Friday, August 27, 2004

Letter to Senator McCain

I've really been stewing about the "Swift Boat" ads the last few days, but what has disturbed me most about this has been Senator McCain's failure to walk the walk after talking the talk. Have I been completely wrong that John McCain is the last honest man in Washington? So I wrote him a letter this morning, which I have mailed:
Senator John McCain
241 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Senator McCain:

I have the utmost respect for you and your service to the country. Your work in attempting to reform the campaign system has been an honorable endeavor, and I think often that you might be the last truly honest person serving in Washington.

It is for this reason that I am writing to you to ask you to rescind your endorsement of President Bush for re-election and cease campaigning on his behalf.

With a wink, he is clearly allowing surrogates to do the kind of vile smear work on Senator Kerry that he allowed to happen in 2000 against you. You have spoken out against this, and repeatedly asked the President to repudiate this specifically and directly, which the President has not done. He has evaded the issue on nuances and fancy footwork in an attempt to have it both ways – to try to distance himself from the tarbrush but benefit from the mud.

The only way in which this kind of behavior can be stopped is to punish it. If you object to the behavior but continue to give the President the benefit of your significantly better name, like a child who is told “NO” repeatedly but who is not constrained from bad behavior, he and others of his ilk will continue to engage in a politics of lies that is beneath this great Republic.

I am so concerned that your own legacy and reputation will be permanently besmirched by failure to call the President to the carpet on this issue. I would be delighted if you were to run again for the Presidency, as I believe your presence in the debate would raise the dignity of the office back to where it belongs. But I am on the verge of becoming disillusioned about what your stands for clean campaigning really mean if, when push comes to shove, you stick with your guy no matter how dirty he plays.

My wife, myself, and several members of my family serve in Federal Service, for the Department of Defense and in Homeland Security. It hurts me grievously to think that the national discussion about who should be our commander in chief, regardless of which candidate one supports, should be dragged down to the level of simple, outright, brazen lying, and the one man who appeared to be able to rise above the mud – you, Senator McCain – cannot, for whatever reason, take a stand against it.

Please, I implore you, make the stand for what’s right, and withdraw your support for the President to make him understand that “No” means “No”.


Matt Wall

Thursday, August 26, 2004

McCain -- Chump.

From the New York Times today:
Mr. McCain has long said he will do whatever the president asks to help re-elect him. Both he and Mr. Weaver said they did not expect the senator to become so closely involved in the effort. "But I'm not surprised,'' Mr. McCain said, "because I think it's obvious that there's a number of undecided voters who approve of me. Polls show that.''

Some have suggested that in backing the president so enthusiastically, Mr. McCain might be trying mend fences for a presidential run in 2008. On Wednesday, Mr. McCain dismissed the speculation.

Asked if he had ruled out a run, he rolled his eyes and sighed. "My favorite question,'' he said, sardonically. "I have not, quote, ruled it out. I certainly haven't considered ruling it in.''

If McCain thinks the Bushies aren't going to run Jeb in '08, he's a chump. If they get away with using outright lies about the military service of his opponents yet again, they'll sure as hell trot them out again against McCain in '08 when Jeb Bush runs for President. For a man who has tried through McCain-Feingold to restore honor and honesty to electoral politics, this is just about the stupidest-ass move he could make - play nice and hope the Bushes will throw him a crumb before they crush him.

McCain's only option at this point, since Bush hasn't heeded his call to repudiate the Swift Boat Liars ads, is to withdraw his endorsement of Bush. Whether or not he wants to be President -- his chances are better with the electorate if he shows he's really above the craven and crass politics of lies, and if he never runs for President, his legacy is going to be shaped by whether or not he makes the moral stand consistent with his public career.

Right now -- McCain sure looks like a chump to me. Let's see, how was it the President puts it? Fool me once, shame on you...Fool me twice...uh...won't get fooled again.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Book Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon

This marvelous little book is much more of an accomplished literary work and a fascinating read than might be suggested by comparisons to other works with ostensibly similar subject matter. The narrator of the book, Christopher, is incapable of having true emotional understanding, and in a work of literature that's an incredibly daunting technical problem. (I would caution against reading reviews that might give away too much of the course of the plot; much of the joy and emotional center in this book is in going through the progression of revelation that we see, while Christopher does not.)

The clever way in which Mr. Haddon uses this point of view -- a narrator with no understanding of social cues, lying, metaphor, or context, when all those things are the essence of great fiction (most especially detective and mystery fiction) -- makes for great reading. The book's immediate mystery is a Hitchcockian MacGuffin: who killed the dog is not so much the issue as the circumstances that produced the crime. As Christopher goes through the paces of solving the crime in his own way with his own sense of justice, the layers of circumstance in his life that produced the crime are peeled back onion-like. One can almost take the onion metaphor literally: it becomes more obviously poignant and complex, and the tears may follow with the peeling.

This is not truly a book about autism: to the degree that it is, it speaks powerfully to the difficulties imposed on the familiies of the autistic. Comparisons to the one-note "Rain Man" or the artificial and inaccurate "Flowers for Algernon" do not do "The Curious Incident" justice. It is neither a tear-jerker for the sake of being a tear-jerker, nor a tragedy beyond that of circumstance.

The book's narration becomes a sort of "black box": Christopher is bombarded with irregular incidents in a life where he would be better off ordered, and the way those events are deflected when they come out of his prism move the action along. "Curious Incident" becomes completely engrossing in a way that would be difficult to imagine if one just mentioned there are nearly random digressions into geometrical proofs, logic problems, existential proofs of the lack of a God, and various other puzzle-solving. Each of these diversions becomes a means of surfacing for air, for Christopher and for the reader.

This is a relatively short and easy read given the accomplished literary form, and extremely rewarding; well-recommended.

[review cross-posted to on 8/17/04]

Friday, August 13, 2004

Child of Julia

I can't dredge up a single 'French Chef' recipe from memory, and I can't tell you I learned a single cooking technique from watching Julia Child. I have vivid memories of watching her in the afternoons on PBS in the 1970s and not really paying attention at all to what she was doing so much as how she was doing it. I don't know for sure, but I suspect the only reason I ever watched 'The French Chef' was because it was on before or after Mr. Rogers or Sesame Street or something like that that I did care about.

But I love to cook, and I owe that as much to Julia Child as to any of my actual model chefs over the years. She may have represented something else to the generation that came before me, and she may have been some kind of pioneer in TV cooking shows, but just the idea that getting food on the table was a FUN thing to do was her important legacy to me. Next time I open the best bottle of wine to splash into some dish, I'll have the Chef's glass in her honor.

Book Review: Intelligence in War by John Keegan

John Keegan's Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napolean to Al-Qaeda is a strangely unsatisfying book. It's quite readable, combining Mr. Keegan's unsurpassable erudition in military history with a readable format, focussing on eight episodes of the intersection of warfare with various forms of intelligence. As eight individual case studies, it's an excellent read for those looking at the tactical utility of intelligence in specific parts of specific conflicts.

Where it fails is in its attempt to form a grand framework, to analyze and illuminate the use of intelligence in strategic and theater conflicts. Because it's written as a military history, the predominant theme is how the intelligence affected the force of arms -- not how intelligence might have been used or ignored in preventing conflict or making a given conflict a foregone conclusion before it started.

This is not, in short, a comprehensive history of intelligence in war or its evolution so much as a rather selective examination of campaign warfare remarkable for how it was affected by changes in intelligence methods and their contexts in the last two centuries.

Mr. Keegan buries his lead, as it were, in the middle of the book in his concluding remarks on the great US Naval victory at the Battle of Midway:

There are no examples in military history of a state weaker in force than it enemies achieving victory in a protracted conflict. Force tells...Midway demonstrates that even possession of the best intelligence does not guarantee victory.
And in his final concluding essay in the last chapter, Mr. Keegan writes
Foreknowledge is no protection against disaster. Even real-time intelligence is never real enough. Only force finally counts.
Therein, I believe, is the essential flaw with this book. Written in the context of the continuing debate over the intelligence leading up to the Iraq war, it seems Mr. Keegan reached a conclusion prior to commencing this work: bad intelligence doesn't really matter. That all his case studies are drawn from conficts between nation-states, and the current conflict is not sucha conflict, underscores the fact that while these case studies are fascinating in their own right, they do not necessarily have direct lessons for the present nor does his conclusion about the ultimate role of intelligence have application outside the more narrow scope of small theater operations.

This weakness is particularly noticeable in the poor choice of title for the book and the weak coverage on topics that those not interested in military history per se might be looking for. Al-Qaeda scarcely gets a page; the Hussein regime in both Gulf Wars gets even less. The chapter titled "Military Intelligence Since 1945" is truly just about the Falklands War of 1982, and seems titled merely to lead the reader to expect more illumination of recent events. Much of the end of that chapter and the final chapter is a recounting of the major details of the eight case studies, as if it had been written first and then fleshed out with the case studies in detail. The cover ominously features Hitler and Osama Bin Laden, although neither figure plays much of a role in the case studies presented.

It may also perhaps be misleading to say this book is truly focussed on intelligence and intelligence-gathering. Each case study is in fact a short military history of the episode covered: Nelson's pursuit of the French fleet leading up to the Battle of the Nile; Jackson's 1862 Shenandoah campaign; the German "Cruiser War" of 1914; the Invasion of Crete in 1941; the Battle of Midway in 1942; Submarine warfare and the Battle of the Atlantic in 1939-43; the V-1 and V-2 Offensives of 1944; and the Falklands invasion of 1982. The peculiar story of intelligence in each of these conflicts is well-blended into each account, but intelligence and its methods does not take over the story.

That in essence is both the strength and weakness of this book. The tales themselves are riveting and the re-telling of them illuminating, to the point of revisionism in several instances, in the mind of an extremely wise and knowledgeable student of war. That the punchline seems to be 'intelligence good or bad doesn't make a difference in the long run' is a nearly radical conclusion. But the important role of diplomatic intelligence, of military intelligence in the context of divining the enemy's ultimate intentions and strategic goals, is not covered in this book, and that is a disappointing lacuna in the literature yet to be covered.

What truly was Hussein thinking would happen when he invaded Kuwait in 1990, and how would that have been avoided by differing intelligence analysis? Are pre-emptive wars, like the one Japan launched on the US in 1941, based on particular strategic analyses in turn flawed because they color the interpretation of tactical intelligence? Is it possible, as the Crete example suggests, and to a degree the Battle of the Atlantic (which Keegan suggests might have been won earlier had not the intelligence gathered by Ultra actually steered superior Allied Forces away from wolfpacks) that an overemphasis on protecting the source of intelligence might actually interfere with the military outcome? These are the sorts of questions I expected might be addressed by this book, but are mostly absent.

Nevertheless I would recommend this book, as long as its focus and framework are well-understood. Students of military history wil find most of the case studies famiiiar and covered in greater detail in other books, but will appreciate the interspersing of a more modern understanding of intelligence sources benefitting from years of scholarly research and reading. Thsoe with little knowledge of military history are perhaps even more likely to benefit from the episodic format. Mr. Keegan's superbly concise retelling of these major events makes even familiar history seem fresh. The reader would be cautioned, however, to place each of the case studies in appropriate context: the outcome of the "Cruiser War" of 1914 or the V1/V-2 offensive have miniscule importance in the grand scheme of history compared to the Battle of Midway.

[cross-posted to on 13 Aug 2004]


Dear Wolf (I hope I may call you that, Mr. Blitzer),

Giving air time to the authors of a work of fiction on John Kerry's war record does not seem to me to be in the spirit of rigorous analytical fact-checking that ought to underpin journalism. Just because somebody makes charges that a certain version of historical facts is incorrect does not elevate them to the level of credible source worthy of time in the public discourse. To claim John Kerry's war record is a lie in the face of the overwhelming documentary evidence of the US Navy is to argue for a conspiracy so vast as to make Roswell UFO cover-ups seem credible by comparison. What's next, a CNN segment that will feature holocaust deniers debating with Simon Wiesenthal?

And if John O'Neill is to be given the credibility of a national platform, why not ask him about his own history of anti-Kerry bashing, documented on the Watergate tapes as having been orchestrated by the dirty tricks squad of the Nixon era? Why not discuss his own credibility and that of his co-author, Mr. Corsi?

"Objectivity" does not mean "there are two sides to every story". It means looking at the most objective sources of information and evaluating them in a rigorous manner. I sincerely hope CNN will aspire to better editorial standards for its choice of subjects and guests during the coming months.


The Teapot

Friday, August 06, 2004

Happy Birthday to Me

Happy birthday to me -- here's my annual birthday mix!
Cut Cutter
Praise You Fatboy Slim
Credit in the Straight World Hole
Minority Green Day
Mmmbop Hanson
Evie's Tears Freddy Johnston
Declare Guerre Nucleaire The Hives
Depth Charge Jon & The Nightriders
Mass Romantic New Pornographers
Constant Craving K. D. Lang
Instanbul Halibuts
Crawfish Elvis
Two Week Vacation Ass Ponys
Guilty Of Being White Minor Threat
Surf Wax America Weezer
The Magnificent Dance The Clash
Back of a Car Big Star
Cut Minutemen
Puffy's Rule Puffy Ami Yumi
What's In The Cuckoo Clock Mr. T Experience
Rock This Joint The Max Weinberg 7
The "In" Crowd Ramsey Lewis Trio
Sister Heel Thinking Fellers Union Local 282
Be-9 Versus
What'd I Say? Mr. Stress Blues Band

Book Review: John F. Kerry by the Boston Globe

The complete title is: John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography by the Boston Globe Reports Who Know Him Best, byt Michael Kranish, Brian C. Mooney, and Nina J. Easton. Review cross-posted on on August 6 2004.

As one might expect from a book expanded from a series of newspaper articles, this biography of John Kerry is a fairly dry and straightforward presentation of the facts of his life. The Globe did an admirable job in assembling, and in some cases uncovering, primary source material on Kerry. (Those expecting a local paper to do a fluff job on the local hero should be aware Kerry has had a strained relationship with the Globe's news staff for thirty years.) As such, this is a very good introduction to the man who would be president, and in a way a sort of skeleton for some as-yet-unwritten future biography that might explore him as a person and public figure in greater detail.

The Globe series pulls no punches in presenting Kerry's career, warts and all. It does a particularly good job at examining the controversies in Kerry's biography and sorting out the facts from the innuendo, the verifiable from the speciously speculative. Vietnam medals, his conservative role in the radical Vietnam Veterans Against the War, his controversial first stabs at elected office, and the basis of his at-times confusing stances on the Iraq and Gulf Wars are all covered from "both sides" with analysis limited only to a reasonable calculus of what version of disputed events is most likely to be true.

As a political biography, this book distinctly has no point of view. Supporters and detractors of Kerry will find plenty to grab onto within its pages. Very little in the way of historical context, as might be expected in a more erudite biography, intrudes upon the basic narrative of Kerry's public life. At the same time, the book should raise questions about Kerry to his partisans as well as underscore his strengths of character, intelllect, and executive abilities to his opponents. The book does a fairly good job at getting at the complexity of Kerry's manner of thinking and public stances, which both explains the allegation of "flip-flopping" in its nuanced contexts and reveals the essentially political nature of Kerry's character.

Those looking into insights into John Kerry's character will find plenty of revealing instances, although this is no "up close and personal" celebrity portrait. Kerry's alleged aloofness comes across more as a person uninterested in wearing his inner psychology on his coat sleeves than as indicative of a person truly cold and removed. It's very difficult to imagine Kerry engaging in, say, Bill Clinton-like sharing of the deep recesses of the soul which so endeared the latter to the electorate; at the same time it's abundantly clear Kerry is the type of person highly unlikely to fall into personal pecadilloes like those which dogged Clinton.

Particularly enlightening is the coverage of Kerry's youth and student days: we see the emergence of a careful thinker, ambitious and sometimes ego-driven from the earliest. Kerry's closest relationships are barely covered, however. We learn he was unhappy and morose following his divorce, but learn little of the nature of his relationship with his first wife. We learn of the pain he felt at having five friends killed in Vietnam, including one of his closest (Dick Pershing, grandson of the General, "Blackjack" Pershing), but the direct way it affected his character and motivations is less clear.

The book spends a bit too much time and space on Kerry's grandfather's Jewish-Austrian roots and death by suicide, given that Kerry himself had no knowledge of this part of his ancestral story until the Globe itself informed him of what it had uncovered. It's an interesting twist, but one which hardly illuminates his half-patrician, half-immigrant rags-to-riches family tree in a way which might've affected the formation of his character.

The tone of the book is uneven, as one might expect from an assemblage of articles written by different journalists, and there are occasional abrupt gaps in the narrative sequence. The notes on sources are usefully quoted with the exact phrase, but do not have enough detail to provide much help for those wishing to research further.

All in all, I'd recommend this as a very good start for those with the time and interest to delve more deeply into Kerry. It certainly compares extremely favorably with the sparse material available on President Bush immediately prior to his election in 2000. Readers strapped for time may wish to concentrate on the story of the young Kerry and the Vietnam-era Kerry, which is a riveting portrait in the trials of character and reads more breezily than the drier details of his Senate career.The definitive portrait of Kerry, of course, awaits at least one or two more chapters as yet unwritten.

Skip the self-congratulatory preface, by the way: the Globe editors being smug and self-righteous about their objectivity does not illuminate the subject of the book to any additional degree.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Book Review: Lightning Man by Kenneth Silverman

[Cross-posted on 01 August]

SFB Morse is hardly a forgotten figure in history, but neither does he have the stature of an Edison in terms of the industrial development. As Lightning Man ably describes, the telegraph itself was more an invention of an amalgamation of a variety of predecessor developments in science and technology. Morse deserves ample credit for putting the pieces together and, more importantly, having the drive and acumen to evolve the invention into a successful business model, which was the key for its transformative effect on world technology. Yet his life, before the appearance of this excellent biography, seems shrouded in the myth of the lone inventor.

What's truly fascinating about his story and this book is the tale of the transition from the idea of the lone individual genius to the research lab, the difference between a great idea and a useful product, the move from progress being measured by the fevered work of a single man to the joint efforts of the company and the corporation. The story is one of a transformation of a culture, but which stays firmly focussed on its subject, Mr. Morse, in telling the tale.

Morse's "early" years as a painter are covered extremely well, and while the transition between his career as a painter to one as an inventor may seem bizarre and abrupt to the modern conception, Silverman illuminates this strange career change in the light of the times. Morse himself was a bridge between early American puritanism and a more modern philosophy that was to come. His philosophy of human nature and of himself had all the prejudice, bravado, arrogance, hypocrisy, idealism, greed, and Calvinist self-loathing that made the first half of the 19th century such a dynamic period. That Morse had to travel abroad to study fine art painting, a field considered by many Americans of the time to be vile and barely a craft, and sought the approval of the Academy of the day in Europe also neatly encapsulates the love-hate relationship of the period with European culture and learning. (Morse's own tortured schizophrenia on European political institutions is a subtheme: he is quick to criticize the European political systems of the day in his younger years, and all too eager to accept the emoluments and honors of royalty in his later ones.) The treatment of Morse's early years and his relationship with his then-even-more famous geographer father is done very deftly, without resorting to facile Freudian psychobabble, as we see Morse attempting to simultaneously win parental approval, find his own way in the world, make a name for himself, and try to see his own importance.

There's an American tragedy within Morse's life story as well, in the way he bitterly fought -- perhaps too hard in some ways -- to get the sole credit for inventing the telegraph that he is popularly (and inaccurately) given in the one-line biographical entries of modern histories. This fight was done partly for ego and celebrity, and partly to protect his patents and late fortune. It's a sad and cautionary tale how Morse was never able to settle into any kind of self-satisfaction as he became obsessed with his own legacy.

Morse was an American original, and there's a fascinating pull to the story of a man never happy with himself despite having reached conventional success in two quite different professions.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

But What if the Horse Drowns Because You're in Over His Head?

My mother's cousins were visiting her last week. They're from Georgia, and they're ardent Bush supporters. When pressed about this, they cited as their reason for voting for Bush "you don't change a horse in midstream", an invocation first used by Lincoln in the 1864 election.

Of course, the north was winning at that point.

Perhaps some better examples might be 1968 and 1952.

Johnson, of course, technically chose not to run for re-election in the middle of the Vietnam war, but that was largely because after the early campaigning it became clear he was going to be defeated in an embarrasing way in the primaries. Hubert Humphrey was the eventual nominee after RFK's assassination took out the best anti-war candidate, and essentially ran as an incumbent, since he was Vice President to Johnson. Richard Nixon ran claiming he had the famous "secret plan" to end the war in Vietnam. It was so secret it wasn't used until December, 1972, when the Christmas bombings forced the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table, where we promptly got our asses out of the war in exchange for nothing but the return of our prisoners. South Vietnam fell two years later.

Ike won in 1952 in part because we thought a military man could do a better job in getting us out of the quagmire of Korea. "I will go to Korea", he said, which was both literal and symbolic: he meant to say he could understand things, in person, better than Truman running via remote control from Washington. Ike, recognizing the military victory was unwinnable, but also recognizing the original war goal was merely to expel North Korea from the south, proceeded to get the war over within six months of assuming office.

In 1944, we re-elected FDR. Again, we were winning the war at that point: an end was in sight: we had clear reasons for being there.

That's it. We've had elections in four wars; half the time we changed horses in mid-stream, half the time we didn't.

As my dad likes to put it, if you want to fight a political campaign with aphorisms, how about: the first rule when you find yoruself in a hole is to stop digging.

I recall in 1999, at my Great Aunt's memorial service, afterwards I was talking with our Texas cousins. George Bush was known mostly to me at that point as the guy who snookered the taxpayers of Arlington and Texas into paying for a ballparrk for his ballclub, which he then sold at an appreciated value that was pretty much exactly the amount of money the public had put into the ballpark. So I asked, with genuine curiousity, how good a job Mr Bush had done in Texas. Great, they said. What exactly did he do? I asked. They looked at each other, groping for an answer. "Well," my cousin said, "he was real good on education." "How so?" I asked. "What did he do?" They also looked at each other for a while, and my other cousin said, "Well, he really increased the amount of testing they're doing." "Hunh," I asked. "How come Texas is still at the bottom of the country in test scores like the SAT and so forth then?" They chuckled nervously. This is when I came to understand that Bush's hard core did not have a clue as to why they liked him: it had to do with some weird psychological need, possibly to feel like the guy in charge was definitely not better than them.