Thursday, May 31, 2007

A political milestone remembered

A new plaque was unveiled in Boston yesterday, commemorating the spot where Gov. Elbridge Gerry and State Sen. Israel Thorndike agreed on state senate districts that would keep their party in power. One of those districts is remembered, because it's odd shape reminded people of a salamander--only this one was named by Gerry's opponents a gerrymander, and so a legendary term was born.

At yesterday's unveiling, descendants of the original participants were there to commemorate the event. One of them, incredibly, bears the moniker Elbridge Gerry--a little like naming a kid Boss Tweed.

(By the way, the "G" in gerrymander is soft, but the eponymous governor pronounced his name with a hard "G." That's our trivia lesson for today.)

Partisanship at the Justice Department???

Who would have thought it????

The Boston Globe reports that two offices in the Justice Department, the Inspector General and the Office of Professional Responsibility, have notified Congress that they are investigating whether civil service hiring rules were violated by, among other things, favoring conservative Repubs for jobs in the Civil Rights Division. The probe will also examine whether hiring decisions elsewhere in the department were made according to a political litmus test--something that Monica Goodling pretty much admitted in her testimony last week.

OK, there's not much new in the story. Should we care that the Justice Department is investigating itself? Isn't that a case of the fox looking over the chicken coop? Perhaps, but I think, and hope, that there is enough professionalism left in the Department, especially in the two offices handling the investigation, that the results will be pretty much free of political influence.

One of the geniuses of the American system of government since the New Deal was that we managed to keep professional government activities pretty much separate from political considerations, even in departments that were led by political appointees. One of the great, though largely-unrecognized crimes of Bush and his cronies has been their assault on that separation. We can only hope that the next (Democratic) president will give some attention and spend some energy on re-establishing a credible and effective civil service.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Truer than he knew

"As Army officers on duty in the war on terror, you will now face enemies who oppose and despise everything you know to be right, every notion of upright conduct and character, and every belief you consider worth fighting for and living for."

Vice-President Cheney to the graduating class at West Point, May 26, 2007.

What he didn't say was that one of those people was standing right in front of them, delivering a speech!

The conscience of the nation

Bill Moyers is the conscience of America. Consider the commencement address he delivered at Southern Methodist last week.

Some highlights:
"America’s a great promise but it’s a broken promise.

"It’s not right that we are entering the fifth year of a war started on a suspicion. Whatever your party or politics, my young friends, America can’t sustain a war begun under false pretenses because it is simply immoral to ask people to go on dying for the wrong reasons.

"America needs fixing. Our system of government is badly broken.

"You are leaving here as our basic constitutional principles are under assault – the rule of law, an independent press, independent courts, the separation of church and state, and the social contract itself. I am sure you learned about the social contract here at SMU. It’s right there in the Constitution – in the Preamble: “We, the People” – that radical, magnificent, democratic, inspired and exhilarating idea that we are in this together, one for all and all for one.

"For all the chest-thumping about rugged individuals and self-made men, it was the imperative and ethic of cooperation that forged America. Laissez faire – 'Leave me alone' – didn’t work. We had to move from the philosophy of 'Live and let live' to 'Live and help live.' You see, civilization is not a natural act. Civilization is a veneer of civility stretched across primal human appetites. Like democracy, civilization has to be willed, practiced, and constantly repaired, or society becomes a war of all against all.

In l960 the gap in wealth between the top 20% of our country and the bottom 20% was thirty fold. Now it is 75 fold. Stock prices and productivity are up, and CEO salaries are soaring, but ordinary workers aren’t sharing in the profits they helped generate. Their incomes aren’t keeping up with costs. More Americans live in poverty – 37 million, including l2 million children. Twelve million children! Despite extraordinary wealth at the top, America’s last among the highly developed countries in each of seven measures of inequality. Our GDP outperforms every country in the world except Luxembourg. But among industrialized nations we are at the bottom in functional literacy and dead last in combating poverty. Meanwhile, regular Americans are working longer and harder than workers in any other industrial nation, but it’s harder and harder for them to figure out how to make ends meet…how to send the kids to college…and how to hold on securely in their old age. If we’re all in this together, what’s a civilized response to these disparities?

America’s a broken promise. America needs fixing.

I often see something in print and Publish Postask myself, "Why didn't I say that?" In Bill Moyers' case, I read his words and ask myself, "Why didn't I think that?"

Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day

"If any ask you why we died,
Tell them because our fathers lied."

Rudyard Kipling

On this Memorial Day, as we recall the sacrifices of men and women who risked all and sometimes gave all for this nation, let us also remember that when politicians lie, good people die as a result.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Blowing my own horn

Today's NYT carries a letter over your editor's name today on the subject of Monica Goodling's testimony, along the lines of this TONE post.

Mmm, mmm, good!

Back in the '70's, The Wall Street Journal published an article called something like "We don't want your paprika to walk off the plate," about how spices and similar ingredients contain "permissible levels of filth"--rodent hair and feces, pieces of dead moths, that sort of thing. Given that spices are milled from flowers, leaves and seeds into tiny pieces or powders, and as they can be contaminated everywhere from field to factory, it is inevitable that some nasty stuff gets into the final product. Not a pleasant prospect, but then we don't see many people collapsing from the pepper they put on their eggs. Our bodies can fight off a certain amount of toxins and beasties. Still, we all know that contamination can make us sick and even kill us.

I was reminded of that WSJ story by a piece on NPR today, about the dangers we face from food imports, especially from China. Some of it is pretty chilling stuff.

You may wonder why the brouhaha about food imported from China. Isn't this the country that was buying our wheat to stave of starvation a couple of decades ago? Yes. Today--as Americans learned this spring--we are importing wheat gluten from China. We are also importing lots of other food and food ingredients from the People's Republic. Did you know that 80 percent of our ascorbic acid--otherwise known as vitamin C, comes from China? Me, neither. The NPR website (link above) has an interesting table showing the amount of some food imports from China, including almost $160 million worth of concentrated apple juice (they have apples there?) used as sweeteners, $60 million in fresh garlic and another $18 million in powdered garlic. So it isn't enough to avoid food products from China; ingredients in made-in-America products is being imported with increasing frequency.

Last month--not last year, last month--FDA inspectors rejected more than 250 shipments of food from China, more than from the rest of the world combined. Reasons include such defects as obvious decomposition of meat and fish to the presence of drug residues. Yecchh.

What's really scary is that the FDA inspects only a tiny portion of the food products that are imported. Given that China is not going to increase food safety or wholesomeness to American standards any time soon, a complete overhaul of the agency's inspection system, and a drastic increase in resources, are necessary to avoid serious threats to our health. To do that, however, will mean yet another battle with the small-government, no-new-taxers, at least until they get scared for their own health.

It's more than 100 years since Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, but the fight for food fit to eat goes on.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Crossing the line

So Monica Goodling admits that she "crossed the line" in filling Justice Department posts on the basis of partisan credentials. She did a lot more than that.

Goodling and her co-conspirators (for that is what they were) dealt a body-blow to our system of justice.

The credibility of our prosecutions depends on the public's belief that political appointees (and, in the case of most local district attorneys, elected officials) can keep politics out of prosecutorial decisions. Now it is clear that, at least in areas such as civil rights and government corruption cases, we cannot have that faith when the federal government is involved.

That is a terrible, terrible development. For decades, under men like John Doar and Nicholas Katzenbach, the Justice Department was the shining ornament not just of the United States, but of the civilized world. As much as anything, the federal system of justice showed the world what the United States was all about.

What I fear is that that may still be the case.

Immigration--some further thoughts

Yesterday, I noted the irony--or is it hypocrisy--that the GOP, for so long the self-proclaimed party of family values, should back an immigration proposal that tilts the field toward those with desirable skills, rather than family members of prior immigrants.

Tom Friedman makes an argument, if not for the proposal now before Congress at least for taking skills into account. Recounting his experience at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute graduation (where he apparently received an honorary degree), Friedman says that it seemed that virtually all of the PhD recipients were foreign-born, and argues that if we do not make it easy for such graduates to stay in the country, we are doing tremendous damage to our economy and our world position.

Friedman has a point. Immigration has always been like the Nile floods in ancient Egypt, which kept that narrow valley fertile and formed the basis for Egyptian power. Immigrants have watered the fields of American enterprise and achievement. And in a global age, when we bring students here and then tell them to go back home, we are improving the lot of our competitors.

Now there may be good reasons for doing just that, most clearly where we have a sufficient supply of skilled graduates. And the best argument for restricting immigration may well be that it imposes a drain on nations that can ill afford to lose human capital--not on France or Britain or Japan so much as on Haiti, Mexico and other places that need the kind of energetic, intelligent, active people who are most likely to emigrate.

While I tend to agree with Friedman on narrow national-interest grounds (subject to the caveat just above, which bothers me somewhat), that does not mean that the proposed new visa scheme is a good idea. It would impose the elitist concept that we can pick winners--that those who already possess certain skills are the immigrants we want. Sounds good, but watch out.

The truth is, we don't know which immigrants we want. The proposal before Congress now would have kept out Andrew Carnegie and others who came here with nothing and built the nation. (It would have kept my grandparents out, too.) We may think that a computer programmer or someone with an engineering degree from a well-regarded foreign university is preferable to a Mexican farm worker or a Haitian who's first job will be bussing in a restaurant. Maybe. Maybe not. Last week, CBS did a profile on the doctor who heads Johns Hopkins' department of neurosurgery. He came here from Mexico as a teenager, to pick crops. Only after he was here did he get on a track to education and professional brilliance. Do we want to keep such people out of our country?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Still hanging on?

Or still twisting in the wind?

Alberto Gonzalez, of course. Earlier this week there was a lot of talk that he would resign before the Senate votes on a no-confidence resolution. I thought he might cut and run before his former hireling, Monica Goodling, testifies before Congress today. But no, Gonzalez is still there, tarnishing the reputation--or what's left of it--of the Justice Department.

We old people can remember when the Justice Department really did seem to be in the business of seeking justice, when people like John Doar and Nicholas Katzenbach led a government effort to make the promise of equality before the law a reality. Those were the days--almost forgotten now--when the government was actively trying to eliminate, or at least reduce, poverty.

Now, what do we have? Government sold to the highest bidder in a shabby, half-hidden auction.

There's no guaranty that things will change after January 20, 2009, but at least there's room for hope. That's what makes this the most exciting time since the Kennedy campaign of 1960.

Family Values

As you've undoubtedly heard, the proposed compromise immigration bill would swing the system toward granting visas for skilled workers and away from the families of immigrants. This proposal came from the Repubs, of course.

So much for the party of family values.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Maybe secession wasn't such a bad idea after all

Proving that the Old South really hasn't died, the Virginia Citizens Defense League held a "Bloomberg Gun Giveaway," to thumb its nose at New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's campaign to stop the deadly traffick in guns from states like Virginia to NYC.

Two $900 firearms were given away--a pistol and a "Varmint Stalker" rifle. The winner of one, a former Brooklyn resident, is quoted as saying "If he [Bloomberg] doesn't like people in New York having guns, he should deal with New York. Just keep out of Virginia." The problem, as this empty-headed twit doesn't seem to recognize, is that Virginia won't keep its guns out of New York.

Now if Virginia were in a foreign country, things would be a lot simpler.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

One to go

Democrats seek a vote of (no) confidence on Gonzalez. Given the number of Republicans who have called on the AG to resign (the latest being Chuck Hagel, over the Ashcroft hospital-room intrigue), its hard to see how the result could be much in doubt. The question, then, becomes what the Repubs will do to try to avoid the vote.

One Down

Wolfowitz is out at the World Bank.

In a sop, the banks' board of directors accepted Wolfie's claim that his actions had an honorable purpose. Right.


In this post, TONE may have given the impression that then-AG Ashcroft approved the warrantless wiretapping program from his hospital bed. It's now clear that that was not the case, that--hard as it may seem to believe--he expressed his reservations about the legality of the program. Not only that, but he pointedly told then-White House Counsel Gonzalez and chief of staff Andy Card (a man who until now has looked like Mr. Clean among all the scandals) that they should not be talking to him, but to the (Acting) Attorney-General, James Comey.

For some fascinating video of Comey's testimony on the subject, take a look at this, from Talkingpointsmemo. (This is the most riveting footage of the kind that I've seen since Alexander Butterfield spilled the beans about Nixon's Oval Office tapes during Watergate.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Mitt Romney, civil libertarian

Last night at the Republicans' debate, Mitt Romney said he'd like to see the size of the Guantanamo concentration camp (he didn't use THAT term, of course) doubled, that he doesn't want prisoners in the US where they would be entitled to actual legal representation.

The question isn't whether a Mormon should be President, it's which Mormon.

The successor

Last week I saw a number of postings on political blogs theorizing that Alberto "Not-so-Speedy" Gonzalez's staying power is due to the Administration's fear of the confirmation fight that will ensue if he leaves. Yet yesterday we saw a man who is a good Republican and who's nomination would sail through Congress: James B. Comey, former Deputy Attorney General in the Bush administration, testified before Congress.

There would be a price for the administration pay in appointing Comey, of course. He happens to be one of that apparently disappearing breed: an Republican who really is dedicated to the Constitution as it is written and the rule of law, not politics. He is the one, you may recall, who refused to sign off on the administration's warrentless wiretaps when he was Acting Attorney-General while then AG John (Too Dumb to Beat a Dead Guy) Ashcroft was in the hospital. Which led Gonzalez to rush to that hospital to get a hazy Ashcroft (he was going under anesthesia) to approve the program. Comey has also been frank in saying that those US attorneys allegedly fired for performance reasons were among the finest in the land.

(Has it occurred to you that perhaps when the administration says they were dismissed for performance reasons, what they mean is that the US Attorneys in question were performing their jobs all too well?)

And there is something else: the probability that, if he were AG, Comey would actually investigate the shenanigans that have shredded the fabric of government under Bush, Cheney, Gonzalez, et als.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The thin thread of mortality

Early Friday morning, I'm lying in bed trying to sleep when I notice that my legs ache. Aha! I think, I'm coming down with something. Probably a 24-hour bug.

And so it proved.

Nothing terribly serious. A mild headache that might have meant a slight fever (not worth bothering to check), aches in the legs, no appetite.

So, how can such a minor ailment make one lose so much energy that it requires thought to decide whether it's worth expending the effort to reach out and turn off the light? That getting up to go into the next room becomes a major project?

Although it was, fortunately, one of those 24-hour things (I felt--fancied, perhaps, that I could actually sense the fever break as slight chill late on Friday night), even the day after I was tired enough to take a solid one-hour nap after getting myself a bowl of cold cereal for breakfast. And I did nothing that might remotely be called productive for the rest of the day. Indeed, I could not even face the idea of booting up the computer until today.

We go on, most of us, on most days, feeling vital enough to carry out our normal tasks without exhaustion and, if we are lucky, with sufficient energy for other pursuits as well. Yet a simple cold or mild virus will lay us out as if we are on our deathbeds.

Makes you think, doesn't it?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Take one day off

and you lose a week. I was out of the office last Friday to work on getting the lovely Rozinante
ready for the water, and I'm just catching up now. (Rozinante's color scheme is different now.)

What did I miss? The Queen's visit, for one thing. (Even after more than 200 years, if you say "the Queen," Americans know that you are referring to the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, more familiarly known as Great Britain, the UK or sometimes--wrongly--England.) I may be a liberal, but I have a soft spot for the Queen. Especially given what we have in the White House today.

Other than that, it seems like more of the same: Bush is threatening to veto the Democrats' latest Iraq spending bill, Not-So-Speedy Gonzalez is back in front of a congressional committee today, Wolfowitz is still hanging on at the World Bank and people are still dying in Iraq.

Perhaps the best development of the week was that Hillary Clinton has joined with Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) in a measure to repeal the authorization to use force in Iraq. Talkingpointsmemo reports that liberals in the House are talking about making their support for a new funding bill (the old one passed by just 10 votes, remember) dependent on an agreement to bring a de-authorization bill to the floor.

Some commentators have said that such a measure would be meaningless, because Bush would just veto it. Leaving aside that every such veto peels some more people away from W, I do not see why the President would have a chance to veto it. Did he have to sign the original authorization--which was an authorization for him to take action? What would that add? And why would he have the right to veto a bill that, in effect if not in form, expresses the will of an equal body of government? That makes no sense.

I don't mean to suggest that repealing authorization will end American participation in the war, any more than repealing the Gulf of Tonkin resolution did. To do that, Congress would have to cut off funds--or the chief executive would have to suffer an attack of good sense. But reversing its stance would be a powerful statement and would further isolate Mr. Bush.

(UPDATE: Greg Sargent reports that House Democrats will allow a straight up-or-down vote on whether to withdraw from Iraq.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Support the troops--bring them home

I went to an anti-war rally, organized by, in downtown Boston this afternoon. Maybe 100 people stood around, some with signs, some with pots and pans to make noise, a few handing out leaflets. There was a screechy portable sound system.

Were the demonstrators supporting Congress against the President? No, not really. Their attitude was more "a plague on both your houses." The calls were for bringing the troops home, "now." One speaker suggested that the American and Iraqi peoples both wish an end to the war.

Would that it were so. True, a large majority of Iraqis devoutly wish to see the backs of the Americans, but let's be honest: a large number of them want us gone so that they can have a freer hand in killing their fellow countrymen. And we should remember that--despite what you hear--there ARE Iraqis who believed that the Americans could make their country a better place, that at least some of those who joined the Iraqi army and police force did so for patriotic reasons, and others did so, not to advance the cause of a sectarian militia, but to feed their families. There are also millions of Iraqis who simply want to live lives free of politics, war and sectarianism. Those people are unlikely to coalesce into a force strong enough to suppress the killers but, having encouraged them, we owe them at least a semblance of transition before we leave them to their fates.

The people that I saw at today's demonstration help to explain why the anti-war movement has not generated mass protests, even with the war's unpopularity. Instead of building bridges to mainstream politicians and voters, speakers castigated congressional Democrats for providing money for the war and failing to establish hard-and-fast deadlines to bring the troops home.

True enough, but even the largely-symbolic bill that Bush vetoed yesterday had only a 10-vote margin in the House. If the anti-War movement want stronger legislation, it has to appeal to those who now hesitate; criticizing them as near-allies of Bush and his cronies is a poor way to do that.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

You can't veto the truth

Americans United for Truth is running a powerful ad about Bush's veto of the Iraq/Afghanistan funding bill. It's title: "You Can't Veto the Truth."