Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Specter Dumps GOP; Some Rats Stay On Sinking Ship

Arlen Specter’s stunning announcement that he is changing parties to become a Democrat is merely the latest example of the how the Republic Party is losing its grip on America.

"Since my election in 1980 as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right,” Specter tells reporters without a trace of irony in his voice as he overstates the obvious.

“Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats,” the Pennsylvania Senator goes on to note, adding, “I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans."

Assuming Norm “Sen. Slimey” Coleman finally gives up the ghost of his increasingly desperate, ill-considered quest to upend the Minnesota election at some point in our lifetime that makes Don Quixote seem like a realist, Specter’s move coupled with Al Franken’s seating gives the Democrats a nearly rock-solid, filibuster proof, 60 seat majority in the Senate.

Certainly that will be the case on major Obama agenda items such as health care, energy, cap-and-trade and, hopefully, card check despite Specter's current objection to it.

More important, it exposes the single, most pressing, problem confronting the GOP: Moderates no longer have a place in the party. They’re not welcome, they don’t count and they’re seen as pariahs. Things are so bad on the right side of the aisle, I’m not convinced Barry Goldwater would be comfortable hanging around with today’s Republican honchos; his daughter, an accomplished filmmaker, wonders the same thing.

Personally, I wonder if Maine’s two Republican Senators, Olympia Snow and Susan “No Flu Shot For You!” Collins, hear footsteps in the hallway. Both are up for re-election next year.

Look Who’s Talking

What the party of Lincoln is left with are the voices of crazy people who are wandering aimlessly, totally lost in the hospital's wards.

There’s Bobby Jindahl decrying spending on volcano monitoring weeks before Mt. Redoubt ignites.

There’s Rick Parry and his Blago hair encouraging Texas sessessionists by decrying Washington’s “oppressive interference” while asking the federal government for nearly 40,000 vials of an anti-flu vaccine.

There’s Mark Sanford, who wants all of the stimulus money destined for South Carolna except for unemployment insurance that would actually help his many destitute, out-of-work constituents.

Don’t forget John McCain, the man who denounces torture but refuses to denounce the torturers.

Say hello to Michael Steele who has no more of an idea on how to turn the party around than he grasps why it’s fallen on such hard times.

Dick Cheney we shall always have with us, it seems, a man with less credibility than my Golden Retriever when it comes to issues of national policy speaking out on national policy.

The list is seemingly endless.

Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner. Don’t overlook Michelle Bachman, perhaps the goofiest, most unstable member of Congress in more than 100 years. Or Sarah Palin, to which nothing need be added as an explanation.

Look who’s talking, folks: The emotionally unstable, the mentally halt, the morally bankrupt and the just plain mean-spirited. Yet it is on the backs of these people that the Republican Party plans to stage a major comeback.

As Pres. Obama told him when he phoned Specter to contraulate him on the move, “We are thrilled to have you.”

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Saddam Made Them Do It

So now we know: Saddam made them do it.

The Levin report into Pentagon torture released yesterday tore down the last false flag flying on the devil ship USS Torture, revealing that waterboarding and all the rest of the barbaric acts performed in our name on prisoners resulted from Cheney's frustration at not getting what he wanted: Someone to pin 9/11 on Saddam and 'fess up about how bin Laden was sleeping with The Tyrant of Baghdad.

In other words, the Bush White House authorised torture to elicit false confessions – the exact same way the Chinese did with captured American soldiers during the Korean War.

Yet Ali Soufan, a former FBI interrogator whose career blossomed on his ability to coax the truth out of recalcitrant people, writes in today's New York Times about how he and other actual, trained interrogators got a ton of information from Abu Zubaydah the usual way until Cheney and Rumsfeld sent in Torquemada's priests because he wouldn't confess that Iraq was behind the attacks.

But after being waterboarded 83 times, had his body thrown against a wall who knows how many times, was alternately frozen and sweated, and subjected to countless other horrors, nothing new or useful was learned. Maybe if the CIA waterboarded him 84 times.

Soufan is unflinching in his criticism, noting that all of Zubaydah’s most-useful information came from garden variety interrogation honed over decades by the FBI:

"We discovered, for example, that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah also told us about Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber. This experience fit what I had found throughout my counterterrorism career: traditional interrogation techniques are successful in identifying operatives, uncovering plots and saving lives."

And yet Dick "Open Government" Cheney is on Fox, demanding - demanding, I tell you! - the government reveal all to prove torture works. The man who pixelled his official residence off of Google Earth is on television insisting to a fawning Sean Hannity that Washington open its intelligence books for all to see.



Meanwhile, the list of people with dirty hands keeps growing. Buried in Levin’s committee report is the news that Ms. Squeaky Clean, Condoleeza Rice, gave key early approval to the CIA using torture.

This is the smoking gun: A straight line into the Oval Office. Rice, a close Bush advisor and family friend, would not green light torture for the CIA and Pentagon without the president knowing about it and saying, in effect, “Sure, toss ‘em on the rack, Guru!” Guru was Bush’s nickname for Rice just as he called Vladimir Putin “Ostrich legs,” Colin Powell “balloon foot” and Karl Rove the now-infamous “turd blossom.”

It should be obvious by now that everyone connected with the Bush Administration was either a war criminal, a political hack, an incompetent or a fraud.

But evil by any other name is still evil.

Intriguing Debate

These new revelations, coming on the heels of last week’s release of additional Justice Dept. torture memos, is sparking an intriguing debate among Democrats and the left about how to proceed.

On one side is MoveOn, which released a new ad yesterday, demanding that Eric Holder appoint a special prosecutor:

On the other side is Elizabeth De La Vega, a former US prosecutor and the author of US v. George W. Bush et al. Yesterday, she wrote an article insisting that naming a special prosecutor now will only result in former Bush White House and administration officials who may want to go public with what they know to lawyer up and clam up. Anything they say publicly can and will be used against them. She repeated her argument last night on Countdown.

But the final word goes to Shepherd Smith. He came right out and used one of George Carlin's seven deadly word you cannot say on television on Fox News yesterday in summing up America using torture.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

UPDATE: Obama Does Not Rule Out Charges Over Interrogations

We may be having an impact. Reuters news service reports Pres. Obama left the door open on Tuesday to prosecuting some U.S. officials who laid the legal groundwork for harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects during the Bush administration.

Buring a question-and-answer session with reporters on Tuesday, he did not rule out charges against those who wrote the opinions justifying the methods used on captured terrorism suspects, which human rights groups call torture.

Stephen Hawking: The Man Who Changed Our Understanding Of Everything

Dr. Stephen J. Hawking, the author of A Brief History Of Time and The Universe In A Nutshell, and who is said to be very close to formulating a theory to explain everything in the universe, is "very ill" in hospital, according to Cambridge University where he’s taught mathematics since 1979. There was a hint last month that his health was failing when Arizona State University announced Hawking cancelled a planned April appearance.

If Hawking is near death, he will leave behind a remarkable legacy: He changed how we understand everything about the entire universe around us.

Despite being stricken with ALS – Lou Gerhig’s Disease – while still an undergrad, Hawking may be the most productive, prolific and profound mathematician of our time. During an era when much of science saw Einstein’s E=mc2 as a conclusion, Hawking’s singular genius came from realising it was merely a starting point. Over a 30 year span, this basic awareness allowed Hawking to demonstrate not just the truth of the “Big Bang” but why physics and mathematics compelled it to occur. So much for all of that crackpot “intelligent design” nonsense.

He also used his positively radical idea about Einstein to prove that gravity warps time and that time itself is curved. Hawking establish the reality of black holes and, by the way, why they provide rebirth after a couple hundred million years of destroying anything that comes close including gravity and light. His writings gave rise to “string theory,” which may end up being the proof of how and why everything that is, is.

Along the way, Hawking found time to write and narrate several television specials based on his theories. Next year, Discovery Channel will air Stephen Hawking's Universe, a three-part special exploring the nature of the cosmos.

For fun, he made cameo appearances in The Simpson’s and Star Trek: The Next Generation. One of my favourite Simpson episodes finds Homer stumbling through a time warp in Bart’s room and, when he falls out the other side, mutters to himself “Ooo, I wish I understood more about what that Stephen Hawking guy was writing about.”

Oh, and Hawking enabled me to reach a rudimentary understanding of the meaning of quantum mechanics, physics and higher mathematics. Since I never met the man, this is quite an accomplishment given that, despite intensive tutoring in eighth grade algebra, I still do not grasp why A+B must always equal C.

Not a bad list of accomplishments for a man who, for much of his life, was unable to move anything more than an eyelid and the energy inside his massively powerful brain.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Crazy Man Ahead: John Boehner Says He's Pro-Cow Farts

I’ve made no secret of my dislike of House majority leader John Boehner or his obstructionist approach to being a major voice of a minority party. But I always figured, what the hell, maybe there’s a method to his madness.

Well, there’s madness afoot alright but of a different sort.

“Man Tan” Boehner, one of the talking heads yesterday on This Week With George Stephanopoulos, was busy disputing more than 5,000 scientists on a global UN panel about climate change by insisting – despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary – there’s no evidence man is contributing to the destruction of the plant.

Here’s where the mad part comes in: Boehner uses cow farts to sniff out the truth for us:

Courtesy ABC News via Daily Kos

I’ll give you a moment to stop laughing and wipe the tears running down your cheeks.

This ranks right up there with another nincompoop, Ronald Reagan, insisting in 1981 trees are the Earth’s greatest cause of air pollution. Danger: Killer trees ahead!

In fact, John “Mad Man” or “Cow Fart” or “Man Tan” Boehner – I don’t know which nickname to stick with anymore – not only is goofy, he’s simply wrong. Wait: Why does this surprise me?

Among scientists who study both agriculture and the environment, methane and ammonia gas released into the atmosphere by cows is a major source of pollution. Not as great as cars or smokestacks but serious enough that both the Dept. of Agriculture and the EPA are studying the issue as is a subcommittee of the UN panel on climate change. Just as bad, methane also leaks into surface and ground water from cow pies, contaminating drinking water and causing people to die.

For example, as if Zimbabwe doesn’t have enough problems, methane and ammonia pollution runoff from its cattle herd is destroying countless sources of clean water in rural areas, according to a UN aid agency study.

Boehner might as well claim that cows aren’t causing thinning ice caps, either. After all, the Arctic cap is four or five feet less thick right now than they were a decade ago and who’s ever seen a cow at the North Pole?

John, please do us all a favour: Sit down and shut up.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Please Investigate War Crimes Now. Please.

The Obama administration is beginning to remind me of a woman I dated some years ago who developed a drinking problem. Not only did she refuse to admit having trouble, discussing her addiction was taboo, off-the-table, “it’s not up for discussion” and, once, even pleading with me, “Let’s just think about the future.”

But her alcohol problem grew worse and led directly to the end of our otherwise spectacular relationship.

Like my former girlfriend, The White House has a serious issue it won’t confront – not about drinking too much but about doing too little about the grievous and growing trouble brewing over not investigating likely war crimes committed by senior Bush Administration officials. And like my former Great Love, Pres. Obama will discover that avoiding the subject won’t make things go quietly into that bad night.

Easily Understood

The evidence grows almost daily that far too many senior Bush people are likely war criminals. They indicted themselves with their own written words.

One of the most chilling – and nauseating – facts revealed in the latest round of torture memo’s released by the Justice Dept. is that senior officials in the Bush White House and administration approved waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times in March 2003 and 83 times for Abu Zubaydah in August 2002. It is right there in black-and-white on page 37 of the May 30, 2005 memo from the DoJ’s Steven Bradbury to John Rizzo at the CIA, complete with parenthetical id and op cit references like some scholarly law review article.

Firedoglake did the math:

“Two two-hour sessions a day, with six applications of the waterboard each (equals) 12 applications in a day. Though to get up to the permitted 12 minutes of waterboarding in a day (with each use of the waterboard limited to 40 seconds), you'd need 18 applications in a day. Assuming you use the larger 18 applications in one 24-hour period, and do 18 applications on five days within a month, you've waterboarded 90 times – still just half of what they did to KSM.”

No wonder former attorney general Michael Mukasey and ex-CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden went all apeshit in The Wall Street Journal on Friday when Obama released the memos. The two men are complicit in committing at least 266 separate counts of war crimes. Nuremberg hung men for less.

(By the way, has anyone else noticed that opinion pages of the WSJ are sounding increasingly unhinged, reading more and more like Michelle Malkin and Anne Coulter but with better writing? Any day now, I expect to open the paper and find an Op-Ed piece from Glenn Beck.)

Like Dick Cheney before them, Hayden and Mukasey raise the bizarre “ticking time bomb” scenario that’s straight from a 24 script to claim Pres. Obama is “tying his own hands” in ruling out torture – excuse me, harsh interrogation techniques. But if their assertion is true, why did it take 183 trips to the waterboard in a single month to get what they claim is cooperation out of KSM – which, it turns out, was actually just a bunch of what intelligence analysts call “chicken feed” non-information that was either false or out-of-date?

And why is there an increasingly long line of former CIA and military interrogators coming forward to state unequivocally that torture in any form is the worst way to get reliable information from a captive?

Oh. And besides being ineffective, it is illegal in the United States and in every country that signed the Geneva Conventions.

All of this is easily understood by ordinary folks without law degrees. Why is it so hard for Pres. Obama to grasp?

Can’t Look Forward

Pres. Obama keeps talking about wanting to look forward. Fair enough. But as a semi-professional student of history – as every journalist must be – I know we cannot look forward without confronting, addressing and repairing the past, and taking concrete steps to ensure that what the loyal Bushies did never happens again in America.

I appreciate the political minefield Obama is trying to avoid. It’s very real and the fact that not a single Senate Republican will join Sen. Patrick Leahy’s repeated calls for a Congressional investigation shows what the administration is up against. But the president’s remarkable ability to explain bad things to good Americans ought to be brought to bear in bringing the country on-side. To hell with a GOP that puts party loyalty above the national good.

Sorry. I forgot I’m talking about Man Tan Boehner, Mumbles McConnell, Rush "Fatty Arbuckle" Lumbaugh and the entire Fox News line-up of anchor models and prime time buttheads. They put party first every day, on every issue.

I truly believe that Americans are smarter and wiser than The White House is giving us credit for at the moment. The President has an obligation to us and to the oath he swore in January. Doing so is his legal and moral obligation. State the facts. Lay out the justification. Appoint an independent prosecutor whose integrity is unquestioned, whose independence is well-established and whose fairness is well-known.

Please, Mr. President: Investigate war crimes now. Please.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Profile In Teabagging: A Welfare-Receiving Conservative Who Hates “Socialism” Hits The Streets

Thanks to the Syracuse Post-Standard we have a fascinating glimpse into the mind-set of tea baggers spurred into action last week by Fox News’ increasingly deranged secessionist Glenn Beck and yo-yo’s like CNBC’s Brooks Bros. populist Rick Santelli who flacked tea bagging to the point of embarrassment.

The Syracuse daily spotlighted a local organizer to give its readers a sense of who took to the streets. She turns out to be a 60-year old grandmother, Joanne Wilder, who paid no taxes in 2008 because her income was too low, receives a monthly Social Security cheque plus disability payments as a result of a knee operation, and went through personal bankruptcy in the past year.

And why did Wilder take to the streets?

“I don’t want to see this country turn into a welfare, nanny state, where we stand in line for groceries, and we’re in welfare lines, and in socialized medicine lines,” she told a reporter with a perfectly straight face. I wonder if Wilder can spell “cognitive dissonance.”

What can I say? For some, no explanation is necessary and for others it is impossible.

Add It Up

Joanne Wilder is no Susan Boyle, late of YouTube fame.

She and her motley crew of tea baggers in Syracuse and elsewhere couldn’t seem to find a unifying theme to their protest so it drew nanny state beneficiaries like Wilder decrying a nanny state along with racists still reeling from the thought of a black man as President, anti-immigration militants, folks with jobs opposing the stimulus to reduce the nation’s staggering unemployment and a few people holding placards protesting the use of teleprompters.


For the most part, what happened on April 15 was a turnout of bits of the 23% of Americans who don’t think Pres. Obama is doing a good job – and cling to the idea that Saddam Hussein helped plot 9/11.

(A side note to 9/11 conspiracy theorists: Just because I mentioned the attack, please do not post comments about how 9/11 was really a conspiracy led by Kraft Foods or Scientologists or The Knights of Malta or anyone else. They’ll be deleted. We know how 9/11 happened and you’re not adding anything to the discussion any longer, if you ever did.)

Cue Boehner

Positively licking his chops at the sight of a bunch of men and women tea bagging, House minority leader John “Man Tan” Boehner announced that the disenchanted lunatic fringe is the future of the Republican Party.

He told a news conference in Washington that the protestors are the new face of the GOP, confirming that his party not only is devoid of ideas but lacks any appeal whatsoever to the independent middle. The only thing missing at Boehner’s media opportunity was Eric “Ralph Wiggum” Cantor jumping up and down in the corner shouting over and over, “It’s Obama’s fault!”

In a way, Boehner and Joanne Wilder’s friends up in Syracuse or elsewhere in the country are made for each other.

They represent out-of-date ideas shared by a small minority of the country who cannot face the reality that America has moved upward and leftward, thanks to the past two elections. Boehner may share Wilder’s fears of grocery store lines – which already exist, at least in most markets on weekends – or welfare lines, which Wilder already stands in every month, or hospital lines which only means she’s never been to an emergency room.

In short, these purported protestors would prefer people go hungry over policies where the federal government keeps them from starving, more Bushville’s springing up in parking lots and fields around the country than providing assistance to people whose American dream went up in GOP smoke, or keep nearly 1/6th of the country from access to doctors or hospitals rather than adopting a national health plan like every other industrialised nation has had for decades.

I guess the one thing we all learned on National Tea Bagger Day is that, like village idiots, the deranged we shall always have with us.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The NRA Are Terrorists, Awash In The Blood Of Innocents

A short, disturbing yet funny, anecdote to illustrate the point I’m about to make.

About a year ago, a friend who teaches at the University of Toronto and I met for an after-work drink at the rooftop bar at the Park Hyatt Regency Hotel. A Toronto landmark, the bar’s mahogany panels frame large windows looking south to the skyline of the financial district and Lake Ontario beyond.

As we sat enjoying single malt scotches, a trio of men wearing cowboy hats, string ties and western-style suits came in and sat near us. They’d just arrived by car from Montana and came to the bar for a drink while their wives went shopping. As their drinks arrived, one asked another, “Just wondering? Did you bring your gun? I did.”

My friend looked up to ask, “Did you say you brought handguns into Canada? Don’t you know they’re illegal up here?”

One gulped down his beer before replying with a sneer, “So what? I’m an American, mister, and I don’t go nowhere without my gun.”

Not wanting to tangle with three liquor-drinking, pistol-packing Pete’s, my pal let it drop. Moments later while waiting for the elevator, my friend used a payphone to call the police. By the time we hit the street, three squad cars and the SWAT team were arriving. Our guess is that the Montanan’s spent the night in custody before being escorted to the border the next day.

Guns Kill People

The attitude of the Montanan’s is pervasive in the US even as Thursday marked the anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre. As awful as the 32 deaths were, in the past month alone nearly 60 people – almost double the number of Virginia deaths – were killed in the US by gunfire and the count keeps rising. The total includes four police officers and, as a former San Francisco police chief once told me, “Somebody who’ll kill a cop will gun down anybody.”

But the death toll of 57 in America is swamped by the number of people – men, women, children, police, soldiers, gangsters and mostly innocents – killed over the same time in Mexico’s ugly drug wars. Many of the victims were murdered by handguns and assault rifles purchased in the US and smuggled across the border.

While in Mexico, Pres. Obama told an audience that he recognises the US is partially responsible for the killing fields to our south. Both our desire for dope and the ease with which anyone can sell murderous weapons like assault rifles and RPGs to total strangers are as much a part of the on-going massacre as is corruption in Mexico.

And yet the NRA and its apologists continue to blithely whistle “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” True – but without easy access guns-as-toys nobody would be killing anyone.

The fact is that the NRA is almost solely responsible for the ease with which weapons can be sold, bought and used in America. As a result, it is nothing less than a terrorist organisation, enabling killings of innocent victims and whose very soul is awash in blood.

Self-De… What?

If I hadn’t heard it myself, I would not believe someone capable of muttering this nonsense on national television in the 21st century.

Robert Levy, chairman of the Cato Institute which is a conservative think tank filled with people who long for the 19th century, appeared Thursday on the PBS NewsHour defending so-called gun rights.

In a discussion following a piece on the murder spree loose in the land, Levy told reporter Judy Woodfruff that “… conspicuously missing from the reporting is all of the crimes that (are) deterred because the would-be assailants suspected that their would-be victims might be armed. Guns are used for self-defence.”

Being a curious sort, I decided to check Levy’s claim. He won’t like what I found.

According to FBI and Justice Dept. sources, in 2007 “self defence” claims were used by people charged with crimes involving a shooting in more than 5,000 cases nationwide, including murders and felony assault with a deadly weapon. Courts agreed the defendants – are you sitting down –acted in self-defence fewer than 250 times. In other words, of the known 5,000 cases, at least 4,750 shootings had nothing to do with self-defence. Only a terrorist organisation would be as sanguine about rampant murder of innocent Americans as Levy and his cronies at the Cato Institute and NRA.

Mr. Levy’s ears are even larger than Barack Obama’s so I hope he doesn’t trip over them as he swings around to face reality – if facing reality is possible for people like Robert Levy.

West Of The Pecos

Meanwhile, the gun lobby continues terrifying Congress so re-instating the ban on semi-automatic weapons is, excuse me, a dead issue.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a hunter or target shooter. I’ve never done that silly Olympic winter sport where you ski for a while and then shoot a rifle before skiing again. But I can understand why some individuals find target shooting an interesting pastime.

That said, I cannot understand any rationale for keeping a gun in the house. Even police warn that bringing out a gun during a crime is more likely to get the victim killed than the perp. But Clarence Thomas joined with four other extreme conservatives on the Supremes in striking down Washington D.C.’s handgun ban so we’re all free to buy a gun because he and his not-so-learned brethren conveniently ignored the archaic punctuation common in 1789 and based their entire ruling on where comma’s happened to fall. That twisted reasoning – and faulty grammar – is why they concluded the 2nd Amendment gives everyone the right to pack heat.

But there are a couple of options.

First, ban the sale of ammunition except at gun clubs and licensed hunting facilities. Second, require registration for all weapons with a 10 day cooling off period between making application for a gun permit and walking out the door. Third, require all guns to be kept locked at licensed gun, target and shooting clubs. And fourth, enact laws prohibiting any old goofball from selling any other old goofball a gun from the trunk of his car.

And every time you see an NRA member, remind them they belong to a terrorist organisation that has the blood of tens of thousands of Americans and Mexicans on their hands.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Neocon Dick Armitage: “I Should Have Resigned.”

Guess who’s contritely telling al-Jazeera he should have resigned from his senior State Dept. post when he and Colin Powell lost their battle with Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, John Ashcroft and Don Rumsfeld over observing the Geneva Conventions in America’s two wars, one illegal and the other totally botched?

Yup, it is that ol’ neo-con himself, Richard Armitage. He’s suddenly saying he “could-a, would-a, should-a” quit over inconsequential trivialities such as Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, torture, waterboarding, denial of due process, and the litany of Bush era crimes. Poor Dick forgets that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Armitage’s new-found bout of the regrets comes just past the two minute mark of the interview.

Did you notice how Armitage rationalises his way around his decision to stay in office, echoing boss Colin Powell’s own, not-quite-fully-remorseful, statements about Iraq and torture. He, and Powell, use the same defence as Dr. Ernst Janning in Judgement at Nuremberg: They hung on for fear of how bad policy might get if they were not there to fight other battles.

The argument is no more than disingenuous truth fudging.

The problem is, there were no other “battles” worth fighting because Cheney always won, wiping the floor with Powell and Armitage as he did. Uhm, hold on there Dickie A: Do you remember Powell’s speech to the UN about Iraq’s WMDs? Didn’t win that one either, did you, yet you stuck around for another two-plus years to work your magic on the world.

In actuality, Armitage is just another loyal Bushie hack trying to rewrite history – like all of his fellow friends formerly in high places.

Flimsy Fudging

Armitage doggedly refuses to call for prosecuting war criminals, actually having the audacity to say he agrees with Pres. Obama that the nation should look forward rather that going after “retribution” for past misdeeds. Whenever Dick Armitage is nodding in agreement with Barack Obama, it’s time for the president to re-think his position. Quickly and seriously.

Worse, Armitage tries ducking blame for his role in torture by lumping the US Senate in with the other Bush Administration war criminals, calling its members “AWOL” on the issue. They were, but someone should remind Armitage and other senior people in Bushland that two wrongs do not make a right.

Anyway, Juan Cole (www.juancole.org) and I agree that Armitage is treading a narrow line, implying at least some Democratic leaders in the House and Senate knew about waterboarding and other medieval torture techniques inflicted on prisoners of war by The White House. So, Armitage seems to be saying, they won’t launch a war crimes prosecution because their hands are almost as dirty as The Gang of Ten inside the administration.

Meanwhile, let’s not forget a few facts about Richard Armitage.

He was heavily involved in the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan Administration. Along with Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, he was one of three administration officials who outed Valerie Plame’s to reporters, vindictively punishing her because her husband, Amb. Joe Wilson, was the first to publicly pull the rug out from under Bush’s Iraq war justification. And he’s the same man who warned Pakistan in 2001 that it would be “bombed back into the Stone Age” if it didn’t cooperate with the US invasion of Afghanistan.

It’s a little late for contrition, Mr. Armitage.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Amazon Steps In It Big Time, Can’t Get The Sh*t Off Its Shoes

For years, Amazon.com has been a flawless on-line marketer.

It has an easy-to-navigate website, the search function is intuitive and fast, products are almost always in stock, lower price alternatives are displayed, targeted recommendations for additional purchases show up when customers buy a book, shipping is reliable and problems get resolved quickly. As a result, its public image, media perception and customer loyalty keeps it a case study on how to promote and run an internet business.

Until this past weekend, that is.

That’s when, somehow, Amazon stopped ranking books with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered themes along with those titles dealing with issues involving disabled people. So, every titillating book with a gay theme got booted along with a title by Ellen Degeneris and critically acclaimed fiction like Brokeback Mountain got dropped from the rankings.

Customer rankings are important at Amazon because, like the New York Times best seller list, highly ranked titles get purchased more frequently.

But in trying to deal with the problem and assuage GLBTG and handicapped customers, Amazon stepped in it big time and now it can’t get the crapola off of its shoes.

2009 Problem, 1979 Response

When members of social networking sites began spreading word about what was happening at Amazon, news spread like wildfire. The web was all a-twitter – pun intended – with people wondering what lay behind the retailer’s action.

Rather than dealing with the public’s questions and concerns in a straightforward, honest manner, Amazon began tap-dancing like an AIG executive caught not returning a multi-million dollar bonus for wrecking the economy.

First, Amazon refused to respond. When it did, it blamed a computer glitch. Now, a spokeswoman for the book seller tells The Toronto Star the problem came from a cataloguing error. Along the way, the bookseller actually tried blaming the French. That’s not a misprint; like Iraq war zealots in 2003, The Star quotes Amazon as saying it’s all the fault of the French.

So, I suppose from now on Amazon will sell Freedom Postcards.

The French? Is Amazon serious? As Deanna Zandt wryly observes at DeannaZandt.com, this is like the pimply-faced, gawky and awkward high school kid who can’t take gym class and never talks to anyone insisting he has a girlfriend “but she lives in France” to explain why no one ever clapped eyes on her.

The fact is that, when faced with a serious PR predicament for the first time in its corporate life, Amazon’s strategy to deal with a 2009 problem is to use a 1979 response. It also shows why, no matter how “kewl” a corporate behemoth tries to act, under the pounding iPod, stylish jeans and brand new Nike’s beats the heart of just another John Thain type.

Don't Never Do This

Like the GOP hiring Michael Steele as its chairman so it would have a hip African-American just like Pres. Obama, Amazon misses entirely what is going on around it where everybody else lives. The genius at internet book selling turned into an inter-tube idiot that came across like its PR was being run by former Sen. Ted “It’s A Series of Tubes” Stevens in reacting to the uproar coursing through an educated, well-off, tech-savvy segment of its book buying public. In short, Amazon appears as if it doesn’t have a clue how the on-line world changed since launching its first website about 100 lifetimes ago – at least as measured in web time.

For openers, the web is instantaneous and truth moves faster than fiction. Worse, by not actively getting in front of the fiction, it becomes almost impossible to have the truth heard.

Moreover, users of social networking sites such as MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter and the others just don’t care what a high-powered PR firm says in a news release. Amazon turned to their suede shoe advisors for help but it used the wrong people at the wrong time. People don’t believe flacks and they especially don’t believe statements when a company under fire trots out some stentorian “authority figure” for a 90-second sound bite on YouTube in an effort to wash over the problem.

Amazon ended up winging it as things spiralled out of control and it is still trying to repair the harm it inflicted on itself.

As it turns out, Amazon’s customers are a lot savvier than the people in the company’s corner offices or its high priced media relations pro’s. They never grasped the new reality: When a 900-pound gorilla trips, it falls with a thud heard throughout the jungle. From a case study on how to be an on-line retailer, in less than seven days Amazon became a case study on how not to deal with a crisis.

Which may be why, if all else fails, Amazon figures it can blame the French.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

White House Media Pack Goes Diddley Over Bo

As Cesar Millan, the world’s best known dog whisperer, often reminds people with problem pooches, “a dog doesn’t know or care if it lives in a shack or The White House.”

But don’t try telling this to The Washington Post, AP, New York Times and the rest of the media pack that refuses to stay calm and relaxed over weekend rumours that the new First Puppy – a Portuguese water dog named Bo – arrives Tuesday. Their insecurity turned them into yipping, tail-chasing creatures, each trying to become pack leader.

Sunday’s Times covers the story as if it involves a huge national security leak, picking up an AP lead and quoting a “White House official speaking on the condition of anonymity ...”

Wait. Hold it right there.

Policies at both the wire service and the newspaper on using anonymous sources specifically states that doing so is limited to situations involving major news only when the news could not have been learned in any other way. I’m not sure a new puppy meets the guidelines. But Michelle Obama had given the Post “exclusive” rights to the story so everyone else was left fighting over scraps like junk yard dogs.

Apparently, this means anonymous source policies are discretionary. After all, news of a puppy is involved.

The Whole Poop

The Post reveals that the dog is named Bo, gushing “let it be noted that you learned that here first.” It even has a poll, asking readers if they think a photo accompanying the story is of the real pooch.

The Sunday Times does the Post one better, breathlessly providing the genealogy of the dog’s name.

“Obama's daughters chose the name Bo for the pup because first lady Michelle Obama’s father was nicknamed Diddley,” a premier blues and rock musician of the 1950s. The name makes sense, especially given how close the Obama daughters are to Michelle’s family. It’s certainly as rational as my naming our family’s first dog Tarzan because I wanted him to grow up to be strong; I was about Sasha Obama’s age when I named the German Boxer who graciously allowed us to live with him for the rest of his life.

But not content with a simple statement, the Times goes on to explain helpfully for any reader with no knowledge of music whatsoever that “The name for the dog was an apparent reference to the singer ‘Bo’ Diddley.”

Thank you very much. I think we figured that out on our own.

Meanwhile, the web went wild yesterday reporting rumours and displaying photos. Word spread from www.firstdogcharlie.com to www.tmz.com and from there around the world.

A Bigger Story

There is a larger, more important, issue at stake here.

As a lifelong dog owner and journalist, I truly understand and empathise with the human interest value of covering two adorable kids who happen to live in The White House getting a new puppy. It sells newspapers and magazines, and boosts cable news ratings, at a time when drawing every possible reader and viewer counts more than ever. But, as a reporter, I also worry about priorities.

While newsworthy in itself, The Puppy Chronicles – an ongoing story since the primaries – also highlight how distorted the priorities of American journalism has become.

While photographers are dispatched and reporters are assigned to cover Bo, what other stories are not being covered? Stories such as despite the fact that the Dow rose somewhat in recent weeks, it does not mean the recession is over despite what CNBC’s Jim Kramer now proclaims with as much credibility as when he was touting Lehman Bros. just days before it tanked. Or stories about how Larry Summers was receiving consulting fees from hedge funds while he was president of Harvard University or lush speaking fees from Merrill Lynch during the transition, and how this may well be colouring the advice he’s giving the president about re-regulating the financial sector.

Even though sectarian violence keeps creeping up in Iraq and American casualties are rising in Afghanistan, the networks and most major media outlets have skeletal staffs in the war zones. Shrinking newsroom staffs at local newspapers and broadcasters means scant coverage is being given to the growing desperation and anxiety of ordinary people across the country left hopeless as the recession deepens – people who cannot feed themselves without help, let alone a puppy.

If only the Times and other news outlets had shown the same relentless digging and investigative prowess over WMD’s and “mushroom clouds” in covering pre-invasion Iraq, more than 4,000 young Americans and a half-million Iraqi’s still would be alive. As The Dog Whisperer himself might have said, “They could have provided stability if one had been calm and assertive, acting like a pack leader.”

Meanwhile, I wonder if the nation’s pack leader, Barack, and his family will bring in Cesar Millan so they know how to use exercise, discipline and affection to keep Bo from chewing on a leg of Lincoln’s bed.

- - - - -

<< BO WATCH UPDATE >> Apparently, Bo is already at home with the Obama's. He will be introduced to reporters on Tuesday afternoon when, it is hoped, the dog will lift his leg to pee on Fox News White House correspondent Mike Emanuel's shoes.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Easter Reflections On A “Christian Nation”

Depending on your point of view, this is either the perfect time to reflect on the United States not being a Christian nation – as the evangelical right and even many ordinary Protestants and Catholics insist it is – or a total sacrilege. My hunch is that most readers here believe in the former so there’s little risk of being crucified for writing this on Easter weekend.

Last week in Turkey, Pres. Obama reminded both the world and his fellow Americans of our non-denominational heritage to explain why America is not at war with Islam. In doing so, he was reaching back to principles dating from the very settlement of the country, a concept established long before there was a United States and its remarkable Constitutional guarantee of freedom of (and from) religion. This single, revolutionary idea even pre-dates the Declaration of Independence and defines the nation as much as anything else.

Indeed, as anyone who remembers eighth grade history knows, Rhode Island was created as a sanctuary from religious intolerance. So ingrained and unheard of was this in the 1600s that 15 Jewish families made the perilous crossing from Europe in a tiny boat to flee persecution and founded the first synagogue in the “new world.” The Hebrew Congregation of Newport is still going strong, one of the oldest, continuously operating, houses of worship in the land.

Yet, somehow, evangelical fringe artists and far right Republicans – cheered on by noxious crazies Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, other assorted if less famous wacko’s and countless goofball websites – got it in its head that the US is a “Christian nation.”

It’s remarkable so many Americans have so little grasp of a premise so basic to their nation.

Jefferson The Radical

As America’s foremost early thinker, Thomas Jefferson believed in a kind of God but only to the extent that a god may have given man a complex brain to use for independent thought. But he had no use at all for the idea of Jesus, a supposed saviour born to a virgin as the son of God, a human who walked on water, fed the 5,000 and performed miracles left and right. The resurrection? To Jefferson, the whole idea was poppycock, a silly fairy tale created by Christian lunatics promoting their imaginary friend, as TV’s House puts it.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson outlines his radical view that produced the "Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom," enacted years before he wrote the Constitution: "(I)t does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

Hardly the intellectual basis for a Christian nation from one of the key men responsible for creating America.

A Core Right

Thus, Jefferson created a core right – along with speech, press, assembly and protest – to not just worship any way or no way a person wants but banning a state religion, de rigueur at the time in Europe even during the Age of Enlightenment. For example, Jefferson knew that the Church of England was created as a state religion solely because Henry VIII was furious at the Catholic Church for preventing him from divorcing one of his wives. It’s why heirs to the British crown are still barred from marrying a Catholic.

Jefferson wanted none of this religious phooey to infect the new nation.

Although a devoutly believing Anglican, George Washington fully agreed with Jefferson. At one point, members of Rhode Island’s Hebrew Congregation wrote the new president, pleading that they be considered citizens of the nation and not just tolerated.

Washington wrote back, “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”

The synagogue’s rabbi must have been stunned as he read Washington’s letter. For 5,000 years, Jews were persecuted and here was Washington welcoming them as citizens. The congregation still proudly displays the letter behind glass, its paper yellowing and the brown ink Washington used fading with age. But the words keep ringing out loudly and clearly: The United States is not a Christian nation.

But try telling this to O’Reilly and his feigned “War on Christmas.” Explain to Limbaugh that Christianity is as important to America as Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, Hottentots, atheism and worshipping trees if that’s what you want to do. Each creates an American nation. Watch Beck fake another bout of weeping when he hears that a Founding Father thought the Jesus story was dreamed up by pranksters. And if, as George Carlin believed, at death your soul goes to a garage in Buffalo, then America is also a nation of mini-warehouses stocked full of used souls somewhere in upstate New York.

Christian nation my ass.

Evangelical's Business Roots

For that matter, Christian fundamentalism is no more a part of America’s founding that any other religion despite what the Mega Church millionaire pastors preach.

The rise of evangelicalism in America was a shrewd, calculated business ploy by coal mine owners after World War I. They didn’t give much of a hoot about Christianity one way or the other but had a deep, abiding belief in stopping coal miners from drinking because it affected their work. By chance, the owners stumbled upon a teatotalling, charismatic, unordained preacher named Billy Sunday who they paid handsomely to wander through Appalachian towns, fervently sermonising against demon rum, philandering and straying from the word of the gospel.

Nearly every miner was a devout Protestant anyway so Rev. Sunday tapped easily into their belief system. And it paid off just as mining company owners hoped: While men weren’t keen about giving up whiskey and whores, their wives grabbed onto the idea and became apostates armed with brooms and frying pans. So, alcoholism among miners slowly declined as did venereal disease transmitted by the prostitutes who lurked around every mining town on pay day.

As evangelicalism took root among Protestants, it steered well clear of politics until cable television became widespread in American homes, allowing Pat Robertson & Friends, Inc., easy access to an audience – and gobs of money from unsuspecting believers – to spread their often-hate filled views of an “us and them” America.

And with the rise of media churchiness came the bizarre perversion of the US being a “Christian nation.” Now we are stuck with the ill-informed fringe claiming it to be fact.

Happy Easter, Shana Tova, Whatever.

Personally, I have no issue with anyone believing or not what they choose. My own religious upbringing was something of a hybrid, the result of a mother who had no religion herself but wanted to ensure her two children learned that how someone prayed or didn’t had nothing to do with who they are as people.

Both as an American and an individual, foisting a “Christian nation” idea on a country - and me - founded on anything but is thoroughly repugnant. A Christian nation? That’s an idea that, at its core, arose from the business-backed temperance movement of the early 20th century. If you want to believe Jesus was the son of God born to a virgin, good for you; if you think your religious friends are wasting their time talking to an imaginary friend, good for you, too.

But please stop telling me America is a Christian – or Hebrew or Moslem or Hindu or anything else religious – nation.

We are a nation of laws, of people, and of the freedom to think and practice whatever we like. But we are not a Christian nation that believes, institutionally, that Jesus Is Magic as Sarah Silverman once proclaimed. That said, Happy Easter, Shana Tova, Good Eid, a Wicked Wican Wonderland, a Portentous Pagan Picnic, or whatever else might be appropriate for you and yours this weekend.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

An Open E-Mail To Pres. Obama On State Secrets And Illegal Wiretaps

After thinking about Attorney General Eric Holder’s unfathomable court filing defending the Bush-wacked “states secret” defence and a claim of “sovereign immunity” in lawsuits involving illegal wiretapping, I sent this e-mail to The White House.

TO: President Barack Obama
FROM: Charley James
DATE: April 8, 2009
SUBJECT: Where Did Change To Believe In Go?

Dear Mr. President,

I’ve admired you since your speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, was ecstatic when you announced your candidacy in 2007, and supported you with time, money, volunteering and enthusiasm ever since. When you won on Election Night, I sat in front of the television watching you speak at Grant Park and cried. When you were inaugurated, I cried again. They were tears of joy, relief, renewal and, well, hope.

After eight dark years of turning the American body politic into an open, festering, oozing sore, George Bush and Dick Cheney finally were history. In their place stood a man who promised to heal and renew America, and all who sail in her.

Your first two-plus months have gone so well.

The stimulus package will put us back to work, a budget that offers a grand design for an America that reinvents itself yet again, closing Guantanamo and promising no more torture, a start on universal healthcare, an energy policy that finally stops the US from destroying the earth, a reality-based Middle East policy, your stupendous reception in Europe began restoring the nation’s standing in the world, and you resolved seemingly-intractable differences between governments rather than bullying them.

Then, for some reason, this week Eric Holder started channelling David Addington, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Alberto Gonzales and Michael Mukasey all at once by going into federal court to try blocking a civil suit against the government over its illegal wiretapping during the Bush years. Rather than argue the merits, Mr. Holder trotted out the Bushian notion of everything being a “secret of state” – the phrase itself conjures up memories of the KGB and basement cells in the Lubyanka – even though all of the details and nuances of the actions prompting the lawsuit have been in the public record for years.

Even worse, Mr. Holder is claiming an archaic right of ancient Crown heads to “sovereign immunity,” asserting the government cannot be sued by its citizens when fundamental civil liberties are trampled or ignored.

Mr. President, when you campaigned you promised to put “state secrets” and all of the rest of these Bush perverions in the past. You promised to end secrecy and restore civil liberties. You promised transparency in government.

Sir, I’m not suggesting that you order the CIA and NSA to open their files to anyone who wants to drop by for a peek or to take a few documents with them to Starbucks for quick read (as interesting as the material might be). But I am very disappointed that you’re allowing your Justice Dept. to fall back on legal concepts espoused by the DoJ's previous, highly contaminated, mismanagement. The “state secret” argument did not hold water in the past and its position is even worse when argued in court by your administration.

Beyond this, Mr. President, it is all but unheard of in our history for the United States to claim “sovereign immunity” from a lawsuit filed by a citizen. As a legal concept, it is so broad and sweeping that it effectively removes the right of anyone to challenge anything the government did, does or might do. I cannot understand how a Constitutional scholar, a man who tutored young law school students in the framework of our government, could even consider invoking such a privilege. It smacks of The Divine Right of Kings and Papal Infallibility, and has no place in a Republic founded on the bedrock of Constitutional government.

Sir, please instruct your Attorney General to reconsider Tuesday’s filing before he goes too far down a road that George Bush roughed out but dared not pave. You offered us hope for change and we, all Americans, took you at your word. Please do not disappoint and disillusion us.

Respectfully yours,
Charley James

When – if – I hear back from The White House, I’ll let you know what I’m told.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

It Is As Bad As The 1930s

So much for the Republican chant of “stimulus is bad” and “we need a balanced budget.”

Nobel Prize winning columnist Paul Krugman points out on his New York Times blog today that the world economy right now is more or less at the point John Maynard Keynes described in his essay The Great Slump of 1930.

Krugman goes on to warn that the only thing standing between us and Great Depression II is Barack Obama and Paul Bernanke understanding what made things so bad between the 1929 market crash and 1933: No economic stimulus to boost demand.

Somehow, the Republican Party still doesn’t grasp this and keeps yammering about cutting government spending to balance the budget. It’s what the party-s no budget budget called for last week. Uhm, that’s what Herbert Hoover did. Not only did he create a global economic, social and political disaster but resulted in GOP House and Senate candidates being all but unelectable for 50 years.

Oh, and besides this, Hoover’s Republican-endorsed policies not only created the Depression but also led directly to the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Second World War. Let’s live that all over again. Somebody ought to remind John "Man Tan" Boehner, Eric “Ralph Wiggum” Cantor, Mitch "Mumbles" McConnell and the so-called “ConservaDems” of this small yet seemingly meaningful historical fact.

Hey, Sen. Bayh: Are you reading Dr. Krugman?


Tent cities called “Bushville’s” are already cropping up all over America, a 21st century version of the Depression’s Hoovervilles. The cry from Miseryville is “I need work, not tax cuts.

For 15 years, I’ve raised money and volunteered at a Toronto food bank. Over the past six months, I’ve watched the lines on handout morning grow from 15 or 20 families at a time to lines that sometimes stretch out the door. Yet, so far, the full fury of the recession’s hurricane hasn’t hit Canada and I wanted a sense of what it is like in the eye of the storm. So, recently, I scooted across the border with a friend to spend time helping at a food pantry in a hard hit, mid-size town in upstate New York.

Crossing into the United States for the first time since the Supreme Court stole the presidency for George W. Bush in 2001 seemed odd.

As a small, private protest, I vowed not to enter the US until after he left town and that damnable lizard-lipped lying bastard of a semi-literate, incoherent freak show passing himself off as a drug store cowboy hung around until the last possible moment. Now that he’s back in Texas, my protest is over but my fervent hope is that he fears every knock on his door, worrying whether if he opens it a pair of hulking men in dark suits from the International Criminal Court is about to haul him off in irons to The Hague.

I have no idea what to expect as we pull into the booth just across the bridge.

From what others who enter the US regularly tell me, I could expect to be greeted with the same cold, unblinking suspicion as someone named bin Laden. But being white still counts for something at a border crossing: We’re less threatening to the granite faced ICE stazi on duty than people whose skin is of a darker hue. After asking where we came from, we answer “Toronto” but pronounce it “Tah-rahn’-ta” – something a retired customs inspector once told me is a cue for spotting a genuine Canadian except everyone I know here says “Tor-ohn-toh” – we are waved through. If I’d been asked, I had decided to pass myself off as Canadian so I wouldn’t be asked a lot of stupid questions about why I stayed away for so many years.

Some 30 minutes later, we arrive at the pantry.

Food Bank Crowds

Going inside and finding a coordinator – I knew she was in charge of something because she carried a clip board – we are put to work behind the front counter where people line up for their allotment. As the recession's victims approach meekly, it is heartbreakingly easy to see the embarrassment and fear on the faces of people asking for help – most for the first time in their life.

The men, women, even the children they bring along, look dazed and frightened as if they have no idea what happened to what was their American dream life only a few months ago. Their hollow, blank expressions tell stories of hope squashed, plans demolished, futures fogged.

"I used to donate money and time to help this place," Jennie, a mid-30s single mother with two children in tow, tells me sorrowfully. Like other people I speak with, she asks that her last name not be used. "This is embarrassing enough. I never thought I'd end up this side of a bread line.

"Three months ago, I was earning $72,000 and was proud of what I'd achieved with my life," she goes on as other volunteers fill her order. But she lost her job as a senior financial analyst at a bank 25 miles away in one of its many cutbacks. "Now, well, I don't know what to think any more. I don’t know what to do."

Her voice trails off sadly as she takes her three large bags of groceries and turns away.

GOP: Spend A Day Here

As I was helping another person who reaches the counter after a 90 minute wait in line, he grumbles, "I wish the Republicans who voted against the stimulus had to spend a day here watching this."

Ben is 46, married with three children and whose elderly mother lives with his family. His wife was laid off in July, 2008, and he was fired outright when his employer filed for bankruptcy and shut down just before Christmas when the company’s bank pulled a line of credit from the business.

“So much for the bailout,” Ben said dejectedly.

As he waits for his food, I ask about his former employer. It was family-owned and provided jobs for 43 people. It had made parts for small engines since World War II. He assumes it was profitable – “We got a nice Christmas bonus every year and they never missed paying into our 401(k) plan” – and was at a loss to understand why a bank would put it out of business overnight.

“I didn’t like the idea of helping banks to begin with but Bush and the bankers said it would open up credit. Bullshit,” he exclaimed.

"So then Obama takes office and the GOP starts screaming for tax cuts. How the fuck will a tax cut feed my family? I need work, man, not tax cuts. I don't have any income to tax," Ben says, his voice rising in anger.

"What fucking idiots!" Ben exclaims. He ruefully shakes his head as he shakes my hand while thanking me for helping him. I feel I should thank him for letting me witness the human results of the inhumanity of Congressional Republicans.

One after another the hapless hungry shuffle to the counter, figures frozen in what should be another time in another nation. How can the United States of America have so many people who need food handouts? When the stock room runs out of peanut butter, it also runs out of its major source of protein for the pantry’s clients. “We won’t get any more now until next week,” another volunteer tells me quietly. “Some folks are gonna go hungry.”


It becomes so overwhelming I take a break and my friend Judy drives me around the once-prosperous industrial town. Half the store fronts along the main drag are dark and ubiquitous “for rent” signs tell a sorry tale of poverty. Last year at this time, there were three factories providing jobs, benefits and the promise of a future to thousands. Now, one plant has shuttered entirely, one cut back to a single shift and the third hopes workers will reduce their hours voluntarily so the company won’t have to lay people off.

We drive on.

On a residential street with 11 homes, three are for sale; four more have foreclosure signs in front and two look as if they was abandoned ages ago. Unshovelled snow and trash fill the adjoining front yards, and the first floor windows at both homes are boarded up. An old car sits in a driveway, stripped of everything but its frame and body. Even though the sun is shining, the street has a black-and-white feel to it and the scene reminds me of a Dorthea Lange WPA photograph from the 1930s.

“People lived there,” I remark as we drive slowly past the empty pair of houses. “People with kids who played in the yard, couples who fought and shared morning coffee and went bowling with friends and had sex. Wonder where they ended up?”

Judy shrugs and swings her eight year old Mazda around a corner, heading back to the pantry.

“Some moved in with relatives,” she says finally, lighting a cigarette while grinding through the gears. I try not to notice that she’s steering with her knees as we hit 35 miles an hour. “Some moved away. Some are in shelters and a lot of them are living over there.”

She points to a parking lot in front of an abandoned warehouse or factory. A decrepit array of pick-ups, sedans, a two door “sport coupe,” one mini-van, one tricked out SUV and even an ancient AirStream trailer are parked, none close to the others for some reason; it’s as if the people can’t stand sharing their shame of living this way. It’s a neighbourhood of throwaway people living on blacktop plots with rubber wheels creating makeshift foundations for rollaway homes.

“Why here?” I wonder aloud as our car slows to a crawl and then stops.

“No place else to go and no money for gas to get there,” comes Judy’s heart-rending reply. “When you’re living in a car in a parking lot, you’ve pretty much run out of options.”

It strikes me that as Pres. Obama goes around the country promoting the stimulus package, besides showing up at auditoriums with perfect sound systems, he should stop his motorcade unannounced at a place like this to talk directly with people most hurt by George Bush and the Republican Party. They’re easy enough to find; damn near every city in America has at least one or two. Back in 1967 or 1968, Bobby Kennedy made a spontaneous tour of tarpaper shacks in Appalachia and his mere presence not only spotlighted the shocking and largely hidden problem of poverty in America, but gave hope to tens of thousands of people. Obama could do the same thing because none of these people are likely to have little, if any, idea of what he’s trying to do to help.

Or how Congressional Republicans keep trying to bushwhack him – an intended play on words – with failed ideas, faulty economics, fried history and foolishly pompous prancing.

Sleeping In Cars

I think about walking over to talk to the people squatting in the lot. I want to know their stories but I don’t want to intrude, to be seen as a traveller from another planet staring down on their life in Miseryville USA. Yet our car is parked across the street and is noticed: We’re now getting suspicious looks from a few residents of Blacktop Flats. Two men start walking towards us and I get out of the car, telling Judy to stay where she is.

As we approach each other, I see that they both look like what Frank Rich described as “beefy, beer-drinking, deer-hunting white guys incessantly interviewed in bars and diners” during the campaign who pundits kept insisting would never vote for a skinny black man. I wave and stick a smile on my face as I shout “Hi!” across the lot.

“Hey” one calls back and returns my wave. “You a cop?”

“No, a writer,” I say.

Both stop and eye me with a mixture of disbelief and mistrust. “A writer?” the other one calls out. “What the hell are you doing here? Nothing to write about.”

I keep approaching the pair, slowly with what I hope is a nonchalant and non-threatening slouch, the smile still on my face. I stick out a hand to greet them. “I’m Charley James.”

“Dwayne,” the one on the right says, shaking my hand. “But they call me ‘Race.’”

“Tony,” the other man chimes in, also shaking my hand and adding with a smile, “They call me Tony.”

“So, like, what the fuck is there to write about here?” Race asks. “I mean, like this is no place.”

“That’s not true. This place is America,” I reply, hoping I don’t sound idiotic or worse. “I’m writing about how people are dealing with the recession.”

“Shit,” Tony snorts. “’Dealing with the recession?’ Me and my girlfriend are sleeping in a banged-up truck with no heat, it is winter and cold and you wanna know how we’re ‘dealing with the recession.’ How the fuck do you think we’re dealing with it?”

“That’s what I want to find out.” The sentence just sort of hangs in the air. After a long moment, I look around the lot and ask, “How many people live here?”

Race and Tony glance at each other. Tony sort of shrugs and tells me there are about 15, give or take. Race nods in agreement, chiming in with, “They come and go. Here for a few days then no one sees them again.”

Tony and his girlfriend has been here the longest: Nearly three months, since before Christmas. Citibank repossessed his house in early December. He crashed with friends for a few weeks but then they lost their place, too, so he tossed his clothes in the trunk and moved into his car.

Tony is stocky but solid-looking. I guess he’s somewhere around 40 but it’s hard to tell. His face and hands are caked with grime, a by-product of living rough and having limited access to basics such as showers. But his eyes are intense, a deep blue and they keep sweeping our surroundings as he speaks. Tony informs me that his girlfriend Sandy joined him right after New Years, two months after losing her job and right after being evicted from her apartment.

“When you work shift you don’t get much chance to save money,” he says, over-stating the obvious. “But we was getting by alright.”

“I used to see ads about building a nest, a cushion,” the quieter Race interjects. “Shit, even when I was working full-time the only cushion I had was on my sofa.”

Goodbye Blue Collars

Race says he’s 51 and is trained to work a lathe and a machine press. “The lathe job I had for six years got outsourced to some fucking place like Vietnam two years ago. I fought in goddamned ‘Nam and now someone I was shooting at has my job. Then the factory where I ran machine press laid me off. Some fucking life, huh?”

He has the hollow expression of a man whose adulthood is measured in terms of lay-offs and job hunts. Race says he thinks of himself as a skilled worker who keeps trying to improve his skills “and then I wake up one day sleeping in my car.”

Race is divorced and has two kids: A boy 14 and a girl 10 who live with their mother and her second husband near Baltimore. He hasn’t sent child support in several months and can’t afford to phone the children. “I can imagine what my ex is telling them about me,” he says. “A 10 year old girl can’t never figure out why dad doesn’t call anymore and a 14 year old boy needs his father.”

He turns away from Tony and me. I wonder if he’s fighting back tears or just remembering a very different place, a better time, long ago. Tony shoots me a “that’s how it goes” look and gives Race an affection punch on the arm.

I ask how everybody living here survives with no job, no home and no money.

“Sandy works 15 hours a week as a cashier at Wal-Mart,” Tony explains, “so we get a little money from that. Once in a while, a buddy at a Chevron station gives me a few hours stocking shelves in the convenience mart.”

Race collects himself enough to turn around to tell me he’d be dead if it weren’t for the night manager at a nearby fast food joint. He lets Race clean the toilets and floors for a few bucks and also feeds him, even on nights when he doesn’t work. “But don’t say which place,” Race begs me. “I don’t want the guy to get in trouble and I don’t want everybody showing up for a free dinner.”

“Is that how most people here eat?” I ask.

“Yeah, sort of,” Tony says. “Dumpster diving behind restaurants for food they tossed out, the food bank sometimes, sometimes a church comes round and brings us stuff to eat. When we’ve got some cash, we go to Wal-Mart and buy food that don’t need cooking. It’s cheap and Sandy has her employee discount. We get by.”

As we talk, we’re joined by a third person, a rail-thin woman who might be in her early 30s. She’s wearing jeans, running shoes and, as far as I can tell, three sweaters against the cold but no jacket or coat. Race and Tony nod a greeting and I introduce myself. The woman tells me her name is Sharon and she lives in the battered AirStream.

Jokingly, Race says Sharon is the “social service worker” in their temporary community. “She has heat so on really cold nights she invites us in to sleep on her floor.”

Sharon mugs, replying, “Yeah, I’m rich, sweetie. Got a Sterno heater! A radio, too.”

As I've been writing this piece, I keep thinking of an episode of CBS Reports from back in the 50s.

As a kid, it shocked me – or at least as much as a nine year old can be shocked by a documentary – because it showed large numbers of poor Americans who lived in shanty towns and went to schools with holes in the roof which meant kids had to move their chairs when it rained. I had no idea that everyone wasn't living the same kind of idyllic life that my family had in our GI-bill financed, two-storey home on Raymir Place in a Milwaukee suburb.

It is still the case. Welcome to the Republican Party’s gift to America.

The World According To Newt

Newt Gingrich was positively apoplectic on Fox News Sunday, bemoaning the shift in US foreign policy to one based on fantasy. No doubt, Gingrich had this specific declaration in mind when he prattled on to Chris Wallace:

“We are not just discussing limits on a further increase of nuclear weapons. We seek, instead, to reduce their number. We seek the total elimination … of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth.”

But, wait. It wasn’t Barack Obama who uttered these words in Prague when he outlined a realignment of America’s nuclear weapons policy. It was none other than Newt’s hero, Ronald Reagan, and the words were spoken during his second inaugural address on Jan. 21, 1985.

Why didn’t we hear anything then?

And where was Newt The Coot when George W. Bush was promoting the fantasy of exporting democracy all over the Middle East at gunpoint? We get daily reminders of how well that flight of imagination worked out in Iraq; in the past week alone, more than 200 people were killed in suicide bombings, according to news reports.

Apparently, he was holding his water until Pres. Obama discussed the sensibility of a nuke-free globe to deride as goofy a policy first proposed by Reagan. He’s yet to speak out against the insane fantasy of invading Iraq.

Thundering Nothingness

Gingrich and his cohorts are thundering nothingness because they are hapless without an enemy like the Soviets to rail against. In blasting Obama, the former House Speaker-turned-lobbyist did not bother to come up with any alternative policy. Of course, that is the GOP mantra these days: Just Say No.

It was the same yesterday after Defence Secretary Robert Gates announced major cuts to DoD programs that spend billions fighting a 30-year old war that never happened. Within moments of his news conference, Republicans were shooting out e-mails decrying slashes to projects such as the F-22, a fighter so over-budget and so under-needed that even the Air Force is turning its back on it, and to the Star Wars anti-missile defence that has yet to hit the broadside of a barn even when the tests are rigged.

The once-proud party of Lincoln, the Taft’s, Eisenhower and Goldwater keeps displaying its intellectual bankruptcy. The party is so bereft of ideas and leadership that it should be allowed to die in peace, letting a new right-of-center party emerge in its place.

Beyond Gingrich

Examples of how the GOP has devolved into being just the lunatic fringe are all around us.

For example, its reigning Queen, Rep. Michelle Bachmann, was on KTLK radio in Minneapolis a few days ago decrying yet another lefty conspiracy. As an aside, KTLK once claimed that Magic Johnson was faking his HIV-positive status so you know how rational it is about anything.

Bachmann warns that the Obama administration is creating “re-education camps for young people, where young people have to go and get trained in a philosophy that the government puts forward and then they have to go to work in some of these politically correct forums.”

It turns out that Bachmann is referring to the expansion of the AmeriCorps volunteer program, a measure sponsored by that old Trotskyite himself, Orrin Hatch.

We know Bachmann has less shame and even fewer smarts than Sarah Palin. But how can she continue to act like such a goofball without a loud chorus of otherwise sensible Minnesotans standing up to shout, “Oh, go away, you foolish old harpy!”

Finally, in yet another living example of Christian fundamentalist hypocrisy, 42-year old Juan Ovalle was arrested for soliciting sex on the internet with a 15-year old. Turns out that Ovalle works for a Spanish-speaking arm of the Colorado Springs Christian group Focus on the Family and narrates Biblical text for CDs. He also created the group’s Spanish broadcasting arm.

Ovalle was arrested when he drove to Lakewood Colorado to meet the young girl – actually an undercover officer posing as a teen – to have sex, according to the Jefferson County district attorney's office.

Why is it that so many right wing Republican fundamentalists get caught in sex crimes and scandals? And why aren’t the wing-nuts worrying as much about these mulyuks as they are about a happily married gay person teaching school?

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Post-Twitter World

Slate is breaking news of the next big thing: Flutter. Why? Because Twitter, with its 140 character limit on mini-blogs, takes too long to read.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Is Eric Cantor The GOP’s Ralph Wiggum?

Poor Ralph Wiggum.

The hapless, slow-witted, frequently annoying son of Chief Wiggum on The Simpson’s is always getting picked on by kids at Springfield Elementary because he keeps saying totally out-of-context things like “I use the poddy now!” and “I wear rubber underpants!”

Ever since Congress reconvened in January, I’ve been trying to figure out who Eric Cantor reminds me of and this morning it came to me: He’s Ralph Wiggum, all grown up.

I knew a kid just like Cantor when I was in grade school; I suspect a lot of us did. He was an annoying little runt no one liked because he wouldn’t trade sandwiches at lunch, cried if somebody looked at him cross-eyed and kept asking for answers during arithmetic tests.

As a result, that poor kid at Webster School – his name was Butch – spent at least one recess a week getting tipped upside down in the boy’s room before getting his head flushed in the urinal. And the more Cantor’s on television, the more I am convinced that Ralph, Butch and Eric are soul mates because they were always getting their heads flushed in the toilet in grade school.

It would explain a lot about Cantor.

No one who spends a good chunk of their early childhood being held upside down in a urinal comes out whole. It’s undoubtedly life-altering. For example, it affected Butch so much that, by middle school, not even the audio-visual club would let him in – and the A-V club was the last refuge for guys totally unsuited for life. Last I heard, he was driving a diaper delivery truck. ‘Nuff said?

OK, so Cantor managed to escape Butch’s fate entirely, ending up as minority whip in the US House although that’s kind of the GOP’s version of driving a truck full of other people’s dirty nappies around. But he still acts like the annoying, whiney kid who just knows that the big kids are waiting to dump him in the urinal.

But instead of proclaiming “I use the poddy now!” Cantor shouts “No one likes Obama! No one likes Obama!”

By the way, if Cantor is Ralph Wiggum, doesn't that make John Boehner Groundskeeper Willie and Michael Steele Nelson Mundt?

Anyway, little Eric is still whiney, still annoying and still saying things that, like Ralph Wiggum, have no connection whatsoever with the world around him. Ralph’s salvation is that he’s funny; Cantor has no value because he thinks, sadly, the non-policies he keeps mouthing make sense.

I wonder: If Eric Cantor asks nicely, will the House A-V club let him join?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Why No Pitchforks? Villagers Stop Google From Filming Their Homes

Shut your blinds! Close your doors! Look what Google is up to now. It is taking photos of everybody’s home!

Apparently, not everyone is happy about it. According to Agence Presse France, angry residents of a Buckinghamshire village blocked the driver of a Google Street View car today who was filming the neighbourhood, saying they feared he would encourage burglaries, a report said Friday.

One resident, Paul Jacobs, told the BBC that he had alerted his neighbours after spotting the car from his window in Broughton in southern England on Wednesday.

"I don't have a problem with Google wanting to promote villages. What I have a problem with is the invasion of privacy, taking pictures directly into the home," Jacobs said. "We've already had three burglaries locally in the past six weeks. If our houses are plastered all over Google it's an invitation for more criminals to strike. I was determined to make a stand, so I called the police."

After his call, a police car arrived in Broughton to reports of a dispute between a crowd of people and a Google Street View contractor.

The Google Street View project set up last month in Britain aims to provide detailed 360-degree views online of streets all over the country.

The project has already been strongly criticised by associations like Privacy International, a pressure group which has launched legal action against the Google.

I agree with the villagers. We have precious little privacy as it is anymore – and it is even worse in Britain where it seems every nook of every street is constantly watched by cameras. If Google shows up on my street, they will find me in front of my house holding a large sign “Indict Bush!” That should put a damper on their filming.

Goodness, An Adult Really Is In Charge!

While much of the MSM was huffing and puffing about “Hug Gate” – the supposed gaffe where Michelle Obama was seen with am arm around Queen Elizabeth, which Buckingham Palace dismissed as a “spontaneous show of mutual affection” – Barack Obama was actually busy doing what a global leader is supposed to do: Leading

It’s forgivable if we sort-of forgot over the past eight years what real leadership looks like.

Instead, we had The Decider and Shotgun Dick with their international bullying, “you’re with us or against us,” “the Constitution is just a goddamned piece of paper” and trips to the dark side way of doing things. And when Dubya wasn’t busy grabbing Angela Merkel’s shoulders, praising the Philippines for providing the White House with so many good waiters or ensuring Cheney’s pals at Halliburton and KBR could rob the US Treasury of billions in no-bid contracts, he was busy lying to Congress and destroying 225 years of the American ethic and ethos.

So what does actual American leadership mean? Thursday afternoon in London, the G20 Summit was about to fall apart in shambles over finding a way to pull the world back from the precipice of another Great Depression because China’s president Hu Jintao and French president Nicholas Sarkozy squabbled over limiting tax havens. To resolve the issue, Pres. Obama first takes Hu into a corner of the room to discuss Chinese concerns, then walks Sarkozy into another corner to do the same thing, and then brings the two of them together to work out a compromise.

Huh! Seems like being a community organizer paid off, not just for Obama but now for the world.

Major Impact

In reading European and Asian newspapers today, Obama’s presence at the G20 was hailed as a major triumph because he single-handedly not only save the gathering from collapsing in disagreement, he renewed America’s standing in the world.

“Measures agreed after intervention from Obama” headlines The Guardian.

Crows The Independent: “Markets soar after President brokers 'historic' G20 deal between world leaders to bring end to recession.”

“US President Barack Obama broke a ‘logjam' inside tense G20 negotiations between France and China on Friday (HK time) over the crucial issue of tax havens,” declares The South China Morning Post.

In Paris, Le Monde praises Obama with a lead headline, “Sommets du G20 et de l'OTAN : la méthode Obama.”

Yet what does Friday’s New York Times e-mail summary of the day’s paper say? “Mr. Obama emerged Thursday from his first summit meeting with a handful of modest concrete commitments.”

Did Helene Cooper, the Times reporter at the G20, cover the same meeting? Apparently neither she nor Margaret Warner of PBS’ NewsHour were anywhere near the conference centre because, on Thursday night’s broadcast, Warner characterized Obama as having “an OK day.”

MSM Nonsense

As if to underscore journalism’s poor state, when the 2009 Peabody Awards were announced yesterday, both Saturday Night Live and the video version of The Onion were honoured.

The awards committee says of SNL, “The late-night legend stole the election-year thunder from its satirical competition on cable and may have swayed the race itself.” As for The Onion, “The satirical tabloid's online send-up of 24-hour cable-TV news was hilarious, trenchant and not infrequently hard to distinguish from the real thing.”

When so much of broadcast news is reduced to talking heads yelling at each other, Bill O’Reilly’s lies, out-of-context quotes and “terrorist journalism,” and Glenn Beck’s utter claptrap, it is both refreshing and stunning that so-called fake news sources such as SNL, The Onion, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert receive reporting awards.

Meanwhile, Beck continues to blather, blubber, distort and lie at his new Fox News home:

On To Europe

Having triumphed at the G20, Pres. Obama is now in Strasbourg for a NATO summit. He held a town hall meeting there this morning before the NATO gathering, speaking to a capacity crowd in an auditorium and taking questions as comfortably as if he were talking to folks in, oh, Omaha or Birmingham.

It is truly nice to have a real grown-up, an actual adult, running the United States.

UPDATE: Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan was on one of the morning network shows saying what a relief it is to not have a president where, everytime he opens his mouth, we're sitting waiting for another gaffe to come out.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

DoJ Recommending Bar Assn. Action Against At Least Five

The Justice Dept’s Office of Professional Responsibility will recommend state bar associations take disciplinary measures against at least five former Bush officials: John Yoo, Jay Bybee, John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales and Monica Goodling, according to a Senate staff member who saw a summary of the report’s most-recent version this week and was interviewed today.

If the DoJ’s recommendations are acted upon, the professional ethics and responsibility committees of state bars could do anything ranging from a wrist slap to a bitch slap: Sanctions, suspension or permanent disbarment.

Reportedly, Yoo, Bybee, Ashcroft and Gonzales are cited for their part in writing or approving the so-called “torture memos’” under which the Bush White House justified using waterboarding, putting detainees in stress positions for prolonged periods of time, sleep depravation, subjecting prisoners to temperature extremes and other inhumane methods that violate US law and international treaties which were signed by the nation.

Goodling is criticized harshly for her role in politicizing the Justice Dept. by gauging job seekers on whether they were “loyal Bushies,” even for career positions which, by law, are non-political.

Yoo is currently a guest lecturer at Chapman University in Orange County, California, and is on leave from a teaching position at the UC-Berkeley law school which he once described as filled with “weird people who dress funny.”

Since May 2005, Ashcroft has run a Washington lobbying firm.

Gonzales is unemployed but rumoured to be in line for a job at the Bush presidential library at Southern Methodist University.

It cannot be determined what Goodling has been doing since being forced to leave her position at Justice, other than getting married.

The most-problematic issue surrounds Bybee. As a Federal Appeals Court judge, he can be removed only if impeached by the House and tried by the Senate. Although a number of federal judges have been impeached over the years, typically it has been for graft or corruption; none was involved in bar association disciplinary proceedings prior to a guilty verdict in the Senate – especially for something as serious as approving torture.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are said to be pushing for an early release of the report, the result of a lengthy investigation.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

An Odd, Totally Otherworldly, Experience

I had one of those otherworldly experiences this morning.

I’ve been sick for much of the week but finally felt well enough to drag myself out of bed to plop in front of the television. I switched on Bravo! and was sort of half-dozing when, through my fevered haze, I saw something that didn’t compute. So I pulled myself upright in the chair – causing the napping cat to flee my lap – unsure whether I was sleeping and this was a dream or I was awake.

Nope. I was awake, alright.

What so startled me was that whatever I was watching was a scene shot in front of my great uncle’s house in LA. Well, it was his house; Joe died 25 or 30 years ago. But it got me thinking, for the first time in decades, of Joe and his brother Norman, two of my family’s many characters.

During the Great Depression – the first one, back in the 1930s – there wasn’t any work for them in Milwaukee. Somehow, they scraped together enough to buy a car and head west. To earn gas money along the way, they’d spend a week or two working in brothels in towns on their route: Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, Albuquerque, Bakersfield and probably a few other places. Joe could play piano and Norman, who was a pretty big guy, did everything from being a bouncer to cleaning up to running errands for the Madame and her ladies. Best of all, the jobs came with a place to sleep and they got fed three squares a day, both a rarity for guys on the road in the Thirties.

Eventually, they ended up in Los Angeles where there wasn't much more work. But being enterprising fellows, they figured out that entertainers were in demand at Hollywood parties. So they became swamis: Prince Oomba and Prince Boomba managed to get gigs at the Barrymore’s, the Chaplin’s, the various Brothers Marx and so on. They knew no more about fortune telling than I do but they each wrapped a towel around their head as turbans and eeked out a meagre living.

One night, Joe was walking home from one of the parties and saw a drunk stumble out of a bar on Hollywood Blvd. He watched the poor schlub try to get into his car without success so he want to the guy’s aid. He saw that the drunk couldn’t drive so Joe put him in the passenger seat, checked the registration to find where the fellow lived, and drove him home where a very sleepy and suspicious Mexican maid let him in. As he was leaving, Joe handed his Prince Oomba card to the housekeeper.

A few days later, the phone rang in the squalid little rooming house Joe and Norman called home. It was the secretary of the man Joe had aided, who wanted to take him to lunch. Thinking quickly, Joe told the assistant that his brother was with him at the time and wondered if Norman could come along. Hey: It was the depression and somebody was offering a free meal.

At lunch, the man thanked Joe and Norman profusely, confessing he was so drunk he probably would have killed himself had he tried driving home. Then, something came at them out of the blue.

It turned out that when the man wasn’t getting drunk, he was chief purchasing agent for Douglas Aircraft. He asked the pair if they were interested in giving up their swami shtick to go into the scrap metal business. He’d tell them what kind of metal he needed and would buy anything they could get that met his purchasing requirements.

So Joe and Norman became junk men, scouring the city for specific kind of scrap metal and then selling it to Douglas. They were doing alright – certainly better than telling Garbo her fortune – and settled into life as a 30s version of The Redd Foxx Show since they lived in the junk yard’s office.

Then, Dec. 7, 1941 arrived.

Suddenly, every aircraft manufacturer, ship builder, munitions maker and the War Dept. itself needed to buy tons and tons of scrap metal from the boys. They became wealthy during the war and prosperity continued after, boosted by both the Cold and the Korean Wars. They’d long since moved into real homes, Joe on Sunset a few blocks west of the Strip – the home in the programme that interrupted my flu-ish dozing.

By the way, the house warrants an asterisk in American political history.

During the run-up to the 1960 Democratic National Convention in LA, Jack Kennedy wanted to get away from his headquarters at the Ambassador Hotel so he moved into with Joe and his wife – early Kennedy supporters, contributors and fund-raisers – for a day or so. And, yes, Marilyn did show up for a couple of hours. No one said a thing.

The house on Sunset also is an asterisk in my own political history.

When my 9th grade class took the obligatory trip to Washington DC, Joe or Norman arranged for me to meet Kennedy. Somewhere in a dusty box of family photos down in the basement is a picture of an awe-struck, crew-cutted kid standing in the Oval Office with Pres. Kennedy resting his hand on my shoulder. I was in the room for maybe 90 seconds, politely but quickly ushered in and out by someone huge and hulking in a dark suit.

The Spanish Fly In Obama’s Ointment

When Barack Obama meets Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in London this week at the G20 summit, it will be perversely interesting to see if Zapatero is greeted with the famous Obama smile or a less-often-seen, steely-eyed stare.

Spanish investigating magistrate Baltazar Garzón – the man who arrested former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998 – sent a 98-page complaint to prosecutors asking that John Yoo, William Haynes, David Addington, Alberto Gonzales, Jay Bybee and Doug Feith plus two unnamed others be investigated for war crimes. One of the two unnamed individuals is said to be former CIA head George Tenet, under whose watch CIA operatives tortured captives. Spain claims jurisdiction because five of its citizens were held at Guantanamo and tortured.

As reported here Sunday, coupled with Canada quietly asking top Bushies including the former president and vice president, Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales and several others to not enter the country, foreign travel is increasingly problematic for the men who authorized torture and other war crimes during the Bush years. If any of the eight try entering any of the 25 European Union nations, they will likely be arrested and shipped off to Madrid.

While the Canadian admonition was sent privately, the Spanish investigation is very public and adds to the growing pressure on Pres. Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to have the United States undertake its own investigation – something the president’s political advisors keep telling him to sidestep as long as possible.

Indeed, Garzón may well prove to be the Spanish fly in Obama’s ointment of trying to avoid naming an independent war crimes prosecutor.

Proactive Obligation

The fact is, under both US law and its treaty obligations, Obama has a legal requirement to proactively investigate what are now truly serious allegations of war crimes committed by high ranking Bush administration officials. Between Cheney’s repeated, public boasting of ordering torture and information contained in the Justice Dept. “torture memo’s” written by Yoo and Bybee, and approved by John Ashcroft and Gonzales, clearly there is a what lawyers call a prima facie case warranting a formal probe.

In other words, as constitutional lawyer Jonathan Turley has said repeatedly on MSNBC, the White House has no viable legal alternative but to investigate, regardless of the possible political cost.

One informed observer believes that Obama is undoubtedly aware of this and may be trying to postpone the inevitable until after the 2010 elections when, he hopes, the Democratic majority in the Senate will increase enough so that his legislative agenda can be passed without scrambling for a handful of Republican votes.

“There’s a certain realpolitick about this,” I was told by a friend in Washington who knows both the Obama White House and how Congress works. “Obama knows what he has to do but he also knows that without 60 sure Senate votes, the GOP will tie up everything else he wants to accomplish in political knots.”

Bad Timing

Obviously, The White House would like the timing of the Spanish initiative to be different. But as Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said, the “investigation … (is) one that the Obama administration has to take very seriously. And it means that the pressure is increasing on this country to open its own criminal investigation.”

The G20 gathering is starting on a tense note anyway, with Britain and the US unhappy about the tepid response of many European governments about providing greater stimulus to their flailing economies. Spain is one of the nations that Washington and London wants to do more so it is uncertain how – or even if – Obama will raise the Garzon investigation with Zapatero at some over the next few days.

Chances are good that, whatever is said at the G20, the war crimes matter will not go quietly into that good night. Garzón has a long track record of successful prosecutions. In addition to the Pinochet matter, he has overseen human rights abuse investigations of the former military government in Argentina, Islamic terrorists operating in Spain, the armed Basque separatist group ETA, as well as major drug traffickers.