Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Movie Review: Cowboy (1958)... John Brown loves westerns...

Cowboy (1958)

Sherman, set the wayback machine for 1992.
That's when Clint Eastwood brought Unforgiven to multiplexes and garnered critical praise for his "deconstructionist" or "postmodern" western.

Film geeks worshiped at the altar of Clint, thanking him for finally breaking western conventions and allowing myth and anti-myth to duke it out (metaphorically speaking, of course). Westerns before Unforgiven featured good guys and bad guys--black and white, they said. Westerns crutched on cheap action instead of probing psychology. The western was a shallow genre before 1992, according to the intelligentsia of movieland.

They were wrong. Very wrong. The genre had long been more diverse than the critical caricatures presented in 1992. The politics of High Noon may have been a little more right-of-center than the average film student's but Gary Cooper wasn't just a shootist. One doesn't need to be a keen scholar to see the frustration with post-WWII military excursions in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns and the other anti-hero oaters of the late 60s and 70s. Those are only a few examples out of many. The western monolith used as a reference point by those who adored Unforgiven was more of a fantasy than any white-hat John Wayne B-movie.

Cowboy is a case in point. Loosely based on the hard-to-take-too-seriously memoirs of Frank Harris, Cowboy pre-dates Unforgiven by 34 years and breaks with the ostensible conventions of western films in numerous ways. Maybe it was groundbreaking. Then again, it might just one of many westerns that don't match the bullshit caricature used to diminish the genre.

Cowboy sets up as a fish out of water comedy, transitions into a drama about the loss of innocence, slides into Frankenstein country and ends somewhat ambiguously. It was offered as an "adult" western in 1958 and although it's relatively mild in terms of content, it certainly does focus on some fairly grown up ideas.

Jack Lemmon plays the Harris character. He's a hotel clerk in Chicago who harbors dreams of riding the open range and scoring in the cattle business. Glenn Ford, only a year removed from another interesting western (3:10 to Yuma) plays Tom Reese, a trail boss/cattle baron. Harris wants to track down the girl he loves in Mexico. Reese is heading that direction. Harris wants to play cowboy. Reese could give him a job. Thanks to some bad luck on Reese's part in a poker game and the fact that Harris has some cash stuffed away, a deal is struck. The hard-ass and the tenderfoot are partners. It's a perfect set-up for some fish out of water humor.

That doesn't happen, though. Instead, Harris finds out that life on the range is hard and ugly. It isn't just the work that's difficult, the people are soulless, hard and mendacious. Harris finds a disregard for human life, a lack of esprit de corps, and plenty of shallow stupidity among his fellow cowboys. He also learns that Reese is a grade-A ass and a lousy father figure to his crew. Harris' love is already married off when he reaches Guadalupe and things with Reese finally escalate into violence.

When Reese is temporarily disabled, the disillusioned Harris takes over the drive back to the train station in Wichita. He's become a mirror image of Reese. Harris adopts the role of cruel taskmaster and Reese recoils at his "offspring" reflection. Harris' hardening results in a softening of Reese (with a hint of shame on the side). Reese creates a monster and he doesn't like it--or himself.

In the end, the two kiss and make up (but not in a literal Brokeback Mountain kind of way). We hope that both have learned something in the process, but the best we can really hope for is that they've found some livable space between pure mercantilism and true decency. At least we know they're friends and the suicide of one cowhand has already reminded us of how important that is.

Cowboy isn't a perfect movie, but it is interesting and it definitely defies the so-called norms of the western genre. It also has a spectacular cast.

Lemmon is believable as Harris an is surprisingly effective in a kind of role he didn't often take. He has one particularly powerful scene in which he threatens to "bust open" a lowlife cowpoke. His intensity is amazing for a 50s movie of any type. Ford is strong as Reese, showing the capability to play both bigger than life and wounded within the same 90-minute movie. Supporting players allow the movie to progress without distraction and Dick York of eventual Bewitched fame has an interesting turn as a trail-riding Lothario.

Cowboy is a color movie. One might say it's a COLOR movie. Although the days and nights on the trail are slightly more subdued, the freakish Technicolor rainbow of the hotel scenes is somehow both magnetic and repulsive.

Delmer Daves does a good job at the helm. He received some positive attention and at least one major award for his direction of Cowboy. Daves got the most out of his co-stars, which is critical to the film's success. That's because, in the end, Cowboy is an actor's movie. It's about Ford and Lemmon. One or both appear in every scene for a reason.

Cowboy falls short of being great. Its inconclusive end is bothersome (should we be comfortable with men who are half Harris and half Reese?) and 90 minutes isn't really enough to explore some of the issues raised sufficiently. It is, however, a good movie--both as an artifact and on its intended merits.


(3.5/5 singing cowboys)


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Romney bitch-slaps McCain... Good for him...

Let it be known that John Brown is not a fan of Mitt Romney. That being said, I find John McCain's crock of shit misrepresentations of Romney's position on the war in Iraq a perfect example of all that is wrong about American political discourse and campaigning.

I recently explained my distaste for McCain's pre-Florida efforts to paint Romney as a "cutter and runner" who favored timetables for troop pullbacks. McCain, who loves to claim he's all about "straight talk" twisted words like pretzels in order to lock down a victory in the sunshine state. It was a repulsive bit of politicking that did absolutely nothing to explain, clarify, amplify or improve the Republican nomination process or the country. It was disgusting.

The Republican debate at the Reagan Library featured a prolonged exchange between Romney and McCain over the "timetable" argument.

Romney bitch-slapped McCain. Romney clarified his position, explained the context of the comments made over a year ago and even called McCain on the right-before-Florida timing of the attacks.

McCain's responses were weak and desperate. He refused to yield an inch and continued to repeat his accusations. Mitt Romney called his bullshit and lit into McCain, asking how Johnny Boy became the expert on Mitt's own positions.

I originally thought that this detour into nonsense on the part of the Straight Talk Express might come back to bite McCain's ass in a general election. Based on my viewing of the debate, his gamble with outright dishonesty is already haunting him. McCain looked silly. That silliness was exacerbated by his lack of grace, his non-sequitir comments about Romney's money and his unwillingness to back away from his own misstatements.

Way to squander your momentum, McCain.

Wrapping up the debate:

Winner: Romney
Loser: McCain
No change: Huckabee
No significance: Paul


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Hillary Clinton's experience argument... Distorting truth and killing kittens...

The Hillary Clinton Experience Crusade is fascinating for three different reasons. First, it's an outrageous piece of fiction that no sane person could really believe. Second, it's actually working. Third, it's another "destroy the candidacy in order to save the candidacy" moment.

Chris Dodd has served as an elected official for over two centuries and wrote the original draft of the Ninth Amendment. Joe Biden has won 83 different elections and helped pour the foundation of the Washington monument. Bill Richardson has held every possible position (except VP/President) in the federal government, including a short stint as a White House pastry chef during the Truman administration. If you look at the famous painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware, you'll notice a young Mike Gravel serving as an oarsman.

If you want to pick a Democrat presidential candidate on the basis of experience, resurrect the Dodd, Biden, Gravel or Richardson campaign. Bring those old-timers back, because they have some serious prez-worthy backgrounds.

In addition to long, distinguished careers, those three fellas have something else in common--very few people were willing to vote for them. Experience obviously DIDN'T matter to voters early in the process.

Now, however, it's a CRITICAL ISSUE. How does comparing and contrasting CVs go from being a meaningless exercise about which nobody gives a flying Huckabee to becoming the defining issue of the nominating process? That's a very good question.

It's because Hillary realized she needed something more than what she had after finishing #3 in Iowa. The really experienced guys were already dead and buried, it was becoming clear that she was in a 3-way race (rapidly dwindling to the head-to-head thing we have today).

If you're Hillary and you're staring down the barrel of having your previously-assumed nomination getting snatched away by one of two guys who never had to suffer through countless years of being the butt of every Rush Limbaugh joke, you start reaching. You need something you can sell. Something that might tap into the "fear factor" of the electorate. Something that seems oh-so-presidential. It also has to be something that you can try to back up with some credibility.

As luck would have it, Clinton is older than Obama and Edwards. Her resume is a few pages longer. The new CRITICAL ISSUE becomes experience.

So, Hillary makes sure she talks about experience every fucking time a microphone is within 20 feet of her experienced face. She traces her Presidential preparation back to her days as a law student. She reminds people that she is THE experienced candidate. She has 35 years of experiencing doing everything a President would ever need to do. 35 years. Have you heard that, she has 35 years of experience.

Hillary makes a point to repeat her mantra so many times that it has emerged as a matter of fact instead of an aspect of strategy. She embodies experience by repeating her arguments with the rapidity of a Gatling gun. When she's being a positive candidate, she trumpets her history. When she's going negative, she lashes out at Barack Obama's experience. She dismisses him as a wet-behind-the-ears upstart saying things like, "He was a part-time state senator for a few years, and then he came to the Senate and immediately started running for president."

The Hillary Clinton Experience Crusade is fascinating for three different reasons. First, it's an outrageous piece of fiction that no sane person could really believe. Second, it's actually working. Third, it's another "destroy the candidacy in order to save the candidacy" moment.

Hillary Clinton's Experience vs. Barack Obama's Experience

Hillary Clinton doesn't really beat Barack Obama in the experience department, no matter what she and her campaign tools might say. She's not head and shoulders above Barack, regardless of how you define "experience".

One thing is absolutely clear: When Hillary talks about experience, she isn't talking about actual experience as an elected official. The edge in that department actually goes to Barack Obama, after all. Yes, Clinton has been in the US Senate longer, but would actually lose the "years in office" contest to Obama by a score of 12-8 as of November '08. Barack has 8 years of experience in Illinois state politics under his belt and will have 4 years in DC.

If you're a Clinton fan, don't pretend like state level experience doesn't count unless you're willing to admit that William Jefferson Clinton was remarkably unqualified for office. Even if you're willing to say that, you know Hillary isn't. Obama's been an elected official longer than Hillary. He's won more elections.

That can only mean one thing... When Hillary talks about experience, she's talking about experience outside of elected office.

That's not an unreasonable argument. There are all sorts of things you can do that might help prepare you for a presidency. Hillary is fond of mentioning her commitment to helping kids and her work with the Children's Defense Fund. She is ready to remind us of her ascent to full partnership at the Rose Law Firm. She goes all the way back to the 70s when she did some work to impeach tricky Dick. She's been on many boards. She's spoken out on a variety of important issues. She tried to do something to fix our messed up system of health care, battling (albeit unsuccessfully) with the Contract with America guys.

Hillary Clinton has experience. Then again, so does the other guy.

Barack Obama, like Clinton, went to a hoity-toity big-time law school. He did well at Harvard, he even made a little history when he ended up as the Law Review's first black editor. He did that after spending a few years as a community organizer. He turned down big dollar offers that had greased lightning fast tracks to partner status in order to practice civil rights law and to work with things like Project VOTE. He taught a little constitutional law while fighting poverty and racism. Then he started his 8-year stint in the hardboiled world of Illinois state politics.

If Clinton has the edge here, it's only because she's older, not because she's better. Her experience isn't markedly more impressive than Obama's. If older is better, Jimmy Carter is eligible for another run.

So, how in the hell can anyone say that Clinton is more experienced than Obama? The answer is rarely spoken. Instead, Clinton prefers that we infer it. It's an "understood" thing. Every time she talks about those 35 years, we all know where 8 of them were spent. We understand that she knows her way around the White House. Hillary Clinton was the first lady for two terms. That's her secret-yet-rarely-stated-directly trump card in the experience game.

I'm not going to pretend that 8 years with a first row seat doesn't have value. That would be just as disingenuous as positioning oneself as the "experience candidate" when there really isn't a huge difference between you and your opponent. Hillary Clinton's 8 years in DC with Bill at America's helm does matter. The question is, how much?

My guess is that the difference isn't really that big. First, recognize that Hillary's involvement in governing was, by all known accounts, limited. She didn't have security clearance. She didn't sit in on big meetings. She didn't interject herself into the operations of the White House. We know that Bill undoubtedly spoke with her (well, there might have been times when that wasn't common, but overall...) and that her opinions and ideas probably had an impact on policy in some way, shape or form.

It's impossible to judge how much influence and involvement she had. We know what she didn't do, but we don't know what she did do (with the exception of the healthcare flop). We won't find out, either. The records that detail her schedule and related matters of experience are tightly sealed by President Bill Clinton. The best guess seems to be that she was a sounding board for the President.

I don't know how much experience power one soaks up in that role. Do you? Is it enough to break a tie between Clinton and Obama? I don't think so. Maybe you do. If you do, you certainly can't be dumb enough to say that it creates an experience gulf between the two of them. You can't honestly say that experience is a REASON to prefer Clinton over Obama, can you? If so, you know a helluva lot more than anyone else about those 8 years. Either that or you're full of shit.

People are Buying the Clinton Experience Argument

Clinton's experience arguments aren't that impressive when one actually looks at them closely. We're talking about 14 years of age and it just so happens that 8 of those were spent with an elected spouse. The gap shrinks more when you subtract the years in which Hillary intentionally curtailed her role in the Clinton White House (whatever it was) and the times when Bill and Hillary weren't probably doing a lot of strategizing as a happy couple.

Nonetheless, the argument seems to be working. A recent poll shows that an overwhelming number of people believe Clinton's experience beats Obama's:

"According to a new New York Times/CBS News poll, 79 percent of all Democratic primary voters believe that Hillary Clinton has "prepared herself well enough for the job of President," compared with only 40 percent for Obama."

Obama is frequently described as "young" or an "upstart". He's the "inexperienced" candidate, while Clinton has the "right experience for the job".

It's strong evidence that repetition of something will "make it true" regardless of the underlying basis in reality. Clinton is sufficiently experienced to become the next President of the United States. So is Barack Obama. One great blog post compares the experience levels of multiple Presidents with respect to years served in elected office. Obama compares favorably with them all. None other than Newt Gingrich, the captain of the Contract with America team who trounced Hillary in the early 90s, concedes that Obama has adequate training for the job, noting "Well, Abraham Lincoln served two years in the U.S. House, and seemed to do all right."

Somehow, experience continues to be an issue within the Democratic party. Terry McCauliffe, a key Clinton aide, argued that the experience factor was a key to her redemptive victory in New Hampshire. The Wall Street Journal credits an experience advantage for improving her poll numbers.

One blogger explained it thusly:

"For some reason, Obama receives little credit for the time he served as an Illinois state Senator while Hillary gets to count everything she has done in the last 35 years as preparation for the presidency."

The experience issue shouldn't be a big deal, but it is. That's amazing.

Hillary, meet Mr. Experience and Prepare to Look Stupid

It's also amazing that Hillary would continue to push the issue of experience when it inevitably crashes at a dead end.

I recently discussed the fact that John McCain's ventures into the realm of pure political BS threatened his general election appeal as a "straight shooter". In order to wrap up Florida, he compromised the core of his campaign. He decided he had to destroy his candidacy in order to save it. Hillary isn't exactly doing the same thing, but she's walking a similarly foolhardy path.

One shouldn't spend months campaigning on experience when one knows she will eventually be forced to shed that skin in order to survive. Every time Hillary talks about the importance of experience, Republicans lick their chops. In the end, the experienced Ms. Clinton, if she should get the nomination, will be forced to run against someone who's experience qualifications will put hers to shame.

I can imagine the TV ads now. "We need a President with experience", Mrs. Clinton says. Cut to picture of John McCain. Talk about the years and years and years spent in Washington. Imagine Mitt Romney making comparisons between running MNCs and building hugely successful corporations from the ground up while Hillary Clinton was part-timing it with a doomed health care proposal. It's not pretty stuff.

Even if Hillary Clinton had a significant advantage over Barack Obama with respect to experience, she will probably be at an even more significant disadvantage should she secure her party's nomination. She will then face the unenviable task of backtracking from all of her "experience matters" crap in order to survive. She's guaranteed to look foolish and if her experience arguments resonated with the wider electorate in a real way, she may be digging at least a few inches of her own grave. Slate noted:

"Clinton's claim to superior experience isn't merely dishonest. It's also potentially dangerous should she become the nominee. If Clinton continues to build her campaign on the dubious foundation of government experience, it shouldn't be very difficult for her GOP opponent to pull that edifice down. That's especially true if a certain white-haired senator now serving his 25th year in Congress (four in the House and 21 in the Senate) wins the nomination. McCain could easily make Hillary look like an absolute fraud who is no more truthful about her depth of government experience than she is about why her mother named her 'Hillary.' ... If Clinton doesn't find a new theme soon, she won't just be cutting Obama's throat. She'll also be cutting her own."

She's probably just hoping the country's memory is short and that "what happens in the primaries stays in the primaries". That might be true. It would be a stinging indict of our system and proof of voter idiocy, but it might be true.

I hope not. I do hope that Clinton and Obama can get down to the nitty-gritty of discussing the real merits of their approaches and plans instead of playing games and relying on illusions like the phony experience gap. Fat chance, though. Hillary had Chelsea out in front of crowds today, arguing that her mom had the necessary experience for the job.

And so it continues... Every time Hillary Clinton pretends like experience is the key issue separating her from Obama and that it's reason to vote for her, a kitten dies.


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Crash and burn time for John Edwards... Not enough stickers on his chart...

I never took Edwards too seriously. His turn as a mad-dog populist was doomed to failure, his arguments were too simplistic and his "two Americas" rhetoric ran right into buzz-saws manned by both the "agents of change" (How can you sell "two Americas" when you're running against Obama's unification/reconciliation politics? How do you hope to make it work when Hillary has a knack for greasing all cogs, big and small?) and the "deniers of inequality" (Mitt Romney sees "one United States of America" and that sounds good).

I recently argued:

"Meanwhile, Edwards could give a shit. He's got the auto-pilot on. He's full-bore Angry Lefty Populist until he finally loses. He's dialed into some weird course that either leads to a massive crash and burn or a win. (Odds favor crash and burn 2,500:1)."

The massive crash and burn is scheduled to take place in a few hours. Edwards is calling it quits.

As a masochistic fan of political theater, I'll miss him. He was the wild card. He was the guy who might just pick up enough delegates to broker the convention. He could lash out at Obama or Hillary in a debate without warning.

He also helped "keep it real". I think his angry populist perspective often bordered on being sophomoric, but I do have to give him credit for keeping issues of poverty on the Democratic radar. Edwards was there to occasionally remind us that capitalism does have its occasional lapses in decency.

His departure also leaves my young child without a candidate. We watched the last Democratic debate in the living room of the John Brown estate. The little one colored pictures, oblivious to the jibber jabber at first.

Eventually, she started asking questions about the decidedly non-animated programming. I did my best to describe the Presidency on an almost-four year-old level. She seemed interested and asked if the President could tell everyone when it was time for bed. She asked which candidate was "gonna get the most stickers" on his or her "chart".

I told her I liked Barack and pointed him out. She learned that mommy was still leaning toward Hillary. She asked about the "other one". I told her the other one was John. "I like John", she said. I think it's because he was smiling so damn much. Plus, the kid likes to be different. Name recognition wasn't a factor. I'm only John Brown here.

As of today, my child no longer has a horse in the race. What a cruel introduction to politics.

See you later, John. Nice try and good luck.


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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Winchester '73 Review... John Brown loves westerns...

John Brown loves westerns. I'll be offering occasional reviews of the westerns I watch and re-watch here at Prepare Yourselves...

This time: Winchester '73 (1950)

Lin McAdams has been chasing Dutch Henry Brown for years. When Brown hands McAdams a whipping and absconds with a "one in 1,000" prize rifle, the hunt intensifies. The gun changes hands, a showgirl changes hands and McAdams finally bags his prey--and the girl. Winchester '73 is a straight revenge fable with a few nice tricks and a nifty plot device (the movie's namesake rifle). Though I found the story itself hollow and a little uninspiring, the movie somehow rises above that seemingly damning weakness. It's not a bullseye, but it's a very good shot.

James Stewart plays Lin McAdams. He wears the white hat, but it's stained with sweat. There's significance there. It'd be an exaggeration to claim that Winchester '73 singlehandedly changed the western, but it does represent a signficant step in the development of the genre. The sweaty hat perched atop Stewart's head parallels the flaws in his character. Lin McAdams isn't the clean, heroic protaganist. He holds a grudge. He has a temper. He allows an obsession with revenge to define his entire life. McAdams is one of the first notable western leads to have visible human weaknesses. Stewart, in a departure from the "aw, shucks" roles that had defined the bulk of his career, gives McAdams a surprising depth and an added dimension of believability.

The supporting cast is strong. Stewart clearly possesses more talent than his counterparts, but no one stumbles enough to drag the movie down.

Dan Duryea's Waco Johnny Dean chews scenery as sadistic bad guy. Joe Lamont turns in a strong two-scene performance as amoral Indian trader John McIntire. Stephen McNally isn't afraid to make Dutch Henry Brown a hateable nemesis for Lin McAdams.

Shelley Winters has the only female role of consequence as Lola, the dance hall girl. She's as much a commodity as she is a character, a fact that has undoubtedly pissed off feminist film students for nearly fifty years. She does do well within her allotted space though and it's nice to see her in Winchester '73. I'm in my late thirties. When I think about Shelley Winters, I automatically conjure up images of a bloated character from cheesy 70s flicks. It wasn't always that way.

There's extra star power hiding in the film, too. Rock Hudson makes a very brief pre-fame appearance as an Indian warrior. His "me want this gun" grunts will make you wince a little bit, but it's fun to see him in body paint playing a relatively minor part. A very young Tony Curtis shows up in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it role.

Director Anthony Mann didn't rely exclusively on Stewart and a strong supporting cast to carry the film, though. He brought his film noir sensibilities to the old west--along with visual communication skills so strong that you'll forget Winchester '73 is a black and white oater within minutes.

Mann may not have shared a great deal with one of my favorite directors, David Lean, but they did have one skill in common. Both seemed to great take care to make sure that every scene and every shot served to advance both the tone and the story of the film. There are very few throwaway moments in Winchester '73 and countless proofs of a director truly interesting in communicating. Blog Battery does a great job of isolating and explaining a few examples of Mann's impressive talent.

Mann resists the urge to pepper Winchester '73 with comic relief. There are a few smiles (including a surprisingly blue-for-1950 double entendre about Shelley Winters and a "nice pair"), but we aren't saddled with annoyingly goofy sidekicks or other unnecessary distraction.

Winchester '73 isn't flawless, however. It suffers the common western geography problem. It doesn't take long to get from Dodge City to the desert and Kansas doesn't look like Kansas. Everyone shoots straighter than straight and the Indians are sick caricature. These issues certainly aren't unique to Winchester '73 and flunking the movie on the basis of these frequent faux pas would be unfair.

The main problem with the film is the plot itself. As noted, it's a run-of-the-mill revenge story of an almost biblical nature, spiced up with a "dark secret" discerning viewers will quickly discover. Stewart's driven hunter can't find a route to peace that doesn't involve the final kill. Although I experienced a degree of catharsis after the last volley of the showdown, it was empty. I know others won't see it that way. I suppose my reaction to the plot is a reflection of my own attitudes toward revenge and retribution.

Stewart does get the girl in the end. Unfortunately, it's hard to tell why anyone would really want her and whether there's any basis for a romance or relationship between the two of them. Another western convention Mann couldn't break. You can put your hero in a stained hat, but you can't deny him the female lead, I guess.

I'm sure other reviewers will dwell on the prized rifle. We follow the gun through a series of owners throughout the movie. It undoubtedly has symbolic value on some level, but it's primarily a clever way to help advance the story and to give it a title. I'd stop short of categorizing the Winchester as "Macguffin", but it's close in my estimation.

Winchester '73 is worth watching. It's the first of five Mann/Stewart collaborations and it's easy to tell that the star and the director were a great fit for one another. It's an interesting piece of western movie history. It's a well-paced and easy to watch piece of expert direction.

The best reason to watch Winchester '73, though, is Jimmy Stewart. Few actors have that magical magnetism and charisma that makes them impossible not to watch. Stewart was one of them.


(4/5 Singing Cowboys)

A few other reviews of Winchester '73: Blog Battery, DVD Savant, Variety (1950), Combustible Celluloid, VideoVista


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McCain's trades straight talk for forked tongue re: Romney timetables...

John McCain has decided that he must destroy his candidacy in order to save it... Trading straight talk for a forked tongue may be beneath him. It may be insulting to the intelligence of the considerate voter. It may be the wrong way to conduct politics. However, when one considers the short memory of the electorate, it may be a smart strategic move.

Once upon a time, Mitt Romney said that he thought it would probably make sense if Iraqi and US leaders discussed various objectives and set timetables for those goals. He seemed to think that was a good way of measuring the success of our military adventures in Iraq and believed that a goal-oriented approach involving both parties was logical.

He also mentioned that those discussions should be kept between the US and Iraq. He made it clear that kind of high-level planning wasn't something to share with the rest of the world.

If you revisit Romney's comments, it's not really 100% clear if he thought the goals established via consultation should serve as a litmus test for continued US involvement or not. One might infer that a complete inability on the part of the Iraq to meat objectives could lead to a US pullout, I suppose. In other words, you could argue that Romney was saying that there could be circumstances that might justify a US withdrawal under fairly extreme conditions.

That doesn't sound too crazy to me. "If things turn out to be an utter failure and we're dealing with complete incompetents, we might want to cut our losses" seems like a fairly reasonable argument. The idea of trying to set mutual goals and a schedule for them seems less than zany, too.

The engineer of the Straight Talk Express says, "Bullshit".

Romney used the word "timetable". Thus, according to John McCain, he is clearly of one mind with those on the left who would've started pulling out troops right as GWB and Patreus initiated the surge. The idea of having a schedule and the possibility of a troop withdrawal, regardless of circumstances, is tantamount to abandoning our troops. The very idea of ANYTHING leading the US to walk away from Iraq emboldens our enemies.

According to McCain, Mitt Romney is--and remember, this is the ultimate insult in R-Primaryland--LIBERAL.

A few observations...

John McCain is completely full of shit. Romney may have stopped short of McCain's apparent belief that US troops will forever wander the streets of Baghdad, but MR obviously hasn't embraced the position of those who really oppose the war. Even Rudy911 understood that Romney wasn't waving a white flag.

John McCain is lying about being a straight shooter. He's spinning Romney's comments as ferociously as possible in order to take care of business in Florida. It isn't straight talk, it's straight crap. What makes it worse? He knows it.

McCain is the closest thing the Republicans have to a "change" candidate. He's shown a willingness to cross party lines when he thinks it's the right thing to do, at least occasionally. He's carefully cultivated a "maverick" persona which helps him with independent voters. He's got that whole "straight talk" thing that creates an aura of honesty and integrity around him.

I disagree with McCain on many things, but I'm willing to admit he has his strong points. Much of the McCain attraction for many voters is his apparent willingness to be honest and direct--even when it isn't necessarily convenient. If he has an ace in the hole, that's it.

He pisses on that strength when he does things like this. He decreases his credibility among the people he's going to need in his corner if he should ever get to the general election.

McCain has decided that his Straight Talk Express must take a detour into the bullshit land of proving you've earned ultra-conservative stripes if you want to make it past primary season. He might be right. He might not stand a chance of being the R nominee if he doesn't tone down the "straight talk" in favor of a slightly more true-to-the-base tone. He probably feels as if he has to do something to combat the "liberal" albatross Romney's trying to hang on his neck.

John McCain has decided that he must destroy his candidacy in order to save it.

It might be working Florida. As I write this (results have just started rolling in), he has a 2% lead over Romney.

Trading straight talk for a forked tongue may be beneath him. It may be insulting to the intelligence of the considerate voter. It may be the wrong way to conduct politics. However, when one considers the short memory of the electorate, it may be a smart strategic move.


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Monday, January 28, 2008

Debbie Schlussel...

I wrote a long, mean and "funny in that hateful blogger way" post about Debbie Schlussel and some of the positions she's taken on her blog and elsewhere. After re-reading my admittedly hateful screed, I realized that I was assuming a tone nearly as obnoxious as anything Ms. Schussel has offered.

I believe that my original post was "right" about the issues and that she was "wrong". However, there was no question in my mind that attacking her vehemently would be just another example of what's too often wrong with today's political discourse.

I decided not to publish the post. Instead, I'm offering this shorter and less entertaining version.

We live in a world where those who are loud, obnoxious, mean and sarcastic often attract the loudest audiences. We use the shrillest and angriest points of view as start points for our conversations. Our political content so often comes from those who are the most opinionated and "fired up" instead of from those who might be a bit more considerate.

I think that's a problem.

Today I'm not going to be part of it. I make no guarantees about tomorrow. We're all a little hypocritical. We're all very flawed. I'm no exception. We can all try to do better, though.

Maybe Debbie Schlussel will try, too. Maybe not.

There's a reason for my sketch of Ms. Schlussel standing in for an actual photograph. Without getting too snarky, let's just say that she's very protective of her image and copyrights.


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Friday, January 25, 2008

Saddam lied... Fear of Iran greater than fear of US... Bad strategy and its snowball effect...

George Piro, an Arabic-speaking FBI dude, will be the star of some must-see TV on Sunday. An interview with Piro will appear on CBS' venerable 60 Minutes and will create another wave of discussion about Iraq and our government's incorrectly-held belief that Saddam was sitting on a heap of WMDs.

The US government positioned Piro as an envoy with access to Bush. They made him Saddam's key contact after he was excised from the spider hole. Piro was Saddam's go-to guy for paper, pens, toiletries, etc. Eventually, Piro asked questions. Saddam provided answers.

Those discussions indicate that the US intelligence community and President George W. Bush's administration were completely faked out by Saddam. Saddam didn't have WMDs. He did, however, want the world to think he did. He incorrectly believed that the illusion of WMDs served as a shield against Iranian attack, Piro said.

That's why Saddam would unconvincingly deny possession of forbidden weapons while simultaneously being a pain in the ass for UN inspectors and others who wanted to validate his half-hearted assertion. Hussein was walking a pretty thin strategic line--trying to scare one batch of enemies enough to keep them at bay while simultaneously trying to appease other possible enemies to keep them from going ballistic, according to the FBI guy.

Saddam goofed. He managed to avoid any nastiness with the Iranians, but he failed to keep the US from invading.

Based on accounts of Piro's upcoming interview, Saddam admitted the strategic miscue. He also wrongly figured that if the US did take action, we'd just bomb the crap out of him for a few days again. He was ready to accept that fate. He wasn't ready for an all-out boots-on-the-ground war, though. Of course, that's what he got. Now he's dead.

He lost power, hid in a hole, grew crazy hair, had a wacky trial, heard about his kids being killed, and eventually suffered a humiliating death via the ol' neck-snap. His "strategy" turned out to be a Massive Error.

On the other hand, Bush and those who supported the invasion of Iraq screwed up just as badly. They fell for the line directed toward the Iranians instead of the one sent to Washington.

It seems almost unimaginable to me that the generally brilliant people in our intelligence community and the higher echelons of the executive branch were unable to discern which messages were posturing on the part of Hussein to stave off regional problems and which were not.

I find it much easier to believe that analysts and proponents of a military mission to Iraq didn't intentionally interpret some of Saddam's bullshit as proof of a legitimate threat, though. I think there were people who knew better than to believe some of the mixed message but decided to do so in order to create justification for the invasion.

I could be wrong, of course. Saddam might have been fibbing. Piro could be goofy, too. I don't know the guy or anything.

In the interests of being fair about the whole thing, it is worth mentioning that Piro will also state that Saddam did have the capabilities to create WMDs if he so desired. He had the infrastructure and engineers to get the job done if he felt like a little chem-bio warfare was necessary. I guess that's good news for those who refuse to believe that Bush & Co. couldn't have been THAT wrong...

My point here isn't to mock the Bush Administration. I could do that. In fact, I could probably do a helluva job. There's plenty of material with which to work. I can think of many errors in judgment and failures in execution. That really isn't the point, though...

The point is, if Piro is a straight-shooter, that Saddam's bluff for Iran ended up being a key part of why we were goaded into war. Those who like to yell "Bush lied" can refine their understanding of how he got the raw material to craft his story. Now we have our own little Iran problem brewing while we try to figure out how to handle an increasingly complicated situation in Iraq.

This mess stems from either (a) our inability to correctly interpret Saddam's motivations, situations and actual capacities or (b) our unwillingness to do so.

Either way, we sucked almost as bad as Saddam.

And I say WE for a reason. It's easy for those of us who generally vote with the Democrats to forget, but in the days after 9/11 and during the lead up to the war in Iraq, many of us (not me, but many) and most of the elected leadership were on board with the war. I know it stinks, but the decision to go in there was really about as bipartisan as anything to come from Washington in recent memory.

Blame whoever... I choose everyone. The world can be a complicated place. Sometimes you're stuck dealing with liars--our own liars and the ones on the other side. When things get muddled, your best hope is to find someone with the smarts and the guts to think harder, look more closely and stand up when it's not easy. Unfortunately, we didn't have enough people like that around when the war drums started beating, did we?


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Republicans debate in Florida... Four things of note...

Tim Russert is a tool. Mike Huckabee seems like a nice fellow. Mitt Romney is not a robot. Republicans do have a Clinton obsession.

I watched the Republican debate last night (full transcript here), even though the odds on me voting for any of the R candidates is currently set at 1,993 : 1 at Mandalay Bay (surprisingly, Caesar's has me at only 1,100 : 1).

I'll spare you a recap of the 90 minute affair. Many of the arguments presented deserve discussion and a single debate can give a critical person like myself a few billion excuses to launch into a rant. I'm going to pass on that, though. Instead, I'm just going to share Four Things I Noticed. Not all of them are new developments or groundbreaking insights, but all were clearly illustrated during the Boca Raton talkfest.

ONE. TIM RUSSERT IS A TOOL. I'm sure that co-moderating a debate with Brian Williams is a Herculean challenge, so I don't want to be too critical. However, Tim Russert is a piece of shit in that role. Period. Did you hear his questions of the candidates? Sweet baby Jesus on a fixed income, they were pathetic.

"Do you trust Candidate X to be a tax cutter?" He tossed that one out to every candidate. Why would anyone ask that question? The answer is utterly predictable. The respondent will either ignore it completely before talking about his own position vis-a-vis taxation or the respondent will graciously commend his competitor for wanting to keep taxes down before launching into his own "I'm gonna cut 'em" speech. It's elementary. I suppose someone COULD say, "No, I think the guy is an untrustworthy POS", but the odds of that happening are probably hovering near the odds of me voting for Rudy911. Slim to fuckin' none.

Oh, and Russert also had the "Here's a long list of things that sucked during periods of Republican governance. Why should anyone trust a Republican and will you run on this record of abysmal failure?" thing. Look, I'm as anti-GOP as the bastard child of Keith Olberman and Cynthia McKinney. I think it might actually be sort of fun to beat Sean Hannity around the head and shoulders with the severed leg of Rush Limbaugh. Yet even I recognize that the Russert questions were too editorial and far too loaded.

Another great Russert moment: "I want each of you to take 30 seconds. Will you go to the country... and say the war was a good idea worth the price in blood and treasure, and we will stay?"

Thirty seconds. Was the war a good idea? Was it worth it? Will we stay in Iraq? Thirty seconds. The clock is ticking. Don't try to make any distinctions between the value of the objectives underlying the war and its actual execution. Don't bother discussing the difference between shorter terms costs and potential long term costs and benefits. Don't even try to figure out what the hell "will we stay" means in a nuts and bolts kind of way. You started with thirty seconds. Tick tock. You are out of time. The lights are blinking. Boy, aren't you flustered!

Tim Russert is a tool.

TWO: MIKE HUCKABEE SEEMS LIKE A NICE FELLOW. Hey, I'm not going to vote for Huckabee. I don't give a shit if Chuck Norris summons the ghosts of Bruce Lee and Charles Bronson and then comes to my house ready to "persuade me", but he seems like a genuinely nice guy.

I'd guess that I wouldn't feel comfortable with about 99.9% of Baptist preacher dudes who used to cook up squirrel in popcorn poppers. Huckabee, though, might be an exception. He'd be an okay neighbor.

He has a certain earnestness about him and he at least attempts to have a sense of humor about things. The whole deal about giving Romney's kids a better world and a larger inheritance with a Huckabee vote was over the top, but it was still funnier than Rudy911's attempt at humor (note: if you have to explain that you were joking, you are not funny).

I currently have a list of 369 reasons NOT to vote for Huckabee. Personality, however, is not among them.

THREE: MITT ROMNEY IS NOT A ROBOT. Much is being made about the magic whisper of "he raised taxes" that was audible just in time to help Mitt with an answer to a question about Ronnie Reagan's behavior in 1983. In case you missed it, Tim "the Tool" Russert mentioned that Romney (like every other Republican) had mentioned a love of the Gipper. He wondered if Romney would follow in His 1983 footsteps.

That was a sneaky little Russert trick because '83 was the year Reagan hopped up a few taxes in an effort to keep Social Security rolling along.

A voice out of nowhere appeared to help Romney, just in the nick of time. "He raised taxes", the magic voice uttered. Romney ran with the hint, giving a "I won't raise taxes" answer.

Some have maintained that a Romney aide blurted out the clue. Others think it might have been one of the other candidates chatting into an open mic. I'm sure someone thinks the answer emanated from Romney's magic underwear. Here's a post about the whisper that has over 100 commenters offering opinions. I tend to believe that it was Brian Williams or someone else on the MSNBC production team.

Based on my not-so-careful review of the matter, it was a network hand who piped up with a little extra information in order to create a (hopefully) more meaningful Q&A. That makes a lot more sense than believing Romney had a midget aide hiding under the lectern.

John Brown concludes that the magic whisper to Romney is a non-issue. Romney may be many different lame things, but he is not a cheating robot debater.

FOUR: REPUBLICANS DO HAVE A CLINTON OBSESSION. Did you happen to notice how many times Hillary Clinton's name was invoked last night? Seemed like plenty. Susan Davis at the Wall Street Journal says that Hillary received a whopping 29 mentions. My favorite was the "General Hillary Clinton" crap Romney was slinging.

Meanwhile, there was little or no discussion of Barack Obama. The individual who counted 16 "Clintons" came up with ZERO "Obamas". What does that mean?

Personally, I think it demonstrates that the Republicans believe raising the specter of Hillary is the best way to get their base all riled up and active. It also shows me that the Republicans have been planning on facing Clinton for awhile and may not be as ready to take on Obama.

Both of those notions could be considered reasons for Dems to back Barack, from a strategic sense. John Brown believes in selecting candidates on the merits of their positions and skills, as opposed to doing so on the basis of "electability", but the Republican hate of all things Clinton is an interesting point to ponder.


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