Mediocre Fred's Mediocre Blog
Friday, April 30, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "String of Pearls" by Glenn Miller


Hi, everybody. As you might have gathered from the headline, I have nothing particularly intelligent to say today (when do I ever?), so I'll just be throwing whatever I've got out there. My apologies.

Let's start with Rene Gonzalez, that kid from UMass who wrote the column attacking Pat Tillman. Today he apologized to the Tillman family, in an e-mail to a Boston TV station. Whether he also apologized to the family personally is unclear, but I hope he did.

Here's his explanation for what he wrote: "I felt that his celebrity had been a factor in American society calling him a 'hero,' and I felt American society had arrived at that conclusion without much thinking, but rather as some sort of patriotic 'knee-jerk' into hero worship. That was my point. I did it [admittedly] in such an insensitive way, that the article was not worth publishing."

If that was his point, he surely could have said it without bashing Tillman. A note to Mr. Gonzalez: If you have something you want people to hear, there are two ways to go about it. You can start speaking and wait for people to hear you and pay attention, or you can jump up on a table, drop your pants and scream obscenities. Gonzalez's column was the latter approach. And the assault on Tillman essentially eradicated the rest of his message. Perhaps he'll keep this in mind for the future.

And as a parting gift for Mr. Gonzalez, whom I intend never to discuss again if I can help it, I offer some words of wisdom from Hubert Humphrey: "The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously."

If you want to read something smart about this whole disagreeable business, check out The Smart Lady's post over at De Novo.

The Brewers held the line at 12-10 thanks to having the night off. Tonight they host the Pirates, a series which seems eminently winnable. With nothing new to say about the Brew Crew, I want to take a second to highlight a funny quote from one of the best Brewer blogs out there, Al's Ramblings:

It should be noted that the Brewers scored their 1st run tonight after Junior Spivey was hit by a pitch, in seeming retaliation to Ryan Freel being hit by Matt Kinney. You gotta wonder if the Brewers still tie the game at 9 if that doesn't occur.

It is simply astounding teams still feel their best option is to give the opponent a free baserunner in order to "get even" with them. They ought to try this new fangled thing called "scoring more runs and winning the game".

Bill Simmons of ESPN checks in with a solidly funny column on the NBA playoffs. See, when he sticks to being The Sports Guy, and stays away from the Hollywood Bill persona, he's still capable of good work.

E.J. Dionne has a good column about the vanishing of moderate Republicans, in light of Arlen Specter's narrow victory over conservative Pat Toomey in the Pennsylvania Senate primary. It would have been quite odd if a moderate state like Pennsylvania was represented by arch-conservatives Toomey and Santorum in the Senate. Fans of bipartisan cooperation will find this passage alarming:

Stephen Moore, the Club for Growth's president, always saw the effort as having a double purpose: to replace Specter with a conservative if possible, but also to demonstrate how much anguish conservatives could create for Republican moderates who did not fall into line. "It serves notice to Chafee, Snowe, Voinovich and others who have been problem children that they will be next," Moore said before the primary, referring to Republican Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Olympia Snowe of Maine and George Voinovich of Ohio.

Problem children? People like Chafee, Snowe and Voinovich are the only reason that there's any cooperation across the aisle at all any more. These are the people who get reasonable bills passed. If these are "problem children," I fear for the future of the Senate.

Who else misses the liberal Republicans? Clifford Case, Tom Kutchel, Jack Javits, Lowell Weicker, Charles McC. Mathias, Mark Hatfield, Nelson Rockefeller... fine public servants all. Ideological purification of the parties serves no one. (The same is true for conservative Democrats, by the way, even though most of them are already gone. "Then why do you hate Zell Miller?" I hear you ask. It's not Zell Miller's policy position that irk me so much as the fact that he is a Democrat who can't stand the party. And if that's the case, he should switch.)

Incindentally, you may think that I write babbling nonsense much of the time, and you'd be right. But, I'd argue, so do John Kruk and Tina Brown, and they both get paid for it. Does anyone else think it would be fun to send those two on a blind date?

Interesting column by Howard Fineman looking at John Kerry's potential running-mate picks. As predicted in this space a couple weeks back, Mark Warner's success in getting a tax plan through the Virginia legislature has put him on the list. Dick Gephardt's still at or near the top of the list, and I still think that's a bad idea: Gephardt just isn't dynamic enough. On the other hand, if he is willing to show some fire and take on the attack-dog role on the ticket, he might be all right. Mr. Sunshine, John Edwards, is still much talked about, but I really don't think he'll get it. He doesn't seem like Kerry's kind of guy. Fineman mentions some female possibilities, none including my crush (Mary Landrieu) or my top pick (Jeanne Shaheen). Tom Vilsack is reportedly a top choice, which I'm not entirely sure I understand. Unless he's sitting on some wellspring of personality he hasn't previously demonstrated, he strikes me as Gephardt with better eyebrows and less experience. We shall see what happens.

Finally, speaking of candidates and personality, loyal reader Tripp has taken me to task for bemoaning the obsession with presidential charisma. Here's what he had to say:

I think politicians have always needed charisma - that is nothing new. Now they need charisma that comes across on TV, too. It probably started way back when Nixon lost to Kennedy because his 5 o'clock shadow made him seem sinister in a TV debate. Well, good looking actors with bad voices lost their jobs when the talkies came in, too. C'est la vie.

I replied that charisma in the game-show host sense is a modern requirement for the presidency. Although parties have sought to make their candidates seem like regular fellows all the way back to "Tippecanoe and Tyler too," the idea that the candidate has to be personally entertaining is relatively novel, a development largely spawned by television.

I didn't add (though I do believe) that the comparison to silent-film actors in the age of talkies isn't quite accurate. The sound of an actor's voice is part and parcel of his acting. If someone is fabulous at conveying emotions and getting into a character, but he sounds like a frog in a blender, he won't have the effect on the audience that an actor needs. Entertaining the people is an actor's primary function. It isn't (or shouldn't be) the president's main job.

Tripp had a tart reply to this:

Sadly, gramps, there is no way to get back to the good old days of the horsedrawn carriage.

And I seem to recall that prior to the days of the PA system one 'entertaining' feature a good politician required was a booming speaking voice that would carry over a big crowd. Also, the ability to speak for more than an hour was helpful.

Neither of these attributes requires anything like a good mind or good character.

Your note about a booming speaking voice is a fair one, although I wonder if not having one was considered a fatal flaw. I do dispute, though, that being able to speak for more than an hour doesn't require a good mind. Unless you're standing up there for an hour and spouting random words or reading the phone book, you need to have a knack for good oratory and at least a passing knowledge of how to construct an argument. If you're going to speak for an hour on a given subject, you need to understand that subject. A dunce couldn't speak effectively on a subject for an hour-plus.

It certainly takes more brainpower to construct a worthwhile hour-long speech than it does to spout a thirty-second sound bite. Sound-bite politics bother me so much because they actually punish you for being thoughtful and considering things intelligently. If you've carefully thought over a tax increase and decided that even though it may be unpopular, it's the best thing for the country, and you spend 15 minutes explaining how you arrived at this position, you will actually be judged less competent than the guy who stands up and shouts "No new taxes!" Is that a good way to run a political system?

And what do you mean that we can't do back to the horsedrawn carriage? Who says? And where's my Metamucil? I need a nap.

At any rate, time to slip off into oblivion for the weekend. See you Monday! 
Thursday, April 29, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Celebrate" by Three Dog Night


Hello, everyone! As I mentioned briefly yesterday, Virginia's General Assembly approved a $1.36 billion tax hike, paving the way for an end to the budget impasse. Everything broke just right, for once. The breakway Republican delegates held firm. The Northern Virginia Democrats backed down from their threat to veto the deal. And now the landscape looks hugely different. Governor Warner notched a major legislative victory. The anti-tax crowd suffered a stunning defeat. And a state famous for its fiscal conservatism affirmed its commitment to providing a decent level of basic service.

So what does this mean? Let's take a look at the deal first. The sales tax will go up a half-cent, to 5 cents on the dollar. The sales tax on food, however, will drop by a couple cents. The tobacco tax will increase in stages from the ridiculously-low 2.5 cents per pack to 30 cents per pack, still well below the national average, but at least within hailing distance of it. The fee for recording deeds will go up, in what is doubtless a huge blow for the deed-recording industry. The plan includes income-tax breaks for low-income people and married couples, but the income break for seniors, which is currently automatic, will be means-tested. The plan closes a variety of corporate tax loopholes.

But the most stunning part of the plan is that is places a cap on car-tax relief. Governor Warner's initial plan did not have such a cap, and the presence of it in the final agreement is a stunning triumph of good government over sloganeering. A brief primer: The car tax is assessed locally, a percentage of the car's value, and Jim Gilmore was elected governor in 1997 largely on his promise to eliminate the tax. Since the tax is local, "relief" has come in the form of state payments to local governments to make up for the lost revenue.

I never thought that the car-tax relief idea was all that hot to begin with, but at least it seemed affordable in a time of robust economic growth. As times got tighter, though, the phaseout plan stalled. Also, it seems Governor Gilmore underestimated the cost of relief a teensy little bit. He swore that complete repeal of the tax wouldn't cost any more that $650 million. Now, it's been discovered that full repeal would cost $1.7 billion. Big problem.

The budget deal caps the state payout at $950 million, which means that local governments will either have to increase the tax or cut services in order to make up the revenue gap. Ordinarily, I'm not in favor of punting revenue problems down to the local level, but the car-tax repeal plan was so bad in the first place that this deal is essentially restoring reason to its throne.

Now, what does it all mean? For Governor Warner, it means a potentially bright political future. Before this deal passed, Warner's political legacy was that of a bland, inoffensive caretaker who achieved little of consequence and was soundly trounced by the General Assembly in the political arena. Now, he has a signature achievement that he can call his own. He stumbled some along the way, but in the end, this deal would not likely have happened without him. He took the lead, he forcecd the issue, and he managed to shift the terms of discussion such that the tax increase became a matter of "how much" as opposed to a yes-or-no question. Now, he has a platform to run on should he choose to take a shot at the Senate in 2006, as many think he will. Congratulations, Governor, you stood tall on this one.

For the anti-tax forces, it means that a solid decade of landslide victories in Virginia is coming to an end. The "Taxes Are Evil" strategy has been very good to the Virginia Republican Party over the past few years, and it's helped them to establish a solid majority in the Assembly and general statewide success. Now, though, the party has fractured on this question of orthodoxy. Anti-tax groups are threatening to run primary opponents against the Assembly members who backed a tax hike. It remains to be seen if they'll follow through on this, but if they do, the Republicans could be in for a wild ride. If incumbent Republican moderates lose the primaries to anti-tax zealots, those seats could become vulnerable to Democratic takeover. Even if the moderates survive, the Republican's governing majority, which up until now has been remarkably efficient, might turn fractious. Relations in the General Assembly, which have historically been courteous, might become nasty. And the Republican governing machine might tear itself apart. We could see a showdown between the hard-line anti-taxers (George Allen's group) and the moderates (the Tom Davis gang). If that happens, the Democrats might have a chance to slip back into power, which would be an upset.

What went wrong for the anti-taxers? Well, the two obvious answers are fiscal reality and poor strtategy. The budget gap was so large that the usual one-time tricks and moderate cuts wouldn't accomplish anything. And Warner's boldness in proposing a tax plan rendered the one-time-trick strategy useless anyhow. As for the strategy, the anti-taxers' constantly shifting tactics made them look desperate. The firm hold-the-line strategy went out the window when the Senate refused to play along. The House's smallish make-the-companies pay increase also hit the wall in the Senate. The government-shutdown threat was largely ignored. The let's-put-the-taxes-to-referendum strategy quickly met the smackdown it deserved. And the slash-and-burn budget only proved how dire the budget mess was. Warner and the Senate, on the other hand, were consistent in their call for a broad-based increase. Even when the process appeared on the verge of collapse, Warner and the Senate kept pushing forward.

Something else happened, too. The anti-tax crowd has grown smug on the idea that, no matter what happens, they'll always have popular backing, because no one likes paying taxes. In the end, they figure, politicians don't want to take bold steps that will alienate the voters, so they'll wind up in the anti-tax camp sooner or later. But the anti-tax forces didn't have a popular outcry backing them up this time. Instead, people realized that, while they don't like paying taxes, they do like the things that taxes pay for, and they seemed to grasp that there is actually a choice to be made. Senators and delegates who were thinking of backing the tax increase listened to their constituents, and what they heard gave them the backbone to keep fighting. So the people of Virginia deserve credit for grasping this lesson in advanced citizenship.

And no dissection of the budget deal would be complete without a tribute to John Chichester. When Warner first floated his plan, the Republicans in the Assembly tore it to shreds. It would have been easy enough for the Republicans to paint Warner as a tax-hiking extremist and ignore his plan. That's certainly what Speaker Howell tried to do. But to his everlasting credit, Chichester looked at the numbers and saw that there was a real problem. He rewarded Warner's courage for being first into the battle by standing with him, and making sure the Senate did too. He was even bold enough to propose an increase much larger than Warner's, which ensured that the struggle would be fought more on the governor's terms. Without Chichester's support, it's highly unlikely that this whole thing could have happened. Thank you, Senator. (Credit also goes to Vince Callahan, another fiscal realist who wound up coming through for the tax plan, despite some murkiness as to where he stood throughout the debate.)

Richard Cohen is the latest to jump on the Kerry-is-too-dull bandwagon. He goes after Kerry for being too dour and humorless, which is a common complaint. He also has this to say for Democrats who would attack him for attacking Kerry:

Stop! Do not e-mail me, dear reader, on how I should not be constructively criticizing Kerry ("bashing," it is called nowadays) but instead should be saving the nation and the world from another four years of Bush and Cheney. That latter, though, is truly my intention. I am told that this is the presidential preseason, a period when only the cognoscenti and the mentally unhinged are paying attention to presidential politics, with everyone else waiting until after the World Series. It is now, therefore, while no one much is looking, that I can critique Kerry in an effort to make him a totally unbeatable candidate. He needs to lighten up.

Cohen is right on this one. There's nothing wrong with trying to make Kerry a sharper candidate. Democrats shouldn't pretend he's perfect just because they want to run Bush out of town on a rail. I happen to think Kerry's personality isn't a problem, but if Cohen does, he should say so. His criticism is a totally different species than Kaus-style Kerry-bashing, where the goal is to beat Kerry by any means necessary.

How 'bout them Brewers! My boys stand at 12-10 after an amazing comeback win over Cincinnati last night. The Brew Crew trailed 9-0 after 4 innings, and came all the way back to take a 10-9 victory in ten innings. Bill Hall was the hero for the second night in a row, hitting the game-tying double in the eighth and driving in the winner with a squeeze play in the tenth. The night before, Hall hit a walkoff homer to beat the Reds. Sure glad we have him around.

Of course, because the Brewers are considered to be a joke franchise by the media, no one's going to notice this solid start. We could finish over .500 (a major achievement for us) and no one would notice. We are the Rodney Dangerfield of baseball. But rest assured, we're savoring this moment of adequacy. To borrow a quote from For Love of the Game, "We don't stink right now!" It's nice to be able to check the box scores without cringing.

Finally, I notice that a lot of people have been hitting this site by seraching on "Pat Tillman" and "UMass." I didn't know at the time what the connection was, but now I see it. Seems that a student name Rene Gonzalez wrote an article in the UMass paper slamming Tillman as a false hero. A few sample passages:

I've been mystified at the absolute nonsense of being in "awe" of Tillman's "sacrifice" that has been the American response. Mystified, but not surprised. True, it's not everyday that you forgo a $3.6 million contract for joining the military. And, not just the regular army, but the elite Army Rangers. You know he was a real Rambo, who wanted to be in the "real" thick of things. I could tell he was that type of macho guy, from his scowling, beefy face on the CNN pictures. Well, he got his wish. Even Rambo got shot in the third movie, but in real life, you die as a result of being shot. They should call Pat Tillman's army life "Rambo 4: Rambo Attempts to Strike Back at His Former Rambo 3 Taliban Friends, and Gets Killed."...

Tillman, probably acting out his nationalist-patriotic fantasies forged in years of exposure to Clint Eastwood and Rambo movies, decided to insert himself into a conflict he didn't need to insert himself into. It wasn't like he was defending the East coast from an invasion of a foreign power. THAT would have been heroic and laudable. What he did was make himself useful to a foreign invading army, and he paid for it. It's hard to say I have any sympathy for his death because I don't feel like his "service" was necessary. He wasn't defending me, nor was he defending the Afghani people. He was acting out his macho, patriotic crap and I guess someone with a bigger gun did him in.

Myself, I'm mystified by the fact that Gonzalez feels the need to paint an ugly -- and false -- picture of Tillman in order to express his opposition to the war. By all accounts, Tillman was a smart and sensitive guy, not at all the Rambo caricature that Gonzalez paints. And as for the accusation that Tillman "wasn't defending" America... it's true that the Taliban did not fly any planes into the World Trade Center. But the Taliban was supporting and harboring the people who did. Doesn't Gonzalez see the connection?

He believes that our attack on Afghanistan is futile:

Al-Qaeda won't be defeated in Afghanistan, even if we did kill all their operatives there. Only through careful and logical changing of the underlying conditions that allow for the ideology to foster will Al-Qaeda be defeated. Ask the Israelis if 50 years of blunt force have eradicated the Palestinian resistance.

There's some truth to this. Wiping out Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan wouldn't eradicate the terrorist threat. And changing the conditions that allow terrorism to flourish is definitely a good idea. What Gonzalez doesn't understand is that the action in Afghanistan is part of changing the conditions. We'd do well to combat the simplistic anti-American stereotypes that abound in the radical Muslim world. But we also need to get rid of the terrorists' favorite hiding places. It's entirely debatable whether the Iraq war improved our national security. But the war in Afghanistan did, and I'm puzzled that Gonzalez doesn't understand the connection.

Even if he believes that the Afghani war is wrong, that's no reason to rip into Tillman, particularly with such a wrong-headed picture. Tillman's memory deserves far better than the attack in Gonzalez's piece. And that's all I have to say about that.

Except this: I found the link to the article via Real Clear Politics, which links it with the title "Many on the Left Do Not Think Pat Tillman is a Hero." This is ridiculous. The article isn't titled that, and Gonzalez doesn't attempt to argue that. It's frustrating that RCP would cherry-pick the only person I've seen so far who's attempted to make this argument and make him the spokesman for "many on the left." You can do better, guys.

That's all for today. Mush tomorrow! 
Wednesday, April 28, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Freedom 90" by George Michael


Hello, everybody! I want to revisit the subject of Iraq today, via Timothy Noah's article in Slate yesterday. Noah explores the possibility that Iraq be divided into three sovereign states, either entirely independent of one another or in a loose federation. He quotes a couple of serious thinkers on the subject. I found this article particularly interesting because I've been floating the same possibility for some time. The deep thinkers offer some insight into how such a plan might actually look. Let's take a look at the potential for a three-state solution, and America's role in it.

First, a little background. Iraq contains three factions: Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Kurds. These factions, by and large, can't stand each other. And this is not a new development: These three factions were thrown together by the Brits in the '20s, when they drew up new national boundaries after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. In typical colonialist fashion, the map was drawn up with an eye toward strategic concerns, and without any input from the people who actually lived there. Though the Shiites comprise the largest portion of Iraq's population, Saddam's regime was composed of Sunnis. The Shiites were never particularly pleased about this, but as we all know, Saddam ruled with a firm hand, so dissent was repressed.

Here's the heart of the dilemma: Now that Saddam's gone, dissent is allowed to run rampant. In some ways this is admirable (after all, the right to dissent is a cherished American freedom), but in other ways it's problematic. Rather than hopping up on the soapbox, post-Saddam Iraqis have tended to express their dissent by shooting. And America's presence in the country isn't strong enough to squelch the dissent (and, short of establishing iron-fisted martial law, it's not likely that our presence could have been strong enough).

Sunnis are bitter becaause they're not in control any more. Shiites are bitter because America doesn't want to permit the theocracy they'd prefer. And Kurds just want to do their own thing. All in all, it doesn't make for a stable situation.

Here's the rub: We'd figured initially that we could ride in, topple Saddam, and the people would be so grateful that they'd do pretty much what we told them to. We'd organize a nice, shiny new Western-style democracy for them and ride our white horse off into the sunset. It sounds lovely, but there was a slight hitch: Rather than displaying the proper gratitude to us, the Iraqi factions have used their newfound freedom to revive the old long-suppressed grudges. Worse yet, they don't necessarily seem all that interested in Western-style democracy (well, the Kurds do, but not the others). So we've planted ourselves squarely in the middle of a morass, and ouyr white horse is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he took a wrong turn at Albuquerque.

So why don't we just go ahead with a three-state solution? Give everyone control of their own fiefdom, and stop the squabbling. Well, it's not quite so simple. For one thing, without an arrangement for sharing of oil revenues with the other Iraqi states, the Sunni state would probably be wretchedly poor, since they have very little oil themselves. Also, it's not likely that the Sunnis are ready to install a democracy. In fact, if the current state of affairs is any indication, the Sunni state would be virtually anarchic. And if a government did emerge out of the chaos, Noah points out, it's not likely to be a glorious democracy. Perhaps it would even be another Saddam. And the Shiite state, left to its own devices, would probably install a theocratic government, one that would seem repressive to Western eyes. If the theocracy took on strains of residual anti-American bitterness from the occupation, might not the new state become a breeding ground for terrorists?

So, potentially, instead of one country with a brutally repressive regime, we might face an anarchic state and an anti-American theocracy of precisely the sort that we would prefer to avoid. If that happens, are we any safer than we were before? Is the world any more stable?

And this doesn't have anything to do with how bad a guy Saddam was. Of course he was bad. He was a tyrant and a monster. But he did maintain a certain stability (albeit a brutal one), and his regime was not theocratic. And despite his vain bluster and saber-rattling, it's not at all clear that he had the juice to do any serious harm to America. Unlike Al Qaeda, he had a power base to protect. It's possible that Saddam might not have been able to do us great harm, and that even given the opportunity, he might have chosen not to.

It's not as though the new states will suddenly have nuclear capability. But it's possible that some of the new states might be more inclined to work with Islamic terrorists now than Iraq under Saddam. How much better off would we be, from a national security standpoint, than we were before? And if the answer is "barely if at all," was the invasion a good idea?

The Bush administration's foreign policy rests on the tenet that might makes right. Specifically, because America is so powerful and wields such influence in the world, the administration assumes that flexing our muscles and showing the world that we mean business will be enough to keep the rogues in line. But I'm not sure that we understand the degree to which our enemies don't believe in conventional power politics. They're trying to goad us into a fight. It's a fight we should be able to win, but at what cost, both in human lives and international goodwill? If the "sleeping giant" model isn't the right conception of America's role in the new geopolitical climate, I'm not sure that the Dirty Harry model is a great improvement.

In short, just because you're the biggest kid on the block, that doesn't automatically mean that everyone else will listen to you. It's a lesson we'd do well to remember in the future.

I love the ballsy move by Ron Artest yesterday. The mercurial Indiana forward was voted the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year, which irked San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, who feels that his guy, Brucee Bowen, was more deserving. Popovich popped off thusly: "Bruce guards the best player on the other team almost every single night. Artest doesn't do that. Artest just looks the part. He looks like a big, tough guy. He whacks and gets knocked out of the game once in a while."

Besides appearing unsportsmanlike, Pop's comment wasn't necessarily wise. Artest has been legendary in the past for outbursts of temper, which he's done a decent job of corraling this season. His reaction here was a good case in point. The Old Ron probably would have thrown Popovich through a window. The New Ron instead offered a challenge to Bowen: "Tell his coach, 'Let's play one-on-one for the award.' I'll give it to him if he can beat me."

I think Artest played it really cool. For one thing, he didn't go out of his way to slam Bowen, who after all didn't make the offending remarks. Instead, he offered Bowen the chance to prove his mettle straight up. (And who wouldn't love to see that game?) Also, rather than calling Pop names, he asked that if the coach had a complaint with Artest's performance, he should tell Ron directly: "It's not hard to get in touch with me. All you have to do is call the Pacers office and ask for my phone number. You can speak to me instead of going to the papers. He's taken a lot of positives away from it. Talk to the Pacers and call me. Let me know I didn't deserve it so I don't have to hear it from (the media)." Give Artest credit for refusing to make the situation worse.

Artest is my new favorite NBA player. Three cheers for Cool Hand Ron.

Virginia has a tax bill! At long last. I'll get into this in more detail tomorrow, but kudos to Governor Warner for securing a major victory that few thought he could achieve. And kudos to the General Assembly for finally coming through on a good compromise plan.

That's all for today. See you tomorrow! 
Tuesday, April 27, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Ordinary Average Guy" by Joe Walsh


Greetings, everyone. I haven't written much on John Kerry since he wrapped up the nomination, largely because there hasn't been much to say. There have been mini-flaps here and there, charges and countercharges, but nothing of real substance. This morning, though, I read Howie Kurtz's column, and it got me to thinking. The thrust of Kurtz's piece is that Kerry suffers from a potentially fatal flaw. Is it a bad stand on an issue? Some scandal from his past? A lack of experience in the halls of power? No, no, and definitely not.

Kerry's problem is that he's a cold fish.

Specifically, he's long-winded, comes off as condescending and seems too calculating. By and large, these charges aren't rooted in any particular fact of his career, but rather in feelings and impressions. Those of you who remember 2000 might see the parallels to the public perception of Al Gore. A lot of people think Gore's personality problem sank him.

Stories like this really irk me. Why is a president's personality so damned important? Isn't it more important that, say, he knows what he's doing? When did the presidential election turn into high school all over again? Where did we, as a country, go wrong? That's what I want to look at today.

First off, it's important to understand what we mean by "personality." By most accounts, John Kerry is a funny and engaging person in private. Just like Gore. I remember hearing Gore do an interview on some classic-rock morning show a few years back, and he was pretty charming. It's just that Gore, like Kerry, seemed to think that public office was a solemn duty, and tended to behave that way when in the political arena. And the people hated that.

So what do people want? They want charisma. A friend once explained the difference between charm and charisma fairly succinctly: "Charm is the glow of a single candle in a dark room. Charisma is a chandelier that lights up the whole hall." Voters want a president who gives off the impression that he'd be fun to hang out with. They want a president with a folksy touch, someone who can relate to all different kinds of people, someone who can keep the conversation going, someone who knows all the right moves. In effect, they want a game-show host.

If you think about it, the analogy really is fitting. Think about the best game-show hosts, folks like Gene Rayburn of "Match Game," Bob Barker of "The Price is Right," Richard Dawson of "Family Feud," Chuck Woolery, and so on. What do they have in common? They all know how to keep the show going. They make cold or nervous contestants come to life. They know exactly how and when to drop in a funny line. They relate to contestants from all kinds of backgrounds. They maintain order and keep the show under control without ever appearing to apply a firm hand. And it doesn't matter if Dawson was a jerk to his staff or if Barker is a big old lech; all that matters is the fact that they provide good entertainment. In the modern age, people look to presidents to do the same. (Can't you imagine Bill Clinton hosting "Love Connection" or "Wheel of Fortune"?)

This is why Bush is winning the personality war so far. When Kerry speaks, he thinks of words being chiseled in marble on the side of monuments and buildings. When Bush speaks, he thinks of words showing up on the nightly news. Is it any wonder that Bush's approach generally plays better during a television-driven campaign?

Bill Clinton understood this. Here's an experiment: Try to remember a great, inspiring Bill Clinton speech. Not what the speech was about, but what he actually said. Pretty tough, isn't it? If any of Clinton's words make it into the history books, odds are they will be "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." Clinton was not a great orator. But he was a pleasant speaker, and that made all the difference. Clinton understood that presidents are not elected based on the likelihood that they'll be remembered in history. They're elected based on who the public likes more right now.

The argument in favor of personality-based voting goes something like this: We're going to be hearing a lot of this guy over the next four years. If he's dull, grating or pompous, it's going to be four years of torture. And if it's the president's job to lead the people, how can he lead them if they're too busy wishing that he'd just shut up? These are reasonable points, but they lead to a dangerous conclusion: We run the risk of electing empty-headed twits who speak well, rather than truly great leaders.

This is why I'm bothered by the celebrity-candidate fad. Look at all the advantages an Arnold Schwarzenegger, for instance, carries into an election: Huge name recognition. A well-received public persona. The comfort of familiarity. Looking back at the California recall, did bland Cruz Bustamante really stand a chance against Arnold? Never mind the cold and dislikable Gray Davis. (Incidentally, have you seen the new commercial for Yahoo! that has Davis in it? He comes off as goofy, pleasant, even lifelike. If he'd made this commercial last year, he would still be governor. On the other hand, if he was still governor, he'd never have made the commercial.)

Political campaigns are so akin to show business nowadays that actual actors have a huge and unfair advantage over those dull and colorless souls who have spent their lives on politics. Is this what we want? People who are fun to watch and listen to, even if they have no clue about how to run the country? It's things like this that make we think that democracy is overrated.

To return to my point: If Kerry winds up losing because of his perceived coldness, then we lose as a society. If Kerry loses because voters decide that Bush is more qualified to be president, that's one thing. But if they'd just rather see him on television... well, what they say about computers is true about politics: Garbage in, garbage out.

I'd be interested to hear from people out there who do think personality should count when picking a president. Why does it matter to you? All appearances to the contrary, I would like to believe that my fellow citizens are not idiots, so if there's a good reason for personality-based voting that I haven't figured out, I'd like to hear it. And for those looking for further reading on the merger of politics and entertainment, check out Roger Simon's book on the 1996 campaign, "Show Time."

The latest on the Virginia budget deal: The Senate Finance committee passed a plan putting a cap on car-tax relief and raising about $1.3 million in new revenue. If the plan passes the full Senate, then it's back to the House to see if a deal can be worked out. Senate passage looks likely. Governor Warner gives the plan his blessing. The maverick House Republicans who voted for the msot recent House plan seem to be in favor of this one. The likely sticking point? House Democrats from Northern Virginia, who think this plan might not have enough funding for the region. This might be right, but come on, guys. If you sink this deal, do you know what Northern Virginia will get? Bupkus. Let's hope that this is just some last-minute saber-rattling by a few delegates who are hungry for attention, and that the plan passes quickly and with little trauma.

That's all for today. Something else tomorrow! 
Monday, April 26, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Please Come to Boston" by Willie Nelson


Good day, all. It's a drippy Monday here in the Fedroplex, but even a sodden start to the workweek can't diminish the fine weekend I had. I enjoyed The Smart Lady's company, and I got to have a fine Sunday in Baltimore, helping the Orioles with their Little League parade.

Twice a year, the O's invite local Little Leaguers to walk around the field and take in the game. I volunteered to help keep the Little Leaguers in line and off the grass. (They're supposed to stay on the warning track.) This was cool on a variety of levels, most of which didn't even have anything to do with the free food they supplied.

The pre-parade gathering had a sort of summer-camp atmosphere. The Little Leaguers fluttered around, closely accompanied by their parents, who had clearly instructed them to listen to whatever the folks in the orange shirts (volunteers like me) told them. I felt much like a camp counselor, and enjoyed the experience of having my commands obeyed. Even though I am what Cedric the Entertainer likes to call "a grown-ass man," I don't always feel like one. Ordinarily, whenever I shout something at someone, it goes completely unheeded.

But not on this day. When it was time to march, I saw a group of young Rockies loitering by a planter. So I cupped my hands and barked, "Attention Rockies! It's parade time! Let's go!" And it worked! They fell right in line. How about that? Having discovered my newfound power of authority, I kept herding, calling the Little Leaguers "son" as they passed by. "Let's get moving, son!" It was a nifty little power trip.

While the kids were marching around the field, I thought I might watch them, see the delight and amazement on their faces as they toured the field. As it turned out, though, I was too busy being delighted and amazed myself to look at their faces. It was definitely cool to have a player's-eye view of Camden Yards for a few minutes.

Incidentally, the youngsters also proved a basic verity of maleness. Specifically, men love to run into walls in sporting arenas. I first developed this theory during the Caps' end-of-season fan skate. I was a spectator that time, and I noticed that a number of young men felt it necessary to skate down and crash into the boards in the manner of one of the Hanson Brothers. And only young men were doing it. I watched closely, and did not see one woman crash into the boards. And again yesterday, several of the young Little Leaguers decided to crash into the outfield walls, in pursuit of some imaginary fly balls. I even saw a couple of the fathers do it. So remember, ladies: if you're looking for a special gift for the man in your life, give him the opportunity to crash into the walls at some arena or ballpark somewhere, and he'll love you forever.

The game itself was another experience. In honor of Little League Day, the Orioles showed up playing like Little Leaguers. As the 15-3 final score would indicate. (Line of the afternoon went to one disgruntled fan, as the O's last batter worked a 3-2 count: "It's every little kid's dream. You're up, bottom of the ninth, two out, full count... and you're down by TWELVE!")

Toronto did not choose to play down to the Orioles' standard of amateurism, but they did have a couple delights for the youngsters. For one, there was second baseman Orlando Hudson, who displayed a Little Leaguer's flair for fielding. On several occasions, Hudson made pretty diving stops on hard grounders up the middle, then proceeded to drop the ball as though it were a pipe bomb. He would then look around himself, trying to figure out where the ball had gone. He'd finally see the ball, reach for it, miss it, pluck at it again and pick it up. By this time the batter had been safe at first for a good 15 or 20 minutes, of course. But give Orlando credit for trying.

Toronto also featured Vernon Wells in center field. Vernon is one of my favorite players, and not just because he single-handedly saved my fantasy team from last place, either. Vernon plays the game with a child's enthusiasm, and he also seems to have a child's attention span. I went to see Toronto last year, and Vernon kept gesturing at some fans who were taunting him. At the time, I thought nothing of it... just a guy having a little fun in a mid-summer game between two team approximately 235 games out of first. But having seen Vernon in action again yesterday, I'm starting to think he really does have an attention deficit problem.

First, there was the Jumbotron. A lot of players will sneak a peek at the Jumbotron occasionally, during a break in the action or to see a replay of a great catch. But Vernon kept looking up at it. He looked up between batters. He looked up every time they played an interesting song. He looked up during the Crab Shuffle. He was either fascinated by the Jumbotron, or bored with the game, or both.

Then there was the fidgeting. A lot of players will stretch or twist during the game to stay loose. But I've never seen anyone do as much of it as Vernon. He twitched. He stretched. He kicked at the grass. At one point, he dropped his chin to his chest, like he was dozing off. He looked like a kid in church, trying to keep himself awake.

And the interplay with the fans continued. Having nothing better to do, the O's fans in left field kept chanting "Ver-non, Ver-non" from about the fifth inning on, trying to get his attention. Well, it worked. Repeatedly. First Vernon waved at them to sit down. Then he put his finger to his lips and shushed them. Then he cupped his hand to his ear. Then he waved at them. Then he patted his ass (I presume the message he was conveying was something like "Up yours"). The more he tried to dismiss them, the louder they got (naturally).

But the capper, at least for me, came in the eighth inning. The Baltimore batter hit a foul ball behind home plate. Vernon took a step after it, realized were it was going, and stopped. I turned to Papa Shaft and said, "See, Vernon was all over that one. He was ready to run right over and grab it." Now, I didn't say this loudly. My voice carries reasonably well in a ballpark situation, but I was talking, not shouting. But Vernon must have heard his name, because he turned around, looked right up at me for a bit, waved and turned back to the game. While the game was going on! I was touched that Vernon wanted to be friends and all, but geez, aren't they paying you to play the outfield?

Apart from distracting Vernon, we spent most of the game thinking up smart remarks to capture the O's ineptitude. Miguel Tejada made a couple ugly errors in the first, leading to Blue Jay runs. A couple batters later, someone hit a foul ball into the stands, which a fan made a nice grab on. So the announcer said, "Give that fan a contract!" And I said, "Right now!" And a guy in the next section says, "Yeah, I hear there's an opening at shortstop." The rest of the game continued in this vein. Great day at the ballpark.

But enough about me. How are all of you?

Loyal reader Tripp seems to be feeling good, and he offers us all some advice, which he calls, appropriately enough, "Tripp's tips (on women)."

1. Women like men. It's genetic. Thank God! Accept it. Embrace it.

2. Be powerful and in control of yourself.

3. Wherever you are, be there. Most people are away from their bodies. Be in the moment.

4. Focus. Look. Listen. Keep eye contact, but break it now and then and look at the mouth, then back to the eyes. Ask a question, listen, then a follow-up. Then stop.

5. Devour life. Suck the juice out of it.

6. Enjoy being a Man.

7. Lose weight.

There are other things, details, but I think that is the general thrust.

A lot of money will be spent -- wasted, really -- on advice books and how-to manuals designed to plumb the depths of male-female mysteries. But Tripp seems to have matters pretty well in hand, all in seven easy points. I have the best readers in cyberspace.

That's enough for today. What will tomorrow bring? The excitement is killing me! Tune in and find out. 
Friday, April 23, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Taps"


Hello there, everyone. I usually don't start my posts with a moment of silence, but I think it's called for this time around. I just learned that Pat Tillman was killed in action in Afghanistan. In case you're not familiar, Tillman was a safety for the Arizona Cardinals who chose to enlist in the Army after September 11. He was only 27.

Now, I didn't know Tillman personally, but I knew of him. I'd seen him play against the Skins a few times, and he always struck me as a gutty, tencious little guy, playing beyond his ability. I always thought he'd be a good guy to have on your team. According to friends, his decision to enlist in the Army was entirely in keeping with his character. He demanded no special treatment in the army, refused to make a big deal of his induction, and applied for the elite Army Ranger unit, rather than some safer position.

Tillman's story fascinates me because he's the exception to the argument I made yesterday. He certainly had other options in life, most notably an NFL career that was far more lucrative than his military job. Some people may think Tillman made a dumb decision, but the man graduated summa cum laude from Arizona State, so he was clearly smart.

What drove Tillman? I don't know. He wouldn't say, and we can't ask him now. It's easy to call him a hero, and we certainly should, without reservation, because he is. I know I couldn't have done what he did, even without knowing how it turned out.

When I first heard the news about Tillman, my immediate reaction was, "Well, there's a true hero. Look at all he gave up." But that made me uncomfortable: Does heroism, or the degrree of heroism, depend on how much you give up? Does that mean that the kid who never graduated high school who gets killed in the line of duty is less of a hero than Tillman? And does that mean I was implying that the underprivileged folks in the armed services lack heroism?

Absolutely not. And if anyone took it that way, I apologize. To say that some soldiers didn't have a lot of options in life doesn't diminish their heroism in combat. I'm just saying that we shouldn't let cases like Tillman's blind us to the fact that the people going off to war and the people sending them there often live in awfully different worlds.

I was thinking a little more about my column yesterday evening, and it occurred to me that, at least in theory, there's nothing wrong with soldiers and statesmen belonging to different classes. The problem is that we can't acknowledge it in America, land of opportunity. Even if the evidence suggests that wealth and privilege tends to perpetuate itself from generation to generation, we still cling to the idea that this is a society of perfect mobility. In theory, it is. In theory, there's nothing stopping a kid from the projects from becoming the president of General Motors. There's no law against it. But if you actually look at the people who became president of General Motors, you'll notice that they weren't from the projects. The ranks of CEOs and company presidents, by and large, come from elite business schools, and elite business schools aren't really planted thick with kids from the projects.

I suppose the degree to which you perceive a problem depends on your definition of "equality." I think we can all agree that equality of results isn't what we're going for; socialism isn't especially desirable or efficient. So we usually say we want "equality of opportunity" instead. But do we have that? I mean, as I said above, in theory anyone in our society can do anything. But we don't all have the same distance to go to reach our goals. And to blame the underprivileged for not reaching higher or farther strikes me as unfair. If I dragged you out of bed tomorrow morning and threw you down at the foot of Mount Everest and came back a week later and asked why you hadn't climbed it yet, would you think that was fair?

A lot of wealthy parents talk a good game about wanting an equal opportunity for everyone, but when it comes to their own kids, it's straight into the elite private schools, internships and summer programs. Who can blame these parents for wanting what's best for their kids? I sure wouldn't. But aren't they ensuring that there won't be a fair fight right from the start? It's a thorny problem, to be sure.

And all of this on a Friday. My apologies. I was planning to hold off on the heavy class talk until Monday, but I saw the Tillman news and it brought everything back and I couldn't help myself.

And on that, I'll send you off to the weekend. Something more cheerful on Monday, I promise. See you then! 
Thursday, April 22, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Billy, Don't Be A Hero" by Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods


Hello, everybody. As the above headline suggests, we're talking draft today. And no, this column isn't going to have anything to do with Maurice Clarett, Eli Manning, the San Diego Chargers or Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We're not talking about that draft. (Although some quick hits for the curious: Clarett is a bust waiting to happen; Manning needs to shut his dad's yap and go where he's told; the Chargers should trade down; and Ginsburg is going to treat Clarett's appeal the same way opposing defensive lines will treat him if and when he makes the NFL, stopping it cold for no gain.) No, today's column involves people like Chuck Hagel, Charlie Rangel and Fritz Hollings. Today we discuss the idea of reviving the military draft.

Hagel reignited the issue recently when he called for a public debate on reviving the draft. The Republican senator from Nebraska feels that the draft, or something like it, would help to ensure that everyone's sharing in the sacrifice of the war on terror:

His main interest, he said, is to make sure that some kind of mandatory national service is considered so "the privileged, the rich" as well as the less affluent bear the burden of fighting wars of the future.

As you might guess, Hagel's suggestion hasn't been entirely well-received. I saw that Nick over at Begging to Differ dismissed Hagel's call with a throwaway line. The comments seems to be taking the same tone, calling Hagel "strange" and "a tool" and questioning Hagel's true motives. These motive-attribution specialists tend to focus on Hagel's supposed opposition to the Iraq war (actually, he supported the war but has criticized our postwar plan), and figure that calling for the draft to return is a dirty trick, designed to undermine public support for the war. They could be right, I suppose; anything's possible.

But let's try something really crazy. Let's imagine, if we can, that Hagel might actually be -- gasp! -- sincere. Well, then what could he possibly be thinking, right? Let's take a look at his argument and find out. If we're careful enough, we might actually discover that rarest of species: a politician caught speaking candidly.

Hagel's argument boils down to two basic points. The first is that the current ranks of the armed services aren't going to be enough to cover our ongoing military campaign in the age of terror:

President Bush is right that the country is engaged in a long-term war, Hagel said, and the country is "making commitments for future years that we cannot fulfill" in fighting terrorism and trying to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction. Already 40 percent of the ground troops in Iraq come from the National Guard and reserves, and recruitment and retention will be a problem, he said.

That 40 percent figure is pretty striking, isn't it? Two major offensives -- Afghanistan and Iraq -- and we're already going deep into our bench. Ask those reservists whose tours keep getting extended whether or not there's a manpower shortage.

How did this happen? Well, after we went to an all-volunteer force in '73, the ranks of the armed forces have been dwindling. Strangely enough, a lot of people don't seem particularly eager to sign up for a chance to be killed for our country. The military is hard work, and unlike previous generations, when the work alternatives might have been digging ditches or working on a farm, there are other choices which as far less physically demanding now. And some of the former allures of themilitary lifestyle are diminshed: People seeking adventure can pop in the latest video game and enjoy all the enxcitement and carnage with none of the personal risk, while people who want to see the world can do that on their own, or see it on TV.

Of course, from the late '70s through the '90s, when our military excursions were fairly limited, it didn't matter so much. Even a depleted force was enough to win Grenada, or the Persian Gulf War. We seemed to be headed toward a period of reduced military involvement in the world, so the shrinking ranks of the armed services was a trivial concern.

After September 11, though, suddenly we had a vast and fairly immediate need for increased military presence. Toss in the gung-ho war enthusiasm of President Bush, whose conception of our role in geopolitical affairs seems to have derived from the board game Risk, and suddenly those decades of shrinkage are a problem. We're fine for now with the force we have, although our presence in Iraq is fairly thin. But what about the next conflict? Or the one after that?Our crusading battle plan figures us to need reinforcements before too long.

Hagel's second point is that, among those who do choose to go into the military, the ranks are disproportionately tilted toward the poor and disadvantaged:

Moreover, he said, all Americans should be asked to "share the sacrifice" of protecting their country. "It's unfair to ask only a few people to bear the burden of fighting and dying," he said.

It's this point, I think, that makes the subject so uncomfortable for everyone.

Speaking for myself, I have no desire whatsoever to be in the military. I don't think I have the temperament to be a good soldier, I don't like being shouted at, and I'm not at all eager to be trained to kill people. Fortunately for me, college was a viable option, and as a result I never seriously considered a military career.

But my family was fairly well-off. What if I hadn't been so lucky? What if college hadn't been available to me? In a country of vanishing blue-collar opportunities, the military is one of the best tickets to a respectable standard of living for someone without an education. If it had been a choice between the military and a life stocking shelves at Wal-Mart, for instance, suddenly the Army looks a lot more appealing.

Now, so as to avoid ugly and pointless side squabbling, let me point out that I am not opposed to the military as a career choice, and I do not demean anyone who is in it. I have nothing but respect for those who choose to serve our country. I'm saying that, given the same opportunities that I had, a number of poor people who entered the military might have made a different choice.

And that's not right. What did I do to deserve my wider slate of opportunities? Nothing in particular; I just ran with the opportunities I was handed. It's more akin to the lottery than anything else. And again, I'm not disparaging military service, but if it's the best option out there, why aren't more sons of privilege running to the recruiting centers? (It's not just me: The people I know of my generation and rough socioeconomic class aren't joining the service, either.)

And as the body count rises in Iraq and further wars loom, this will only make recruiting harder. And who will be the first people to drop out of the service? Those people who have the best available alternatives, of course. Whereas the military might have seemed like a decent alternative to a boring desk job in peacetime, maybe the elevated risk of death will make that desk job look more enticing. The longer the war on terror goes on, the more our military will be composed of people who don't have other options.

This is the heart of the problem: The left doesn't want to revive the draft because they don't want to be drafted (or have their children drafted). The right doesn't like the draft because it might diminish the country's enthusiasm for war quite a bit if they or their children were being sent off to fight.

But who likes being drafted? The whole point of a draft is to put people in the military who don't willingly choose to go. The question is whether we really view the concept of patriotic duty as something that should be shared by everyone, or whether we're comfortable allowing the underclasses to make up the bulk of the fighting forces. (I had this argument with my friends a couple years ago. They scoffed when I said that prior to September 11, the military had turned into a giant jobs program for the underprivileged. But think about the recruiting commercials: lot of people scaling mountain cliffs and slogans like "An Army of One," and not a lot of people killing and being killed in foreign countries.)

So I think Hagel's right. I'm not saying (and neither is Hagel) that a draft is absolutely the right way to go, but I think it's time we talked about it. I don't feel comfortable with the hypocrisy of sending other people off to die to make the world safe for me and my middle-class lifestyle. If I was absolutely sure that everyone over there wanted to go, that would be one thing. But I see a lot of these young people, and I can't help wondering if, had they been given the same opportunities I had, they'd be sitting here in an air-conditioned office firing off blog posts instead of standing in the desert with guns in hand.

I agree with Hagel, though, that if we did have some sort of compulsory-service requirement, it should include a domestic civil-service option. I don't think that sticking guns in the hands of a bunch of people who really don't want to fight is the answer, either. But if we're truly committed to the idea of national sacrifice, why should the majority of the sacrifice be borne by those already carrying the heaviest loads?

Fascinating column by Marc Fisher in today's Post offering a re-assessment of Jim Moran. Fisher has been one of Moran's harshest critics in the past, and while I wouldn't say he's become a fan, he does seem captivated by Moran's candid self-criticism in the wake of his outrageous incidents. And who wouldn't be charmed by a story like this:

Moran tells a story about the time a guy showed up at his house outside Boston to ask Moran's father to sign a petition protesting the arrival of a black family in the neighborhood. "My father hauled off and punched him in the nose -- knocked him off his feet," Moran recalls. "He was right, but he was wrong with his emotions."

"Just like my father, we're very emotional," Moran says. "I never considered myself a distinguished politician, because I'm not distinguished. I'm not a good fit here. I'm just a guy who leads with his emotions."

This is exactly why Moran is so hard to capture in one-dimensional portrait: he really can be charming and winning, and he's definitely in line with his district on the issues. He can be an ardent and eloquent advocate for his causes. And he seems reasonably self-aware for someone with such poor self-control at times. He's not stupid.

Fisher, I think, nails the problem on the head: "He is like the kid who is forever getting into trouble at school, but winningly admits his errors. You just wish he could stop messing up." If he's so good at realizing what he does wrong and when he's screwed up, why can't he stop himself?

It's the age-old problem with him. If he pigheadedly refused to admit that he ever did anything wrong, it would be easy to dismiss him as a raging jerk and toss him out on his ear. (This was the basic thesis of my post on Moran last year.) But if he's self-aware and genuinely remorseful for the things he does, what do you do with him? I think that at some point, intent matters less than actions, and Moran has to pay the price for stepping over the line, no matter how sorry he is. Fisher's column made Moran vastly more interesting as a person. But I'm still voting for Andy Rosenberg.

A moment of silence for columnist Mary McGrory, who passed away after a long illness at age 85. I always liked McGrory's writing, but I liked her even more after I found out that she was the Cleopatra of journalism:

McGrory could command senators to sing old hymns for her lasagna; her lawn boys went on to senior positions in government and journalism; and through nearly 50 years of covering politics she managed, by flirtation and intimidation, always to avoid schlepping her own suitcase.

There's a lady with clout, I tell you. We'll miss you, Mary.

Finally, Kevin Hayden from American Street weighs in on the idea of picking up dates at a women's-rights march:

If you offerred aromatherapeutic footbaths with foot massages and toenail painting at a women's rights march, I bet you'd find plenty of babes willing to forgive your transparent chauvinistic leanings and do the weegie-weegie with you.

Retention requires a 45 inch penis and a platinum Visa card with a $500,000 limit though.

I don't know whether to be delighted or depressed that my readers are funnier than I am.

That's all for today. Slop tomorrow! 
Wednesday, April 21, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Lulu's Back in Town" by Fats Waller


Hey there, everybody! Not feeling inspired to write about much of anything at the moment, so I thought I'd do what I usually do at times like this, and post up some comments for public inspection and discussion. Fortunately, I've received a few witty and perceptive comments, making this task all the easier. So let's get started!

Leading off, loyal reader Tripp took exception to my contention in Friday's post that "the kind of women who go to women's-rights marches are probably the kind of women who wouldn't take kindly to being hit on at such a march." Tripp had this to say in response:

Geez, Fred, no women anywhere wants to be hit on. But if you know what you are doing, a women's rights march is a great place to meet high quality women!

Unless they are lesbians, (which is fine), women *like* men. It is in their genes. The potential is always there. So where you meet them has little to do with hooking up, if you know what you are doing.

I concede that "hit on" is not the best phrasing, in that it implies a poor technique, calling to mind a greasy-haired hotshot who refers to all women as "babe" and thinks "So, do you have any raisins? How about a date?" qualifies as witty byplay. Indeed, the key phrase to Tripp's argument is "if you know what you are doing." If you know what you are doing, you're likely to have success wherever you go. If you don't know what you're doing, choice of venue isn't likely to help you much.

Still, I can't help thinking that trying to meet women at a woman's-rights march is a tad bit cynical, isn't it? Ladies, what do you think? Have you met anyone at a march? Feel free to weigh in below.

Next up, a couple comments on Monday's column about the Mike Danton case. Tripp responded to my cranky challenge to the gay-bashers, asking them if they felt at all to blame for Danton's actions:

I can't speak for gay-bashers, but I would expect that at least some of them would take that sad story and conclude that the gay 'lifestyle,' while certainly a choice, ultimately leads to tragedy. They would take no blame at all.

Tripp's right, of course. There are some people who probably think Danton got what he deserved for making the wrong "lifestyle choice." I just have trouble understanding how it is that people who have that position can claim to love all humanity. I suppose if you truly believe that homosexuality is a sin against God, rather than a biological inclination, you wouldn't have a problem reconciling your position. But it doesn't seem consistent to me.

Even if you do feel that homosexuality is a sin, is this the way you want to see it played out? Does it seem right for Danton to have to choose between career ruin and murder? If so... well, you and I have very different value systems, that's all I can say. (And I mean the general "you," not Tripp in particular. I don't mean to imply that he feels this way.)

We also have an update on Danton's case from our new man Frinklin over at Frinklin Speaks.

Have you followed the most recent Danton case revelations? Today in ESPN it came to light that his agent, David Frost, might have been the target. Furthermore, Frost has been banned from 2 junior leagues in Canada for "having a strong influence over a core of young players". This just keeps getting uglier.

I had heard something about this yesterday, actually. I've done a little background research on Frost, and it does seem that he's a deeply creepy character. I mean really creepy. Everywhere Frost has gone (and he's a pretty powerful influence in Canadian youth hockey), he's been trailed by accusations of wielding a "cult-like influence" over his players. Frost is definitely bad medicine by all accounts, and a troubled young player like Danton surely wasn't helped at all by having Frost around.

And I find it odd that, in every story discussing the accusations thrown at Frost, they always take pains to point out that Frost was never accused of doing anything "of a sexual nature" to his players. Methinks they doth protest too much. Sadly, accusations of sexual abuse are not unknown in Canadian youth hockey. (Anyone remember the Graham James case?

Jim Buzinski over at Out Sports looks at the evidence and concludes that Danton was a closeted homosexual. I don't like to rush to conclusions about anyone's personal life, but really, it's the only way the evidence we have so far adds up. (And incidentally, Buzinski's article is pretty funny... my favorite line describes the 19-year-old woman who helped Danton hire the hit man: "What a handy friend to have. I have friends who can fix my car, get me a cheap airline ticket or help me buy a laptop. But for the life of me, I can’t think of any who could, on a few hours notice, find me a hit man."

Finally, on the topic of friend-crushes, Tripp weighs in again. Friend-crushes usually come off as a sad story (they certainly did in Matt Brochu's article), but Tripp sees the happy side:

This happens to me all the time, and I'm certainly happy that I can now deal with it much better than before. In my youth, I could not handle it at all, and would avoid any such situation. A few years ago I decided to change that.

I should point out that I am happily married, intend to stay that way, and have never cheated on my wife (for 22 years)! But a few years ago I had the chance to work with a group of very attractive women. My choice was simple, be around them as a friend, or not at all.

I chose to be around them, and overall it is great! Have I had 'crushes?' Oh, yeah. Have I acted on them? Nope. The benefits are that I get to see and be around some great women, they are hot as hell, and this makes me even more attractive to other women! (See the pivot theory.) The downside is that I have to restrain myself, out of self-respect and respect for Mrs. Davenport, but that is not really so awful.

I've gotten more self-confidence, my libido has been kicked up a notch, and I've certainly been more cheerful!

So I highly recommend it! Women are to be enjoyed, and just because you are on a diet doesn't mean you can't read the menu!

Well said, Tripp! As you become older, I think you learn to deal better with friend-crushes, and put them in their proper perspective, as Tripp clearly has. A little harmless flirting never hurt anyone; in fact, it's a fairly affirmative sort of thing, and makes everyone feel better so long as no one takes it too seriously. The world is definitely better with women in it, as Tripp points out.

I think proper perspective on friend-crushes comes once you get settled in your own romantic life. Once you've figured out the person you'd like to spend your life with, and you're safely down that path, passing attractions to other women are just that: a little spice to liven up an otherwise dull daily routine. It's during those high-school and college years, when nothing is settled and you don't know what you want, that friend-crushes can be painful. That's what I remember from my experience.

It was high school, junior year. She wasn't the most beuatiful woman I'd ever met, but she was attractive in her own right. And she was smart, funny, sarcastic, romantic without being overly sentimental. She'd do anything for a friend, from lending money to spending an entire evening with someone who didn't want to be alone. We hit it off right away. Our senses of humor meshed, and we saw the softer side in each other that we tended to keep hidden. Sounds swell, right?

Only she was into college guys. She kept seeing one older guy after another, and of course I got to pick up the pieces every time things fell apart, as they often did. And in turn, she'd console me over my lack of success with the opposite sex. My running gag concerned my imaginary girlfriend. I kept her entertained by sharing stories of evenings curled up by my imaginary fireplace with my imaginary girlfriend. Around the holidays, I began telling her how my imaginary girlfriend and I were going to sit by the fire and sip eggnog. Good for a laugh.

Then, the last day before winter break, I walked into my first-period class and there on my desk was a quart of eggnog and a single red rose. No card. None was necessary.

Of course, she was seeing someone then (when wasn't she?). She was still seeing the same fellow on Valentine's Day, and when she came into first period that day, she wasn't her usual cheerful self. She was quiet, and kept dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. She said she was fine, but when class ended she dashed out into the hall. I went out after her, and found her in a corner crying. I didn't say anything... I just wrapped my arms around her and held her. As she leaned into me, she explained that her clod of a boyfriend had dumped her on Valentine's Day, of all days. I told her she deserved better, much better. Then I held her some more.

I never fessed up to my feelings. I was an enormous coward in high school. C'est la vie. Like Tripp, I've gotten much better about these things since.

At any rate, that's all for today. See you tomorrow! 
Tuesday, April 20, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Dance to the Music" by Sly and the Family Stone


Hello, everybody! Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice are back to share their outlook on life and romance with the rest of us suffering souls. Today's column was filed from San Diego, where our favorite couple has gone to check out the Padres' new Petco Park. I couldn't help thinking that today's column seems more affectionate than usual... have the two lovebirds managed to patch things up for good? Take a look and judge for yourself, as Mediocre Fred presents...

- - - - -

In the Spring A Young Man's Fancy Turns Lightly To Thoughts of Love and Fish Tacos, by Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice

UM: Hello, lads! Greetings from beautiful sun-soaked San Diego. At present, my lovely wife and I are watching the Padres play the Giants in a bar across the street from the fabulous-looking Petco Park.

AB: Now, some of you might be wondering why we're not watching the game from inside Petco Park. And that's because the game is in San Francisco. In a display of his usual brilliant planning, Uncle Millie cleverly got us to San Diego just in time for a Padres' road trip.

UM: A technical error, my dear. A mistake anyone could make.

AB: And a mistake no one else does seem to make, except you.

UM: My apologies. I simply read the schedule incorrectly.

AB: Perhaps this is because you read the schedule in between your 11th and 12th glasses of wine at Easter supper. Thank you also for embarrassing me completely at dinner.

UM: Ah, yes, I also wished to tell you lads about the lovely Easter celebration we had. We invited several members of Beatrice's family, and as many of my children as I could remember.

AB: It was a lovely dinner, marred only by the fact that, apparently, no one has ever explained to Uncle Millie that "So, did you get yourself some keister for Easter?" is not an appropriate question for the table.

UM: The ham, my dear. I was referring to the fact that we were eating the rear end of the ham.

AB: The accompanying hand gestures would suggest otherwise.

UM: Oh, come now, my dear, I was bonding with your family. A little randy talk among gentlemen is to be expected.

AB: So what's your excuse for asking my nephew? He's not a gentleman yet.

UM: Not technically, but he's old enough to understand the humor in it.

AB: Millie, he's 6.

UM: Um, well... why don't we get to the letters?

AB: Good idea. You can read the letter, and I'll keep an eye out to make sure we don't get hit by any foul balls.

UM: Droll, my dear. Very droll.

Dear Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice,

I'm 27, and I've been having trouble building a good relationship. Usually, things will go along fine for a month or two, then it will fizzle. And the girls I've dated almost always say the same thing: that I'm not romantic enough. I'm not sure what they mean by this. I mean, I'm not the type to go buy a girl a dozen roses on a whim, but it's not like I'm showing up for dates in ripped jeans and taking them to tractor pulls. So maybe you can help me. What does it mean when a woman wants you to "be more romantic," and what do I do about it?

Maurice in Cleveland

UM: Ah, lad, you've run smack-bang into one of the trickiest phrases in the female lexicon. And you've certainly come to the right place for guidance on this matter. Uncle Millie has had his share of these experiences, and after much painful trial and error, I've cracked the code. "Be more romantic" is woman-speak for "high-maintenance."

AB: Woman-speak?

UM: Yes, my dear. As a woman yourself, you grew up fluent in it, so I don't expect you to understand. But when a woman says, "I like a man who's romantic," she's really saying, "I'm more trouble than I'm worth."

AB: I see.

UM: What do you do about it, lad? Run! Get away from that woman as far and as fast as you can, and count your blessings that you figures her out before she could start hitting you up for really expensive things, like caviar and jewelry.

AB: Hi, Maurice. Uncle Millie is completely wrong, of course, but you must forgive him. When he opens his mouth, you see, that's Millie-speak for "I'm about to say something stupid." As he's just proven.

UM: Touche, my dear.

AB: Oh, now, you grew up fluent in this, so I don't expect you to understand. Maurice, if you want to know what she really means, it's very simple. A lot of guys, when they're dating, focus too much on the mechanics: where to go, what to talk about, how best to grope her breast when she's not looking. Someone at this bar behaves just this way.

UM: That fellow down on the end in the fisherman's hat nursing a whiskey sour, you mean?

AB: Yes, dear, of course it's him. At any rate, Maurice, if you focus too much on the mechanics, you miss the meaning. You have to make the woman feel special. It's like poetry: yes, you have to make sure the words fit the meter and that the rhymes work, but it also has to be beautiful and evocative. You're focusing too much on the words and not enough on the feeling.

UM: Ah, yes, poetry. Remember that, lad. Women like poetry. They think it's romantic. So I recommend you learn some. When picking poetry to learn, aim for the ones that have love and flowers in them, and avoid the ones that start "There once was a man from Nantucket." You and I know the latter are the best kind of poetry, but women don't find them romantic enough, for some reason.

AB: As usual, Uncle Millie completely misses the point. Romance isn't a checklist. It's an attitude. Different women find different things romantic. The key is to talk to your woman and really listen to her. See what she finds romantic. Find little ways to make her feel like she's the most important person in your life. Romance is a very personal and individual thing.

UM: Candy and flowers usually do the trick.

AB: Once again, Uncle Millie proves that he wouldn't know romance if it dumped its Cosmopolitan in his lap.

UM: Oh, my dear, I don't know what you're talking ab- Hey!

AB: Oops.

UM: Bartender! Another Cosmopolitan for the lady, and a napkin for my lap. Thank you.

Dear Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice,

I'm 36, recently divorced, and I've had, shall we say, a steady stream of women friends visiting my apartment lately. This is not a problem. The problem is my next-door neighbor. For whatever reason, she's decided that my personal life is bothering her. I don't really know why; I'm always discreet and don't make too much noise at odd hours. But she's decided that I'm doing something wrong, I guess, and has elected to sabotage me. Like if she sees one of my dates about to knock on my door, she'll say something like, "Gee, you don't look anything like the girl who was here last night," or "So, what's it like dating an alcoholic?" or "I hope you don't find out about his violent side." Things like that. She does this with most of the women I have over.

My question: Is it permissible to have her killed?

Rick in Half Moon Bay

AB: Hi, Rick. Sorry to hear about your situation. It sounds like you're long overdue to sit down and have a talk with your neighbor. Explain to her that you don't think it's right for her to do this, and ask her why she does it. Is it possible she thinks you're still married? Sometimes women will stand up for each other if they think a member of the sisterhood is being wronged. I know I would.

UM: Oh, lad, my sympathies are with you. I've had a similar experience myself. I once had a neighbor who waited on her front porch for my dates to come by, and shouted out "Whatever you do, don't let him take you into the basement!" It was quite an irritation. As it turned out, my neighbor was jealous. She wanted to see me herself.

AB: Of course she did.

UM: At any rate, I've checked the statutes, and it's not legal to dispatch your neighbor. It should be, though.

AB: This from the man who's been shot at by more angry husbands and boyfriends than he can remember.

UM: That's to be expected. It's territorial warfare. This sabotage of the neighbor's is a guerrilla tactic. It has no place on the battlefield of love.

AB: War is hell, isn't it?

UM: Aye, my love. It certainly is.

Dear Aunt Beatrice,

I'm a loyal reader, and I've noticed that we have plenty of information about Uncle Millie and his past, but not very much about you. So tell us a little bit about yourself. Where do you come from? How old are you? Have you been married before? Do you have children? Do you have any interesting life stories? How did you meet Uncle Millie? What do you see in him? Any information you wish to give would be much appreciated. Thanks for your great advice! Don't let Uncle Millie wear you down!

Aunt Beatrice Fan in Baxter Springs

AB: Oh, well, thank you very much. Is that you, Mom?

UM: Surely not, my dear. Just someone who thinks highly of you. Just like myself.

AB: Well, whoever it is, I appreciate you writing in. You're very kind. So, what can I tell you about me? Well, I was born in Buffalo, New York. I grew up watching movies at the old Shea's Theater on Main Street. How old am I? Well, they say a lady never tells, so I'll just say that I'm "of a certain age."

UM: "A certain age" in this case being 46.

AB: Thank you so much.

UM: You said a lady never tells her age. Didn't say anything about her husband.

AB: Uncle Millie sure is something, isn't he, folks? I was married once before -- my former husband passed away in a car accident -- and I've never had children, although I've tried to be a sort of surrogate mother for Uncle Millie's brood, since most of them have mothers who are, to be kind, somewhat troubled.

UM: She has the right of it, lads. I've had a great many crazy women in my life. My beloved Beatrice is surely not one of those.

AB: Well, thank you. My life stories aren't that interesting, although I used to work at a shelter for stray animals, and I'll bet a lot of those animals would have told fascinating stories if they could talk. I've also done some social work, so I suppose you could say that I like to help everyone on the margins of society. Which explains my relationship with Uncle Millie.

UM: Go on, my dear, tell them how we met.

AB: Well, Uncle Millie had passed out on my front lawn after a night of heavy drinking, and I went out to see if he was all right. He looked up and said, "Am I dead? Is this heaven? If it is, the angels are even prettier than I thought." Which, I'll admit, was a touching line.

UM: Especially from a man battling a truly brutal hangover. Talk about performing under pressure!

AB: And that, I suppose, explains what I see in him. He has his share of flaws -- more than his share, really -- but in spite of himself, he knows how to be really romantic when he wants to be. And despite significant evidence to the contrary, he has a good heart. He comes off as a clod a lot of the time, but deep down, he isn't.

UM: That's the sweetest thing anyone's ever said to me, my dear.

AB: Anyway, I guess that's all there is to know about me.

UM: Not at all, lad. She's not told you the whole story. She's not told you how she's still as beautiful and kind today as she seemed to my fevered vision that morning on her lawn.

AB: Oh, Millie, that's sweet.

UM: And let me tell you, lad, there aren't many women who'll stick around if you throw up on them at your first meeting. I have significant experience in this regard. My Beatrice is one of the few who did.

AB: That's, um, nice too. I think.

UM: So she may try to tell you she's nothing special, but it's not true. She's the most special woman I know.

AB: Millie-

UM: Now, granted, she's not as flexible as she used to be, which can create certain problems in bed-

AB: And once again, Uncle Millie's diarrhea of the mouth ruins a perfectly beautiful moment. He is who he is.

UM: And you love it, too, don't you?

AB: Say good night, Millie.

UM: Good night, Millie. Happy hunting!

- - - - -

Thank you, Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice. See, aren't those crazy kids something special? Look for them again in this space in two weeks.

Let me send a shout-out to the newest addition to my blogroll, Frinklin Speaks. He's a new kid on the block, but I like his sense of humor and his love of baseball. He's a Mariners fan, which is all right in my book. Give him a look and tell him Mediocre Fred sent you.

That's all for today. See you tomorrow! 
Monday, April 19, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Get It While You Can" by Janis Joplin


Good day, all. Today I'm wrapped up in a rather bizarre story that broke over the weekend, the Mike Danton case. For those who haven't heard, Danton is a defenseman for the St. Louis Blues. He was arrested for attempting to hire a hitman to kill someone with whom he was having a rocky relationship. It's a very bizarre and sad story, but the saddest part of all is that Danton may have done what he did to conceal his homosexuality. If so, this story goes from strange to tragic, and illustrates exactly what's wrong with persecuting people based on who they love.

I happened to catch the headline by chance on Friday night, and the blurb said something about Danton ordering a hit on someone with whom he'd had "a romantic relationship gone awry." I didn't examing the story all that closely, and I assumed that Danton's target was a woman. I passed the story on to a friend, and I believe I said something like, "I've had some crazy girlfriends before, but geez..." Good for a laugh on a Friday night.

My outlook on the story changed when I read King Kaufman's column this morning in Salon. (As usual with Salon, you have to be a subscriber or click through an ad to read.) Kaufman had read an account of the story that made it clear that the target was a man, but avoided all mention of a romantic link between the men. Kaufman put two and two together and concluded that the man was Danton's gay lover.

Take a look at some passage from the news story and Kaufman's conclusion seems probable:

The complaint alleges that Danton was trying to kill a male acquaintance whom he had fought with Tuesday over Danton's "promiscuity and use of alcohol." The complaint said Danton feared the acquaintance, who is not identified, would talk to Blues management and ruin Danton's career...

Though the affidavit is vague, the complaint states that Danton broke into tears when the male acquaintance confronted him about the alleged murder plot. It also states that Danton "felt the acquaintance was going to leave him"...

Danton, formerly known as Mike Jefferson, has been estranged from his family for some time and changed his name to Danton in the summer of 2002.

Danton's break from his family is just part of his reportedly turbulent personal background and the current complaint has prompted speculation into the nature of his relationship with the alleged target.

Kaufman points out in his column that most of us don't break into tears at the thought of acquaintances "leaving us," and that revelations of "promsicuity and use of alcohol" wouldn't ruin anyone's career. But if the man was Danton's lover, then it all fits. It's easy to imagine Danton thinking that being publicly outed would ruin his career. And while there are plenty of reasons why someone might have a falling out with his family, homosexuality is certainly one possibility.

If this interpretation of the story is true, pause to think for a minute just how sad that is. Having already fallen out with his family over his sexual preferences, now his lover threatens to take the story public. Danton fears that his career, probably the best thing he has going for him, would be in jeopardy. He's so afraid of this, in fact, that he'd commit murder in order to prevent himself from being outed. All this just because he loves men. Kaufman put it quite succinctly: "It's possible that Danton decided that it was worth killing to avoid being outed. That would be a pretty clear statement about how damaging a place the closet can be."

So are you happy now, gay bashers? Do you feel satisfied, religious zealots? Does this make you feel good, repressed America? Is this what you want? Do you want people in Danton's position to have to choose between career suicide and murder? Do you want gay people to live miserable, cramped lives, to live in fear, to never enjoy the bliss of open romance that the rest of us take for granted? Do you want people like Danton to suffer terrible fates just because they happen to love someone who's not on the societally-approved list? Does that make you feel better about yourselves? Does Danton's story help you sleep better at night?

If your answer is "yes," then I really have nothing to say to you. I can't help but wonder about the sort of twisted value system that causes you to endorse the denial of someone else's humanity just because of their sexual preference, but I'm sure you have your reasons. Fine. But we're not really going to be able to converse about this, because we are standing on entirely different philosophical planes.

If Danton's story does make you uncomfortable, though, I'd ask you to reflect a minute on the lesson in that. Think about the human cost of our insistence on repression for the sake of some hazy societal benefit. Assuming that there even is a societal benefit to imposing male-female pairings on people who aren't interested in them.

I feel strongly about this, because I understand love. And I feel a personal connection here, too. I'm not gay, but I do love The Smart Lady. Because she and I are of different races, I know that had this happened a few decades before in this country, our relationship would have been strongly disapproved, if not out-and-out illegal. I know how I'd feel if someone told me I couldn't have a relationship with The Smart Lady because of who she was, so I'm strongly disinclined to tell anyone else who they should and shouldn't love. If we're going to do that, we'd better have a damned good reason. And the theoretical societal benefit isn't reason enough.

Kaufman sees reason for hope in this terrible story. He notes that several of Danton's teammates have come forward to say that if he is gay, they'd have no problem with that. This is a heartening sign of progress in the athletic world. And Kaufman hopes that perhaps Danton's story may help some other player to realize that the cost of silence is just too damaging, and that he'd be better off revealing the truth about his preferences. I hope Kaufman's right, because if that does happen, at least something positive will have come out of all this.

End of rant. Sorry to be so preachy, but I couldn't help it. I'll be back to trivial fluff mode in no time.

Great article in today's Post about friend-crushes, those painful situations where one half of a Platonic pair secretly wishes for more, but doesn't speak up for fear of ruining the friendship. A student at UMass named Matt Brochu wrote about it in the college paper, and the response was overwhelming. And why wouldn't it be? It's an experience many people (especially high-school and college-age people) have, but it's seldom discussed. I've had a friend-crush or two in my time, and the story rings true from my perspective.

Has this happened to you? If it has, feel free to leave a comment describing your experience. I know you've just been dying to get it off your chest, and you're among friends here, in this cozy little corner of cyberspace. Let's talk.

All right, enough for today. Tomorrow, more on the love theme, as Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice return to share their unique spin on the subject. See you tomorrow! 
Friday, April 16, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Paradise By the Dashboard Light" by Meat Loaf


Good day, all! Today I want to spotlight a theory of politics and parenting, offered up by loyal reader Tripp. Tripp's always good at adding to a discussion, and his theory is a useful supplement to my discussion on Iraq from Tuesday. In that piece, I made the following comment about Bush's Iraq defenders: "These people seem to envision our role in the world as parental, and specifically the kind of parent who enforces discipline via the paddle in the closet." Tripp took my comment and ran with it:

Now, regarding how US citizens view the US - I think a simple way to separate Republicans vs Democrats is how they view proper parenting style. Republicans champion the 'Stern Father' approach, and Democrats champion the 'Nurturing Parents' approach. Feel free to project that model onto their religion and politics as you wish.

He expanded on this in a later comment:

If you look at the tone of how we relate to the world, you'll see a stern parent chastizing and disciplining (with force) his errant children. Is it a wonder that doesn't sit well with our "children?"

We had a local incident years ago where a good family had a rebellious teen and tried discipline, then strict discipline, then finally "tough love."

Sadly, David Brom, the teen, killed his entire family (including his younger brother and sister) with an axe one night. His older brother, living outside the house, was spared. David is spending life in prison.

I've probably pushed the analogy farther than it should be pushed, but there sure seem to be some lessons there.

Good stuff, Tripp. I imagine some libertarian-oriented Republicans would accuse Tripp of painting with too broad a brush, but I think he's on target, particularly as regards this administration. Their motto might as well be "We Know What's Best For You." Think the tax cuts are bad economic policy? You're too young to understand. Think Cheney's Halliburton dealings are shady? It's not your place to ask questions. Why do Bush and Cheney have to go before the 9/11 commission together? Because they said so.

The "Stern Father" analogy is particularly useful when applied to Iraq. We're going to go in and organize a government for the people of Iraq, because we know what's best for them. They may rebel at first, but in the end they'll realize we're right. It amounts to a paternalistic attitude that we used to associate with colonialism, before that went out of fashion. Somewhere, Rudyard Kipling is mumbling about "the white man's burden" even as we speak.

I think the David Brom case is definitely food for thought... if we respond to rebellion in Iraq by cracking down harder and harder, it seems probable that sooner or later the situation will snap, and things will get really ugly. The administration seems to think, as it often has, that once we convince the rebels that we're tough enough, they'll back down. Well, it strikes me that they already know we're tough. After all, we just steamrolled their country. The problem is convincing the rebels, and the population of Iraq generally, that our intentions are good, and that we want to help Iraq recover and grow, not place it under our imperialist yoke.

The White House seems to think that most of the Iraqi population thinks that we're the good guys here, and that once we stamp out the rabble-rousers, everyone else will fall in line and do what we want them to. (The Iraqi population, in this formulation, is like Richard Nixon's "Silent Majority" on Vietnam.) But I see no reason to believe this is true. Plenty of Iraqis, perhaps even most, are glad Saddam is gone. But that doesn't mean they're all that much happier to see us. We envision ourselves as the guys in the white hats, John Wayne riding in to save the day. But you'll have to forgive the Iraqis if they're a little slow to pick up the connection; I don't imagine that Westerns are part of their cultural lore.

Triyng to create a better life for oppressed people is a good and noble cause. Forcing our notion of a better life on them is considerably less noble. I think we dramatically overestimated the degree to which Iraqis would either see our inherent goodness or be so grateful to us for toppling Saddam that they'd listen to us. We didn't prepare adequately for the resistance we've encountered and will continue to encounter. And if we intend to solve the problem by waving the paddle at them and telling them to behave or else... well, that's not going to end well.

What do the rest of you think of Tripp's theory? Is he on to something? Leave your comments below. We'll get you that MacArthur "genius grant" yet, Tripp.

Incidentally, take a look at this headline in Salon: "Powell leads offensive to placate Arabs." If "offensive" was the AP's own word choice, they really should find a less loaded term. If the term "offensive" was the Bush administration's idea... well, we're in even bigger trouble than I figured.

Speaking of word choice: Last night I was headed home and encountered a man and a woman at the Metro station handing out flyers for a women's-rights march. "Come to the women's-rights march," they said. "Big women's-rights march in Washington next week." Not too many people were taking the flyers, so the woman handing them out decided to alter her sales pitch. "Great place to meet women!" she said. "Gonna be lots of women there."

Now, it occurs to me that the kind of women who go to women's-rights marches are probably the kind of women who wouldn't take kindly to being hit on at such a march. The Smart Lady suggested that the incident reminded her of Chris Rock's line about going to abortion-rights marches to pick up loose women. If there are any guys who heard the woman's pitch and decide to give it a shot: Let me know how that works out for you.

All right, time to start rolling downhill toward the weekend. See you Monday! 
Valium for the soul. Don't worry, none of those pesky strong opinions here. All are welcome. No shirt, no shoes, no service.

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