Sunday, June 19, 2005

Sunday Morning Thoughts

Well, that took longer than I thought.

It is Sunday, June 19; as I write it is 7:52 AM. I'm in Philipsburg, Qu├ębec, and it is a beautiful day out with the sky clearing after several dull cloudy days. I'm looking out on morning sun shining on green trees, a field of mowed hay in the foreground before me, low blue and purple mountains off on the horizon. It is eleven degrees celsius, with no wind but very many birds chittering away at each other.

What better way to mark a return to blogging than by taking on the bloggers' natural prey, the So-Called Liberal (American) Media? Herewith, thoughts on some of the Sunday morning chat shows from south of the border.

(Incidentally, has anybody in the States ever commented on the juxtaposition of Saturday morning cartoons and Sunday morning political talk shows? I get the sense some TV programmer way back when was trying to make a point. Mind you, with Saturday morning cartoons now all but gone, the point's no longer quite so trenchant. All we can do is be lucky that Bob Novak is there to take the place of Gargamel and Cobra Commander.)

Okay, let's begin with the warm-up act: Sunday Today.

A lot of coverage about missing or kidnapped kids, including a long story (the lead) about a girl who went missing in Aruba. Also, a boy scout's gone missing in Utah. Meanwhile, a suicide bomber kills 8 people in Iraq and Bush rejects the idea of an exit strategy in Iraq. 60 percent of Americans believe the war's going poorly. Lots of pictures of people protesting, with a lingering shot through the White House fence of a sign reading ‘impeach Bush'.

Then a couple stories about airplane mishaps.

During the report on Iraq, there was an audio clip of Bush essentially promoting the flytrap theory of American operations in Iraq. Still missing: any connection between this theory and reality.

Segment about a family with fifteen kids. Segment about a classical music child prodigy. It's Father's Day.

This is such a slow Sunday the hosts can't even be bothered with awkward banter.

Big interview with "the runaway bride" on Wednesday. Apparently, some people in the media are still trying to claim this was a real story.

Now some guy's playing ‘Ordinary People' on piano. This show is increasingly surreal.

A big report on the Downing Street Memo's coming up ... on MSNBC (that's Monday). Evidently it's not a big enough story for the full network.

On the other hand, now there's a segment with two writers from Seinfeld about how to deal with life's embarrassing moments, like showing up overdressed to a cocktail party or forgetting somebody's name. So ... well, there's that. Oh look: the next segment is a mini-fashion show. And then there's a piece about what to serve at brunch.

Screw this, I'm going out to trim the lilacs until 9.

Okay, now the main event begins. Meet the Press, featuring a full hour with John McCain. This could get nutty.

Russert's stunned that 6 of 10 Americans think things are going poorly in Iraq. McCain is one of the 4 in10, no big surprise, but he's honest enough to say that mistakes have been made in the war and in the way the US government's talked about the war. Also to say that the war will be a long, hard struggle. Fair enough, and he goes on the record as seeing the war continuing for at least another couple of years at best.

Russert asks about recruitment, and McCain admits there'll be trouble if the army consistently falls short of its goals. He suggests increasing rewards, shortening terms of service. Also suggests talking about patriotism and the need to serve. On the one hand, it's difficult to imagine Americans talking even more about patriotism. On the other hand, McCain's correct in noting that the need to serve one's country isn't really talked about — perhaps because it's implicitly a left-wing idea (the individual giving of oneself to serve the community; compare Kennedy and Trudeau). McCain does reject the idea of a draft out of hand.

Then he makes some dark comments about Syria. Syria may well deserve having a few dark comments lobbed its way, to say the least, but if the American military effort in Iraq is meeting with such problems, I'm not sure pointed threats muttered in anybody's general direction are really going to do much.

McCain calls for adjudication for prisoners in Guantanamo — noting that even Eichmann got a trial, which is a good line. He agrees with Ross Perot that American troops taken prisoner now and in the future are or will be at risk due to the way the current administration allows its own prisoners to be treated. I agree with Ross Perot on something. I am suddenly very afraid.

McCain thinks that Dick Durbin was out of line (he wasn't) in his comments in the Senate in re: Guantanamo Bay prison, resemblances therein to Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot. McCain then claims that Americans in Guantanamo are doing their jobs in a humane way. So there's the predicted nuttiness. It makes an interesting slogan, though: ‘humane torture, conducted on prisoners humanely deprived of their right to a fair trial.'

In response to a question from Russert about the Schiavo episode, McCain does a delicate side-step, calling the whole thing an "American tragedy". What else can he do? Decent political performance, and Russert (unsurprisingly) doesn't push him.

McCain comes out in favour of stem cell research. Evidently he's changed his mind on this. Good for him.

Russert's got some howls of outrage from conservative commentators over the deal McCain helped broker on Bush's last round of outrageous judicial nominees. God knows why. The deal wasn't exactly ... well, put it like this. Somebody puts a knife to your throat, demands your wallet, and then tells you that rather than kill you and take your wallet he'll be happy to take two thirds of everything in said wallet. Are you gonna say you got a good deal?

Anyway, McCain points out that Republicans have filibustered judicial nominees themselves. He positions himself as bipartisan, and talks about how the deal sets the stage for a probable upcoming Supreme Court nomination. He's likely right. Then he claims that the standard of "extraordinary circumstances" is clear, that he's convinced that the President's Supreme Court nominee won't touch "extraordinary circumstances", and that Justice Scalia shouldn't be filibustered. So that's one "likely right" versus three "what the hell is he thinking"s.

Next, McCain is gently critical of the administration's environmental stance, or lack thereof. He takes a serious stand on climate change; nice to see. Then he has to "clarify" previous criticism of the administration he made in another interview. Note that Men's Journal asks tougher questions than Tim Russert.

Russert goes back to Men's Journal interview (do they do all his reporting?) to bring up the fact that Kerry talked about the vice-presidency with McCain. McCain claims he was happy with Bush's record in the "war on terror" and is therefore happy that Bush is still President. Russert pushes McCain on whether he's going to run in 2008, thus bringing up memories of an old Saturday Night Live skit. Which McCain himself later points out, making me wonder if he took part in that skit specifically so he'd have a gentle way of deflecting questions about his running in 2008. Anyway, McCain refuses to commit himself one way or another. (Also, McCain claims not to have thought about his results from the 2000 primary. With a straight face, even.)

McCain claims to agree with Bush more than he disagrees with him, lists off a number of issues he says he sees eye-to-eye with the President on — and one of them is "fiscal discipline".

McCain closes by noting that he's a Republican, and proud to be of the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. I really have no idea how much resemblance or continuity there is between the contemporary Republican party and the party of those gentlemen, but it does occur to me to wonder why I have never heard a Canadian politician ever talk about belonging to the party of either MacDonald or Laurier. Although I did once hear one of the post-Broadbent pre-Layton NDP leaders say "Tommy Douglas was right about a lot of things." I believe that was just after she'd led the NDP to a new low in Parliamentary representation.

Okay, time for the Chris Matthews Show.

First up, Matthews and panel talk about new signs of resurgence from the middle of the political spectrum. The middle of the American spectrum, that is. From the perspective of almost any other industrialised Western country, the "middle" looks an awful lot like the "right". I've got nothing against Howard Dean, but if he's considered a leftist, you really don't know what the left is. Oddly, other than Dean, nobody specifies who on the left is being extreme and inflexible.

There's a constant whine from south of the border about the need for moderation, and how "both left and right" are being unreasonable over this issue or that. And how important it is to find middle ground. Even when, as in the Schiavo case, there was no middle ground. Then when somebody does demonstrate bipartisanship, they get punished for it by the voters who find them ‘indecisive' or ‘weak'. The fact is, Americans (like everyone) don't want moderates, as such — they want people who are capable of real, free, and independent thought. Not many people like that in politics.

Discussion about the negative view of the Iraq war. Now the media people on the panel talk about the importance of the "goals" of the war, and how can America draw its troops out without betraying its goals? The goals, in case you didn't know (I can't keep track, myself), involve establishing freedom in the middle east. In other words, the neoconserative plan of building a representative democracy in Iraq and using that to transform the region has now been adopted as gospel by media insiders. Just not by the American people at large. So the media insiders wonder how the American people can be so weak-willed as to imperil the great and noble mission in Iraq.

Then people told Chris Matthews things he didn't know. According to one of the panellists, despite the allege desire for moderation and bipartisanship calls to the DNC were running four-to-one in favour of Howard Dean's recent outspoken comments on the Republican party. Aha, the panel says, Dean's firing up the base. And they move on. Who knows? Maybe they're right.

Then Matthews showed some of his family pictures. No, I don't get it either.

10:30, and time for Face the Nation. A discussion with Joe Biden. Could be worse.

Biden's back from Iraq with a bleak view. Bad elements are creeping across the border. Iraq's turning into a training ground for terrorists. So: big gap between administration rhetoric and reality. Biden sez: better for the President to level with people, or else (and he's pretty sharp on this) people are going to presume that the reason the administration's afraid to be honest is that there is no hope of success.

Biden's still hopeful; sees a sixty percent chance of success if policies change. Without that change, no chance.

Biden mentions that he's not allowed to be present when the bodies of American soldiers are flown back home from overseas. Absent approval from above, the Department of Defense will not allow him on military bases to, for example, accompany his constituents to pick up the body of their son. This ruling was made by civilians in the DoD, not the military hierarchy.

More outrage over the Durbin comments. Biden claims Durbin said in a letter that he wishes he hadn't made the comments, which have proven distracting. Biden turns the conversation to Guantanamo, and what to do with it. The idea of giving everyone in there a free trial is, as usual, conspicuously unmentioned.

Asked about John Bolton, and the possibility of the President making a recess appointment to unilaterally appoint Bolton for a year and a half, Biden pointed out, correctly, that this would seriously undercut Bolton's ability to represent the US to the world. He's more of a defeatist with regard to the Supreme Court, admitting that Scalia probably would get confirmed as the Chief Justice of the Court if Bush picked him for the job, but hoping that Bush would refrain to avoid setting off another political firestorm. Fat chance, says I.

Asked about Dean, Biden tries to present himself as the moderate alternative. He states that he intends to seek the Democratic nomination of 2008. Evidently, he intends to run from the centre. Which is to say, the right.

One of the local PBS channels broadcasts the McLaughlin Group at 11. Discussion here of the "Homeward Bound" resolution, calling for withdrawal of American troops by October 2006, which unaccountably was not discussed by Chris Matthews when he was talking about bipartisan politics.

But again: discussion of how important it is to win the war in Iraq. Even by people on the (relative) left. Also: much comparison of Iraq to Viet Nam. And the need for a viable exit strategy, currently nowhere in evidence.

1700 dead Americans, over 40 000 wounded, more than 110 000 dead Iraqis. Panellists on the McLaughlin Group and the Chris Matthews Show both think the President's "strong enough" to stick it out in Iraq. Katty Kay, on the Matthews Show, came closest to getting it right, saying that Bush has to keep going because he's staked his presidency on the war. In fact, Bush will stick around in Iraq firstly because there's no way to pull out without causing a massive disaster which would be forever linked to his name, and secondly because he's too weak to admit he's wrong. I'm afraid Biden's hopes for Iraq will go unfulfilled because Bush hasn't got enough strength to accept that he and his administration have made a series of mistakes. Bush is a weak man, and a weak leader — and the messes at home and abroad currently bedevilling the US are the result of many people desperately trying to convince themselves that weakness is actually strength. In my opinion.

Much discussion of Iran then followed, with nothing terribly outrageous said that I caught. Either John McLaughlin is mellowing with age, or Pat Buchanan's making him look soft.

George Stephanopoulos talks with Condoleeza Rice. Condoleeza Rice continues to impress me as having two facial expressions: sinister, and help-me-I'm-out-of-my-depth. She has one tone of voice, and it's the latter. In a way, she makes a good match with Bush; Bush has the nervous smile of a schoolboy who thinks he's getting away with selling his teacher a line about why he wasn't in class last week, while Rice has the agonised awkward tone of a schoolmarm who knows she knows her material (even when her facts are wrong, as here when she claims that real progress is being made in Iraq) and can't figure out why everybody's snickering at her and nobody takes her seriously, darn it, and why do people insist on asking questions about whether the Iraq insurgency is really in its last throes when she's already given them an answer and that answer has facts in it and why isn't that good enough and what else does she have to say?

Later in the show, during a panel discussion, Katrina Vanden Heuven from the Nation became the first person I saw today to correctly analyse the significance of the reaction to Dick Durbin's comments — namely, that the right wing was trying to whip up a furor over some of his phrasing to distract people from the point. More importantly, she noted that outrage ought to be involved in the debate over Guantanamo, but it would be proper to aim it at the prison itself. Then Michael Duffy from Timemagazine noted that the government's begun hinting that they just might keep people at Guantanamo "in perpetuity". So that'll end that sort of talk.

Oh, and apparently Antonio Gonzales is talking again about taking the US out of the Geneva Conventions so that it can't be accused of war crimes.

Some discussion of whether Congressional Republican dissent from the Bush program represents something more than Bush's second-term lame-duckiness. Answer: probably. Congressional Republicans have to worry about 2006, and it's difficult to blame everything on Democrats when they don't have the numbers in government to affect much.

Then a poll came up saying that about 60 percent of Americans believe that global warming is inevitable, but about the same number don't think it'll affect their lives and don't favour immediate government action. George Will responded by digging up press clips from thirty years ago claiming that global cooling was inevitable. Everybody else laughed at him. Politely.

And that was pretty much all I found to write about.

So what does it all come out to? Well, it was easier to take than the same set of shows a year ago. I get the sense that the American people are beginning to see the reality of at least a few things, and the American media will have little choice but to follow along. On a more specific note, it was nice to see Vanden Heuven on the Stephanopoulos show; that's one person I'd feel confident describing as a leftist on the mainstream American media. Hey, it's a start.

Let's see where we go from here.