Word and Image of Vermont
On and Off the Mark Archive    -    October 2004
The Tampa Tribune, which has decided not to support the president in his attempt to be re-elected, manages in the midst of its non-endorsement to remain a fairly Bushy newspaper. On this Sunday before the election the editors decided to run a major front page article about the great "progress" in Afghanistan, whereas a report of nine marines blown up in Baghdad is buried in the back section of the paper. It doesn't merit even page 2, or 3, or 4, or 5, or 6 -- page 5, by the way, sports a full-page advertisement for Verizon. Does anyone in Florida remember when the killing of an American soldier by hostile forces was big news? Does anyone want to remember? A segment of the American public has bought the argument that dead soldiers are an appropriate price for establishing the American empire. The rhetoric, of course, is that these men give their lives for freedom. But exactly how their deaths contribute to freedom neither the Bushites nor the Tribune bothers to explain.

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During the invasion of Iraq, we had the problem of "embedded" reporters who got so caught up in the ethos of their own units they set aside the ability to report dispassionately on military activities. Now, during the presidential race, we're finding the same difficulty with reporters assigned to campaign staffs. The most egregious example I've seen so far is Terry Moran of ABC News, who has become a virtual cheerleader for the Bush campaign. When Moran reports to Peter Jennings, he resembles an eager puppy wagging his tail over how energetic, confident, and on top of everything the Bush people are. The Columbia Journalism Review has singled Moran out for consistently failing to point out the underlying motives of Bush strategies (October 29, 2004). From Moran's analysis you would gather that the Bush team has never engaged in deception or distortion. This is supposed objectivity and balance by taking everything a candidate says at face value, surely one of the strangest notions in the history of journalism.

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A survey conducted by two American universities and one in Baghdad has concluded that in the year and a half since the United States invaded Iraq the coalition forces have killed a hundred thousand civilians. And that's the conservative estimate! The true figure may be much higher says Les Roberts of Johns Hopkins, a spokesman for the survey. The U.S. government has refused to count the number of civilians it kills, saying only that civilian killings are unintentional and, therefore, somehow not worthy of being tallied. The deaths of Iraqis has not been much of an issue in American politics. The American people seem to be saying it doesn't matter how many non-Americans we kill as long as we reiterate the excuse that we didn't mean to do it. It may not matter to us but it clearly does matter to the rest of the world and, particularly, to the family members and friends of those we've slaughtered. The legacy of bitterness we're piling up because of our lethal policies will be far harder to retire than the national debt. And the price our children will pay because of it really is uncountable. We can be sure only that it will be very high.

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Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post's  "Media Notes" says the campaign has reached a saturation point (October 28, 2004). I think he's right. Both candidates have said everything they dare to say. Every lie that anyone dares to tell has been told. That's not to say that all the truths have been told. But the ones remaining can't be addressed by national figures. Why they are taboo I'm not quite sure. My main reason for opposing Mr. Bush, for example -- his predisposition to solve problems by killing people -- is one of the tabooed subjects. We can talk about it privately but it must never be mentioned in the New York Times or on CBS News. If one were defending the practice of suppressing certain topics, I suppose he would say something about the need to keep debate civilized. But when we're talking about uncivilized practices, why should we be restricted to perfectly polite discourse? In politics we need nothing more than than language to allow us to discuss radical behavior in non-rabid fashion. But it's a need that won't be supplied this season.

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A discovery I've confirmed through repeated observation is that actual Wal Mart employees aren't nearly as cheery as the ones in the TV commercials. In truth, some of the real-life versions are downright surly. I don't blame them, though. Actually working for Wal Mart probably isn't as glorious as the TV messages indicate. I confess I sometimes buy items at Wal Mart because of the low prices. I'm always ashamed afterwards. I know that my advantage comes at the expense of workers who should receive more than a rich, greedy corporation is willing to pay. I know, also, that in seeking minor benefit I'm contributing to a social world I don't want to inhabit -- where increasing numbers will be surly all day, every day. It's a curious sensibility, the desire to be surrounded by underlings. The key to keeping it going is propaganda telling all the people that they, too, some day, will be rich. Then they will achieve the elevating experience of living among underlings themselves. All it takes is incessant, boring work, the sacrifice of genuine education, obedience to humiliating rules, and a bushel of luck. What a bargain!

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Here in the land of more-Republicans-than-I'm-used-to, I've been associating with quite a few Bush supporters. I've longed to ask them what they like about Bush but, for the most part, I've been in family settings where it's just as well to keep politics out of conversation. Through reading letters to the editor and overhearing snatches of talk I've discovered that virtually everything they have against John Kerry comes from Bush campaign lies and distortions. How can anybody believe that stuff? I ask myself. An answer came from a relative who explained that they want to find disagreeable characteristics in Kerry so they latch on uncritically to anything they hear. But that just pushes the question back one level. Why do they want to dislike Kerry? A full answer would involve complicated sociology but I have found one factor that's generally valid. Every person I've encountered who likes Bush and dislikes Kerry is an advocate of white bread taste. And it's a taste that applies across the board -- in food, in literature, in sex, in entertainment, in political analysis. For the white bread appetite a whiff of the bizarre, the exotic, the merely unfamiliar is a kiss of death. Actually, it's worse than that. It's sinful. Those who haven't been a part of a fundamentalist culture have a hard time imaging the horror induced by anything deviating from the norm. People immersed in that sensibility are pushed by a current of xenophobia which affects all they think and do. And, in this campaign, they are George Bush's people.

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The Washington Post has issued a luke-warm endorsement of John Kerry which works more to defend its own foolish stances of the past three years than to say anything cogent about either candidate (October 24, 2004). The truth is that the Post was snookered by a set of manipulative politicians and by its own gullibility. There's nothing we know now about Bush's claims that an astute journalist could not have known in the fall of 2002. The Post continues to push the childish notion that all responsible persons believed at that time in Iraq's possession of a huge store of weapons which threatened the United States. That, in fact, is becoming the biggest lie of our era. Anybody who wanted to open his eyes two years ago knew that the Bush argument about the Iraqi threat was wildly exaggerated. All one had to do was to read the newspapers to find it out. The Post bought into a schoolboy's dream that the world can be reoriented to the liking of the good people by the aggressive use of raw military force. We are now paying in lives and dollars for that immaturity. Now matter how "balanced" the Post  now wants to appear, it shares full responsibility for that waste.

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Nothing is off limits to a genuine ideologue. We forget it at our peril. In Florida, Governor Jeb Bush, who may be a more complete ideologue than his brother, has transformed the governance of the state's system of higher education. He abolished the Board of Regents and put in  its place separate boards of trustees for all  the universities. And the members  of those boards are appointed by the governor himself. The boards, in turn, hire the university presidents. The result of the new system can be seen in a recent decision by President Bill Merwin of Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. He postponed a scheduled speech by Terry Tempest Williams, a professor of environmental studies from the University of Utah. What reason did President Merwin give? He feared that Ms. Williams's speech might contain criticism of George Bush. In a non-ideological world, one would ask, so what? Aren't university students supposed to hear and weigh critical comments? Yet, in the world as viewed by a Republican ideologue, college students need to be protected against a recognized scholar who might be so outrageous as to point out that the president's environmental policies are opposed by most environmental scientists. College, in the mind of a party hack, exists for neither learning nor thought. It's just one more opportunity to push the party line.

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The main issue of the political season among many of my acquaintances is whether Mr. Bush is stupid or crazy. I wish they could be more clear about the distinction. In my experience, it isn't easy to tell the two conditions apart. But those on the crazy side would do well to read Bob Herbert's column in this morning's New York Times (October 22, 2004). He cites a conversation reporter Ron Suskind had with a senior advisor to the president who, presumably, reflects Mr. Bush's views. The administration, according to this unnamed source, has no patience with people in the "reality based community." The reason? Reality is not the way the world works anymore. Because the United States is now an empire, reality becomes whatever the president says it is. In the past, people who believed they could make reality into what they wanted it to be were considered nuts. But, as we know, 9/11 changed everything. So, perhaps, my friends of the crazy thesis are simply out of date.

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Frank Rich is gleeful that the right wingers are catching flak for some of their sexual positions (New York Times, October 21, 2004). Bill O’Reilly is the target of a flood of ridicule over the charges that he made salacious remarks to one of his employees. And the Bush campaign is trying to decide what to do about the talk that Mr. Cheney’s daughter is a Lesbian. They’re evidently worrying that many of their Evangelical supporters, who seem up till now to have lived in holes, will be put off by the revelation that a family member of one of their candidates does not practice white bread sex. I understand the impulse to chortle. I guess it’s human nature to enjoy seeing people stuck by their own weapons. Yet, I can’t quite join the celebration. The use of supposedly non-standard sexuality as a way to smear someone is so vile I hate to see it being used against even Bill  O’Reilly. We might hope that a taste of their own medicine would cause Republicans to lay aside this nasty technique. But that would doubtless be to mistake who they really are.

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One of the benefits of travel is it teaches that your take on reality, in your own normal setting, is, at best, partial. Yesterday (October 19, 2004), I got on a plane and flew from Burlington, Vermont to Tampa, Florida. As I listened to the chatter of my fellow passengers, I couldn’t avoid the thought that for many of them my everyday concerns would be incomprehensible. And that, in turn, told me what a fantastic task it is to seek national office. An argument that will resonate strongly with one group of voters will be insane to another. On the plane, I read a article about a recent Cato Institute study on what the average voter knows. It turns out that about a third of the voters know nothing. They cannot say where either of the two presidential candidates stand on a single national issue. Yet, the way these people vote will determine the direction of policies that will decide how we live and whether some of us will live at all. I looked around at the people on the plane and wondered which of them met the know-nothing standard and what anybody could say that would make sense to all them. And, then, we tumbled out into the heat of Tampa and I began to see hordes of men who looked very much like Jeb Bush. And I thought to myself, “Oh my gosh! What am I going to say to them?” But, shortly afterwards, I was taken to a restaurant on the waterfront where I sipped a cool drink and watched herons picking their way through the shallows. And I felt better.

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Bob Somerby, who operates the web site The Daily Howler, has persistently criticized famous TV newsmen for unpreparedness when they do interviews with controversial figures. Some people are allowed to get away with blatant lying because the newsmen don't know the obvious sources well enough to challenge them on the air. Somerby says that's what happened with Ted Koppel last week on Nightline (October 14, 2004) when the topic was John Kerry's Silver Star. Nightline sent reporters to Vietnam to interview people who had witnessed the battle for which Kerry was given the medal. They confirmed the official reports that justified Kerry's winning the award. Kerry critic John O'Neill, however, refused to believe the Vietnamese witnesses, saying that they come from a closed society and, therefore, can't be trusted to tell the truth. Instead, O'Neill cited three books which he said prove that Kerry's actions weren't as reported. The trouble is, if you look at those three books, they don't say what O'Neill says they do. Instead, they say the opposite and confirm the official reports. Ted Koppel, however, seems not to have read the pertinent sections of the books. So he was unable to expose O'Neill's lying on the air. Somerby says this is inexcusably lazy. He's right about that. But what's even more inexcusable is that any reputable news source would interview O'Neill at all. He has been shown, over and over, to be one of the most persistent liars in American history. He will repeat a lie no matter how completely it's refuted. If he is newsworthy at all, it is only as an example of how false some people will be in trying to traduce a political opponent. If Ted Koppel believes that John O'Neill will assist the public in discovering truth, then he's even more incompetent than Somerby says he is.

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It's not possible to have an honest debate on the dangers of terrorism, says Fred Hiatt, in the Washington Post (October 18, 2004). If any candidate dares to tell the truth, he will get hammered by the other side. Mr. Hiatt is right, but he needs to extend his argument and admit that the way we conduct politics nowadays precludes honest argument not only about terrorism but about almost everything. Children ought to be warned, if they're thinking of going into politics, that their biggest challenge will come from the need to repress their own rational thought. Or, at least, to keep it under wraps. Flattery of the public is a necessary political skill and that includes flattering the bigoted and irrational part of the public. To some politicians it comes natural because they're bigoted and irrational themselves. But, others, like Mr. Kerry, have to strain at it. That's why many find him more artificial than they do Mr. Bush. We can't expect politicians to move us towards honest argument. That's the task of people in the position of Mr. Hiatt. Only if he and others like him relentlessly point out the foolishness of flattering illogic, will our political argument begin to inch towards honesty.

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Sebastian Mallaby has an interesting essay in today's Washington Post (October 18, 2004). He admits that the war in Iraq is causing feelings of guilt in America and dislike of our country around the world. But he comes down in support of it because he believes that what we now call terrorism is more dangerous than anything we used to confront, and because he thinks battling the enemies of America in Iraq is bound to be at least partially successful if we stick to it. His position raises two questions. Are the conditions we face now more dangerous than any we have ever faced before? Will the current policies now being pursued in Iraq serve to defeat this nebulous thing we've decided -- for God only knows what reason -- to call terrorism? I think Mr. Mallaby is wrong in his answers to both questions. How anyone can believe that a network of people radically angry over conditions in the Middle East pose a greater threat than the Soviet Union did is beyond me. The Soviet Union had, after all, a vast system of missiles, armed and ready to obliterate virtually everyone in this nation. In truth, the Soviet Union's successor, Russia, still has them. How can it be that Islamic radicals are more dangerous than that? We managed, mainly through diplomacy, to confront the more powerful danger. And we managed to maintain reasonable relations with other democratic countries while doing it. Mr. Mallaby, obviously, has fallen for the line that our enemies now are insane, whereas the Soviet Union was not insane. But, how does he know they're insane? The only evidence we have is the proclamation of politicians who want to manipulate the current situation in order to enhance their power. As for the tactic in Iraq being eventually successful, that belief requires a total dismissal of history. There have been, and there can be, such things as hundred-year wars. A people occupied by a foreign army which likes to throw its weight around will never stop fighting. It doesn't matter how many times one says that the army is really there to help the people. The people know that's a lie. They have thousands of graves to prove it. An army of occupation generates desire to kill Americans. It does not reduce it. So, I would urge Mr. Mallaby to go back to his thinking table, and think a little harder.

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Was Bob Schieffer right to provide us with a Hallmark Card moment by asking the candidates in the third presidential debate about the role of strong women in their lives? On Face the Nation (October 17, 2004), Mr. Schieffer defended the question, saying that in a campaign as nasty as this one has become we need more Hallmark Card moments. I wonder about that. Do we ever need a Hallmark Card moment in politics? It seems to me that politics is an arena where sentimentality is almost never healthy. I'm not down on non-critical emotion in all aspects of life. It's necessary in family relations. It adds pleasure to sports. It's the stock in trade of entertainment. But, in politics, it offers only the prospect of manipulation. And despite Mr. Schieffer's sentiment, in politics, we're far too manipulated already.

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For the past week, Republican spokesmen have been out in droves complaining about the attempt by lawyers to take over the election.  I heard John Kasich this morning (October 17, 2004) making the standard pitch on ABC's This Week, along with George Will's curled-lip contempt for people too stupid to know how to vote right. These are efforts to preempt what the Republicans know are coming -- angry denunciations of their own dirty campaign tactics. It's hard to imagine there's anybody naive enough to disbelieve attempts by Republicans to limit the registration of black voters in Florida and, then, to keep them away from the polls if they do manage to get through the barriers of registration. I have the advantage of knowing quite a few Florida Republicans and having heard them talk about black voters. But even if one doesn't have personal knowledge, the news reports make it more than evident that keeping black people from voting is a major Republican strategy in the Sunshine State. The encouraging feature of this effort is that blacks also seem to be well aware of it and to be determined not to be intimidated. Now what must happen is that Mr. Kerry has to back up his pledge to see that all votes from eligible voters in Florida are counted. That's not going to be easy. The idea that we can get an honest tally from Florida is fantastic. But maybe it can be honest enough to insure that the candidate favored by the majority of voters will be credited with the majority of votes.

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It used to be that getting the endorsement of a major newspaper was a big thing in a presidential race. But, evidently, no longer. Harry Jaffe, editor of the Washingtonian, says that getting Howard Stern's endorsement will carry more votes than the endorsement of the Washington Post. It sounds crazy, at first, but a little thought tells you it's probably true. The reason is that Stern's millions of fans are actually swayed by what he says. They may not get their news from any other source. Readers of the Post, by contrast, also read other papers and keep track of opinions expressed on national television programs. Presidential campaigns have become efforts to influence the least well-informed members of the electorate. If someone has paid enough attention to know what's going on, then he or she will vote on that basis and not because of what's said during a campaign. But if a person scarcely ever thinks about the forces shaping the world, then a chance remark may determine how he casts his vote. And, he's more likely to take the advice of someone he hears regularly. A serious politician should never forget Mickey Mantle's testimony when he was called before a Congressional committee-- "Whatever Casey says, that's what I say too."

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Stephen Elliott, a novelist who recently has been writing about politics, has joined the chorus now calling for journalists to stop treating lies and the truth as thought they were both merely contending points of view. In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review he says, "The idea of journalists quoting people that they know are lying -- that's really problematic" (October 15, 2004). I'd say it's worse than problematic. It's disgusting. Yet, it's the feature of the media that the Bush campaign has most depended on. They know that if their falsehoods are treated as any other campaign material, there's no risk in making any charge. They know, too, that some people will believe anything no matter how blatantly untrue it is. This behavior won't be cured by expecting more honorable behavior from political groups. If the press, in effect, invites them to manipulate the public, they'll do it. The question for all of us who depend on the press is how to stop the cowardice in news coverage. If a claim is false, it ought not take much courage to say so. But it's more courage than the media has right now.

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We see increasing numbers of reports that soldiers in Iraq are getting fed up with conditions there and with the way the government talks about the situation. They know that despite what the president says they are seen as an occupying force and disliked by most of the people. And they see no way out. Now the members of a reserve Quartermaster company from South Carolina have refused  to deliver fuel to a city a few miles north of Baghdad (New York Times, October 15, 2004). They say it would be a virtual suicide mission and that the fuel is contaminated anyway. Government propaganda has portrayed our military operations as smooth and wondrously efficient. But, it's pretty clear if you were on the ground in Iraq you wouldn't find them to be quite as magnificent as they're said to be. It's a fairly serious thing when a military unit says point blank, "We won't do it." Now the army has to decide whether to bring them before a court martial. You can be pretty sure there will be no legal action while the president is still contending for your vote. Our foreign policy is falling apart more rapidly than even the White House publicity machine can conceal. The main issue now is whether the American people will pay attention.

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Last night (October 14, 2004), CBS News had a segment about how drunken college parties are spilling out into formerly quiet neighborhoods near university campuses. The report got most of its visual material from the University of Oklahoma in Norman. Watching the pictures of kids on alcoholic binges, I was reminded of the need, occasionally, to say something heretical. So, here goes: there are too many young people in college in America now. Over the past fifty years, the nearest approach to an unassailable truth has been the proposition that higher education is good for everybody. Limiting it to exclusive social classes as was done in the past is bad for the country. I agree that it's bad to limit it on the basis of social class. But, I do think there's something to be said for limiting it to people, of whatever age, who are willing to try to read serious books and think serious thoughts. That's not the condition of most college kids in America right now. The colleges and universities, in order to attract more paying customers, have designed programs for people who have no educative interests. They flock to universities for a low-grade country club life where there's much liquor and a lot of sex available. Now, I'm all for liquor and even more for sex, but when they're mixed with a mob atmosphere, as they are on many colleges campuses, something obnoxious emerges. I've been unfortunate enough in my employment to have to deal with more drunken college students than the average person ever encounters. And I can report that they are neither sweet nor cute. I'll go farther and say that I have never seen a drunken college boy who had any attractive attributes whatsoever. For us to pour out our national treasure in order to maintain preserves where these young people can riot and abuse their own minds is not the smartest thing we could be doing.

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Doris Kearns Goodwin, the popular historian, went on the Don Imus radio program the morning after the third presidential debate and said that she thought President Bush won because he was speaking more clearly to "Joe Sixpack." It was a curious comment. First of all, one wonders how much interaction Ms. Goodwin has with persons who would fall into the category of "Joe Sixpack." I don't follow her around, but from what I do know of her circles, I'm a bit suspicious about her understanding of what would be clear to the people she was referring to. But the second and even more wondrous thing was the bland use of the term itself. Is "Joe Sixpack" either a decent or an accurate word? America is a curious culture with respect to acceptable speech. There are certain terms which one dares not utter in public but which are uttered all the time in private conversations. And then, there are terms like "Joe Sixpack" which are inherently condescending, insulting and snotty, which people blab on TV and radio with great cheer. I'm not much of a language cop so it doesn't make me angry to encounter defamatory terms. But maybe it's worth saying that I think using "Joe Sixpack" to make a supposedly serious analysis about presidential politics is not only icky, it's plain out dumb.

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The principal effect of the three joint appearances by the presidential candidates will not lie in who won which debate or who managed to deliver the most stinging line. Over the next two weeks an image will form in the public mind about the nature of the two men who were displayed to them. This is not going to be a matter of style. I've been as critical as anyone towards the notion that what counts in politics is who can be smoother in front of TV cameras. But, it's not primarily cinematic grace (or the lack of it) that's revealed when a man publicly confronts at least moderately searching questions for four and a half hours. People begin to get a sense of a mind at work and that's what registers with them. The working mind of the current president of the United States isn't going to win over many voters. That's because it doesn't present us with thought. Mr. Kerry was not eminently thoughtful, either. But he did suggest the possibility of thought. In him, we see someone who probably will think when he's outside the range of TV cameras. The president, by contrast, simply holds positions which came into his mind sometime in the past and are now barricaded against evidence, against persuasion, against even basic logic. This isolation is what he means by steadiness. The American electorate is not sophisticated nor is it well-informed. But some considerable portion of it does understand that the world cannot be log-rolled by a brain that has turned to stone. They comprehend that good government requires someone who can take account of changing conditions. There are enough Americans who share Mr. Bush's mental status to maintain him as a formidable candidate. But, if he does not prevail on November 2nd, it will be because of the image of a petrified mind which the people had forced on their attention directly for two hundred and seventy minutes.

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Now that the debates are over, each campaign will doubtless concentrate on the so-called battleground states and try to make sure that all of its supporters are registered and will come out to vote. That's the only prudent course. But I suspect that each campaign will also be hoping that some nationwide issue will rise to give its candidate a boost. The problem with issues of that kind is that it's hard to exploit them because they cut both ways. When I think, for example, of the main reasons I'm opposed to Mr. Bush, I realize that all of them, if emphasized, could backfire against Mr. Kerry. My first and strongest reason is that I think the president is far too eager to kill people as a way of solving problems. But, there are many citizens who associate killing with manliness and, consequently, would warm to Mr. Bush if his readiness to kill became a major issue. My second reason is the president's willingness to push aside legal rights in order to get at those he considers enemies. But, there are many Americans who like the idea of taking care of "those" people, whoever they may be, and who regard scruples about civil liberty as weakness.. My third reason is the president's determination to benefit the wealthy and drive a larger percentage of the people into Wal-Mart type jobs. Yet, one of the persistent dreams of many Americans is that they, too, will become super rich and therefore they want to have policies in place that will pamper them once they get there. Consequently, the features of the Bush administration that are most horrendous are precisely those that either have to be ignored or muted by his opponent. It's frustrating to realize that practical politics holds truth in check. But, that's the system we've got and the one we have to live with -- at least for the time being.

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In the hullabaloo leading to the third presidential debate, there was relatively little coverage of arguments at the Supreme Court about whether the United States should remain the only democratic nation to kill sixteen and seventeen year old people for crimes they committed. There are seventy-three persons in that age group across the country which various states have said they want to kill. The issue before the court is whether killing them constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. I don't guess we can say for sure whether killing somebody is cruel but we certainly can say that for the government to kill helpless people is unusual -- that is, if we take general human practice into account. But one of the strongest arguments at the court yesterday (October 13, 2004) was that the American judicial system should never pay any attention to what anybody outside the country does. After all, we're Americans and we don't have to listen to anybody. I'm one of those finicky people who would just as soon not be seen as coming from a killer nation, but maybe it's unfair of me to ask my fellow citizens to give up one of their most cherished pleasures -- the right to strap people down on tables and pump poison into their veins. These things are hard to know.

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For months David Letterman has been running a feature called a presidential joke that's not really a joke. From the debate last night (October 13, 2004) he has material to last him well into next year. Mr. Bush's attempts at humor are, to say the least, unusual, which would be no criticism if they were also funny. But it's hard to imagine the tickle bone that would be set vibrating by the president's sallies. At one point, in response a Kerry charge, backed up by newspaper investigations, he said,  "In all due respect, I'm not so sure it's credible to quote leading news organizations about -- never mind." Then, he laughed robustly at himself. Perhaps, someday, when human brains have evolved into new form of being, Mr. Bush will be seen as the inventor of a transmogrified wit. But, at the moment, when it comes to humor, he's simply a mystery.

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Supposing you had at your command a phrase which would allow you to get away with actions that you could never achieve without it. Supposing it also protected you from a major portion of the criticism that would normally be coming your way. Would you ever want to give it up? That's exactly the position Mr. Bush has with respect to the terms "9/11" and "the war on terror." We can debate about whether the war on terror is a genuine war. We can debate about whether it's winnable. But one point is beyond debate -- if the president didn't have his war on terror he would have nothing.  Is it any wonder that he is, as Thomas Friedman said today (October 14, 2004) in the New York Times, addicted to it. We've now heard three presidential debates. As they fade into history, they leave us with two overweening questions. Do we want to spend the next decades of our national history being manipulated by scare tactics about a network of radical anti-Americans? Do we want to surrender the features of our life that made us an admirable nation in order to wrap ourselves in a militaristic-security state? It has been said to the point of being nauseating that 9/11 changed everything. It didn't change everything for me, but it certainly changed everything for George Bush.

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The moderator of tonight's presidential debate (October 13, 2004), Bob Schieffer of CBS, may well be criticized for "liberal bias" by right-wing spokesmen. But, if he is, it will be a curious complaint. Mr. Schieffer has closer personal ties with Mr. Bush than any other major newsman. His brother, Tom Schieffer, was one of Bush's partners in the Texas Rangers and is now the United States ambassador to Australia. Furthermore, Bob Schieffer himself had numerous social interactions   with George W. Bush in the Texas Rangers days. If you listen carefully to Shieffer's Sunday morning program, Face the Nation,  you'll often pick up a Republican spin. There's no reason to suspect that Schieffer will allow pro-Bush propensities to creep into his moderating job tonight. He's probably too careful a journalist to make that kind of blunder. But if you hear Republican spinners accusing Schieffer of Democratic leanings because he works for CBS, that's a time you need to have your nonsense detector spinning in high gear.

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An article by Dana Milbank in today's Washington Post (October 12, 2004) about the crowds at Bush and Kerry campaign rallies exemplifies the spineless nature of today's mainstream journalism. The crowds at Kerry rallies are warm, says Milbank, whereas the crowds at Bush's rallies are wildly enthusiastic. Not until the eighth paragraph are we told that you usually can't get into a Bush campaign event unless you testify that you're a strong Bush supporter. By contrast, anybody can attend a Kerry speech. Milbank admits this might have something to do with the emotions of the crowds, but he buries the admission so deep in his story the average reader probably never gets to it. Why is the Bush practice of speaking only to avid supporters not put in the first paragraph? That's far more important "news" than the fact that by careful screening Bush can assemble a crowd of excited supporters. Furthermore, there's never a hint towards telling us which of the two crowds exhibits greater intelligence. If we were to get that, we would be stepping towards genuine journalism -- and that, of course, would be unthinkable.

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The Drudge Report recently (October 9, 2004) got hold of an internal ABC News memorandum and published it on the web, calling it "controversial." In it, Mark Halperin, director of the ABC News political unit, warned that being fair does not mean saying that the shadings employed by the two presidential campaigns are always equal. Being fair means telling the truth. What a novel idea! Halperin then continued to say what any sane person knows: the Bush campaign distorts more radically than the Democrats do. Painting a false picture of John Kerry is central in the Bush strategy. The flaccid notion that it is somehow balanced to present every twisting of the truth as though it were equal to every other has turned the network news operations into toothless mutts. If a campaign knows that no matter what lies it tells, the other side will be presented as telling equal lies, and if it is directed by people as ruthless as those running the Bush operation, then there's no limit to the distortions it will employ. In truth, that's what has happened over the past months. If this is not news, I don't know what is. It will be interesting to see how ABC responds to this leak. If it applauds and supports Mr. Halperin, then it will be doing simply what any decent news organization ought to do. If it, in any way, takes him to task, then we can know that, at ABC at least, truth means nothing.

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Should our politics be more attentive to the problems of a crowded world or of an uncrowded world? That's the question David Brooks puts to us in his New York Times column today (October 12, 2004). Bush, Brooks says, represents the perspective of an uncrowded world, Kerry the viewpoint of a crowded world. The one side sticks up for the right of people to do whatever they want to do. The other emphasizes the need for cooperation to avoid social conflicts. This picture is a perfect example of the analytic technique of Mr. Brooks who is a genius at making over-simplification appear to be sophisticated. It is also an example of the sort of twisted argument that presents itself as fair and balanced but actually comes down heavily on one side. Brooks could find a comfortable home at Fox News. Who wouldn't rather live in a world where he can do whatever he wishes? If that's what Mr. Bush is actually trying to accomplish for us, it's only human nature to support him. When we look at the measures Bush employs, however, the question of who actually supports freedom becomes more complicated. Mr. Bush looks first to corporations to address social and economic problems. And, if you think the culture of most corporations supports freedom, then you're nuts. Mr. Bush and his confederates like to throw people in jail. Somehow, a country with a large percentage of its people in jail, doesn't strike me as particularly free. Mr. Bush has shown himself more eager to use military force than any president in recent history. He goes out looking for nations to attack on the basis that they might, sometime, want to launch attacks on us. If you've ever served in the military, you know that freedom and individualism are dirty words. That was the first thing I was told by my training sergeant when I arrived at Ft. Belvoir. In a militarized world, people do as they're told, or else they get shot. The Republican stance on freedom is the same as their stance on money. These things are good in the hands of a small power elite. But they should never be allowed to circulate among the people generally.

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Should our politics be more attentive to the problems of a crowded world or of an uncrowded world? That's the question David Brooks puts to us in his New York Times column today (October 12, 2004). Bush, Brooks says, represents the perspective of an uncrowded world, Kerry the viewpoint of a crowded world. The one side sticks up for the right of people to do whatever they want to do. The other emphasizes the need for cooperation to avoid social conflicts. This picture is a perfect example of the analytic technique of Mr. Brooks who is a genius at making over-simplification appear to be sophisticated. It is also an example of the sort of twisted argument that presents itself as fair and balanced but actually comes down heavily on one side. Brooks could find a comfortable home at Fox News. Who wouldn't rather live in a world where he can do whatever he wishes? If that's what Mr. Bush is actually trying to accomplish for us, it's only human nature to support him. When we look at the measures Bush employs, however, the question of who actually supports freedom becomes more complicated. Mr. Bush looks first to corporations to address social and economic problems. And, if you think the culture of most corporations supports freedom, then you're nuts. Mr. Bush and his confederates like to throw people in jail. Somehow, a country with a large percentage of its people in jail, doesn't strike me as particularly free. Mr. Bush has shown himself more eager to use military force than any president in recent history. He goes out looking for nations to attack on the basis that they might, sometime, want to launch attacks on us. If you've ever served in the military, you know that freedom and individualism are dirty words. That was the first thing I was told by my training sergeant when I arrived at Ft. Belvoir. In a militarized world, people do as they're told, or else they get shot. The Republican stance on freedom is the same as their stance on money. These things are good in the hands of a small power elite. But they should never be allowed to circulate among the people generally.

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Lately, I've noticed repeated use of a new term which tells me how radically transformed our society has been over the past generation. It seems nowadays in some circles if children want to spend time with their friends they have to schedule  "play dates." No longer do kids get home from school, change their clothes and wander down to the river or over to the park to see who's there and what they can find. That would be so powerfully uncertain it might set off brain eruptions. No, they now have to check what's on the calendar. Is there anyone who thinks this is a good development? Can anyone defend it? I used to think that the spontaneity of childhood was one of its charms. When I was eleven or twelve and got up in the morning, I had no idea at all what I would be doing at four o'clock that afternoon. Every day was an adventure, but adventure was such an ordinary part of life it never occurred to me to call it that. What will be the effect of childhood with no adventure, or of what are called adventures but which are so pre-planned that nothing surprising is likely ever to happen? Of course, this is the case only for the children of the "privileged." Poor kids still wander about. Maybe the difference is nature's way of making sure that fresh blood rises to leadership in society.

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If I were making a list of young Americans who give me hope for our country, I'd put Samantha Power near the top. Her book from two years ago, A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, which won a Pulitzer Prize, described in unsparing detail the kind of political trimming which permits large scale slaughter of people. I saw her last night from Western Sudan on 60 Minutes (October 10, 2004) and there she was clear and passionate about the policies that are driving hundreds of thousands out of Darfur and into camps along the eastern border of Chad. The future for all these people is bleak unless they can get adequate food, water, and medical supplies, and can be protected against the Sudanese militia units that have already murdered fifty thousand of them. The quality I admire in Ms. Power is that she has no patience with political rationalizations which argue, in effect, that we are helpless in situations like this. We are not helpless if would summon the will to act. A tiny portion of the money and effort that went into the occupation of Iraq could transform the lives of people who are facing death in Darfur. Failure to save them is a clear admission that we don't regard them as worthy human beings. And when we admit things like that, we store up troubles for ourselves in the future.

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Andy Rooney of CBS came out clearly last night (October 10, 2004) and said that anybody who hasn't yet decided how to vote in the upcoming presidential election is stupid. I'll admit that Andy has sometimes been a bit loopy lately but in this case I think he's on the mark. He also said that most of the people who claim to be undecided are lying just so they can get attention. I'm less certain about that. It does seem to be the case that we have a goodly number of citizens who are so inept in looking behind politicians' words and so purely ignorant of what is actually happening in the world they really could be undecided. I understand why politicians have to flatter these boneheads but I don't understand why the media feel they have to follow the politicians' lead. Suppose Rooney's judgment was widely echoed in the press and everytime anybody was identified as being undecided there was also a hint that he was limited in intellect. I think we would have far fewer people claiming undecided status. If we did, the politicians might shift their remarks towards people who know and think. Even if that didn't make campaigns more likely to pick the right candidate it would at least make them more interesting.

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A report on the evening news (October 10, 2004) explained that thieves steal materials from home construction sites so regularly that the price of a new house is driven up several thousand dollars. One contractor commented matter of factly, "it's just a part of doing business." I confess that living in a small city in Vermont makes it easy to ignore ordinary conditions of life in many parts of the country. It doesn't occur to me, for example, to lock my car here at home when I leave it on the street or in a parking lot, not even if I've just bought sacks of groceries or other merchandise. Yet, I'm told that in many cities failure to lock one's car would be considered lunacy. The deterioration of social life occurs so gradually that we can arrive at miserable human interaction and write it off as normal. That's just the way things are nowadays, one hears people say. Yet, if you step back and begin to pay attention to actual behavior, you see that normality across great stretches of the nation is shameful. Just about the only response to it I hear anyone suggest is to throw more people in jail. But, we have too many people in jail already. What we have failed to understand is that ordinary, everyday behavior is a political issue. Consequently, it requires political discussion and political action. I'm not sure exactly what to do about the wave of petty anti-social acts that makes life in America far less pleasant than it ought to be. And neither is anybody else. That's my point. We don't take it seriously enough to share ideas about it. But when we've reached the state that thousands of dollars worth of materials will be routinely stolen from a house-building site, we ought to wake up and ask ourselves why.

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John Edwards and John Kerry have been criticizing President Bush for not being willing to admit a single mistake during the second presidential debate. So, George Stephanopoulos of ABC asked Mr. Edwards what his own mistakes have been (October 9, 2994). Edwards replied that one of them was believing that Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction. But he didn't continue by explaining the cause of that mistake, which is really the issue people ought to be concentrating on now. The cause, clearly, was that Mr. Edwards and Mr. Kerry and anybody else who accepted at face value the government's case against Iraq in the fall of 2002 were being gullible. There was plenty of evidence at the time, for people willing to look for it, that the existence of massive weapons systems in Iraq was questionable. Even I, just a person sitting at a computer and reading the magazines available in my local library, suspected that the weapons weren't there. If they were, why would Iraq have been so willing to let the weapons inspectors go anywhere they wished with no real impediment? At the time, we were told that Iraq had weapons hidden so skillfully there wasn't much chance they would be found. But that made no sense. With all the satellite photography, with all the sensing devices, available to international inspectors, it was not credible that huge systems of weapons could have been hidden indefinitely from teams of able investigators who had the ability to go wherever they wished. At the very least, a thoughtful person, aware of the desire on the part of Bush administration officials to launch a war, should have been skeptical. Failure to be skeptical was the mistake, and anybody who made it should be willing to pledge that he will never be manipulated in that way again.

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On the CBS news program Face The Nation, Bob Schieffer asked Republican spokesman Ed Gillespie whether we can expect to have troops in Iraq indefinitely (October 10, 2004). Mr. Gillespie responded that he doesn't know because he's not a general. There could scarcely be a more perfect demonstration of the Bush administration's stance that one's knowledge has to be based on one's position. The president himself, for example, can't sort out what makes sense among the intelligence reports that come to him. Instead he has to rely on intelligence guys to tell him what's right and what's wrong. This is a curious position for a political group that claims to be based on opposition to bureaucratic thinking. Supposedly, in a Republican America, individuals will be able to make up their minds about issues and won't have to rely on government officials to tell them what to think. Yet, here's Mr. Republican, Ed Gillespie, who has to rely on generals to tell him how long our nation ought to maintain a military presence in Iraq. Is he not an informed citizen? Does he not have access to essentially the same information that generals do? What we actually see from Ed Gillespie is the top-down corporate mentality that dominates his party's thinking. Corporate decision-making, where everybody follows the CEO, and the CEO is guided by expertise, is the system of choice he wants for his country. A nation, after all, is essentially a corporation, is it not? Anybody who wants his country run that way should probably get firmly in the ranks and vote for Mr. Bush. But those who see the nation as an association of people who seek knowledge for themselves and use it to think about what's best for themselves and others, should, perhaps, consider voting for someone else.

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Here's a small item that probably won't make it into the presidential debates. In Cincinnati recently a panel of federal judges met to hear an appeal from Paul Gregory House, who has been sentenced to death by the state of Tennessee. Mr. House was convicted of raping and murdering a woman mainly on the basis that semen matching his blood type was found on her clothes, and that her blood was found on his. Now, DNA tests have revealed that the semen did not come from Mr. House but, rather belonged to the woman's husband. Furthermore, it seems to be the case that the dead woman's blood found on Mr. Houses's clothes did not come from contact with the body but was sprinkled on them at a crime lab. An additional tiny piece of evidence is that two witnesses have come forward to testify that the woman's husband told them he killed her in a fit of drunken rage. Nevertheless, the panel of judges voted eight to seven to send Mr. House forward to his death. The vote might not be worth reporting were it not that the eight who approved having the state of Tennessee kill Mr. House were all Republican appointees, whereas the seven who wanted him to be released or to have a new trial were appointed by Democrats. Might we say that this is a good reading of the difference between the two parties now contending for our support? Or is it just one of those curious accidents?

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Remember when we were regularly told that when Russia was freed from the blight of communism, capitalist development would move in and transform the country? You might say that has proved to be true. Russia now has more billionaires than any other country in the world. It also has growing death rates and declining birth rates so severe that the population may be cut almost in half in the next twenty years. Life expectancy for Russian men has gone down more than six years over the past decade. Drug addiction is rampant. Venereal disease is growing at unparalleled rates. And, now, an AIDS epidemic threatens to run completely out of control. Meanwhile, the Russian government has virtually no program for controlling the disease. President Putin refuses to admit that it's a problem. These are the fruits of political policies that work to concentrate power in the head of government and vast wealth in just a few private hands. They are frighteningly like the measures the Bush administration has been pushing in America. The choice before the American people is whether we want a world where wealth and power are the primary goals or whether we want to lend our efforts to widespread public health and well-being. In making that choice we would do well to take a hard look at Russia. There Mr. Putin says he is grabbing power so he can protect the people. The questions are, what people is he going to protect and what's he going to protect them from?

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The American media have generally done a poor job of explaining the difference between President Bush's and Senator Kerry's stances on North Korea. In the debate on September 30th, Mr. Bush said that Senator Kerry's willingness to engage in direct talks with North Korea would be a dreadful mistake. The president implied that if the United States negotiated with Kim Jong Il's regime, that would exclude other nations from efforts to persuade the Koreans to give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons. But the president didn't say why. What would there be in direct talks that would destroy any interest on the part of China, South Korea, or Japan? The media owe it to the people to spell out the implications of these two positions and explain the philosophy of international relations that lies behind each of them. We need to explore, publicly, what good was supposed to flow from Mr. Bush's calling the North Korean state an element in the axis of evil. What did the president have in mind by doing that? Common sense indicates that if you call something evil your intention is to take forceful action against it. The Koreans, hearing these words coming at them from an immense nuclear power, might well be led to believe that their only practical defense is to obtain nuclear weapons themselves. Maybe there's more to this whole business than common sense can unravel. But, if there is, the media ought to dig into it and lay it out for us. We certainly can't depend on our current government to do it. The Bush administration is committed to declamation, not explanation.

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It seems that almost every day now we're confronted with a new category of person. Take the folks who are will be in the room tonight (October 8, 2004) where President Bush and Senator Kerry  are going to come together and answer questions . It turns out they are all "soft voters." "Soft" in this context appears to mean that though all these people have an opinion about who they are going to vote for, when it comes right down to it, they might vote for somebody else. Why softness is the prime qualification for putting questions to the two contenders has not been explained. Presumably, if there's a possibility you'll vote for someone you didn't think you were going to support, then you won't be likely to ask him a "hard" question. Avoidance of hard questions is a tactic everyone is assumed to approve. But, why? Does being a soft voter indicate that one has a soft brain? Do the emanations of soft brains constitute the voice of the people? Is soft thinking what we need to lead us to a bright future? The entire philosophy of political softness needs a more skilled metaphysician than we've had till now to explain its grandeur. But, in the meantime, we're going to rely on it to help us decide which person is best suited to conduct the affairs of our government.

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We may be moving into an era when a normal feature of pursuing a career is jail time. Martha Stewart goes to jail today (October 8, 2004) after being trapped by a blatant case of selective prosecution. Judith Miller, a reporter for the New York Times, faces eighteen months in prison for "acting in good faith, doing her duty as a respected and established reporter" (these are the words of the judge who's going to throw her in the pokey). The stance of many of the officials who are taking away people's freedom seems to be, gosh, we don't really want to but we have no choice. I guess we should feel sorry for them -- what a burden!  If you accept the advisories of right-wing radio and TV talk show hosts, about a third of the American population ought to be in jail all the time. This is in the land of the free and the home of the brave. I sometimes wonder what percentage of our people we can keep in jail without crashing the economy. I don't suppose we're close to it yet, but if the increase of persons in prison continues to grow at the rate it has for the past quarter-century, we'll be there before long. Growing up, I didn't have a sense of my fellow citizens as jail-keepers. But, I suppose all things have to change. Nobody is responsible for any of this, of course.

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An interesting -- and perhaps telling -- footnote to the Cheney/Edwards debate was the vice-president's false statement that he had not met Mr. Edwards until that night. Why would he say such a thing? He surely could not have forgotten that he and Mr. Edwards were on the same TV show together and that they shook hands at the time. Or could he? That happened in the spring of 2001 when Mr. Edwards was merely a United States senator and not a candidate for national office. The vice-president might have considered him beneath remembering. But if that's the case, it tells us something about Mr. Cheney's mind-set. It has been widely reported that the vice president is so sure of his own importance and his own rectitude that he never listens to anybody else. I've never known whether that was true or not. The evidence offered for it has often been no more than a supposedly dismissive style.  Mr. Cheney's general manner is not as off-putting to me as it seems to be to many people. I have no difficulty with his mode of speaking. It's the substance of what he says that bothers me. Yet, perhaps, others are seeing something I haven't seen. If it's the truth that Mr. Cheney could have met a senator and not remember the occasion, that's more scary than the Darth Vader image that's often associated with him.

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One of the really, really dumb arguments being put forward by the Republicans and their supporters is that in the fall of 2002, Mr. Kerry had the same intelligence available to him as Mr. Bush did. Bill O'Reilly repeats it at least once a week on his TV show. The premise is that the president is merely the consumer of intelligence. He has no choice but to get it and then act on it. But this is a lie. The president is, ultimately, the producer of intelligence. He has control over the people who work it up. He's the one who should be digging into what they say and doing everything in his power to insure that it's true. Use your common sense. If somebody came to you with a report that was about to lead you to spend thousands of lives, would you merely accept it, passively? Would you not probe as fiercely as possible into the assumptions that lay behind it? Would you not ask, with all the power at your command, how we know that it is true? This was the capacity Mr. Bush had that Mr. Kerry certainly did not have. The president either used that capacity or he did not. If he didn't, then he is an incompetent simpleton. If he did, then he had to learn the truth, and he is a spreader of falsehood. Either way, it doesn't present a picture the American people can have confidence in.

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The administration's story is falling apart. That's the thesis of E. J. Dionne Jr. in his Washington Post column about Mr. Cheney's performance in the debate (October 7, 2004). What Mr. Kerry should now do is challenge Dionne by denying that the president's story is falling apart. It fell apart a long time ago, he should say, and the pieces of it now litter the American political landscape. A brief history could point out, step by step, how the tale that Mr. Bush passed off on the American people in January and February of 2003 was not only false. It was known to be false by those who were peddling it. If Mr. Kerry will make that point effectively, it will then be up to the American people to decide whether they like being had. It's clear that some do. But that they constitute a majority is questionable.

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The headlines tell us that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was fined and docked points for cursing during a TV interview. As usual, the headlines got it wrong. Earnhardt didn't curse. What he did was utter a word meaning excrement, which is the most commonly used term in America for that substance. You can hear it said a dozen times a minute in almost any high school hallway in the land. The whole flap leaves me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I'm fairly queasy about language and I don't like to hear vulgarities in public. On the other, I'm suspicious about attempts to regulate cultural habits by fines and sanctions. After all, Earnhardt said what he said at a race car track. Does anybody in the world think that language there is refined? The problem, of course, is television and it's demand that everybody be on camera at every moment of celebration (and of grief, for that matter). In theory, unless we control what's said at such times millions of innocent children who have never heard vulgar language at home run the danger of hearing it on TV and having their lives cankered thereby. The danger strikes me as  overblown. If we don't want to have vulgar language on the airwaves then we should learn to use it less commonly ourselves, and to be aware that certain terms should be reserved for private and secure settings. Only if a style of talk is genuinely disapproved can it kept off TV and radio. Sanctimonious fines and sanctions are not going to do it.

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An ongoing mystery of TV publicity is why Ann Coulter continues to receive a semi-respectful hearing for her degenerate opinions. Is there anybody else who can go on major television programs and say that we, the people of the United States, should either kill Muslims or convert them to Christianity? She's making the rounds now, promoting her book How To Talk To A Liberal (If You Must), and she seems to be convinced that the more goofy things she says the more her fame -- and her book sales -- will rise. Perhaps she's right. It would all be understandable if Ms. Coulter were treated as what she is -- a comedian. But in demeanor, at least, TV hosts appear to take her seriously. The long-range effect of such a response is likely to be that no one will be able to take anything he or she hears on television seriously. In truth, we may already have reached that point.

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Mr. Cheney's relationship with the Haliburton Corporation figured largely in the vice-presidential debate last night, as it has throughout the campaign. Many Democrats are eager to say that the vice-president continues to use his influence to help the company attain government contracts. I don't know whether he does or not. Even if he did, it's the sort of thing that would be almost impossible to prove. There is, however, a larger issue about the Cheney-Halliburton connection that no one seems to have the wit to raise. After all, there is such a thing as a corporate culture. And the chief executive office has a lot to do with creating it. It's clear that the culture of Haliburton leads the corporation to behave rapaciously with respect to public money. If it's possible, Haliburton will find ways to charge the government prices well above what other venders would expect. The corporation's behavior has demonstrated that beyond doubt. Whether Dick Cheney is personally getting money from these operations is not the point. These are the practices he stands for. The serious issue is whether we want government officials who support the idea of corporations milking the public for all they can possibly get.

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Now we have the report -- horror of horrors -- that on the day of the presidential debate John Kerry got a manicure. It's not clear whether he actually did it or not, but just the rumor of a manicure is supposedly a disastrous development for Mr. Kerry. And why is that? Because real men don't get manicures and Mr. Kerry's principal job in this campaign is to prove that he's a real man. Mr. Bush doesn't have to prove it for some reason, although exactly why not, no one can say. Fox News was so mesmerized by the manicure caper that it was mentioned on their programs five times in the three hours before the debate. Here, for example is what Newt Gingrich said on The O'Reilly Factor: "Well, the first thing I would tell him to do is don't get a manicure. I can't imagine a dumber thing going into the debate than the last four hours of news broken, I think by Carl Cameron here on FOX News -- because it makes him look silly." Despite Mr. Gingrich's fractured syntax, we get the point that Mr. Kerry's perhaps mythical manicure was breaking news, and it was unearthed by the intrepid Fox reporter Carl Cameron. Mr. Cameron, by the way , on the day after the debate, posted a story so full of false remarks attributed to Mr. Kerry that an official Fox spokesman  was led to say , "This was a stupid mistake and a lapse in judgment, and Carl regrets it." Thus is a fair and balanced viewpoint conveyed to the land and we learn what's really important about a candidate.

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Does the vast flood of dollars spent on television political ads make a difference in how people vote? The answer seems to be: nobody knows. Logic would say they can't matter very much. The Bush ads about Kerry have been so wildly, one might say, insanely, false -- he voted 350 times to raise your taxes -- that it's hard to imagine how anybody could take them seriously, except for people who are addicted to lies about Kerry. And, they're not going to vote for him in any case. The Kerry ads, though not as dishonest, have been so bland it's hard to remember what they say. Yet everyone knows that logic is not the rule of politics. There's an active theory that the average voter is so dimwitted, these silly thirty-second puff jobs will win him to one side or another. If that's the case then democracy is, as many are saying, in deep trouble. I suspect that those who claim to know the mind of the electorate are more deluded than anyone else in this political fantasia. But they manage to convince others that they do and thus make a lot of money. I guess that's what really counts.

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There is beginning to be evidence that the Bush campaign's tactic of jumping on Mr. Kerry's "global test" remark may be backfiring. The trouble is, as Thomas Oliphant points out in the Boston Globe (October 5, 2004), more than sixty million people heard what Kerry actually said. So when Bush runs an ad distorting it to the point of lying, the public comes better to grasp standard Bush thought about campaigning -- the assumption that any falsehood can be made to stick if it's repeated often enough. The Kerry people would be wise to make that practice an important part of their own message between now and the election. Why does Mr. Bush have to resort to blatant distortion of his opponent in order to win? Might it be that if people came fully to understand what Kerry is actually saying the president would not have much of a chance? These are the questions the Kerry campaign should push to the fore as we approach the voting day.

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Senator Hillary Clinton and Representative Nita Lowey have introduced a bill that would make universal education a policy goal of the U.S. government. It sounds like a good idea but it needs to be approached with caution says Sebastian Mallaby, a columnist for the Washington Post (October 4, 2004).  Education is a more tricky condition than most people recognize. It's not just a matter of having well-staffed schools available to everyone. In education, demand is more important than supply. In other words, people who want to educate themselves and their children will. And no number of schools and teachers will educate those who aren't interested. Mallaby's point seems to be born out by our experience here in the United States. We have schools for just about anybody who wants them. But to say that we have an educated population would be a stretch. It may be that both the idealistic legislators and Mr. Mallaby are missing the main point. We don't know what education is. Nor do we have an ongoing, vital conversation about how to discover its definition for ourselves. We have a lot of propagandistic ranting, of course. And we have simple-minded demands to reintroduce standards and discipline. But these are just abstractions and don't take the place of discovering how well-formed minds can be put in contact with those who are seeking to improve themselves. And only when that contact takes place will education happen. The debate about education is one of the more discouraging features of our national history. Someday, we've got to wake up and face how immature we've been. But, in the meantime, I guess I'll go along with Clinton and Lowey. Spending money on building schools is better than spending money on blowing people into bloody little shreds.

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Bob Herbert in this morning's New York Times (October 4, 2004) questions Mr. Bush's relationship with reality. The president is, says Herbert, the kind of man who will tell you that down is up, and maybe believe it. It's the latter comment, which Herbert passes over too rapidly, that ought most to concern us. Has the president propagandized himself? We would do well -- in watching the remaining debates -- to keep in mind Maureen Dowd's quip that Mr. Bush lives in a thermos. At first glance that seems ridiculous. Yet, it's hard for most of us to conceive what it does to a mind to exist in the privileged realm Mr. Bush occupies. It's a danger for all presidents. Some of them have made efforts to break out. But, Mr. Bush seems never to have imagined the need. If we can believe what he says about himself, he's not interested in what other people think. He has fixed in his mind a vision of what is right and it is not affected by what's actually happening in the world. This is what he means by being steadfast. Many have attempted to interpret the significance of the president's facial expressions during last Thursday's encounter with Senator Kerry. Maybe they were no more than annoyance at being forced to listen to a displeasing description of actuality.

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It would be a fine thing if every voter would read William Langewiesche's article about the Green Zone in Baghdad which appears in the November 2004 Atlantic. To say such a thing of course displays a mind still susceptible to fantasy. For one thing, the article is a full eighteen pages long. It would be instructive to know what percentage of Americans could read an eighteen page Atlantic article. That's the sort of information so-called social scientists never give us. But one thing we can be sure of: the percentage that considers itself too busy to read anything substantial about public affairs far exceeds the percentage who are capable of doing it. And then, the implication in my opening statement is that if people did read it, their opinion about our adventure in Iraq would be changed. But, how do I know? If every adult American knew, for example, that it costs the taxpayers $300,000 a year to keep a civilian employee in the highly guarded Green Zone (which, by the way, continues to be identified in Iraqi minds with the rule of Saddam Hussein), would that matter? Would it matter if voters knew that the $300,000 does not include the employee's salary, nor the cost of flying him there and flying him out? Would it matter if they knew there are thousands of such people in the Green zone, most of them doing no more than shuffling paper, which has no positive effect on the country at all? Would it matter if they knew that fear of being attacked keeps almost all of these employees inside the walls of the Green Zone so that they have very little interaction with the country they are supposed to be serving? What could the average American learn that would help him grasp the nature of military occupation, and allow him to see that it can never work as the president and his associates are telling us it is working? The nutrition of the public mind is the greatest mystery we now confront.

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Thomas Friedman has returned to the editorial pages of the New York Times after taking time off for book writing, and he's in a feisty mood (October 3, 2004). There's nothing like a little time off to give one a more inclusive viewpoint. In his revamped stance, Friedman is no longer willing to shilly-shally about Mr. Bush and Iraq. The president, he says, has screwed things up there so royally they may not be fixable. And why has he done it? He always cares more for his short term political advantage than he does for the long-term health of the nation. He listens more attentively to Karl Rove than he does to Colin Powell. For all of his heralded super-patriotism, the president is not really concerned for America's future. I suspect that the problem with Mr. Bush lies not in his heart but in his head. He operates from such a limited perspective he can't imagine a valid argument which falls outside his own circle. And we, the people, are very foolish if we don't wake up to the recognition of how narrow that circle is. We have blundered along in the immature faith that you don't have to know anything in order to be good. That may work for ordinary roles but it's not an effective analysis when applied to the president of the United States.

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There are signs that an increasing number of people are getting worried about America's place in the world and how our reputation might affect it. I doubt the average American grasps the complex web of commercial arrangements our everyday life is dependent upon. But those who know where our money comes from recognize that decaying confidence in the integrity of the American nation could have dire results. That's the reason for the formation of a group called "Business For Diplomatic Action" founded by advertising executive Keith Reinhard. BDA is dedicated to bolstering the international perception of "Brand America" which seems to be on a downward slide. There's a subtle interaction between politics and commerce. If a country comes to be seen as irresponsible in one realm, eventually that doubt carries over to the other. A goodly number of Americans think there's something dashing and heroic in thumbing our noses at the rest of the world. But if it begins to take bread off the table, they may discover it's a form of heroism they don't really want to pay for.

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Karl Rove, President Bush's political advisor, is the subject of a profile by Joshua Green in the November Atlantic. His theme is that Mr. Rove is even more ruthless, even more vicious, than he's reputed to be. It's quite a charge, since Rove is generally described as a pretty nasty political operative. He established his reputation by managing campaigns in Texas and Alabama, where he played such cute tricks as putting out anonymous, overboard attacks against his own candidate  and then seeing to it that a whisper campaign attributed them to his opponent. Green says Rove will go to any lengths to win, but suggests that he could be misled by his successes. Tactics that work in Alabama and Texas may not be persuasive for the whole nation. For the presidential campaign he appears to have decided that bringing the president's so-called base to the polls is more important than winning wavering voters. And the base is motivated by two emotions -- fear and hatred. Scholars in the future will probably see our era as a time when politics abandoned reason for those passions, and Karl Rove will thus assure himself a large place in the history books.

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A crippling feature of American political culture has become the requirement for major politicians to affirm certain falsehoods, no matter how ridiculous they are. We saw a prime example last Thursday during the presidential debate. Early on, President Bush referred to our being in a struggle with an "ideology of hate." The remark fit with charges like "they hate freedom" and "they kill just for the sake of killing." Bush has consistently asserted that Osama bin Laden and those who support him have no policy objectives. They are merely mad dogs. Talk about an ideology! When it's impermissible to think seriously about what your opponent is trying to do, you seal yourself in a box. If your opponents are mad dogs, you can't do anything other than exterminate them. Diplomacy and statesmanship are out the window. If we had a rational political culture, when Bush made his remark, Kerry would have been able to say, "No, Mr. President. An ideology of hate isn't the point. If it were, our problems wouldn't be as severe as  they are. Scarcely anyone will stick with a pure ideology of hatred. We need to grasp the persistence of our opponents. We need to confront the truth that we're up against something  subtle, something really dangerous." But guess what? Kerry couldn't begin to say such a thing. It would have been disastrous for him. The culture of required falsehood demands that everybody bow down to childish, self-congratulatory  over-simplification. In every contest I know of, self-delusion of that kind insures defeat.

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I've been listening -- as carefully as I can stand -- to interviews with people who say they haven't made up their minds about the presidential election. I've discovered something significant about them. Their uncertainty has nothing to do with either candidate. They are addicted to indecision itself. I wonder if there has ever been a people as susceptible to the appeal of false sophistication as the American population is now. A considerable portion of us are convinced that appearing to be balanced between political claims is a mark of intellectual depth. In focus groups, it's clear that most people are more concerned with projecting a serious and thoughtful image than they are with saying what they think. When one is in that frame of mind it's hard to get any sense out of him. The best interpretation of the condition I've seen came on a comedy skit of The Daily Show, where a supposed focus group couldn't be asked any question at all because they couldn't decide which chairs to sit in. When the reactions of uncertain near-neurotics are the main concern of a campaign, it's a wonder it hasn't been more fatuous than it has.

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Does television reveal instinctive responses, as Alexandra Stanley says in her post-debate article in the New York Times? The notion that body language speaks more loudly than words has become one of the received truths of our image-oriented culture. I've even heard some people say that if you turn off the sound on your TV during the debates you'll get a more accurate reading of what's really going on. There's some truth in all this image-focused analysis but I suspect we're going overboard with it. The Times editorial said that the president looked petulant when Mr. Kerry was criticizing him. "Petulant" may be too strong a word for what Mr. Bush was exhibiting. It struck me more as discomfort with and dislike of vigorous argument. Those are emotions all chief executive officers have to watch out for. Normally, they live in an atmosphere where no one challenges them sharply. For all the talk about presidents encouraging keen dissent, it's a thing they rarely experience. So when they have to stand in public and listen to someone slicing at their behavior they have a hard time entering the spirit of the occasion. Mr. Bush's manner when Kerry was speaking probably did show that reluctance, but to say that it was more important than what the president said when he spoke is misguided.

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The first presidential debate has come and gone. Senator Kerry displayed a more ready command of his own mind than President Bush did. That can scarcely have been a surprise to any sentient person on this globe. No one should deny that Mr. Bush has political talents but thinking on his feet is not one of them. He has to say what he and his advisors have decided in advance he should say or else he's lost. Whether this indicates a deficiency of thought, generally, I can't be sure. Some people who are always muddled in conversation can think well enough when they sit in private and puzzle things out. So, though I'm pleased that Mr. Kerry made the stronger impression, I don't think that's a reason for anybody to vote for him. We should always be voting on the basis of which candidate is likely to move us towards the world we favor. Mr. Bush's weakness in ready speech wouldn't bother me much if I believed his vision of the world were good for the world. I don't believe that and that's why I'm going to vote for Mr. Kerry. The senator's skill in the sort of debate we saw last night is pleasant but it shouldn't be the decisive point.

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It may be a minor point at this late date, but I continue to think the jibes directed at Mr. Kerry for his so-called Nascar comment mark one of the stupidest episodes of this campaign. Back in March, Kerry supposedly asked, "Who among us doesn't like Nascar?" which was seen as foolish pretense. And it might have been, if Kerry had actually used those words. But there's no record that he did. They got their widest circulation from being quoted in Maureen Dowd's column for March 18th. There they played a prominent part in the essay that has to rank as the dumbest thing she ever wrote.  She compared Kerry to Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice and suggested that Kerry's words on  Nascar were the kind of thing Collins might have said. Ms. Dowd seems not to have an inkling of who Mr. Collins was. He would never have made a remark favorable to a sport popular among those he considered the lower orders.. Dowd distorted Jane Austen as much as she did Kerry, and that. to my mind, is a more serious thing. The whole incident tells us a good deal about the contempt journalists have for their public. They don't have to be accurate because they assume the public won't know or won't care about their transgressions. Much as I like Maureen Dowd's writing, I have to face the truth that she's subject to a debased journalistic culture in the same way all her colleagues are.


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