Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Worst Presidential Blunders

Jimmy Carter describing the Iraq War as one of the greatest blunders leads me to wonder where does it rank in history. The University of Louisville did a survey of historical scholars earlier this year and produced this top-ten list. My modest effort is the top five worst policy blunders and the top five worst personal mistakes.

Five Worst Presidential Policy Blunders
1. Buchanan's sitzkrieg before the Civil War
I agree with the U of L here. During his four years a president, Buchanan shattered his party to the point it ran two candidates for president in 1860 (Douglas and Breckenridge) that led to the election of Abraham Lincoln with less than 40% of the vote. In the four months between the election and Lincoln inauguration, he did little more than whine and play whist while seven states seceded and three Federal forts, including Fort Sumter, were captured by Southern milita. The Civil War had been brewing for several years, it is probable that nothing would have stopped it, Buchanan didn't even try.

2. Nixon's Watergate
In 1972, Richard Nixon was going to win reelection in a walkover. The only Democrat, Robert Kennedy, with the charisma to defeat him had been assassinated in June. The was no rational reason for Nixon to approve a break-in of the Democratic Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel that July. I can't decide which was worst, his stupidity or hubris.

3. Bush and the Iraq War
There is a maxim in chess, "the threat is greater than the execution." Your opponent will tie himself into knots if you threaten to capture a pawn. Once you take it he will often discover it was not such a big deal. In the wake of the quick defeat of the Taliban in Afganistan, nations were scrambling to distance themselves from Al Qaeda and radical Islam. They were afraid of what the mighty United States would do next. All the invasion of Iraq proved is that the United States is far from mighty.

4. Hoover and the Depression
Crops failed. Banks collapsed, wiping out the life savings of millions of Americans in the process (the FDIC was a New Deal creation). The stock market crash was the least of the problems. Hoover's response was to increase tariffs (stifling business even more) and to urge large companies to voluntarily help out. None volunteered.

5. Johnson and Vietnam
By 1964, the war in Vietnam had been going on for over a decade with little input from the United States. Eisenhower had rejected any involvement beyond a few military advisors. Generals jonesing for a war to test their new equipment had failed to convince Kennedy to do more than send a few more advisors. Finally, in Lyndon Johnson, the generals found someone who would listen to their prattle. The war would end quickly with the defeat of Communism if we only send a few thousands troops. Then a few thousand more. Then more still. And more again. What is it about Texas presidents and stupid wars?

The 5 Worst Personal Presidential Mistakes

1. Going to the theatre
Abraham Lincoln should have stayed at home and read a good book. By accounts, the play he went to, Our American Cousin, wasn't worth dying to see.

2. Jefferson chosing Aaron Burr as his Vice-President
Thomas Jefferson picked Aaron Burr as his running mate because he need Burr to win New York. Burr used a quirk of the Electoral College to try to steal the presidency. When, after 36 ballots in the House of Representatives, Jefferson finally won, Burr went home to New York in a snit. Afterwards, Burr shot political opponent Alexander Hamilton in a duel and his attempt to foment rebellion in the western territories of the United States led to his trial for treason.

3. Harrison forgetting his coat
William Henry Harrison, the hero of the battle of Tippecanoe, was determined to show his macho at his inauguration. He stood in a biting cold, coatless, for two hours delivering his inaugural address. He caught pneumonia and died a month later.

4. Clinton's loose zipper
How history would have been different if Bill Clinton had just learned how to keep his pants up.

5. Ulysses Grant's Cabinet
No president was a worse judge of men than Grant. His Treasury Secretary, Benjamin Bristow, stole over $3 million in taxes. Another Treasury Secretary, William Richardson, took kickbacks from the man he hired to collect back taxes. His Secretary of War, William Belknap, was caught taking bribes. The list goes on. The hard part is finding an honest man in the Grant Administration.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Sticking It to the Teachers

Teachers are expected to reach unattainable goals with inadequate tools. The miracle is that at times they accomplish this impossible task. ~Haim G. Ginott

What nobler employment, or more valuable to the state, than that of the man who instructs the rising generation. ~ Marcus Tullius Cicero
From National Public Radio - Teachers are taking a hit from a little-noticed change in federal tax law. They will no longer receive a tax break on the classroom items purchased out of their own pockets. Growing up, we all knew that the best teachers would sometimes buy things the classroom needed but the school board couldn't, or wouldn't, pony up for. It was an act of charity for the kids.

To the anti-tax Bush Administration, such generosity is pure evil. Several small countries could be educated with the tax breaks the oil industry has gotten from this government. But, when underpaid teachers use their hard earned cash to help their children learn? Why, no tax is too high to stem such perfidy. (Note: I wouldn't know that word were it not for my teachers.)

Thanks, Anne, for cluing me into this story.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Now For Something Competely Different

So, I'm researching a couple of topics (immigrant camps in San Diego canyons and the November Ugly American Award). Both are complex and both are really depressing. Depressing enough that it is easy to yield to writer's block when it whispers in my ear. To keep my fingers interested in the keyboard I will give my nephew a Thanksgiving gift.

Boy, Was I Wrong!!!
At the beginning of the football season I wrote off the San Diego Chargers, saying they would get no more than six wins. They had let their star quarterback, Drew Brees, go to free agency and his replacement, Philip Rivers, was almost a rookie, and there would be no veteran backup to help train him. The coaching philosophy of Marty Schottenheimer had ossified and the front office seemed determined to squander every advantage and lucky break they had. The defense had a habit of looking fair for three quarters and folding like a tent in the fourth. Sure, there was LaDainian Tomlinson, but as Barry Sanders proved in Detroit, even a great running back can't improve a piss poor team.

I can't tell you how wrong I was. The Chargers are 8-2 and lead the AFC Western Division. Rivers' first season as a starter has made him a star. Statistically, he is just a hair behind Peyton Manning. Like Manning, when Rivers has to take control of the game (like when the Chargers had to score 42 points in the second half to defeat Cincinnati) he controls the game with robot-like efficiency.

The defense is stellar. Even with injuries, gunshot wounds, and suspensions piling up like cordwood, the defenders have managed to hold back the flood. When Shawn Merriman and Jacques Cesaire return the Charger defense will rival the Chicago Bears as the best in the league.

And then there is Tomlinson. Always an artist with his feet, he seemed at times to float above the grass with the way he could cut, this year he has become mythical. Eight touchdowns the last two games, 22 touchdowns in ten games this season (second place has 14). Individually, he has more rushing touchdowns than every other team in the league and more total touchdowns than 17 teams. He has singlehandedly outscored the entire Oakland Raiders football team.

He is setting scoring records that may never be broken. With six games remaining, he is only six scores away from the record for most touchdowns and eight touchdowns from breaking Paul Horning's single season scoring record of 176 points (Horning was the Green Bay Packers' place kicker as well as their starting halfback that season). If he continues his pace of two scores a game, Tomlinson will have 34 touchdowns and 204 points by season's end. The question is not whether Tomlinson is the greatest running back in the game today. That is a given. The only remaining question is whether he is the greatest running back to every play the game. I have been lucky enough to watch Wayne Gretzky play hockey, Michael Jordan play basketball, and Lance Armstrong race on a bicycle. Now LaDainian Tomlinson. What fun.

So, I was wrong about the Chargers. My God! was I wrong! And, I've proven that writing is easy when you are not kvetching all the time and write about something fun.

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Monday, November 20, 2006

I'll Take the Credit

Every year on my birthday (January 1st) a huge parade is held in Pasadena in my honor. Oh, sure, they don't say it is in my honor. They say it is for some football game, but since I was a child I knew the truth. It's all about me.

It is in that spirit that I shall take full and complete credit for FOX Broadcasting's decision to pull the two-part interview with O. J. Simpson and HarperCollins' decision to shelve Simpson's tell-all book on how he slaughtered his wife and an unlucky stranger and got away with murder. Murdoch and company made the decision just two days after I posted my decision to boycott anything involved with the book or interview. I knew I was powerful. Even I didn't know I was that powerful. This must be be what God feels like all of the time.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Rebelling Against an O.J. Christmas

Being a writer I viscerally despise the concept of book banning and book boycotts. This, however, is an exception. The O. J. Simpson tell-all snuff pornography exceeds even my liberal bounds of tolerance. This requires concrete action.
  • No HarperCollins book, from any of their imprints, on any subject, by any author, shall ever pollute my bookshelf again. This boycott is complete and total. No Michael Crichton, no Lemony Snicket, none of them. There are more than enough publishers and writers that I need not give a penny of my money to a company that would choose to enrich such a man.
  • I will not watch a second of the FOX O. J. interview, that's a given. However, I will be very interested in reports on which advertisers buy time on the broadcasts. Obviously, any business that chooses to advertise on that interview has self-selected itself as a business without even a shred of social mores. In a free society, I can choose not to do business with such contemptible companies.
  • I will inform the manager of any bookstore than places If I Did It on their display tables that I object to its prominent display. I don't believe in censorship so I don't care whether they sell the book. But I strongly object to being slapped in the face with that snuff pornography. If I see the book on display, I will leave and do my Christmas shopping elsewhere.
There is no anger here. Just firm resolve.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Bush: Master of Diplomacy

George Bush is in Vietnam demonstrating again his mastery of international relations. It started before he left when the White House web site promoted the visit not by using the flag for the Republic of Vietnam but using the South Vietnam flag - a flag and nation that died thirty years ago when Vietnam was unified. Upon entering Vietnam Bush declared that the mere existence of their country was an object lesson to Americans to never cease fighting in Iraq. He is sorry we stopped killing their parents so soon. If America had the resolve in the 1970's he had today their Vietnam would not exist.

I'm sure it translates into Vietnamese better than it does from Bush-speak into English.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

'Stay-and-Pray' Strategy

Hope is not a strategy. Hortatory talk about what the Iraqi government must do is getting old. I mean, I have heard over and over again that the government must do this, the Iraqi army must do that. Nobody disagrees with that. The brutal fact is, it is not happening. ~ Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton
The Administration's strategy in Iraq has devolved into Stay-and-Pray. Nothing we try is working but if we just keep at it a little longer everything will be just fine. Insanity is defined as "doing the same thing and expecting a different result." General John Abiziad, by this reckoning, is quite insane.

The truth is that the current strategy is a failure. Three and a half years after the occupation began the opportunities to adjust the strategies to find a successful result have all been squandered. The blatant corruption of companies like Halliburton, the brutality of mercenary firms like Blackwater USA, the incompetence of the Coalition Provisional Authority have so poisoned relations that anything resembling success is impossible. The only choices are between differing ways to fail.
Not knowing what to do when surprised by a bright light, the deer stood motionless in the middle of the road until run over by a truck.
It is instinctive when faced with a conundrum to stand transfixed, unable to decide what to do next. It is instinct; it is also foolish. Yet this is how Gen. Abiziad stands. Blinded by a dazzling failure, his only thoughts are to not think. Faced with not knowing what to do next, he chooses to do nothing. Stay the Course. Stay and Pray. When Hope transcends Reason, all we have left is prayer.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

On Guantanamo Rights and Waterboarding

Compare and Contrast the following statements:
Voice of America News (11/14/2006): The Bush administration says terrorist suspects being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have no constitutional right to challenge their detention in U.S. civilian courts.
Cpl. Jennifer Smith (translating Mustafa Nasser): All I'm asking for is that you treat me according to the Geneva Convention, and I have all the right to have an attorney.
Major Rosenthal (US interrogator/torturer): Here in Guantanamo you have no rights. ~ Iranian TV broadcast, "Guantanamo", (11/4/2006)
Can you tell the difference between official Bush Administration policy and the image broadcast in Iran describing detention there? Is it any wonder why the world views the United States as an outlaw nation because of our Guantanamo policies?

On an related point, we all know that the interrogation technique of choice in Guantanamo is waterboarding. But, do we really know what that means? At left is a 16th Century engraving of waterboarding back when the people doing it proudly described it as torture.

Here is a description of one victim of waterboarding during the
Argentinian Dirty War from the book Torture and Truth.
"You have to talk, this is your last opportunity, and this is your salvation." And then they put me on a table. And I thought, "Well, if they are going to kill me, I hope they kill me pretty soon." They pushed my head underwater, so I could not breathe. They take you out, ask you things, they put you in, they take you out—so you cannot breathe all the time. "Who did you receive this from? Who do you know?" Who can control anything when you cannot breathe? They pull you out, you try to grab for air, so they put you back in so you swallow water, and it is winter and you are very cold and very scared and they do that for a long time.
It is the knowledge that evil men are doing these things in my name that sickens me to my soul.

PS: Regarding the German court charges of war crimes against Donald Rumsfeld. Take the bastard, you can have him.

Monday, November 13, 2006

A Fascinating Iranian TV Drama about Guantanamo

O would some power the gift to give us to see ourselves as others see us. ~ Robert Burns
On November 4, Iranian television broadcast a 39-minute melodrama titled "Guantanamo." It follows a Lebanese doctor (Mustafa Nasser) and an American corporal (Jennifer Smith) from the doctor's torture at Guantanamo Bay prison through the revelation of the Abu Ghraib tortures. The evil antagonist is a satanist American major named Rosenthal. The Middle East Media Research Institute offers the film with English subtitles.

By American video standards it is poorly directed and badly edited. By historical standards it is pure fiction. But it is a fascinating look in the mirror at how we are seen in other parts of the world. Besides, the actress who plays Jennifer Smith has some serious cute going for her. It is worth it if only for the following monologue.
A world dominated by one single nation is a frightening world. 9/11 gave the U.S. a strong pretext for spreading its power over the entire world. Another attack will convince the U.S. that in order to save democracy, you must first destroy it. If you accept this logic, historians will have a hard time explaining why the golden age of democracy lasted only 200 years. We will sadly ask ourselves how human beings like us, through cowardice, could bring the world back to the worst moments of human history. ~ character of French lawyer André Mahfuz in the Iranian TV program "Guantanamo"

Friday, November 10, 2006

Democracies and War

Ann Althouse is depressed by the election. Not because Democrats won but because Americans no longer support the Iraq War. This is how democracies function.
Everybody's for democracy in principle. It's only in practice that the thing gives rise to stiff objections. ~ Meg Greenfield
Unlike Afganistan, the Iraq Adventure was always a war of choice with no significant, or even insignificant, national interests at stake. Winning gains us nothing, losing deprives us of nothing except the spent lives of loyal servicemembers.

From the beginning I've denigrated the Iraq War by describing it as a "recreational war." It was engaged in because the President wanted to, not because the country had to. I knew it would be popular only as long as it was fun. As "Shock and Awe" devolved into a slow, bloody slog people rightfully asked "what are we fighting for?"

What are we fighting for? Even for the Bush Administration that answer has been a moving target. I've heard all of the arguments, all of the reasons that have been given over the years. They all amount to nonsense. We entered the war because we thought it would be easy; we are stuck because it wasn't. (Yes, I know the real reason was an obtuse neocon theory that conquering the Baathist Party in Iraq would create a cascade of democracy throughout the Middle East. That was always nonsense, and they thought it would be easy.)

It is one of the collective wisdoms of democracies that they do a cold cost-benefit calculation when it comes to war. We will fight as long as the benefit of victory outweighs the cost of achieving it. When the costs exceeds any potential benefit, democracies conclude it is best to just cut our loses. This is a calculation that any competent CEO would understand.

When wars are thrust upon democracies (as in WWII) they will fight with a fury dictatorships can't match. When democracies stumble into wars, either through ignorance or arrogance, they had better be successful because democracies do not suffer foolish wars for long.

This is a strength of democracy, not a weakness. The weakness is staying in a war through inertia long past the time it made even a feeble sense.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Adventures in Schadenfreude

I have been enjoying a pleasant wandering through the rightwing blogsphere. They are working through the first stages of grief.

Stage 1: Denial
Certainly the most common thread of denial is the claim that that they didn't really lose at all. The election was not a repudiation of conservativism, just Republicans. Somehow trying to pretend that A doesn't equal B. A lot of Republicans are clinging to Lieberman's victory in Connecticut as proof that the nation really backs the Iraq War and the losses everywhere else were aberrations. Others argue that, if you look back far enough in history, the losses aren't so bad. "If you compare this election to the results in 1862...."

Stage 2: Anger
A startingly number of rightwing bloggers are hoping for a terrorist nuclear attack on New York or Los Angeles to "teach the country a lesson." It seems nothing will make grieving conservatives feel better than reducing a major American city to radioactive slag.

Most of the anger is aimed at Bush. He's a traitor to conservatives for: firing Rumsfeld, for not firing Rumsfeld last month, for saying Nancy Pelosi's name without throwing up on his shoes, for sounding conciliatory towards Democrats. Several commenters (the best of these is from streiff, one of the bigwigs at Redstate) have declared Wednesday marks defeat in Iraq, defeat against Al-Qaeda, even the end of Western Civilization. And it's all Bush's fault!!!!

Stage 3: Bargaining
Not much happening here yet, but it is early. A few writers are looking to win back the Senate by the death of a couple Democratic senators from states with Republican governors. Hawaii, California, and Massachusetts are the most frequently mentioned states. If any of these six senators dies in mysterious airplane crashes in the next few weeks, it was not an accident.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Gleanings from the Exit Polls

Fox News had the proprietary and top secret Edison/Mitofsky exit poll .pdf for the House of Representives available on their website briefly this morning. Long enough for me to download it. It totals the results for all 13,208 interviews on election day.

The Iraq War is now a Republican War
Nothing is more glaring than the result to the question "How do you feel about the U.S. war in Iraq?" Eighty percent of those who disapprove of the war voted Democrat; eighty-one percent of those who approved voted Republican. This is a startling division. Iraq is a one-party war now, plan and simple.

The Youth Belong to the Democrats

Democrats won all age groups but kicked ass among the young. Sixty percent of voters under 30 voted Democrat. This was an 11% improvement over 2002. The best the Republicans did was get forty-nine percent of oldsters (aged 65 and over). The future is voting Democrat.

Republicans are the Party of the Rich
No surprise. Only when you get over $100,000 in total family income do Republican voters outnumber Democrats. But Republicans have lost the middle-class. In 2002, Republicans won the middle-class (household income between $30,000 and $100,000). This year they polled under forty-five percent.

Smart folk have abandoned the GOP
In 2002, 55% of voters with college degrees voted Republican. This year that dropped to just forty-five percent.

The GOP is a Religious Party
Seventy percent of white evangelicals voted Republican. Sixty-one percent of everyone else voted Democrat. Protestants voted Republican (54%), everyone else went heavily for Democrats. Catholics (55%), Jews (87%), and no religion (75%) all voted for the Democrats.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Robo-calls in the Golden State

Living in California (State Mottos: "We Gerrymander the Hell Out of Everything" and "Always Nominate Imbeciles for Governor") has spared me from the great sea of robo-calls that have plagued battleground states. I've only had five to ten a day since Thursday. Who were they from? Damned if I know. If a campaign can't enlist a breathing human to call I won't pay attention.

I haven't been annoyed by them until this morning when I got a 6am wake-up call from some computer masquerading as a nurse. Still don't know what it wanted. Even half-asleep, I don't care how the computers want me to vote.

Monday, November 06, 2006

USS Intrepid Mucking Bottom in NYC

This is a metaphor for the US military under George W. Bush. The aircraft carrier USS Intrepid is stuck in the Hudson River mud. The Intrepid is now a museum ship no longer capable of operating under its own power and, try as they might, the civilian tugboats can't pull her free.

A Cynic's Prediction

Tomorrow, at least one heavily Republican precinct in Virginia or Maryland will have a voter turnout in excess of 100% or at least 110% of the votes cast in a precinct will be counted for the Republican candidate for Senate. Given the nature of human and machine error combined with Diebold vote fraud makes this inevitable.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Grading the November Surprises

There have been a raft of news surprises popping up the fortnight before the election.

Richard Pearle, Kenneth Adelman, and David Frum publically announce their opposition to the Iraq War. These three were the philosophical core of the Republican neocon war crowd in 2002-2003. For them to come out five days before the election is an attempt to influence the election results and encourage Republican defeat. For them to renounce the war they championed, and blame George Bush for it, is huge.

Envangelical White House advisor hires male prostitute and buys illegal drugs. Just when the Republicans thought the had put the Mark Foley kerfuffle to bed (bad pun), behind them (worse pun), this hits them like a two-by-four to the groin. Pile this on top of the previous scandals and it has the potential for being a tipping point story.

The Bush Administration posts nuclear bomb making instructions on the internet. It hasn't gotten as much media play has it deserves but for those who noticed, this clumsy act puts to lie the Republican talking point that only they can be trusted with national security.

Military papers call for Rumsfeld firing. Most people won't notice and it is not like 95% of the human race has already call for his being canned. Still, this sends a "support the troops, fire Rumsfeld" message.

George Allen's staff assaults blogger. I'd like to grade this higher but I just don't think it has legs. This story doesn't have any sympathetic characters. Allen's people were thugs; the blogger was rude. No winners. Now, if the blogger had been a little old lady with a walker....

John Kerry can't tell a joke. Sure, this story got more media play than the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I just don't see how it will have any effect. Anyone who stayed awake through the 2004 Presidential elections knows John Kerry can't tell a joke to save his life. Still, it is the Republican's big winner for the week.

Saddam to be found guilty. Show of hands, how many people are expecting him to be found innocent? This would be the non-event of the election season if not for ...

Dick Cheney thinks the Iraq War is going swimmingly. So, who thought Mr. Last Throes was going to change his mind now?

Friday, November 03, 2006

Kiss and Tell Republicans

There was a time when I had great respect for how Republicans handled their sexual dalliances. Democrats tended towards prostitutes (Barney Franks), strippers (Wilber Mills), and trailer trash (Bill Clinton) who just couldn't keep their mouths shut. (editor's note: There may be a double entendre here)

Republicans mistresses were older and uglier than their Democratic counterparts, but they were descreet. You had to respect that. An example of the old way of doing It is George Bush and Condi Rice. You could infer the torrid affair they had from the way they looked at each other and how he would always call her "Condi" while she called him her "husband." You even knew it was over when Bush began coolly referring to her as "Secretary Rice" and she started dating a Canadian. Everyone knew what was happening, but it was still completely hidden.

Now, we have a Republican candidate for Secretary of State bragging about having steamy sex with multiple Green Bay Packers. Duke Cunningham having a Department of Homeland Security limo service ferry prostitutes to his poker parties at the Watergate Hotel. Mark Foley flirting with underaged congressional pages who weren't mature enough to purge their e-mail log files. Finally, there is right-wing evangelical preacher Ted Haggard whose hatred of godless homosexuals compelled him to hire a male prostitute. Several times.

Over the years, if there was anything that Republicans did well it was keeping their sexual peccadillos undercover. It was a point of pride that Republican whores didn't talk. They can't even to that anymore. If they've lost that, they have lost everything.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Dissing the Troops

Republican House Majority Leader John Boehner has laid the blame for all the failures in Iraq at the feet of the soldiers. Forget the botched joke, this is what disrespecting the troops looks like.

This new "Blame the Grunt" talking point conveniently ignores a bushel of facts that places the blame on the civilian leadership:
I could keep going but I haven't had breakfast and I'm hungry. The bottom line is that the "Buck Stops Here" philosophy of Harry Truman has been replaced with George Bush's "Pass The Buck To Your Underlings."