Saturday, January 17, 2009

Maverick News: Inaugural Moments

This week: War with Iran – beyond the rumors, and the return of Manuel Noriega. National: W’s Deep Thoughts and notes on Inaugural speech-making. Vermont: Why Howard Dean is getting no respect, Plus, the Drug Report. Live Broadcast Friday, January 16, Noon EST, on The Howie Rose Show (WOMM), streamed on The Radiator.

THE PAST AS PROLOGUE. Most of the pageantry involved in the inauguration of a president has nothing to do with the Constitution. All it says is that president is supposed to take the oath of office. Even the idea of swearing on a bible is just a custom, and the oath doesn’t include “so help me, God.” Washington decided to add that at the last minute. One president, Franklin Pierce, actually refused to swear on the “Good Book.”

The inaugural speech is also just a custom. It started when Washington thought it might be a wise idea to say a few words. He wasn’t speaking to “the people,” by the way, he was talking to Congress. But giving a speech stuck as an idea, and eventually the show was taken outside – where for the next century most of the audience couldn’t hear a word the president was saying.

One president died as a result of giving an address. It was 1841, and William Henry Harrison, who was 68, wanted to prove he was fit and gave his speech on a bitterly cold day without wearing an overcoat. The speech took more than two hours – the longest on record – and Harrison caught a cold. A month later he died of pneumonia.

Aside from Lincoln, Kennedy, and Garfield, most inaugural speeches haven’t been very memorable. At times they’ve been downers. In 1857, for example, James Buchanan attacked abolitionists for making a big deal about slavery. Ulysses Grant complained about being slandered. Warren Harding and others were just plain boring.

There have been some good lines. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” said Franklin Roosevelt. And Kennedy, with an assist from several others, came up with “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”

George H.W. Bush compared freedom to a kite.

According to scholars who have analyzed the speeches, the form has evolved. In the old days, presidents talked a lot about the Constitution. Now we have more “rhetorical” presidencies, meaning that the chief executive bypasses the constitution – and congress – and appeals directly to the people. The problem, which was recognized by the founding fathers, is that this can lead to demagoguery – appeals to passion rather than reason. And since Nixon we’ve had several relatively anti-intellectual presidencies, with leaders who offer platitudes, emotional appeals, partisan attacks and human interest stories instead of evidence and arguments.

Since Nixon we’ve also had professional speechwriters, and an emphasis on getting as much applause as possible. Meanwhile, the reading level has dropped. The early speeches were written at the college level. Now we’re at the eighth grade level.

We don’t hear much about the presidency of James Garfield, who was elected in 1880. One of the reasons was that he was shot after only four months in office, and died about two months later. But before he was inaugurated, he read over all the previous addresses to decide what to say. He found Lincoln’s speech the best. Who could beat this closing:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Partway through his research, Garfield considered not giving a speech at all. But he pressed on, and boiled down the task to the following: first a brief introduction, followed by a summary of topics recently settled, then a section on what ought to be the focus of public attention, and finally, an appeal to stand by him in the independent and vigorous execution of the law. The speeches haven’t really changed much since then. Most serve to reunite people after the election, express some shared values, present some new policies, and promise that the president will stick to the job description.

In the end, Garfield’s speech didn’t match Lincoln’s. But it was fairly eloquent and remains relevant today. He started with history, noting that before the US was formed the world didn’t believe “that the supreme authority of government could be safely entrusted to the guardianship of the people themselves.” Moving through the first century of US history, he concluded that since the Civil War people had finally “determined to leave behind them all those bitter controversies concerning things which have been irrevocably settled, and the further discussion of which can only stir up strife and delay the onward march.” Among other things, he was talking about slavery.

“The elevation of the negro race from slavery,” he said, “to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the constitution.” But the Black vote was still be suppressed, especially in the south. So he warned, “To violate the freedom and sanctity of the suffrage is more than an evil. It is a crime which, if persisted in, will destroy the government itself.”

With Barack Obama about to take the oath of office, we may be a bit safer from the danger Garfield described. And yet, there remain serious threats to the freedom and sanctity of the right to vote, and other dangers that could ultimately destroy this system of government – secrecy, abuse of power, impunity, abandonment of the rule of law. Perhaps Obama will provide some hint that he understands this, and help point the way forward.

Garfield also made another point worth repeating: No religious organization, he noted, can be “permitted to usurp in the smallest degree the functions and powers of the National Government.” At the time he was talking about the Mormon Church, which was exerting considerable influence out west. But there are contemporary parallels.

His concluding words about the end of slavery perhaps still resonate best. “We do not now differ in our judgment concerning the controversies of the past generations, and fifty years hence our children will not be divided on their opinions concerning our controversies,” he said. “We may hasten or we may retard, but we can not prevent, the final reconciliation. Is it not possible for us now to make a truce with time by anticipating and accepting its inevitable verdict?

“Enterprises of the highest importance to our moral and material well-being unite us and offer ample employment of our best powers. Let all our people, leaving behind them the battlefields of dead issues, move forward and in their strength of liberty and the restored Union win the grander victories of peace.”

W’S DEEP THOUGHTS. As the Bush era comes to an end, rather than dwell on what could be the worst presidency in US history – the one that may have fatally damaged the era of US global dominance – let’s think of the good times. Having trouble? How about the President’s unique way of expressing himself? He gave us so many memorable moments after all. Here are some of the gems:

Speaking about education in 2000, Bush noted, "Rarely is the questioned asked: Is our children learning?" The following year, he provided a revealing answer: "You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.”

The president was equally concerned about employment. Here’s what he said to a divorced mother of three in Omaha, Nebraska in 2005: "You work three jobs? ... Uniquely American, isn't it? I mean, that is fantastic that you're doing that." Truly a “family values” president. As he put it, "Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream." That concern may have been expressed best in 2004, when he articulated his dedication to the “culture of life” in Popular Bluff, Missouri."Too many good docs are getting out of the business,” he lamented. “Too many OB-GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across this country."

Of course, Bush’s greatest concern was protecting the US in his great crusade against terrorism. As he explained just days after 9/11, "The most important thing is for us to find Osama bin Laden. It is our number one priority and we will not rest until we find him." Of cours, he did modify that a bit six months later."I don't know where bin Laden is,” he said in March, 2002. “I have no idea and really don't care. It's not that important. It's not our priority." The honesty was inspiring, wasn’t it? A month later, he clarified further, "This foreign policy stuff is a little frustrating," he explained.

He rarely “misunderestimated” the problems, through others often did so to him. "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we,” he said in 2004. “They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we." That was just his style. As he put it himself, "See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda."

When we look back, we’ll also remember his deep concern about the environment."I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully," he once said. And, of course, his dedication to democracy. "If this were a dictatorship,” he noted in 2005, “it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator."

He was nothing if not frank. Speaking at the Al Smith dinner in 2000, he put it well. "This is an impressive crowd – the haves and the have mores. Some people call you the elite – I call you my base."

But perhaps the best example of his wit and wisdom was this pithy comment, delivered in Nashville in September 2002. "There's an old saying in Tennessee,” he quipped, “that says, fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me – you can't get fooled again."

Yes, let’s hope not.


IRAN: THE NEXT WAR? Throughout 2007 and 2008, debate raged about a possible military attack on Iran. The reasons included its nuclear program and statements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatening the existence of Israel. But there were concerns that such a move would unleash a regional conflict with the potential to become global. This led US officials to tell Israel that they wouldn’t endorse an attack. Now, The New York Times has confirmed all this, detailing Israel's bid and Washington rejection of permission to bomb Iran's plant at Natanz.

As David E. Sanger reports, following the late 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which said Iran had no nuclear weapons program, Israel asked the US for bunker busters, permission to fly over Iraqi air space, and refueling equipment. President Bush "was convinced by top administration officials, led by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, that any overt attack on Iran would probably prove ineffective, lead to the expulsion of international inspectors, and drive Iran's nuclear effort further out of view." Bush et al reportedly also "discussed the possibility that an airstrike could ignite a broad Middle East war" which would draw in US forces in Iraq. A spokesman for Gates said the Defense Secretary believed "a potential strike on the Iranian facilities is not something that we or anyone else should be pursuing at this time."

Among the pro-Iranian elements that might be activated in the event of an attack were Shi'ite communities, armed militias in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq, plus Hezbollah and Hamas. Thus, if any Israeli move against Iran was tried, they’d have to figure out how to deal with Hamas first – not because it was a powerful military force, but because its role as leading opposition to Israeli intentions would ensure its mobilization.

Thus, the move against Hamas. The Israeli military assault repeated a strategy tried in 2006 against Hezbollah – wipe out a potential nuisance while preparing to target Iran. The outgoing US administration had rejected a new war against Iran, but Israel felt certain that there would be no serious objection to aggression against Hamas, at least if presented as a thing-in-itself.

The neocons, especially Vice President Cheney, see the Gaza war as preparation for a move against Iran. John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN, announced as much on December 31. “I don't think there's anything at this point standing between Iran and nuclear weapons other than the possibility of the use of military force possibly by the United States, possibly by Israel," he told Fox News. "So while our focus obviously is on Gaza now, this could turn out to be a much larger conflict. We're looking at potentially a multi-front war." The general consensus among neocons is that the Gaza war is a proxy war against Iran.

Israel chose the timing carefully. As a lame duck President, Bush could be counted on to say that Israel had every right to defend itself from Hamas's deadly rocket attacks. President-elect Obama wouldn’t denounce the Bush administration's policy as long as it was still officially in power. And any initiative by the European Union could be ignored.

Still, Israel may be seriously miscalculating. Hamas is not apt to give up. For its militant members, there’s no fear of dying in struggle. On the contrary, a fighter killed in the battle is a martyr. Israel’s leaders may also be mistaken if they think escalating the war will provoke Iran to enter the fray. Its response so far has been cautious.

Immediately after attacks began, demonstrations took place in Iran. But its leadership warned demonstrators not to attack or occupy diplomatic missions of foreign nations. On January 5, when about 70,000 Iranian students reportedly declared their readiness to go to Israel as suicide bombers, the regime said this isn’t the answer. Five days later, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted as saying, "I thank the pious and devoted youth who have asked to go to Gaza ... but it must be noted that our hands are tied in this arena." Iran criticized Arab inaction, but that was about it.

In short, the Iranian leadership sees the trap being laid for them, and they are likely to lie low, bide their time and hope that the Palestinians can hold out until regime change in Washington is completed.

HILLARY’S CHOICE. What to do about former military strongman Manuel Noriega? That’s the issue winding its way through federal courts in Miami. But the big surprise is who will get to make the final call.

Twenty years ago Noriega was captured in Panama by US military forces. In September 2007 he completed his prison sentence for drug trafficking and money laundering. But he’s still in prison because the courts haven’t yet decided what to do with him.

Manny wants to return to Panama and has argued that the US is obligated to let him go under the Geneva Conventions. But the government has also been asked to send him to France, which wants to try him for money laundering. The US currently likes that idea. Noriega is 74, has survived prostate cancer and a stroke in jail, and says he has found God. But maybe God has found him.

Panama also wants to put Noriega on trial – for murder. In fact, he has already been convicted in absentia and sentenced to 60 more years in prison. But officials there say he will get a new trial, and anyway, any sentence could be served only under house arrest due to Noriega's age.

Noriega's lawyers argue that the Geneva Convention trumps extradition. In December 1989 Noriega surrendered to the Drug Enforcement Administration, which had a federal indictment waiting for him in Miami. The charge was that he’d turned Panama into a transit point for US-bound drugs. He was convicted in 1992. But after the trial, he was declared a POW, which set the stage for the current legal mess. The US is apparently worried about the implications of that for people serving in the armed forces who are accused of crimes.

Speaking to Larry King in 1996, Manny claimed that the Bush administration had a vendetta against him and that his relationship with the US went bad only when he refused to conduct bombings and sabotage against Nicaragua's Sandinistas. After the trial came the revelation – suspected all along – that he’d been a paid CIA asset for many years.

Now here’s the twist: Eventually, the courts will make a recommendation to the US Secretary of State, who can accept or reject the ruling. And that means Hillary Clinton will decide what to do with Manuel Noriega. Hillary office has declined to comment so far, and most people don’t see her as very sympathetic. But Noriega's defense team believes he has a chance.


DISSING DEAN. The conspicuous absence of Howard Dean from last week’s press conference announcing the appointment of Tim Kaine as Democratic National Committee chair was no accident, according to the Politico website, which contacted some Dean loyalists. Instead, it seems to reflect a lack of respect for the outgoing party chair by Team Obama. Despite leading the party in several winning election cycles, including Kaine’s 2005 election as Virginia governor, Dean has been almost invisible since Election Day. He’s also been passed over for a Cabinet position – his preferences were Health and Human Services, or Surgeon General – and apparently isn’t in line for an administration post.

When Obama introduced Kaine at party headquarters last week, Dean was 7000 miles away, doing party work in American Samoa. His allies weren't happy. "If he had been asked to go to that event, he would have been there," said Jim Dean, the chairman's brother.

A possible reason? The frosty relationship between Dean and Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff. The bad blood dates from their disagreement about Dean’s 50-state strategy for rebuilding Democratic Party power. There was apparently some yelling involved. In addition, Emanuel has been part of the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group that opposed Dean’s presidential run and DNC appointment.

Dean's reward for helping the party recapture the White House, House, Senate, and taking control of seven governor's mansions and eight state legislatures? So far, nothing.


JUST THE SCENT, MA’AM. China has started using dogs to sniff for drugs on flights to Beijing. Actually, two golden Labrador retrievers who wear uniforms and leather shoes. Evidently, people hiding drugs leave a distinct smell on their seats that can be detected for up to two hours. They dress up the dogs “to prevent their hair falling on the seats or the carpet.” The shoes “protect the seat covers and other objects from claw damage."

China used more than 200 explosive-sniffing dogs during the Beijing Olympics. They were also trained for anti-terrorist rescue missions.

EL PASO BACKS OFF. City Council members in the Texas border city have declined to revive their decision to ask the federal government to consider legalizing drugs as a way to help curb the Mexico drug cartel war. The council split 4-4 on a vote upholding Mayor John Cook’s veto of the resolution unanimously passed last week asking the federal government to consider a national dialogue on ending drug prohibition. The proposal was part of a resolution expressing the city’s solidarity with Ciudad Juarez, a violence-plagued border city across the Rio Grande. For at least three council members who initially supported the resolution, the issue was whether the city’s stance would cost state and federal funding.

LONGER EYELASHES THROUGH CHEMISTRY. Allergan, the drug company that us Botox, has another beauty-enhancing breakthrough – an eyedrop that actually grows longer, thicker eyelashes. It could be the end of the mascara industry.

Latisse, the first FDA-approved prescription drug for eyelash lengthening, will launch at the end of the month. Like Botox, which was originally developed to deal with eyelid and neck spasms by paralyzing the muscles, the cosmetic potential of Latisse was an unintended side effect of a drug created to deal with glaucoma. Its active ingredient, bimatroprost, treats a condition known as hyptorichosis of the eyelashes, in which a sufferer doesn’t have enough of them.

A daily drop of Latisse on the base of the upper eyelash will bring on substantial eyelash growth. Once the treatment stops, the eyelashes will gradually return to their previous length and thickness. Side effects can include eye redness and itchiness, darkening of the eyelid skin and permanent browning of the iris.

The demand for longer eyelashes could mean $500 million in international sales for Latisse. How many women – and men – will spend $120 for a monthly supply of the eyedrop? Well, cosmetic treatments aren’t generally covered by medical insurance in the US, but on the other hand people spend around $5 billion a year on mascara, and sales of Botox were $600 million in 2007.

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