Nasty Letters To Crooked Politicians

As we enter a new era of politics, we hope to see that Obama has the courage to fight the policies that Progressives hate. Will he have the fortitude to turn the economic future of America to help the working man? Or will he turn out to be just a pawn of big money, as he seems to be right now.

Monday, January 30, 2006

How to get rid of this son of a bitch, Bush?

A President Who Can Do No Right

We should be used to it by now. There are a couple of Congressional committees trying to investigate the tragic Hurricane Katrina debacle, but the Bush administration is refusing to turn over certain documents or allow certain senior White House officials to testify before the committees under oath.

Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat who is by no means unfriendly to the Bush crowd, said this week, "There has been a near-total lack of cooperation that has made it impossible, in my opinion, for us to do the thorough investigation that we have a responsibility to do."

Once again the president has, in effect, flipped the bird at Congress. He's amazing. Forget such fine points as the Constitution and the separation of powers. George W. Bush does what he wants to do. He won fewer votes than Al Gore in 2000 and then governed as if he'd been elected by acclamation. He dispensed with John Kerry in 2004 by portraying himself — a man who ran and hid from the draft during Vietnam — as more of a warrior than Mr. Kerry, a decorated combat veteran of that war.

Reality has been dealt a stunning blow by Mr. Bush. The administration's high-handedness with the Katrina investigators comes at the same time as disclosures showing that the White House was warned in the hours just before the hurricane hit New Orleans that it might well cause catastrophic flooding and the breaching of the city's levees.

That was early on the morning of last Aug. 29. On Sept. 1, with the city all but completely underwater, the president went on television and blithely declared, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."

This guy is something. Remember his "Top Gun" moment aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln? And his famous taunt — "Bring 'em on" — to the insurgents in Iraq? His breathtaking arrogance is exceeded only by his incompetence. And that's the real problem. That's where you'll find the mind-boggling destructiveness of this regime, in its incompetence.

Fantasy may be in fashion. Reality may have been shoved into the shadows on Mr. Bush's watch. But the plain truth is that he is the worst president in memory, and one of the worst of all time. Many thousands of people — men, women and children — have died unnecessarily (and thousands more are suffering) because of his misguided and mishandled policies.

Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser for George H. W. Bush, counseled against the occupation of Iraq at the end of the first gulf war. As recounted in a New Yorker article last fall, he said, "At the minimum, we'd be an occupier in a hostile land. Our forces would be sniped at by guerrillas, and, once we were there, how would we get out?"

George W. Bush had no such concerns. In fact, he joked about his failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Like a frat boy making cracks about a bad bet on a football game, Mr. Bush displayed what he felt was a hilarious set of photos during a spoof that he performed at the annual dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association in March 2004.

The photos showed the president peering behind curtains and looking under furniture in the Oval Office for the missing weapons. Mr. Bush offered mock captions for the photos, saying, "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere." And, "Nope, no weapons over there, maybe under here."

This week, as the killing of American G.I.'s and innocent Iraqis continued, we learned from a draft report from the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction that, like the war itself, the Bush plan for rebuilding Iraq has been crippled by incompetence and extreme shortages of personnel. I doubt that this will bother the president any more than any of his other failures. He seems to truly believe that he can do no wrong.

The fiasco in Iraq and the president's response to the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe were Mr. Bush's two most spectacular foul-ups. There have been many others. The president's new Medicare prescription drug program has been a monumental embarrassment, leaving some of the most vulnerable members of our society without essential medication. Prominent members of the president's own party are balking at the heavy hand of his No Child Left Behind law, which was supposed to radically upgrade the quality of public education.

The Constitution? Civil liberties? Don't ask.

Just keep in mind, whatever your political beliefs, that incompetence in high places can have devastating consequences.

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

A False Balance

"How does one report the facts," asked Rob Corddry on "The Daily Show," "when the facts themselves are biased?" He explained to Jon Stewart, who played straight man, that "facts in Iraq have an anti-Bush agenda," and therefore can't be reported.

Mr. Corddry's parody of journalists who believe they must be "balanced" even when the truth isn't balanced continues, alas, to ring true. The most recent example is the peculiar determination of some news organizations to cast the scandal surrounding Jack Abramoff as "bipartisan."

Let's review who Mr. Abramoff is and what he did.

Here's how a 2004 Washington Post article described Mr. Abramoff's background: "Abramoff's conservative-movement credentials date back more than two decades to his days as a national leader of the College Republicans." In the 1990's, reports the article, he found his "niche" as a lobbyist "with entree to the conservatives who were taking control of Congress. He enjoys a close bond with [Tom] DeLay."

Mr. Abramoff hit the jackpot after Republicans took control of the White House as well as Congress. He persuaded several Indian tribes with gambling interests that they needed to pay vast sums for his services and those of Michael Scanlon, a former DeLay aide. From the same Washington Post article: "Under Abramoff's guidance, the four tribes ... have also become major political donors. They have loosened their traditional ties to the Democratic Party, giving Republicans two-thirds of the $2.9 million they have donated to federal candidates since 2001, records show."

So Mr. Abramoff is a movement conservative whose lobbying career was based on his connections with other movement conservatives. His big coup was persuading gullible Indian tribes to hire him as an adviser; his advice was to give less money to Democrats and more to Republicans. There's nothing bipartisan about this tale, which is all about the use and abuse of Republican connections.

Yet over the past few weeks a number of journalists, ranging from The Washington Post's ombudsman to the "Today" show's Katie Couric, have declared that Mr. Abramoff gave money to both parties. In each case the journalists or their news organization, when challenged, grudgingly conceded that Mr. Abramoff himself hasn't given a penny to Democrats. But in each case they claimed that this is only a technical point, because Mr. Abramoff's clients — those Indian tribes — gave money to Democrats as well as Republicans, money the news organizations say he "directed" to Democrats.

But the tribes were already giving money to Democrats before Mr. Abramoff entered the picture; he persuaded them to reduce those Democratic donations, while giving much more money to Republicans. A study commissioned by The American Prospect shows that the tribes' donations to Democrats fell by 9 percent after they hired Mr. Abramoff, while their contributions to Republicans more than doubled. So in any normal sense of the word "directed," Mr. Abramoff directed funds away from Democrats, not toward them.

True, some Democrats who received tribal donations before Mr. Abramoff's entrance continued to receive donations after his arrival. How, exactly, does this implicate them in Mr. Abramoff's machinations? Bear in mind that no Democrat has been indicted or is rumored to be facing indictment in the Abramoff scandal, nor has any Democrat been credibly accused of doing Mr. Abramoff questionable favors.

There have been both bipartisan and purely Democratic scandals in the past. Based on everything we know so far, however, the Abramoff affair is a purely Republican scandal.

Why does the insistence of some journalists on calling this one-party scandal bipartisan matter? For one thing, the public is led to believe that the Abramoff affair is just Washington business as usual, which it isn't. The scale of the scandals now coming to light, of which the Abramoff affair is just a part, dwarfs anything in living memory.

More important, this kind of misreporting makes the public feel helpless. Voters who are told, falsely, that both parties were drawn into Mr. Abramoff's web are likely to become passive and shrug their shoulders instead of demanding reform.

So the reluctance of some journalists to report facts that, in this case, happen to have an anti-Republican agenda is a serious matter. It's not a stretch to say that these journalists are acting as enablers for the rampant corruption that has emerged in Washington over the last decade.

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

The Lost Children

The times — as a fellow named Dylan sang more than 40 years ago — they are a-changin'.

This time it's not the emergence of the tie-dyed 60's and the flowering of the boomer generation. But the changes are at least as fundamental.

A generation from now non-Hispanic whites will make up less than 60 percent of the U.S. population, and by 2050 they will be just half. Nine out of 10 American students currently attend public schools. It is likely that within a decade fewer than half of the public school students will be white.

The dramatic changes in public school enrollment will not be a result of white flight, according to a new study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University: "It is because of a changing population structure created by differential birth rates and age structures and a largely nonwhite international flow of millions of immigrants. Since whites are older, marry at later ages, have smaller families and account for a small fraction of immigrants, these changes are almost certain to continue."

So, with these changes in mind, what's happening with the black and Latino students who already account for more than a third of the public school population, and who should be expected to play an increasingly important role in shaping American society?

Not much that is good.

When Bob Dylan first came on the scene, it was very possible for a young man or woman with energy and a dream and a high school diploma (or less) to actually build a decent life. That's pretty much over.

We are now in a time when a college education is a virtual prerequisite for achieving or maintaining a middle-class lifestyle. "Only the kids who get a postsecondary education are even keeping even in terms of income in their lives, and so forth," said Gary Orfield, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and director of the Civil Rights Project. "The rest are falling behind, year by year. Only about a twelfth of the Latino kids and maybe a sixth of the black kids are getting college degrees. The rest of them aren't getting ready for anything that's going to have much of a future in the American economy."

One of the weirder things occurring in American education is the disappearance of kids — especially black and Hispanic kids — from high school. The San Antonio Express-News, reporting last March on a study by a local research association, said that "more than a third of Texas high school freshman students are disappearing from the system or otherwise failing to obtain a high school diploma in four years."

The Los Angeles Times, for a feature article that same month, interviewed a 17-year-old named Nancy Meza who had quickly made friends with dozens of classmates when she arrived at the Boyle Heights campus of Roosevelt High School. Four years later, as her senior class gathered for its graduation photo, only four of her friends were there. Nearly all of the others had dropped out.

"It really struck me today," said Nancy. "All of my friends are gone."

This is an underrecognized, underreported crisis in American life. Far from preparing kids for college, big-city high schools in neighborhoods with large numbers of poor, black and Latino youngsters are just hemorrhaging students. The kids are vanishing into a wilderness of ignorance. If the dropout rate were somehow reversed in a city like Los Angeles, there wouldn't be enough schools to accommodate the kids.

"The high dropout rate has been built into the regular order of school facilities in our big cities," said Professor Orfield. "They expect that the classes will just shrivel as the kids go through the grades."

Nationally, just two-thirds of all students — and only half of all blacks and Latinos — who enter ninth grade actually graduate with regular diplomas four years later.

This state of affairs in so many of the nation's high schools is potentially calamitous, not just for the students but for society as a whole. "It's really very sad what's going on," said Professor Orfield. "And there's been very little effort to reform it."

Youngsters who drop out of high school are much less likely to be regularly employed, or to escape poverty, even if they work full time. They are less likely to be married and less likely to have a decent home and a decent school for their kids. Their chances of ending up in prison — especially for the African-American and Latino boys — are much higher.

These kids will not be part of the cadre of new leadership for America in the 21st century. They will have a hard enough time just surviving.

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Media Advisory

Probable Cause for Alarm
Press ignores Ex-NSA chief's ignorance of Constitution


When FEMA Director Michael Brown claimed not to be aware of the evacuee crisis at the New Orleans Convention Center following Hurricane Katrina (NPR, 9/1/05), many journalists expressed astonishment that a high-ranking official could be so uninformed about a crucial aspect of his job (e.g., Nightline, 9/1/05). But when Gen. Michael Hayden, principal deputy director of National Intelligence and former director of the National Security Agency, displayed an equally astounding lack of knowledge about a matter just as basic to his job, media as a whole let it pass without comment.

The subject in question was the constitutional protections the American public has against government spying--surely a vital thing to understand for the former head of the nation's top surveillance agency, and the person currently in charge of "overseeing the day-to-day activities of the national intelligence program," as his Air Force bio states. Those protections are specified in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which reads in full:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Surely it's not too much to ask that the officials who are entrusted with the ability to spy on virtually any electronic communication have an appreciation of how this amendment limits that ability. Yet in a question-and-answer session at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on January 23--before an audience consisting largely of journalists--Hayden repeatedly demonstrated that he does not know the basic language of this key part of the Bill of Rights.

The subject came up when reporter Jonathan Landay of Knight Ridder attempted to preface a question by stating that "the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution specifies that you must have probable cause to be able to do a search that does not violate an American's right against unlawful searches and seizures." Hayden interjected: "Actually, the Fourth Amendment actually protects all of us against unreasonable search and seizure. That's what it says."

Landay politely corrected him, saying, "But the measure is 'probable cause,' I believe." But Hayden insisted: "The amendment says 'unreasonable search and seizure.'" When Landay continued, "But does it not say probable--" he was interrupted by Hayden, who said, "No.... The amendment says 'unreasonable search and seizure.'"

Landay went on to ask his question, which was whether the NSA, by bypassing the special court mandated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, had "crafted a detour around the FISA court by creating a new standard of 'reasonably believe' in place of 'probable cause.'" Hayden's response returned to the issue of the Fourth Amendment:

"I didn't craft the authorization. I am responding to a lawful order, alright? The attorney general has averred to the lawfulness of the order. Just to be very clear, okay--and, believe me, if there's any amendment to the Constitution that employees at the National Security Agency is familiar with, it's the Fourth, alright? And it is a reasonableness standard in the Fourth Amendment. So, what you've raised to me--and I'm not a lawyer, and don't want to become one--but what you've raised to me is, in terms of quoting the Fourth Amendment, is an issue of the Constitution. The constitutional standard is 'reasonable.' And we believe--I am convinced that we're lawful because what it is we're doing is reasonable."

By showing that he was unaware of the "probable cause" language in the Fourth Amendment, Hayden revealed that his insistence that it was legal for the NSA to conduct warrantless surveillance was not based on even a nodding familiarity with the constitutional issues involved. Given that Hayden's talk was part of a coordinated Bush administration publicity campaign to stress the legality of such surveillance, his demonstration of ignorance should have been a central point in the subsequent coverage. Instead, most news outlets that covered his speech chose to ignore his exchange with Landay and the knowledge gap it revealed.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, the flagship of the Knight Ridder chain that employs Landay, did publish a transcript of his exchange with Hayden (1/24/06)--though even the Inquirer does not seem to have had a story pointing out the significance of a high-ranking intelligence official not knowing that the Fourth Amendment contains a "probable cause" requirement.

Editor & Publisher, a website that covers journalism issues, carried a story on January 23 with the headline, "Defending Spy Program, General Reveals Shaky Grip on Fourth Amendment." The story reported that Hayden "appeared to be unfamiliar with the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when pressed by a reporter with Knight Ridder's Washington office--despite his claims that he was actually something of an expert on it."

On MSNBC's Countdown (1/24/06), host Keith Olbermann played video of the exchange, followed by a reading of the Fourth Amendment. "It's hard to tell which is more frightening for those of you in favor of continuing the democracy, the mistake itself, or the general's insistence that it was not a mistake," Olbermann commented. "Well, maybe they have a different Constitution over there at the NSA."

Most outlets, however, ignored Hayden's inaccurate claims about the Fourth Amendment--even while covering other aspects of his talk. The New York Times (1/24/06) quoted Hayden, from his National Press Club speech, asserting that the NSA is well-versed in what the law allows in terms of spying:

"'I'm disappointed, I guess, that perhaps the default response for some is to assume the worst,' General Hayden said. 'I'm trying to communicate to you that the people who are doing this, OK, go shopping in Glen Burnie and their kids play soccer in Laurel,' he added, referring to suburbs near NSA headquarters in Maryland. 'And they know the law,' he continued. 'They know American privacy better than the average American, and they're dedicated to it.'"

The clear evidence from the same speech that the former NSA head does not, in fact, "know the law," was not included in the story.

The Associated Press (1/24/06) actually quoted from Hayden's exchange with Landay without pointing out that the constitutional assertion that he was making was patently false:

Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, government officials had to prove to a secretive intelligence court that there was 'probable cause' to believe that a person was tied to terrorism. Bush's program allows senior NSA officials to approve surveillance when there was 'reason to believe' the call may involve al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Hayden maintained that the work was within the law. 'The constitutional standard is reasonable.... I am convinced that we are lawful because what it is we are doing is reasonable,'he said at the National Press Club.

By attributing the phrase "probable cause" to congressional legislation, and then allowing Hayden, without rebuttal, to claim that the Constitution offered a different standard, the AP accomplished nothing except misinforming its readers.

The First Amendment to the Constitution extends special protection to the press because the framers believed that an unfettered press would help to protect the other rights that the Constitution guaranteed. The lackadaisical media response to the revelation that a high-ranking government official doesn't even understand what those rights are can only make one worry that the framers' trust was misplaced.


Saturday, January 28, 2006

Stinking War Criminals Make us Ashamed to be American yet again

ABC News: U.S. Troops Said to Use Iraqi Wives as Leverage: "U.S. Troops Said to Use Iraqi Wives as Leverage
Women Allegedly Held To Compel Suspected Iraqi Insurgents to Submit
Iraqi Interrogation

In October 2004, ABC News' Martha Raddatz and her camera crew witnessed U.S. Marines in Fallujah, Iraq, seeking to intimidate an Iraqi woman -- even threatening to seize her car -- in hopes she'd lead them to her husband, a suspected insurgent. (ABC News)

Jan. 28, 2006 — The treatment of women has obvious cultural sensitivities in the Middle East — so new allegations that U.S. troops have been using women as 'leverage' against suspected terrorists could stir new trouble.

The practice first came to light through U.S. military documents obtained by the Associated Press in a Freedom of Information Act request. They reveal that on at least two occasions the Army seized and jailed wives of suspected insurgents in an effort to flush them"

Two from Helen Thomas

Bush overreaches presidential prerogative:

"WASHINGTON -- We are now learning what President Bush considers to be the limits of his power -- nothing.

In recent public appearances, Bush defended his program of domestic spying without court approval, citing the inherent war powers of the presidency under the U.S. Constitution. He points to his status as commander in chief and the resolution -- approved by Congress three days after the 9/11 attacks -- authorizing him to use 'all necessary and appropriate force' against terrorists. It is an obvious overreach of presidential prerogative; thin justification for what amounts to a snooping foray against Americans and others in the United States.

It smacks of France's Louis XIV's famous dictum: 'L'etat, c'est moi' -- 'I am the state.'

The administration is on shaky legal ground. Last week, the Justice Department issued a 42-page analysis declaring the president 'will exercise all authority available to him, consistent with the Constitution, to protect the people of the United States.'" - Helen Thomas - Will War Veterans Face Assaults On Campaign Trail? - Helen Thomas - Will War Veterans Face Assaults On Campaign Trail?:

"The ballot in the midterm congressional elections in November will be crowded with a number of war veterans -- most of them newcomers to politics -- representing both parties.

And it appears that the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq will be a big issue when their campaigns get rolling this spring.

Most of the veterans are running for the U.S. House -- among them 44 Democrats and 41 Republicans, according to the congressional campaign committees of both parties. Most of them date their service back to Vietnam, the 1991 Gulf war or the ongoing war in Iraq.

Two veterans are seeking to unseat Senate incumbents. Army National Guard Capt. Hiram Lewis, a Republican who served in Iraq, is challenging eight-term Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd, of West Virginia. In Ohio, Paul Hackett, a Democrat and vocal anti-Iraq war critic, is running against Sen. Mike DeWine, a Republican seeking a third term."

Oprah's Bunk Club

We should have known the guy was not really a bad-boy, tattooed "It's time to throw down" brawler when he had to bring his mom on the Larry King show to protect him.

On Thursday, the unmasked memoirist's proud mother was replaced by a punitive national matriarch. Watching Oprah flay Frey was riveting. At The Times and at Doubleday, staffers were glued to their TV sets.

It was a huge relief, after our long national slide into untruth and no consequences, into Swift boating and swift bucks, into W.'s delusion and denial, to see the Empress of Empathy icily hold someone accountable for lying and conning — and embarrassing her. (Though she and her producers should have known questions were raised early on about the book.)

In a society obsessed with sin and redemption, this was the superfecta: Oprah admitting her flawed judgment and rescuing her reputation, while carving up James Frey for sinning in his book about sin and redemption.

Oprah interviewed and showed taped clips of her media critics (including me) and credited her turnaround to the essay by The Times's chief book critic, Michiko Kakutani, who wrote, "It is a case about how much value contemporary culture places on the very idea of truth."

When President Bush cut into Oprah's show with a press conference, perhaps he was trying to get the focus off truth. It was truly weird to see the twin live TV moments: A disgraced author, and a commander in chief who keeps writing chapter after chapter of fictionalized propaganda.

After Nan Talese was shamed by Oprah, Doubleday said it would add two notes — one from the publisher and one from the author — before printing any more books. But it's not enough to stick on little disclaimers. The book should be recategorized, just as "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" should have been reclassified as fiction once John Berendt acknowledged all the liberties he took.

"A Million Little Pieces" and "My Friend Leonard" — the Frey "nonfiction" best seller that begins with the now-debunked jail term — should be sold as novels or fictional memoirs, the term Frederick Exley used for the great book "A Fan's Notes."

Will "A Million Little Pieces" move to the fiction category on The Times's best-seller list? The editors told me that the list was simply in the business of counting the books sold, not checking whether memoirs — from stoned rockers or spinning politicians — were mostly true. But The Times's list will indicate that Mr. Frey has admitted fabricating parts of the book.

The Frey effect chilled publishers and agents, some of whom have encouraged authors to turn novels into hot-selling memoirs.

"The decision to take on a memoir was always based on how good is the writing and how good is the story," said Christy Fletcher, a New York literary agent. "That's not enough any more."

Mr. Frey said in an interview broadcast yesterday on Oxygen that he and his agent had given the book to some publishers as a novel and some as a memoir. In the insular world of publishing, that didn't tip anyone off — because no one really wanted to be tipped off.

There was a bit of a panic among publishers this week. St. Martin's Press hurriedly put a warning sticker on Augusten Burroughs's latest memoir, "Possible Side Effects," due out this spring: "Author's note: Some of the events described happened as related, others were expanded and changed. Some of the individuals portrayed are composites of more than one person and many names and identifying characteristics have been changed as well."

Ballantine announced it would no longer ship two memoirs by Nasdijj, supposedly an inspiring Native American writer from the Southwest who said that as a child, he was "hungry, raped, beaten, whipped, and forced at every opportunity to work in the fields." The L.A. Weekly learned that Nasdijj was really Timothy Barrus, a white middle-class man from Michigan who had written gay porn.

Booksellers were also puzzling over how to proceed.

"I think it should definitely not be on the nonfiction best-seller list," said Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla.

Roxanne Coady, owner of RJ Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn., said she'd "probably reclassify it as fiction," and she thinks Doubleday should do the same: "Either it's a memoir and someone's doing their best honest job to recall things and this is how they remember it, or it's not true and it's not a memoir."

What about a third category? Non-nonfiction? Self-help and self-dramatization? Pure bunk?

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

Friday, January 27, 2006

Health Care Confidential

American health care is desperately in need of reform. But what form should change take? Are there any useful examples we can turn to for guidance?

Well, I know about a health care system that has been highly successful in containing costs, yet provides excellent care. And the story of this system's success provides a helpful corrective to anti-government ideology. For the government doesn't just pay the bills in this system — it runs the hospitals and clinics.

No, I'm not talking about some faraway country. The system in question is our very own Veterans Health Administration, whose success story is one of the best-kept secrets in the American policy debate.

In the 1980's and early 1990's, says an article in The American Journal of Managed Care, the V.H.A. "had a tarnished reputation of bureaucracy, inefficiency and mediocre care." But reforms beginning in the mid-1990's transformed the system, and "the V.A.'s success in improving quality, safety and value," the article says, "have allowed it to emerge as an increasingly recognized leader in health care."

Last year customer satisfaction with the veterans' health system, as measured by an annual survey conducted by the National Quality Research Center, exceeded that for private health care for the sixth year in a row. This high level of quality (which is also verified by objective measures of performance) was achieved without big budget increases. In fact, the veterans' system has managed to avoid much of the huge cost surge that has plagued the rest of U.S. medicine.

How does the V.H.A. do it?

The secret of its success is the fact that it's a universal, integrated system. Because it covers all veterans, the system doesn't need to employ legions of administrative staff to check patients' coverage and demand payment from their insurance companies. Because it's integrated, providing all forms of medical care, it has been able to take the lead in electronic record-keeping and other innovations that reduce costs, ensure effective treatment and help prevent medical errors.

Moreover, the V.H.A., as Phillip Longman put it in The Washington Monthly, "has nearly a lifetime relationship with its patients." As a result, it "actually has an incentive to invest in prevention and more effective disease management. When it does so, it isn't just saving money for somebody else. It's maximizing its own resources. ... In short, it can do what the rest of the health care sector can't seem to, which is to pursue quality systematically without threatening its own financial viability."

Oh, and one more thing: the veterans health system bargains hard with medical suppliers, and pays far less for drugs than most private insurers.

I don't want to idealize the veterans' system. In fact, there's reason to be concerned about its future: will it be given the resources it needs to cope with the flood of wounded and traumatized veterans from Iraq? But the transformation of the V.H.A. is clearly the most encouraging health policy story of the past decade. So why haven't you heard about it?

The answer, I believe, is that pundits and policy makers don't talk about the veterans' system because they can't handle the cognitive dissonance. (One prominent commentator started yelling at me when I tried to describe the system's successes in a private conversation.) For the lesson of the V.H.A.'s success story — that a government agency can deliver better care at lower cost than the private sector — runs completely counter to the pro-privatization, anti-government conventional wisdom that dominates today's Washington.

The dissonance between the dominant ideology and the realities of health care is one reason the Medicare drug legislation looks as if someone went down a checklist of things the veterans' system does right, and in each case did the opposite. For example, the V.H.A. avoids dealing with insurance companies; the drug bill shoehorns insurance companies into the program, even though they serve no real function. The V.H.A. bargains effectively on drug prices; the drug bill forbids Medicare from doing the same.

Still, ideology can't hold out against reality forever. Cries of "socialized medicine" didn't, in the end, succeed in blocking the creation of Medicare. And farsighted thinkers are already suggesting that the Veterans Health Administration, not President Bush's unrealistic vision of a system in which people go "comparative shopping" for medical care the way they do when buying tile, represents the true future of American health care.

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Ted Rall

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We love you Mo!

Delusion and Illusion Worthy of Dickens

The Democrats will never win the White House as long as they're stuck in Bleak House. They're slipping and sliding in the same crust-upon-crust of mud and caboose-creeping fog and soft black drizzle and flakes of soot that blacken the chamber of law in the opening of the terrific Dickens novel (now an irresistible PBS series).

The lumbering pace of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce will pale compared with the time it will take the cowed and colicky Democrats to yank back power from Republicans skilled at abusing it.

The party simply seems incapable of getting the muscular message and riveting messenger needed to dispel the mud, fog, drizzle and soot emanating from Karl Rove's rag-and-bone shop on Pennsylvania Avenue.

As the White House drives its truckload of lies around the country, it becomes ever clearer that Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Al Gore are just not the right people to respond to the administration's national security scare-a-thon.

We got mired in Iraq in the first place partly because Dick Cheney and Rummy thought that, post-Vietnam and post-Clinton, America was seen as soft. One shock-and-awe session, one tyrant stomped on, they reckoned, and the Arab world would no longer see Americans as wimps. That reasoning turned out to be dangerous, flying in the face of warnings from our own intelligence experts.

But Karl Rove is still dishing out the same line, and it's still working: those who want to re-evaluate the strategy in Iraq are soft. Those who want to rein in the Patriot Act are soft. Those who question the Alito doctrine of presidential absolutism are soft. Those who don't want to break the law and snoop on Americans are soft - not just soft, but practically collaborating with the terrorists.

"Republicans have a post-9/11 worldview" on national security, Mr. Rove said last week, "and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview. That doesn't make them unpatriotic, not at all. But it does make them wrong - deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong."

But you only need to check the paper daily to see that this administration has been deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong on everything: from the promise to rebuild Iraq and the consequences of deploying a strained Army this long in an insurgent war to the failure to respond to the aftermath of Katrina, after dissembling about pre-storm alarms.

The bumbling Bush team that ignored the warning "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States" also ignored one that went something like: "Katrina Determined to Attack New Orleans." And now the White House is trying to inhibit Congressional questions on Katrina, just as it did for the 9/11 inquiries.

The administration's p.r. offensive on warrantless - and questionably effective - snooping is so aggressive that it has even risked exposing the president to an occasional unscripted, but still not tough, question. So he rambles on about steering clear of "Brokeback Mountain" and the therapeutic value of mountain biking. And he calls Barney, the Scottish terrier, "the son I never had." (Barney's dad is all bark and no bite.)

The White House is as skittish about bilked Indians as it is about billing-and-cooing cowboys. It admits it has pictures of the president with Jack Abramoff, but won't cough them up.

While he was out defending his scofflaw behavior, W. had to address the fact that the real nuclear threat (Iran), as opposed to the fake nuclear threat (Iraq), is embarrassing him. He told the Iranian people: "We have no beef with you." (State Department reporters puzzled over how that might be translated into Farsi: "We have no cow with you"?)

You couldn't turn on a TV this week without seeing Torture Guy Alberto Gonzales give all-purpose legal cover to Dick Cheney as that Grim Peeper ravages the Constitution. At a Georgetown University speech, W.'s legal lickspittle ignored a few student protesters, but he might have learned something from their banner, emblazoned with words of Benjamin Franklin: "Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither."

In their usual twisted way, the Bushies are reducing their abuse of the law to a test of testosterone - knowing that the Democrats will play Judy to their Punch.

The Dems need to drum up a decent message so they look as if they know what the Dickens they're doing before the November election. Otherwise, they'll look like bowed supplicants holding out gruel cups to Karl Rove and pleading, "Please, sir, I want some more."

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

Addicted to power

Gene Lyons
Posted on Wednesday, January 25, 2006

It’s symptomatic of the current political situation that many appear willing to give bogus desperado James Frey a pass. For the uninitiated, Frey’s the author whose best-selling memoir of booze and drug addiction,

“A Million Little Pieces,” turned out to be more like “A Thousand and One Falsehoods.” Few of the checkable facts examined by proved true. Even so, a friend whose judgment I respect said the book gave her a vivid picture of an addict’s mind. Um, yeah. So long as you realize that every addict’s a deceiver. All memoirs have subjective elements. But I’m old school. If Frey fabricated a nonexistent prison record and fantasized having his girlfriend killed by a train, why believe anything he says? A small point worth keeping in mind: Broadly speaking, and contrary to popular opinion, books today may be the least reliable source of information. Too many publishers will promote anything they think might sell. Authors who practice traditional, fact-based journalism often find themselves trading in a debased currency. Moreover, what’s true in book publishing increasingly applies to the news media generally. Politically, this is very dangerous. Uncertain whom to trust, people are left to believe pretty much anything they want to believe, as wishful thinking and propaganda drive out valid information almost across the board.

But some citizens are fighting back. Consider a couple of recent episodes in the news. Recently, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell, supposedly the reader’s representative at the newspaper, wrote a column asserting that convicted Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff “made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties.”

This is false. Although the phrase “Abramoff Democrats” has become a favorite of GOP editorialists frantically trying to spread the blame, the former head of the College Republicans apparently gave nothing directly to Democrats. (Irked by its appearance in a recent editorial, I Googled the phrase and got 12,600 hits.)

That doesn’t mean all Democrats are pure. But none is directly implicated in the Abramoff bribery scandal. Indeed, the infamous “K Street Project” run by Abramoff, resigned House majority leader Tom DeLay and their chums was essentially a shakedown.

It’s been widely reported that after the GOP captured the House in 1994, lobbyists and interest groups that had supported Democrats were shown spreadsheets documenting past contributions and told that until they hired Abramoff and his protégés, and redirected their money to Republicans, they’d get no consideration. Once the GOP controlled the Senate and the White House, too, it began to pay off like a gold mine. As the Post itself reported almost two years ago, “Under Abramoff’s guidance [four native American tribes running gambling casinos] have loosened their traditional ties to the Democratic Party, giving Republicans two-thirds of the $ 2.9 million they have donated to federal candidates since 2001, records show.”

No, they didn’t quit Democrats altogether. But this isn’t a campaign donations scandal, it’s a bribery scandal. Abramoff and his chums went beyond lobbying.

Urged by liberal bloggers, readers flooded the Post’s online comments section with harsh criticisms. Howell eventually was forced to capitulate, writing that “it’s not a bipartisan scandal; it’s a Republican scandal” —but not before swooning like a Victorian gentlewoman over the supposedly abusive insults of her critics. Editors soon shut down the online comments altogether.

There’s a bird called a killdeer, which nests in rocky places on the ground and lures predators away from its eggs by pretending to have a broken wing. The Washington Post did a pretty fair imitation. Even so, it was a heartening outcome.

So who’s going to take on Karl Rove’s latest calumny? Seeking to divert attention from the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, Rove gave a speech to a Republican audience claiming that “President Bush believes if al-Qa’ida is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they’re calling and why. Some important Democrats clearly disagree.” (My emphasis.)

Oh, yeah? Like who? Nobody opposes spying on al-Qa’ida. Nobody. What they’re against is Bush evading the FISA court set up to issue legitimate warrants, ignoring the Fourth Amendment and claiming the powers of a king. A power addict, Rove’s become the James Frey of the White House. Let’s see if there’s a reporter in Washington with the guts to make him answer this question or eat it.

•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient of the National Magazine Award.

Lily Tomlin said it best. "No matter how cynical I get, I just can't keep up."

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

January 23, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist

What's Left Unsaid

Have you ever talked sexy to your wife or your girlfriend - or your husband or your boyfriend - on the telephone? Would you keep talking if you thought that one of Dick Cheney's operatives was listening in?

Talk about a chilling effect.

What if you were thinking of running for Congress and you tried to bolster your understanding of terrorism by speaking with knowledgeable but controversial figures in the Middle East? How would you feel if you knew - or even suspected - that government agents were monitoring your conversations? Would you be less likely to engage in those conversations? Would you begin to censor yourself? Would your contacts still be willing to speak freely if they thought the feds were listening in?

Freedom of speech in the United States covers matters trivial and profound. The corrosive damage that is being done to the First Amendment, that cornerstone of free speech, has been largely overlooked in the controversy over President Bush's decision to permit the government to eavesdrop without warrants on phone calls and e-mail messages inside the United States.

Most of the attention generated by this domestic spying program has understandably been focused on its affront to the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches, and its brazen violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which established clear-cut rules for electronic surveillance in the U.S.

But there's an additional danger. When the government's spies are allowed to snoop willy-nilly on phone calls and e-mail in the United States, without the important legal constraint of having to seek a warrant, it means that the all-important First Amendment has developed a chill, symptomatic of a life-threatening illness.

The ostensible aim of the president's domestic surveillance program, conducted by the supersecret National Security Agency, is to home in on communications into and out of the United States that involve individuals or organizations suspected of some sort of terror connection. But, as The Times reported last week, F.B.I. officials have repeatedly complained that the N.S.A. has bombarded them with thousands upon thousands of unsubstantiated tips - names, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and so forth - that have either led nowhere, or to completely innocent individuals.

Whatever its stated goals, the N.S.A. seems to be operating the greatest fishing expedition in the history of the world.

The American Civil Liberties Union, in a lawsuit seeking a halt to the spying, warned that scholars, lawyers, journalists and others who communicate with people outside the U.S. are already experiencing a chilling effect. People who are doing nothing wrong, but who feel they may become targets of the program, for whatever reasons, are curtailing their conversations and censoring their correspondence, according to the suit.

Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard, noted that people who are aware of the surveillance program and who believe that their political views may be seen as hostile by the government, may also become less candid in their telephone conversations and e-mail. Others could unwittingly become the victim of contacts by individuals that the government may be interested in.

He gave an example:

"I recently got a series of e-mails from someone, quite without invitation, that got rather scary in the sense that they started saying positive things about Osama bin Laden. I asked the person in reply to stop e-mailing me, and I got an e-mail today saying, 'Your request is permanently granted.' But in the meantime, granted or not granted, that could easily put me on some kind of targeting list."

Speaking about the potential long-term effect of widespread domestic spying, Professor Tribe said:

"The more people grow accustomed to a listening environment in which the ear of Big Brother is assumed to be behind every wall, behind every e-mail, and invisibly present in every electronic communication, telephonic or otherwise - that is the kind of society, as people grow accustomed to it, in which you can end up being boiled to death without ever noticing that the water is getting hotter, degree by degree.

"The background assumptions of privacy will be gradually eroded to the point where we'll wake up one day, or our children will, and it will seem quaint that people at one time, long ago, thought that they could speak in candor."

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

Iraq's Power Vacuum

In the State of the Union address, President Bush will surely assert, to choreographed applause, that he has a strategy for victory in Iraq. I don't believe him. In fact, I believe that three years into the conflict his administration refuses to admit defeat but has given up even trying to win.

To explain myself, let me tell you some stories about electricity.

Power shortages are a crucial issue for ordinary Iraqis, and for the credibility of their government. As Muhsin Shlash, Iraq's electricity minister, said last week, "When you lose electricity the country is destroyed, nothing works, all industry is down and terrorist activity is increased."

Mr. Shlash has reason to be strident. In today's Iraq, blackouts are the rule rather than the exception. According to Agence France-Presse, Baghdad and "much of the central regions" - in other words, the areas where the insurgency is most active and dangerous - currently get only between two and six hours of power a day.

Lack of electricity isn't just an inconvenience. It prevents businesses from operating, destroys jobs and generates a sense of demoralization and rage that feeds the insurgency.

So why is power scarcer than ever, almost three years after Saddam's fall? Sabotage by insurgents is one factor. But as an analysis of Iraq's electricity shortage in The Los Angeles Times last month showed, the blackouts are also the result of some incredible missteps by U.S. officials.

Most notably, during the period when Iraq was run by U.S. officials, they decided to base their electricity plan on natural gas: in order to boost electrical output, American companies were hired to install gas-fired generators in power plants across Iraq. But, as The Los Angeles Times explains, "pipelines needed to transport the gas" - that is, to supply gas to the new generators - "weren't built because Iraq's Oil Ministry, with U.S. encouragement, concentrated instead on boosting oil production." Whoops.

Meanwhile, in the early days of the occupation U.S. officials chose not to raise the prices of electricity and fuel, which had been kept artificially cheap under Saddam, for fear of creating unrest. But as a first step toward their dream of turning Iraq into a free-market utopia, they removed tariffs and other restrictions on the purchase of imported consumer goods.

The result was that wealthy and middle-class Iraqis rushed to buy imported refrigerators, heaters and other power-hungry products, and the demand for electricity surged - with no capacity available to meet that surge in demand. This caused even more blackouts.

In short, U.S. officials thoroughly botched their handling of Iraq's electricity sector. They did much the same in the oil sector. But the Bush administration is determined to achieve victory in Iraq, so it must have a plan to rectify its errors, right?

Um, no. Although there has been no formal declaration, all indications are that the Bush administration, which once made grand promises about a program to rebuild Iraq comparable to the Marshall Plan, doesn't plan to ask for any more money for Iraqi reconstruction.

Another Los Angeles Times report on Iraq reconstruction contains some jaw-dropping quotes from U.S. officials, who now seem to be lecturing the Iraqis on self-reliance. "The world is a competitive place," declared the economics counselor at the U.S. embassy. "No pain, no gain," said another official. "We were never intending to rebuild Iraq," said a third. We came, we saw, we conquered, we messed up your infrastructure, we're outta here.

Mr. Shlash certainly sounds as if he's given up expecting more American help. "The American donation is almost finished," he said, "and it was not that effective." Yet he also emphasized the obvious: partly because of the similar failure of reconstruction in the oil sector, Iraq's government doesn't have the funds to do much power plant construction. In fact, it will be hard pressed to maintain the capacity it has, and protect that capacity from insurgent attacks.

And if reconstruction stalls, as seems inevitable, it's hard to see how anything else in Iraq can go right.

So what does it mean that the Bush administration is apparently walking away from responsibility for Iraq's reconstruction? It means that the administration doesn't have a plan; it's entirely focused on short-term political gain. Mr. Bush is just getting by from sound bite to sound bite, while Iraq and America sink ever deeper into the quagmire.

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

Polls down? Trot out the fake Bin Laden tapes...Chimpo does it alla time

Latest Bin Laden Tape: Another of the NeoCons' "Greatest Hits"

January 21, 2006


Experts already begin to come forward with revelations that Latest tape just another CIA fake

Spying? Torture? Illegal airstrikes? SHUT UP and hate Bin Laden.

The NeoCon use of Osama Bin Laden as a tool of fear and control is a tried and tested method whenever the going gets tough. It's predictable and it's tiresome, but the masses buy it every time and that's why he has reappeared once again.

Just as the NSA spying tidal wave gathers increasing momentum, as the media demand more answers on rendition and torture and days after the bizarre airstrike on innocent women and children in Pakistan, we all magically get a timely reminder of just why the government is spying on its own citizens and torturing and killing anyone it likes anywhere in the world.

Just like Orwell's ubiquitous Emmanuel Goldstein, Bin Laden always seems to pop up right on cue so we can disengage our minds from reality and join in the two minutes hate.

We are reliably informed by the mainstream media that this is because he is a very clever man and has an impeccable sense of timing. Yet if this is the case, why can he not work out that EVERYTIME he has released a video or a tape it has HELPED Bush and the NeoCon agenda tenfold?

Even the BBC lays this out in the open with the headline Bin Laden threats may boost Bush:

The commander-in-chief has been under intense pressure in recent weeks, accused of trampling on civil liberties in pursuit of terror suspects. His defence has been that America is a nation at war. So Bin Laden's latest threats to launch new attacks on the US will only serve to underline this argument.

The White House will also cite the tape when trying to convince allies abroad that the use of tough tactics is justified - even when civilians are killed, as in last week's air raid in Pakistan.

That just says it all really.

Bin Laden was created by US intelligence , worked with US intelligence in the late 70s and 80s, was used as a patsy by US intelligence before and after 911 and is now being used as a manipulative tool of fear by the criminal elite faction currently in power in the US.

The last time Bin Laden appeared was October 2004, exactly three days before the election.

The same headline "Boost for Bush" appeared and some, including Walter Conkite went as far as to suggest that the whole thing was manufactured by Karl rove in order to secure the election for Bush.

The Tehran Times suggested that Bin Laden was "dancing to Bush’s tune" and a "premeditated plan devised by Bush administration neoconservatives is unfolding". The report also noted that the CIA immediately confirmed the tape to be the voice of Bin Laden, something they had never previously done. They have also done this this time around too.

Bin Laden personally criticized Bush's reaction on the day of 911, a move that undoubtedly instilled a rejuvenated support for the President amongst the American sheeple.

If Bin Laden is so clever and so calculated and determined to justify himself to the American people, why can he not fathom that a personal attack could only ever help Bush? I thought it was common knowledge that you always steer clear of personal attacks in debates and arguments.

Bush immediately took a six point lead and subsequently won the election.

Of course, we shouldn't find it surprising that Bin Laden consistently helps Bush, after all it was the Bush Administration that allowed all members of the Bin Laden family to fly out of America immediately after 911 whilst all other air traffic was grounded.

It was Bush himself who signed document W199I, ordering the FBI to back off investigating the Bin Ladens before 911.

It was George W Bush who went into business with Bin laden's brother in the 1970s.

It is George W Bush's father who is STILL DOING business with the Bin Ladens via the Carlyle Group, an international consulting firm.

FBI Special agent Robert Wright broke down when testifying that he had been gagged and could not reveal the true extent of what he knew about the Bush-Bin Laden connection and 911. his lawyer stepped up and said live on C-Span that "The Bush Family vacations with the Bin Ladens".

The ties run deep and all lead to money, huge amounts of money. This is how the Bushes do business, this is how they have always done business, they own the best enemies money can buy.

Previous to the 2004 election, Bin Laden surfaced on a video on the eve of the two year anniversary of 911. Once again impeccable timing to deliver a video, given that he was reported to be hiding in the mountains of Pakistan.

However, the video was quickly recognized by experts as simply a re-hash of old material cobbled together quickly and so amateurish that it could not have fooled anyone.

Previous to the beginning of the Iraq war, Bin Laden appeared in February 2003 on an audio tape that was touted as proof positive of Al Qaeda links with Saddam Hussein.

In another amazing timing coincidence, the tape came barely a week after Colin powell's attempts to link Al Qaeda and Saddam in his botched presentation of lies and exaggerations before the UN Security Council.

In an even more bizarre twist, just hours before the tape was found and aired by AlJazeera, Colin Powell announced in the US Senate that a "Bin Laden tape is coming proving Iraq’s links with Al-Qaeda."

How does Colin Powell know what AlJazeera are going to broadcast before they do?

The tape voiced support for Iraq, but did not prove any link between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi leadership. It was described as dubious at best and at worst as an outright fake.

Previous to this tape a poor quality release in November 2002, deemed to be completely authentic by US Experts, was determined to be a total fake by the Dalle Molle Institute for Perceptual Artificial Intelligence in Switzerland.

This time Bin Laden was said to be admitting to recent small scale terror attacks. Yet the voice on the tape was different to around twenty previous recordings of Bin Laden.

And of course, then there is the all time classic Bin Laden video, the number one hit from december 2001. The one we like to call the "Fat nosed" Bin Laden video.

This one was magically found in a house in Jalalabad after anti-Taliban forces moved in. It featured a fat Osama laughing and joking about how he'd carried out 9/11. The video was also mistranslated in order to manipulate viewer opinion and featured "Bin Laden" praising two of the hijackers, only he got their names wrong.

This Osama also uses the wrong hand to write with and wears gold rings, a practice totally in opposition to the Muslim faith.

Despite the fact that the man in the video looks nothing like Bin Laden, the CIA stood by the video whilst many have declared it an outright fake.

And so we come back to this week's tape, Osama's "latest release". Already experts are coming forward to suggest that yet again this is a fake that has been put out at a very convenient time to divert attention away from important events.

Professor Bruce Lawrence has described the tape as "like a voice from the grave".

He thinks bin Laden is dead and has doubts about the tape. Lawrence recently analyzed more than 20 complete speeches and interviews of the al Qaida leader for his book. He says the new message is missing several key elements.

We have previously highlighted the evidence to suggest that Bin Laden is dead. More and more experts are now coming forward with the same opinion. Every time a new tape is released it seems to become shorter and more vague as if whoever is making them is running out of material to work with .

If it is conceivable that there is one group of fundamentalist individuals who wish to change the way we live because "they hate our freedom", then it is equally as conceivable that there is another group of richer, more sophisticated fundamentalists that wish to do the same thing themselves and will use the first group as a cover for what they do.

They have groomed Bin Laden for their own ends and will continue to use his image (whether he is dead or not) until they no longer have a cause to, this is simply another example of his usefulness in the fake war on terror.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Bush 'splains his new Medicare program to a confused oldster...

Bush Explains Medicare Drug Bill -- Verbatim Quote

Submitted on 2005-12-13 16:35:14

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: 'I don't really understand. How is it the new plan going to fix the problem?'

Verbatim response: PRESIDENT BUSH:
"Because the -- all which is on the table begins to address the big cost drivers. For example, how benefits are calculated, for example, is on the table. Whether or not benefits rise based upon wage increases or price increases. There's a series of parts of the formula that are being considered. And when you couple that, those different cost drivers, affecting those -- changing those with personal accounts, the idea is to get what has been promised more likely to be -- or closer delivered to that has been promised. Does that make any sense to you? It's kind of muddled. Look, there's a series of things that cause the -- like, for example, benefits are calculated based upon the increase of wages, as opposed to the increase of prices. Some have suggested that we calculate -- the benefits will rise based upon inflation, supposed to wage increases. There is a reform that would help solve the red if that were put into effect. In other words, how fast benefits grow, how fast the promised benefits grow, if those -- if that growth is affected, it will help on the red."

Truthiness 101: From Frey to Alito

IF James Frey hadn't made up his own life, Tom Wolfe would have had to invent it for him. The fraudulent memoirist is to the early 21st century what Mr. Wolfe's radical-chic revelers were to the late 1960's and his Wall Street "masters of the universe" were to the go-go 1980's: a perfect embodiment of the most fashionable American excess of an era.

As Oprah Winfrey, the ultimate arbiter of our culture, has made clear, no one except pesky nitpickers much cares whether Mr. Frey's autobiography is true or not, or whether it sits on a fiction or nonfiction shelf at Barnes & Noble. Such distinctions have long since washed away in much of our public life. What matters most now is whether a story can be sold as truth, preferably on television. The mock Comedy Central pundit Stephen Colbert's slinging of the word "truthiness" caught on instantaneously last year precisely because we live in the age of truthiness.

At its silliest level, this is manifest in show-biz phenomena like Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, juvenile pop stars who merchandised the joy of their new marriage as a lucrative MTV reality series before heading to divorce court to divvy up the booty. But if suckers want to buy fictional nonfiction like "Newlyweds" or "A Million Little Pieces" as if they were real, that's just harmless diversion.

It's when truthiness moves beyond the realm of entertainment that it's a potential peril. As Seth Mnookin, a rehab alumnus, has written in Slate, the macho portrayal of drug abuse in "Pieces" could deter readers battling actual addictions from seeking help. Ms. Winfrey's blithe re-endorsement of the book is less laughable once you start to imagine some Holocaust denier using her imprimatur to discount Elie Wiesel's incarceration at Auschwitz in her next book club selection, "Night."

This isn't just a slippery slope. It's a toboggan into chaos, or at least war. As everyone knows now - except for the 22 percent, according to a recent Harris poll, who still believe that Saddam helped plan 9/11 - it's the truthiness of all those imminent mushroom clouds that sold the invasion of Iraq. What's remarkable is how much fictionalization plays a role in almost every national debate. Even after a big humbug is exposed as blatantly as Professor Marvel in "The Wizard of Oz" - FEMA's heck of a job in New Orleans, for instance - we remain ready and eager to be duped by the next tall tale. It's as if the country is living in a permanent state of suspension of disbelief.

Democrats who go berserk at their every political defeat still don't understand this. They fault the public for not listening to their facts and arguments, as though facts and arguments would make a difference, even if the Democrats were coherent. It's the power of the story that always counts first, and the selling of it that comes second. Accuracy is optional. The Frey-like genius of the right is its ability to dissemble with a straight face while simultaneously mustering the slick media machinery and expertise to push the goods. It not only has the White House propaganda operation at its disposal, but also an intricate network of P.R. outfits and fake-news outlets that are far more effective than their often hapless liberal counterparts.

The selling of Samuel Alito is a perfect illustration of how our world works. From the moment Judge Alito emerged from Harriet Miers's penumbra, his supporters' story line was clear: he'd be presented as a humble exemplar of American values too mainstream to be labeled "out of the mainstream" by his opponents. In his first courtesy calls on Capitol Hill in November, we learned, Judge Alito often cited his father as a proud immigrant who instilled in him empathy for minorities and the poor - an empathy not remotely apparent in the judge's legal record. A particularly poignant anecdote had it that his father had once defended a black basketball player from discrimination in college.

Yet David Kirkpatrick of The Times reported then that "some colleagues and friends of the elder Mr. Alito, who died in 1987, said they had never heard some of the stories his son has recounted, including the episode about his support for the black student and the fact that his father immigrated from Italy as a child." No matter. If such questions couldn't stop an Oprah Book Club selection, they certainly wouldn't stop a nominee to the Supreme Court.

Once Judge Alito came before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Democrats decided to counter the Republicans' story by coming up with a fictional story of their own, or that's what they did once they stopped bloviating. Their fictional biography cast Judge Alito as an out-and-out bigot. The major evidence cited to support this characterization was his listing his membership in Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP), a conservative group founded in reaction to the upheavals of the Vietnam era, on a job application for the Reagan Justice Department.

Judge Alito testified that he had joined CAP because it supported the R.O.T.C. on campus, adding that he did not remember having "done anything substantial in relation to this group, including renewing my membership." The Democrats plunged on, betting the house (or the Supreme Court) on Teddy Kennedy's insistence that Judge Alito could be linked to what the senator described as CAP's "repulsive anti-woman, anti-black, anti-disability, anti-gay pronouncements." In one of only two dramatic moments in the whole soporific confirmation process - a "Sunshine Boys"-style spat with the committee chairman, Arlen Specter - Mr. Kennedy threatened to subpoena CAP "documents in the possession of the Library of Congress" to hunt down Judge Alito's bigotry.

There was only one problem with the Democrats' fictional story line: it had been exposed as fake on the front page of The Times weeks before Mr. Kennedy presented it to the nation. Mr. Kirkpatrick reported that he had examined the same papers Mr. Kennedy was threatening to subpoena - as well as some others at Princeton's own library - and found no trace of Judge Alito's involvement with CAP as either an active participant or a major donor. When the Senate committee did Mr. Kennedy's bidding and looked at those documents yet again, it found exactly what The Times had in November, calling the senator's bluff and ending any remote chance the Democrats had for keeping Judge Alito off the court. It says everything about the Democrats' ineptitude that when they spin fiction, they are incapable of meeting even the low threshold of truthiness needed to make it fly in this lax cultural environment.

THE Republicans would never have been so sloppy. Indeed, hardly had Mr. Kennedy's melodramatic stunt blown up in his face than they came up with a new story line prompted by the other dramatic incident in the hearings: the departure of Martha-Ann Alito from the committee room in tears. She fled while a Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, was mocking the Democrats, not when the eminently mockable Democrats were mounting their lame assault. Whatever. As Time magazine later reported, a P.R. outfit called Creative Response Concepts immediately pumped up the media volume of her supposed martyrdom, breathlessly producing a former Alito clerk to provide eyewitness testimony of her suffering at the hands of those Democratic brutes.

Creative Response Concepts did similar work for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth during the 2004 campaign. Its roster of clients also includes the right-wing Media Research Center, itself the parent organization of something called the Cybercast News Service. For the new year, Cybercast News has an exciting fictional project of its own: just before John Murtha, the tough Congressional critic of the Iraq war, appeared on "60 Minutes" last Sunday, it started Swift Boating him by rewriting his Vietnam history to besmirch the legitimacy of his two Purple Hearts.

If Karl Rove's White House propaganda factory is the NBC Universal or Time Warner of G.O.P. fictionalization, then the Miramax and Focus Features of the right are such nominally "independent" satellites as Cybercast News, the Lincoln Group (which places fake news stories in Iraqi newspapers), the Rendon Group (which helped manufacture the heroic image of Ahmad Chalabi) and the now-dormant Talon News (the fake Republican-staffed news site whose fake White House correspondent, Jeff Gannon, was unmasked last year).

Fittingly enough against this backdrop, last week brought the re-emergence of Clifford Irving, the author of the fake 1972 autobiography of Howard Hughes that bamboozled the world long before fraudulent autobiographies and biographies were cool. He announced that he was removing his name from "The Hoax," a coming Hollywood movie recounting his exploits, because of what he judged its lack of fidelity to "the truth of what happened." That Mr. Irving can return like Rip van Winkle after all these years to take the moral high ground in defense of truthfulness is a sign of just how low into truthiness we have sunk.

To my readers: Starting next week, I will be on a book leave, writing nonfiction about our post-9/11 fictions. See you in the spring.

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Googling Past the Graveyard

I don't like the thought of Dick Cheney ogling my Googling.

Because what I'm Googling, of course, is Dick Cheney. I have to constantly monitor how Vice Voyeur is pushing the federal government to constantly monitor millions of ordinary Americans' phone calls, e-mail notes and Internet searches.

If you want to know why the Grim Peeper is willing to turn this country into a police state to take his version of democracy to other countries, just do a Google search under "antiterrorism," "government snooping," "overreaching" and "fruitcake."

It was hard to know which story yesterday was scarier: Osama bin Laden, still alive and taunting the U.S., or the Justice Department's trying to force Google to turn over a suspiciously broad array of information on millions of users' searches and Web addresses, supposedly to investigate online crime involving pornography.

The Internet is full of vile diversions, but prying without justification is just as vile. Innocent Americans - not just lonely guys in their boxers - could be swept up in the fishnet dragnet. Who decides what is porn? Will those who Google to find out-of-print copies of Lynne Cheney's juicy, cheesy lesbian Old West novel, "Sisters," be suspect? (The cheapest copy at is $195.)

When Fox News asked him about the fresh Osama audiotape, Mr. Cheney sounded like Mr. Moviefone. "Probably low production values," he said.

Osama may not have graduated to DVD's, but he has stayed alive, despite W.'s threat way back in the era of dial-up connections to smoke him out and hunt him down.

Officials first indicated that the U.S. had killed Ayman al-Zawahiri in a bombing in Pakistan last week - or at least his son-in-law or a friend of his son-in-law, or maybe the guy who delivered a kabob to him. Yesterday, Al Qaeda released a tape of Zawahiri's greatest verse hits - poetry for jihadists - like "Tears in the Eyes of Time." What rhymes with mujahedeen? Antihistamine?

None of the Bushies' actions in defiance of law and convention, none of the money or blood spilled in Iraq, have helped these so-called tough guys get the one guy they really need to get. That is truly galling.

W. and Vice don't even act upset about Osama's still being on the loose. Having played down his significance after they missed their chance to get him in Tora Bora, they continue to act as if it's no big deal when he hurls more threats.

Torquemada Cheney was torturing logic again in a speech to a conservative think tank in New York. "Some have suggested that by liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein, we simply stirred up a hornets' nest," he said. "They overlook a fundamental fact: we were not in Iraq on Sept. 11, 2001, and the terrorists hit us anyway."

Yeah, Dick, because they weren't in Iraq, either.

The fact that federal snoopers are all over reporters, monitoring their phone calls, shows the sorry state of our intelligence. Even F.B.I. agents feel as if they have been wasting their time rummaging through library cards and tracing numbers that turn out to be Pizza Huts.

Maybe they could make an argument that it's worth bending the Constitution into a balloon elephant if we were getting Osama's area code and smashing his connections. We don't even bother to raise the terror alarm anymore when the Qaeda mass murderer releases a tape. The scare-level color code was a more useful tool before the 2004 election.

I just don't get why it's so hard to find Osama. So what if he's in what is often described as "the impossibly rugged mountain terrain" of Pakistan? We send people to the Moon, and W. wants to send someone to Mars. What's more impossibly rugged terrain than that?

If we can brave Big Brother, we could probably find Osama's lair on Google Earth (but not Dick Cheney's - it's censored).

The White House has always seemed less compelled to capture Osama than to use him as a pretext for invading Iraq and as a political selling point. Karl Rove, coming out of his "please don't indict me" crouch, tried to chase away the taint of the Abramoff scandal with a new round of terror-mongering for 2006: "We need a commander in chief and a Congress who understand the nature of the threat and the gravity of this moment. President Bush and the Republican Party do. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for many Democrats."

So why did the White House set aside the gravest threat of all?

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company