Better Angels

"...all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." ---Abraham Lincoln, First Innaugural Address

Monday, December 27, 2004

You just can't make this stuff up...or can you?

A few weeks ago, Atrios linked to the Daily Howler's takedown of the media's inability to fact-check a la the "who among us does not love NASCAR" foolishness. It was one of those strange moments of blog serendipity, as I was just about to research an different Kerry quote that seemed just as suspect. So bouyed by the Howler, I took a stab at it and found yet another Kerryism of doubtful provenance. It took a few weeks, due to the holidays, but here is is in time for the third day of Christmas.

In the December 20 issue of
Newsweek, George "Here, Tucker, let me help you with that tie" Will has the "Last Word" on the year that was 2004. He opens with this:
In 2004 an IBM supercomputer set a world record with 36.01 trillion calculations per second. The U.S. electorate may have made its calculation the instant John Kerry, who is not a supercomputer, explained why Toy's restaurant in Canonsburg, Pa., "is my kind of place":
"You don't have to—you know, when they give you the menu, I'm always struggling: ah, what do you want? He just gives you what he's got, right? ... whatever he's cooked up that day. And I think
that's the way it ought to work, for confused people like me who can't make up our minds."
So that's why he lost! Foget that whole values thing: he admitted he couldn't make up his mind! He's confused! Like another Jim DeMint, who...won his race. Nevermind, bad analogy. See! He really was a flip-flopper!

Except, you know, I don't remember ever hearing this story before, (and I think you all know I'm pretty much hip to the news cycle) so I sort of doubt this little tale made as much of an impact in the election as say, vote tampering did. (Oops! I wasn't sposed to say that, was I?)

Here are the facts: On
September 6, 2004, John Kerry travelled to Canonsburg, PA, a suburb of Pittsburgh, and spoke to a group of neighbors from Dale and Judy Rhome's front porch. He talked about a number of issues, but the one that made the biggest impression on the media assembled was one you may remember:

Following his remarks, Kerry took questions from concerned voters, including one from a 70-year-old woman who had 14 throat surgeries and recently returned to work in order to afford her prescription medicine.
While telling her story in only a whisper, several Bush supporters shouted chants and insults
making it harder for people to hear the woman. Kerry responded to the hecklers.
“While the Bush people were rudely shouting, a 70-year-old woman who has had several throat operations was trying to be heard. It’s proof that they don’t want to hear the truth.”

In fact, in the straight news articles written about this campaign stop, not one reporter mentions the restaurant remarks. The story first surfaces in that night's New York Times online "Political Points" column, by David Halbfinger. He writes:

Mr. Kerry stepped boldly into the verbal minefield early, arriving at a front-porch session with supporters in Canonsburg, Pa., near Pittsburgh. As he likes to do, he brandished a bit of local color to show he wasn't just any interloping politician blowing through town.

But in so doing he seemed to forget that Republicans have been tearing him down for months as a vacillating, indecisive, finger-in-the-wind politician of the worst order.

"Everybody told me, 'God, if you're coming to Canonsburg, you've got to find time to go to Toy's, and he'll take care of you,'" Mr. Kerry said, dropping the name of a
restaurant his motorcade had passed on the way in. "I understand it's my kind of place, because you don't have to - you know, when they give you the menu, I'm always struggling: Ah, what do you want?"He just gives you what he's got, right?" Mr. Kerry added, continuing steadily off a gangplank of his own making: "And you don't have to worry, it's whatever he's cooked up that day. And I think that's the way it ought to work, for confused people like me who can't make up our minds."

Halbfinger seems to have spent the majority of the campaign finding evidence to support the "flip-flopper" label the GOP cooked up for Kerry. (For some of the more egregious examples, see the Daily Howler, Bart Cop, Columbia Journalism Review and Reading A1)

The story was also picked up by a British paper, the pro-war, pro-Blair London Telegraph, in a September 7
article by Alec Russell, filed from Canonsburg:

Mr Bush's campaign staff will have loved his opening comments, praising the limited menu of a local cafe. Mr Kerry said it was perfect "for confused people like me who can't make up our minds about what we're going to eat" - words which would fit perfectly into a pro-Bush attack ad.
I first assumed that this was independent confirmation of Halbfinger's account, since it was filed the following day. But then I calculated the time zones. When Halbfinger filed his column, it was already Wednesday in London, meaning that Russell could have filed his column first and Halbfinger simply picked up his quote. Picked it up and truncated it in order to make Kerry out to seem even more confused.

Of course it's possible that both reporters heard Kerry the same thing, recorded it and transcribed it and came to the same conclusion: Kerry was just giving the Republicans ammo for the flip-flop meme. But that doesn't change the fact that Halbfinger conveniently left off the "about what we're going to eat," making Kerry sound like he's admitting he can't make up his mind about anything.

Not surprisingly, it was Halbfinger's quote that most often got picked up, rather than Russell's.

On September 7th, Slate's
Chris Sullentrop quoted Russell's version of the Kerry quote, commenting that Kerry's extemporizing was "damaging." It's unclear from the article if Sullentrop was present when the words were uttered or if he simply read Russell's column.

National Review Online also picked up the quote on Sept 7th, using the Halbfinger version. The NRO piece ended up being reposted on Free Republic. From there it spread to countless blogs and other online sources and made its way to several more traditional media sources:

Toronto Star Sept 13:

Kerry, meanwhile, has become a dream for political satirists and the proverbial fish in the barrel for the Bush war room. The man vilified as a waffler, played right into that perception at a stop in Pennsylvania where he waxed rhapsodically about a local restaurant which brings the daily special to the table with no menu.
"That's the way it ought to work for confused people like me who can't make up our minds," he told supporters.

LA Times - Sept 13 -
Sen. John F. Kerry has been accused by his Republican critics of being wishy-washy and wavering on matters of national security — a claim he adamantly denies.

But when it comes to ordering in a restaurant, the Democratic presidential candidate admits
he sometimes has difficulty.

During a Labor Day stop in Canonsburg, Pa., Kerry praised a local restaurant because the choices were limited to whatever the cook decided to serve.

"My kind of place, you know, because when they give you the menu, I'm always struggling," the Massachusetts senator said. "He just gives you what he's got, right? You don't have to order. It's whatever he's cooked up that day, and I think that's the way it ought to work for confused people like me who can't make up our minds."

American Spectator Sept 17 -
Obviously, Kerry isn't a particularly appealing figure, but his problems run deeper than that....This not only pleases nobody, it reinforces one of Kerry's chief liabilities, the perception that he's a flip-flopper. (His praise at a campaign stop for a restaurant with only one choice, rather than a menu, as being great "for confused people like me who can't make up our minds" didn't help on that front, either.)

LA Times - Sept 17
At his very best, Kerry is capable of adequately delivering a prepared speech. But when speaking off the cuff, he has an inexplicable penchant to play into his opponents' hands.Bush implies (outrageously) that Kerry wants to go soft on terrorists? Kerry responds that he wants a "more sensitive war on terror.
Bush portrays Kerry as an out-of-touch, Francophile elitist? Kerry tells GQ, "I love sports. French skiers."
Bush paints Kerry as indecisive? Kerry volunteers that at restaurants, "You know when they give you the menu, I'm always struggling, what do you want?" It's as if he has somehow internalized his opponents' attacks upon him.

Weekly Standard September 20 - The article leads into the Canonsburg story with "There have been other mistakes:"

The Economist Nov 4th - quotes the NY Times version as its "Kerryism of the Campaign"

And then came Will's "year in review" column. Note how in 3 months the comments in Canonsburg have turned from a derisive remark propagating the "flip-flop" charge to the comment that alinenated the US Electoate and cost Kerry the election! That's your "liberal" media at work!

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Sudan in Crisis? Troops Stretched Thin? Why Not Try Thugs 'R' Us?

The death and desecration of 4 private contractors in Fallujah last Spring was a horrifying thing. Emotions in the blogosphere and the mainstream media ran high in the immediate aftermath and the gruesome nature of the event overshadowed the discussion of our military's use of privateers in a war zone. As evidenced by the reactions to Markos Zuniga's now-infamous comments, the discussion quickly devolved into right/left sparring, leaving the central issue of private security personnel largely unexplored in the media. Which is unfortunate, because it's an issue that's been in the background of our military and intelligence operations for the past 50 years, and it's not going away any time soon.

Two of the biggest private defense contractors in use by the US are Dyncorp and Pacific Architects and Engineers, or PAE. Dyncorp was purchased in 2003 by Computer Sciences Corporation, a publicly traded company worth billions of dollars. In 2004, 41% of the company's revenue came from the US government, with 25% coming from the DOD alone. From CSC's June, 2004 company profile:

CSC's fourth quarter federal government revenue was $1.6 billion and comprised more than 40% of the total quarterly revenue. Revenue from CSC's U.S. Department of Defense activities surged to $988.8 million from last year's $581.4 million. U.S. civil agencies business grew 57.7% to $650.2 million, compared to last year's fourth quarter total of $412.4 million.

That's in the 4th quarter alone. In fact, during the quarter CSC announced several billion dollars in new government contracts including $406 million from the U.S. Army Aviation & Missile Command.

The feds obviously find Dyncorp's work satisfactory, which is troubling when you consider that during the US's involvement in the Balkans, Dyncorp employees in Bosnia participated in the sex trafficking of young women, some as young as 12. The company attempted to cover up the scope of the problem and employees who blew the whistle in 2000 and cooperated with an Army investigation were fired. Despite confessions and evidence gathered by the local police and the Army CID, no one was ever prosecuted. Neither the Bosnian police nor the Army had the jurisdiction to prosecute the men while they were in Bosnia, and once Dyncorp sent them home they were unable to be tried for crimes committed on foreign soil. Eventually, in 2002, one of the whistleblower received compensation from

Despite the passage of the Military extraterritorial jurisdiction Act of 2000, loopholes, inconsistencies and confusion exist to cloud the matter of jurisdiction of the US over private military contractors employeed overseas. In fact, as of September 2004, only 2 such cases had gone to trial in the US. For an overview of the problem, see this statement given to the House Armed Services Committee by Martina E. Vandenberg in September 2004.

Dyncorp is also the subject of a class action lawsuit brought by a group of Ecuadorian peasants who claim that the company's use of pesticides to kill cocoa plants as part of Plan Columbia destroyed legal crops across the border and poisoned villagers. This suit was filed in September, 2001, and as far as I can tell, is still languishing in the courts.

Dyncorp has had other mishaps in Central America, including suspicion of running drugs. More tragically, in 2001, Dyncorp employees and subcontractors (Eagle Aviation and Service Technology, of Iran-Contra fame) were involved in the downing of a small plane carrying an American missionary and her 7 month old baby in Peru. Frustrated by her inability to get answers from the government about the incident, Rep. Jan Sharkowsky of Illinois introduced the "Andean Region Contractor Accountability Act' which attempted to limit the activity of private intelligence and security forces in the region. The bill died in committee.

All this was known and documented before September 11th. But in 2002, when the DOD announced it had contracted with Virginia-based private defense contractor Dyncorp to provide security services in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was if the collective memory of the media had been wiped clean. There was a ripple of incredulity on the left-leaning blogs (scroll down to 11/25/02) and the international media, but the mainstream media in the US simply reported the contract and left it at that. Amazingly, the only news outlet to consistently link DynCorp with its past scandals was Insight on the News, the weekly news magazine from the Moonie-owned Washington Times.

It's happening again. The State Department recently announced a 5-year joint contract for Dyncorp and PAE worth over 20 million dollars. The mission? The Darfur region of Sudan, which is in the middle of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. That's right, we're turning privateers into peacekeepers and the mainstream media has failed to notice or comment. The NY Times printed a "Letter from Asia" on October 13, 2004, which did go in to some detail of the company's troubles in Afghanistan, but there has been no follow-up since the Darfur contract was announced.

So what does this mean? Why has is become perfectly acceptable to outsource not only our aggressive acts but our peacekeeping ones as well? Is war-ravaged Darfur, land of widows and orphans, really the best place to put soldier-of-fortune types who can operate with impunity and very little oversight? Most importantly, when will the American people stand up and demand that their tax dollars NOT be spent financing mercenaries, to the tune of billions of dollars per year, when our own soldiers don't have enough rations for breakfast or armor for their trucks?

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Liberating the WH Press Corpse

Over at Nieman Watchdog Dan Froomkin has a great, thoughtful piece up about the White House press pool and the unbreakable veneer of the Bush Administration. In addition to the usual complaints about the inaccesability of the President and the circumlocutions of Scott McClellan, Froomkin also offers a practical plan for reporters to become better questioners. His prescription for the potted plants in the breifing room? Get tough with Scotty and the Prez. Either get the answers or make the White House look uncooperative in the process:
At this point, the best thing reporters can do is ask questions so simple and direct that Bush's almost inevitable evasion is obvious to everyone. And then they should repeatedly remind their readers and viewers that the questions remain unanswered. Maybe Bush can be prodded and shamed into meeting with the press more often. And maybe White House reporters -- who are, after all, among the best of their profession -- can craft the occasional question that actually prompts the president to reflect upon a decision, recall an event or reaction, give some insight into his judgment, or even spill some beans.
This should be required reading for any reporter who has ever come within a hundred feet of the White House, and will strike some familiar chords among those of us who follow Holden's Obsession with the Gaggle.
Even more of a charade these days are the daily briefings held by White House press secretary Scott McClellan, whose robotic adherence to repeating the predetermined messages of the day -- no matter what questions come his way --has driven some correspondents to despair. Only narcissists and cranks could possibly feel they are getting much out of asking a question at a McClellan press briefing. Not coincidentally, the cranks are increasingly sitting at the front of the briefing room and getting called upon, in part because some big media organizations don't even bother to fill their assigned chairs anymore. What's the point?
The piece itself is worth taking a trip over to NiemanWatchdog, a relatively new site sponsored by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. What makes it all the more fun to read is the comments section, where there is a typically toady response from one of the above "cranks," GOP plant Jeff Gannon of Talon News.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Let me make it up to you.

Yes, I know, it's been weeks since I've blogged a damn thing. So to make it up to you, here is a vintage Friday Feline:

That's me in 1973 at 6 months old, attempting to maul my mother's cat Shakti. Note the mustard colored playpen and orange shag carpet. We were a hip little family, no?