Friday, December 29, 2006

Party Like It's 1906!

In an appalling decision, the Ohio Supreme Court has denied a young man workers' compensation benefits for burns he received when cleaning a pressure cooker. The court reasoned--if that's the word--that the worker abandoned his job, because he had been told not to use boiling water when cleaning the cooker, but went ahead and did so anyway.

This is a decision straight out of the days of robber barons and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, when workers were disposable commodities. It is a sign of just how reactionary, selfish and crabbed "conservative" Republicans have become; until this year, the GOP dominated Ohio politics, and thus the appointment of judges.

The idea that a worker who is doing a job "abandons" it by not obeying instructions would be laughable if the results were not so tragic. If the young man in this case had stormed out of the restaurant during his shift, been injured in a traffic accident and then claimed workers' compensation benefits, then we might say that they should be denied because he abandoned his job. In the real world--not the one inhabited by a majority of the Ohio Supreme Court--workers often disobey instructions because (a) the instructions are clearly wrong; (b) the instruction given is pro forma, when the message is clear that the method to use is exactly the one supposedly forbidden (think of instructions to truckers not to exceed the speed limit), or (c) the worker is dumb. None of those should keep an injured employee from getting worker's compensation.

The workers' compensation system resulted from a bargain in which employees are barred from suing employers or fellow employees, and precluded from going to court or getting a jury trial, in exchange for assured payments in a no-fault system. Workers' compensation payments, set by law, are typically much lower than what the worker would recover in a successful tort suit, and they are often delayed by bureaucracy. Lawyers' fees (if the employer does not agree that compensation benefits should be paid, the worker needs an attorney) are limited, with the result that lawyers can only afford to take such cases if they can turn them over quickly; cases often elude close examination or hard fighting. And now the court in Ohio wants to put a further barrier between injured workers and compensation.

Democrats have taken over in Ohio as a result of the 2006 elections. Let's hope they repeal this terrible decision by legislative action, and return the Buckeye State at least to the 20th Century, if not the 21st.


District attorney Mike Nifong, the man who charged 3 Duke lacrosse players with raping a young woman working as a stripper at an off-campus party last spring, now faces ethics charges from the North Carolina bar for misleading and inflammatory comments.

This is a welcome development. Commonly, police and prosecutors manage to convict high-profile defendants with the active or passive compliance of the media. You've seen or heard the story that goes "Police said that Smith stalked and killed his victim before dismembering the body...." Indeed, today's NYT carries this quote from the DA in New Orleans on the indictment of seven police officers for the shooting of two men in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: "''We cannot allow our police officers to shoot and kill our citizens without justification like rabid dogs.'' So much for the presumption of innocence and assuring a fair trial.

And I must wonder, in the North Carolina case, whether the bar would have acted had the victim been a white college student and the accused a group of black athletes.

(A note: reviewing this post, I came the to the sentence that starts, "Indeed, today's NYT carries this quote...." At first, I edited out "the" between "police officers for" and "shooting" and then I took out the "of" after shooting. The sentence then went, "Indeed, today's NYT carries this quote from the DA in New Orleans on the indictment of seven police officers for shooting two men in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina." Read that sentence and then read the sentence as it appears in the post. See the subtle but real difference? A small example of how much care the media must show to avoid trying cases in the press.)

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Jerry Ford's Legacy

So, we all know by now that former president Gerald Ford disapproved of W's Iraq War policy. According to Bob Woodward, in an interview that Ford gave in 2004, but directed not to be releases until after his death,
"Ford 'very strongly' disagreed with the current president's justifications for invading Iraq and, said he would have pushed alternatives, such as sanctions, much more vigorously. In the tape-recorded interview, Ford was critical not only of Bush but also of Vice President Cheney -- Ford's White House chief of staff -- and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who served as Ford's chief of staff and then his Pentagon chief."

The ever-classy Bill (The Gambler) Bennett breaks the rule about not speaking ill of the dead--at least until they are underground--by suggesting that the interview blots Mr. Ford's reputation for decency. "If he felt so strongly about his words having a derogatory affect, how about telling Woodward not to run the interview until after Bush & Cheney are out of office?" Bennett asks. See, now some of us might have thought that embargoing the interview showed less courage than we might have liked from Mr. Ford--seeing as how people are dying in Iraq every day--but ol' Bill gets right to the important point: don't embarrass the sitting President.

Ford's criticism of his former aides, Rumsfeld and Cheney, is especially telling. Clearly, that gruesome twosome learned nothing from the former president's modesty, civility, humility and decency. One wonders if they mocked him for these qualities behind his back when they worked at the White House. Barry Werth, writing in the NYT today, says that once Ford named Cheney as his chief of staff, "Cheney instituted a more centralized, secretive, Nixonian approach to presidential power, as he and Mr. Rumsfeld moved to replace President Ford’s restraint and realism with a swaggering, messianic view of American might." So, for those looking for the roots of this administration's whack-job approach to government, you can pinpoint the Ford White House as one of its sources.

(I wonder whether Rumsfeld and Cheney developed their disdain for law and their paranoid obsession with secrecy and centralized power in reaction to their experiences as young Republicans in Washington, at a time when the GOP was plummeting into an abyss of disgrace and criminaal prosecution as a result of Watergate and its progeny. And the ironic result is that, again, the Party of Nixon is diving toward oblivion.)

A Frightening Thought

Jerry Ford's death led me to recall the circumstances of his accession to the presidency, and that led me to muse on what would happen should Deadeye Dick cease serving as our current vice-president. Bush would have to nominate a successor--one who, like Nixon's choice of Ford, can be approved by a Democratic congress, without being so popular that he or she motivates Democrats to a serious effort at replacing the occupant of the Oval Office. Given the present state of the nation and our politics, the political crisis would not be a pleasant prospect, even for those of us who have been calling for the President's impeachment.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

God and the Democrats

The New York Times has an article on Common Good Strategies, a political consulting firm that advises Democrats on how to appeal to evangelical and what the paper calls church-going Catholics. Common Good Strategies is headed by Mara Vanderslice and Eric Sapp. Ms. Vanderslice relates that she was born again while singing a hymn in a Bible-study group at Earlham, a Quaker college in Indiana--an occurrence that must surprise, if not alarm, some of the Friends.

Be that as it may, Ms. Vanderslice's clients did notably better among her target groups than Democrats generally. According to The Times, Vanderslice and Sapp, "pushed sometimes reluctant Democrats to speak publicly, early and in detail about the religious underpinnings of their policy views. They persuaded candidates to speak at conservative religious schools and to buy early commercials on Christian radio. They organized meetings and conference calls for candidates to speak privately with moderate and conservative members of the clergy."

The rise of Common Good Strategies has alarmed some liberals. Rev. Robert Drinan, who was my congressman in the days of Watergate, called her overzealous (he's a Jesuit). Dr. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance is concerned about maintaining (or perhaps re-establishing) the separation of church and state.

Ms. Vanderslice, on the other hand, advises her clients not to use that phrase (and points out that it does not appear in the Constitution).

While I believe in separating church and state, in the sense that formal religion should not be part of government, that as the Constitution does say, the state should not favor the establishment of any religion, we liberals have gone too far--we have confused the religious with the devout.

Applying religious impulses to politics can be a good thing. All religions that I know of champion help for the needy; that the pledge is too often honored in the breach is not an indictment of religion itself, but of its practitioners. Religions extol love over hate--would we liberals argue with that position?

The truth is that the estrangement between liberals and the kind of God-fearing people who have shifted from supporting Democrats to people like Reagan and the younger Bush is, in part, the result of liberal arrogance that disdains those who find inspiration in their religion.

In 2004, I spent a week in Florida monitoring early voting. John Ballard, my Republican counterpart, was a solid Bush supporter, a former postmaster in Ft. Lauderdale who had started his career in Memphis. A church-going man, he was kind, friendly and fair-minded; although the area where we were working was overwhelmingly Democratic, John pushed the supervisor of voters to get more machines up and running to shorten the lines waiting to cast their ballots. He and I did not spend a lot of time talking about specific issues, but I'm pretty sure that he is the kind of person to whom we Democrats might appeal, if we get back to the kind of common-good economic and social policies that made ours the dominant party for half of the Twentieth Century.

We need to find a way to talk with the vast number of Americans for whom religion is a vital factor in their lives. We need to do that, because we might learn valuable lessons if we open our ears and, if that idea does not attract, because there are so many of them, and in a democracy it behooves us to listen to the people.

A Prediction for 2007

Not mine, but Dan Conley at Political Insider: He predicts that 2007 will see the return of large-scale anti-war demonstrations, that the disconnect between the verdict of the 2006 election and administration policies will send people into the streets. He concludes with this: "By spring, expect a massive, million + participant march in Washington to coincide with the fourth anniversary of "Mission Accomplished." Every Democratic candidate for President ... and at least one Republican ... will speak at the rally. "

Let's hope he's right!

"Our long national nightmare is over"

I had forgotten that Gerald Ford coined that phrase when he assumed the presidency in 1974. How sad and ironic that he would survive to see another Republican president lead us into a new national nightmare, again because of egotism, an inability to tell right from wrong and deep disrespect for the Constitution and for law generally.

Ford's presidency was probably doomed from the start--being a Republican and taking over for Nixon in the wake of Watergate--but it was dealt a fatal blow when he pardoned his disgraced predecessor. Many people on both sides of the aisle came to believe that Ford did the right thing; I have never been one of them, but I respected his reasoning. During Ford's term I predicted that he would be much loved as an ex-President (and that we should accord him that status as soon as possible), and for once I was right.

This morning on NPR Cokie Roberts reminded us that she is the daughter of Hale Boggs, who was the Democratic Majority Leader in the House. She related how Ford told her that he and her father would get in a cab (not a limousine, notice) to go to one of the network news shows, and ask each other, "OK, what are we going to argue about?" They would go on the air, argue, get back in a cab together and go to the Capitol, where they were best friends. That's a spirit we have lost in the past couple of decades; it was one of the secrets of American democracy--and thus one of the causes for the success that the nation achieved in the Twentieth Century, and its passing has been a real blow to the American system.

Ford's presidency is also a reminder of the importance of vice. Or, rather, of vices, as in vice-presidents. If Nixon had not picked Sprio Agnew, and if Agnew had not been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, Tricky Dick would likely have served out his term, causing even more harm to the nation. In contrast, if Cheney were not Bush's VP, the calls for his ouster would be much louder.

Gerald Ford was not one of our great presidents, but he was right for his time, and that is a lot.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Remember Christmas?

Ah, Christmas, where did it go? In some ways it seems like it was here only yesterday--mainly because it WAS only yesterday--yet it also feels like it is long gone.

Why can't the Christmas spirit last even one day beyond the holiday?

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Who Said It?

"The system we have in place has caused people to rely upon smugglers and forgers in order to do work Americans aren’t doing. It is a system that, frankly, leads to inhumane treatment of people.”

George W. Bush.

Why isn't he ever that cogent or sensible on Iraq?

Try this one:

“No matter how long we stay in Iraq, no matter how many soldiers we send, the day we leave, the meanest, most vicious, most brilliant man in the country, a man who makes Saddam Hussein look like a baby, will take over and spit on the American flag.. Bush will go down as the worst and by far the dumbest president in history.”

Having trouble? Here's something else this person said, in the same interview:

“When you’re a president who has destroyed the lives of probably a million people, our soldiers and Iraqis who are maimed and killed — you see children going into school in Baghdad with no arms and legs — I don’t think Bush’s kids should be having lots of fun in Argentina.”

Does that sound a little more familiar? Yes, it's Donald Trump, in a wide-ranging (well, wide ranging for him) interview with Maureen Dowd.

Who knew that The Donald thought about world affairs--at least the serious kind?

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Big Party

Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Evan Bayh (D-IN) have already dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. Too bad. Both are serious men who deserved the chance to put their case to the nation.

There are still plenty of people whom the Great Mentioner has in the race or considering it, from Hillary (D-NY), Barack Obama (D-IL) and John Edwards to Tom Vilsack (D-IA Gov) (who's already announced), Bill Richardson (D-NM Gov) and Wes Clark (USA, ret'd). John Kerry (D-MA) was openly flirting with another run; he's pulled back a bit--not much--since his gaffe during the recent campaign. And there's Al Gore, who has said he's not running but has not shut the door completely.

I say, let them all run! Sure it will be confusing and pundits will complain that the Democrats are cutting each other's throats, but the nation deserves a wide-ranging debate over its future. We will all benefit from having many voices in that debate.

Right now, I'm leaning toward Obama--I'm reading his latest book, The Audacity of Hope--but I would love to see Bill Richardson and Al Gore, in particular, come into the race. (Richardson may announce as early as next month.) They are men of broad experience who know what it takes to make national policy. We should hear from them.

(The Great Mentioner was, as far as I know, the coinage of Sen. Fred Harris, a Democrat from Oklahoma who ran for the nomination in 1972 and 1976; I had the great pleasure of working on the latter campaign. He used to say that the Great Mentioner would pick out potential candidates, after which stories would magically appear in the press--mainly newspapers in those days--that "Sen. So-and-So has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate.")

Political Insider

For junkies, one of the best sites on the 'net (aside from this one!) is Political Insider. From this week's entries:

*Is "Electability" Passe? which ends with this memorable comment:

Given the fact that this is likely to be the strongest Democratic field in decades, it might be time for the party to search for a new criteria for picking a candidate.

The best President.

*Barack Obama, movie star--a documentary about the junior senator from the Land of Lincoln

*A slogan for the Democrats in 2008: "End the War, Pay for Health Care."

Check it out.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

A Thought for the Holidays

Only in America (as they used to say on the Lower East Side) would a Jew wish a Muslim "Merry Christmas!" and both of them smile at the thought.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Still Chilling

After more than five years of outrages against both the spirit that built this country and its very Constitution, I fear that I have become jaded. Not that I accept those horrors, but that I assume a distanced lawyer's view, analogous to the doctor who discusses the painful, life-threatening condition of his patient as if it were a problem on paper.

So on some level I am happy to realize that I can still be chilled by a report such as the one in The New York Times, about the detention of two American civilian contractors in Iraq--one of them a whistle-blower who was working with the FBI to uncover illicit doings in his employer's business, including the trafficking of arms to death squads.

Donald Vance, a Navy veteran, was held at Camp Cropper, the prison for the most dangerous detainees in Iraq, for more than 3 months. While his imprisonment and interrogation did not include the abuse--i.e., torture--visited on non-American prisoners in that country, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, his treatment clearly violated allowable standards for any constitutional system of justice.

The cases of Vance and another American who worked for the same contractor were reviewed by "Detainee Status Boards," in proceedings straight out of Kafka. My favorite line in the Times' story is that, "defense lawyers are not permitted to attend [board hearings] because the hearings are not criminal," according to a Pentagon spokesperson. Leaving aside the grammar--which says more than the spokesperson wanted to reveal, when imprisonment in conditions worse than you could find in any prison in the United States is not the subject of a criminal proceeding, you know you have entered a world never contemplated by the Framers except in nightmares.

One small but particularly chilling fact is that Vance and the other American, Nathan Ertel, were taken into custody in the American Embassy in Baghdad. As Embassies are considered to be within the territory of the nations they represent, the two men were subjected to detention without Constitutional rights even though they were American citizens detained on American soil, just as if they had been arrested on Pennsylvania Avenue, in front of the White House.

As regular readers of this blog know, I believe that the Constitution applies to every action undertaken by the US government, anywhere in the world (or in outer space, for that matter). So the fact that Vance and Ertel were subjected to evil treatment is not, morally or legally different than what is being done in our name to prisoners across the globe. Still, there is something especially chilling at the arrogance, insensitivity and brutality that would treat Americans in this way.

Thanks to George W. Bush and his retinue, we have built a record of disgrace that will require a cleansing effort that, if it will not rival what was done in Germany and Japan after World War II, must at least exceed what Latin American nations have done to remove the remove the stains on their honor implanted by military juntas in the last half of the Twentieth Century.

(Further thought: What I did not mention in this post is that tremendous damage is being done to our military, our intelligence agencies, the Justice Department (which must try to justify the excesses being committed in the nation's name) and the entire government system by the systematic violations of our Constitution and international law. This harm will require much effort and a long time to repair.)

It Doesn't Take a Weatherman to Know

...Which Way the Wind is Blowing.

Apparently, Rudy Giuliani can't tell, however. Check out the flags at the top of the web page of his "exploratory committee."

Is that really the message he wants to be sending?

REALLY Off the Deep End

So George wants to increase the size of the Army and Marines, a position that many Democrats have espoused for years. At the risk of being accused of hypocrisy, the proposal should be bottled up in the new, Democratically-controlled Congress.

If Bush, Rumsefeld, at als. had expanded the ground forces before going into Iraq, or even in the year afterward, as it became clear that the mission (whatever it was) had NOT been accomplished, there would have been some sense to it. But to spend additional billions now, further enabling the administration's disastrous adventure in Mesopotamia, would be foolish.

Don't confuse this nascent proposal to expand the Army and Marines with the proposed "surge" of troops proposed as a desperate, last-ditch attempt to retrieve something from the Iraq fiasco. Given that there is no clear plan--no numbers, no budget--the new troops would not be ready for service until the very end of the Bush administration, if then. Does anyone besides Mr. Bush believe that we'll be in Iraq in significant numbers on January 20, 2009? Or on November 4, 2008 (election day)? If there are, we won't have to hold an election; just give the keys to the White House to the Democratic nominee. These new soldiers and Marines would be useless in our present crisis. Rather than spending billions to raise, train and equip them, we should draw down the forces in Iraq, rest and refit them and commit some of them to the ongoing battle in Afghanistan.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Chritsmas Spirit

Today's NYT News of the Week in Review led (well, it was a front-page story) with an article entitled "An Atheist Can Believe in Christmas," featuring the comments of prominent unbelievers like Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) admitting that, at least in some ways, they commemorate Christmas.

Nu? What's not to like about Christmas?

As a minimally practicing but proud Jew, I'm happy to say that I love Christmas. Indeed, what bothered me about the article was that the atheists quoted were uniformly defensive if not downright Grinch-like in their comments about the festival.

Now, when I say that I love Christmas, I really mean that I love the Christmas season. Not believing in the theology of the occasion, I find the day itself something of an anti-climax. But the spirit of Christmas, the spirit of love, generosity, peace and family (indeed, family in the largest sense) is not only what I take to be the true Christian spirit, but the spirit that should be central to all religions, indeed, to all people.

Next Sunday night, as I do every year, I'll put Miracle on 34th Street (the original, 1947, black-and-white version, of course) on my DVD player and once again believe in Santa Claus, and in the holiday for which he stands.

Merry Christmas to all!

Not So Big News

So Colin Powell told Bob Schieffer that the US is losing in Iraq and that there is really no way to supply troops for a "surge" of forces in the country (Powell pointed out that DOD would mainly be keeping forces in the war zone longer). A few months ago, this would have been a major story. Today it is confirmation--welcome, but hardly surprising--of what everyone knows to be true.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Best of a Bad Lot

It's clear that there is no good outcome in Iraq, at least not one that is by any means likely to come to pass. So, which of the bad choices should the United States choose?

One answer comes from Anthony Cordesman, a highly respected international security expert: Concentrate on Afghanistan, which he (or at least an NYT headline writer) calls "One War We Can Win."

While not minimizing the problems facing the US and its allies in Afghanistan, Cordesman present a concise analysis of the factors that could retrieve victory there.

Changing our point of emphasis from Iraq back to the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan is the only realistic hope we have of retrieving some credibility in the Muslim world. Suppressing the Taliban would be a defeat for their al Qaeda allies and would most likely be accompanied by pressure on bin Laden and his fellows to depart Pakistan, if they escape capture. Even if they were able to set up shop elsewhere, the blow to their prestige would be immense.

Concentrating our efforts on Afghanistan would also mean--if we are to be effective--giving the citizens of that warn-torn land the progress and development they need, and that we promised them.

What are the chances of being able to mount an campaign that turns the tide in Afghanistan, defeats the Taliban and al Qaeda, and also reduces the influence of the opium trade? Not good. Those in charge of the war for the next two years will be, after all, the same people who gave us the disaster that is Iraq. Victory in Afghanistan will require vision, flexibility and realism--qualities conspicuously lacking in the Bush administration. Still, it is worth trying, for two reasons: it is vital to keep the country from falling back into the Middle Ages, and there is no better alternative.

Readers Write

I love to read letters to the editor, at least those from people who can read a simple declarative English sentence. Today's NYT had letters from a number of people commenting on an article by Tom Friedman entitled "Learning to Keep Learning." Friedman's theme was the obstacles faced by the Chinese drive to develop an educational system that will foster innovation in a system that denies free Internet access, and the need for American education to provide workers with the capacity to keep on learning for their entire careers.

One letter writer, John McGill, headmaster of the Gilman School, in Baltimore, wrote, "Every employer in the American economy knows that creative thinking is the gold standard he seeks in his employees. But our public schools, disabled by high-stakes standardized testing frenzy, which stifles creativity, and lack of appropriate financing levels, continue to decline while our international standing, educationally, plummets."

I question Mr. Gill's sentence structure and the multiplicity of commas in this prose, but it's nice to see someone take on the sacred cow of standardized testing. Sure, tests have their place, and its necessary for students to have the kind of basic knowledge that tests can measure on some level. But over-reliance on standard examinations is stifling.

Standardized tests teach students the answers. True education teaches the questions to ask. If we want to produce students who can compete in global markets and global politics, we need people who can ask questions.

Front Running's Not All Fun

The Manchester Union-Leader (known to Democrats and liberals for years as the Onion-Loader) reports New Hampshire Democratic leaders have invited Hillary Clinton to (D-NY) to speak at the party's major fundraising dinner this winter.

This page has long predicted that Sen. Clinton will not win the Democratic nomination in 2008, but sheesh, this is cruel and unusual punishment.

How many reports do you think we'll see comparing the crowd she draws with the crowds recently pulled in by Illinois Senator Barak Obama (D) last weekend? Perhaps more than the number of actual attendees.

And would you want to be Hillary Clinton, following the charismatic Sen. Obama? She's a very smart (some say brilliant) and competent woman, fully able to be President, but she's not likely to move people the way the junior senator from the Land of Lincoln seems to do effortlessly.

The worst part is that the inevitable comparisons have virtually nothing to do with the campaign for the Democratic nomination, or even the New Hampshire primary, but they may have a real effect on the race as Sen. Clinton's front-runner star gets tarnished.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Cause for Hope

News reports make it sound likely that Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) will survive and likely recover--perhaps completely--from the effects of the intra-cranial bleeding that he suffered yesterday.

I confess that when I heard the news that the Senator had been taken ill, one of my first thoughts was for the political implications of the development. I know many of my friends feel the same way. Let's remember, however, that we are talking about a human being and that his illness is a private crisis as well as a public incident.

Capt. Tom Phillip, who was captain of the battleship Oregon at the battle of Santiago Bay, during the Spanish American War. When the ship's batteries set one of the Spanish ships afire, the American sailors exulted. Capt. Phillip called out, "Don't cheer boys, the poor devils are dying." I try to remember the simple humanity of Capt. Phillip when I realize that I am thinking of people as playing roles and not as human beings.

(Update: the last paragraph of this post was written from memory. Feeling a bit unsure, I went back and checked and found a couple of errors: The Captain's name was J.W. Phillip, and the ship was the Texas, not the Oregon. My apologies.)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

There's Good News Today

Former Rep. Ciro Rodgriguez (D-TX) is going back to the House, having defeated long-time Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-TX) in a run-off election, Bonilla, who led an open-primary election on November 7th with 49 percent of the vote (if he'd topped fifty percent he would have won the seat) against a group of Democrats, was leading all the way in the polls. However, in the last week, surveys showed Rodriguez, who got just 20 percent of the vote on November 7th, moving up. The most recent poll I saw had Rodgriguez only 4 points back over the weekend. that trend seems to have continued. His victory was relatively easy; with 85 percent of the vote counted, the former Democratic representative had 54 percent.

According to The Washington Post, the DCCC spent $100,000 in late advertising in Latino media, and made a strong effort to get out the Mexican-American vote. It must have worked. (I suspect that the Democrats' national victory, and the fragmentation of Republicans, particularly over Iraq, since November 7th also helped.)

The victory is especially sweet, because it is further evidence that Tom Delay's gerrymandering boomeranged against Republicans. The seat up for grabs yesterday is in a district re-drawn by court order after the original one was held to violate the Voting-Rights Act. Add to that the loss of Delay's own former seat to a Democrat, and the loss of powerful positions in the majority as the Democrats take over Congress and you can see that justice has triumphed. Well, sort of.

Democrats have now won 30 more seats than they had in the Do-Nothing 109th Congress. There's one more to be finally decided--the Florida 13th, which is now in the courts and may be before the House in January.

Monday, December 11, 2006

We Have a Winner

Yes we do. Marina stole our contest with an early entry. She knew that Casablanca took place in December 1941, right before Pearl Harbor.

How can the viewer tell? It's in the famous scene where Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is getting drunk after Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) has come into his bar with Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). This is the scene where Bogart says, "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she has to come into mine." (He does NOT say, "Of all the joints in all the towns..." it's "gin joints." And he never says it to Ilsa.) But I digress. As Bogart is drinking and feeling sorry for himself, Sam (Dooley Wilson) pulls his piano over and starts to noodle. (Wilson did not actually play the piano.) Bogart says to him, "Sam, if it's December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?" Now, we know that the US is not in the war--the whole point of the film is that Rick/Bogart stops being neutral and gets into the fight on the anti-Nazi side., and we know that Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7th. Hence, the film takes place during the preceding week.

Actually, if you are VERY, VERY sharp-eyed, you can tell that the story occurs on December 2nd, 3d and 4th. We first see Rick in an early scene, after the croupier brings him a marker to approve; the marker is put down on the table, the camera follows it, a hand with a pen comes into the shot and signs the marker, then drops the pen and moves to a cigarette. The camera then follows the hand holding the cigarette up and we see Bogart's face. At the beginning of this sequence, if you look very carefully, you can see that the marker is dated "2 Decembre 1941," December 2nd.

One of the reasons why Casablanca is such a great film is shown in the first scene discussed above. After Rick says, "...if it's December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?" he answers his own question: "I bet they're asleep in New York. I bet they're asleep all over America." The first part is literal--it's 3 or 4 in the morning, maybe later, in Casablanca, so people are in bed in the Eastern United States. But when he says "I bet they're asleep all over America," that's metaphor.

Marina, by the way, also answered our extra-credit questions correctly, which makes me suspect that she has a copy of Richard J. Anoblie's Casablanca, a collection of stills from virtually every shot along with a running script. (The script was done from transcription, not from a printed script. If you want to know how I can tell, email

And, Marina, if you'll email the Old New Englander, you can find out how to collect your prize, a lovely bumper sticker.

Thanks to all who entered.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

What Do We Stand For?

We know, or at least we think we know, what our enemies stand for. But what do we stand for?

We won the Cold War because of the power of our ideas, not the strength of our military. Communism did not collapse--whatever the Republicans say--because it could not compete economically. It could not compete economically, because it could not compete with the power of Western thought. The Soviet Union lost the race because it could not inspire its people as much as the West could inspire its citizens.

So, what do we stand for now? Is the United States still a beacon of liberty, freedom and opportunity? Even after abu Ghraib, "extraordinary rendition," and Guantanamo Bay? Even as the gap between rich and poor grow exponentially? Do we still offer the people of the world a better way of life than our enemies?

I'd like to think so, but I'm a lot less certain of that than I was a few years ago, and that worries me deeply.

About Time

NYT catches up with TONE:

On Iraq--recognizing that there are too few Iraqis.

On the proposed despoiling of Bristol Bay.

Ah, responsibility of leadership!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Last Post

No, not for The Old New Englander, for Pearl Harbor veterans.

Today marks the 65th anniversary of the Day of Infamy, and it will be the last reunion for Pearl Harbor survivors, now in their 80's and 90's. It's a reminder that time wears on, and memory ceases to be personal and becomes historical.
It is also a time to take a moment to think of the men and women who were caught unawares that Sunday in December, suddenly thrust into the middle of a war that had engulfed most of the rest of the world for years. They did not win a victory that day, but their courage inspired the nation and set the stage for the effort that won the war.
"Many years have passed, yet still I wonder why
The worst of men must fight, and the best of men must die"
Ballad of the Reuben James, Woody Guthrie and Fred Hellerman
(If you get a chance, get a copy of FDR's speech to Congress the day after the Pearl Harbor attack, in which he coined the phrase "Day of Infamy." Amazing that that speech was written literally overnight. Even better, try to listen to a recording of the speech; the man's delivery was amazing.)

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Some of my worst enemies are...

If you're lucky, you've never heard of Dennis Prager. He is a talk-show host and self-advertiser, a Jewish darling of the right. He is also a prime example of the kind of person I was talking about when, years ago, I observed that there were a lot of Jews who would have been happy to join the Nazi Party, had they been eligible.

Prager's latest--and, unfortunately, successful--effort to get attention has been a series of columns in Human Events, which bills itself as "The National Conservative Weekly * Since 1944," (when they had the perspicacity to attack FDR in the middle of a war to save civilization). Most recently, he has been making noise over the intent of Rep.-elect Keith Ellison (D-MN) to take his oath of office on the Quran. (Ellison is, apparently the first Muslim elected to Congress. And about time.)

According to Prager, every congressman and senator, not to mention the President and the VP, indeed, every federal official must take the oath on the Bible. Indeed, he says that the Bible should be one that includes both New and Old Testaments, even though he admits that we Jews (he's the kind of person who makes me ashamed to be Jewish) don't believe that the New Testament is properly part of the Bible. (Note that Prager does not say which version of the Christian Bible should be used, as long as it is a Christian Bible.)

What is the "reasoning" behind this? "When all elected officials take their oaths of office with their hands on the very same book, they all affirm that some unifying value system underlies American civilization." Funny, some of us thought that the value system that underlies American civilization is the freedom of each individual to think as he chooses.

Now, this is an issue of no importance beside the fate of people--Muslim, Christian, Jewish, agnostic, atheist, etc., etc. who are dying around the world as a result of hate, intolerance and fear--the very emotions that people like Prager play to.

Frankly, I don't care what book Keith Ellison chooses to take the oath of office on; he could swear on the telephone book for all the difference it will make. What I DO care about is that he abide by his oath, that he serve the people of his district, and the nation, honestly and with his best efforts. If he does that, he will be miles ahead of all the pompous fakes who have stood up, placed their hand on the Bible and lied like Hell.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

What Now?

The New York Times reports that Gen. Anthony Zinni (Ret'd), once the general in charge of the U.S. Central Command--the organization with responsibility for the Iraq war (though not when he was in command)--a man who vehemently opposed the war, now favors putting in more American troops to stabilize the situation. He openly agrees with John McCain (R-AZ) on this.

The theme of the article is that Iraq is making some seemingly strange bedfellows. The recently leaked Rumsfeld memo, for instance, puts him on the same side--i.e., favoring withdrawal of at least some American forces--as many of the Democrats whom Republicans were labeling "Defeatocrats" just a month ago. Rumsfeld's position is, in a way, consistent with the view he has always held: he's never wanted to put in large numbers of U.S. troops; that's why he humbled Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff who said we'd need 300,000 troops for the operation.

What's missing from most of the debates on Iraq is any deep discussion about what is going to happen to that country. And I plead guilty to having aided and abetted. Look at some of my posts and you'll see that I have more or less assumed that the only possible result, whatever we do, is chaos, if not anarchy, with thousands and thousands of lives to be lost. I don't see another result as likely or even more than remotely possible, but I must admit that I should be spending more energy on what might happen in Iraq before taking a hard and fast position on what the United States should do. We're talking about people's lives after all, and policy decisions that could affect us for a decade, maybe two. We should give the matter more thought than the administration did before deciding to invade.

Don't Forget...

our contest!

Entries close on Sunday.

Monday, December 04, 2006

News Flash!

Hillary Clinton is readying a run for the White House!

(I know it seems hard to believe, but some outlets have actually treated the Senator's efforts as if they were news!)

Fish Oil

The Bush administration is thinking about reversing federal policy in place since the Exxon Valdez disaster to allow oil and gas exploration in Alaska's Bristol Bay. I know, you're thinking that this is another dog-bites-man tale. Well, yes, but as always there are particular parts of the story that set it apart.

The bay, which lies between the northern shore of the Aleutian peninsula and the Alaska mainland, is the main habitat of the sockeye salmon, as well as of the endangered northern right whale.
Bristol Bay is known for its gradual shelving bottom, which means that fishing boats need shallow draft to work inshore. It is also known for its fierce wind and wave conditions; together with the topography, that makes fishing extremely dangerous. Until 1952, it was illegal to fish the bay except under sail. Small Bristol Bay gilnetters, such as the one at the left worked the fishery. When I was in Astoria, Oregon, I met a man who had worked in that fishery. He told me that they would routinely fish until the wind got up to 40 knots or so (about 47 mph). That was no tropical breeze, either.
Do we really need to explore for gas and oil in such unforgiving conditions, especially when an accident or oversight could have catastrophic consequences for an important resource? And why are we even talking about doing that when the nation is doing so little to conserve energy? Because, of course, when the oil industry comes calling at this White House, the welcome mat is always out.
Just another reminder that January 20, 2009 cannot come quickly enough!

Saturday, December 02, 2006


The holiday season is upon us, so it seems a good time for a contest.

Actually, the holiday season has nothing to do with it. I just thought it might be a nice change.

So, here we go:

I'm sure you've seen Casablanca, the greatest movie ever made in the English language. You've probably seen it more than once. You may, like the editor, have seen it dozens of times. But, do you know when the story occurs? That's the question: When does the plot of Casablanca take place?

To give your answer, leave a comment to this post. If you want to answer anonymously but still get credit in case you are a winner, send an email with your response.

The contest will close at 11:59 pm. on Decmber 10th, but dont' wait until the last minute--the first correct answer wins.

(General answers, such as "During WWII, will not be credited, even though they are technically right. Specificity is required to win.)

AND, we have several extra credit questions:

What wine did Renault drink with Major Strasser?
Who played Maj. Strasser?
Who played Sasha, the bartender at Rick's?
Who played Berger, the Norwegian member of the resistance?

(Let me hear no argument about whether Casablanca is the greatest movie ever made in English [the only reason I qualify the rating is that I do not speak another language well enough to judge movies; I have little doubt that Casablanca is actually the greatest movie in any language]. Some statements are simply not open to debate. This is one of them.)

Pundits Wrong, Again

A number of the pundits have warned Democrats not to govern by subpoena in the new Congress, lest they lose the support of the swing voters responsible for their new majority. The trouble with that advice is that it assumes a certain level of rectitude, or at least basic honesty, on the part of the Republican administration.

What are Democrats to do when GOP hacks show, for the umpteenth time, that they are absolutely shameless about ignoring any responsibility to the public?

Case in point: The Washington Post reports that Lurita Alexis Doan, a Bush political appointee who is Administrator of GSA--the huge maintenance arm of the federal government--wants to cripple the agency's inspector-general and transfer some audit responsibilities to private contractors (will they ALL have to be Republican contributors?).

Doan, who is clearly a tireless protector of the public interest, compared the IG to a terrorist, according to notes from an August 18 staff meeting. The notes include this piquant phrase: "There are two kinds of terrorism in the US: the external kind; and, internally, the IGs have terrorized the Regional Administrators."

Hmm. Could Osama bin Forgotten by hiding out by masquerading as a federal auditor?

Seriously, if Democrats don't investigate this kind of behavior, aren't they betraying the public trust?

Friday, December 01, 2006

Should Matt Damon Play Othello?

Should Denzel Washington be cast as Iago?

These thoughts were prompted by an article in the Los Angeles Times (registration req'd) suggesting that "Some casting calls that specify gender and ethnicity could violate federal anti-discrimination laws, according to the report by Russell Robinson of the UCLA School of Law..." The report also asserts that "By virtue of their race/ethnicity or gender, actors of color and female actors are presumptively relegated to the margins." Without apologizing to Nicole Kidman or Julia Roberts (or Denzel Washington), there's clearly a lot of truth in that statement.

In one of his earlier careers, your editor was involved in theatre or, as it's sometimes known, "live theatre." (Given some of the audiences we drew, "dead theatre" would not have been far from the mark.) Since at least the early '90's, the theatre--at least the New York theatre, which is most of the commercial theatre in the country--has engaged in "non-traditional casting," that is, looking at actors of color for roles as Greeks and Romans, say, or even northern Europeans. For the most part, that works out just fine. Would you watch Brian Stokes-Mitchell, or Denzel Washington, for that matter, as Hamlet or Henry V? I would. And even cross-gender roles are not foreclosed--think of Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry or Nathan Lane in The Birdcage. (Yes, I know, those were special cases, but they make the point.)

In most roles, it's the skill of the player, not his or her color or even appearance that counts. Think Fred Astaire as a romantic lead. As we used to say, "That's why they call it acting!" (Actually, for reasons I won't go into here we always said that with a Yiddish accent, so it came out more like, "Dat's vy dey call it echting!") And it doesn't take long before you stop looking at the skin color of an English king or Danish prince who happens to be played by an African-American; after all, you never insisted that the roles be played by an actual Englishman, or a Dane. (As I understand it, Shakespearean Englishmen spoke like Dubliner's today, so for verisimilitude we should insist on Irish actors.)

So, should Matt Damon play Othello? Leaving aside that Damon may lack the skill or weight for the role now, is the part--with its constant references to Othello as a Moor--to specific for trans-racial casting? Perhaps only if you were to cast a black actor as Iago to complete the role reversal. Or maybe a director could legitimately decide that only an actor who has lived the life of an African-American can do the role justice--even though Shakespeare knew hardly anything about other races.

Even if that is the case, for most roles we should put our expectations aside and watch the performance, and so should those who cast for them. And that idea shouldn't be limited to theatre, film or TV.