Monday, April 30, 2007

The weekend trifecta

From Saturday's headlines:

"Wolfowitz Panel Finds Ethics Breach, Officials Say,"
Washington Post, 4.28.07

"Rice Deputy Quits After Query Over Escort Service," Washington Post, 4.28.07

"Tenet Details Efforts to Justify Invading Iraq," Washington Post, 4.28.07

Okay, so two of the three headlines carry a dog-bites-man quality. Watching Paul Wolfowitz and his defenders (which, inexplicably, now include former U.N. Ambassador, Congressman and Atlanta mayor Andrew Young) attempt to deny the ethical stink that his "arrangement" with the World Bank on behalf of his girlfriend is beyond painful. It is simply pathetic. Former CIA director George Tenet's disclosure in his new book that the White House, led by Vice-President Dick Cheney, microwaved a justification to invade Iraq long before the 9.11 attacks, has not been news for years. His effort at self-justification, which will earn him millions, is also painful and pathetic -- stunning for its arrogance, self-deception and belief that anyone who has paid attention to this story over the past five years will find what he says news.

But by far the best story in the Saturday morning trifecta was the disclosure that Randall J. Tobias, the Director of the Agency for International Development, "resigned" on Friday afternoon April 27, to return to "private life" for "personal reasons" after a former madam running a high-end "escort" service in Washington leaked Tobias's name to reporters. Tobias denied that he solicited the service for sexual activities, saying instead that he only received "massages." What a dope! Assuming that he's telling the truth, an assumption I am not willing to make, what leads someone in a position of power and influence in the Washington bureaucracy to engage in such stupid behavior? Why risk that kind of exposure? Better yet, Tobias made recipients of AID funds to sign a pledge of abstinence as a condition for receiving funds and to sign a sworn statement opposing prostitution.

A bad weekend for the Bush administration, which grows more isolated and detached with every passing hour. In Tobias's case, I'm not sure what's worse: the humiliation of ending his career in disgrace -- his also the former chief executive of Eli Lily and vice-chairman of AT & T -- or shelling out $300 per hour for a "massage." A smart friend with whom I discussed this briefly yesterday was similarly perplexed, but for slightly different reasons. "I don't drink light beer, I don't drink bad coffee or smoke filtered cigarettes. No sense in doing things that are bad for you if you don't receive the benefits."

Indeed. And Bill Clinton was "reckless?" Puh-leeeze!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Wayne Shorter

Wayne Shorter is the most self-effacing great jazz musician of the last 40 years or so. A composer of stunning originality, he is rivaled only by Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus in his contributions to the post-Duke Ellington canon of jazz standards. After John Coltrane, Shorter, with Michael Brecker a close second, is the most influential saxophonist of the modern era. His tone and phrasing are recognizable after just a few bars into the opening chorus, no matter whether you are listening to his staccato runs on tenor or his modal, almost free palying on the soprano saxophone. For jazz musicians that came of age in the Wynton Marsalis-led jazz renaissance of the the 1980s, Wayne Shorter is their icon. Argue all you want about the "neocon" sensibilities of Wynton; but he, along with his more open-minded brother, Branford, told anyone who would listen that Wayne was the man. Bands that formed during the 1980s and early 90s made Shorter's tunes a centerpiece of their recorded and live performances. Now 75 years old, Shorter is leading a ridiculously talented band right now, with John Pattitucci on bass, Danilo Perez on piano and Brian Blade on drums. These are all phenomenal musicians in their own right; having seen them play together several times, you can sense the awe in which they hold their leader and deservedly so.

Just last week, my wonderful band, Ocio Jazz, played a show at Twins Jazz in downtown D.C. Before we went on, I saw the calendar for performances that month. Just a few days before our gig, Reggie Workman, who played with Coltrane in his classic quartet with Elvin Jones on drums and McCoy Tyner on piano, did a couple of nights on the same stage. Towards the end of our show, our horn player and leader, Marty Hindel, turned around and said, "Do you know 'Footprints,' it's a Wayne Shorter tune." I almost passed out on the spot -- I was about to play a Wayne Shorter composition on the same stage where Coltrane's former bass player led his own band a few nights before. On the original 'Footprints' recording, Workman played bass.

We counted "Footprints" off -- in 6/4 -- and off we went. The tune snapped and crackled, and the whole time I was in a state of disbelief that I was getting to play that tune. Soon after, we ended our set. Twins provides a drum set, so all I brought with me were my cymbals and sticks. I left the club and walked onto U St., heading east to my car, which I parked at the Reeves Center. Waiting for the light to turn, a group of people walked up next to me, noticed the bag I was carrying on my shoulder, and asked, "Are you a musician?" Here I was, a suburban dad playing music with friends because I love it, and it never occurred to me to think of myself as a musician. Still floating, I thought, "You know, I just played a Wayne Shorter tune. That makes me a musician." So I answered, "Yes, I just finished a gig over at Twins."

"All right, my man," came the response. "Have a good night."

The light changed, and I crossed the street, carrying my cymbals and sticks, getting looks from passers by that said, "You must be a musician." I'd never thought of myself as a musician before, considering myself a drummer who played with "real" musicians -- the kind that can read music and quibble about key changes and such. To hell with that. I played a Wayne Shorter tune on stage in real jazz club. And that is about as good as it gets.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Crazy cell phone girls

Here they come, one-by-one, out of Ward 204, then Ward 203 . . . and Ward 202 . . . and the women's restroom right across from Ward 204 . . . flipping their cell phones open, scrolling through all those missed calls that went directly to voice mail because their professors had the nerve . . . the NERVE, to tell them they could not answer or talk on their phones during class. They put their phones up to their ear, place a folded arm across their chest and begin pacing eagerly for someone . . . . ANYONE . . . to pick up the phone so they can talk.

And talk. And talk. And talk.

To whom or about what, I don't know. But they just need to talk.

Because they are Crazy Cell Phone Girls.

"Like, you have so got to be kidding me, that's is, like, so insane for you to have to do that . . . like, so what are going to do . . . are you going to, like, tell your professor that you, like, have done no work or are you going to make something up . . . that's what I would do because there is, like, no way I could write a 25 page paper in, like, one night," begins the machine-gun banter by Crazy Cell Phone Girl #1. A slight pause, perhaps for oxygen, and then more . . .

"Oh, God, like, no way . . . you have got to come up with something to tell him," CCPG1 continues. "Like, here's an idea: how many fake funerals have you been to this semester because I have been to, like, three . . . but I keep track so I won't use the same people over and over because, like, in high school, I, like, forgot that I told my school that I had, like, all these funerals to attend and, like, my advisor said to me once, 'How many grandparents do you have?" and I was, like, 'Like my parents' parents remarried so these were, like, step-grandparents,' and my advisor was, like, 'We called your mom to ask her how many mothers and fathers she had,' and my mom was, like, 'What ARE you talking about, you know,' so I was, like, so busted. But the cool thing about college is that you can start over. I am like the master of the fake funeral."

Wow! "Fake funerals." I'd never heard that term before. See you can learn something from your students. That's what makes this such a rewarding profession, other than the money, of course.

Wait . . . wait . . . wait . . . the women's restroom door opens and CCPG2 bursts out in full-volume, everyone-needs-to-hear-my-conversation mode: "FUCK THAT SHIT!" is the well-thought out piece of advice on this end. Left arm flailing about as she barks into her phone, "You should just tell him, fuck you, asshole, and let him go fucking crawl back in his fucking hole, fucking asshole that he is, fucking jerk, GOD, he is such a fucking asshole that I can't wait to see him get, like, smacked down. Full bitch armor . . . that's what you need to do!"

Well, that was easy, wasn't it?

And Justice Kennedy had the nerve to write that women aren't decisive enough to know if having a late-term abortion is really the right thing for them? CCPG2 had it going on that morning. So imperative was the need to straighten out her unseen friend's relationship crisis that the call couldn't wait until was out of the restroom. I almost felt sorry for this poor "asshole" who, unknown to him, was going to feel the wrath of his girlfriend wearing her "full bitch armor." I mean, CCPG2 was kicking ass and taking names at 9.50 a.m. on a Monday, and coming out of the restroom, yet. For an undergraduate at my university, that is the equivalent of 4.30 a.m. grown-up time. In less than 30 seconds, seven uses of the word "fuck" -- as a verb, an adverb, an adjective . . . smack-down threats . . . full-bitch armor. Gotta admit . . . I hope this showdown ends up You Tube.

"Hey, do you think I should buy this guy's refrigerator?" asks CCPG3 into her phone, needing guidance on this important potential purchase. What better time to get appliance advice than while waiting for the previous students to leave the classroom on a Monday morning? "I think it's one of those dinky ones, but we could put, you know, some stuff in there, don't you think?"

Yes, you probably could put "some stuff" in an empty refrigerator. Not a lot. But some? Easily.

"Look at all these jobs," she continues. "Do you think I should get one? . . . I don't want to but my mom is, like, all over me to get a paying job this summer and I'm, like, I thought you wanted me to get an internship and I'm, like, telling her that they don't pay and she's, like, 'Then find one that does," and I'm, like, where? Oh, my God, did you know that, like, classes are over in, like, a week or something, and I'm like, so not ready to get a job. What should I tell my mother, because my dad is, like, whatever?"

"You should so NOT get a stupid job like waitressing or hosting because that is, like, so stupid," comes a voice from just down the hall. This is weird . . . it's almost as if CCPG4 is talking on the phone to CCPG3, who is standing just 10 feet away from her.

"That's, like, what I'm trying to tell them but, like, my mom is so, whatever. She really pisses me off with all her, 'You need to find a paying job' shit. Like I'm not trying, sort of. Let her come try to get a job in D.C. . . . she'd be, like, saying the same thing."

CCPG3 has a point. The stress of finding a summer job in college cannot possibly compare to the cushy life of this young woman's mother. She should pick up the phone and tell her mother, "Do you really expect me to sell my Vuitton purse and fake-Nicole Richie sunglasses to pay my rent? No way." That would show her. I know I would back down if this were my son or daughter.

"Totally," comes CCPG4's response. If I had my phone, I would have taken a picture of this scene. CCPG3 and CCPG4 were talking to each other, in the hallway of their classroom building, with their backs turned to each other, and, for about a minute, had no idea. Until CCPG4 turned around and said . . .

"Oh, my God, you are standing right here! This is so crazy. So what are you doing here?"

CCPG3: "I decided I should go to my 8.30 since the semester's almost done. And, like, my professor is all, like, where have you been and I'm, like, thinking, 'You're lucky I'm here,' but I just told her that, like, 'I have been here but she hasn't noticed.' Why are you here?"

"I have a 9.55," says CCPG4. "But do you think I should go? I've been to, like, three classes in a row?"

"Hell, no. Let's, like, blow it off."

Off they go, CCPGs 3 and 4, not talking to each other, of course. Phones back open, they're scrolling and dialing, hoping that someone, ANYONE, will pick up the other end, giving them some company other than each other as they skip off to their newly appointed date with nothing.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Harry Reid's gaffe

My capacity for remembering clever quotes has diminished over the years, eaten away by the consequences of raising small children, drinking French wine and the lingering effects of my junior year in college. Two quotes have stood the test of time, though:

1. "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public," attributed to the early 20th century social satirist and journalist, H.L. Mencken.

2. "A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth," a gem offered by Michael Kinsley, who has few peers as a social and political commentator over the past 25 years.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid made the mistake of saying we have "lost" the Iraq war and should start bringing our soldiers home. The right-wing has gone nuts, saying that Reid should resign, and even anti-war Democrats have felt the need to qualify Reid's remarks. David Broder wrote in this morning's Washington Post that the country and the Democratic Party deserve better than Harry Reid for such an important position (personally, I think Post readers deserve a lot better than David Broder, better known as the "dean" of the Washington press corps, who hasn't had an original or insightful comment in 30 or 40 years).

I'll leave to others to critique Reid's leadership style. But I do know this: he's right about Iraq, and not afraid to say what a majority of the country knows. Call it a gaffe; but the man told the truth.

Improv night with John McCain

You're right, Senator McCain. There really is something funny about getting blown up by IEDs that the rest of us just don't understand.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What were you expecting?

"White House Sees Strident Tone in Debate on Iraq Bill"

Tsk-tsk. Congress really should be more patient with the administration on Iraq.


A return to oversight

"House Panel Seeks to Force Rice to Testify on Iraq Claims"

. . . from this afternoon's New York Times. About time.

Popping popcorn in the Gilded Era

I am not a popcorn person. I don't eat popcorn at home, at the movies, at ball games . . . really anywhere. My family enjoys popcorn, and I often find Post-It notes attached to my keys reminding me to pick-up popcorn -- the microwave kind, the regular kind, the type with "real movie flavor taste," the "old fashioned" kind . . . whatever -- when I go grocery shopping. The Post-It note reminder is usually followed by phone call to remind me to buy Oreos, Triscuits, cheese sticks and tortilla chips. They have no idea whether we have meat, milk, vegetables, fruit, cereal, juice, bread and other foods recommended by physicians across the land as essential to healthy eating. But I can always count on the popcorn and Oreos reminder.

Until I read the New York Times piece this morning on the Bush administration's disengagement from occupational safety and health issues, I had no idea that manufacturing popcorn was such a dangerous and potentially life-threatening enterprise. Apparently, it is.

And here I am, preparing to finish out the semester in my ConLaw class teaching the "liberty of contract" section of my syllabus. How fun! And timely!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Heroism and human tragedy

"I am not a hero. I am a mere defender of the office. You know who's a real hero? Hiro, from Heroes."

-- Dwight Schrute, Assistant to the Regional Manager, Dunder-Mifflin Co.

No, Dwight Schrute, he of "The Office," was not a hero the day he fended off Roy Anderson, Pam's jilted fiance, with pepper spray as he prepared to attack Jim Halpert after learning that Pam and Jim had shared a romantic moment while Pam and Roy were still engaged. Dwight wanted no special treatment, no parades, no feature films . . . just a modern-day Gary Cooper, albeit one slightly unhinged.

This morning, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, chaired by Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), heard testimony from Kevin Tillman, the brother of Pat Tillman, a former professional football player who was killed in April 2004 in Afghanistan by friendly fire. Tillman, moved by the call to serve his country after 9.11, drew deserved praise for leaving his promising and well-compensated career to enlist in the Army. Corporal Tillman was posthumously awarded a Silver Star for "heroism," and the Pentagon released an account of his death that bore no relationship to what actually happened. Kevin Tillman said this morning that the Army's account of his brother's death was "utter fiction." Pentagon officials, congressmen and other prominent public figures offered eulogies at his funeral, complete with tales of "heroism" that, as it turned out, were not true. Five weeks after Tillman's death, his mother, Mary, gave an interview to the San Francisco Chronicle that offered a portrait of her son decidedly at odds with the GI Joe image the Pentagon had created for the public. He believed the Iraq War was "fucking illegal," counted the radical Noam Chomsky among his favorite authors, and turned down invitations from his superiors to star in recruitment commercials.

How concerned was the Army to find out what really happened? Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, an Army officer charged with investigating how Tillman died, suggested that the Tillman's lack of religious faith diminished the need for them to know how their son died: "When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don't believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more — that is pretty hard to get your head around that. So I don't know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough."

Will anything make the Tillmans happy? "I don't think anything will make them happy, quite honestly," said Kauzlarich. "I don't know. Maybe they want to see somebody's head on a platter. But will that really make them happy? No, because they can't bring their son back."

What does Mary Tillman think?

"Well, this guy makes disparaging remarks about the fact that we're not Christians, and the reason that we can't put Pat to rest is because we're not Christians. Oh, it has nothing to do with the fact that this whole thing is shady. But it is because we are not Christians. Pat may not have been what you call a Christian. He was about the best person I ever knew. I mean, he was just a good guy. He didn't lie. He was very honest. He was very generous. He was very humble. I mean, he had an ego, but it was a healthy ego. It is like, everything those [people] are, he wasn't."

And then there is Jessica Lynch, an Army private from small-town West Virginia, who was portrayed as a "female Rambo" by the Pentagon after she was rescued from an Iraqi military hospital, where she was being held and treated for wounds sustained after Iraqi forces ambushed her truck convoy in March 2003, shortly after the Iraq War started. The Pentagon claimed she fired at her captors as they took her in their custody. Lynch later said that never happened. The Pentagon also offered an elaborate story of shoot-outs, fedayeen dispersed and Iraqis grateful for their American liberators protecting Lynch at risk to their own lives. That, too, never happened. Lynch was never shot, as the Pentagon claimed. American forces did rescue her, and did, as soldiers in a war, place their lives on the line. But nothing happened in the grandiose fashion that the Pentagon said it did. Said Lynch this morning: "I'm confused why they lied. . . . The bottom line is the American people are capable of determining their own ideas of heroes, and they don’t need to be told elaborate tales.”

All this comes together at an interesting time. Sunday night, as I was preparing to record "The Sopranos," I came across Flight 93, the docu-drama on the United flight that crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside after passengers disrupted the hijackers plan to fly the aircraft back to Washington and crash it into the White House or the Capitol. Not too long after 9.11, several news accounts offered stories of Flight 93's aborted return to Washington suggesting that passengers had rammed the cockpit door with a drink cart, taken control of the plane and crashed into an empty fields. That did not happen. After extensive investigation, the 9.11 Commission determined that the hijackers decided to crash the plane before any of the passengers could enter the cockpit. Perhaps the most famous phrase associated with Flight 93 was the "Let's roll!" attributed to one passenger, Todd Beamer, who, according to accounts pieced together from cell phone conversations received by persons on the ground. A group of passengers certainly tried to do something, but it is not clear if Beamer ever really said, "Let's roll," or how successful the passengers were in disrupting the hijackers. Knowing what had happened in New York and Washington earlier that morning, just the thought that a group of passengers would have the courage to disrupt the hijackers in hopes of saving lives that were not their own is heroic. I sure as hell don't know what I would have done. There was no need to embellish.

Earlier Sunday afternoon, I came across the first of the inevitable "Heroes of Virginia Tech" stories on the cover of US magazine while in the check-out line at the grocery store. People magazine offered a similar story. More have followed in the interim. I have no idea if an enterprising Hollywood producer has trolled the Virginia Tech campus yet looking for someone to tell the story of that hellish Monday morning; but you know it is just a matter of time before the entertainment industry feels the "need" to tell the "story" of the victims of the Blacksburg massacre, and to produce a story that will "memorialize" the "heroes" who did what they could to save innocent lives.

Real people die for reasons that are beyond the power of humans to prevent and, all to often, explain. No matter. 3,000 people die in a terrorist attack launched against the United States; 32 members of the Virginia Tech community die at the hands of a crazed student determined to kill as many people as possible before taking his own life; and the immediate response is that it should not have happened. If . . . if . . . . if . . . if only . . . if only what? Does anyone seriously believe that better airport security or more vigorous border patrols would have prevented al-Qaeda terrorists from launching their operation? That tighter gun laws in Virginia or greater awareness among the social service professionals at Virginia Tech would have stopped Cho Seung-Hui from murdering 32 people who were doing nothing more than going about their Monday morning routines on a small-town college campus? Americans want immunity from the terror, misfortune and evil that visit the rest of the world on an all-too-regular basis. The same morning of the Blacksburg tragedy, 171 civilians were killed in Baghdad by various car bombs. And even though we have pledged blood and treasure to Iraq, a country that our president has welcomed into the family of democracies, I have heard not one voice suggesting a concert, memorial service, charitable activity or bracelet to show support and sympathy for our Iraqi brothers and sisters. Part of the reason is that most Americans simply don't care about what goes on in Iraq as long as it doe not involve American lives; the other reason is fatigue -- this sort of stuff, on small and large scales, happens all the time in Iraq. It is what it is, and no one should expect any different.

In America, we want an arc to the story -- a peaceful morning, followed by a terrible event, followed by grieving faces, followed by the media invasion, followed by the parade experts to offer their post hoc advice on how something that couldn't have been prevented could have been prevented, followed by preening politicians looking to capitalize on the misfortune of others, followed by the human interest stories on the "heroes" whose selflessness prevented even more bloodshed and crisis.

Perhaps the need for heroes offsets the cold, hard truth of life in an angry, violent world, and that truth is that human beings are capable of awful, often unimaginable things. The wonder is not that 9.11, Iraq, Katrina and Virginia Tech disturb us from our morning Starbucks runs, trips to the malls, evening television programs, on-line adventures in shopping, dating and our grotesque enthusiasm for competitive professional and amateur sports. The wonder is that so many Americans remain shocked at what nature, foreign cultures and sometimes the worst among our own can wreak upon a citizenry that, believe it or not, is not any more special, chosen or different than any other.

Vietnam redux

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

A decider of one

By all accounts, Alberto Gonzales's testimony on Capitol Hill last Thursday -- his "re-confirmation" as some observers cleverly put it -- was a disaster. Even Republicans were mortified by his inability to recall much of anything that involved the purge of the eight US attorneys last fall and winter. Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a rock-solid right-winger, was so impressed with Gonzales's performance that he called for his resignation during the hearings, adding his name to the growing list of Republicans in the House and Senate who believe that Gonzales should quit.

Wanna know something even scarier? Gonzales went underground for three weeks prior to his testimony to prepare for his big day and he was still God-awful. Dahlia Lithwick of Slate offered the best take on Gonzales's pathetic performance: "You can't help but wonder what condition he was in last month before he started preparing full time."

Don't tell that to his boss, the Decider, who thought his Attorney General was just fantastic:

"The Attorney General went up and gave a very candid assessment, and answered every question he could possibly answer, honestly answer, in a way that increased my confidence in his ability to do the job.

One of the things that’s important for the American people to understand is that the Attorney General has a right to recommend to me to replace U.S. attorneys. U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the President. In other words, we have named them, and I have the right to replace them with somebody else. And as the investigation, the hearings went forward, it was clear that the Attorney General broke no law, did no wrongdoing. And some senators didn’t like his explanation, but he answered as honestly as he could. This is an honest, honorable man, in whom I have confidence."

As honestly as he could . . . a classic Bush-ism. Even if the Decider misspoke -- a distinct possibility given his inarticulate command of English -- there was an eerie truth to his comments. For this administration, truth is what you believe. And the Decider believes that even the opposition of congressional Republicans to Gonzales's continued employment doesn't matter as long as he believes that Gonzales is an "honorable man," even if he's not. Too weird for words.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Remembering David Halberstam

David Halberstam, one of the most powerful and influential journalist/authors of the last 40 years, died earlier today in a car accident in Menlo Park, California, just south of San Francisco. He had spent the weekend speaking to a group of student journalists about his craft and the art of turning reporting into lasting works of history. He was 73 years old.

Halberstam had two distinct careers. He made his reputation as a New York Times correspondent covering the Vietnam War during the 1960s. Like many young men of his generation, Halberstam supported the war and offered relatively unchallenged accounts of the government's official position on America's "progress" in turning back the North Vietnamese challenge. By the mid-1960s, Halberstam no longer could square what he saw in his reporting with what government spokesmen were telling him and others covering the war. He was the first nationally prominent newspaper correspondent to turn against the war. In 1972, he published The Best and the Brightest, which, along with Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie, remains one of the two best books published on the Vietnam War. Halberstam offered a detailed, informed and harrowing account of the incompetence, arrogance and mismanagement that characterized US engagement in Vietnam. The Best and the Brightest became standard reading for college students during the 1970s and in the early 1980s, when courses on Vietnam were popular on campuses. Had Halberstam published nothing more than that one book, he would still deserve his reputation as one of journalism's most important figures of the last 50 years.

But he went on to publish 20 more books over the remainder of his career, on topics as varied as the power and privilege in America's most vaunted journalistic nerve centers (The Kingdom and the Power -- the first non-assigned book I read in college that wasn't about sports or music), amateur rowers, the classic pennant race between the Yankees and Red Sox in 1949, how America changed during the 1950s (my second favorite Halberstam book), Michael Jordan, and the "children" of the 1960s civil rights movement.

Halberstam, along with his contemporary, Seymour Hersh, did not bow down before power. They challenged it. Halberstam did not finesse his opinions to maintain his social status among the Washington media elite, mainly because he was never part of that elite. He left daily journalism after The Best and the Brightest to write books, and America is richer for it. Commenting on the Bush administration's duplicity and dishonesty on Iraq, and the decision of a slumbering mainstream news media to finally exercise some reporting gravitas, Halberstam said:

"The crueler the war gets, the crueler the attacks get on anybody who doesn't salute or play the game," Halberstam said. "And then one day, the people who are doing the attacking look around, and they've used up their credibility."

I don't know if contemporary journalism professors teach their students about David Halberstam, but they should. The man was a real giant, and he will, in a time when journalism needs courageous, independent voices, be sorely missed. Meanwhile, here is a link to a great piece by Halberstam on Barry Bonds, an athlete for whom he had no admiration. As Bonds closes in on the great, great Hank Aaron's home run record, take some time to learn about what a difference class makes.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Go, Alberto Gonzales, now!

After viewing and reading about Alberto Gonzales's testimony on Capitol Hill yesterday, I finally figured out the appropriate literary metaphor to describe this truly embarrassing scene:

Marvin K. Mooney, who, as Dr. Suess veterans know, wouldn't leave. No matter Gonzales says or does, no matter how at-odds his personal testimony is -- to the extent that he can remember anything, of course -- with the facts, no matter how disgruntled his own party is with his "leadership," . . . just, no matter anything, he just won't go!

And neither would Marvin K. Mooney, despite plea after plea after plea from people who didn't want him around anymore.

Gonzales isn't the worst Attorney General ever; he just isn't very good at being the best Attorney General ever. It's not that he has a bad memory -- over 60 "I don't recall"- type responses during his testimony yesterday -- it's just that his memory isn't as good as it could be. And on and one it goes . . . over and over again.

Alberto Gonzales, would you please go . . . now.

Say what?

"Iraq Pullout Would Lead to Bloodbath, Bush Warns," says the headline in today's Washington Post.

Compared to what?

Special kids play special hockey

Just my luck. Today is the first day in weeks that the temperature has approached even normal Spring levels, and I am spending the better part of my Friday at the Kettler Capitals IcePlex over in Arlington, Virginia watching 10-14 year-olds play in a hockey tournament.

But, in a sharp break from my normal demeanor, I am only being half – if that – sarcastic about my fortune. This is no routine hockey tournament, and these are not average kids. This weekend is the International Special Hockey Tournament, and the event has drawn teams from all over the United States and Canada. My son, Max, has been involved since January with the special hockey program sponsored by our youth hockey club, the Montgomery Youth Hockey Assocation, as a mentor to developmentally-disabled hockey players. He is joined this morning by two of his friends from the club to help the special players on the bench and on the ice. Five adults, all of whom I know through our club and the adult hockey world, are running the team from the bench or skating on the ice to help run the game.

The special hockey players are truly amazing. Challenged by various degrees of autism or other developmental disabilities, they skate and handle the puck as best they can, and a couple of players skate and shoot very well. The goalies for each team have made some good saves, and, unlike their serious counterparts in the able-bodied world, raise their hands to celebrate. Several players have gotten some good shots off or made a spectacular defensive play. Sometimes they seem aware of what they are doing, and sometimes they do not – to me, anyway. But what I do know is that these kids are courageous, determined and absolutely having a blast.

Over on one side of me are a group of families watching the Cheetahs, the Montgomery team. On the other side is a large group of parents from Brampton, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, supporting their players. And, in a break from the usual lunatics that populate the youth hockey world, these parents and siblings are well-behaved, supportive and encouraging.

For four years, I coached in our youth program. Although 95% of my time was well-spent and full of great memories, there is, unfortunately, in our club that inexplicable element of looniness that pervades organized youth sports throughout North America. Perhaps at some future point I will share some of the “better” stories with you. For now, watching these special kids on the ice, all I can say is that all parents with fully-able children should be here now. Maybe that might help them understand how truly lucky they are. Not a single kid on the ice right now will complain to his coach about his ice time, or how he is too good for the rest of the team, or how he shouldn’t play defense because he is a natural left wing. Nor will the parents echo their kids complaints, or bang on the glass screaming at their kids “to skate,” or button-hole the parents volunteering their time to coach their kids to criticize his “game plan” or make suggestions to improve the team or threaten to pull their child from a team because he isn't the captain or getting to play center.

Nope. The kids will skate. The families will watch. After the game everyone will shake hands and treat themselves to lunch. And that is how it should be – for everyone.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Live and in person . . . again!

A reminder that my group, Ocio Jazz, will play tonight at Twins Jazz, located in the historic U St. corridor, from 8-11 p.m. The address is 1344 U St., NW. There is a $5 cover.

Thanks for supporting us.

Snoop Dog , sensitive man

Snoop Dog explains the difference between Don Imus's use of the racial slur, "nappy-headed hos" and his own invocation of this lovely term to describe African-American women:

“We are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls. We’re talking about ho’s that’s in the hood that ain’t doing shit, that’s trying to get a nigga for his money. These are two separate things.”

Better now?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The unbearable lightness of Anthony Kennedy

After reading his opinion for the Court in Gonzales, I think I now understand why Justice Kennedy supports the right of gay men and women to have consensual sex -- they cannot get pregnant, at least not by having sex with each other.

Recall that Kennedy wrote the Court's majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), and did not hesitate a bit to overrule Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), a decision that qualifies as one of the most embarrassing the Court has ever issued. Kennedy might well have believed and perhaps still does all the lofty rhetoric about liberty, equality, dignity -- all that liberal touchy-feely stuff (oops! bad choice of words) when he wrote that Texas could not "demean their (gay men and women) existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime."

How about that? Wait . . . there is more:

"Had those who drew and ratified the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth Amendment or the Fourteenth Amendment known the components of liberty in its manifold possibilities, they might have been more specific. They did not presume to have this insight. They knew times can blind us to certain truths and later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress. As the Constitution endures, persons in every generation can invoke its principles in their own search for greater freedom."

Unless you are a woman in the late stages of a pregnancy who decides, for reasons that are almost always health-related, to have an abortion. Then you are no longer on the list of "persons" who can invoke the great principles of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth or Fourteenth Amendment to "search for greater freedom." Granted, if you might die, then an "abortion doctor," as Kennedy referred to his OBGYN colleagues in the medical profession, may perform an abortion and not go to jail. Before you say, "Hey, wait a minute! Don't men face a similar decision when they are confronted with the decision to have a late-term abortion?" the answer is, no, they do not face a similar choice. Neither here nor there, in Kennedy's opinion. And besides, the Court is doing these misguided women a favor by saving them from a decision they will come to regret. Kennedy pulls out a favorite anti-abortion rights canard by emphasizing the "pain" and "regret" that women have after having an abortion. I assume that Kennedy is invoking the feelings he might have had after his own experience in going through a late-term abortion. What else explains his willingness to disregard the American Psychological Association's findings on this question, as well as the professional opinion of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists?

The answer can't be that he simply finds late-term abortions morally offensive. That can't be the reason he spent the first five pages of his opinion recounting in truly horrific and graphic language the details of a D&E abortion procedure. That can't be the reason he pulls out selective testimony from "abortion doctors" describing how they "kill" fetuses. Kennedy takes Justice Scalia's favorite rhetorical trick in death penalty cases -- describing in the most gruesome and horrible terms the details of a ghastly murder that resulted in a well-deserved death sentence, only to have the Court deny justice by ruling that mental retardation, juvenile status or some other minor detail -- and applies it to abortion. But give Justice Scalia credit for one thing: in his Lawrence dissent, he stuck to the essentials -- gay men and women were immoral, no different than criminals, doomed to a life in Hell, bad at sports -- and did not offer a stomach-churning description of the sexual activities he found so offensive.

Justice Kennedy likes to think of himself as a man of the world. To the great irritation of his conservative colleagues, he often looks to the opinions of other Western countries and, from time-to-time, less enlightened non-Western countries, to support his more "progressive" tendencies. On capital punishment for the mentally retarded and juveniles, laws banning consensual sex between adults, the right of women to attend publicly funded military-style colleges, Kennedy wants it known that he cares about America's position among the civilized nations of the world. But when it comes to the rights of women to terminate their pregnancies under complex circumstances, Justice Kennedy is content to remain the man of the house.

The abortion police return

"Liberty has no refuge in a jurisprudence of doubt." So said Justice Anthony Kennedy fifteen years ago in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). This morning, in Gonzales v. Carhart (2007), he authored the Court's 5-4 majority's opinion upholding the Partial-Birth Abortion Act of 2003.

More later after I read the opinion, which you can find here.

ADDED (3.15 p.m.): I have skimmed thoroughly (as opposed to read lightly) Kennedy's opinion. I have read Ginsburg's dissent twice, and Thomas's one paragraph concurrence once. Some initial thoughts:

1. Since Roe, anti-abortion rights groups have followed a clear, simple and effective strategy to limit abortion -- to persuade state legislatures to enact regulatory measures that fill loopholes left open by Roe and its progeny. Anti-abortion groups have followed the dicta and dissents of the Court's abortion decisions, which permit states to require "informed" consent, mandate waiting periods, require minors to secure consent and bar publicly funded hospitals from performing abortions, to name the most successful strategies. Rather than argue that the Fourteenth Amendment includes a "right" to fetal life, anti-abortion groups (and justices) have embraced the idea that the Constitution offers no home to an abortion right. States are free to make their own rules in accord with the principles of federalism. Why not now?

2. Justice Thomas suggests that a Commerce Clause challenge to the PBA might succeed. Having embraced an extraordinarily narrow definition of commerce open to congressional regulation, is Thomas saying here that a subsequent challenge on Commerce Clause grounds might succeed? Justice Scalia signs on; Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito do not. Is it because they don't share Thomas's view on the Commerce Clause question? Or is it that they don't share Thomas and Scalia's view that Roe, et. al. should be scrapped because they were wrongly decided?

3. Justice Ginsburg is not happy. Her dissent has a bitter tone and channels Harry Blackmun from Webster and Casey (Blackmun dissented from the plurality's decision to uphold Pennsylvania's restrictions on pre-viability abortions).

4. Kennedy mentions "babies," "human beings" and "abortion doctors." Ginsburg talks about "fetuses" and "obstetricians." Kennedy says Roe and Casey permit Congress to ban abortions to advance the government's interest in life; Ginsburg says the same decisions only permit Congress to regulate abortion to protect a woman's health. What both justices are saying, despite their lawyerly protests to the contrary, is that they have different opinions on when life begins, a woman's power to make reproductive decisions that serve her best interests and the role of government in enforcing moral preferences. Constitutional law, like all law, is about moral choices and values, individual and collective. To see law any other way is to live in denial.

UPDATE (5.45 p.m.): Click here to see what the announced 2008 presidential candidates are saying about today's decision.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Nothing is more offensive in the news media than efforts to "explain" tragedies such as the mass murder at Virginia Tech by bringing in "experts" to help us "make sense of it all." Sometimes there is no explanation for why Cho Seung-Hui, an English major at Virginia Tech, decided to open fire on his classmates, staff and faculty . . . or, if there is, not one that is easy and readily apparent.

But don't tell that to the crack "news" team over at Fox, which -- in a real shocker -- managed to find an "analyst" who concluded that Virginia's gun laws are to blame because they don't permit individuals to carry concealed weapons on college campuses. I kid you not.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

So how did I end up a professor?

Former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, speaking before the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington yesterday, informed his audience that he had spent his time after leaving office making some moolah in the private sector.

"I'm in the private sector and for the first time in my life I'm earning money," Thompson said. "You know that's sort of part of the Jewish tradition." . . .

Not to worry. He later apologized: "I didn't (by) any means want to infer or imply anything about Jews and finances. . . . What I was referring to . . . is the accomplishments of the Jewish religion. You've been outstanding business people and I compliment you for that."

Just last week, Thompson had just announced his intent to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.

Looks like its back to the private sector for you, governor. If you need me, I'll be at the J taking a schvitz, then off to the Early Bird. For $6.99, they give you a nice meal with coffee and dessert. Even if you're making the big bucks, saving a dollar here and there adds up. And don't forget, we're good at that, too.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Spring, and free speech is in the air . . .or is it?

Less than three weeks from the Spring equinox, we are starting to see signs of a clear change in the seasons. The NHL has begun its six-week Stanley Cup playoff season; The Sopranos is back; the cherry blossoms bloomed in Washington, D.C., then quickly disappeared as three days in the high '70s were quickly followed by a week in the low '50s with evening temperatures dropping to freezing or below (where they have stayed); the announcement that Steely Dan and the Allman Brothers will begin their now-annual summer tours; and, most importantly, Opening Day for Major League Baseball.

Perhaps the excitement of such momentous change all at once encourages people to shake off the winter doldrums by speaking their minds, and, overwhelmed by such wonderful and freakish acts of nature, saying and writing some awfully strange things in the name of free speech. And what an interesting three weeks this spring has been . . .

From back to front, there is the matter of Don Imus, whose 30 year turn on the radio shocking and delighting his audience by blending "serious" interviews with grade-school level humor denigrating racial and ethnic minorities, women, gays, Jews . . . well, just about anyone who isn't Don Imus, has come to an inglorious -- although temporary -- end. CBS has announced that it is dumping Don Imus's morning program from its 61 stations, having "rethought" its original decision to suspend Imus for two weeks. Leslie Moonves, the president and chief executive officer of CBS, said in a statement: "I believe all of us have been deeply upset and revulsed by the statements that were made on our air."

You know, that might be true. But why wasn't CBS or MSNBC, which also announced that it has dropped the simulcast of Imus's radio program, similarly inclined to fire Imus for his laundry list of previous transgressions dating back . . . well, 30 years?!? Steve Capus, the president of NBC News, said: “I take no joy in this. It’s not a particularly happy moment, but it needed to happen,” he said. “I can’t ignore the fact that there is a very long list of inappropriate comments, of inappropriate banter, and it has to stop.” (emphasis added)

I'm certain that Moonves and Capus do find Imus's comments, now and forever, offensive, inappropriate, whatever -- how can you not? But had major corporate sponsors such as Staples, Sprint/Nextel, American Express and General Motors decided not to pull their advertising support for the I-Man, would CBS and MSNBC have dumped Imus? In this case, Imus picked the wrong target -- a women's college basketball team that was the Cinderella/Rocky story of the year. These women are not individually famous, like Imus's usual targets. And they simply didn't brush it off like a seasoned politician or celebrity journalist might. They fought back. The public took notice. Corporations understand that African-Americans buy copiers, cars and cell phones, and use their AmEx cards to buy these products. As much as I would like to believe that NBC and CBS fired Imus because of his remarks, they fired him because keeping him on the air was no longer possible without corporate sponsorship. What might appear an act of corporate conscience is in reality a business decision.

And then there is the ongoing fallout from Karl Rove's visit to American University, where I teach, two weeks ago. After speaking to the College Republicans and invited guests, Rove was greeted by a couple of dozen student protesters, who had decided to block his exit from campus by surrounding his car and lying down in front of it. This led to the predictable drama between the students and campus police, with intervention by Rove's secret service detail. The students were taken away and Rove was allowed to leave. The story made the national news, the AU student paper covered it, and students began blogging away on The Daily Jolt, an on-line student magazine and information exchange. I wrote on my blog that the students' behavior was inappropriate and not terribly well thought out, and I received some criticism from posters to my blog as well as off-line for "taking Rove's side." Students seemed shocked that someone they perceive as a liberal could "defend" Rove and "attack" the protesters. I simply said that interfering with another person's right of movement is not free speech. At best, it is civil disobedience. And if you engage in civil disobedience, you should be prepared to go to jail for breaking the law. The whole point of civil disobedience is to call attention to unjust laws or the abuse of power through passive resistance. Free speech is something else entirely.

Universities are interesting places to examine the free speech principle in action. For a university in Washington, D.C., American is not an especially activist campus. Like most college campuses, our students identify themselves as politically liberal. But they are not truly activist in the traditional sense. Our campus has not had a full-blown anti-war rally since the United States invasion of Iraq in March 2003, even though student opinion is overwhelmingly anti-war. Conservative students are certainly in the minority; but they are well-organized and quite good at meeting their counterparts club for club, speaker for speaker, editorial for editorial. By and large, our students, regardless of their political philosophies, share the common currency of ambition rather than intellectual experimentation. Their time in Washington, their experience in internships on Capitol Hill, in lobbying firms, non-profits and the executive branch gives them a much more practical bent. They are far more interested in their GPAs than in changing the world. (on the AU website there is, believe it or not, a GPA calculator to compound an already neurotic student body's worst tendencies). Anything that might get in the way of good grades or compromise their prospects for meaningful employment will take priority to hittin' the streets to voice their opinions. College campuses are very different places than they were during the heyday of student activism forty years ago. Since there is no draft, no one faces the prospect of fighting a war they oppose or even support. For most of our students, politics is a business, something to go into rather than as a mechanism for social and political change. Certainly, there are exceptions. And these are, for the most part, very bright young people. They just don't have a sense of real urgency about the world.

But am I any better? I write a lot; but, in all honesty, to no great effect. I enjoy writing because I enjoy intellectual exchange. I also like the challenge of trying to write what I think. And while I hope that people who read my work might get something out of it, I am well aware that people who agree with me will find what I write much more interesting, or witty, or insightful than people who don't. People who know me well, whether students, colleagues or my friends in the adult world, know that I value more than anything else a sense of intellectual ballast and purpose in a discussion. Students who feel the same way are drawn to my classes, and their ideological leanings, to me, are as irrelevant as mine are to them. In that sense, I can make a contribution to intellectual life by encouraging smart young people to think more carefully about the ideas they find important and attractive. The one bit of idealism I still hold onto is the feeling that if enough smart people engage the public debate, then everyone wins. Thoughtful liberalism, socialism, conservatism, libertarianism . . . it doesn't really matter . . . just thinking seriously and rigorously will make the end product much better. Teaching and mentoring are the most important things that college professors do . . . to me, anyway. Teaching people how to think is much more productive than teaching them to hold certain opinions.

Universities, though, are weird, weird . . . . weird places. No matter what your rank, professors must complete an annual report each year detailing our teaching (an evaluation based solely on standardized student survey), record of service and scholarly "productivity." The latter has always intrigued me, as if an intellectual life can be measured like sale figures over the course of a fiscal year. Like commission sales professionals, we are rated on how productive we have been over the four quarters of a calendar year. Did we publish enough articles in obscure journals? Did we write a book? Edit one? Who published it? Did we write an article reviewed by our peers or did we write something invited by the editor of a journal or book? What you learn over the years in academia is that what you write is far less important than just writing something and getting it into print in a "peer" approved forum. We examine resumes for their length and consistency . . . did this person write enough articles over a five year period? Why didn't this person publish an article for three years, and don't tell me it's because she secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants? The list goes on. Have I been in meetings or heard conversations where professional academics have said that it doesn't really matter what someone says as long as they get something into print to show that they know how to "play the game?" Yes, I have. And I'm not sure how this is good, productive or beneficial to intellectual inquiry. For all that universities extol the virtues of intellectual exchange and the "search for truth," the overriding norm in academia is simply to follow professional convention, regardless of whether it encourages genuinely creative, thought-provoking work or promotes a syncophantic professional culture. If I do not read another article published in my field in a professional political science journal for the rest of my life, I honestly do not believe that I will shortchange myself. The irony of academe is that, for me, the least interesting place to read about interesting ideas is the professional "research" literature. The questions are narrow and pedantic, driven by available "data," and loath to reach some sort of conclusion. "In conclusion," any given article will read, "we cannot say for sure if personal attitudes or commitment to the rule of law guides judicial decision-making." You don't say? But who cares? What's more important, how justices decide cases or what the opinions actually mean for their impact on law and society?

Make no mistake, though, about what universities “value” in an intellectual life. Since late August, when I began my blog, I have contributed over 200 pieces to it, some long, some short, some merely links to articles, on topics ranging from crazy sports parents to music to life as a parent in suburbia to politics to the Iraq war and to campus life. As strange as it sounds, I have received more feedback from my noodlings in cyber-space than from the professional work I have published in the last five years, or even in the ten years before that. But when it comes time to list my contributions to professional and public inquiry over the last year, nothing I have written here will "count" because published work outside the narrow confines of the "profession" means nothing in the culture of academe. My writing here is not considered a "contribution" to the profession of political science nor part of my professional identity. If I published an article in a professional journal that no one read, that would receive greater weight in my evaluation than anything I might do here, or elsewhere. On the one hand, my university wants professors to "embrace" new technologies, including new modes of communication. They also want us to be visible to the public by making appearances in the popular media or giving interviews, for marketing purposes more than anything else. On the other hand, my employer does not believe that public intellectual exchange through blogging or any other popular medium has any professional "value." Does that make any sense?

Universities are not only tested by technological innovation in their commitment to intellectual life, which, at the core, is also a commitment to free speech. Universities are also places where students (and faculty) come together to test old ideas and explore new ones. And while the best of us encourage our students to open up their minds, we must remain mindful that universities are more than just soapboxes for professors and students to say whatever they want. My university has some extraordinary scholars teaching here, and our students, whether they realize it or not, are fortunate to have them as their teachers. Good teachers encourage their students to validate their own opinions by listening to others and by testing them against ideas they find problematic, unfamiliar or simply at odds with their own biases. A professor who opposes capital punishment should make room for students who disagree with him or her; the same is true for a professor who supports a military solution to terrorism -- that person should make available books, articles and ideas that offer different approaches to the problem. But does intellectual diversity mean that we should allow a biologist to teach "creation-science" as an alternative to evolution? If a student at my university were to discover that her professor was an active participant in Holocaust-denial conferences and contributed articles to journals and societies that supported a "revisionist" view of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, should she bring it to the attention of university authorities? What should the university do? Keep the professor in the name of academic freedom or fire him or her? Is there a point at which a commitment to academic inquiry cannot protect a professor whose research and teaching crosses the line into bigotry or falsity? How are students supposed to handle such an uncomfortable situation?

Spring is the season of renewal . . . of mind, body and spirit. We live in tumultuous times, and, as such, an informed, interested citizenry is more essential than ever. For all Americans like to boast about our commitment to free speech and the virtue of an open society, our tendency is to close our minds in times of crisis to ideas that make us uncomfortable or lead us to question the decisions of those we have elected to govern. Our society is more open to the free exchange of ideas than ever before, and we should take advantage of the technologies at our disposal to hold authorities, whether in government, universities, businesses or the media, accountable. But we should also remember that some ideas are better than others, and there are certain truths that the lessons of history have taught us that are worth standing up for against revisionist attacks to their legacy.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Jackie Robinson

Tomorrow, April 15, 2007, marks the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the beginning of the end of the color barrier in major league baseball. For two previous seasons, Robinson had played for the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers highest minor league team, which hired him away from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, where had played after his discharge from the Army. Robinson attended UCLA on an athletic scholarship and lettered in football (achieving All-American status) basketball, baseball and track, the first UCLA athlete to do so. Eleven years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, Jackie Robinson refused to sit in the back of a bus while a uniformed service member in Ft. Hood, Texas.

Robinson was not only a superb athlete; he had a reputation as a thoughtful and exceptionally bright man. Branch Rickey approached Robinson in 1945 to play for the Dodgers not solely because of his baseball skills; he believed that Robinson had the character and discipline to handle the venom that would come his way for entering the world of white professional baseball. By the time he took his first major league at-bat, he was 28 years old, a time when many ballplayers are reaching their peak. Robinson played for nine seasons, and led the Dodgers to a World Series in 1955. He batted .311 over his career, fielded his position as well as anyone and terrorized pitchers and catchers with his baserunning. But his statistics are secondary to his courage, and there is simply no way to measure the contribution that Robinson made to American life by maintaining the dignity, courage and strength in the face of adversity. Robinson's first two years in baseball were an exercise in civil disobedience, although it is rarely discussed as such. His peaceful resistance to the forces of hate illustrated just how irrational racial prejudice was and is.

Major league baseball lifted the "retirement" of Robinson's number, 42, for tomorrow so that players from each team can wear that number on their respective team's jerseys. The idea originated with Cincinnati Reds outfielder Ken Griffey, Jr., who encouraged Commissioner Bud Selig to invite other players to follow suit. Tomorrow, major league baseball will honor Robinson at each stadium where a game is played. Sixty years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, ours is world still filled with too much racial prejudice and anger. But Robinson made his small corner of the world a better place and inspired a generation of white and black Americans to view each other, at least in sports, as equals. Cliches are cliches because they do have a way of describing things well, and, when it comes to Jackie Robinson, there is simply no overestimating the contribution he made to the progress of American life.

Friday, April 13, 2007

John Scofield

A last minute invitation to see John Scofield came my way earlier this week (thank you, Mark Caruso, the superbly inventive and always tasteful guitarist of Ocio Jazz, our jazz project, for bringing me along). I last saw Sco about four years ago with his jam band . . . great show, great musicianship, as always. I hadn't had the chance to see him in a straight-ahead format, my preference, until Wednesday night. And it got even better once I looked to see who was playing with him: the legendary bassist, Steve Swallow and one of the best young drummers on the jazz scene, Bill Stewart.

For someone as unprepossessing as John Scofield, he still has that quality that seems inherent in all world-class musicians. From the moment he walked on stage at the Barns at Wolf Trap with his guitar, you knew you were in the presence of greatness. A quick nod and smile to the audience, and Sco and his mates were off, blazing through a new original at a breakneck tempo, full of interesting twists and turns that left me tapping my heel through the whole number. For the next 90 minutes or so, Sco, Stewart and Swallow offered a set that ranged from a Miles Davis composition from "Birth of the Cool" (1949) to a cover of the Rolling Stones "Satisfaction." A little be-bop here, some free playing there, country and rock and roll classics, all stamped with Sco's trademark tone and chordal innovation. Like all great instrumentalists, you know Sco as soon as he runs through the first two or three bars. No one sounds like him. My friend and I debated whether to jam after the show or throw our equipment in the Potomac, since neither of us could survive a single chorus on a bandstand with musicians like that.

I thought about the last three or four recordings that Sco has released: a tribute to Ray Charles, a trio recording with Larry Goldings and Jack DeJohnette, "Trio Beyond," a quartet recording with Medeski, Martin and Wood, "Out Louder," and a live trio recording with Swallow and Stewart, "En Route." All different and all incredible.

Sco is now in his mid-50s, a period in which most musicians are refining or simply adhering to a comfortable style. Not John Scofield -- he is riding a creative peak. Miss him at your own peril.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The ever clever Rush Limbaugh

Now that Don Imus has stolen all the good moments for right-wing radio blather this week for calling the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos," what are listeners eager for racist comments to do until the I-Man returns to the airwaves?

There's always Rush Limbaugh, who never fails to disappoint, eh? Really, who else could have come up with the phrase, "Halfrican-American" to describe Barack Obama, Halle Berry and Tiger Woods?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Do my shoes make me gay?

So there I was, sitting in what my university calls The Tavern (even though it doesn't serve alcohol), having a little lunch and watching the latest episode of "The Office" on my iPod, when a student I did not know -- in fact, someone I had never even seen -- pulls on my right foot, which was resting comfortably on a chair and says . . .

"Hey, Dr. Ivers, dude, what's with the gay shoes?"

And this was right after Dwight shot Roy with his pepper spray. Talk about a buzz-kill!

"Do I know you?" I asked.

"No, man, but some of my friends have your classes right now, so, like, I know who you are."

I'll describe this young man for you: he was a Caucasian male, about 5'9" tall, dressed in cargo shorts slightly over the knee, a pair of flip flops, a T-shirt indicating that he had recently been to a sorority function and a baseball cap professing allegiance to Heineken beer. He had slightly unkempt brown hair that begged for a thorough cleansing and conditioning. That narrows it down, right?

"So the fact that some of your friends are taking some of my classes this semester gives you the right to tug on my foot while I am having lunch and pronounce my shoes as 'gay'?"

"Oh, come on, man, you know I'm just kidding around. But those are some gay shoes, man."

Moments like this make think back to when I was in college. I worked hard and I had a good time -- a real good time. I would say that I did some things I'm not terribly proud of; but, you know, I'm really proud of some of the stuff I got away with. In fact, I should have done more, a lot more. But I'm fairly certain that in all my college adventures, even those of which the Columbia, Missouri and Lawrence, Kansas, police departments remain blissfully unaware, I never approached a professor I did not know -- or even one I did know -- tuged on his foot and identified the sexual orientation of his shoes.

Right then and there, I decided there were some questions that needed answering. And this fine young man was just the person to help me.

"Just out of curiosity, what makes my shoes gay?" I asked.

"Are you serious?"

"Are you?"

"Serious about what? Man, I'm just messing with you, you know that."

"Let me explain my interest in your comment. It's more scholarly than anything else. I'll start with this question: Are my shoes gay because they match?"

"I don't get it," responded the Shoe-a-Nista.

"I'll try again. If I was wearing one black Samba with white stripes and one blue Samba with red, white and green stripes, would that mean my shoes were heterosexual?"

"I still don't get it."

I tried again. "I assume you believe my shoes are gay because they are the same color. Men who date men are gay because they are dating someone of the same sex. They are sexually attracted to other men. Got it? Since your flip-flops match, does that make them gay?"

He started to blush, but recovered quickly. "Dr. Ivers, man, shoes can't be gay, you know, like gay, gay. I guess because they're something like a gay guy might wear is why I said you're shoes were gay. I didn't say you were gay."

"Listen, and I don't want too many people to hear this." I leaned in closer. "I'm straight, always have been and always will be -- never even been tempted, even during the tough times. I know you've been there. So nothing I wear, not even a woman's skirt, 4" pumps, a push-up bra, whatever, will make me gay. You, me, we're hard-wired from birth. Even before birth. So if a gay man decided to start wearing hockey jerseys or NASCAR T-shirts or rubbing his stomach after a big meal or shouting phrases like, 'Fuckin'-A!' after doing a killer shot with his buddies or buys a gun, he is still gay. "

I pointed to the Science section of the New York Times I had brought with me to read after lunch. "You see this? This is a fantastic article on the genetic origin of human sexuality and sexual attraction. And here's the thing: we are what we are from the moment of conception. I can wear all the gay shoes I want and I will never, ever be gay. And do you know why?"

"Because you're not gay?"

"I know I'm not gay. That's the antecedent to the question." (At this point an eyebrow went up, as if I had just thrown down a marker by using the word, "antecedent"). I'm not gay because I am not attracted to other men. Evolution determines the survival of the species, not my shoes or an oppressive mother or a childhood spent getting picked last for the team or constantly being "it" in dodgeball. Do you get it now?"

My new friend looked a little sheepish. "Uh, I guess I shouldn't have bothered you and called your shoes gay, right?"

"Don't give it another thought. I can't be the first professor you don't know that you've interrupted while he was having lunch to offer a well thought-out analysis into the sexual orientation of his shoes. See you around, all right?"

And off he shuffled, looking over his shoulder once to see . . . well, I don't know exactly what, really. A few minutes later, just as I was watching Darryl ask Michael for a raise, another face caught my eye, seeing how it was literally two feet away and deliberately trying to get my attention. Ah, but it was a student I've known for three years and like a lot. Even better, he was -- and probably still is -- gay. I had a real, live gay person who could answer my question. This was better than calling a 1-800-AMI-GAY?.

"Are my shoes gay?" I asked. The answer was important. If my understanding of shoes as a non-determinant of sexual orientation was correct, then I could simply finish my lunch and go about my day. If I was wrong, I would have a lot of explaining to do . . . to my family, my friends, the guys on my hockey team, my gay friends who had always considered me "hopelessly straight" (as if were some key heterosexual double-agent just waiting for the right offer) . . . the list was endless.

"They're Italian, not gay."

Ph-e-e-e-e-e-e-w! That was close. I explained to him my little encounter, albeit in abbreviated form. He informed me I was in the clear, seeing how, with a 32 1/2" waist line, I had automatically disqualified myself for membership in the gay community. But he was nice enough to offer to forward me copies of the "gay agenda" that he receives from gay headquarters on a regular basis. I thanked him for his consideration, and, after putting my blue Sambas with the red, white and green stripes back up the chair, returned to my lunch, my iPod and my personal safe space.

The 7 minute guide to the Sopranos

Need a primer on the first six seasons of The Sopranos before preparing for the remaining eight episodes of the final season?

How these guys managed to take approximately 80 hours of the greatest television series ever and reduce it to a very entertaining and effective 7 minute synopsis, complete with commentary, is beyond me. Enjoy.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Bullshit Express meets the Iron Man

"He has apologized . . . . "

"He said that he is deeply sorry. . . ."

"I'm a great believer in redemption. . . ."

Is the He in this case actually Him? You know, the Good Lord Almighty?

No, it's Don Imus. And the person offering absolution? The Pope? No . . . John McCain!

Sure, it probably helps that Imus has endorsed McCain's presidential candidacy on his show, and that McCain is also a regular guest. Not to worry, though . . . Imus will be yucking it up again in two weeks when his suspension is over. And just in time for "Sweeps Week," a period that is to radio and television ratings what the Christmas is to American retailers.

Meanwhile, former Baltimore Orioles great Cal Ripken, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in a few months, canceled an appearance to promote a book that had been scheduled for the Imus show this morning because of Imus's comments.

McCain's flailing, soon to be simply failing, presidential candidacy has suffered for two reasons: (1) his insistence on sticking to "principles" that are comfort food for the right-wing but of little interest to independents and social liberals and (2) his willingness to parrot the worst ideas of the Bush administration on Iraq (see his much-ridiculed comments on his recent visit to Baghdad) and other key issues in order to secure contributions from the president's financial base. Given how the Bush presidential campaign team, with Karl Rove leading the charge, torpedoed his presidential candidacy in 2000 should have been enough for McCain to walk away from W forever. If McCain believes that shilling for the good graces of an administration that smeared and lied about him to deny him the office he now seeks is part of his redemptive spirit, then he is a strong man indeed.

Cal Ripken's greatest attribute as a shortstop (and later as a third baseman) was his flawless positioning. For two reasons, he never made the acrobatic stops that his peers such as Ozzie Smith and Barry Larkin did: (1) he couldn't; (2) but he didn't have to. Ripken still holds several major league records at shortstop, including most consecutive chances without an error (428), highest fielding percentage of a shortstop in any single season (.996), and fewest errors in a single season (3!). He consistently was among major league leaders in assists as well as fielding percentage. And he hit, and, in his best years, hit for power (Ripken still holds the major league record for most homers by a shortstop). On the field, Cal Ripken did everything the right way. And he showed true class by turning down Imus's invitation. McCain? He threw an easy two-hop ground ball into the first base stands.

Follow McCain's antics while you can. He is not long for this race, just as I predicted many months ago.

Live and in person . . . again!

The Ocio Jazz Collective will appear this Friday night, April 13th, at the Mayorga Coffee Factory in downtown Silver Spring. Mayorga is located on Georgia Ave. at Blair Mill Rd. in downtown Silver Spring. Music goes from 7.30-9.30 p.m.

We will also play next Thursday night, April 19th, at Twins Jazz, located at 1344 U St., NW in the District. Music goes from 8-11 p.m.

Hope to see you out supporting live local jazz.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, April 09, 2007

I-Man is an I-diot

I have never listened to the Don Imus show for more than one or two minutes, and, for the one or two times I endured those one or two minutes, they were completely by accident. I probably had the car radio tuned to a hockey or baseball game the night before, and didn't think about what would be on the radio in the morning, since I never listen to AM radio for any other reason than sports and traffic.

From what I heard I was not impressed -- crude, not terribly informed humor and commentary and meanderings about politics and culture that were more appropriate for a 12-15 year-old boy. And yet, for reasons I have never understood, Imus attracts fans by the legions and, even more inexplicably, the favored princes and princesses of the Washington political-media establishment line-up to appear on his show. For Washingtonians of this sort, an Imus invitation is a badge of coolness (and that should tell you how uncool they are).

Just the other day, Imus referred to the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos." The firestorm that followed seemed to surprise Imus, who, naturally, insisted that his remarks were not racially insensitive and simply taken out of context, even though, naturally, they were racially insensitive, if not plainly racist, and not taken out of context. Rather than comment further, read David Carr's column in this morning's New York Times on the latest Imus fiasco. He hits the nail on the head.

Baghdad . . . four years later

Four years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, tens of thousands of Shiites took to the streets of Baghdad to protest the continued American presence in Iraq. Massive street rallies by Iraqi citizens were certainly not what American war planners envisioned when they embarked on this misadventure in March 2003. Iraqis who were supposed to view the United States as their liberator and shower our soldiers with rose pedals are now burning American flags and shouting, "Death to America!"

The Shiites dominated the protest in Baghdad are loyal to the cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, who has been the central figure in organizing the insurgent attacks on American (and remaining allied) forces. An American military official offered the predictable spin on the strong and forceful protest, saying this was not something the Iraqis could have done under Saddam. A White House national security advisor said that, "Iraq, four years on, is now a place where people can freely gather and express their opinions. And while we have much more progress ahead of us _ the United States, the coalition and Iraqis have much more to do -- this is a country that has -- come a long way from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein."

Tens of thousands of Shiites express their appreciation for their freedom by staging a rally calling for the United States to leave and continuing to stage deadly attacks against their American liberators. Interesting. When will this madness end?

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Joe Zawinul

The passing of Tower Records as the last really great retail music store, a place where you (or I) could spend hours just browsing through the CD (formerly record) bins for new music, old music and newly re-discovered music, has made it more difficult to keep up with the newly released recordings. Since most of the music I listen to doesn't make into the weekly iTunes or Amazon "what's new" announcements, I depend largely on the Jazz Times and various on-line services to learn what's new. Just the other day, I found a Jazz Times I thought I had lost and learned that Joe Zawinul had just released a CD featuring Weather Report compositions arranged for the WDR Big Band. A few days later it was in my hands.

Joe Zawinul was born in Austria and came to the United States in the late 1950s to break into the New York jazz scene. His first major gig was with Julian "Cannonball" Adderly, the great alto player who had worked with Miles Davis and recently set out on his own. Zawinul was a perfect fit for Cannonball's blend of hard-bop jazz, soul and the African-American gospel tradition. He most memorable composition of that period, "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," has long been a jazz and big band standard, and Zawinul's funky, rhythmically complex playing made him identifiable during a period when most jazz pianists were absorbing Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly. But Zawinul's true claim to fame when he teamed up with Wayne Shorter, who rose to fame as a composer and saxophonist with Art Blakey and, of course, Mile Davis, to form Weather Report.

Weather Report remains unclassifiable. Rooted in jazz rhythm and improvisation, Zawinul and Shorter wrote pieces that also highlighted complex arrangements, gave prominent position to the electric bass as a melody instrument (the bass chair in Weather Report was held down by Miroslav Virtous, Alphonso Johnson, Jaco Pastorious and Victor Bailey) and introduced what are now called "world beats" into their music. And, of couse, Weather Report was electric -- literally and figuratively -- with Zawinul's electronic keyboards replacing the piano. Weather Report had no peer as a "fusion" ensemble of the 1970s and early 1980s -- the musicians that rotated in and out of the band were all distinct in their playing, and made it fun for listeners to check out the continuity and differences with each line-up.

Zawinul and Shorter amicably ended Weather Report in 1985. Ironically, just as Shorter had ended his partnership with Zawinul as a pioneer in electric jazz, a whole new generation of jazz musicians were embracing his compositions with Art, Miles and his solo catalogue of the 1950s and 1960s as the reference point for modern playing. Shorter eventually returned to his straight-ahead jazz roots, and has justifiably basked in his reputation as one of our most important living jazz composers and players, turning out a series of recordings over the last five years that have been nothing short of stunning. Zawinul has continued along the path of "world music" with often spectacular results. I had the fortune of seeing his band four years ago at the Montreal Jazz Festival and it was all the other musicians could do just to keep up with their 70 year-old leader.

Zawinul's new recording, "Brown Street," is, in his own inimitable way, his tribute to Weather Report. Featuring Weather Report standards such as "Black Market," "A Remark You Made," and "Fast City," plus some lesser known compositions that I won't reveal, the 19-piece ensemble demonstrates just how alive and pulsating Zawinul's music remains. One thing I always found intriguing about Weather Report is how perfectly the compositions were titled. Listening to the rhythms of "Black Market" (my all-time favorite), you really feel like you're in a Third World bazaar somewhere. In the intervening years since Weather Report ended, numerous "tribute" recordings have been released to honor this great band, but they've mostly, to me anyway, failed. Fittingly, this great new CD (a double) by Zawinul and his current band, which includes Weather Report alumni Alex Acuna and Victor Bailey, is the best tribute of all.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Luddites rejoice

David Cole, the Georgtown law professor and nationally prominent civil liberties advocate, has an op-ed in this morning's Washington Post explaining why he decided to ban laptops from his classes. The reasons he gives are the same as mine, except, in a rare moment of prophetic inspiration, I banned laptops from class, along with phones, PDAs, iPods, drugs, newspapers, etc. many years ago, even after my university went "wireless." Every so often, a colleague will come up to me and ask, "I heard you don't allow phones and laptops in class. How did you do that?"

Easy. I said no.

Friday, April 06, 2007

First Amendment fools -- Part II

Well, well. Some of the comments I received on the brief post I wrote about Karl Rove's visit to American University -- both on and off-line -- seem to reflect surprise and displeasure with my criticism of student behavior after his appearance on campus Tuesday evening. Let's see if I can clarify my points.

1. Civil disobedience is not protected speech. I wish more students would voice their opinions in a responsible and informed manner on a number of topics of public importance. Anyone who has spent anytime at all in my classes knows that I think our students spend far too much time plotting their resumes and not enough time thinking about the world around them. If you want to disrupt an event or interfere with an individual's freedom of movement, then be prepared to suffer the criminal consequences. The students the other night could have easily been arrested; the police and security detail wisely chose not to pursue that route. Civil disobedience is not protected under the First Amendment, nor should it be. Peaceful resistance through direct action acknowledges a refusal to follow the law. From Thoreau to Gandhi to King to Mandela, prominent activists who engaged in civil disobedience understood that jail was a likely possibility. The point was to call attention to an unjust rule through peaceful, passive resistance. If you are not prepared to get arrested and go to jail for standing up for your beliefs through civil disobedience, then don't do it.

2. The First Amendment does not permit individuals to interfere physically with the rights of other people. Had the speaker the other night been a prominent Democratic political operative or even someone like the bald guy from Louisiana (can't remember his name) who ran Bill Clinton's '92 presidential campaign and a group of conservative activists had behaved as these opponents did the other night, Democratic students would have said all the same things their conservative counterparts have been saying since Tuesday. If it doesn't work for one side, it doesn't work for the other. Principles are not partisan. Unfortunately, politically engaged college students in Wahington cannot often separate the importance of ideas from the partisan affiliation of the person defending them.

3. College speakers should not be closed to the general student body. The College Republicans should have opened the invitation to the general public. Karl Rove works for President Bush, not the RNC. By presenting the event as partisan, the CR needlessly alienated non-like minded members of the student body. If Karl Rove can't handle 20 year-olds who disagree with him, that's his problem. And if student dissenters can't behave in a public forum, that's their problem.

4. Sign your name. Got an opinion? Don't hide behind the cloak of anonymity. Feel free to disagree with me as much and as often as you want. But don't be afraid to put your name next to your opinion. Anyone can sit in the back and throw stones. If what you have to say is as important as you think, shouldn't everyone know who you are?