Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Film Review: Fahrenheit 9/11

I've seen every Michael Moore release (including "Pets or Meat" and all of the "TV Nation" run), and based on the hype, the many critical reviews, and the picayunish nitpicking, but most of all based on my experience in watching his films before, I fully expected a lot of the sophomoric Michael Moore to be on display in F 9/11. I still keep going back to seeing his films, of course, because the guy's got a huge heart for his hometown and his people, and whether you agree with his viewpoints or not, that affection for his folk and country comes across. But I didn't have high expectations as far as subtlety and narrative coherence when I entered the theater tonight.

I was amazed to see in F 9/11 a mature, coherent, simplified, and dare I say it -- subtle?!? film. Quentin Tarantino wasn't blowing smoke when he stated the awarding of the Palme D'ors had nothing to do with politics. This is an extremely accomplished film, both technically, and in capturing the zeitgeist of an extremely trying time.

What's especially encouraging about the way the film is put together is that Moore seems to have gone to see some Erol Morris, Ken Burns, and maybe even a bit of Sam Fuller. The film is not like previous Michael Moore movies, where there's a lot of turning on the camera and letting Moore say and do things we sort of wish we could and in the end often wish Moore hadn't, after all. (Some of the more forced moments in "The Big One", making poor PR flacks squirm, or the Charlton Heston ambush in "Bowling for Columbine" come to mind.) Rather, there's an extremely forceful and clear arc -- a story! -- that's told, and the story itself, even if one knows all the constituent parts, speaks in the end.

The Morris is evident in that he largely lets the subjects of his film speak for themselves, whether it's members of the administration, the soldiers in the field, greedy war industry profiteers, the Saudi ambassador, or random passersby spinning their own media conspiracy theories about the Peace Protest Lady in Lafayette park (she, I can assure you, was not a set piece: I've seen her myself. Lila Lipscomb certainly was no set-up.)

The Burns is evident in that he's done an admirable job at taking complex relationships of facts and not burrowing into excruciating detail. Critics of the film who have taken on every nuance are treating this not as a movie, but as if it was some kind of guest appearance on Crossfire or an attempt to write a scholarly book. You wouldn't look to Ken Burns for a scholarly recap of every detail of every battle of the Civil War. So while the facts and video are laid out often without bulky connective tissue, and occasionally with motives imputed, this is not done with a sledgehammer any more than Ken Burns came right out and said the South was doomed because slavery was evil. In both cases the choices of the filmmaker in how to present his subject make the argument much more forcefully. And, I might add, Moore's adopted some of Burns' framing techniques for interviews, although his old man-on-the- street style is also evident.

The Sam Fuller evident in the film is the use of the raw truth of the picture to tell the story. The rather arty use of reaction shots of ordinary people during 9/11 itself and the even artier pictures of paper billowing in smoke are positively symbolic but utterly true to the real event. Where the punches aren't pulled is in showing the true brutality of the war -- not just to the Iraqis, or to the victims of the terrorists and resistance fighters being dragged through the street, but the corrosive effect on our own troops, their suffering in the field, their uncertain recovery at home. It's frighteningly brutal to see some of the footage of an actual IED attack on our troops and the evacuation of our wounded, and raw footage of Iraqi victims of stray fire. It's even more gut-wrenching when you realize: I haven't seen this before. Where was the media for this?

There's plenty of the Moore trademarks, including some video inserts and ironic background music and wry commentary. But for once they seem to be done largely to propel his theme along, not just to be smartass for smartassness' sake.

What grabs one most intensely about this film is the focus on our troops in the latter half. Moore draws a careful arc, using his hometown, to show how recruitment is done, why young people will join as a way out but also out of the best motives and from the best families - "the backbone of our country" as the mother of Michael Pedersen, Lila Lipscomb, puts it, and what happens when they get to Iraq. It almost has the effect of following a single person from high school to a body bag, even though there are dozens of separate scenes in the development of the theme.

And finally having learned from some other filmmakers at long last, Moore injects the best parts of himself into the last part of this movie. It's that sympathy, understanding, and love of his place of origin and the people who struggle every day there that allows Moore to be able to comment on the ultimate price we're paying for this war with utter genuineness and a complete lack of ironic hipsterism. I think it's entirely possible that one might disagree with the rationale for the war that Moore alleges, the distraction from our real enemies, and quibble with the things he leaves out. But regardless of one's politics vis a vis Moore, the final third of the movie is a tale with resonance not just for any patriot, but for anyone asking others to fight and die on their behalf. What you get in the last 20 minutes of the film simply can't be missed. I can't imagine you could not hear the story of the Lipscomb/Pedersen family and be moved by the truest and most noble patriotism.

I believe that the critics of this film may have been annoyed by the obvious challenge to that very notion -- what does it mean to be patriotic? and the way that Moore decides to connect the dots in the end. Of course he attributes venal motives where mere incompetence or blind arrogance might be a better explanation. But it's not over the top; it's a crafted message, one that cuts home to the ultimate question of personal responsibility.

Filmmakers have to make choices, and Moore finally seems to have mostly made the right choices. He injects himself in the film a few times, and twice for his celebrated stunts, but that's it. The rest of the film is just an attempt to make sense out of a seemingly uncontrollable situation with seemingly irredeemably tragedy.

What else do you want from a documentary? It's not a textbook, it's a film. And a good one.

To my own surprise, I'm giving this film an 8/10.

[Cross-posted to IMDB on 6/29/04.]

Monday, June 28, 2004

Getting out of Dodge, Fast

"Dodge Ball: True Story of an Underdog" was the number one movie this weekend in Baghdad, as Paul Bremer left town in a real hurry two days before High Noon. Talk about being being the eightball.

Hey, for once they're being smart and ducking out early to avoid the resistance attacks. Give them some credit for recognizing doing things on a timetable is idiotic. Although I think if they hadn't, for political reasons, picked a date in the first place we wouldn't've had this huge surge in violence in the last week.

Funny though that they'll leave early to let an unelected government take over months before elections are even scheduled. That's hardly democracy; it's more sort of a regency. But I'm glad at least some Iraqis have some authority. What's going to happen with that is unclear.

Iraq is having a civil war, and we're simply in on one side of it right now (not unlike South Vietnam, except for the proxy battle with the Soviets that supplied the other side in that one.) I think the biggest mistake that's been made by both us and UN is the refusal to divide Iraq into three parts. The Turks don't want a Kurdistan, but only the Kurds have shown any capacity for democratic self-government. Give them their own state, their oil, and security guarantees from the US and you might have that stable democratic regime in the mid-east the Bush administration says it wants. Let Central and South Iraq cleave off into Jordanian-Syrian-size states, I say, and pick a form of government that suits them. Better that than an extended war for a federated state that can't sustain itself. One of the thing that seems to be missing in the analysis is you can't have a true federation where the constituent parts are both ethnically and geographically distinct. It will inevitably break up (Canada notwithstanding, although the jury may still be out on that). Strong federations: the US, modern (post-WW II Western, then unified) Germany, some multi-ethnic African states. Weak federations: Yugoslavia, The Former SSRs, Czechoslovakia (split into two pretty fast), etc.

I guess the real problem is that if we're on the side of Iraqi federalists, it's not entirely clear there are any. Federalism has been put forward as the form of government which seeks to balance competing interests. But successful federations have one thing in common: successful local governments that predate them. That isn't present in Iraq, which suffered from centralized Stalinist statism under Hussein, and centralized governments don't tend to be very good at engaging in a system of checks and balances among branches and levels of government.

When our Republic was founded, Federalism was seen as an alternative to Confederation or Separatism (remember the resolution for a Declaration of Independence was that the colonies were free and independent states, emphasis on the plural: the federation was 13 years after that declaration). The founders took a careful look at historical precedents, regional interests, and class interests (Mercantilists vs. Planters, etc.) The compromise that became our Constitution was full of flaws, ranging from the presence of slavery and the over-representation of the South by counting slaves as three fifths of a person for purposes of apportionment to the problematic electoral college concept. But it had an enduring capacity because implicit in it was evolution within a framework of absolute rights and commitments to minority protections.

With all three of the major Iraqi groups at loggerheads, what passes for Federalism right now looks like a collective triumvirate, and history is unkind to triumvirates.

I know one of the principles of the U.N. is it doesn't like changing international borders, that Turkey would try to invade an independent Kurdistan, that Iran would seek to dominate an independent Shi'a state, and that a central Sunni state would likely be revanchist. But having three smaller, isolated problems seems like an easier task to take on than trying to get one big mass of goo to congeal in a coherent manner.

In the meantime, I wish Jerry Bremer well. I have no basis on which to judge his performance, because having an imperial governor is something we haven't had much experience with in our own history, but I do know it's a thankless and dangerous job. I don't blame him one bit for getting the hell out of Dodge while he could, a couple of days early, with his balls intact.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Swear Him in for a Second Term

For the record, Cheney told Senator Leahy "Go fuck yourself!"

Boy, talk about a bunch of themes encapsulated in one outburst. Cheney mobilizes his base: people who think cursing the opposition constitutes an argument.

I could almost forgive the Vice President for losing his cool, but he wasn't apologetic about it, which tells me he didn't lose his cool. He's expressing his mind.

  1. The administration never admits mistakes, and certainly NEVER apologizes for them. It's proud of them.
  2. When they call Patrick Leahy anti-Catholic, it's just normal politics. When he calls the Veep on it, it's crossing over the line. (The remark was uttered to Leahy after he expressed unhappiness with being called anti-catholic because he opposed a specific judicial nominee.)
  3. Cheney felt good about it afterwards. Not ashamed he'd lost control in the house of democracy's greatest deliberative body.
  4. When questioned about the civility of the Senate being violated, Cheney parses this legalistically -- like certain torture memos I could mention -- and excuses himself on the grounds the Senate wasn't technically in session.
  5. He felt he wasn't responding to a specific incident so much as settling a score.
  6. He believes that cussing a guy out is proper retribution for the slights of the past.
  7. He's so gutless that even when defending himself for swearing, he won't come right out and admit it. He says he "probably" used the word fuck.
So America -- prepare to go fuck yourselves if you don't like what the Veep is dishing out.

What a fucking asshole.

Complete transcript of the interview is here:.

CAVUTO: All right. Sir, a couple of little issues I want settled, or maybe to get the real skinny on. One was this blowout you had the other day with Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. What happened?

CHENEY: Well, I guess you could say we had a little floor debate in the United States Senate.

CAVUTO: I heard it was more than a debate.

CHENEY: Well, I expressed myself rather forcefully, felt better after I had done it.

CAVUTO: All right. Now, did you use the "F" word?

CHENEY: That's not the kind of language I usually use.

CAVUTO: All right, because the reports were that you did.

CHENEY: Yes, that's not the kind of language I ordinarily use. But...

CAVUTO: What did you tell him?

CHENEY: I expressed my dissatisfaction for Senator Leahy.

CAVUTO: Over his comments about you and Halliburton?

CHENEY: No. It was partly that. It was partly — also, it had to do with — he is the kind of individual who will make those kinds of charges and then come after you as though he's your best friend. And I expressed, in no uncertain terms, my views of the — of his conduct and walked away.

CAVUTO: Did you curse at him?

CHENEY: Probably.


CAVUTO: Do you have any regrets?

CHENEY: No. I said it, and I felt that...


CAVUTO: So let me understand, he comes up, he sees you, Mr. Vice — he's all nice, shakes your hand. And then what do you do, let into him?

CHENEY: Explain my unhappiness with the way he conducted himself. Ppart of the problem here is, that instead of having a substantive debate over important policy issues, he had challenged my integrity. And I didn't like that. But, most of all, I didn't like the fact that after he had done so then he wanted to act like, you know, everything's peaches and cream.

And I informed him of my view of his conduct in no uncertain terms. And as I say, I felt better afterwards.

CAVUTO: All right. Now, they say you broke decorum for normally a Senate or congressional session. Now, technically, I guess, it wasn't in session.

CHENEY: No, we weren't in session. What we were doing was waiting to take our pictures, our official Senate photo. And I go up and sit in the chair, as the president of the Senate (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

Friday, June 18, 2004

Did they channel Carl Sagan?

OK, so here's the latest logic from the Resident:
The administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and al-Qaeda. We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. For example, Iraqi intelligence agents met with bin Laden, the head of al-Qaeda in Sudan.

I'm going to agree with the President here. Numerous contacts are clearly a smoking gun that creates a prima facia cassus belli.

Here are some other examples:

President Bush had numerous contacts with Ken Lay and other Enron officials. Therefore he is guilty of jacking up power prices and stealing billions of dollars from California.

Vice President Cheney had numerous contacts with officials of Halliburton. Therefore Cheney is responsible for price gouging and illegal profiteering on Halliburton war contracts in Iraq.

Donald Rumsfeld had numerous contacts with senior Iraqi officials on behalf of the Reagan administration and Bechtel during the 1980s. Therefore he's responsible for the gassing of the Kurds.

Colin Powell had numerous contacts with North Koreans discussing their nuclear program. Therefore he's responsible for North Korean nuclear terrorism.

Condoleeza Rice did not have numerous contacts with anti-terrorism officials prior to 9/11, so she's responsible for doing nothing.

Master of Logic - it depends on what the definition of "contact" is - that Yale degree working for the President at long last.

Soul of the Nation / Nation of Soul

One of the things I really missed about the Reagan funeral was they did not use Ray Charles' version of "America the Beautiful". It wasn't just that Ray had performed the song at the 1984 Republican Convention and Reagan's second inauguration: it's a wonderful rendition that really encapsulates the best parts of Reagan's idyllic dream of the nation. Where else but America could a blind, poor, African-American son of a single mother in the deep south rise to become a heroin-addicted, President-entertaining pop icon? Well, at Reagan's inauguration there was an asinine sermon at the interment by Reagan's Bel Air pastor, a rich white immigrant from South Africa, who marveled that only in America could such a person rise to be the President's minister in the nation's second-richest zip code. Ray Charles would've been a better representative.

Ray was extremely self-sufficient. He never looked for excuses for his handicap: he packed his own bag, kept his own house, managed most aspects of his life for a long time, and pulled himself up by not just native talent, but as Clint Eastwood eulogized at his funeral today, an extremely devoted work ethic. (Not to be too crass here, but anyone who can self-inject dangerous illegal opiates for over 20 years without killing himself has to have some real skills.)

More than the usual Republican mythological line, Charles was an embodiment of the melting pot. His music ran from nearly traditional blues to nearly-muzaky schmaltz. When a personage can attract such diverse fellows at his funeral as celebrated country-western pothead Willie Nelson, the ex-Mayor of Carmel (Mr. Eastwood), Johnny Mathis, Glen Campbell, and, say, Fathead Newman (who did as sublime a rendition on the tenor sax of 'Precious Lord' as can ever, ever be played -- man I cried) -- that's America, man. OK, so it was a Hollywood crowd. The AME knows how to do a funeral. God was everywhere, and he was God, not the sainted departed. Little Stevie Wonder practially did a call to the alter while segueing from eulogy and organ diddles into a full-scale song in honor of the late great Ray. Christianity is so much of a better religion as practiced by those truly downtrodden and poor, at least once upon a time, than by those born to privilege.

And hell, Bill Clinton was at the funeral. I guess he knew how to pay a tribute better than any President dead or alive: show up, pay your respects in person. That's being a uniter, not a divider: Ray mixed it up and ran it out as a great melange.

I'm a casual fan of Ray Charles, and my tastes run to his weirdo 50s stuff ("What'd I Say" being the most famous of the lot -- Tell your momma, tell your paw), so I can't comment on his musical legacy. My guess is that it's "America the Beautiful" that will live as a performance, and "Georgia" as a song. I didn't know the man. But what a great funeral - heart and soul, head and shoulders above any other public funeral I've heard or watched this year. I cried, I laughed, I mourned we won't have any more Ray Charles songs even if I haven't caught up with the catalogue in the first place.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Locals Only

On the occasion of the 100th Bloom's Day -- OK, really it's the 82nd Bloomsday since the book was published -- I'd like to write a bit about John Steinbeck. If ever there was a modern writer who'd read Joyce who was utterly uninfluenced by him, at least on the face value of his work, it was Steinbeck. They surely have some superficial similarities -- books banned as subversive and pornographic, etc. -- but I think all but the most tortured scholars would concur one don't read like t'other.

First I'd like to tell the story of how I read Ulysses for the first and thus far only time. In the summer I turned 20, I checked the book out from the Swarthmore College Library on a Tuesday in July, and read it more or less in one sitting (over three days, with about four hours sleep or so), and returned it on Friday afternoon. During this period I "worked" at my job at the college observatory on the Grant Measurement Instrument, comparing locations of stars from slides so old most of them had been taken before the historical Bloom's Day. I spent hours at this job in a dark room staring through a little lens, generating punch cards with measurements on them, taking the cards to a card reader, running computer programs to analyze the cards, refiling glass slides in a bunker that smelled like the end of the world and could've survived it, and starting over again. It was fairly meaningless drudgery; I wasn't an Astro student nor particularly knowledgeable about the problem being investigated. I made $3.35 an hour and got a thank-you in the one publication that resulted from the thousands of hours of work, introducing me in a very meaningful way to academia. Most of this work was done at night to provide an opportunity for some occasional observation on the college's telescope, but also because for reasons related to the perverse state of my psyche I preferred staying up all night and (supposedly) sleeping during the day. I read Ulysses before and after work, during breaks, during mealtimes, and at many points while trying to work, in incredibly dim light. I kept reading it when I should have been sleeping, and read it quite possibly when I was sleeping.

I'd like to be able to say I did this stream of consciousness reading of the great stream of consciousness novel as some sort of brilliant literary affectation, but the circumstances were accidental. The campus, at least in those days, in summertime was incredibly boring. The 100 or so students working on summer research projects were scattered across off-campus housing: cheerleader and soccer camps took over the dorms. Not a thing on campus was open after 4:30. The snack bar was open from 10 am to one. One couldn't even get into the vending machines after hours. No internet, of course, no cable TV, we didn't have a phone. VCRs were a rumour. No car: the only escape was into Philly on the train, but that required expenditure of money that would eat up a day's wages. So mostly what I did that summer was read whatever I could get out of the campus library. I went all the way through William S. Burroughs, who was the most interesting relatively contemporary novelist represented fairly completely in the library's collection, Hunter S. Thompson, Ken Kesey, and their ilk. I wasn't smart enough to know to go through Willa Cather, Henry James, or Booth Tarkington, although I did go through Melville after I discovered the weird wonderfulness of The Confidence Man. On the day I took out Ulysses, it was basically because it had a reputation and it was the only thing I could locate that I recognized. I grabbed it and read it because it was the only thing I had to read.

I was a horrible person that summer. Skipping the ugly details, I was at a nadir as far as my ability to interact honorably with other human beings or even myself. We lived on a diet of Tiny T's $1 hoagies and 16-ounce returnable Yuenglings and Budweisers and not much else. I started out the summer as great friends with my housemate and ended it, for reasons still obscure to me but which no doubt were at least 50% my fault, not on speaking terms. I was broke, on my way to dropping out (temporarily) the following year, lost and not in a particularly good spot to be lost and find a lifeline someplace.

Now I wish I could say Ulysses changed my life and changed all that, but I can't. It was just another cool book I read that summer, and the bizarre, nearly unbalanced state of mind I was in at the time I read it simply can't be replicated. I haven't tried to read it again: why bother? I read it as close to real-time as Bloom's Day itself, and it penetrated my brain as much as it could if I'd re-read it 10 times since. I may re-read it someday, but I think I'll save it for a rainy day, metaphorically speaking. I have had a shot of Bushmill's on Bloom's Day every year since, I will say, but I like Bushmill's.

So whaddya know, here we are on the great anniversary and there's a whole Ulysses and Bloom's Day industry partying on. There are two types of people doing this celebrating: those who have read the book and those who haven't. For the most part the former appear to be g-literati who revel in the depth and complexity and nuance and reference of the book, its very impenetrableness being proof of its importance, or at least a source of many theses. For the latter, particularly in Dublin, it's the idea of the book and Joyce that they celebrate, not the specific, which seems oddly honest until you hear the same people pontificate about Dublin, Joyce's genuineness, etc. I won't make you suffer by reproducing the New York Times editorial today.

So back to Steinbeck. I live in the heart of "Steinbeck Country", that is to say, Monterey County, California, not New York City or Long Island (where in fact Steinbeck ended up living the greater part of his life). Around here, we have the Steinbeck Museum, the Steinbeck Center, the Steinbeck Bookstore. There's a statue of him on Cannery Row. His characters, hardly Disneyesque, are used to name the sea otters at the aquarium. You can go to Steinbeck Realty and stay at the Steinbeck Inn. Steinbeck, to this area, is a mascot, not a writer.

Like Dublin rejected Joyce in his lifetime, Salinas and Pacific Grove rejected Steinbeck in his, at least until he turned into a cottage industry. I read through Steinbeck again when I first moved out here, found some things to enjoy I hadn't before, found some things that were just as annoying the second time around. Steinbeck has a lot of low-lifes in his work, and certainly more than one gets a sense of from Joyce (or his interpreters), genuinely felt the music of their lives even if he was, in the end, just another college boy writing about somebody else's life. At least he wasn't the kind of bull-generator Hemingway was. He at least wrote what he overheard, if not what he knew. His brushes with symbolism don't get in the way, too much.

So I don't know anything about Dublin except what I've read. But I know something about this area, enough to know Steinbeck would be appalled by the shot glasses and t-shirts with his picture on them, the package tours, the Disney-like Okie camp, the lack of any comprehension of the plight of the 1930s migrants relative to the illegals working the same fields today, the executives of giant agribusinesses contributing the maximum to the Bush campaign in droves the same way their grandfathers owned the canneries and factory farms that made the Joads miserable and poor. I expect that's what today's Centenary of Ulysses is like in Dublin: post-ironic, I guess.

I love Joyce, would probably enjoy him more than Steinbeck in a way if I had time, so this is not meant to be a trashing of his literary legacy so much as his non-literary -- celebrity? -- legacy (much as Steinbeck himself was a celebrity for a quarter century).

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Reagan meets PK Dick in Purgatory

From today's New York Times, an article written about Reagan's health:
On a plane from San Francisco to Denver, Mr. Reagan told me that his mother, Nellie, had been senile "for a few years before she died" of a stroke at age 80. Mr. Reagan said he fully expected his White House doctors to check his mental status, and he pledged to resign if he became senile while in office.
If you were senile, isn't it likely you would forget the promise you made? Or how would you know you were senile if you were senile?

Oh 25th amendment, where art thou.

Friday, June 11, 2004

666 St. Cloud Rd.

All kidding aside, I was very touched by Reagan's funeral. I watched on CSPAN, which showed more or less continuous coverage without any commentary at all. I'd been watching the coffin lying in state in the Capital Rotunda as video wallpaper for two days, and that was very soothing, just to see the quiet rhythym of the changing of the honor guard and the steady flow of people into view it wearing everything from dress uniforms to Led Zeppelin t-shirts and shorts. (Funny way of showing your respect, but it was 90 degrees outside). We missed the DC funeral, which I'm told was full of a lot of hot air, but caught the continuous live coverage of the plane landing with his coffin, the cortege, and the whole funeral.

The Reagan library is very tastefully done, in California adobe style and in a beautiful setting. The timing of the whole thing was really lovely, ending just at sunset. And I wouldn't mind having a brass band play hymns and a few pop standards at my funeral: it sounded great. I loved the eulogies (except for the one at the interment by Reagan's pastor, which seemed to endorse Reagan over Nelson Mandela as the icon of white South Africans, but we'll skip over that bizarre moment). Nancy seemed to have lost the adoring gaze and had a more contemplative, nearly stoic 1000-yard stare at the coffin. The steady flow of the changing of the honor guard and the pulse of the music in the background was very trancelike.

I always think funerals are for the living, and this funeral made me feel better about Reagan and introspective about my own life. There's no irony here: I just like a well-thought-out funeral, and this was one of them. Let others debate the over-eulogizing and weird memorialization and questionable legacy.

Rest in peace.

No Love Greater

Than the B-Actor Spurned

Jane Wyman has emerged from years of silence -- 55, to be precise -- on the subject of her former husband Ronald Reagan to praise him as a great and gentle man in a prepared statement.

Wyman had two children with Reagan, one of whom died at the age of one day, the other of whom was the late Maureen Reagan, and adopted a third, Michael. A famous Hollywood couple in their day, Wyman eclipsed Reagan in her acting career, winning an oscar in the movie Johnny Belinda. On the set of that movie, she met and fell for liberal heart throb Lew Ayres. Ayres was the lead in the first Oscar-winning talkie, the anti-war All Quiet on the Western Front, a role he took to heart. As the country's most famous conscientious objector, he was excoriated by the public as a coward, but quietly volunteered for combat duty as a medic (while Reagan partied with Wyman in Hollywood, making Army training films by day and nightclubbing the rest of the time). When it became known he had served in combat, it took a bit of the stigma off him after the war, enabling him to land the fateful role of the doctor in Johnny Belinda, but the McCarthy era again branded him and he meandered through the rest of his career playing character roles (after losing the chance to play Dr. Kildare on TV because he didn't want cigarette sponsorship.)

I don't know the details of the Wyman-Ayres romance, other than the facts that Wyman divorced Reagan to be with Ayres, and the relationship didn't work out in the end.

Wyman, at age 90, is now the sole survivor among the three. One is fairly sure she won't be forthcoming with details of the love triangle -- or affair -- but you never know. There's an interesting story to be told, if for no other reason, a "what might have been" had Ayres never gone to work on Johnny Belinda.

Did she see in Ayres a person of conscience, who undertook to prove the value of his convictions by risking all? What spark of Ronald Reagan that might've originally been present did she sense that was similar to that of Ayres? We do know this: at his own crisis of conscience that might've ruined his career, during the McCarthy era, Reagan played the informant.

Reagan of course went on to marry another actress, Nancy Davis (three months pregnant at the time, in the grand Hollywood tradition), who had her own extremely strong set of convictions -- and to her credit, as with the debate on stem cell research, continues to live them and stand for them -- and the rest as they say is history.

Reagan clearly had a conscience and a sense of the strengths of personal relationships, although his legacy as a public figure makes the web of what made him who he was as a President rather opaque. It will be difficult to have an idea how his relationships with women will be understood outside of his celebrated love story with Nancy.

I do know this: there can be nothing so sad, and nothing so simultaneously binding and isolating, as having to bury a child with your spouse. That's a deeply sad thing. It changes a person. It either drives a couple together or drives them apart.

Reagan's celebrated penchant for confusing storyline with reality, his optimistic worldview and unrealistic grip on the facts of his time, came from somewhere. We spin varying degrees of fantastic belief about our loved ones, believing the best (and sometimes the worst) in them as part and parcel of our fervent faith and hope in them and in ourselves to maintain that love.

From the crucible of Lew Ayres came the hot metal of Ronald Reagan. Only Jane Wyman could tell you why one ended his career as a character actor on bad films and TV shows and the other became President of the United States, and only Nancy Davis could tell you why it wasn't the other way around. I think.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Double Whopper with Cheese

My previous post on Bush distancing himself from the Chalabi regime made Timothy Noah's Whoppers column at slate.

Back to practicing for the next Write Like Dick Cheney contest now.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Those Precious Years

George Tenet has "resigned" to "spend more time with my family" "nothing more and nothing less". It's a good thing he's doing it now, since his only child is only going to be in the house another nine months.
This is the most difficult decision I've ever had to make. And while Washington and the media will put many different faces on the decision, it was a personal decision and had only one basis in fact: the well-being of my wonderful family, nothing more and nothing less. Nine years ago when I became the deputy director, a wonderful young man sitting in the front row was in the second grade. He came right up to my belt. I just saw a picture of the day that Judge Freeh swore me in, and he's grown up to be (PAUSE)... anyway, the point is, so Michael's going to be a senior next year. I'm going to be a senior with him in high school. (LAUGHTER) We're going to go to class together. We're going to party together. (LAUGHTER) I'm going to learn how to instant message all of his friends. (LAUGHTER) That would be an achievement. (LAUGHTER) You have just been a great son, and I'm now going to be a great dad. (APPLAUSE) Thank God you look like your mother. You're damn good looking. (LAUGHTER) The most important woman in my life, whom I refer to as the home minister.

(LAUGHTER) Look, if I could tell you the number of times I get an elbow in the middle of the night about what I forgot to do for families at CIA and for our spouses and for our kids -- Honey, you'll be the best first lady this institution has ever had and I love you.

Now that's family values.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Making a Commitment, Briefly

President Bush Discusses the Iraqi Interim Government, Official White House Transcript, June 1, 2004:

"Q Thank you, Mr. President. Mr. Chalabi is an Iraqi leader that's fallen out of favor within your administration. I'm wondering if you feel that he provided any false information, or are you particularly --


Q Yes, with Chalabi.

THE PRESIDENT: My meetings with him were very brief. I mean, I think I met with him at the State of the Union and just kind of working through the rope line, and he might have come with a group of leaders. But I haven't had any extensive conversations with him. "

MSNBC - Transcript for Feb. 8th 2004:

"Russert: If the Iraqis choose, however, an Islamic extremist regime, would you accept that, and would that be better for the United States than Saddam Hussein?

President Bush: They're not going to develop that. And the reason I can say that is because I'm very aware of this basic law they're writing. They're not going to develop that because right here in the Oval Office I sat down with Mr. Pachachi and Chalabi and al-Hakim, people from different parts of the country that have made the firm commitment, that they want a constitution eventually written that recognizes minority rights and freedom of religion. "

Special Guests of Mrs. Bush at the State of the Union, January 20, 2004

Dr. Adnan Pachachi President, Iraqi Governing Council Dr. Pachaci is President of the Iraqi Governing Council and President of the Iraqi Independent Grouping. He is former Foreign Minister and Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

Minister Hoshyar Zebari Iraqi Interim Foreign Minister Mr. Zebari is a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and was the KDP's head of International Affairs before being named Iraqi Interim Foreign Minister on September 1, 2003. He holds a Masters Degree in Sociology from Essex University.

Dr. Ahmed Chalabi Iraqi Governing Council Member Dr. Chalabi is founder and head of the Iraqi National Congress (INC). He is also a mathematics professor and a businessman.

Interview of the Vice President by Jim Angle of Fox TV News December 11, 2001
Q Now, the Iraqi National Congress, the opposition to Saddam, has been getting some money from the United States; that money runs out at the end of December. And in the past, we have not allowed them to spend that money on military training or for operations inside Iraq. Will they get more money? Can -- will those prohibitions be lifted?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: The policy towards Iraq clearly is going to evolve over time. But they remain very much an area of concern for us because of the threat that Saddam Hussein has represented in the past and does in the future.

In the course of addressing that threat, we'll want to work with our friends and allies in the region. We'll want to work, I think, with the Iraqi opposition, with the Iraqi National Congress. I personally met with Mr. Chalabi myself in years past, and I would expect that they will be a part of a continuing effort as we think about how best to deal with that threat.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Sovereign Rites

Al Smith was famously said to have stated that the only solution for the ills of democracy was more democracy. G. K. Chesterton, the writer famous for creating Father Brown, once wrote in an essay "You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution."

Indeed, in looking at our own revolution, democracy preceeded it by many years. One of the many factors that pushed us into armed revolt against the Crown of England was the fear of losing our own local elected legislatures; in order to preserve that, a national democracy was required. (We'll punt the problem that the democracy was for propertied white men at the time, but a democracy of sorts it was).

And the problems of the fledgling nation were addressed by an elected Congress, with representative sent in numbers roughly equal to population by each of the colonies.

Now those who are a little weak on our history should be reminded that the military intervention of the French was instrumental to our gaining our independence, and, yes, freedom. The French provided military supplies, training, "foreign troops" to counter the "foreign troops" sent by the British, and a fleet which was responsible for cutting off the British fleet from Cornwallis at Yorktown. Maybe we would've beat the British without French aid, then again maybe we wouldnt've had.

But the French did not bring us democracy. We had it already. We struggled to have more complete democracy, more democracy, and no military aid could've brought that to us, much less from yet another autocracy such as was France in the late 18th century.

So I'm pondering today's appointment of an interim government, which has been touted long and hard by the administration as "bringing democracy to Iraq". Democracy is rule by the people, not by an appointed council; elections are its instrument, representative government its embodiment. I'm not sure how we get to a democracy when it's clear Iraqis have limited grasp of the concept, when we've closed down opposition newspapers, suppressed dissent, petition, and protest, are unable to secure the rights of minorities to speak without fear of retribution, and in general cannot guarantee the free exercise of rights of free speech nor are we able to guarantee that the actual choices of the Iraqi people will be honored. Sovereignty, in one sense, can come before Democracy, but in another more basic sense, since sovereignty of a government is derived from the will of the people governed, sovereignty can never come until there's democracy. The government may have power, but not sovereignty.

There has been no revolution in Iraq. There's been a cleansing of sorts. But it's a cleansing like scrubbing a really dirty pan that's been caked with goo for multiple bakings: the worst parts may have been scrubbed out, but it will take much, much more elbow grease to get those pesky baked-on parts.

The idea of local councils is a step in the right direction. But the local councils aren't elected, and they serve at the pleasure of US Commanders. It is only in allowing Iraqis to truly take responsibility for themselves -- including making mistakes -- that we can see Democracy rise in that country.

So here's my plan for establishing Democracy in Iraq. We must stay, but purely as a security force. The rules must be strictly enforced: violence and intimidation will not be allowed. Provide a secure infrastructure for voting (under international inspections) and enforce a basic rule for the franchise (everybody over 18 or whatever age is culturally appropriate for Iraq, and one person one vote). But after that, let the Iraqis figure it out themselves. Let them experiment with local bodies, with consensus, with coalitions, with alternate forms.

I have my suspicions that three systems would evolve for the three large segments of Iraqi society, but who knows? We had disparate local interests in our country in 1775. It was considered a miracle at the time that not only was a federation arrived at, but all 13 colonies participated in it.

Democracy is messy in its details. Let it mature of its own accord, without timetables, appointed councils, or forced ideas of what it should look like in the end.