Word and Image of Vermont
During his speech in Salt Lake City, before the American Legion, Donald Rumsfeld asked a series of rhetorical questions, the last being, "And can we truly afford to return to the destructive view that America -- not the enemy -- is the real source of the world's trouble?" This is vintage Republican argumentation, insinuating things that aren't true in order to slam anyone who won't get on board with the administration. Does Rumsfeld, or any sane person, think that the world's trouble comes from a single source?  That's the implication of his question and it's absurd. There's plenty of blame in this world to go around and no nation or group is completely free of it. Nobody is pure. Yet, people like Rumsfeld continue to charge that any criticism of U.S. foreign policy is an attempt to blame everything on the America. This actually is an expression of contempt for the American people. The assumption that we will swallow such childish foolishness is to argue that the people have no right to make democratic decisions, that we are insufficiently intelligent to assess the sources of the world's problems and take responsibility for our share of them. But, then, that's doubtless what Rumsfeld really thinks.  (Posted, 8/31/06)

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Does access to oil in other countries help shape American foreign policy? Every sensible person in the world knows it does. Yet, somehow, there is a pretense among politicians, and also among mainstream journalists, that oil has nothing to do with where U.S. military forces are deployed, or which nations we invade and occupy. Spencer Ackerman noted recently that "there's  a certain ridiculous tap dance in politics and in the media about talking about oil, as if the simple recognition that oil influences foreign policy is somehow a gauche or extreme statement." Reticence about oil is, indeed, ridiculous from one point of view. But there's a clear reason for it. The genuine motives of American foreign policy have been concealed for so long the people in power fear that any crack in the veneer might lead to a ripping away of the whole cover. They can't concede anything, even if it's obvious, because one admission of less than noble aims would lead on to another, and another, and so on until the American people would understand why the rest of the world views us as it does. And that for the political power structure would be disastrous.  (Posted, 8/31/06)

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In the early years of the 19th century, Thomas Jefferson, well past the time when he had any official duties, told John Adams that he tried to read as much as he could but that he found it impossible to get through more than forty volumes in a year. Now we hear from George Bush that he has already read fifty-three books this year, including works by Albert Camus and William Shakespeare. Those who believe this should form a club with those who think that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction and that he was behind the attacks in September of 2001. I'll go on record that I don't believe George Bush has read fifty-three books in his entire life. It's precisely the ignorance of a non-book reading man who would think he could score a public relations victory by claiming unrealistic reading totals. The president has doubtless been told that the average voter doesn't know what it is is to read a single book and, therefore, is gullible enough to fall for a tale designed to counter the widespread notion that he is an ignoramus. It would be interesting to know which of the president's staff came up with this gambit. Might Tony Snow have something to do with it? He's widely advertised as having discussed Camus's novel with Mr. Bush and is probably one of the few members of the Bush circle who, prior to this latest publicity stunt, had ever heard of the French thinker.  (Posted, 8/30/06)

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Governments and armies regularly justify their policies by their intentions. They do what they do, they say, to preserve freedom, or to promote democracy, or to protect the innocent. Therefore, they are standing up for good morals. Yet all students of morality know that its character isn't defined by intention alone. The means employed often carry more moral weight than intention can approach. Evil means turn good intentions into foul hypocrisy. Consider, for example, the cluster bomb artillery shells , made in America and delivered in hundreds all over Lebanon recently, with the noble intent of protecting Israeli citizens against Hezbollah. Each of these shells contains 88 "bomblets" -- a cute name -- and on average 14% of them fail to explode when the shell hits the ground. So, from each shell, a dozen or so bomblets are left among the wreckage after a battle is over. Guess what happens when a civilian population moves back into an area where a battle has taken place. Children find these little devices intriguing. When they pick them up, they lose their fingers, or arms, or eyes, or faces. Too bad say the forces which distributed them. But we were fighting for a noble cause. There is no accurate name for such rationalization other than moral insanity. And it pervades every society which seeks to degrade guerilla movements by the use of weapons designed to kill thousands of soldiers on open battlefields. The motives of modern armies are of no consequence in such situations. Morality is completely determined by the means brought to bear.  (Posted, 8/19/06)

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There is a web site titled "meaningoflife.tv" and on it you can find short videos of people responding to the question: who or what is God? I just watched seven people spend between two and seven minutes on this query. Most of what they said was intelligent. None of it was bizarre or surprising. It was reflective of the diverse and subtle strains of thought which the various religious traditions have advanced in their attempts to to perceive the deity. There are so many of these, of course, that volumes would be required even to sketch them. Every literate person knows this, and therein lies a mystery -- one that is sociological rather than theological. If you took your sense of religious thought from the major American media, you wouldn't know that this rich variety of definition existed. God on American TV and in American newspapers is seen only as a powerful, human-like entity, who tells people what to do and punishes them severely when they disobey. Furthermore, only people who profess to believe in such a god earn the journalistic designation of being religious.What is the cause of this egregious distortion of the human religious tradition? Why is it that people who are on the eccentric margins of religious thought, figures like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, are regularly put forward as serious theologians? If we had adequate answers to these questions we would understand more clearly than we do, why the worst, most simplistic thought in the United States is projected as being "mainstream" and the best thought is generally dismissed as far-out or kooky. I can't argue we can blame the journalists alone for this. But I'm forced to conclude they bear a good deal of the responsibility.  (Posted, 8/18/06)

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Although a majority of the books published in the United States are intellectually trashy, there are still numerous thoughtful works coming out every year which if read would produce an intelligent culture. The problem is, they're not read very much. One reason for their neglect is fairly obvious. What good is deep or searching knowledge in a political and economic atmosphere of shallow opportunism? The former can easily be seen as a drawback. If one knows, he can't comfortably participate in the spoils. Better to be stupid and rake it in -- or so it might seem. Of all mysteries, the waxing and waning of intellectual integrity is, perhaps, the most perplexing. To respond positively to substantial thought and honesty is a rich pleasure for some, and for others just a waste of time. The ratio between the two groups fluctuates in accordance with no known rules. I can't be sure that the proportion of people who wish to know, and to think carefully about what they know, has declined in America over the past fifty years. There's no calculus that can tell me for sure how the collective mind is faring. Yet, there seems to be evidence everyday in newspapers and on TV that it is in a process of decay. Even if it is, we don't have to assume the decay will continue. But I think we can be fairly sure that turning the collective mind towards integrity won't be either easy or quick. People once prayed about such shifts. And who knows? Maybe they knew better than we.  (Posted, 8/17/06)

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Tom Friedman says that unless Republicans are willing to reassess the strategy the Bush administration has pursued up till now, the country is in real trouble. What a novel thought! The Bush administration is, today, exactly what it was when it came to power. There has never been anything more transparent than the motives and quality of thought of George Bush and his supporters. So why didn't Tom Friedman use his platform at the New York Times in January of 2001 to tell us we were in real trouble then? I grow weary of people who say they didn't know the nature of the Bushites at the beginning, that they couldn't imagine the Bushites would do what they have in fact done. If that's true then we're facing the deadest imaginations in history. When a situation was so apparent your face was being rubbed in it and now you wail you didn't know, latter-day confessions, though gratifying, aren't of much use. We were in real trouble the day the Supreme Court decided not to have a full recount in Florida. If Tom Friedman couldn't see that then, it's hard to believe he can see anything soon enough to make a difference.  (Posted, 8/16/06)

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A news report says that President Bush is frustrated because the people in Iraq won't get on board. They're not even grateful for what we've done for them. People that benighted are virtually impossible to understand. It's clearly not fair to expect real Americans to comprehend the twisted logic of people who live in countries intrinsically alien. It's so bizarre over there no sensible guy can get it. The only practical response is Bill O'Reilly's oft-repeated mantra: "I don't care what they think." Truth is, President's Bush's problem is not his lack of comprehension but, rather, his frustration. Why should he be frustrated by not grasping the thought of people so weird as to have been born in the Middle East? If he did penetrate their thought-processes we would have to start wondering if he's the genuine American we've always thought he is. (Posted, 8/16/06)

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We are all indebted to Senator George Allen for introducing into political debate the question of what a word means. For years, observers of public debate have despaired over meaningless discourse. Politicians pontificate about "freedom," "democracy," and the "American dream," without a hint of what they mean by the terms. And journalists nod their heads respectfully as empty blather buzzes round their ears. But now, all of a sudden, there's a demand to know exactly what a campaigner meant by the use of a word. Admittedly, the word itself -- "macaca" -- isn't a staple of our talk. Even so, the radical notion that a political figure should offer us a firm explanation of the meaning of a word -- any word -- could transform public utterance. Plant that notion in the electorate's mind and there's no telling what kind of question they might begin to ask. It could turn our former pronunciamentoes into nothing but macaca-speak.  (Posted, 8/16/06)

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One thing we know for sure. The Hezbollah infrastructure has been damaged. Everybody says it has so it must be true. But does anybody know what the Hezbollah infrastructure is? In an ordinary society, "infrastructure" means roads, and telephone systems, and power lines. But Hezbollah is scarcely an ordinary society. Whatever inconveniences it is now suffering because its telephones don't work as well as they did a month ago cannot add up to severe damage. But in the American journalistic culture, we don't need to go beyond abstractions. "The Hezbollah infrastructure has been damaged," says one guy. And the next guy responds, "Well that's good." And there's the end of it. Neither knows what he's talking about but each is satisfied. And that's what political discussion has become in this great democracy.  (Posted, 8/15/06)

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George Bush and Hassan Nasrallah see it differently. And what is it these prophets are viewing? The results of the war between Israel and Hezbollah. Bush says Israel won. Nasrallah says Hezbollah won. Everybody knows who lost. These perceptions aren't surprising. Wars are now spun like everything else. It's hard to imagine a mind so degraded it would place any credence in a pronouncement from either Bush or Nasrallah about an event of this kind. Yet, evidently, the blather men of this stripe utter does sway the opinion of some people. It would be a huge blessing for the world if the minds which take either Bush or Nasrallah seriously would disappear by transforming themselves into thinking entities. It would also be a blessing if men like Bush and Nasrollah would go away to some place where the notice of newspapers could never reach. But the second won't happen until the first is closer to realization than it is now.  (Posted, 8/15/06)

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Newt Gingrich, in a response to Richard Holbrooke's op/ed piece in the Washington Post, declares that Holbrooke is wrong to call for more active negotiations in the Middle East. What we must do, says the former Speaker of the House, is defeat our enemies, among whom he places, prominently, Iran. It would be gratifying if Gingrich would tell us what he means by "defeat." But, of course, he will never do that because it would require clarity in his use of language. Gingrich is a flamboyant member of a gang of prophets who preach only to people who don't care what words mean. They thrill to the sound of certain proposals and ,so, line up behind them. Defeating enemies sounds good, so let's do it. But how we're going to do it has to be left up to others. Followers of the prophets of meaninglessness are unlikely to get more specific than to suggest dropping a bomb somewhere. And asking what the consequences of that bomb are likely to be is a query beyond their imagination. It's a chicken and egg matter to wonder who comes first, false prophets or empty-minded mobs. But this we can be sure of: they go always together, and without one we wouldn't have the other.  (Posted, 8/11/06)

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We tend to get agitated -- or, at least, pretend to be agitated -- by conflicts like the one going on in Lebanon now. That's because it's not pleasant to see on our TV screens the bodies of children killed by bombs. Decency is outraged. Unfortunately, decency does not rule the world. Whatever is in control is not outraged at all.

Conflicts of this sort are not on a scale that's unsustainable. Israel could keep on killing a thousand of its neighbors and losing two hundred of its own citizens  each month for the next fifty years and those who weren't killed would remain capable of pursuing life that, after a while, would come to seem normal. For that matter, the United States could experience an attack like the one of five years ago annually for fifty years running and if our own hysteria didn't paralyze us -- which in our case it might -- we could go along scarcely missing a beat. Violent death does not interfere markedly with the mechanisms of modern society, except right at the spot where it takes place.

One might argue that the psyche of nations couldn't stand the strain of the process, but he would have little evidence to prove his point. There is nothing in the nature of things to stop killing at the rate the so-called war on terror is now producing. If it is to be stopped, humanity must summon the will to stop it. And one of the interesting questions facing us is whether such a will can be brought into being. There is much to suggest at the moment that it cannot be. I hope that's not the case, but I can't be confident that it's not.

A good many nations of the world -- including our own -- select leaders who do not have it in them to work hard to find ways not to kill. In truth, a readiness to kill is seen in many places as a requisite of leadership. Anyone who would do all he or she could to avoid it would be called weak and unfit to head the council of a nation. Other inclinations support these tendencies. Those who carry out the killing decreed by the nation are said to be the finest members of society and are regularly praised more highly than those who find cures for diseases, or advance scientific knowledge, or teach others to use their minds well. Modern technology makes violent death ever more remote from the experience of those who launch wars. Most of the launchers live in air-conditioned palaces. Mr. Bush has not suffered a moment of physical annoyance for having set off the invasion of Iraq. By all accounts he lives comfortably and sleeps well.

If there are to be genuine efforts to stop international killing then the people who find killing distasteful must devise ways to confer power on men and women who share their views. Pious exclamations and crocodile tears are no substitute for leaders who are disgusted and sickened by killing. If we can't protect such people from the charge of weakness, we may as well prepare ourselves for another half-century of what we see today, with occasional surges to keep the TV ratings high.  (Posted, 8/10/06)

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The toxic combination of arrogance, ignorance and intellectual sloth that is the Bush foreign policy is beginning to draw the scathing analysis it deserves. In this morning's Washington Post, Richard Holbrooke, one of our more astute diplomats, notes "the dangerous new anti-American coalitions" caused by the administration's actions and statements. The current blow-up in the Middle East has the potential to explode into a conflict far more extensive than the average American has contemplated. The price of playing on the world stage is paying attention to what's happening on every part of the platform. And paying attention has not lately been an American strength. You'll notice that the Kurdish region of Iraq seldom makes its way into American newspapers. It's not in flames at the moment, and conflagration seems to be the only thing that causes this administration sleepily to open its eyes. But the Kurdish determination to carve a nation out of parts of Turkey, Iraq and Iran doesn't abate simply because Americans can't be bothered to attend to it. And it is only one of the serious problems that need to be managed in the Middle East. It's an open question whether the U.S. political classes can shake themselves sufficiently awake to head off disaster. Right now, we see little evidence of minimal consciousness.  (Posted, 8/10/06)

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The farce of calling Iraq a sovereign state was made evident yesterday by a statement from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Commenting on a raid carried out by American forces in Anbar Province, he said: "Reconciliation cannot go hand in hand with operations that violate the rights of citizens this way. This operation used weapons that are unreasonable to detain someone -- like using planes." This is the prime minister of a nation saying he did not know about and had no control over a military attack carried out in his own country. How that fits with sovereignty we'll leave to George Bush to explain. For the rest of us, it simply makes clearer the murderous chaos our government has created in Iraq.  (Posted, 8/8/06)

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We are living now in an age much like the one mentioned by Samuel Butler in the opening lines of Hudibras:

When civil dudgeon first grew high,
And men fell out they knew not why?
When hard words, jealousies, and fears,
Set folks together by the ears,
And made them fight, like mad or drunk,                       
For Dame Religion, as for punk.

Probably, most people know that religious passions are high. But many may not be aware of the forms they take among some of our less-than-perfectly-balanced neighbors. If you would like to know more you would do well to take a look at Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. The title itself is charged with irony. Genuine Christianity has nothing to do with nationalism. Yet a number of those who have loudly usurped the name of Christianity like to trumpet "Dominion Theology" as a way of carrying out the will of a God who, oddly, thinks just as they do. They claim to be convinced that God wants them to seize the power structure of the nation and, indeed, of all the significant organizations within it, in order to ride herd on the wayward impulses of those of us who haven't yet seen the light. This is nothing new and, as Ms. Goldberg is quick point out, doesn't at the moment pose a threat of a theocratic coup. But it does significantly alter who can exercise political influence and the general atmosphere of public life. I have been wont to say we have nothing to fear from the fundamentalist thrust. That may still be true. But perhaps the time has come to get just a little irritated.  (Posted, 8/7/06)

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The Economist, in a short piece designed to be at least mildly humorous, says the fabled battle between the sexes is over, and that women have won. That's because the things men do better have been offset by technology whereas the things women do better are at a premium in the modern world. Management, for example, which calls on skills like "how to undermine somebody's confidence while pretending to boost it" or "how to turn an entire lunch table against an absent colleague without saying a mean word" is clearly a woman's preserve. In truth, the only members of maledom likely to be successful in the coming age will be 'girlie men." It will be less violent in the future but nastier, as it always has been in the world of women. I'm not perfectly sure about the Economist's wisdom. I've known some women who fit the magazine's feminine profile but I've also known many who didn't. My own observations tell me that men and women are different, but not with respect either to ability or morality. The main difference has to do with finding things. Women appear to dig into their purses with a greater sense of awe and uncertainty than men show when reaching into their pockets. But I don't know what metaphysical value to assign to the propensity.  (Posted, 8/5/06)

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Martha Rainville, a candidate for Congress from Vermont, wrote to me asking for my support. I answered her, saying:

Dear Ms. Rainville:

You may be in many ways a decent person with sensible ideas. But you are a Republican. In 2006,
a vote for a Republican is a vote against America. I decline to betray my country.

Sincerely,

I grow weary of people who say they vote for the person and not for the party. In today's political climate, that's a statement of virtual idiocy. I wish we had a different climate, in which it would be possible to vote for an honorable Republican candidate and still live with myself. But that's not the climate we have now.  (Posted, 8/4/06)

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Way back in ancient times, before the world changed forever -- actually on May 13, 2001 -- Maureen Dowd wrote that Mr. Bush's first term agenda  was unbreathable air, undrinkable water, uneatable food, and unaffordable gas. It's hard to establish, precisely, how successful the president has been. If you were a literalist, you could say we're still breathing, after a fashion, still eating and drinking something, and still finding ways to purchase gas  that formerly would have been thought unaffordable. With those truths at the forefront, we would have to say that Bush has been a big failure. There are other ways of viewing things, though. If you were a progressive, you could say that substantial progress has been made on the agenda and that things are moving along pretty well. The summer's weather suggests the president has been fairly successful. Even Pat Robertson has got hot enough to become a convert to global warming, which has to be seen as the principal support structure for the whole agenda. It's not that if the president had turned back on himself -- a thing unthinkable for one so resolute -- and made a genuine effort to reduce pollution, the recent heat wave could have been avoided. But the wave itself suggests that we're sailing along smartly towards his vision. And we can all reside in perfect faith that as the world degrades, Mr. Bush's allies will find ways to make money off the decline.  (Posted, 8/4/06)

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My effort at creative lexicography yesterday was not as well argued as it needed to be. The point I had in mind was a wish that we had a common word designating long-lasting renown, as distinguished from widespread current notice. And since "fame" seems the most likely candidate I expressed a hope that it will evolve toward renown and away from celebrity. One might, of course, argue with my prediction that Mel Gibson won't be a figure of long-term regard. He has, after all, made and acted in a number of well-known films. Though I've enjoyed some of them, Mr. Gibson has struck me simply as a serviceable actor and a competent but not brilliant director. Perhaps the future will find him more notable than I do. But, I doubt it. The future is generally pretty stringent in affording attention to people of the past. The question of the hour, whether Gibson is an anti-semite, isn't of import. Answers to questions don't count for much unless they make a difference. And Gibson's opinions about social or religious groups aren't likely to have significant influence. It's hard to believe they could carry enough weight to figure prominently in the annals of history.  (Posted, 8/3/06)

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I was pleased to see Hendrik Hertzberg, in the latest New Yorker, take up the shabby habit by third-rate Republican politicians -- including the President of the United States -- of refusing to voice accurately the name of the opposition party. These sly-minded hacks refer persistently to the "Democrat" Party, an insult which appeals to their sense of cleverness. They view themselves as wonderfully subtle. My advice to Democrats -- or to anyone else annoyed by callow behavior from grown men -- is to employ the opposite tactic of bluntness by asking firmly, any time this silly locution is uttered, "What did you say?" This, by itself, would probably be sufficient to place it back beneath the rock it crept out from under. But if it should then keep on slithering from those witty mouths, follow up with "Is "democrat" treated as an adjective in any dictionary you know?" This will give pause because they'll be startled by the thought of anyone's consulting a dictionary. While they're struggling with that novel thought, push on with "I've never found it used that way." That should do it.  (Posted, 8/3/06)

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Listening to the chit-chat sounding from my TV last night about whether Mel Gibson's Hollywood career is finished, or at least severely diminished, I was forced to reflect that we need -- desperately -- a stronger, finer definition of "fame" than the one we commonly use now. Fame shouldn't be conflated with mere celebrity. We should be respectful of Milton's thought that "Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil," i.e., that it is conveyed by the gods. Or, since we don't think of the gods as Milton did, that it must have something of the immortal about it. Shakespeare is famous; Jane Austen is famous; Mel Gibson is not famous, though his face should fill every television screen for days. Ultimately usage determines definition and if "fame" and "celebrity" come to be perfect synonyms, there's nothing I or anyone else can do about it. Yet, we do have the right to fight for good words. As long as there is some distance between them we are justified in trying to push them farther apart. Fame should continue to be a condition children aspire to. Celebrity should not.  (Posted, 8/2/06)

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The eternal boy, Chris Matthews, hosted a debate in Rockefeller Center about whether the American people care more for the destruction of Lebanon than they do for what Mel Gibson said when he was arrested for drunk driving in Los Angeles. Nobody in the audience would admit to favoring the significance of Mel. Still, it was asserted, with panache, that almost everyone does. It is summer after all, we were reminded recently by Bill O'Reilly. In this kind of weather people don't want to hear, over and over, about distant war. It's so boring. Many members of the media have assigned themselves the task of assuring the mental comfort of Iowans and other segments of the population who are said to represent the true American stuff. It's not right to upset them or make them think hard, particularly not as temperatures and gas prices ascend. The cognoscenti should hold troublesome questions among themselves and allow the popular genius to focus on whether copious alcoholic consumption excuses bigoted expression.  (Posted, 8/1/06)

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Despite all his attempts to cover up, Mr. Bush continues to reveal his character through his language. His remark that a cease-fire in Lebanon would be "stopping just for the sake of stopping" lays out starkly the condition of his imagination. It has not occurred to him to think what it would be to have bombs falling on the bodies of loved ones. If he had, he would see that banishing bombs is a substantial act. He might even stop to reflect on the difference between a body, at one moment, whole and healthy and that same body seconds later sliced into strips by shrapnel. But such visions are beyond his grasp. There are mountains of evidence showing that any thought, image, or vision of significance remains outside his range. The presidency has not deepened him. He may be the most shallow person ever to draw wide scrutiny. And he is the man the American people, in their wisdom, selected to conduct their political affairs. It will be a travesty of democracy is some responsibility is not assigned to that choice.  (Posted, 8/1/06)

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On and Off Archive    -    August  2006