Tuesday, July 29, 2008

July 29th, 2008

     The New York Times has a report from Guantanamo Bay about the military tribunal trial of Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's one-time driver.  Is it American justice?  Certainly not.  Is it justice at all?  I'm not sure.
     No members of the public can watch the trial.  Some reporters watch, often in another building, and during the first week the camera sometimes is pointed away from the witnesses and the evidence.  A reporter pointed out that in American trials reporters can see witnesses and evidence;   a military spokeswoman answered, "This is not America."
     Law enforcement officials told the court what Hamdan had said during interrogations since he was first detained in 2001.  Some of the interrogations were by men in masks asking questions in the middle of the night.  Hamdan, of course, did not have a lawyer with him.  There is secret evidence not revealed in open court.  One federal judge refused to stop the trial, but said it was "startling" that evidence obtained through coercion could be used.

      The government's basic theory, it seems, is that the U.S. Constitution does not apply here.  Hamdan himself seems to know he has few choices in this trial.  He was quoted as saying, "A drowning man will reach for a twig, and I am a drowning man."
    Hamdan's lawyers--he has some now--say the result of the trial is likely to be appealed.  It may take years to finally decide Hamdan's fate and the legality--or lack of it--of the military system which is trying him.  But the Times quotes Bob Wizner, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who is observing the trial, as saying one more odd thing--that the Bush administration insists that even if Hamdan is acquitted it can continue to hold him indefinitely as it has for the last seven years.
     That is not the America that I grew up in.  This president has his own America, and it's a lot less free than mine.    

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

July 27, 2008

How free should reporters be to cover a war?
The New York Times reported this past week on efforts by the US military to control pictures of the war, particularly pictures of American dead. The Times cites the case of photographer Zoriah Miller, who posted photos on the Internet of some Marines killed in the fighting. He was subsequently barred from working in the Marines' part of the country and the Times says the Marine commander in Iraq is trying to have Miller banned from all U.S. military installations around the world.
The newspaper cites other incidents: Stefan Zaklin barred from working with an Army unit after he published a photo of a dead Army captain in 2004. Two New York Times journalists disembedded (removed from the units to which they were attached) after the Times published a picture of a fatally wounded soldier in 2007.
What's right? When I was a reporter in Vietnam in the 1960s, there were no restrictions on what pictures we could take. We hitchhiked around the country, bumming rides on military helicopters to reach the units we wanted to cover. Once we'd used up our film, we bummed rides back to Saigon. No restrictions, though we had some of our own.
We didn't, or at least the reporters and cameramen I knew didn't, photograph faces. None of us wanted Mrs. Smith, watching the Evening News in Des Moines, to suddenly gasp, "Oh God, that's my son Charley." But we did think the war had real costs for Americans and that showing those costs--the young people who wouldn't be coming home--should be part of the our coverage.
The military, I suppose, feels that the Iraq war is unpopular anyway and should be sanitized as much as possible for home consumption. I think that's wrong for a number of reasons. One is that if people know the costs of war, maybe they'll be less likely to allow a foolish president to blunder into one we didn't need to fight (Weapons of mass destruction? Where? Where?) as Mr.Bush blundered into this one.


I want to apologize to this column's readers for a dumb mistake I made in the July 26th column. I wrote that Politico reported John McCain was thinking of Ann Veneman as a possible VP. In fact, Politico reported, and I meant to repeat, that Barack Obama was thinking of her. Just wasn't paying attention to what I was typing, I guess. Sorry,sorry, sorry.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

July 26th, 2008

     POLITICO reports that one person John McCain is considering as a running-mate is Ann Veneman,  Secretary of Agriculture during George W. Bush's first term.  Well, okay.  She's currently head of UNICEF, the UN agency that helps kids, and there's nothing wrong with that.  If I wanted a Republican, I'd probably pick Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam vet, but he may have spoiled his chances by urging the candidates to talk about the future of Iraq, not just brag about the success of the surge. That seemed aimed more at McCain, who talks about the surge a lot more than Barack Obama, who doesn't.
     And if I wanted a Republican woman, I'd certainly have thought of former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman before I thought of Veneman.  But so what?  It's a guessing game.  What does a number two do for a ticket anyway?
     The old wisdom was that he carries an important state for you, but that hasn't happened much lately.  If you go back to 1960, sure--Texan Lyndon Johnson helped John Kennedy in Texas and the rest of the South where that Boston accent might have sounded fearfully exotic to the voters.  But since then?  I don't think so.  And, of course, that year Richard Nixon ran with Henry Cabot Lodge, who was as New England as Kennedy and sounded it.
     Ideological balance?  I don't think so.  In the first place vice presidents don't really have any power. John Adams called it 'the most insignificant office ever conceived of by the mind of man.'  John Nance Garner once said it wasn't worth 'a bucket of warm spit,' though one of the letters in 'spit' is, I believe, incorrect.  As a springboard to the presidency?  Didn't do much for Walter Mondale or Al Gore.
     In fact, it is insignificant, with one screaming exception.  'I am nothing,' one VP is supposed to have said, 'but I may be all.'  And of course that happens.  Think of Harry Truman:  FDR dies and a little-known senator has to decide whether to use the atom bomb, has to help form NATO and the UN, integrates the armed forces, and so on and so on--one of the most powerful presidents, in terms of decisions he had to make, we're ever had..
     The other extreme?  What would have happened if Richard Nixon had resigned and his VP pick, a crook named Spiro Agnew had taken over?  Fortunately, Agnew was uncovered and drummed out of office first (pleaded no contest to one felony charge and was allowed to leave town).  When Nixon resigned the office, Gerald Ford, a man everyone knew and trusted, took over.
     So sure, it's not worth much.  Until it is.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

     The President addresses the troops:  'I'm sorry, guys, but we have to invade Iraq again.'
     'I mean,' he explains, 'that some of these guys whom we helped put in power are now saying we ought to leave one day soon.  We can't have that!   When John McCain, a great American, says we might stay a hundred years, he means a hundred years.  We've had troops in Germany and Japan and South Korea for more than fifty years, and they're all doing okay.  Maybe if I sent that nice Angie Merkel to Baghdad, she could explain how it works. 
     'I mean, that Obama fellow is going around talking about leaving in sixteen months, and now he's got that al-Maliki guy and his crowd saying the same thing.  Out-by-God-rageous!  I mean, I've okayed a 'time horizon' for withdrawing.  And when I looked 'horizon' up in my dictionary, it said, 'the apparent junction of earth and sky.'  Well, you never really get there, do you?  I mean, they just don't meet.  Earth's down here, sky's up there, right? 
     'It's true, the situation in Afghanistan is getting worse, and we need more troops there.  But we shouldn't take them away from Iraq;  we should just bring back the draft.  What's wrong with that?  Plenty of troops then, no question about it! 
     'You say a lot of Americans want to withdraw?  So what?  I can't run for another term anyway.  We're certainly not going to let a bunch of pollsters tell us how to run the country.  Some of them are as bad as that Obama--secret Muslims for all we know, right?
     'The hell with the critics.  We're gonna stay the course!  After all, we've got almost six months left!'

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Monday, July 21, 2008

July 18th, 2008

Now comes Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, who announced that George W.Bush is 'a total failure, losing all credibility with the American people on the economy, on the war, on energy, you name the subject.'  Who am I to argue with the Speaker?  In fact, I found a source this week who'd agree with her.  I was saying to a cab driver that Bush was the worst president of my lifetime.  The cabbie was even older than I--eighty-six, he said--and he agreed--yes, Bush was the worst one he'd known too. 
     Of course, the White House defended its boss.  Spokeswoman Dana Perino noted that 'this is the longest Congress has gone in twenty years without passing a single spending bill.'  That's true.  Congress has the power of the purse;  it's supposed to pass appropriations bills telling this department and that how much they can spend.  It flat hasn't done its job.
     It's no wonder the voters haven't much use for either branch of government.  In a recent AP--Ipsos poll, the President's approval rating was 28%, but that put him well ahead of Congress, which got a whopping 18%.  That's five points lower than just a month ago.
     What we need, obviously, is a change of tone.  What we need is someone to say to the clunks at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue what Oliver Cromwell said to the Long Parliament:  'You have sat here too long for any good you may have done.  Stand not upon the order of your going.  In the name of God, go!' 
     We won't get that, of course.  Congress draws the maps of Congressional districts so that most members can be reelected.  That won't change.

     What we might get, the best we could get, is some reform-minded new faces in Congress and a president who really wants to change the way this place works, to get rid of the sour, negative smell of the last few years.  Could McCain do that?  Could Obama?  Good questions as we gear up for the fall campaign.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

July 16th, 2008

     I'm not much on polls this far before an election, but a CBS News/New York Times poll out today focuses on race and has some interesting numbers.
    We tend, I think, to believe that we're getting better about race.  If you're as old as I am, you remember America before the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the1960s, and you know what a different country that was.  This poll suggests, though, that not much has changed lately and that race still looms large in our lives.
     Nearly 60% of blacks said race relations were generally bad.  Just 34% of whites agreed.  Four in ten blacks say there has been no progress in recent years in eliminating racial discrimination;  fewer than two in ten whites agree.  Half of the blacks polled said not enough had been made of racial barriers facing them;  about a quarter of the whites polled thought too much has been made of those barriers.  55% of whites said race relations are good, almost double the figure for blacks.  And so on.
     Politically?  80% of black voters had a favorable opinion of Barack Obama, compared to about 30% of the whites.   56% of blacks had a favorable opinion of Michelle Obama, 24% of whites.
     One ethnic group Obama and Hillary Clinton fought for in the primaries was Hispanics.  In this poll, they favored Obama over John McCain 62--23%.
     Character questions?  Blacks were more likely than whites to say Obama cares about people like them.  Whites were more likely to say that he says what he thinks voters want to hear.  Half the blacks, and 29% of the whites thought race relations would improve if Obama became president.
     For poll experts, I should add that this poll oversampled blacks and Hispanics so as to reduce the margin of error when analyzing their responses.  The margin is plus or minus six percent.
     What does it all mean?  Clearly, America can elect a black.  Clearly, that won't end racism or magically transform race relations.  Clearly, though, it might help.
     This columnist, by the way, heaved a sigh of relief this morning.  Atlanta Congressman John Lewis won his primary yesterday with 68% of the vote.  Way to go! 

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Time passes, and change is the only constant.  I know, I know, but I was still surprised to pick up today's Washington Post and read that Congressman John Lewis of Atlanta has two primary opponents.  I mean, this man is a legend--what's going on?
     He's one of my heroes.  In fact, I remember introducing him to a friend that way:  "I'd like you to meet one of my heroes...."  But he earned the word.  He was beaten as a Freedom Rider in the early 1960s, had his skull fractured in '65 leading marchers across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in a  voting rights demonstration.   And he kept on, living the old civil rights movement song,  "Keep your eyes on the prize. Keep on."
     And that's the problem, of course.  That was all a long time ago.  Lewis is sixty-eight now;  he's been in Congress for twenty-one years.  The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act passed more than forty years ago. A fifty-year old voter today has no memory of the very different America which existed back then.
     Lewis's challengers are younger.  They're the first he's had since 1992--a 31-year old minister, Markel Hutchins, and state Rep. Mable Thomas.
     There's one other factor facing Lewis and some other black incumbents.  He initially endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, though he switched to Barack Obama after Obama won Georgia's primary back in February.  Edolphus Towns, a Brooklyn Congressman, and Carolyn Cheeks of Kansas also face primary opponents who were for Obama from the start.  Lewis dismisses Hutchins:  "The young man, he just copies everything Obama does. The civil rights movement was over by the time he was born."  True, Congressman, but that's part of your problem.  Hutchins says, "That's the very reason there has to be a transition...Leadership cannot be measured by one's proximity to the civil rights era."
     That's true of course.  And this column does not endorse candidates...
     Good luck, John.

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

July 11th, 2008

Sometimes it's easy to think sports is about good stuff--the lyricism of a Michael Jordan on the basketball court, the grace of Roger Federer playing tennis, the power of the Vince Lombardi Packers, the power and grace of the DiMaggio Yankees. Unh unh. All wrong.

Sports is about making money for the folks who own the teams.

I am reminded of that by a story in today's Washington Post reporting that the owners of the Washington Nationals baseball team are refusing to pay $3.5 million in rent for their new stadium, alleging that it is incomplete. The team is also demanding, the Post says, $100,000 a day in damages. I'm not quite sure what for.

I've been to the new park couple of times, and it looks fine to me. The scoreboard works; the seats flip up and down; there's an infield and an outfield; you can buy a dog and a beer. No players have complained about conditions, as far as I know.

In fact, the fans might be the ones to complain--about the team. There was a saying about the old Washington Senators: "Washington--first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League." For the new Nationals you'd have to change the ending to "last in the National League Central Division." That's where they are, all right. And sure they've had some bad luck--injuries, and so on. But last is, as they say, last. And while the team thinks the city owes it some kind of damages, it has not offered rebates to fans who had hoped for a winner.

The city paid for the new stadium. Taxpayers' money, some of it mine. The city spent more than $611 million in public money to build the stadium. And the team won't pay up? I'd tear down the park and give them twenty-four hours to get out of town. And I'm a fan; I like the game.

I think in Owners' School they must screen that Michael Douglas movie all the time. You know, the one where the line you remember is when he says, "Greed is good."

July 10

A friend who reads this column sent me a story by Los Angeles Times writer Jim Puzzanghera about an instance of the government's invading our privacy that I hadn't heard of: seizing, without a warrant, the personal computers of people - American citizens included - entering the U.S. from abroad.

The story quotes a man named Bill Hogan, returning home, who was told his computer had been chosen for "random inspection." He got it back some two weeks later and said, correctly, "It's not an inspection; it's a seizure." Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, said, "Congress should not allow this gross violation of privacy." But it does. Courts have ruled that authorities need a search warrant to get at a computer in your home, but not when you're crossing a border.

In a related area, the Senate voted this week on a bill covering wiretaps. It says the government needs a warrant to tap your phone, but with exceptions. It creates a seven-day period during which the feds could wiretap foreigners without a warrant, and expands from three days to seven the time during which warrantless wiretaps on Americans are legal if, of course, the Attorney General certifies there is probable cause to think the target is linked to terrorism. But probable cause, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution reads: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue but upon probable cause...." Mr. Bush, of course, doesn't think he needs warrants at all, that in wartime the president can do whatever he likes.

This is wrong, as even a casual reading of the Constitution will show. Richard Nixon once famously said that if the president did it, it wasn't illegal. That was wrong, and it's why Mr. Nixon never finished his second term. He wiretapped White House aides without warrants and sent burglars to dig up dirt on an opponent.

Is there a moral in this? Probably, it's that when we go to war, we must fight two wars at once--one against the enemy, the other to defend the civil liberties which make our country worth fighting for.

July 8

I can't vote for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, of course, but I would if I could. He's said he wants us to leave his country. I want that too.

Maliki spoke with Arab ambassadors while visiting the United Arab Emirates. He talked about a security pact his country is negotiating with the United States.

"The current trend," he said, "is to reach agreement on a memorandum of understanding either for the departure of the (U.S.) forces or a memorandum of understanding to put a timetable on their withdrawal. In all cases, the basis for any agreement will be respect for the full sovereignty of Iraq." Oh hurrah!

The Bush administration, which invaded Iraq in the first place, probably hates all that. They talk about a democratic Iraq but what they want is a province in which the occupying American troops can do exactly as they please without taking any guff from the conquered population.

It's just wishful thinking on my part, of course. The Bush people aren't likely to let rhetoric about a free Iraq get in the way of their occupation. Making some sort of peace and leaving will be up to the next president, who may or may not want to pull out. Didn't John McCain say something about staying for a hundred years? After all, we've had troops in Germany for more than fifty years, since the end of World War II, and in Korea for almost as long, since the end of that war. These are peaceful garrisons, of course; no one is getting killed. But they are reminders that it's a lot easier to send troops in sometimes than it is to bring them home.

Probably the best we can hope for from this president is that he won't start a war against another country--Iran. It would start with just bombing, of course, but bombing doesn't win wars. London resisted the World War II blitz; allied planes destroyed Dresden, but it was troops on the ground that took Berlin and ended the European war. You could argue that atomic bombs ended the war with Japan, but surely even this president wouldn't--well, let's hope he wouldn't, anyway. Just six more months and we get a new one. Oh hurrah again!

Column correction

Correction: The column should have made clear that the Helms negative ad with the rejection letter was used against Harvey Gantt, not Jim Hunt. The columnist knew that, but pleads guilty to sloppy writing.

Editor's note: While we cannot be certain of Senator Helm's position on "gin control," he was against gun control.
The editor knew that, but pleads guilty to sloppy editing...

Saturday, July 5, 2008

July 5, 2008

Jesse Helms was against things. One of his nicknames was "Senator No." He was against federal support for the arts and gin control and Fidel Castro and turning the Panama Canal over to Panama and...well, it's a long list.

But the most remembered thing about him probably is that he was a vocal, convinced racist. When he announced his retirement from the Senate, Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote of him as "the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country," which struck most who knew him as about right

He was also a very effective politician, good at raising money, tough to oppose. James Hunt, a popular North Carolina governor who ran unsuccessfully against Helms in 1984 said, "He ran negative ads against me for 20 months." They worked. One was famous--a white man's hand, wearing a wedding band, crumpling a rejection letter while the announcer says, "You needed that job. And you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority."

He had no use for national reporters. When he campaigned in North Carolina, his office wouldn't give us his schedule. We had to phone local stations, local newspapers, to find out where he'd be. But his supporters loved him.

There have been other racists in politics, of course. When Alabama's George Wallace lost an early try for office, he's supposed to have vowed, "I will never be out-niggered again." That's ugly, of course, but it's a statement of tactics, not conviction. When the times changed, when the civil rights bills became law, Governor Wallace did favors for black mayors just as he had for white ones in years past. Times changed; Wallace changed. Jesse Helms did not.

He was truly one of a kind. That's good thing, I think.