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Sunday, October 31, 2004


I wanted to post on Friday, but I got home from school late on Thursday, after another 5 am day following another sleepless night. Next thing you know, I was taking an unscheduled nap, which started with falling asleep in front on the computer. By the time I woke up, the cable news shows had started, and I had to see how they were spinning the day's events. One show led into another, including a double dose of Hardball and the second airing of The Daily Show, and by the time that wrapped up it was too late to start writing about politics. So now I sit eating Halloween candy and spilling my guts.

There's a word for what I have, according to the Washington Post. It's PEAD, and it stands for Pre-Election Anxiety Disorder. Millions of Americans are suffering from it, fueled by the media overdrive, the multiplying polls, the growing lawsuits and gathering lawyers in states from Florida to Oregon. This, on top of the emotional stress many of us on both sides feel about whatever handbag the world will go to hell in should the other candidate be elected. The specter of terrorists running wild in the streets has been fueled in our imaginations, but the true terror has been sown by political operatives on both sides who seek to control the electorate as much as possible, and to the degree that is not possible, remove them from the picture altogether. The mere fact that I speak of "operatives on both sides" is bound to result in volleys of email from readers ranting about how much worse the other side is then their own. I can't even mock them for their obsession, because I am in the throes of it myself.

Meanwhile, the page at which runs the story on Pre-Election Anxiety Disorder displays a huge ad for CNN's America Votes 2004 coverage, featuring the grim visages of the two combatants. Links lead to "The Pundits Pick," the Post's electoral college map, and the results of their latest tracking poll. This is not what I need. I need pictures of puppies and bunnies and stories of Halloween and Indian Summer. I need a trip to Disney World. Except that it's in Florida, which is a swing state, and which has already had voting problems, and where the final vote is bound to be contested again this year, no matter who wins.

I can't wait until Wednesday. Like the majority of Americans (according to the polls), I don't expect the election to be resolved by then. I expect there to be court challenges in several states. I believe there's a good chance that victory will eventually be granted to the side which wins the most cases, rather than the one which wins the most votes. But at least by Wednesday I'll know which states are in contention, and I won't be constantly checking the news to see the latest poll results in Nevada or New Mexico or now, Hawaii, for god's sake. Recounts will allow me to focus just on Florida and Ohio and whatever other states come into question. I'll still be obsessed, and burning with a white hot anger, but at last the issues will be clear.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

This Is My Day

It begins with a stop at, and thanks to whatever well-meaning friend brought that site to my attention. (This is where the punctuation for "sarcastic" that my friend Brian wants would come in handy.) It has since become a focal point of my obsession. The Votemaster (as he calls himself) of the site is an avowed Democrat, but he is scrupulously ethical in his attempt to keep the site's results legitimate. Unlike most pollsters and pundits, he explains his methodology in detail on his Welcome page. He has even tinkered with his method (averaging recent polls rather than using the "latest" one - and describing how hard it is to determine which is the "latest") in his desire to provide the clearest and most accurate picture possible. Every day he updates the map, reflecting the latest poll results which have come in. States are colored deep red or blue, indicating strong support for Bush or Kerry (poll results in the double digits); pale red or blue, indicating weak support for Bush or Kerry ("leaning" in other polls); or outlined in pale red or blue, indicating negligible support for Bush or Kerry (results within the margin of error). The map currently shows Kerry ahead when all states which are not exact ties (Nevada and New Hampshire) are factored in. But he also indicates Kerry has only 95 "strong" electoral votes to Bush's 147, figures which are fairly conservative compared to most media outlets. The map has swung wildly back and forth over the past few months. As recently as yesterday, Bush was ahead.

The Votemaster is not only a pusher but a junkie, so while he provides me with my morning fix, he also links to sites and articles where he gets his own junk. His opening commentary is clear and cogent, so if I've somehow missed a few days, I'll go to "Previous Reports" to see what's he's had to say. I've learned more about polling through this site than I knew I didn't know. It's been useful during this season of constant poll results. It's through this site that I read the article (long lost now in the depths of the Web) in which a Gallup rep said their results tend to stray from those of other pollsters because they think wider swings are more exciting. Another article clarified the notion of "margin of error, explaining that the MoA (as they like to call it) refers to both numbers in the poll. So if a poll shows Bush ahead of Kerry 49% to 46%, with a 4 point MoA (not unusual), it actually means that Bush's percentage could be anywhere from 53 to 45, and Kerry 50 to 42, so a 4 point margin of error actually allows for an 11 point spread. John Zogby - who seems to be one of the more legitimate pollsters - was on The Daily Show this week, and spoke of how polls have changed over the past 50 years - a topic I read about on With the advent of answering machines and caller ID, on top of busy schedules, only about 40% of the people who are called answer their phone. Of that, 2 out of 3 refuse to finish the survey, versus the 2 out of 3 people who regularly agreed to finish the poll 40 years ago. So in order to poll 1300 people you need to call 10,000. Hard to say you're getting a representative sampling. Then, of course, there are the formulas various organizations use to determine who is a "likely voter." Don't ask - it will drive you mad.

Eventually work forces me off the Net. If it's a school day, the half dozen or so of my students who have any interest in politics want to ask me questions. Especially since I used the Conventions and Debates as teaching aids in my public speaking class. My students know where I stand politically, but I maintain as non-partisan a stance as possible. For example, I was very open about expecting John Kerry to tank in the debates. On one hand, I felt that I should keep all politics out of the classroom, but on the other, I recognized that would be dishonest, and would do them a greater disservice than a balanced discussion of events. I have a couple of admitted Republicans in the class, and since a classroom is a weighted environment (I must grade them, after all) I've fought to remain open. I've never said, for example, that George Bush is a madman who is going to kill us all. And since my support for John Kerry is tentative at best, this hasn't been hard to do.

My students who support Bush are not outwardly insane. One is a suburban youth who is interested in law enforcement, and who may (as many people his age) still be echoing the opinions of his parents. I don't mean this as condescending. Because I limit political discussion, I don't really know what most of my students' beliefs are based on. But I do know he's against gun control, which seems an odd stance for someone who works with the police. (Maybe not.) The other is a 50ish woman who lost her job in publishing due to budget cuts and outsourcing, and who has returned to school to get a degree in nursing, in order to find work which, while it will pay significantly less than her previous job, will at least be more dependable. Her support for the Administration is a bit tougher to comprehend.

If I'm working from home, odds are good that I'll be 1) working on the computer, and 2) using the Net for research. This is bad. The problem with having the vast resources of the Internet at your command is that you are bound to use them. And when one has become a political junkie, the news is never good. The political news is especially gut churning. I've heard pundits comment that this election is particularly partisan, or dirty, or both. I won't counter those statements, though I find most elections particularly partisan and dirty. What makes this election stand out in my mind is the sense that the Parties believe Vince Lombardi was right: Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing. There is nothing they won't do to win this election. The dirty tricks of Nixon are childhood pranks compared with those of Karl Rove. This is a guy who once held up the results of an election for a year until he could strong-arm his guy into office. This is the guy who painted John McCain as irrational and Max Cleland as unpatriotic, simply to win. People ask why Democrats can't forget Florida in 2000. It's because we believe (and I'll include myself in this category) that Florida 2000 was not an anomaly; it is now standard operating procedure. We see a Republican operative behind every hedge because the evidence suggests they're there.

Let me digress. I am not one who finds Republicans inherently demonic. As I've written before, I was chased out of the Republican Party when it got into bed with the Religious Right in the 80s. Ronald Reagan re-energized the Party, but most of what he stood for was anathema to me. Still, on the local level I have supported Republican candidates, and will again. It is the national Republican Party that has become the haven of thugs. Under George Bush and Tom DeLay, it has taken its cues from the Texas Republican Party, a party which has won seats in Congress by gerrymandering strong Democratic representatives out of their districts. In one case, it did so by redrawing the congressional map so that the border of a mostly Republican district extended down the middle of a street and encased one single house in a Democratic district: the home of its representative. I am no fan of Tom Daschle, but in the past, when politics still has some sense of decency (say, four years ago), the leadership of one party did not specifically target the leadership of the other. Those rules are no more. This year, the national Republican Party has spent a record amount of money trying to unseat Daschle, the Senate minority leader. For this Party, whose leader once said he wanted to be a uniter, not a divider, having power is more important than the good of the people.

Which is why I need The Daily Show. To cool off.

It has come down to this: the two political programs I can watch without suffering an aneurysm are The Daily Show and Countdown, with Keith Olbermann. It is no surprise that both shows take a less than serious look at events of the day.

This is the first year I've really committed to The Daily Show. I've loved Jon Stewart for years, though I don't remember how I first came to know him. I remember him from The Larry Sanders Show, lo these ten years ago now, but by the time he was on that show I was already familiar with him. In any case, I loathe Craig Kilborn, the prior host of The Daily Show, which is why I never watched it under his tenure. But the show's Indecision 2000 coverage, under new host Stewart, got great press, so this year I started checking it out.

One charge I've heard in the past is that Republicans are much funnier than Democrats. I've always found that difficult to fathom. I suppose it comes from the notion that Dems can be so dour, with their constant grousing about the environment and health care and the underprivileged, while GOPs, whose major concerns are how to make and keep more money, are singing "Happy Days Are Here Again." The difference I find is that the left are willing to mock their own, while the right are not. Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly may disagree with something George Bush says, but rarely, if ever, do they take him to task for it. Jon Stewart mocks those on the right and left equally. Well, not equally. He mocks Kerry for being foolish, and George Bush for being... Oh. Maybe it is equal. In any case, I am hard pressed to come up with a satirist on the right who is willing to take shots at members of their own party, whereas for those on the left, it is de rigeur.

Stewart has been taken to task for his appearance on Crossfire, where, worst of all, he was not funny. Let me say this about that. First, his charges were no surprise to anyone who had ever watched him, so for the hosts to be shocked was disingenuous, at best. (Disingenuousness: Lying for the New Millennium!) (Just as it was disingenuous for members of the Bush camp to "misunderstand" Kerry's use of the phrase "global test" in the debate.) (Jeez, I hate them!) (Oh, and I prefer "disingenuity," but the dictionary won't have it.) The best I can offer is that the hosts can't be blamed for supposing that Stewart's desire to sell his book would outweigh his desire to have his say. Against the second charge - Stewart's verbal inelegance ("You're hurting America") - I have no defense. He's a comic, not a pundit. As he said of his own show: his lead-in is puppets making prank phone calls. But if people who can't express themselves well don't deserve to be heard, someone needs to muzzle the president.

The remainder of my TV love is reserved for Keith Olbermann. Countdown, is another show I never watched until recently. It came across my radar through an article in the Atlantic (?) about the cable news networks, in which his show was given high marks. I second that emotion. Olbermann is smart and articulate, and recognizes that many of those in command are neither. Like Stewart, he leans to the left, but is more balanced than most of the pundits. He is willing, for example, to broadcast poll results which show both candidates in the lead (easy, these days), and regularly has on guests from across the political spectrum. Who he allows to have their say, by the way. Oh, sure, he spent a lot of time on the Bill O'Reilly sex scandal, but that's motivated less by politics than by his undisguised disregard for both O'Reilly and Fox, for whom he once worked.

Countdown got me into bed with MSNBC, which has become my network of choice this political season. In the past, MSNBC was little more to me than the network of Time & Again, a Biography-style program which draws on NBC's vast video records for its footage. Cheap and easy. Just like host Jane Pauley. Or that joke. It is also the network for Hardball, which used to be just another "let's yell at each other" show. Lately, host Chris Matthews has calmed down quite a bit. His show is one of the few news outlets which was critical of the invasion of Iraq from the beginning, which is what first drew me to it. On Iraq, Matthews is to the left of both Bush and Kerry. Which is not to say he's a leftie - he's in love with Dick Cheney. Matthews is an old-school Washington insider, and he has alliances and enmities on both sides of the fence. He is best in small quantities, like caviar or absinthe, but can be bracing. Unlike Joe Scarborough, whose political axe is so enormous he cannot hide it. Yeah, I watched these guys during the conventions (They found the Republican Convention more exciting and engaging, unlike me, who found them both little but hogwash.) and the debates (Their consensus that Kerry won the first debate shocked me. Need I say that was the only debate they thought he won?). Less dry than C-SPAN, less boring than CNN, less infuriating than Fox.

With all this input, it's no surprise I can't sleep at night.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Where's Osama?

He's all the rage with the kids today, with his scraggly bread and turban, his big round glasses and trademark red and white striped shirt. Can you spot him in this crowded Pakistani bazaar or seemingly empty Afghan cave? Maybe he's in Tibet. Or India. Or even insurgent-happy Iraq! With eight months since his last video message, crazy Osama, now known by his street name of UBL, could be anywhere.

With fewer than a dozen days left until the election, more than a few folks are wondering if he's prepping for his role as the October Surprise. I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Rove! It's quite possible the Bushies have him on ice somewhere. Maybe even literally on ice, having killed him in active engagement or stumbled across him, dead of failed kidneys, somewhere on the Sino-Indian border. The question for the GOPs is when to reveal the exquisite corpse. After all, Rove told Sean Hannity at the end of September to expect a surprise this month, and there are only 9 days left. Let's hope it's something more substantial than the foolishness over at Sinclair broadcasting.

The venerable history of the October Surprise goes back to those heady days of the fall of 1980. In this case, "fall" means both "Autumn" and "collapse." 52 Americans were held hostage in Iraq and Ronald Reagan and President Carter were battling it out for the White House. Although the release of the hostages was brokered in October of that year, they weren't released until January 20, 1981, the day of Ronald Reagan's inauguration. Some believe that members of the Reagan campaign worked with members of the CIA to delay the release of the hostages, since an immediate release would have helped Carter's reelection effort. Surprise! Though campaigns of both parties have used the Surprise over the years, Karl Rove is the current master of the dirty trick, as he has demonstrated in contests involving Ann Richards, Max Cleland and John McCain.

Obviously, there's no point in announcing the capture or killing of Osama too early. The last thing anyone wants is a bounce that dissipates before election day. Even worse, releasing the news early gives pundits and spin-meisters and journalists - if there are any left in this country - the opportunity to call the ploy a ploy. There's always the possibility of a backlash. As Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, says, "Producing a high-level al Qaeda leader would immediately invite suspicion about whether this person has been cooling his heels in a safe house some place." The safest thing to do is to save the announcement until election eve, and hope the masses are great enough asses to overlook the timing and simply perceive you as the saviour you are. Some have gone as far as to say the Bushies don't actually need Osama, they just need a viable corpse. They can simply announce killing a "high ranking al Qaeda official" in Pakistan, and say they need to verify his identification before they can make a statement. By the time he is discovered not to be Osama, on Nov. 3, it's too late.

The other problem with hauling out Osasma's remains too early is that someone like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Iraqi beheader who recently announced his alliance with al Qaeda, will annoint himself as leader of the terrorist org. Zarqawi is a young and nimble capo, and just the guy to take over the reins when the old boss retires. On the other hand, Zarqawi is probably not enough of a celeb to the average American that his capture would provide the necessary oomph for a last minute push. There is, of course, the possibility that despite his radio silence, Osama is still on the loose. But as you can see from the above example, saying you've captured Osama and actually capturing Osama is not necessarily the same thing.

Bush is currently saying of Kerry, "he can run, but he can't hide," a bromide he previously applied to Osama bin Laden. Back when he was still thinking about him. John Stewart has observed that so far, bin Laden has been able to do both. We'll see what the next week brings.


The China Daily Website refutes reports that Osama bin Laden is hiding in western China. Their coverage makes me think I'm reading the wrong news outlets. The paper calls a reporter's query about the report "such an outlandish question," and says of bin Laden, "stories about his hiding have been flying around." The article concludes with the proposition that "The report should be carried in the fiction section, which allows flights of fantasy rather than hard facts."

The home page of China Daily features, along with standard National, Business and Sports news, links to two special sections, US Elections and Glorious China. The former carries the same news feeds as Yahoo ("Kids pick Kerry to be the next president," "Bush receives endorsement from Iran"). The latter is 80% Deng Xiaoping. Glorious.


In response to a Weekly Reader story about Christian Spam, one correspondent observed that "Christian One Low Bill sounds like a Chinese dish." I laughed and laughed.


There You Go Again

Teresa Heinz Kerry shot off her mouth about Laura Bush this week, saying "I don't know that she's ever had a real job - I mean, since she's been grown up." After the Bush campaign - in the non-partisan reporting of the New York Times - "pounced on the remark," THK apologized, saying, "I had forgotten that Mrs. Bush had worked as a schoolteacher and librarian, and there couldn't be a more important job than teaching our children." Mrs. Bush graciously accepted, saying there was no need for an apology and that she understood how easy it is to misspeak on the campaign trail. This was not sufficient for Bush bulldog Karen Hughes, who said on CNN, "These kind of comments are an unfortunate way to try to drive a wedge between women who work at home and women who work outside the home. And I think it's just unfortunate to try to disparage women who have made the choice of making their families a priority." Apparently Ms. Hughes is also unaware that Mrs. Bush has worked outside the home. Told that THK had apologized, Hughes said, "the apology also made the comment worse, because she seems to have forgotten that being a mother is a real job." That argument might hold more water had Heinz Kerry not added, "As someone who has been both a full-time mom and full-time in work force, I know we all have valuable experiences that shape who we are."

My heart goes out to Laura Bush. Not for Teresa's comment. But as a former teacher and librarian, and as an advocate for literacy, it must be horrifying to live with three of the least literate people in the country. We all make our deals with the devil.


In Other News ...

Members of George Bush's extended family have come out against his candidacy. A number of them have joined together to create the site, Bush Relatives for Kerry. They are descendants of the sister of Prescott Bush, the father of George H.W. Bush. In other words, their parents are all cousins to the first President Bush. And none of them are invited to the family Christmas party.

The family dynamic comes out most clearly in statement by Chris House, a teacher in Washington state. (Prescott's sister Mary Bush married Francis E. House, Jr.) "Being a son of George Herbert Walker Bush's first cousin, I've been witness to a family that bred itself for leadership. Bushes have made their political mark on a local, national and global level, with mixed success. The thing that troubles me most with this current president is a heightened sense of entitlement. Throughout the 2000 election process, George W. Bush seemed to view his ascendancy as something of a given, something he didn't feel he had to work for along the way, like many others before him. The reigning symptom of this attitude is this: there is a stubborn refusal to look at a given situation in other, possibly more constructive ways. 'I was made for this position - so I've got to be right.'" In other words, George W. Bush has always been a dick.


On the Links page of Bush Relatives for Kerry, there's a link to Librarians Against Bush. It seems ironic that librarians have become the first line of defense for our civil liberties, but such is the case. They were the first ones to speak out against the Patriot Act, leading John Ashcroft to accuse them of "baseless hysteria." Records obtained by the ACLU through the Freedom of Information Act show that, within a month of stating that the sections of the Act that apply directly to libraries, Sections 215 and 216, had never been used, Section 215 was, in fact, used. Baseless hysteria! According to the ACLU, among the documents they obtained is "an internal FBI memo, dated October 29, 2003, acknowledging that Section 215 of the Patriot Act can be used to obtain information about innocent people. The memo contradicts the government's assertion, made repeatedly on the public record, that Section 215 can be used only against suspected terrorists and spies." Baseless!

Being librarians, the librarians cite the Benjamin Franklin quote, "Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both."

***** has turned up another relative who opposes George Bush's reelection: John Kerry. The genealogy site has traced the bloodlines of both men back, back, back to the turn of the 17th century, with the union of Edmund Reade (born 1563) and Elizabeth Cooke (born 1578). Among their children were Margaret, born 1598, and Elizabeth, born 1615. Nine generations later on Elizabeth's side, we find John Kerry. Eleven generations down from Margaret comes GWB. This makes them ninth cousins twice removed, or so I am told.

All that this means, of course, is what we already knew: neither of these guys has anything in common with you.


Which is not the case with my family. Since none of us were born with silver spoons in our mouths, we pursue honest professions. We are teachers and mechanics, salesmen and firefighters. And every now and then, one of us ends up on a calendar.

Such is the case with my cousin Charlie, who is featured on the 2005 Chicago Firefighter Calendar. Money raised supports the Ignite the Spirit Fund, which helps firefighters care for their own by providing funds to them and their families in times of need. You can learn more about the Fund through their website. While you're there, pick up a calendar. Or hobnob with the firefighters in the flesh at the Calendar Release Party, next Tuesday, October 26 at Tilli's, 1952 N. Halsted, in Chicago.


Halloween is right around the corner, which means Monsterfest begins this Sunday on AMC. Along with all the Omen, Halloween and Amityville Horror sequels you can choke down, there's the occasional classic (The Fly) or oddity (Prophecy, They Live). Universal must have reclaimed the rights to their original horror classics, but you can still see John Travolta melt in the Devil's Rain. And there's a whole day of Godzilla.


Or a whole weekend. October 28 to 30 sees Godzillafest come to the University of Kansas. Organized by history professor Bill Tsutsui, the conference "In Godzilla's Footsteps: Japanese Pop Culture Icons on the Global Stage," celebrates the 50th anniversary of the release of the original Gojira, which will be screened. In addition to the film festival, the conference features exhibitions at the University's library and museums of natural history and art, as well as speakers from Harvard, Duke and Vanderbilt University. Hopefully no one will address one of the professors in a panel discussion by saying, "Doctah! Rook!"

According to the website, "All events are free, because that's how Godzilla would want it."

Friday, October 15, 2004

It's Drafty in Here

George Bush and John Kerry cheerfully lied during the recent debates. When asked, both men took the opportunity to categorically deny they had plans to reinstate the draft. This stance is understandable for a candidate. It's hard to win a mother's vote by admitting you're planning to send her child off to war. Much less the child's. George Bush takes pride in his all volunteer army, despite the fact that many of his soldiers volunteered merely to play weekend warrior, rather than to be shipped off to fight a real (if undeclared) war. When he praises the professionalism of the actual recruits, I think, "These are guys who couldn't get another job." Odds are good these volunteers - both willing and un - will be joined in the not too distant future by bands of draftees. The reason is simple: we're running out of bodies.

One of the many, many (many many many) reasons I would never be elected to office, is that if asked if I would reinstate the draft, I would reply, "Hell, yeah." And not just because of our current commitment in Iraq. To echo our President, "Bring it on!"

This stance may come as a surprise to people who know me. I never served in the military, and was happy not to. I was one of those lucky American boys who fell through the cracks, born too late to register for Vietnam, yet too early to register with Selective Service when it was reinstated in 1980.

And yet, looking back from the safety of the present, I can't help but wonder if a stint in the service wouldn't have been good for me. At 18, I was a smart kid with some vague ideas about what he wanted to do with his life, but neither the discipline nor drive to make those things happen. Some years later, much of that description still applies. I'm currently teaching college classes, and many of my students would benefit from a couple of years of having their asses kicked.

So here it is. I believe in compulsory military service for every young man and woman in the US between the ages of 18 and 21.


Most military experts say the optimal size of US forces should be 2 million. Under our current system, and including the reserves, we are at just under 1.5 million. Things are so bad in Iraq right now that volunteers in the National Guard are being forced to reenlist when their tours are up, and discharged soldiers are being called back into duty.

According to the 2000 census, there are just over 12 million men and woman between the ages of 18 and 21 in the US. Even if half of those are unable to serve - because they are physically, mentally or emotionally "other abled," or because they are incarcerated - that still leaves a pool of 6 million. Assume they are fairly evenly distributed along the age range, and that gives you 2 million 18 year olds right off the bat. More than enough.

And yes, I said men and women. I'm not talking about a draft for young men. I'm talking everyone.

Not that I'm looking to ship these kids off to Iraq. I'd be happy if we could pull all our forces out of Iraq tomorrow. But that's not gonna happen. As we all know, we will always maintain a presence in Iraq. (We have always been at war with Eurasia.) Just as we maintain a presence in South Korea, Japan and Germany, not to mention throughout the Middle East and across the globe with NATO. It does give me pause that if tempers should suddenly flare in Iran or North Korea, or any of a dozen hot spots in the world, we are simply understaffed to respond. But my reasons for wanting to draft everybody have to do with national security in a greater sense than fighting wars overseas.

It's good for them and it's good for us.

The three greatest problems facing our nation today are education, jobs and security. I know this because I've had it shoved down my throat daily for the past year. Universal military service could go some way to addressing all these issues.

Most high school graduates (or dropouts) today face one of two options: go to college or take a low paying job. At the same time, most college freshmen are woefully unprepared for college. This may not be the case in some of the larger and more expensive universities, but I doubt it. (Nor do I believe that this is a new problem. I observed many of the same problems when I was in grad school in 1983.) First, they don't have the discipline for college. This is not unusual in an 18 year old, who rarely has the discipline for anything. And since they are products of our crumbling educational system, they have not been taught how to learn, either because nobody expected it of them, or because it was easy enough to circumvent the system.

Military service isn't going to create a race of Einsteins. But living in a world in which there are consequences for not carrying out tasks would surely have a positive effect on some of these slackers. In addition, the military could essentially be a place where kids who leave school early are literally forced to get their GEDs. Hey, it's better than facing active duty! One of the main reasons kids don't learn or leave school early is that there's nothing there that catches their attention. Trapped in the service for a few years, and surrounded by opportunities, there's at least a potential for growth. A kid may discover an interest in computers he never knew he had, because he was never exposed to it in a practical manner. Or electronics. Or language. Or cooking, for god's sake. They'll have to do something while they're serving, and an interest in anything is better than an interest in nothing. As the job market continues to change, here's an opportunity to teach our kids useful skills that they may actually be able to use once they're out of the service and on their own. If nothing else, they'll have the experience of going through some sort of job training, which will make the next experience that much easier to benefit from.

Our youth are not only alienated, they are isolated. Kids (and adults for that matter) spend their days surrounded by people who are just like them. Xenohobia and ethnocentrism are natural human conditions. We are wary of people who are not like us, and we believe that all right minded people think just like us. If you grow up on the plains of Wyoming, or a small town in Alabama, or the South Side of Chicago, that's understandable. So why not pluck kids out of their safe environments and toss them in with a bunch of strangers miles from home? Kids who leave home for college experience the benefit of meeting people who come from backgrounds different from theirs, sometimes radically. Let's offer that experience to kids who can't afford, or don't choose, to go off to school. I'm not suggesting that everyone comes out of the service as a multiculturalist. But I do suggest that most people in this country live in a very small world, and allowing them to meet people from other backgrounds, not to mention other nations, might actually open their eyes to the possibility that life is more complex than they think.

There's a practical sense to all this military training as well. Expanding the armed forces to this degree provides us with more than enough service personnel for our needs across the globe. What do we do with the rest? Hello, homeland security. The biggest problem with having the National Guard overseas is that we don't have them here. Rather than invading Iraq, I would have been much happier to see the Guard called up to handle security at airports. Right now, we still have Lakeisha going through our bags while trying not to chip her French manicure. Why not have real security at airports, with staff who have been professionally trained for this sort of work? Despite what George Bush believes, reports state that our borders are more porous than ever. Border patrol, here we come! Everyone but the President is concerned about the lack of security at our chemical and nuclear plants. Not to mention nucuclar facilities. Rather than depending on Rent-a-Cops, let's get some soldiers around those terror traps. We need to examine incoming cargo containers? Hell, we've got a couple million freshly trained recruits on the job!

Then there's the guns. Since we're such a gun crazy society to begin with, let's teach kids how to use their weapons. Maybe giving them some actual lessons, and making them responsible for the proper care and maintenance of their weapon, will instill some degree of respect for firearms, as well as actual knowledge to how they work. Gun rights activists point to the Second Amendment to support their right to bear arms. They skip the first part of the Amendment, which says the people are allowed to keep and bear arms because, "A well-regulated Militia [is] necessary to the security of a free State." I've long said that gun owners should, therefore, be trained as part of "a well-regulated Militia." They should have been the ones called up and sent overseas, since they are self admitted members of the Militia. By training our youth to properly use arms, we will have a Militia at the ready. And maybe a few less accidental shootings.

The final benefit is a bit less concrete. George Bush speaks of an "ownership society." By that, he means people who own stuff. Protecting your stuff being the root of Republican beliefs. When I think of an ownership society, I think of people believing they have a stake in the society, and a responsibility for it. It's no surprise to me that veterans' groups are so strong. These are men and women who made a commitment to their country. Forcing people to serve their nation may not seem to be the best way to invest them in their nation's future. Almost everyone will go in kicking and screaming. But once they're in, and actually doing something worthwhile, and working together as a group, some sense of pride is bound to develop. And after a couple of years, they may actually feel they've done something of value. Which, for most kids in this country, is a big deal.

There is, of course, only one way this works. No deferments. I would be willing to make exceptions for anyone who is a family's primary wage earner, and possibly for children of farmers whose presence at home was required. But that's it. College can wait. This being America, strings would still be pulled to get the scions of wealthy clans plum assignments. But no one gets out.

The idea is flawed. One need only point to George Bush, who served in the Air Guard. Despite this, whenever the opportunity has arisen, he has made a commitment to himself rather than to his country. But his service was one of convenience, which he carried out where and when he chose, and from which he resigned early, having had enough. (None of this is disputed by the White House.) I don't expect such cases to disappear overnight. But after some years of universal conscription, Americans will begin to take pride in their service. And at that time, even wealthy and powerful families will find it a matter of pride to have their children serve. As it has been in other nations at other times.

And the pigs will fly freely through the skies...

Friday, October 08, 2004


Tonight is the second Presidential debate. The one which nobody is going to watch, because it's scheduled for a Friday night. The one which George Bush is expected to win because it's a format he enjoys, at least if the guest list is limited, and the questions have been vetted ahead of time, and if anyone strays from the approved question, they're cut off. Which is pretty much what the rules dictate. Of course, he was supposed to win last week's debate as well, and we all saw how that turned out.

Tuesday of this week saw the Cheney/Edwards debate. Immediate response to who "won" seemed split, with most choosing Cheney. In general, I found it a tossup, with Cheney having the edge. He seemed more in command of the facts than Bush had been, which is not surprising, considering that he's more directly involved in making and carrying out policy than Bush is. Granted, his "facts" were fairly specious - as, indeed, were many of Edwards' - but he presented them with some conviction. Edwards came off as a bit of a simpering fool, suffering in his reaction shots nearly as much as Bush had, though in a different way. Whereas Bush seemed angry and annoyed, in trying to be gracious Edwards seemed absent, like a student listening to a teacher lecture, all the while thinking, "Get on with it, for god's sake, I gotta meet the gang over at the Brew 'n Chew."

Not that I can blame Edwards. Were I there, I would probably have had a similar expression on my face. The clear loser in this debate was the American people. News reports would have you believe that this debate was a slugfest, with both candidates scoring points off the other and coming back for more. To me, it was exactly what you would expect from a debate between a CEO and a lawyer: a giant snoozefest. Cheney is an articulate, but not particularly lively, speaker. He makes his points in serial, like an exec arguing why his division should upgrade their CRM system. There's not much passion there. I'm not surprised he has a gay daughter; Cheney is as close to being a lesbian as a straight man comes. Edwards, on the other hand, is usually a lot more animated. He must be somewhat aggressive, to have won a number of high payday lawsuits, but that's something we haven't seen much lately. Still, on the stump he's pretty high energy. Sitting behind the debating table, that energy was gone. After a while, he even began to take on Cheney's trademark head loll. At times, I feared both of them would disappear at opposite ends of the split screen. When my phone rang at 9:15, I did something I never do during political speeches: I took the call, grateful for the intrusion.

Part of Edwards' weakness was his role as Kerry point man. He rarely seemed to be speaking for himself, or even for the broader ticket of him and Kerry. In attacking the Administration's policies and failures (redundant?), he was perfectly articulate. But in putting forth the views of his ticket, he constantly spoke of what John Kerry would do. A few "we's" - and even an I now and then - would have gone miles to making him seem more independent. Things got so bad that when moderator Gwen Ifill asked the VP candidates to explain what makes them different without invoking their running mates' name, Edwards couldn't do it. This was just one instance of his pathological inability to answer the question asked, rather than reverting back to canned remarks. When asked how he and Kerry would unite the nation - a perfect opening for reassuring pablum or a scathing attack - he spoke about health care.

Not that Cheney was much better. Both candidates came prepped with stock responses which stuck close to what we've been hearing for months, and neither deviated much. At times it was difficult to remember what the question was. Both candidates resorted to what may charitably be called "untruths," though it is here that Cheney truly won on points. Immediately following the debate, the truth of his never having met Edwards came to light. What has received less play is that, not counting joint sessions for States of the Union and such, Cheney actually presided over the Senate only 3 times in 2003, each time as a result of his vote being needed to break a tie. As far as Tuesdays go, Cheney has presided over the Senate on a Tuesday twice in the past four years. (Ironically, Edwards has presided the same number of Tuesdays in that same period.) Cheney is indeed at the Senate every Tuesday: for the weekly Republican strategy lunches. Needless to say, Edwards is not invited.

Cheney accused Edwards - correctly - of poor attendance during this past campaign season. This is pretty much standard operating procedure during elections. How much time has Bush spent at the White House over the past few months? For the first time in years, Cheney's location is regularly disclosed. He overstepped the truth, however, by claiming Edwards' "hometown newspaper has taken to calling [him] 'Senator Gone.'" Edwards' hometown paper, The News & Observer, was hard pressed to find the remark. That's because it came from The Pilot, which is published three times a week in a town 20 miles away. And which refutes Cheney's remark. In one editorial in the summer of 2003, the paper suggested Edwards should spend more time in Washington and said, "John Edwards is becoming known as Senator Gone." The writer of the editorial remarked on the paper's website, "I don't think it was at all accurate to say we have 'taken to calling' the senator anything. This was a one-time reference in an editorial that appeared 15 months ago."

As I'm sure everyone knows by now, Cheney's suggestion that viewers check out the truth of Edwards' statements about him at "" sent a number of surfers to, which leads with the headline, "Why We Must Not Re-Elect President Bush." Contrary to popular belief, that site ( was not snatched up at the last minute, but has been registered since February 4. Nor was the site hacked. The owner chose to redirect traffic. Not that it makes much of a difference., the site Cheney was trying to reference, says on its site that Cheney "wrongly implied that we had rebutted allegations Edwards was making about what Cheney had done as chief executive officer of Halliburton." They go on to say that Edwards' facts were substantially correct, only misspeaking by saying Halliburton "paid millions of dollars in fines" while he was CEO. Halliburton did not pay those fines while Cheney was CEO, but instead paid fines for offenses it committed while Cheney was CEO. In fact, Halliburton settled charges with the SEC just this summer for an additional $7.5 million, to cover offenses dating back to Cheney's leadership.

Heads will roll at the Cheney camp. And Cheney is just the kinda guy to roll 'em.

Debatable, II

I missed recapping last week's Bush/Kerry deathmatch because of my desire to get out of town. I'm not going to go into it now. At least not in detail.

I thought it was clear John Kerry won the first debate. At the same time, I was amazed to find most members of the media (with the notable absence of Fox News) agreeing with me. Even uber-con Joe Scarborough had to admit Bush blew it.

And that's what it really comes down. I was ready for Kerry to sink like a stone. I figured he would be stiff, his language and logic would be convoluted, and that he'd continually run over the time limit. Instead, I found him strong and clear. I've been impatient with Kerry in recent weeks, but at the debate I thought he was in good form. Granted, neither he nor Bush answered questions that didn't suit their needs, instead resorting to pre-screened responses they could shoehorn in, but that seems to be SOP this political season.

Bush, on the other hand, beat himself. I'm teaching a public speaking course this semester, and that Thursday we were discussing delivery. Bush fell into nearly every trap I warn my students against. His people tell us that he's not running for President of the Debating Team. But these weren't debating errors, they were common public speaking errors. Bush is no Great Communicator, but he's usually good in front of crowds. Better than John Kerry. Not last Thursday.

Rule One: Do not lean on the podium. Speakers like to do this, thinking it makes them look folksy and relaxed. And if you're Bill Clinton, maybe you can pull it off. But 9 times out of 10 it makes you look weak. Bush was not just leaning on the podium, he was leaning into it. His shoulders were hunched, and it looked like he needed the podium for support. Kerry, on the other hand, stood tall. Without saying a word, he looked more in control than Bush.

Rule Two: Watch the water. I didn't notice this as much as other commentators, who scored it, Kerry: one sip, Bush: four glasses. Be sure you're properly hydrated before you start. Constantly reaching for the water makes you look nervous and unsure of yourself. This plagued John Edwards on Tuesday. (That and the camel tongue that lolled out following every sip.) Drinking water is the corollary to flop sweat. You look guilty.

Rule Three: Don't apologize. Saying "It's hard work" once is recognition of the daunting task ahead of us. Saying it 11 times (by Joe Scarborough's count on MSNBC) makes you seem like you're not up for the job. This is similar to telling your audience, "I'm really nervous." We would be nervous, but we don't want you to be.

Rule Four: Say what you have to say. Then stop. One of the reasons Cheney was successful was that he didn't feel a need to fill the entire two minutes or ninety seconds. Better to be clear and finished than long-winded and muddy. Or worse, to run out of time because your second, unrelated point, takes too long. Or even worse, to jump in and then have nothing to say. Let the moderator decide - according to the rules you devised - when to allow the additional 30 seconds. Otherwise you look desperate.

All Purpose Rule Five: Nonverbal communication trumps verbal communication every time. According to research, listeners derive anywhere from 55 to 90 percent of meaning from delivery. People believe nonverbal cues over verbal ones. Remember that next time you tell your spouse you love them or they look good in that dress or you're listening when you're really watching The Apprentice. Types of nonverbal cues? Facial expressions. There's nothing more I need to say here. Makeup. For all the jibes about Kerry's "tan," on Thursday, W was the one who looked orange. P-a-u-s-e-s. Pauses can be used for effect. They will have an effect whether you choose or not. Eye contact. In particular, excessive blinking. Okay, maybe this one is a bit unfair. It's hard to control. But like it or not, it has an effect, particularly on camera. This tip comes from Michael Caine's "Acting on Film." He instructs actors that keeping strong, solid eye contact with the camera makes you look strong, while blinking makes you look weak. When you see him demonstrate this, it's very clear. Bush blinked constantly during some of his answers. Watch your tape or TiVo. It's not something you'd notice consciously (unless, like me, you've recently had it pointed out), but you do notice it unconsciously, and it makes the speaker look weak and shifty.

One final thing killed Bush, and it's something that was decided as part of the rules. (By the by, if you haven't heard, the rules for these debates are longer than the Salt II treaty.) No applause. At the beginning of the evening - as on Tuesday - Jim Lehrer announced the audience was instructed not to respond. Feedback is important for all public speakers. It allows you to judge what effect you're having on your audience. For someone like Bush, who is desperate for approval, it's key. As the night wore on and he continued to get no response, you saw him sink deeper and deeper into depression. No matter that Kerry wasn't getting any response either. Bush has been training at these staged "town halls" where he's fed off the applause. This is one reason why he should do much better tonight.

Until the first "boo." If Kerry gets a big response, watch for Bush's reaction. And if Bush receives the slightest heckle (something Kerry is used to by now, since his public appearances are truly public), watch him go nuts.

Now I'm getting excited.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Reality Bites

Bush and Cheney have both kind of admitted that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, and found a new reason for the war - Saddam's abuse of the UN oil-for-food program. Cheney went so far as to say, "The headlines all say 'no weapons of mass destruction stockpiled in Baghdad.' We already knew that." Really? When? This follows on the heels of Donald Rumsfeld inadvertently telling the truth when he said of the connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, "To my knowledge, I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two." After a quick bitch-slapping, he rescinded his statement.

Sound Bites

Kerry and Edwards both drive me crazy through their inability to come up with the appropriate sound bite. When Edwards' inexperience is brought up, as it was by Cheney during the debate, all he needs to do is remind people that he has spent as much time in public service - six years - as George Bush had when he was elected President. If people counter that Bush served in an executive position, Edwards need merely counter that he has served in national government. When Kerry is accused of voting for the war - actually the resolution which led to the war - he needs to say, "I voted to give the President the authority because I trusted him to do the right thing. He proved himself unworthy of that trust."

Jeez, guys, you're the politicians!

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Rodney Dangerfield's on the roof and we can't get him down

The comic died this week from complications following heart surgery. Or complications following 82 years of living life as Rodney Dangerfield. We should all be so lucky.

Or so prepared. As my title suggests, this train was a long time comin'. His recent heart surgery was the latest in a series of health problems. He had a heart attack on his 80th birthday nearly three years ago. Last year, he went in for brain surgery in order to prep for the valve replacement surgery he entered the hospital for this August. Going back into the hospital, he said something like, "If all goes well, I'll be there for a couple of weeks. If things go badly, I'll be there for an hour and a half."

Things went badly.

First came the news that Dangerfield had suffered a stroke. Then that he had slipped into a coma. Much as he used to slip into a robe at his nightclub, I suppose. A few weeks ago, his wife released a statement that the coma was "light," and that he was expected to fully emerge. Yesterday, they rang down the curtain.

Dangerfield joins Janet "Psycho" Leigh and Gordo "Right Stuff" Cooper as the latest entries in the Celebrity Dead Pool. There may have been stranger trios approaching the Pearly Gates, but not in recent memory.

Here's hoping you're doing well.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Roullez les Bonne Temps

As you may or may not know, I was in New Orleans this past weekend. As you may be shocked to discover, this was my first visit.

I ended up in Nawlins as part of a group celebrating my sister's 50th birthday. The whole shindig was arranged by my sister-in-law as a surprise. She was in the Big Easy on business, and convinced Sis Bliss to join her for the weekend. Little did Sis expect that when she reached O'Hare, she would be met by me and two couples from Indiana - where she used to live - all flying down with her. Or that another couple would be there when we landed. My sister is the gullible sort, so it was not difficult for her spouse to convince her that flying through Chicago would be the best way to go to Nawlins.

Having written it that way twice, let me assure you that I am not someone who really calls Nawlins Nawlins, except in jest. The closest I'll come is Norlins, and that's just to keep purists off my back. But "House of the Rising Sun" (or "House of the Rising Son," as our tour guide called it) clearly pronounces it with three syllables, even in the Leadbelly version. And rhymes New Orleans with blue jeans, for godsake. But folk who would never dream of calling the state in which the city is located Looziana or its neighbor Missourah insist that New Orleans is really pronounced Nawlins. 'Cause that's how the locals say it. Yeah, they also say gah-rone-tee. And people in Bridgeport call my city Chicahgo. And residents of the Big Apple call it The City. But that's not changing my mind.

I digress.

We flew down on United's new "no frills" carrier, Ted. I don't remember the last time I saw a frill on an airplane. The best thing I can say about Ted is that it's better than ATA. The seats are wide enough to wedge my oversized derriere into without a shoehorn, and I didn't need a seatbelt extender. Yes, I'm that big. Food, of course, is non-existent - a bag of minipretzels'll have to do ya. But if you can't manage a two hour flight without a snack, I don't know how you make it through the morning. "Entertainment" consists of NBC snippets on a flip down video monitor, but if you can't manage two hours without TV, I don't know how you make it through life. On the way down, we had the delight of a running commentary by a bored crew member trying to keep us and himself amused. I do not hold him directly responsible for the death of Rodney Dangerfield, but comedy is on thin ground. Or air, as the case may be. Apparently this in-flight shtick is something United has stolen from Southwest, whose slogan should be, "You are free to roam about the country … and kill yourself." The guy didn't end his routine by telling us to tip our waitress, but I'm sure that was an oversight.

Wow. "Shtick" is in Word's dictionary.

Our first night in le Grand Facile, one of the couples and I headed over to Bourbon Street. Not wishing to appear excessively touristy, I got some recommendations of places to go from the woman working the front desk. (Behind the desk. Get your mind out of the gutter.) When our cab came, the woman with me asked the driver to take us to Bourbon Street, but I, ever the sophisticate, said, "The Famous Door sounds like a good place to start."

"I'll take you to Canal and Bourbon," was his rejoinder.

In my naiveté, I imagined Bourbon Street was like Halsted Street or Fifth Avenue or the Rue Morgue. You don't just go there; you go somewhere, and from there, find your way to the rest of it. Little did I realize - especially on that first night - that it is more like Main Street USA at Disneyland/World. There are no cars on Bourbon Street; it is all but a pedestrian mall. Streets cross Bourbon, but driving them after 6 pm in an exercise in futility. Our cabbie essentially dropped us off at the beginning of it and left us to find our way to rack and ruin.

Which was easy.

Getting to Bourbon Street was the adventure. Our hotel - the lovely Marriott SpringHill Suites - is located in the warehouse/ gallery/theater district, not far from the southish end of the Riverwalk. The best way to get to Bourbon Street, apparently, is through a series of perilously narrow streets and alleys never made for this sort of traffic. New Orleans is one of those cities which has grown too big for its britches. There are a handful of what one would consider two lane streets, and even the occasional four lane superhighway, but most of the city is meant to accommodate knife grinders, mules and hearses. If they park at all, people park on the sidewalk, which is the only safe place. So off we went, tearing down access roads between warehouses intended to make Yankees quake.

On entering New Orleans, I was warned of the smell. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is called the City of Five Smells, because of the various food processing plants there. They have New Orleans beat by two. Much of the time, you don't notice anything. Then an incredible stench of urine or vomit or excrement (generally, but not always, animal) will overtake you. Bourbon Street is a panoply of them all.

This part of the city has two main products, which are inherently linked: Booze and Sex. Booze is everywhere. Not just bars, though those of course, but traveling booze. If in some cities it is against the law to carry open liquor, on Bourbon Street it is against the law not to. Everyone has their Hurricane or Hand Grenade or at least 40 ouncer. I saw one guy with a bottle of Lite beer that was a gallon if it was a day. Pat O'Brian's seems to be the only bar which serves liquor in glass. More on that later. Saloons have minibars which face the street, just to serve drinks to pedestrians. Some wily entrepreneurs have set up in what seem to be hallways, just large enough for them and a stock a hooch. It is a street of conspicuous consumption.

We eventually made it to the Famous Door, where the first thing which greeted us was a barmaid in a short top and shorter shorts selling shots in test tubes. Only 2 bucks, so I had to buy three. "Sweet or strong?" It was early, so I chose sweet. She asked me if I was alone - catching on that my companions were together, but not doubting that we might have been a threesome - and when I said I was, she put the rounded end of the test tube in her own mouth, so that she could feed me the shot. In theory, I didn't have to grabs her ass as I was squatting down to take the liquor, but when in Rome. After I downed the shot she popped the test tube into the air, caught it and returned in to its holder. She then handed a shot to my female companion, who she instructed to take the shot into her mouth, but not swallow, so that she could feed it to her husband. The final shot she tucked into the waist of his pants, whence his wife was instructed to drink it.

This was our first drink on Bourbon Street. And a sign of how intricately linked Booze and Sex are on that thoroughfare.

Everyone on Bourbon Street is looking to get laid. Or looking to convince others they can get laid. No - they will get laid. And yet, for all that sexual energy, it is a place of great camaraderie. Oh sure, women are objectified in every square inch of the place, but women there revel in their objectification in a way they wouldn't be willing to do in a more "sophisticated" setting. Out on the street, they're baring their breasts for fifty cents in cheap beads, and inside they're shaking what their mommas gave them. They have the power, should they choose to recognize and exploit it. Some of them wear brides' veils with their bustiers and 3 inch spikes, mocking patrimony and their own desires. Not that they're all in on the joke. There's plenty of desperate living going on. But they can be as sexual as they want to be, safe in the knowledge that there's a bigger whore in the next bar down.

At the same time, I've never seen so many feminized men in all my life. Not fags and drag queens - straight men. Granted, the booze has a lot to do with it. But a lot of the fronts are down. I'm sure there's plenty of aggression out there somewhere, but I didn't see it. Everyone's just looking to have a good time. Some of that good time involves making out with strangers. And crouching on its left shoulder is sexual desperation. But in the meantime they're happy to be with other men and women and groups and girlfriends and yes, even spouses, just laughing and singing and throwing beads for titties. Carousing. In the way men of purpose rarely do.

But then, New Orleans isn't about men of purpose. It's about white - and black - trash. And mulattos and quadroons and octoroons and I don't know what all. New Orleans has such a history of people acting shamefully, that now that's the only way they know how to act. Or care to. In touring the French Quarter the next day, we saw beautifully maintained historic properties next to ramshackle dwellings ready to collapse. Work ethic is not in its blood. And out on Bourbon Street, folks are acting the way they wouldn't in front of their mother. That's what they came for. We ended up at the Cat's Meow, a sort of sing-along karaoke bar, where I learned first hand why girls shouldn't try to sing Madonna songs. And outside the window, the girls weren't the only ones showing their business for beads. By this time it was after 2, and it seemed like barely midnight. We left, not because we were so drunk (we weren't), but because we had to be up for the aforementioned French Quarter tour scheduled for 10 the next morning.

On the way back to the hotel, I asked the cab driver when the bars close. "When everyone goes home," he replied.