Monday, June 30, 2008

'Weekend At Bernie's' Party Members Becoming Obama-Cons

Conservative financial theorist Larry Hunter, who helped put together the economics passages in the Gingrich-led Contract with America of the mid-1990s, and who served as chief economist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, views the Republican Party as a "dead, rotting carcass with a few decrepit old leaders stumbling around like zombies in a horror version of Weekend at Bernie's, handcuffed to a corpse."

Unless the Republican Party is thoroughly purged of its current leadership, Hunter fears that it "will pollute the political environment to toxic levels and create an epidemic that could damage the country for generations to come."

Hunter is now an Obama supporter. Like other conservatives who see hope in a break with the past, he concedes that Obama is saying the wrong things on taxes but dismisses it as electioneering. Of far greater importance, in Hunter's view, is that Obama has the potential to "scramble the political deck, break up old alliances, and bring odd bedfellows together in a new coalition."

Many other examples in 'Mr. Right?,' an article on "Obama-cons" by Bruce Bartlett in the The New Republic.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Dr. Oliver Sacks On Why We Believe Political Pandering

In the remarkable book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, one of my all-time favorites, Dr. Oliver Sacks relates the reactions of people with aphasia as they viewed a televised speech by President Ronald Reagan. They cracked up, but I knew there was a lot more detail to the Reagan anecdote than I mentioned in "Why Presidents Must Pander To Crazy People." It's one of those books that's so good, you want to keep your own copy of it, but every time you replace one you give it away to another friend. At some point I gave up, so I don't have a copy but hey, we've got the internet now and I was able to do some digging. The chapter in full is available here.

Aphasia can be caused by many diseases or injuries to the brain, the most common being stroke. The condition is fairly complex, not terribly well understood, and is also closely connected to agnosia, which might even be called a sister disorder. “The hallmark of aphasia,” explains Dr. Antonio Damasio, a behavioral neurologist at the University of Iowa, “is the use of words that are off-target, words that are related but not quite correct.” The condition can be difficult to diagnose. Mmm-hmm. As someone who gropes for words both in writing and speaking, I'm pretty damned certain I've already got it.

For its part, agnosia can present a broad range of symptoms, sometimes aphasia-like speech and language problems. A person with agnosia may suffer from tonal problems and be unable to recognize the timbre, feeling, or character of a voice, but can understand the words and grammatical constructions perfectly. An aside: years ago I met a man waiting outside the Palace Kitchen in downtown Seattle who fit the agnosia description; he'd had a stroke some time before, and his voice was flat. He would clench his hands and wave them back and forth when he wanted to modulate his words, or he'd apply more vocal energy. His first words to me were, "Where in this town can a fella get a drink," waving his right fist back and forth. I took it as anger, destabilization or desperation, and said, "Don't worry, I'll get you a drink right now." My girl and I spent the evening with him, and he explained over dinner that his brain processed speech quite differently, although it didn't stop him from being intelligent and charming.

As a world-famous neurologist, Sacks has been in the position to encounter many rare cases of traumatic speech anomalies. “Such tonal agnosia (or ‘atonias’) are associated with disorders of the right temporal lobe of the brain,” he explains, “whereas the aphasiacs go with disorders of the left temporal lobes.” According to Sacks, people with atonia may sometimes be found in an aphasia ward. Therefore, just as it is for patients with aphasia, treating someone with agnosia can be complicated because many patients will display levels of understanding which belie the severity of their condition.

Dr. Sacks found that even with relatively severe aphasic patients, when addressed “naturally,” they could grasp some or most of what he meant. So he took a creative detour in an effort to more reliably diagnose the presence of aphasia: he would go to “extraordinary lengths, as a neurologist, to speak and behave un-naturally, to remove all the extra-verbal clues--tone of voice, intonation, suggestive emphasis or inflection, as well as all visual cues (one’s gestures, one’s entirely unconscious, personal repertoire and posture).”

Depersonalizing one's voice involves laundering it of tone, breaths, pauses, and variations in vocal energy. In effect, it also requires "turning off," or more accurately suppressing, brain functions which are automatic for most of us. Sacks found that for aphasics, this machine-like way of talking was substantially or fully unrecognizable and could cause them to laugh. The words mean nothing as is, and come across as incomprehensible gibberish; to one suffering from aphasia, they primarily derive meaning from the speaker's physical context, which somehow allows them to neurologically associate them back to, and thus comprehend, the spoken words.

Which brings us back to Reagan. Sack's unorthodox diagnostic tool exposed a rather fascinating side-effect: political savvy. In the mid-eighties, Sacks studied the reaction of people with aphasia as they watched a televised speech by the actor-turned-president. Despite being unable to grasp the skillful politician’s words, the patients were convulsed with laughter by his bogus expressions. As Dr. Sacks explains,

One cannot lie to an aphasic. He cannot grasp your words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps, he grasps with infallible precision, namely the expression that goes with the words, that total spontaneous, involuntary expressiveness which can never be simulated or faked, as words alone can, all too easily.”

“It was the grimaces, the histrionics, the false gestures and, above all, the false tones and cadences of the voice which rang false for these wordless but immensely sensitive patients. It was to these (for them) most glaring, even grotesque, incongruities and improprieties that my aphasic patients responded, undeceived and undeceivable by words.

This is why they laughed at the President's speech."

Conversely, Sacks remarked on a woman with tonal agnosia who was also watching the address, but sat in stony-faced appraisal. Emily D., a former English teacher and poet, could have no organic emotional reaction to the speech but was able to judge it from a neural vantage point. Emily summed Reagan up thusly:

“He does not speak good prose. His word-use is improper. Either he is brain-damaged or he has something to conceal.”

Tell me about it! Sacks goes on to explain the implications regarding soothsayers and politicians:

“We normals, aided, doubtless, by our wish to be fooled, were indeed well and truly fooled. And so cunningly was deceptive word-use combined with deceptive tone, that only the brain-damaged remained intact, undeceived.”

I wonder if his aphasic patients kept on laughing through these Bush years.

FEMA Contractor Hits Iowa Pedestrian With Car, Then Attacks With Golf Club

So Iowa is underwater, and to the nation’s shock, FEMA has sent out emergency response teams — to help! This is only the second time in world history that FEMA has helped anyone, the other being the time they released that “How To Deal With Satellites That Crash Into Your Skull” manual. Perhaps they could create a follow-up manual now called “How To Deal With FEMA Emergency Contractors Who Arbitrarily Beat The Shit Out Of You With Golf Clubs, In Iowa, After Trying To Hit You With Their Cars.”

Vincent Koley is a 74-year-old employee of Alltech, a Virginia company that “has provided housing inspection services in emergency or disaster areas to FEMA since 1995.” Koley’s work has dispatched him in Iowa, to save drowning Butter Cows.

It is very hard work even for old altruists like Koley, who sometimes drift off into Comas of Self-Doubt:

Koley was driving south on First Street SW when he nearly hit Penford employee Tom Kramer in the crosswalk in front of the plant at 10th Avenue SW, police said. Kramer, 54, of Lisbon, was able to get out of the vehicle’s way without being hit, and pushed off the side of the car.

Oopsies! Well, we’ve all hit people with cars while daydreaming before, so what’s the big deal? The big deal is that Koley’s with FEMA, and when FEMA wants to hit you with a car, YOU LET THAT CAR HIT YOU GODDAMNIT:

Koley stopped the car and jumped out, police said. Kramer told him to slow down and that he was in the cross walk. Koley replied that “he didn’t have to slow down, he was with FEMA,” police said. The two argued for a minute, and when Kramer turned to walk away, Koley took a golf club out of his car and struck Kramer across the arm, breaking the golf club.

Koley got back into his car, but numerous Penford employees observed the incident and surrounded the car so Koley couldn’t leave, police said. Koley then began to nudge his car forward, forcing Kramer, who was in front of the car, onto the car’s hood.

Well Kramer and his little mob friends should just be happy that they have roads on which to drive, after Koley personally used his FEMA powers to drain all of the floodwater out of Iowa, and send it back into New Orleans’ lower ninth ward.

Contracted FEMA inspector charged with assault [Gazette] (Via Wonkette.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Why American Presidents Must Pander To Crazy People

Short answer: there are crazy people here in abundance. In fact, they've become our #1 export. They're homicidally ignorant and will stay that way. The funny thing is, the crazier and more abundant they are, the more motivated they are to vote. If, as I assume, you are mostly sane and really, really don't like this fact, you might consider working in Switzerland, which is always looking for good contractors, is beautiful, peaceful, pays top Euro, and has an awesome state-run pension plan. Oh, and everybody who's Swiss is rich. I tried working a spell there and wholeheartedly recommend it. As a bonus, the politics in Switzerland are so boring they don't elect Prime Ministers, they just pass the office along round-robin style. You can ask a Swiss who their next PM will be and they'll purse their lips, scowl at you for asking an impudent question, and after an embarrassing pause say, "These things do not concern you. But I think perhaps Appenzell is next. They haven't had it for a while."

Between July 4th and November 4th, the Obama campaign will move uncomfortably right in order to cramp McCain's political space. Obama has already branded himself in the archetypal mold of JFK, as a fresh, genuine leader unsullied by palace life. He risks diluting a successful brand and dissatisfying Democrats enough so they'll vote for Nader. His potential reward is winning the Independent voters who usually decide elections, and perhaps more critically, reducing Republican motivation to vote at all. While I don't quite expect Team Obama to start singing country songs ("By golly gosh darn damn, my fellow Americains. Pick up the truck and fry the bacon, we got a hoe-down in the makin!") or riding in an M1Abrams tank, it's not a hard calculation to see they'll be going center-right. Into the Landslide Territory.

Voters in democracies long for authenticity from candidates and leaders, making it paradoxically easier to exploit that longing. My main criticism of Obama's pandering speech to the Merchants of Mid-East Death, the American-Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), was that he forgot to wear a yarmulke. Israelis have a big vote, and maybe more consequently, it would be child's play for them to set up a massive car bomb at a Detroit campaign stop and hang blame on the 250,000 Arabs who live there. During an election, the only reasonable question to ask AIPAC is,"How can we make you happier?" The competing candidates have to read the desires in America's cultural landscape like a General's staff surveys the battlescape of a military campaign. Their positioning, or manufactured authenticity, will have much more to do with the voting blocks than with themselves, or about any fundamental policies, and both McCain and Obama are prepared to imitate Silly Putty.

Obama will be taking his daughters wild boar hunting, doing 200 sit-ups per day and getting a tattoo that says, "Freedom Isn't Free" across his newly ripped abdominals. These details will be leaked to the press at the appropriate time. McCain will donate to sperm banks to demonstrate his virility and tap out press conference answers with a chunk of concrete in Morse code, just like he did in the Hanoi Hilton. Those are the kind of stunts it takes to get the Marginal Middle vote in this country, and if you don't believe me, picture Hillary Clinton downing shots of uncut Jim Beam whiskey. She did it without throwing up, it was pandering at its most transparent. It worked, and that was with Democrats. Obama is going to piss sane people off because he has no choice.

To wit, the progressive blogsphere is seething with disappointment over his vote supporting FISA immunity, i.e., that telecom providers cannot be prosecuted for spying on citizens for Bush-Cheney in the name of national insecurity, and by extension that the Two-Headed Dicks will never be punished for their crimes. This betrayal came after he had stoked progressive hopes by making "restoration of the Constitution" promises in his earlier campaign.'s no longer the same campaign. Now he's running against a Republican, and he doesn't want to repeat the horrible, suicidal strategic mistakes of Gore and Kerry, who thought they could run as slightly different versions of the Bobbsy Twins but lost to the Lowest Common Dubnominator. As Obama put it to his staff after wrapping up his party's nomination, he will "have to be a better candidate" to win the general election. Voting for FISA immunity was clearly the right thing to do as a candidate because he took a sure angle of attack completely away from McCain.

This is the brutality. This is how the brutality works: at minimum, Obama must be proud that Jesus was an American. If he isn't, then he doesn't want to run this asylum. Policies can always be fixed if you're President, especially now, when a President can legally have people buried alive. But we'll discuss Congress at another time. Obama, explaining his FISA vote, said he'll go back and change immunity after he seizes power and runs the country on Black Panther Party principles. Whether he ultimately does so or not, campaigns are about winning elections, winning requires maneuvering, and maneuvering means carefully changing positions to maximum advantage so you choke off your opponent's windpipe.

It's all about claiming ground, seizing resources, and blunting the enemy's advances--just like war, as de Toqueville remarked about our two-party democratic system, the elections are typically winner-take-all. The American way of choosing Presidents has many egregious flaws, but it's somewhat like an institutional revolution--the people who bet on the wrong horse get to eat the winner's manure for at least 4 years, and the people who won get to feed it to them. God knows I'm sick of what Republican shit tastes like, so please bear that in mind when I'm dismissive about casting votes for shining knights in principled armor who ride around trailing Sancho Panza. No, this is my country: remember how Dubya said he was the most bipartisan candidate since Errol Flynn, a Uniter not a Divider? Hahahaha! Yeah. That was sincere, all right. And yet, Independents bought it.

It's understandable for our politicians to be inauthentic, to hide un-folksy things about themselves. It's also no coincidence that most of them are lawyers who were trained to use the camouflage of sincerity like ninjas are trained to use night. Besides, falsely posturing for gain is a human repertoire. My son, a.k.a. Lord Running Boy, has been known to test various crying expressions out in front of mirrors, most recently in the passenger-side rear-view mirror of our car before an outing, like he was doing a quick rehearsal for later use: "OK. If they say no to ice cream, I'll hit 'em with this, a variation of You Stepped on My Hand." Politicians are like that, only they're seasoned professionals who have competed in front of audiences for money. Is it any wonder their addresses are outcome-oriented?

Obama writes most of his own speeches and actually understands what he's saying. In itself, this is odd, and is in no way necessary to win an election. For example, even before he had Alzheimer's, Ronald Reagan never had a full grasp over his speeches; he was a Hollywood studio actor who had specialized in emoting sincerity, concentrating conviction, good cheer, and in not blowing his lines. Every speech was posturing, with precisely the same earnestness as when he did cigarette ads, which you'd think would've been worth remembering.

There are tells, of course. Oliver Sacks, the NY-city based neurologist, once had to answer an emergency call to the floor of his mental health facility because all the patients on the aphasic ward were laughing hysterically. They were watching a Reagan speech, and because the physical gestures were inappropriate for his words, their disconnected speech centers thought he was the funniest thing they'd ever seen. Nixon tried optimistic gestures, only he was stiff and edgy about it, usually while wearing the facial expressions of a cabin fever victim. Like he was hiding an axe behind his back, sidling up close to slam it into your brainpan. And watching Mitt Romney (former candidate for this Republican nomination) closely was like, wow, like seeing a Picasso painting come to life. Hortatory cubism. He didn't win, just got amazingly more than zero votes.

We fall for this because we want to. Ronald Reagan was only halfway decent at the act, yet he's revered as Morning in America, the best politician of our lifetime, The Gipper, destroyer of communism, Mr. Genuine, consummate orator, Mr. Likeable, Uncle Ronnie. Yet he was the same neurotic actor freak with Miss Anorexia Nervosa for a wife, whose children all hated him and who gave previous speeches like these:
This Christmas, I'm sending Chesterfields to all my friends. That's the merriest Christmas any smoker can have--Chesterfield mildness plus no unpleasant after-taste!
Unpleasant after-taste? As Hunter S. Thompson said in the opening to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, "You poor bastard. Wait'll you start seeing the bats." Obama needed soaring rhetoric to win Democratic voters over and displace the entrenched proprietorship of an ineffective, highly corrupt party. Check, done. He doesn't need much of the same to beat a dogged, ill-tempered Pug Party which can't move or think very well and, at this point, just charges forward to kill. The last thing he needs is to play up his progressive authenticity, which he possesses, but which is now far more of a liability than a strength. He has to "pass."

His overall election strategy will be to deride McCain as "predictable," and to associate him tightly, inescapably with the sordid deeds of the Republican party, a body arguably responsible for the all-encompassing mess we're in. Even if you and I know the reality is far more complex than that, it will negate whatever advantages McCain has. Shorthand: Republicans Are F***ers. McCain Is A Republican. Dumb War. Bad Economy. High Gas Prices. Bad Ju-Ju. Change!

Blaming an entire party and welding your opponent to it is straight out of Reagan's famous "There you go again!" debate playbook vs. Carter, made into a theme. McCain's only unassailable differentiation lies in repeating, "When I was a prisoner of war..." If he does that much more, even the denizens of the Reich Wing will want to gag, and it plays right into the Predictable Brand. As it is branded as Just Another Republican, it's very likely the McCain campaign will be forced into wild errors. (Probably their best play is to brand Obama as a radical socialist who is hiding his real agenda, since there's much in his past to validate that view. Going there was a mixed bag for the Hillary campaign, so they didn't.) In any case, the Pugs will have to make an early, emphatic retreat behind the Ugly Fear Line which, once again, plays into the Obama campaign's strategy. They're running a different race, one stressing generational politics. They actually want the opposition to run commercials with black look-alikes posing as muggers and carjackers: "Go ahead, bring on Willie Horton. It'll mean you're screwed."

Obama doesn't need to abandon his JFK approach, his positive campaigning or Brand of Change. He can introduce new issues under that umbrella and maintain its overall tone. His message, sense of timing and tactics seem similar to FDR's, who also realized when an estate-wide political transformation was required and was able to craft and execute a successful bipartisan message. What Obama must do is augment his progressive themes with pragmatism so he "becomes" more like the country he's asking to elect him. Doing so will box McCain in and blunt his strong suits: security, bipartisanship, and knowing how to bomb civilians.

You can bet the Obama staffers keenly recall how Hillary took votes away when she started morphing into John Wayne and making off-hand remarks like "Dust my britches and call me a tumbleweed." The tough posturing gets results because it assuages the massive insecurity of the American psyche. It's also practical. Independents are often swayed by tough talk because it saves them time, and they devote about two minutes per month to thinking about politics to being with. Republicans are swayed by it because they spend all their time debating which gun oil is best at protecting rifling grooves from the corrosive effects of black powder. And it makes them feel like home.

I'm sure politicians enjoy it when they get to be honest, as habitually lying or withholding real belief tires out most souls, but it's a dangerous luxury in an election. Honesty is beside the point. The point is to get votes and take power. I love Dennis Kucinich for his bravery and getting impeachment on the table. As President, they'd love him in Switzerland a lot better. He'd be perfect for Appenzell, a region there famous for its short people. I am very fond of Ralph Nader, but must admit to mixed feelings about how he happened to personally screw me and my family, not to mention 20 million Iraqis. Bemoan their fates, and ours, rage against the machine, sure, but please--we live in America. This place is bonkers, and still in massive, murderous denial. We must accept that the core issues, such as the fact that we've already pissed away an empire, are well into the process of killing the earth, and are the most naively, sociopathically cruel nation in the world--won't be directly discussed during the election. Even if we, the candidates, and their staffs all know damned well it's there and think about it every day.

Bill Clinton once scornfully described Obama as "a roll of the dice," and it was the nicest thing I've ever heard about a Presidential candidate. It meant there was a chance for some change. There still is. Right now, however, there's a deal to seal. There is plenty of room for the OB campaign to move "Right" and capture voters concerned with toughness precisely because of his early, outspoken anti-war position.
That was a great position. To the Independent and undecided voters, it's also ancient history. How, they ask, is he going to get us out of Iraq? "Cautiously, manfully, steadily," will be the answer. (In truth it's going to be next to impossible for him or anyone else to completely get the US out of Iraq because oil is so militarily and economically important.) His campaign will adapt the rhetoric of Republican toughness and spin it into something else, maybe something like this: "They were Dumb-Tough. We are Smart-Tough." I'll hate it as much as you will, but to use an appropriately American metaphor, it'll win the election just like Grant took Richmond.

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin's Eulogy, As Told By Himself

There are countries in the world, France being one, where "intellectual" is an officially recognized occupation. Here in America, we have no such job title. Our intellectuals are known as comedians. George Carlin was one of the sharpest, and he died on Sunday. He is memorable for many things--his pointilist use of obscenity, his personal generosity, his bravery. Less recognized is his intellect, a wizardly ability to observe the social environment and melt it down to glittering, ricocheting bullets of truth. My friend Still Life Living sent me Carlin's clip above in memory of, and once transcribed, it describes the wizard better than I or anyone else could:
Thank you. I'm a modern man, a man for the millenium, digital and smoke-free; a diversified multi-cultural post-modern deconstructionist, politically and anatomically and ecogolociacally incorrect. I've been uplinked and downloaded, I’ve been inputted and outsourced. I know the upside of downsizing, and I know the downside of upgrading.

I’m a high tech lowlife, a cutting-edge state-of-the-art bi-coastal multi-tasker and I can give you a gigabyte in a nanosecond. I’m New Wave but I’m Old School, and my inner child is outward bound. I’m a hot-wired, heat-seeking warmhearted cool customer. I’m voice activated and biodegradable. I interface with my database, and my database is in cyberspace. So I’m interactive, hyperactive and, from time to time, radioactive.

Behind the 8-ball, ahead of the curve, riding the wave, dodging the bullet, pushing the envelope. I’m on point, on task, on message and off drugs. I got no need for coke and speed. I got no urge to binge and purge. I’m in the moment, on the edge, over the top but under the radar, a high concept low profile medium-range ballistic missionary, a street-wise smart-bomb, a Top Gun bottom-feeder. I wear power ties, I tell power lies, I take power naps, I run victory laps. I’m a totally ongoing Bigfoot slam dunk rain-maker with a proactive outreach, a raging workaholic, a working rageaholic. Out of rehab and in denial.

I got a personal trainer a personal shopper a personal assistant and a personal agenda. You can’t shut me up and you can’t dumb me down 'cause I’m tireless and I’m wireless. I’m an Alpha Male on beta-blockers. I’m a nonbeliever and an overachiever, laid back but fashion forward. Up-front, down-home, low rent, high maintenance, super-sized long-lasting high definition fast acting, oven-ready, and built to last. I’m a hands-on footloose knee-jerked head case. Prematurely post traumatic and I have a love child that sends me hate mail.

But I’m feeling, I’m caring, I’m healing, I’m sharing, a supportive, bonding, nurturing primary care giver. My output is down but my income is up. I take a short position on the long bond and my revenue stream has its own cash flow. I read junk mail, I eat junk food, I buy junk bonds and I watch trash sports. I’m gender specific, capital-intensive, user-friendly and lactose intolerant. I like rough sex. I like tough love. I use the “F” word in my E-mail and the software on my hard drive is hardcore, not soft porn. I bought a microwave at a mini mall I bought a mini van at a mega store. I eat fast food in the slow lane. I’m toll-free, bite-sized, ready-to-wear and I come in all sizes. A fully equipped, factory authorized, hospital tested, clinically proven, scientifically formulated medical miracle.

I’ve been pre-washed, pre-cooked, pre-heated, pre-screened, pre-approved, pre-packaged, post-dated, freeze dried, double wrapped, vacuumed packed and I have an unlimited broadband capacity. I’m a rude dude but I’m the real deal. Lean and mean. Cocked, locked and ready to rock. Rough, tough and hard to bluff. I take it slow, I go with the flow, I ride with the tide, I got glide in my stride. Driving and moving, sailing and spending, jiving and grooving, wailing and winning, I don’t snooze so I don’t lose. I keep the pedal to the metal and the rubber on the road. I party hearty and lunch time is crunch time. I’m hanging in, there ain’t no doubt, and I’m hanging tough, over and out. Thank you!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Competitive Environmentalism: Buying The Right Car

There are a lot of reasons for buying new cars. Mine are honestly motivated by lowering emissions, slowing global warming, and befouling the earth less, and I fully appreciate the pathetic irony of my position. Burning a forested park would probably be more earth-friendly. The energy and water required to find, dig and smelt the metals, run the factories, get workers to and fro, form plastics and vinyls, and assemble about 20,000 individual parts into a shiny conveyance would, I'm guessing, power and hydrate an average US residence for about a hundred years. And the aluminum, great Scott, the aluminum!

In most new automobiles, between 5 and 15 percent of their total weight is in aluminum. One time I got a private tour at the Alcoa plant in Vancouver, Washington, and learned that it used nearly half the electricity consumed by a little town across the river, the one called Portland, Oregon. The plant manager had a benign, wait-for-it smile as he let the stats he just quoted, something on the order of 500 megawatts (a small nuclear power plant's output) sink into my skull. Then as my jaw went slack and my lips started to twitch like a carp's, he told me how much freshwater was required to slake all the white heat passing through his humming facility. I don't remember the figure, but it couldn't be absorbed by the topsoil of entire counties, and he was talking about something the size of a respectable river.

Whilst I know my sins, I focus on how far I've come. Because of the ongoing, frustrating unavailability of quality plug-in hybrids, a couple of years back I decided to go biodiesel, a resolute experiment joined by an outwardly sleek Mercedes station wagon with the personality and hygiene of Lilly von Schtupp. Vehicular vaudeville is entertaining, learning experiences can be good, and fuel adaptability is a great feature in a car. But now that the best farmland in the US is under water, ethanol subsidies are sending corn feed to distilleries, and a bag of Doritos is heading to 17 bucks by November, biodiesel just isn't as consensual as it used to be.

Inside a year people will probably be yelling "Murderer!! You're burning food, asshole!" at drivers of diesel cars, self-righteous biodiesel bumper sticker on display or not, and woe be it unto us if, I dunno, there's a dog food shortage and People magazine puts pictures of starving, doe-eyed Cocker Spaniels on its cover. "Helpless Animals Are Dying because we're combusting food-oils" Then we'd really be in for it. If everyone in Darfur and Haiti dies from starvation, there'll be no backlash from that, oh no, but the potential plight of pets keeps me up at night. All it takes is one properly neglected, well-publicized mongrel, and biodiesel drivers will be dragged from their clattering, greasy vehicles, easily identified by the tell-tale smell of Chinese food, and beaten to death by mobs chanting, "That's for the puppies in Haiti! That's for the puppies in Mexico!"

No such fate for me and mine, no sir no ma'am. About six months back I began to engage in my second favorite pastime, car-buying. It's not quite as satisfying as buying new tires, true, as tire technology has greatly improved in the years since I began abrading them into steel threads--the research is quick and casual, the consequences for error less severe. With a car, it's a serious research project, and
what with my city and neighborhood, the question of environmental friendliness is keenly incumbent in an urbanscape proliferating with scooters and SmartCars. There are certain constraints, attributes to emulate, even some appearances to maintain. While the ideal Seattle pimp-mobile would be one powered by light rains, there are plenty of more accessible performance options the ladies will appreciate, and some leeway left before we start shooting each other while siphoning gas tanks.

Personally, let's face it--notwithstanding our "friendly" competition with the ruthless greenies-next-door, the biodiesel-wafting Andersons (puppy killers), Casa Lord's carbon footprint is still about as svelte as that of Akron, Ohio. We could probably heat our house on just the junk mail we throw out, so we've fixed bayonets: gasoline, in moderation, is back on the table. With that in mind, here were some vehicular considerations:

1969 Pontiac GTO, "The Judge"
Buying a 1969 GTO and slapping a "Powered By Natural Gas" bumper sticker on it would be a hoot. Powered by any kind of gas mixed with a little nitrous oxide, and it'll run the quarter mile in 12 seconds and burn rubber in all gears. We're not looking for a commuter car, so this would be bitchin,' and smacks the "Fun" category right outta the park. Of course, my memories of its weak drum brakes are unnerving. They burn into crispy
, useless asbestos vapors under moderate demands, the perfect pairing for your pants-pissing terror while Dead Man's Curve speeds like a 95-mph anvil towards your head, you're exerting 600 ft-lbs. of force on the brake pedal, and you finally have to toss into a last-chance 75-mph powerslide to scrub off speed and hope to survive. Fortunately there's lots of crush space if it doesn't roll over, and it can get above 10 miles to the gallon under perfect conditions. Fun, roomy, simple, girls still love it and it holds value well, although it's dangerous, impractical, and out of touch with the times. Mental note: great brakes are an absolute necessity.

Very cute, utilitarian, excels by getting 55 mpg and, as a bonus, is made by the people who brought you the Swatch. Compelling street cred, but only has two seats and three cylinders.
The brakes are fine, and don't really matter, since stopping quickly exponentially increases the likelihood of getting rear-ended and killed. With a wheelbase of only six feet, it can get crushed like a styrofoam egg carton between a Ford F-350 pickup and a Jeep, and the air bags won't help much with your bodily fluids squirting out through the door sills like grapefruit juice. A step forwards, but one too far. Next on the wish list: excellent crash safety.

Toyota Prius
The 2009 model year had potential, promising 85 mpg in plug-in hybrid form. The #1 search on is for the Prius, but Toyota couldn't deliver a plug-in hybrid for 2008, the mileage numbers for 2010 versions still aren't set, and snagging a mystery model by mid-2009 means ponying up six or seven grand above sticker. That combined with 96 cubic feet of non-configurable interior volume means there's about enough space for 3 passengers with their medium-sized orders of McDonald's fries, nine napkins, and 2 laptops in the battery-crowded trunk. I'm exaggerating slightly, but a vacation with a wife, one car-seat-bound kid much less two and their luggage are out.
That, and it doesn't exist yet. Hyper-mileage bragging rights, commuting godhood, and adequate brakes will, eventually, be in.

Various Micro Cars, New And Used
Small cars are to the auto industry as chicken breasts are to a fine restaurant--the chefs hate making them and the waiters hate selling them. Unless soaked in something exciting, like maybe napalm, they're the blandest, cheapest entree on the menu. Very hard to make money off chicken, which is only on the menu as a nod to desperate vegans and Pritzker patients. Basically, most micro-car design teams are given four pogo sticks, wheels, a chainsaw and a roll of wire and told to make something "better this time."
Small cars are usually conceived with indifference at best, are sold by American car companies with unconcealed revulsion, and as a driver you're expected to forgive some major oversights and annoyances in your motoring experience in return for low cost. (Btw, almost all small American cars are re-badged Suzukis, Kias, Nissans, Mazdas, or Toyotas, and that's a good thing.) Twenty-plus years ago, when Japanese cars were still actually small and had excellent mileage, they made wonderful things...but we were hoping for something not old and busted. Now they and even Koreans make excellent, luxurious, top-performing mid- and large-sized cars, but collectively they have the Enviro-Cred of The Dukes of Hazzard. "Small and good, small and good," goes the mantra.

1912 Stanley Steamer
Although it has a safe top speed of only 21 mph, it seats four, is a tidy convertible, can be stopped by any two-by-four dragged on the ground, and represents a fantastic solution to our junk mail problem. Downside: can be hard to find. Six months of Craigslist and Ebay searches didn't reveal one for sale.

Mystery Solution Car!
You've no idea, in trying to be low key, how little I've indulged my automotive OCD impulses here. But this post is already too long, and I'll report back with what we got later. Criteria were reliability, big car in small package, agility/handling, good mileage, nice looks, decent comfort and amenities. Oh, and an internet search hint: it has the highest lane-change speed ever recorded for any passenger vehicle sold in America, faster than the hottest Corvette you can buy, faster than the hottest Ferrari. And those aren't passenger vehicles.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Barack Obama's Broken Promise, Its Connection To Gay Crack-Smoking Sex, & Power To The People

The Obama campaign has gone back on its pledge to take public funding; John McCain is miffed as a mo-fo, and sharply rebuked the Illinois Senator:
"This election is about a lot of things. It's also about trust. It's about keeping your word."
Hahaa-ha-ha! I laugh like a drain! (John. Please. Stop it with writing one-liners for the Daily Show--they pay comedians to come up with this stuff at Writer's Guild rates. You're ruining livelihoods, man, taking food out of kiddie-mouths.) Umm, like we couldn't see this one coming? I tell you, after living through 30+ compressed years of fetishistic fascist fart-blasters running loose over the land, it's hard not to engage in what the namby-pamby crowd would call Schadenfreude, or joy in the pain of others. So like a good liberal, I will high-mindedly and nobly suppress evil laughs and any cackling, derisive voices threatening to part the bonds of the Good Graces. Like this one: "How ya like getting fisted, Walnuts? Take it from a Democrat, mwa-hahaha!" Uncharitable graffiti, no one knows where it came from: "Eat shit and die on your vomit, fellating corp-whore!" Or yet again: "How's it feel getting your ass whooped by a muslim-named liberal negro, McBeeyotch??"

Bear with me. I promise to get to the gay sex and coke, very soon, probably in a couple of paragraphs. I realize, almost no one actually gives a shit about campaign finance, and reading about it is like studying tetanus inoculations. It's boring, and it aches. Sure, Obama's Web 3.0, small-donor approach is a seismic tectonic event, kinda like declaring independence from King George, but it's dull-ass booooring. (Now, in my mono-maniacal voice: "You'll see. Oh, you'll all see!") In large part it's boring because both campaign finance law and practice are purposefully obscure, exist in a legal zone run on Heisenberg's Cat principles, and were written by a collaboration of John McCain's staff and his lobbyists. How does someone like me read them? By neglecting family, so you don't have to. The basics are these:
1) if you're an individual you can't give much money or buy John McCain a Patek Phillipe watch like you used to, but it's ok to lend him the indefinite use of your Ferrari, yacht, or children. You, qua you, can only give $2,300.

2) Whereas if you're a corporation, you are as Nike, an immortal being living apart from and above the rules. Simply make massive contributions to blind trust funds in off-shore tax havens in politicians' names, or set up Political Action Committees with impressive titles like Citizens Against Animal Orgies and Obscenity (CAA-OO). Then buy TV and radio air time to scare people into fetal positions.

3) If you're running for President, you can eschew direct contributions from citizens and corporations in return for a lump sum of $85 million dollars, a Door Number Three solution if there ever was one. Not bad, really, except that's only about enough for a campaign's worth of ads in the infomercial time slots and a couple of bus rides.
Political infomercials. Ha! "If you vote in the next five minutes, we will reduce your yearly income tax by $49.95 AND include not just one, but TWO repaired potholes!!" Hell, I don't even know why Haz-Mac wheezed like a militantly hypocritical old grumpy-gus; given the huge loophole in category 2 above, there's still plenty of time and corporations eligible to fund Republican Political Action Committees. There is a huge, voluptuous reservoir of anger to tap into, and they can run ads like this one:
"Hello, my name is Larry Sinclair. Barack Obama is my former lover. We mainly conducted our affair in limousines, and we usually smoked crack cocaine together before performing oral sex. On each other, numerous times. Barack now gets off presenting his white-washed version of 'Family Values' to our unsuspecting country, but in 1999, he got off with me!"
Lest you think I'm joking (which ok, I kind of am) this isn't very far-fetched. Rather, it's fetched, it's completely and wholly fetched. Larry Sinclair of Duluth, Minnesota is a concerned citizen and gay man who has been making these exact claims, as he did this Wednesday for two and a half hours on a national stage. No, really: he paid the National Press Club $3,000 to have a conference in the "Holeman Room" and a couple dozen political-beat reporters attended. I'm not suggesting a Republican conspiracy propped this perv up for later consumption in front of supermarket check-out stands, no. The country's Polar Moment of Screwed-Up Inertia is still operating at "Feral Pit Bull Humps Poodles in Westminster Dog Show" levels. Clearly, things like this can just happen on their own, and I'm barking down a different tree.

Sinclair previously posted a YouTube video which consisted of him in front of a little camera giving his Obama gay crack schtick, a capella. And then he started a blog. The vid got almost a million hits on YouTube alone, and the comments sections on any one of his blog posts might get filled with over 1,000 responses. This is blog Street Cred. (Geez. Maybe I should finally come out about my McCain affair, when he fondled me one torrid night in Tempe, Arizona.) Next, Sinclair showed up outside the DNC committee meeting on May 31st to ostensibly show support for Hillary Clinton and got some press coverage.

At this, Obama-supporting bloggers began to take more serious umbrage and scrutiny. The uber-lib Firedoglake took up a petition to bar him from holding a conference, which no one at the National Press Club dignified with a response because Firedoglake sent no cash, no wads of cash, merely generating 11,500 utterly useless signatures. However, other bloggers played investigative reporter/news outlet, and this is where it starts to get good. offered Sinclair $100,000 if he could pass a polygraph test, one which he took and failed. Others did some digging on Sinclair's past and present, finding that he has done hard time for fraud and felony forgery, has a whole shopping list of charges over 27 years of various twisted stuff, and has outstanding warrants in at least two states, Colorado and Delaware.

A couple who blog from Paris (bastards!), the Mitch and Nan Show, had been focusing on Sinclair for awhile. They even maintained a direct blog-blog correspondence, or more like what we used to call a flame-war, with Sinclair, who began threatening to hunt Mitch down and kill him every other paragraph or so. Anyhow, one of the M&N Show's readers lives in DC and tipped them off to how to get the cops to show up at the National Press Club. Using Sinclair's own blog posts about his conference Wednesday, they were able to prove his whereabouts and provide his photo to a police unit responsible for picking up fugitives. Sinclair was arrested right after his appearance, new navy-blue suit and all, hand-cuffed and carted off on a previous charge in Delaware. Having skipped bail before, his request for it was denied.

Both the campaign finance and Larry Sinclair stories are really about how the internet as we know is redistributing power as applied to political involvement in the Kentucky rifle sense of the word, and to digital journalism in the original "journal" sense of the word. It's happening right in front of our noses, so you'd think it would be obvious. It isn't. Since I've already harped enough on our shortcomings and evolutionary gaps as primates elsewhere, I won't make ontogeny recapitulate phylogeny all over again. Simply put, never having been faced with any comparable cheapness and speed of information transmission before, it's understandable we're largely missing the implications of what's going on. It's too fast. Coherent emails are really too much to expect out of humans. When McCain challenged Obama to ten "You Be Lincoln, I'll Be Douglas" (ahem)
town-hall debates, someone from the McCain campaign actually flew to Chicago, took a taxi to HQ Obama, and handed over a piece of paper with suggested locations to a campaign staffer. The paper was handed over like it was an invitation to a duel, circa 200 years ago. The staffer took it, unfolded it, sighed, and said: "You know, you could've just emailed this."

McCain is pissed because Obama has tapped into sustenance he can't get at: the taproot of something akin to a participatory democracy. Traditional, credentialed "what happened?" news reporters are pissed (or would be if they had more clue about what it means for their collective future) because they showed up at a wanted felon's press conference and patiently asked him serious questions regarding an alleged affair with Obama, not realizing he was also a former mental patient. That's forgiveable, but he had a kilt-wearing lawyer in tow, a lawyer who before the conference began explained why he had to wear a kilt--in order to accommodate his exceptionally large genitalia in comfort. (Happened.) I mean, hello: McCain can't get enough ordinary people to give him money. Two dozen D.C. political presstitutes couldn't find their inner Lois Lanes long enough to figure out they were being had by a dual-diagnoisis ex-con. The system, is it much broken yet?

For campaign finance, people who have no business whatsoever making donations to politicians, as in populist pipsqueaks like me, we'r
e fighting with huge corporations over whose asses politicians have to kiss more. In the process, even if we lose, we are redefining how laws will be written, like perhaps not by the business interests they're supposed to apply to. For what we call The Press, people who can't live without spell-check and ran away screaming from English classes are putting regular beat-downs on publicly traded reporting. Bloggers handed in their homework for free and put a criminal in jail, plucking him out from under The Press's elevated nose. Is there any telling where this might go? =)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Talk With The Enemies, Get Delusional

Foreign policy is the art of getting your enemies to do what you want them to. This normally involves praise, rewards, bribes, time-outs, aired grievances, ignored affronts, playing games of Trivial Pursuit, common amusements, and, on remarkably rare occasion, the application of logic. Much like dealing with a toddler, only scaled upwards to nations and borders. Or there's the Bush approach, which is to bomb things to smithereens, make far-ranging diabolical threats, and then lock yourself into an insane asylum.

Despite the continued "don't negotiate with terrorists" stance of the Global Oil Party (GOP), Israel struck a deal with a legitimately elected political party known as Hamas to stop bombing each other's settlements in Gaza. In return for what, it's hard to say. Maybe some peace and quiet? You can bet the inmates at Casa BushCo are shrieking in yellow-foam-specked rage and will need to self-medicate extra heavy tonight.

The truce is a pretty positive development. The US had little to do with, other than pushing for democratic elections in Gaza and then acting as if a baby Alien had gnawed its way out of the body politic's chest and then ran off hissing under the dinner table. Sheesh, those unintended consequences. No one could have imagined. In related news, after making her 22nd visit to the region, having to stay in a second-rate hotel and finding no one in authority to speak with until the pro-Palestinian State Tzipi Livni is installed as the new PM, the the word 'Condi' has been adapted to new uses:
Israeli TV announcers coined her name as a verb, meaning to go endlessly around in circles, accomplishing nothing.
In unrelated news, one-third of the state of Iowa is under flood waters which are expected to rise even further, and President George W. Bush played basketball in Ireland. Apart from impeachment, what the hell are we going to do with this imbecile and his defunct freak show circus when he leaves office?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

You Never Forget Your First Liver: Research On Umbrella Drinks & Tiki Cults

I assumed that the Blue Hawaiian, frozen pineapple juice adulterated with vodka, rum, blue curacao and a secret ingredient that makes your head go bang-bang, bang-bang the next morning as you grope desperately away from the light, was inspired by the 1961 Elvis Presley movie. Not so. One hundred and eighty degrees wrong. The drink inspired the movie, which explains much about cultural memes and perhaps the film classic itself.

(Interlude; imagined Hal Wallis conversation about Blue Hawaii, circa 1961:

"Screenplay? Plot?? What the hell are you talking about! We've got Elvis Friggin' Presley here, not Sir Laurence Olivier. Why are you trying to complicate this shit? Hire 50 of the hottest girls you can find, put 'em in bikinis, and stick the kid in a red convertible. Throw a surfboard and guitar in back and make sure you've got cameras rolling. Throw in a chase scene if you want. And get me another of those blue frozen thingies.")
The Blue Hawaiian was invented in 1957 by Harry Yee, the bartender at the Waikiki Hilton Village. A distributor for Bols, the Dutch distiller, asked Yee one day if he could figure out a way to push Curacao, a new product that wasn't selling much, the latent demand for blue liquors not having exploded yet. Yee fiddled, tested his experiments out on appreciative patrons, perfected a creation he called the Blue Hawaiian, and then fate intervened--he stuck a useless, whimsical, tiki-nomically correct little umbrella on the rim of his concoction. With that final touch, a libational category all its own was born. Umbrella Drinks. They came from Honolulu.

The saucy, prolific mixologist also came up with the majority of the world's other known tropical boat drinks, including the banana daquiri. Yee was first to use a Vanda orchid as a garnish, and made improvements on the Mai Tai recipe previously claimed by both Don the Beachcomber and Victor Bergeron of Trader Vic's fame, who fought back and forth over accreditation. He was even author of a forgotten fad drink called the Tropical Itch, which used a back-scratcher for a swizzle stick. The latter was still being made into the early 1970s, when I began observing my stepfather relieve retirees and hapless WWII vets of their benefit checks. They all knew Umbrella Drinks and the hit song, "I Want to Go Back to My Little Grass Shack." The bar kept a supply of bamboo sticks with notches carved out of one claw-like end, and they would do the job, back when people actually used back-scratchers.

Beyond fusions of fruits, ice, and alcohols, the creation of a faux Tiki Culture went hand in glove with the promotion of a remote vacation paradise.
Anyone who sees Hawaii knows it handily clears the paradise hurdle, with everything from rain forests to mountain plateaus and temperate micro-climates which vary in most areas by a mere 5 degrees year in, year out. But the trouble has always been getting here. Polynesians from the Marquesas are thought to have settled Hawaii circa 300-400 A.D, then Tahitians are rumored to have conquered the ex-Marquesans about 1000 A.D., but no one has conclusively proven either supposition. A few forts and monuments built with lava rocks are about all that endured from the early times. The king who unified all the islands in 1810, Kamehameha, is supposed to be buried about 100 yards away from where I'm typing this, near the luau site. Supposed to be. Again, no one knows.

The first white vacationers were Portugese sailors whose ship sailed close enough to take on water and vittles in 1794, providing the crew with a good look at the natives and the foods. When they got a chance, some of them jumped ship and swam for it. By 1870, one of the 86 Portugese residents of Honolulu owned a hardware store, and suggested importing workers from Madeira to bridge what had become a persistent labor shortage. Upon being claimed by Captain Cook, and vice versa, Hawaii's population was estimated to be as high as 1 million residents. 40 years later, its population had fallen courtesy of Western diseases to 88,000. Waves of immigrant field hands from Portugal, China, Japan, and the Phillipines rolled in, with increasing numbers of white residents becoming familiars through the military base at Pearl Harbor. By the 1950s, visitors still faced either a long sea voyage or an expensive, dangerous multiple-hop journey in prop-driven aircraft.

Then came the passenger jet age and accessibility. In 1957, there were still only about 100,000 visitors to Hawaii every year, almost all of them to Waikiki. Now there are 7 million per year, nearly 6 times as many tourists as permanent residents, and every nook and cranny, every reef, every harbor grill and seafood bar is explored. It is my sacred tourist duty to harass sea turtles. Tiki and umbrella drinks amplify what the volcanic islands already have going for them, and the batik patterns, mugs carved out of wood, the coconut jewelry all seem to fit. Even the natives buy into tiki. Faux or no, Yee and his paradise-pushing contemporaries did something right on more than one plane, and coincidence or not, a Blue Hawaiian is the exact hue and shade of the waters here when they're close to a sandy beach.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

I Have To Be Leaving But I Won't Let That Come Between Us, OK?

If you couldn't tell, I was a little trunky today. We're flying to Hawaii tomorrow morning, and we'll be there for a week, gone to the west side of the Big Island for Kona Time, where Jimmy Buffett never dies. It will be sleepy-time for the blog unless I take over the internet cafe at the Hilton like the doomed lovers in Dog Day Afternoon.

Hawaii isn't just the 50th state--it's an alternate reality. It was one which came upon me steadily, going through Oahu plenty on layovers to and from Asia. That airport kisses you with sultry breezes and shelters you with its palms. You know it's a special place of welcome but you're scared like a virgin in front of an unflappable pro, bashful and stand-offish. You've got your ticket, the schedule is almighty and you've got to go, and as a transit passenger you won't get sucked into the essential vortices of those volcanic islands. Still you know that once you venture out it's like stepping off a cliff and jumping into a cultural whirlpool; in the turbulence and undertows there are big forces you don't understand, your arguments are tossed and aged by waves.

The first time ever I left the airport in Oahu, I was taken on a shopping trip to a Sam's Club near the Rainbows football stadium across from the University of Honolulu. In the electronics section where they had all the TVs, families had the Little Mermaid playing on 20 or 30 synchronous big screens, dads and moms had lawn chairs set up and at least 50 kids were munching on buttered popcorn from plastic bags that were 3 feet high. It was about 2PM local time. I saw it and started laughing, then doubled over and clutched a stack of Izod sport shirts for dear life, coughing like a tuberculitic clerk for a cure.

"What? Are you ok? Are you alright?" Can I get you something," asked my gracious transplanted haoli host. I pointed over to the electronics section, to the most hilarious thing my productive eyes had ever seen. But he had been there too long, he didn't get why I was laughing. It was part of the landscape. "Oh, that. They're just watching movies, and they're always there."

From then on, from the check-out line going back to the car, I was on Hawaii time, and part of me has been ever since. Improbably I met the people who knew Brudda Iz, who had already died when I was there, and this is what he sang:
For all I've been blessed with in my life
there was an emptiness in me.
I was imprisoned by the power of gold,
with one kind touch you set me free.

Let the world stop turning, let the sun stop burning;
let them tell me love's not worth going through.
If it all falls apart, I will know deep in my heart
the only dream that mattered had come true:

In this life, I was loved by you.
In this life, I was loved by you!

Obama's Affair With Scarlett Johansson

So, it seems that 23-year old actress Scarlett Johansson, that's her smile in the intro to 'Lost in Translation,' is ga-ga over Barack Obama. She was in the 'Yes We Can' video done by rapper in the ancient history of 8 months ago when the man started going all viral on us, and has been an ardent supporter for years. If you don't know Johansson, she's only the most gifted, influential, and least obnoxious female actor of her generation, the one that's 23 years old.

Scarlett and other tinseltowners like Jessica Alba go to private parties in homes and restaurants to raise money for the Obama campaign. The Johannson-Alba Doctrine is, I think, a more viable strategy than the McCain approach, which is to dress Dick Van Patten in drag and have him croon 'Happy Birthday Mr. President' in Holiday Inn banquet rooms. But I'm here to tell you, let's get it out of the way right now, Barack Obama is headed for trouble with this young woman. From Politico:
Johansson is somewhat shocked that he keeps up their back-and-forth correspondence. “You’d imagine that someone like the senator who is constantly traveling and constantly — how can he return these’ personal e-mails?” she asks. “But he does, and in his off-time I know he also calls people who have donated the minimum to thank them. Nobody sees it, nobody talks about it, but it’s incredible.” She adds, “I feel like I’m supporting someone, and having a personal dialogue with them, and it’s amazing.””
Um, Scarlett, I think he can squeeze in some time for you. Oh, and that thing about calling the minimum donors? That's just to impress you. So there's only one important question left for next year: will it be in the Command Bunker, or the Lincoln Bedroom? And, I suppose it should be asked, what will America say? Seriously, I've started the "Infidelity Meme Clock" on the Obama campaign, and it is currently on Day 7 without major incident. The Pugs will, I repeat will, attack on this vector with anything they can get or make up. If they attack with Miss Scarlett, however, they'll be sadly mistaken. There may be moments of panic and a general hue and cry, but Obama could take her up in the Statue of Liberty with pillows and blankies, then later claim to have been looking at the New Jersey shore for two whole days and it would be fine.

If you recall, America was perfectly non-plussed when Bill Clinton disappeared all night with Sharon Stone in the White House. In fact, it was so alright you probably didn't even hear about it. In all likelihood, it happened, and no one cared. And the recent allegations of a Clenis tryst with 'Showgirls' actress Gina Gershon were greeted with collectively approving, philosophical shrugs. Except of course by Gershon herself, who hired a lawyer and said, "That is so

There's a dynamic at play here which needs voicing. Nobody gets too upset when a President, or tacky ex-President, discreetly abuses the power of office to spread democracy amongst beautiful members of the opposite sex. Otherwise, as almost everybody but the nuns thinks (and they're a whole lot savvier than they let on), what's the point? No, Americans only get upset when Presidents exercise bad judgment, poor taste, or both, or when the bounds of hypocrisy are bulldozed flat repeatedly.

So it's not a free pass.
The old political adage, 'Caught with a live boy or a dead girl' continues to remain in force, unless you're Dick Cheney of course. If you are gay and claim to be straight, or straight and claim to be gay (I'm sorry, it happens, I've seen it), you are fair game for pretty much any unfortunate circumstance and have brought it on yourself. Used properly, power is really more like a promotional code, or frequent-flyer miles. Strict fidelity is preferable and ideal, and hopefully Obama is wired that way. But let's be realistic. At some point, looking ahead, the Infidelity Thing is probably going to come up, if not with Scarlett then with anybody from Katherine Heigl on up to Jane Fonda.

Hanky-panky in the Oval Office with an adoring underage intern who has a disturbing resemblance to your mother is not OK. It's sleazy, weird, and offensive. But put an adoring Hollywood starlet into the same situation and it becomes quite understandable, perhaps even a healthy reaction to the stress of geopolitics. Whereas cavorting in your limo with an unattractive, cocaine-addicted professional stripper is not OK; it demeans the dignity of the office and raises all sorts of bad questions. Having Marilyn Monroe sing to you on your birthday? That's fine, it's wonderful, even if it means she'll be killed for it. Singers, models, and rap stars are becoming a gray area, but prudence still dictates steering clear. B-list celebrities on their way down, bad actors, foreign policy gurus, people known to gossip and Chinese spies, all big no-nos. Discretion is a good watchword, but above all in America, it's more about good taste.

Robert Frost's Beer-Filled Nauseous Wood
More than two dozen teens,
vandals who hosted a kegger
in Robert Frost's old house,
were ordered to take a class on his poetry.

Two roads diverged in a tedious wood.
"This is where Frost is relevant,"
said Jay Parini, his biographer,
rehearsing What Should Not Be Taken.

"You come to a path in the woods
where you can say, 'Shall I go to this party
and get drunk out of my mind?'
Everything in life is choices."
(Adapted from a CNN story. Teenagers broke into Robert Frost's former house and had a party, which turned destructive as the crowd swelled past 50.
Though dead, it was easily the biggest, most rollicking party Frost had ever hosted at his home. Chairs were kindled and burned in the fireplace, windows were broken out, fire extinguishers decanted, much vomit and urine emitted. In fact, how about this as a best-seller: The Underage Drunken Vandals Guide to Historic Homes in New England. )

Obama Perfects Looking-Off-Into-Future Pose

Subtle muscular adjustments can show, from left above, wistfulness, determination, and unbridled hopefulness.
CHICAGO—As the 2008 presidential election draws closer, Democrat Barack Obama has reportedly been working tirelessly with his top political strategists to perfect his looking-off-into-the-future pose, which many believe is vital to the success of the Illinois senator's campaign.

When performed correctly, the pose involves Obama standing upright with his back arched and his chest thrust out, his shoulders positioned 1.3 feet apart and opened slightly at a 14-degree angle, and his eyes transfixed on a predetermined point between 500 and 600 yards away. Advisers say this creates the illusion that Obama is looking forward to a bright future, while the downturned corners of his lips indicate that he acknowledges the problems of the present.

"The senator spends six hours a day gazing resolutely off into the distance," said chief political strategist David Axelrod, who regularly analyzes video of the pose with Obama, pinpoints areas that need improvement, and makes necessary tweaks.

"It is critical to get every detail right," Axelrod continued. "If he looks up an inch too high, he appears aloof or confused. If he looks down too low, it appears that he is distracted by something in the back of the auditorium. If the curvature of his upper lip is not at the exact 0.87-centimeter radius, it reads that he does not care about preserving the environment for future generations."

The pose also requires Obama to arch his eyebrows at 32-degree angles, open his mouth to prevent the misconception that he is frowning about the future, and briefly flare his nostrils to convey faith in the nation's children.

He must then clench his jaw with sufficient force to express strength and decisiveness—if he uses too much force, Axelrod said, his supraorbital forehead vein becomes visible and makes it appear as though he is in physical pain.

"Every millimeter of that head vein costs him 150,000 votes," Axelrod said.

To complete the pose, Obama must then open his eyes at an aperture of 1.43 centimeters, tilt his chin slightly upward, and rotate his head 37 degrees to the left. His advisers stressed that he must always look to the left.

"When you look to the future, you look to the left," Axelrod said. "Looking to the right is an I-am-sorry-for-the-mistakes-I've-made-in-the-past-but-promise-to-work-my-hardest-for- this-great-nation-from-now-on pose. It's too early for that."

The biggest obstacle Obama has had to overcome in recent weeks is his proclivity to squint while looking toward the future, which aides say alienates voters.

"We've worked on the squinting," said Obama adviser Sam Hosking, who claimed it was a "death knell" for a candidate to appear to be struggling to see the nation's future. "It took a lot of work, but we were able to turn the squint into a solemn blink."

"The blink humanizes him," Hosking added. "But you have to be careful. Two blinks and people will start to question if he's a man of his word."
(There's even more at The Onion, the newspaper that made Madison famous.)

Monday, June 09, 2008

Obama Talks To His Chicago Staff

Normally I figure that readers who come here visit the big political blogs and see more or less the same stuff I do, if not more. But in case, just in case you didn't see this YouTube footage of Obama talking to the staffers at his Chicago headquarters after winning the Democratic nomination, it's worth repeating here.

I'm putting it up for viewing (despite being 13 minutes long) because I know that leaders matter more than systems. What gets focused on, what gets followed up on, what gets decided on and what gets done are the province of leadership, and those are all inseparable functions of the beliefs, the prejudices, and the desires of a real person. It goes right down to how their neurons fired, and how their mothers held them when they were a child.

The video provides a different view into a campaign and a politician, one from the backside. It looks soft-spoken, calm, determined, powerful, respectful, and purposeful. Whether Barack Obama is genuine or not is for you to decide, but he's displaying exceptional leadership in the clip, laying out what he expects in the coming months both from the Republicans and from his own people. You get to see why, maybe, things have worked out the way they have so far. Let's hope it's a little taste of better things to come.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Brother, Can You Spare A Euro?

From the Forbes article, Treasury Department official says the US is not in a recession:
“I don’t think we’re in a recession and the data suggests that we’re not,” Treasury Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy Phillip Swagel said in a press briefing today.
Let's see here, oil hit $138, a gallon of gas is $4.50 at the beginning of summer, teen-age unemployment hasn’t been this bad since my grandmother was a teenager in the Depression, housing prices fell faster this year than ever before and it's just starting, foreclosures set another record, 3.5% of “prime” mortgages are heading into default, and the dollar is worth a passing "Leckt mein Arsch" (lick my ass) in German. The Dow fell 2.5% in the time it took to brew a freaking cup of tea Friday morning, the NASDAQ and S&P 500 foundered like broached dinghies, and unemployment, such as it is measured in this godforsaken echo chamber, shot up the most since 1985.

Whooo-weee, Mr. Swagel, you got it goin' on, brother. Pass that bottle, baby, you gotta share some of that good stuff! Don't you be stingy now, because every day is a party!

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Iraq's Quick, Dirty, Happy Ending

Under what will be known as the Obama Doctrine starting in 2009, the U.S. will seek to withdraw all its troops from Iraq in 16 months, the speediest exit military experts think it can be achieved. Various factors will make this withdrawal's timing less relevant than its context, its extent far more dependent on matters outside Presidential control. This is good, because unilateral voluntary withdrawal would invite a great deal of resistance, denial, and wheel-spinning. Predictions are arrogant, foolhardy, and as the professional futilitarians so often prove, ineluctably wrong. Therefore, I'm going to tell exactly what's going to happen in Iraq in 2009. In short, the Iraqis are going to make it simple for us.

Currently, Bush Doctrine jockeys are holding $50 billion in accrued oil revenues hostage from Iraq's Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki. He wants the money, but to get it he has to promise US rights to permanent bases in his country. Three problems: he doesn't have the votes, he doesn't have the country, and if he signs the deal on his own authority, he won't have lungs. He is now in a position where Iraqi power brokers will tell him what to do, and by extension, they will also determine what a US withdrawal will look like.

To recap, Iraq was a secular nation made up of three main ethno-religious groups in descending numerical order: Shi'a Persians, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds. While there is considerable complexity and strife going on within each of those labels, the geographic separation and cohesion of these basic groups has become much sharper over the past 5 years as upwards of 30% of the total population either relocated or fled the country entirely, and the unspooling "blood borders" dynamic has made the guesswork much simpler.

A basic question is, why bother continuing to have an Iraq? There are all sorts of reasons against it, and only a few big reasons for it. While the Kurds and Sunnis would love to have separate states of their own, but they also realize these would quickly be overpowered; Moqtada al-Sadr and al-Sistani, the most important Shia leaders, both want a unified Iraq; and finally, Iran does not want to inherit or administer a "Shia rump," not even with its oil, greatly preferring a car-bomb free existence and a stable neighbor to the south. (The Saudis? Screwed.) All the stakeholders come out ahead by forging a stable country, whether as a federation, a coalition of self-administered states, or the present parliament. The system is secondary to the agreement, upon which rests the logic of continuing as a single nation.

Sadr and Sistani realize the quickest way to achieve a stability which favors them is to get the Americans out. Thence, they're insisting the deal for American bases be decided by referendum, which will overwhelmingly reject it. This rejection will leave a political power vacuum, which Sistani will happily let Sadr fill; Sistani simply wants Najaf to return to its rightful place as spiritual center of the Shia world. As for the Sunnis, they remember the solidarity and aid Sadr showed to Fallujah, his general history of restraint, and far prefer him over Maliki; the Iranians have seen his effectiveness, approve his co-existential nationalism, and have extended him protection. The Kurds will grouchily join and give up much of Kirkuk's oil in return for continuing autonomy and protection against Turkey, something the US no longer even pretends to offer.

Obama Doctrine or no, Iraq is going to demand that the US leave, and it can readily obtain the means of enforcement. After the coming referendum, the Prime Minister's job is his anytime he wants it, and his first act would be to draft a resolution calling for American withdrawal. As soon as American troops start leaving, the violence will plummet. Maliki will decamp with his pieds-noirs for the quiet life in Provence. Obama will fork over the $50 billion in return for soft-power access and influence, knowing that long-term bases are more than not needed, they're the biggest problem.

And then, of course, we'll hear every dubious neo-twit flathead shout with glee clear down into the grave, "You see? We were right all along, it worked just like we said! You said we were wrong, you insulted us, but it was you, it was you who was wrong. And we were right!!" If you ever find yourself within arm's reach of a neocon, a short, sharp, two-knuckled punch into the solar plexus will serve quite nicely.

Saturday Sadism: John McCain's Off-Brand Speech

This blog has been horribly remiss in sadistic pillories of late, and we can now kick John McCain while he's down after the universal pummeling he took from the punditry in the wake of his Tuesday night debacle. Late to the party again! Still, things have been far too positive around here lately, the blog is turning into Pollyanna-land. Time for the gratuitous, time for a few vaudevillian slaperoos.

My mom flew in Tuesday night and her flight was late, so I orbited around the airport listening to McCain's arresting speech in New Orleans. It was a fascinating, disphonic, disconnected thing which started taking on a gruesome life of its own, and it moved me to think, "Sweet shotguns of Barry Goldwater! There is no joy in Pugville. Things are worse there than anybody knows, and I've got to watch this shit on video."

I did, and it was mesmerizingly bad. How can I describe how bad? First the symbolic venue: so, if you were a Republican candidate for President, would New Orleans be the setting you would choose to bemoan the evils of big government? Maybe if you're David Duke. The visual exposition: white-white man, green-green backdrop. McCain: the organic candidate. Right. He looked about as comfortable as ice cream in a deep fryer. The message: weird talking points which couldn't decide whether to push security or disaster capitalism (one example: "we should be able to deliver bottled hot water to dehydrated babies" WTF??). The delivery: sucked. McCain was like a punch-drunk old fighter shuffling back towards the ropes, gesturing with his gloves and saying, "Punch me, c'mon ya puppy!" At one point, slowly winding up for one of his jabs, he actually closed his eyes and grit his teeth, his smile shifting into a grimace-rictus.

If you want to cheer yourself up with visual evidence of how bad-off the Republican Party is right now, watch the video. The camera pans back at one point only to show that he's addressing maybe 70 supporters, most of them his VP candidates and their families. McCain himself exudes tragedy and paradox. He reminded me of the pained, self-hating Watto, the Star Wars character bound by tradition and overcome with greed. His few objectionably surviving scruples twitch and rebel, pricking through the armor of a career of flip-flopping, through the desensitization of decades in Congress, clear up through the tranquilizer his eyes say he took. His delivery was so pathetic it was endearing. Somewhere, there's a good man under all that pain who is killing himself.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Lobbyists Bounced Out Of The Party

Barack Obama is keeping Howard Dean on as DNC Chair, no surprise there. The shocker is that two days after getting control of the party, he directed the DNC to no longer accept lobbyist or political action committee (PAC) contributions. I'm not sure how the pundits are processing this yet, but it's a 9.0 on the political Richter scale, an extremely low-probability, high-impact event. It's easily the biggest shake-up in American politics since the New Deal, and isn't even comparable. It's revolutionary, and if it can be sustained will fundamentally change the steering mechanisms of the United States.

Some implications:
1) Barack Obama has personally changed the framework of American politics
Accomplished in one fell swoop. He's betting that small contributions like the ones gotten from his 2 million financial supporters will grow even larger, and sustain the central party over time. This makes politicians answer to small donors, not corporations or specialized interests.

2) It will expose McCain's massive corporate support
McCain is planning on taking $85 million in public funding, and then going to the RNC to make up what will likely be a $200+ million gap between now and November. The RNC gets almost all its funding from PACs and corporations; McCain has no choice but to take their money, a fact Obama can hammer home to win over the "working man and woman" vote.

3) What if enough people don't donate to the DNC?
As with any bold approach, there are risks. The Mighty Wurlitzer a/k/a Republican Attack Machine may react very quickly by accusing the DNC of milking people dry, squandering their hard-earned cash, etc. My bet is that won't happen for months and can be easily warded off by pointing to the benefits of answering to individual contributors over corporations. Still, this does represent an impressive, perhaps even amazing amount of faith in the American people.

4) Corporations hate this
And they're vengeful, hoard-guarding creatures. Imagine if you're a lobbyist; this is the fear that tingles on down spines and spreads around sphincters. The problem isn't so much losing traction with the Democrats, who have only been getting roughly 15% of the total lobbying largesse in the wake of the late 90's K Street Project, which traded regular corporate bribes for votes. It's that the Republicans, at some point, will be forced to follow suit. Until they do, the elephants are up a tree.
As a final reveal, all Obama's fund-raising events will (unlike McCain's) be open to the media. Wow. Transparency. No secret money in the back pocket, no new Rolex slipped in the front. No matter what happens, my family's financial support of the Obama campaign and that of nearly 2 million other individuals is vindicated. The New Kind of Politics is for real, powered by people, no apologies. I just wish that Obama hadn't done it quite yet--this is war, and he's betting his life against corporations.

My reticence is gone. So is the old Democratic Party. I would urge you to give a small donation to the DNC today, so regardless what happens from here on out, you can say you were part of a great change.

Got Treason?

Senate intelligence committee's Phase II report on pre-war Iraq is finally out. No news for the cognoscenti, but at least the little Dutch boys are running like hell from the dike. The cowardly little twerps. TPM has the specifics:

Phase II
You can find the reports here:

"Report on Whether Public Statements Regarding Iraq by U.S. Government officials Were Substantiated by Intelligence Information"

"Report on Intelligence Activities Relating to Iraq Conducted by the Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group and the Office of Special Plans Within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy"

Here are the key points from the reports, according to a press release from Sen. Jay Rockefeller's office:

--Statements and implications by the President and Secretary of State suggesting that Iraq and al-Qa'ida had a partnership, or that Iraq had provided al-Qa'ida with weapons training, were not substantiated by the intelligence.

--Statements by the President and the Vice President indicating that Saddam Hussein was prepared to give weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups for attacks against the United States were contradicted by available intelligence information.

--Statements by President Bush and Vice President Cheney regarding the postwar situation in Iraq, in terms of the political, security, and economic, did not reflect the concerns and uncertainties expressed in the intelligence products.

--Statements by the President and Vice President prior to the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate regarding Iraq's chemical weapons production capability and activities [b]did not reflect the intelligence community's uncertainties[/b] as to whether such production was ongoing.

--The Secretary of Defense's statement that the Iraqi government operated underground WMD facilities that were not vulnerable to conventional airstrikes because they were underground and deeply buried was not substantiated by available intelligence information.

--The Intelligence Community did not confirm that Muhammad Atta met an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague in 2001 as the Vice President repeatedly claimed.