Popular Culture

 



Trump Derangement Syndrome Moves From the Streets and the National Mall to the Senate, the Federal Courts and Even to Retail

(February 13, 2017)

 

Boy and man, I have been following presidential election campaigns since 1948, when as a child of seven, I perused the pages of TIME to keep track of (however naively) the contest between Thomas E. Dewey and Harry S. Truman.  Suffice it to say that though the campaigns of Goldwater and Johnson, of Clinton and Bush, and of Bush (the younger) and Gore stirred the nation’s political emotions to no small extent, I have never witnessed mass hysteria even remotely comparable to that which the 2016 election between Donald J. Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton has produced and, hopefully, I never will again.

The reaction of Mrs. Clinton’s supporters to the shock and disappointment of her electoral defeat really does border on mental illness, and the blame for that can be laid entirely at the feet of the news media which spectacularly failed the nation in two separate ways. 

First, almost without exception, both the press and the various television networks reacted to Donald Trump’s politically incorrect and completely unconventional campaign style by demonizing him in a fashion not seen since the rough and tumble days of the early and mid- 19th century, but with this important difference.  Unlike the emotionally charged election of 1860, which resulted in the Civil War, both Lincoln and Douglas had strong and fervent supporters in the press.  Up until the last two or three weeks of the campaign, Mr. Trump had virtually no traditional media support of any kind.

Even The Wall Street Journal and Fox News were supporting the Never-Trumpers well after the nominating conventions.  It is hard to remember this in light of his smashing electoral college victory, but after Mr. Trump’s dispute with the Gold Star Kahn family and the release of the secret Access Hollywood audiotape discussing his views about dating, numerous Republican congressmen and senators called on their nominee to step aside in favor of Mike Pence, fearing a Democratic landslide which could cost the party both houses of congress.

While the Murdock newspapers and television networks were withholding support from Trump for strategic reasons, The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, ABC News, NBC News and MSNBC were bashing him on a daily basis (CBS News was a bit more measured) calling him a racist, sexist and xenophobe who was woefully uninformed on policy matters and temperamentally unsuited to be president.  The longstanding media cannon that nobody could be compared to Adolph Hitler was abandoned, and Mr. Trump was regularly referred to as a fascist, a Nazi, or as “Hitlerian.”  Even the nonpartisan USA Today departed for the first time from its established practice and asked its readers to vote against Donald Trump.

Given the fervent support which Mrs. Clinton engendered as the putative “first woman president” and the character assassination to which her opponent was subjected on a daily basis, it is hardly surprising that her supporters regarded Mr. Trump’s election as roughly tantamount to Beelzebub’s.

The second major (and even more unforgivable) media failure contributing to “Trump Derangement Syndrome” was the uniformly held (and reported) view that Mr. Trump had no chance of being elected and would probably lose in a landslide.  A panel of political pundits appearing on ABC’s This Week television program two Sundays before the election projected Mrs. Clinton’s electoral college totals would be between 341 and 322.  Even as late as 8:00 p.m. EST on election night, The New York Times’ Upshot column gave Hillary Clinton a 90 percent chance of winning the election.  Those of her supporters who went to bed early did so confident that she would be the next president.  Those who stayed up late to celebrate in person were reduced to tears beneath the glass ceiling of the Javits Center, waiting for their champion who never appeared.

For the second time in 2016 (the first being their reporting on Brexit), the media totally failed to give an accurate assessment of a major news story because they were reporting on their own agendas rather than on objective trends which were clearly discernible on the ground.

Stunned by the election results, feeling powerless as the Republican party consolidated its hold on the House of Representatives, the Senate, and state legislatures and governors’ mansions across the country, and convinced by eighteen months of poisonous coverage that the country had elected a monster as president, the base of the Democratic Party prepared itself for a campaign of massive resistance to the new administration.

In Washington D.C., on the day of the president’s inauguration, demonstrators smashed shop windows and set cars afire in a protest so violent that 136 people were arrested and charged with felonious rioting.

The next day a well organized and well funded Women’s March on Washington comprised of feminists (pro-life women were discouraged from attending) descended on the National Mall about half a million strong from every part of the country to hear speakers like Madonna say that she wanted to “blow up the White House,” and Ashley Judd disparage the president, in particular, and men, in general, in what was doubtless the most vulgar, tasteless and profane address ever delivered on the National Mall.  You can listen to it for yourself, www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNXMOxBbt6g , but suffice it to say that it was not of the same caliber as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  And, I daresay, neither the march nor Ms. Judd’s “Nasty Woman” tirade would have occurred had the election gone the other way – both were the result of Trump Derangement Syndrome.

So, too, has been the Democratic Party’s response to the confirmation of President Trump’s cabinet nominations in the Senate.  Although the Democrats lack the numbers (thanks to Harry Reid’s abolition of the filibuster for executive and lower level judicial appointments) to block any of the president’s nominees, they have nevertheless used senate rules to slow the confirmation process to such an extent that Mr. Trump has fewer cabinet members in place this long after his inauguration than any president since George Washington. 

With the exception of James Mattis’ selection to be Secretary of Defense, almost every Democratic senator (Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia being the rare exception) has voted against almost every one of Mr. Trump’s nominees.  The traditional assumption that every president should be entitled to his own cabinet choices apparently no longer obtains, as senate minority leader Chuck Schumer has opted for symbolic, if futile, mass resistance.

It appears that mass resistance to the new administration will not be confined to the streets or to the halls of congress, but will take place on a regular basis in the courts as well.  The American Civil Liberties Union, to which I contribute on a monthly basis, had a picture of President Trump on the cover of its magazine, The Stand, with the legend “No President is Above the Law – SEE YOU IN COURT.”  I thought at the time that perhaps it might be best to wait for an offending action, but as far as the ACLU was concerned that was not long in coming.

The ACLU was one of several litigants who sued to block the president’s executive order, variously described as the “travel ban” or the “Muslim ban,” which temporarily blocked entry into the United States from seven countries (Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen), most of them failed states, which the prior administration had identified as having little or no records from which their citizens could be properly vetted.  The ACLU’s suit, which had been filed in the United States district court in Massachusetts, resulted in a temporary stay, which was almost immediately lifted, for reasons which will become obvious below.

But the attorneys general of Washington and Minnesota chose a much more felicitous forum and filed in federal district court in Seattle where Judge James Robart, without so much as an evidentiary hearing or a discussion of the controlling federal law, waived aside serious issues of the two states’ standing to sue on behalf of their own or foreign citizens, and issued a nationwide order based on the Establishment Clause of the first amendment barring enforcement of the president’s national security measure on grounds that it violated due process and improperly discriminated against the Muslim religion.

The two attorneys general chose their court well because appeal of Judge Robart’s order went to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the most liberal and the most reversed appellate court in the federal system, and a court not inclined to let the law stand in the way of a feel good decision.

At oral argument, which was carried on live audio by several cable television networks, the three Ninth Circuit appellate judges peppered the government’s lawyer with questions about “a Muslim ban” mentioned during the election campaign by candidate Donald Trump and even by his supporter, former New York City mayor, Rudy Giuliani.  He tried to convince the court that the purpose of the order was to prevent potential terrorists from entering the country from the seven countries which the prior administration (and the congress) had determined presented an elevated terrorist threat and from which vetting was practically impossible.

The court, however, was interested in the fact that the seven countries designated in the president’s executive order all had predominantly Muslim populations, and less impressed with the fact (mentioned by one of the judges, himself) that 85% of all Muslims worldwide lived in countries not covered by the president’s order.

What did not intrigue the Ninth Circuit panel, however, was the federal law specifically bearing on the matter at hand, 8 USC Section 1182 (f), by which the congress made an express grant of authority to the president to suspend the entry into the United States of any class of aliens whom he deemed dangerous.  That statute, unmentioned by either the district court in Seattle or by the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, reads in pertinent part as follows:

Suspension of entry or imposition of restrictions by President

Whenever the President finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate.

Which, of course, is precisely what the president did. 

An excellent op-ed piece published in The Wall Street Journal’s issue of February 11-12, 2017, entitled “The Ninth Circuit Ignores Precedent and Threatens National Security,” points out that even without the express grant of authority in the statute (which has been used by “numerous presidents … to suspend entry of aliens from specific countries”), the president has inherent powers under the constitution to issue such an executive order.

Authors, David B. Rivkin, Jr. and Lee A. Casey, distinguished constitutional and appellate lawyers who served in the White House and the Justice Department during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, cited the Supreme Court’s 1950 decision in Knauff v Shaughnessy for the proposition that the president’s authority to exclude aliens, in the words of the Court:

“stems not alone from the legislative power but is inherent in the executive power to control the foreign affairs of the nation.”

The authors point out that President Trump in issuing his executive order “was acting at the apex of his authority” with which the courts should be especially careful not to interfere, citing the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Youngstown v. Sawyer in which Justice Robert Jackson stated:

“When the President acts pursuant to an express or implied authorization of Congress, his authority is at its maximum, for it includes all that he possesses in his own right plus all that Congress can delegate.”

That bedrock principle of judicial review and separation of powers, of course, was entirely lost on the Ninth Circuit, reaching for the politically popular result of vindicating religious freedom.  “That point,” the authors wrote, “the Ninth Circuit ignored entirely.”  They might have as well quoted another wise observation of Justice Jackson’s that seems particularly appropriate in this case, that: “the constitution is not a suicide pact.”

The authors also stressed a procedural point that will be of more interest to lawyers and judges than to the general public.  The States of Washington and Minnesota had no right to be in court in the first place because they lacked standing to sue.  Citing the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. Mellon, they noted that it has been well established since 1923 that states have neither the power nor right to vindicate their individual citizens’ “rights in respect of their relations with the Federal Government.”

“Thus,” the authors write, “the plaintiffs' claims that the executive order violates various constitutional rights, such as equal protection, due process and religious freedom, are insufficient because these are individual and not states’ rights.”

That is doubly true, of course, of foreign aliens overseas who have never been to the United States and accordingly have no due process rights whatever under the United States constitution.

These legal fine points like statutory law, separation of powers and standing do not cut much ice with the Ninth Circuit which likes to do justice, and not by halves.  Perhaps that is why of every ten cases appealed from that circuit eight are reversed by the Supreme Court.

But satisfying as rioting, marching, political back-biting, and judicial payback on national security matters might be, we Americans are consumers at heart, and certainly there should be a role for Trump Derangement Syndrome as we shop until we drop.  As it happens, some left leaning internet types have stepped in to make sure that the anti-Trumpers can express their displeasure with the president and his family while shopping.

In October, Shannon Coulter started a leftist web site called Grab Your Wallet, https://grabyourwallet.org/, which encourages its readers to boycott stores, hotels and resorts which offer Trump merchandise or amenities for sale.  Also on the boycott list are companies whose officers or founders endorsed or said complimentary things about Mr. Trump.  The list is updated daily and makes comments on how the various retailers are responding to their boycott. 

 Nordstrom was the original target when Ms. Coulter began to be offended by its offerings of Ivanka Trump’s line, but it was removed from the boycott list when it capitulated to her demands.  According to an article by Suzanne Kapner and Sara Germano on page B1 of the February 10, 2017 edition of The Wall Street Journal, sales of Ms. Trump’s line of merchandise at Nordstrom fell 63% during the last three months of 2016, which coincides with the commencement of Grab Your Wallet’s boycott.  After Nordstrom committed to removing the Trump line, traffic spiked 28% on its website from 707,000 visits to 908,000 in the comparable period.

Grab Your Wallet also attempts to influence government policy.  Sneaker maker New Balance Athletics Inc. was put on the boycott list because of its support for Mr. Trump’s trade policies.

As of today’s date, February 13th, the 126th day of the #Grab Your Wallet boycott, the top ten companies on the boycott list were Macy’s, L.L. Bean, Bloomingdale’s, Dillard’s, Zappos, Amazon, Hudson Bay, T.J. Maxx, Lord & Taylor, and Bed Bath & Beyond.  Just below those top ten targets is the following legend advising customers what to say when contacting the stores:

“Hi. I’m a customer of [Store Name].  Unfortunately I can no longer do business with your company because it does business with the Trump family.  If your company were to no longer do business with the Trump family I would enthusiastically return as a customer.  Please communicate my feedback to management.”

Among the non-retail companies included on Ms. Coulter’s boycott list, for the offenses of advising, endorsing, raising funds for, or supporting the policies of Donald Trump, or for “further enriching him” by advertising on Celebrity Apprentice are Kushner Properties, See’s Candies, Universal Studios Hollywood, Welch’s, Miller Coors, New Balance, NASCAR and Yuengling Beer.

Actually, the retailers are the lucky ones.  All they have to do to be removed from the boycott list is to refrain from selling Trump merchandise. Companies such as Miller Coors, New Balance, NASCAR and Yuengling Beer can escape the list only by removing their senior management.

Apparently, Shannon Coulter not only suffers from an acute case of Trump Derangement Syndrome but also from delusions of grandeur.   

Hey, we’ve got at least four (and probably eight) more years of the Trump administration.  This is going to get tiresome.  In the words of Rodney King, “can’t we all just get along?”

 

 


“This Is the Life We Have Chosen”

(October 1, 2015)

 

That line from one of the classic Hollywood films about life in the mob pretty well sums up America’s love (and death) affair with guns and gun ownership.  This country has a problem with mass shootings which is replicated nowhere else in the industrialized world or, for that matter, anywhere else in the civilized world. 

The presumed reason that we tolerate this carnage is the second amendment to our constitution which states that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed,” but as Justice Robert Jackson has famously observed “the constitution is not a suicide pact.”  Well, not unless the board of directors of the National Rifle Association and our gutless career politicians insist on making it one.

The mass shooting today at Umpqua Community College in Oregon in which nine people were killed is the 43rd school shooting this year and, according to columnist E. J. Dionne, the 142nd school shooting since the massacre of twenty some odd first and second graders on December 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.  It was thought at the time that Sandy Hook’s slaughter of the innocents might finally galvanize, or shame, our Congress into doing something about effective background checks to keep semi-automatic weapons out of the hands of criminals and the mentally deranged, but fear of the NRA and the instinct for political preservation ultimately prevailed and no federal legislation was even brought to a vote – this display of cowardice occurred despite the fact that over 70 percent of NRA members and 90 percent of the general population favored effective background checks!

So, we know that today’s shootings at the hands of a mentally disturbed young man will have no more effect than did the mass shootings earlier this year in the Charleston, South Carolina church killings, or the slayings of our military recruiters in Chattanooga, Tennessee, or the now commonplace shootings which occur throughout the country in our movie theatres.  The United States appears to be the only country on the face of the earth which has a policy of arming the criminally insane with military-style weapons.

A recent article in The Washington Post reported that, by a particularly grisly and macabre coincidence, 242 days into 2015 our nation had just experienced its 242nd mass shooting of the year – averaging one for each day of the year.  The term “mass shooting” was defined as any incident in which four or more people were struck by gunfire, regardless of whether death resulted.

This piece started with a quote from a Hollywood film, so it might as well end with one.  In Baja Oklahoma, Peter Coyote, playing the part of the frustrated romantic lead shouts at his infuriatingly indecisive love interest, “Either you don’t know what you want, or this is the way you want it!”

Again, that pretty much sums up America’s love-hate relationship with guns and the mindless slaughter they enable.

 

 




Let a Snarl Be Your Umbrella

 

 

During the heyday of the Clinton administration, flame thrower and radio talk show host, Russ Limbaugh, used to ridicule people who thought he and his audience were “mean spirited.”  To him (and them) the term was a badge of honor, and never more so than today, apparently.  This primary season the Republican base (as measured by audience reaction at G.O.P. debates) have cheered execution of the innocent, applauded wildly at the suggestion that the uninsured should be allowed to die on the sidewalk outside hospitals, and booed lustily Ron Paul’s invocation of the Golden Rule in a foreign policy context.

 

For this angry and “mean spirited” crowd, Newt Gingrich is the perfect candidate.  Who better could help them find their voice?  This Republican “intellectual” who, among his other brilliant ideas, has proposed the death penalty for anyone in possession of two ounces of marijuana, never fails to bring the faithful to their feet.  Whether describing Barak Obama as the “food stamp president,” or simply advocating a preemptive military attack on Iran, he always does it with a snarl, with sarcasm dripping from his lips.  No happy warrior bandying witticisms about is Newt – the ferocious (sometimes feral) scowl is never far from his reddened face.

 

Thursday night at the start of the second debate before today’s (January 21, 2012) South Carolina primary, however, Newt surpassed even his own high standards for surly rhetoric.  That very day, spooked by The Drudge Report, ABC News was stampeded into airing an interview with Newt’s second wife, Marianne Gingrich, in which she rehashed the details of an old Esquire magazine article written about her divorce.

 

Neither the old article nor the up to the minute television interview reflected very well on Mr. Gingrich – they recounted how he, lying in bed (her bed) with his then staffer and mistress (now third wife, Callista) would telephone her each night while she was in Georgia from their Washington apartment; how he later demanded an “open marriage” so he could continue to have sexual relations with his mistress, noting that Callista had no objections to the arrangement; and finally, just after his wife’s diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (when her doctor had told her to avoid all stress), he telephoned her during her mother’s 84th birthday party to say he was divorcing her because she was neither pretty enough nor young enough to be the wife of the president of the United States.

 

Misjudging how these allegations might be viewed by an audience of South Carolina Republicans (and thinking they would be uppermost in the voters’ minds) CNN’s moderator, John King, asked Mr. Gingrich if he would like to take the opportunity of responding to them.  “No,” snarled the former speaker of the House, and then, after a dramatic pause, “but I will!”  To thunderous applause, Mr. Gingrich deflected the discussion from his own conduct to a lecture on how outrageous it was for Mr. King to have broached the subject:

 

“To take an ex-wife and make it, two days before the primary, a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine!”

 

The startled moderator was so taken aback by Mr. Gingrich’s angry diatribe against him, CNN, ABC News and the Washington Post (which had written a story on the same subject) that he failed to ask the narcissistic former speaker if he could not imagine that most people might view his treatment of his ex-wife, Marianne Gingrich, as a good deal more despicable, but the roar of approval from the crowd and its obvious hostility toward the media must have disconcerted him.

 

From that point on, there was no question remaining as to who had won the debate.  The sanctity of marriage, and even Republican family values (“once you’ve made it through the birth canal, you’re on your own”), had taken a back seat that evening (and this campaign season) to righteous anger delivered with a snarl.

 

 




It’s Godzilla vs. Mothra in the Sordid Sex Bowl

 

Mike Ditka, legendary coach of the 1985 edition of “Da Bears,” may not have been a trend-setter in the field of popular culture, but he did make one singular contribution to spectator sports.  He barred the Honey Bears, the Windy City version of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, from the sidelines of the Chicago Bears football games.

 

Iron Mike was a hard nosed tight-end from Pitt, and the man who single-handedly dragged a tackler into field goal range in the 1963 Bears game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on the weekend of the Kennedy assassination, which ultimately led the 1963 Bears to victory in the NFL championship game against the New York Giants on December 29, 1963 in frigid Wrigley Field.  The point is that Mike Ditka thought pro football was about fathers and sons, and about buddies and friends, and not about sexual titillation.  Even today, the Chicago Bears are the only pro football team which doesn’t have sexy dancing girls performing on its sidelines.

 

How innocent, and how far removed from the gossipy TMZ culture of today.  There’s a football game tonight, Thursday evening, December 9, 2010, between Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts and the hapless Tennessee Titans, but that’s not the big news of pro football today.  No, according to Yahoo Sports, the real story is that busty Jenn Sterger “won’t sue as long as Brett Favre is suspended.”

 

Ms. Sterger, a publicist for the New York Jets, who is pictured in the Yahoo article with her hand over her impressive breast while saluting the flag, was the lucky recipient of the star Green Bay-New York-Minnesota quarterback’s allegedly unwelcome attentions when he texted her a picture of himself masturbating while clad only in a pair of plastic Crocs.  Apparently, the star quarterback, and idol of little boys everywhere, thought Ms. Sterger would find this image irresistible, but she merely filed it away as an economic opportunity for a rainy day.  Or, perhaps, she preferred naked men in wing-tips, but suffice it to say she was not overcome by passion.  Now, a couple of years later, Ms. Sterger thinks she might sue if Mr. Favre is not disciplined by the NFL.

 

According to Matthew J. Darnell, the author of the Yahoo piece, Ms. Sterger is not acting from motives of personal gain, quoting her public relations manager Phil Reese, but merely to make sure that the league puts policies in place to assure that similar incidents will not happen again:

 

"If the commissioner suspends Favre and puts a program in place to prevent it from happening again ... 100 percent, Jenn would not pursue any litigation against Favre, against the Jets, against the NFL. Nothing. All she wants to do is clear her name. This is not about money."

 

Ah, how true it is that virtue is it’s own reward!  I’m sure that Jenn Sterger would never audition for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (or the Honey Bears), or have her head turned even by a fully clad team owner wearing wing-tips.

 

 




The Ideological States of America

 

Let’s assume you are an orphan and could choose, not your adoptive parents, but the North American country in which you and they would live.  Well, unless you are already into drugs and gunplay, you’d probably eliminate Mexico without too much agonizing thought, but what of the remaining North America candidates, the United States and Canada?  Well, that’s a pretty easy choice, isn’t it?

 

After all, everybody knows America is the “greatest country in the world,” don’t they?  Why that’s almost the United States’ national slogan.  It has the greatest armed forces in the world, the greatest medicine in the world, the greatest system of government in the world, the greatest athletes in the world, the greatest universities in the world, etc.  Well, you get the idea.  But remember, you can choose your country, but you can’t choose your adoptive parents.  So, before you make your choice, let me ask you one question:  Do you feel lucky?

 

Because, if you’re planning to choose The Greatest Country in the World, you’d better be.  If you are into quality of life, you’ll need to draw a Mom or Dad in the top ten percent, and preferably the top five or two percent, of wage earners.  Things aren’t going so well for the orphans who draw into the “great American middle class” these days.  And that’s because we Americans like to run our country and our lives in accordance with some pretty great abstract principles and ideological assumptions.

 

We are into the self-reliance, free enterprise, anti-regulation, “pull your self up by your bootstraps” type thinking of the sort that Ayn Rand and Ronald Reagan employed to convince us that “government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem” -- all those things we talked about so enthusiastically in 2:00 a.m. bull sessions in college.  Usually, when you grow up you get over those abstract ideas but, like Peter Pan, we Americans never did.  And that’s the point.  If you’re looking for grown-ups (and grown-ups generally make the best parents) perhaps you would be wise to consider Canada.

 

Canadians are kind of practical and dull.  For instance, they like capitalism and free enterprise but they don’t think it squelches all initiative to have a little bit of prudent regulation.  When our clever American bankers were thinking up and trading derivatives, and bundling up worthless mortgages and getting them rated AAA and selling them to unsuspecting investors around the world, Canadian bankers never did.  They just kept making mortgage loans to people they knew could repay them (usually to people who wanted to live in the houses they mortgaged, rather than people who wanted to “flip” them as real estate investments) and for the most part they kept those mortgages for their own accounts.  Canadian bankers didn’t regard themselves as “Masters of the Universe,” and didn’t pay themselves salaries in the tens of millions of dollars, they just kept making ordinary loans to their customers who could repay them.

 

Pretty dull stuff, but because Canadian bankers and regulators acted like bankers and bank regulators rather than like high-stakes gamblers and high priests of unbridled capitalism, Canada didn’t experience the 2008 housing crash which almost brought down America’s financial system and almost brought on the 2nd Great Depression.  Not a single Canadian bank failed and not a single Canadian dollar had to be used in taxpayer bailouts.  And while Americans were losing their jobs and their homes and enduring the worst economic dislocation of their lifetimes, Canadians didn’t even experience a mild recession.  It may not be sexy, but Canada’s financial system is generally regarded as the strongest and best managed in the world.

 

Well, a good economy isn’t everything, what if an orphan got sick?  It is beyond dispute that America has the best doctors and medical procedures in the world.  Again, however, that might depend on how you came out in the adoptive parent lottery.  If you drew parents who were among the richest ten percent in the country or, even if you didn’t, you had parents whose employers provided them with health insurance at work, chances are you’d be just fine.  If, however, your parents were pursuing that Ayn Randian dream of starting their own business and couldn’t afford health insurance, you might find that America provided you with the best medical care in the world which you, your parents and about one-third of the people in the country couldn’t afford.  In that case, when you get sick you go bankrupt.

 

In Canada, when you get sick you go to the doctor.  That’s because everybody in Canada can afford health insurance and the government provides it to all Canadian residents for a low monthly charge which is the same for everyone.  Americans don’t approve of that because they regard it as “socialized medicine.”  Canadians think their system is alright because it provides good healthcare to everyone at a price they can afford and it provides very good patient outcomes (better, in fact, than the outcomes Americans receive on the whole).  On a macro basis, Canadian healthcare ranks much higher than its American counterpart.  But Americans sneer at Canadian medicine and say when rich Canadians get sick they come to America for treatment, forgetting that when poor Americans get sick they just die.  It all depends on how well you do in that parental lottery.

 

Another great thing about being an American is that America rules.  We are the greatest country in the world, and don’t you think we let everybody else know it!  When we see any country in the world doing something of which we don’t approve, we invade them.  Just in the last ten years, we didn’t like what was going on in Afghanistan, so we invaded it.  And we didn’t like what was going on in Iraq, so we invaded it.  Of course, all these invasions cost a lot of our soldiers lives (well over five thousand in Iraq and Afghanistan so far) and a lot of money which we don’t have (but the English, the Chinese and the Japanese are happy to lend it to us), and being on the A Team isn’t cheap.  The Canadians help us out a little on the edges, but they don’t start the wars – we do.  I guess you could say they are on the C Team.

 

Of course, being on the A Team and running the world does cost an awful lot of money, and we Americans don’t approve of paying taxes.  That’s another ideological principle which we Americans hold dear.  We hate big government except when we are using our big military to kick someone else’s ass, so we have to borrow a lot of money and run some really American sized deficits.  But our favorite recent president, Ronald Reagan, ran up huge deficits, and our previous vice president, Dick Cheney (the one who loved all those invasions), said Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.  And maybe he’s right.

 

Anyway, if you choose to become an American, as opposed to a Canadian, you’d better hope he is right.  Because next year our deficit as a percentage of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP to the policy wonks) will be over 10% (rising to 90% by 2020) compared with Canada’s which will only be 2.8%.  Some day those debts will have to be retired, and it will be our children, grandchildren and orphans who will have to pay them.  We Americans have our principles – thank God we’ve got our future generations to come up with the principal to pay for them.

 

So, what will your choice be, young orphan?  Do you want to be on the A Team, take your chances with social Darwinism, and run the world?  Or, will you settle for low taxes, virtually no debt, a great economy, universal healthcare, and the comfortable lifestyle which being on the Canadian C Team offers?  If you choose the former, I hope you draw into the top ten percent!

 

    




Tiger’s Mea Culpa

 

It’s quite an understatement to say that I am no fan of Tiger Woods.  I root against him, not for him, on the PGA Tour for the same reason I root against such over dogs as the New York Yankees, the Duke University basketball team, Florida Gators football and the Dallas Cowboys.  It’s not in my nature to pull for, or identify with, such cool, haughty and perennially successful people or programs like those.  My support and my empathy go out to the talented but often flawed, and just occasionally successful, teams and people like the Chicago Cubs, the New Orleans Saints, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, the Vanderbilt Commodores, and golfers like Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh.

 

For many years I thought Phil never would win a Major, and now it looks like Vijay may never win another one.  But even as they attempt to harness their considerable talents and struggle with their games, they endear themselves to me and countless others because of their open, friendly and gregarious personalities, and their whimsical acknowledgments of their setbacks and frailties.

 

With Tiger, not so much.  Even as Tiger Woods was on his way to becoming the most proficient golfer of the modern era, winning Major after Major, year after year, he never gave his fans a glimpse of the man inside.  He showed us the professional, Madison Avenue smile which was an ad man’s dream, but his true persona was kept locked away beneath his cool exterior, and only rarely did a glimpse of the real person leak out such as the bursts of profanity and club slamming on the occasion of a rare missed shot, or his cold refusal to accept Fuzzy Zoeller’s apology after the latter’s clumsy attempt at a joke about the menu at the Masters’ banquet.

 

Now, for the first time in his charmed life, Tiger finds himself (however temporarily) in the role of an underdog.  His sexual escapades have jeopardized his marriage, his Madison Avenue image, and his multi-million dollar string of endorsements.  It was commercial, rather than personal, factors which necessitated his televised apology this morning at the PGA’s national headquarters at Ponte Vedra, Florida.  Certainly, he could have apologized to his wife, mother and children in a more private setting, but for the PGA and his many corporate sponsors the show of contrition this morning was absolutely essential.  And to me, at least, his contrition appeared absolutely genuine.  The old privacy shield was still there, of course, as befits his guarded personality, but I saw nothing which caused me to doubt his sincerity.

 

The apology satisfied some, but by no means all, of the talking heads in the media.  He took no questions and that offended many members of the Fourth Estate, some of whom no doubt would have liked to have delved into the details of his serial affairs and assignations.  They are not going to get that information from Tiger, nor should they.  Only in America would it be thought to be particularly newsworthy.

 

Tiger has simply joined a long line of presidents, governors, sports stars, and other celebrities who are serial philanderers.  He’s no better or worse than Jack Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Elliott Spitzer, Mark Sanford, Magic Johnson or Wilt Chamberlain.  We’ve given most of them a pass for their super-sized libidos, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do the same for Tiger.  If Nike and his other sponsors don’t mind, who are we to object?  Charles Barkley was right when he suggested that parents, not professional athletes, should be role models.

 

So, after Tiger spends another few weeks in his sex addiction clinic, let’s hope he gets back on the links and starts winning golf tournaments again.  I need someone to root against.

 

                




You’re Dating Yourself, Rachel

 

I am a fan of the Rachel Maddow Show and enjoy watching her on MSNBC, often twice in a single evening.  She agrees with many of my own biases and, as everybody knows, there is nothing more satisfying than hearing one’s own opinions repeated by an intelligent and sophisticated commentator on television.  And Rachel is nothing if not intelligent and sophisticated.  Nor is she above resorting to intellectual dishonesty when cornered in a debate by an equally gifted opponent.  That is precisely what occurred on July 16, 2009 when Pat Buchanan appeared as a guest on her show to discuss the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor in particular, and affirmative action in general.

 

Mr. Buchanan made the argument that the nomination of Judge Sotomayor was a brilliant appointment from the standpoint of ethnic and gender based politics, but that she was hardly the most talented Hispanic or woman nominee that President Obama could have chosen for the Court, citing the judge’s own statement that she was “an affirmative action baby.”  He perhaps made the mistake (in a short televised segment) of reviewing the history of affirmative action in university admissions, but he was unquestionably correct in suggesting that Judge Sotomayor gained her admission to Princeton University as a result of a preference granted to her over more qualified candidates for admission.  The Judge, herself, would not argue that point.  But, when Pat invited Rachel to discuss the relative merits of affirmative action as a permanent, as opposed to a temporary, remedial policy under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, she refused to engage him on an intellectual, as opposed to an emotional, basis.

 

He wanted to draw his talk show hostess into a discussion of the Ricci case involving the test results which the City of New Haven threw out when no black firemen qualified for immediate promotion.  Judge Sotomayor was one of three judges on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit which held in a one paragraph opinion that the district court was correct in permitting New Haven to void the results of a thoroughly validated test simply because they did not like the racial composition of those who had passed it.  Judge Sotomayor who, as a legal advisor to the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund, had never seen an employment test of which she approved, was happy to affirm that decision in an unsigned per curiam opinion without consideration of any of the complex legal issues it involved.

 

In a remarkable bit of irony, another judge on the Second Circuit, Judge Jose Cabranes, who had been the general counsel of Yale University when Sonia Sotomayor had been admitted to its law school, and who took his fellow Puerto Rican under his wing at Yale and after her graduation procured for her a position in the prestigious office of Manhattan district attorney, Robert Morgenthau, wrote a blistering dissent when Mr. Ricci and his fellow firefighters petitioned the full Second Circuit for a rehearing en banc.  Although the City of New Haven prevailed on the petition for rehearing by a 7-6 vote, Judge Cabranes’ dissenting opinion called the case to the attention of the United States Supreme Court which on June 29, 2009 reversed in a 5-4 decision written by Justice Kennedy and ordered the firefighters who had passed the test promoted.

 

It certainly is not the purpose of this piece to discuss the inherent conflicts in the overt discrimination and disparate impact aspects of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the various judicial decisions construing them, but suffice it to say that they do not present obvious or easy legal issues.  The Ricci case gained considerable attention while it was pending in the Supreme Court, and for reasons unknown I took the uncharacteristic step of actually reading all ninety pages of the transcript of the oral argument before the Court.  In a prior life, I had practiced employment discrimination law and I was impressed with how complex the issues in the case were, and I was absolutely astounded that Judge Sotomayor and her two fellow judges on the Second Circuit panel could have disposed of them in an unsigned opinion only one paragraph in length.  Judging from their respective opinions, so were Judge Cabranes and Justice Kennedy.

 

At any rate, if Pat Buchanan thought he was going to draw Rachel Maddow into a philosophical discussion about the merits of discriminating against current job or university applicants because of past discrimination decades ago against minorities, he was sadly mistaken.  Ms. Maddow clearly thought the fact that there had been 108 some-odd white male appointees to the Supreme Court during its history while only two women and two blacks (and no Hispanics) had been appointed conclusively established that Judge Sotomayor deserved confirmation.  Whenever Mr. Buchanan tried to question her qualifications, or to discuss the potential inequities of affirmative action (or, as he thought of it, reverse discrimination), Ms. Maddow dismissed his points not by addressing them but by repeating her mantra that “You’re dating yourself, Pat.”

 

During the last thirty seconds of an interview which had lasted almost eleven minutes, Mr. Buchanan tried one more time to get his hostess to answer whether she felt Frank Ricci and the other white firemen had been treated fairly by the City of New Haven which had denied them promotions solely because they were white.  Declining to give her guest the satisfaction of an answer, she said he was “living in the past,” and contented herself with interrupting him with one final “you’re dating yourself” remark before allowing him to finish his question and then condescendingly stating that they were out of time.  He had the graciousness to say that he had enjoyed appearing on her show.

 

But, Rachel, have you considered that perhaps you are the one who, in this instance, is out of date and living in the past?  After all, the Supreme Court had completely vindicated Pat’s position only seventeen days earlier.

 

 

 




Buster Made It Home

 

I was in the kitchen and looked down and there was Buster, my grey tiger-striped cat.  I was so glad to see him – he had been gone for months.  We went outside and he was his old mischievous self.  He chased a larger animal around the yard and then stalked another who was sitting in the low branch of a cactus.  He jumped into the cactus, flushing him.  I was alarmed that he would be pricked all over, but he was fine.  We went back inside for a while and then I had to leave to run an errand.  I wondered if he would dart out the door, but he was content to stay in the house.  I’d better get some litter for his box, I thought.

 

Then I realized that wouldn’t be necessary.  Buster was hit by a car ten months ago.  We found his body the next day not two yards from the gap in our back fence which he used to come and go.  He had been trying to make it back home.  Last night he made it back, but only in my dream.

 

 




A Stitch in Time Would Have Saved 65 (Billion Dollars)

 

Treasury secretary Hank Paulson is so macho, with his bald head and tough guy stance, that if he’d just put on an earring he might well be mistaken for the rugged detective on The Shield.  He doesn’t believe in encouraging bad behavior, and that’s why he let Lehman Brothers go down the tubes earlier this week.  Not one penny of taxpayer money would be advanced to save Lehman Brothers from bankruptcy, he said, and he implied that the same stance would apply to American International Group.  AIG had asked for a $20 billion bridge loan from the Treasury over the weekend and offered to put up $40 billion worth of very strong collateral to secure it, but tough guy Hank said no.  After bailing out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac at God knows what expense to the taxpayers about a week earlier, he was back on the “moral hazard” bandwagon.

 

Well, when the gutless and incompetent rating agencies (where were they when the credit crunch began – assigning AAA ratings to bundles of worthless mortgages) downgraded AIG’s securities on Monday, drastically reducing the value of AIG’s assets, and making it virtually certain that it would have to declare bankruptcy, Mr. Paulson began to have second thoughts about the ripples (or should we say tsunamis) that the demise of the world’s preeminent insurance and financial services company might have in financial markets at home and abroad.

 

Suddenly, riding out this financial hurricane didn’t seem like such a good idea, and on Monday evening, after the stock market had closed, tough-talking Hank committed to making the bridge loan necessary to give AIG time to sell enough assets and raise enough capital to stay afloat.  But the pride that preceded the bailout had not been inexpensive – in a little more than one day, the price of keeping AIG in business had increased by $65 billion.  Thanks to our friends at Moody’s and S&P the price of the rescue had suddenly become $85 billion.  We are told that the interest rate on the bridge loan was high and the terms were tough.  We can hope that one of the terms included cancellation of those obnoxious television commercials in which supercilious children are told by their parents to relax, “we are with AIG.”  Now we are all with AIG, just not as clients, but as lenders.

 

There is simply no telling what the worldwide costs of the bankruptcy of AIG would have been, and may yet be.  Jim Cramer, financial guru and advisor to the masses, estimated that had AIG been forced into bankruptcy the Dow might have fallen by a thousand points.  Frankly, that would have been the least of our problems.  The situation in financial markets had become so dire that even our hands-off, “the best regulation is no regulation” chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Chris Cox, began to take notice.  This morning, Mr. Cox decided that maybe it would be a good idea to start enforcing the laws on the books which prohibited “naked” short selling.

 

For months, Mr. Cox had stood idly by while ruthless short sellers had destroyed the values of good companies with strong earnings by shorting their stocks without “borrowing” the shares that they were about to sell as is required by law.  The situation is so bad that hundreds of companies have more of their stock sold short than they have shares issued and outstanding.  Such practices amount to securities fraud, but our laissez faire chairman of the S.E.C. thought that enforcing such rules designed for the protections of markets would inhibit his ideal of unbridled capitalism.  When, in July, it looked like the avaricious shorts might actually succeed in taking down our entire financial services industry, he did say he would enforce the rule against naked shorting with respect to nineteen of the largest financial institutions for the limited period from July 21 to July 29, 2008.

 

Why, having witnessed the carnage that befell the banking industry at the hands of short sellers in July, Mr. Cox felt this limited and totally inadequate period of relief was sufficient, we will never know, but it is interesting to note one financial services company which was left off the restricted list –AIG, whose stock in the last year has fallen from a high of $70.13 to a low of $1.25 this week.  After Mr. Cox’s eight day period of enforcing the short selling rules with respect to his chosen few financial service companies, he again let the prohibition lapse, and the short sellers were able to “hit the bid” (Cox still has declined to enforce the “up tick” rule) time and time again driving such companies as Fannie Mae, Freddy Mac, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and AIG to the brink of (if not into) bankruptcy.  Mr. Cox has been such a free-market ideologue, that he simply refused to enforce the laws which congress passed for our protection.

 

Finally, after we have seen the Dow driven down almost 4,000 points in less than six months (and have seen the general market decline even more), Mr. Cox has decided to enforce the laws and regulations on the books against predatory short sellers.  It’s about time.  If we operated under the type of ruthless capitalism practiced by the Chinese (and apparently so admired by Mr. Cox), he would be marched out in front of his offices at the S.E.C. and shot.  I’m no fan of capital punishment, but I might be tempted to make an exception for Chris Cox, and Hank Paulson too, come to think of it.

 

If, a year and a half ago, we had taken all the money we have spent bailing out Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, Freddy Mac, AIG, and countless banks which have failed or will fail in the near future, and without consideration of “moral hazard” made it available to borrowers who had seen their adjustable rate mortgages spike, we might have been able to avoid the entire credit crunch altogether.  That may be a bit of a stretch, but we have paid dearly, and will continue for years to pay dearly, for the laissez faire ideologies of our regulators and their hostility toward regulation.

 
      




Hillary Mines the Bigot Belt

 

In the early 1960s, when I was an ex-patriot Southerner living in Chicago and going to college in Massachusetts, I never failed to be annoyed when my classmates implied that I was somehow a bit less than human because I was less enthusiastic about the civil rights movement than they were.  Those sensitive souls could spot a bigot when they saw one.  And when ABC aired (and re-aired and re-aired, well you get the point) videotapes of demonstrators being hosed down the streets of Birmingham, their sense of moral superiority grew like orchids in a warm greenhouse.

 

Every now and then, I tried to defend myself by pointing out (as my witty and irreverent mother had pointed out to me) that Southerners liked Blacks as individuals but disliked them as a political group, while Northerners championed them as a group, but had little or no personal contact with (or affection for) Blacks as people.  It was undeniably true that I had shared more loving relationships with Blacks than all my holier-than-thou classmates combined, but they knew what to think about that.  By the time Louise Day Hicks and the other good citizens of South Boston were trying to tip over school buses filled with terrified Black children in the early ‘70s, it was too late for me to say “I told you so.”  I was already back in Birmingham.

 

Hillary Rodham Clinton, pride of Park Ridge, Illinois, Wellesley College, and various points south and east in her quixotic political quest, has given me another chance.  My fellow classmates of Williams College, you smug sons of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts (Williams was a men’s school then), I told you so!  If the Democratic presidential primary campaign of 2008 has proved nothing else, it has established that my mother was essentially correct about the basic affection that white Southerners and Blacks had for each other.  It is hardly surprising – we had lived side by side, been in each other’s homes, and attended each other’s funerals for centuries.  When the 1964 Civil Rights Act caused the integration of the workplace in the South, it was no time before Blacks and whites were working and having lunch with each other, and in general having cordial social interactions.

 

The campaign of Barack Obama, the first serious Black candidate for the presidency, has provided ample evidence that Southern whites and Blacks are much more comfortable with each other than are Blacks and whites in the more liberal areas of the East and Mid-Atlantic states.  In areas of the Confederacy which had significant concentrations (but by no means a majority) of Blacks, Obama’s campaign cut through the South like a hot knife through butter – Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana all went in favor of Barack by heavy margins.  Bill Clinton and other of Hillary’s surrogates tried to play the race card in South Carolina (and again in North Carolina) and it backfired badly.

 

It was not until Hillary’s code words such as “hard working, white Americans” hit the fertile ground of Ohio, Pennsylvania (and, yes, come to think of it) of New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts that her campaign of racial divisiveness really began to pay off.  The good citizens of those states always championed the rights of Blacks (even though they didn’t know many) but apparently, when it comes to voting for one, well that’s just a bridge too far (ok, Bay Staters, I’ll concede Duval Patrick).  It’s not that they have anything against Blacks – it’s just that they value Hillary’s “experience” more.

 

Well, none of these social, regional and demographic lessons have been lost on Hillary.  The woman who went to Wellesley, Yale Law School, married a future president, and became a transplanted senator from New York continues to talk in racial and socio-economic code, accusing Barack Obama of “elitism.”  A man born of a Black father and white mother, raised by a single mother and his grandparents in Kansas, and who after a distinguished college and law school experience came to Chicago to work as a community organizer may not sound too elite to us in the South and the Great Plains, but Hillary is counting on it selling again in West Virginia on Tuesday.

 

Hillary is busy mining the Bigot Belt for votes, and it isn’t in the Deep South.  Tomorrow is Mother’s Day, and, Mom, like so many other things, you were right about this.

 

 

     



Political Correctness Run Amok

 

It has been just about a month since April 11, 2007, the day of the cable news network MSNBC’s proudest journalistic triumph and deepest shame.  On that afternoon, in no small part due to the courageous reporting of Dan Abrams and his now discontinued legal affairs show on MSNBC, the attorney general of North Carolina, Roy Cooper, announced that all charges against David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann, the three Duke lacrosse players falsely accused of raping a black exotic dancer, had been dropped not because of the usual prosecutorial dodge of “insufficient evidence,” but because they were completely innocent.  Mr. Cooper affirmatively stated that no rape had ever taken place, and that for a year these men had been unfairly hounded by a “rogue prosecutor” and that “in the rush to condemn, a community and a state lost the ability to see clearly.”

 

In the darkest days of that rush to judgment, when the administration of Duke University was demanding the resignation of its outstanding lacrosse coach and canceling the team’s season, when a manifesto signed by nearly one hundred Duke professors condemned the entire lacrosse team as racially insensitive “hooligans” and demanded the expulsion of the players involved, when campus-wide protests of holier-than-thou Duke students were posting placards comparing the three young men to Hitler and holding up signs proclaiming “Rape Did Happen … and none of those present are innocent,”  Dan Abrams and MSNBC were lonely voices in the media pointing out discrepancies in the evidence and in the prosecutrix’s story and counseling patience.  No such calls for reservation of judgment came from the local Durham paper, or from USA Today, the Washington Post or The New York Times.

 

As The American Conservative pointed out in the always pithy “Fourteen Days” segment of its May 7, 2007 edition:

 

“The nation’s paper of record twisted itself in knots to excuse blatant prosecutorial misconduct; New York Times columnist Harvey Araton mocked the members of Duke’s women’s lacrosse team for proclaiming the innocence of their schoolmates.  ‘Sanctimony by sweatband’ Araton labled the young women’s protest, while hinting at the need for criminal investigation to find out ‘what do they know?’

 

“But don’t single out the Times; the Washington Post and USA Today were similarly reckless.  The crime for which the three players were falsely accused -- white men sexually assaulting a black woman -- was apparently one that much of liberal America desperately wanted to believe in.”

 

 It is sadly ironic, therefore, that on the afternoon of April 11, 2007, when the Durham district attorney Mike Nifong, and the students, faculty and administration of Duke University, and the local Durham newspaper and the national news media, were all getting their richly deserved comeuppances, MSNBC, the one news organization which had stood up to the media, the academicians, the feminists and black pressure groups, and all the other forces of political correctness run amok in the Duke lacrosse rape case, itself caved to those same forces of political correctness and announced that it was canceling the Don Imus show for offensive and racially insensitive remarks made a few days earlier about the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team.  Tucker Carlson interrupted his normal broadcast on MSNBC to read the bulletin that Steve Capus, president of NBC News, had just fired Don Imus.

 

To have a proper understanding of Mr. Imus’ admittedly inappropriate and offensive remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, it is necessary to place them in context -- not only with respect to the offensive banter which occurred during the broadcast in question, but more significantly with respect to the nature of his morning radio and television show itself.

 

The Don Imus Show was broadcast by CBS radio over WFAN, its sports radio station in New York City, and televised nation-wide over MSNBC’s cable news network, from 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday.  The show was a unique blend of fascinating current events programming, country music, fearless opinion,  and curmudgeonly (and intentionally irreverent) humor, often of the male, locker room variety.  Everyone who regularly listened to the show, especially CBS and MSNBC who produced it and simulcast it, understood and approved of its edgy content.

 

Nothing and nobody was off-limits from the wardrobes and sexual mores of Hollywood starlets to religion to the motives behind (and conduct of) the Iraq war to euthanasia, and all subjects in between.  Aside from using the show as a platform to push Imus’ many good causes -- from the Imus Ranch for children with cancer, to his wife’s environmentally friendly cleaning products (the “green ho,” he called her) in her campaign to fight autism, or his fight to get better rehabilative care for our badly wounded troops returning from Iraq --there was no consistent theme and certainly no coherent political agenda.

 

Politicians as diverse as Rick Santorum, John Kerry, Harold Ford, Joe Biden, John McCain, Charlie Rangel, Chris Dodd, and Joe Lieberman were regular guests on his show, as were pundits ranging from Pat Buchanan and Mary Matelin on the right to James Carville and Dee Dee Myers on the left.  Media darlings such as Newsweek editor Jon Meacham and correspondent Howard Fineman, New York Times columnists Tom Friedman, Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich, and NBC News figures such as Tim Russert, Andrea Mitchell, Chris Matthews, and White House correspondent David Gregory were such regular fixtures on the show that one could be forgiven for thinking that they were regular cast members.

 

The only unifying theme was a fearless tendency to discuss any issue no matter how controversial and to gore sacred cows no matter how sacrosanct.  No one, whether Pope, President, former president, or even the currently serving Vice President was immune from having the balloon of his pompous self-esteem pricked by the sharp needle of ridicule.    The host and his cast members (and even some of the regular guests) were merciless in ragging on and ribbing each other -- and here is where a bit of the specific context for the Rutgers remarks comes in -- the show’s sports reporter was a Rutgers graduate and the regular play-by play broadcaster for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team.

 

On the morning of April 4th, when Senator Chris Dodd would appear as one of the show’s serious guests, the talk turned during a sports segment to the NCAA women’s championship game between Rutgers and the University of Tennessee.  As was often the case, Rutgers came in for some ribbing.  “That’s some rough girls from Rutgers, said Imus.  “Man, they’ve got tattoos,”  -- and here one of the show’s producers, Bernie McGuirk, the one who regularly puts a Federal Express envelope on his head and does an irreverent imitation of New York’s Roman Catholic cardinal in a thick Irish brogue, interjected -- “Some hard-core hos,” and Mr. Imus continued, “That’s some nappy-headed hos there, I’m going to tell you that now.”

 

And that was it -- some ragging on Rutgers -- at worst it was intended as an unfavorable comment on the appearance of the Rutgers team as contrasted with the more clean-cut appearance of the women from Tennessee, but hardly as a racist or sexist remark -- both teams were comprised predominantly of African-American women.  No one on the show, or apparently in the nation-wide audience thought much about it, until some media-watch types got hold of the transcript and called it to the attention of feminists and black “activists” such as Jesse Jackson and the Reverend Al Sharpton.  By Monday, April 9th , there was a media firestorm, and an orgy of righteous indignation and political correctness was on, both in the blogosphere and in the media.

 

Anyone who has spent any time at all listening to Don Imus on a regular basis knows that he is the very antithesis of a racist.  No one outside the campaign tried any harder to get black congressman Harold Ford elected to the senate from Tennessee.  He uses the hip-hop lingo just as many blacks do, and he takes jibes at blacks occasionally, just as he does at Irishmen, Catholics, Episcopalians, Jews, and pompous politicians of all stripes.  But he does it in a jocular way and not in a mean-spirited fashion.  Nevertheless, when it was pointed out that his remarks were hurtful to a group of young women whom he had not intended to offend, and who certainly had done nothing to be so denigrated, he apologized profusely and sincerely.  He even went the extra mile by going on the Reverend Al Sharpton’s radio show and offering his apology directly to that predominantly black audience.

 

It wasn’t good enough, of course.  The Reverend Al, who first came to national prominence as the enabler and co-perpetrator of the Tawana Brawley hoax (which, like the Duke lacrosse case, involved a false claim of rape against several Duchess County, New York policemen by a young black woman seeking to invent an excuse for missing curfew) refused to accept Mr. Imus’ apology.  The Reverend Al, who has never apologized for his role in that affair (he was quoted by The New York Times at the time of the hoax as having said to a co-conspirator, “If we pull this off, we’ll be the two biggest niggers in the whole City of New York.”), or for his role in the demonstrations against the “white interlopers,” a Jewish family who had moved into an all-black New York City neighborhood and perished in a fire when firefighters were unable to get through the demonstrators to save them, or, for that matter, for his role in whipping up a frenzy of racial hatred against the three falsely accused Duke lacrosse players, stated that only the cancellation of Imus’ radio show could atone for his racial slur with respect to the women of the Rutgers basketball team.

 

Corporate America seemed to agree.  Proctor & Gamble, General Motors and American Express threatened to pull all advertising from MSNBC unless Mr. Imus’ show was terminated.  America’s advertisers always turn into a resolute tower of Jell-O whenever any perceived interest group pretends to be offended.  The cowardice which corporate America displays in incidents such as this never ceases to amaze me.  I will always admire The Masters golf tournament for the way they chose to go on without sponsors in 2003 when their advertisers started to lose their nerve over a silly and fabricated “women’s lib” issue.  Can anyone remember the name of the women’s rights organization involved or its peerless leader?  I couldn’t, but Googled it and learned that it was the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO) and its leader was Martha Burk, Ph.D., Chair.

 

As soon as I heard Tucker Carlson’s announcement late in the afternoon of April 11th that Steve Capus had ordered the termination of Don Imus’ show, I left the room and began writing a letter to the president of NBC News advising him that I would never again watch any programming on MSNBC, stating that his decision was such an act of intellectual cowardice, and that the punishment he meted out to Mr. Imus was so out of proportion to the offense (particularly viewed in the context of his intentionally irreverent show), that it caused me to doubt his character and judgment.  I have not watched two minutes of television on MSNBC since.

 

I wrote similar letters (well, one was a more convenient e-mail) to Proctor & Gamble and to General Motors advising them that I felt they had abused their market power in this instance and that America was much the poorer for it.  I said that I would use my small purchasing power to avoid their products in the future, and by so doing express my displeasure at their attempt to stifle the free expression of views in this country.  I received prompt and courteous replies from each company, of course, defending their actions. General Motors’ letter referred to Mr. Imus’ own acknowledgment that his comments were “completely inappropriate and offensive,” something that is painfully obvious to everyone, but neither corporation dealt with the issue of proportionality.

 

I should have written American Express, but got lazy as too many of us do when confronted by actions such as this and decided to let my zero balances on their accounts do my talking.  More of us should take the trouble to advise corporations of our feelings in matters such as these because it sometimes takes a relatively few, individually written, letters to convince a company that a practice has offended a substantial portion of its market.  The freedom of speech which we would be defending is not Don Imus’ right to express himself, but our chance to listen to and consider and be informed by the views which he and his very exceptional coterie of guests have expressed.

 

“Imus in the Morning” was an American treasure.  There was something about its unique mixture of  non-prissy humor and important issues of the day that caused his guests to loosen up and discuss matters of national and international importance with a degree of candor rarely seen on more formal public affairs programs like Meet the Press or ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos.  There is a great need in this nation of timid conformists for such a program, and as I told MSNBC, Proctor & Gamble and General Motors, we are all much poorer for its absence.     

 

 

 

                  


 

“W” Pulls the Trigger

“I’ll take him.  I’ll take him.  I said, I’ll take him!  Save you the bullet.”  Those were the words, dramatized for the screen in the movie Seabiscuit, of horse-whisperer and would be horse trainer, Tom Smith, as he intervened to save an old lame horse from being put down, and ultimately nursed the horse back to health.  The real life version of events, as reported by author Laura Hillenbrand in her wonderful history, Seabiscuit, an American Legend,  was less dramatic but even more impressive -- in 1930, at the Aqua Caliente race track in Tijuana, Mexico, Tom Smith traded two months back wages for an old, broken down claimer named Knighthood, whose injuries were so serious that it was assumed he would never race again, and with a mixture of hope, patience and intuitive brilliance returned Knighthood, at age ten, not only to the track but to the winner’s circle.

Today, July 19, 2006, in a time and place far removed from dusty, depression-era Tijuana, George W. Bush, our born-again 43rd president, bowed to the demands of his fundamentalist Christian base and pulled the trigger on hope, vetoing HR 810, passed yesterday by the United States Senate, which would have made possible federally funded stem cell research on frozen embryos which would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics.  In doing so, he ignored the pleas of thousands of doctors, patients, researchers, and more than 80 Nobel Laureate scientists, who know that such embryonic stem cell research holds out the very real promise of curing juvenile diabetes, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, certain kinds of cancer, and a host of other maladies.  Out of a misplaced concern for the “life” of frozen embryos, which will be thrown into the trash and never brought to term in a mother’s womb, Mr. Bush snuffed out the hope for a better life of tens of thousands of children and adults -- real people, suffering from devastating diseases, living more than hypothetical lives.

In a celebration of scientific ignorance and religiosity, Mr. Bush arranged a “veto ceremony” at the White House, surrounding himself with eighteen couples who had given birth by “adopting” frozen embryos unneeded by other couples and which had subsequently been implanted in the “adoptive” mothers enabling them to have children.  Eighteen happy births, to be sure, but hardly a reason or rationale to put the thousands of other, unadopted frozen embryos which will be discarded and never implanted in a mother’s womb beyond the reach of research and the healing sciences.  Staging such a cynical “photo-op” to express concern for hypothetical “life,” at the expense of so many people desperately hoping for an end to suffering in their all too real lives, was a tawdry political trick unworthy of a nation blessed by its Creator with such scientific and medical potential.

For a president who had never before cast a veto, who had tolerated wave after wave of wasteful and ruinous spending measures from his Republican controlled congresses, it was at once a strange and yet sadly typical place to take a stand.  His administration has always been much more adroit at exploiting “wedge issues” and winning elections than it has been at providing good governance and actually getting something done.  Here, in the form of HR 810, was the opportunity to take an incredibly constructive step and foster research to combat a myriad of diseases.  It was much more tempting to Mr. Bush, however, to pander to his far-right Christian base and score points for the upcoming mid-term congressional elections.  Political, not scientific or humanitarian, considerations triumphed, and George W. Bush cast the first veto of his presidency.  The suffering, and the scientists and medical researchers, would just have to wait for another more enlightened president and time.

Surrounded by the charred and burning wreckage of his Middle Eastern foreign policy and of his ruinous fiscal policies which promise an inheritance of crushing debt for our children and grandchildren, Mr. Bush is fond of saying that he will leave it up to the verdict of history to judge the accomplishments of his administration.  His veto of HR 810, supporting federally funded embryonic stem cell research, may well be as prominent a part of his legacy as will be his fiscal and foreign policy failures. 

In the pantheon of history, he has reserved his place right next to the Renaissance pope who, under the thrall of misguided religious doctrine, imprisoned Galileo for the offense of suggesting that the earth orbited the sun.  In our more modern era of  “disenlightenment” and religiosity, George W. Bush has put a bullet into medical and scientific research which could have held out hope for millions.   

 


 

An Aerial View of New Orleans

 

 

Amongst all of the depressing video footage of New Orleans, of houses flooded up to the roof-tops, of dogs fording fetid waters, of corpses floating in the streets, I actually saw one view (never to be re-aired) of an uplifting moment, of the spirit of old, Pre-Katrina, New Orleans:

 

As the chopper flew over the city taking video pictures, it flew over a swimming pool where a man and an attractive young woman (when you are 64 years old, as I am, everyone between the ages of 30 and 50 appears to be young) were swimming.  The woman, completely naked, looked up at the helicopter and waved.  No one threw her any Mardi Gras beads, but I believe her gesture was appreciated.

 

In the midst of destruction, in this last gasp of an irreverent, Catholic oasis in the Calvinistic, Bible-thumping South, she reaffirmed the flickering flame of sassy humanity.

 


 

The Culture of Fear

 

 

Editor’s Note:  The piece below, posted July 23, 2005, and even the postscript posted July 25th, was based to a very large extent on information provided by London’s Metropolitan Police, a great deal of which (either because of the confusion of the moment, or because of the natural bureaucratic tendency to cover up mistakes) has proven to be false.

 

The innocent man killed by the Metropolitan Police on July 22, 2005 in the Stockwell underground tube station pursuant to Great Britain’s “shoot-to-kill” counter-terrorism policy exhibited no unusual tendencies or conduct, and apparently had no idea that he was under surveillance or being pursued.  He was simply a London commuter on his way to work.

 

An independent investigation has subsequently revealed that the “heavy overcoat” he was allegedly wearing was a denim jacket; that he walked, not ran, into the tube station and onto the underground train; that the three undercover policemen who were chasing him were the only ones running, and they never identified themselves as police or ordered him to halt; that he was seated on the “tube” carriage, holding the  newspaper which he had purchased, when he was thrown to the floor of the car by the police, and shot seven times in the head without ever being asked a single question; and that the whole case of mistaken identity occurred as a result of another policeman “relieving himself” at the precise moment when the unfortunate man happened to be leaving his apartment building which the police had under surveillance while looking for a suspected terrorist.  

 

 

Yesterday, Friday, July 22, 2005, Islamic terror, and the western world's response to it, the War on Terror, claimed several additional victims in rather spectacular fashion.  July 22nd, I fear (that is the operative word nowadays), should go down in contemporary culture as a day we long remember.

 

The most prominent victim was the disoriented man wearing a heavy overcoat on a summer's day in London.  He made the mistake (a day after the second attempt to bomb the London Underground transportation system) of running from police as they accosted him.  As he fled from them and ignored their orders to halt, he ran into a tube station in the south London neighborhood of Stockwell and onto a waiting underground carriage.  As he did so he slipped and fell, and two of his pursuers jumped on top of him and held him down while a third pulled out his gun and pumped five (not one or two, but five) bullets into his brain.  This afternoon, Scotland Yard announced that the dead man "was unconnected to the incidents of Thursday" in which four men attempted abortive bombings of three subway cars and a double-decker bus, and was "probably unconnected" to the July 7th suicide bombings which killed 56 Londoners.

 

Thus, due entirely to fear, the London police, who never even used to carry guns and had the reputation of being the most civilized police force in the world, have joined the ranks of the "shoot first, ask questions later" crowd.  In this instance, it will be ask questions never since they carried out their execution style killing in the presence of horrified commuters before they could ask him a single question.  Thus was lost what will undoubtedly prove to have been an entirely innocent life and the sterling reputation of London's (and Great Britain's) policemen.  It was not an accident that a situation which, in an earlier day, could have been successfully handled by a single unarmed Bobby, resulted in an entirely unnecessary death.  The British government of Tony Blair has promulgated a "shoot-to-kill" policy which apparently is the envy of the western world.

 

It has now been over twenty-four hours since the anonymous man was chased down and killed, and if there has been one word of criticism or concern expressed about the police killing (either in Great Britain or in America) it has not thus far reached the news outlets prominently featured on the portals of the world wide web.  In America, in fact, where the level of hysteria is typically a good deal higher than in the rest of the world, the execution-style killing at the hands of the London police has met with nothing but praise.

 

Due to the difference in time zones, Don Imus (who is nature's own shoot-from-the-hip aficionado in his chosen genre) had the opportunity on his Friday morning radio show to applaud the shooting as effective police work and express the sentiment that it was sometimes necessary to shoot people without full knowledge of the circumstances, just as it was necessary occasionally to execute the innocent in our judicial system.

 

Several hours later, Monica Crowley, who has never witnessed an authoritarian action which she didn't like, and who is in a competition with Ann Coulter for the title of the most flamboyant blond vixen with the ugliest mind, hailed the shooting as an example of outstanding efficiency in the War on Terror and expressed regret that we don't have a policy of "shoot-to-kill" here in the United States.

 

In all fairness, these statements were delivered  on Friday, the day of the shooting, before it was conclusively established that the dead man had no connection whatever with the subway bombings which the London police were investigating, but they were nevertheless indicative of a brutal and callous attitude toward civil liberties (a sort of "you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs" approach to life) which did not exist in this country prior to 9/11.

 

Speaking of civil liberties, in a perverse bit of serendipity, the extension of the Patriot Act was scheduled to be debated in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday, July 7th, the day that news broke of the first terrorist bombing of the London Underground.  For months there had been discussions about fourteen of its most far-reaching provisions, some of which even the Justice Department had conceded were rarely (if ever) used and were probably unnecessary intrusions into individuals' affairs by the government.  It was thought that the most egregious of those (e.g. the "sneak and peak" power which allows the government to issue an administrative subpoena to a third party to see all of a person's personal, medical and business records, including the notorious "library" provision, without any notice to the person affected and without any requirement of probable cause or approval by a judge) were sure to be "sunsetted." when Congress revisited the Patriot Act which had been hastily passed without committee hearings in the days immediately following 9/11.  But, voted on the day after the London subway bombing, the entire Patriot Act, with all of its original infirmities, again went through the House of Representatives like the proverbial "shit thru a goose."

 

Once again, the civil liberties, and the individual freedoms from governmental tyranny and control, upon which this country was founded took a back seat to notions of "security" and the War on Terror.  And if anyone thinks that the government, without the inhibition of a court looking over its shoulder, will restrict its snooping into individual affairs only to cases of suspected terrorism, he or she is naive indeed.

 

But the anonymous man executed by police in broad daylight in London, the reputations of The Metropolitan Police and Scotland Yard, and the civil liberties of American citizens were not the only causalities of Islamic terrorism and its counter War on Terror on Friday, July 22, 2005.  No, there were the more traditional victims which we have come to expect as well.  In Egypt, in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, eighty-three people were killed by a terrorist  car bomb.  For once, there was no headline proclaiming how many innocent citizens of Baghdad and Iraq had died in the day's insurgency, but if the number was less than twenty then that tormented city and nation had gotten off very lightly.

 

We have come to expect scores of deaths on a daily basis in Middle Eastern cities at the hands of the terrorists.  They have become a matter of routine, to be reported on in the inner pages of our daily newspapers.  To the extent that Muslim lives are lost to Islamic terror, or to western counter-measures supposedly designed to combat it such as our invasion of Iraq, they are regarded as regrettable collateral damage in the hundred years' war that our War on Terror has become.

 

But, when the casualties of terror reach into our western cities, into New York City, or into Barcelona, or into London, then those deaths become matters of genuine concern.  Those were real people, our friends and neighbors, riding to their jobs on the London tube, or traveling on those Spanish commuter trains, or sitting at their desks in the World Trade Towers, and then, naturally enough, our sense of hysteria and indignation rises.  Then we can no longer view those deaths dispassionately -- we must strike out in indignation and outrage; we must invade another country (however unrelated it may be to the source of our pain); we must pass laws restricting our civil liberties and our freedoms of movement; we must do something even if it is wrong -- like gunning down an innocent man on the streets of London, or turning Iraq into a chaotic hellhole where tens of thousands of innocent shopkeepers and school children, of brothers and sisters, of mothers and fathers, and of husbands and wives have needlessly died.

 

And if anyone should ask "why do the Islamic extremists hate us so?" we must react to that questioner with a sense of outrage and further indignation.  Is that person suggesting that we may have brought this misery upon ourselves?  Is he or she implying that our own policies or actions may have triggered this venomous response?  To try and understand the mind of our enemy is now regarded as weakness -- a strange way, I might add, to fight a "war," no matter how loosely defined.  To quote Thomas Friedman in his column "Giving the Hatemongers No Place to Hide," published in The New York Times on the day of the London shooting, and on the day of the car bombing in Sharm el-Sheik:

 

"the notion that blowing up a busload of innocent civilians in response to Iraq is somehow 'understandable' is outrageous."

 

Outrageous, indeed, particularly if one were to substitute the word "excusable" for his term "understandable."  But it is, I would submit, a fatal mistake not to try to "understand" the mind and motives of our enemy.  It would be criminal neglect not to inquire why, only sixty years ago, all the Arabs wanted to do was drink our Coca-Cola and sell us $3.00 a barrel oil, and now significant minorities of them want to kill us.  Something has fundamentally changed, and I doubt that the impetus for that changing dynamic lies entirely on the Muslim side of the equation.  Unless we want the War on Terror to last much longer than one hundred years, we had better begin to "understand" that the forces of Al Qaeda and Islamic extremism do not "hate freedom" as our president continues to insist, or hate us because of who we are, but because of our policies and actions which impact their world and their way of life.

 

Anyone really interested in understanding the mind of our Islamic tormentors would do well to read Imperial Hubris, Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror (Brassey's Inc. 2004) written by "Anonymous," formerly the CIA's leading expert on Al Qaeda and all things Islamic.  In any event, I would suggest that it is not weakness to try to understand the mind and motives of Islamic extremists, nor is it very helpful, in response to their attacks, to adopt "shoot-to-kill" policies, to vote away our civil liberties in the hope of achieving "security," or to fundamentally change our way of life which has served the west well since the Renaissance, and the United States well for over two centuries.  To continue to do so, to continue to relinquish our civil liberties and the procedural safeguards which have traditionally defined our society, is tantamount to surrender in the War on Terror.

 

 

Editor's postscript:  When the article above was written on Saturday afternoon, July 23rd, the only information released by Scotland Yard and the Metropolitan Police was that the unidentified man killed on the preceding day had been wearing a heavy coat and had not been involved in the terrorist bombings of the London Underground.  Factual details of the shooting now reported today, July 25th, present an even more disturbing scenario.

 

The dead man was not a disoriented or disturbed man who failed to heed police orders to halt.  He was Jean Charles de Menezes, a 27 year old Brazilian electrician, who was taking public transportation on his way to work.  According to friends of the man, the "heavy coat" was a denim jacket he customarily wore, and he spoke (and understood) excellent English.   It is not clear that the three undercover policemen who were chasing him pursuant to Great Britain’s "shoot-to-kill" counter-terrorism policy even ordered him to halt or identified themselves as policemen.

 

It was Mr. de Menezes' misfortune that he lived in the same block where the authorities suspected a terrorist was residing.  When he left his home to go to work, the police mistook him for the person who they had under surveillance and followed him as he boarded a bus which would take him to the underground station where he would change to the subway train which would take him to his work.  When the police saw him leave his bus and head for the Underground, they assumed he was intent on bombing it and ran after him in hot pursuit, and, alarmed at being chased by three unidentified men, Mr. de Menezes ran to the subway car where he assumed he would find safety among the other commuters.  Assuming that they were dealing with an imminent bomb threat, the undercover policemen asked no questions but jumped on the man as he slipped and fell, and shot him seven times (not five as was originally reported) in the head and once in the shoulder.

 

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair offered his "deep regrets," but said the "shoot to kill" policy would not change.  In an interview with Sky News he said "The procedures have been reviewed and reviewed and reviewed for many months.  This is not a Metropolitan Police policy, it is a national police policy."  Prime Minister Tony Blair also apologized for the mistaken killing of an innocent man, but said the "shoot-to-kill" policy in deterring terrorism would continue.

 

Writing in the July 25, 2005 internet edition of the Washington Post, Glenn Frankel quoted one of Mr. de Menezes' friends, Luiz de Souza, the owner of a Brazilian cafe in central London that the dead man frequented, as denouncing the slaying as "barbaric" and demanding a full investigation:

 

"Five shots in the back because he is supposed to have too big a coat on?  He comes in here almost every day, he always wears the same jacket, I know this jacket.  It is a Levi's jeans jacket.

 

"From what I heard, the police were in plainclothes and were following him.  Maybe Jean was worried.  Then they draw guns, and probably he got scared and ran away.  Everyone is scared these days.

 

"Jean spoke very good English.  Very good.  Better than mine, almost, and I've been here 20 years.  He would have understood every single word they said."

 

But, when you're intent on killing terrorists, there isn't much time for conversation.  When you shoot to kill, naturally you shoot first and ask questions later.  And it is not just Mr. deSouza and his fellow Brazilian expatriots who are disturbed and demanding explanations.  Alan Cowell and Don Van Natta, Jr. reporting from London for The New York Times on July 24th in an article entitled "Britain Says Man Killed by Police Had No Tie to Bombings" said the public was almost as traumatized by the shooting as they had been by the bombings themselves:

 

"Of the fast-unfolding developments, the most overwhelming for many Londoners, was the police admission that an apparently innocent man had been gunned down in full public view -- a killing that left the city even more rattled after a wave of attacks, alarms, scares and shootings that, in a brief three weeks has propelled London from the euphoria of the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park to a sense of embattled siege."

 

They reported that immediately after the shooting the police commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, had claimed the then unidentified man was "directly linked to the ongoing and expanding antiterrorist operation," but late in the afternoon on Saturday Scotland Yard admitted a "mistake" had been made, and still later a statement by the Metropolitan Police said "For somebody to lose their life in such circumstances is a tragedy and one that the Metropolitan Police Service regrets."

 

Messrs. Cowell and Natta quoted John O'Connor, a former police commander, as saying "This really is an appalling set of circumstances.  The consequences are quite horrible."

 

Naturally, members of the Muslim community were alarmed.  They quoted Azzam Tamimi, head of the Muslim Association of Britain, as saying: "This is very frightening.  People will be afraid to walk the streets, or go on the tube, or carry anything in their hands."  He lamented the effect that the shooting would have among his fellow Muslims, observing "This will turn people against the police, and this is not good.  We want that people stay beside the police.  We need to convince the people to cooperate."

 

That cooperation may now be considerably harder to come by.  Another Muslim leader, Ajmal Masroor, a spokesman for the Islamic Society of Britain, said "This policy is another overreaction of the government and police."  The policy of "shoot-to-kill" and the resulting slaying of an innocent man has played right into the terrorists' hands.  The British government has given them an unexpected gift.  Now the British public must fear not only the terrorists themselves, but their own police as well.

 


 

Are You Ready … for Some Football?

 

 

The comptrollers of the ABC television stations which decided they couldn’t risk airing Saving Private Ryan ( soldier-like profanity) in prime-time on Veterans’ Day in this era of righteous, moral outrage ushered in by Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” and by the boffo performance of the Evangelicals at the ballot box in the just concluded presidential election, must have felt their hearts racing for two entirely different reasons when they watched ABC’s introduction to the Monday Night Football game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys.

 

In the intro, the Eagles’ wide-receiver, Terrell Owens, finds himself surprized and delighted in an empty locker room when Nicollette Sheridan, one of the gorgeous stars of ABC’s new show, Desperate Housewives, accosts him clad only in a towel.  She suggests that they might spend some quality time together, but Mr. Owens demurs because he is needed on the field for the game which is just about to begin.  Then, in further support of her suggestive suggestion, Miss Sheridan drops her towel revealing to the middle-aged men and little boys in the viewing audience an extremely good-looking back and two pretty feet poking out of the folds of her discarded towel.  Apparently the frontal view afforded Mr. Owens was equally enticing, because he allowed with a broad smile on his face that maybe his teammates could play the game without him, and Miss Sheridan then jumps naked into his receiving arms.  The viewer is left with the impression that this is one pass that Mr. Owens is not going to drop.

 

As might be expected, Chairman Michael K. Powell, the guardian of public morality at the Federal Communications Commission, was not amused.  “I wonder if Walt Disney would be proud,” he asked, referring to The Walt Disney Company which is the corporate parent of ABC.  The FCC has already proposed a $550,000 fine for CBS in connection with the milli-second exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast in this past February’s Super Bowl halftime show, and the commissioners cannot have been pleased with this salacious stunt:

 

“It would seem to me that while we get a lot of broadcasting companies complaining about indecency enforcement, they seem to be continuing to be willing to keep the issue at the forefront, keep it hot and steamy in order to get financial gains and the free advertising it provides,” Mr. Powell remarked in an interview aired on the business cable network CNBC.

 

The reason for the sexy promo is a little hard to fathom, actually.  Desperate Housewives is already one of the most popular hit shows of this new television season, and the entertainment division of ABC did not request any cross-promotion according to an article by Judy Battista published November 17th in The New York Times.  Perhaps ABC Sports was trying to rev up their audience to benefit a new group of sponsors for their college and professional games.  In the past, beer and auto-parts advertising were staples on sports broadcasting, but now they have been joined, and even surpassed, by a plethora of racy erectile dysfunction ads.

 

Try watching a sporting event on television these days without getting all hot under the collar (or some other area of your apparel) as “Wild Thing” leads his good-looking companion on a shopping spree for sexy lingerie (Viagra), or as the saucy brunette regales the viewer about how her man likes the immediate response and the lasting, quality experience of Levitra, or as the voice-over in the Cialis ads touts the 36 hour readiness that its product can provide “whenever the moment is right,” while lusty couples frolic in swimming pools, interrupt violin practice, or languidly lie about in matching his and hers bathtubs on a hillside overlooking the ocean.  Cialis cautions men to be ready for whatever “your partner has in mind.”

 

“Well, what does she have on her mind, Dad,” your eight-year old son might well ask while watching his favorite college football team on a Saturday afternoon and wondering why those two people are lying about naked in their adjoining bathtubs on a perfectly glorious day?  “Well, she’s thinking about how she’s going to be able to get out of that bathtub without slipping and breaking her knee-cap, son.”

 

In ABC’s defense, their intro to last Monday’s Eagles-Cowboys game was not any more salacious than the “ED” ads which are aired on television all through the day by our avaricious pharmaceutical companies.  And those don’t seem to bother the FCC.  Really, ABC was just airing a public service announcement -- they want you to be ready the next time a Desperate Housewife turns up in your den while you are watching a football game.          

 


 

The Passion, Fears of Anti-Semitism, and the Need to Dishonor a Father

 

 

The revelries of Mardi Gras are over, a gloomy and rainy Ash Wednesday is here, and the Lenten season is upon those of us who pay attention to such events in the Christian calendar.  The “those of us” just mentioned does not, in any real sense, include me.  Despite having been drafted to serve two terms on the vestry of my church, I am not a very “churchy” person -- I am a bad Episcopalian, and in the hierarchy of the faithful that puts me in the bottom percentile of Christendom.  I have plans to spend Good Friday watching the Maker’s Mark Mile being run at Keeneland Racecourse in the Blue Grass country, and in deference to my wife and daughter intend to celebrate Easter in a beautiful little church in Lexington, Kentucky.

 

This year the forty days of Lent, culminating in the Good Friday observance of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, are apparently going to be more emotion-charged than usual.  A great many of the Christian faithful will be flocking to see Mel Gibson’s extraordinary film, “The Passion of the Christ”, about the last days and execution of Christ, and many in the Jewish community are worried that the emotions stirred up by the film’s powerful portrayal of the accounts in the Gospels will lead to a new round of anti-Semitism.  Personally, I believe those fears are overblown (I can’t speak about Europe, but I see very little evidence of anti-Semitism in America) but I am not Jewish and cannot fully appreciate their concerns from that unique perspective.

 

I do not intend to see Mel Gibson’s remarkable film, despite the glowing reviews which it has received.  For one thing, I am not a particularly religious person as noted above, and for another, as a life-long opponent of capital punishment, I have no desire to subject myself to a depiction of the particularly brutal form of it favored by the sadistic Romans two thousand years ago.  Like a majority of people in the Western world, I find capital punishment deplorable under the most deserving of circumstances, and find it particularly so when it is used for political purposes, as it was in Jerusalem nearly two millennia ago, or will be again next year in our government’s prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.

 

Returning, however, to the fears of anti-Semitism which Mel Gibson’s film has apparently revived, the debate has taken a particularly ugly turn in the last week or ten days.  Recently, on one of Chris Matthews’ television shows (I see so many of them, I cannot remember which one) he was interviewing two Jewish guests who were discussing their concerns that “The Passion” might ignite a new wave of anti-Semitism.  One of his guests was an older man who laid out in a calm and dispassionate way the reason for his concerns and made several good points.

 

The other guest was a younger man in his late thirties who launched into a personal attack on Mel Gibson, and on his father.  Until I saw that show, I had never heard of Mel Gibson’s father, Hutton Gibson, but apparently he is one of those “wackos” (I believe that is the clinical term) who think that the Holocaust never took place.  The young firebrand charged that the only reason Mel Gibson made “The Passion” was to slander Jews, and challenged him to disprove it, if he could, by publicly denouncing his father.   The young man’s arguments were incredibly obnoxious, and did his cause no good.

 

I wish I could recall the young man’s name to give him some well deserved notoriety, but the same argument, in only a slightly more subtle form, has now been made in print by Mitch Albom, the nationally syndicated columnist for the Detroit Free Press.  In his column entitled “The son must take a stance against father’s hateful rants”, Mr. Albom begins by stating that his sister married a man whose father was his family’s only member to survive the Holocaust, and paints a very sympathetic picture of the suffering his family endured under the Nazis.  He dismissed, as he properly should, people who deny that the Holocaust ever took place as “nut cases”.  I have no quarrel whatever with that portion of his column.

 

Mr. Albom then began, in only a slightly more sophisticated form, the same attack on Mel Gibson and his film, “The Passion”, which the young firebrand made on Chris Matthews’ television show.  He said that Hutton Gibson could not be dismissed like all the other “nut cases” because he is Mel Gibson’s father.  Because of the familial connection, that “nut case” must be addressed, he said:

 

“He must be addressed because his son has made a movie called ‘The Passion of the Christ’ depicting Jesus’ last hours.  There are fears the movie will stoke anti-Semitism.  I have not seen the film yet -- it opens today --so I can pass no judgment on it.  But I have heard his father.  And he needs no movie to spew hatred.”

 

So, rather than launch a frontal attack on Mel Gibson’s film, or even Mel Gibson, himself, Mr. Albom prefers the more subtle approach of denigrating the movie and its producer by disparaging Hutton Gibson, the father.  He won’t come right out and say so, but Mr. Albom doesn’t think any sensitive person should see “The Passion”.  It is the poisonous fruit of a bigoted father, of an upbringing in a family headed by a monster.  Having spent a lifetime in a profession protected by the First Amendment, Mr. Albom cannot advocate censorship, and he is much too intelligent to indulge in historical revisionism as his target, Hutton Gibson, has done.  Obviously, the Holocaust with all its horrors occurred, and equally obviously the leaders of the Jewish establishment in Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago wanted to be rid of another troublesome Jew, a controversial rabble-rouser as he was viewed then, and prevailed upon the Roman governor of Palestine to execute him.  These are historical facts, and only a fool would try to deny them.

 

And, Mitch Albom is no fool.  But he doesn’t want you to see “The Passion”, and he doesn’t want that movie to remind you of some unpleasant historical facts that he would just as soon you not dwell on.  A mob crying “Crucify him, crucify him” is not a pretty thing to contemplate, and though no thinking person would blame today’s Jewish people for the actions of people two millennia ago (any more than we blame today’s Englishmen for the actions of Henry the Eighth), Mr. Albom doesn’t want to take any chances in that regard.  Precisely because he doesn’t want the sins of the fathers to be visited upon today’s Jewish people, he is attempting to tar Mel Gibson and his movie with the sins of  his father, Hutton Gibson.  And I think that is a pretty despicable way of making a point and advancing an agenda.  I want you to come to your own conclusions, so I will quote at some length from Mr. Albom’s column.  See what you think:

 

“Now the elder Gibson is not new to this stuff.  He writes  books and magazine articles denying the Holocaust and scorching the Jewish faith.

 

“And I am not saying Mel Gibson believes what his father does.

 

“But he needs to say so himself.

 

“Instead, to date, Gibson has refused to refute his father.  He acknowledges the Holocaust, but says ‘Nothing can drive a wedge between me and my father.  I love him.’”

 

But that is precisely what Mitch Albom demands that Mel Gibson do.  Because he has made a movie of which Mr. Albom disapproves, he must denounce his father in public to prove his bona fides -- otherwise Mr. Albom will assume he is an anti-Semite.  Read his argument in his own words:

 

“He has made a deeply religious movie, a lightening rod for Christians and Jews, one he claims was inspired by his faith, including ‘going back to the things I was raised with.’

 

“One presumes his father did some of that raising.

 

“Mel Gibson insists he is not anti-Semitic.  He can prove it by declaring his father’s words are wrong.”

 

Now, let me tell you what I really think.  I think Mr. Albom’s argument is one of the most arrogant, and intellectually cowardly, I have ever seen in print!  He cannot attack the movie itself because it is, by all accounts, true to the Gospels, and he is too smart to attack the Gospels even to advance his own agenda.  So rather than attack an historically accurate film, he attacks the motives of its producer.  Mel Gibson was not motivated by his Catholic faith, he implies, but by virulent anti-Semitism learned at the his father’s knee.  Denounce your father, Mitch Albom thunders, or I will denounce you as an anti-Semite!  One more time, let Mr. Albom’s own words damn him for the “cheap shot artist” that he is:

 

“No one asked Mel Gibson to become a spokesman on faith.  He did that himself.  Now that he has hopped on center stage, he can’t simply hear what he wants.  He has an obligation to publicly shoot down his father’s words.”

 

Says who, Mitch?  You’ve done a pretty effective job of exposing Hutton Gibson.  I don’t think Mel Gibson needs to join in to give you the extra satisfaction of getting your intellectual “pound of flesh”.  It takes something pretty special, or pretty outrageous, to cause me to thumb through my Bible.  Your column did the trick.  In my copy of Exodus, Chapter 20, one of the ten commandments handed down by God to Moses says:

 

“Honour thy father and thy mother; that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.”

 

My copy of the Bible doesn’t qualify that commandment by saying “unless, of course, your father holds anti-Semitic views”.  I doubt that Mel Gibson’s Bible has that proviso either, and, Mitch Albom, you are a small man for demanding that he publicly denounce his father.       

 

    

 


 

Reflections on a Political Cartoon

 

 

The political message in Scott Stantis’ editorial cartoon which appeared in my newspaper yesterday morning was pretty straight forward.  A tall, gawky John Kerry was wearing a button saying “Remember 9/10”, and when Uncle Sam approached him asking “Shouldn’t that be 9/11?”, Kerry replies “Clearly, you’re unfamiliar with my foreign policy record….”  The conservative cartoonist of The Birmingham News and I probably share the same view of the Massachusetts’s senator’s voting record in recent years, and it is not a particularly favorable one.  For a man who showed such physical courage in Vietnam, and intellectual courage in criticizing that war afterwards, he has shown very little wisdom or political courage since in the years he has served in the Senate.

 

In looking at that cartoon yesterday morning, however, I was struck not by the typically partisan political swipe at Mr. Kerry, but by the subtle, probably unintended, cultural message which lay just beneath the surface.  “Remember 9/10”  the cartoon caricature’s button said.  Now that’s a message that we should all be spending some time pondering.

 

Ever since the horrible events of September 11, 2001, we have been told to remember 9/11.  Certainly, that is a date no one in America should forget.  We were complacent about our national defense, and as a result nearly three thousand innocent, hardworking people died.  It was, to use a word which the media cheapens by its incorrect and constant overuse, truly a national “tragedy”.  It was tragic not only because of its scope, but also because, in the sense intended by Greek tragedy, it was more or less inevitable given our national character traits.  We were too trusting, too complacent, too self-assured, and too self-absorbed to really take note of how we were regarded by large segments of people in the rest of the world.

 

We are right to examine ourselves, and to reflect on deficiencies in our government, and even in our national character and worldview, which contributed to the tragedy that was 9/11, but I think it would be an even greater mistake to uncritically accept the mantra which we have been hearing on a daily basis ever since that terrible event that “Everything changed on 9/11”.  It didn’t, it shouldn’t, and we should be vigilant to make sure that it never does!

 

For all our faults as a nation, Americans are the most generous, the most tolerant, the fairest, and the most enterprising and free-thinking people on the face of the earth.  We have been helped along on our journey as a nation by our Constitution and its first early amendments, the Bill of Rights, the most perfect charter of government ever devised by the mind of man.  It enshrined the role of the individual citizen and protected his freedom and creativity against the smothering power of a central government.  Our founding fathers were correct in preferring the freedoms of our citizens to the power of the federal government.  We must never let the tragedy of 9/11 serve as an excuse for chipping away at the individual freedoms which were enshrined in our Constitution and made America great.

 

Fear is the most ignobling of all human emotions.  For far too long, we have permitted the media and our government to play on our fears.  It seems as though our 43rd president and his administration is committed to keeping us afraid as the cornerstone of his reelection efforts.  He says he is a “War President” and that we must keep attacking people abroad to preserve our safety here at home.  That was the philosophy underpinning our war against Iraq (our first aggressive war in over 150 years) and it is unworthy of the great American people.  We are not, and have never been, a nation of warriors.  We must be prudent about our defense, but we should not be adopting a policy of preemptive war in foreign policy (of “shooting first and asking questions later”) as the National Security Strategy of the United States suggested in September of 2002, nor should we be depriving our citizens of their civil liberties and freedom from arbitrary arrest here at home as the Patriot Act and other strategies in the “War on Terror” seem intent on doing.

 

We are too good and too great a people to permit or endorse such a fundamental change in our national character.  The events of September 11, 2001 were a terrible national tragedy, but they are nothing that should compel us to change our national character or basic philosophy of life.  Bad as 9/11 was, it was nothing compared to what other nations have suffered throughout time.  Can we seriously contend, for example, that 9/11 was comparable to the suffering that the British people endured during the Battle of Britain in the Second World War?  Great Britain persevered and won, but it did not sacrifice its national character or heritage in doing so.

 

So let us remember 9/11 by all means, but even more important let us never forget 9/10 and all the days stretching back for over two hundred years to the founding of our republic.  Let us take care to remember what it means to be Americans, and never allow any politician or administration to take away from us the liberties guaranteed by our extraordinary Constitution, or by playing on our fears lead us into actions that are unworthy of us or of our brave and wise founding fathers.         

 


 

A Goat in the Grandstands

 

I wasn’t there in Chicago in 1945 when the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, a popular watering hole in the Wrigley Field neighborhood, bought World Series tickets for himself and his goat to see the Cubs play the Detroit Tigers.  I was four years old and living in Birmingham, Alabama.  I didn’t become addicted to the Cubs until 1957 (well, after moving to Chicago from New York in 1955, I had developed a tepid affection for them by 1956) -- but my life-long allegiance was forged in 1957 when the “Gold Dust Twins”, starting pitchers Dick Drott and Moe Drabowski, burst upon the scene.

So, what I’m going to say now isn’t from first hand information (it’s from books, unreliable newspaper accounts, and the stuff of sports myths) but here is my understanding of what went down.  The tavern owner was a big Cubs fan (no one is as sure about the sympathies of his goat) but what is known is that the goat was a well-liked and well-behaved resident of Wrigleyville.  He spent his days and evenings in his owner’s tavern and never caused anyone any trouble whatsoever.  He had a ticket, but the Cubs’ management who were very short on whimsy, and even less prescient when it came to karma, refused to let him in to see the game.  His owner, who was understandably outraged by this high-handed affront, put a curse on the Cubs (it was the tavern owner, not the goat who effected the curse), the substance of which was that the Cubs would never again play in a World Series.

Well, it’s been fifty-eight years now, and the curse seems to have lost none of its power.  It was twenty-four years, until 1969, before the Cubs had even a hope of returning to the World Series.  The remarkable Cubs team of that year, led by manager Leo Durocher, and such all-time favorite Cubs as Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Randy Hundley and so many more, were in first place from the opening day of the season until mid-September when their starting players (exhausted from playing all day games at home and without any relief from a woefully weak bench) finally succumbed to an upstart New York Met team whose pitching staff included Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan and Tim McGraw.  Staggering toward the end of the season and faced with the juggernaut of that Met pitching staff, the Cubs, who entered the month of September with a four game lead, fell like an anvil through a cumulous cloud and were eliminated by the “Miracle Mets” on September 24, 1969.

Although the Cubs teams of 1971 and 1973 were pretty good, they never got close to making it to the post-season, and it was 1984 before manager Jim Frey’s team, led by such stars as Ryne Sandberg, Gary Matthews, and their phenomenal starting pitcher, Rick Sutcliffe, won the Eastern Division and took a two games to none lead at home in the playoffs against the Western Division champion Padres before heading west to San Diego and dropping three straight in the best three-out-of-five National League Championship Series.  The Cubs held a 3-0 lead in the late innings of the crucial deciding game at San Diego, with Rick Sutcliffe on the mound pitching on short rest, when a grounder on what would have been the last out of the inning bounced between first baseman Leon Durham’s legs, and the error opened the floodgates and ended the Cubs’ season one game short of the World Series.

Don Zimmer’s zany and entertaining Cubs team of 1989 stole home and hit-and-ran enough to go with the power hitting of Andre Dawson, their most valuable player, to win the Eastern Division and return to the National League Championship Series against the San Francisco Giants.  In that playoff series, however, Andre Dawson (a notoriously streaky hitter) kept coming to bat with men all over the bases and couldn’t buy a hit and Mark Grace, despite a phenomenal effort, couldn’t carry the offense alone.  Will “the thrill” Clark powered the Giants to victory and it was they, not the Cubs, who played Oakland in the “Earthquake Series” of 1989.

Jim Riggleman’s scrappy and over-achieving 1998 Cubs team somehow fought their way through the last third of the season without the services of their young pitching ace, Kerry Wood, and managed to win a one game playoff with the San Francisco Giants for the privilege of going to the National League playoffs as the wild card team.  Three games later, they had been swept by the Atlanta Braves.

And so we come now to the remarkable Cubs team of 2003.  Dusty Baker, having been fired by the San Francisco Giants for the offense of failing to win the 2002 World Series, took a last place Cubs team which won only 67 games last season, and by the sheer force of his personality and the power of positive thinking willed them to the Central Division crown.  When asked by the Chicago press who he liked to win the contentious Central Division this year, Dusty shocked the skeptical sportswriters by replying, “Why not us?”.  When Kerry Wood pitched the Cubs to a lopsided win over the New York Mets in the season opener, the new Cubs manager high-fived him and shouted “1-0, bro!”  A sarcastic and negative Chicago sports columnist responded with “1-0, bro, 161 games to go, bro!”, but Dusty Baker got his young team off to a good start and just before the All-Star game had them four games in front of both Houston and St. Louis, atop the Central Division, arguably the toughest division in baseball.

During a mid-season slump the Cubs saw their four game lead erased and turned into a five game deficit.  By mid-August they were four games out of first place and trailed both the Astros and the Cardinals, two teams generally thought to be more talented than the Cubs.  But Dusty kept the Cubs believing in themselves, and the Cubs kept coming.  In September they had two crucial home-and-home series with both the Houston Astros and the St. Louis Cardinals. They held their own against the first place Astros and at Chicago took four out of five games from the Cardinals.

All through late August and September, every game and every series was crucial for the young Cubs team trying to catch their more experienced rivals.  There were demoralizing losses along the way: a dropped fly ball against the Expos cost them a game in San Juan; there were two heartbreaking losses to the Reds in the late innings, one in Chicago and one in Cincinnati; the hard-hitting Pirates knocked the young Cubs pitching staff around for over twenty runs in a double-header in Pittsburgh.  But the Cubs persevered and by the last week of the season they trailed the first-place Astros by only a half-game. 

They took care of their own games in that final week and got some unexpected help from their nemesis, the Milwaukee Brewers, who beat the Astros in Houston.  A rainout in their final series of the year against the Pirates in Chicago threw a monkey wrench into their plans.  A double-header to make up the rained out game had to be scheduled on Saturday, September 27th, the next to the last day of the season.  The Cubs needed to win both games, but statistically over eighty percent of all double-headers are split -- the Cubs hadn’t won a double-header in several years!  Mark Prior pitched the Cubs to a win in the first game and Matt Clement started and won the nite-cap.  The Cubs clinched the Central Division, going from last to first in one year, and beating the defending champion Astros by one game.

The young Cubs pitching staff largely held the powerful offense of the league leading Atlanta Braves at bay in the Divisional Series, winning the best-of-five playoff three games to two behind the pitching of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.  Going into Game Six of the National League Championship Series last night, October 14th, they held a three games to two lead over the Florida Marlins in the best-of-seven series for the National League pennant.  Mark Prior was pitching with one on, and one out, in the eighth inning, before a home crowd at Wrigley Field, with the Cubs leading 3-0. 

On a three and two count, Marlin batter Luis Castillo popped a fly ball up into foul territory over the first row of the grandstands beyond third base.  Cubs left fielder, Moises Alou, held his glove aloft waiting to catch the foul ball for the second out of the inning when it was knocked away from him by a twenty-six year old fan.  After Alou slapped his glove against his body in disgust, Prior’s next pitch was his first really bad one of the game -- a wild pitch for ball four which advanced the other base runner to third.  A single followed scoring the first Marlin run, and then a double play ball was misplayed by Cubs Shortstop Alex Gonzalez who had made only ten errors all year.  By the time the inning ended the score was Marlins 8, Cubs 3.  That was the final score of the game.

Last night the Cubs were five outs away from going to the World Series for the first time in 58 years.  Tonight they are still only one win away from the World Series, but they are also only one loss away from elimination in this final Game Seven.  Before the series with the Marlins started, I predicted the Cubs would win it in seven games.  I hope I turn out to be right.  The Cubs have come back from some crushing losses this year, none more devastating than last night.  I hope Dusty can will them to one last win.  It has been that kind of a year, all season long.

Dusty Baker doesn’t believe that the Cubs long losing history has any bearing on this year’s team, and he doesn’t believe in curses, about goats or about anything else.  But, I can tell you one thing for sure -- there was a goat in the first row of the grandstands down the left field line last night, and his hand (or was it his hoof?) knocked that ball away from Moises Alou’s glove and cost the Cubs that game.  Of that, there can be no doubt.  Without that bizarre play, Alex Gonzales isn’t hurrying to make the double play, and at most one run scores.

So, was that twenty-six year old fan at last night’s game a goat, or was he the reincarnation of The Goat?  I guess we will find out tonight, when Kerry Wood takes  the mound to pitch Game Seven.

                

 


Bible Thumpin’ in the Black Belt

 

I certainly am glad I didn’t have a brief due in the Alabama Supreme Court this week, because I doubt I would have been able to make it through the crowd congregated on the steps of the state’s judicial building to get it filed.  It seems like every religious nut from San Diego to Florida has converged on Montgomery to join our indigenous religious zealots (which we already have here in abundance) to support our recently suspended Alabama Chief Justice, Roy Moore, in his crusade to keep a two ton marble monument of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the state Supreme Court building.

For those of you fortunate enough to live in an area of the country where you are not familiar with the origins of this controversy, I will provide a bit of historical background.  Prior to the last election cycle, Roy Moore was a largely unknown circuit judge sitting in Gadsden, in Etowah County, Alabama.  He was by no means the best or most distinguished circuit judge serving in Etowah County, and his chief claim to fame was that he displayed a rosewood replica of the Ten Commandments in his chambers at the Etowah County Courthouse.  Whatever legal talent or judicial temperament may have been missing from Judge Moore’s makeup, however, was more than compensated for by a genius for self-promotion.  Seizing on the phenomenal growth and political power of the Christian Coalition and other fundamentalist religious groups in Alabama, he chose to make his display of the Ten Commandments the centerpiece of a statewide campaign for the position of Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and managed to defeat a much more qualified judge for the post.

One of his first acts as Chief Justice was to commission a marble sculpture of the Ten Commandments from a company which makes cemetery markers in Birmingham and, without consulting his fellow Supreme Court justices, to smuggle it into the entrance area of the Supreme Court building during off hours when nobody was around.  Thus, when his fellow justices reported to work on the following morning, they were presented with a two ton fait accompli, and Judge Moore’s principal (perhaps only) campaign pledge to the voters of Alabama had been fulfilled.  He had put God’s law, or at least his conception of it, back into Alabama’s courtrooms.

Needless to say, this literal “monument” to the “establishment of religion” did not go unnoticed for long in legal circles.  Civil rights activist and constitutional lawyer, Morris Dees, together with his friends at the American Civil Liberties Union, wasted no time in filing a lawsuit in federal court in Montgomery, and given the facts of the case the outcome was rather of a “slam dunk”.  Judge Moore’s monument was held to be an establishment of religion prohibited by the constitution (however one stands on the litigation surrounding the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment, this was not a close case), and it was ordered to be removed.  Judge Moore appealed the federal district court’s decision to the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit which duly affirmed the lower court’s ruling, and there, one would have thought, the matter should have ended. 

Federal Judge Myron Thompson gave Judge Moore and the State of Alabama a reasonable amount of time to have the monument removed, but Judge Moore was adamant that it should stay.  When there was no compliance with the federal court order, a fine of $5,000 a day for contempt against Alabama’s judicial system was ordered, and Judge Moore pursued an unsuccessful petition to the United States Supreme Court to have Judge Thompson’s order stayed. 

There then ensued what surely must be one of the most extraordinary chapters in the annals of American judicial history.  Chief Justice Roy Moore, the highest judicial officer of Alabama, said he would defy a duly entered and affirmed judicial decision of a federal court of the United States, and would follow the higher law of God, as God gave him to understand it!  For a judicial officer, who has taken an oath to uphold the constitution and to support the rule of law, this was an extraordinary position to take.  Eric Rudolph, who is shortly to stand trial for the bombing of a Birmingham abortion clinic, could certainly take the same philosophical stand with equal justice.

This flagrant violation of the judicial canons and flouting of the rule of law was finally more than Alabama’s legal profession could abide, and an ethics complaint was filed against Judge Moore with the state’s Judicial Inquiry Commission, and he was suspended from his judicial office pending the outcome of the proceedings.  The eight remaining justices of the Alabama Supreme Court immediately asked the company which had installed the monument to remove it, but, fearing loss of business, it declined to do so.  The beleaguered justices finally found a contractor who was willing to brave the hostile crowd of demonstrators, and on the morning of August 27, 2003, Judge Moore’s monument to the Ten Commandments (and to his own political aggrandizement) was removed to a non-public and undisclosed part of the building while the good Christians on the courthouse steps prayed, chanted, and repeatedly bellowed “put it back, put it back!”

The leaders of Alabama’s Christian Coalition and other fundamentalist groups have already sworn political vengeance against the eight justices of the Alabama Supreme Court who ordered removal of the monument, and against Alabama’s attorney general, Bill Pryor, who urged compliance with the federal court order and who must prosecute the ethics complaint against Judge Moore in the state’s Court of the Judiciary.  Given his talent for political demagoguery, and his total absence of a judicial temperament, perhaps Judge Moore should voluntarily abandon his post as Chief Justice of Alabama and shoot for bigger and better things. 

Like George C. Wallace, another “fightin’ little judge” and demagogue before him, Roy Moore may continue to find it politically expedient to thump the Bible and defy the rule of law in furtherance of his political ambitions.  There is already talk about him running for governor or for the United States Senate.  Were that to happen, wouldn’t it be ironic if an Asian-American were elected Chief Justice and chose to place a statue of Buddha in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court building?  I doubt there would be a single demonstrator now chanting on the courthouse steps who wouldn’t be highly offended.

     


 

Into the Volcano, to Assuage the God of Free Trade

 

You remember the movie, don’t you?  The beautiful, barefoot Polynesian girl being led (dragged?) over hot lava coals to the crest of the volcano by the high priest, to be thrown in and sacrificed to some primordial god -- how primitive, how ignorant, we thought, to sacrifice happiness to some abstract, unreal ideal.  Well, what goes around comes around.  Not in paradise maybe, but in the hell which passes for the nerve center of entrepreneurial, capitalistic nirvana: Wall Street -- home of The Wall Street Journal, the high priest of unbridled capitalism and free trade.

Since virgins are kind of hard to come by these days, we had to settle for an old call girl with a heart of gold to sacrifice: I refer to Pillowtex Corp., the maiden formerly known as Fieldcrest Cannon of Kannapolis, North Carolina, who used to wrap you in sumptuous comfort when you stepped into bed or out of the shower.  Into the volcano with her, sacrificed to the god of free trade!  Somewhere in a sweatshop in Southeast Asia someone can duplicate her Cannon, Fieldcrest, Charisma and Royal Velvet sheets and towels just a little bit cheaper, and so the old gal has been driven out of business and into bankruptcy, closing 16 plants and eliminating 6,500 American jobs.  The bankruptcy case (liquidation, not reorganization) was filed July 30, 2003.

To paraphrase Leo Durocher, “you’re not getting a virgin when you put the knock on” American manufacturing, but the fact remains that we are continuing to lose manufacturing jobs at an  alarming rate (see “Is What’s Good for General Motors Really Still Good for America” published on this page over a year ago).  We have lost 200,000 manufacturing jobs since April, and the current rate of loss is about 80,000 jobs per month.  It’s not fair to blame the administration of George W. Bush for all of this, since this trend is a couple of decades in the making, but the undeniable truth is that we have lost more jobs during the first two years of his administration than in any other period since the Depression-era administration of Herbert Hoover.  To quote, in reverse, the mantra of commodities traders, “the trend is not our friend.”

And alarming as the loss of the better paying manufacturing jobs may be to students of the U.S. economy, it is not just manufacturing jobs which are headed overseas.  I remember, ten or fifteen years ago, discussing this phenomenon at a party where the Pollyannas said “Sure, the heavy, labor intensive jobs are headed overseas, but we Americans are still tracking them with our information technology systems, and that’s where the money is.”  I remember wondering at the time whether it was more important to be producing the goods or to be accounting for them,  but now the issue is moot anyway.

A recent report by Gartner Inc., the world’s largest high-tech forecasting firm,  predicted that one in ten United States high-tech computer jobs would move offshore to markets such as India or Russia by the end of 2004.  Electronic Data Systems Corp., the world’s second largest computer services firm, founded by Ross Perot (you remember him don’t you? -- he was the presidential candidate so opposed to NAFTA), already has strayed so far afield from its base in Plano, Texas as to establish computer service centers in New Zealand, India, Egypt, Poland, Brazil, and Canada.  At a recent teleconference with stock analysts, Sungard Corp., the nation’s preeminent computer disaster recovery firm and the leading provider of software to the financial industry, couldn’t wait to report that it had opened an office in India which was working on some of that company’s most exciting projects.  When you can hire intelligent, hard working IT professionals for considerably less than $10.00 per hour, without benefits, why not?  But the American workers whose jobs are being lost to the offshore relocation of facilities will never be able to replace them with comparable employment in the United States.  The high cost of providing health insurance, and the high cost of complying with well meaning, but ill-advised, governmental regulations will guarantee that they are never rehired by corporate America.

The economists and the pundits of The Wall Street Journal will tell you that all of this is working out precisely as it should.  Capital will flow to the spots on the globe where the cheapest labor can be had, and that in turn will result in the most efficient and low cost production of goods and services.  And all of that is fine as a matter of pure economic theory, so long as you (as a displaced former employee) are willing to pull up stakes and start looking for an apartment (if they have apartments) in New Delhi or Bangladesh.  If you can find suitable lodgings, I’m sure your former American corporate employer would be pleased to have you back on board again (after all you did design the system, and it is helpful to have someone who knows the corporate culture and is conversant with the language), but that scenario is not very likely.  Chances are that you will remain back at home in Plano, Texas, or in Kannapolis, North Carolina, or in Cortland, New York ( I haven’t forgotten the former employees of Smith-Corona, even though everyone else in corporate America has) and will start trying to find a job (any job, actually) in the service industry.            

But it is not just Americans individually, but the United States as a nation, which suffers from our obsessive worship at the altar of the god of free trade.  Half way through this article, I made the mistake of going to my mailbox and collecting my favorite magazine, The American Conservative, in which Patrick J. Buchanan has once again stolen my thunder in publishing the “Death of Manufacturing -- How Free Trade Imperils America” in its August 11, 2003 edition which arrived in my mail box today, August 1st.  Incidentally, anyone, whose biases and prejudices find comfort in the irreverent opinions expressed in Curmudgeon’s Corner, will absolutely love reading The American Conservative, where the same general philosophy is expressed with a great deal more erudition and journalistic expertise.

It is beyond the scope of this piece even to summarize Mr. Buchanan’s excellent article, but suffice it to say that he dispels the myth that free trade strengthens the nations which blindly follow it as an end unto itself, and points out that the United States, Germany and even that supposed paradigm of free trade, Great Britain, attained their economic growth and power when their industries were protected by tariffs, and experienced significant economic declines when they were removed.  As stated, I will leave the explanation of economic history to Mr. Buchanan, but the gist of his argument as applied to the United States is encapsulated in the following brief paragraphs:

“For 12 decades, America followed Hamilton’s vision (of protecting our home-grown industries through tariffs). On the eve of World War I, the thirteen agricultural colonies on the eastern seaboard had become the richest nation on earth with the highest standard of living, a republic that produced 96 percent of all it consumed while exporting 8 percent of its GNP, an industrial colossus that manufactured more than Britain, France and Germany combined.

“The self-sufficiency and industrial power Hamiltonian policies created enabled us to rearm in security, crush the axis in four years, rebuild Europe and Japan, and outlast the Soviet empire in a Cold War, while meeting all the needs of our people.

“But in the Clinton-Bush free-trade era, Alexander Hamilton is derided as a ‘protectionist.’  Woodrow Wilson’s free trade dogma is gospel.  Result: our trade surpluses have vanished, our deficits have exploded, our self-sufficiency has been lost, our sovereignty has been diminished, and an industrial base that was the envy of mankind has been gutted.

“And for what?  All that junk down at the mall?  What do we have now that we did not have before we submitted to this cult of free trade?”

The present day results of this blind worship of the abstract concept of free trade are truly frightening.  As Mr. Buchanan points out, America has lost one in seven of its manufacturing jobs just in the brief time since George W. Bush was inaugurated, and the third of our work force which was employed in manufacturing in 1950 is now down to 12.5 percent:  “U.S. manufacturing is in a death spiral, and it is not a natural death.  This is a homicide.  Open-borders free trade is killing American manufacturing.”  And contrary to the statement of Michael Boskin, chairman of the elder President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, that “it does not make any difference whether a country makes computer chips or potato chips,” Mr. Buchanan points out that it matters a great deal if one is concerned about our nation’s strategic economic strength. 

Our domestic steel industry has been decimated by illegal dumping from Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, Russia and Brazil, all nations whose economies we helped to bail out.  When we finally got around to imposing protective tariffs in response to the dumping which had resulted in 25 steel companies going bankrupt by 2002, the World Trade Organization (in which we are outvoted 15-1 by the European Union) declared our tariffs unjustified, and told Congress to remove them or face two billion dollars in tariff penalties on United States exports.  This is the same European Union, incidentally, which prohibits importation of American agricultural products because of “genetic engineering”.  The EU has even gone so far as to lobby starving African nations to refuse gifts of American foodstuffs because of their alleged concerns about the potential health hazards inherent in American agriculture.  Yeah, right -- the European free-traders strike again!

And it is not just heavy manufacturing capacity which we are losing -- check out our percentage of dependence on foreign firms in these critical areas cited by Patrick Buchanan: medicines and pharmaceuticals - 72%; metalworking machinery - 51%; engines and power equipment - 56%; computer equipment - 70%; communications equipment - 67%; and semiconductors and electronics - 64%.  Moreover, as Mr. Buchanan points out, when American companies move their operations offshore to foreign countries, their loyalties to this country do not necessarily go with them.  Motorola is moving more and more away from its old Chicago base toward China, and none of its profits earned there are being repatriated to the United States:

“Motorola Chinese Electronics…has increased its investment several times in China without taking away a single dollar.  The company reinvested all the profits in China….Since the very beginning Motorola has brought forward the idea of trying to be a good citizen of China, taking China as its home and thriving with the Chinese people….The development goal is to become a true Chinese company.”

Similarly, Boeing, our last manufacturer of commercial aircraft has located manufacturing facilities in China, and together with Hughes Electronics Corporation, has been charged by the State Department with 123 violations of export laws in transferring strategic rocket and satellite technology to China in the 1990s.  When the mushroom cloud appears over Seattle or Los Angeles, it will be comforting to know that some American stockholders profited from that illegal transfer of technology.  We used to have more sense than to sell the rope to people who wanted to hang us.

No discussion of the folly of shipping American jobs abroad would be complete without at least a passing reference to NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement).  That noble experiment in self-destruction was pushed by Presidents Bush, Clinton and Bush and practically every think tank in Washington, DC (the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institute, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Business Roundtable).  They were cheered on by The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, National Review, and the New Republic. 

After ten years, all we have to show for that forfeiture of our national interest is the loss of hundreds of thousands of American jobs and an annual trade deficit with Mexico that has now reached forty billion dollars a year.  American corporations couldn’t wait to close plants in the United States and head to Mexico where they could pay wages only ten to twenty percent of what they had been paying their former American workers -- by the year 2000, a million Mexicans were working just south of our border on jobs formerly held by Americans -- but ironically this fact has done very little to improve the lives of Mexican citizens.  Thanks to what Pat Buchanan calls “the creative destruction of globalization”, many of those jobs have since moved on to China, “America’s new enterprise zone”.  Now, half of Mexico’s population still lives in poverty with tens of millions either unemployed or underemployed, and their real wages (thanks to devaluation) are below what they were in 1993.  Mexico’s principal export is its own citizens who illegally immigrate to the United States where they place tremendous demands on our social services.  As Mr. Buchanan has succinctly observed:

“NAFTA has helped to convert California into Mexifornia and the Golden State into a Third-World country.  Ten years after its passage, Mexico’s leading export continues to be Mexicans.”

So, how long can we continue to open our markets to all comers, while other nations continue to close theirs to ours?  How much longer can we continue to sacrifice our own economic well-being to the greater good of the economic development of the world as a whole?  The answer, I fear, is not a great deal longer, and it is not because we have run short of silly, naïve Wilsonian altruism.  We still have that in appalling abundance.  Woodrow Wilson, the befuddled, academic idealist who led us (against our national interest) into ill-advised intervention in World War I (and screwed up the balance of the 20th century as a consequence) also bequeathed to this nation the doctrine of free trade which departed from the economic philosophies of Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt which helped make this nation the great economic powerhouse that it once was. 

In those days everyone in the world wished to invest capital in the United States -- but that is no longer the case.  Now the capital inflows go to China which values production over consumption.  We used to produce all of our own goods and services -- but now we have to purchase them from abroad, creating staggering trade deficits (most recently 562 billion dollars, with no end in sight).  And we no longer pay our own citizens to produce those goods and services --  in an orgy of consumerism, our monies flow out of this country into the Third World (where those goods can be produced more cheaply) leading to a devaluation of our own currency and to the impoverishment of our own citizens. 

We may still think up and invent the world’s technological innovations, but because of the short-sighted policies of our government, and the greedy, self-aggrandizing nature of our multinational corporations, we are no longer allowed to apply those ideas and profit from their manufacture -- that can be done more cheaply abroad.  We will continue to be a nation of “burger flippers” and workers at other low-paying service jobs which our corporate leaders have not yet figured out how to shift abroad.  But some day one of our bright young men or women may master the sci-fi technology of teleportation, and then even our burgers can be delivered steaming hot to American consumers from somewhere in Southeast Asia.

In the meantime, the new generation of Wilsonians, the neoconservatives who favor unlimited immigration and unfettered, unbridled free trade, are at the crest of the volcano calling for additional victims to sacrifice to their god of free trade.  The old Wilsonians ruined the 20th century, and their successors seem determined to ruin the 21st.  Soon the only American exports will be our soldiers, forcing unwelcome Wilsonian democracy down the throats of the peoples whom we subjugate by military conquest.  But how will we pay these Legions of the new American Empire?  Perhaps we can apply to the Chinese for a loan.

          


 

A New, Prissy President at a Football Factory

 

While the attention of most of the sporting world was focused on Louisville, Kentucky and the Kentucky Derby on the afternoon of May 3, 2003, a small group of sports fans were focused like a laser beam on Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  There, the fans of the University of Alabama looked and listened with rapt attention, not at a college baseball game, or the ladies’ gymnastic team,  but at their university’s new president of some two months as he fired the coach of their legendary Crimson Tide football team before he even had a chance to coach a single game.

The University of Alabama never has been, is not, and probably never will be, a citadel of great academic accomplishment.  Although it is possible for anyone willing to work at it to get a good education at the University of Alabama’s Tuscaloosa campus, it is known primarily for being a party school, a football school, or both.  Anyone seriously interested in academics, who wanted to attend a school in the Southeastern Conference, would naturally gravitate to Vanderbilt, or in more recent years to Georgia or Florida, but the University of Alabama is about something else, and the students, the school’s trustees, and its graduates and fans throughout the state like it that way.  The University of Alabama is about championship football -- twelve national championships, in fact, depending on who is counting (and what group was handing out the awards) -- and it would take an incredibly brave, naïve or foolish man to mess with that tradition (pick the adjective of your choice; your Curmudgeon prefers the last two) but that is precisely what the new president of the University of Alabama, Robert E. Witt, did.

In his first significant act, about which anyone in the state’s public-at-large had heard, or cared, he fired Mike Price, the former coach of the Pacific Coast Conference’s co-champion Washington State Cougars and  Alabama’s third head coach in three seasons, for going to a strip bar while on a golfing trip to Pensacola, Florida.  Mr. Witt did so against the wishes of a majority of his Board of Trustees, his students and the school’s football team who rallied around the embattled coach in a tearful farewell.  He called Coach Price “a great football coach and a good man”, but said he had to go for the sake of the University of Alabama’s reputation and its moral tone.

President Witt said that “Coach Price’s behavior has affected careers and lives -- not only his own but also his players.”  Judging from the tears in the eyes of Alabama’s football players and the distress of the university’s trustees, students and fans across the state, perhaps he should have taken a look in the mirror before making that statement.  It was the self-appointed czar of virtue who had needlessly affected careers and lives.

He said Coach Price had been given prior warnings, and in a way he had.  The coach had been reprimanded for socializing with students and buying them drinks at local Tuscaloosa watering holes.  I suppose he thought he was getting to know them and was introducing himself to a new group of people in a new and different part of the country.  In any event, Coach Price’s offenses, if they can be called that, were not sins of greed, or dishonesty, or disloyalty, or of self-aggrandizement, but failings of a too open and trusting nature.  I don’t know whether President Witt has ever read the novels of 18th century English writer, Henry Fielding, or viewed the paintings of his contemporary, artist William Hogarth, but I very much doubt it -- had he done so, he should have had much more sympathy and tolerance for the weaknesses of the heart.  His seems to be a very straight-laced and narrow sense of morality -- perhaps he is one of those “virtuous” men who are so narrow minded that they can look through a keyhole with both eyes at the same time.  In any event, he does not seem to be troubled with too big or too generous a heart.

I don’t know what, or whom, President Witt thought he was protecting the University of Alabama, or the people of Alabama, from.  Alabama’s legendary football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant, was usually so drunk after games that he was often unable to identify or remember the names of his own players on his Sunday replay show.  That didn’t keep him from being one hell of a fine football coach or a beloved molder of men.  Joe “Willie” Namath was certainly a bit of a reprobate and was much loved for it.  The whole state rejoiced when, upon signing with the New York Jets and being interviewed for the first time by the New York press, he was asked “What did you major in at the University of Alabama, Joe, basket-weaving?”, and their brash hero responded “No, that was too hard -- I majored in journalism!”

Whatever else the trustees, students and graduates of the University of Alabama may be, they are neither pretentious nor prissy.  Not many, if any, were aghast that their football coach had sought a little temporary entertainment in a topless bar.  And none, I daresay, are yet ready to exchange “Roll, Tide!” or “Rama-jama, rama-jama, give ‘em hell Alabama!” for “We don’t drink, and we don’t chew, and we don’t go with girls who do!” 

Robert E. Witt would do well to keep that in mind as he begins his third month as President of the University of Alabama.

 


The Dog in the Field


There is a section of the interstate highway system that I drive more than any other. For several years my daughter has lived at the end of that stretch of road, and the great majority of my close older relatives, the ones who figured so prominently in my memories of childhood, youth and middle-age, are permanent residents of a cemetery there, so I have a lot of reasons to travel that stretch of road to visit the living and the dead.

I guess most of us have idiosyncrasies of one sort or another, and one of mine is that I hate to pay more than I need to for gasoline. An extravagant wastrel in almost every other area, I am very cost conscious when it comes to gas. As a result, I make a point of stopping at service stations on the right sides of state lines, where the state taxing authorities are a little less greedy and the cost of gasoline is commensurately less – I never cease to be amazed when the American public blames the oil companies for the high cost of gas; it’s like blaming the distilleries for the high cost of liquor. If the federal and state taxing authorities would just butt out, we could drink and drive practically for free, but I digress from the point of my story.

Two or three years ago, one of the multinational oil companies which I particularly favor opened a new combination service station and convenience store at an exit which I have always tried to reach before I ran out of gas. I was delighted to switch sides of the exit to the shiny new store where a 20 ounce fountain drink came free with every reasonably priced fill up and the condom dispensing machine over the urinal in the men’s room inspired one’s imagination to flights of fancy. I think it was during my second or third visit to this oasis of cheap gasoline, free soft drinks and erotic speculation that I first spied the dog in the adjoining field.

He was a medium sized, long-haired, brown dog who immediately gave even the casual visitor the impression that he was on his own – a dog without portfolio, with no home to guard, no children to be loved by or to protect. He would hang back on the edge of the field, then venture forth onto the pavement of the service station to prospect for a bit of discarded food, but if anyone spoke to him (I have always been a sucker for making the acquaintances of unknown dogs and tried to do so) he would slink back to the safety of his field and look warily at his interlocutor. Having observed this pattern for a minute or so, I went back inside the convenience store to inquire about the dog in the field.

“He don’t belong to anybody,” I was told. “He just showed up about two or three months after we opened. The people over at the Waffle House feed him in the mornings.” I processed this information, bought a small can of Vienna sausages and popped the top, and took the opened can over to the edge of the field. The dog retreated deeper into the brush, but I was heartened to see several paper plates where other good Samaritans had left care packages already consumed. I called to him, held up my offering so that he could see it, and backed off a considerable distance to the gasoline pumps. He repaid my interest by venturing to the edge of the field and woofing down the sausages, so I felt my efforts had not been in vain.

Thereafter, I made a point of stopping at that service station every trip, sometimes going over, sometimes going back, and often both ways; sometimes on empty and sometimes, due to poor planning, with an almost full tank of gasoline. I never came empty handed, however, but always made a point of stopping at a neighboring barbeque stand to purchase a sandwich, “chopped, not sliced and no pickles”. Sometimes he would be in his field and sometimes not. When I saw him, I would place his sandwich in its open “to-go” carton on the ground at the edge of the pavement, call to him, and back off so that he could come and eat it. On the occasions when he didn’t appear to be there, I would go inside and ask one of the clerks “Where’s your dog?” only to be told “He ain’t my dog!” On other trips when he was among the missing, I’d encounter a friendly clerk who would tell me that he had been there that morning and that he was alright. I got the impression that she was the one putting out the care packages – “He likes cat food the best.” In either case, I’d take a bite out of his barbeque sandwich, place the rest in the open carton in the usual spot, and hope that he found it before the ants did.

One of my stops made an impression on me that I will never forget. The dog was there, but not in the field. Uncharacteristically, he was right in the middle of the pumps, standing by a blue van. When the van started to pull away, he ran in front of it, barking – not viciously or angrily, but as if he was trying to get its occupants' attention. He ran after that van all the way down the long drive leading from the pumps and out onto the road, a distance of perhaps 150 yards, before the van sped away, and he returned to his field. Suddenly, witnessing this strange sequence of events, the facts of the dog’s situation became clear to me. There was something about that van, perhaps its shape, perhaps the sound of its engine, which reminded him of his old family’s van – the one he had been dumped out of when he was abandoned to live life on his own. He thought they had come back for him.

We live in a “throw away” society. We have disposable razors, disposable contact lenses, disposable spouses and disposable fetuses. If our televisions go on the blink, we don’t repair them, we buy new ones. If a relationship is in trouble, often as not we don’t try to work through it –in the words of the moral relativists we “move on”. There is no reason, I suppose, why our pets should be entitled to any better treatment. Perhaps the dog in the field displeased his old family in some way, and they moved on.

In any event, the dog in the field continues to take life as it comes, through pleasant spring mornings, hot summer afternoons, cool fall evenings, and cold, rainy winter nights. He lives a life not of his own choosing, but, such as it is, on his own terms. During one of their trips, I introduced my daughter and her fiancé to the dog so he has two additional fans. On one of her trips home, her first words were “Oh, Daddy, they’ve bulldozed the dog’s field and a developer has it for sale.” Happily, a year and a half later it still hasn’t sold and a little of the underbrush which used to provide him some cover is growing back. Recently, when stopping to buy him a ham and cheese sandwich, she ran into the friendly, talkative clerk who told her that the dog has started greeting the convenience store personnel when they open the store every morning, so he is beginning to acquire a family of sorts after all. I believe she told my daughter they call him “Lucky”, which if true has an irony all its own. Certainly, he’s lucky to be alive.

After one of my daughter’s last visits home she called to say she had arrived safely, but chiefly to report that someone had bought the dog a plastic “Igloo” dog house and had put it in his field. The report from the convenience store personnel was that he was using it. Perhaps his luck has turned. Perhaps he is a lucky dog after all.



Is What's Good for General Motors Really Still Good for the Country?


When Charles Wilson was in the process of being confirmed as Secretary of Defense in the Eisenhower Administration in the 1950’s, the former CEO of General Motors was asked about potential conflicts of interest between his old corporation and the Defense Department. Could he be fair if a conflict developed and make a decision against General Motors’ interests if the good of the country required it? His reply, which is perhaps one of the most famous statements ever made on the relationship between national and corporate interests, and which set cynical tongues wagging in left leaning newsrooms all around America, was as follows:

“Yes sir, I could. [But] I cannot conceive of one, because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa. The difference does not exist.”

Charlie Wilson had a reputation as a blunt man who said what he thought, and there is no doubt in my mind that he fervently believed that statement. Furthermore, the great majority of the American people believed it too, because it was essentially true at the time it was spoken. In the first two or three decades after World War II, there was a community of interest between America’s large corporations and the country which led to the great post-war prosperity which made America, and its standard of living, the envy of the world.

During the twenty or thirty years following the end of the Second World War, there seemed to be an unwritten compact between the large corporations, their employees, their stockholders, and the communities in which they were located, that corporate affairs would be managed in such a way that was mutually beneficial for all concerned. If Eastman Kodak and its stockholders prospered, it went without saying that good times were in store for its employees and the city of Rochester, New York. The same scenarios played out across America with Du Pont in Wilmington, Delaware, Boeing in Seattle, Washington, Gulf Oil in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Coca Cola in Atlanta, Georgia. The managers of these and countless other large corporations paid themselves well, but they never lost sight of the interests of their stockholders, their employees, and the communities in which their factories and plants were located.

During the 1980’s that unwritten compact began to fray around the edges, and by the 1990’s it had come apart at the seams. Whereas in the decades following the Second World War, the men running America’s largest corporations were generally regarded as gentlemen, and their corporations were in a real sense repositories of civic and moral values, by the mid-eighties this had begun to change. First, in the financial and banking areas, a group of young tigers began to emerge who had nothing in common with the old families, schools and social associations of the men who for generations had run Wall Street’s merchant banks and investment houses. It was an era of “go-go” financings, hostile takeovers, and tremendously lucrative merger and acquisition fees in which new, rapacious players like Ivan Boesky and Michael Milliken literally devoured the “old school” gentlemen who formerly had run Wall Street, and business relationships which had existed for decades were casually tossed aside for huge fees and fast profits. The Chairman of Gulf Oil Corporation, whose company was under attack in a hostile takeover, was stunned to learn, for example, that it was being financed by Gulf’s hometown Mellon Bank in Pittsburgh with whom he and Gulf had for years maintained the closest of relationships.

The culture of the fast-buck corporate raider quickly spread from the financial community into the corporate community at large. All of a sudden, American companies were being managed not for their long-term strategic health, but from quarter to quarter to impress the Wall Street analysts. Spend too much on research and development, sink too much money into plant renovation, and some Wall Street M&A specialist would be touting your company as a candidate for a hostile takeover to “unlock shareholder value”.

A new class of ruthless corporate managers emerged who could impress Wall Street in the short term by cutting costs, slashing payroll, and if feasible closing plants in the United States and moving them abroad to escape regulation and take advantage of cheap third world labor. These scorched earth managerial types usually paid themselves egregiously huge salaries, with stock options which would make them rich beyond all dreams of avarice if, as contemplated, the stock prices of their companies rose in the near term. Meanwhile, they left in their wake thousands of dislocated and temporarily unemployed workers, devastated communities which had lost their principal means of economic support (Smith Corona’s move from Cortland, New York to Mexico immediately comes to mind), and companies substantially weakened in the long term by the failure to make strategic investments for the future. Those ethical managers who resisted the siren song of the “grab and run” management style fostered by the Wall Street analysts and M&A specialists often found they were presiding over substantially weakened companies with balance sheets burdened by crushing debt incurred to fight takeover attempts or to finance the one-time buyout of shareholder equity which had been built up over decades.

Given the change in managerial emphasis away from long-term fundamentals to short-term financial results, the slew of bankruptcies which have afflicted corporate America in the last decade should hardly be surprising. Artificially pumping up earnings for good quarter to quarter comparisons, while foregoing needed expenses for plant renovation and research and development eventually becomes hazardous to good corporate health. Nor should it be surprising that the move away from the ethical style of corporate management which so benefited stockholders, employees and communities across America, and contributed so substantially to our nation’s prosperity in the decades following the Second World War, would eventually slip even further down the moral scale to the criminal conduct which we are witnessing today. The accounting frauds of Enron, WorldCom, and Rite Aid among others, accomplished with the help of their corrupt enablers in the accounting profession, are the ultimate expression of the culture of corporate greed which has led so many companies to prefer short-term financial results to fundamental principles of good corporate management.

The inevitable shakeout will lead to the loss of billions of dollars of national savings and investment, cost tens of thousands of innocent employees their jobs, and in the short term (isn’t that what the fast-buck artists of Wall Street’s financial community think is important) impair investor confidence and make it more difficult to raise the capital needed for economic growth, and possibly send a few of the most egregious miscreants to jail for short terms (no pun intended) of imprisonment.

But it is an ill wind which blows no good, so perhaps this sorry state of affairs will lead to a new class of more responsible, less greedy corporate managers who will once again put the interests of their stockholders, employees and communities, and the fundamental health of the corporations which they manage, above their own personal gain. Perhaps we will be able to return to that happy time, inhabited by such men as Charlie Wilson, when what was good for corporate America really was good for the country.



 

Have you hugged your local prosecutor today?

 

One of the phenomena of American culture which I have never been able to understand is the huge popularity of our prosecutors.  They are the unpleasant spawn resulting from the mating of two of our most thoroughly disliked professions, lawyers and politicians, and yet most Americans root for them like they were our favorite hometown baseball or football team.  That is, they do until they happen to know a friend or acquaintance who has been unfortunate enough to run afoul of them, and then they begin to view their bullying tactics in a somewhat different light.

As a group our prosecutors have adopted the ethos of professional sports -- “Just win, Baby!” -- and perhaps that is why they have such appeal to a nation which by and large roots for the "overdog".  Ever notice how many people with no geographical connection to the teams have adopted the New York Yankees or the Atlanta Braves as their rooting interests?  The same thing was true of the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame or the Dallas Cowboys or San Francisco 49ers when they were good.  You don’t notice many people pulling for perennial doormats like the Chicago Cubs or the Vanderbilt Commodores.  We want to identify with the winning team, and losing is just not our style.

Television, which has coarsened so much of our national culture, has also played a huge role in transforming our nation from a country which used to admire defense lawyers such as Clarence Darrow, or the fictional Atticus Finch, who defended society’s underdogs, into a culture in which tough prosecutors and brutal cops are accorded grudging, and sometimes enthusiastic, respect.  Police shows such as NYPD Blue and The Shield glorify detectives who cut constitutional corners and rough up suspects during interrogations, and lawyer shows such as Law and Order and The System tend to denigrate defense attorneys who try to protect their clients through constitutional “technicalities” and lionize prosecutors who use threats of the death penalty or draconian prison terms to “flip” codefendants and get them to turn on each other.

It is also difficult to assess the effect which cable networks such as Court TV or the 24 hour news channels have had on our view of the criminal justice system with their emotional coverage of the victims of crime and emphasis on the victims’ rights movement.  The single most powerful influence, however, in fashioning modern America into a culture ready to give prosecutors and policemen every benefit of the doubt was the televised murder trial of O. J. Simpson in which the whole nation watched spellbound as a predominantly black jury acquitted the defendant, and punished the Los Angeles police force, for a bungled attempt to frame a probably guilty man.  From that point forward, an outraged citizenry has turned the presumption of innocence on its head, and has adopted the view once expressed by a friend of mine (during jury examination to get out of serving on a criminal case) that “if he (the defendant) weren’t guilty, he wouldn’t be here.”

Well, with all of this as background, America witnessed a huge upset last Saturday, January 11, 2003, in the spectator sport that the nation’s criminal justice system has become.  In a shellacking which was every bit as overpowering as the Chicago Bears’ 73-0 thrashing of the Washington Redskins in the 1940 NFL championship game, the outgoing Republican Governor of Illinois, George Ryan, gave Illinois’ legislature, prosecutors, police forces and victims’ rights organizations a well deserved whipping and emptied out that state’s death row.  Final score: commuted death sentences 167; death row 0.  If you have any friends who are prosecutors, policemen or victims’ rights mavens, you might want to give them a hug.  After last Saturday, they may need it.

George Ryan is a plain spoken, moderate, Republican of the old fashioned, Midwestern school.  He is a pharmacist, not a lawyer, by profession and perhaps his lack of legal training enabled him to see something that Illinois’ judges, prosecutors and legislators could not -- that Illinois’ system of capital punishment was terribly broken.  It was riddled with error, arbitrary and capricious, and completely unreliable in determining the guilt or innocence of the accused, or in meting out a fair and appropriate punishment to those defendants who actually were guilty.

Governor Ryan came to his office as a proponent of capital punishment.  He had voted for the reintroduction of the death penalty in Illinois in 1977 as a member of that state’s legislature.  He had also had a personal experience with murder and capital punishment when a close family friend in his hometown of Kankakee, Illinois was kidnapped and buried alive.  He knew the families of both the murdered man and the killer who was sentenced to death, so he had experienced the gamut of emotions which afflict the families of both the victims and perpetrators of capital crime.

Early in his term as governor, George Ryan was horrified to realize that the State of Illinois had come within 48 hours of executing an innocent man on his watch.  The condemned man, Anthony Porter, was freed through the efforts of a Northwestern professor and his journalism students who had proved his innocence.  As Governor Ryan noted in his speech last Saturday at Northwestern University before those same journalism students, “He was 48 hours away from being wheeled into the execution chamber where the state would kill him.  It would all be so antiseptic and most of us would not have even paused, except that Anthony Porter was innocent of the double murder for which he had been condemned to die.”

Thereafter, Governor Ryan declared a moratorium on executions and commissioned a blue ribbon panel and staff to examine the State of Illinois’ entire experience with capital punishment since the death penalty was reintroduced in 1977.  He found that nearly half of Illinois’ 300 death sentences since that time had been reversed on appeal.  Of the more than 160 condemned men who remained on death row, 33 were represented by attorneys who had been disbarred or suspended at some point in their careers, 35 were blacks who had been convicted by all-white juries, 46 were convicted on the basis of testimony from jailhouse informants.  Governor Ryan’s speech at Northwestern should be read by all proponents and opponents of capital punishment for an understanding of the way the death penalty is administered, not in theory, but in actual practice:

“I can recall looking at these cases and the information from the Mills/Armstrong series and asking my staff: How does that happen?  How in God’s name does that happen?  I’m not a lawyer, so somebody explain it to me.

“But no one could.  Not to this day.

“Then over the next few months, there were three more exonerated men, freed because their sentence hinged on a jailhouse informant or new DNA technology proved beyond a shadow of doubt their innocence.

“We then had the dubious distinction of exonerating more men than we had executed.  Thirteen men found innocent, 12 executed.

“As I reported yesterday, there is not a doubt in my mind that the number of innocent men freed from our Death Row stands at 17, with the pardons of (four men who were tortured, in one Chicago police precinct by near suffocation or electric shocks to their testicles, into confessing to crimes of which they were innocent).

“That is an absolute embarrassment.  Seventeen exonerated death row inmates is nothing short of a catastrophic failure.  But the 13, now 17, men, is just the beginning of our sad arithmetic in prosecuting murder cases.  During the time we have had capital punishment in Illinois, there were at least 33 other people wrongly convicted on murder charges and exonerated.  Since we reinstated the death penalty there are also 93 people -- 93 -- where our criminal justice system imposed the most severe sanction and later rescinded the sentence or even released them from custody because they were innocent.

“How many more cases of wrongful conviction have to occur before we can all agree that the system is broken?”

The sad answer to the question posed by Governor Ryan is a great, great many more.  Illinois’ experience with capital punishment is not unusual except that in Illinois there were some crusading professors and students in Northwestern University’s journalism and law schools who were willing to take the time and trouble to document the system’s failures, and for a time there was a governor who had the courage and conviction to bring that horrible system to a temporary halt.  In Illinois, Governor Ryan had the unfettered power of clemency to commute the death sentences that he knew from his case by case examinations were, in a great many cases unfairly assessed, and doubtlessly in at least a few cases involved defendants who were actually innocent of the crimes for which they were condemned.  He pardoned the defendants whose innocence could be definitely established, and with mercy, but incomplete justice, issued a blanket commutation to the 167 prisoners remaining on death row reducing their sentences to life in prison without parole.

There is no question that there are some among those defendants who are actually innocent and will have to spend the rest of their days in prison, just as there are many more who were justly convicted and deserved, according to the prevailing American view, to die.  It is a sad commentary, however, on the state of jurisprudence and the prevailing culture in America that perhaps a majority of our citizens think of life without parole as a lenient sentence.  Ten years in prison is an eternity -- life in prison without the possibility of parole is a punishment too awful to contemplate.

For some inexplicable reason, we in America have parted company with the rest of the Western world and have clung to a culture of death.  We are the only nation in the Americas which employs the death penalty.  None of the nations of Europe or of the British Commonwealth think it is appropriate.  Parting from our cultural heritage, we have thrown in our lot with the few nations in the Islamic and third world for whom brutality is a way of life.  We do this certainly not for rehabilitation, nor for deterrence (the twelve states which have abolished capital punishment do not have murder rates any higher than the rest of the country) but solely for revenge. 

Why has the United States, which is a modern and forward looking country in most areas, allied itself with a primitive culture of revenge in the field of “Corrections” (not much “correction” is possible, of course, after imposition of the death penalty)?  I think it has less to do with the primitive philosophy of “an eye for an eye” which as Governor Ryan noted in his speech, quoting Gandhi, “only leaves the whole world blind”, than with the emotionally seductive psycho-babble of the victims’ rights movement and “closure”.  What a sad and intellectually feeble justification for a system of punishment!  Less than two percent of convicted murderers receive the death penalty in the states which employ it.  Justice Potter Stewart said that the imposition of the death penalty in this country is so arbitrary and capricious that, for those few defendants who do get it, it’s like being “hit with a bolt of lightening”.  What about the families of the other ninety-eight percent of murder victims where the death penalty is not imposed?  I guess they just have to get on with the rest of their lives without the “closure” which a single-minded focus on the execution of another human being brings after a period of ten or twenty years.  At least the primitive Islamic codes of justice get on with their executions quickly so that the victims’ families can still remember when their loved ones were alive.  In some cases under Islamic law the murderers are turned over to the victim’s family for execution.  Now there’s some “closure”!  Can you imagine Denise Brown and Fred Goldman if they got the chance to work on O.J.?

Governor Ryan observed a peculiar phenomenon at work in the cases where the innocent defendant sentenced to die had been exonerated, and thereafter the real culprit was identified and convicted.  In the retrials of the real killers, the prosecutors rarely sought the death sentences which they had strenuously tried to inflict upon the innocent.  It was as if all of the fight had gone out of them:

“For years the criminal justice system defended and upheld the imposition of the death penalty for the 17 exonerated inmates from Illinois’ death row.  Yet when the real killers are charged, prosecutors have often sought sentences of less than death.  In the Ford Heights Four case, Verneal and Dennis Williams fought the death sentences imposed on them for 18 years before they were exonerated.  Later, Cook County prosecutors sought life in prison for two of the real killers and a sentence of 80 years for a third.”

Although Governor Ryan didn’t mention the case specifically, I remember a particularly heinous rape and murder case which took place in DuPage County, a formerly rural and now suburban county, west of Chicago.  The defendant who was convicted in the case was eventually cleared by DNA evidence after spending well over ten years on death row, and it eventually came to light that the police and the prosecuting attorney (who had subsequently become a judge) had for years known of exculpatory evidence which would have cleared him, but had determined that the best course was simply to let him be executed for the crime.  The Illinois authorities fought for years to have him executed, hammer and tong, but finally when the scandal became too much even for the Attorney General’s office to bear, they relented and consented to set him free. 

There then ensued the question about what to do with the dishonest police officers and prosecutor (then judge) who had conspired all those years to execute an innocent man.  None of the local state’s attorneys  (as prosecutors are called in Illinois) would prosecute the case (much too close to home, it seemed) nor would any member of the Attorney General’s office, so finally an independent prosecutor was appointed.  The grateful public and jury rejoiced when all concerned were acquitted, and to the best of my knowledge the dishonest prosecutor/judge was not even disbarred.  In an even more telling development, the victim’s family was distraught about the release of the innocent man (no “closure” for them it seemed) and have continued to maintain a close, emotional relationship with the police who tried to execute the defendant whom they knew to be innocent.

As he anticipated, Governor Ryan was widely pilloried by state legislators (who throughout his term as governor stubbornly refused to pass any of his proposed reforms -- even those which were supported by the state’s attorneys),  by the various state’s attorneys (particularly by Chicago/Cook County’s state’s attorney, Richard Devine) and by incoming Democratic governor-elect, Rod Blagojevich.  Secure in his unquestioned clemency powers under Illinois law, however, the outgoing governor said that he felt a constitutional obligation to correct a system dogged by the demon of systemic error, knowing that if he failed to act no one else would.  He noted, in response to the prosecutors’ criticism, that they exercised the power of commutation on a daily basis by the simple unreviewed and unknown decisions they make not to seek the death penalty in a variety of cases.  He said, quoting Justice Blackmun, that he would “no longer tinker with the machinery of death” and said that he would sleep well with the monumental decision he had just made.  I will quote the last two paragraphs of Governor Ryan’s remarkable speech delivered on Saturday, January 11, 2003, at Northwestern University:

“To say it plainly one more time -- the Illinois capital punishment system is broken.  It has taken innocent men to a hair’s breadth escape from their unjust execution.  Legislatures past have refused to fix it.  Our new Legislature and our new governor must act to rid our state of the shame of threatening the innocent with execution and the guilty with unfairness.

“In the days ahead, I will pray that we can open our hearts and provide something for the victims’ families other than the hope of revenge.  Lincoln once said: ‘I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.’  I can only hope that will be so.  God bless you.  And God bless the people of Illinois.”

The problems related by Governor Ryan concerning the administration of the death penalty in his state are by no means confined to Illinois.  It just so happens that the State of Illinois has been blessed with men of enough intellectual honesty and political courage to address them.  That is not the case, unfortunately, in the death mills of the states of Florida and Texas, and in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  The arbitrary and capricious decisions about who shall live and who shall die are equally present in those states which lead the nation in executions, and it is highly unlikely that the prosecutors in those jurisdictions are any more honest than the shameful examples discussed above with reference to Illinois. 

For years, the police and prosecutors in the City of Houston have had a particularly unsavory reputation for unethical behavior and have doubtless withheld exculpatory evidence in a host of cases which might have spared innocent defendants from execution.  In Texas, however, the only exit from death row is in a pine box.  The Texas courts are particularly unsympathetic to the appeals of death row prisoners, and the state legislature has so arranged things that no Texas governor has the power to grant clemency, even if one could be found who had the honesty and courage to do so.  Of all the states of the union, Texas is the most consumed by its love affair with, and blood lust for, capital punishment.

Although Texas, Florida and Virginia undoubtedly lead the nation in the executions of both the innocent and the guilty, prosecutors in those jurisdictions may have to take a back seat to a country boy from south Alabama when it comes to ingenious prosecutorial misconduct.  It is one thing to frame an innocent man for a crime that he didn’t commit, but when a prosecutor can threaten three mentally retarded blacks with execution for the murder of a person who never existed, and by so doing coerce three guilty pleas and obtain three felony convictions for long prison terms, then that is a legal accomplishment worthy of note.  Any good prosecutor worth his salt can convict an innocent person of a crime, but when you can get a murder conviction when no crime ever took place, and when no victim ever existed, then you are a prosecutor worthy of special recognition.

Bobby Keahey, the district attorney for Choctaw County, Alabama, has managed to do just that.  In 1999, a young black woman named Victoria Banks who was in jail convinced the Sheriff of Choctaw County that she was pregnant, and after a cursory examination by a local family practice doctor, Ms. Banks was let out of jail to have her baby.  Although no one ever saw the baby, and there is no medical record of its existence, the Sheriff became suspicious several months later that the “mother” had killed the baby and disposed of it with the help of family members. 

Acting on that suspicion, and with absolutely no evidence that a crime had ever been committed, or that the putative victim had ever been born, the Sheriff and District Attorney Keahey arrested the supposed mother and two family members, threatened them with capital murder, and interrogated them at length without any defense lawyers present, suggesting that confessions and guilty pleas might save them from death in the electric chair.  The three suspects, who were borderline retarded but realized that they wanted no part of Alabama’s electric chair, took stock of their situations and entered “best interest” pleas to avoid the death penalty or life in prison without parole, and received 15 year prison terms.

There the matter probably would have ended, but stories kept circulating around the community that there never had been a baby.  Dr. Michael Steinkampf, a professor of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s medical school, became interested in the case and eventually performed medical tests on Ms. Banks in prison which conclusively established that she had a medical condition which would have made it impossible for her to become pregnant.  The local family practice doctor who had been called into the jail by the Sheriff had thought that she had heard a fetal heartbeat, but had conducted no blood tests, or tests of any kind, to determine whether Ms. Banks had been pregnant at the time of her release from jail.

Motions were made to reopen the proceedings, and it began to occur to District Attorney Keahey that perhaps he had been a little hasty in threatening capital murder charges in a case where he had no body, no evidence of any kind that a crime had been committed, and was faced with very respectable scientific evidence that his theory of the case was medically impossible.  Hoping to save himself further embarrassment, the DA agreed that Ms. Banks and her sister could be released on the basis of time served provided that the felony convictions would remain on their records.  Ms. Banks’ estranged husband, Medell Banks, was offered the same deal to get out of prison on the basis of time served, but refused to accept the felony conviction, maintaining his innocence.  A collateral attack on Mr. Banks’ conviction was mounted, and in the early part of 2002 the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals took the highly unusual step of permitting Mr. Banks to withdraw his guilty plea, and filed a lengthy opinion reviewing the evidence in the case (or more accurately, the absence thereof) and absolutely excoriating District Attorney Keahey for prosecutorial misconduct.

Mr. Keahey took the loss of his felony conviction, and his dressing down by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, pretty hard and announced that he was refiling his capital murder charges against Medell Banks and would seek the death penalty.  The case was set for trial in January of 2003, but by the latter part of 2002 the case had gained the attention of the New York Times and the national television networks and was becoming a source of embarrassment not only to Mr. Keahey (who was stubbornly persisting in his intention to take the case to trial despite the lack of any evidence other than the local family practitioner’s proffered testimony that she thought that she had heard a fetal heartbeat, an opinion which the highly respected Dr. Steinkampf, a medical professor and expert in the field of infertility, would testify was a medical impossibility) but also to the judiciary of the entire State of Alabama.  Finally, since Mr. Keahey was stubbornly refusing to enter into any negotiations with Mr. Banks’ attorneys, a local circuit judge took it upon himself to facilitate talks between other members of Mr. Keahey’s staff and Medell Banks’ lawyers.

As the pre-trial hearings got underway the week before the scheduled trial, Mr. Keahey essentially absented himself from the proceedings and let his assistants listen to the hours of taped interrogations in which Wedell Banks repeatedly denied any knowledge of his estranged wife’s “baby” while agents of the Alabama Bureau of Investigation fed him false information in which they claimed they had DNA evidence supporting the putative child’s existence.  Finally, late on the last night of his prolonged interrogation, and with no access to counsel over the interrogation which had gone on for several days, he agreed with the suggestion of an ABI agent that he might have heard a baby cry, and said that he was tired and wanted to go home and get some sleep.  That exhausted concession, made to the suggestion of the ABI agent, in Mr. Banks’ attempt to get some rest, was the sole basis of the district attorney’s capital murder charge against the defendant.  Arrayed against that gossamer thread of “evidence” was Mr. Banks continuous denials that he had ever seen a baby or knew anything about its existence, and irrefutable scientific evidence establishing that Victoria Banks could never have become pregnant with the “baby” which no one had ever seen , but which Mr. Keahey claimed, without any supporting evidence, had somehow been born and murdered.

When the judge conducting the pre-trial hearing said that he might look favorably on the defense’s motion for a change of venue, DA Keahey threw in the towel whining that “it was time for it to be over…We’ve got other people that are killing babies, and we’re just going forward.”  He blamed the collapse of his case on “the liberal press” referring to a series of articles in the Associated Press and the New York Times in which he had stubbornly defended his prosecution maintaining in a series of interviews that he would keep “baby killers in jail”.

Finally, to put an end to the ridiculous case, Medell Banks was allowed to enter a “best interest” plea to a misdemeanor charge of tampering with evidence, a plea which did not require the defendant to make any admission of guilt or to admit any knowledge that a birth had ever occurred or that a baby had ever existed.  Much to Mr. Keahey’s distress, the plea bargain contained no provision waiving Mr. Banks’ right to bring a civil suit for damages arising out of his incarceration and prosecution.  Rick Hutchinson, one of Mr. Banks’ attorneys, said the plea agreement  “could not have been more favorable.”

The next day District Attorney Keahey, who had vowed to put Mr. Banks to death or imprison him for life, was out in front of the hated media, claiming victory.  He said that the plea deal proved that the baby had been born: “He got out on our terms.  We wanted him out under the condition that everybody knew what the facts were, that the baby was born, and he was there when it was born.”

Poor Bobby Keahey.  Some illusions die hard.  He needs a hug.