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Altercation archives: September 22-30, 2003

Note: For technical reasons some of this archive page does not contain the links from the original post.

Sept. 30, 2003 |
Here’s what George H. W. Bush said about leakers of classified information:

“I have nothing but contempt and anger for those who betray the trust by exposing the names of our sources. They are, in my view, the most insidious of traitors.” (4/26/99)

Here’s what President George W. Bush does about the classified leaking of information: “But Woodward said the president gave them 90 minutes, often speaking candidly about classified information…Woodward said, ‘Certainly Richard Nixon would not have allowed reporters to question him like that. Bush’s father [former President George Bush] wouldn’t allow it. Clinton wouldn’t allow it.’” Read the full story here.

That explains why, in case you needed an explanation, George W. Bush did not simply call his senior staff into a room and ask them one-by-one if they had leaked the information. (See the end of Slate’s Today’s Papers this morning for Scott McClellan’s artful attempt to dance around that question.) He likes leaking. He just likes the leaks he likes.

In any case, who you gonna believe, the White House spokespeople or Bob Novak?

Well, normally that would be a wash. I’ve profiled Novak at length in the past and found him to be ideologically extreme to the point of deep dishonesty, but not careless. He could never have made a charge like this unless he were sure of it. (How he defends his patriotism under these circumstances is a more devastating question.)

As the Washington Post notes, “the two White House officials had cold-called at least six Washington journalists and identified Joseph Wilson’s wife ... in order to punish Wilson for exposing Yellowcake-gate.” But nobody else bit. Is it because they take their responsibilities not to expose CIA agents to danger and blow operations to a degree that Novak doesn’t? Is it because lending themselves to an essentially McCarthyite operation did not appeal? Were they worried about the legal ramifications? I don’t see why they should be.

Journalists are protected in this matter-which leads me to ask, who’s the wimp in this part of the Post story: “The journalist, who asked not to be identified because of possible legal ramifications, said that the information was provided as part of an effort to discredit Wilson, but that the CIA information was not treated as especially sensitive. “The official I spoke with thought this was a part of Wilson’s story that wasn’t known and cast doubt on his whole mission,” the person said, declining to identify the official he spoke with. “They thought Wilson was having a good ride and this was part of Wilson’s story.”

What legal ramifications? As I said, the leaker is on the hot seat-in the extremely unlikely event he/she is ever caught, but not the journalist. Why not come forward? You don’t have to break any confidences to do so.

This is funny, from

Bruce ‘Sixth Sense’ Willis Can Sense Iraqi Public Opinion from His Helicopter

“Actor Bruce Willis has performed before US soldiers in Telafar, northern Iraq, and offered $1m to the man who captures Saddam Hussein... ‘Peculiar thing back home is that the liberal media was trying to portray it as a bad war. But being over here just a couple of days, seeing how well our troops and the allied troops are being received here, (I) think the Iraqi people are happy we’re here,’ the Hollywood star said... But the star later admitted he had not met many Iraqis because he had been travelling the country by helicopter. Willis, a Republican party supporter, was one of the few celebrities to publicly back the US’ stance during the recent war on Iraq, which was led by Resident Bush.”

Our fearless leader. And one of our fearless ex-leaders. By the way, Jay Rosen is one of the smartest guys writing about journalism, or anything else for that matter, even though he wasn’t exactly blown away by either of the two books of mine he’s reviewed. I’d bookmark his site.

Meanwhile, I see Mickey finally has something to say about the recall….

I caught Joe Lovano with his nonet at the Vanguard last week. Hard to imagine a sweeter, more intelligent sound. Louis Nash on drums is so powerful right now, he more than counterbalanced the enormous horn section. The band works particularly hard on Coltrane, some of the latter of which contains melodies I didn’t know existed. Anyway, the shows were celebrating the release of guess what, a new live album of shows at the Vanguard — “On This Day . . . At the Vanguard” — so it was a perfectly pomo as well as thrilling performance. Check out the CD which came out on Blue Note in July. It’s got a beautiful “”My Little Brown Book”; an unnoticed gem from one of my favorite albums, the Coltrane/Ellington collaboration on Impulse.

Meanwhile Sal’s got some Jazz recommendations from the new NYCD newsletter:

The eldest son of Ellis Marsalis, BRANFORD MARSALIS, has released his second album on his own Marsalis Records imprint. “Romaire Bearden Revealed” is a musical tribute to the late painter whose work was inspired by classic jazz records, including some by the Marsalis family. Branford reworks Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton, as well as Marsalis originals, with a core band of Joey Calderazzo on piano, Eric Revis on bass, and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums, and special guests Harry Connick Jr., Doug Wamble, and the brothers Marsalis. Could be the best recording of Marsalis’ long and respected career! On TOM HARRELL’s new record, “Wise Children,” the trumpeter rearranges his own compositions to showcase some soulful vocals by guest singers Dianne Reeves, Claudia Acuna, Cassandra Wilson, and the Gloria Estefan of jazz, Jane Monheit. A beautiful record, Monheit notwithstanding. And from the vaults comes STAN GETZ’s “Bossas And Ballads: The Lost Sessions,” a 1989 recording that was intended as his debut for A & M Records but only now sees the light of day. Featuring Kenny Barron on piano, and a rhythm section of George Mraz on bass and Victor Lewis on drums, this is an amazing find and a gift for all Getz fans. Also released today in Japan only is CECIL TAYLOR’s “Live In The Black Forest,” a live 1978 recording featuring the hits “The Eel Pot” and “Sperichill On Calling.” Not for the nervous.

Finally, Fred Kapan shares my view of the Monk re-releases (well, at least that one).


  • American Splendor-yes
  • The Secret Lives of Dentists-OK
  • The Human Stain-yes, with reservations
  • The Italian Job-why not?
  • That movie about the little girl and the whales-wonderfu
  • lLost in Translation-Well, OK, for the acting, but nothing happens.


Look’s who’s back?
Name: Charles Pierce
Hometown: Newton, MA

Because Every Day Is Slacker Friday — Chapter XV

I am not a very big fan of what Fox News did to Tucker Carlson, putting his home phone number up there on the website so the various mouthbreathers in the target audience could call and chat. I am fundamentally opposed to handing anyone over to the Ostrogoths for target practice.


(Oh, don’t go there. No, let’s.)

A while back, I wrote a short piece for ESQUIRE regarding young Tucker, who then was hosting The Spin Room with Bill (The Money’s On The Dresser, Pal) Press. In that blurb, which was mostly about him, I called TSR “the worst show in the history of television,” a judgment I still stand by, at least until I see “Coupling.” Tucker responded by putting up on the screen my private e-mail address and suggesting to his audience that I might like hearing from them. Over the next several weeks, I received in excess — but not much in excess — of 80 e-mails, which meant I probably heard from everyone who ever watched The Spin Room, and some of them twice. There were some nice folks who sincerely disagreed with me. There were some people who thought Tucker was a hottie, and good for them, I said. And there were a great number of communications that were extremely incorrect about my grandparents’ marital status, my relationship to my birth parents, and my sexual orientation. There were several that seemed to be engaged in a running debate over which disease myself and my children should acquire. There were some from people who truly should be kept out back tied to the tree with the mules.

So, I guess, in conclusion, I would have to say.

Tough s***, pal. Change your number.

Sept. 29, 2003 |
Dude, where’s my coalition? Le Figaro reports: “No country asked has offered to send troops or contribute financially to the country’s reconstruction. Neither money nor men: at the end of a decisive week at the UN, American resident George W. Bush measures the failure of his attempted return to the international organization. ‘The Iraqi nation needs our help’, he pleaded Tuesday before the General Assembly in New York. Two days later, not one of the 191 countries represented there had responded to his appeal for help with a concrete promise, whether in the form of a financial contribution or by placing troop contingents at his disposition. The UN even decided to withdraw part of their expatriate personnel in Iraq, undermining American normalization efforts a little more.”

Russia’s Putin helped arm the Iraqis and is working hand and glove with both Iran and North Korea to help them threaten the peace of the world with nuclear weapons. But George W. Bush looked into Putin’s soul and saw a “good man,” and that makes it OK. From my forthcoming Book on Bush:

“When I looked at him, I felt like he was shooting straight with me,” he told the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan. Bush claimed to have gotten a sense of Putin’s “soul” and found the former K.G.B. boss a “remarkable leader,” and an “honest, straightforward man . . . who loves his family” and professed a sincere belief in God.

Heck, he may hang with the Axis of Evil, but at least he’s not an atheist, like Chirac and Schroeder.

Get your Brooklyn Bridges here, special price for Neoconservatives: It turns out that Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle, Feith and company were just a bunch of rubes, taken in by a confidence man under indictment for the embezzlement of millions, but with really nice suits. Meet Ahmad Chalabi. So glad we sent them millions of taxpayer dollars.

With friends like these: Right-winger Bob Novak calls himself a patriot and yet he knowingly endangers the lives of U.S. intelligence agents and the security of its operations. Will Karl Rove be next? This possibility of Rove going down-even to jail-however unlikely, inspires a thought. Can anyone imagine George W. Bush as a political success at any level without Rove’s guidance? Now try the same exercise about Bill Clinton. Does that tell you anything?

Dick Cheney, inveterate liar. An exclusive Washington Post mini-history.

Over at State, Colin Powell tries to pull a McNamara, pretending as if he wasn’t the key salesman of this war in respectable Washington salons and editorial pages. Next he’ll start crying a dinner parties.

From Frank Rich’s Sunday column: “Tonight we congratulate television news on becoming us - mindless ratings whores,” said the comic Jon Stewart, host of the faux-news “Daily Show,” after unreeling a montage of particularly ludicrous excerpts from this year’s actual news shows on last Sunday’s Emmy broadcast. It would have been even funnier if the story being covered hadn’t been an actual war.”

A worthwhile Forward Forum: Avraham Burg, speaker of Israel’s Knesset from 1999-2003 and former chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, challenges his Palestinian friends to democratize, here.

Daoud Kuttab, director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah, condemns Israel double-talk of peace, here.

Finally, Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, decries the failed state of the Palestinians, here.

Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League has a soft spot for guys who love fascist murderers, here. Sample: “Mussolini never killed anyone. Mussolini sent people on holiday in internal exile.”

Say what you will about Sunnydale High, in the season two episode I happened to catch on DBD the other day, the Buffster, a self-described non-“book geek,” was ostentatiously carrying around a copy of Luigi Barzini’s The Europeans in-between slayings. My favorite line of the episode came, however, when all the vampires appear and start to try to eat people’s guts and stuff and Cordelia complains: “This is just the kind of thing you’d expect for having school on a Saturday.” (Actually, I watched a bunch of them, alone at the beach over the weekend trying to finish The Book on Bush. I see that Giles also keeps a copy of Sy Hersh’s The Price of Power:Kissinger in the Nixon White House behind his desk for ready reference. Go Giles.)

Victor Navasky tells The Washington Post to stop redbaiting his high school.

One of my favorite acts is on tour again. No, not $252-per-ticket Simon and Garfunkel, but one-person, one-vote, Granny D.

We did not have room for Robert Palmer on Friday. Try “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” if you haven’t. It’s a perfect album side.

Correspondents Corner:

I got a lot of letters like the one below. But Sheila’s had the nicest tone, and tone matters.

Name: Sheila
Hometown: Cedar Park, TX

Stupid has the Texas re-districting situation wrong. Texas has only 12 state senators, and they needed 11 to block a quorum. One declined to join the exodus in the beginning. He is in a district that is less Democratic and was, therefore, more vulnerable. The one who abandoned us all (Whitmire or “Quitmire”) is in a very strongly Democratic district in Houston. He did let everyone down. I understand why Stupid is confused. The reporting on this has been very poor, both nationally and in Texas. The 17 Stupid mentions is the number of Congressional seats Democrats have in TX, and that is the number Delay wants to become 11.

Name: Richard Yeselson
Hometown: Washington, DC
We may have seen a classic example of media “ref working” in today’s NY Time’s inside placement of the obituary of Edward Said. It would be difficult to overstate Said’s influence and prominence in at least a half dozen intellectual disciplines, and, of course, he was also a world renown advocate on behalf of Palestinian rights. Moreover, Said lived and worked in New York City his entire adult life, making his hometown newspaper’s slight of him all the more inexplicable. Regardless of one’s view of Said, he was the quintessential public intellectual of our age.

The only analogous example that comes to mind is the Times’s front page placement of Irving Howe’s death about ten years ago. I am great admirer of both men’s scholarship and careers, and on balance, am more sympathetic to Howe’s politics than to Said’s. But there is no question that, by any dispassionate measurement, Said was by far the more significant and “world historic” figure.

I think it is reasonable to conclude that the fear of criticism arising from both conservatives and Jews—and especially their neo-conservative intersection—pushed the Times to bury, with too much fear and favor, Edward Said a second time.

Name: Tim Francis-Wright
Hometown: Medford, Massachusetts
A few days ago, my 3-year-old son and I watched a Sesame Street video from 1988 called “Put Down the Duckie.” There’s lots to recommend about the production, in particular a great Monsterpiece Theatre episode and one of the best Grover the Waiter sketches. But one segment seemed oddly prescient. Bob McGrath finds three celebrities in his neighborhood: a tennis player (Martina Navratilova), a news correspondent (Barbara Walters), and a consumer advocate (Ralph Nader). Nader proceeds to “check” Bob’s sweater for flaws, and manages to tear off a pocket, a button, and most of a sleeve. There must be a metaphor there waiting to get out.

Name: Jordan Barab
Hometown: Takoma Park, MD
While the beatification of Ronald Reagan may be an occasional irritant to most, it’s a constant in-your-face insult to those of us living in Washington D.C. — with the Reagan federal building and most galling, “Reagan” National Airport (which will always remain simply “National” Airport to me and my like.)

I am also the founder (and, to date, the sole member)of the “National (Airport) Liberation Front” whose sole goal is to take the airport back from the right-wing and make it once again a “national” airport.

The NALP logo can be seen at the very bottom of my (moribund-because-of-Isabel) blog, Confined Space.

Sept. 26, 2003 |
I am getting a little tired of untimely deaths. I spent yesterday waiting all go**am day for the Verizon guy to come and turn on the phone lines—which never happened—(Nice stock price, guys. Ever wonder why?)—and writing next week’s Nation column in which I belatedly reflect on the recent passing of Joe Strummer, Warren Zevon and Johnny Cash. Hence, I did not learn until the very end of the day of the death of my friend and teacher, Edward Said.

I am not going to argue about Said’s politics with malevolent idiots who seek to demonize anyone who refuses to accept their self-serving assumptions about Israel’s infallibility. I had my own deep disagreements with Said’s increasingly anti-American views and profound misgivings about the role he chose to play after Oslo. But I never doubted his honesty, integrity, or bravery. (I am nowhere near smart enough to judge his brilliance as a literary critic.)

No one on Earth spoke more harshly about the quisling Arab governments who purposely keep their subjects mired in poverty and ignorance. No one spoke more openly—and at greater personal risk—of the corruption and self-serving nature of Arafat and his cronies in the Palestinian Authority. For this, Said was regularly slandered by his moral and intellectual inferiors who shame the Jewish people with their dishonest calumnies against an honorable adversary—who could have been a partner.

Edward first told me he had leukemia on a visit he made to Palo Alto about a dozen years ago where he was delivering the lectures that would become “Representations of the Intellectual.” (We had originally become friends when he taught a class on the role of intellectuals at Yale six or so years earlier.) We had a long, luxurious lunch when he dropped the news, and ever since then, I have been grateful every time I saw his face — even when he did something dumb (but not venal) like releasing his frustrations at Israel by throwing a symbolic rock at a fence.

It may have been at that lunch that Edward also told me of the secret trip he made to Beirut in 1978, carrying a message from Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to Yasser Arafat offering U.S. recognition of the PLO if it would join the Camp David peace process with Israel and Egypt. Arafat, true to his reputation, did not miss the opportunity to miss this opportunity. Who knows how many lives have been lost in the past generation because of this—and so many other—tragic mistakes on the part of this horrifically small-minded man. And the worst thing that Arafat has done to Israel is to convince the nation to elect men to lead the nation who are hardly any better than he is.

Anyway, Edward could have lived a life of comfortable luxury and world-renown. He didn’t exactly stint on either, but he added to them a life-threatening commitment to speaking truth as he saw it to every manner of power. As a student, I feel ennobled to have had him as my teacher. As both a peace-seeking Jew and a (part-time) historical scholar, I am inestimably diminished by his loss. My condolences to his family and close friends.

This Just In ...
Oh damn. Now George Plimpton’s died too. I liked him. I didn’t know him that well but he sure hosted swell parties and always told me great stories about Muhammad Ali. We were going to start a “Muhammad Ali Short Poetry” contest together once and raise money for Parkinson’s research. (Ali wrote the greatest short poem ever. “Me. Whee!”) I wanted to get The Nation (get it?) to set a world record by paying $1,000 a line and have Plimpton and Trillin as the judges. Didn’t happen, though I don’t know why. Anyway, he was a genuine gentleman and the kind of guy that makes New York what it is — or was. So long, sir.

Onto Slacker Friday:
By the way, I spent a few pleasant hours at the University of Missouri journalism school this week, cut short by a near hurricane on the runaway at La Guardia and a nightmare of missed connections. Still, it was great to meet so many students and potential Altercation alternates. My ego, however, couldda done with a few less “The best thing about Altercation is Pierce,” quickly followed by “And Stupid. I love Stupid, too. Who is that guy?” I enjoyed the question because it allows me to break the first rule of punditry, and reply, “Um, I dunno. Thanks.” Thanks to Eric and Jerayln also.

Name: Charlies Pierce
Eric —
There is not much in this life you can be certain of. In my own case, I am bedeviled regularly by an inconsistent fade off the tee, an unreliable four-parry on the strip, and a nagging feeling that California should be sold back to the Russians until the clown college out there closes down. But you can rely on the Senior Senator.

The one thing that the Right doesn’t get about Ted Kennedy — and they still don’t it about either of the Clintons yet — is that some people are simply immune to public sliming. There is not a single smear that can be tossed at the Senior Senator that hasn’t been tossed at him — and, unlike Bill Clinton, he actually WAS responsible for the death of another individual — so that, when he took a chunk out of Emperor C-Plus Augustus this week, it didn’t do anybody any good to start screaming, “Chappaquiddick!” or “La Brasserie!” like a bunch of trained monkeys. The criticism was harsh, honest, and perfectly timed — and watching President Stupid call it “uncivil” in his cozy chat with Brit Hume was little more than further evidence that the man should always be kept out of the deep end of the pool.

He said your policy was a fraud, and that your administration lied the country into a war — the greatest sin against self-government that there can be — and “uncivil” is the best you can do? What a foof.

Of course, Kennedy’s been immune from the real ammo for three decades now. So Tom DeLay can stamp his little feet and shout “Rooigie-roogie! Saddam! Saddam!” all he wants, and it won’t matter a damn. The Senior Senator is bigger than all of them, and he carpet-bombed the bridge with the White House. Good luck getting anything passed domestically for the next two years.

And, not for nothing, but when is some Republican going to get up and announce that the party’s tired of being led around by its nose behind a vicious two-bit political grifter like Tom DeLay, and a useless meat puppet like Denny Hastert? Of course, maybe some Democrat should make the point.

Name: Stupid
Hey Eric, two words: Bankers Boxes (for temporary relief of post-moving chaos).

The Dems need to take a lesson from the capuchin monkeys. Nature magazine reported a study where the monkeys became enraged when they were treated unfairly. For starters, the experimenters trained the monkeys how to trade tokens for food items. At first the monkeys were happy to trade a token for a slice of cucumber. But then the monkeys observed that some other monkeys were getting a grape instead (apparently monkeys like grapes better than cucumbers. Come to think of it, so do I!). After they saw this, they either stopped trading their tokens or threw the cucumbers out of the cage. So....substitute minuscule tax cuts for the middle class in place of cucumbers and huge tax cuts for the rich in place of grapes and voila and the republicans for the cucumber being thrown out of the cage!

I’ve searched and searched on the Web, but I can’t find an explanation for why the Texas Democrats caved into Tom DeLay’s antidemocratic anti-Democrat redistricting plot. Yes, I know that one of the state senators who were holed-up in New Mexico blocking a quorum was spineless and returned to Texas. But why didn’t one of the other Dem senators take his place? They have 17 and only needed 8. I haven’t been one of these anti-Terry McAuliffe types, but if this is all the influence he has (or was unwilling to use on such an important issue of principle, let alone one of the few Democrat success stories during his tenure) then he should resign asap.

You know that judge who blocked the telemarketer do-not-call list? Now *that* hurt. Don’t tell the GOP, but he’s a Carter appointee.

Sept. 25, 2003 |
Greetings from California; Eric Rauchway altercating for you while your regular Eric is trying to figure out where a decent bakery is in his new neighborhood (why he moved away from Levain I’ll never know; you can get the cookies delivered but it’s not the same).

I happen to be on the road to talk about my new book (which has just gone into a second printing, so grab your rare first editions from your local bookstore now) — and so I report to you this morning from beautiful Santa Cruz, setting for one of the University of California’s gems, Thomas A. Lehrer — yes, that Tom Lehrer — who ”hangs out” here and also holds a fellowship — possibly the only one of its kind anywhere — in American Studies and Mathematics. What a university, ladies and gentlemen. More on Lehrer below.

But first, the recall. Read the bigs and you will learn that last night’s gubernatorial debate (transcript here; video here) degenerated into “a bunch of ’your momma’ jokes.” True, the format — with pre-distributed questions — allowed Arnold Schwarzenegger to deploy canned one-liners and bicker condescendingly with his fellow celebrity Arianna Huffington. (Schwarzenegger: “That’s our Arianna.” Who’s we, Terminator?)

But if you listened carefully you heard Republican state Sen. and candidate Tom McClintock lay out a plan to keep taxes down and cut California’s government (particularly, its services) to balance the budget, so the state will resemble its more libertarian Western neighbors. If this qualifies McClintock as one of Paul Krugman’s ”starve-the-beasters” at least he was open about it. But despite his reputation for consistency, McClintock couldn’t keep himself from promising more highway construction, more electrical plant construction, and generally waxing nostalgic for the days of Pat Brown and Ronald Reagan — which was an era when Californians paid more in taxes. On this point, McClintock insisted “We are not suffering a revenue problem.”

And, you heard Democratic Lt. Gov. and candidate Cruz Bustamente lay out a plan to alter the state revenue stream, raising consumption taxes on tobacco and alcohol, raising income taxes on the top 4 percent of earners, cutting vehicle licensing fees on cheap cars, and in general sounding like Alabama’s pragmatic Republican governor Bob Riley. (Alabama’s voters told Riley he couldn’t have what he wanted, but California is a different kind of state. So far.)

So you can’t say there wasn’t serious debate; you just had to ignore the celebs if you wanted to hear it. The Sacramento Bee notes the upshot was that the debate did for Gray Davis what he has trouble doing for himself: made him look like a competent governor. After all, if Schwarzenegger is going to stage an evening of zingers and close with the rallying cry, “I need a lot of help,” maybe we should ask Davis to stick around.

Which is what Schwarzenegger thought was most important he get across to Maureen Dowd.

The Financial Times is worried about the free market. Or at least, about the version of the free market in the Paul Bremer plan for Iraq. The fine folks at Southwark Bridge fret that the program may look to the Arab world like “a second looting of the country.”

What the FT believes (and, it’s worth mentioning, the Republican Party from Lincoln through Nixon used to believe) is that the benefits of market capitalism won’t develop naturally, but depend on infrastructure, built and paid for by government; also rules, guaranteed by government.

As another set of radical political philosophers once wrote, the best way to hold together a disputatious people dispersed over a large territory is to provide a strong central government, run by the locals, which ought to “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general welfare” of the country.

You remember Tom Lehrer — about 35 or 40 years ago he made us all laugh about our fears that we were all gonna die any minute, living as we did in a world where everyone hated everyone else and too many wackos wanted to blow the whole thing to smithereens.

You know:

Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics

And the Catholics hate the Protestants

And the Hindus hate the Muslims

And everybody hates the Jews.

Remember how things used to be like that? And how, once “proliferation became the word of the day,” we worried about Weapons of Mass Destruction?

France got the bomb but don’t you grieve

‘Cause they’re on our side (I believe)....

Egypt’s gonna get one too, just to use on you-know-who

So Israel’s getting tense, wants one in self-defense

The Lord’s our shepherd, says the Psalm: but just in case, we better get a bomb....

Thank goodness we’ve moved on since then.

Although he doesn’t like touring or recording, which he pretty much quit in the 1960s, he continued to write topical songs “strictly to appall himself.”

Being in Prof. Lehrer’s hometown made me wonder whether he had anything to say about the current situation. Turns out he does, and he doesn’t: “I’m not tempted to write a song about George W. Bush. I couldn’t figure out what sort of song I would write,” he says.

The problem? The president makes Lehrer “angry,” and, well, angry is ”not funny.”

If Tom Lehrer can’t laugh at us anymore we may be in pretty deep.

Sept. 24, 2003 |
Hi, everyone. Jeralyn Merritt, Denver criminal defense attorney and author of “Talk Left: The Politics of Crime” here filling in for Eric, who is moving into his new abode. It’s nice to be back. I wish I had better news for you as Fall gets underway, but as the leaves are falling, so are our civil liberties and the protections of our criminal justice system.

Our nation’s federal judges are weighing in on recent laws by Congress and policies of the attorney general that eviscerate our constitutional system of checks and balances. Meeting for the annual Federal Judicial Conference, the judges issued a press release yesterday, lambasting the sneak insertion of a provision called the Feeney Amendment into the PROTECT Act (also known as the Amber Alert bill.) The Feeney Amendment sharply limits a judge’s discretion in granting downward departures from federal sentencing guidelines. Many of the grounds upon which judges have been able to individualize sentences based on characteristics of the particular offender standing in front of them are now gone.

One-size-fits-all justice is no justice at all. Two million persons in this country now wake up in prison every day. How many more can we cram in? By stripping our Article III judges of their power and reducing their role to calculating guideline sentences pursuant to a mathematical formula, we give up our one last bastion of justice: the sentencing judge — the person who stands in the best position to evaluate the crime, the offender and the impact to the victim — and determine a just sentence based on all relevant factors.

Here’s more on the judges’ call to repeal the PROTECT Act and pass the JUDGES Act (Judicial Use of Discretion to Guarantee Equity in Sentencing Act of 2003.)

Let’s Swamp the Courts

As a defense lawyer, sure, I fear for my clients. But the memo has far-reaching effects for everyone. If enforced, the net result of the policy will be to eliminate incentives for plea bargains, leaving defendants with no recourse except to insist on a trial. According to the Times article, currently 96 percent of federal criminal defendants plead out and our courts still are overburdened. Under the new policy, there is a real risk our federal court system will collapse.

Medical Marijuana Patients Take It to the Hill
Medical marijuana patients, some seriously ill with MS, flew into Washington from around the country yesterday to urge support for two bills pending in Congress. Marijuana is the only medicine that safely alleviates their suffering. Both bills deserve your support.

The first is H.R. 2233, “the States’ Rights to Medical Marijuana Act,” which would reschedule marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II under federal law so that doctors can prescribe it in states with laws allowing medical use of marijuana.

The second is H.R. 1717, “the Truth in Trials Act,” which would change existing federal law to provide a defense for patients who use marijuana in compliance with the laws of their state, but nonetheless face federal drug charges.

Nine states to date — Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington — have enacted laws protecting patients who use medical marijuana from state criminal prosecution. As NORML senior policy analyst Paul Armentano puts it “These are patients, not criminals, and it’s about time Congress learned the difference.”

Count the ACLU Down But Not Out
They may have lost the California recall battle, but they came out swinging yesterday against the Secret Service. In a lawsuit filed in Philadelphia, the ACLU charges that the agency has been engaging in discriminatory practices against political protesters. The suit alleges that at recent presidential public appearances, local police, acting on orders from the Secret Service, moved protesters to the proverbial back of the bus, while Bush administration supporters and those expressing no view were allowed to remain up close. The ACLU says such policies violate the protesters’ First Amendment rights to free speech and to protest by allowing the Secret Service to decide that one group’s opinions get heard while another group’s gets stifled.

Forget the Patriot Act Tour
If you’re going to follow one tour this week, make it the Freedom Riders. Officially known as the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, this bus tour kicked off on the West Coast Saturday with 900 riders on 18 buses. They will visit 10 cities and more than 100 communities before arriving at their final destination, Washington. Inspired by the freedom riders of the civil rights movement in the ’60s, here’s their platform:

...Policies that work for immigrants and for all Americans. Policies consistent with our most noble principles and sacred values. Policies that: 1) Reward work by granting legal status to hardworking, taxpaying, law-abiding immigrant workers already established in the United States; 2) Renew our democracy by clearing the path to citizenship and full political participation for our newest Americans; 3) Restore labor protections so that all workers, including immigrant workers, have the right to fair treatment on the job 4) Reunite families in a timely fashion by streamlining our outdated immigration policies; and 5) Respect the civil rights and civil liberties of all so that immigrants are treated equally under the law, the federal government remains subject to checks and balances, and civil rights laws are meaningfully enforced.

Don’t Forget the Patriot Act
There’s a news conference in Washington today to generate support for two bills pending in Congress to repeal portions of the Patriot Act. One is H.R. 1157, the Freedom to Read Protection Act, introduced by Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. C.L. Otter, R-Idaho. It prohibits using funds to access bookstore and library records under the Patriot Act. The bill has passed the House and today’s press conference is aimed at generating support for a similar bill in the Senate.

The Senate bill is S. 1507, introduced by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt. This bill would raise the threshold necessary to obtain a warrant under the Patriot Act for library and bookstore records by requiring the government to show that the records sought are those of a suspected terrorist or spy.

If the Senate bill passes, the matter will move to a House-Senate conference for differences to be ironed out and a final bill approved.

Message to Congress:
138 and counting. According to the Innocence Project, that’s how many people have been exonerated and freed from prison following DNA testing proving they did not commit the crimes for which they were convicted. Statistics from the Death Penalty Information Center show that 111 persons have been freed from death row due to evidence showing they were wrongfully convicted. Check out these profiles of some of those wrongfully convicted. Where’s our Innocence Protection Act? At the beginning of the new session of Congress, there were 282 co-sponsors of the bill in the House and Senate and it’s still gathering dust. Get on the horn and tell your elected officials to get off their duff, don’t compromise, and get this bill passed.

Final Word
I have three final pleas. First, call the toll-free Congressional switchboard, 800-839-5276, ask for your congressperson, and register your support for the bills mentioned above. You can access all bills here by typing in their number. Two, help Rock the Vote. And last, but not least, Free Tommy Chong.

Sept. 23, 2003 |
The Landlord is moving today, so Charles Pierce here, altercating alternately while some poor schnook gets stuck with helping carry somewhere between 200 and 83,421 boxes of books to wherever the new Casa Altercation is. Anyway, happy What, Me Worry? Day at the U.N. Sit, Brit. Fetch. Good boy.

In case you haven’t noticed, the Only Attorney General We Have has gone a little bughouse on the death penalty recently. John (The Revelator) Ashcroft is now cruising the country, looking for local cases he can jam into the expanded federal standards for killing people. (Next time Paul Begala drops by for tea, thank him for Bill Clinton’s efforts on behalf of the Federal Strap-Your-Butt-To-A-Gurney needle exchange program.) Now, as you can read here, his eye is upon the Commonwealth, where he’s taken to poaching the prisons. This crime was so horrendous that it almost got the death penalty passed here; only one brave state representative stood in the way. Since then, the victim’s father has lost his enthusiasm for executions. Not our governor, though; Mitt Romney, who masterfully changed the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics from international bribery to good old-fashioned crony capitalism, has formed a committee to study a new death penalty for Massachusetts, the report of which ought to be out right on time for him to run for something on it next time around.

And now, here’s John the Revelator come to help, lurking around the corridors of the local hoosegow, a scythe in one hand, Crisco on his forehead, and a crow on his shoulder. (Here’s some more nuts fallen from the great big tree. It’s going to take the Justice Department years to recover, and the Constitution is on life support, and this clown is nowhere near the political liability he ought to be.)

So what, you may ask, does this have to do with states’ rights or, in this case, with the wishes of the victim’s family? You may also ask whether or not the Justice Department is in the hands of a self-sanctified loon who thinks he’s Jehovah’s favorite subcontractor.

The Lord is my hangman/And I, His.

Hey, guess what? Everything you know is wrong. A “week of interviewing” in California nets two anonymous quotes — one from a longtime buddy of Tom McClintock and one from “a lobbyist.” And that’s why he’s the Dean, boys and girls.

OK, now. Everybody chill out about those poll numbers from Monday afternoon. (“Look! Look over there! Hillary! Hillary!”) That means you, Wesley and John, and even you, Ho-Ho.There’s an awful lot of slime to be flung between now and November ’04, but they did serve to prove (again) that the RNC folks have people working for them who are unaware that anybody else has access to either the Internet or a long-term memory. They trotted out some flack to point out that Emperor C-Plus Augustus’ dismal showing is par for the course at this point in a president’s first term, comparable, she said, to what Bill Clinton was putting up in 1995.

Ah, no.

In fact, in 1995, according to the same Gallup poll, Bill Clinton was seven percentage points ahead of Bob Dole, whom he eventually defeated that fall. The only person who was beating Clinton in the speculative match-ups was Colin Powell, whom we later saw get scared out of the race by the majesty that was Gary Bauer. In 2003, alas, W is at the moment being given a run for the money by the entire top tier of Democratic challengers, including the inexcusable Weepin’ Joe Lieberman. And, just for further fun, the 1995 poll was taken just after Clinton had given a speech laying out his case to put U.S. troops into Bosnia. The poll asked how many people “felt confident” that Clinton could handle that situation, and “Yes” won by 63-34 percent.

Of course, there’s always the argument from the Hack Preservation Society here. Those in the audience moved by this to start shouting, “Harken Energy!” or “Arbusto!” or even, “AWOL!” will be asked to leave the hall. Thank you very much.

Want to visit the slime mine? Try here. If Mr. Murdoch’s startlingly advertising-free little fanzine wants to let the children play with sharp objects, that’s its own kettle of fish. But Harvard-educated Catholic intellectuals ought to have more sense than to get in the game themselves. Let me see if I have this straight: Wes Clark has been in the race for a little more than one Gallup poll, and he’s already he’s either Hillary’s bobo or Ross Perot’s doppelganger. Give these people another week, and they’ll have cast him as everyone from Eugene V. Debs to Trigger.

Check out Cecil Brown’s “Stagolee Shot Billy,” a deeply entertaining look at the legendary saga of a man and his John B. Stetson hat that includes not only the actual police report of the crime — the details as they have come down through about 9000 versions of the song are startlingly accurate — but the death certificate of “Stacker” Lee Shelton. If you wish, of course, you may wait until the night is black, and the moon is yellow, and the leaves are tumbling down...

Saw our man Rauchway on C-SPAN the other day, talking about his McKinley book and giving Brian Lamb a tutorial on how to say “Czolgosz” without spitting one’s soup across the room. It’s one of my books for going to Wichita, where we’re all going to be doing this radio show Thursday night.

Like many of my Fenian buddies, I often make light of “Danny Boy,” without ever letting on how deeply moving the song really is. And how true it rings today, with one kid a day ending up in a box. Which means it’s time for a definitive version, which Aaron Neville provides on his new album of standards. It is simple and spare and absolutely devastating, and it reclaims the song’s anti-war message forever. And, of course, Aaron sings the eyebrows off the thing, as magical a performance as his “Ave Maria” is when he drops it into the middle of a concert between, say, “Hey Pocky Way” and “Fiyo On The Bayou.”

Finally, as one of the co-founders — Nick Confessore is the other — of the Dump Bartlet movement in The West Wing‘s fan base, I was more than a little alarmed at the end of last season. Kindly President Jed handed over the White House to Republican Speaker John Goodman, who appeared to be far too large for the building to contain, and all because President Jed’s daughter went and got stoned with some guy who looked like a reserve goalie for the old Quebec Nordiques and then got herself kidnapped.

Now, over the weekend, I discover that there will be a new “more bipartisan” tone to the show, and that Republican viewpoints will be more thoroughly aired, and blah-blah-blah. Worse, I further discover (from Reuters) that one of the people who will breathe into the show this lovely new balanced breeze is the insufferable (and marginally employable) John Podhoretz.

Jeebus Christmas, is this what the hockey player demanded for a ransom? Now, a few years back, they tried this when they brought in Emily Proctor, who played a conservative GOP lawyer and who was the loveliest smart woman on TV since they offed Claire Kincaid on Law And Order. I mean, trading her for the dramatized pensees of Pod the Younger? This is a nightmare on a number of levels — not least of all the purely esthetic ones.

In fact, ever since Bravo began running the old shows this fall, TWW has stood exposed as having been a forelock-tugging, shuffle-footed guilty-liberal marshmallow right from jump. You could feel this coming from Aaron Sorkin’s eariler A Few Good Men, which went soft at all the wrong times on what can reasonably be called The Calley Question. Now that Sorkin’s left the show he’s created, this slow mold likely will blossom rankly throughout the whole season. (I have a feeling that, when this John Wells guy talks, GE’s lips don’t move.) If it weren’t for Allison Janney — jobbed at the Emmys AGAIN, by god — I’d have bailed on this show long ago. But I won’t now, because I’m worried about the story arc concerning the John Goodman character. It’s unseemly to have to transport the president by barge.

Sept. 22, 2003 |
This week, as so many members of the media seem to view themselves as unpaid staffers of Ronald Reagan’s personal publicity entourage, let us take a moment to remember the truth about the man and his presidency. I fear this will be harder and harder to do as time passes and Reagan’s debilitating disease takes its ultimate toll on him. If a Richard Nixon can be romanticized in death, Reagan will likely be beatified. Here’s a modest attempt at an antidote, drawn from a Nation columnI wrote a few years back. (And yes, I think the parallels with GWB are a bit eerie, too.)

Ronald Reagan was many things, but most undeniably he was a pathological liar. True, he also gave every impression of being an unbelievable moron (which is why Saturday Night Live could once parody his pathetic excuses for the Iran/contra scandal with a skit that depicted Reagan as-get this!-brilliant and competent). His worshipful, if fanciful, biographer Edmund Morris even called him an “apparent airhead.” The President’s famous cluelessness was so obvious during his years in office that his defenders would attempt to deploy it as a defense of his actions, as if he were a small child or a beloved but retarded uncle. The President tended to “build these little worlds and live in them,” noted a senior adviser. “He makes things up and believes them,” explained one of his kids.

Recall that Ol’ Dutch frequently made arguments about history based on movies he half-recalled. He thought he’d liberated concentration camps. He invented what he called “a verbal message” from the Pope in support of his Central America policies, news to everyone in Vatican City. In 1985, Reagan one day announced that the vicious apartheid regime of P.W. Botha had already “eliminated the segregation that we once had in our own country.”

Not only did Reagan make things up, he also forgot some things that most of us consider pretty important. Morris, for instance, let us in on the astonishing fact that the President not only did not know his own Secretary of Housing and Urban Development-no big whoop, as the guy was, after all, black-but that Mr. Family Values also failed to recognize his own son while attending his graduation. If any of us had apparent given to such behavior, we might feel compelled to look into some sort of institutionalized care, if only for his own protection.

But another, more significant, little-mentioned tendency of the ex-President was his fondness for genocidal murderers. I do not use the term “genocide” lightly.

Take Guatemala. That nation’s official Historical Clarification Commission charged its own government with a campaign of “genocide” in murdering roughly 200,000 people, mainly Mayan Indians, during its dictatorial reign of terror. The commission’s nine-volume 1999 report singled out the US role in aiding this “criminal counterinsurgency.” The violence in Guatemala reached a gruesome climax in the early eighties under the dictatorship of the born-again evangelical, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt. Nine hundred thousand people were forcibly relocated and entire villages leveled. As army helicopters strafed a caravan of 40,000 unarmed refugees seeking to escape to Mexico, Reagan chose that moment to congratulate Ríos Montt for his dedication to democracy, adding that he had been getting “a bum rap” from liberals in Congress and the media. His Administration soon provided as much aid to the killers as Congress would allow.

Reagan showed a similar indulgence toward the terrorists in El Salvador. The President and his equally immoral advisers consistently behaved as if they were hired public relations agents for the murderers of children, nuns, priests and peasants. Not long after these killings reached the amazing level of more than 200 per week-in a country with just 5.5 million people-Reagan mused aloud that they were not the work of “so called murder squads” on the right, but of “guerrilla forces” who think they “can get away with these violent acts, helping to try to bring down the government and the right wing will be blamed for it.” In fact, only days later, Vice President Bush flew to San Salvador to insist that “every murderous act” committed by “right-wing fanatics…poisons the well of friendship between our two countries,” and that “death squad murders” could cost the killers “the support of the American people.” Didn’t Reagan know what Bush knew? Does anyone care?

After the war, the Catholic archdiocese in San Salvador documented the number of killings on each side. The tally: military and government-assisted death squads, 41,048; left-wing guerrillas, 776. Reagan was off by almost 5,500 percent. Liar or moron? You tell me.

Historians are starting to provide a useful corrective, perhaps in anticipation of an orgy of dishonest eulogies like those for Richard Nixon in 1994. While pundits casually credit Reagan with inspiring Moscow’s capitulation in the cold war, via his obsession with Star Wars. But as Frances FitzGerald demonstrates in her book, Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan and Star Wars and the End of the Cold War, the historical record does not even remotely support this wishfully ignorant thesis. Similarly, in Matthew Evangelista’s work, Unarmed Forces, we discover the key role played by transnational forces in convincing Gorbachev & Co. to shut down the arms race in spite-not because-of the belligerence emanating from Reagan and his men.

In his comprehensive biography, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, Lou Cannon ignores Guatemala and bends over backward to be generous to his subject’s odd belief structure. But as Herbert Mitgang observed of the 1990 edition, simply “by being eminently fair,” the book proved “a devastating account of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.”

Today, the key question about Ronald Reagan remains not only unanswered but unasked. It is just this: How did this childlike fantasist and friend of genocide convince a nation of reasonably intelligent, God-fearing and generally decent citizens to avert its eyes from the heart of darkness that beat beneath his congenial smile?

Why are we still doing so today?

Name: Charles Parmely
Great column! I might be able to shed some light on Bush’s activities on 9/11. When I set up a September 11 chronology on my website, I learned a lot more about 9/11 than I’d originally wanted to. (You were kind enough to plug my site on Altercation a few weeks ago - my 9/11 page is at

Bush has given several different versions about when he learned of the first crash, and apparently all of his accounts are wrong. The plane hit the North Tower at 8:46 AM, at which time Bush was in a motorcade headed to Booker Elementary in Sarasota. Several of Bush’s entourage were notified of the crash while en route, and it seems likely that Bush himself learned of it at this time, too. If not, he found out when he pulled into the school’s parking lot at about 8:55 - his situation officer has repeatedly said that she ran up and informed him as he was getting out of his car - so it’s virtually certain that he was told even before he entered the school. The exact details of when Bush heard of the crash are less interesting to me than trying to understand why he would invent a series of imaginary stories about it. The Boston Herald had a good article about it - a copy can be found here.

Bush’s behavior in the classroom is one of the most inexplicable aspects of a very bizarre day. When Andy Card told him of the second crash at 9:05, Bush seemed to understand that this was an unfolding terrorist strike (Card claims he told Bush “America’s under attack.”), but he appeared strangely unconcerned. My take on this - and I have no evidence to back this up - is that he was thinking along the lines of ‘Gosh, this is awful... but someone else will take care of it,’ and he sat around with the kids because he thought the attacks just weren’t his problem.

His reaction doesn’t seem panicked or frightened, just weirdly uninvolved. I get the general impression that he had an ain’t-my-job attitude until he returned to Washington in the early evening. That’s just a theory - I have no way of knowing what, if anything, went on in Bush’s brain - but it would explain his utter lack of grip on 9/11.

You do make one mistake in your column. You wrote “...Florida is filled with Air Force bases just minutes away with planes that are supposed to be on twenty-four-hour alert.” Years ago, hundreds of planes were indeed kept on alert all over the US, but with the end of the Cold War this was radically cut back. On the morning of September 11, in the entire continental United States there were only 14 fighters on alert, fully armed and ready to take off on short notice. Only by about 11:00 AM did NORAD manage to get an adequate number of armed fighters in the air, and at about that time Air Force One did get a fighter escort. In any event, Bush departed from Sarasota at 9:55 and was not warned by Cheney of a supposed plot to shoot Air Force One until 10:32.

This brings up another interesting point. One aspect of 9/11 that is virtually never discussed is Cheney’s motive in warning Bush away from Washington. The whole story about a plot to shoot down Air Force One was based on laughably thin evidence (the garbled notes of a single crank call) and was obviously ludicrous. Al-Qaeda clearly didn’t have the capacity to accomplish this, unless they’d managed to smuggle in secret fighter squadrons to secret air bases or managed to enlist the assistance of evil space aliens. If Cheney actually believed in the plot, he was amazingly credulous or thoroughly panicked, and if he didn’t believe it, I have to assume he was using the story to keep Bush away from the capital and away from exercising the authority of his office. And if the latter is true - and I think it probably is - I have to assume that Cheney believed Bush to be incompetent. But we may never know.

Name: Don Dougherty
Hometown: Lynbrook, New York
Dear Eric; I saw the panel with Kristol, Baquet, Rich, and yourself the other night, with Auletta as the moderator. In the spirit of the 2000 campaign coverage, here is my take.

The informality of the dress that the two avowed liberals wore that evening was clearly is an attempt to avoid any suggestion of elitism, and reflects a deliberate strategy of identification with those whom they seek to influence any movement toward Republican economic policy. These suggestions by political consultants have been adopted after polls suggested that one would vote for a liberal who wore a tie. Kristol’s wearing of somewhat muted suit and tie is obviously a sign of his comfort with who he is and his political beliefs. This was an excellent dress tactic to avoid any possible suggestion of being shrill, and rather made him look highly mainstream. The classic conservative apparel favored by Mr. Baquet clearly indicated his position as a defender of the press, non-judgemental, dispassionate, and objective, and reflected his composed manner in the discussion. Several issues were discussed by the panel but space does not permit a full airing. Thank you and goodnight.