senior policy makers in the Bush Adminstration. Sources say that the CIA's Directorate of Operations, which was supposed to be in charge of all of the agency's clandestine intelligence operations, was jealous of Allen's incursions into its operational turf and shut down his program and denigrated its results. President Bush never heard about the visits or the interviews.Not that that would have necessarily changed anything. The upshot of all of this bungling and bullying: an historic perversion of how the country is supposed to (and has since the dawn of the Cold War) separate its foreign intelligence capabilities from its military power. Risen writes: "The dominant power relationship was between Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, who in effect was the president's real national security advisor. Rumsfeld had been Dick Cheney's mentor and boss long before the younger man became v.p. To others in the administration, mystified by the process--or lack of a process--it eventually became evident that Cheney and Rumsfeld had a back channel where the real decision making was taking place, and that larger meetings were often irrelevant. The result was that the Bush Administration was the first presidency in modern history in which the Pentagon served as the overwhelming center of gravity for U.S. foreign policy." UPDATE: A former senior CIA policy analyst says much the same thing in this article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.
My Day of Atonement
If I could borrow any single element from Judaism in order to apply it to my own faith, there'd be no competition: the Day of Atonement during Yom Kippur is a uniquely wonderful tradition. But since I'm not Jewish, and in any event this holiday doesn't come around again for several months, let me now publicly atone for some needlessly hurtful words I wrote some months ago in the comments section of a blog.
Way back in September of last year, during the thick of the Cleveland mayoral campaign, I visited George Nemeth's popular Brewedfreshdaily.com, where I noticed that a longtime figure in local politics and p.r., Andy Juniewicz, had posted a comment on behalf of the candidate for whom he was then working. That name rang many layers of bells for me. Andy had been a Plain Dealer reporter many years ago, and had since gone on to work for many political campaigns, including Dennis Kucinich's presidential run. But for me, he was best-known for his long association with the brass-knuckled p.r. firm headed up by William Silverman, a man who was once his father-in-law. That was all the red meat I needed: I posted some comments that noted his long record in politics and the fact that he had worked for several losing campaigns. In short, I carved him up a bit, mostly a result of guilt by association (Silverman was known for his heavy-handed tactics with the media).
Anyway, some days passed, and then I received an email from Andy. I couldn't help but notice the unusual way in which he went about seeking redress. Rather than simply abuse me and call me names, as most targets of such comments would understandably have done, he was trying to convince me that I had him all wrong, and that if only we could meet, he would convince me of that. How could I refuse? We met for breakfast (at the erstwhile Ruthie & Mo's, no less), where I finally got to meet a man I'd long heard about and whom I had thus convinced myself I almost knew. I found him a decent, thoughtful guy who cared deeply about his reputation. But unlike most people who thought they had been wronged, he didn't lash out in anger. Instead, he tried to reason with me. Yes, he's a smooth, veteran p.r. person, and I understood that he was using every method he had ever learned about persuasion to convince me I was wrong. But he convinced me nonetheless.Anyway, the upshot is this: I apologized to Andy privately at the time, as I'm now apologizing publicly. Guilt by association is no more appropriate a tactic now among honorable people than it was during the McCarthy era. We must all stand alone on the reputations we've carved for ourselves and the actions we've taken over time. Andy is a good and decent guy, and he deserved better than my words that day. Here's hoping we'll find a new and even better place for that occasional breakfast.
The Slow, Steady Death of 'Whom'Did you know the word 'whom' is slowly dying, a victim of increasing neglect by a living language? The Boston Globe's excellent 'Ideas' section says the word is following "thou and ye into pronoun heaven." But it's been a tortuously slow decline: even H.L Mencken noted way back in 1921 that it had all but disappeared from general speech. But still, those fussy sticklers, the pedantic grammar police who insist on writing angry letters to the editor each time they notice non-classic usages, persist in their denunciations of what they consider bad grammar. Here's hoping they can eventually find something more productive to which they might put their attention.
Most Likely to SucceedI predict this kid will go far in life. With instincts such as these ("a round of roses for every lady in the house") he should do even better in the love life department than in the rest of his life.
Hillary's Formidable Money Machine'HillPAC, which is really the holding company for Hillary's political machine, supplements the salaries of Hillary's Senate staffers. It pays the consultants who write Hillary's speeches for, say, a Gridiron dinner. It pays for the Beverly Hills firm Capital Strategies, which lassoes Hollywood money for Hillary. It pays about $5,000 a month to Hudson Media Partners, the political arm of the Glover Park Group, the powerhouse corporate consulting firm of Hillary's top communications guru, Howard Wolfson. It writes checks to Occasions, the swanky Washington caterer that outfits Hillaryland events at Whitehaven (the Clintons' Georgetown mansion). One of its largest expenses is to direct mail firms like O'Brien, McConnell & Pearson and Merkle Response Services, which are canvassing every nook of the United States for Hillary donors. By 2008, Hillary may have the most massive fund-raising database in politics.'--From an illuminating piece on "Hillaryland" in The New Republic, by Ryan Lizza. Her aides estimate that since 2001, Clinton has raised $50 million.
Love's Leftovers and Veep's Duck & Weave
Valentine's Day Leftovers. Yesterday, I told you about that marvelous National Geographic cover story with the Valentine's Day theme. Here are two more great pieces I saw on the same subject. One was from the Washington Post's Hank Stuever, who may well be without peers as a daily newspaper feature writer. Another came via a link from the formidable Bookslut: a lovely piece in the Seattle paper about how some enterprising Belgian librarians are using the lure of reading as a way to make libraries hubs for meeting dates. That sure beats getting matchmaker help from your Aunt Betty.
Will Cheney Also Have to Bar WaPo From Air Force II? A couple of years ago, the wider world learned from a Sunday Times Week in Review article what portions of the media no doubt knew for some time before: that New York Times correspondents were routinely barred from traveling directly with Vice President Dick Cheney on his official airplane. That raised lots of eyebrows, but it was also a point of pride with the paper. They just kept on covering him the same way (probably, at least subconsciously, even more thoroughly). But the question hung unspoken in the air: why weren't other papers similarly targetted? Had they been soft on the Veep by comparison?The Washington Post, its traditional rival for bragging rights as the country's best paper (NYU prof Jay Rosen, prolific author of the influential Pressthink blog has famously argued that the Post is now actually in the lead) was once far more forgiving of this administration, especially in the early stages of its march to war. Lately, the paper that ultimately cooked Nixon's goose has done plenty of catching up about the Bush crowd's similar (or worse) abuses of power. This piece by longtime Post writer and editor David Ignatius puts the issues starkly. After noting some parallels between Ted Kennedy's Chappaquiddick incident and Cheney's failure to notify the world about his shooting, he ends this way: "When critics question the legality of the administration's actions, Bush and Cheney assert the commander in chief's power under Article II of the Constitution. When Congress passes a law forbidding torture, the White House appends a signing statement insisting that Article II -- the power of the commander in chief -- trumps everything else. When the administration's Republican friends suggest amending the wiretapping law to make its program legal, the administration refuses. Let's say it plainly: This is the arrogance of power, and it has gone too far in the Bush White House." Meanwhile, columnist Eugene Robinson, who has been unmercifully pounding away at the White House's arrogance for months, blasts away again today. I think he draws more blood than most, because of the breezier, more conversational tone he can take as a metro columnist (and also because he's a skilled and brutally honest writer). I just hope the rest of the press continues to pound away on all of this arrogance. The health of the republic depends upon it.
Now Really, What Would You Rather Have:
Endless Romance or Railroads and Bridges?
'Biologically speaking, the reasons romantic love fades may be found in the way our brains respond to the surge and pulse of dopamine that accompanies passion and makes us fly. Cocaine users describe the phenomenon of tolerance: The brain adapts to the excessive input of the drug. Perhaps the neurons become desensitized and need more and more to produce the high--to put out pixie dust, metaphorically speaking. Maybe it's a good thing that romance fizzles. Would we have railroads, bridges, planes, faxes, vaccines and television if we were always besotted? In place of the ever-evolving technology that has marked human culture from its earliest tool use, we would have instead only bonbons, bouquets and birth control. More seriously, if the chemically altered state induced by romantic love is akin to a mental illness or a drug-induced euphoria, exposing yourself for too long could result in psychological damage. A good sex life can be as strong as Gorilla Glue. But who wants that stuff on your arm?'--from a dazzling cover story by a Boston shrink, Lauren Slater, in the February issue of National Geographic (alas, only this short excerpt is available online). It's easily the smartest Valentine's Day-themed piece I've seen in any publication thus far. But do send links to your favorites, dear readers.
Just When You Think the Satirists May Have Finally Run Out of Material......on This White House bunch, they remind you in bracing fashion that they're the presidential equivalent of the gift that keeps giving. But one question: Why does anyone bother with fiction anymore, when no fevered imagination could invent someone like Dick Cheney?UPDATE: The Veep (whom Maureen Dowd has nicknamed "The Grim Peeper," for his scowling visage and his weakness for spying on Americans) is getting some heat for how he and his staff kept quiet for 24 hours after the shooting. But then who could be surprised? This is the same rascally guy that fought like a lion, all the way to the Supreme Court to keep his energy-industry pow-wow secret (which worked--perhaps because an earlier hunting buddy of his was Justice Scalia, who, we must note in all fairness, was never shot at) . And also the same guy who was prepared to wave goodbye to his friend and employee, Scooter Libby, as he was packed off to jail for (it would now appear) merely carrying out the boss's orders on leaking classified information. Makes you all warm and fuzzy about the current state of American democracy, doesn't it?
The Madness of King George'Led by White House propaganda czar Karl Rove, the Bush administration has launched an aggressive campaign claiming that the president's authorization of massive ongoing electronic surveillance of American citizens is the only appropriate response to 'a ruthless enemy.' Rove added that criticism of the President's policy comes from those who don't understand 'the nature of the threat and the gravity of the moment.' The Founding Fathers anticipated debates such as the one stemming from George W. Bush's illegal spying. Well acquainted with the excesses of mad monarchs named George and the excuses for tyranny peddled by their partisans, Benjamin Franklin warned, 'They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. James Madison understood how seductive the claims of national security could be, pointing out that wartime is 'the true nurse of executive aggrandizement.'--from the lead editorial in the Feb. 13'th edition of The Nation.
Friedan's Passing Sparks Two Lovely RiffsFeminist pioneer Betty Friedan died recently, as you probably noted. And of course there was plenty of the usual blah-blah that accompanies the death of any leading historical figure. People understandably tend to be kind to the recently dead, and thus write about them as if they were plastic saints. But I loved how author and fellow feminist writer Germaine Greer remembered Betty differently, with a more honest, three-dimensional take in Britain's Guardian newspaper that I think serves as a finer tribute than any simplistic deification ever could. Closer to home, my friend Lois writes splendidly about what she calls her "dirty little secret," her lack of personal zeal for feminism. "Blame it on my parents. They had a politically correct marriage before it was politically correct to be politically correct. They both had fulfilling careers, and shared householding responsibilities equally. They made me feel smart and capable of achieving whatever I set out to achieve." Good for them. And lucky for Lois. As for Betty, she'll be missed, blemishes and all.
Assorted Odds & Ends
Josh Marshall Strikes Again. I've enthused before about uber-blogger Josh Marshall and his TalkingPointsMemo and the related TPM Cafe. His Latest Innovation: the Bolton Watch. Named for the horse's ass ignoramus that our idiot president sent to misrepresent us at the United Nations (he's so corrupt that even Sen. George Voinovich couldn't stomach him!), it promises to be worth watching. The first bit of news it broke: Bolton has actually been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Unbelievable.
Why Do Liberals Go on Fox's O'Reilly Show? More than a year ago, Slate's wonderful media critic, Jack Shafer, wrote this lively piece full of suggestions on how one might survive a guest slot on Bill O'Reilly's boxing match "news" show. Now, the Boston Phoenix's Mark Jurkowitz, who shocked some people not long ago by leaving his gig as media reporter for the Boston Globe to return to his previous alt-weekly stomping grounds, asks a perfectly good question, and answers it in interesting ways. The bottom line, says one guy he quotes: "if you're not going to do the homework (to prepare), don't go on these shows that are rigged." You can read an interview with Mark here and check his Globe story archive here. Anyway, the whole thing reminded me that I've yet to go rent the reputedly excellent documentary on Fox News, Outfoxed. Maybe this weekend. Anyone seen it yet?
Dan McGraw Resurfaces With Smart Piece on 'Sports Welfare.' Former Cleveland-based writer Daniel McGraw, a rare blend of great reporter and first-class writer, has resurfaced. He recently published this interesting piece in Reason, the generally well-regarded bible of the libertarian movement (which is mildy famous in journalism for being a truly virtual operation, with the editor working from Cincinnati, of all places, and others sprinled throughout the country). When last we heard, McGraw, who got his start at the Lake County News Herald, was writing for U.S. News & World Reports, from a base in Texas. During that stint, he also managed to produce a moving book-length memoir on his relationship with his father, told through the lens of their shared love for the Cleveland Browns. It's a beautiful book by a marvelous writer.
Charles Dickens in Cleveland
Attention, Charles Dickens fans: did you know there's something called the Cleveland Dickens Fellowship? There is (it's part of an international society), and they meet regularly at the Mayfield Heights Library. Do consider sticking your head in for a look-see sometime. Of course, if you're a real Dickens buff, you can always attend the 2006 international conference, scheduled for July 27-31 in Amsterdam. But you have to be a serious Cleveland history buff to know that the great one actually visited Cleveland once, in 1842. It was little more than a village then, but there was one hilariously contemporary facet to his visit, despite the fact it occurred more than a century and a half ago: history records that he threw a fit about something he read in the Plain Dealer!
According to an authoritative account of his visit (in the excellent Encyclopedia of Cleveland History), "While in Sandusky, Dickens had read a newspaper article appearing in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, to which he took exception because of its chauvinistic bombast toward England. Evidently failing to realize that the Plain Dealer piece was merely a reprint from another newspaper, Dickens's ire had not abated upon his arrival in Cleveland." Interestingly enough, the year he visited also happened to be the very year of the newspaper's founding. It's been agitating writers ever since.
Kathy Colan on Barring Men from the Lingerie AisleOkay, so it may not rank with world hunger or nuclear proliferation on the list of things to worry about. But my friend Kathleen Colan, editor of Blogster.com, is exercised about leering lechers watching her shop for intimate apparel. She has a plan: limit them to Mondays only. That means just one and a half more shopping days till Valentine's day, guys.
Don's List of Ten Daily ThingsI've said it before (here and here), and I'll say it again: Don Iannone is a special man. A poet as well as a nationally influential economic development consultant, he'll soon be publishing a book on economic development that has been eagerly awaited by many. Meanwhile, on his lovely Conscious Living blog, he has just published this list of his daily practices. I say steal it (with adaptations that make sense for you) to your heart's delight. It nicely embodies what servant leadership is, or at least should be, all about.
Some Thoughts to Frame The Day'No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader's intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing.'-- the immortal word stylist E.B. White'When you write, you make a sound in the reader's head. It can be a dull mumble -- that's why so much government prose makes you sleepy -- or it can be a joyful noise, a sly whisper, a throb of passion.'-- Former NYT op-ed columnist Russell Baker
Why He Can't Quit Cleveland
Cleveland writer Chris McVetta wrote a wonderful, haunting little riff earlier this year on his blog, The Id and I. It was headlined, 'Cleveland, Why Can't I Quit You?' Listen to this:
I'm not sure what I want out of Cleveland - or myself - for this new year. I would still like Cleveland to build a Pop Culture museum on the shores of Lake Erie with a giant Superman statue guarding the entrance. If nothing else, to honor Superman creators, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, who both grew up in Cleveland - and created The Man of Steel HERE in high school - during The Great Depression.
Shouldn't we immortalize native Clevelanders who actually went on to create something that has stuck in the collective mindset throughout the years -instead of some lame "knuckleheads in the news" over and over again-? (Or are we too busy fawning over Mrs. Dennis Kucinich like the lame inbred hillbillies the outside world perceives us to be...? Quit coming up with sappy greeting card slogans for Cleveland - that would make Daffy Dan cringe in horror - and let's do something with this town!)
I mean, unless The Ten-Thousand Volt Ghost from "Scooby-Doo" is chasing people away from the semi-abandoned Aviation Airport or something, it's about TIME to do something with the lakefront. What better way to pay tribute to two native Clevelanders - while bringing added attention, excitement and interest to Cleveland - then to build a Pop Culture museum here on the shores of Lake Erie - with Superman as the main attraction...Hey, you can even throw in Halle Berry's Bond bikini and Drew Carey's glasses, too, for good measure!