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FIGHT TO WRITE

NPR recently reported that El Diario de Juárez, a major newspaper in one of Mexico’s most violent cities, would scale back its coverage on the country’s drug war after members of a cartel killed the paper’s 21-year-old photographer. The photographer is only one of at least eight journalists who have been murdered in 2010 alone and many more have been threatened, kidnapped, or disappeared. State of Emergency: Censorship by Bullet in Mexico, co-presented by the PEN American Center, will dive into this heated issue with readings by Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, Laura Esquivel, and Jose Luis Martinez, among others, followed by a panel discussion with Carmen Aristegui (CNN en Español) and Adela Navarro Bello (Tijuana-based magazine Zeta), moderated by Julia Preston (The New York Times).

Tue., Oct. 19, 7 p.m., 2010

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Inside the Heads of Obama’s Health Care Town-Hall Rowdies

In the reports from the health care town halls that some frightened politicians have been holding with their constituents (“Raucous Crowd Greets Cardin at Health-Care Town Hall,” “Crowd Heckles, Shouts, Lobs Insults at Farr’s Health-Care Town Hall,” “Violence Breaks Out at Democratic Town Halls,” etc.), it’s the loud voices that have gotten most of the attention. But it’s the thought behind them that counts.

No one expected a trillion-dollar plan to effectively nationalize a giant industry—one that sees you naked, no less—to get by without strong objections. Some people may suspect the government is too big and cumbersome to do health care right. Others may oppose Obamacare because the president of the United States is a Marxist.

Ana Puig, a charming, well-spoken wife and mother of four in Philadelphia who emigrated from Brazil 22 years ago, clarifies: “I say Obama is a 21st-century Marxist. The word ‘Communism’ is no longer really allowed these days. When I started out, even the conservatives got scared off when somebody used the word ‘Communism.’ So I just use this—but it’s the same thing.”

Puig got some media face time earlier this month, when she appeared in the now-famously-wild Arlen Specter Town Hall videos. She was not bellowing and bugging her eyes like the owl-faced man who told the Pennsylvania senator that God would judge him and his “damn cronies.” Instead, Puig rather temperately asked Specter and HHS Secretary Sebelius, “Why is it we’re turning the United States, that I’ve learned to love so much in the past 22 years, into a land of entitlement?”

Protesters howled in response and booed Specter as if he were a cartoon villain when he pointed out that Medicare and Social Security were entitlement programs, too. But Puig wasn’t one of those people. She kept her cool.

Afterward, she made the talk circuit: the Fox shows of Neil Cavuto and David Asman, and Anderson Cooper’s on CNN. She didn’t say on these shows, as she said to the Voice, that Barack Obama is a Marxist. Nor did she say, as she said to us, that the way Obama is trying to put over health care reform is “the same thing” Hugo Chávez did to take over Venezuela—”infiltration of the education system, political correctness, class warfare ideology, voter fraud, brainwashing through the mainstream media.”

She did talk about how she thought the government was suppressing the anti-reform movement, though. On CNN, for example, she said, “I feel like my constitutional rights are being taken away from me right before my eyes. I don’t like the direction that we’re going. They’re taking away our freedom of speech. And the silent majority is finally fed up with it.”

How many Obamacare protesters think Obama is a Communist? That’s hard to say, because it’s rare that anyone asks them that.

On the Web, the message that Obama is pushing an alien ideology—communist, socialist, fascist, take your pick—is so common as to be taken for granted. Former Hollywood player Pat Dollard writes, “Conservative Democrats Rebel Against Communist Health Care Bill”; Dr. Dave Janda warns that the plan is fascist.

But when protesters are asked why they’re protesting, they usually express much milder sentiments—”They should be open and honest instead of ramming it through”; “It’s just being rammed down our throat,” as an Associated Press dispatch put it, before intoning, “A unifying emotion is distrust of the government and federal intrusion into individual liberties or personal choices.” This goes down well with their fellow citizens: A USA Today/Gallup poll indicates that 53 percent of Americans who have been “following very closely” such coverage of the town halls are now “more sympathetic to the protesters’ views.”

It could be that these folks haven’t thought any more deeply about it than their comments reveal. Maybe AP didn’t talk to them long enough to find out what’s really driving them. Or maybe message discipline has something to do with it: When the anti-Obama “tea party” movement held its first New York event back in February, many people stepped up to the bullhorn to denounce the socialism, Shariah law, and Hitlerism of the Obama administration. At the next, much larger, New York event, the few citizen-speakers who made it to the stage were carefully guided by the organizers; the more professional speakers who dominated put the ix-nay on the ocialism-say, and focused on “entrepreneurship,” “out-of-control” spending, and the like.

Similarly, on TV shows about the town hall protests, you’ll often see clips of a bunch of people yelling, and then a well-dressed talking head explaining what their yelling means. The explanation usually doesn’t involve Stalin or Hitler.

You might get a clearer sense of what the anti-Obamacare message is about from the leader-in-exile of the conservative movement, Sarah Palin, than from its ground forces.

On August 7, Palin said on her Facebook page (!) that “the America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care.” (Asked about this subject, Ana Puig says, “No comment.”)

A lot of observers, including softcore conservatives like David Frum, found Palin’s argument absurd. But Newt Gingrich went on TV to say he was worried about it, too (“There are clearly people in American who believe in establishing euthanasia, including selective standards”). The American Spectator joined in (“Physicians will be paid more if they follow the guidelines established by the yet-to-be-named research group. . . . More likely, the doctor will go with the flow and accept the higher level of payment for being obedient”).

An April interview, in which Obama discussed program costs and the use of an “independent group that can give you guidance” on end-of-life issues, was dug up and presented as evidence that Obama was at least thinking about denying life-saving care to the old and in-the-way. “Whether or not the IMAC [Independent Medicare Advisory Council] would actually do this,” said Slate’s Mickey Kaus, “. . . Obama thought it would do it.”

And so, on talk shows and in the blogosphere, people seriously discussed whether the President of the United States was planning to eliminate the aged and infirm for the good of the State.

Now some Senate Democrats have said the hell with it and are trying to throw that part of the plan away. (One page down, 1,200 to go!) But if the President had to be restrained from killing the infirm to save money, what other evils might be lurking in his bill?

You see the problem: If Obama is what conservatives portray him to be—not merely a Marxist, fascist, socialist, or whatever, but also a brutal euthanasiast—then there isn’t much in the way of health care policy with which we could trust him.

If health care reform collapses, it won’t be because it was argued down, or even because it was shouted down, but because the decades-old idea that the United States government is inherently untrustworthy has more life in it than many of us knew.

redroso@villagevoice.com

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Power Point Conspiracy Theories in Stealing America: Vote by Vote

Never mind that in trying to establish that voter fraud in American elections is a national problem, Stealing America: Vote by Vote mostly relies on insinuation, anecdotes, and quotes from blogs. Never mind that it trusts the viewer’s intelligence so little that the opening Thomas Paine quote isn’t just shown on-screen but also read out loud (including the author’s name) for the presumably illiterate by narrator Peter Coyote. Never mind that it follows that insult with an unsubtle shot of the White House behind bars. Never mind that much of the footage—when it’s not talking heads, news clips, or bar graphs—consists simply of Daily Show excerpts taken as the last word in incisive media commentary. Never mind that in the rush to make its case, the movie forgoes any serious investigation and treats paranoid liberal conspiracy theories as fact. Never mind that the film complains at one point that allegations of electronic-voting screw-ups were completely ignored by the mainstream media, only to use clips from CNN and Fox News to validate itself. Never mind any of this. What matters is that Stealing America: Vote by Vote—even by the political video documentary’s meager standards—plays like a particularly dull PowerPoint presentation. The case it lays out is factually sketchy, but as a movie, it’s unforgivable.

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Good for What Ailes You

Although it’s been giving up ground to CNN this election season, the Fox News Network is still a target of derision by liberals who never fail to be exasperated by its “fair and balanced” motto. But for Fox haters, there’s a delicious (if uncorroborated) new look behind the scenes at the network’s startup now appearing online, courtesy of one of the people who helped birth it.

Dan Cooper, a former Fox News managing editor who helped conceptualize and design the channel in its first six months, has written a book dishing dirt on Fox News guru Roger Ailes. Cooper worked at the Fox network from 1994 to 1996, and claims to have been a critical part of the “brain team” that put the news channel together; he helped design the studios, the layout of the newsroom, and the program schedule. After six months—and countless titanic fights with Ailes—Cooper was made redundant and left to chase jobs producing television shows and managing talent in Los Angeles. But his subsequent divorce was so brutal that Cooper returned to his native New York to figure out what to do with his life. “The divorce was emotionally and financially shattering,” he says. “I had to rebuild, and the idea came to me that writing a memoir about the birth of the Fox News Channel could be very lucrative.”

According to Cooper, he titled his manuscript Naked Launch, snagged an agent, and shopped the project around town. But, he claims, publishers who showed interest were worried about alienating Ailes. So Cooper decided to serialize the book on his website (www.caos.us) and see if he could drum up publicity. He posted the prologue early last month.

Cooper spends most of his time guttersniping about Ailes’s alleged swaggering, vindictiveness, and casual abuse of underlings. Near the prologue’s conclusion, he recounts a story in which an Australian transplant named Ian stuck his head in Ailes’s office and asked a question in an accent so thick no one could understand him. Ailes, Cooper wrote, always liked to imagine this employee as a pig with an anus for a mouth.

“Instantly, Roger’s face was overcome with devilish glee,” Cooper wrote. “Roger had no idea what he was talking about, and he didn’t care. Roger made a fist and put it up to his mouth . . . ‘Oim Eeyan Rye!!’ Roger shouted. ‘An oim tawkin troo me arse!!’ This was supposed to be riotously funny. The
other boys howled in hysteria. I sat down
and slumped. Roger: ‘Eeooo cayn’t mike out what oim sighin, becawz oim tawking troo me arse!’ . . . This was the man who created the Fox News Channel for Rupert Murdoch.”

In another chapter, Cooper writes that Ailes allegedly demanded that bomb-proof windows be installed in his office, because he was concerned that homosexual activists might bomb Fox News when it debuted. As Cooper scrambled to find bomb-proof glass—which doesn’t exist, as it happens—Ailes also demanded that he get the city to chop down a line of trees outside his office. Every few days, Cooper wrote, Ailes would grab him and scream, “They’re still fucking there! Don’t you have any balls? Chop them fucking down!”

When Cooper isn’t trashing Ailes, he’s writing about the female employee he lusted after, or the men he believed his wife was sleeping with behind his back. The result is a hilariously idiosyncratic account of a flawed man and the terrible people he worked under. I may be an asshole, Cooper is saying, but you should see Roger Ailes.

Needless to say, Fox News representatives did not return calls seeking comment for this story. But Cooper’s memoir is drawing more and more Internet buzz, and the legions of people who love to hate Fox News are feasting on the kind of gossip that almost never manages to leak out of the channel. Meanwhile, Cooper promises even more salacious dirt to come. As for whether he worries that Ailes will somehow retaliate, he says: “I’m staying away from skating rinks this winter. You never know who’s driving the Zamboni machine.”

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Cloverfield Is One Giant, Incredibly Entertaining ‘Screw You!’ to Yuppie New York

“I don’t understand why this is happening,” whimpers an awestruck participant in the Cloverfield calamity. Quaking amidst the rubble of shattered condos, stumbling over piles of decimated retail, choking on burnt flesh and smoldering plastic, witness to the collapse of proud Manhattan real estate in the wake of implacable, inexplicable fury, she really ought to have said, “I don’t understand why this is happening again.”

TV auteur J.J. Abrams may have played coy with the marketing campaign for his ultra-mysterious, mega-hyped monster movie, but now that the thing looms fully into sight—whoa—it’s clear he isn’t beating around the Bush-era iconography. Street-level 9/11 footage would fit seamlessly into Cloverfield’s hand-held, ersatz-amateur POV; the initial onslaught of mayhem, panic, plummeting concrete, and toxic avalanches could have been storyboarded directly from the CNN archive. Cloverfield never stops to identify the why, whence, or whereto of its rampaging meanie—this relentless thriller stops for nothing—but as for what to call it, behold . . . al-Qaedzilla!

And how delicious that it comes to feast on the neo-yuppies. Cloverfield devotes the first 20 of its 73-minute runtime to a party—HOLY SHIT. Stop. Let me write that again: 73-MINUTE RUNTIME. Can we just take a moment to pause the action, set aside our differences, drop all beefs, join together as one, and give thanks, all praise due, shout joy to the world and hey, hallelujah—something has found us! Something that isn’t three fucking hours long!

As I was saying, the neo-yuppies. Cloverfield enacts its deft simulation of that infamous September morning in order to brutalize the society that flourished from its ruin like some tacky, tenacious, condo-dwelling fungus. The movie opens in the giant downtown loft of Rob (Michael Stahl-David), a fuckable, upwardly mobile, exceptionally boring twentysomething VP of some white-collar soul-suck. Recently promoted to the Japan office, and tenderly besotted with a Central Park West banality named Beth (Odette Yustman), Rob grins open his front door to the cheers and cameras of a surprise going-away party comprised of fellow smug, self-entitled whitest-kids-you-know.

The narrative conceit of the movie is that we’re watching a certain quantity of consumer-grade video retrieved by the government from the area “formerly known as Central Park” after an “incident” code-named “Cloverfield.” Plying a sly twist on this Blair Witch–craft, director Matt Reeves devises a meta-“cross-cutting” strategy: The main story, largely shot by a wiseass meathead named Hud (T.J. Miller), alternates via camera glitching with the original footage on the tape. This shows us Rob and Beth falling semi-plausibly in lurv while day-tripping to Coney Island. That, in toto, is the motivation for the swift, brutish thrust of the movie: Rob & Co.’s absurdly ill-advised odyssey to save Beth, wounded in her midtown high-rise, as all manner of giant-lizard, military-reprisal, angry-insectoid-parasite hell breaks loose.

This latter menace, a breed of vicious, super-charged, spider-like descendants of the Bugs from Starship Troopers, provides Cloverfield a nifty guerrilla threat. Shaken loose from the hide of al-Qaedzilla as he howls through the city, they pop up willy-nilly to deliver short, uncontrolled bursts of back-slashing, toxin-injecting, mega-hemorrhaging terror. Their introduction speaks to Cloverfield’s chief excellence: a shrewd, scary, playful sense of scale that locks the action in place and propels it forward whiplash fast.

Aside from an apparent space-time rift in the uptown No. 6 tunnel granting an impossibly convenient jaunt from Spring Street to 59th, the movie keeps faith with Manhattan reality. The specificity stings: a breathless regrouping hilariously staged in front of the upscale cosmetic emporium Sephora; a frantic emergence from a subway-tunnel nightmare into the over-lit horror of a triage center in Bloomingdale’s; an acknowledgement that the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle is, indeed, a very deep circle of hell.

With its emphasis on corporate infrastructure and the unimaginative consumer class that enables it, Cloverfield makes for a most satisfying death-to-New-York saga. Which is to say, the fatal flaw of Drew Goddard’s script—shallow, unlikable heroes—can be flipped to an asset: death to the shallow, unlikable heroes! Cynical, sure, but in any case the movie doesn’t belong to its writer, but to the macro-vision of Abrams as executed with micro-dexterity by his team. Michael Bonvillain’s cinematography is a tour de force of avid FX–laden pseudo-verité. Coupled with Kevin Stitt’s complex cutting, Cloverfield is a sustained triumph of expanding and contracting perspectives, its whip-pans from human-scale panic to skyscraper-toppling spectacle raising the bar set by Spielberg’s War of the Worlds—if not Sokurov’s Russian Ark.

The mechanism is the message in Cloverfield, a movie so aluminum-sleek, ultra-portable, and itsy-bitsy sexy, it’s amazing Steve Jobs didn’t pull it out of an envelope at Macworld.

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First-Rate Second-Liners

The white sneaker on the left foot of Bennie Pete, tuba player and leader of the Hot 8 Brass Band, carries an inscription: “Brooklyn in Da House.” Spike Lee scrawled it, less an autograph than a thank-you note for the band’s indelible presence in his HBO documentary When the Levees Broke.

A four-hour film about a city in ruins isn’t the typical vehicle to national exposure for a deserving band. Nor are prime-time crime shows and CNN disaster reports. But many Americans first experienced the gritty glory of this New Orleans band when, following the late 2006
murder of its snare drummer Dinerral Shavers, the Hot 8’s story got major play during an episode of CBS’s 48 Hours Mystery. And yes, these were the same guys who, weeks after Katrina, were caught by CNN anchorwoman Rusty Dornin in uplifting performance at a Baton Rouge evacuee shelter.

The danger and dislocation you’ve heard about in the streets of New Orleans is real. Yet so is the devastating beauty you don’t hear about as much. The former is a crucible in which the Hot 8 has been forged; the latter, a transcendent truth to which it contributes mightily. At second-line parades, brass bands play and supporters follow along, dancing and clapping out rhythms: Held nearly every weekend from September through June, these were always powerful expressions of community, but since Katrina, they express an even deeper message.

Pete, a mountain of a man, has a soft, somewhat high voice that belies both his size and the rippling intensity of his tuba playing. “I wasn’t thinking about music or the band or nothing like that when we first met up again in Baton Rouge,” he said in front of the Sound Café, a New Orleans coffee shop that has become a center for both music and activism. “I thought about survival, about my mom and dad. But it was beautiful. We just showed up, started blowing. And people began to smile and cry and dance: That’s my band! It was a healing thing.”

“I remember that the news crews didn’t understand why we’d bring a band in here,” added Lee Arnold, a band admirer who, since the storm, has grown into the Hot 8’s aggressively creative manager. “Some of the Red Cross people were like, ‘These people are so sad, they don’t need this now.’ They thought it was silly or even wrong.”

But, Pete explains, “When we kicked it, they all got it—the relief workers, the MPs, everyone. The TV stations showed up. They wanted to know who we were. And the phone hasn’t stopped ringing since.” For a dozen years now, ever since two young bands, the Looney Tunes and the High Steppers, merged, the Hot 8 has been called with increasing frequency in its hometown for second-lines, house parties, and club gigs. They’ve inherited a powerful tradition, and some say it’s their turn to rule the streets.

A subtly significant rivalry between New Orleans brass bands plays out mostly through second-lines: Whoever moves the dancers best assumes victory. Phil Frazier, tuba player and leader of the popular Rebirth Brass Band, recalls one parade in particular. “The Hot 8 was playing so hot, coming up from behind us, that we actually marched to the side, let them through,” he says. “Bennie was trying to duck down, but I said, ‘You can’t hide, we know you’re coming on. They’re dancing for you today.’ ”

Folks likely won’t be shimmying and fancy-dancing around the fountain in Lincoln Center’s plaza when the Hot 8 plays Monday during the annual holiday-tree lighting: It’s Manhattan. Still, placing the Hot 8 alongside Met Opera singers and New York City Ballet dancers acknowledges second-line brass-band music to be among the essential cultural riches we need to hold dear in this moment of thanks. Were Joe’s Pub to clear out the tables for the band’s Saturday-night set, it might replicate the gorgeous tumult that ensues on Sundays at the Chocolate Bar in New Orleans. In any case, this weekend will mark two years since the Hot 8 participated in a far different public celebration of gratitude.

“Those first few parades after the storm, the Hot 8 carried us,” says filmmaker and New Orleans native Royce Osborn. “They literally lifted the city on their big, brawny shoulders and carried us through the street, insisting that the shit was going to get better.”

The Hot 8 earned a reputation around New Orleans for the latest wrinkles within contemporary brass-band style: a liberal blend of jazz, r&b, and hip-hop elements. But in Katrina’s wake, the group, like the city, has focused anew on its deepest cultural roots. In the months following the floods, through an organization called Finding Our Folk, the band began outreach tours alongside the Black Men of Labor, staunch traditionalists within the Social Aid & Pleasure Club ranks. Fred Johnson, a founding club member, encouraged the band to learn the older repertoire, drawing a line of continuity from raucous contemporary second-lines to slave-era African dances in the city’s Congo Square and Reconstruction-era black benevolent societies.

“A wake-up call,” Hot 8 trumpeter Raymond Williams called it. Soon the band sought out musical elders like Dr. Michael White, a clarinetist steeped in the tradition of brass-band players clad in white shirts, ties, and black-banded caps, playing hymns, marches, and early jazz tunes, always with three-trumpet harmonies. Through a mixture of rehearsals, performances, and discussions, White shared musical elements as well as history and values. Pete spoke of gaining “answers to questions I’d never asked before.”

One question the band, like the city, repeatedly asks these days is simply, “Why?” The Hot 8 has known more than its share of unnecessary tragedy during its dozen years of existence. In 1996, trumpeter Jacob Johnson was found shot execution-style in his home. In 2004, trombonist Joe Williams was shot dead by police under controversial circumstances. In the spring of 2006, trumpeter Terrell Batiste lost his legs in a horrific roadside accident after relocating to Atlanta. And last December, snare-drummer Dinerral Shavers was shot dead in his car, apparently by someone trying to kill his stepson.

When Silence Is Violence, a citizen-action group, organized a march on City Hall to protest a lack of police protection, there was Bennie Pete, helping hold up a massive banner. Meanwhile, the very cultural traditions that have buoyed New Orleans life are now under considerable siege. After the city tripled the fees for second-line parades, a consortium of Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs took the matter to federal court. Last month, police arrested two brass-band musicians for parading without a permit during a funeral procession, setting off new controversy over a time-honored tradition.

“We rose out of water and debris to lead the way back to the life that we love,” said Pete at a recent public forum on such matters. “It’s not just a party, it’s our life. We can sugarcoat it all kinds of ways, but the city looks at us as uncivilized. And that’s why they try to confine us.”

The band will soon create a follow-up to its self-produced debut studio album, Rock with the Hot 8; they’re also featured on the forthcoming Blind Boys of Alabama album. (Two other releases were drawn from Hot 8 shows at the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival.) But the band’s real power and presence can’t be measured or captured on disc. “To me, they represent the true rebirth of New Orleans,” says trumpeter Shamarr Allen, a former member who still often plays with the band. “As the city is rebuilding, as we speak, the band is rebuilding. The two are like one.”

In October, a shooting along the route of a second-line parade caused the procession to divert from its intended course. The Hot 8 had been mining an up-tempo groove. But Pete signaled his players to change things up, out of respect for the seriousness of the situation and as a way to employ knowledge he’d gained of late. His choice? “We Shall Overcome.”


The Hot 8 Brass Band plays Joe’s Pub November 24 (joespub.com), and participates in the Lincoln Center Tree Lighting Ceremony November 26.

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Bush the Alien

Let’s get a couple of things straight about the immigration speech President George W. Bush unreeled Monday night from the Oval Office. His address had nothing to do with actual border policy and everything to do with domestic electoral politics.

The real mission of the 6,000 National Guard troops he has called out is to quell the rebellion on the president’s right flank, the flaring mutiny of his own conservative base. Indeed, if the president were being honest, the newly mobilized troops would be taken off the federal payroll and moved onto the books of the 2006 national Republican campaign.

They certainly aren’t going to be stopping illegal immigration. Most of the Guard will be unarmed. They will be barred from patrolling the border itself, as well as from confronting, apprehending or even guarding the undocumented. The troops will be given solely behind-the-scenes, low-profile, mostly invisible tasks of pushing paper, driving vans, and manning computers. Bush could have saved the taxpayers a load and sent a few battalions of Boy Scouts to do this job.

I’ve spent oodles of hours and days on the border over the last five years, including many contacts and visits with the Border Patrol. I’ve yet to bump into a single one of the 350 National Guard already deployed on the border.

Of course, “sending troops to the border” sounds great—if you are among those who actually believe there is a technological or military fix possible for our busted-out immigration policy. That’s what Bush is hoping, at least. That conservatives who are fed up with him, especially on what they see as his failure to stop the human tide of poor people washing across the desert, will be revitalized by the manufactured fantasy of armed, crew-cut, uniformed young Americans standing shoulder-to-shoulder from Yuma to El Paso.

Chances are Bush’s border move will be no more successful than his management of the war in Iraq or his response to Katrina. The close-the-border faction of his own party is highly unlikely to accept Monday night’s sop. They know, just like the governors of New Mexico and California know, just as local law enforcement on the border knows, that Bush’s gesture is but a photo-op political stunt. They want the border closed, period. And their political representatives in the House – the Sensenbrenners and the Tancredos—are showing no signs of softening their resistance to both a guest worker plan as well as legalization path for the illegals already here.

And even those who bought the get-tough portion of the president’s speech also heard him endorse “comprehensive immigration reform” and a “temporary worker program,” precisely the sort of measures scorned and denounced as an “amnesty.” So much for placating the Right. Likewise, Bush’s dispatch of troops—no matter how empty and symbolic—contains enough reality to rankle the more liberal forces in the pro-immigration coalition.

In short, the president has now managed to alienate himself further from his own base as well as from some of his more reluctant and expedient allies on immigration. Heckuvajob, Dubya.

Bush’s plan may, however, provide some short-term benefit to some very nervous and endangered Republicans House incumbents, offering them some short-term political cover. But the longer-term risk seems enormous. A growing number of Republican strategists know that the Latino vote will loom ever more crucial in deciding which party will command governing majorities. And they are worried that the long-term damage of the president pandering to the anti-immigration forces could be devastating.

What a modern-age media spectacle was whipped up, by the way, over this totally forgettable speech. CNN treated the speech with all the gravitas of the launch of a manned mission to Mars, complete with a countdown clock and rolling all-day coverage. With boundless shamelessness, the all-news network ensconced the sputtering Lou Dobbs as one of its on-duty color commentators for this artificially constructed event, something akin to having asked George Wallace to objectively narrate the Great March on Washington. I don’t fault Dobbs, a modern-day Ted Baxter who has found a lucrative niche as CNN’s resident Minuteman. But, please, let us heap industrial amounts of shame on the babbling Wolf Blitzer who, repeatedly, deferred to Dobbs as if he were the font of all authority on this issue.

A phalanx of reporters will now head to the border, hoping to file feature stories on the newly arrived Guard members. And one can expect that the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense will accommodate the media spoon-feeding. The safe bet, though, is that this speech, in spite of the momentary cable hype, will soon evaporate into the mists of memory.

The truth be told, the totality of Bush’s speech was rather reasonable. Stripping away the political theatrics and the empty phrasing, and putting aside the undue emphasis on deployment of the Guard, the president did endorse the sort of bi-partisan reforms proposed by a coalition stretching from John McCain and the Chamber of Commerce to Ted Kennedy and the Service Employees International Union. And he called directly on both houses of Congress to finally agree upon and pass a bill that reflects that consensus.

Problem is that Bush should have been speaking out forcefully in favor of these moves ever since he raised comprehensive reform as a priority in his 2004 State of the Union speech. Unfortunately, he hid under his desk on this issue for the last two years. Only after the right-wing of his base rebelled and only after the pro-immigrant movement blossomed in the streets—that is, only after the White House was completely overtaken by events—did the president act.

And as usual, it was too little, too late.


Marc Cooper writes for LA Weekly. This column originally appeared on his blog, marccooper.com.

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On Bin Laden’s Bedside Table

WASHINGTON, D.C.–Having spent the weekend digging through a stack of e-mail with opening lines like “Death to you and your family” and “Traitor. You are sleeping with the Muslims,” Bill Blum, the 72-year-old author whose
book, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, got an approving mention by Osama bin Laden in his latest audio message, is trying to adjust to his new notoriety.

Blum’s book is a sharp attack on U.S. foreign policy and predicts the war on terror will fail. “If Bush carries on with his lies and oppression, it would be useful for you to read the book Rogue State,” bin Laden said on his tape, released last week. And bin Laden approviongly referred to Blum’s line that if he were president, he would stop the U.S. from interfering in other nations’ affairs.

Being mentioned approvingly by bin Laden isn’t apt to win you many friends in the U.S., but so far Blum says he has received a more or less even-handed reception, although he uneasily waits for what’s going to happen next. “The Washington Post and Salon have been friendly,” Blum says of press coverage so far. “My interviews in the media are a mixed bunch. They want to push me to say I am repulsed by bin Laden’s endorsement. I don’t say so. I am not really repulsed. My opinion of him is pretty low. I have no regard for him.”

Blum says he may be invited to appear on Bill O’Reilly’s show, a prospect that clearly makes him shiver with anticipation. He also talks about being on Wolf Blitzer, whose CNN show–The Situation Room–he has never seen because he doesn’t have cable. (For that matter, Blum hasn’t got a cell phone, either.)

He views with some trepidation a scheduled plane trip Wednesday from Washington to Ohio, where he is slated to address students at Miami University in Oxford. Blum already has been advised by his sponsors to expect hostile questioning at the podium. More to the point, he is a bit anxious that he might be placed on a no-fly list.

So far he has received no visits from the FBI or other intelligence agencies, although of course he wouldn’t know if his phone conversations were being tapped by the NSA’s domestic eavesdropping program. There have been no physical threats to Blum, who lives alone in an apartment in northwest Washington.

The only new ingredient was a letter that he described as linking all his writings together and trying to paint him “with the crazy conspiracy brush.” He says emphatically, “I am not a conspiracy freak.”

He thinks the latest broadcast from the al Qaeda leader is real. “I don’t think [bin Laden’s audio] is a phony,” Blum says. Arguing that the tape “doesn’t make Bush look good,” he notes, “Bin Laden doesn’t sound like a madman.”

As for the sudden success of his book, Blum says 2,000 copies were reprinted in November by the publisher, Common Courage Press. If there is a rush to buy the book, he says, the publisher is too poor to take advantage of heightened demand.

Blum worked as a staffer in the State Department in the 1960s, but quit over the Vietnam War. Since then he has written voluminously against U.S. foreign policy. He puts out a monthly listserv called the Anti-Empire Report. You can find his links to work at www.killinghope.org.

His books include Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War 2; Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower; West-Bloc Dissident: A Cold War Memoir; and Freeing the World to Death: Essays on the American Empire.

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Chads Into Confetti: A Great Day for America

January 30, 2001

Two cartoons in last week’s New Yorker summed up the disconnect attendant on George W. Bush’s inauguration. On the cover, Edward Sorel’s benign depiction of W. getting instructions from Cheney on which hand to raise for the oath, amid first worried, then beaming relatives and officials, might have seemed complaisant by the standards of, say, 1953. Inside, a cartoon by Charles Barsotti was more pointed, showing a contented yegg sitting in a bar next to his loot. Caption: “Oh, sure, it’s stolen, but now we have to get on with our lives.”

For nonsatirists, finding the right tone was a challenge. Desperate to end their cover story on John Ashcroft with ruffles and flourishes, Newsweek’s Howard Fineman and Michael Isikoff shoehorned a mention of Bush the Elder’s World War II service into its final paragraph, setting up this pious thought: “Washington battles like Ashcroft’s may get nasty—but we’re all lucky to be allowed to have them.” Oh, cram it, guys—people get enough of that bilge from Tom Brokaw. Not that he shared his beloved “greatest generation” ‘s experience, natch; he just appreciates it more than we do. That’s how to be authentic in this age of recidivist earnestness—whose exponents, starting with George W. himself, are seldom deterred by incongruity.

Copping to it smacks of finky intellect, a quality suddenly in worse disrepute than usual, even if Laura Bush does think it’s a good idea for people to learn to read. While I don’t find her dislikable, acquiring literacy to savor the mind of Stephen Ambrose—one of the honorees at the incoming first lady’s salute to American authors on Friday—is a great argument for PlayStation 2. When her husband popped by a less-than-jammed Constitution Hall, he assured the audience, “Her love for books is real.” Of course, the bookshelves behind him were fake—but nobody wants to be a spoilsport.


No two TV commentators seemed able to agree about what W.’s inaugural address was driving at, which means it succeeded.


Even overlooking this one’s special, unsavory circumstances, the problem with inaugurals has always been that they require razzmatazz as well as pomp. While the pomp takes care of itself, no one has ever figured out what kind of razzmatazz is suitable, so goofy inanity wins by default. The sense of a culture in full gibberish mode kicked in with the opening sight of Thursday’s televised pre-inaugural concert—the Rockettes prancing at the Lincoln Memorial in bizarre black paramilitary togs. The Rockettes inhabit their own special wrinkle in time, which had apparently just been beamed its first Robert Palmer videos. Later, during Ricky Martin’s boffo finale, the firework detritus staining the uncooperatively overcast night sky looked like the bombing of Baghdad. Talk about wrinkles in time.

Saturday’s rain turned the Capitol dais into a sea of dignitaries in transparent plastic ponchos, as if they were toys so new that W. hadn’t unwrapped them. Needless to say, the opposite was closer to the truth: actually seeing all those gray faces of yesteryear assembling to take power again was even more depressing than I’d expected. That morning, the Moonie-owned Washington Times had reported that blubber-prone Poppy and his sentimental son had agreed to avoid eye contact during the ceremony, fearing that otherwise they might be “overcome by the enormity of the moment.” For a mad second, I’d wondered if the Times writer meant “enormity” in the dictionary sense: “great wickedness.”

No two TV commentators seemed able to agree about what W.’s inaugural address was driving at, which means it succeeded. There’s a wonderful story about Eisenhower soothing his press secretary’s fears before a difficult press conference: “Don’t worry, Jim,” he said. “I’ll just go out there and confuse them.” For a guy whose relationship to English has been his only real struggle with adversity—his motto: “Let the word go fifth”—W. has proven adept at defining his embryonic administration via cant terms that render his ominous policies irrelevant: his own “heart,” John Ashcroft’s “integrity.” Just how immune to criticism the latter quality makes the attorney general-designate depends on your point of view; after all, Jefferson Davis was a paragon of integrity.

Violating feel-good protocol, Al Gore was often caught by the cameras looking overcome by the enormity of the moment. But that was damn near the only reminder that we all had lots to feel crummy about. That neither W. nor his supporters would have been caught dead alluding to his status as the winner-by-juridical-fiat of a disputed election shouldn’t have surprised anybody—unless you count him blurting, “I’m surprised to be your president” at the Florida ball. What was appalling was the way the networks—hell-bent on staying in full celebratory mode—refused to rain on his charade. Not like I was hoping for Daumier, but we deserved better than Ziegfeld. Just turn those chads into confetti and, presto: a great day for America.

[

It’s one thing to suggest that inaugurals ought to be a time to set arguments aside, another to impose that contention on events that brim with evidence to the contrary. By and large, the networks did this by ignoring the one group living up to W.’s call to be “citizens, not spectators,” namely the protesters—no mean feat if you credit one CNN reporter’s idle on-air remark that anti-Bush signs outnumbered pro-Bush ones from his vantage point on the parade route. As if realizing his gaffe, he quickly started chattering about the family-heirloom cuff links that Poppy had given W. to wear on his big day—the very same human-interest factoid that Fineman and Isikoff had used to prime their Newsweek story’s coda.

The one incident that forced TV to acknowledge the protests’ existence was the holdup when the Secret Service stopped W.’s limo short of one bunch of demonstrators, then hustled him past them with a cordon of agents jogging alongside the car. Briefly, we saw what was actually happening on Pennsylvania Avenue—that part of it, anyway: several dozen placard-waving protesters hemmed in by four ranks of cops in riot gear. After answering Peter Jennings’s query as to what issues they were raising with a dismissive “Pretty much the kitchen sink,” ABC’s Terry Moran accounted for their visibility by explaining that the Bush people had been “outorganized [!] by what may be a fringe element.” (Honest: “a fringe element.”) Then Moran called them “a grab bag of angry people who may not be spoiling the parade”—”spoiling”: now we’re getting to the point—”but are certainly impacting it.” Jennings picked up the ball: “They may be causing resentment among the people at home.”

As disgraceful as this performance was, CNN wasn’t much better, first treating the motorcade’s pause as a convenient interlude in which to chat about W.’s foreign policy and then reporting on Bush supporters’ reaction to the demonstrators. Hours later, Kate Snow did a decent job of summarizing the protests, but even she didn’t let any of the troublemakers speak for themselves. In fact, I didn’t see a single interview with one on any network all day—or hear so much as a sound bite of whatever they were chanting, or get more than glimpses of what was written on their signs. During the live coverage, when W. and Laura Bush finally got out to walk the last block of the route, it was clear that they’d been obliged to wait until they reached the safe stretch of Bush supporters near the reviewing stand. In CNN’s evening wrap-ups, the same upbeat clip appeared with nary a reference to its awkward context.

Meanwhile, our newest ex-president was taking his sweet time saying goodbye—even as he relinquished the spotlight not to W. but to Hillary, whose declarations of her new autonomy ranged from a black leather coat so assertive it might as well have had the Jolly Roger painted on its back to a Kennedy Airport thank-you so Noo Yawkishly strident I wished she’d had the balls to say, “It’s great to be home.” Yet the sight of Clinton skidding out of office in a final spray of snake oil and averted indictments made even me feel sentimental, just because it was so utterly characteristic of our Styrofoam rock in a raging sea. I didn’t fully register just how strange a chapter we’re closing until I spotted a beaming giantess in a floppy hat, clutching a small American flag, among the well-wishers at his departure. It was Janet Reno—and what a sheerly peculiar figure she is to have occupied the national stage these past eight years. I can’t explain why I found that touching; I wasn’t even drunk yet.

But my pal Dolores and I were both good and soused by the time Larry King Live came on, which may have contributed to my impression that all but W.’s most devoted supporters were finding the affectation of euphoria hard to sustain. For one thing, it had to have started sinking in on permanent Washington, whose gasbag epitomes Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn were Larry’s guests that night—along with Time-Life’s timeless, lifeless Hugh Sidey, who was giving blowjobs in the Oval Office decades before Monica Lewinsky was born—what they’re in for. Sure, Republicans wear fur and serve lobster, but they’re still stuck for the next four years with a teetotaler and a librarian. All that fawning over the newcomers’ Texas yee-hah reflects a desperate hope that barbecue and cowboy boots will somehow pick up the slack.

Bradlee has believed he’s Jason Robards ever since Robards played him, and he crustily deprecated the protests: “Only seven arrests,” he said, with man-of-the-world scorn. “I wasn’t impressed.” Jeez, if only a few demonstrators had gotten their skulls cracked, or maybe tossed grenades. What a downer not to have impressed Ben Bradlee.

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Republicans, Mom Try to Bail Out Bush

WASHINGTON, D.C.-Starting with President Bush himself-and with his mother-Republicans are attempting to do damage
control for the beleaguered administration.

Barbara Bush famously told the press those poor people fleeing Hurricane Katrina-the ones stranded on their rooftops and searching for loved ones and warehoused at the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center-are faring better at the Houston Astrodome than they were at home before the storm hit.

Bush, for his part, promised to open his own inquiry into what
happened, and Republican leaders in Congress are opening at least two, perhaps more, inquiries of their own.

Most importantly, the Republican politicians are
buoyed by polls that show almost three quarters of all
Republicans support the president’s handling of the
disaster. They are accusing Louisiana’s Democratic governor,
Kathleen Blanco, of screwing up the federal
response. And they are having fun playing Blanco off
against New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who told CNN’s “American Morning” Monday that he had met Blanco and Bush on Air Force One last Friday and urged the two to get together and do something. “I was ready to move,” Nagin said. “The governor said she needed 24 hours to make a
decision” to take over the Guard.

Blanco, in turn, complained on ABC that the feds didn’t act
fast enough. “We didn’t have enough resources,” she
said. “We were begging for resources, too.”

According to the Bush damage-control people,
the president got screwed up by more than this do-nothing boob Democrat. He was trying to help out even before the hurricane struck by making Louisiana a disaster area 48 hours before landfall. He did that at the request of Blanco. And he was out there pleading with Blanco to order a mandatory evacuation order.

The president’s supporters are suggesting Nagin and Blanco are two big cowards for having fled New Orleans for Baton Rouge before the storm hit. “Kathleen Blanco and Ray Nagin weren’t exactly Pataki and Guiliani,” a political adviser with close ties to the White House told the Washington Times. Louisiana Republican senator David Vitter added his voice to
the chorus attacking Blanco, claiming she was too slow
in calling out the National Guard. The Times gave Blanco another kick by pointing out that her political opponents had
always said she was “indecisive” and “unprepared
for the rigors of the job.”

The president’s own dad told Larry
King he’d had just about enough of people attacking
his son. “The media has a fascination with the blame
game,” the senior Mr. Bush said on CNN. “There was one particularly vicious comment that the president didn’t
care, was insensitive on ethnicity, insensitive about
race. That one hurt, because I know this president,
and I know he does care.”

Old man Bush further said he kinda figures
something weird is going on with all these people
attacking the president. How is it, he asked King, that Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, the former
National Republican chair, was flying around every day and had not heard one complaint about the National Guard
being too stretched in Iraq to respond at home?

Not all conservatives joined the bucket brigade. Paul Craig Roberts, former assistant
secretary of the treasury under Reagan, said
“Americans are being brainwashed” by Bush and have
been reduced to a mentality “like that of the brown
shirts that followed Hitler.”


Additional reporting: Isabel Huacuga