Word and Image of Vermont
On and Off the Mark Archive    -    September 2004
Did Karl Rove and the Republican campaign have anything to do with feeding false documents to C.B.S. and duping Dan Rather? Were they Machiavellian enough to make the memoranda factually correct and yet produce them on printers that didn't exist at the time? These are charges I've seen quite often over the past week. They're grounded in the belief that there's nothing Rove won't do to win an election. Nothing is too sleazy for him. I tend to think the general charge is right but I doubt Rove planted the documents. The risk is far too great for the possible gain. If anybody could trace a trail leading back from C.B.S. to the Republican campaign the election would be over. Why would Rove make that kind of gamble for the sake of a modest advantage? Truth is, anyone who has paid attention knows about George Bush's National Guard service. He used family privilege to get into the Guard in order to escape the draft. He carried out some of his duties but when they became a burden he simply dropped them, assuming, correctly, that nobody would much care. It wasn't a huge sin and it doesn't tell us anything about his character that hasn't been amply demonstrated during his presidency. Shifting attention away from it couldn't have been a top priority for Rove. I doubt very much that he's stupid enough to walk that close to the precipice just to achieve a small satisfaction.

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Last week at the Apollo Theatre in New York there was an event sponsored by Jane Fonda and Eve Ensler designed to increase voter registration among unmarried women. It was called "Vaginas Vote, Chicks Rock." Jennifer Nelson, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle (September 27, 2004), says the title is likely to be counter-productive. I agree. One of the ongoing failures of in-groups is they can't grasp how obnoxious, or silly, their lingo seems to outsiders. What they consider to be humorous or clever often comes across as simply dumb. Here, for example, is one of the quips used by Eve Ensler at the event: "Are there any registered vaginas in the house.?" It's enough to break you up, isn't it? Ms. Nelson's point is that identifying people by a single anatomical feature is inherently bigoted, even if the intention is to be liberating or uplifting. Clearly, she's right We don't need to be so stuffy or prudish as to object to a little in-group banter when it's kept to private conversations. But when one goes out to address the public, she should keep in mind who the public is.

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The inadequacy of our political language has been one of my ongoing themes, and I was reminded of it recently when on the dust jacket of a new book by Ann Coulter I saw her described as a "conservative intellectual." Gosh! I confess, I don't have a good term for Ms. Coulter and others like her -- Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly. In my own mind I tend to think of them as comedians because whenever I see them they make me laugh. But that's probably not quite the right word. Bill O'Reilly himself has called Rush Limbaugh an entertainer. It's not an inaccurate designation but it's probably not sufficiently precise.. My friends tend to use words like "whacko," or "freak show" or "goofball." I see their point, but, still, these aren't specifically descriptive. The age of celebrity has brought forth figures who are incessantly on television for reasons that are hard to fathom. I suppose it would be correct to call Ms. Coulter a right-wing media celebrity but it's a clunky phrase. So, I'm bollixed.

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Beginning early on Friday, hundreds of people will appear on television programs and tell us who won and who lost the presidential debate. This will be an important element of what is now called the "post-debate debate." It is widely acknowledged to be more important than the debate itself. In other words, what the candidates themselves say has less significance that what a select number of people say about their performance. Granted that gossip has been an important feature of politics since the time of the pharaohs, is it foolish to suspect that it has ascended to unsurpassed influence among us? Are we to direct the affairs of our nation by what gossip mongers say about sweats, sighs, and awkward facial expressions? This is getting more silly than even humans ought to endure. You would think that sometime Americans would rise up and teach through their actions that they don't care whether a candidate's sentences are short enough to capture people with the attention span of nervous squirrels.  There must be somewhere deep in the American psyche the recognition that that the man selected to be president will frequently decide who lives and who dies. Can people concentrated on the candidates' camera appeal tell us anything serious about that?

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Yesterday (9/28/04), MoveOn.org ran an ad in the New York Times saying that the Gallup Poll is using a methodology which exaggerates support for Mr. Bush. Gallup is predicting that a larger pecentage of registered Republicans will turn out this fall than has historically been the case. This kind of distortion, says MoveOn.org, has a partisan effect. Their argument is that "poll results profoundly affect a campaign's news coverage as well as the public's perception of the candidates." I don't know if this is true. Is there a rolling snowball effect such that people vote for a candidate they think is ahead for that reason alone? Or do people fail to vote if they believe their candidate can't win? I suppose both could be the case. These possibilities are all the more reason why newspapers should consistently remind readers of the margins in past elections. In most of them, a different decision by only a small percentage of voters would have changed the result. Nobody should give up supporting a candidate he or she favors because of what a poll says. Newspapers have a duty to remind us that surrenders of that kind put our political destiny in the hands of pollsters.

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A widely criticized feature of the upcoming presidential debates is that the rules virtually ban follow-up questions. This means that a candidate can give a response that has nothing to do with the question and nobody can ask him why he didn't answer. Politicians are generally adept at putting little campaign speeches in  place of answers but I know of no politician for whom this is a more important tactic than Mr. Bush. He is considered to be very good at sticking to his script and saying only what he wants to say. But he is weak when he has to give a spontaneous answer. So, rules that permit no follow-up give him a natural advantage. One wonders why the Kerry people agreed to them. Perhaps they were afraid Bush would pull out of the debates altogether. But, that's a silly fear. No candidate could refuse to appear because it would be seen as running away. It would be informative to know what was said in the debates leading to the great stack of rules. But I suppose that's news we'll never get.

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One of the saddest things I've had to observe over the course of my adult life has been the change to Atlanta since I went to college there. It was once one of the most comfortable, inviting, beautiful cities in America. Now, it's noted mainly for metropolitan sprawl, which is about as bad there as it is anywhere in the United States. This is what money, running amok, will do. Money wants to develop, independent of human need. And where money is the principal value, humans languish. And, I mean that literally. A study released just this week by the Rand Corporation finds that people in sprawling metropolitan areas like Atlanta suffer from more chronic health difficulties than anybody else. Evidently, spending a major part of your life in crowded traffic is not good for you. And if you check out Atlanta at certain times of the day all you find is one huge clog. I mustn't exaggerate. There are still parts of  the city that are lovely. But a goodly portion of the people who live there have to drive miles to buy a loaf of bread or get a cup of coffee. And that's not a condition, over the long run, which makes for either a happy, or a healthy, life.

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The Commission on Presidential Debates has proposed that the audience for the debate on October 8th be composed of strictly undecided voters. In other words, what the electorate most needs is to see how the candidates behave in the presence of numskulls. There's no sense in mincing words about this. If a person actually does not know which of the two candidates he favors it can mean only that he has paid virtually no attention to what has been happening in the world or in the nation over the past three years. And, presumably, now, a little more than a month before the vote, he's going to get around to paying attention. But what will he pay attention with? He has no informed mind he can use to weigh what the candidates say. He can't detect lies because he has no knowledge of the truth. Since he hasn't bothered to be aware of conditions he can't imagine what's possible. We all know that democracy's greatest weakness is a significant body of bigoted or ill-informed voters. Since that's the political game we've decided to play, we can't escape that danger. But do we have to take the elements of the threat and embrace them as though they were oracles? Do we have to address all our appeals to minds that give scant evidence of existing? There's something perverse about that.

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We can take it for granted that in a campaign both sides will try to sketch events in a way that's favorable to themselves. But does that mean there's nothing to choose between the truthfulness of two campaigns? That's what you would have to conclude if you take the word of major news outlets. It doesn't matter how big a lie one candidate tells. ABC, NBC, and CBS will try to balance it with some error, however minor, from the other candidate in order to avoid the charge of partisanship. This is the perception of fairness in the current world of journalism. The biggest lie of this campaign, of course, has been Mr. Bush's persistent claim that Senator Kerry voted to go to war in September of 2002. Mr. Kerry did nothing of the sort. He voted to give the president the authority to use military force if necessary. That's what he said at the time and that's what he has said since then. But have you heard Dan Rather or Peter Jennings or Tom Brokaw announce that Mr. Bush is not telling the truth when he charges Kerry with voting to launch a war against Iraq? No. What the news programs will do is repeat the president's charges and to "balance" them run an out-of-context clip of Kerry's refutation which they will then announce to be too nuanced for the American public to understand. Thus does a fresh campaign-created "truth" enter the American discourse -- Mr. Kerry has flip-flopped on going to war against Iraq. If you were cynical, you might think the networks had signed on with the Bush campaign. They haven't though. They're doing something worse: letting Karl Rove play them like a harp.

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Harley Sorensen, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, says that we're not facing the problems created by illegal immigration (September 27, 2004). U. S. businesses want the cheap labor it provides so we refuse to acknowledge the difficulties the flood of unrestricted immigrants is causing. He may be right. But the truth is, neither I nor anyone else knows actually what those difficulties are. There are scare stories about how terrorists can mix among those coming to seek work, and they probably could. But our borders are unprotected in so many places that well supplied enemies of the country can enter any time they wish. A stern immigration policy isn't going to reduce that possibility. Immigration is like a lot of other important issues in America that can't get a hearing. Both politicians and media directors are so obsessed with simplistic, sensationalist stories that anything requiring thought is either ignored or shuffled to the back pages. It's clear to anyone who spends an hour or two considering the international situation that in an age of instant communication the movement of populations around the world cannot be controlled as it was in the past. What are we going to do about it? Obviously, we don't know. And until we employ careful attention and analysis we're not going to know. But of all things, attention and genuine analysis are the pursuits most scarce in America right now.

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The Program on International Policy Attitudes recently conducted a poll on the U.S. presidential election among Europeans. President Bush did the best in Great Britain, where 16% of the people supported him against only 47% for Mr. Kerry. The president's popularity fell off sharply in other countries. In France, for example, 63% support Mr. Kerry whereas 5% go for Mr. Bush. There does appear to be a fairly sharp division between Europeans and Americans. The serious question is whether it's over Mr. Bush alone or whether it extends to general policy questions. What seems to be the case is that about half the people of the United States approach the world pretty much as Europeans do whereas the other half see America as so distinct from, and superior to, the rest of the world that what people outside our borders think really doesn't matter. It might be nice if the latter were right but the truth seems to be that how we're seen by the world is already affecting everyday life here, and the chances are it will affect it even more strongly in the future.

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The indifference of the U. S. government to Iraqi deaths was one of the first truths to convince me that our adventure in Iraq would turn into a stew of hatred. Our government refused to count the number of Iraqis killed under the coalition government for the fatuous reason that since we weren't trying to kill them, their deaths didn't matter.  Starting on June 10, 2004, however, the Ministry of Health of the Allawi government did start counting, and not only that, it kept separate accounts of the numbers killed by the insurgency and by the alliance of American forces and the new police. Guess what? In the three months after the count was begun, the U.S. and its new-found friends killed two and a half times as many people as the insurgents killed. The total was 1,295. The Bush administration continues with its conviction that the way to peace and stability in Iraq lies in killing people who don't like us. But, there's little historical sanction for that notion. The intensity of the recent opposition should tell any one with eyes to see that greater and greater numbers of people are joining the ranks of those willing to risk their lives in order to strike at the Americans. The president says it's better to fight our enemies in Iraq than to fight them here. But we might want to remember that before Mr. Bush sent American forces to Iraq, Iraqis had killed no Americans.

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Occasionally I watch a Sunday talk show from Canada titled The Editors.  It's supposed to be about U.S.-Canadian relations but the theme is interpreted broadly so that the panel often finds itself discussing general international relations. Today (September 26, 2004) the topic was the implications of the war on terrorism. Three of the panelists -- David Harris, James Bissett, and Frank Gaffney -- are hard line right-wingers . Their position on terrorism mirrors that of President Bush and Vice-President Cheney. It holds that terrorists can be explained only by evil. The only way to deal with them is through military force. The trio doesn't want to consider the thesis that terrorists are simply an extreme fringe of a wide swath of the world's population who believe that the nations of the West are using their economic powers to oppress and exploit the people of the poorer nations. It's not that the theorists of evil try to refute the charge. They just refuse to deal with it. The question is, why? If it's not true, you would think the defenders of Western virtue would want to lay it to rest. And, if it is, it seems only sensible that even the most self-centered persons would see it as a problem to be managed. To dismiss it as though its didn't exist strikes me as virtually insane. One thing we can be sure of: until the question of Western financial exploitation becomes a topic of legitimate  political debate in America there will be no reduction of violent attacks on Americans. We have to show the world that we have seriously considered the issue and that we are responding to it in a way that can be rationally defended. Refusing to acknowledge it, in the manner of Harris, Bissett, and Gaffney, is a guarantee that the attacks will continue  and become ever more vicious.

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Mark Sandalow of the San Francisco Chronicle has written a fairly extensive article investigating whether Mr. Kerry has flip-flopped about Iraq (September 23, 2004). This, of course, is the main charge the Republicans level against Kerry -- that he changes his mind so often you can never know where he stands. Sandalow's findings are that Kerry has said the same thing about Iraq throughout the past three years. And what he said was actually pretty simple. The U.S. should keep a close watch on Saddam. We should do all in our power to enlist other nations in supporting that scrutiny. We should use military force only in the last resort, when there is no possibility that other measures will protect us. But over the past months, the media have told us that this is too "nuanced" a position for the American people to grasp. It may be in the interest of the president to approach the American people as though they were a pack of not-very-imaginative eight year olds. But why is it in the interests of the media to follow along? Why can't the media report Mr. Kerry's simple policy accurately? Is it that flip-flopping is more dramatic than steadiness? Is it just that charges of flip-flopping make a better story than boring consistency does?

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Now we have a so-called foreign leader coming to the United States and giving campaign speeches for one of the presidential candidates, and most of our puppy dog media seem to think that's hunky-dory. Maybe it's just that everyone knows that Ayad Allawi is Mr. Bush's puppet and, therefore, doesn't expect anything else. But, if that's what people know, they ought to say so. The farce of a presidential henchman being invited to speak to Congress and being treated as the patriotic leader of a nation under siege is one of our more shameful moments. Either Mr. Allawi is a real foreign leader, in which case he should not be allowed to campaign in U. S. elections, or he's a flack for the president, in which case no one should pay any more attention to him than they would to Paul Wolfowitz. Is it too much to expect one of the three network news anchors to say so?

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Huda Alazawi is an Iraqi woman held by American forces in Abu Ghraib prison until she was released earlier this year. She recently told her story to Luke Harding, a reporter for the Guardian, a British newspaper (September 20, 2004) If even a quarter of what she says is true, the United States has no chance, at all, to bring about peaceful conditions in Iraq. Stories like hers do not die. They are told down the ages and can be discredited only by the hardest contrary evidence, which does not seem to be forthcoming. To say that she was abused would be a euphemism of gargantuan dimensions. There are no abstractions to convey how disgusting her treatment was. The details themselves are the only adequate description. The Abu Ghraib abuse scandals made for one of the biggest revelations of the Iraqi occupation. But, even so, I doubt the American public has been told even a tenth of what went on there. But the Iraqi people know it. They hear about it everyday from the lips of the people who experienced it. And what they hear is far more than enough to keep them fighting.

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If you listen carefully to current Republican campaign rhetoric you'll discover that Senator Kerry is a virtual ally of Al Qaeda and other enemies of the United States. That these arguments are not just chance bloviations from a few overheated partisans is made very clear in an article by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post (September 24, 2004). He documents comment after comment, all to the same effect, including one made by the president himself yesterday. In the Rose Garden, standing beside Mr. Allawi, Mr. Bush said that Kerry's statements can "embolden an enemy." Though the Republicans don't come right out and say it, the implications are clear: any criticism of the president is disloyalty to America. Consequently, democracy itself is disloyal. Evidently, to promote democracy in Iraq we have to give it up here at home, or, at least, lay it aside till the war is over. And, given Mr. Bush's analysis of world conditions, the war will proceed indefinitely. Since about half the people of the nation seem ready to criticize Mr. Bush, we appear to have fallen into a condition in which half of us are disloyal to ourselves. How bizarre! It might take all of Mr. Bush's talents as a unifier to do something about it.

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John Kerry is charging Mr. Bush with refusing to fund the "No Child Left Behind" process at the level he promised. Since the law was enacted, $27 billion less has been spent than was authorized. Whether this is a failure to do what was promised or an ordinary process of legislation and funding is a question that demands interpretation. But in fighting about it, what gets ignored is the issue of whether the law actually does improve student achievement as the president asserts. If I understand the law correctly, it depends on multiple-choice testing to determine how well students are being educated. If their scores on such tests rise then education is presumed to have occurred. But has it? That, of course, depends on what one thinks education is. If you believe that an educated mind is one that thinks critically, then response to multiple-choice tests is not a good way to measure educational attainment. I suppose it's too much to expect politicians to address issues like this. But if the funds we pay to support education are not to be squandered, somebody has to address them. And, it's clear that Mr. Bush is not interested in that sort of assessment.

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Something important happened this week which has received relatively little attention. David Gregory of NBC News asked President Bush if he could understand why many Americans think things aren't going well in Iraq. Bush responded with his regular statement that we've better off with Saddam out of power. In the past that would have been the end of it. But this time Gregory followed up, saying : "I don't think you're really answering the question." If the press begins to point out that Mr. Bush almost never answers the questions that are put to him but uses all questions as an opportunity to make a little campaign speech, we could begin to have a different politics. The Bush campaign counts on a supine press, It has gone forward in the faith that reporters will not press Mr. Bush actually to answer the questions put to him. And, up till now, they've pretty much been right. But what if the press should get fed up? What if they stop accepting Mr. Bush's scripted responses and push for genuine answers.? The aura surrounding the president could dissipate rapidly. It remains to be seen whether members of the press have enough courage to serve the public as they should. But, now, maybe there's hope.

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One of the more frustrating features of the presidential campaign has been the almost universal declaration that a vote in September of 2002 to authorize the president to use force in Iraq was a vote to launch an invasion of the country. In vain has Mr. Kerry argued that he voted to give the president authority because he thought it would strengthen America's hand in negotiations with foreign leaders. This is ridiculous, say pundits and newsmen. Everybody knew, at the time, that voting for the resolution made war inevitable. Yet, on the day the president conveyed his resolution to Congress he said its purpose was to "support the administration's ability to keep the peace." Perhaps we can convict Mr. Kerry and most of the members of Congress who voted for the resolution of naivete. We can say they should have known what Mr. Bush was determined to do. But we cannot say, based on the president's own pronouncements, that a vote for the resolution was a vote for the inevitability of war. In truth, all through the fall of 2002, Mr. Bush continued to say that he was doing everything in his power to avoid war. So, if we take current pundits at face value (Howard Fineman of Newsweek, for example, says that "everybody knew" a vote for the resolution was a vote for war), we now have a choice between an indecisive senator and a lying president. The problem is, most commentators are more than willing to say that Mr. Kerry's position in 2002 is the opposite of what he says now but almost none of them dare to follow their own logic and explain that President Bush, when he sent the resolution, lied about its purpose.

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Now we have "security moms" who think, for a reason no human has ever explained, that if George Bush is president they and their children will be less likely to be killed by terrorists than if Mr. Kerry is president. Are they actually a definable group of human beings or have they been made up by desperate journalists seeking something to mask their flaccid analysis? Here's what I'm coming to fear: groups are born because the media announce in advance that they exist. Evidently, many people in the nation are in search of some kind of identity. It is not enough simply to be oneself and to have thoughts based on one's own observation. One has to find out what she thinks by giving herself a label. She may not have had a single thought about the problems of national protection. But, if she becomes a security mom, then, automatically, she knows that she should support Mr. Bush because he will protect her and her children better than anybody else could. How does she know this? Because she is a security mom and this is what security moms think. She read it in the newspaper. She heard it on television. She will now carry it into the voting booth. I hate to think I might be right about this but the more I hear security moms interviewed on television the more I'm terrified that my hideous suspicions are becoming actuality.

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The novelist E. L. Doctorow says that President Bush is a figure of moral vacancy (Easthampton Star,  September 9, 2004). My first thought is that I agree but, then, a second thought tells me that I don't know what the nature of moral vacancy is. It's emotionally satisfying to find moral deficiencies in our political opponents. In the privacy of my heart I do it all the time. Yet firmer thoughts tell me that I don't need to make public moral judgments about other people in order to take a political stand. It's enough for me that George Bush and most of the Republican Party want conditions of life that I find not only unpleasant but decidedly ugly.  They want to take my country and make it into something repulsive. Is this immoral? I tend to think it is but I can't be perfectly certain. What I am sure of is that I'll do my best to resist national uglification and let my efforts stand as a definition of who I am. Ultimate moral judgment is out of my hands.

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Over the past several days, beginning in the week of September 13th, John Kerry seems to have found the voice he should have been using all along. It is a calm, confident manner coupled with strong words. A basic rule that American politicians often miss is that one can say just about anything he believes, without being hurt by it, if he says it in the right way. We have become so accustomed to sentimental emoting, we think a person can't get his message across if he doesn't employ a kind of TV passion. The truth is, words can do the job, if they are wisely chosen and delivered competently. Nobody needs to scream about what Mr. Bush and his associates have wrought in Iraq. Nobody needs to shed crocodile tears over the dead. The story itself is horrible enough if it is told well. If Mr. Kerry will associate himself with that story, and tell it without ceasing between now and November 2nd, he will give himself the best chance to move into the White House next January. Truth is a powerful tactic, if a politician can find a way to put it across.

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The media's propensity to personalize politics is leading us in bad directions. From watching TV and reading newspapers, one gets the impression that we should vote for, or against, a person based on whether we would enjoy his company. This is mostly nonsense. The serious political issue is not a candidate's likability but rather, what kind of world he is pushing us towards. I, for example, don't particularly like Mr. Bush's personality, but that's not the reason I oppose him. If he were the manager of my local dollar store, I could probably get along with him well enough. But, as president, he's trying to create a world I don't want to live in. That's why he's not going to get my vote. He defines education as the ability to answer multiple choice questions; I don't. He wants an America that dominates the world through military force; I don't. He wants rich people to get richer so they can increase their control over public policy; I don't. He thinks Walker, Texas Ranger is a great TV show; I don't. He thinks the accumulation of capital is more important than clean air and clean water; I don't. He defines freedom as the ability to use wealth in any way that increases wealth, regardless of its public effect; I don't. Politics is about what kind of social environment we want for ourselves and our children. The only sensible political behavior is to support the politicians who will bolster that kind of world, and to oppose those who want to do away with it.

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The New York Times  says that in his speech at the United Nations yesterday (September 21, 2004) President Bush squandered a golden opportunity, delivering instead a lead balloon. The Times  is amazingly persistent in refusing to understand who Mr. Bush is. There are no golden opportunities for the president with respect to world leaders. It seems pretty clear that his advisors know that. So when Mr. Bush goes to the U.N. his purpose is not persuasion but insult. The latter is a good campaign tactic among the president's fervid admirers. And those are the only people he's interested in reaching. Mr. Bush's concern for winning the election rises so far above other concerns that they can be said almost not to exist in his mind. If he wins, he will be pleased and feel justified. If he doesn't, nothing else much matters. This is the leader the American people have to deal with. They can love him and support him. They can try to replace him. But to act as though he can be persuaded to change his manner, as the Times consistently does, is intellectual fluffery. He has no other manner than the one he has demonstrated.

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James Carroll in the Boston Globe has written the hardest hitting essay about the war in Iraq I've seen (September 21, 2004). He places responsibility for it not as much on the Bush administration as on the American people themselves. If we were less willing, he says, to see our government use military force to kill other people, the government would not get away with it so easily. We are in the grip of something deeply shameful. This will be dismissed by many as simply another example of "blame America first." His argument may well be overstated. Yet it's significant that a writer in a major newspaper is delivering a message of this stripe. For a long tine now the American people have preened themselves on their own essential goodness. Politicians incessantly flatter us to the same effect. Yet, the time seems to have arrived when a new question is forcing itself on our attention -- what's so great, or so moral, about us?

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How much support does Ayad Allawi have among the Iraqi people? It's a question Americans ought to be asking with all the force they can muster. Why? Because transforming him into a legitimate prime minister is the only plan our government has for pacifying Iraq. And the truth seems to be that both he and the Bush administration intend to pursue his campaign for legitimacy by military assault. Ask yourself this question. If a foreign government came to America and set up a president by force, how much loyalty would you feel towards him? That's the same loyalty Iraqis will feel towards Allawi. Right now, it seems to be the case that he can't drive down the street without being protected by American troops. I have seen not a single piece of evidence put forward by anybody that says he is a popular leader. Yet, he's the man George Bush is telling us we should spend our treasure and our lives to promote.

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Fred Hiatt, a writer for the Washington Post, informs us today (September 20, 2004) that democracy is not striding toward success all round the world in the way we thought was virtually inevitable a short while ago. Why we thought that has never been clear to me. Did people really believe the right-wing fantasy that Communism was the only problem the world faced? The concept "democracy" itself is part of our difficulty. Does it mean simply rule by a majority? Or does it, as we have assumed in America, mean popularly supported constitutional systems which guarantee basic freedoms and protection of minorities? If the latter, then democracy has never been and never will be inevitable anywhere. In his quick survey of how democracy is faring round the world, Mr. Hiatt makes only a passing reference to the United States, about which he says, "The fight against Islamic fundamentalist terrorists inevitably became America's top priority after the Sept. 11 attacks; pushing for democracy strikes many policymakers as an unaffordable luxury." In the long-range history of democracy, the question of whether Americans are brave enough to sustain it will be a major chapter. If politicians can use fear to scrap it, that's exactly what they will do. The word itself informs us that democracy must find its home in the hearts of the people. If it doesn't, it will have no home at all.

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In an excellent column about John Kerry's campaign problems, Bob Herbert of the New York Times concludes that up till now, John Kerry hasn't shown the courage to be himself (September 20, 2004). That's certainly how he's perceived, a man of all tactics and no convictions. Whether it's the truth or not I have no way of knowing. I do know this, however. Mr. Kerry is severely handicapped by the intellectual class from which he comes. This slice of society, which has erroneously come to be known as liberal intellectuals, has its base in a university world that severely misunderstands anything outside its own precincts. Truth is, it doesn't even know what it's trying to do inside them. There is no group of people less fit to offer guidance to the nation than the administrators and professors of American universities. They have dedicated themselves to boxed-in pursuits that allow virtually no opportunity to reach out to the whole of life. They are so dedicated to the application of formula they can't be said to know what life is or, even, what thinking is. Are there exceptions to this profile? Of course, hundreds of them. But, as of now, the exceptions have not been able to alter the basic character of the university. Kerry has to establish himself as being independent of this class if he's to have a chance to win. The serious question is whether there is a self in Kerry that can step outside these constraints. If not, those of us who believe another term of the Bush presidency will severely harm the nation are in for doleful times.

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The furor over questionable documents pertaining to the president's National Guard service has brought with it wide-ranging proclamations of Dan Rather's supposed liberalism. The conventional wisdom seems now to have concluded that Mr. Rather is indubitably a man of the left. This is nonsense. Who in the history of the nation has ever labored harder at being perfectly conventional than Dan Rather has? The raising of his eyebrows has functioned as the eminent national signal that something has stepped outside bourgeois sentiment. Yet, the campaign to paint him as a left-winger does reveal an important development. Far-right spokesmen have been working ceaselessly to drag perception of the middle in their direction. On talk shows like The O'Reilly Factor and Scarborough Country, positions that would have been considered extreme only ten years ago are regularly pronounced to be the stance of that mythical resident of the heartland, who represents everything good, solid, and, most of all, normal about America. O'Reilly goes so far as to present himself as a moderate who stands between  Rush Limbaugh, way out on the right, and National Public Radio, way out on the left, although, if you listen carefully, you'll find that NPR is even farther out than Rush is. These Zeitgeist hijackers have concluded there's no need to bother with rational persuasion if they can simply define themselves as the center. Next thing you'll hear is that Social Security and clean air and water regulations are  far-out elements of a Communist plot to pull the nation off its natural, ordained course. And, if Dan Rather is a super liberal, why not?

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The report of the 9/11 Commission, which journalism generally pronounced to be a work of grand integrity, is, according to Benjamin DeMott, "a fraud and a cheat" (Harper's Magazine, October 2004). I was glad to read that because it's pretty much what I thought about the report from day one. What it does, says DeMott, is address its audience as though they were a pack of infants and present its findings in a way to make people reject well-informed public debate. From the commissioners' point of view, everybody is to blame for the attacks and, therefore, no one is to blame. The idea that some people bear more responsibility than others is not to be tolerated. Mr. Bush, assisted by Mr. Cheney, met with the commissioners at the White House and told them untruths. But the stance the commissioners had already adopted before they met with the president wouldn't allow them to say so. It was their self-imposed task not to tell us the truth but to smooth the event over so the nation could -- to use the nauseating phrase that has become a hallmark of current political talk -- move on. The question is, move on to what? If we are not allowed to make distinctions about the behavior of public officials, if we can't say that one was more inept than another, we have no basis for charting our future course. The commissioners would have us believe that the answer to our problems is institutional reorganization. Drop the same characters into different stew pots and, somehow, the rancid brew will be transformed into nectar. It's as though boxes on charts are making our decisions for us and not the minds of actual men and women.

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Have you noticed that John Ashcroft has very nearly disappeared from the news. There was time not so long ago when he was coming on the TV regularly, announcing great breakthroughs in the war against terror. Under his leadership, the Justice Department threw five thousand people into jail who were suspected of terrorist activity. How many of them have been convicted of terrorist activity? Not one (actually three were convicted, but then the courts threw out their convictions, saying, in effect, that the evidence against them had been trumped up). It's quite a record. Mr. Ashcroft has made no appearances expressing regret for keeping people in jail as long as three years when there was no genuine evidence against them. I think we can be pretty sure that's because he feels no regret.  A persistent theme of the Bush administration has been that we shouldn't be overly concerned about civil liberties, or even about the decent treatment of people, when security questions come into play. Law enforcement always involves a tension between the need to protect innocent people against criminal behavior and the need to observe the rights of people who have been accused but not convicted. Most of us would hope that both police and prosecutors would remain acutely aware of that tension and do their best to honor both requirements. Mr. Ashcroft seems to be affected by it less than most national law enforcement officials, and, that's probably because he serves a president who holds the same view he does.

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I confess, I'm befuddled. Over and again on television I hear potential voters saying they trust Mr. Bush to protect the country against hostile foreigners more than they do Mr. Kerry. But they never say why, nor do they appear ever to think there's any reason to say why. Is this a self-evident truth? Has it been handed down by God? What's even more astounding is I have never heard a reporter -- not one -- ask an interviewee why he trusts Mr. Bush more. Is there a secret prohibition that all members of the media have pledged to observe, which forbids asking the most obvious question that would occur to a sentient person? This is an amazing phenomenon. A supposed truth has consolidated among us and no one shows any curiosity about where it came from or what the evidence for it is.

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Here's what Glenn Kessler, reporter for the Washington Post, said about the presidential race yesterday (September 17, 2004) in an interview with Campaign Desk: "The issues are always going to be simplified. And it's really up to voters to take the time to figure out what's behind those statements, and to understand what the candidate is trying to say." When you reflect, you see it's an extraordinary statement. The candidates can't be expected to explain their positions straightforwardly. They're always going to over-simplify. And, it's up to the voters to figure out what they mean. Furthermore, we can't count on the media to tell us what's behind a candidate's pronouncements. The function we would logically expect them to perform is simply not available to us. But, why not? We scarcely live in an ideal world with a well-informed electorate. Instead, we have intermediate structures, such as the press, which are supposed to compensate for the voters' ignorance or lazy-mindedness. Yet, they don't do it. What Mr. Kessler seems to admitting is that we are fated to live in a country governed by the best snake oil salesmen and there's nothing he or his colleagues can do about it.

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The Columbia Journalism Review reports that Fox News (they who are fair and balanced) has over the past month mentioned Iraq 2708 times whereas it has mentioned Vietnam 1486 times. You might think, since we now have soldiers dying in Iraq whereas the war in Vietnam has been over for more than thirty years, that the ratio would be a little heavier in favor of Iraq than it is. But, we all know why Vietnam is being talked about so volubly. Among certain portions of the population a smoldering anger continues against anyone who spoke out against the U.S. involvement. Right-wing emotion about Vietnam is the epitome of Stephen Decatur's remark that one should hope his country is right, but he should support his country  regardless, right or wrong. Fox News, the Republican Party, and various neo-conservative groups want to make that sentiment the American theme and fan that anger into an open flame. The notion that we should be for our guys no matter what is understandable. But, when it carries over to the stance that we should be willing to see them slaughtered senselessly in order to appear to support them, then maybe we've reached the point where Stephen Decatur should be challenged. The issue, of course, is not really about our guys. It's about a little boy's version of national glory. How much the latter is worth will constitute the major debate not just in this campaign but throughout the coming decades.

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The Bush campaign is in the position of a baseball pitcher who believes he's got the batter so befuddled he won't dare swing. All the pitcher then has to do is throw fast balls right down the middle of the plate and strike the batter out. In this case, the fast balls are ridiculous assertions the president and the vice president continue to make, which could be knocked back in their teeth if Mr. Kerry could be persuaded to swing his bat. The single question of this campaign has come down to whether Mr. Kerry will swing or not. There are of course reasons to worry. Anytime you swing you might pop up. But, if you rely on the pitcher's walking you, which is what Mr. Kerry has been counting on up till recently, the chances are you're going to stand looking at the third strike. Then, all you can do is grumble at the umpire, which will do no good at all. There are, of course, various swings. One can bunt or try to pop a Texas Leaguer over the first baseman's head. But, if Mr. Kerry wants to take a home run swing, it's clear what it is. Given the conditions in February of 2003, Mr. Bush was a fool to launch a war in Iraq. Not just mistaken. Not just misled by faulty intelligence. But an outright fool. If Kerry has the power to put that argument over the wall, he'll win. If he doesn't, he probably won't. It'll be interesting to see if the bat comes off his shoulder.

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It now seems to be accepted that Vladimir Putin is going to set aside democracy in Russia and assume the position occupied by the Czars of the 19th Century. The question then arises whether the United States should care. The establishment answer seems to be not if Putin will throw a few bones to American economic interests. That was -- with a few regrets -- the message delivered this morning by David Ignatius of the Washington Post (September 17, 2004). For the short run, a strong man in Russia who will keep order and make deals with American corporations seems to meet our needs. But if our government is serious about the problem we have named "terrorism" (I see little evidence that it is), we might want to look carefully at Putin's record in dealing with Chechnya and ask ourselves whether his dictatorship really will reduce incidents of violence around the world. We might also want to review our own history of supporting dictators in order to boost America's policies. These guys have a tendency to get out of hand.

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George Will has added his voice to the chorus which blames John Kerry for the fallacious Swift Boats Veterans attacks on his record in Vietnam (Washington Post, September 16, 2004). Presumably, if Mr. Kerry had not emphasized his wartime experience at the Democratic Convention, the Swift-Boaters would have been as quiet as mice. Both the logic and the evidence for this escape me. Mr. Kerry is opposing a campaign machine that is widely recognized as being willing to do anything to win. It doesn't need to be provoked to use all the scurrilous material it can find. To say that Republican supporters would not have attempted to trash John Kerry's military record if he, himself, hadn't brought it up, is not only naive, it's silly. What's more, George Will knows it's silly. But he is now adopting the same tactic as his political leader -- do anything to win. He's even fallen to the level of quoting, approvingly, Grover Norquist, whom he calls "a colonel in conservatism's army." There's a real future for George in this direction. Next he can start mouthing the opinions of Captain Rush Limbaugh and  Sergeant Michael Savage. George himself, of course, will remain among the generals.

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Maureen Dowd in her column today (September 16, 2004) says the main Republican campaign technique is "audacious, mendacious malarkey." The phrase has a catchy little ring to it, though it may be questionable how many people know what "mendacious" means. Knowledge of what most voters understand is the great mystery in this election. If, indeed, a campaign were treating them to audacious, mendacious malarkey, how many of them would pick it up? And then, how many would receive it as sincerity or grand patriotism? The propensity of people to be gulled is an ongoing feature of history and there are reasons to suspect that the propensity in Americans right now is higher than it has ever been. When people are told that the reason for trying to help multi-millionaires become billionaires is to benefit the country, and they believe it, it's hard not to think they're sunk so deep in delusion nothing can pluck them out. It would be good if someone could tell us how voters actually think. But that might require an intellect beyond the mind of man.

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The best advice I've heard from a military figure in the past six months came from ex-general Montgomery Meigs when he was being interviewed on Hardball  last night (September 14, 2004). Don't talk about your enemy as though he were sub-human, Meigs told Chris Matthews. It will only cause you to underestimate him and it will lead your own soldiers into disgusting behavior of the sort we've seen at Abu Ghraib. The blustery, childish language we've had from the Bush administration about people who oppose U. S. policy may have hurt our country more even than the policy blunders Bush has made. The notion that it's as important to traduce your opponent as it is to resist him is the policy of weak men. If the U. S. government had been more forthright in acknowledging Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda as skillful, shrewd, and courageous opponents we would be better off with respect to them right now. The American public would be more fully prepared for the reality of our situation and less caught up in the fatuous notion that all we've got to do is kill a few mad dogs and then the rest of the world will welcome American hegemony with open arms. That's not going to happen. The sooner we grant our opponents the status of human beings the more likely we'll be to make intelligent modifications of our own policies.

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When a political hatchet man like Ralph Reed goes on a talk show and makes a charge such as the frequently repeated Republican assertion that Kerry voted to raise taxes 350 times, the host or hostess should immediately respond, "Give me five of them." And, then, in the period while the guest is sitting, looking blank, add, "You said there were 350. Surely you can give me just five. We want to examine each of them, and, then, over the next five nights present an analysis of how right you are." Without more vigorous interviewing techniques, having a talking head on a TV program is just like running a commercial. He spews out a series of charges. He backs up nothing with evidence. And after three minutes he runs off to do that same thing on some other program. This is not entertaining and it's certainly not informative. Why do the TV newspeople continue to put up with it? Are they so scared the talking heads won't come on their programs they're terrified to ask a real question?

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A practice that's getting worse everyday is the weakening of on-line articles by newsprint editors. A good example is a recent piece by Ron Hutcheson and James Kuhnhenn of the Knight-Ridder news service comparing the health care plans of Bush and Kerry. The article was only about a thousand words long, but that was too much for the editors of many newspapers who ran it in a pared-down version. Four minutes of reading time exceeds what they think their readers can stand. Newspapers ought to be leading the way in informing the public about important issues. Instead, many editors are lending themselves to the myth that readers can't pay attention long enough to learn anything important. Television and the internet have both shown themselves to be incapable of demanding honest detail from politicians. Newspapers could do it, if they were brave enough and smart enough. But, at the moment, intelligence and courage are far from the dominant traits in newsrooms.

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A curious feature of the debate over whether the Bush administration misled the country before launching the war on Iraq is that it never gets at the issue of what was actually said. Defenders of the administration argue there was no intention to deceive because Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell really believed that Iraq had huge stores of forbidden weapons. But the point is not what they believed but what they said. They did not say, "we have reason to believe." They did not say, "the best evidence we can find indicates." They did not say, "most of our sources agree." What they said, over and again, was, "we know."  They did not know and in saying they did, they committed a falsehood. Yesterday (September 13, 2004), Secretary Powell tried to excuse himself before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee by testifying that members of the intelligence community knew "the sourcing was suspect" but they didn't tell him. Has everyone forgotten that the suspect nature of the evidence being cited by the president and his advisors was widely reported in the newspapers. Don't we have the right to expect the secretary of state to know what's appearing in the press? Theoretically, I knew something the secretary of state didn't know. I don't believe that's true. Mr. Powell, along with Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, and Mr. Rumsfeld, had to know that there were serious questions about the threat posed by Iraq. They refused to be honest about the certainty of their knowlege because they didn't want to impede the president's determination to launch an attack. That's the truth about February 2003, and every halfway informed person knows it.

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Where does the desire to control other people's sexual behavior come from? That's probably the most fundamental question shaping American politics at the moment. Many citizens are intensely angry because sexual practice among ordinary people has become more varied and more open than it was forty years ago. That anger has taken on a political identity which has placed itself in the core of the Republican Party. A questionnaire devised by pollsters Dick Morris and Mark Penn in 1996, concerning how voters felt about sexual desire, proved to be more accurate in predicting how they would cast their ballots than anything else. One might say that a wish to control sexual behavior is simply part of an urge to control everything. And that would be partially right. It's clear that Republicans are more concentrated on controlling things than Democrats are. Yet, sexuality seems to be a special case. It aggravates the appetite for control more vigorously than any other topic. I wish I knew why. My guess is it has something to do with visions of ownership, but it's an issue more complex than anyone can spell out in a page or two.

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Are the leaders of the interim government in Iraq stooges and American puppets, or are they Iraqi patriots? That's the question the Iraqi people are facing now. The answer depends on what future one envisions for the country. If the desire is to see Iraq transformed into a facsimile of a Houston suburb, then Prime Minister Allawi is the leader to be followed. But if one should want something different, something more indigenous, then Mr. Allawi will be seen as a traitor to the nation's traditions. The Bush administration cannot imagine why one would resist changing Iraq into Houston. Isn't Houston better? Isn't it what any reasonable person would want? Can anyone who fights against it be anything other than a terrorist? That's one way of viewing the situation but it, evidently, does not persuade a considerable portion of the Iraqi population. Some of them are so much against it they are willing to risk their lives to resist. It may be that the majority can be won over to the Houstonized dream. But, if I were betting, I'd put my money the other way.

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Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says that network news is dead (Washington Post, September 12, 2004). The networks themselves no long care much about their news divisions because they're not big money makers. And though the networks still get more viewers for their news programs than anyone else, it's a rapidly aging population. The age of the average person who tunes in regularly is 60. Mr. Rosenstiel attributes the downfall principally to outside forces, including the emotional tone of cable news. I wonder why he doesn't examine network news itself as a cause for its declining influence. People once turned to the networks for authoritative guidance on what was happening. If Walter Cronkite said something had occurred, we couldn't be absolutely sure that it had, but we were confident that Cronkite himself, and the organization that backed him up, were trying their best to be honest.  We don't have that confidence anymore because the networks have descended mostly to "he says, she says" reporting. If, for example, the president of the United States tells you a lie, you won't hear Dan Rather, or Peter Jennings, or Tom Brokaw saying so. Instead, the report will be that the president's political opponents are challenging what he said. What a surprise! Opponents challenge each other? But that doesn't tell us which one of them is more truthful. People will go where there's at least a claim of telling the truth. If there's not even a pretense, why bother with it?

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Because of media attention, politics is probably considered by most people the craziest activity now going on in America. But, that's not necessarily true. There are many actions that take place outside the normal scan of journalism that are as nutty as anything happening in the political realm. Consider, for example, the use of personality tests by corporate America. Eighty-nine members of the Fortune 100 list subject future employees to the Myers-Briggs test, a series of questions that are supposed to reveal something about personality types. But what are personality types? Do they exist in reality, or they simply the products of fevered psychological brains? We all know that different people exhibit different behaviors, and that often the setting in which the behavior takes place has something to do with how people respond. But, can these behaviors be classified as indicating types of personality? And even if they can, do we have measures to tell us what type a person falls into? And beyond that, to what degree does personality type accurately predict behavior in a certain situation.? The whole business is probably no better than tea leaf readings. Yet, the supposed responsible minds of corporate America spend millions on getting personality charts of their employees. We may think this is innocuous fun and, in some cases it is. Even so, people do make decisions on this hocus-pocus. In some cases, because of personality scores, people are denied opportunities that are important to them. It's both irrational and unfair, but I guess, one might argue, no more unfair than what you'd get from managers acting out of their own biases.

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Republican attempts to suppress voting by black people will probably get more attention as the campaign proceeds. That's because the attempts to suppress will become more intense. Bob Herbert, the New York Times columnist, has been beating the drums on the issue for some time now, expressing his commentary particularly to conditions in Florida. The conventional wisdom doesn't like to admit that there are still many people in our country who don't think blacks have the right to vote. These people no longer couch their arguments in racist terms but say, instead, that blacks vote as a block because they're too ignorant to vote otherwise. White evangelicals vote as a block too, but few accuse them of not knowing exactly what they're doing. The suppression effort is dastardly, but saying so is not going to stop it. It will be defeated not only by careful attention to the polls on voting day, but also by concentration on intimidating tactics between now and November.

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TV newsman Mark Shields has been arguing that it's unwise for Bush and Cheney always to surround themselves with fawning supporters. According to Shields, Cheney would never have said what he did last Tuesday in Des Moines (on September 7, 2004) if critical people had been in the audience. I wonder. Though Cheney has backed off, to some extent, from the statement that electing Kerry would make us more likely to be attacked by terrorists, and though right-wing hordes have been twisting what he said to make it into something different from what it was, he nevertheless got the statement out. It has entered the public psyche. Am I the only person in America cynical enough to believe that's exactly what he intended?

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Despite a dubious performance in office, Mr. Bush seems to be gaining public approval whereas his opponent is slipping. That's because, according to Maureen Dowd (New York Times, September 12, 2004), people would rather watch a Western than an Eastern. Bush and Cheney have cast themselves as the tough cowboys riding in to vanquish barbarians who are threatening the ranch. And, that's the movie the public likes to play out in their fancy. It doesn't seem to matter that imagining either Cheney or Bush in a fist fight is more comical than anything you can find on TV. They're cowboys because their commercials have said they're cowboys, and that's all there is to it. Need we fear that people really do vote on such a basis? I wish I could say no but some of the interviews I've seen lately make me wonder. Since Zell Miller has introduced the idea of bringing back duels to America, maybe what Mr. Kerry should do is challenge Mr. Bush to a boxing match and, then, see if he could make him cry in the ring (would the Secret Service go along with that?). Afterwards, all of us would know exactly how we ought to vote.

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We hear frequent pleas to restore respect to our public debates. These cries raise the question of what kind of opponent it's possible to respect. Robert Reich in his new book, Reason, mentions Newt Gingrich as a person he respects even though he considers him to be dead wrong in his political stance. But Reich doesn't say, exactly, why he respects him. The main reason I can see for respecting anyone in debate is his placing truth over his own preferences. When it comes to Gingrich, it's hard to know. I saw him on television recently, appearing with Reich on a panel to discuss the American economy. There, his verbal manners  were such that I could respect them. But when he goes on The O'Reilly Factor -- as he frequently does -- he talks like a raving maniac. Try as I will, I can't respect that. Who is the real Newt Gingrich? Maybe the best we can do, to show our respect, is to put the question to Newt himself -- and to others like him -- and see what they say.

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I become ever more convinced that inadequate terminology is one of the biggest roadblocks in the way of American democracy. We don't have sensible names for the forces that are shaping the political landscape. The terms we do use have been so twisted by political manipulation they scarcely have meaning left in them. In particular, "liberalism" and "conservatism" -- the words themselves rather than the values they are supposed to connote -- have been so battered it might be good if we could simply retire them. But, obviously, we can't. The right wing will continue to use "liberalism" as though it were identical to 1960s narcissism and self-indulgence. Leftists will continue to speak of conservatism as being nothing more than insane nationalism and plutocracy. Probably, the best we can do at the moment is continually to remind ourselves that there are honorable traditions lurking in the past of both words, traditions that have little to do with the way the terms are used now. And, then, we can hope that new usages will emerge to help us say what we mean.

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The biggest non-reported news of this campaign is the nature of the crowds that show up to hear President Bush and Senator Kerry speak. When I say "non-reported" I don't mean that the Bush campaign's strict control of crowds hasn't been mentioned in the press. It has. But, it is not regularly a feature of the reports on campaign appearances. Over and over on TV, I see Kerry speaking in town squares, where, presumably, anyone can walk up and join the crowd. I can't recall seeing the president in such a setting. Most of his appearances are before ticketed gatherings. Often ticket seekers are required to sign statements professing their support of the president before they can get in. As Dana Milbank of the Washington Post remarks, "The Bush campaign has made unprecedented efforts to control access to its events." On Thursday (September 9, 2004) in the suburbs of Philadelphia, seven protesters who had managed to enter the warehouse where Mr. Bush was speaking were seized by Secret Service officers and dragged out, some of them by the hair. Furthermore, reporters were kept away from the group, whose members were arrested and held for an hour. Squelching protests is not supposed to be a part of the Secret Service's duty. But in the world surrounding Mr. Bush, there's a lot of new stuff going on.

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David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker,  has a readable portrait of Al Gore in the current edition of his magazine (September 13, 2004). Remnick went to Nashville to hang out with the Gores for a couple days to see what their life out of the limelight is like. It's pleasant, but it's still marked by the bitterness of the loss to Bush. Gore knows he should have won, and that if he had behaved differently in the days just after the election he might, today, be sitting in the White House. One the questions Remnick put to him was why his tone has sharpened so markedly over the past few years. Gore replied, in effect, that once you're out of office you can speak the truth in a way that's not possible for an office holder. It's a fact we all recognize but we don't reflect on it as much as we might. What does it mean that our political leaders are not permitted to speak the truth? It's not a new condition. In the 16th century, Machiavelli advised rulers to practice deceit because "men are so simple and so ready to obey present necessities that one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived." The eagerness of surrendering to deceit is the issue that's most fascinating nowadays. Why do people do it? Do they think it's necessary for their mental health? It may be that our principal belief is that lies are the only avenue to tranquility.

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I'm generally hard on David Brooks. But, I have to give him credit. He can, occasionally, write a good column. His piece today in the New York Times (September 11, 2004) is both funny and fairly accurate -- and, thank God, it's not about the date. He says that people who rely on numbers to measure the world support Bush. People who use words to describe the world support Kerry. For example, CEOs give to Bush over Kerry five to one whereas academics give to Kerry over Bush eleven to one. It would be interesting if he would step further into his analysis and say what's the difference in character between word people and number people. But that's too much to expect of a writer in newspapers. I wish I had a sentence or two that could explain the distinction, but if I tried, people might call me squishy.

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An article in today's Washington Post (September 10, 2004) suggests that Americans generally don't care much about the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq. There are not enough of them to touch a significant portion of the U. S. population. Most Americans don't know a family who has lost a son or daughter in recent combat. I suspect that's true, for the moment. A thousand deaths, after all, is about the same as a busy week on America's highways, or a couple weeks of gun deaths here at home. People don't get very upset about them, so why should they worry about soldiers dying in Iraq? But, over the long run, I suspect that will change. The daily reports of people being killed in Iraq are like a faucet dripping. You can put up with it for a long time, and, then, one day, for reasons that aren't perfectly clear, it becomes intolerable. The Bush administration is telling itself that won't happen before November. And they may be right. But at some point, maybe at 1500 deaths, maybe at two thousand, there will be a media storm. And the population will conclude, within a short period of time, that these deaths are senseless. Then, and only then, something will have to be done.

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If you were to mention the name "Nayirah," most Americans would respond, "Who?" Yet, late in 1990, she was frequently quoted by the president of the United States to justify his international plans. In one month alone he talked about her in six different speeches. Nayirah seems never to have had a last name  -- at least not in American press reports -- but she did testify before the Human Rights Caucus the House of Representatives that when the Iraqi army invaded Iraq, she saw soldiers pull hundreds of premature babies out of hospital incubators and throw them on the floor to die. President Bush, somehow, had an accurate count of these horrors. He said there were 312 babies murdered in this fashion. At the time, no one bothered to ask whether there has ever been a hospital in the history of the world equipped with 312 premature baby incubators. It turned out that Nayirah had never been in the hospital, had never seen the scenes she described so graphically, because they didn't happen. She was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States. Amnesty International investigated her charges and declared them to be a lie. Yet, by then, they had had their effect. One of the interesting things about lies, and especially about big lies, is that even after they are refuted their effects live on. I guess that's why they are used so frequently. Did President Bush know these were lies when he used them to bully Democratic senators? Did no one in the White House stop to wonder how there could have been 312 premature babies in a single hospital? There are no answers to these questions except the ones supplied by common sense.

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How quickly we forget! During all the hoopla over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the question of whether we should have known they weren't there, I have seen few journalists reminding us that the only time Iraq is known to have had such weapons was in the late 1980s when they had been supplied to Saddam by the United States. During that period, under the leadership of George H. W. Bush, our nation kept a steady stream of weapons, advanced technology, chemical and biological agents, massive loans, and military intelligence flowing to Saddam. Once that stream was cut off, where was Saddam supposed to have gotten the means to restore his military potency? You would think that would have been a question screaming at us from the headlines and raised everyday in Congress. But it wasn't. Why not? We were persuaded to send an army half way around the world, to kill thousands of Iraqi citizens, to suffer thousands of casualties ourselves, to spend hundreds of billions of dollars, without ever asking where the threat justifying these sacrifices was supposed to have come from. Was this inattention? Or was it something more damning?

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Virtually everyday in his campaign speeches Mr. Bush says that Senator Kerry opposed providing support for U. S. troops in Iraq. This is a lie and everyone who knows anything about the history of the $87 billion bill in question knows it's a lie. Yet, the mainstream media won't say so. Why not? When the history of this campaign comes to be written this will be one of the most intensely studied questions. The only answer I can think of right now is fear of the myth of voter stupidity. Supposedly, American voters are too dumb to understand that in the passage of any complex bill, some versions of it are voted against in order to get a version more to one's liking. Voting against a version of a bill does not mean that one opposes its general purpose. Anyone who says it does is lying. It's curious that newspapers seem almost as caught up in this myth as the candidates are themselves. What do newspapers have to fear? Are they terrified by the thought that some readers might accuse them of being too complex, too nuanced? Why would they care? We have reason to fear that a general atmosphere of timidity and weakness so pervades the mainstream media that they're scared to make any definite statement, regardless of how clear the issue might be.

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I've heard several people say, particularly since Mr. Cheney's most recent notable declaration, that the Republican campaign message has been, all along, "Vote for us or you die." It's sad to think that such false simplicity can put American democracy to the test. But that, in truth, seems to be what's happening. It does not speak well for us. Polls (I'm beginning to think that all polls lie because all people who are polled lie to the pollsters) suggest that 40% of the American people fear that they, personally, will be harmed by terrorists. I'm not sure what "fear" means in this instance. But if it means that people will vote differently than they would vote if they weren't fearful, then we are becoming a nation of neurotics. Fearing that you'll be hurt by terrorists is like fearing that, if you go out, you'll be killed by bee stings. I suspect that if the media wanted to make a big thing about the danger of bee stings, we could have a national mania about that. What has happened to the fabled American common sense?

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I wonder how many Americans believe that George Bush was chosen by God to be the president of the United States so that the U.S. could come, politically , to dominate the rest of the world. That, evidently, is what Mr. Bush believes about himself. He has said on several occasions that Providence intervened to save his life so that he could be transformed into an instrument of Providence. This is not the kind of subject normally talked about in politics. But if it is indeed an idea that drives the policies of the president of the United States does it not therefore become a topic for political debate? You won't hear the issue raised by Mr. Kerry. I suspect he's afraid that many U.S. citizens like to think of Mr. Bush in that fashion. If his providential role is injected into the campaign, it might serve to energize the president's base. This is another instance of conventional political wisdom operating to keep what's actually happening away from public notice. If there's a common belief held by politicians all across the spectrum, it is that the people must not be told of the real engines of policy.

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We cannot rely on current politicians or on the media to tell us how government really works. It's not in the interest of politicians to explain and, evidently, it's beyond the intellect of the media. It's a tough thing to say but if you want to know what's happening -- or, at least -- what happened in the recent past -- you've got to read books. Most people do not now read books -- too busy, you know -- and, consequently, we are stuck with an ill-informed democracy. If I could select one book every voter had to read, upon pain of being forced to pay an extra $1,000 in income tax, I think it would be Kevin Phillips's American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush. I know I'm being a bit disingenuous in saying this because a goodly portion of the electorate couldn't read it. But, still, it would be good if they could. Phillips explains as well as anyone I've read the tangled webs of influence and privilege that operate to use the government for their own benefit and are, pretty much, independent of any genuine concern for public well-being. It's not that these people don't care about the good of the country. Rather, it's that they identify the country with themselves and not with the majority of people who live in it. This is how they are able to delude themselves that they are true patriots. If we could persuade more citizens to read accounts of this sort, the nation would develop a healthy understanding of Patrick Henry's warning that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

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A capsule with delicate instruments for measuring the behavior of particles in outer space has just crashed into the desert in Utah (September 8, 2004). It was not supposed to crash. It had been fitted with a parachute designed to slow its descent to a speed that would permit it to be snagged by helicopters before it hit the ground. Preliminary reports indicate that all the data the capsule and its instruments had collected will now be irretrievable. Too bad. The project cost $200 million, not a lot so far as government expenditure goes but, still, probably a considerable portion of the money allotted to basic scientific research. It will be said that things like this happen. It's just the cost of doing high-powered science. That's probably true. There will now be investigations and reports about why the parachute didn't work. By the time they are completed most people will have forgotten all about it. We would be a healthier society if we didn't forget. It would be good for the public to take a genuine interest in what went wrong and to ask itself how the loss of $200 million might have been prevented. The point would be not to crucify anyone but, rather, to develop public thinking on something serious instead of wallowing in the silliness that dominates both newspaper and television nowadays.

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This morning (September 8, 2004) Senator Kerry turned his attention to what might have been done with the $200 billion dollars we have spent to invade and occupy Iraq. It's probably a good campaign tactic, but it doesn't take account of the bitter truth that even if we had not spent it on killing and subduing Iraqis, it never would have made its way into the positive uses Kerry enumerates. This, after all, is borrowed money and current political belief in America will permit the borrowing of vast sums for exercising military dominance whereas it will not permit the same amount of borrowing to provide good roads or universal health care. The question of what the government is permitted to borrow money for and what's forbidden is one of the most complex issues facing us. And it is yet one more of those vital points that can't seem to attract the attention of the media. No reporter I've heard has asked President Bush why it's okay to borrow money for this and not okay for that. There's scarcely anything more important to know about a president than his theory of public borrowing. And, still, no one asks him.

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Howard Kurtz, media reporter for the Washington Post, laments the decision by USA Today to employ Michael Moore as a reporter at the Republican Convention, saying, "the paper merely succumbed to a trend in which political operatives, moonlighting hacks, unemployed pols and pseudo-celebrities have become interchangeable in the profession formerly known as journalism." The implication is that if we, the public, got our picture of reality strictly from those who have labored for decades in the mines of journalism we would be more in touch with what's actually happening. But, is this true? Let's take, for example, the film that, from Mr. Kurtz's perspective, made Michael Moore unfit to serve as a reporter on the doings of the Republicans. Fahrenheit 9/11 has been quite a news item itself. It is widely referred to in the press as an untruthful portrait of Mr. Bush and his administration. Might it not be expected of the press to examine just how untruthful the film is? Movie-goers have made it the most successful documentary ever produced. Why? Can we take it for granted, without any investigation, that American film buffs have a powerful hunger for lies? I've not seen a careful fact-check of Fahrenheit 9/11 from Mr. Kurtz or from any other Post reporter. Isn't that what we have the right to expect from "professionals?" Or better yet, why can't we have a comparison of the film's truthfulness and the veracity of one of its major critics, say, The O'Reilly Factor? It would be genuinely informative to be told, with sound accompanying evidence, which of these two sources shows greater contempt for the truth. It's well to denounce unprofessionalism, but when it's done from the bowels of a profession gone rotten, the charge loses some of its force.

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An editorial in the St. Petersburg Times (September 6, 2004), commenting on the coverage of the Republican Convention, observes, "Viewers would not be blamed for wondering how many thousands of dollars TV outlets were spending to serve as stenographers for the GOP party line." The most discouraging feature of this campaign, for those who would like to see a realistic assessment of policy, is that the mainline press has replaced the Republican Party as the primary barrier to the circulation of fact. The media seem to have picked up on the Republicans' implicit message that American voters are too dull -- and lack the attention span -- to care about the truth of political messages. According to this theory, all voters will attend to is the news candy of who's up and who's down and who managed to pump out the most simplistic zinger. From a certain point of view, it makes sense that the Republicans message and the media message would converge. Both groups are seeking votes before they seek anything else, and both clearly want votes more than they want either sound government or the truth.

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Now, at long last, we know what we're up against. David Brooks has explained to us that the Islamic world is caught up in a cult of death (New York Times, September 7, 2004). Our enemies don't actually have anything they want in the way of policy changes. All they really want to do is die. There's no reasoning with them. Diplomacy is out the window. The positioning of armies, the incursions of corporations, the truth about who gets the most money, the control of the world's largest oil fields -- none of these have anything to do with our situation. The only reality is that we're facing a cult of death. And, presumably, the only answer is to kill everyone in the cult, which, of course, wouldn't make us cultists. This immature fantasy is what the right wing will pump at you from now to November to mask the truth that the Bush administration has no thoughts about how to arrive at a more peaceful and cooperative world. Cooperation is, for them, a sign of weakness. It's all or nothing, and history will reward the people who employ death most effectively.

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Brian Lamb and his C-Span crew spent all yesterday afternoon (September 5, 2004) at the famous Strand Bookstore in lower New York, pointing out features of the store and conducting interviews with literary figures in front of a live bookstore audience. One of them was Art Spiegelman, cartoonist and creator of highfalutin comic books, who has just published a new book about the destruction of the twin towers. Mr. Spiegelman had recently been at the Republican National Convention, where he had a press pass. He attended three of the four days, but he had to take one day off, he said, because he needed relief from the reptilian nature of the delegates. The remark produced a wave of approving laughter. After all, there aren't likely to be a lot of Republicans at a Sunday afternoon bookstore gathering, and certainly not in New York. I've been thinking overnight about whether "reptilian" is a good adjective for Republicans and, although I think I understand what Mr. Spiegelman meant, it's not a word I would choose to describe them. Reptiles, after all, are cold-blooded creatures  whereas many Republicans I've met are suffering from one form or another of blood fever. It's hard to believe that an alligator, or a snake, or a lizard actually resents anything. Yet, if you glance through the Republican Party platform, you discover pretty quickly that resentment is the emotion underlying it. It would be good if Democrats would come to comprehend that their opponents are zealously angry. To understand that anger is not to give way to it completely. But it might permit a grudging sympathy that could lead to more intelligent discourse than we've had lately.

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Chris Matthews is having a moment of fame because of his raucous interview with Zell Miller after the keynote address at the Republican Convention. The senator indicated he would like to challenge Matthews to a duel, but what they would be dueling about wasn't perfectly clear. At any rate, Matthews has said in the past that this sort of interchange is what democracy needs. "Hardball," as he terms it, is his ideal. We are in need of vigorous debate about public policy. Many would agree. Yet, it's worth asking whether the kind of dustup we saw between Matthews and Miller falls into the category of debate. I'm not sure what's to be learned from watching two guys shout at each other. This little incident, which in one sense was merely silly, may tell us something significant about public manners in America and what has happened to them. We seem to think that discussion has to be either civil, in which case nobody should say anything sharp about an opponent -- or, in truth, about anything -- or all-out screaming, when neither side has a chance to make a cogent point. I suspect this comes about from everyday speech habits where the primary goal seems to be to get away from the other person without expressing an opinion. It's almost as though, in those rare cases when someone does say something, the only emotional possibility is to go bonkers. Uncontrolled outbreaks of temper generally come from people who can't imagine reasoned disagreement because they can't believe there is any sane position other than their own. This, like so many of our failures, is a failure of education and isn't likely to be addressed until we face the truth that our concept of a well-formed mind is pathetically immature.

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One of the more popular words in education nowadays is "rubric." Thank goodness it has not yet crept out to corrupt the general language. As far as I can tell, the way it is used in education has little to do with the definitions of it that appear in the dictionary. What it really means is the fancy lettering that used to  be common as a way of beginning a chapter, especially if it were printed in red. But, in education, it appears to designate lists of techniques for rating students. The textbook publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston, for example, has a collection of 43 rubrics that are used to evaluate how well students are doing in social studies. Each rubric is made up of a list of about a dozen questions a teacher is supposed to answer about each or his, or her, students. Or, that is, not really answer, but, rather, circle a number that will tell somebody how well versed the student is with respect to a certain skill or habit. The first rubric, for example, is about acquiring information, and a teacher is required to say whether a student is a 1, or a 2, or a 3, or a 4, or a 5 in using electronic finding aids. About five hundred of these numbers have to be circled to complete the rubrics for a single student. So, if a teacher has five classes of twenty students each that means that five thousand numbers have to be circled each time the rubrics are submitted. This is presumed to be a way of --- what? Helping students learn more? Developing their ability to talk sensibly with other people? Understand what it means that the budget deficit this year will amount to $450 billion? If you want to know why American schools continue to turn out students who can't read and write very well, you need do no more than look at what teachers are actually required to do, day by day. In the name of something called accountability, the energy they can devote to conversing with their students has been continually sliced away. Now we have students who are rubricized rather than taught. And we wonder why they don't know more than they do.

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I just saw Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager, on the CBS news program Face the Nation (September 5, 2004). She didn't boost my confidence in the prospect of a Kerry victory. That was because she gave slight indication of grasping the necessity of a fierce attack on President Bush. She dismissed the hard lies being told by Bush supporters as harmless to Kerry over the long run. The voters will see through them. What world does she live in? There is only one way to stop lies from hurting her candidate. Kerry can't merely chase around trying to refute them one by one. Rather, he has to assert, unmistakably, that Bush is responsible for them, that he is an engineer of mendacity. And, then, Kerry must ask, repeatedly, everyday, if the people want a president for whom untruth is a primary tactic. If the challenger can't convey a sharp image of Bush as a dealer in falsehood, the Democrats are unlikely to succeed.

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There was a time, and not too long ago, when I thought that if a person had worked himself, or herself, into a prominent position in a major news organization, it indicated at least a moderate degree of intelligence. But, as I've listened more carefully over the past months, I've discovered that my faith was misplaced. I regularly hear prominent newscasters saying things so foolish it's hard to imagine how they arrived at them. Bill Schneider, for example, the CNN correspondent, speaking with Wolf Blitzer on September 3, 2004, announced that John Kerry's best issue is that President Bush promised to unite the country and has actually divided it. That the best issue? When citizens march into the voting booths, they're saying to themselves, "Now, let's see. Has President Bush been a unifier or a divider?" Does Schneider actually think anybody would cast a vote on that basis? And, if he does where does the thought come from? If I were just a shade more cynical, I'd be forced to conclude that the supposedly objective news analysts who are offering guidance to the Kerry campaign are actually in the pay of the Bush machine. Certainly, for Kerry, there could be no more sure path to defeat than following Schneider's advice.

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It is achingly obvious what the Kerry campaign needs to do now (September 5, 2004). It is almost as obvious that the campaign itself has few advisors who understand what is to be in a fight -- a real fight, where the other side will do anything, no matter how filthy, to win. In Richard Cohen's column yesterday (Washington Post) he admitted that though he loathes the Republican tactics, he also admires them. If if Kerry's people could grasp that much of the country is responding just as Cohen is, they would be in a better position to get up off the floor. The Democrats think that a campaign is a debate in which persistent reason will win out in the end. But fights have little to do with reason; they have to do with hurting your opponent. And, you can't hurt the Republicans with pussy-footing language. There are any number of statements that could turn this campaign around, if Kerry had the guts to use them.

I did not vote to give the president authority to act like an idiot.

I did not vote to give the president the right to slaughter thousands to create a situation
that makes us less secure than we were before he started his killing.

In the latter part of 2002, I did not imagine that any president of the United States could
be as witless as this man has been.

This is not the language of the Senate. But it is the language Kerry needs to make Bush hurt. And Bush won't be defeated until he is hurt, and hurt badly.

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Since I heard David Brooks advise President Bush to make his acceptance speech more wonky than has been his habit I've been thinking about the noun "wonk." I looked it up in my dictionary and found that it's defined simply as a synonym for "nerd." And what is a nerd? It's a person who has an unseemly interest in something intellectual. In the case of "wonk", the term is generally applied to someone who is concerned with how government actually works, by contrast with real politicians, who care only about how to seize and hold office. The latter are the people the media take seriously. A wonk is a pathetic creature who spends far too much time thinking and talking about how governmental structures affect people's lives. Who cares about that? You can't climb to the top of the greasy pole by immersing yourself in the details of legislation. There are people still so naive as to argue that the media have no moral agenda. But their decision on what to publicize and what to scorn or condescend to, is the most moralistic act committed by any major institution.

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In his convention speech, Mr. Bush told us that "We are on a path to the future, and we are not turning back."  Golly! You reckon we could turn back if we wanted to? How would that work? In the past, the future was inevitable. But, now, I guess, we've got to will it or else it won't come. I suppose that's because -- as everyone on earth knows -- 9/11 changed everything. There's no reason to think the nature of time would have been left out of that transformation. If we can believe Mr. Bush -- and, who would dare not believe the president? -- anybody who wants to hold on to what made sense prior to September of 2001 -- is so out of the new order he doesn't count. I've been trying to remember if there was ever before, in the history of the world, an event that reversed every single principle of logic the previous time had respected. I can't recall one . We're really blessed to have lived in an era that will make the Second Coming look like a mild shift in the weather.

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Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi ends her assessment of Mr. Bush's convention speech by saying, "There may be two John Kerrys, as Republicans charge. But there is only one Bush, and he never lets facts get in the way of a good argument." (September 3, 2004). Her remarks  echo a skit from The Daily Show the previous evening which proclaimed Mr. Bush's faith in the "power of words to overcome insurmountable fact." If this is a theme columnists and comics consider worthy of development, you'd think the Kerry campaign might also give it a shake. I'm worried that their reluctance rises from timidity , a fear that refuting Bush's charges might make the public more aware of them. Kerry's advisors seem to be laboring under the crazed notion that they can win over wavering voters by muting their own partisanship while Mr. Bush's guys rip and tear like hyenas. Guess what, Mr. Kerry. No one who would be offended by a refutation of Republican distortions is going to vote for you. Forget about him, and concentrate on people who will support you if you show you can stand up to Bush and will stay home if you don't.

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Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post seems to be moving towards language casual readers may understand (September 3, 2004). He has now gone from saying that Republican attacks on John Kerry's voting record "often lacked context" to proclaiming boldly that the "GOP prism distorts some Kerry positions." If he can get through another dozen articles, he might begin to tell us the simple truth that the Republicans lie. There's confusion in America -- and evidently in Mr. Kessler's mind -- about what a lie is. It is saying or writing something with the deliberate intention to convey false information. Just because there are technical truths embedded in a lie doesn't make it any less a falsehood. That's what the Republicans would call a subtlety they don't expect the majority of their followers to grasp. But, even if Mr. Kessler does write his twelve articles and does advance to plain truth, don't expect his editors to give his articles a prominent position. They would rather highlight the lies Mr. Bush and his minions continue to spew out.

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A question I seldom hear journalists ask is, "What kind of moral system are we operating with in America?" Or, to be more specific, "Is the morality of American capitalism different from ordinary morality?" Let's say you have a company which is making a profit of 10% of its gross sales and is earning enough to pay its CEO $5 million a year. And, then, by dint of some ingenious MBA-type analysis, you discover that by dismissing three-quarters of your American employees and replacing them with workers from outside the United States, who will be paid only a quarter of the American minimum wage, you can increase your profit to 12% and pay your CEO $8 million. I recognize that business decisions are usually not that simple. A greater number of factors than the ones I've mentioned have to be taken into account. Still, we need some basic guidelines. So, it's fair enough to ask what one would do if those were the factors. Would it be right to make the change and thereby destroy the income of, say, 3,500 American families? One thing is clear. The answer from ordinary morality would be no. One shouldn't screw up the lives of ten thousand people just so a handful of rich people can get even richer. But, I suspect, in the arcane morality of the capitalist mind, the answer would probably be yes. In that mode of thought, profit, regardless of how it's distributed, is a holy principle and must be served despite dislocation and pain. I'm not saying that the capitalist principle shouldn't be argued. I'm saying just the opposite. I think it should enter into argument with ordinary morality, so we can see how it stands up. But, at the moment, that's not happening. And the only reasons I can think of are the laziness and the corruption of the major media.

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It turns out that Zell Miller has turned against John Kerry because Mr. Kerry understands complexity. That's really a bad characteristic. When you understand complexity, explained Mr. Miller in a TV interview (September 1, 2004) then you don't see everything in blacks and whites. And, a black and white guy is who we need for president in these times because, after all, 9/11 changed everything. It seems even to have changed logic and good sense. How many of you would have believed five years ago that anyone could be denounced for comprehending complexity? Yet, now, here we are in the midst of a campaign in which a major American political party is bashing its opponent for understanding complexity, and extolling its own candidate because he lacks the ability to grasp complexity. Why not just run a rhinoceros for president? The journalistic community, for the most part, has failed pathetically to examine the climate of debate and its shift towards a fog of dumbness. There are exceptions, however. The New York Times editors said this morning (September 3, 2004) that up till now we've had a campaign of "monumental simplemindedness." To follow up, they should run a huge, black headline asking, "Complexity: an Evil in America?"

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Here's a new phrase in political pussy-footing. Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler wrote an article checking the accuracy of Rudolph Giuliani's presentation at the Republican Convention (September 2, 2004). He discovered that the quotations from John Kerry with which Giuliani littered his speech "often lacked context." Gosh, now we're really playing hardball. It would be far too much, I guess, for Kessler to have said the charges were distorted. "Lacking context" presumably means "taken out of context." There's only one purpose for the practice -- to twist and distort what the speaker meant. It would be even more fantastic to imagine Kessler explaining why the Republicans have made this their favorite campaign tactic. They are appealing to people whose attention span is too short to care whether a quotation has anything to do with a speaker's meaning. The Republicans are betting this whole campaign on the belief that most American voters are too dull-minded even to know what context means. Presumably, they've done their polling and that's the conclusion they've reached.

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It's not that I don't understand the Republican problem. Republicans can't be candid about who they are and what they want. If they were, they couldn't win any elections. They have no option but to manipulate, distort and tell fibs about their opponents, that is, if they want to stay in the game. I see that. And, yet, I still hold their tactics against them. Is that fair? After all, every American has a right to stand up for what he, or she, wants. And if open argument is clearly self-destructive, can we expect people to commit political suicide by pursuing it? It's the problem plutocracy has always faced in a democracy. If you believe that rule by the rich is the best way to organize society, how can you shade your message so you won't be rejected by the non-rich majority? There is one overwhelming answer -- chauvinistic nationalism. You've got to convince the people they are threatened by outside enemies and that only the well-organized and decisive forces of wealth can protect them. Mr. Bush and his confederates have been trying their best to do that and they've had some success. But there are signs an ever-growing segment of the people are peering behind their arguments. The election will tell us how big that segment has become. In the meantime, sympathy for the tough row Republican leaders have to hoe can be tempered by the realization they live in a country where few want to do them personal injury. They can keep their money and, since they can, they have ample means to console themselves  for a loss of political power.

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I just saw a completely unscientific poll which says that the thing voters most dislike about Mr. Bush is his smirk whereas the thing they most dislike about Mr. Kerry is his hair. This may seem to give the president an advantage. If he simply stopped smirking it would be hard to accuse him of playing politics. If, however, Mr. Kerry changed his hair style the media pundits would be all over it like it was a celebrity murder. It would furnish cable TV newsmen with talking points well past the election. We have to step back, though, and ask ourselves whether Mr. Bush can stop smirking. If he tried, it might put so much stress on him he would blow a fuse and start talking crazier than he talks already. Mr. Kerry, on the other hand, actually could walk into a barber shop and get a different haircut. So, when you view the whole business, from all perspectives, it seems to come out a wash.

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Harold Meyerson says that many white men may vote for Mr. Bush not because his policies do anything to help them but, rather, out of "a pathetic sense of tough guy kinship" (Washington Post,  September 1, 2004). Mr. Meyerson reminds us of the extraordinary history of bravado in America, in which Mr. Bush is a recent blip. Tough talk, that in any other Western  would be considered juvenile, registers in the United States as a habit to be admired. It's a long-standing tradition. Charles Dickens found the same thing during his visit to the U. S. in the 1840s and portrayed it hilariously in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit. The time may have arrived when we should begin to ask ourselves what we get out of it. We know already that we get the ridicule of the rest of the world. But what else? When you try to have a sensible conversation with the kind of men Mr. Meyerson is referring to you often discover something sad -- a deep, abiding, and seemingly ineradicable sense of intellectual inferiority. Tough talk, for them, is a shield against pity. It's really bad to have to live one's whole life as a lout in order to avoid the reputation of a dimwit. I think our schools should begin to work on that, regardless of how the coming election turns out.

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I keep reading that Mr. Bush demonstrated extraordinary leadership in a crisis. Even Nicholas Kristof, who seems to think that the president is arrogant and ill-informed, says so (New York Times, September 1, 2004). Where was I when this leadership occurred? If people are referring to the two weeks after the 11th of September in 2001, we should recall that Mr. Bush did exactly what any other president would have done. His actions were scripted by history. He went to the site of the destruction and made brave noises. Has there ever been another president who would not have done the same? I suppose we might call it leadership when a person does the only thing he could have done. But if we do, we're falling to an extremely passive definition. Maybe that's who we have become: a nation that rates its political leaders by their their devotion to what's expected.

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Here's a parlor game for you. Ask your companions how much more a chief executive officer should make than the average employee of his company. Should it be 25 times as much? Or 50? Or 100? I wonder what most people would say. In 2003, in America, the actual ratio was 301. Furthermore, the CEOs of companies that were most active in taking jobs away from Americans and sending them outside the country made more than other chief executives. Among the 50 companies that did the most "outsourcing" (ever notice that the verbs that go with this sort of thing stink as much as the actions themselves?) the average CEO salary was $10.4 million. The interesting thing to me about these numbers is that we have a major political party that's telling us they aren't high enough. We need taxing policies, and social support policies, that will drive them higher. Why? Because these talented people require incentives so they'll work harder, thus showering blessings on the rest of us. Who's going to keep on wearing himself out for a measly ten million a year?


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