Friday, August 08, 2014

'There's A House In The Land' Available In Kindle And Trade Paperback Editions

A character in the Doonesbury comic strip once called the 1970s "A kidney stone of a decade," and compared to the 1960s and 1980s, it indeed was.  It was a period of economic and political decline and, of course, abuses of power with Watergate being the worst but by no means only scandal.  Decades get demythologized; it is a quintessential part of the Great American Meat Grinder, but nobody has bothered to demythologize the 1970s because there was nothing mythical about them. 
The decade opened with a cyclone killing a half million people in Bangladesh and the Beatles breaking up, at midpoint, the Vietnam War was sputtering to an end and New York City was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, while its conclusion was marked by the Iran hostage crisis and introduction of the first Sony Walkman.  The decade's three presidents -- Nixon, Ford and Carter -- were dirty or mediocre, and the state of the union was not good.
It also was a time of bad hair and bad music, but none of that mattered to the tribe who lived on a farm beyond Philadelphia's far western suburbs. At first glance, this farm would seem to have been one of the then-ubiquitous communes, but it most definitely was not.   
There's A House In The Land (Where a Band Can Take a Stand) is the compelling, funny and sometimes heartbreaking story of that tribe and that farm.  It is fact lightly disguised as fiction in that the places, events and people are real, but the names of some places and people have been changed to protect the innocent.  As well as the guilty.  
Click here to order the trade paperback or Kindle editions of There's A House In The Land
Headline lyrics from "Stairway to Heaven"
by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant

Excerpt: 'There Must Be Some Way Out Of Here Said The Joker To The Thief'

MILK HOUSE AND BARN (circa 1975)
(Excerpt from opening of first chapter) 

    The first time I went out to Kiln Farm, bumping along in an aluminum beach chair anchored to the floor in the back of  Eldon's Chevy Step Van, it seemed like it took forever although the farm was only 10 miles from New Park.  

    Back then New Park was a quaint college town without a single decent restaurant.  But it did have the New Park Tavern, which Edgar Allan Poe is said to have cursed when he got falling-down drunk following a lecture at the college and was thrown out, as well as two

other establishments where students could hoist a pint before returning to the comfy confines of a picture book campus with ivy-covered buildings.  The Poe story is apocryphal because the tavern didn't exist when the poet-storyteller gave the lecture, but that hadn't prevented the management from plastering raven images on beer mugs and T-shirts.

    Today that quaintness is long gone.  There are several decent restaurants, the tavern is still raven-centric, but has been cleansed of its rusticated piss and beer charm.  About the curse, I don't know.  After a night of drinking, students now return to a campus that has grown up to become a world-class university known for far more than its football team.

    As for the farm, all but the farmhouse was razed years ago.  The garden, apiary, barn, milk house, chicken coop, black walnut tree that little Caitlin swung under, and the fields that seemed to go on forever, were bulldozed and replaced by cookie cutter townhouses in a development insultingly called Kiln Farms.

* * * * *
    Eldon turned off the state road onto a driveway flanked by row after row of field corn and began the bumpy ascent to a place that would be my home for the next 10 years.

   My initial impression was a cosmic wow! For the first time since I had returned from Nam, I finally felt like I was home.  It just wasn't the kind of home I had expected when a past and future resident of the farm, whom I had met in Saigon shortly before we caught Freedom Birds home, invited me to hang out until I got my bearings.
    The upper story of the farmhouse came into view as we began to crest the last hill and broke free of the cornfields.  Windows blazing brilliant orange with the reflection of the late afternoon sun framed by white stucco walls and topped by a faded red tin roof created the appearance of a gigantic grinning jack o' lantern. Appropriate, because it was Halloween.  There was music playing.  Very loud music.  I recognized it as King Crimson's "In the Court of the Crimson King."

    The music was blaring from large Pioneer speakers on a porch flanked by two guys guarding a half keg of beer in a wash tub filled with chunks of ice.  Both could have been mistaken for guitar god Duane Allman with their tall and lean builds, bushy moustaches and long hair, while an Irish setter, whom I imagined had to be deaf from the volume of the music, slept on the steps between the porch and front lawn, where a hotly contested game of horseshoes was being played. 

    The guy sitting on one side of the keg was resplendent in a sparkling red lamé jumpsuit, MARS emblazoned in big letters on the back.  His head and arms were painted a matching red, as well.  The guy on the other side was wearing a similar only blue lamé jumpsuit with VENUS across the back, his head and arms painted blue.  Trick or treating had obviously started early for these two planets . . .
Headline lyrics from "All Along the Watchtower" by Bob Dylan
Photographs by the author

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Robert Stein (March 1924 ~ July 2014)

Bob interviews Marilyn Monroe (1955)
Robert Stein was the longtime editor of Redbook in its heyday, publisher, media critic, journalism teacher and blogger, former chairman of the American Society of Magazine Editors, and author of Media Power: Who Is Shaping Your Picture of the World?  He was a friend of the rich and famous, including Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy Onassis.  And he was my friend.
Before the war in Iraq, Bob wrote in The New York Times:
"I see a generation gap in the debate over going to war in Iraq. Those of us who fought in World War II know there was no instant or easy glory in being part of 'The Greatest Generation,' just as we knew in the 1990s that stock-market booms don't last forever. We don’t have all the answers, but we want to spare our children and grandchildren from being slaughtered by politicians with a video-game mentality." 
This, Bob explained, was not meant to extol geezer wisdom but suggest that:
"Even in our age of 24/7 hot flashes, something can be said for perspective. The Web is a wide space for spreading news, but it can also be a deep well of collective memory to help us understand today's world. In olden days, tribes kept village elders around to remind them with which foot to begin the ritual dance. Start the music."
Bob kept blogging practically until the day he left this mortal coil.  We shall miss him.
More here.
Top photograph by Ed Fayngersh

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Happy July 4th. Be Hopeful & Stay Dry

When the best thing to happened in months is the Supreme Court closing down for the summer, then you know that 2014 has not been the most auspicious of years.  Neither was 1776, but there is a certain holiday celebrated because of the events on July Fourth of that year (except that nothing of consequence happened on the Fourth; the real events occurred 238 years ago on July Second.  No matter.)
Anyhow, we are living through a time of extraordinary human events, most of them definitely not for the good.  But no matter one's personal and political views, let's glory in the greatness that the United States of American once represented and hope for better times.  And enjoy the fireworks Friday night.  Unless you're on the East Coast and in the path of Hurricane Arthur.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Will The Safety Recall Tsunami Force GM To Change It's Culture? Don't Bet On It.

With 29 million cars now having been recalled by General Motors for safety problems -- which is substantially more than the 22 million recalled last year by all automakers combined --  it is easy to conclude that GM has learned little from its turbulent recent past, which has included hemorrhaging market share for decades because of a crappy product line and then a near-death bankruptcy averted by a taxpayer and labor union bailout just as it was beginning to make attractive vehicles not destined for rental-car fleets.

GM's product line today -- from entry level compacts to behemoth pickup trucks -- is as competitive as any vehicle manufacturer anywhere.  Its Cadillac brand is back from the dead and its overall fleet has been at or near the top in initial J.D. Power quality ratings in recent years.  Several of GM's most venerable brands have been put out to pasture, and with the company concentrating on fewer product lines its future looked bright and Mary Barra, the first woman to head a major global automaker, seemed like the right person for the job.
Until its past began catching up to it in an extraordinary series of recalls, many of which were for safety issues that came to the attention of GM years ago but it failed to address head on. 
* * * * *
I trace the beginning of General Motors’ downturn back to 1976 when a peppy little import called the Honda Accord first arrived in the U.S. The 1976 Accord had just everything that the GM cars of that era didn’t.  It was attractive, albeit in a cute sort of way. It was larger on the inside than it appeared from the outside, not the other way around. It had a rear hatch that opened to a collapsible back seat, offering lots of storage space. It handled well, had oomph and was economical, which was no small thing arriving as it did between the twin 1970s oil crises. A practical friend who had owned GM cars forever bought a metallic silver Accord and was hooked. I drove it and was hooked, too.

GM’s response to the Accord and successive waves of hot selling offerings from Honda and later Toyota and Datsun (Nissan) was to continue churning out formulaicly unattractive and uneconomical cars of dubious quality. In fact, GM’s only direct response to the so-called Japanese Invasion was an abomination called the Chevette.

The General’s fortunes briefly improved after Rick Wagoner took over as CEO in 2000 and GM's share price soared to a record $90. (It is $37 today.)  But beneath the gloss the same fundamental problems persisted, eating into the huge corporation like rust spreading through the underbody of a Cadillac Coupe de Ville.

These problems included overcapacity – too many assembly plants and not enough orders, sweetheart contracts with the United Auto Workers union, purchasing foreign car companies and then taking huge losses when GM couldn't make them work with their business model.  (What it did to Saab was unforgivable.)

But the biggest problem was that Wagoner’s GM was coasting along with pretty much the same tired product line as much of the rest of the automotive world was stealing a march on it with attractive and innovative products.

One GM brand was virtually undistinguishable from another. Calls to cut back on the duplication of models between brands and to even fold the lesser selling brands largely went unheeded. Most ominously for GM, Japanese automakers were opening U.S. plants and turning out cars (and later small trucks) that were as well made as those at their vaunted home plants while GM’s U.S. plants continued to produce poorly made vehicles.

In 1994, GM sold 35 percent of all cars sold in the U.S. Today it sells 18 percent. In 2005, it suffered its biggest loss ($10.6 billion) since the Depression, and its failure to shake off its old ways drove it to the verge of bankruptcy in 2008.  Waggoner took a hike at the behest of the Obama administration in 2009 as an unstated condition for its taxpayer-assisted bailout of the automaker, Pontiac, Saturn and Hummer joined Oldsmobile in going bye-bye, and while GM trails badly in hybrid technology, it finally seemed to be shedding all that rust as it introduced spiffy new models.
Yet it kept its old way of doing business.
In a blistering report last month prompted by the deadly Chevy Cobalt ignition switch problem that only scratched the surface of the GM culture, former federal prosecutor Anton Valukas described what he called the "GM nod."  That's when managers nod in agreement about a course of action but then do nothing.  Then there is the "GM salute." That's when managers, arms folded and pointed outward, indicate that the problem at hand is someone else's responsibility.
* * * * *
In the wake of the record recalls, which now total 54 in all, much has been made of the fact that the turnaround of Ford, which alone among Big Three automakers did not need a bailout, can be traced to Alan Mulally, who became Ford's CEO in 2006 after a long career at Boeing, and not being a car guy, let alone beholden to longtime Ford executives as Waggoner and now Barra are, set out to change Ford's corporate culture.  Considering that Ford lost $12.7 billion in 2006 and made $8.6 billion last year, it would seem that he succeeded.

To give Barra credit, she came up in the product-development side of GM.  Her father was a toolmaker at Pontiac for 39 years.  She seems to have cooperated fully with Valukas; it was she who told him about the G.M. nod.  Most importantly, she seems to understand what is wrong with GM's deeply inbred culture, which punishes whistle blowers rather than heed them. 

But there is no indication that Barra knows how to change that culture, let alone an arrogance that has survived GM's long slide from being the world's largest automaker to its near-death experience and now the stunning series of recalls, many of which would have never come to light had it not been for the Cobalt crisis.  Mulally's vision eventually trickled down to middle managers.  What is Barra's vision and how is she going to make sure it trickles down?

Fifteen GM employees have been dismissed for their roles in allowing the original ignition defect to go unrepaired for more than a decade, while regulators imposed a $35 million penalty for failing to report the problem in a timely manner.  A wrist slap, to be sure, and it is highly unlikely there will be criminal prosecutions as a plan fashioned by compensation expert Kenneth R. Feinberg to swiftly pay fatal accident victims' families more than $1 million, and in some cases as much as $4 million, each goes into effect.

What makes Barra's job even tougher is that a precipitous drop in sales might have a sobering effect, but GM is selling cars like hotcakes despite the recalls, yet again confirming that P.T. Barnum was right.

GM registered a 12.6 percent increase in sales in May, significantly outpacing Ford's 3 percent growth, and eeked out a 1 percent increase in June as Ford sales fell 5 percent, while the many millions of dollars that will be paid out will be written off as the price of doing business.  

Like the 9/11 and BP funds administered by Feinberg, the GM fund is designed to keep victims from filing lawsuits.  They must be willing to waive the right to sue before they are paid.  And those millions to be paid do not include punitive damages, so taken in the most uncharitable light, GM is getting away with murder.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Will Amazon Take A Hit On J.K.'s Latest?

The Silkworm, a new detective novel by Robert Galbraith, is the guaranteed hottest bestseller of the summer.  If you've never heard of Galbraith, try J.K. Rowling, who has now written two books under that nomme de plume since publishing the last book of her wildly popular Harry Potter series.  But what makes the buzz over this book different than the usual reviews of recommended beach-reading mystery fare is that Amazon, by far the world's largest bestseller, is taking a beating over its consumer-friendly image because of it's ongoing sandbox fight with Hachette Book Group, whose Mulholland Books imprint, a division of Little Brown, publishes The Silkworm

The exact nature of the sand throwing is itself a mystery, but has something to do with Amazon wanting a bigger cut of each Hachette e-book it sells.  Amazon has given customers trying to buy the 5,000 Hachette titles it lists the middle finger by telling them there will be lengthy delays before delivery, as opposed to its famous Prime service, which delivers e-titles immediately and most hardback and paperback titles to your doorstep within 48 hours, and sometimes less.  The initial wait time for The Silkworm was one to two months, now down to two to four weeks as of this writing.
I have been an Amazon Prime customer since the service began in 2005.  My recent purchases have included a garden hose nozzle, low-cut athletic socks, a hickory walking stick and another batch of racket balls, which are rugged enough and not too small for our brother-sister chocolate Labradors to fetch, chew to their heart's content and drool all over, but they eventually get lost when the current in the creeks and rivers where they swim carries them away.
But I digress. 
I will not be ordering The Silkworm from Amazon less because I don't want to wait up to a month (I've got a big unread book backlog as is), but as an author myself with some grasp of the publishing biz have become weary of its bullying. 
Retailers like Walmart are drooling at the anticipated sales bonanza because of Amazon's hissy fit.  Walmart is deep discounting The Silkworm, but I won't be buying the book there because of its abominable labor practices.  I'll probably eventually buy it from an indy seller like Third Place Books in Seattle, which happens to be where the vast Amazon empire is headquartered.
For the record, the Harry Potter books bored me, which is to say that I tried to read the first couple and then bailed on the last five, while Rowling's first post-Potter offer, The Casual Vacancy, was pretty bad, especially considering that she is one of the most successful authors evah.
As for The Silkworm itself, I anticipate it to be just as good as Rowling's . . . er, Galbraith's terrific No. 1 bestseller The Cuckoo's Calling, the inaugural offering in what is likely to be a long series of books featuring detective Cormoran Strike, who lost a leg to a landmine in Afghanistan, and his comely sidekick, Robin Ellacott.  (Think Holmes and Watson.)  Strike is endlessly described as a loveable Rubeus Hagrid type by critics who just can't let go of the Hogwarts analogies.  Somewhat ironically, Strike wades into the dark underbelly of book publishing in the new offering.
Anyhow, reviews of The Silkworm have been uniformly adulatory even if I do suspect that many critics not only have a hard time avoiding the Potter references, but judging Gailbraith on "his" own terms.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Obama Administration's Justification For Killing An American Abroad Doesn't Fly

There was a familiar odor emanating from the Justice Department memo finally made public this week that sought to justify killing the American citizen and radical Muslim cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen: It was legal gobbledegook clearly designed to reach a desired conclusion, and the last time we saw antics on this scale was in the infamous Bush Justice Department memos justifying the use of torture despite it being clearly unconstitutional and a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
It took a while to me to conclude that the drone strike was justified.  Make no mistake about it, Awlaki was a terrorist. It can be argued that he was an American citizen in name only, but it is undeniable that he not only was the inspiration, but the strategic and tactical commander for terrorist operations that caused the death of U.S. citizens. He was in direct communication with Nadal Hasan, who killed 13 soldiers at Fort Hood. He personally recruited and trained Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to explode a bomb in his underwear aboard a flight with 290 passengers. When Senator Rand Paul claims Awlaki was "not directly involved in combat," he draws a distinction that seems out of touch with reality.
What is so troubling about the Obama administration memo is that, despite the need to carefully articulate the legal grounds on which to slay American citizens on foreign soil, it seemed hal-assed and was released only after an extensive legal fight led by The New York Times and American Civil Liberties Union.
As the Times notes in an editorial, "the memo turns out to be a slapdash pastiche of legal theories — some based on obscure interpretations of British and Israeli law — that was clearly tailored to the desired result. Perhaps the administration held out so long to avoid exposing the thin foundation on which it based such a momentous decision."
The primary theory outlined in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel memo justifying the U.S. killing one of its own, if they pose a threat, is the "public authorities justification."
This is a legal concept that permits governments to take actions in emergency situations that would otherwise break the law. As the editorial notes, that's why fire trucks can break the speed limit and police officers can fire at a threatening gunman. But the justification opens the door wide to myriad government misdeeds, especially since Congress has never authorized an exception for killings like Awlaki's, while the concept of due rights that Americans typically are granted in criminal proceedings are given short shrift.
Besides which, drone strikes have killed innocent bystanders, which certainly are not comparable to the police shootings that the memo cites as precedent.
We still do not know how the U.S. knew that Awlaki was planning the "imminent" mayhem that the memo claims because that information was  redacted from the memo.  All it says is that Awlaki had joined Al Qaeda and was planning attacks on Americans, but the government did not know when or where these attacks would occur.
How ironic that President Obama has been repeatedly accused of being weak on fighting terrorism by the Republican national security choir, but has been far more successful in five-plus years than the bombastic and serially reckless Bush administration was in eight years.

The aggressive Obama administration pushback has included stepped up drone attacks and commando raids in Afghanistan and Pakistan and in the mountainous Wild West border region they share, the assassination by Navy SEAL team of Osama bin Laden, and the assassination by drone of Awlaki on September 30, 2011 in Yemen.
The justifications in the Awlaki memo are not the leaps of logic in the reverse-engineered opinions written by John Yoo for the Bush Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel to provide legal backfill and ass covering for torture regime policies already well in place.

Those leaps of logic included Yoo's disingenuous commingling of World War II prisoners of war with post-9/11 enemy combatants, as well as the assertion of Michael Mukasey, who was easily the most dangerous of the three Bush administration attorneys general, that Yoo and his brethren cannot commit crimes when they act under the orders of the president and the president cannot commit crimes when he acts under the advice of his lawyers.
But that is small comfort.  No president should be able to pick and choose when to uphold and defend the Constitution, let alone Obama, who was once a constitutional scholar.  His legal eagles need to craft a redo on the Awlaki memo.  The alternative is to acknowledge that despite the fact Awlaki was a very bad man, a strong legal case wasn't made to take him out.  
And Obama needs to go to Congress for its blessing to authorize the killing of Americans overseas when they are viewed as threats to the homeland.  Yes, getting Congress to do anything is nearly impossible these days, but history will be less kind to the president for weak legal justifications and not giving Congress an opportunity to exercise its constitutional prerogative. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Iraq Crisis: A Real-Life 'Game Of Thrones'

When the British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes sat down with François George-Picot, his French counterpart, on May 16, 1916 in London for the last in a six-month series of tea-and-negotiation meetings, it was the pilot episode of a sort of a real-life Game of Thrones.

The diplomats had been negotiating on how to divvy up the spoils of the Ottoman Empire.  The conclusion of World War I was still two and a half years away, but the end of Turkish hegemony in the region was a foregone conclusion and the superpower governments in London and Paris, which were kind of like the Westeros and Essos of the time, wanted to leave as little as possible to chance in fulfilling their imperialist desiderata, least of all to make good on vague promises made to the Arabs -- and the legendary Lawrence of Arabia, the leading advocate of the Arab cause -- for their own homeland as a reward for their assistance in crushing the Turks in the arid western expanses of their empire.

Subsequent episodes of this real-life Game of Thrones, minus scantily clad maidens and a dwarf named Tyrion, but with plenty of civil wars and bloodshed to go around, have been playing out for nearly 100 years beginning with the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, which set the artificial boundaries of colonial Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (and eventually the state of Israel) and provoked never ending cycles of ethnic strife, poverty, disenfranchisement, religious extremism and, of course, terrorism.  Which brings us to the current episode -- the disintegration of Iraq -- where all that is on offer.
What will the next episode bring?

Business as usual for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki no matter how intense the domestic and international pressures on him are.  Much, although by no means all, of the world of hurts that Iraqis find themselves in stem from Al-Maliki using his office, with the acquiescence of the Bush administration, to install fellow Shiites in all the key posts while driving out Sunni politicians and generals.  That is not going to change.
* Because that is not going to change, the Obama administration's response to the disintegration of Iraq will take that into account.  Neocon dogs of war like Paul Wolfowitz, who misunderstand everyone and mismanage everything, drove the U.S. into the democracy-at-point-of-gun invasion in the first place (check out reruns of 2003 season episodes) and can bark about going back into Iraq until they go hoarse.  Shame on them.  And praise Barack Obama for his coolness under fire.
* Iran, which exerts major leverage in the region, will play a crucial role.  The feelers that the Great Satan have put out to the Iranian government, which include behind-the-scenes talks in Vienna regarding how these strange bedfellows might work together to try to defuse the crisis, are hugely important regardless of the natterings of those dogs, whose policies empowered Iran in the first place, as well as their Republican helpmates on Capitol Hill.
* Accentuating the positive.  The rapprochement between rival Kurdish factions, which has resulted in democratic elections and a flourishing economy, has brought an unprecedented stability to northernmost Iraq.  Kurds and the Arab and Turkmen ethnic minorities in the region like paved roads, decent schools and hospitals, having electricity 24 hours a day, and not being blown up by suicide bombers.  They do not like Al-Maliki or his central government.  Tough.
* Understanding that Iraq is not Syria and Syria is not Iraq.  While they share a border and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria jihadists are the major players in the civil war in Syria and the current upheaval in Iraq, as well as feeding Shiite-Sunni tensions throughout the region, a one-solution-fits-both-states outcome is not in the cards.  Nor will either country be unified in the foreseeable future.
* The offensive by hair-on-fire ISIS insurgents that precipitated the crisis central to the current episode is unsustainable.   Maintaining the Sykes-Picot borders are in the best short-term diplomatic interests of the U.S., but if three states with notional borders divided by ethnicity and faith -- Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish -- do emerge, future episodes might just reveal that they are more stable.  And that Joe Biden, who as a senator argued that sectarian states were preferable to recurring chaos, was right.
* The recriminations about who "lost" Iraq will rage on.  Well, Sykes and Picot lost Iraq, while the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld troika lost it even more.  Oh, and it was Bush who negotiated the agreement that would have left a residual U.S. force.  Obama just happened to have become president when Al-Maliki rejected the agreement because the U.S. wouldn't abide with a provision stripping U.S. troops of legal immunity from Iraqi prosecution, something that even John "A Hundred Years of War" McCain would not abide.
Stay tuned.
Photograph courtesy of HBO

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The O.J. Saga 20 Years On: The Big Story Remains Why He Became A Murderer

O.J. with friends two months before the murders
It was a balmy June evening on the East Coast, 20 years ago today to be exact.  We were watching Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets at Madison Square Garden on a Los Angeles television station because we were putting our recently installed 12-foot satellite dish through its paces and had swung it into a position where we could pull in California signals.  It was about 10 p.m. and the Knicks were ahead by a basket in a lead-changing nail biter when the station suddenly cut away to a Los Angeles freeway, where a camera from a news helicopter showed a phalanx of police cruisers, their lights madly flashing, in pursuit of a white Ford Bronco.

Four days earlier, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, described in early press reports as an acquaintance of the estranged wife of legendary football star O.J. Simpson, had been found slashed to death outside her L.A. condominium.  The TV announcer breathlessly intoned that O.J. had been charged with the murders, had reneged on a promise to turn himself in to the police, and his Bronco had been spotted on a southern L.A. freeway in what would become, according to one survey, the sixth "most universally impactful" TV moment of the last 50 years -- a suspenseful but in retrospect comical low-speed chase that paled next to other impactful moments, including the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the space shuttle Challenger disaster.
We were transfixed as we watched the chase.  Hell, all of America was transfixed as Domino's Pizza reported record home-delivery sales because the chase unfolded during dinner time on the West Coast.  This epic pursuit, with O.J. best friend Al Cowlings at the wheel and the Juice himself riding in the back, reportedly with a gun in hand, ground to a halt 50 miles, two hours and hundreds of thousands of consumed pizzas later later as Simpson, clutching family photos, staggered out of the Bronco in the driveway of his Brentwood home, collapsed into the arms of police officers and was handcuffed.
Moments after the chase ended, the phone rang.  It was the City Desk at the Philadelphia newspaper where I was working.  I was told that I was on the O.J. case full time.  Big Boss's orders.  As it turned out, I would be on the case full time for the next 16 months as I covered the murder investigation, pre-trial maneuvering and then the nine-month Trial of the Century.  Looking back on the whole sordid affair 20 years on, it was an unrelenting exercise in hyperbole that somehow nevertheless never became bigger than itself in laying bare our obsession with celebrity and the ugliness of our nation's racial divide, the vulnerability of single women, and the debut of an apparently foolproof new forensic technique involving DNA analysis, while revealing how little most of us knew about the criminal justice system, let alone how to game a jury into believing that O.J.'s blood-soaked gloves didn't fit him.
Yet for this career journalist and long time observer of the ebb and flow of American fads, interests and mores, the biggest story was and remains why Orenthal James Simpson became a murderer.
* * * * *
In a society that judges a person by the color of their skin, O.J. had something that very few black Americans could claim: He was so accomplished and at one time was so popular that, in advertising agency parlance, he was "race neutral."

That is to say that when most people looked at him they saw not a black man who happened to have overcome a disadvantaged childhood in a broken home, but a handsome and gifted athlete who found fame and fortune by parlaying outstanding college and professional football careers into a successful big-bucks life off the field selling everything from men's footwear to rental cars, and as a broadcaster and later a not-bad Hollywood actor who married a gorgeous blonde woman, had two beautiful children with her, seemed to be in a giving marriage in a multi-racial community not unusual for Southern California but at that time alien to the rest of the country, and was endlessly kind and considerate to his friends. 
Simpson’s acquittal on charges that he murdered his wife and Goldman at the conclusion of the storied 1995 criminal trial can be attributed, in large part, to black jurors who believed that he had been framed because of his skin color.  (The families of Brown Simpson and Goldman eventually were awarded a $33.5 million wrongful-death civil judgment.) 

Yet it appears that to most people O.J. still remains O.J. despite the bitterness and animosity that the verdict unleashed on both sides of the racial divide (although it was us white folks who were shocked, just shocked, that the divide existed, while it was an inescapable fact of life for blacks and other minorities).
Today O.J. still is not merely a black man gone bad.  Never mind that his good looks have faded, his waistline has exploded, and he is a long-term guest of the Nevada state prison system because of a 2008 conviction for a botched sports memorabilia robbery at a Las Vegas casino-hotel.  Which unlike the murder trial, did not become a racial flash point.
* * * * *
I had a great ride off of O.J.  Given free rein by the Big Boss, I wrote at least one story each weekday for 16 months, as well as a syndicated column of gossipy tidbits called "The Simpson File" that was wildly popular and published in newspapers throughout the U.S. and Canada.  There was no such thing as a slow news day, and I never ran out of material.
I was one of the few reporters to plumb the racial aspects of the jury early on -- 10 women and two men, nine of whom were black, two white and one Hispanic -- and while I did not predict the acquittal, I wrote that such an outcome would not necessarily be surprising because woman jurors seemed so sympathetic to O.J. and the truth stretching but convincing arguments of his Dream Team of defense lawyers, who had basically eaten Marsha Clark and her fellow prosecutors for lunch.

I was the only reporter, to my knowledge, to explore gender views of Nicole. 
In one story, I riffed off of trial testimony showing that after returning home with her two young children on the night of the murders, Nicole had put them to bed, then lit candles throughout her condo, put on soothing music and taken a long bath.  And that to most men, such a scenario indicated that she was getting ready to meet a lover, in this case Goldman, while most women believed that like many a mother, she just wanted to chill out after a long and stressful day, which had included an unpleasant encounter with O.J. at an ice cream parlor.  Meanwhile, Goldman just happened to show up to return a pair of reading glasses she had misplaced.  Men couldn't relate to the tired mom scenario.  Women could.

My one "big" scoop concerned the fact the Nicole's breasts had been surgically enhanced because O.J. liked 'em big, something I confirmed in an interview with the Main Line Philadelphia plastic surgeon who had done the deed.

* * * * *
Celebrity became O.J., but he could not overcome his humanness.  I claim no special insight into the demons that possessed this Hall of Famer.  All I know is that despite his accomplishments and exalted status, he was just another person vulnerable to the baser temptations of life in the fast lane who succumbed to the frailties – in his case outbursts of rage, jealousy and a fondness for illegal substances -- that bedevil many of us.

Perhaps no one knows when O.J. hit bottom -- possibly not even The Juice himself.  That occurred sometime in the run-up to the slayings, which probably were a result of a cocaine-fueled binge, a fit of jealousy, or most likely both.  As it turned out, he had severely beaten Nicole on New Years Day 1989 in an earlier fit of rage.

In any event, it is sadly obvious that Simpson had been bottom crawling since the double murders. I will leave it to greater minds to do the moral calculus on whether his convictions for the Las Vegas crime spree some 13 years to the day of his murder trial acquittal and a jail sentence somehow makes up for him getting off in 1995.

My own view is that life -- and death -- don't work that way.  Besides which O.J., even at the advanced age of 66, seems incapable of being chastened no matter how hard he once looked for "the real killers" of Nicole and Ron, and how much jail time he does.
Photo from Splash News/Cobris via Vanity Fair

Friday, June 13, 2014

As Iraq Spirals Out Of Control, Another Bush Mess Is Dumped Into Obama's Lap

Jihadists celebrate capture of U.S. vehicle from Iraqi Army
I would like to personally thank George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.  I would like to thank them for creating the conditions that have led to the probability that militants will successfully establish an Islamist ministate straddling Syria and Iraq, which will further destabilize the most unstable region in the world.  And that President Obama will be forced, for political and not necessarily humanitarian reasons, to order air strikes against the militants to halt their advance toward Baghdad.

Messrs. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld worked hard to bring on this dire state of affairs:

They launched an invasion of Iraq in 2003 under false pretenses.  They starved the invasion of boots while draining the vital post-9/11 war in Afghanistan of resources.  They created the conditions for a protracted Iraqi civil war by propping up Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, an autocratic Shiite thug, while looking the other way as his "government" marginalized and persecuted the Sunni minority.  They tried to buy off Sunni militants by showering them with cash, weapons, pickup trucks and televisions rather than demanding that Al-Maliki establish a coalition government that reflected Iraq's historic sectarian and ethnic diversity.

They helped crash the American economy, driving it toward the worst recession since the Great Depression, by giving the rich tax cuts while simultaneously fighting two wars.  Then, after nearly 5,000 Americans died and tens of thousand more were injured (flooding the VA hospitals system and precipitating its current travails), as well as hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties and an immense refugee crisis, the Obama administration washed its hands of the whole self-created mess.
But not until after Obama tried but failed to get Al-Maliki to accede to a residual U.S. force that would remain as a backstop against exactly what is now happening.  That, of course, predictably has been overlooked by John "A Hundred Years of War" McCain and other hawks who lust for war -- anytime and anywhere -- who have been quick to condemn the commander in chief and falsely accuse him of being unprepared. 
Come on, guys, it was the Iraqis who were caught flat footed although the advance led by fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a breakaway group of Al Qaeda, has been under way for more than a year, with the major city of Falluja falling in January.
Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and once a symbol of how Iraqis of all sectarian stripes could co-exist, also has now fallen.  Militants have occupied facilities in the strategic oil-refining town of Baiji, and having taken Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, are driving toward Baghdad.  Their only setback seems to have been in Samarra, 70 miles north of Baghdad, which has a Sunni majority but is home to a major Shiite shrine and is being defended by Shiite militias.
While the militants' offensive has been tactically sophisticated and thus far unstoppable, there is little likelihood of them taking the capital of four million people.  Still, they have scored a huge coup even if forced back by airstrikes, while it will only be a matter of time before they will be on the march again since history reminds us that jihadists can always outlast military powers.
The militants, who number no more than 5,000 in all, many of them foreign fighters, seem to have been emboldened by the capture of all the U.S.-supplied military equipment left behind by government forces as they fled.  The U.S. had spent about $25 billion to train and equip the Iraqi Army, while Iraq has spent billions more to buy fighter jets, helicopter gunships, battle tanks, missiles and other weapons.
Although the Iraqi Army vastly outnumbers the insurgents, entire divisions have collapsed without a semblance of a fight.

Desertions are rife as troops shed their uniforms and vanish.  A new refugee crisis is at hand.  Only Kurdish pesh merga forces, which took over control of oil-rich Kirkuk in the north as the Iraqi Army faded away, are hanging tough.  But while the Kurds were America's most trustworthy Iraqi partners during the war, their allegiance to the central government is limited and the current conflict is sure to accelerate their drive for independence from Baghdad.
Oil prices, of course, are spiking over concerns about the fighting.
Meanwhile, in a sign of desperation, senior Shiite leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the senior cleric in Iraq, issued a call to arms on Friday, urging his countrymen to assist the government in its halting fight against the Sunni militants.
Having broken Iraq, the U.S. is now being asked to fix it.  And so another consequence of a Bush Era mess -- an all-out sectarian war that could result in more American blood being shed -- is dumped in President Obama's lap.  Meanwhile, Al Qaeda seems to have Yemen in its grip, the Pakistani Taliban are newly resurgent and Syrian moderates are all but vanquished.  And all this is Obama's fault?

One sure result of the chaos in Iraq is that Al-Maliki will have yet another excuse to again put off making policy concessions that might begin to stabilize the country.  Then there is the wild card: Iran coming to the aid of its ally Al-Maliki. There already are said to be two battalions of crack Quds Forces, the overseas branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, on the ground in Iraq. 
Picture the U.S., Iran and Syrian strongman Bashar Al-Assad's forces fighting on the same side.  Are you ready for that John McCain?
Photograph from Reuters

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Palinization Of The Media: Why It Continues To Allow Itself To Be Co-Opted

I have been reading books about and by Sarah Palin lately.  Two reasons for this: I am contemplating collaborating with a scholar on a book about the Palin Birth Hoax and the mainstream media's cowardly retreat from the likelihood that she faked a pregnancy in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election.  And although I do not believe that there is an ounce of genuineness in this woman, I continue to grapple with why she remains such a heroine for so many conservatives although her star in the Republican galaxy has faded, and remains such a powerfully divisive force on the national scene.

There are few, if any, better examples of a resume without a person than Palin, whose sheer vapidity and penchant for making over-the-top declarations; indeed, saying the wrong thing time and again, nevertheless makes her such a magnet for people who are convinced, as she is, that America has gone crazy.  (We actually kind of agree here, although for different reasons.) 
Palin and many of her acolytes believe that the end time is near.  They believe that Barack Obama is demon spawn and that government overreaches in everything from helping provide health care for those who need it most to confronting the menace of global warming.  They lie awake at night obsessing over America's fast shrinking white majority.  And they have an utter lack of curiosity about anything and everything that does not comport with their profoundly constipated world view.
It is this last aspect that perhaps most succinctly captures this self-anointed mama grizzly: Like her followers, Palin doesn't want to read or hear anything that conflicts with her beliefs.  More than that, people who disagree with her are not merely wrong, they are evil.  She could never acknowledge the existence of evolution, she has explained with utter seriousness, because she once saw pictures showing human footprints inside dinosaur tracks.
Why shouldn't we simply ignore Palin?  We don't really need yet another book, let alone another commentary, about her, right?
I don't care if John McCain, who confessed that he opted for Palin as a running mate in 2008 because she "made a strong impression," was put up to it.  His selection of Palin was incredible at the time based on what little we knew about her, and is appalling in retrospect now that we know so much about her.  This includes a disdain for any semblance of intellectual growth, her racism, and that she has had only one job in her entire life that she didn't quit, which at least is in keeping with a key tenet of the Tea Party that adores her and she loves back -- walking away from commitments, even if it means shutting down the government and putting people out of work.  Then there is Palin's well-documented vengefulness.  And some people still believe she would make a great president?
Palin remains fair game so long as she is afforded credibility by the mainstream media, let alone the posse at Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and his ilk.  And indeed she was taken credibly in her short-lived run for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.  It wasn't that the "lamestream" media, as Palin calls it, had failed to catch on that she was a liar and a cipher based on the 2008 campaign experience and since then.  The media simply didn't care.  The media didn't care to question, let alone investigate, the birth hoax, among other glaring examples of her playing fast and loose with the facts, and as a result in effect vouched for her truthfulness.

When rarely confronted as to why it was cowed by Palin, the media hid behind the specious notion that it respected her family's privacy while at the same time she was using Trig, a Down Syndrome child whom I believe probably was not her own, and her other children as stage props.  Or when the privacy excuse didn't float, the media could smugly remind us that Palin would never be president, so why bother to call her out?
Why bother to call her out when it was reported, in the wake of the nearly successful assassination attempt against Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in January 2011, that Palin's political action committee had targeted Giffords' congressional district at a website with gunsight crosshairs.  Palin not only went ballistic over the suggestion that she may have contributed in some way to the dementia of Jared Lee Loughner, who did succeed in killing six other people, including a federal judge and nine-year-old bystander, she recorded her own video message after Fox refused her airtime, accusing the media of a "blood libel" and releasing the video on Vimeo the very day of a memorial service for Loughner's victims.
Why bother to call her out when last month she endorsed waterboarding Muslim terrorists as an introduction to their captivity.  "Waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists," she spouted in conflating torture with a Christian sacrament.
"In the end, this story is not about Palin," wrote Andrew Sullivan, who virtually alone among bloggers with large audiences pursued the birth hoax story and continues to call her out.  "It's about the collapse of the press and the corrupt cynicism of a political system that foisted this farce upon  us without performing any minimal due diligence."
* * * * *
Click here for "Five Years On: Why The Sarah Palin Birth Hoax Story Still Shouldn't Go Away." 
Photograph from the Huffington Post

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Should We Blame The Supreme Court For Our Politics, Not The Other Way Around?

It turns out that the Founding Fathers got three things very wrong.  There are the absence of women's suffrage and resolving the issue of slavery in the U.S. Constitution.  The former, of course, was not on anyone's bewigged radar back in those days, while the latter was very much on the Founders' minds but was intentionally ignored in the service of crafting a document without endless dissent over the lightning-rod issue.  And today there is a third thing, as the Roberts Supreme Court has made clear: The absence of term limits for the court's justices.
That has become painfully obvious for anyone who cares about the core values that once made America great as Chief Justice John Roberts has taken the high court so far from its role as a check on the Executive and Legislative branches, as enshrined in that Constitution, and become so activist when it comes to conservative causes, that the court has become a de facto arm of the Republican Party

Many of the decisions rendered by Roberts and the three other conservative justices -- Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, frequently joined by so-called moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy -- are slavishly in the interests of corporations and wealthy oligarchs and against women and minorities in particular and civil rights in general.  The decisions in which Kennedy has sided with the liberal justices -- Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor -- have been increasingly few and far between.

The handwriting, as it were, was on the wall when the court, then led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, threw the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore.  But since Roberts became chief justice in 2005, the court has tacked harder to the right in a series of decisions that, in effect, confer second-class status on individuals and coddle those oligarchs, most notably in the Citizens United decision in 2010.

In Citizens United -- and in one sickening fell swoop -- the court's conservative activists put a stake through the heart of our most cherished civil right -- freedom of speech -- in a ruling that conflated spending with speech and was easily the most twisted in 150 years.  In doing so these justices tacitly acknowledged what clear-eyed observers of of our society have come to understand: America is now ruled by a corporatocracy that in some respects is even more powerful than the federal government, and at its head is a vampire elite represented by fascists like the Koch brothers who can now legally buy elections.

That was just the start. The McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision in March was the coup de grace to the last vestiges of judicial sanity in not just striking down campaign contribution limits, but allowing oligarchs to increase their reach by making unlimited contributions to an unlimited number of federal candidates anywhere they choose.
(Meanwhile, the court on Monday refused to clarify whether journalists can engage in a little free speech of their own -- the right to protect their confidential sources -- something that everyone who has ever written under a byline holds near and very dear, while deigning to rule on another case involving a love triangle.)
Alas, according to one study, the Roberts court is hearing fewer free speech cases in general and ruling in favor of free speech at a lower rate than any of the courts of the three previous chief justices, two of three of whom were the appointees of Republican presidents like the Roberts himself.
* * * * *
In Washington almost all things shall pass.  John Boehner's abrogation of leadership and Mitch McConnell's unashamed lies will be memories in the not distant future, but those conservative Supreme Court justices will be running roughshod for a long, long time to come because they have lifetime appointments.
When the Founders granted the lifetime tenure privilege in 1783, something no other nation does today, it was considered an accomplishment to survive until adulthood.

As we live longer lives, it is not unreasonable to use 85 years as a median retirement age.  (The last justice to retire, liberal bulwark John Paul Stevens, took off his robes in 2010 two months after his 90th birthday, while he and the other last four justices to step down served an average 25 years.)  So with 85 years as the median, that means Roberts will be sticking around for 26 more years, Alito for 21 more years and Thomas for 19 more years, while both Scalia and Kennedy will reach age 85 in seven years.  Put another way, the first member of this bloc would not retire until 2021 and the last not until 2040.
* * * * *
The primary argument for lifetime appointments is that they safeguard judicial independence and protect the high court from the political vagaries of  election cycles. 
"But lifetime appointments actually enable more politicking on the bench," writes Dahlia Lithwick, Slate magazine's legal affairs writer, whose view certainly is being borne out by the Robert court.
Lithwick and some legal scholars advocate 10-year terms.  (Roberts, in an unguarded moment of candor many moons ago, once advocated 15-year terms.)  Lithwick notes that term limits would undercut justices who want to exert some degree of control over their successors by waiting to retire until a president that shares their ideology has been elected, while term limits might benefit the court by creating more opportunities for gender and racial diversity. 
Not even the wildest-eyed advocate of term limits suggest that an amendment to Article III of the Constitution, which states that the justices shall hold their offices during good behaviour," in other words, for life, has the slightest chance of passing.  (In 1805, Samuel Chase became the only justice to be impeached when President Jefferson became alarmed over the claims that he and fellow Federalists' made regarding exclusive judicial review. The Senate acquitted Chase of all charges.)
The proposals on how to bypass Article III are ludicrous: Offer large cash bonuses to justices who retire after shorter periods of time, a requirement that they sit on lower court benches several times a year to keep in closer contact with mere mortals, and have the president ask court nominees for a informal commitment to leave after "a sensible period of time."
* * * * *
Lithwick, who has written scathingly of the Roberts court, is in my estimation one of the three preeminent journalists writing about the Supremes these days.  The other two are Lyle Denniston, who had the court beat for the Associated Press for many years until starting the excellent SCOTUSblog and was and is very much a straight shooter, and Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times, who was the longtime dean of the court's press corps and now writes op-ed columns for the Gray Lady.

Greenhouse also was a straight shooter.  She held her nose when writing about Bush v. Gore, believed that law and not politics drives the court, and used to urge her editors to ban the routine practice of identifying judges by the president who appointed them.
But Greenhouse, to paraphrase Howard Beale in Network, is mad as hell and isn't going to take it anymore.

"I’m finding it impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Republican-appointed majority is committed to harnessing the Supreme Court to an ideological agenda," she recently wrote in a fire-and brimstone column headlined "Polar Vision."

"I wrote 'ideological' rather than 'partisan' agenda because there's something deeper going on than mere partisanship," she continues.  "Congress, after all, reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006 by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both houses, in a bill signed into law by President George W. Bush. The Bush administration urged the court to uphold the law in one of the last briefs filed before the president left office. It was a small cadre of right-wing activists that pressed the opposing view on the court. Success took a while: The court lost its nerve . . . in 2009, but conspicuously kept the door open for a renewed challenge. The result was last term's Shelby County v. Holder, the 5-to-4 decision that cut the heart out of the Voting Rights Act – which had been the plan all along."
"It’s impossible to talk about the Roberts court without coming back to race," she adds. "The [conservative] majority just can’t leave it alone," cutting off affirmative action in university admissions at the knees in a recent decision in addition to neutering the Voting Rights Act.

"I wonder whether the Supreme Court itself has become an engine of polarization, keeping old culture-war battles alive and forcing to the surface old conflicts that people were managing to live with," Greenhouse writes in conclusion.  "Suppose, in other words, that instead of blaming our politics for giving us the court we have, we should place on the court at least some of the blame for our politics."
Not to excuse Boehner, McConnell and their ilk, but Greenhouse is onto some huge -- something equal parts tragic and alarming when viewed in the context of 230 years of American constitutional history.
Image from

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

In Which Sarah Palin Is Called Out Again

Sarah Palin, the former half-term Alaska Governor, vice presidential candidate, presidential wannabe, conservative heart throb and coiner of the term "death panels," has never been good at irony. 

Come to think of it, in the six years since she burst on the national scene, she has repeatedly proven herself to be good at nothing except deception and obfuscation, as well as a pitch-perfect ability to say the wrong thing at the right time, such as her outrageous comments in the wake of the 2011 assassination attempt that nearly took the life of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, killed six people and injured 13 others.  Palin can no longer see Russia from her kitchen window, to paraphrase one of her legendary misstatements, and today lives in a $1.7 million Scottsdale, Arizona, home, although still claiming to be an Alaska resident.
While Palin's star has faded for all but a hard-core few conservatives for whom her absence of credibility and competence were never a concern, she continues to say outrageous things, most recently in asserting that likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton must release her medical records because, by implication, this would prove she is unsuitable for office because she is brain damaged as a result of a fall in December 2012 that resulted in a concussion.

"America, you deserve fair and consistent coverage of relevant issues before deciding a Presidential/Vice Presidential ticket, so have faith the agenda-less media will refuse to push whispers and wildly inaccurate information about a partisan politician’s body part," Palin said in a statement. "Goodness, no one credible would print lies, continually harass a candidate's doctor [and] disrupt local hospital staff . . . "

How outrageously ironic.
Palin, in calling for Clinton to release her medical records, which she will be obligated to do if she is indeed the nominee, adds yet another bright star to her constellation of hypocrisy.  
This is because Palin herself repeatedly promised during the 2008 presidential campaign to release her medical records as had Barack Obama and Joe Biden. When running mate John McCain finally did so late in the evening of  November 3, the day before Election Day, there was a page-and-a-half long letter -- as opposed to medical records -- annexed to McCain's records signed by her personal physician stating that she was in good health and had had an uneventful pregnancy.

In mentioning the pregnancy, the letter alluded to one of the great mysteries -- or yucky non-stories, if that is your view -- of the 2008 campaign that Palin references in her statement on Clinton's: Did she put over an enormous hoax on the American public in claiming she was pregnant with and gave birth to Trig Paxson Van Palin on April 18, 2008? 

The question, in my view and that of a small handful of investigative journalists with long attention spans, was valid because there was no proof
and there still is none today that Palin is Trig's biological mother.
And so, one good turn deserving another (thank you, Ms. Palin) below is an update of my own investigation.

Five Years On: Why The Sarah Palin Birth Hoax Story Still Shouldn't Go Away

(Originally published in April 2011.  Last updated in June 2014.)  
Rumors, innuendo and inconclusive photographs do not a true story make, but the fact of the matter is that five-plus years after the birth of Trig Paxson Van Palin, there is no proof that Sarah Palin is his biological mother and evidence he may be her grandson.

If you believe that I -- or anyone else -- has no business pursuing the question of whether John McCain's 2008 running mate put over an enormous hoax on the American public because the whole idea is so . . . well, yucky, then you need read no further. Besides which, a kid with disabilities having a home with a family that has plenty of dough is enough for many people who are averse to questioning Palin's serial evasions.

But if you, like me, remain curious about the evasions concerning her alleged pregnancy and Trig's birth, as well as her unwillingness to provide any proof to tamp down rumors that she faked the birth of the Down syndrome child
, then stick around.  Palin still will not even release a copy of Trig's birth certificate although she hectored Barack Obama to release his.

This story deserves to have legs because the former half-term governor turned author and reality show princess not only has not gone away.
She continues to inject herself into national politics, having campaigned early on for the 2012 Republican president nomination until even she realized that her brand was tarnished despite a small but hard-core conservative constituency that continues to cling to her every statement as if they were Biblical missives
These statements have included appallingly outrageous and tone deaf comments in the wake of the 2011 assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, and now attacks on Hillary Rodham Clinton, the likely 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, whom she infers is brain damaged and should release her medical records. 

The events leading up to and after Trig's alleged birth -- and, yes, it is alleged -- on April 18, 2008 are copiously documented in an academic paper and lengthy commentary by Bradford W. Scharlott, a former reporter and professor at Northern Kentucky University who believes there may have been a conspiracy hoax and like me is deeply disturbed about the disinterest of a mainstream media that at the same time was unable leave alone far-fetched Obama birther conspiracy theories.
* * * * *
In late February 2008, Palin's bodyguard, Alaska State Trooper Gary Wheeler, had accompanied her to Washington, D.C. for a Republican Governors Association conference where she met McCain and his campaign manager Rick Davis, who was to be in charge of the vice-presidential nomination selection process. Palin had been mentioned as a potential vice presidential choice for the eventual nominee, albeit a long-shot candidate, for several months in conservative publications.
Wheeler recalls that when Palin changed into jeans upon her arrival in the capital, there was no apparent sign that she was pregnant.

On March 5, 2008, McCain all but clinched the Republican nomination.

On March 6, the Anchorage Daily News reported that Palin had announced she was expecting her fifth child and already was seven months along. "That the pregnancy is so advanced astonished all who heard the news," wrote reporter Wesley Loy. "The governor . . . simply does not look pregnant. Even close members of her staff said they only learned this week their boss was expecting."

On April 15, Palin and her husband Todd flew to Dallas where she was to give the keynote speech at a Republican governor's conference on energy.  Trooper Wheeler, a 26-year veteran who had provided security for several other Alaska governors, was told at the last minute that he was not needed. He says that no explanation was given, and the Palins rejected his offer to arrange for a security detail to meet them in Texas.

On April 17, the Palins cut out early from the governor's conference after Palin gave the keynote speech. Shortly after the speech, Todd Palin emailed friends, writing that her speech "kicked ass," but said nothing about the status of her pregnancy or hurriedly arranged return trip. Meanwhile, Palin herself also did not allude to being in labor in a flurry of emails, although she later stated publicly that she was "overwhelmed" with "desperation" about her condition. 
In Going Rogue, a 2009 bestselling autobiography chockablock with lies and fabrications, Palin claimed she had been awakened shortly before 4 a.m. on the morning of the speech by a strange sensation in her lower belly.  She wrote that she was leaking amniotic fluid and claimed she called her personal physician, Dr. Cathy Baldwin-Johnson, who apparently did not insist that she seek immediate medical intention.
After laying over in Seattle, the Palins landed in Anchorage about 10:30 p.m. local time and drove to the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center in Palmer, which is close to the Palin's home in Wasilla. The trip took a total of 10 hours. Airline personnel on the return flight said they did not notice that Palin was pregnant, let alone was showing signs that she might be about to give birth.

Meanwhile, investigative author Geoffrey Dunn writes in The Lies of Sarah Palin: The Untold Story Behind Her Relentless Quest for Power, that a woman said to be a close friend of the then-governor also expressed skepticism.

He writes that the friend told him
that "Palin did not look like she was pregnant. Ever. Even when she had the bulging belly, I never felt that the rest of her body, her face especially, looked like she was pregnant." When the woman asked Palin point-blank if she was certain the baby was hers, she says that Palin said, "No. I don't know what to believe."
According to a later story in the Anchorage Daily News, Palin gave birth at 6:30 a.m. on April 18 after Cathy Baldwin-Johnson induced labor. 
This means that if Palin's water had broken prior to her giving the keynote speech, she chose to not go check herself into any of the five world-class Dallas hospitals with neo-natal intensive-care units or similarly equipped Seattle hospitals, and waited some 20 hours before going to a hospital that did not have a neo-natal ICU after having passed several large Alaska hospitals with such units despite her history of miscarriages (two), to give birth to a one-month premature baby with Down syndrome and, as it later turned out, a heart condition.

Later that morning, a crew from KTUU-TV in Anchorage showed up at Mat-Su in pursuit of a tip that Palin had given birth. The crew taped Chuck and Sallie Health, Palin's parents, in a hallway holding an infant that Chuck Health said was their new grandchild, Trig. Sarah Palin did not appear. The source of the tip is believed to be KTUU reporter Bill McAllister, who became Palin's director of communications three months later.
It was obvious to a number of people who saw the baby that day that it was not a newborn preemie. Some of them wrote that at the Anchorage Daily News web site. The comments were quickly taken down, but the Palins realized that for the next month or two, they needed a younger stand-in for Trig for photo ops they would orchestrate.
The identity of the stand-in baby may never be known, but Scharlott has done a detailed analyses of screenshots of the baby showed off at Mat-Su and the baby that Palin later appeared with at the Republican National Convention.  He concludes that they are not the same child because of differences in the ears and because the baby in the hospital lacked characteristics of a newborn preemie such as a plethoric (red-faced) complexion.
A press release issued by the governor's office announced the birth of the Palins' "fifth child this morning. The Palins were thankful that the Governor's labor began yesterday while she was in Texas . . . but let up enough for her to travel on Alaska Airlines in time to deliver her second son . . . "  The press release did not say where the birth took place, Mat-Su did not list Trig among the babies born there that day, nor has any hospital official ever confirmed that Trig was born there, let alone when, or said anything publicly about the birth. (A writer for Slate reported in late April 2011 that a clerk in Mat-Su's family birthing center told him that Trig was born there.  Birth certificates are not public records in Alaska.)

Baldwin-Johnson has never publicly said a word about the birth.

Later that day, KTUU newscaster Lori Tipton reported that "An unnamed source that is close to the family said that early testing revealed Trig Palin has Down syndrome." The source is again believed to be McAllister.

Although preemies typically need to stay in neo-natal ICUs for days or weeks, on April 21, Palin returned to work and held a press conference with Trig at hand. When a reporter asked if her water had broken in Texas, she balked at the question but later indicated that it had.

In a surprise announcement on August 28, McCain announced that he had selected Palin as his running mate. 
Considering that Palin would be a heartbeat away from the presidency if McCain defeated Obama, the decision to choose a virtual unknown whose popularity already had tanked in Alaska because of a reputation for being a power abusing kook and liar has to rank as perhaps the most irresponsible in the history of presidential campaigns.  As it turned out, McCain's man in charge of vetting potential running mates never met Palin face to face, while the campaign had contacted only one person in Alaska -- her personal attorney.  McCain himself spent less than two hours with Palin before inviting her to join the ticket.  
Bloggers at Daily Kos and several other blogs quickly published posts claiming that Bristol Palin, the Palins' 17-year-old daughter, was Trig's mother, which would make Trig Palin's grandson.  None of the posts had attribution, and several large blogs, including the Huffington Post, responded by writing that the Democrats would hurt themselves by pursuing birth conspiracy hoax rumors.

In a pattern of accepting unproven claims by Palin as established fact that was to become so familiar, the mainstream media showed no interest in the rumors, although the Anchorage Daily News reported on the Daily Kos post, saying it was "a version of a rumor -- long simmering in Alaska -- that Palin's unwed daughter Bristol was pregnant and the governor somehow covered it up by pretending to have the baby (Trig) herself."

On September 1, the McCain campaign announced at Palin's behest that Bristol Palin was in her fifth month of pregnancy, the implication being that she therefore could not be Trig's mother. The announcement was curious insofar that if accurate the pregnancy had been a private matter for months and Bristol, who had dropped out of school and been out of the public eye, was being subjected to having it revealed to the national media at the Republican convention.

Stories portraying Palin as a courageous woman for running for vice president despite Trig's problems appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post and other leading newspapers. Only the Philadelphia Inquirer went off key in writing that "Palin's decision to chase the vice presidency even as she gave birth to a son with Down syndrome seems naive."

Although the McCain campaign never allowed Palin to appear at a press conference where she might be asked about Trig, she repeatedly promised that she would release her medical records as had Obama and Joe Biden. When McCain finally did so on November 3, the day before Election Day, there was a page-and-a-half long letter annexed to the records signed by Dr. Baldwin-Johnson stating that Palin followed proper pre-natal procedures and follow-up evaluations and nothing had precluded delivery of Trig "at her home community hospital."

The wording of the letter is awkward in the extreme, and it raises many questions while answering none.
Baldwin-Johnson avoids mentioning the hospital by name or even that she was the delivering physician, let alone present for the delivery. The timing of the letter insured that the news media would have no opportunity before America voted to ask follow-up questions, and Palin and Baldwin-Johnson later declined to answer questions because Palin was no longer a candidate, let alone vice president-elect and soon to be a proverbial "heartbeat away from the presidency.

The September 1 McCain campaign press release regarding Bristol's pregnancy becomes even more problematic given the circumstances surrounding the birth of baby Tripp to Bristol Palin.

People magazine quoted a great-aunt in Seattle as saying she got an email from Chuck Health, Sarah Palin's father, saying that Tripp was born on December 28, which would put the date of conception at late March 2008 or thereabouts. That quote is the only contemporaneous account of the birth of the child. Palmer, Alaska, was mentioned as the place of birth, but again no hospital was named and again Mat-Su Regional Medical Center had no comment.

Palin's office initially declined to comment on the birth, explaining that it wanted the event to remain as private as possible although Palin and the McCain campaign had made a big deal of Bristol's pregnancy four months earlier. No photographs of baby Tripp were published, and no one outside the immediate family saw him until seven weeks after the birth.

When Bill McAllister, who had become Palin's director of communications, did issue a press release, he said that it was to correct erroneous information. The press release did not mention the hospital or place of birth.

Following the election, the Anchorage Daily News assigned reporter Lisa Demer to try to get to the bottom of the conspiracy hoax rumors, which had not gone away and continued to be pursued by a few journalists, notably blogger Andrew Sullivan, who again weighed in on the possibility of a hoax after Palin's barbs about Hillary Clinton's health.

Demer too was unable to obtain proof that Sarah Palin was Trig's mother, although she did get an angry response from Palin after Demer's editor published an account of her efforts on his blog on January 12, 2009.
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I will preface my own take on this long-running story by noting that I was an investigative editor and reporter for many years. Series and stories that I supervised were nominated for four Pulitzer Prizes.

While that background does not make me omnipotent, I trust my instincts when wading through and weighing facts -- or in this case the absence of them -- which has taken me on a journey from being highly skeptical of there being a birth conspiracy hoax to the conclusion that there almost certainly was.

Weighing against the hoax is that large-scale conspiracies are virtually impossible to keep quiet, something noted by Palin hoax skeptics. This is why 9/11 terror attack conspiracy theorists will be treading water forever.

But this is not a large-scale conspiracy because beyond Palin's immediate family only the officials of a hospital, on whose board Palin served, and Baldwin-Johnson would have to remain silent, something made easier by the possibility that Trig was not born at Mat-Su, but had been born earlier, smuggled in by a family member, and the hospital was not directly involved and Baldwin-Johnson was not present.  Note further that Palin's four previous successful pregnancies had gone to full term, and that Palin herself has changed and embellished on key elements of her original birth story in the years since, including once claiming that she delivered Trig in an Anchorage hospital.

Weighing for the hoax is an Alaska-sized array of circumstantial evidence: That attendants on the April 17 flight from Texas to Anchorage, along with Palin's own staff, Trooper Wheeler and almost everyone else with whom she came in contact in the weeks and days before the alleged birth, did not believe that she was pregnant. This perhaps not coincidentally was a period during which no one can account for daughter Bristol's whereabouts.

In fact, it may not be merely a conspiracy but also the product of a dysfunctional family, something that the Palins sadly are.

Bristol was sent to live with an aunt in late 2007, halfway through her junior year, ostensibly to be home schooled. She may have had Trig under the care of Baldwin-Johnson, who is the founder of The Children's Place, which specializes in helping teenagers in trouble, but was unable to place Trig for adoption because he was a Down baby.
(Bristol claimed in Not Afraid of Life, a memoir published in June 2011, that she was impregnated by Levi Johnston while drunk on wine coolers on a camping trip.)

Evidence based on photographs of Palin in the weeks and days before the alleged birth is not only inconclusive, it is contradictory because a seven-month pregnant woman simply cannot hide a fetus.
Yet Palin looks flat tummied in some of the photos such as the ones above taken on February 13 -- some eight weeks before Trig's alleged birth -- and pregnant although not pregnant in the right way in others. This leads Scharlott to suggest that Palin might have been wearing padding on some occasions, something that doesn't seem far-fetched.
Had Palin, who is an extremely proud woman, been in the latter stages of a pregnancy, she presumably would have worn clothing that would not try to hide that. Instead, she took to wearing long scarves that covered her belly. Furthermore, a late February interview with her by a reporter with a film crew from an Alaska broadcast outlet shows a woman who does not appear to be pregnant who is walking on snow in high heels while holding a cup of coffee in one hand.
Then there is the screen shot below which purports to show Trig, who is being held by Palin's mother, less than 24 hours after his birth. Does he look like a one-month premature baby less than 24 hours after his birth? Of course he doesn't, which is the view of a neonatologist.

One question remains: If there was a hoax, why did Sarah Palin perpetrate it?

Dr. Jeffrey Parks, a Cleveland surgeon, later wrote of the journey that Palin took after she says her water broke:
"Digest that for just a second.  A 43 year old wowman carrying a child with known Down's Syndrome, in her eighth month of pregnancy voluntarily embarked upon a transcontinental adventure to give a speech.  Then after noticing some cramps and the passage of amniotic fluid, she went head with her speech and, instead of proceeding directly to the nearest Dallas high risk pregnancy center, boarded a four hour flight to Seattle.  Then she hung out in the Seattle airport lounge for a while and took a connecting flight to Alaska.  Then she drives to Wasilla.  Finally she decided to seek medical attention at a local Wasilla hospital, a facility lacking an NICU and other high risk specialists.  That's her story . . . Palin willfully and wantonly placed herself and her unborn child in tremendous danger by flying cross country with amniotic fluid running down her legs . . . What kind of mother would take a risk like that with her child, let alone a high risk, premature one?"
While Palin used Trig as a stage prop during her vice presidential run and has used him similarly since then, she also has been fiercely protective of he and her family.  Palin's post-vice presidential nomination popularity went through the roof in part because of the omnipresent Trig, and claiming that she was the mother of Bristol's baby may have been less an act of political opportunism than reckless personal expediency, if not altruism.
To use late journalist Joe McGinniss's term, I suppose I am "trignostic," meaning that I am skeptical about Palin's story.  But I am not absolutely certain that it is not true in the absence of a proverbial "smoking gun," although an observation shared by many people who have known Palin since high school -- and know that she is a pathological liar of stunning dimensions -- weighs heavily in favor of a hoax: Even if Palin had not faked the story, she was more than capable of doing so.

So I do lean very strongly toward there having been a hoax. 
In the end, it comes down to this for me: Sarah Palin is so narcissistic she believes that if something comes out of her mouth, it must be true.  But if she was the mother of Trig, she would not have acted imprudently by bypassing hospitals in Texas, Seattle and Anchorage with neo-natal units capable of delivering premature babies. She simply would not have endangered Trig's life.