Sunday, November 30, 2008

Jeff Spicoli ain't no dope (with video) (Updated)

UPDATE: The post below is from a longer series by Penn, "Mountain of Snakes."

"Conversations With Chávez and Castro"--Sean Penn, (The Nation)with video (03:44):
Soon to be Vice President-elect Joe Biden was rallying the troops: "We can no longer be energy dependent on Saudi Arabia or a Venezuelan dictator." Well, I know what Saudi Arabia is. But having been to Venezuela in 2006, touring slums, mixing with the wealthy opposition and spending days and hours at its president's side, I wondered, without wondering, to whom Senator Biden was referring. Hugo Chávez Frías is the democratically elected president of Venezuela (and by democratically elected I mean that he has repeatedly stood before the voters in internationally sanctioned elections and won large majorities, in a system that, despite flaws and irregularities, has allowed his opponents to defeat him and win office, both in a countrywide referendum last year and in regional elections in November). And Biden's words were the kind of rhetoric that had recently led us into a life-losing and monetarily costly war, which, while toppling a shmuck in Iraq, had also toppled the most dynamic principles upon which the United States was founded, enhanced recruitment for Al Qaeda and deconstructed the US military.
By now, October 2008, I had digested my earlier visits to Venezuela and Cuba and time spent with Chávez and Fidel Castro. I had grown increasingly intolerant of the propaganda. Though Chávez himself has a penchant for rhetoric, never has it been a cause for war. In hopes of demythologizing this "dictator," I decided to pay him another visit. By this time I had come to say to friends in private, "It's true, Chávez may not be a good man. But he may well be a great one."

Among those to whom I said this were historian Douglas Brinkley and Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens. These two were perfect complements. Brinkley is a notably steady thinker whose historian's code of ethics assures adherence to supremely reasoned evidence. Hitchens, a wily wordsmith, ever too unpredictable for predisposition, is a wild card by any measure who in a talk-show throwaway once referred to Chávez as an "oil-rich clown." Though I believe Hitchens to be as principled as he is brilliant, he can be combative to the point of bullying, as he once was in severe comments made about saintly antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan. Brinkley and Hitchens would balance any perceived bias in my writing. Also, these are a couple of guys I have a lot of fun with and affection for.

So I called Fernando Sulichin, an old friend and well-connected independent film producer from Argentina, and asked that he get them vetted and approved to interview Chávez. In addition, we wanted to fly from Venezuela to Havana, and I asked that Fernando request on our behalf interviews with the Castro brothers, most urgently Raúl, who had taken over the reins of power from an ailing Fidel in February--and who had never given a foreign interview. I had traveled to Cuba in 2005, when I had the good fortune of meeting Fidel, and was eager for an interview with the new president. The phone rang at 2 o'clock the following afternoon. "Mi hermano," Fernando said. "It is done."

Our flight from Houston to Caracas was delayed due to mechanical problems. It was 1 o'clock in the morning, and as we waited, Hitchens paced. "Very rarely does only one thing go wrong," he said. He must have liked the way it sounded, because he said it again. He was God's pessimist. I said, "Hitch, it's gonna be fine. They'll get us another plane, and we'll be there on time." But God's pessimist is actually God's atheistic pessimist. And I would later be reminded of the clarity in his atheism. Something else would indeed go wrong. Well, right and wrong, as you'll find out. Within two hours, we were taking off.

When we landed at Caracas airport, Fernando was there to greet us. He guided us to a private terminal, where we waited for the arrival of President Chávez, who would take us on a stumping tour for gubernatorial candidates on the beautiful Isla Margarita.

We spent the next two days in Chávez's constant company, with many hours of private meetings among the four of us. In the private quarters of the president's plane, I find that on the subject of baseball Chávez's command of English soars. When Douglas asks if the Monroe Doctrine should be abolished, Chávez, wanting to choose his words carefully, reverts to Spanish to detail the nuances of his position against this doctrine, which has justified US intervention in Latin America for almost two centuries. "The Monroe Doctrine has to be broken," he says. "We've been stuck with it for over 200 years. It always gets back to the old confrontation of Monroe versus Bolívar. Jefferson used to say that America should swallow, one by one, the republics of the south. The country where you were born was based on an imperialistic attitude."

Venezuelan intelligence tells him that the Pentagon has plans for invading his country. "I know they are thinking about invading Venezuela," Chávez says. It seems he sees killing the Monroe Doctrine as a yardstick for his destiny. "Nobody again can come here and export our natural resources." Is he concerned about the US reaction to his bold statements about the Monroe Doctrine? He quotes Uruguayan freedom fighter José Gervasio Artigas: "With the truth, I don't offend or fear."

Hitchens sits quietly, taking notes throughout the conversation. Chávez recognizes a flicker of skepticism in his eye. "CREES-to-fer, ask me a question. Ask me the hardest question." They share a smile. Hitchens asks, "What's the difference between you and Fidel?" Chávez says, "Fidel is a communist. I am not. I am a social democrat. Fidel is a Marxist-Leninist. I am not. Fidel is an atheist. I am not. One day we discussed God and Christ. I told Castro, I am a Christian. I believe in the Social Gospels of Christ. He doesn't. Just doesn't. More than once, Castro told me that Venezuela is not Cuba, and we are not in the 1960s.

"You see," Chávez says, "Venezuela must have democratic socialism. Castro has been a teacher for me. A master. Not on ideology but on strategy." Perhaps ironically, John F. Kennedy is Chávez's favorite US president. "I was a boy," he says. "Kennedy was the driving force of reform in America." Surprised by Chávez's affinity for Kennedy, Hitch chimes in, referring to Kennedy's counter-Cuba economic plan for Latin America: "The Alliance for Progress was a good thing?" "Yes," says Chávez. "The Alliance for Progress was a political proposal to improve conditions. It was aimed at lowering the social difference between cultures."

Conversation among the four of us continues on buses, at rallies and at dedications throughout Isla Margarita. Chávez is tireless. He addresses every new group for hours on end under a blistering sun. At most he'll sleep four hours at night, spending the first hour of his morning reading news of the world. And once he's on his feet, he's unstoppable despite heat, humidity and the two layers of revolutionary red shirts he wears.

I had three primary motivations for this trip: to include the voices of Brinkley and Hitchens, to deepen my understanding of Chávez and Venezuela and excite my writing hand, and to enlist Chávez's support in encouraging the Castro brothers to meet with the three of us in Havana. While my understanding through Fernando was that this third piece of the puzzle had been approved and confirmed, somewhere in the cultural, language and telephonic exchanges there had been a misunderstanding. Meanwhile, CBS News was expecting a report from Brinkley, Vanity Fair was expecting one from Hitchens and I was writing on behalf of The Nation.

On our third day in Venezuela, we thanked President Chávez for his time, the four of us standing among security personnel and press at the Santiago Marino Airport on Isla Margarita. Brinkley had a final question, and so did I. "Mr. President," he said, "if Barack Obama is elected president of the United States, would you accept an invitation to fly to Washington and meet with him?" Chávez immediately answered, "Yes."

When it was my turn, I said, "Mr. President, it is very important for us to meet with the Castros. It is impossible to tell the story of Venezuela without including Cuba--and impossible to tell the story of Cuba without the Castros." Chávez promised us that he would call President Castro the moment he got on his plane and ask on our behalf but warned us that it was unlikely big brother Fidel would be able to respond so quickly, as he was doing a lot of writing and reflecting these days, not seeing a lot of people. He could make no promises about Raúl either. Chávez boarded his plane, and we watched him fly away.

The next morning we took off for Havana. Full disclosure: we were loaned an airplane through the Venezuelan Ministry of Energy and Petroleum. If someone wants to refer to that as a payoff, be my guest. But when you read the next report from a journalist flying on Air Force One, or hopping on board a US military transport plane, be so kind as to dismiss that article as well. We appreciated the ride in all its luxury, but our reporting remains uninfluenced.

'Very Rarely Does Only One Thing Go Wrong'

For me the personal stakes were pretty high. Getting on the plane to Havana shy of that guarantee of access to Raúl Castro was making me anxious. Christopher had pulled out of a few important speaking engagements at the last minute to make the trip. It was not his practice to leave others holding the bag. So for him, it was buy or bust, and he was becoming agitated. Douglas, a professor of history at Rice University, would have to return imminently for lecture obligations. Fernando was feeling the weight of our expectation that he'd be our battering ram. And me, well, I was depending on the call to Castro from Chávez, both to get the interview and to save my ass with my companions.

We landed in Havana around noon and were met on the tarmac by Omar Gonzalez Jimenez, president of the Cuban Film Institute, and Luis Alberto Notario, head of the institute's international co-production wing. I'd spent time with both of them on my earlier trip to Cuba. We started catching up on personal matters on the walk to the customs office, until Hitch stepped forward and unabashedly demanded of Omar, "Sir, we must see the president!" "Yes," Omar said. "We are aware of the request, and word has been passed to the president. We are still awaiting his response."

For the rest of that day and into the following afternoon, we tortured our hosts with the incessant drumbeat: Raúl, Raúl, Raúl. I assumed if Fidel was up to it and could make the time, he would call. And if not, I remained appreciative of our prior meeting and said as much in a note I passed to him through Omar. Raúl I only knew about through what I'd read, and I hadn't a clue as to whether or not he'd see us.

Cubans are a particularly warm and hospitable people. As our hosts took us around the city, I noticed that the number of American 1950s cars had diminished even in the few years since my last trip, giving way to smaller Russian designs. On a sweep by the invasive-looking US Interests Section on the Malecón, where waves breaking against the sea wall shower passing cars, I noticed something almost indescribable about the atmosphere in Cuba. It is the palpable presence of architectural and living human history on a small plot of land surrounded by water. Even the visitor feels the spirit of a culture that proclaims, in various ways, "This is our special place."

We snaked through Old Havana, and in a glass-encased display outside the Museum of the Revolution we saw the Granma, the boat used to transport Cuban revolutionaries from Mexico in 1956. We moved on to the Palace of Fine Arts, with its collection of passionate and political pieces from a cross section of Cuba's deep talent pool. We then toured the Higher Institute of Arts and later went to dinner with National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón and Roberto Fabelo, a painter they had invited after I'd expressed appreciation of his work at the art museum that afternoon. By midnight there had still been no word from Raúl Castro. After that we were taken to the protocol house, where we would lay our heads till dawn.

By noon of the following day, the clock was ticking loudly in our ears. We had sixteen hours left in Havana before we would have to head to the airport to catch our flights back home. We were sitting around a table at La Castellana, an upscale Old Havana eatery, with a large group of artists and musicians who, led by the famed Cuban painter Kcho, had established Brigada Martha Machado, an organization of volunteers aiding victims of Hurricanes Ike and Gustav on the Isle of Youth. The brigade has the full support of government dollars, airplanes and staff that would be the envy of our Gulf Coast volunteers after Hurricane Katrina. Also joining us for lunch was Antonio Castro Soto del Valle, a handsome young man of humble character who is the 39-year-old son of Fidel Castro. Antonio is a doctor and chief medic for the Cuban national baseball team. I had a brief but pleasant chat with him and re-emphasized our Raúl agenda.

The clock was no longer ticking. It was pounding. Omar told me we would be hearing the decision of the president quite soon. Fingers crossed, Douglas, Hitch, Fernando and I went back to the protocol house to get our bags packed in advance. By 6 pm, we were on a ten-hour countdown. I was sitting downstairs in the living room, reading in the hazy late-afternoon light. Hitch and Douglas were in their upstairs quarters, I assumed napping to offset anxiety. And on the couch beside me was Fernando, snoring away.

Then Luis appeared at our open front door. I glanced over the top of my glasses as he gave me a very direct nod. Without words, I pointed questioningly up the stairs to where my companions lay. But Luis shook his head apologetically. "Only you," he said. The president had made his decision.

I could hear Hitch's words of doubt echo in my head, "Very rarely does only one thing go wrong." Was he talking about me? Et mi, Brute? Nonetheless, I grabbed at my back pocket to make sure I had my pad of Venezuela notes, checked for my pen, pocketed my specs and headed out with Luis. Just before I shut the door of the waiting car, I heard Fernando's voice calling after me. "Sean!" We drove away.

I'm Off to See the Wizard

Stateside, Cuban President Raúl Castro, the island's former minister of the Armed Forces, has been branded a "cold militarist" and a "puppet" of Fidel. But the once ponytailed young revolutionary of the Sierra Maestra is proving the snakes wrong. Indeed, "Raulism" is on the rise alongside a recent industrial and agricultural economic boom. Fidel's legacy, like that of Chávez, will depend upon the sustainability of a flexible revolution, one that could survive its leader's departure by death or resignation. Fidel has once again been underestimated by the North. In the selection of his brother Raúl, he has put the day-to-day policy-making of his country into formidable hands. In a report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, US State Department spokesman John Casey acknowledges that Raulism could lead to "greater openness and freedom for the Cuban people."

Soon enough I'm sitting at a small polished table in a government office with President Castro and a translator. "Fidel called me moments ago," he tells me. "He wants me to call him after we have spoken." There is a humor in Raúl's voice that recalls a lifetime of affectionate tolerance for his big brother's watchful eye. "He wants to know everything we speak about," he says with the chuckle of the wise. "I never liked the idea of giving interviews," he says. "One says many things, but when they are published, they become shortened, condensed. The ideas lose their meaning. I was told you make long movies. Maybe you will make long journalism as well." I promise him I'll write as fast as I can, and print as much as I write. He tells me he's informally promised his first interview as president elsewhere, and not wanting to multiply what could be construed as an insult, he singled me out from my companions.

Castro and I share a cup of tea. "Forty-six years ago today, at exactly this time of day, we mobilized troops, Alameda in the West, Fidel in Havana, me in Areda. It had been announced at noon in Washington that President Kennedy would give a speech. This was during the missile crisis. We anticipated that the speech would be a declaration of war. After his humiliation at the Bay of Pigs, the pressure of the missiles [which Castro claims were strictly defensive] would represent a great defeat to Kennedy. Kennedy would not stand with that defeat. Today we study US candidates very carefully, focusing on McCain and Obama. We look at all the old speeches. Particularly those made in Florida, where opposing Cuba has become a for-profit business for many. In Cuba we have one party, but in the US there is very little difference. Both parties are an expression of the ruling class." He says today's Miami Cuban lobby members are descendants of Batista-era wealth, or international landowners "who'd only paid pennies for their land" while Cuba had been under absolute US rule for sixty years.

"The 1959 land reform was the Rubicon of our revolution. A death sentence for our US relations." Castro seems to be sizing me up as he takes another sip of his tea. "At that moment, there was no discussion about socialism, or Cuba dealing with Russia. But the die was cast."

After the Eisenhower administration bombed two vessel-loads of guns headed for Cuba, Fidel reached out to old allies. Raúl says, "We asked Italy. No! We asked Czechoslovakia. No! Nobody would give us weapons to defend ourselves because Eisenhower had put pressure on them. So by the time we got weapons from Russia, we had no time to learn how to use them before the US attacked at the Bay of Pigs!" He laughs and excuses himself to an adjacent restroom, briefly disappearing behind a wall, only to immediately pop back into the room, joking, "At 77, this is the fault of the tea."

Joking aside, Castro moves with the agility of a young man. He exercises every day, his eyes are bright and his voice is strong. He picks up where he left off. "You know, Sean, there was a famous picture of Fidel from the Bay of Pigs invasion. He is standing in front of a Russian tank. We did not yet know even how to put those tanks in reverse. So," he jokes, "retreat was no option!" So much for the "cold militarist." Raúl Castro was warm, open, energetic and sharp of wit.

I return to the subject of US elections by repeating the question Brinkley had asked Chávez: Would Castro accept an invitation to Washington to meet with a President Obama, assuming he won in the polling, only a few weeks away? Castro becomes reflective. "This is an interesting question," he says, followed by a rather long, awkward silence. Until: "The US has the most complicated election process in the world. There are practiced election stealers in the Cuban-American lobby in Florida..." I chime in, "I think that lobby is fracturing." And then, with the certainty of a die-hard optimist, I say, "Obama will be our next president." Castro smiles, seemingly at my naïveté, but the smile disappears as he says, "If he is not murdered before November 4, he'll be your next president." I note that he had still not answered my question about meeting in Washington. "You know," he says, "I have read the statements Obama has made, that he would preserve the blockade." I interject, "His term was embargo." "Yes," Castro says, "blockade is an act of war, so Americans prefer the term embargo, a word that is used in legal proceedings...but in either case, we know that this is pre-election talk, and that he has also said he is open to discussion with anyone."

Raúl interrupts himself: "You are probably thinking, Oh, the brother talks as much as Fidel!" We laugh. "It is not usually so, but you know, Fidel--once he had a delegation here, in this room, from China. Several diplomats and a young translator. I think it was the translator's first time with a head of state. They'd all had a very long flight and were jet-lagged. Fidel, of course, knew this, but still he talked for hours. Soon, one near the end of the table, just there [pointing to a nearby chair], his eyes begin to get heavy. Then another, then another. But Fidel, he continued to talk. Soon all, including the highest-ranking of them, to whom Fidel had been directly addressing his words, fell sound asleep in their chairs. So Fidel, he turns his eyes to the only one awake, the young translator, and kept him in conversation till dawn." By this time in the story, both Raúl and I were in stitches. I'd only had the one meeting with Fidel, whose astonishing mind and passion bleed words. But it was enough to get the picture. Only our translator was not laughing, as Castro returned to the point.

"In my first statement after Fidel fell ill, I said we are willing to discuss our relationship with the US on equal footing. Later, in 2006, I said it again in an address at the Revolutionary Square. I was laughed at by the US media--that I was applying cosmetics over dictatorship." I offer him another opportunity to speak to the American people. He answers, "The American people are among our closest neighbors. We should respect each other. We have never held anything against the American people. Good relations would be mutually advantageous. Perhaps we cannot solve all of our problems, but we can solve a good many of them."

He paused now, slowly considering a thought. "I'll tell you something, and I've never said it publicly before. It had been leaked, at some point, by someone in the US State Department, but was quickly hushed up because of concern about the Florida electorate, though now, as I tell you this, the Pentagon will think me indiscreet."

I wait with bated breath. "We've had permanent contact with the US military, by secret agreement, since 1994," Castro tells me. "It is based on the premise that we would discuss issues only related to Guantánamo. On February 17, 1993, following a request by the United States to discuss issues related to buoy locators for ship navigations into the bay, was the first contact in the history of the revolution. Between March 4 and July 1, the Rafters Crisis took place. A military-to-military hot line was established, and on May 9, 1995, we agreed to monthly meetings with primaries from both governments. To this day, there have been 157 meetings, and there is a taped record of every meeting. The meetings are conducted on the third Friday of every month. We alternate locations between the American base at Guantánamo and in Cuban-held territory. We conduct joint emergency-response exercises. For example, we set a fire, and American helicopters bring water from the bay, in concert with Cuban helicopters. [Before this] the American base at Guantánamo had created chaos. We had lost border guards, and have graphic evidence of it. The US had encouraged illegal and dangerous emigration, with US Coast Guard ships intercepting Cubans who tried to leave the island. They would bring them to Guantánamo, and a minimal cooperation began. But we would no longer play guard to our coast. If someone wanted to leave, we said, Go ahead. And so, with the navigation issues came the beginning of this collaboration. Now at the Friday meetings there is always a representative of the US State Department." No name given. He continues, "The State Department tends to be less reasonable than the Pentagon. But no one raises their voice because...I don't take part. Because I talk loud. It is the only place in the world where these two militaries meet in peace."

"What about Guantánamo?" I ask. "I'll tell you the truth," Castro says. "The base is our hostage. As a president, I say the US should go. As a military man, I say let them stay." Inside, I'm wondering, Have I got a big story to break here? Or is this of little relevance? It should be no surprise that enemies speak behind the scenes. What is a surprise is that he's talking to me about it. And with that, I circle back to the question of a meeting with Obama. "Should a meeting take place between you and our next president, what would be Cuba's first priority?" Without a beat, Castro answers, "Normalize trade." The indecency of the US embargo on Cuba has never been more evident than now, in the wake of three devastating hurricanes. The Cuban people's needs have never been more desperate. The embargo is simply inhumane and entirely unproductive. Raúl continues, "The only reason for the blockade is to hurt us. Nothing can deter the revolution. Let Cubans come to visit with their families. Let Americans come to Cuba." It seems he's saying, Let them come see this terrible Communist dictatorship they keep hearing about in the press, where even representatives of the State Department and prominent dissidents acknowledge that in a free and open election in Cuba today, the ruling Communist Party would win 80 percent of the electorate. I list several US conservatives who have been critical of the embargo, from the late economist Milton Friedman, to Colin Powell, to even Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who said, "I have believed for a while that we should be looking for a new strategy for Cuba. And that is, opening more trade, especially food trade, especially if we can give the people more contact with the outside world. If we can build up the economy, that might make the people more able to fight the dictatorship." Castro, ignoring the slight, responds boldly, "We welcome the challenge."

By now, we have moved on from the tea to red wine and dinner. "Let me tell you something," he says. "We have newly advanced research that strongly suggests deepwater offshore oil reserves, which US companies can come and drill. We can negotiate. The US is protected by the same Cuban trade laws as anyone else. Perhaps there can be some reciprocity. There are 110,000 square kilometers of sea in the divided area. God would be unfair not to give some oil to us. I don't believe he would deprive us this way." Indeed, the US Geological Survey speculates something in the area of 9 billion barrels of oil and 21 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves in the North Cuba Basin. Now that he's improved recently rocky relations with Mexico, Castro is looking at also improving prospects with the European Union. "EU relations should improve with Bush's exit," he states confidently. "And the US?" I ask. "Listen," he says, "we are as patient as the Chinese. Seventy percent of our population was born under the blockade. I am the longest-standing minister of Armed Forces in history. Forty-eight and a half years until last October. That's why I'm in this uniform and continue to work from my old office. In Fidel's office, nothing has been touched. At the Warsaw Pact military exercises, I was the youngest, and the one who had been there the longest. Then, I was the oldest, and still the one who had been there the longest. Iraq is a child's game compared with what would happen if the US invaded Cuba." After another sip of wine, Castro says, "Preventing a war is tantamount to winning a war. This is in our doctrine."

With our dinner finished, I walk with the president through the sliding glass doors onto a greenhouse-like terrace with tropical plants and birds. As we sip more wine, he says, "There is an American movie--the elite are sitting around a table, trying to decide who will be their next president. They look outside the window, where they see the gardener. Do you know the movie I'm talking about?" "Being There," I say. "Yes!" Castro responds excitedly, "Being There. I like this movie very much. With the United States, every objective possibility exists. The Chinese say: 'On the longest path, you start with the first step.' The US president should take this step on his own, but with no threat to our sovereignty. That is not negotiable. We can make demands without telling each other what to do within our borders."

"Mr. President," I say, "watching the last presidential debate in the United States, we heard John McCain encouraging the free-trade agreement with Colombia, a country where death squads are notorious and assassinations of labor leaders have been occurring, and yet relations with the United States continue to get closer, as the Bush administration is currently attempting to push that agreement through Congress. As you know, I've just come from Venezuela, which, like Cuba, the Bush administration considers an enemy nation, though of course we buy a lot of oil from them. It occurred to me that Colombia may reasonably become our geographically strategic partner in South America, as Israel is in the Middle East. Would you comment on that?"

He considers the question with caution, speaking in a slow and metered tone. "Right now," he says, "we have good relations with Colombia. But I will say that if there is a country in South America where an environment exists that is vulnerable to is Colombia." Thinking of Chávez's suspicion of US intentions to intervene in Venezuela, I take a deep breath.

The hour was getting late, but I didn't want to leave without asking Castro about allegations of human rights violations and alleged narco-trafficking facilitated by the Cuban government. A 2007 report by Human Rights Watch states that Cuba "remains the one country in Latin America that represses nearly all forms of political dissent." Furthermore, there are about 200 political prisoners in Cuba today, approximately 4 percent of whom are convicted of crimes of nonviolent dissent. As I await Castro's comments, I can't help but think of the nearby US prison at Guantánamo and the horrendous US offenses against human rights there.

"No country is 100 percent free of human rights abuses," Castro tells me. But, he insists, "reports in the US media are highly exaggerated and hypocritical." Indeed, even high-profile Cuban dissidents, such as Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo, acknowledge the manipulations, accusing the US Interests Section of gaining dissident testimony through cash payoffs. Ironically, in 1992 and '94, Human Rights Watch also described lawlessness and intimidation by anti-Castro groups in Miami as what author/journalist Reese Erlich termed "violations normally associated with Latin American dictatorships."

Having said that, I'm a proud American and infinitely aware that if I were a Cuban citizen and were to write an article such as this about the Cuban leadership, I could be jailed. Furthermore, I'm proud that the system set up by our founding fathers, while not exactly intact today, was never dependent on just one great leader per epoch. These things remain in question for the romantic heroes of Cuba and Venezuela. I consider mentioning this, and perhaps should have, but I've got something else on my mind.

"Can we talk about drugs?" I ask Castro. He responds, "The United States is the largest consumer of narcotics in the world. Cuba sits directly between the United States and its suppliers. It is a big problem for us.... With the expansion of tourism, a new market has developed, and we struggle with it. It is also said that we allow narco-traffickers to travel through Cuban airspace. We allow no such thing. I'm sure some of these planes get by us. It is simply due to economic restrictions that we no longer have functioning low-altitude radar."

While this may sound like tall-tale telling, not so, according to Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a former adviser to Colin Powell. Wilkerson told Reese Erlich in a January interview, "The Cubans are our best partners in the counter-drug and counter-terror war in the Caribbean. Even better than Mexico. The military looked at Cuba as a very cooperative partner."

I want to ask Castro my unanswered question a final time, as our mutual body language suggests we've hit the witching hour. It is after 1 am, but he initiates. "Now," he says, "you asked if I would accept to meet with [Obama] in Washington. I would have to think about it. I would discuss it with all my comrades in the leadership. Personally, I think it would not be fair that I be the first to visit, because it is always the Latin American presidents who go to the United States first. But it would also be unfair to expect the president of the United States to come to Cuba. We should meet in a neutral place."

He pauses, putting down his empty wine glass. "Perhaps we could meet at Guantánamo. We must meet and begin to solve our problems, and at the end of the meeting, we could give the president a gift...we could send him home with the American flag that waves over Guantánamo Bay."

As we exit his office, we are followed by staff as President Castro takes me down the elevator to the lobby and walks me to my waiting car. I thank him for the generosity of his time. As my driver puts the car in gear, the president taps on the window beside me. I roll it down as the president checks his watch, realizing that seven hours have passed since we began the interview. Smiling, he says, "I will call Fidel now. I can promise you this. When Fidel finds I have spoken to you for seven hours, he will be sure to give you seven and a half when you return to Cuba." We share a laugh and a last handshake.

It had rained earlier in the night. In this early-hour darkness, our tires streaming over the wet pavement on a quiet Havana morning, it strikes me that the most basic questions of sovereignty offer substantial insight into the complexities of US antagonism toward Cuba and Venezuela, as well as those countries' policies. They've only ever had two choices: to be imperfectly ours, or imperfectly their own.

Viva Cuba. Viva Venezuela. Viva USA.

When I got back to the protocol house, it was nearly 2 am. My old friend Fernando, looking much the worse for wear, had waited up. My companions had had quite a night. Poor Fernando had taken the brunt of their frustration. They hadn't known where I'd gone, nor why I had left them behind. And the remaining Cuban officials they'd been able to contact had insisted they stay put, should either of the Castro brothers spontaneously offer an audience. So they had also missed out on a last Cuban night on the town. After filling me in, Fernando went to get a couple hours' sleep. I stayed up reviewing my notes and was first at the breakfast table, at 4:45 am. When Douglas and Hitch ambled down the stairs, I put the edge of the tablecloth over my head in mock shame. I guess, under the circumstances, it was a bit early (in more than just the hour) to be testing their humor. The joke didn't play. While Fernando took a separate flight to Buenos Aires, we had a quiet breakfast and a quiet flight back to home sweet home.

When we arrived in Houston, I realized I'd underestimated the thick skin of these two road-worn professionals. Whatever ice I'd perceived earlier had melted. We said our goodbyes, celebrating what had been a thrilling several days. Neither had been so catty as to inquire into the content of my interview, but Christopher headed to his eastbound connection with a parting word, "Well...I guess we'll read about it."

¡Sí, Se Puede!

I sat on the edge of my bed with my wife, son and daughter, tears streaming down my face, as Barack Obama spoke for the first time as the president-elect of the United States of America. I closed my eyes and started to see a film in my head. I could hear the music too, appropriately the Dixie Chicks covering a Fleetwood Mac song over slow-motion images in montage. There they were: Bush, Hannity, Cheney, McCain, Limbaugh and Robertson. I saw them all. And the song was rising as the image of Sarah Palin took over the screen. Natalie Maines sweetly sang,

And I saw my reflection in the snow-covered hills
till the landslide brought me down.
Landslide brought me down...

No Post(s) Today (Yet)

Message to the diehards: I haven't discovered anything "linkworthy" yet today. But, thanks for "being here"! I'll look around this evening when I return home from the hands of my employer to see if there's anything for you.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The "Obama Effect"?

"Obama's Trickle-Down Equanimity"--Leslie Savan (The Nation):
The other day I noticed that my husband had for the tenth time ruined the slick seasoned surface of my cast-iron skillet by scrubbing it with Brillo. I started to get ticked off, building up a tiny tornado of fury; boy, am I ever going to tell him. Again.

But then I thought, Would Obama let this get to him? That tall cool drink o' distilled water would never blast Michelle for a domestic faux-pas like this, but here I am going ballistic because my spouse tried to clean a pot? Then poof! (or plouffe!): my anger was gone.
Not to get all hagiographic about it, much less to liken the President-elect to "The One" (the name the McCainiac right sarcastically used to paint him as the false Messiah), but Barack Obama's calm, nonreactionary response to the worst that politics and economics can throw at him has begun to establish a new emotional policy: trickle-down equanimity.

If Obama could forgive Lieberman, if he could make Hillary his secretary of state, if he can now refuse to vilify Bush, Paulson, and the entire GOP-enabled greed machine for destroying lives and the economy, then surely I could let my anger over petty slights melt away.

Not that it isn't in Obama's realpolitick interest to forgive Lieberman (who's now Joe the Beholden), to remove Hillary from the Senate, where she could have stymied his agenda, or in general to kill the Republicans with love. But he is the greatest global advertisement for the Zen-like detachment needed to see both the large picture and the smallness of the immediate gripe.

This isn't at all to suggest that we shouldn't criticize Obama's moves. While his "centrist" choices for the cabinet don't particularly bother me, his lack, so far, of prominent progressives does. Still, as American Prospect co-editor Robert Kuttner said on ABC's This Week, it'd be far better if Obama's economic team included "someone who really believes deeply that casino capitalism is a menace.... however, at the same time, every time I second-guessed Obama in the campaign, he was right, and I was wrong."

No-Drama Obama, the Better-Angel Guy--however we frame Obama's patient, reasonable disposition, it's gradually slowing down some of our knee-jerks. A usually road-raging friend of mine tells me that recently "Someone was going too slow, and I was all ready with my F-bombs, but"--Obama news was on the radio at the time--"I stopped them."

Such interventions of Obamian goodness are fleeting, which potentially makes them all the more market-ready. (WWOD?--What Would Obama Do?--hoodies are selling online for the ripoff price of $75.) And they're a tad embarrassing. As a blog commenter, Bittersweet Girl, says of the future POTUS, "he's a guy without highs or lows but a generally steady middle....I'm also trying to be more like Obama in my life. I know it's cheesy but, WWOD?"

But try this for embarrassing: For the last eight years, I've more than occasionally given up on slightly difficult tasks, blithely run up my credit card debts, knowingly thrown logic to the side, and didn't bother to talk so good, all the time telling myself, If Bush got to be president by being an incompetent, no-good wastrel, then surely I could loosen a standard or two or three.

Every president's character helps define the parameters of what you can and cannot get away with. They're not exactly role models (that's more a job for baseball players), but they patrol social mores like shepherding moons, keeping us all in our proper rings. As long as they're on TV a lot and the media magnify their every word and deed, our leaders inevitably take up four- or eight-year occupations of the mytho-religious space in our brains that links private behavior to public values.

And there can be an almost scriptural smack of justice to the exposure of these titans' moral failures. As the Times of London famously told it:

With Russian tanks only 30 miles from Tbilisi on August 12, Mr. Sarkozy told Mr. Putin that the world would not accept the overthrow of Georgia's government. According to [Sarkozy's chief diplomatic adviser, Jean-David] Levitte, the Russian seemed unconcerned by international reaction. "I am going to hang Saakashvili by the balls," Mr. Putin declared.

Mr. Sarkozy thought he had misheard. "Hang him?"--he asked.

"Why not?" Mr. Putin replied. "The Americans hanged Saddam Hussein."

Mr. Sarkozy, using the familiar tu, tried to reason with him: "Yes, but do you want to end up like Bush?" Mr. Putin was briefly lost for words, then said: "Ah--you have scored a point there."

Funny, but some time after Jesse Jackson fantasized about cutting off Obama's "nuts," he, too, must have decided that he didn't want to end up like Bush, because when we saw Jesse in Grant Park on election night, those were tears of history, not envy, streaming down his cheeks.

And have we ever seen anyone wield history as a shepherd's crook better than Barack Obama? The invocations of Abe Lincoln (senator from Illinois, Team of Rivals, even the better angels of our nature urged upon us by an emancipating ectomorph, etc.) have been masterful, like a sermon given from the mount where that shining city on a hill ought to be. Jesse, John McCain, maybe even Bush himself have been ever so subtly herded this past year out the door of history. Obama has grabbed us all by our hearts and minds.

Do we have the, uh, guts to follow?

"TV Casting May Feel an Obama Effect"--Bill Carter (NY Times):
It may say something about the state of American television that there is one more black president-elect of the United States than there are black actors with individual lead roles in a network television drama.

But after years of ensemble dramas sprinkled with nonwhite supporting actors, the excitement surrounding the election of Barack Obama could help to open doors for more minorities in leading dramatic roles, executives from television production studios said.
Ben Silverman, the co-chairman of NBC Entertainment who oversees the network’s television studio, said that he and the head of the diversity initiative for NBC Universal, Paula Madison, have been pushing for projects starring minorities.

Mr. Silverman said, “We were going after this regardless, but I don’t think you can deny the power that Barack Obama brings in magnifying this direction in our world.” He added, “We’ve all been colorblind for years, but the results don’t necessarily match up to our intentions.”

Ms. Madison said that NBC’s approach was at least as much about business as about social responsibility. “People are not living in single-race silos anymore,” she said. “We said, ‘Let’s try to develop a world that looks like the world we’re living in.’ ”

The evidence seems to indicate that race neutrality has not produced a surge of black lead performers, at least in network dramas. While comedies with black characters have been something of a network staple — from the much vilified “Amos ’n Andy” in the early days of television, through shows like “Sanford and Son” with Redd Foxx, “The Jeffersons,” and Martin Lawrence’s sitcom “Martin” — historically, blacks in lead television drama roles have been rare.

Bill Cosby, whose 1980s hit sitcom revitalized that genre after a period of decline, famously broke through in drama as the co-star of “I Spy” in 1965. He won three Emmy awards in the role of Alexander Scott, an espionage agent. Exactly two black actors (and no actresses) have won Emmy awards for drama series since: James Earl Jones, who played the title role in the short-lived “Gabriel’s Fire” in 1991, and Andre Braugher, who was part of the ensemble in “Homicide” in 1998.

Dennis Haysbert, who played President David Palmer on the Fox series “24,” is featured in the CBS ensemble drama “The Unit” (produced by Mr. Newman’s Fox studio). Also this season, the venerable NBC drama “ER” added Angela Bassett; executives at its studio, Warner Brothers, now identify her as the lead in that show.

But both “ER” and “The Unit” are ensemble shows, a genre that has for decades — going back to performers like Michael Warren in “Hill Street Blues” and Denzel Washington in “St. Elsewhere” — been the route for black drama actors to break through.

“ER” has featured black actors (including Eriq La Salle) since its inception in 1994. ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” whose creator and executive producer, Shonda Rhimes, is black, has similarly offered a notably diverse cast.

But there is no dramatic series spotlighting a single star — like “House” on Fox, “Chuck” on NBC, “Eli Stone” on ABC or “The Mentalist” on CBS — now led by a black actor. Hispanic actors have fared somewhat better. Jimmy Smits has starred in several series, and America Ferrera is now the star of “Ugly Betty.”

Cable’s recent list of single-star dramas is also notable for its roster of white stars, including shows like “The Shield,” “The Closer,” “Saving Grace,” “Dexter,” “Monk,” “Burn Notice,” “Breaking Bad” and “Damages.”

Tim Reid, who was the star and an executive producer of the Emmy-winning comedy series “Frank’s Place” for CBS in the 1987-88 season — and who recently wrote, with the white comic Tom Dreesen, “Tim and Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White” about their days as a stand-up team — has been outspoken about the continued limited opportunities for minorities in television.

“If the president-elect should have any positive influence over the so-called liberal base of Hollywood, it will be by focusing their attention on the reality of the kind of multicultural world we actually live in,” Mr. Reid said in an e-mail message. “This doesn’t just mean putting another person of color in front of the camera, but giving them an equal opportunity in having a say-so in what is created for the camera.”

“In my opinion,” he continued, “we’re far more likely to have a black president in my lifetime ... oh, yeah ... I can stop saying that now.”

The most significant hiring of a black actor for a television series has been long in the works: next month the film star Laurence Fishburne will assume the lead in CBS’s biggest hit show, “CSI.” That move was not connected to the ascendance of Mr. Obama, though CBS and studio executives expressed hope that the timing would help in the transition from William Petersen, the current “CSI” lead, to Mr. Fishburne.

David Stapf, president of the CBS Paramount Network Television studio, which produces “CSI,” said of Mr. Fishburne’s selection: “If you have a chance to get an actor like that, you go for him. It wouldn’t matter what ethnicity he is.”

Paramount also has a deal in place to find a project for the rap star L L Cool J.

NBC Universal said it has a number of projects in the works tailored for blacks, including development deals with the director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) and the actor and writer Ice Cube.

Among shows already in production, Mr. Silverman cited the buddy comedy “Off Duty,” with Bradley Whitford, who is white, and Romany Malco, who is black. The network also has a thriller script from Frank Spotnitz, the “X Files” writer and producer, with Gabrielle Union, a black actress, signed to star.

And NBC Universal announced with some fanfare “Making Friends With Black People,” a sitcom that is to star the author of the book of the same title, the comedian Nick Adams.

If these projects are only tangentially tied to the arrival of a black star in the leading political role in America, Gary Newman, co-chairman of the Twentieth Century Fox television studio, suggested another potential influence stemming from the election of Mr. Obama.

“We may see more chances taken on comedies that feel more hopeful rather than the sarcastic, cynical style we’ve seen a lot of recently,” Mr. Newman said. “The Obama success seems to have put people more in touch with their more hopeful side.”

"Kuttner: Another Great Depression A Bigger Risk Than Large Budget Deficits" (with video)

Jed Lewsion, with video (02:19):
This week on NOW on PBS, economist Robert Kuttner states what should be (but unfortunately isn't) conventional wisdom: that it's more important to get this economy going again than it is to manage the federal budget deficit downwards.

As Kuttner points out, our national debt is currently around 40% of GDP, less than a third of 125% of GDP after World War II -- and the economy did pretty well after WWII. To address today's economic crisis, Kuttner recommends a huge stimulus plan to rebuild our antiquated infrastructure and to jumpstart our new energy economy, even if that means increasing our national debt to 60% or more of GDP.

The full video of David Broncaccio's interview of Robert Kuttner is available on NOW's website.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Markos on the Rightroots: "Building machines"

Crashing the Gate was, in large part, an ode to the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, which had been so effective at crafting the Republican message, delivering it to the American people, and getting its messengers elected to office. At a time other progressives were expending energy trying to discredit it, we saw it as a model to emulate.
Now it's conservatives' turn to plead for their side to emulate our machine. Yet here's the funny thing -- their machine is still bigger and better funded than ours. If I could trade Daily Kos for Fox News and the entire AM radio dial, I'd do it in a heartbeat. I'd make some major changes at those media outlets, of course (beyond a change of ideology), most of them dealing with how they interact with their audiences online, but really, their problem isn't that they don't have an equivalent to Daily Kos or MoveOn, their problem is that their ideas suck, and now progressives have enough of a machine to counteract their lies and smears.

Remember, a party predicated on the notion that government sucks and can't do anything right can't possibly run an administration that doesn't suck and can do anything right. Competent conservative governance would instantly invalidate conservatism's core tenets. That's why Bush named horse lawyers to FEMA, and why fourth-tier law school grads have infested every corner of the Justice Department. George W. Bush wasn't an anomaly, he delivered the most effectively conservative administration in history.

So given that they couldn't promise effective governance, Republicans needed their machine -- lying about their own record, and slinging copious amounts of mud at our guys. "Liberal" thus became a dirty word. Even Obama has admitted that Fox News single-handedly cost him milions of votes.

I am convinced that if there were no Fox News, I might be two or three points higher in the polls," Obama told me. "If I were watching Fox News, I wouldn’t vote for me, right? Because the way I’m portrayed 24/7 is as a freak! I am the latte-sipping, New York Times-reading, Volvo-driving, no-gun-owning, effete, politically correct, arrogant liberal. Who wants somebody like that?"

That's some powerful shit. Not long ago, elected Democrats and candidates knew that if they stuck their neck out and did what was right, they'd get slammed by the partisan conservative machine, with little from the progressive side to counteract those attacks. So it became easier to capitulate to the Right -- an instinct that still pervades many of the dead-weight Democrats sitting in Congress today. (Notice how shocked they still act when they get whacked from the Left. They're used to only getting grief from the Right, so they get deeply offended when hit by "their" side.)

But that battle is no longer one-sided. Their machine may be bigger, but we have something. And that's all we ever needed -- a hint of a partisan progressive media machine, fed by research and investigative reporting from the likes of ThinkProgress and Talking Points Memo, to begin delivering our message in the face of their vast media machine, as well as ineffective CW-meisters like Maureen Dowd, Mark Halperin, and David Broder.

So what does the Right have to build if they already have institutions crafting their message, and a vast media machine to deliver it to the people? They've got the infrastructure in place. Sure, it can be tweaked here and there, but we're not talking the challenge facing us progressives six years ago, when we had nothing promoting the partisan progressive agenda (no matter how much conservatives whine about the "liberal media"). We had to build our machine from scratch; theirs still reaches vastly more people than ours.

So now the Patrick Ruffinis on the Right argue that they need their own machine to replace their powerful existing one, as if shiny new websites will suddenly fix what ails them. In reality, their problem is that their ideology has failed. Conservatism has failed, in a very public way, and people now recoil from its siren song. That's not a marketing problem. It's as if people suddenly realized that what they were drinking wasn't Coke, but New Coke. And hundreds of millions of dollars wasn't going to fix that problem.

One last point:

I believe there's something of a cottage industry speculating on when the conservatives will develop an internet presence to rival the left's. Today, it's Jose Antonio Vargas publishing a piece on the rightroots, but it's been in Newsweek, in the Politico many times, and their whole drilling Twitter fiasco captured a bunch of publicity. It's rather amusing to see the same establishment news outlets rail against liberal impotence while sending journalists to find out when the right will build a fearsome presence to rival those impotent liberals, but consistency is not a strong suit of modern politics.

Yup. Hilarious.

"Barbara Walters Special 11/26 HQ (Part 1) Michelle & Barack Obama Interview by Barbara Walters" (video)

ExFilms, video-Part 1 (08:05). Part 2 here. Part 3 here. Part 4 here. Part 5 here. Part 6 here.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

"Jonathan Turley on The Rachel Maddow Show: We're all complicit in Bush's war crimes if we ignore them" (with video)

Crooks and Liars (SilentPatriot), with video:
As David already discussed, constitutional-law expert Jonathan Turley joined Rachel last night to discuss the fate of top Bush administration figures involved in "harsh interrogation techniques." The White House has indicated that Bush will not be issuing blanket pardons, but the Wall Street Journal later reported that that's because it's "unnecessary" to do so.
Turley makes a critical point in the interview -- namely, that the moral burden of torture is on the backs of each one of us until these people are brought to justice. And it will be profoundly immoral to let them go:

"We have third world countries that when they have found that their leaders committed torture war crimes, they prosecuted them. But the most successful democracy in history is just, I think, about to see war crimes, do nothing about it. And that's an indictment not just of George Bush and his administration. It's the indictment of all of us if we walk away from a clear war crime and say it's time for another commission."

Turley lays out a powerful case that's pretty hard to argue with. A wave of reconciliation and forgiveness seems to be sweeping Washington, but sanctioning torture and destroying America's moral credibility around the world is something that can't simply be ignored. I'm not opposed to a commission per se, but the commission MUST be granted sweeping investigatory powers and a mandate to prosecute any and all wrongdoing found to have been committed. Anything less is unacceptable.

Full transcript below the fold:

(h/t Heather)

MADDOW: Yesterday, 14 lucky convicts were pardoned by President Bush, thanks to Article 2, Section 2 of our Constitution, which gives the president the right to basically pardon anyone he wants. And you know what? Pardon-seeking makes for strange bedfellows. With about 56 days left of the Bush administration, it's time once again for the RACHEL MADDOW SHOW's "Lame Duck Watch," because somebody's got to do it. Meet John Edward Forte, first man we're going to talk about today. A Grammy Award-winning rapper and former producer for the rap group, "The Fugees." He was caught in 2000 with two briefcases filled with $1.4 million worth of liquid cocaine. So who was advocating for Forte's release? Lauryn Hill? Wyclef? How about Carly Simon and Republican Senator Orrin Hatch from Utah? Two of a kind. It turns out that Forte and Carly's son, Ben, became BFFs in prep school, and she has been lobbying several politicians on Forte's behalf, including Sen. Hatch. Forte will walk out of federal prison next month after serving half of his 14-year sentence. I bet you can't guess who Bush will not be pardoning, though. How about former administration officials involved in harsh interrogations and detentions of terror suspects? And when I say harsh interrogations, yes, I mean torture. According to the "Wall Street Journal" White House officials say they don't believe they have to pardon anyone that the Justice's Department torture memos make such pardons unnecessary. You remember those memos, right? Part of the Bush administration's unofficial game plan to move the goal posts until the kick goes through. Now, the way this works in the case of torture that the goal post moving was to dismiss the Geneva Convention and other laws by using the veneer of serious legal scholarship to create an illusion that these near-death interrogation tactics and understanding executive power were somehow legal, somehow legitimate. So, the kick is up and apparently, it might be good. They have - they may be getting away with this by having used this legal rationale that makes no sense on its face and that nobody believe they were trying to get away with. It is an old trick. It's first publicly enunciated by that pioneer of high crimes and misdemeanors, Richard Nixon.


RICHARD NIXON, FORMER UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.


MADDOW: The question here is has the administration effectively gotten itself off the legal hook by asserting that because the president has done it, it is not illegal? Joining us now is Jonathan Turley, who is a professor of Constitutional Law at George Washington University. Professor Turley, thanks for joining us again. Nice to see you.



MADDOW: So the White House says now, at least to the "Wall Street Journal," that they are not likely to pardon anyone who might have implemented or taken part in these torture policies because they believe that their Justice Department memos excuse them, so there's no need to pardon anyone. Are you buying their reasoning?

TURLEY: No. I don't believe that anyone seriously believes in the administration that what they did was legal. This is not a close legal question. Waterboarding is torture. It has been defined as a war crime by U.S. courts and foreign courts. There's no ambiguity in it. That's exactly why they have repeatedly tried to stop any court from reviewing any of this. And so what's really happening here is a rather clever move at this intersection of law and politics, that what the administration is doing is they know that the people that want him to pardon our torture program is primarily the Democrats, not the Republicans. Democratic leadership would love to have a pardon so they could go to their supporters and say, "Look, there's really nothing we could do. We're just going to have this truth commission. We'll get the truth out but there really can't be indictments now." Well, the Bush administration is calling their bluff. They know that the Democratic leadership will not allow criminal investigations or indictments. And in that way the Democrats will actually repair Bush's legacy because he'll be able to say there's nothing stopping indictments or prosecutions but a Democratic Congress and a Democratic White House didn't think there was any basis for it.

MADDOW: If the Democrats - if we could wave a magic wand and say that the Democrats would decide to indict officials for the torture policies, is there any reason to believe that the John Yoo memos, the torture memos, the Bybee memos - all of these legal reasoning that the Justice Department produced under Bush in order to sort of paper their way to these policies. Is there any reason to believe that would afford them any reasonable defense?

TURLEY: Not in my view. I think those memos are really devoid of any meaningful arguments that would carry weight in a court of law. What Bush did is he went and got fairly extreme individuals from the academy and from the bar that would ratify his absolute view of executive authority. There is a very small number of people, I believe, on the courts or in the bar that would support that view. And so there's not a question, at least in my view, whether there could be an indictable and a prosecutable here. There's no question about that. The question is the intestinal fortitude of the Democrats to stand with the rule of law. And unfortunately, we have many people who campaign on principle but they govern on politics. And I think we're seeing that with the Democratic balloon they're floating by saying, "Let's have a commission, another commission, like the 9/11 commission. And maybe if we find something that can be prosecuted in four or five years, we might do it." Well, everyone in Washington knows that that commission is being proposed so that there would be no serious criminal investigation or prosecution. And now, the White House is calling their bluff.

MADDOW: Draw some bright lines for us here. If - just thinking about this as Americans, not even as people who are concerned with the political ramifications, but just thinking about the safety of our Constitution and our national moral legacy, what are the bright lines that need to be drawn? What would need to be done, and soon, in order to ensure that torture is clearly illegal in the United States, that there's no ambiguity in our law or in our policy around that issue, and that we can once again say we are a nation that does not torture and we can say it without lying? What would have to be done?

TURLEY: You know, Rachel, there has never been a brighter line. This has always been a crime. It's always been a war crime. It's always been immoral. The question is not whether the act is immoral, but whether moral people will stand forward and say, "We're not going to act like politicians for once. We're going to act like statesmen and we're going to stand by principle and we're going to say, 'Yes, let's investigate.' And if there are crimes here, let's prosecute." And I think it's so very, very simple. You know, we have third world countries that when they have found that their leaders committed torture war crimes, they prosecuted them. But the most successful democracy in history is just, I think, about to see war crimes, do nothing about it. And that's an indictment not just of George Bush and his administration. It's the indictment of all of us if we walk away from a clear war crime and say it's time for another commission.

MADDOW: Jonathan Turley, professor of Constitutional Law at George Washington University. Thank you very much.

TURLEY: Thanks, Rachel.

Howie P.S.: Thinking of the history of Thanksgiving, maybe a discussion of U.S. government war crimes isn't inappropriate today. Ari Melber makes a parallel argument here.

"Giving Thanks with the Obamas" (video)

ABC News, video (04:04):
The Obamas talk about what this Thanksgiving means to them and the country.
Howie P.S.: Here's some video of Obama getting "grilled" about "change." Some of these remarks were also my QUOTE OF THE DAY, yesterday. Josh Marshall agrees.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"Obama Family's Thanksgiving Food Drive Visit" (SLIDESHOW, VIDEO)

Slideshow and video from CBS2, Chicago (04:58).

Preview: "Obama: A Lot Keeps Me Up at Night" (with video)

ABC News, with video (05:51):
Facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, President-elect Barack Obama says he is kept awake at night worrying about what will happen to the country over the next 60 days while a "lame duck" is in charge.

Obama talked about his preparation to take office on Jan. 20 in an exclusive interview with ABC News' Barbara Walters.
President Bush will remain in the Oval Office until Obama assumes power on Jan. 20.

More on "World News" and watch "Barack Obama: The Barbara Walters Special," Tonight at 10 p.m. ET

When asked what was his "biggest fear," Obama said "there are a lot of things that keep me up at night."

"One of the concerns I have is that the economy is so weakened that the next 60 days are going to be difficult because we've got a president who, even though he may mean well, is now sort of in lame-duck status [and] Congress isn't in [session]."

"And I don't have the reins of power," Obama added.

Obama said that in the meantime he was working to assemble a team of economic advisors who would be ready to work come Inauguration Day.

The President-elect said he and his team would carefully review the way the Bush administration distributes bailout funds to Wall Street banks seeking emergency assistance.

"I'm not president yet, so I don't know yet how much more money is going to be spent. I'm going to scrutinize very carefully how that money is spent. If the Bush administration chooses to draw down that money, then I'm going to have something to say about whether it's doing it wisely," he told Walters.

Obama, who won in a landslide victory by promising change, tried to dampen expectations of what's going to happen when he takes charge on Jan. 20.

"I am not a miracle worker," he told Walters.

Obama said the executives at those companies who have taken federal loans should act responsibly with the tax payers' money, chiding Wall Street executives who sought multimillion dollar bonuses and the leaders of Detroit's Big Three automakers who last week flew to Washington aboard private jets to ask Congress for a bailout.

He called the automaker executives "tone deaf" to the concerns of the American people.

Weeks away from his inauguration, Obama stressed to Walters the importance of personal, corporate and civic accountability in light of the cratering economy and said his presidency would be a return to "the ethic of responsibility."

Obama said "captains of industry" on Wall Street and in Detroit who took advantage of corporate perks while their companies benefited from government loans paid for with taxpayers' money, don't have "any perspective on what's happening to ordinary Americans."

Executives placed in a position of authority have "got responsibilities to your workers. You've got a responsibility to your community; to your share holders. There's got to be a point where you say, 'I have enough, and now I'm in this position of responsibility. Let me make sure that I'm doing right by people and acting in a way that is responsible,'" Obama said.

Executives at many of Wall Street's top firms, including Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, have, in recent days, laid off scores of workers and announced they would forgo Christmas bonuses, a policy the incoming president indicated he wanted to see more of.

Asked by Walters if bank executives should forgo their bonuses, Obama said, "I think they should."

"That's an example of taking responsibility. I think that if you are already worth tens of millions of dollars, and you are having to lay off workers, the least you can do is say, 'I'm willing to make some sacrifice as well, because I recognize that there are people who are a lot less well off, who are going through some pretty tough times,'" the president-elect added.

Obama Cites 'Deep Religious Faith'

In a lengthy interview that touched on a broad range of topics from the economy and troop deployments in Afghanistan, to Thanksgiving plans with his family, Obama talked about many of the personal adjustment he, his wife Michelle, and their two children will make when they move into the White House on Jan. 20.

Obama, who will become the nation's first black president, shrugged off any suggestion that his history making role put him in any added danger.

His historic victory has prompted online streams of racial hatred and several arrests because of threats to his safety.

Obama told Walters that he does not allow a sense of menace to rattle him and that he simply ignores it.

"I don't think about it partly because I've got this pretty terrific crew of Secret Service guys that follow me everywhere I go," he said.

"But also because, you know, I have a deep religious faith, and a faith in people that, you know, carries me through the day. And my job is just to make sure I'm doing my job, and if I do I can't worry about that kind of stuff," he told Walters.

Even before the presidential campaign began, Obama's wife Michelle had openly worried about the added danger that her husband's candidacy might draw because of his race. She fretted on "60 Minutes" earlier this year that "as a black man, you know, Barack can get shot going to the gas station."

Obama won't be going to a gas station for at least the next four years, but all presidents face an inherent danger because of their position and their policies.

The president-elect said that his children won't get the full effect of being the nation's first kids. He said Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, will know they are special to their parents, "But they're not special, you know in terms of having to do their homework or having to do chores."

The future first lady Michelle Obama added, "That was the first thing I said to some of the [White House] staff when I did my visit. Because of course, the girls, they're so good. I said, 'You know, we're going to have to set up some boundaries. Because they're going to need to be able to make their beds" and clean their own rooms.

Michelle Obama added with a laugh, "Don't make their beds. Make mine."

Barbara Walters told "Good Morning America" that both Barack and Michelle Obama agreed that it is Michelle who "gets the last word," with the president-elect philosophizing, "When Momma's happy, everybody is happy."

Obama Trying to Keep His BlackBerry

Obama said he was concerned that the isolated life of a president would limit his access to information from outside the bubble of the White House.

Throughout the campaign, Obama was often seen communicating to staff members via his BlackBerry, a convenience the president-elect may legally have to forgo, and one which he indicated he was negotiating to keep.

For national security purposes, a president is limited in his electronic correspondences for fear of hacking. Additionally, presidential communications are strictly monitored and archived for historical purposes.

"One of the things that I'm going to have to work through is how to break through the isolation -- the bubble that exists around the president. I'm in the process of negotiating with the Secret Service, with lawyers, with White House staff ... to figure out how can I get information from outside of the 10 or 12 people who surround my office in the White House," he said.

Obama said that, on the campaign trail, he had a chance to interact with hundreds of Americans, to hear their stories and connect with them personally. He said the often hermetic environs of the White House sometimes lead presidents to lose touch with their constituents.

"One of the worst things I think that could happen to a president is losing touch with what people are going through day to day ... " he said. "I want to make sure that I keep my finger on the pulse of the struggles that people are going through every day."


"The American people would be troubled if I selected a treasury secretary or a chairman of the National Economic Council at one of the most critical economic times in our history who had no experience in government whatsoever," Obama said.

"What we are going to do is combine experience with fresh thinking," he said. "But understand where the vision for change comes from. First and foremost, it comes from me. That's my job, is to provide a vision in terms of where we are going and to make sure then that my team is implementing."-Barack Obama.

"What Michelle Means to Us" (with slideshow)

Allison Samuels (Newsweek), with slide show:
At a recent Sunday brunch after church, my "sista friends" and I sat on the patio of a Los Angeles restaurant gabbing about the election of Barack Obama. Sure, we were caught up in the history of the moment. Most of us never thought we'd see an African-American president. But as a group of six black women in our 30s and 40s, we were equally excited by who is coming along with Obama to the White House—his wife, Michelle, and their two young daughters.
We all praised—OK, maybe even envied—Michelle's double Ivy League pedigree, her style, her cool but friendly demeanor. And yet we're all aware of how much we have riding on her. At 44, Michelle Obama will be the youngest First Lady since Jacqueline Kennedy. And many are expecting her to usher in a similarly glamorous era in Washington. ("Bamelot," as some are already calling it.) But Michelle's influence could go far beyond the superficial. When her husband raises his hand to take the oath of office, Michelle will become the world's most visible African-American woman. The new First Lady will have the chance to knock down ugly stereotypes about black women and educate the world about American black culture more generally. But perhaps more important—even apart from what her husband can do—Michelle has the power to change the way African-Americans see ourselves, our lives and our possibilities.

It's an amazing opportunity—and a huge responsibility. "I think she's always going to be classy, because she knows she's not just representing herself,'' said my friend Gertrude Justin, 40, a nurse from Houston. "She knows she's fighting stereotypes of black people that have been around for decades and that her every move will be watched. I'm sure she's been just as insulted by the lack of true depictions of African-American women as any other black woman.'' Michelle will be a daily reminder that we're not all hotheaded, foaming-at-the-mouth drug addicts, always ready with a quick one-liner and a roll of the eyes.

Like many African-American women I know, Michelle has had a lot of practice at the delicate tap dance of getting along in the mainstream white world. During all those years in boardrooms and a topnotch law firm—not to mention the exclusive clubs of Princeton and Harvard Law School—she's had to learn to blend in. Now she'll have to go even further in convincing two very different constituencies—African-Americans and everyone else—that they can trust her as their First Lady. And she'll have to do it all while remaining true to her authentic self.

Michelle has already shown she understands how universal her appeal must be. Early on in the primaries, after she was labeled too forward and too loud, Michelle demonstrated self-restraint and discipline by dialing back. She stopped making harmless jokes about Obama's morning breath and other breaches of hygiene. Her remark about being "proud of my country" for the first time was another rare misstep. But she quickly learned to play the adoring and uncontroversial wife, talking up her husband on shows like "The View."

She showed she could calibrate her remarks for predominantly black audiences too, opening up a bit more about what Obama's election would mean for them—and what it would also mean for her, referring to herself as "the little black girl from the South Side of Chicago." Yet when The New Yorker caricatured the Obamas in July doing a "terrorist fist bump" in the Oval Office, the image stung. It was Michelle who came across as the domineering one—the angry black woman. She toned it down and took to wearing pearls and reassuring J.Crew cardigans.

Will that softer side win out now that she's headed to the East Wing? When I met Michelle earlier this year for an interview in Atlanta, I was taken by her warmth and eagerness to chat about everything—fashion designers she'd like to wear, her girls' taste in clothes, even dogs. (On a follow-up phone call, she greeted me with "Hey, girlfriend," like she was a long-lost sorority sister.) There was no pretense—no second-guessing her next word or move the way she seemed to do after the campaign became a mudfest.

I personally hope that she will let more of that true, colorful personality seep through. There are some good hints she might. Her daring election-night red-speckled dress, designed by Narciso Rodriguez, was hardly a cautious choice. It wasn't altogether flattering, but it showed that Michelle is searching for her own style. Other clues come from her winning, if still demure, performance during the recent "60 Minutes" interview. Looking chic and relaxed—and genuinely affectionate with her husband—she poked fun at the president-elect's professed affinity for doing the dishes and told him she wouldn't accompany him on a walk on a cold Chicago day.

That easy warmth between the Obamas as a couple was another thing that my girlfriends and I fixated on at our brunch. Nearly 50 percent of all African-American women are single. And, "The Cosby Show" aside, there are still woefully few public examples of solid, stable black marriages. What can this handsome first couple do for the future of the black family, we wondered? "I want my son to see first-hand what two people can do when they work together and respect each other,'' said Janese Sinclair, an executive assistant and 34-year-old single mother of a 12-year-old son. "His father and I divorced when he was 2—so he never had the chance to see the way a relationship works. Many of his friends have single moms too, so the Obamas are going to teach us that love and happiness is not just for others but us too. It's easy to forget when you look at TV or movies."

Making her young daughters, Malia and Sasha, her top priority is heartfelt, but it could also help Michelle broaden her appeal. Taking lessons from the Carters and the Clintons—Amy was 9 and Chelsea was 12 when their fathers took office—Michelle is creating a protective cordon around the girls. What parent can't relate to wanting to shield young children from the glare of the national spotlight?

But Michelle's declaration that she plans to be the "Mom in Chief" has already ignited a minor flare-up in the ongoing white mommy wars between stay-at-home mothers and working women. (Don't all moms put their kids first, even if they're working? Is such an accomplished woman going to be content with Mom in Chief?) Still, most African-American women I know are thrilled she's in a position to make that choice. The average African-American family can't survive without two incomes—the poverty level among black families hovers above 30 percent, according to 2006 U.S. Census figures. And for single moms, that can mean working two jobs, leaving precious little time with the children. Michelle has already survived the working-mom juggling act, getting her law degree and working in government and administration before leaving during Obama's campaign.

I'm hoping the whole Mom in Chief role will leave plenty of room for Michelle to tackle significant, meaty issues even if she's not clamoring for a West Wing office. That's a tricky balancing act for any First Lady—think Hillary Clinton and health-care reform. Most follow the path of Laura Bush in choosing non controversial interests like literacy. So far, Michelle has listed popular causes—military families and the struggles of working parents—that are hard to find fault with. But she'll have another dimension to worry about: if she focuses on the black community—helping urban schools, say—will her interests be viewed as too parochial? And while every First Lady—and plenty of professional women—walk the line between being confident and seeming like a bitch, African-American women are especially wary that being called "strong" is just another word for "angry."

Appearance could be another minefield for Michelle. First Ladies are always scrutinized—how else did Hillary end up in those black pant-suits? Though Michelle has shown a penchant for sleek hair and form-fitting dresses, her style is still evolving and wide-ranging. She's gone from $148 off-the-rack outfits to Dolce & Gabbana. When she showed up for her first tour of the White House wearing a striking red dress, she indicated she's willing to be daring. But will she retreat if critics slam her for bad hair days or talk too intimately about her shape?

She has one advantage over many of her predecessors—she's got the lean, tall build of an athlete. That could have serious implications far beyond the style pages. A self-proclaimed fitness junkie who works out every morning, Michelle could actually encourage women of color to take better care of themselves. African-American women face alarmingly high rates of high blood pressure and obesity. And like everyone else, we have plenty of excuses for being sedentary, including the always-present fear of messing up our carefully done hair. "I look at her and think, I have two kids and she has two kids,'' said my friend Tamara Rhodes, a 37-year-old public-safety officer in Long Beach, Calif. "If she can find time in the day to do her thing to look good—why can't I? She looks good and in a way that I can see myself looking—not a size zero—but really healthy.''

As my brunch friends and I continued talking about Michelle, our conversation wandered into one area we seldom discuss, even among our families and closest confidantes. Michelle is not only African-American, but brown. Real brown. In an era when beauty is often defined on television, in magazines and in movies as fair or white skin, long straight hair and keen features, Michelle looks nothing like the supermodels who rule the catwalks or the porcelain-faced actresses who hawk must-have cosmetics. Yet now she's going to grace the March cover of Vogue magazine—the ultimate affirmation of beauty.

Who and what is beautiful has long been a source of pain, anger and frustration in the African-American community. In too many cases, beauty for black women (and even black men) has meant fair skin, "good hair" and dainty facial features. Over the years, African-American icons like Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Halle Berry and Beyoncé—while beautiful and talented—haven't exactly represented the diversity of complexions and features of most black women in this country.

That limited scope has had a profound effect on the self-esteem of many African-American women, including me. "When I see Michelle Obama on the cover of magazines and on TV shows, I think, Wow, look at her and her brown skin,'' said Charisse Hollands, a 30-year-old mail carrier from Inglewood, Calif., with flawless ebony skin. "And I don't mean any disrespect to my sisters who aren't dark brown, but gee, it's nice to see a brown girl get some attention and be called beautiful by the world. That just doesn't happen a lot, and our little girls need to see that—my little girl needs to see it.''

In Africa, skin-lightening creams are all the rage even though the chemical they contain, hydroquinone, has been shown to cause harm in high doses. Visit any beauty-supply shop in an American inner city and you'll find an entire aisle dedicated to less-potent forms of these products. "It's a truth that's long been with us,'' says comic and television host Whoopi Goldberg, who came to fame with a one-woman stage show featuring her longing for straight blond hair and blue eyes. "In society and in the black community, the lighter you are and the more European your features, the more you are desired. Now many of us want to deny that's true or say it's changed, but it hasn't. The darker you are makes you less than ideal. Plain and simple. And that messes with your mind something awful."

If you're an actress, it can also keep you from appearing in a hip-hop video or getting the juiciest movie role. But it affects regular girls and women too. On a recent episode of the nationally syndicated "Tom Joyner Morning Show," the host asked listeners if the president-elect's choice of a wife and her look had in any way influenced their vote. The answer was a resounding yes, followed by comments like "She's a regular sister,'' and "I love the fact that she looks like the woman next door or like my cousin or niece.''

Michelle has accomplished so much even before moving into the White House. Imagine what she can do if she decides to tackle substantive problems—perhaps even just a single one she's mused about, like helping the local Washington, D.C., community. Now that's the kind of influence that could reach far beyond my friends at the brunch table.

"Howard Dean Interviewed on Young Turks" (video)

The Young Turks, video (17:27).

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ari Melber: "Obama must scrutinize and disassemble the post-Sept. 11 imperial presidency"

Ari Melber (Politico)--"Learning from President Bush's mistakes":
Many Washington Republicans and Democrats agree on one maxim for President-elect Barack Obama: This is no time to look back at the past administration’s rocky record on executive power and the rule of law.
Republicans caution against protracted, “partisan” investigations. Democrats urge Obama to tackle pressing economic and foreign policy challenges — if that leaves an unusually powerful executive branch in place, so be it. Both camps are wrong.

Obama must scrutinize and disassemble the post-Sept. 11 imperial presidency, even if he reduces his own power in the process.

The Bush administration opened several lines of attack against the rule of law and the integrity of an independent Justice Department. The scandals are so famous that they’ve been reduced to shorthand: Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, NSA, Attorneygate.

No matter what, these incidents will remain a blot on our nation’s history. But we can achieve a measure of closure and justice by pursuing legal accountability for anyone involved who broke the law. The initiation of proper legal proceedings — both investigations and prosecutions — simply cannot depend on whether the accused are powerful.

The bipartisan immunity lobby, however, insists that route could divide the country. The image of government officials going to jail, they say, is simply unthinkable.

It is a remarkably unserious argument — as if our laws and Constitution are a distant second to the imagined trauma of watching politicos go to jail like any other lawbreaker. It is especially odd now, coming after several politicians have been prosecuted, defeated and imprisoned on corruption charges.

The immunity crowd has one more card to play. Crimes committed on behalf of national security, they say, are different. On closer inspection, that claim also dissolves into an elitist pitch for the powerful.

The fact is that there are U.S. soldiers sitting in jail right now for what happened at Abu Ghraib.

The question is not whether to prosecute those crimes; that process has already begun. The question is whether the Bush administration correctly prosecuted the people actually responsible for the conduct — or whether the entire episode was blamed on those low on the chain of command.

Likewise, the politicization of the Justice Department is already a live issue in court. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is currently fighting a civil suit alleging that he politicized the Justice Department. In fact, taxpayers are even footing the bill for his private lawyers. (Up to $24,000 a month, under an arrangement with the Bush administration.)

The new administration, however, cannot afford to sit on the sidelines as private parties fight over Gonzales’ sins. There is an overwhelming public interest in accountability for and a complete investigation into the U.S. attorney firings, including, potentially, criminal penalties for any senior officials who broke the law.

As Sen. Arlen Specter, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, recently explained, Bush officials undermined the “credibility and effectiveness of the Justice Department” by politicizing their roles. Regardless of who won this election, any new inhabitant of the Justice Department would have to rebuild that credibility. It starts at home. After all, why should citizens have faith in the department’s new leaders if their first act is to join in the whitewashing abuse by their predecessors?

The New York Times recently captured this problem: “Because every president eventually leaves office, incoming chief executives have an incentive to quash investigations into their predecessor’s tenure.”

This is one time, however, that the new president cannot afford to look like every other self-serving chief executive. Obama can show that America’s promise of equality not only means that anyone can reach the highest office in the land — it also means that everyone is equally subject to the law.

Experts and leaders in both parties herald the work of the 9/11 Commission, which bored down into a period many would rather not relive. Now what we need is a Response to 9/11 Commission — a subpoena-powered investigation of the torture, rendition, detention and spying that was presented as an essential response to terrorism. Obama should also assign a special prosecutor to explore the related crimes and take necessary action, independent of the new attorney general’s agenda.

Once the legal process is complete, of course, the president retains the right to commute or pardon convicted criminals. In some cases, there may be good reason to do so. But under the rule of law, there is never a reason to immunize government officials in advance, removing the most critical check on the power they wield in our name. The past eight years reveal the grave costs of that approach, and it is past time for a change.
Howie P.S.: Join the Ari Melber Fan Club here.