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.