Friday, March 31, 2006

General Motors: 30 Years On And Still Clueless

I trace the beginning of General Motors’ downturn from innovative colossus to the maker of boring rental cars that it is today back to 1976 when a peppy little import called the Honda Accord first arrived in the U.S.

I trace the fact that GM is nearly as clueless today as it was in 1976 back to 1992, when Rick Wagoner, then GM’s 39-year-old chief financial officer, was promoted and given orders to shake up the moribund giant.

I believe that the only way that GM can be revived is for Wagoner, GM's president and CEO, to be fired. Now.

* * * * *

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 silver '76 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 Wagoner took over and GM's share price soared to a record $90. 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 -- and except for 1998, when there was a seven-week strike, sweetheart contracts with the United Auto Workers union.

But the biggest problem was that Wagoner’s GM was coasting along with that same tired product line as much of the rest of the automotive world was stealing a march on GM 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 went unheeded until Oldsmobile was belatedly put out of its misery in 2004. 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 1992, the year Wagoner took over, GM sold 35 percent of all cars sold in the U.S. Today it sells 29 percent. Last year it suffered its biggest loss ($10.6 billion) since the Depression and earlier this month said that it is inviting its heart and soul -- its 113,000 hourly workers -- to take a hike through incentives of up to $140,000 apiece. It is increasingly difficult to see how Chapter 11 bankruptcy can be avoided as Toyota, which already has overtaken Ford as the No. 2 worldwide seller, sets its sights on the General.

The question is not whether Toyota will become top dog, but when.

* * * * *

Hindsight being what it is, it’s easy now to see that Wagoner was the wrong choice to turn GM around. Wall Street knows that. The car dudes who write for Motor Trend and Automobile know that. Consumers know that. Wagoner and the GM board just happen to be the last people to know that.

Wagoner came up through GM’s financial division rather than manufacturing or sales, which may explain why he has been slow to recognize virtually every major automotive trend that has occurred on his watch.

These trends include minivans, smaller SUVs (Wagoner bought the Hummer brand just as the mega-SUV bubble was bursting) and an increased environmental awareness. GM has been ridiculously slow to embrace now popular gas-electric hybrid vehicles. It has no hybrids in showrooms today, while Toyota/Lexus has 12 models, including the Lexus GS450h, a $70,000 green sports luxury machine. Toyota/Lexus will soon have 20.

GM has survived because it still makes a heck of a lot of cars -- and trucks. It just doesn’t make money. (Its ossified dealer network is in even worse shape than the mother ship, but that's another story.)

In flailing around for a way out of its torpor, GM has become addicted to big rebates and zero-interest financing plans. Things got so bad last spring that it offered deep employee discounts to the general public. Sales perked up, but plummeted when the discounts ended. GM even ran a national ad campaign apologizing for its lousy performance and promised a return to the glory years. The background music was the sound of my GM-proud father spinning in his grave.

There have been successes on Wagoner's watch, but I can count only three of consequence.

He has cut costs and manufacturing capacity. Whoopie! He also has encouraged the near-death Cadillac division to shed its Geritol image. It now caters to the Led Zeppelin crowd and offers a line of trendy and well-made models, which while not my cup of tea, show that there’s life yet in the General.

But Cadillac is a niche brand and GM has yet to offer a mainstream success remotely approaching the VW Passat or Toyota Camry, which is the best selling car in America. Or the still hot selling Honda Accord. (My mother bought an Accord in the mid-1990s with the money she got from selling her GM stock. Ha!)

No, make that only two successes on Wagoner's watch.

After successfully nurturing Saturn as the un-GM brand, Wagoner has allowed the once innovative spinoff to be dumbed down into the rest of the corporation. Saturn sales have tanked.

At this point, it's not a matter of General Motors emerging from its long self-inflicted nightmare smaller and leaner. It's a matter of surviving, which makes bankruptcy actually look pretty good since Wagoner is pinning GM's hopes on, of all things, a new line of big SUVs like the Cadillac Escalade and ChevyTahoe.

Wagoner has had 14 years to fix GM’s problems. He has only added to them, and the proof is that it still makes an enormous amount of crap.

It’s time to go, Rick. And don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

Oh, by the way, GM’s share price closed at $22.75 yesterday.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Quote du Jour

Daniel Martin, John Fowles’ hero in the late great British novelist’s epononymous masterpiece, defines Englishness:

[B]eing happier at being unhappy than doing something constructive about it. We boast of our genius for compromise, which is really a refusal to choose; and that in turn contains a large part of cowardice, apathy, selfish laziness – but it is also, I grow increasingly certain of this as I grow holder, a function of our peculiar imagination, of our racial and individual gift for metaphor; for allowing hypotheses about ourselves, and our pasts and future, almost as much reality as the true events and destinies. Other races look at themselves in the mirror, and either live with the reflection or do something practical to improve it. We paint an idea, or a dream, self on the glass and then wallow in the discrepancy.

Sacré Bleu!

Further evidence of the decline of France: The Gendarmerie Nationale is replacing its Peugeots with Subarus because the Pugs are too slow. More here.

To Jim Brady With Fondness

I met Jim Brady very early in my journalism career. He was press secretary for a U.S. senator. I took an immediate shine to this large fellow who lived life the same way and had the most wonderfully mischievous grin.

I was warned by my street-wise mentors that it was the job of people like Brady to make people like me like him, but I didn't care. How could you not like Jim Brady?.

Fast forward to March 31, 1981.

Brady had moved way up in the world and was now press secretary to President Ronald Reagan, who had been inaugurated only two months earlier.

Brady and Reagan had just stepped outside the Washington Hilton. The president was waving to a small group of people when shots rang out. Brady was hit first, the second round found D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty and the third Secret Service agent Timothy J. McCarthy, who had opened the door to Reagan’s limo and was shielding the president with his body.

It first appeared that Reagan had not been hit, but he began spitting up blood and the limo was diverted to a hospital. The 70-year-old president was stabilized and then rushed into emergency surgery.

Reagan would spend 12 days in hospital and make a full recovery. Delahanty and McCarthy recovered quickly. Not so for Jim Brady, then 40, who came perilously close to death three times over the next year and has spent the rest of his life living with a brain injury that left him partially paralyzed and wheelchair bound.

Fast forward to 1987.

As the supervising editor of my newspaper’s Washington bureau, I was invited to the White House from time to time. I saw Brady for the first time since he had been shot at a luncheon for Washington bureau editors and made sure I was seated next to him.

Brady and his wife, Sarah, were making quite a commotion campaigning for passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, and Reagan’s conservative coterie was not happy.

The bill required prospective buyers of handguns (like shooter John W. Hinckley) to wait for five days and pass a criminal background check before any transaction could be approved. Reagan remained close to Brady and he was a frequent White House visitor, but to the eternal shame of president and party, it was Bill Clinton who finally signed the Brady Bill in 1993.

Anyhow, Reagan was suffering through second-term problems not unlike the current president (although not nearly as grave) when I sat down next to Brady at lunch that day. The ostensible purpose of the visit, which had begun with a press briefing by an Army general by the name of Colin Powell and continued with a personal meet and greet by the president himself, was to flatter we editors into more positive coverage.

Brady, whose upbeat attitude and mischievous grin had survived multiple surgeries, would have none of it. Seated next to a fellow baseball fanatic, he and I talked about nothing but. His Chicago Cubs. My Philadelphia Phillies. The six or seven other editors at the table looked at us in astonishment. (And probably not a little jealousy, because I obviously was an "insider" and they weren't.)

I see Jim and Sarah Brady out and about from time to time when I visit the Delaware seashore, where they moved several years ago. I wave. Jim smiles back. I have no idea if he remembers who I am.

But one thing is for sure. Twenty five years of paralysis has not embittered him and he still has that wonderfully mischievous grin.

Bless you, Jim Brady.

Good News For a Change

The aforementioned blog technical problems aside, I feel absolutely giddy this morning. The sun is now up by 5:30, the birds are singing their beaks off and the fruit trees at Kiko's House are thisclose to bursting into flower. But the big reason is the release of journalist Jo Carroll three months after she was kidnapped in a bloody ambush in Baghdad. More here.

Damn You, Blogger. Damn You!

Kiko's House is a distinctive current events blog that, as is the case with many thousands of other blogs, relies on the good graces of Google and its freebie Blogger software.

That said, a fair number of people wanting to visit us have a dickens of a time opening the door to Kiko's House and stepping inside once they get to the front steps.

After consulting with other bloggers and my technical advisor (see photo), I have concluded that the problem is two-fold:
(1.) Kiko's House uses a lot of visuals and will continue to do so. This is one of the things that makes the blog distinctive. But this creates a problem for older and slower computers because they must upload each image and that takes some time in an era when instant gratification is the coin of the computing realm.

I try to be careful about what images I use but goofed bigtime last Saturday when I uploaded a massive image of the surface of Mars taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. It was a fabulously detailed photo, but I had to delete it and the accompanying post a day or so later after belatedly realizing I had made an existing upload problem worse.

(2.) I am fond of saying that if Bill Gates made cars, they'd all be broken down on the side of the road and Microsoft would be bankrupt because of chronic problems with Windows. I am beginning to think the same thing about Google.

Like I said, Google's Blogger software is free. And while I'm reluctant to look gift software in the mouth, too often Blogger is slow or has stalled altogether, meaning that not even I with my hyper-fast Internet access can post to the blog, edit posts or read your comments.

This is the major reason for the slow loading and non-loading. Blogger is utterly unreceptive to the complaints of myself and fellow bloggers in the same predicament because we're very small fish in a huge pond.
All this by way of saying that I apologize for the problems.

If Kiko's House continues to be as popular as it has been in the first four months (we've been visited by folks in 53 countries at last count), that cat and I plan to fly to Vegas, divorce Blogger and get our own Website.

Until then, please try to be patient.

And if you use antique versions of Internet Explorer, Netscape Navigator or Mozilla, please consider downloading Mozilla's terrific Firefox browser, which seems to load Kiko's House faster. You can do so for free here.

-- Best wishes, SHAUN MULLEN

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Quote du Jour

From a New York Times editorial:

For months now, people have been urging President Bush to shake up his inner circle and bring in fresh air. Perhaps in response, the White House chief of staff, Andrew Card Jr., resigned yesterday. Mr. Bush opened the window — and in climbed his budget director, Joshua Bolten, who used to be Mr. Card's deputy.

. . . Mr. Bolten has been giving the president advice for years, and the result has been a deficit estimated at $371 billion. Perhaps he'll come up with a better approach in his new job. We've heard that under Mr. Card's watch, aides wound up showing Mr. Bush videos of TV news coverage of Hurricane Katrina to convince their boss that it really was a problem. Maybe Mr. Bolten can start the next budget discussion with some audiovisual aids — like an abacus.

King Rat Gets Six

Disgraced super lobbyist Jack Abramoff has been sentenced to six years in the slammer, the minimum allowable under a plea deal in which he is ratting out Washington's high and mighty. Details here.

A Tale of Two Wars

Sebastin Junger was recently back in Afghanistan for the first time since shortly after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion and reports that things are going pretty well there.

The lead-in to his excellent Vanity Fair piece on "America's Forgotten War" in the dead tree edition reads:
Four years into a nearly forgotten conflict, the 20,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan are learning to wage war by every possible means. While the Taliban's weapon is terror -- the rape, torture and execution of civilians -- the Americans are relying on cheap vegetables, soccerballs, and paved roads, as well as Predator drones and A-10 Warthogs. From Kandahar to the mountains of Zabol, Sebastian Junger experiences a new kind of combat as the world's most powerful military grapples with a vicious small-scale insurgency in the shadow of a supposed U.S. ally: Pakistan.
His report also is online here.


George Bush just doesn't get it.

Out on the hustings today to drum up flagging support for the war in Iraq, he conveniently sidestepped the U.S.'s numerous self-inflicted wounds and blamed the orgy of violence on Saddam Hussein, whom the last time I checked hasn't been running the show in Baghdad for three years.


Meanwhile, the prez has made it known that he wants Iraqi Prime Ibrahim al-Jaafari to step down. Jaafari says no way and warned the U.S. against undue interference in the nascient government's political process.

I kind of feel for Bush on this one because Jaafari would appear to be another closet thug who makes kissy face with the very radical anti-U.S. Shiite elements that are primarily responsible for tearing the country apart. That said, the guy was elected fair and square and he's yet another example of the White House wanting it both ways -- the growth of democracy but on U.S. terms.



Pretty bad. "River," an Iraqi woman who blogs at Baghdad Burning when the electricity is on, provides a wee insight here.

(Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan at Daily Dish.)

Update on Cyclone Glenda

Glenda (large white blob) nears the Western Australian coast.

Tropical Cyclone Glenda, packing potentially devastating winds, is likely to hit the sparsely populated Western Australia coast during the day Thursday local time. It comes on the heels of Cyclone Larry, which battered northern Queensland on Australia's northeast coast earlier in the month, causing significant structural and crop damage but no deaths.

Forecasters say that winds could approach 200 miles an hour and sea levels could rise up to 20 feet above high tide and flood houses in low lying areas. Voluntary evacuations have begun.

Meanwhile, inquiring visitors to Kiko's House want to know: What's the difference between a cyclone like Glenda and a hurricane like Katrina?

The difference for the most part is in name and location only, and the same terminology applies.

For example, Katrina was a Catagory Five, the top catagory, with winds of 175 mph or more. Glenda also is a Catagory Five. Both storms ran through stages from tropical depression to tropical storm to hurricane or tropical cyclone.

In the North Atlantic, hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30, with sharp peaks from late August through September. In the Southern Hemisphere, tropical cyclone season begins in late October and ends in May, with sharp peaks in mid-February to early March.

No matter the name, all of these storms carry extremely high winds, tornadoes, torrential rain, and storm surges that can lead to mudslides, flash floods, and lightning-sparked fires in addition to wind damage.

There is one difference: Although the effects on populated areas can be catastrophic, tropical cyclones carry away heat that builds up in the tropics, and have been known to relieve and end droughts.

The Bush War on Terror -- And Civil Liberties

For most Americans, the suspension of civil liberties in the post-9/11 world would seem to be an abstraction -- something that applies only to people like Salim Hamdan, who was Osama bin Landen's bodyguard, and other men with funny headgear and fanatical beliefs who are incarcerated in U.S. military lockups around the world.

But as the Bush administration's arguments yesterday before the U.S. Supreme Court again revealed, Americans who care about their core freedoms and the future of this great country had better start paying attention because there is great mischief afoot and it will not be easily undone just because King George will be giving up his crown in a few years.

The Supremes heard oral arguments in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which without question is the biggest challenge to the president's war powers since the 2001 attacks and probably the most important case the high court will decide this term.

As noted in a Kiko's House post yesterday, Hamdan was captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and hustled off to the Navy brig at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. At issue is whether the military tribunals created to try him and other alleged terrorists are constitutional because the law passed by Congress authorizing them pretty much suspended all civil liberties, including habeas corpus. That is a writ issued by a judge ordering that a prisoner be brought before the court so it can be determined whether he is being imprisoned lawfully.

Habeas corpus
is not some bleeding-heart concept. It is one of the pillars on which the American criminal justice stands and has served the nation well in times of war and peace for over 200 years. This means that habeas corpus is anathema to the Bush administration, which has thumbed its nose at the Rule of Law at at its most fundamental at almost every turn.

This was on full view as the administration's top lawyer, Solicitor General Paul Clement, double-spoke his way through an argument to the effect that Congress didn't really mean to suspend habeas corpus but had merely "stumbled on" its suspension of the Writ. He said that this was okey-dokey because the president can do pretty much whatever he wants to do anyway as commander in chief in time of war.

Clement's laissez faire argument stopped Justice David Souter cold. He opined that:

The suspension of the Writ [is the most] stupendously significant act [Congress can undertake]. "Are you really saying Congress may validly suspend it inadvertently?

Souter would appear to have Clement in a box, adding:

If you accept that the military commissions [tribunals] apply the laws of war, don't you have to accept the Geneva Conventions?


They can adjudicate that the Geneva Conventions doesn't apply.


You can't have it both ways. The government can't say the president is operating under the laws of war, as recognized by Congress, and then for purposes of defining those laws, say the Geneva Conventions don't apply.

Clement then went deeper into the administration's world of smoke and mirrors.

He declared that the tribunals hew to the laws of war, so if a detainee has a claim like Hamdan's, he should bring it before a tribunal. But Clement seemed to be at his weakest -- and most obtuse -- when defending his claim that Guantanamo detainees like Hamdan are different from regular POWs covered by the convention because . . . well, because they just are.

Justice Anthony Kennedy interjected:

If a group is going to try some people, do you first have the trial and then challenge the legitimacy of the tribunal?

Clement didn't like Kennedy's word choice:

This isn't just some group of people. This is the president invoking his authority to try terrorists.

Justice John Paul Stevens, saying out loud what must have been on the minds of all eight (*) justices, pondered whether Congress had stripped the Supreme Court of jurisdiction to rule on Hamdam's habeas corpus claims:

Do you say it's a permissible suspension of the Writ or that it's not a suspension of the Writ?

Replied Clement:



Neal Katyal, representing Hamdan, next argued that the law establishing the tribunals did not pertain to his client because his case already was pending in the courts when it was passed.

This prompted rookie Justice Samuel Alito to ask why Katyal can't raise his claims after the tribunal has issued its final decision, the way he would if this were an ordinary criminal proceeding.

Katyal replied:

This is not an ordinary criminal proceeding. If it was we wouldn't be here. . . . This is a military commission unbounded by laws, the constitution, or treatises.

He added that the Founding Fathers had a deep distrust of military tribunals and that the only thing that relieves that distrust is by Congress establishing clear rules.


The consensus view of the day from legal eagles pretty much across the board is that the Bush administration didn't do so well and that Clement, even with help from openly sympathetic Justice Antonin Scalia, made a hash of things.

Adding to the administration's difficulties is that the justices focused most of their attention on the question of whether Congress had, in effect, neutralized the court's historic role, which certainly is not what Clement wanted to focus on.

Concluded Dalhia Lithwick in a Slate article:

At some point, it must begin to insult the collective intelligence of the court, these tautological arguments that end where they begin: The existing laws do not apply because this is a different kind of war. It's a different kind of war because the president says so. The president gets to say so because he is president.

For today at least, it appeared that the Bush administration would not readily marshal five votes for its core legal proposition: that if you just refuse to offer answers, the questions will go away.

The headline on Lyle Denniston's analysis at SCOTUSBlog seemed to say it all:

Hard Day For Government in Hamdan Case

If that is true, and I hope it is, we're all a little safer for the moment. The future, however, is another matter.


Eight justices heard the arguments because Chief Justice John Roberts had not come on board when the court took the case. Efforts to recuse the despicable Scalia because he had already said publicly that he sided with the White House were unsuccessful. Natch.

Scalia, meanwhile, plays the race card in denying in a Boston Herald letter to the editor that he flipped the bird at a Herald reporter outside a Boston church on Sunday.

Said Scalia:

From watching too many episodes of the Sopranos, your staff seems to have acquired the belief that any Sicilian gesture is obscene - especially when made by an ‘Italian jurist.’ (I am, by the way, an American jurist.)

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Australia In the Crosshairs. Again

Glenda was the Good Witch in "The Wizard of Oz," but she is most definitely not the Good Cyclone.

A tropical cyclone by that name has intensified into a powerful Catagory Five storm as it runs parallel to the sparsely populated Pilbara coast in Western Australia.

Glenda is the second of six cyclones in the current season to reach Catagory Five.

Cyclone Larry, also a Cat Five, tore into northern Queensland on Australia's east coast earlier in the month, causing widespread destruction but no deaths.

May people in Glenda's path be as fortunate.

Meet the New Boss Same As the Old Boss

White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card has decided to return to the reality-based community.

He's being replaced as White House chief of staff by budget czar Josh Bolten, so we're talking more of the same (as in loyalty) and not change (as in fresh thinking to get through the next three years). And remember, boys and girls, Bolten is the architect of a fiscal policy that will leave our children and grandchildren deep in hock for many moons to come.


Card's major responsibility in his five years in the White House was to keep his boss out of the loop, although his most special-est moment (see photo) was on September 11, 2001, when he whispered in the ear of the bemused president that a plane had just flown into the World Trade Center. Bush, of course, famously resumed reading to a Florida kindergarten class until he finally was jerked into reality.

Details here.

Quo Vadis China?

Which of the following best describes China?
(A.) A country with an economy that continues to boom as its political system becomes more liberal and it becomes an increasingly positive force in the world.

(B.) A country with an economy driven by vengeful nationalism that is bent on replacing American power in Asia, regaining Taiwan and challenging Japan.

(C.) A country in disarray, engulfed by social and political crises as the economy slumps.
If you know anything about China these days, you have correctly ascertained that you've been asked a trick question. If you care about China these days, check out a new survey in The Economist.

Bonus Quotes du Jour

Steve Coll has excelled in covering the War on Terror and his book "The Ghost War" is the best on the subject to date. The journalist reviews "Cobra II" in the current New Yorker, a book by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor that lends further credence -- as if that is necessary at this late date -- to the fact that the Bush administration was utterly delusional in the run-up to the war.

Coll comments on a profile of Saddam Hussein in a secret U.S. military study on his decision making prior to the war that has been supressed by the White House for obvious reasons:
The study portrays the Iraqi President as a fading adversary who felt boxed in by sanctions and political pressure. Saddam’s former generals and civilian aides . . . describe their old boss as a Lear-like figure, a confused despot in the enervating twilight of a ruthless career: unable to think straight, dependent upon his two lunatic and incompetent sons, and increasingly reliant on bluff and bluster to remain in power. Saddam lay awake at night worrying about knotty problems, and later issued memos based on the dreams he had when he drifted into sleep. As the invasion approached, he so feared a coup that he refused to allow his generals to prepare seriously for war. Instead, he endorsed a plan for the defense of Baghdad that essentially instructed his generals to talk with no one, think rousing thoughts, and await further orders. The generals knew that to question their leader or his sons was suicide, so they just saluted. “We’re doing great!” the Minister of Defense wrote to his field commanders on April 6th, as Baghdad fell.
Coll further notes that when the U.S. and Iraqi armies finally did meet:
The professional officers fighting the war had in common a rich disdain for the self-styled strategists who had sent them into battle. Gordon and Trainor’s extensive interviews with the Army and Marine generals and colonels who commanded the invasion show that they had almost as little faith in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his aides as their Iraqi counterparts had in Saddam and his sons. Indeed, the American officers featured in “Cobra II” are remarkably open about the war’s many errors of conception and execution. Of course, they do not seem to believe that any of the big mistakes were their fault—they blame the C.I.A. for repeatedly getting the battlefield intelligence wrong, and they blame Rumsfeld and his pliant subordinates for sending them to occupy Iraq with a force of inadequate size. The Army and the Marines have paid an extraordinarily high price for the war’s compounding blunders, and, presumably, the officers are speaking candidly now not just to settle scores but to avoid such bungling in the future.

The Senate Debate That Never Was

Lyle Denniston, the veteran U.S. Supreme Court reporter, has unearthed a lulu of a side story pertaining to Hamden v. Rumsfeld, a very important presidential war powers case being heard today by the Supremes.

Salim Hamdan (left), who admits that he was a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, was captured by U.S. forces and hustled off to the brig at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. At issue is whether a military commission (a special war court created to try Hamdan and other detainees) is constitutional.

That's the main event. The side story pertains to an amicus (friend of the court) brief filed by Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Kyl of Arizona. At first glance, it appears to be the transcript of a floor debate on enemy combatants.

It isn't.

As the eagle-eyed Denniston has ascertained, Graham and Kyl constructed their colloquy to make it appear that the statements were uttered on the Senate floor. It contains phrases like "I would like to say a few words" and "I see that my colleague, the senior senator from South Carolina, is also on the floor."

Turns out the whole thing was fabricated and inserted into the Senate record.

Why should any of this matter? Because if our public officials intentionally mislead about little things, it's more than likely that they'll do the same about big things.

Denniston blogs on the Graham-Kyl sleight of hand here and has more on Hamdan v. Rumself here.


Justice Antonin Scalia is a man of many talents: Right-wing fruitcake, loose cannon, serial obstructionist, maker of obscene gestures, vice presidential duck hunting buddy. I could go on and on . . .

Hizzoner has been asked to recuse himself (step aside) when the court hears Hamdan because of remarks he made earlier this month in Switzerland that indicate that he had made up his mind about the case before hearing testimony.

Speaking on March 8 to an audience at the University of Freiburg, Scalia reportedly said it was "crazy" to suggest that enemy combatants should receive a "full jury trial" and dismissed suggestions that the Geneva Conventions might apply to Guantanamo detainees, which is exactly what Hamdan's lawyers will argue.

More here.


Scalia also has been in the news for flipping the bird (an obscene gesture involving the middle finger) at a reporter while emerging from mass at a Boston church on Sunday.

More here.

Israel: What If They Gave an Election and . . .

Israelis are voting today in an election that has generated little heat and no fire and will result in yet another coalition government that will be hard pressed to pick up where Ariel Sharon left off.

Lisa Goldman is blogging on the election for The Guardian News Blog.

Mapping Immigration Patterns -- And More

Coming hard on our mega-posts yesterday on the immigration reform debate is a cool map that shows global immigration. It's at World Mapper, a U.K. website that has a large number of maps showing all sorts of population patterns.

(Hat tip to Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit.)

Adwaitya (ca. 1750-2006)

He lived through the Industrial Revolution, two world wars and the Space Age, but Adwaitya finally has packed it in at age 250 or so.

The giant Aldabra tortoise died at the Calcutta Zoo of liver failure.

The earliest years of Adwaitya, which means "the one and only," are a mystery, but records show that British sailors captured him and four other Aldabra tortoises from an atoll of that name in the Seychelles. He was presented to the legendary British general Robert Clive of the East India Company and spent several years on Sir Robert's sprawling estate before he was brought to the zoo about 130 years ago.

If Adwaitya's age is proved by a post mortem, which will include carbon-dating of his shell, he will take the longest-lived crown from Tui Malila, another tortoise with connections to the British Empire.

Tui Malila was presented to the Tongan royal family by Captain Cook in either 1773 or 1777 and remained in their care until its death from natural causes in 1965, meaning that he was about 190 years old.

By contrast, the oldest known human, Jeanne Calment of France, died at age 122 in 1997.

Quote du Jour

The Bush administration has confirmed that the government will waive about $7 billion in oil industry royalties over the next five years even though the industry incentive program being applied was expressly conceived of for times when energy prices are low.

This outrage prompted Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who tried to block the program, to opine:
Taxpayers are being asked to provide huge subsidies to oil companies to produce oil . . . it's like subsidizing a fish to swim.

Iraq: Update on the Paper War

I've said from the outset of the release of the trove of Iraqi documents captured by U.S. troops that the Bush administration would have let us know long ago know if there were any smoking guns in them.

Conservative publications and bloggers are already declaring that there is evidence aplenty that Saddam Hussein had WMDs and close ties to terrorists groups based on their reading of the first several hundred documents -- which are nearly all in Arabic, mind you.

Not so, says a senior U.S. intelligence official:

Our view is there's nothing in here that changes what we know today. There is no smoking gun on W.M.D., Al Qaeda, those kinds of issues.
Says another:

If anyone in the intelligence community thought there was valid information in those documents that supported either of those questions — W.M.D. or Al Qaeda — they would have shouted them from the rooftops.


If you want to have a go at the documents, they're here. Meanwhile, the New York Times and Associated Press have more on the story -- or non story, depending upon your view -- here and here.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Immigration Reform: The Battle For the Borders

The Republican Party’s election-year push for immigration reform comes to a head this week in the Senate, and what happens will reverberate in November and well into the future

There are several immigration bills in play, but drawing the most attention are those proposed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and John McCain, both presumptive 2008 Republican presidential candidates.

Frist’s measure closely resembles hard-line legislation passed by the House in December called the Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control bill.

That bill and Frist’s version of it do not include provisions pushed by President Bush that would designate some illegal aliens as guest workers so long as they agree to become citizens. The House and Frist bills would add thousands of new border patrol agents, beef up screening systems, impose fines against employers that knowingly hire illegal workers and, in effect, make it a crime to feed, shelter or provide health care to any of the 12 million undocumented aliens in the U.S.

Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy is co-sponsor of the McCain bill, which would grant 400,000 new guest-worker visas and give undocumented aliens a chance to stay if they pay a $1,000 fine, settle back tax bills, try to learn English and get to the back of the waiting list for a green card.

Getting any kind of reform legislation through Congress was never going to be easy, but the issue has divided a Republican Party increasingly at odds with itself and energized Democrats.

On the Republican side, the White House and pro-business moderates are pitted against hard liners eager to tap into voter anger on the issue. As unlikely as it seems, many Democrats side with the president and GOP moderates.

As is evident from massive protests, including the turnout of a half million people in Los Angeles on Sunday, the Democrats' inner-city base has been aroused by the issue and many Hispanics, an increasing number of whom have voted for Republicans in recent elections, are being alienated by the tough talk anbd thinly veiled racism of some Republicans.

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church is throwing down the gauntlet. Some archbishops, including Roger Mahony of L.A., say they will instruct their priests to disobey any law that would subject them and other church and humanitarian workers to criminal penalties.

Following are three posts that address immigration reform. They include a blog from Yours Truly, one from the Highway Scribe, whose beat includes the U.S.-Mexico border, and a sampling of other voices.


Yours Truly: Don't Criminalize Immigration

Immigration reform must balance freedom of opportunity with controlling our borders. It also must be predicated on the core American values of fairness and inclusiveness and not on our baser instincts, which lurk just beneath the surface in these frightening times.

Good intentions are responsible for the current mess.

As it has evolved, U.S. immigration policy is a reaction to the draconian Immigration Act of 1924, which reduced the number of visas and allocated them by national origin based on its proportion of the U.S. population. This system favored northern Europeans and discriminated against Asians. During the wave of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, national quotas were abolished. Equal opportunity and family reunification became top priorities, opening the door to much larger migration from Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia, including political refugees.

At the heart of the 1924 “reforms” was good, old fashioned racism. That is no less true today, although the realities are somewhat different.

Today's racism is being fed by the social insecurity that many of us feel about the impact of a growing global economy on our lives at a time when we are increasingly dependent on immigrant labor to grow our crops, mow our lawns and care for our children – jobs most of us simply do not want to do.

I hasten to add that there are jobs many Americans do want to do that employers give to immigrants because they are cheap labor and a ready-made way to undercut higher wages. Meanwhile, immigrants suck up tens of billions of dollars in health care, education and welfare costs. In some states, they have driven the social infrastructure to the breaking point, although for every economist who says that immigrants receive more in services than they pay in taxes there is another who argues the reverse.

* * * * *

The U.S. has a very nasty habit of dealing with difficult issues by criminalizing the behavior of the core groups involved.

Exhibit A is the so-called War on Drugs, which pours billions of tax dollars into jailing marijuana smokers while giving short shrift to prevention and rehabilitation programs for cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin addicts.

Now comes a conservative Republican plan already approved in the House to lock up illegal aliens, priests and social workers, some for up to five years, in response to an immigration system that is clearly broken and needs fixing. That simply will make a bad problem must worse while not dealing with the underlying causes.

Here are reforms that could work:

* Limit overall immigration to family units. If dad emigrates to the U.S., enters legally and plays by the rules, mom and the kids are eligible to follow him.

* Get serious about issuing national identification cards. No card, no work. This is not Big Brother; it’s common sense. And combined with rigorous enforcement of existing labor laws would go a long way toward defusing the pressure on militarizing the Mexican border.

* Protect the most vulnerable economic sectors. They are being overwhelmed by low-wage immigrant workers. That must stop.

* Press Mexico and other Latin American countries to be part of the solution. This means that they must reform their own economies. With U.S. economic incentives and technical assistance, of course.

* Provide for continued immigration for humanitarian reasons. People who are persecuted in their home country must still be welcome in ours.

(Of all the reading I have done on the issue, I found the clearest delineation of where we’ve been, where we are and where we need to go at the Institute for Policy Studies and Interhemispheric Resource Center. Here’s a link to their take on the immigration reform debate.)

The Highway Scribe: Come Together

We might begin to consider the borders that separate us as wounds rather than good real estate for the fencing industry.

With antagonisms that run deeper than anything between Mexico, Canada and the United States, European nations have largely dissolved their own dividing lines through economic integration.

Getting into the European Union is a desirable thing and the old democracies use this leverage to impose a set of conditions whereby the community can be joined, and then make it tough to say no with promises of money, infrastructure and assistance.

In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was passed. Its goal was also economic integration, but some "sidebars" were added to ensure an even application of environmental regulations and protections for labor.

The integration has made lots of money for companies with the juice to set-up overseas operations. The environmental protections and labor rights guarantees have not done so well.

Swelling waves of desperate immigrants from the south, the topic of this forum at "Kiko's House," may be the result.

Martin Navarrette of the San Diego Union-Tribune noted in a column that immigration is a "binational" problem and that no legislation worked up on this side of the border can work, "unless Mexico takes steps internally to create the kind of society that would-be immigrants would not want to leave."

Navarette is not talking about a bigger fence in Mexico's face, but a better life inside its own space.

The columnist is laying some responsibility at Mexico's doorstep and to be sure, it plays the primarly role. The European template tells us that Mexico needs help doing that, but fixing another country from without is difficult.

In his regular job, the Highway Scribe is assigned to covering the U.S.-Mexico border and witness to efforts on solving the region's problems jointly.

A frequent visitor to the Baja California peninsula cities of Tijuana, Rosarito, and Ensenada, the Scribe can't help but notice the "dollarized" economy that exists, the prosperity and development of a Mexican middle-class, thanks to border proximity.

In fact, it's not uncommon to meet a Mexican who made the trek to the border only to find a good job before crossing the dividing line became necessary.

The Scribe's simple idea would be to amplify this trend and "soften and widen" the border through economic prosperity. A modest and practical first step; eliminate the borderland with a happy "bufferland."

So the task is to empower the NAFTA sidebars for application at the border, where its effects have been most dramatic. Ensure that workers can unionize and improve wages and working conditions. Apply California-style environmental standards upon companies on the Mexican side.

NAFTA set up an infrastructure for such things. The tri-national Commission on Economic Cooperation (CEC), for example, does good work on issues confronting the three countries, approaching them from a continental understanding of shared watersheds, air corridors, and the idea that pollution doesn't respect the border.

In covering a CEC session in Monterey, Mexico, a few years ago, the Scribe could see the excitement of Mexican citizens during a public comment period in which they got to address a governmental panel with representatives from the three countries.

With all it's flaws we have an old democracy with a lot of ingrained and healthy civic habits. We should export them instead of doing what the administration did on that particular day, which was fail to send a representative.

That takes all the air out of the effort.

We can't change a country, but we can affect the quality of life along the border, reduce the opportunities for criminal behavior by decreasing – not increasing – the enforcement presence and allowing the border region to capitalize on the action NAFTA has brought, but cleaning up the money and the industry associated with it.

(The Highway Scribe blogs at HighwayScribery.)

Other Voices in the Reform Debate

From a Yakima (Wash.) Herald editorial:

We don't expect a sweeping, all-in-one piece of legislation out of this Congress. What we would like to see is approval of some meaningful steps that can be continued in the future toward comprehensive reform.

Any time an "all or nothing" approach is tried in a legislative body, the end result is usually nothing. We found that out in this state with farm worker housing. Competing factions finally agreed it was better to have approved temporary shelter, with proper amenities, during cherry harvest than no shelter at all.

So, let the immigration reform debate begin once again Monday. It's OK to keep it civil, but we'll continue to hold out for productive.

Arnold Kling at Tech Central Station:

Many people are eager to fight the Battle of the Borders. The idea is to prevent illegal immigration. In addition, what I might call the "new xenophobia" is eager to fight the Battle over Outsourcing and the Battle over Foreign Ownership. In my view, all of these battles represent misplaced priorities.

I believe that illegal immigrants bring relatively little economic benefit and cause relatively little economic harm. I believe that there are substitutes readily available for the work done by illegal immigrants. Legal residents could do some of the work. Other labor could be replaced by capital or by alternative production techniques. By the same token, because there are many substitutes available for unskilled labor, the salvation of American workers does not lie in immigration restrictions.

Cardinal Archbishop Roger Mahony of Los Angeles:

What the [Catholic] church supports is an overhaul of the immigration system so that legal status and legal channels for migration replace illegal status and illegal immigration. Creating legal structures for migration protects not only those who migrate but also our nation, by giving the government the ability to better identify who is in the country as well as to control who enters it.

. . . The unspoken truth of the immigration debate is that at the same time our nation benefits economically from the presence of undocumented workers, we turn a blind eye when they are exploited by employers. They work in industries that are vital to our economy yet they have little legal protection and no opportunity to contribute fully to our nation.

While we gladly accept their taxes and sweat, we do not acknowledge or uphold their basic labor rights. At the same time, we scapegoat them for our social ills and label them as security threats and criminals to justify the passage of anti-immigrant bills.

This situation affects the dignity of millions of our fellow human beings and makes immigration, ultimately, a moral and ethical issue. That is why the church is compelled to take a stand against harmful legislation and to work toward positive change.

Jim Kouri in a Men’s News Daily commentary:

The problem isn’t about the need for new laws; the problem is about the lack of enforcement of existing laws. The US Constitution provides the executive branch with a number of inherent powers such as the enforcement of immigration laws.

The Constitution also mandates that the President protect American sovereignty and the American people. That is the number one priority for our government — of it should be. And congress is mandated to provide domestic tranquility for Americans. Criminal alien gangbangers do not add to our domestic tranquility.

Frm an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail:

President George W. Bush -- who is headed south of the border later this week for a Yucatan summit with his friend Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canada's new Prime Minister, Stephen Harper -- is trying to find a middle ground between competing viewpoints, well aware that Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority in the United States.

Many voting Hispanic citizens have relatives or friends that are illegal. On farms and construction sites, in backyards and basements, illegal aliens are ubiquitous. Most live on the edge of poverty. Few have health care. Many have been in the United States for decades.

The President has been promising a solution to the problem of illegal aliens since 2000, but when the North American leaders meet in Cancun on Thursday, he may have little to report but another nasty deadlock back in Washington.

Kevin Drum at Washington Monthly:
I've always been uncomfortable with guest worker programs. Germany's famous Gastarbeiter program of the 60s and 70s, for example, has produced a large population of Turks who do plenty of scut work but have little incentive to assimilate since they have no chance of becoming citizens. The result, as the Germans themselves have discovered, is alienation, distrust, and bitterness on all sides.

If we truly decide that we want to keep immigration limited, then we should face down the low-wage business bloc of the Republican Party and get serious about keeping illegal immigrants out of the country in the first place. But if we want to allow more legal immigrants into the country — as a guest worker program tacitly acknowledges — then we should encourage them to be good citizens by offering them the chance to earn actual citizenship. Because they don't do that, guest worker programs end up perpetuating both a culture of low-wage labor that's ripe for exploitation and insular communities that have no incentive to think of themselves as Americans — because they aren't. It's the worst of both worlds.

From a BBC News report from Southern California:

Talking to local shoppers in the heavily-Republican city of Escondido, there are a few who speak with passion about the real and worthwhile contribution that Mexican "illegals" - or undocumented workers - make to their lives and local economy.

Most though were convinced that even if local businesses are blatantly hiring them, Mexicans without papers are a parasitic drain on local services, and worst of all, a major security risk at a time of war.

"They say that Iraqis are coming across our border. If they're coming across, anyone can come across," says Nancy Price.

She favours closing the border altogether, although she says she has "nothing against" a speeded-up process for legal workers.

From an LAVoice editorial:

The protest completely bulldozed the contours of the immigration battleground for the U.S., creating deeper trenches, tougher hills to be taken and - most likely - a greater risk of ugly "patriotic" bloodshed.

When 500,000 people - many of them illegal immigrants, if reports of the event are accurate - can take over the streets of a major American metropolis to protest changes in the law, then two things have become obvious:

1.) Vast numbers of immigrants in L.A. feel entitled to work in this country and demand the rights of citizens - whether they're here legally or not.

2.) They may be a major contributing engine to our economy, culture and society, and simultaneously a major drain on our public services. But now it's clear they're also too large a force to be merely kept out with a simple array of fences, guards and felony threats - or to be flatly ignored.

. . . In short, they're here, they like being here, and they're not going away until they can be assured we'll let them come back. All of these conditions were in place before Sunday's march. But the march sharpened the argument considerably and whetted appetites on both sides of it for a solid solution.
Glenn Reynolds, blogging at MSNBC:

It's not really about security: Even if we tighten up the border with Mexico immensely, it won't stop terrorists from sneaking through if they want to. And even if we could accomplish that impossible end, they could still come in other ways. As long as we have easy visas for Saudi citizens, worrying about the Mexican border seems silly.

It's only sort of about economics: At the moment, at least, unemployment is very, very slow so people aren't thinking that way as much as they might if there were a recession. Instead, the resentment is based on the idea that people who come here illegally feel entitled to demand that they be treated like Americans. It's the devaluing of citizenship, as much as the loss of jobs, that seems to upset most people at the moment.

A lot of it is anger at Washington: "We pay taxes, they say there's a war on terror, and they can't even secure the border." People don't necessarily expect perfection, but the powers that be don't even seem to be trying. That anger, I suspect, has a lot to do with the sudden interest in politicians in doing something -- or at least looking as if they're doing something -- about the issue.

The debate stinks: Most opponents of illegal immigration aren't racists. Most supporters aren't enemies of American civilization. The immigration problem is hard because it pits two things that we care about -- freedom of opportunity and control of our borders -- against one another.

It could be poison for both parties: The people organizing these rallies don't seem to care if they're bad for the Democrats. Maybe they won't be. There's a similar, if more diffuse, phenomenon in the GOP. But it's entirely possible that both parties will suffer in different ways if the debate gets overheated. Political debate in America is poisonous enough; this won't help.

The New York Times in an editorial:

Anti-immigrant forces . . .stand ready to try to torpedo anything other than a strictly get-tough approach.

That would be an awful outcome for immigrant advocates and for President Bush, who has long argued for comprehensive reform and tried, with limited success, to steer his party away from the one-note harshness of the wall-building crowd. Last week he urged Congress to have a civil, respectful discussion about the issue. But with looming elections and Republican presidential jockeying casting a distorting fuzz over the debate, it may be too late for Mr. Bush's hands-off approach. If the president really wants a sensible reform bill to reach his desk, he will have to do more than stand on the sidelines, urging everyone to have good manners.

The marchers recognize — as much of the nation seems not to — the urgency of comprehensive immigration reform to the nation's future. Their indignation is mixed with pride in their work and hunger for fair treatment. Their protests have been a model of peaceful dissent and a blow against the mental straitjacket that defines immigration reform as entirely a problem of policing. Mr. Bush should make his case with equal force.

Disarming DeLay

Authorities have yanked former House Majority Leader Tom Delay's permit to pack heat because indicted felons are not allowed to carry handguns in Texas.

DeLay's lawyers say they will appeal the action.

In the meantime, maybe he can borrow Dick Cheney's shotgun.

Brazosriver has more.

Iraq: The Paper War

The carnage continues on the ground in Baghdad with 100 or so new deaths, including 30 beheadings, in the last day, but the war seems to have entered a new phase at home. Let's call it The Paper War.

There have been relevations in recent days from the trove of captured Saddam documents that lend credence to the view that the dictator had WMDs, although maybe not at the time of the 2003 invasion, and did have ties to terrorist groups. (See my March 24 post on Iraq: Let the 'I Told You So's' Begin, as well as earlier posts.)

Competing for attention from the other side, so to speak, are relevations that further confirm the fact that the Bush administration was going to go to war no matter what, and was willing to do just about anything to strengthen its hand.

On Jan. 31, 2003, British Prime Minister Tony Blair met with President Bush in the Oval Office. A five-page British government memo on that sitdown reviewed by the New York Times notes that war was inevitable, but casts fresh light on the administration's penchant for playing dirty pool and well evinced disdain for the United Nations:

The memo indicates the two leaders envisioned a quick victory and a transition to a new Iraqi government that would be complicated, but manageable. Mr. Bush predicted that it was "unlikely there would be internecine warfare between the different religious and ethnic groups." Mr. Blair agreed with that assessment.

The memo also shows that the president and the prime minister acknowledged that no unconventional weapons had been found inside Iraq. Faced with the possibility of not finding any before the planned invasion, Mr. Bush talked about several ways to provoke a confrontation, including a proposal to paint a United States surveillance plane in the colors of the United Nations in hopes of drawing fire, or assassinating Mr. Hussein.

Two other ways of provoking war were discussed, according to the memo:

It also described the president as saying, "The U.S. might be able to bring out a defector who could give a public presentation about Saddam's W.M.D," referring to weapons of mass destruction.

A brief clause in the memo refers to a third possibility, mentioned by Mr. Bush, a proposal to assassinate Saddam Hussein. The memo does not indicate how Mr. Blair responded to the idea.

For the entire story, go here.

Breaking the Term Limits Pledge

Remember when term limits for members of Congress were all the rage? That was 1994 amidst the Gingrich Revolution and the now moribund Contract For America.

Anyhow, eight congressmen took pledges that year to step down after six two-year terms. CQ Politics reports that their pledges come due this year. All are running for re-election. All are Republicans. All are shoo-ins to win.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Time for a Timeout on Timeouts?

Kevin Drum at Washington Monthly, weary of the closing minutes of NCAA Men's Tournament games taking forever, proposes reducing the number of timeouts and doing away with them all together in the final two minutes.

Says he:
The 20 lumbering minutes that it takes to finish the last few minutes of most games is nothing short of excruciating, but in games where both teams have used up their timeouts the final minutes are some of the most exciting in sports.
The idea makes sense.

No it doesn't.

I myself keep going back and forth, but in any event, reader responses to Drum's proposal run the gamut, are for the most part insightful, and some are quite funny.


I don't know anyone who's NCAA tournament pools haven't been blown to smithereens by all of the upsets.

I didn't bet and haven't in years because I always do poorly, but regardless of that only one of my picks at this stage of the Sweet Sixteen -- Villanova -- has survived, and they'll have their hands full this afternoon. My others were Carolina, Dook and Memphis. (Update: Villanova also is out.)

How many survivors wouldn't be alive today if Drum's proposal to do away with timeouts in the final two minutes was in effect? I have a hunch that things would be pretty much the same.

Wuddya think?

The Kiko's House Book Club

Will the third meeting of the Kiko’s House Book Club come to order. Thank you.

We have for your perusing pleasure today five books recommended by visitors to Kiko’s House and yours truly. The books marked with an asterisk (*) are available in paperback.

The books at our first meeting tended toward the spiritual, while they ranged from the earthy to the feminine at our second meeting. What to say about these five? Satire. History. War. Peace. Naked bodies. I guess I'd call that a mixed lot.
Candide: Or Optimism
By Voltaire (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 2005)

Penguin has repackaged this classic satire in a clever new paperback edition replete with marvelous stick figure cartoons of the major characters and a map of Candide's travels by Chris Ware.

The story itself seems more relevant than ever. Candide, who like a certain U.S. president always believes that "all is for the best" even in the face of injustice and suffering, sets out on a series of outrageous and often hilarious adventures. And, of course, lives to tell the tale.

Falling Through the Earth: A Memoir
By Danielle Trussoni (Henry Holt, 2006)

More than 30 years after her father returned home from Vietnam, Danielle Trussoni set out to discover who the man was whose career as a soldier and self destructive behavior destroyed his marriage and ultimately his relationship with her.

Daniel Trussoni was a tunnel rat in Vietnam, an awful assignment that required him to crawl through sweltering and clausterphobic passages cut by the North Vietnamese beneath the jungle floor. Daughter Danielle went to Vietnam to verify her father's fantastic stories and see some of the tunnels for herself before writing this complex but moving story of what happened to the man her father had been before the war.

Grand Days
By Frank Moorhouse (Picador, 1994) (*)

This Australian novel is set in 1920s Geneva in the surroundings of the League of Nations at a time when mankind still believed such international quasi-governments would insure the world against conflicts like the recently-ended First World War.

The chief protagonist is a young Australian woman, born and bred in a country town, hitting her intellectual straps in cultivated Europe. The theme has been exploited many times by such Australian writers as Clive James and Barrie Humphries, who found Australia too small and insular to contain them and sought to stretch themselves in older, more sophisticated societies with great success.

"Grand Days" is intelligent, funny and sexy and a treasure-trove of arcana about the League and some of the obscure characters who worked there, free of cynicism or doubt even as the name National Socialist Party was starting to be heard in Europe.

In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing
'The Second World War'
By David Reynolds (Random House: 2005) (*)

Winston Churchill comes off in a less than a flattering light in this terrific book about a book, or rather six books -- his epic "The Second World War."

The Great Man is portrayed as seldom admitting a mistake and playing loose and fast with the historic record to bolster his already considerable reputation, but Reynolds (a Cambridge University historian) ultimately comes to praise and not bury him. Reynolds also explains how Churchill and his lawyers crafted a clever series of financial moves that protected him from harsh British taxes and earned him perhaps $40 million in today's dollars for his Nobel Prize winning series.

The Playmate Book: Six Decades of Centerfolds
By Gretchen Edgren (Taschen, 2006)

Playboy founder Hugh Henfer always said that his ideal for the magazine's Playmate of the Month was "the girl next door with her clothes off."

Some 613 centerfolds, including the very first in 1953 (Marilyn Monroe, who actually posed for the above photo in 1949) are represented in this book by a Playboy contributing editor. They show that Hef has pretty much stayed true to his vision even as sexual mores have relaxed and his playmates reveal more and more.


Whenever you read a good book or may have read one in the past that you'd recommend to your fellow visitors, e-mail me at

Include in the body of the e-mail the book's title, author and type (fiction, nonfiction, bio, advice, etc.) and a few words about why you enjoyed and would recommend it. I'll post your recommendations at the next Book Club meeting.


The Assassin’s Gate: American In Iraq By George Packer (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005)

The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror By Nathan Sharansky with Ron Dermer (Public Affairs, 2004)

The Fall of Lucifer (Chronicles of Brothers) By Wendy Alec (Realms, 2005)

The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, The Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves By Andrew Levy (Random House, 2005)

I Am Charlotte Simons By Tom Wolff (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2004)

In the Company of the Courtesan By Sarah Dunant (Random House, 2006)

The Life of Pi: A Novel By Yann Martel (Canongate, 2001)

Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality By Richard Slotkin (Henry Holt and Co., 2005)

Memoirs of a Geisha: A Novel By Arthur Golden (Vintage, 1997)

The Seashell on the Mountaintop: A Story of Science, Sainthood and the Humble Genius Who Discovered a New History of the Earth By Alan Cutler (Dutton, 2003)

The Second World War By Winston Churchill (Houghton Mifflin, 1948-53)

What Is Life Worth? The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11 By Kenneth R. Feinberg (Public Affairs, 2005)

The Exxon Valdez Catastrophe: March 26, 1987

France: The Nation That Keeps On Giving

For the second time in four months, France has been rocked by violent protests, but this time it is students whose upturned noses are out of joint because, unlike their work-force predecessors, they are not guaranteed jobs for life.

Last November, the children of emigrees took to the streets because they wanted changes. The students are taking to the streets because they want things to remain the same.

Does this make the current round of protests counter riots?

The Washington Post's Claire Berlinski weighs in on this and more.

Russia: The Nation That Keeps on Giving

Ah, Russia. How do we love thee? Let us count the ways:

* You have been virtually alone in its support of President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus and his crackdown on peaceful protests over his recent rigged re-election.

* You ran a spy operated aimed at the U.S. Central Command in the early days of the American invasion of Iraq.

The New York Times has stories here and here.

Desmond Doss (1919-2006)

Desmond T. Doss, a devout member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, went through life with a framed poster of the Ten Commandments depicting Cain holding a club with the supineAbel beneath him. It was an unusual image for a conscientious objector, but served him well.

Doss, who died Thursday at age 87, was the first conscientious objector to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, the U.S.'s highest military honor, after the unarmed Army medic saved dozens of fellow soldiers under fire on Okinawa in World War II.

(One other C.O., a Vietnam veteran, also has received the award.)

Doss was drafted in 1942, was given C.O. status and became a medic. He was harassed by fellow soldiers for his refusal to take up arms, devotion to prayer and refusal to work on the Sabbath, which he later went back on when he realized that Christ healed on the Sabbath and as a medic he could, too.

Doss was sent to the Pacific and served as a combat medic on Guam and at Leyte, where he received the Bronze Star, before landing at Okinawa.

On Saturday, May 5, 1945 -- his Sabbath -- the Japanese counterattacked an American position on Maeda Escarpment.

The Americans retreated, but many wounded were standed on the ridgetop and Doss stayed with them. Refusing to seek cover despite enemy fire, he improvised a litter with double bowline rope knots that he had learned to make as a youngster growing up in Virginia. Using a tree stump as an anchor, he lowered each soldier 35 feet from the ridgetop before coming down himself. His Medal of Honor citation stated that he rescued 75 men, but Doss later said the number was closer to 50.

Doss was wounded twice in the following weeks, spent more than five years in hospitals and lost a lung to tuberculosis. He was unable to work a steady job and devoted himself to his religion and working with young people in church-sponsored programs in Georgia and later in Alabama.

Late in life, he told a reporter that

From a human standpoint, I shouldn't be here to tell the story. All the glory should go to God. No telling how many times the Lord has spared my life.