Good leaks, bad leaks?

Did Karl Rove reveal Valerie Plame's identity as a covert CIA agent to Matthew Cooper of Time magazine? Did fired CIA official Mary O. McCarthy leak information about covert agency programs to the Washington Post (a charge she denies)?

Is Rove a villain? McCarthy a heroine? Or is it the other way around?

If Rove did "out" Plame, was it because he was trying to set the record straight about former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's trip to Niger to explore reports of Iraqi attempts to acquire uranium for its nuclear program? Or was Rove trying to retaliate, angry over Wilson's claim that the Bush Adminstration ignored his belief that Iraq had not sought yellowcake uranium?

If McCarthy did talk to the Post about covert CIA prisons, was it because she felt these anti-terrorism efforts had crossed the line into illegality? Was Senator John Kerry right in arguing that: "If you're leaking to tell the truth, Americans are going to look at that, at least mitigate or think about what are the consequences that you … put on that person."? Or was McCarthy, a contributor to Kerry's presidential campaign, simply acting out of partisan spite, looking to damage the Republican Administration even if the price was revealing national security secrets?

Scott Shane's Sunday New York Times article "There Are Leaks, And Then There Are Leaks" highlights the long American tradition of intelligence leaks (dating back to Thomas Paine in 1779) and notes our ambivalence about them.

There's more than enough hypocrisy to go around when the topic is Washington leaks. There's little straight talk on this subject: not from the White House, the media, or from prosecutors (who are not above selective leaking themselves). Democrats have now questioned whether a double standard exists, where the White House has provided reporters with secretly declassified information for political purposes just as the CIA moves to fire or prosecute leakers.

Why the hypocrisy? Because information represents power in Washington; leaks are just another way of wielding power, whether by individuals or institutions. The problem is that in such a culture all information–whether classified secret or not–is used in this highly partisan political game.

The motives of leakers are often mixed; they may leak for personal or political advantage, to gain revenge, to shift blame onto others, to block reform or change. Sometimes leakers disclose to reveal injustice or from a sense of patriotism. Sometimes their motives border on the pathological–a childish delight at revealing forbidden knowledge, the secrets of "adults."

When leaking is done by the relatively powerless, or outsiders, by Watergate's Deep Throat or by whoever tipped the Washington Post's Dana Priest on the covert CIA prisons, it is often seen in more positive terms by the media and some of the public. Whistle-blowers are viewed as "serving a higher purpose," striving to insure the public good.

It isn't that simple, however, as former CIA general counsel Anthony A. Lapham told the Times. Lapham has welcomed the public debate over CIA and NSA practices in fighting terrorism, and concedes that leaks have provoked the debate, one which will take center stage when the Senate Intelligence Committee reviews the nomination of John Rizzo as the CIA new general counsel. Lapham nonetheless questions the "higher purpose" argument:

"There's a premise that it's O.K. for someone to leak because they're serving a higher purpose, a higher loyalty," he said. "Well, the next thing you know, you have a whole building full of people with a higher loyalty, each to a different principle. And pretty soon you don't have a functioning intelligence agency."

Lapham's argument has validity. What intelligence agency can be effective if it can not guard its own secrets? CIA head Porter Goss told Time magazine last year: "virtually every day I can pick up a paper and find somebody who is an anonymous source. That is willful. And it seems to me there ought to be a penalty for that."

CIA officials point out that everyone who works at the CIA signs a secrecy agreement. Further, there are a number of channels for registering complaints or charges of illegality (including, and up to, alerting members of the Congressional intelligence oversight committees).

Yet this argument is dramatically undercut when senior members of the Administration decide they will practice selective disclosure of sensitive or classified information themselves (provoking the double standard charge). When leaking is practiced by the powerful, it is immediately, and rightfully suspect. It often represents an attempt at "hidden hand" manipulation of public opinion, or a move to undercut or damage critics of the government, or a way to curry favor with selected reporters or columnists.

Bastions of the mainstream media (including New York Times, Washington Post, etc.) can stand charged with some hypocrisy as well. The Times, for example, called for an independent prosecutor to look in the Plame-Libby leaks–since it is illegal to reveal the identity of a covert CIA agent–but recoiled when that investigation targeted the newspaper's own reporter (Judith Miller) who had received that information.

Reporters for the Times and the Post received Pulitizer Prizes for their stories on CIA and NSA covert intelligence programs, with their reportage based on leaks and classified information. I would hazard the guess that numerous federal laws were broken by whoever revealed this information to the newspapers, and yet there has been no call from the Times or Post editorial boards for an independent prosecutor to look into the leaks. (I would argue that it's not the place of newspapers to encourage leak investigations; in the Plame matter, to their discredit, members of the Times editorial board apparently couldn't resist the lure of a probe that might embarrass top Adminstration officials. Victoria Toensing argues in the Wall Street Journal's Opinion Journal that the Times, along with many other papers that called for a special prosecutor in the Plame affair are now reaping the whirlwind. Be careful what you ask for?)

The Bush Administration eagerness to go after reporters when classified information is published is a consequent, and troubling, development. Adam Liptak of the Times explained the new approach, which might include prosecutions under the espionage laws, in Sunday's paper:

Such an approach would signal a thorough revision of the informal rules of engagement that have governed the relationship between the media and the government for many decades.

Leaking in Washington is commonplace and typically entails tolerable risks for government officials and, at worst, the possibility of subpoenas to journalists by prosecutors seeking the identities of sources.

But the Bush administration is putting pressure on the media as never before, and it is operating in a judicial climate that seems increasingly receptive to constraints on journalists.

You can oppose the leaking of government secrets and yet see this as a very dangerous precedent, one which raises questions about the motives of the Bush Administration. Is finding the leaker the idea, or intimidating the reporters receiving the information? It is one thing to prosecute government officials who disclose classified information to the press; it is another thing to try to compel journalists to reveal their sources, or to prosecute reporters through the draconian criminal provisions of the espionage statutes.

Prosecutors have more than enough power to get to the bottom of leaking without dragging reporters into court. There are also important constitutional questions raised when the press is (arguably) seeking to expose wrongdoing by the government; some legal scholars argue the First Amendment protects the right to publish that classified information.

There is always going to be conflict between the government and the Fourth Estate over this question. There may be a need to amend some existing legislation (the 1917 Espionage Act) to make it clear the difference between spying and reporting; a federal shield law protecting reporters' sources would be another positive development. Whether either of these reforms are possible in today's partisan atmosphere is doubtful, and that is not reassuring for anyone concerned about press freedom in the United States.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!

The week (April 28th): Nobody asked me, but…

With my customary nod to Jimmy Cannon (who after all, invented the phrase), nobody asked me, but….

"THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER" is nigh impossible to sing in English, let alone Spanish.

JAMES WEBB, the Reagan Democrat running for the U.S. Senate in Virginia, is showing what a loyal opposition to the Iraqi war should look like. Webb notes his 2002 public questioning of the Bush Administration policies on Iraq, but wears combat boots on the campaign trail to signify his support for the military (his son, a Marine, may end up in Iraq). Webb, former Secretary of the Navy and a decorated Marine veteran, couples his criticism of the war effort with a reasoned response to questions of what to do next. The Washington Post quotes him as saying: "We got in precipitously. We have to get out carefully."

PERHAPS TOM WOLFE isn't the author whose work best captures the Duke lacrosse scandal, as I suggested recently. Instead, how about Lewis Carroll of "Alice in Wonderland" fame? This alleged rape case becomes stranger and stranger, heading down the proverbial rabbit hole. The accuser apparently has made rape accusations before; the District Attorney is reportedly looking to squeeze Blue Devils players who attended the party by pressing old charges against them; and we seem no closer to a resolution of the sordid mess.

DO TODAY'S PLAGIARISTS secretly want to get caught? With Google searches, and encouraging readers to "search inside" books, "borrowing" a particularly memorable passage, or series of passages, that you didn't create is asking to be caught. But Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan, whose book "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life" is being withdrawn from stores because of plagiarism charges, shouldn't despair. Her second act can come after the obligatory mea culpa, a period of "rehab" and then a triumphant return to the spotlight. Celebrity trumps integrity?

RABBI MARC GELLMAN's column in Newsweek "Trying to Understand Angry Atheists; Why do nonbelievers seem to be threatened by the idea of God?" could be Exhibit A for professors of rhetorics looking for examples of the "straw man" fallacy. Angry atheists? Are there really that many worked up nonbelievers bothering the good rabbi? Is his email full of atheistic rants from Web eccentrics? I'm skeptical: This is the most religious society in the world, where it's very hard to find any one who admits to being an agnostic, let alone an atheist. So unless Rabbi Gellman can be a bit more specific about these "angry atheists" I'm afraid his arguments need to be filed in the logical fallacy bin.

A SAD END to the life of Steve Howe, former major league pitcher tormented by addiction. Howe died at the age of 48 when his pick-up truck overturned in California just before six o'clock in the morning. The news made me think of Bruce Springsteen's song, "Glory Days" with its image of the washed-up pitcher in a roadside bar, clinging to his "glory days."

DO YOU THINK the designers who choose the colors and patterns for the bikers' Spandex outfits suffer from color blindness?

BULLY FOR JOE KLEIN of Time magazine for admitting that "while bloviating" he spoke too casually in raising the possibility of using nuclear weapons against a recalcitrant Iran. To his credit he admitted his mistake. Klein, who by all accounts is a decent, thoughtful journalist of moderate views, was savaged by the Lefty Lords of the Blogosphere, enough so that he lamented the loss of "a public atmosphere of civility, humanity and compromise." Klein deserves better.

AMANDA WILKINSON may not equal her fellow Canadian Shania Twain's country music success, but she has a great voice. Her self-named debut album is getting noticed by country fans in the Great White North. Will the U.S. be next?

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!

The Duke scandal: life imitating Wolfean art?

Perhaps life does imitate art.

Indulge me for a moment: doesn't the ongoing Duke lacrosse scandal seem lifted directly from a Tom Wolfe novel? The setting, themes, characters, and perhaps, when the criminal justice system produces a verdict, the denouement of this shabby, sordid and distinctly American controversy–where two white, upper-middle class Duke lacrosse players stand accused of sexually assaulting an African-American exotic dancer at a team party–are amazingly Wolfe-like.

As a novelist, Wolfe has tackled questions of sex, race, class, ambition and American justice without worrying about political correctness or offending the sensitive. He has brought a reporter's eye for detail and a satirist's uncompromising wit to his chronicling of contemporary life.

So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Wolfe's three novels convincingly capture much of the Duke mess. Open his books, it's all there.

Take the collegiate setting. It's been widely noted that the fictional Dupont University in Wolfe's latest novel, I am Charlotte Simmons, appears to be closely modeled on Durham's Greatest University, although Wolfe cites visits to Stanford, Michigan, North Carolina, Alabama, and the University of Florida in the opening to the book. Wherever he went, he apparently took great notes. The colorful portrait Charlotte Simmons paints of entitled athletes, balding Woodstock Generation faculty members, out-of-control frat boys and lacrosse-player-chasing preppie girls–attacked as gross exaggeration when the novel was first published–suddenly seems a more realistic reflection of campus life (especially as more details surface about the Duke imbroglio).

Then there is Dupont's fictional president, Frederick Cutler III, caught between a jock-hating lefty professoriate and his wealthy alumni and their beloved big-time sports; Cutler struggles to keep the lid on an explosive scandal that could harm his school's U.S. News & World Report college ranking. Sound familiar? When Duke's president, Richard Brodhead, announced his response to the rape allegations–the suspension of the lacrosse team's season and the appointment of five investigatory committees–you could imagine Wolfe's treatment of the move: "I'll give them a response, the President thought, I'll shut down the season, broadcast statements of grave concern and appoint FIVE DIFFERENT COMMITTEES. FIVE! Can't accuse me of looking the other way." (To be fair, Brodhead does seem to recognize the troubling issues surrounding the case.)

Taken as a whole, Wolfe's fiction also touches on other aspects of the Duke scandal. Athletes and rape charges with a racial twist? Look no further than A Man in Full, where Georgia Tech running back Fareek "the Cannon" Fanon, an African-American, is falsely accused of date raping the daughter of a powerful white Atlanta businessman. Wolfe employs the situation to explore not only racial stereotypes about black men and white women, but also changing attitudes about female sexuality.

How about an ambitious white prosecutor looking for black votes? In Bonfire of the Vanities, it's District Attorney Abe Weiss who sees a trumped-up conviction of the privileged white bond trader Sherman McCoy as the key to his re-election. Does life imitate art? In Durham it's DA Mike Nifong whose rushed DNA-less indictments of the two players (based on photo identifications by the alleged victim) in the middle of his re-election campaign have an unsavory political tang to them.

Media overkill? A rush to judgment? Trial by newspaper? All three of Wolfe's novels mock breathless pack journalism and the shallow reportage of the American media when confronted with a juicy scandal. In Bonfire, a British expat, journalist Peter Fallow, is the poster child for journalistic wrong-doing; in A Man in Full Wolfe considers how unsourced Internet postings can shape media coverage; in Charlotte Simmons, the national media finds its way to campus to report revelations about the sexual hi-jinks of a conservative California governor.

The Duke case has spotlighted many of the same journalistic failings. CNN's Nancy Grace, discarding any presumption of innocence, apparently wants the accused players to enjoy a fair trial before being hung; the New York Times has offered some "rush to judgement" columns and op-ed pieces (earning well-deserved criticism by Slate's Jack Shafer); and Newsweek's hyped-up cover story this week, entitled "Sex, Lies & Duke," carries mug shots of the two indicted lacrosse players and trumpets: "Inside the mystery that has roiled a campus and riveted the country." Wolfe couldn't have plotted it any better.

And note well the high-priced defense attorneys, political hustlers, private investigators and self-proclaimed "community leaders" who turn up in the pages of Wolfe's novels, often in devastatingly comic portrayals, as they seek to capitalize on crisis. Their real life counterparts are already making appearances in Durham, from Bill Clinton's one-time defense attorney to the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

One Wolfean character is missing from the Duke case. Where is the tragi-comic hero, persecuted and abused, left to confront financial ruin or criminal prosecution, but, in the end, redeemed by a Stoic willingness to embrace the truth, accept the consequences, and persevere through hardship? Where is the Sherman McCoy, the Conrad Hensley or the Charles Croker of this story?

Their real-life equivalent may be one of the accused lacrosse players, Reade Seligmann, a 20-year from an upscale New Jersey suburb whose privileged world has been turned upside down in the space of days. Seligmann's attorney has argued that it's a case of mistaken identity and has presented evidence supporting his client's alibi. What's clear is that Seligmann's inner resolve will be tested–in a Wolfean way–as he deals with his suspension from Duke, the psychic consequences of being publicly identified as a rapist, and his eventual fate at the hands of the criminal justice system.

Tom Wolfe's fictional world is unsettling to some; there are few truly likeable characters in his novels (with the exception of Conrad Hensley and Charlotte Simmons), and it's clear that he doesn't care for the drift into raunchy sexuality on American college campuses (and elsewhere). Yet, whether you share Wolfe's social conservatism or not, it's hard to quarrel with his cultural radar: he gets the gritty details right.

Moreover, the public fascination with the Duke mess may stem from an uneasy sense that there is something amiss in the moral climate of our institutions of higher education. Does Wolfe have that right? Has even-handed neutrality and "tolerance" in the face of raunch culture created a moral vacuum where awful things are more likely to happen? In the wake of the Duke scandal, these are some of the questions that will linger.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!

When soldiers speak out

The newspaper headlines alone are jolting: "Revolt of the Generals," "The Generals' Dangerous Whispers," "Seven days in April," "Behind the Military Revolt."

They are the sort of headlines you might expect to find in a troubled Latin America country where military coups and ruling juntas are common, but not in the United States, where civilian control of the armed forces and a politically-neutral officer corps are taken for granted.

So when six retired generals recently called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation because of his handling of the military and the war in Iraq–producing those somewhat over-blown headlines–it stirred concern across the political spectrum. President Bush quickly indicated his continued support for Rumsfeld, and other retired generals and government officials came to the controversial Secretary's defense.

That these former soldiers spoke up at all suggests the seriousness of the situation. Many argued that they did not want to see the mistakes of Vietnam repeated again, where the Joint Chiefs and top generals did not actively challenge policies they believed to be flawed. The American military has a tradition of non-involvement in political matters, backed up by specific guidelines in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (Article 88) against "contempuous words against the President, Vice President, Congress…" and other government officials and a Defense Department Directive (1344.10) against partisan political activity.

While retired officers are free legally to speak their minds, the apparent coordination of the campaign against Rumsfeld, and statements by some of the generals that they were reflecting the thinking of their active-duty colleagues, raised eyebrows and elevated blood pressures among Bush Administration supporters.

Several conservative columnists warned of a dangerous precedent in the dissent. Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post saw an anti-democratic cast to the criticism: "The civilian leadership of the Pentagon is decided on Election Day, not by the secret whispering of generals."

Tony Blankley of the Washington Times went further, railing against a "military cabal" and wondering aloud whether "secret agreements" for mass resignations by Army generals would constitute "a felonious conspiracy to make a mutiny."

It wasn't just those on the Right who worried. The generally liberal Washington Post editorial board was disturbed enough to editorialize against the "revolt of the generals:"

It threatens the essential democratic principle of military subordination to civilian control — the more so because a couple of the officers claim they are speaking for some still on active duty. Anyone who protested the pushback of uniformed military against President Bill Clinton's attempt to allow gays to serve ought to also object to generals who criticize the decisions of a president and his defense secretary in wartime. If they are successful in forcing Mr. Rumsfeld's resignation, they will set an ugly precedent. Will future defense secretaries have to worry about potential rebellions by their brass, and will they start to choose commanders according to calculations of political loyalty?

Krauthammer also raised the question of what continued military dissent could mean in the future, noting that: "It is precisely this kind of division that our tradition of military deference to democratically elected civilian superiors was meant to prevent. Today it suits the anti-war left to applaud the rupture of that tradition. But it is a disturbing and very dangerous precedent that even the left will one day regret."

How worried should we be about these former soldiers speaking out? Is the tradition of military political neutrality at risk? I think that Krauthammer, Blankley and the Post are over-reacting (as is former President Ford, who issued a statement that the generals' criticism represented "a dangerous precedent that would severely undermine our country's long tradition of civilian control of the military.") In truth, we are far from any credible threat to civilian control of the armed forces, although there are disturbing signs that many in the military command structure, especially in the Army, feel "a two-way street of respect and dialogue" is lacking (to quote John Batiste, one of the complaining generals.)

At the same time, the situation is considerably less serious than the confrontation between President Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur, (settled by Truman's dismissal of an insubordinate MacArthur in 1951), or even, I would maintain, than the widespread hostility President Clinton faced over the gays in the military issue in his first year of office. Other chain-of-command disputes have occasionally surfaced. For example, in 1977 President Jimmy Carter dismissed Army General John Singlaub when he publicly disagreed with Administration plans to phase out U.S. ground troops in South Korea.

Some important distinctions need to be made. First, these are retired generals. They are exercising their constitutionally-protected First Amendment rights; no longer on active duty, they are free to speak their minds. (A number of veterans of the Iraqi conflict are seeking seats in Congress; many are highly critical of the conduct of the war. Should they be barred from elective politics?)

That's not to say the retired generals are without blame. Their comments characterizing the views of active-duty officers on Rumsfeld and Iraq war policy are out of line. Further, it's unclear whether they spoke up against Defense Department decisions they disliked at the time; that leaves them open to charges of being "sunshine soldiers" or careerists who waited until the safety of retirement to attack the Secretary of Defense.

Congressman Rob Simmons (R, CT), a Vietnam veteran and retired colonel who has been at odds with Rumsfeld on Iraq and other matters, told the Hartford Courant that, in constrast to the retired generals' approach, General Singlaub's public criticism had its merits. "He did not whisper in the corridors of power and then wait till he was safe and secure in retirement to speak his mind."

Another option exists for disgruntled military leaders: they can resign their commissions and then go public with their opposition to given policies. This should clearly be a last resort, but it does show that the officer in question has the courage of his or her convictions and feels strongly enough to sacrifice his or her career.

There is a greater danger, I would argue, in military discontent being pushed underground than in its public airing. It is actually a healthy sign, as reported in the New York Times, that junior and midlevel officers are now engaged in an "extraordinary debate… in military academies, in the armed services' staff colleges and even in command posts and mess halls in Iraq" about "whether the war plans for Iraq reflected unvarnished military advice, whether the retired generals should have spoken out, whether active-duty generals will feel free to state their views in private sessions with the civilian leaders and, most divisive of all, whether Mr. Rumsfeld should resign."

This debate should be joined. It appears that the American military will be occupying Iraq in some fashion for the forseeable future and these issues aren't going away. While Krauthammer is right to warn of the potential for dangerous precedents, stifling dissent and discouraging open discussion of the difficult choices ahead presents dangers as well. There will be significant morale and retention issues if the officer corps is effectively silenced about the strategic and political policies that put the lives of their soldiers at risk. In an all-volunteer military, with an Army stretched to the limit and needful of experienced officers, that is asking for trouble.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!

The week (April 21st): Nobody asked me, but…

Washington, D.C. edition

With apologies to New York tabloid legend Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

THE NATION'S CAPITAL never looked better (at least not to this observer) in the soft, rosy twilight of mid-April…as the Herblock Foundation honored cartoonist Jeff Danziger in a ceremony at the Library of Congress, and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor warned of assaults on judicial independence in her witty and warmly-received Herblock Foundation Annual Lecture.

In his brief comments, Danziger mentioned the tragic consequences of the Danish publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed, including the loss of life in riots in the Islamic world. In the West, it's a free speech issue that will not go away. What is troubling are attempts to censor or suppress access to the cartoons in the United States, especially in colleges and universities, where open discussion and debate should be encouraged. College administrators have moved for suppression on the grounds of respecting Islam, but, as First Amendment watchdog Nat Hentoff argues in USA Today, there is no "constitutional right not to be offended."

SEVERAL LONG-TIME REPUBLICANS in Washington openly expressed their concern to me about the meltdown of Katherine Harris's U.S. Senate campaign in Florida, and the potential for a Bill Nelson blow-out victory that would make the Democratic victor and former astronaut a potential 2008 vice presidential pick for Hillary Clinton. This GOP nightmare scenario has Senator Clinton easily holding the 16 blue states and picking up Florida because of Nelson's popularity and campaigning by former President Clinton aimed at African-Americans and the elderly.

THE DARK, TWISTED SIDE of the blogosphere has been on display in recent racist and misogynist Web attacks on blogger Michelle Malkin. The conservative Malkin has become a target for some on the fringe Left in a dispute over recent demonstrations at UC Santa Cruz against military recruiters. To her credit Malkin isn't backing down, and she has posted some of the particularly vile emails she has received (warning: these contain racial and sexual slurs.) What is bizarre is the nature of the name-calling–considering most on the Left denounce racism and sexism. There should be no place in the ongoing American political discussion for those who employ such despicable "hate-speech."

A WINNING POPULIST theme that few candidates seem to want to touch: the outrageous levels of CEO compensation that continue to be forked over to (largely) underperforming business leaders. USA Today notes: "At least a dozen chief executive officers received $100 million or more last year as part of an overall surge in pay that began in the 1990s. In 2005, the median package among the nation's 100 largest companies soared 25% to $17.9 million, dwarfing the 3.1% average gain by typical U.S. workers." Since the boards of directors in question can't, or won't, exercise discipline over compensation, calling for federal curbs would seem logical, and a clear vote-getter–except too many candidates–Democrats and Republicans–are beholden to corporate campaign contributions.

INTRIGUING REPORT by Bill Gertz on CIA open source intelligence efforts in the Washington Times ("CIA mines 'rich' content from blogs") suggests that the revolutionary impact of the Web on the collection and distribution of information is not being slighted. Some, like former CIA agent Robert David Steele, are arguing for Web-enabled "citizen intelligence collectors"–the counterpart of citizen journalists–but too Big Brother for my tastes.

Meanwhile, the political battles over intelligence continue. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte faces concerns that he has become just another bureaucratic layer, not the solution, to American intelligence (his staff is twice its originally projected size). There's also harsh criticism of the CIA from those, like Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who argue that director Porter Goss has created a politicized and demoralized organization under the guise of reform. The vital question is whether Goss' house-cleaning removed incompetent managers or targeted anti-Iraq war officials. Considering the open failures of George Tenet's CIA, what new director wouldn't look for a shake-up, new management and new ideas? You also have to be somewhat skeptical about Ignatius' CIA Old Guard sources, who have reason to be defensive about their stewardship of American intelligence both pre- and post- 9/11.

IT'S NO MYTH that America's boys are struggling academically; more proof came this week from the Manhattan Institute, as reported in the New York Times: "Boys Are No Match for Girls in Completing High School." Federal, state and local educational policies need to address this crisis, and the first step is to move beyond denial and admit there's something wrong in the way we are preparing young men for the challenges of a global future.

TWO SENATE RACES to watch with national implications: Virginia and New Jersey. If N.J. Republican Tom Kean, Jr. defeats "incumbent" Bob Menendez (appointed to the seat by his Democratic predecessor, Jon Corzine), and Kean seems to building a lead, watch for his name to surface in 2012 as a national GOP candidate who could compete in Blue states as well as Red.

In Virginia, former Secretary of the Navy James Webb has to survive a Democratic primary (which he should) before taking on incumbent George Allen. While some conservative Republicans see Allen as a potential 2008 alternative to John McCain, Reagan Democrat Webb has a shot at upsetting him. While the genial Allen remains popular, he is positioned as a Bush loyalist on the Iraq war and he has not hidden his boredom with his Senate duties. Most importantly, Allen can't count on the "good old boy" vote against Vietnam veteran and tough-guy Webb. (And when Allen resorts to his favorite football metaphors, count on someone in the Webb campaign to point out that the only University of Virginia record former QB Allen holds is for most interceptions in a game).

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS just won't let go of the idea that Saddam's regime was looking to acquire nuclear capabilities for Iraq, and his considerable scorn is directed this week at Ambassador Joe Wilson of Niger yellowcake fame. Hitchens keeps asking for someone to prove him wrong. So far, no takers.

HEAVILY EMAILED by Washington Post readers this week: Ruth Marcus's version of George W.'s farewell memo to the Bush twins. And why not: it certainly made me laugh out loud!

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!

The poetry in my head

April is National Poetry Month.

This Sunday's Book World in the Washington Post celebrates poetry and the 10th anniversary of "Poet's Choice," a column and "ongoing tribute to verse and versifiers" currently edited by U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. (Pinsky recently chose to highlight an evocative love poem by Sappho, a poet from centuries ago, reminding us of the timelessness of the art form.)

Reading this Poetry Issue has made me think about the way poetry has touched my every day life–in small and significant ways–even though I've never thought of myself of being overly preoccupied with poetry. A verse, or title, or metaphor just seems to surface and illuminate that moment for me.

It's because I was exposed as a young student to poetry–not that at the time I particularly paid much attention–but I'm thankful now that my public school education included Homer and Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Browning, Hart Crane and many more.

Later, in college, I explored other poets, including the Romantics, and independently I discovered Gary Snyder, the one Beat Poet who spoke to me (Allen Ginsburg left me cold), with his fierce love of the land and his fascination with minimalist forms of Asian poetry.

The stuff stays in your head. I’ve been thinking about first loves recently (with three sons in college and high school), and I suddenly remembered the sentiments captured in Gary Snyder’s "Four Poems for Robin," especially the close of "December at Yase," and the poignancy of looking back, perhaps with regrets:

Only in dream, like this dawn,
Does the grave, awed intensity
Of our young love
Return to my mind, to my flesh.

We had what the others
All crave and seek for;
We left it behind at nineteen.

I feel ancient, as though I had
Lived many lives.
And may never now know
If I am a fool
Or have done what my
karma demands.

Snatches of poems have come to mind over the years (more often as I grow older). When I was in my 20s, moonlighting as a sportswriter, covering high school football, I remember attending a savage game between two small working-class towns on a muddy, nasty day and suddenly having a line from James Wright ("Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio") pop, unbidden, into my head:

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.

For some reason it is those fragments that come to me. A few years back I wrote a short story, “The Extraordinary Patience of Things,” inspired in part by the opening line of Robinson Jeffers’ poem “Carmel Point,” that had stuck in my head for 20 years. The story is about a young woman going through a tough stretch who finds some solace in that “extraordinary patience” of the winter landscape around her. (It appears in my short story collection CafĂ© Carolina and Other Stories.)

Then there was the shock of recognition when I read one of Li Po's poems just a few years ago and stumbled across these lines:

Since the world can in no way answer our craving,
I will loosen my hair tomorrow and take to a fishing boat.

I marvelled that a Chinese poet from the T'ang Dynasty so perfectly express how I felt whenever I would steal away to Charlotte Harbor for back-bay fishing? (By the way, imagine the leap of imagination made by English orientalist Arthur Waley to translate Li Po and the Japanese classic "The Tale of Genji" so beautifully and yet never to have visited Asia!)

I don't think I am alone in this. I'm not the only one walking around with poetry in their head. It's one reason I agree with Donald Hall that we never have to worry about the "death of poetry," there's something in the words that draws us to them. That's why I hope the public schools keep teaching poetry (and a broad range of poetry, including some of the raw verse found in contemporary music, as well as the classics) even when it seems the kids don't get it. They will, some day.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!

The week (April 14th): Nobody asked me, but…

With another nod to the incomparable Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

THERE IS A WAY to avoid the ceremonial "First Pitch Not Reaching Home Plate" humiliation (with all the symbolic freight that carries), an indignity suffered by Vice President Dick Cheney at Monday's opener between the Washington Nationals and the Mets. How? Ted Guthrie, the then general manager of the minor league Charlotte Rangers, gave me this priceless tip back in the mid-1990s; throw the ball high, and aim for a spot ten feet over the catcher's head. That compensates for no warm-up, the tendency to short-arm the ball, and the difficulty in gauging the distance.

That's what I did when my turn came, and the catcher had to jump slightly to catch the ball. So if I could have been briefed properly beforehand, Cheney should blame bad staff prep for his errant toss. Of course the Vice President still got booed, from start to finish; he is faring poorly in the manly man department (shooting fellow hunters; throwing weakly). For an entertaining take on the media coverage of the booing, check out Howard Kurtz's WaPo blog.

WAS SADDAM trying to acquire uranium in Niger? Christopher Hitchens continues, almost single-handedly, to make the case in a thought-provoking and credible Slate piece: "Wowie Zahawie: Sorry everyone, but Iraq did go uranium shopping in Niger." A must read.

GOOGLE NEEDS to change its "Do No Evil" slogan after CEO Eric Schmidt's lame defense of the company's profit-driven cooperation with Chinese censorship. How about: "See No Evil?"

THOMAS MALLON (author of the wonderful novel "Dewey Defeats Truman") offered high praise in the New York Times Sunday Book Review for Stephen Harrigan's "Challenger Park," whose main character, astronaut Lucy Kincheloe, "a conscientious, undemonstrative New Englander" is drawn, reluctantly, into an affair. Mallon writes of Harrigan's characters: "The two dutiful, abashed and guilty people he's created strike me as the most refreshing literary lovers in a long, overheated time." I've added Challenger Park to my "to read" list.

THE PUBLIC CALL from several retired generals for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation is deeply troubling. It has elicited the standard "he's my guy" defense from President Bush, but the Washington Post's David Ignatius estimates in his column that more than 75% of senior officers want Rumsfeld gone. Considering the long tradition of non-involvement in politics by the American military, the criticisms of Rumsfeld's performance– including his authoritarian micro-managing of the war–reflect the gravity of the situation. Will Rumsfeld feel moved to offer his resignation to the President again? Don't count on the third time proving to be the charm.

BILL KELLER, executive editor of the New York Times, made a solid case for straight news reporting this week while responding to readers this week: "Despite what you hear from the clamorous partisans of the left and right, reporters have no license to insinuate their politics or ideology into news stories. And the only direction they are supposed to receive from management in this regard is a conscientious effort to keep our coverage impartial." It's heartening to see Keller take this position as others argue to abandon objective journalistic standards.

WILL DEMOCRAT JOE LIEBERMAN run as an independent for the U.S. Senate in Connecticut if he loses the nomination to Greenwich millionaire and anti-war candidate Ned Lamont ? The state Democratic Party endorses a candidate in May. If Lamont doesn't get the nod, he says he'll challenge Lieberman in an August primary. Lieberman's comments that he'd consider an independent bid represent smart politics: he's signaling that the party regulars need to consider the cost of abandoning their incumbent.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!