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Thursday, March 30, 2006
Governing: The Not-Particularly-Fun Part Of Being President
Like an adolescent who resents being told he must take out the trash, George W. Bush is getting annoyed at all the tense and delicate diplomatic work that is necessary to cobble together an Iraqi coalition government.

As Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish representatives haggle over power, Bush has grown irritated at the stalemate, aides said, and he expressed the impatience publicly in response to an audience question at Freedom House after his latest speech on the war.

"It's about time you get a unity government going," Bush said, addressing Iraqi leaders. "In other words, Americans understand newcomers to the political arena, but pretty soon it's time to shut her down and get governing."

For the moment, let's not even discuss the utility of simply hectoring the Iraqi factions to "get governing". Instead, let's consider how the President of the United States reached a point where he thought doing so was a good idea. Or at least, not a bad idea.

If anyone needed to take his own advice about governing, it's Bush. The drudgery of real work is clearly not the sort of thing he signed on for.

As the "CEO President" he displays the typical CEO's inattention to detail, coupled with an unfortunate lack of interest in strategic planning. The result is a president who is neither a big-picture guy nor a detail guy.

Bush clearly enjoys the prestige and power of the office he holds. He enjoys the adoring crowds and the Marines snapping to attention to salute him and the big speeches and the grand gestures. But he seems to find the actual task of governing -- which ought to be the lion's share of his job -- to be agonizingly slow and unrewarding.

In diplomacy, much of the heavy lifting is done behind the scenes, by career negotiators. But in the high-stakes game that is Iraq in 2006, only the biggest players can get a seat at the table. That requires a great deal of personal involvement from the President, a sustained effort to push events forward despite setbacks and frustrations.

That, clearly, is not George's style.

Bush's impatience does not seem to be a public bit of diplomacy; it seems rather like someone lashing out in frustration, the comments of a man who would rather be fishing in Crawford than trying to unravel the Gordian Knot of Middle East politics.

Our little Alexander already tried cutting the Gordian Knot, of course -- on March 19, 2003. It didn't work. And Alexander doesn't have a second act.

Friday, March 24, 2006
Red Dusk
It's probably a safe bet that Ben Domenech is having a bad day today.

The 24-year-old wingnut and co-founder of redstate.org (his non de plume there was Augustine, by the way -- just a tad pretentious, but the lad is young, and Diogenes was presumably taken) had just started his plum assignment as a Washingtonpost.com blogger. Ben was hired as a political counterweight to Dan Froomkin, whose blog, while not actually liberal, was not identifiably conservative. Which these days amounts to the same thing.

Ben's appointment caused a lot of howling from Kos and Atrios and the other liberal blogs. Why hire a fire-breathing winger to counterbalance a reporter's blog? Why hire Domenech, whose journalistic resume is so thin? Especially given his history of ad hominem attacks? The Post's excuse was that Domenech was a blogger, not a journalist, and therefore being "controversial" was a good thing.

But yesterday afternoon, the Post got a little more controversy than it had bargained for.

Howie Kurtz wrote an article for today's edition about the "controversial" Domenech, but didn't drop the real bombshell until the 9th graf:

Late yesterday, the liberal Web sites Daily Kos and Atrios posted examples of what appeared to be instances of plagiarism from Domenech's writing at the William & Mary student paper. Three sentences of a 1999 Domenech review of a Martin Scorsese film were identical to a review in Salon magazine, and several sentences in Domenech's piece on a James Bond movie closely resembled one in the Internet Movie Database. Domenech said he needed to research the examples but that he never used material without attribution and had complained about a college editor improperly adding language to some of his articles.

Ah, what a profile in courage, this kid. Can you tell he worked in the White House? He's certainly got the it-wasn't-me defense down pat.

But soft-pedaling the plagiarism charge only served to stave off the inevitable. By the time the dead-tree edition of the Post hit the stands, unearthing new examples of Ben's plagiarism had become an internet bloodsport. Kos diarists were finding Domenech passages that had been lifted not only from Salon and IMDB, but from Slate, from the Dallas Morning News, from Rolling Stone, from old P.J. O'Rourke essays, several even from the Post itself. At this hour the Post is circling the wagons, saying as little as possible.

But it is clear that the tipping point was probably reached at about 10:00 last night. The Post has to staunch the bleeding, and for that to happen Domenech must be unemployed by the time he gets home tonight.

This will no doubt take the form of our heroic home-schooled blogger announcing that he is simply the victim of a colossal misunderstanding and / or left-wing mau-mauing but that, in order to preserve the reputation of post.com, he is voluntarily stepping down.

Well and good. But it does make you wonder: why wasn't this kid vetted more carefully by the Post? Was it because they think of bloggers as just entertainers, that they can provide a patina of edginess --but no expertise -- to an otherwise staid and humorless newspaper site?

And does it make sense for the Post to insist -- as it has been insisting today -- that there is no connection between the Washington Post and washingtonpost.com?

Update: Post editor Jim Brady just posted this announcement:

In the past 24 hours, we learned of allegations that Ben Domenech plagiarized material that appeared under his byline in various publications prior to washingtonpost.com contracting with him to write a blog that launched Tuesday.

An investigation into these allegations was ongoing, and in the interim, Domenech has resigned, effective immediately.

Thursday, March 23, 2006
Florida's Pearl Of Great Price
Florida's tarted-up recount queen Katherine Harris had a near-death experience of sorts earlier this month. Her lackluster campaign has been making the GOP burgermeisters nervous and she was under pressure to drop out.

There was a lot of evidence that she would. She had suspended her barnstorming trips around the state and scheduled a "major announcement" on Sean Hannity's cable show. But -- God be praised -- Katherine's "major announcement" was that she was staying in the race. Whew!

Then on ABC's Nightline, she declared that she would spend her entire family fortune in order to win. Not a surprising move for a rich candidate who can't raise campaign cash and who is being derided as a political dilettante.

But it was the way she announced this that is so interesting.

"I am willing to take this widow's mite, this pearl of great price, and put everything on the line," she told [Jim] Donvan. "No matter how much you have, are you willing to take what you have and sell it all for a great price?"

Now, this is a remarkable statement.

The story of the Widow's Mite is a brief anecdote from the book of Luke, and it takes place when Jesus and his disciples are watching the faithful in the temple:

And He looked up and saw the rich men casting their gifts into the treasury,and He saw also a certain poor widow casting therein two mites.

And He said, "In truth I say unto you that this poor widow hath cast in more than they all.

For all these have of their abundance cast in unto the offerings of God, but she of her penury hath cast in all the living that she had."

(Luke 21:1-4)

The "Pearl of Great Price" is a parable from the book of Matthew:

Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
(Matthew 13: 45-46)

The "pearl of great price" Jesus talks about is the Kingdom of Heaven, not a seat in the U.S. Senate. The implication in Harris' statement is that she is pursuing the Florida senate seat not for herself, her party, or even her country, but for Jesus. Whatever happened to rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's?

Harris is admittedly an unusually clumsy politician, but even so, such a blatantly Christianist message in a high-profile senate race is unusual. She didn't start this line of talk until now, and I can only guess that she's cynically and belatedly -- trying to ignite the evangelical base.

For her, I can only offer this from the book of John:

Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled.

Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed.

(John 6:26-27)

Monday, March 20, 2006
When I Say Ramesh Ponnuru Is An Idiot, I Don't Necessarily Mean You, Ramesh Ponnuru
Here is a typical bit of idiocy from Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review:

Franke-Ruta mentions my forthcoming book The Party of Death, which she describes as a "book on Democrats." The book does have quite a bit to say about the Democrats, and it's tough on them. But the book is about more than that, and the title isn't meant as a pejorative term for the Democrats.

Ah. I see.

Ramesh, just for the record: when I publish my upcoming book, The Party of Right-Wing War-Mongering Evangelical Bush-Worshipping Cocksuckers, please be aware that it is not about the Republican party.

My book does have quite a lot to say about Republicans, and I'm kind of tough on them, but the title does NOT refer to them.

Not at all.

After that book, I am planning a sequel, entitled Ramesh Ponnuru Is A Right-Wing War-Mongering Evangelical Bush-Worshipping Cocksucker. However, while I might be kind of tough on Ramesh Ponnuru, it won't actually be about him.

Friday, March 17, 2006
Every Time You Agree With Charles Krauthammer....

....God kills a kitten.

Please think of the kittens.

Thursday, March 16, 2006
Peggy Noonan On The Road To Damascus
Peggy Noonan has the wingnuts all a-twitter with her OpinionJournal piece about Dubya's betrayal of conservative "principles". Quoth Peggy:

This week's column is a question, a brief one addressed with honest curiosity to Republicans. It is: When George W. Bush first came on the scene in 2000, did you understand him to be a liberal in terms of spending?

The question has been on my mind since the summer of 2005 when, at a gathering of conservatives, the question of Mr. Bush and big spending was raised. I'd recently written on the subject and thought it significant that no one disagreed with my criticism. Everyone murmured about new programs, new costs, how the president "spends like a drunken sailor except the sailor spends his own money." And then someone, a smart young journalist, said, (I paraphrase), But we always knew what Bush was. He told us when he ran as a compassionate conservative. This left me rubbing my brow in confusion. Is that what Mr. Bush meant by compassionate conservatism?

Of course, Peggy and her right-wing friends didn't give a rat's ass about how much money Bush was spending (or how he was spending it, or what he meant by "compassionate conservative") as long as he was popular. Now that he is distinctly unpopular, (37% approval rating in the NBC/WSJ poll, 33% in the latest Pew poll), they're suddenly shocked and dismayed at his "liberal spending".

This seems to be a trial balloon for a new conservative meme: that Bush's presidency failed not because he an incompetent, right-wing buffoon, but because he let himself be seduced by liberalism.

Personally, I believe that Bush's spending has been profligate, but not liberal; he has thrown a lot of money away on corporate giveaways and no-bid contracts, but there has been no rhyme or reason to it, and it hasn't done the average American any good. Nor was it ever meant to.

A lot of wingers are suddenly jumping on the Noonan bandwagon, including Jonah Goldberg:

I remember talking to Rich [Lowry]in 1999-2000 about Bush's mantra that the toughest job in the world is to be a single mother. It is a basic fact of politics that you don't point to problems that you don't intend to fix. Or, at least pointing to such problems gives people the impression you want to fix them. What is the public policy for making single-motherhood less difficult?....I don't know that making single-motherhood less difficult is necessarily compassionate. The easer you make such things, i.e. the more you lower the price of single-motherhood, the more widespread it will become. You have to believe single-motherhood is a good or at least neutral thing to believe lowering its price is a smart idea.

See how compassion works? We want more millionaires, so we should make their lives easier. But we don't want more single mothers, so we should make their lives more difficult. That's real compassion. Got that?

So now we are treated to the spectacle of right-wing bloggers, who spent the last five years foaming at the mouth whenever anyone dared to criticize Dubya for anything, now saying that they knew Bush was a liberal all along, that he was never really one of them.

They can say it. They might even believe it. But they are going to find it pretty damned difficult to bill themselves as defenders of fiscal restraint now. Because for the last five years, where have they been? Where have the conservatives in Congress been? Were they all asleep? Were they all blind?

Thursday, March 09, 2006
A Crazy Idea Whose Time Has Come

Why do I always have to wait so long for an elevator to show up?

My lack of confidence in Bush administration's wisdom and competence notwithstanding, I have been generally supportive of the administration's strategic goals in space exploration. The best thing the administration could have done was set a retirement date for the space shuttle fleet. That was a necessary first step in getting NASA out of low-earth orbit and back to pushing the envelope of manned exploration. After a quarter-century of shuttle flights, it's clear that the space shuttle has hindered, rather than helped, the space program. The shuttle never lived up to the promises its proponents made in the 1970's. It is a big, unwieldy moving van that costs more to re-use than it would cost to build from scratch a disposable rocket of the same size.

The turnaround time for shuttle flights was far longer than had been predicted. The piggybacking of the shuttle onto the main liquid fuel tank has proven to be a horrendous design flaw. And the fact that the shuttle can't fly more than a couple of hundred miles above the earth's surface has crippled its utility. It's good for a few limited applications, but it has simply not been worth the cost.

So: points to the Bush administration for pulling the trigger on the shuttle. Points to them also for re-orienting NASA toward manned planetary exploration (though slashing NASA's pure-science mission budgets is a big mistake -- and I think returning to the Moon is a puzzling goal; Mars seems like a more sensible next step). And until recently I thought the recently-unveiled CEV launch vehicle, which utilizes off-the-shelf technology, was a smart option.

But not anymore -- not after reading this article by engineer Bradley Edwards.

Over the last few years, a crazy idea from the science-fiction magazines has been gaining acceptance in the scientific community. Recent advances in nanotechnology make it theoretically possible to construct a ribbon of material, more than 60,000 miles long and 100 times stronger than steel, that would stretch from an ocean platform at the earth's equator up to a gigantic counterweight in earth orbit. The ribbon would be pulled taut and would serve as an elevator cable, and large freight vehicles would be able to clamp on to the cable and simply pull themselves up to earth orbit. The journey from earth's surface to geosynchronous orbit would take about eight days, but once the "space elevator" is up and running, the cost of carrying cargo into space would drop from the current $10,000 / kg to less than $100 / kg.

The economic implications of this would be mammoth. Such an engineering project, while titanic in scale, would provide the nation (or coalition of nations) that completed it a huge economic advantage over its rivals -- who would no doubt race to complete space elevators of their own.

This is an idea so big and so daunting that it seems well-suited to the American mind; it's the sort of thing we ought to do first. We are a nation that likes big goals and grand ideas. The CEV is a timid step forward by comparison.

Friday, March 03, 2006
Look At Them Now
It's a wonder that Tim Graham's head didn't explode from sheer irony after posting this missive about Bush's latest poll numbers.

I always think of the network polls as their own internal measurements of how well their anti-Bush coverage is sinking in. “Everything seems to be piling up and pushing his popularity down,” reported Paula Zahn on CNN. Not quite. It’s the media which seems to be piling up and pushing his popularity down. Can anyone imagine, for just one example, that if Katrina had hit New Orleans in 1999, with the same disastrous force, that the news media would basically be treating the hurricane as a Clinton scandal?

No Tim, I can't imagine it -- because Bill Clinton was actually competent. The people he appointed to key administration positions -- including FEMA director -- were actually qualified. They weren't party hacks or his buddies' college roommates. Had Clinton been president when Katrina hit, he would not have blithely assured people that the government was prepared; he would have made certain the government was prepared. That was his responsibility as President then, and it is Bush's responsibility as President now.

To Bush's acolytes, this is all so insulting. God forbid that anyone should think that Bush is responsible for anything. He's doing a heck of a job, no matter what happens. And if his poll numbers are low, it's only because the mean old media is picking on him.

Funny, isn't it, how quickly all the swagger and bravado drained out of these people? What happened to the steely-eyed masters of destiny, who bragged about how they shaped events, and how the "reality-based community" just didn't get it?

Look at them now: sniveling that the media isn't giving them a fair shake. It would be funny if it wasn't so pathetic.

Thursday, March 02, 2006
"A Superficial And Weak Leader"
In reviewing Jerry Bremer's memoir, My Year In Iraq, Peter Galbraith dissects the question of George W. Bush's leadership skills, insight, and basic competence:

Bremer says that Bush "was as vigorous and decisive in person as he appeared on television." But in fact he gives an account of a superficial and weak leader. He had lunch with the President before leaving for Baghdad —a meeting joined by the Vice President and the national security team—but no decision seems to have been made on any of the major issues concerning Iraq's future. Instead, Bremer got a blanket grant of authority that he clearly enjoyed exercising. The President's directions seem to have been limited to such slogans as "we're not going to fail" and "pace yourself, Jerry."

In Bremer's account, the President was seriously interested in one issue: whether the leaders of the government that followed the CPA would publicly thank the United States. But there is no evidence that he cared about the specific questions that counted: Would the new prime minister have a broad base of support? Would he be able to bridge Iraq's ethnic divisions? What political values should he have? Instead, Bush had only one demand: "It's important to have someone who's willing to stand up and thank the American people for their sacrifice in liberating Iraq."

According to Bremer, he came back to this single point three times in the same meeting. Similarly, Ghazi al-Yawar, an obscure Sunni Arab businessman, became Bush's candidate for president of Iraq's interim government because, as Bremer reports, Bush had "been favorably impressed with his open thanks to the Coalition."

Amazing. Bremer was right in saying he met the same Bush we see on television -- a man constructed entirely of slogans and empty assurances, a man without a brain in his head.

God save the Republic. It's clear that Bush can't.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006
Blogged Out
There's a new Gallup poll out that suggests that the days of the blog might be numbered.

"There are troubling signs--akin to the 1999 warnings about the Internet bubble--that suggest blogs have just hit their top." Among those signs: too much corporate money trying to buy into what could be a fad (including Time Warner paying a reported $25 million for Weblogs Inc.). Is too much money chasing not enough revenue? As Grossman aptly notes: "In the end stages of any investment mania, the clueless and the greedy flood in."

If we are indeed at the end of the blog investment mania, and if there are any clueless and / or greedy investors reading this, please consider purchasing The Lost City. While I cannot speak for Lost Citizen Nemo, I am reasonably confident that he would be willing to hand over the keys to the city for $25 million. I know I would.

Of course, what's really happening here isn't a collapse of the blogs themselves, just a reassessment of their value. Investors are beginning to realize that they aren't goldmines. They are simply a new vehicle for content delivery -- and the value is in the content, not the vehicle. The big question that has been asked for the last few years in corporate America is, how do we get a blog on our website? Meaning, how can we make our stultified corporate-zombie web site hip, edgy and fun?

No thought to the content, of course, only the vehicle. Which is almost exactly what I heard in meetings back in 1995: managers insisted that "we have to get on the Internet", without really knowing what we would do once we got there. The idea at the time was the the Internet was itself revolutionary, and having a presence out there -- any kind of presence -- was revolutionary.

Similarly, the idea that blogging is itself revolutionary is evaporating, and thank God for that. To me it is simply a convenient form of pamphleteering. And -- based on the stuff I see by clicking the "next blog" button in Blogger -- most people really shouldn't be pamphleteering. Just shouldn't.

It's funny, but this occurred to me while I was watching Ang Lee's film version of Sense and Sensibility, which turned up on some cable channel or other a few nights ago.

I saw the movie when it came out back in 1995, and liked it; but it seemed more poignant to me today. Ang Lee's movies have always been about restraint -- about people holding back their feelings out of a sense of duty or obligation. Restraint, of course, is also the engine that makes Jane Austen's novels go: it is understood that duty and honor and reputation are vitally important things, more important than simply getting what you want or saying what you feel.

That idea seems so refreshing in Sense and Sensibility because it's so alien to early 21st-century America, where public confession and getting what you want seem to be the only things that matter anymore. I have no doubt changed since 1995, when I first saw the film, but the world has changed too. And perhaps one of the most visible changes has been the advent of personal blog.

I understand why people write blogs on politics, or science, or religion, or optics, or sheep, or Woody Allen movies, or ham radio -- whatever interest they have that others might share. But I have never understood personal blogs. They simply don't make sense to me. It's like taking the pages of your personal diary down to the town square and pinning them up on the message board for all the world to see. It is in some sense a violation of one's own privacy -- and for what purpose? One might be intensely interested in one's self, but how many other people are likely to be interested?

How can a right to privacy be maintained in a society that cheapens privacy in this way?

What happens to a society where everyone is broadcasting their innermost thoughts and their most intimate moments?

Ultimately, I think, it leads to a backlash. The pendulum has to swing away from online self-confession to something else. Not a Jane Austen-esque world of dignified restraint, certainly. But perhaps a world where the content matters more than the vehicle.

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