Monday, September 24, 2012

Random Musings On The Autumnal Equinox & The Hapless Mitt Romney

Sandy Hook is the most unusual of New Jersey's many fine beaches.  This is because the Staten Island skyline is a mere 20 miles away and behind it loom lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.  Then there is the experience of floating in the ocean on one's back beyond the breakers while taking in the Statue of Liberty and looking skyward at a Lufthansa Airbus making its approach to Newark International Airport while contemplating the vicissitudes of the worst run presidential campaign of my lifetime.  Yes, even worse than Michael Dukakis in 1988.

And so on the last day of summer 2012 we repaired to Sandy Hook with the woofs -- Jack and Nicky, our brother-sister chocolate Labrador retrievers -- whom the Dear Friend & Conscience had rescued from cage-bound lives in Upstate New York last year and have slowly but surely returned to good health.  As in you can practically see your reflection in their luxuriant coats.
* * * * *
Jack and Nicky had never seen the ocean, let alone tested their swimmerly chops in it, but early in the month we spent a weekend some 180 miles to the south of Sandy Hook at the Delaware shore, where the beaches, if anything, are even finer than New Jersey's.  This is because of the foresight of a liberal Republican governor, a now extinct species, who with the help of an environmentally conscious citizenry pressured the state General Assembly to approve a Coastal Zone Act that barred industrial development on or near the state's coastline.  
This was 1970, the early days of the nascent environmental movement. The act survived challenges by Big Oil that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, a then liberal and now also an extinct species.  Today Delaware has pristine beaches, virtually all of them state parkland and open to the public.  Four of the beaches are dog friendly year-round.
One such beach is at Cape Henlopen where Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic.  It was there that Jack rode his first wave.

Words do not do justice to the sight of a 100-pound Lab being picked up by a wave and propelled to shore, front legs splayed out, ears flapping in the wind and eyes bugging out of his head.  Jack artfully landed on the beach, shook from head to toe, turned around and sprinted back into the surf in search of another wave.
* * * * *
But I digress. 
The weather at Sandy Hook and the Delaware shore was typical of that during the most magnificent summer in recent memory.  Rain when it was needed but otherwise sublimely sunny days with low humidity.  I was able to swim practically every morning and grew a bumper crop of peppers, among other veggies, the hotter varieties of which have gone into a big cast iron skillet every couple of weeks or so for my spicy clam sauce (email me if you'd like the recipe), which we washed down the other night with the first bottles from the annual U.S. release of Spaten Oktoberfest.  I guess you might say that life is good because we're 47 Percenters.
* * * * *
Life is not good for Willard Mitt Romney, and if ever a presidential wannabe is getting their just deserts, it is he.
Obama is leading in most national polls and leading by large margins in polls of registered votes.  Undecideds are breaking for the Islamofascist-socialist incumbent in the wake of Romney's 47 Percent train wreck of a video, and the man who was sure to go down to defeat leads in every swing state but one, where he is tied.   Support for the Republican ticket has crumbled among the 47 percenters who are the senior citizens that he GOP wants to put on a raft and send out to sea. Democrats are stomping Republicans by a 6-1 margin for early ballot requests in the GOP heartland of Iowa.  Yes, Iowa.  Meanwhile, my own poll of bumper stickers and yard signs from metro Philadelphia to North Jersey shows Obama winning in a landslide, while McCain stickers and signs had been ubiquitous in 2008.
Romney can't catch a break (but thanks for releasing those artificially inflated 2011 tax returns) and, of course, doesn't deserve a break when most of his wounds are self inflicted.
The turmoil among clueless campaign staffers and the GOP's circular firing squad are grabbing more headlines than what he is saying on the stump.  No matter.  Despite vows of a new Romney 3.0, he's peddling the same old snake oil and laying eggs as he did in an interview on 60 Minutes last night in stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that he is up against the electoral wall. Obama's unflappable cool was on display in an interview later in the program. 
* * * * *
The biggest story last week beyond the 47 Percent debacle was senior GOP pundit Peggy Noonan calling for an intervention for the hapless candidate and Romney sycophant John Sununu, who looks and talks more like Dick Cheney every day, telling her to shut her yap hole. Same for Tommy Thompson, whom he compared to Obama.
Michael Gerson, who served as George W. Bush's chief speechwriter, also is in Sununu's crosshairs because he called Romney's 47 Percent remarks "stupid and callous" and "nonsense." 

"Romney was appealing to a common Republican belief that the expansion of government has produced a class of citizens who live off the sweat of others, regard themselves as victims and refuse to accept responsibility," Gerson said.  "Yet a Republican ideology pitting the 'makers' against the 'takers' offers nothing. No sympathy for our fellow citizens. No insight into our social challenge. No hope of change. This approach involves a relentless reductionism. Human worth is reduced to economic production. Social problems are reduced to personal vices. Politics is reduced to class warfare on behalf of the upper class."
And all the while the Wingnut Wurlitzer grinds away, vomiting up a movie the other day claiming that Obama’s real father is an obscure African-American communist, while the insufferable Anne Romney, whose biggest daily decision is which of her Cadillacs to drive, whines that her husband is misunderstood. 
The next biggest story is the bevy of Republican Senate candidates -- including those in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Nevada, Virginia and Wisconsin -- who are trying to inoculate themselves from the Romney disaster in progress. "If your standard-bearer for the presidency is not doing well, it’s going to reflect on the down ballot," acknowledged Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, who has seen his once comfortable lead disappear.
Unless Romney can begin to turn things around -- hell, anything around -- in the run-up to the first presidential debate on October 3, he is effectively toast.  It will be a loss that the Tea Party will own. 

Cartoon du Jour

Tony Auth/Philadelphia Inquirer

Monday, September 17, 2012

Why Obama Went Soft On A Dark Chapter: The Bush Torture Regime

~ George W. Bush (November 7, 2005)
As one of the flew bloggers who wrote extensively about the Bush Torture Regime and enthusiastically supported Barack Obama, the most bitter pill of his first term is that he has pretended this dark chapter in the history of our once great democracy never happened.  That is okay, in a pretzel logical sort of way, because this decision was a result of him wanting to take office in a spirit of bipartisanship without the distraction of what would be viewed by Republicans as a partisan prosecutorial witch hunt.  So while Obama certainly didn't take the high road, I am able to rationalize the road that he did take in a larger context.

Meanwhile, the door to making anyone, let alone George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Addington and John Yoo, accountable for their crimes -- crimes that are unambiguously delineated in international law and the Geneva Conventions -- was quietly and effectively slammed shut last month when Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the only two cases under investigation relating to the torture regime were being closed without charges being filed.
The timing of the announcement would seem to be perfect because the press corps was sunning its collective backside in the Hamptons during the lull before the Republican and Democratic conventions, but Holder could have made the announcement at midnight on New Years Eve in Times Square and it would have been greeted with a practiced yawn. 
This is because many Americans continue to believe that using Nazi-like torture methods against terrorists is okey-dokey although its effectiveness has been discredited, including by World War II military intelligence veterans who said a carrot often eventually elicited valuable information from German and Japanese soldiers while a stick did not. Furthermore, the torture regime dealt a body blow to America's standing aboard that has not been restored, Obama's good acts notwithstanding, while most of the mainstream media studiously ignored years of horrifying reports emanating from Iraq, Afghanistan, the network of so-called dark CIA prison sites and, of course, Guantánamo Bay.
The two cases involved the deaths of an Afghan detainee and an Iraqi citizen, and mark the end of a contentious three-year investigation by the Justice Department over whether CIA personnel and their superiors should be held accountable for the abuse of prisoners in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Justice did not say publicly which cases had been under investigation, but officials previously confirmed the identities of the prisoners as militant suspect Gul Rahman, who died in 2002 after being shackled to a concrete wall in near-freezing temperatures at a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan known as the Salt Pit, and Manadel al-Jamadi, who died in CIA custody in 2003 at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where his corpse was infamously photographed (above) packed in ice and wrapped in plastic.
Holder, in asserting that the admissible evidence was insufficient to obtain criminal convictions, disingenuously suggested that the end of the investigation should not be seen as a moral exoneration of those involved in the prisoners' treatment and deaths, but it certainly will have that effect for Bush, Cheney and other administration heavies.
"It is hugely disappointing that with ample evidence of torture, and documented cases of some people actually being tortured to death, that the Justice Department has not been able to mount a successful prosecution and hold people responsible for these crimes," said Elisa Massimino, president of Human Rights First. "The American people need to know what was done in their name."
Massimino said her group’s own investigation of the prisoners' deaths showed that initial inquiries were bungled by military and intelligence officers in charge of prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. I would suggest that this was done deliberately. 
Meanwhile, the Senate Intelligence Committee has wrapped up its own three-year investigation of the CIA interrogation program, but its report is still classified and most certainly will remain so until after the election. In April, responding to a book by a former CIA official asserting that brutal interrogations had produced the intelligence that helped locate Osama bin Laden, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, called that claim "misguided and misinformed." Feinstein has been one of the very few politicians of any stripe to express outrage over the torture regime.
At the end of the day, no one has been prosecuted for torture in the U.S., although there have been some unsuccessful efforts abroad.
This includes CIA officials who deliberately destroyed videotapes of interrogations, while calls for a so-called truth commission have been rejected.  But irony of ironies, former CIA officer John C. Kirakou is awaiting trial on criminal charges that he told journalists the identities of CIA officers who participated in brutal interrogations, some of which included near drowning through waterboarding.

Cartoon du Jour

Tom Toles/The Washington Post

Thursday, September 13, 2012

What Photo Caption Would Mitt Write?

Like Romney is in free fall, already.  How else to explain his profoundly crass, factually inaccurate and self-serving account of the tragedy in Benghazi, Libya?  Which he continues to repeat.
This man is not merely an empty suit.  He is an amoral stooge despite his oh so righteous Mormon props, and yet again reaches a new low in how clueless he is about what it takes to be presidential.  And a real human being. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Why Republicans Are Shamelessly Playing The Race Card & Why That Will Backfire

Time for a super-sized reality check, folks: It has been nearly 150 years since Abraham Lincoln, once but no longer the Republican Party's greatest hero, emancipated the slaves.  Yet the inheritors of Lincoln's mantle have concluded that the only way to defeat Barack Obama in what is shaping up to be the most important election since 1932 in determining the future course of this once great nation is to shamelessly play the race card.

There are many reasons to loath today's Republican Party: It's war on women and gays, blood thirst for going to war against Iran, opposition to weaning America from its addiction to fossil fuels, and a profoundly obdurate attitude that has prolonged the aftereffects of the worst recession since the Great Depression, which catapulted FDR into the White House after his 1932 landslide victory over Herbert Hoover, who like Romney was supposed to be a brilliant entrepreneur but like Romney would, crapped out bigtime in the Oval Office.  But crafting the core of the Republican message in this presidential election year around Obama's skin color -- and alternately that he isn't an American citizen -- is sick.
That message is part of a larger mosaic in which, by the GOP's reckoning, entitlement programs are race based and therefore blacks are fair game. Never mind that more whites use food stamps than blacks and Latinos combined. By coloring poverty black even in areas where there are few minorities in justifying slashing or eliminating food stamps, the WIC program and assistance to poor pregnant women, Republicans hope to attract white voters.
This is nothing new. 
Richard Nixon scapegoated blacks through his Southern Strategy.  This was reinforced by Ronald Reagan when he railed against "welfare queens," amplified by George H. W. Bush with his "Willie" Horton campaign ads (which were put together by a consultant who is now working for the Romney-Ryan campaign), and in 2008 through allegations pushed by surrogates for John McCain that Obama embraced the more radical ideas of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. 
Republicans will deny to a man that this dog whistling -- which one pundit noted is more like an air raid siren -- is central to their strategy to take back the presidency, but Ron Fournier, of all people, begs to disagree.

Fournier was a longtime Associated Press editor oft criticized for being in the GOP bag.  To no one's surprise, when he left the AP it was to become an editor at National Journal, a leading conservative rag where he could openly carry the party's water.  But Fournier recently went off script -- make that well off script -- when he publicly criticized the Romney-Ryan campaign on C-SPAN for a television ad claiming that Obama has dropped the work requirement for welfare recipients. 
The ad has been widely debunked, although Romney and Ryan continue to lie about the change to the federal law, a change that in fact was made at the request of Republican governors who wanted more state-level flexibility.  Meanwhile, a Romney spokesman let slip a candid admission: The campaign is not beholden to fact checkers.

The ad, Fournier said, was proof that the campaign was "playing the race card." 

Fournier, who is from overwhelmingly black and poor Detroit, said that welfare is a hot button issue in his hometown and that the ad was "pushing that button . . . playing to that racial prejudice. And I'm wondering: are you guys doing that on purpose?"

Of course they are doing that on purpose, but it is a losing strategy.
The Republican Party has been slowly but inevitably slipping into a self-induced coma as its voter base has shriveled and become overwhelmingly white and male.  It doesn't need these voters, some if not many of whom oppose Obama simply because of his race and will pull the big lever from Romney and Ryan come November 6. 
What the GOP does need to win are sufficient numbers of independent voters in crucial swing states, but most of these are women and while many of them are not necessarily enamored of the president -- after all, the effects of the recession fell disproportionately hard on them -- they are horrified by the party's opposition to access to affordable health care and reproductive counseling, abortion under all circumstances, as well as equal pay for equal work. 
These back to the Stone Age positions are, of course, enthusiastically endorsed by Ryan and somewhat less so by Romney in his biggest flip flop of all -- a shameless embrace of the party's hardcore right wing.  (Although, by golly, he now says he would keep parts of Obama's landmark Affordable Care Act.)  This goes a long way to explaining why Obama leads in most of those crucial swing states and leads by comfortable margins in some of them.  Incidentally, PollTracker found after considerable number crunching that 91.5 percent of the voters who of support Romney are white, 6.4 Latino and 2.1 black.  Some 66.2 percent of Obama's support comes from whites, 12.5 from Latinos and 21.4 from blacks.
No matter. 
White anger and rage are at the heart of the Tea Party manifesto and the Tea Party has become the Republican Party.  To them blacks are lazy parasites, illegal immigrants should be electrocuted or shot dead at the border and Muslim-Americans marked like Jews were in Nazi Germany.  In their view, marshaling white anger against a president they consider to be a usurper is paramount.
By the way, the soundtrack to this tragedy is the sound of Abraham Lincoln spinning in this grave.
The image above was sent by a member of the central committee of the Orange County (Calif.) Republican Party with the caption "Now you know why -- no birth certificate!"

Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

40 Years On, The Allmans Are Better Than Ever & That's Saying A Lot

Gregg and Duane Allman (top) and the Allman Brothers Band today
Keeping a rock band going after the death or departure of a key member is a tricky business and many an ensemble has faltered or failed as a result of that.  Examples abound, including Deep Purple, Van Halen and Jefferson Starship.  Cult band Little Feat has survived but never has been as good since the death of leader Lowell George, while the various post-Grateful Dead incarnations have survived and succeeded, but without their late leader Jerry Garcia have not been as good even at their best.  Long story short, George and Garcia were irreplacable.

The Allman Brothers Band is a rare and conspicuous exception.
The band's artistic and commercial breakthrough arrived in 1971 with the release of At Fillmore East, which I consider to be the best live rock album ever.  Then in October of that year Duane Allman, the band's leader and a blues-rock guitarist nopareil, died in a motorcycle accident at age 24.  Bass player Berry Oakley died in another motorcycle accident a year later.  Chuck Leavell and Lamar Williams replaced Allman and Oakley and the band briefly attained even greater commercial success with the hit single "Ramblin' Man," but internal turmoil perhaps inevitably took down the band, which disbanded in 1976, reformed briefly in 1979 and dissolved again in 1982.
In 1989, the band got back together with Duane's brother Gregg still playing keyboards and singing lead locals, Dickey Betts still on guitar and Jai Johnny Johnson and Butch Trucks still on drums.  A series of personnel changes in the late 1990s included the departure of Betts, then early in the 2000s the band finally found stability with the addition of Oteil Burnbridge on bass and Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, the nephew of Butch Trucks, on guitars.  The band has been going strong ever since and has a huge and devoted multi-generational fan base.
Fast forward to the second weekend in August and the First Annual Peach Festival at the Montage ski area outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania.  This three-day orgy of music featured 24 bands on two stages, including the Zac Brown Band, O.A.R, the Susan Tedeschi-Derek Trucks Band, Robert Randolph & The Family Band, and Blind Boys of Alabama, as well as Friday and Saturday night performances by the Allmans that concluded their summer 2012 tour. 
* * * * *
I was fortunate enough to see the Allman Brothers twice before Duane's death.  While I have followed them from afar over the years and have friends who religiously attend multiple shows during the band's now legendary month-long series of concerts at the Beacon Theater in New York City, I had not seen them live in over 40 years.
I expected them to be good and they delivered and then some.  We bailed before their Friday night set, which actually began about 12:20 on Saturday morning and rambled on to 3:30. Our mountain retreat is about an hour away and the woofs needed to be walked and fed. 
We were about 20 rows from the immense stage on Saturday night when they kicked off a two-hour set at a more reasonable time -- at least for someone who betrays his age in noting his last Allman's show was when Richard Nixon was president. 
From the first note of "Don't Want You No More" -- and I mean the very first note, I was transported back to 1971 and the Spectrum in Philadelphia.  The air was thick with marijuana smoke back then as well, but what was so wonderful is that first note conveyed the same tightness and power that the original Duane Allman-driven band had in spades. 
If there is any aspect of this band better than the original, it is the addition in the 1990s of sensational percussionist Marc Quiñones, while Butch Trucks and Johnson -- now calling himself Jaimoe -- have continued drumming up a storm.  The current band's sound is so immense and at times complex that it would be unable to succeed so marvelously without these three. 
Jaimoe's Jasssz Band was featured on a side stage on Saturday afternoon before the Allmans set, which was sublime as I spent most of their jazz-blues performance standing in a water park wave pool about 150 feet from the stage.
* * * * *
The journalist in me was curious to know how the Allmans had succeeded after such a long and bumpy ride. 
The consensus answer, articulated best by two fiftysomething guys from San Jose, California who had flown in to see the last two shows of the tour, was informative: The band in its current incarnation got it together when the members who drank and drugged to excess went straight or left.  Betts had notorious alcohol and cocaine habits that eventually resulted in him being shown the door, while Gregg Allman also had his nose deep in the bag. 
Then there is Warren Haynes, a workaholic musician like Garcia in his earlier years when he also had several side bands, whose presence has had a stabilizing influence. 
It is through Warren, I was told, that Gregg finally went straight and began writing songs again.  He has had two lengthy hospitalizations in recent years, the first for a liver transplant (no surprise there), yet was back on stage at Montage looking the worst for wear but with his Hammond B-3 chops as good as ever and "a voice that reflects the vicissitudes of personal losses and victories over the years," as a friend puts it.
How wonderfully reaffirming that the Allman Brothers Band, so much further down the road four decades on, can look back on all those personal loses but are able to revel in their victories, not the least of which has been surviving.
Top photo by David Tamoff/Retna Ltd. via Corbis

Cartoon du Jour

Joel Pett/Louisville Courier Journal