Archive for the ‘Politics 2006’ Category

The Thinker

Bless her father for she has sinned

Way back in the 1960s and early 1970s, Sister Monica was principle and eighth grade teacher at my parochial elementary school in upstate New York. When I first knew her, she almost looked like a Talibani woman. Like all the sisters, she wore ankle-length black dresses, black shoes with black hose, a belt with beads and a crucifix on one end, and a habit so severe that you could not see a hair on her head other than on her eyebrows. After Vatican II, they literally had a change of habit, which got considerably smaller to the point where we could make out actual hair. Today, even modest habits are history. I doubt there is any way I could tell a Sister of St. Joseph from any other woman on the street.

Sister Monica had to deal with two hundred or so of us pupils who suffered from the sin of being, well, children. Yes, amazingly we had not mastered adult skills such as not squirming in our seats or talking in class. Sister Monica would permit none of these childish things. From our uniforms (pressed black pants, white shirts and a green tie for the boys, and really ugly plaid green dresses with a white blouse for the girls), the idea was to extinguish all signs of difference. Sitting in our squat and tiny desks, we looked like budding Catholic Dilberts destined to spend our lives in cubicles, which way back then had not yet been invented. Sister Monica took it as her personal mission to obliterate all signs of personality from us. She had two hundred plus students to deal with, dammit (not that she would swear). We were but sausages in her grinder. She had to turn us into good little Catholic sausages, educated but obedient. We were destined to be interchangeable gears for the betterment of society but far more importantly, good, dutiful and faithful Catholics. We were to be the type who went to mass every Sunday and never miss a Holy Day of Obligation.

In short, in Sister Monica’s universe there was virtually no room for either tolerance or deviation. Absolute conformity and obedience were required. Silence was required during class. If you had a question, of course, you first had to raise your hand and be allowed to speak. Being children, we tended to tune out a lot of her teaching. We fidgeted. We spent inordinate amounts of time sneaking peaks out the window, doodling, watching the clock and waiting for the liberation of recess or the final bell. If our attention ever wavered, she would call out to us in her sharp raspy voice. Her long, wooden pointer with its rubber tip was her constant companion. She would smack it down loudly on your desk to get your attention. We were there to learn and generally, that meant a lot of lecture, rote memorization and few questions.

It is hard for me to give Sister Monica her due, but I will try. In fact, she was a pretty good teacher in that it was hard to leave her class without having learned the material. I remember her primarily as my math teacher. By the end of the eighth grade, we were already doing algebra. Homework certainly was turned in on time and was promptly graded. Since she was so vigilant about students looking out the window most of us realized we had best pay attention. Moreover, Sister Monica liked having an audience. Her pointy stick was one way that she expressed her personality since with all that black garb on, there wasn’t much else of her to see.

Back in the 1960s, and in particular, in parochial schools, someone like Sister Monica had near absolute and unchecked authority. The only liberal aspect of Sister Monica that I can recall was that she was liberal at meting out punishment. I am sure a class full of elementary school children could be a handful. It was not natural for us to stifle ourselves or give the teacher our full attention.

A teacher certainly has the right to maintain order in the class. Sister Monica though was a big believer in spare the rod and spoil the child, and it was hard to find any infraction too trivial for her justice. Her preferred instruments for meting out punishment were two yardsticks held together. Her preferred location for executing sentence was her desk at the front of the class. Her instructions were simple: “Form a right angle.” There in front of the class the recalcitrant student (in my memory, always a boy) would receive a dozen or so sharp whacks with her doubled yardstick, sometime but not always inducing tears, but often involving a lot of wincing. If it was painful to endure it was perhaps more painful to repeatedly witness. Publicly meting out punishment also had a deterrent effect. I cannot recall ever being at the end of her yardstick. Yet for every student who endured her yardsticks, it was as if I could feel their pain. It made me angry but of course there was no way to express it. My own mother was much like Sister Monica, so I would find no sympathy at home.

Many of us got worse than Sister Monica at home. This was an age when, if your father beat your bums and back black and blue with his belt, child welfare workers (to the extent they existed) would generally look the other way; he was your father, after all, and society assumed he knew best. Perhaps some of the frequent victims of her yardstick grew inured, since many of them were repeat offenders. Yelling in the halls or in class, repeatedly looking out the window and arriving in class sweaty from running around too much during recess were typical violations that required swift justice.

As a child, I found her behavior hard to reconcile. While it was consistent with what I saw outside of the school, it seemed cruel and vindictive. Yet, the faith I was given told me we should look at clerics like Sister Monica with respect, if not something bordering on adoration. By contemporary standards, she would be fired on the first incident with the yardstick. Today, civil suits seeking damages for physical and emotional abuse might even succeed. Once in high school, when our bus rolled past our elementary school I found that I had to deliberately look away. It was thirty years before I found both the time the courage to examine my old haunt of a school. A haunt it remains to me, although the school has long been vacant.

As for Sister Monica, I assumed she had gone to her reward, or was close to going there. I did not think she was web savvy. I did not think I could find her, but last week filled with mild curiosity I left an inquiry on her order’s website. To my surprise, they provided me with Sister Monica’s email address! She is still affiliated with her order but is now semi-retired. I inferred her last name from her email address and Googled her. Google pointed me to a fairly recent online article where she is featured. There in glorious color on the World Wide Web was the now habit-less Sister Monica, much aged of course, heavier, but with much the feisty look that I recalled.

From reading about her online, I got the feeling she has mellowed quite a bit. She held the job of principal in a number of other parochial schools, helped developed curriculum for her diocese, and was involved in at least some charitable work running a food donation center. There are likely many layers to Sister Monica and perhaps I saw her least Christ-like layer.

Although I do not plan to email her, I do fantasize from time to time on what I might say to her. I would ask if she felt bad about the way she treated us. My suspicion is that she would say no. I would suggest to her that she should repent by asking forgiveness from those she hurt, including me. She would probably say these sorts of sins, if they occurred at all, are easily absolved in the Sacrament of Confession. I would reply that there are two types of forgiveness. God can forgive some sins but those against other people can only be forgiven by those who were hurt. If she were to ask my forgiveness, I would grant it. It might heal her soul, presuming it is troubled, which I doubt. Moreover, it may help me put these sad past events forever under the mattress.

Unquestionably, they affected me profoundly as a child and still somewhat as an adult. She likely affected hundreds of other students of hers over the years, and most I suspect have few charitable memories. I am no longer a Catholic for many reasons, but in part because I could not as an adult be a member of a religion that would look the other way while people like her abused so many children. I worked hard to be firm but tolerant parent, never raising a hand to my daughter and trying, but not always exceeding, to never to throw a deprecating remark her way.

Today virtually all schools, except in a few Southern states, are free of faculty-induced violence. This is particularly true of parochial schools, although in numbers they are today a small fraction of what they were in their heyday. This may be in part because Sister Monica was one of many sisters, as unfortunately there were many Catholic priests, who crossed the lines. I doubt her behavior gave her any qualms. She was probably instructed by her clerics to mete out corporal punishment. She may have witnessed it herself had she spent her childhood in parochial schools. It may have seen as natural as eating and breathing.

In the grand scheme of things, these sins were probably of the venial variety. No one died. Many bottoms may have gotten a bit red, but only temporarily. Sister Monica might have induced a blister or two, but she also succeeded in making us learn. As best I can tell none of my classmates grew up to be axe murderers. Still with me, my friend Tom who was also there and I am sure many others, she did leave scars, scars that do not always completely heal even so many decades later.

I imagine someday the pendulum will swing back and teachers may be empowered to mete out punishment again. I can only hope that if this happens, future parochial school teachers will retain nonviolent ways to discipline their pupils. Given the certainty of Catholicism about so many things, I am not entirely convinced those days are gone forever. Absolute power allows these transgressions to occur, and at the very least in Sister Monica’s case, the Catholic Church watched askance.

 
The Thinker

Review: Love Actually (2003)

Back in March, I reviewed the odd 2006 film Once. Once was a one of a kind relationship movie, hard to describe, but easy to enjoy. If it had a defect it was that it felt too real. It was a film full of non-actors acting like non-actors. Filming what feels like real life rarely works in the cinema. At times, Once came perilously close to feeling like a home movie. Yet somehow, it worked.

Love Actually feels at times too much like a three ring circus to work. There is no central plot, just a central theme: in our crazy world, deep, passionate, engaging and meaningful love is everywhere. However, it is so commonplace that we mostly tune it out. It both begins and concludes in London’s Heathrow Airport around the holiday season. Heathrow is where a chain of interlocking multiple love stories intersect at one particular time and place. Each love story is unique and most are engaging.

Alan Rickman plays Harry, who is as close as the movie comes to having a central character. He is a magazine owner and is dutifully but not excitedly married to Karen (Emma Thompson). He is tempted to stray because his secretary Mia (Heike Makatsch) is younger, much shapelier and is doing everything short of a Monica Lewinski act to show his interest in him. His wife just happens to be the sister to the new British Prime Minister David (Hugh Grant). Settling in to his Downing Street digs, the strangely unmarried David finds himself attracted to his caterer Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), and gets protective after the visiting President of the United States (played by Billy Bob Thorton) tries to stick his tongue down her throat. Natalie lives in a part of London that she warns the Prime Minister is “a bit dodgy”.

Karen is also a good friend of Daniel (Liam Neeson), who is just beginning to mourn his wife’s death from cancer. Daniel is too busy grieving to ponder another love life for himself. Rather than being in mourning his ten-year-old stepson find himself instead desperately in love with an American classmate. They have not even reached puberty. How could it be love? Yet the boy’s feelings are sincere. She is close to departing his life forever to return to America. Yet she does not even know he exists. Karen is also friends with Jamie, whose wife humiliated him by leaving him for his brother. Jamie finds it necessary to go to France to escape and try to work on his novel. While there, he is fussed over by Aurelia, a Portuguese housekeeper. She cannot speak a word of English. They soon find that they love each other, but they have no way to put it into words.

Also in Harry’s office is Sarah (Laura Linney) who for years has had a mutual crush on Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). Neither found the courage to express their feelings until they finally dance at their company Christmas Party. Unfortunately, Sarah is also the sole guardian of her psychotic brother, who lives in an institution, periodically tries to hurt people, and who calls her on her cell phone any hour of the day or night to talk to her. She lets him control her life and in the process finds that the dutiful love she feels for her brother means she cannot have the romantic love she craves.

There is also Juliette (Keira Knightley) who just married Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor). However, Peter’s best friend Mark (Andrew Lincoln) desperately loves her, but cannot express it, so he pretends to dislike her. In addition there is Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) a late-50s something mostly ex-pop star who sells his soul to remake one of his hits to give it a holiday theme, and loathes himself for it. Billy looks wasted, and comes across as spectacularly crass and boorish. This may be because all these years he has harbored feelings for his “fat manager” Joe (Gregor Fisher) rather than the scores of women he has bedded. Then there is Colin (Kris Marshall), the unlucky young male virgin who strikes out with all the women in Great Britain, and makes a desperate trip t

Editors note: the text for the rest of this review seems to have gone down a black hole and cannot be recovered.

 
The Thinker

Fiddling while Rome burns

It is that time of year when I start writing checks to charities. One of my favorite charities is local: So Others Might Eat. SOME is an interfaith effort in Washington D.C. that provides for the basic needs of the area’s poor and homeless. As their name suggests they spend much of their money providing them meals. They also provide clothing and health care to people who obviously cannot afford it. In addition, they work to break the cycle of poverty through services like addiction treatment and counseling, job training and affordable housing. How could Jesus not approve? “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me,” he told us. His message is clear: find grace and meaning by practicing compassion and relieving human suffering.

I am so grateful that I was never homeless nor hungry. That is not to say I do not feel some empathy for these people. I have lived from meager paycheck to paycheck. I never went hungry, but I spent a couple years on the borderline, barely able to pay my rent and eating many meals consisting of little more than rice and entrees in boil a bags, because I could afford little better. When my car died, I lived for a couple years without one. I felt like many of today’s graduates do: that I deserved more from life than what I got. Life was risky when you are 21, you have a new degree and the job market sucks. In the complex game of natural selection in which I was caught, only my relative youth was an asset.

Most religions teach us that life is sacred. The Catholic Church goes the extra mile and prohibit adherents from doing anything “unnatural” to prevent pregnancy or anything deliberate to shorten its lifespan. While life certainly seems to me to be something of a miracle, it should seem less miraculous. We humans are so good at increasing our numbers and extending our life spans that a case can be made that we live unnatural lives. We are rapidly changing our world, and not for the better. Global warming, largely due to human activity, is now an accepted fact. None of us comes with an environmental expiration date. Mother Nature does not knock on our doors and say, “Well, you’ve had your 57 years. You’ve taken as much from the planet as it can give you and sustain the rest of us, so it’s time to die.” We resist. “I am here and I am entitled to live my life as I please. I will live a long life. I will live a prosperous life. I will live a comfortable life. I will be free and I will be reckless in my happiness. I owe no debt to the earth. Go screw yourself.”

I could perhaps satisfy Mother Nature by living a simpler life. I could be like Billy Graham and live alone in a cabin in the woods. Of course, I will not. It is not just me, I tell myself. I do it for my family. I do it for the ones I love. My wife and I are about ready to send our daughter to college. The last thing I want for her is to spend her adult years washing dishes. No, I wish for her a lifestyle similar or better than mine, in a house with central heating and air conditioning, and a car, and in a job that pays well and in a field where she will find meaning and personal growth. My miserable period was rather brief, but it was miserable. I do not want her to endure anything like it because, gosh, it hurt. For similar reasons, I ache for the wretched and homeless and write checks to SOME. I want happiness for that skid row alcoholic too. I want humans to stop dying of preventable diseases or to have to endure pointless suffering. Moreover, I want all war to end, pronto! Just say no to violence, people!

And I want the Earth to be a garden of Eden again. That is, I want a pony.

When I hit that last point that is when I feel like I should go douse myself in cold water. I have castigated President Bush for his guns and butter approach to war. I have castigated Republicans for expecting low taxes and plenty of government services at the same time. Therefore, I should hold myself to my own standard. I should take less, a lot less from this world than I do. Will I do it? Not a chance.

In a sense, my selfishness, as well as the collective selfishness of all of us living a first world life, as well as the billions desperately clawing their way toward a prosperous life, is writing the extinction of our species and possibly our planet. Each of us, by making this very natural choice to move from misery toward comfort is sending a four-finger salute to future generations. We are also sending this message to the other species that inhabit our planet, and on whom we depend for our mutual survival. In addition, we are sending a message to future generations: if we can be so selflessly reckless, so should you.

After all, freedom is what America is all about. Yes, there is a price to freedom. It is not just, as the proponents of the military tell us, that freedom must be defended. Freedom comes with certain constraints. One of its natural constraints is that the more of us there are, the less free each of us can be. Hence, we end up with community associations dictating the color of paint we must use on our houses. However, it is not just population increases that make us less free. It is also how we choose to live our lives. Each person who chooses to live a prosperous life is acting like a neighbor who plays his rock music all night long at ear piercing volumes. That more of us engage in this habit does not mean we are all, either individually or as a whole, really better off.

Even Al Gore is in denial. He talks about setting the thermostat down a few degrees and replacing incandescent lights with fluorescent lights. He says we must do this to reduce our carbon footprint. Obviously, these are steps in the right direction. Nevertheless, we should not kid ourselves. Al is not planning to give up his house in the suburbs either. His air conditioner may have a higher efficiency rating than yours, but he is not going to put it out with the trash. He too will take much more from the earth than it can affordably give him. Even if we followed all his suggested practices, the earth would not be in balance. At best, we might delay our day of reckoning.

To paraphrase the philosopher Bertrand Russell, I now find myself uncomfortably awake. I know my selfish actions are counterproductive to the values I claim to espouse. I know I am a damned hypocrite. I will continue to assuage my conscience by tinkering around the edges. Those plastic yogurt cups will continue to go in the recycle bin. I expect we will replace those incandescent lights with fluorescent ones. However, I also understand that these actions do not amount to atonement, and that I will continue to live an earth-hostile life. My car may be a hybrid instead of a Hummer, but I am still a sinner. I am farting a little less than my neighbor is, but I am still stinking up the room.

Perhaps knowing that you are in denial is a prerequisite toward moving toward real penance. If so, I am just tentatively sticking my head above the herd and bleating, “This is a real problem, folks.” The herd, being a herd, does not want to hear me but they sure notice that I am trotting in step with them. I shall bleat nonetheless. Meanwhile, I will keep recycling my yogurt cups. In doing so, I do not really atone for my sins. However, for whatever it means, I do acknowledge my sins. I am sorry I am such a reckless fool, but at least I know I am a fool.

 
The Thinker

Being the Oil in the World’s Engine

Sunday’s Washington Post published this article. The author surveyed Washington policy wonks who are busy promoting the “Next Big Idea”. The next big idea, in this case, is a successful foreign policy strategy that will promote American values, make the world a more peaceful place, and by implication, leave the United States as king of the hill. This next big idea seems to assume that neoconservative philosophy has proven bankrupt so something newer and shinier is needed.

What I found interesting was the article’s underlying premise: that the United States, by pulling the right levers can actually control the future direction of the world. Apparently, we here in the United States (or at least the policy wonks inside the beltway) still see our nation as The Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz. Our modus operandi seems to be that by making sure our Oz machine blows a little more smoke and emits a little more flame that the world will acquiesce toward our will. We still believe ourselves to be what we probably were fifty years ago, but simply are not anymore: the natural, if not the only moral leader on the world stage. Despite overwhelming recent evidence to the contrary, our assumption seems to be that we are still smart and clever enough to be the world’s master architect. We think that if we make a convincing enough case other nations will nod their heads in suppliance.

Count me as one of the skeptics. Our lesson in Iraq, which I documented in previous entries like this one, is that the United States is an empire in decline and we are in denial. We reveled in the role of benign superpower when Great Britain tired of it. Great Britain tired of it because it realized that running empires over many centuries is hard work. The bigger the empire became the harder it was to manage it. Imperialism is deceptive easy and great for conquering state in the short term. Nevertheless, eventually the natives demand their independence. It became much easier for Great Britain to acknowledge the reality that its imperialist phase was over than to fruitlessly try to hold on to it. Now they are left with its trappings: a British Commonwealth, which amounts to little more than member countries putting the queen on their currency.

The American empire does not look much like the British model. While we practiced imperialism, by Great Britain’s standards it was imperialism-lite. For the most part, we channeled Teddy Roosevelt: we spoke softly and carried a big stick. We invaded countries and set up puppet regimes when necessary, but most countries understood it was in their leader’s best interest to play nice with us. We sponsored institutions like the League of Nations and later the United Nations as a means of solving the world’s problems collectively. However, since neoconservatism began to take a foothold with the election of Ronald Reagan, we have started to use the big stick more often. We have given diplomacy short shrift in favor of cowboy posse diplomacy.

Like Great Britain when its empire was overextended, we are discovering that are our stick is not as big as it was, particularly when natives in many places are acting up at the same time. It can be leveraged when we need it to be leveraged, but using it in a large way for any extended period becomes ruinously expensive. Today, the realists in government understand that our military is really only effective as a lever. Lately our hardest job has been to understand when it is appropriate to use the military as a lever. We are now rediscovering that if we use our military we need to be very confident that it will affect the ends we desire. It is either that or we must keep our expectations very modest. The biggest lesson of the Iraq debacle should be that diplomacy and occasional swats from our big stick is far cheaper and is likely to be more effective in both the short and the long term than war.

President Clinton understood the limits of American military power and made it work to our advantage. With Iraq, he used a two-prong approach. First, he used diplomacy. With the weight of the United Nations behind us, international sanctions were imposed against Iraq. When sanctions were not wholly successful, he used our military as a pressure point that contained Iraq. Consequently, we had military flights over Iraq that kept Saddam Hussein’s government out of Kurdistan. To ensure our air superiority, we also lobbed occasional bombs at Iraqi radar installations. While it did not solve the problem of Saddam Hussein, it did contain the problem. Moreover, it did it in a way that did not overtax the United States military and allowed our economy to grow. Containing Iraq cost about one billion dollars a year. Now we spend about four times as much every week in Iraq in a fruitless attempt to control the anarchy there.

In short, Bill Clinton’s model of exerting American control and influence, while certainly not ideal, was reasonably effective. With this to give some context, let me put forth my own big idea. It begins with the realization that the United States now has a much more limited ability to influence events on the world stage. It deals with the reality that our country is now overextended, both militarily and financially. In order to leverage our stick at all, strategic military withdrawals are in our future.

For example, our country has already withdrawn some troops from South Korea to support the war in Iraq. We need to get them all out, not just because we need our troops elsewhere, but because it is time to end our presence there. After fifty years, the South Koreans need to control their own destiny. Moreover, China is not going to provide military aid to turn South Korea into a godless communist state. Our role should be to facilitate peace if we can but otherwise to use Cold War tactics: if the North Koreans are stupid enough to play their nuclear card, we have to let them know unambiguously that we will respond in kind. With any sane nation these tactics would not be necessary, but clearly there is not much sanity among the North Korean leadership. Naked power seems to be all they understand.

It is also probably time to withdraw many troops from places like Japan and Germany. World War Two is now a distant memory. While these countries serve as convenient bases for deployment of our forces to extended theaters, neither Japan nor Germany is likely to be a military threat to us again. Our troops need either to be redeployed or brought home. If they are brought home, clearly our troops need to refine their skills for the next conflict. Our military is now a broken shell.

Our military needs to be rebuilt again, of course. The fighting in Iraq has serious depleted not just our regular forces, but also our equipment. We should learn some lessons from Iraq. We need more military equipment that is designed for urban warfare and policing. We need as battalions of military police on standby. In short, if we are going to occupy a country, we need to ensure we can actually keep it secure, not just blow it up. It should also now go unsaid that we need an occupation plan that passes the sniff test. We did not have one in Iraq.

My hope is that we will get out of the occupation business. If we have to do it, it should only be under the umbrella of a broad multinational effort, preferably the United Nations. To succeed and thrive in the 21st century, what we really need the most are strong alliances. The Bush Administration sees India as an emerging power and partner. A strategic alliance with India is fine, but what we really need is a pragmatic and cooperative relationship with China. It is unlikely we will get China to embrace American democracy, so we should not press the point with them. However, we should be working with them on a whole range of issues with the goal of fostering trust in the military and diplomatic spheres. We should try to avoid setting our country up for yet another ruinously expensive superpower tug of war in a few decades. Together, we can wield a force that is greater than what one nation can wield. Admittedly, this kind of relationship will not be easy. For example, China’s actions in the Horn of Africa are the result of needing a secure oil supply. It has had the effect of causing unrest in the region. It is feeding disasters like the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in Darfur. We need to foster a relationship of mutual codependence, primarily with China, but also with India. We also need to revitalize long-standing cooperation with Europe. We should emphasize humanitarian principles in all our actions.

Of course, we need to emphasize diplomacy rather than military force. It is not quite as important to have our way prevail, as it is to support a multinational consensus of the principle powers. There can be great diplomatic power in numbers. This will likely mean a new pragmatism from our president and our Department of State. The days of being unilateral are over. The nature of the 21st century is that we live in a much more crowded world where all nations will be competing for resources. Such competition is likely to inflame tensions, rather than calm them. However, if we all think globally rather than nationally, we can see that cooperation is in the interest of all. The United States needs to participate actively in this process. However, we must realize we are just one of many countries with positive ideas to bring to the table. Incessant parochialism will defeat our own interests as well as the world’s.

Over the last five years, we have learned that being stubborn and insular is counterproductive to our national security needs. It actually worsens and inflames tensions around the world. We must be cooperative to a fault. We must be the oil in the engine of the world, not its piston. This is where our true security lies.

 
The Thinker

The Price of Growth

Here in Northern Virginia, residents on its western edge are in a bit of a tizzy. These areas in Loudoun and Prince William counties, along with counties even further to the west hugging the Shenandoah Mountains, are Washington D.C.’s latest and fastest growing bedroom communities. Uppity blue-blooded towns like Middleburg, home to wineries, the well moneyed and fox hunting, who have taken the Virginia piedmont for granted are feeling the press of encroaching civilization. To their south, new bedroom communities like Gainesville are growing by leaps and bounds. For the moment, this land is relatively cheap. This means many of these pastoral areas are now sporting boxy McMansions instead of foxholes. Most of these residents take pride in their new homes and their unspoiled views. You can see the Shenandoah Mountain much more clearly from places like Warrenton and Gainesville than you can from where I live, in Fairfax County.

Along with growth of course come all the trappings of growth: strip malls, congested highways, overcrowded schools and power lines. The strip malls do not seem to bother these latest residents. No doubt, they grumble about the crowded schools. Those who commute regularly from these far-flung exurbs to Washington D.C. have to groan through nightmarish commutes that get them up long before dawn and deposit them home long after the dinner hour. However, it seems to be a price they are willing to pay for a relatively affordable home in the exurbs, the white picket fence and to not hear neighbors playing rock music at 2 a.m. In time, they expect their houses will become excellent investments, as my closer in house has become for me in the 13 years we have lived in closer-in Fairfax County. Nevertheless, there appears to be one adjustment they cannot tolerate: new fifteen story power lines courtesy of Dominion Virginia Power and Pennsylvania based Alleghany Power.

The Virginia Piedmont is without question gorgeous real estate. At least for now it consists of many miles of generally rolling hills, mostly deforested, which make a gradual incline as they approach the Shenandoah Mountains to the west. Perhaps it is the relative lack of trees in this part of Virginia that has these new residents so up in alarm. Without them, it is hard to obscure the ugliness of these new power lines set to run through their neighborhoods. Some are watching their hopes for a tidy fortune disappear with the power lines.

She bought her 100-acre Delaplane farm last year, when it was an overgrown slice of land anchored by a rundown old farmhouse just off Interstate 66. She plowed all her savings into it. To pay down her $1 million mortgage and build up her horse business, she planned to sell a five-acre chunk within a couple of years.

Then came what her neighbors have come to regard as “the black cloud.”

“I’m probably sunk by this,” said Eaton, 45, seated by the wood stove she uses to heat the farmhouse. “No one will buy that land if some ugly power line could run right over their house. I’m broken off at the knees.”

I am having a hard time summoning much sympathy for these property owners. That is not to say that I too would not be aghast if Virginia Power decided to put up fifteen story power lines in my neighborhood. However, that was never a problem. My community was settled before I bought my house. In fact, there are high voltage power lines about half a mile from my house. There is many a nice house as well as a McMansion close to these power lines too. I have not taken the time to assess their value compared to homes like mine that are further away, but I doubt those high tension power lines have affected their property values too much. At least here in Fairfax County, it is location, location, location. If you live in Fairfax County, you are within twenty miles of an incredible number of diverse and well paying jobs. Residents seem to agree: being closer to good schools and good jobs is worth the price of having a high power line as a next-door neighbor.

On the other hand, what are the people in these latest exurbs thinking? Did they think growth would not involve some messy choices? Virginia and Alleghany Power understand what is going on: these areas are growing like gangbusters. Eventually they will not be able to meet demand for electricity unless they build the infrastructure now to support these communities. Hence the need for fifteen story power lines. The only question is where to place them. For the most part, they are hoping to place them not too far from I-66, which is the major interstate heading west from Washington D.C. This seems reasonable to me. I-66 is a bit of an eyesore as an interstate anyhow. It would be hard to make things much worse by putting a power line next to it, unless, of course, you have property close to these power lines.

Most homeowners in these areas will make out very well. I expect their home values will rise steadily. The land may no longer be so pristine. They may be spending their days in new traffic jams far from the city. Nevertheless, more swatches of Virginia piedmont seemed doomed to succumb to humanity’s need for large living spaces.

While people have to live somewhere, in my mind the obscenity are not plans to put in these admittedly ugly power lines. The real obscenity is the way these pristine lands are being transformed into new oversized habitats for humanity. These newly traffic-clogged roads once ferried the likes of statesmen like Thomas Jefferson. Instead of building in closer to cities like Washington, which already have large tracks of land that could be redeveloped, we have to push out further, destroying our environment, further reducing space needed for wild animals and exacerbating global warming in the process.

I understand why these people choose to live where they live. If I were a twenty something again it would probably seem like a logical choice to me. I probably could not afford to live closer in. However, I do not think I would be so naïve as to think my choice would not be without some necessary tradeoffs. Fifteen story power lines are part of the price of growth. These NIMBYies may be upset now, particularly if their property values are affected. Nevertheless, you can bet they would be much more upset if ten years from now their house suffered regular brownouts because the supply of power could not keep up with the demand.

They should swallow their misgiving and applaud Virginia and Alleghany Power for being proactive. If they do not like it, it is not too late to sell their estates in the exurbs, and move in to some smaller and more modest estate closer in. I suspect Mother Nature would prefer it if they made that kind of choice.

 
The Thinker

Needed: a dose of reality for presidential daughters (and sons)

Those of us who watched The West Wing were treated to a fictional, yet likely accurate portrayal of the life of presidential offspring. Viewers best knew the fictional President Bartlet’s daughter Zoey. At the end of Season Four, she was kidnapped on the night of her graduation from Georgetown University. She also prominently dated Bartlet’s very African American personal aid, Charlie Young. Both of these events caused end of season cliffhangers.

From The West Wing we learn that the gilded life is not necessarily easy for presidential offspring. The Secret Service is omnipresent, making it very difficult to maintain privacy and the semblance of a personal life. There is also the ever-curious press corps, who likes to read into the president defects they detect in their offspring. Like modern day princes, these presidential sons and daughters are thrust into a role not of their choosing. Moreover, once their famous parent leaves office, they often become curiosities. Like Amy Carter, sometime they are banished to obscurity. However, if they are particularly smart, good-looking and their parents are well connected they can end up earning six figures right out of college.

Chelsea Clinton has a new job, the Associated Press reports. The 26-year-old former first daughter recently started working for Avenue Capital Group, a New York-based hedge fund that handles about $12 billion in assets.

Clinton had been working as a consultant for McKinsey & Co., the international consulting firm, since 2003, reportedly for a six-figure salary. She received her master’s degree from Oxford University after graduating from Stanford in 2001.

Federal campaign records indicate that Avenue Capital founders Marc Lasry and Sonia Gardner have donated thousands of dollars to Democratic lawmakers, including Chelsea Clinton’s mother, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as to various Democratic campaign committees. There was no word late yesterday from Avenue Capital, any of the Clintons or their reps.

Arguably, Chelsea was simply astute enough to turn the detriment of being a presidential daughter into an asset. If you Google Chelsea’s name, you will find that she has been a busy daughter in the six years since her father left office. After finishing high school at the exclusive Sidwell Friends School in Washington, she received a bachelor’s degree in history from Stanford, where she commendably graduated with highest honors. She recently received a degree in international relations from Oxford University, which her father also attended. Ironically, she now lives in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. It is just a bit north of the current residence of another presidential daughter: Barbara Pierce Bush, who lives in Greenwich Village. I have to wonder if they occasionally get together for cappuccinos at Starbucks.

Granted, the cost of living is very high in New York City. Even so, Chelsea Clinton’s six-figure salary, given that she is a 26-year-old woman with a master’s degree and is not a lawyer is virtually unheard of. Bill Clinton earned only $30,000 a year as the governor of Arkansas, and that was after spending some time as a professor at the University of Arkansas and unsuccessfully running for Congress. It does not take much to infer that Chelsea’s comfortable salary was due in large part to her parental connections. It also does not hurt that she is a very attractive woman. Presumably, she carries a premium for both her good looks and parental connections. I assume this was the reasoning behind McKinsey & Co. offering her such an inflated salary. Reports suggest she has the Clinton charisma. She may be the next generation of a future Clinton political dynasty.

Like Chelsea, President Bush’s twin daughters Jenna and Barbara are also cute and attractive. Unlike Chelsea, they never properly lived at the White House. Both were 18 when Bush was elected and just beginning college. After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, Jenna laudably spent some time teaching in public schools in the District of Columbia. Her twin sister Barbara chose to attend Yale, which her father and grandfather attended. Perhaps this was done in part to keep the Bush legacy at Yale alive for another generation.

However, both Bush daughters have had their issues with the law. Barbara and Jenna were charged with being a minor in possession of alcohol at a Mexican restaurant in May 2001. Jenna had a similar incident at an Austin bar a month earlier. In addition, The Washington Post reported in 2002 that the Bush girls were spotted (but not cited for) drinking at a Washington DC nightclub. Having spent some time recently pondering genograms, I have to wonder if the Bush twins have been channeling their father’s issues with alcohol and parental authority. Time will tell. While nominally Republican, both act more like Democrats.

Of Jack and Jackie Kennedy’s children, John Jr. became a glamorous assistant attorney in New York. He attracted a lot of press, but never became a politician. Perhaps this was because, like his father, he died young. He died in 1999 at age 39 (along with his wife and sister-in-law) when he piloted a piper cub into the Atlantic. The crash was thought to be due to his inexperience piloting aircraft. Caroline, the sole surviving child of the Kennedy marriage and now technically an orphan, is politically active in a few of her father’s causes. She is one of the founders of the Profiles in Courage Award. She is a graduate of both Harvard and the Columbia Law School. Her modest life seems a sensible response to her family’s tragic tendencies.

What is true about all these people is that it was difficult for them to encounter the real world. Chelsea Clinton probably enjoyed the most freedom, until her father ran for president. All have enjoyed both the perquisites and the detriments of being offspring to the president of the United States. Their lives were changed forever.

For me this background makes the case of Amy Carter so interesting. I have already confessed my admiration for Jimmy Carter. There was no cushy private school for Amy when the Carters were in the White House; she went to D.C. public schools. Her relatively normal entry into adulthood was perhaps assisted by the public’s general disdain for her father. The Carters were determined not to give their daughter any special favor. Amy fell into obscurity.

The last of the Carter’s three children (her two brothers were 15-20 years older, so they were adults when Carter was in office), Amy’s post White House life was frightfully ordinary. She too went to college, but to “ordinary” colleges like the Memphis College of Art and Tulane University. After her collegiate experience, she was left to fend for herself. As I recall from press reports, she worked in a bookstore to make ends meet. However, she has been politically active. She participated in various sit-ins on issues including apartheid in South Africa and the Reagan Administrations policies in Central America. She dallied on her way to the altar, not marrying until she was 29. She refused to be “given away” at her wedding, and has retained her maiden name. She is currently raising one son with her husband, and is avoiding the limelight.

I suspect over time that some of these presidential offspring will be running for higher office too. Perhaps it is in their blood, or they picked up the expectation watching their parents. I can sense thirty years from now there may be another Senator Clinton in the Senate. However, I am leery about all of these glamorous and often pampered next generation politicians running future ships of state. Our current president perhaps demonstrates that political dynasties tend to be bad ideas. Those who run the ship of state should be people grounded in real life. Arguably, because George W. Bush was not, it contributed to his singular view of the world and the disaster that now is Iraq. Iraq would have never have happened on Bill Clinton’s watch. Bill Clinton certainly came with many faults. He is also quite brilliant and has an amazingly flexible mind. I personally was thrilled at his election. Any man who took at much joy in a burger and fries from Burger King as he did could get my vote. For my money, he was grounded in the real world. He may have come from trailer park trash, but this and his intelligence gave him the insight to deal effectively with people. It may also be one of the reasons he was so despised. The same is true with Jimmy Carter. Both rose above their modest circumstances and in so doing, became very effective politicians.

So if we must have political dynasties, I am keeping one finger crossed behind my back. It is not crossed for a future Senator or President Chelsea Clinton, but instead for a future Senator or President Amy Carter. Amy’s life at least was grounded in some reality, despite being the president’s daughter. It appears that there are no coattails from her father’s term in office on which to run. However, I would rest easier with her steering the ship of state.

I bet Amy enjoys a burger with fries too.

 
The Thinker

Neoconservative Weasels

Today’s Washington Post has a lead story by reporter Peter Baker. In it, he quotes a number of prominent neoconservatives who are now openly sour on the way the Bush Administration conducted its war in Iraq. For example, Kenneth Adelman, who was part of the original Iraq War brain trust, now acknowledges that the Iraq War has turned into a debacle. “This didn’t have to be managed this bad. It’s just awful.”

Richard Perle, head of the Pentagon’s Defense Advisory Board and one of the predominant cheerleaders for the invasion now says “If I had known that the U.S. was going to essentially establish an occupation, then I’d say, ‘Let’s not do it,’ and instead find another way to target Hussein. It was a foolish thing to do.”

Joshua Muravchik, a neoconservative at the American Enterprise Institute reportedly told the Post’s Baker, “There’s a question to be sorted out: whether the war was a sound idea but very badly executed. And if that’s the case, it appears to me the person most responsible for the bad execution was Rumsfeld, and it means neocons should not get too angry at Bush about that.”

It is natural to see things clearer in hindsight. It is also natural (though shameful), if your forceful advocacy for an unnatural policy like a preemptive invasion of a foreign country goes awry, to try to salvage your own reputation. You can bet the officers on the S.S. Titanic did not want to go down with their ship and its captain either. It may be late in the voyage. There may not be much above the water than the stern of this ship, but these neoconservatives are now jumping into the lifeboat anyhow. In their mind, just because they were cheerleading this war, that does not mean they are partly responsible for it.

These same men were in a position to directly influence policies and strategies for this war. For example, they could have insisted that their support and employment was conditional upon a well thought out security strategy. However, since many of these men were raising a glass with Dick Cheney right after the invasion toasting its success, apparently they let themselves be caught up in euphoria the moment. If they had criticisms, they largely kept their lips buttoned and went with the crowd.

If they truly had misgivings prior to the war, it was their duty to speak up. If they had them but did not share them with those in authority, then they acted cowardly. If they were more concerned about their own careers and being properly positioned within the levers of power than looking out for the best interests of the country, then they did not deserve to have been entrusted with their positions in the first place. To express misgivings and cry wolf now so many years later suggests they are simply weasels.

We should not waste our time listening to anything they have to say anymore. Peter Baker should have done us all a favor by not even bothering to print their pathetic mea culpas. No more trees need to be turned into pulp so the public can learn their discredited opinions and turncoat mutterings.

Unquestionably, President Bush has ultimate responsibility for the debacle in Iraq. Nevertheless, all those who sat on the sidelines and urged him and his top cronies on are also permanently tainted. No amount of public regrets after the fact changes the fact that they were key players in an action that was cataclysmic for Iraqis, lethal to our country’s hard-earned international reputation and devolved into folly of the most egregious kind. If it were possible to impeach, convict and then send Bush to prison for this disaster, men like Aldeman, Perle and Muravchik should be doing time also in nearby adjacent cells. They should be allowed their once a week phone call home to family. Just please do not let them near a reporter!

 
The Thinker

A Dubious Passage

If you are in the transportation business, geography is rarely your friend. Due to the nature of air travel, the air freight business can somewhat ignore geography. However, even in that business the great circle routes between destinations are not always available. If you are involved in ground transportation there are mountains that must be scaled, swamps that must be bypassed, rivers that must be spanned, and traffic that will slow you down. Transportation by sea means navigating around continents, islands, wrecks and shoals. All add time and expense to their desire to move goods quickly and cheaply between two points.

For centuries, one of the biggest obstacles for transporters has been the Americas. Prior to the Panama Canal, trips to the Pacific typically involved arduous and dangerous journeys around the aptly named Cape Fear at the tip of South America. The Panama Canal cut off thousands of miles. However, if you look at a globe you will quickly see that from departure points like London, even the Panama Canal does not come close to being a direct route to the Orient. Consequently, for centuries one of the dreams of mariners has been a reliable Northwest Passage over the top of Canada, through the Arctic Ocean, and thence into the Pacific. It approximates a great circle route taken by airplanes. Such a venture by sea would save weeks and about four thousand miles of unnecessary travel.

There was, unfortunately, one small problem: the mass of arctic ice that tenaciously extended over much of the Arctic Ocean. Trying to get through that seemed about as likely to happen as the Second Coming. British mariners were among the first to try and fail to find a navigable Northwest Passage. The wrecks of many ships along Canada’s eastern and northern coasts demonstrated that such ventures were futile. Modern icebreakers are usually successful and cutting paths through the Arctic ice. However, their paths often do not remain open for long. During the summer, a few commercial ships have succeeded in claiming the Northwest Passage. However, even today such crossings are dangerous. The season is short. Icebergs and shoals along the Arctic Ocean remain very real threats. For these reasons, even after all these years, a Northwest Passage to the Orient remains too dangerous for all but a handful of shippers to try. Those that try have to do so only during a very short period of Arctic summer.

The times may be changing. Because of global warming, the Arctic ice is rapidly receding. The average temperature of the Arctic has increased five degrees Fahrenheit in just 30 years. As a result, the Arctic ice mass is quickly receding. A Northwest Passage is looking to be commercially viable at last.

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen weaves in graceful slow motion through the ice pack, advancing through the legendary Northwest Passage well after the Arctic should be iced over and shuttered to ships for the winter.

The fearsome ice is weakened and failing, sapped by climate change. Ultimately, this night’s ghostly procession through Icebreaker Channel will be the worst the ship faces on its late-season voyage. Much of the trip, crossing North America from west to east through the Northwest Passage, will be in open water, with no ice in sight.

You would think that maybe this would be a cause for alarm. However, in the world of commerce, this may be an event worth toasting.

“Shipping companies are going to think about this, and if they think it’s worth it, they are going to try it,” says the captain of the Amundsen, Cmdr. Alain Gariepy, 43. “The question is not if, but when.”

Environmentalists are, to say the least, alarmed:

Satellite imagery has shown that the Arctic ice cap is thinning and already is nearly 30 percent smaller than it was 25 years ago. In the winter of 2004-05, the Arctic’s perennial ice, which usually survives the summer, shrank by 280,000 square miles, the size of Turkey. This past August, a crack opened in the ice pack from the Russian Arctic to the North Pole, an event never seen before.

Arctic ice reflects sunlight; its absence may accelerate global warming. The intricate chemistry that occurs in the rich Arctic waters could go haywire with unaccustomed heat and sunlight. Whole species seem destined to disappear while others move northward in their place. Inuit who thrived here for millennia are finding the thin ice and changed wildlife inhospitable.

Opponents often chastise us environmentalists (not to mention Democrats). “They look at the glass as half empty, instead of half full,” they say about us. Look on the bright side of global warming: a Northwest Passage in fact would cut the costs of commercial shipping, expanding free trade and helping to lift all boats.

This is a poor turn of phrase, under the circumstances. Because all that melting ice will definitely lift all boats, as well as likely cause the relocations of millions of people to higher grounds. In fact, when looking for evidence of the effects of global warming, the Arctic, while remote, is where its affect is most clear and dramatic. The sheets of ice that cover most of Greenland are cracking, pouring fresh water into the ocean, decreasing ocean salinity and rising sea levels. The Ward Ice Shelf in the Arctic Ocean, which has stood unchanged for three millennium, has been cracking since 2000. Glaciers in Alaska are melting. Polar bears may soon be an endangered species: there are not enough ice flows for them to move across the Arctic Ocean. As Arctic ice retreats, more sea pups die because adult seals have to swim further for food.

Even though commercial shipping possibilities may expand in the Arctic Ocean, this is one time when it is better to say the glass is half-empty. Global warming is happening beyond any doubt and it may soon change much of the delicate ecosystem above the Arctic Circle. It is hard for us to know now what ripples this will have on the rest of the planet, beyond increased sea levels. However, it should not be cause for just concern, but for alarm. For all life is tied together. What happens in the Arctic is likely to effect all of us in profound ways, many of which we cannot yet imagine.

The United States is the world’s largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions come principally from our cars and our coal burning power plants. As a nation, we can choose to take aggressive steps to rein in our emissions of greenhouse gasses. Alternatively, we can keep burying our heads in the sand and pretend the consequences will not affect us. There are other more benign ways to generate energy other than through burning things. We can move beyond hybrid cars to other forms of transportation, such as light rail, that have much less effect on the environment. We can each do small things that can have enormous impact, such as setting our thermostats down two degrees in the winter and up two degrees in the summer. Al Gore has a number of other ideas we each can do that can help the global warming crisis.

As important as our personal actions are, we must demand a national energy policy that not only makes us energy independent, but which rewards conservation. We need larger incentives for greater degrees of conservation. We can make it more expensive to tear down virgin forests and less expensive to redevelop urbanized lands. We can even demand that manufacturers calculate the cost to the planet for the use of their products, such as the European Union plans to do soon.

It may be that by stemming global warming, we will not just save the polar bear from extinction, but our own species as well. If all life is precious, as the right to life crowd asserts, then the lives of all the species on the planet are also precious, for our relationship is mutually dependent. As for all the alleged benefits of finally having a Northwest Passage, let us not make this passage.

 
The Thinker

Election 2006 Postmortem

What a difference two years makes! Two years ago this week I surveyed the results of the 2004 election with dismay. President Bush, who should have handily been defeated for bungling the War in Iraq, was reelected, although the difference in the popular vote (2.4%) and the electoral vote (35 votes) made it one of the closest wins in recent history. While the Republicans picked up only three House seats, they solidified a formidable 30-vote majority in the House. In the Senate, Republicans picked up four seats, making the odds of retaking the Senate this year so small that even most Democrats (like me) thought it was a long shot.

Now that the dust has settled, the results of Tuesday’s election are stunning. Democrats picked up 29 House seats while losing none. A number of elections in dispute are likely to add to this total. In the Senate, with the concessions today by Montana Senator Conrad Burns and Virginia Senator George Allen, the Democrats took a 51-49 majority. This majority though feels rather fragile. It assumes that the newly reelected Senator Joe Lieberman from Connecticut, who ran his independent campaign more like a Republican than a Democrat, doesn’t feel a case of sour grapes and align himself with the Republicans. Amazingly, not a single Democratic incumbent running for the U.S. Congress lost, which may be a first for either political party.

This amazing upset hardly ends at the national level. Looking at state races, Democrats will now control a majority of the governorships (28) next year, up 6 seats. Five state legislatures switched from Republican to Democrat; not one went from Democrat to Republican. New Hampshire turned stunningly Democratic. (The New Hampshire House went from 37.5% Democrat to 59.8%. The New Hampshire Senate went from 45.8% Democrat to 66.7%. In addition, it elected Democrat John Lynch as governor.) Counting state Senate and House seats nationwide, Democrats picked up 349 seats out of 7393, a gain of 4.7 percent.

You have to look very hard for any Republican successes. If Republicans succeeded, it was in not making their losses completely catastrophic. Republicans held on to a retiring senate seat in Tennessee and a retiring governorship in Florida. That was about it. Tuesday was an overwhelmingly Democratic night. Republicans can take some comfort in that the margin of victory for Democrats was in many cases achingly small. Both Conrad Burns and George Allen lost by less than 1% of the popular vote. Still, it was remarkable how in very tight major races, they went consistently for the Democratic candidate.

There is no single reason why Democrats faired so well. Clearly, the voters were expressing extreme unhappiness of the last five years of one party rule. Many were voting to express their disgust with President Bush in general and his bungled War in Iraq in particular. Many others were expressing their unhappiness with their more precarious standard of living.

However, there were also demographic changes that came into prominence in 2006. This country is becoming less white and the minorities are voting disproportionately for Democrats. As young voters begin to vote, they vote predominantly for the Democrats. These demographic forces bode well for the Democratic Party’s future.

Those who discount the force of netroots are in denial. While the netroots community is overwhelmingly progressive, that does not mean they were myopic enough to give money only to progressives. Clearly, the netroots lost in Connecticut, but they picked up impressive victories too. Donations from the netroots to candidates like John Tester and Jim Webb were not only instrumental in their election, but they also made it possible for them to mobilize in the first place. Arguably, neither Tester nor Webb would be senators elect today had it not been from the netroots. The netroots are now a proven means of winning seats. Netroots won the U.S. Senate for the Democrats. It is not your father’s smoke filled room anymore.

Having won the reigns of legislative power, it is another question entirely whether Democrats will prove to be competent to govern. Voters in general were expressing more extreme displeasure at Republicans than enthusiasm for the Democrats. Democrats have traditionally been the “none of the above” party, rather than a party with a coherent message and platform. Perhaps after being out of power for so long they will absorb some important lessons. At least our initial rhetoric is encouraging. The likely next Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi talks about being the Speaker of the House, not the Speaker of just the Democrats. She is stressing bipartisanship. Senator Majority Leader elect Harry Reid is expressing similar thoughts. If history is a guide, this spirit will not last too long, but it is a hopeful sign nonetheless.

Having spurned bipartisanship, President Bush now has to embrace it if he wants anything in his last two years to be more than a footnote. His prompt dismissal yesterday of our disastrous Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was a hopeful sign. (I called for it in 2004.) Bush’s dismissal is bizarrely inconsistent with remarks he made a few days earlier wherein he promised he was never going to get rid of him. Since the plans for Rumsfeld’s replacement were clearly well along before the election, essentially Bush was lying. He probably justified it as an attempt to attempt to fire up his base in order to win the election.

No amount of bipartisanship will solve some problems. One of them is our quagmire in Iraq. Both sides are likely to embrace the recommendations of the nonpartisan Iraq Study Group. They will use it for political cover, because it will be politically unacceptable to make a recommendation for withdrawal that is not contingent upon Iraqis achieving benchmarks that they will not be able to meet. For the next two years, expect that our troops will remain in Iraq. Perhaps some small percent will come home to give the illusion to the American public that we will extricate ourselves from the war. Undoubtedly, the real responsibility for Iraq will remain with Bush, not the Congress, because strategy and tactics are the responsibility of the Commander in Chief. This bodes well for Democratic prospects in 2008. It is quite possible that in two years our government will move from Republicans in charge of all branches of government to Democrats being in charge of all branches but the Supreme Court.

For myself I am savoring this exquisite moment of victory. I would like to think it is the first of many, but I am sanguine. What goes around comes around. Without a hardnosed attention to the people’s business, Democrats will be lucky if they are still in power ten years from now, despite the carnage inflicted by Republicans these last six years. I am trying not to think about these sad political realities right now. For a Democrat like me, Tuesday night was magical. It was perhaps a once in a lifetime event. The closest parallel was the Election of 1974 following Watergate. However, in that election, Democrats already controlled both Houses of Congress. I would dance from the rooftops, except I have two left feet. Nonetheless, I am beaming, as is everyone in my very Democratic household. I helped make this election possible through my own contributions in time and money. I feel vested in its outcome and am thrilled to have Jim Webb, my netroots candidate, as my new Senator elect.

 
The Thinker

Jim Webb: Mr. Smith goes to Washington

As regular readers know, I have been keeping my ears close to the ground these days. I still hear a political earthquake coming tomorrow. Of course, I could be wrong. I certainly was wrong calling the 2004 election. As I ponder political earthquakes closer to where I live in Northern Virginia, I hear another one coming: tomorrow Jim Webb, who was virtually unknown at the beginning of this year, will defeat George Allen in his bid for reelection to the U.S. Senate. Virginia will wake up Wednesday and find it has wisely chosen a person of substance over a man of image.

Recent polls have been saying this race is too close to call. Very recent polls give hope to both George Allen and challenger Jim Webb. I think Webb will win though because he is the real deal, whereas George Allen is just another George W. Bush clone.

Really, it is eerie how much George Allen imitates President Bush. Bush pretends to be a Texan, even though he is a New Englander. Allen pretends to be a Virginian, even though he is a Californian. Both go out of their ways to be perceived as Southerners. Both were governors of very red Southern states who touted dubious achievements in education. Bush claimed to have turned around the Texas public schools. Allen promoted the now institutionalized Virginia Standards of Learning. These tests, like those in Texas, have become so dumbed down that my senior age high school daughter informs me, “You have to be really stupid not to pass a SOL exam.” Both belong to mainstream Protestant denominations: United Methodist in Bush’s case, Presbyterian in Allen’s case. Both avoided serving in war but at least Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard. Perhaps the closest identification to Bush is seen in Allen’s votes. He voted for virtually whatever Bush promoted, including our failed war in Iraq. He was one of the last Republicans to stop insisting the way to win in Iraq was to stay the course.

Until a few months ago, many Republicans considered Allen to be a leading contender for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2008. No one thought Webb had a snowball’s chance in hell at defeating this popular ex-Governor and senator. You know what happened since then to bring Allen down, so I will not repeat these incidents. Suffice to say that George Allen was one of many Republicans who were not agile enough to respond to changing political winds. Moreover, he, like our president, was headstrong enough to think he could do things like put Confederate Flags and nooses in his office and it did not matter or speak to his true character.

For a politician like Allen, his worst nightmare is a challenger who seems tailored to expose all his personal deficiencies. Jim Webb seemed to come out of nowhere. He did not even start running for the Senate until February. A successful Secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, U.S. Naval Academy graduate and decorated marine, Webb was awarded the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts while a Marine platoon leader in Vietnam. A successful author of eight books, self-described Reagan Democrat and former follower of Ross Perot’s Reform Party, he was moved to become a Democrat and run against George Allen because Allen supported Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq. While not totally without his share of controversy, Webb comes across as a clear-eyed and sober patriot while Allen comes across as George W. Bush lite: handsome, giving the appearance of being a family values man, but headstrong and with obvious vindictive and prejudicial sides. His real constituency was white Protestant Republicans, and everyone knew it.

Webb is something of a political oddity. In many ways he is who I would be if I were to be a politician. Unfortunately, I could never begin to match his credentials. He is the genuine reluctant candidate, motivated by conviction rather than ego. Webb is a man who refuses to pick up the phone and schmooze donors for campaign contributions. He may be the last of his kind. In spite of this, he has pulled in impressive campaign contributions, including huge amounts of relatively small donations from the Netroots and from ordinary Joes like me.

I was one of the 3% or so of Virginia Democrats who voted in the primary. Despite Webb’s previously Republican leanings, I was enthusiastic about voting for Webb. He won that election narrowly, and he may well win tomorrow’s election narrowly too. This time though I expect we will see something close to record turnout for a midterm election. His election will send a powerful signal that genuine character matters again in politicians. Voters will reward honest accomplishments rather than empty rhetoric. Webb is authentic and genuine. He is perhaps the last of the Mr. Smiths to go to Washington. He will probably be the only politician in Congress who will not be influenced by special interests. It may doom him to a single term. Still, it will be a refreshing six-year term.

I expect big things from Jim Webb. Should he choose to seek even higher office some day, I think he will find an enthusiastic group of supporters from both sides of the political spectrum, as long as he remains true to his values. His campaign says he was born fighting. He has some huge fights ahead in the Senate on behalf of not just Virginians, but the vast majority of us disenfranchised Americans. Virginians: let us establish a beachhead for him by voting for Jim Webb tomorrow.

 

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