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Politics (2005-2006)

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Musical Chairs for Team Dubya.

In not-unrelated news, the Dubya White House shuffles its deck to make ready for divided government, replacing failed Supreme Court bid Harriet Miers as White House counsel (likely in favor of someone more aggressive, so as to counter Dem subpoenas), kicking national intelligence director Nicholas Negroponte over to State (to be replaced by Vice Admiral Mike McConnell), appointing Thomas D’Agostino as new nuclear chief (the old one, Linton Brooks, seems to have been of the “Brownie” school of management), putting Iraq ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in John Bolton’s former position at the UN (his job goes to Ryan Crocker), and overhauling their top military team in Iraq. As the WP‘s Dan Froomkin reads the tea leaves, “I see a possible theme: A purge of the unbelievers.”

A Bad Year.

“Whenever the courts push back against the administration’s unsupportable constitutional ideas…the Bush response is to repeat the same chorus louder: Every detainee is the worst of the worst; every action taken is legal, necessary, and secret. No mistakes, no apologies. No nuance, no regrets. This legal and intellectual intractability can create the illusion that we are standing on the same constitutional ground we stood upon in 2001, even as that ground is sliding away under our feet.” Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick surveys the top ten most outrageous civil liberties violations of 2006.

Model Ford.

As President, my primary concern must always be the greatest good of all the people of the United States whose servant I am. As a man, my first consideration is to be true to my own convictions and my own conscience. My conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed. My conscience tells me that only I, as President, have the constitutional power to firmly shut and seal this book.Gerald Ford, 1913-2006.

Enter Edwards.

If we actually want to change this country and we want to move America the way it needs to move, we’re going to have to do it, all of us, together.” As telegraphed by his official site a day early, the John Edwards train leaves the station from the Ninth District of New Orleans. I thought highly of Edwards last cycle — and voted for him in 2004 — so I for one am glad to see him back around for 2008. Right now, with Feingold out of the picture, it’s a two-man race right now between him and Obama for my primary vote.

The Carcetti Dilemma.

“‘When the president talks about staying the course, he never mentions cost as a factor,’ Spratt said. ‘But it is a factor, particularly when you get costs over $100 billion a year.'” Facing very little room to work with, the Dems attempt to sort out the fiscal fiasco Dubya has created over the past six years and counting.

Murtha Gets PAID.

“‘It’s a real tangled web between the congressman, the nonprofit, the defense contractors and the lobbyists,’ said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group. ‘It’s hard to say where one stops and the others start.'” In troubling news that should test the commitment of the incoming Dem majority to real lobbying reform, the WP takes a long hard look at John Murtha’s lobbyist-tinged relationship with the Pennsylvania Association for Individuals with Disabilities (PAID…an unfortunate acronym, to be sure). “‘It sounds like DeLay Inc.,’ said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the Democratic-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.”

A Moment of Clarity.

“‘We’re not winning, we’re not losing,’ Bush said in an interview with The Washington Post. The assessment was a striking reversal for a president who, days before the November elections, declared, ‘Absolutely, we’re winning.'” While calling for an expansion of the army and marines, Dubya comes close to finally declaring the obvious in Iraq.

Give ‘em Hell Dubya?

The buck stops here? Not hardly. Grasping for historical validation wherever he can find it, Dubya has apparently begun to fancy himself a modern-day Truman. “James G. Hershberg, a Cold War historian at George Washington University, said he doubts that history will judge Bush as kindly as it has Truman, saying Truman’s roles in fostering European recovery and building the NATO alliance were seen as solid accomplishments at the time. ‘Bush, by contrast, lacks any successes of comparable magnitude to compensate for his mismanagement of the Iraq war and will be hard-pressed to produce any in his last two years’.”

My House, My Rules.

After suffering some bad press for backing away from the 9/11 recommendations last week, Speaker-Elect Pelosi announces two new oversight committees as a form of compromise: “a new panel within the Appropriations Committee to oversee the nation’s intelligence agencies [thus maintaining Murtha's fiefdom] and a House task force to examine establishing an outside ethics panel.” And, in related news, the House Dems announce their proposed rules changes. They “include a ban on gifts and travel from lobbyists, preapproval from the ethics committee on all lawmakers’ travel funded by outside groups, a ban on the use of corporate jets, and mandatory ethics training.

Prayers for Tim.

Get well soon, Tim Johnson. Oof, talk about terrible news on several levels. One hopes the Senator will make a full and complete recovery after his AVM surgery, and we won’t have to think too deeply about the possibility of a Senate turnover. Fortunately, there seems to be a good deal of precedent for long absences from the chamber — my first thought (other than Nate Fisher and Narm!) was Charles Sumner’s three-year absence after the caning, but there are apparently many 20th century examples too.

Skeletons at the Feast.

Unfortunately, crooked Dem congressman William Jefferson won his runoff in Louisiana, forcing Speaker-elect Pelosi into another touchy committee assignment situation. And, in related ethics news, the Dems put a moratorium on earmarks and extend current funding levels on various spending bills until next fiscal year (Oct. 1), so as to avoid a nasty budget fight right out of the box in January. ““We will work to restore an accountable, above-board, transparent process for funding decisions and put an end to the abuses that have harmed the credibility of Congress.”

Seeing the Real (War) at Last.

“From now on I’ll be busy, Ain’t goin’ nowhere fast…” In what will hopefully amount to both a transformation in the debate over the war and a much-needed moment of clarity for the Dubya administration (alas, not likely), the Baker-Hamilton Commission officially releases its Iraq report (Exec Sum/Assessments). While perhaps vague on the details, it calls the situation in Iraq “grave and deteriorating” and argues that a “slide toward chaos” is a very real possibility (if, in fact, it hasn’t already happened.) “Despite a list of 79 recommendations meant to encourage regional diplomacy and lead to a reduction of U.S. forces over the next year, the panel acknowledges that stability in Iraq may be impossible to achieve any time soon.

Gates of Fire.

‘What we heard this morning was a welcome breath of honest, candid realism about the situation in Iraq,’ Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said during a midday break.” The Senate Armed Services Committee unanimously approved Robert Gates, who helped his case considerably by admitting the obvious fact that Iraq’s looking ugly, as Rumsfeld’s replacement at the Pentagon yesterday. Among those impressed with Gates was Slate‘s Fred Kaplan: “I’ve been watching defense secretaries in confirmation hearings for 30 years, off and on, but I don’t think I’ve seen any perform more forthrightly than Gates did this morning.Update: Gates goes through, 95-2.

Eyes on the Prize.

“We had a good talk about how to run a campaign there…She understands that this will take a significant amount of hard work and campaigning and getting to know Iowans more up close and personal.” To no one’s surprise, Senator Hillary Clinton begins laying the groundwork for a 2008 bid.”

Donald Ducks.

“Clearly, what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough.” Hewing closer to the McNamara paradigm than I’d earlier thought, Rumsfeld apparently questioned the Iraq war’s course on his way out the door. “Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, said the revelation of the memo would undercut any attempt by President Bush to defend anything resembling a ‘stay the course’ policy in Iraq.’When you have the outgoing secretary of defense, the main architect of Bush’s policy, saying it’s failing, that puts a lot more pressure on Bush.’

A Legacy of Failure.

“Historians are loath to predict the future. It is impossible to say with certainty how Bush will be ranked in, say, 2050. But somehow, in his first six years in office he has managed to combine the lapses of leadership, misguided policies and abuse of power of his failed predecessors. I think there is no alternative but to rank him as the worst president in U.S. history.” Columbia’s Eric Foner makes the case for Dubya as the worst president ever. Also weighing in on the question: Columbia PhD (and Slate columnist) David Greenberg, Douglas Brinkley, Michael Lind, and Vincent J. Cannato. (I discussed Dubya’s ranking briefly here.)

Don’t be Hastings.

Looking to avoid another contentious fight after the recent Hoyer-Murtha melee, Speaker-elect Pelosi sidesteps both Jane Harman and Alcee Hastings for the House Intelligence Committee head. “Harman, a moderate, strong-on-defense ‘Blue Dog’ Democrat, had angered liberals with her reluctance to challenge the Bush administration’s use of intelligence. Hastings, an African American, was strongly backed by the Congressional Black Caucus but was ardently opposed by the Blue Dogs, who said his removal from the bench disqualifies him from such a sensitive post.” As with Hoyer and Murtha, Hastings’ questionable ethics record is more of a concern to me than Harman’s moderation, but a third choice is fine with me. Update: Pelosi chooses Silvestre Reyes for the post.

The Ballad of Bobby.


Now that Dr. King is gone, there’s no one left but Bobby.” And, tragically, America would only have him for two more months. It’s hard to fault the sentiment behind Emilio Estevez’s Bobby, a humane, warm-hearted paean to the slain Senator, whose untimely end marked the final death rattle of hope for countless American liberals and progressives in the sixties. But, frankly, the film — while easy to sit through, to be sure — is also confused and overstuffed. It attempts to be Grand Hotel by way of RFK: Dozens of disconnected lives that intertwine one fateful night and that are ultimately bonded by their common humanity, as so eloquently articulated by Kennedy. But, however ambitious and meritorious its message and its patron saint, Bobby is a well-meaning muddle. The powerful stock footage and a few brief moments aside, a lot of the film just falls flat.

Due to its huge cast and multiplicity of stories, Bobby defies a full summation. Nevertheless, the film follows countless recognizable actors as they go about their lives at the Ambassador Hotel on June 4, 1968, the day before RFK was shot by disgruntled Palestinian Sirhan Sirhan. Among them are elder statesmen (Anthony Hopkins, Harry Belafonte), former A-listers turned B-listers (Emilio Estevez, Christian Slater), aging starlets (Sharon Stone, Demi Moore), TV standbys (Helen Hunt, David Krumholtz), likable character actors (William H. Macy, Freddy Rodriguez), strikingly attractive newcomers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Svetlana Metkina), and Frodo (playing, for all intent and purposes, Frodo.) Almost all of the performances are solid and likable (with the notable exception of Ashton Kutcher as a drug dealer — it’s unbelievable how a guy who’s made his living playing a stoner for years is so thoroughly implausible at it — he’s like a kid in a school play.) But there’s a lot of unnecessary overlap or what comes across as extraneous filler in these tales. Two separate stories (Wood and Lindsay Lohan’s quickie marriage, Shia La Boeuf and Brian Geraghty’s day off) cover basically the same ground about Vietnam. Hopkins, Belafonte, Moore, and Stone all talk about the indignities of growing old, while Stone, Macy, Moore, Estevez, Hunt, and Martin Sheen all lament failing marriages…but to what purpose? What, really, does all this have to do with RFK? I get it — it’s about shared humanity. But Bobby tries to do too much in the time given, and would’ve been more effective, I think, if it’d had been pared down some.

The most resonant parts of Bobby are the storylines involving Kennedy campaign workers (Joshua Jackson, Nick Cannon) and, most notably, the simmering racial tension among the kitchen staff (Freddy Rodriguez, Jacob Vargas, Lawrence Fishburne). The latter tale is particularly interesting — despite Slater being stuck as a cartoon “racist but a real person too” barely this side of Matt Dillon in Crash — since it highlights the concerns and aspirations of Latino immigrants, who are often completely neglected in movies dwelling on race in America (even in otherwise sterling shows like The Wire.) But, even here, it’s ultimately played too broadly: What we’re left with are “life is a blueberry cobbler” metaphors and monologues about King Arthur that’ll just make you wince. The problems with the movie can be summed up by the footage used of Bobby at the Ambassador Hotel — obviously powerful stuff. Unfortunately, it’s overlaid with Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” which even without the obvious Graduate overtones is entirely too broad a pick — It detracts from rather than enhances the already potent archival footage.

Still, I don’t want to suggest that I’m completely hating on Bobby. For all its ham-handedness, I enjoyed the experience, and I sat there with a smile on my face through most of the film. And I do applaud Estevez’s obviously strong admiration for Senator Kennedy. I was recently on a date where discussion arose as to whether things would’ve been different if Bobby had lived. She thought not, or rather that it’d be impossible to tell. I’m more inclined to agree with Michael Sandel, who wrote that: “Had he lived, he might have set progressive politics on a new, more successful course. In the decades since his death, the Democratic Party has failed to recover the moral energy and bold public purpose to which RFK gave voice.” Regardless, as with Dr. King, we shouldn’t even have to ask this question. Both men who were continuing to grow and develop, Dr. King and Bobby were tragically ripped from us before their time, a back-to-back blow in an already miserable year that felled progressive ambition in America for decades. I have to think that our nation would be a brighter, happier, and more compassionate place in the years since if we could have continued to benefit from their leadership and counsel.

Since we cannot, we can only honor their examples and remember their words. In the end, Bobby could’ve been a much worse movie than it in fact is, and I still would give it credit for reminding us of Senator Kennedy’s essential creed: “But we can perhaps remember — even if only for a time –that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek — as we do — nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Feingold’s on the Waivers…

“To put it simply, create an account, join a league, draft a team of real U.S. Members of Congress and have fun as you compete to score as many points as possible. As the Members of Congress you drafted put real legislation through the lawmaking process they will score points for your team.Fantasy Congress (by way of Triptych Cryptic.) I’ve shied away from Fantasy Basketball, just because [a] I see it becoming all-consuming and [b] I figure I’ll end up rooting for players to put up great numbers rather than for actual teams to win…but this might be fun.

The Free Market Principal.

“As George Shultz liked to say: ‘Everybody loves to argue with Milton, particularly when he isn’t there.'” Milton Friedman, 1912-2006.

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