Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Ode to a Mormon Destroyer

Things have fallen apart in the TV world in my absence from the blog. I can accept that Tom Brokaw is doing his final newscast tomorrow night. I can deal with Dan Rather leaving in March. I can even write off that overwrought "oh, no, there's a naked back on Monday Night Football" uproar a couple of weeks ago as nothing more than FCC chairman Michael Powell getting bored and needing a diversion.

But now they've taken Ken Jennings from me. This means war.

Jeopardy's Mormon Destroyer lost in his 75th game during a taping back in September, but the show just aired here tonight. Jennings' winning streak and growing public popularity were inspirations for nerds everywhere, but his most important contribution night after night was showing Americans how to win with class and humility. The guy pocketed more than $2.5 million, but he remained gracious and mild-mannered and never got a big head about it. Crowds don't usually give standing ovations to contestants when they lose on a game show, but Jennings got one because people appreciated the character he showed during his winning streak. That, and he's inhumanly intelligent.

Thank you, Ken Jennings. America needs more citizens like you.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Communication breakdown

My apologies go out to all of this blog's loyal readers -- estimated to number anywhere from five to 10 -- for letting the blog atrophy over the Thanksgiving weekend. Real-world responsibilities, as they are wont to do, are interfering with my ability to update regularly. Look for some fresh material around Tuesday or so. Until then, enjoy whatever time off you may have gotten this week, and thanks for continuing to visit my little experiment.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The chads hang around impatiently

A federal judge in Ohio ruled Tuesday that third-party presidential candidates Michael Badnarik and David Cobb can't force a presidential recount in the state until the state certifies its initial count on Dec. 6. The decision makes perfectly good sense -- you can't count something again until you've counted it in the first place -- but it's still worrisome that it would take more than a month to count about 5.5 million votes.

The Electoral College convenes in state capitals on Dec. 13, so the timeline for the recount will be rather short even if the recount is done entirely by machine. But the Ohio recount will be more complicated and controversial than most because most counties there are still using those punch-card ballots that wreaked havoc in Florida four years ago and temporarily made "hanging chad" America's favorite "sounds-dirty-but-it-isn't" catchphrase. As MSNBC's Keith Olbermann points out, however, the cut-off date in the unlikely event that a recount flips Ohio to the Democratic side is not Dec. 13 but Jan. 6, when Congress opens the electors' votes.

Chances are that Ohio will stay in the red column, and if that's what a majority there said, that's how it should be. The important lesson to take from the last two presidential elections is that Americans must be confident that every vote is being counted and being counted accurately. Neither punch cards nor electronic voting machines without a paper trail are the way to inspire that confidence. It's time for the American people, reluctant as we may be, to re-examine the way we conduct elections in this country and to force our elected leaders to reform the system.

My recommendation? Though they've been the subject of some contention in this year's Florida balloting, optical scan machines seem intuitively to be the best choice. They offer both the speed of a machine count and the safeguard of a paper record that can be recounted by hand if necessary. These machines are used in all but two counties in Alabama -- Mobile and Montgomery are the holdouts -- and all you have to do to complete the ballot is draw a straight line. If you accidentally vote for more than one person for the same office (an "overvote"), the machine will spit your ballot out and let you try again. The hundreds of overvotes that turned the 2000 presidential election wouldn't have been possible if Florida had been using optical scan machines statewide.

Say what you will about my state, but when it comes to election technology, we made a good choice. Other states would do well to follow our lead.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Manifest destiny

I have good news as the site enters its third week of life: The fine folks at al.com appear to have decided to add this place to their "Alabama Bloggers" page. Well, that must mean someone is reading, and if that's the case, it can only be a matter of time until everyone is reading, right?

Let it be known across the land: This site's expansionist aggression will not be denied. 54'40" or fight!

Seriously, thanks for reading. More to come soon.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Market test

If you're reading this post, please submit a comment. Read below for more.

The site, sentimental creature that it is, celebrated its two-week anniversary Friday, and I want to see if anyone's paying attention yet. So here's the deal: I'm planning a series of posts around Thanksgiving (or later, depending on real-world circumstances) to size up the potential 2008 presidential candidates from both major parties, as well as some wild card possibilities. I'm both calling for your help and issuing a desperate plea for readership, affirmation, and attention.

Here's the deal: If you're reading this post, submit a comment. If you're a Blogger member, do your usual thing. If you're not, you can click "Or Post Anonymously" when the comment screen appears. You can say anything you want as long as it isn't obscene or capable of getting me sued. As a (very lame) bonus, I promise my series will analyze the presidential chances of any contender you suggest in a comment here -- even if it's someone who has no chance at winning, even if it's someone who has nothing to do with politics, even if it's your stoner roommate.

Stroke my ego and comment away. Oh, and since it's Iron Bowl time, Roll Tide.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Apparently indictments are cool now

Congressional Republicans might want to check the exit polls again and see if their recent behavior comports with the "moral values" their supporters cited as their No. 1 concern in this election cycle. The GOP voted Wednesday to change the House's governing rules to allow party leaders to keep their leadership posts even if they've been indicted on felony charges. The new rules require the Republican Steering Committee to review any indictment within 30 days and decide whether the charges are legitimate or "politically motivated."

The vote, of course, was a strategic move to protect House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who has been admonished more than once this year by the House Ethics Committee and who is at the center of a criminal investigation that has already led to indictments of three of his associates on money-laundering charges. DeLay, perhaps not coincidentally, controls a political action committee that has given campaign money to dozens of GOP congressmen, including four of the five Republican members of the ethics panel that limited his sanctions to admonishment.

DeLay and his comrades this week have publicly savaged Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, the Democratic Texas prosecutor pursuing the investigation. DeLay called Earle's work "frivolous," and Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, said, "We are trying to protect members of our leadership from any crackpot district attorney in any state in the nation from taking on a political agenda and indicting any member for any frivolous cause."

There's an old saying among lawyers: "If you've got the facts, pound the facts. If you don't, pound the table." There seems to be a lot of table-pounding going on lately.

A reminder of who the true enemy is

Sometimes it's worthwhile to take a step back from all of the debate over the Bush administration's approach to the war on terrorism and our relationship with our allies to remind ourselves that evil truly does exist in the world.

That evil manifested itself this week in the heinous murder of CARE International's Iraq director, Margaret Hassan, a Westerner who became an Iraqi citizen and spent three decades of her life doing humanitarian work in the country. She devoted her life to helping the poor selflessly, and hundreds of ordinary Iraqis rallied in the streets to call for her release. Even a message alleged to be from terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi said Hassan's abduction was over the line.

But the message fell on deaf ears. In a shocking display of utter callousness and depravity, Hassan's captors murdered a good-
hearted, innocent woman in cold blood. Arab News, a Saudi newspaper, has published a poignant and desperate plea for good people across the Middle East and around the world to condemn this horrible, senseless brutality.

Americans are right to disagree from time to time over whether our leaders are taking the right actions in the right places to fight terrorism, but the murder of Hassan proves that evil still exists in the world and that we must do what we can to defeat it. We can differ over the best way to try to wipe out evil, but we cannot compromise on the need to eradicate it.

The storm clouds gather in Ohio

First, we learn that mechanical error awarded President Bush 3,893 more votes than he received in an Ohio precinct. Now we find out that local election officials in the Buckeye State double-
counted about 2,600 ballots
, and many people in at least two counties may have voted twice. How many more errors and irregularities and questionable results will it take before anyone other than Keith Olbermann begins to pay attention?

Fortunately, two third-party presidential candidates -- the Green Party's David Cobb and the Libertarian Party's Michael Badnarik -- have joined forces to collect enough money to force a recount in the state that decided the presidential election. With both the Democrats and Republicans maintaining stony silence in the face of growing concerns about the reliability and validity of the election returns in Ohio and a few other states, it's good to see that the little guys are still fighting for the millions of us who value a clean, fair election above all other political concerns.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Just the facts, ma'am

New CIA director Porter Goss provided a clear message for his underlings in a memo to them Monday: "We support the administration, and its policies, in our work as agency employees. We do not identify with, support, or champion opposition to the administration or its policies. We provide the intelligence as we see it -- and let the facts alone speak to the policy-maker."

Goss, mind you, sent this memo almost immediately after the resignations of several high-ranking officials who expressed their concerns about Bush's handling of the war on terrorism. Once again, I grow concerned about the tone in Langley, Va.

The CIA's job is not to support the president and his policies. The CIA's job is not to oppose dissenting voices to administration policy. The CIA's job is to provide accurate, impartial, and unvarnished intelligence to the president, without an agenda, without spin, and without puffery. The CIA exists to provide just the facts -- good, bad, and ugly -- whether they're convenient or inconvenient. What the president decides to do, or not to do, with that information is his business, and he is the one who bears the ultimate burden of accountability.

I hope Goss' memo was just a poorly worded expression of that sentiment and not an indicator of a larger underlying problem.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The agony and the irony, they're killing me

"Paranoia, paranoia, everybody's coming to get me."
-- Harvey Danger, "Flagpole Sitta" (1998)
The one hit of the one-hit wonders got it right when it comes to what the Bowl Championship Series can do to a football coach's head. Today the paranoia hit Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, who suggested ESPN analysts have an ulterior motive in suggesting Auburn should be ranked No. 2 ahead of his Sooners. See, ESPN has a contract to broadcast Southeastern Conference games, and ESPN wants to boost its ratings by making an Auburn team that has dominated all but one of its opponents this year seem better than an Oklahoma team that relied on sheer luck to win two of its last three games on the last play. Yeah.

Paging the Warren Commission: I found the magic bullet, and apparently its new name is Lee Corso.

Stoops' sterling assessment of ESPN commentators completely ignores four crucial facts that defeat the "make money by promoting Auburn over Oklahoma" hypothesis:
1) The Walt Disney Co. owns both ABC and ESPN.
2) ABC has a contract to broadcast Big 12 games.
3) Oklahoma is in the Big 12.
4) ESPN won't show any more Auburn games this year.

Despite the tinfoil-hat quality of Stoops' comments, I don't blame him for lashing out. He's frustrated, and he has every right to be. Because major college football refuses to decide its champion in a playoff, there's a good chance that his team could finish 12-0 in one of the country's strongest conferences and have no opportunity whatsoever to play for the national title. Two other undefeated teams could find themselves in the same situation. It's grossly unfair, and it's enough to drive anyone a little crazy.

To borrow a phrase from some flagpole-sitting philosophers, college football is not sick, but its postseason is not well.

Speak loudly and punish 'em with a huge stick

Speak softly and carry a big stick.

That was President Theodore Roosevelt's advice to the U.S. government in dealing with foreign countries, and for all intents and purposes, it was the foundation of U.S. foreign policy for the bulk of the 20th century. It was a plan that called for our leaders to put negotiation and diplomacy -- "speaking softly" -- at the center of foreign relations and to use overwhelming force -- the "big stick" -- only as a last resort. It was a plan that won the Cold War without a single American or Soviet city getting vaporized. It was a plan that won us dozens of loyal allies that offered largely unquestioning support for our decisions. In short, it worked.

Now I worry that the Bush administration is casting aside the "speak softly" proviso to pursue newer and larger and more garish sticks. Secretary of State Colin Powell, respected around the world as an eloquent spokesman for the importance of maintaining strong, lasting alliances as a key to America's national security, has announced his plans to leave an administration where his voice was consistently drowned out by officials calling for a far more aggressive and situational approach to foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. His likely replacement is National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, an Alabama native and former Stanford University professor who has been one of Bush's most trusted confidants since 2000.

Rice's nomination sends numerous signals to our allies, and the resulting message is a mixed one indeed. On the positive side, Rice's status as a black woman helps to show any remaining international skeptics that our country has come a long way in overcoming its history of racial and gender discrimination. Rice may also have a practical advantage Powell did not: Her friendship with Bush could enable her to convince him to give more serious consideration to diplomatic options for dealing with crises than he apparently did during his first term.

The biggest potential negative, of course, is that Rice's track record indicates she may not really care much for diplomacy. She was active in lobbying Bush to go to war in Iraq, and many foreign leaders seem much less comfortable with the prospect of dealing with her than with Powell. Maybe that has something to do with her widely publicized advice to her associates last year that the United States should "punish France, ignore Germany, and forgive Russia" for their decisions not to join the Iraq war coalition. When we already have strained relations with many of our allies, making a woman who has suggested punishing or ignoring them our chief diplomat isn't the optimal way to assuage the hurt feelings.

Thanks to a 10-vote GOP advantage in the Senate, Rice will sail through her confirmation hearing. The big unanswered question -- the one that will affect our national security for generations to come -- is whether Rice can rebuild the bridges that our country has burned in the last few years.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

I grow concerned about the tone

It appears President Bush is extending his "with us or against us" foreign policy into personnel decisions at our national spy agency.

CIA insiders are griping about Bush's newly appointed CIA director, Porter Goss, and his apparent moves to get rid of employees believed to have been "disloyal" to Bush. Deputy director John McLaughlin, a 32-year agency veteran who preceded Goss as interim director, has already announced his retirement. So have Stephen Kappes, deputy director of clandestine services, and Michael Scheuer, former leader of the agency's station in charge of pursuing Osama bin Laden. Scheuer is also the author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror, a scathing criticism of U.S. policies in the Middle East and their impact on fighting terrorism.

At about the same time as Bush appointed Goss, a former Republican congressman from Florida who U.S. Sen. John Rockefeller IV and other critics warned could politicize the agency, Bush also signed executive orders to create a national counterterrorism center and expand the CIA director's role in setting budget priorities. In other words, Bush has increased the CIA director's power and is now apparently moving to consolidate support for his policies within the agency.

The dangers of purging political opponents from an agency that's supposed to provide unbiased advice and intelligence to the president should be obvious. The CIA has already been under fire in the last year for overstated and unsupported reports on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and many intelligence insiders complained that agency leaders succumbed to pressure before the Iraq war to tell the Bush administration what it wanted to hear about WMD. Forcing dissenters out of the CIA isn't the right way to ensure that presidents get fair, impartial intelligence reports that always tell the truth, even if they don't want to hear it.

Let's hope that this round of CIA resignations is just the usual housecleaning that accompanies every change of leadership at a federal agency and not a harbinger of something more troubling.

More B.S. from the BCS

This blog's focus has been, and will continue to be, mostly on politics and the media, but this weekend is as good a time as any to introduce you to my other great obsession: college sports, and -- surprise, I'm from Alabama! -- college football in particular.

Disclosure: I'm a lifelong fan of the Alabama Crimson Tide, but I'm not one of those fans who you see on ESPN wearing full body paint and a houndstooth hat and holding a roll of toilet paper taped to a detergent box, nor have I ever worn a three-piece suit to a game or smuggled alcohol into a stadium. Alabama victories make me happy, but I'm a fan of the sport above all else.

That's why this Bowl Championship Series garbage has me climbing the walls year after year. NCAA Division I-A football, as you probably know, is perhaps the only team sport in the country that doesn't hold a playoff to determine its national champion; instead, we're stuck with a bunch of bowl games with corporate sponsors whose contributions to bowl names over the years have ranged from awesome (Outback Bowl) to hilarious (Poulan/Weed Eater Independence Bowl) to outright absurd (MicronPC.com Bowl). Most of these bowls serve a good purpose -- i.e., giving teams like North Texas something to look forward to after final exams -- but they continue to get in the way of the quest for a true champion. What we get instead is the BCS, which, like that man who cheats on his wife again and again, keeps vowing that I'll get better, baby, I promise, just give me another chance.

At the heart of the BCS is a convoluted, ever-changing mathematical formula that at various times has relied on poll rankings, computer rankings, strength of schedule, losses, and the winning numbers in the Illinois Lottery's Evening Pick 4. The BCS' noble goal is to pair off the two best football teams in the country to play for the national championship each year without upsetting the entrenched bowl system.

Which is great, except that it works about as well as a coin flip would. In the BCS' six-year existence, it has produced an undisputed national title game three times. In 2000, it matched unbeaten Oklahoma against a one-loss Florida State team instead of the one-loss Miami team that beat the Seminoles or the one-loss Washington team that beat the Hurricanes. In 2001, the BCS defaced the Rose Bowl with top-ranked Miami's shellacking of a Nebraska team that didn't even win its own division of its conference. And last year, we were left with a split national title as the BCS jobbed No. 1 USC, the Pac-10 champion, out of a title game berth against LSU in favor of an Oklahoma team that was destroyed in its conference championship game.

The BCS' performance is on track to drop under .500 this year. USC is back again, and thanks to political pressures -- see, you knew I'd come back to politics eventually -- pollsters will be damned if they allow the Trojans to miss their title shot twice in a row. It's at the No. 2 spot where things get tricky. Oklahoma, which started the year ranked No. 2 and has kept churning out consistent but fairly unremarkable wins, clings to the other spot in the title game. Meanwhile, Auburn, which emerged from the middle of the national pack, is continuing to annihilate everything in its path, just as it's done all year and just as I fear it'll do to my team of choice next weekend.

All three teams are undefeated. USC won't fall from the top spot unless it loses. So it's down to Auburn and Oklahoma. Who's the unquestionable, indisputable, undeniable No. 2 team in the land? Well, that's easy enough: They both are.

Of course, I haven't even mentioned Utah, a fourth undefeated team that vanquished the Texas A&M squad that Oklahoma didn't finish off until the last play of the game. Boise State, whose blue turf is the single greatest football innovation since the forward pass, could also finish unbeaten. So in a resounding victory for the creators of the BCS and the college presidents and athletics directors who irrationally refuse to permit a playoff, there's a very real possibility that three teams could finish 11-0 or 12-0 and have no chance to play for the national title.

End the madness, guys. Please. Just give us a playoff. Four teams, eight, 16, 117 -- I don't care; just do something. There is no legitimate argument against a playoff. You can set it up so players won't miss any extra class time; college players in Divisions I-AA, II, and III seem to do just fine with the playoff systems there. The regular season won't be devalued because teams will still be jockeying for position until the last snap. Most importantly to your athletics programs, you can make way more money from playoff games than from bowls. And most importantly to fans and boosters, you can give us a real, undisputed national champion.

Give the Evening Pick 4 a break, and give us a playoff.

Friday, November 12, 2004

A divider, not a uniter

That's U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who today threatened to use his position as Senate majority leader to change Senate rules if Democrats don't lie down and let President Bush's judicial nominees roll to confirmation.

In an utter rejection of bipartisanship and comity, Frist warned that if Democrats filibustered some of Bush's nominees, he would consider a move to change Senate rules to allow filibusters to be ended by a majority vote (51 of 100) rather than the three-fifths vote (60 of 100) that has been required since 1975. Before then, it took a two-thirds vote (67 of 100) to end debate. (Political nerds can read about the history of the filibuster here.)

Before everyone gets carried away, let's note that of Bush's more than 210 appointments to federal courts in the last four years, the Senate has used a filibuster threat to block only 10 of them. It's not like Democrats are maliciously forcing hundreds of judicial vacancies to remain unfilled. Members of minority parties have long used the threat of filibuster to weed out Cabinet or judicial appointments they felt were unacceptable, and Republicans were just as guilty of that tactic when they were in the minority a few years back as the Democrats are now.

The filibuster is one of the only tools that a minority party has left to prevent the majority from running roughshod over it, and we shouldn't sacrifice a democratic tool that has proved beneficial to both sides over the years just so Republicans can get rubber-
stamps on a few more judge appointments. GOP leaders, especially Frist, would be wise to remember that history shows they won't be in charge forever, and the Golden Rule is still in effect.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Because it worked so well the first time

Michael Moore, everyone's favorite baseball cap-wearing liberal filmmaker, has decided that his anti-Bush administation movie Fahrenheit 9/11 needs a sequel. The working title is Fahrenheit 9/11 1/2, which sounds like either the latest installment in the Naked Gun series or a really bad porno flick. Moore plans to release the movie in two or three years, just in time to give Republicans another chance to divert attention from themselves in their re-election campaigns and instead pillory Moore anew.

Moore's cinematic effort in Fahrenheit 9/11 -- and regardless of your opinion of the film's thesis, the movie was good on an artistic level -- earned him a Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and more than $100 million at American box offices. Here's a tentative prediction that this sequel, like so many other sequels, won't live up to the original.

Ignore the Green Party at your peril

I should just start posting everything Keith Olbermann writes in its entirety. And I would, except for all that stuff about "copyright infringement" and "lawsuit." Anyway, the MSNBC host is back again with a startling revelation: Despite U.S. Sen. John Kerry's reluctance to get involved in the post-election fracas, there may yet be a presidential recount in Ohio.

The instigator? Green Party presidential nominee David Cobb, who told a California radio station that he would "quite likely" request a recount in the Buckeye State in the next day or two. That request, of course, depends on whether his party can round up the cash to pay for it. A recount might also come to fruition in New Hampshire, which fell in the Kerry column by a narrow margin, thanks to the demands of independent candidate Ralph Nader.

Wouldn't it be interesting if third-party candidates ended up deciding this election after all?

Arafat actually dead this time

After days of "is he dead or isn't he?" news reports, the Yasser Arafat death watch is finally over. I'll try in the next few days to post some analysis of how this development is likely to affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Regardless, I won't be shedding any tears at his funeral.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

At least he's not Ashcroft

Are parts of the Geneva Conventions "obsolete" and "quaint"? The man who's likely to become our new attorney general thinks so.

With great fanfare today, President Bush tapped White House counsel Alberto Gonzales to fill the AG shoes being vacated by overzealous Patriot Act enforcer John Ashcroft, who, as I again must emphasize, lost a U.S. Senate race to a corpse in 2000. News reports indicate that Senate Democrats, in a stirring display of party unity and courageous opposition, will prostrate themselves at Bush's feet and allow Gonzales' confirmation train to roar through the Senate without so much as the pretense of an obstacle in its path. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a long-rumored AG candidate, has publicly said he doesn't want the job.

Give Bush credit for making history by selecting the man likely to become our first Hispanic AG ever. But remain vigilant, because Gonzales is the same man who in a January 2002 memo to Bush wrote that parts of the Geneva Conventions, the international laws of war, are "obsolete" and "quaint" in the war on terrorism. Here's the gist of the memo, which said Geneva doesn't apply to al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters:

"The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians. . . . In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."

In Gonzales' defense, a few of the provisions to which he referred -- commissary privileges, athletic uniforms, scientific instruments -- do seem like relics of the World War II era, and al-Qaeda terrorists don't wear uniforms or carry their weapons openly, so they may well not be subject to Geneva. Still, when your opponents learn that you don't plan to treat their captured fighters according to the rules of war, they're much less likely to treat your POWs humanely in turn. Gonzales' memo also helped set in motion the no-holds-barred course of action that led to notorious prison abuse scandals at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and Abu Ghraib in Iraq. (Warning: Links are graphic and not safe for work.)

Despite it all, I'm willing to give Gonzales a chance. He was an able justice on the Texas Supreme Court in the 1990s, and it's hard to envision an AG infringing on civil liberties any more than the office's current occupant has. Not impossible, but hard.

Sure, Gonzales isn't Giuliani, but he also isn't Ashcroft.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

The housecleaning begins

Well, he's gone. In a letter written last week and released today, Attorney General John Ashcroft says his "energies and talents should be directed toward other challenging horizons," like packing up cardboard boxes and hauling them out of the Justice Department. Oh, and trying to up his election record against dead opponents to 1-1. Now let's hope President Bush doesn't pick an Ashcroft clone as the new AG, or do something crazy like nominate Ashcroft for the Supreme Court.

Oh, yeah, the "commerce secretary" apparently resigned, too, but I'm still trying to confirm that that job actually exists.

Olbermann: Still the man

I was going to compile an update on the investigation into voting irregularities in Florida and Ohio tonight, but unsurprisingly, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann beat me to the punch with some great reporting. Olbermann's Countdown is the only mainstream television news show pursuing this story, and if his work breaks something big, he'll be the country's next star anchorman.

Highlights from Olbermann's research, much of which appeared on his Monday show:

  • Twenty-nine Florida counties where Democrats hold a large majority of registered voters nonetheless voted in huge numbers for President Bush, including Liberty County, where Bush won by almost 900 votes even though Democrats constitute 88 percent of the county's registered voters. Those counties all use optical scan machines.
  • An official in Warren County, Ohio, which voted heavily Republican, cited a nebulous security threat to try to justify barring reporters from the administration building as votes were counted. Officials finally relented and allowed reporters inside the building, though they still weren't allowed to look through the windows into the room where the votes were being counted.
  • In 29 precincts in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which includes the heavily Democratic city of Cleveland, there was a total of 93,000 more votes than voters.

In his latest blog post, Olbermann also offers three guesses as to why no one else in the mainstream media is looking into things:

1) The media are just tired of election coverage.

2) Journalists distrust bloggers, who are keeping the story alive.

3) Reporters are afraid of being labeled partisan Democrats if they so much as try to double-check the math.

It's scary that working to ensure fair elections ever could be seen as partisan, but that's the world in which disingenuous media attack dogs have placed us. I'm just glad that the guy who urged Boston Market patrons to "eat something" is bucking the trend.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Martians beware

No longer content merely with Middle Eastern countries, the Bush administration has now apparently decided to invade outer space. It looks like the push for Star Wars is alive and well after all. Maybe it's just me, but since we're occupying two countries and still have plenty of unaddressed homeland security needs, couldn't we spend this money a little more wisely?

The United States signed the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which barred the militarization of space. What signal does it send to our allies when our country claims the prerogative to break international treaties whenever a new president takes office?

Our word should be our bond, and if circumstances force us to renege on an agreement, we need to be crystal clear to our allies about our reasons for calling off the deal. Even if it would be cool to be able to blow up stuff from space -- and the 6-year-old boy inside me screams that it would be -- we shouldn't just blow off our allies to do it.

Voting questions are going mainstream

MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, for my money one of the best SportsCenter anchormen in history, has begun to pursue some very disconcerting vote-counting developments in Florida and Ohio. (Check his Nov. 7 blog post if the link doesn't send you straight there.)

Leaders in one Ohio county decided to bar journalists from the administration building as election officials counted the votes, though they later buckled and granted nominal access. Olbermann is also investigating the results in several Florida counties where President Bush won big over Sen. John Kerry despite Democrats' 2-to-1 registration advantage over Republicans there. Florida, as you may know, relies heavily on the electronic voting machines that I've already blasted intensely in this site's short existence.

Even if it turns out that there's nothing to this story and Bush indeed trounced Kerry in formerly Democratic counties in Florida, I'm still glad to see Olbermann looking into the situation. For one thing, if there's some meat to the vote-counting rumors swirling around the Internet, the truth needs to come out before the Electoral College votes next month. And even if Olbermann finds nothing that might affect the election outcome, his work will still be valuable if it gets the public to think seriously about the danger of handing over our elections to computers whose numbers can't be independently verified by paper records. If we can't assure that the candidate for whom the majority voted is the candidate who takes office, we've lost our republic.

I've heaped criticism on the television news media in the past, and I'll do so in the future, but Mr. Olbermann just won immunity from my slings and arrows for a while. Thanks for keeping the spirit of fearless investigative journalism alive, Keith.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Separate is inherently unequal

President Bush's political adviser Karl Rove, whose history of dirty tricks would give pause even to Machiavelli, told Fox News (of course) today that Bush will still push for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in his second term. I wouldn't be too worried just yet, though. One must remember that Rove is paid to play politics, and what better way to calm Bush's socially conservative base than with an assurance that the administration will pay attention to one of their biggest concerns? Besides, two attempts to pass the amendment through the Senate failed earlier this year, and I still don't think the GOP has the necessary two-thirds vote to get it through both houses of Congress.

Adding a gay-marriage ban to the U.S. Constitution would be a humiliating concession to the forces of fear and ignorance, and, much like Prohibition, it would force future generations to pass another amendment to repeal that ill-conceived notion. America's historical trend has been toward freedom for more and more people, and this amendment would reverse that trend by enshrining discrimination in the Constitution. It would be the first time ever that we amended the Constitution to punish people just because of who they are.

I've heard the arguments about homosexuality being a choice. Save your breath. I've seen very compelling scientific research that indicates homosexuality is genetic -- more than 450 animal species exhibit homosexual behavior -- and, perhaps more importantly, every gay person I've ever met has said he or she had no choice in the matter. (As one gay man told me, his sexual preference would be to be heterosexual, but his sexual orientation was homosexual.) I can't remember the moment when I actively chose to be heterosexual, which suggests that no such moment existed. I'll assume the same principle applies to homosexuality.

Some might argue that no harm would come from a constitutional gay-marriage ban because Bush advocates civil unions, which would bestow essentially the same rights upon gays as marriage would. In other words, "marriage" would be for straight people, and "civil unions" would be for gay people. Separate, but equal.

Hmm, where have I heard that before?

Saturday, November 06, 2004

And the day and the night were the sixth day

Those of you who like your schools free of state-led attempts to win souls for Jesus might want to avoid Grantsburg, Wis. The school board there, which oversees 1,000 students in the northwest part of the state, has voted to add the teaching of creationism to the biology curriculum. The superintendent tried to justify the decision, saying a science curriculum "should not be totally inclusive of just one scientific theory."

The sentiment is correct, but creationism isn't really a scientific theory; it's a religious belief. Scientific theories must be based on repeatable observations or experiments. Most importantly, there must be a possibility that some hypothetical observation or experiment could produce results that would prove the theory false. Since there's no way to disprove the idea that God created man, creationism is an article of faith, not a scientific theory. That doesn't make the idea any less important, but that does mean it belongs in a religion class, not a science class. Many people's deep religious faith often renders them incapable of recognizing or accepting the distinction between religion and science.

Unfortunately, many people also have the mistaken belief that religion and science are mutually exclusive. They're not. Just because something is labeled "scientific theory," that doesn't necessarily make it true. And just because something is labeled "religious belief," that doesn't necessarily reduce its chances of being true. God very well could have created the world and all we see and know, but since we can't prove or disprove that idea through observation or experimentation, it's religion, not science. Humans very well could have evolved from apes, but since there remains the possibility that future observations could disprove that idea, it's a scientific theory. And of course, there's always the chance that God created humans through evolution, which would be a religious belief that incorporates scientific theory.

Back to my original point, though: Schools shouldn't be blurring the lines between religion and science to push a political or social agenda. Creationism should be taught in schools, but that instruction is more appropriate in religion or social studies classes. We should also be careful about overreacting to the teaching of evolution. The Kansas state school board removed evolution from the science curriculum a few years ago before reversing itself, and several other boards recently have also pushed to add creationism to their biology curricula.

As a longtime Alabama resident, I still remember another bit of overreaction: the little disclaimer sticker on the inside front of biology books warning that evolution was a "controversial theory" that still hadn't been proved. Of course, when you opened the book, it prominently mentioned the word evolution several times, usually preceded by the words theory of. Theories, as anyone who pays a shred of attention in science class will learn, cannot be proved. State school board members were so proud of that sticker, but unless their goal was to waste some tax money, I'm still not sure what good it did to add another warning brought to us by the Department of Redundancy Department.

No matter whether you think man's origins lie in creationism or evolution or something in between, don't sell your children short. They're smarter than you think.

The coming battle

The upside of publicly announcing the impending assault on Fallujah is that it gives civilians fair warning to get out while they can. Here's the downside. Look for the insurgents to get even more violent in anticipation and fear of the U.S. military hammering them.

This war has been far bloodier than any of our Pentagon war planners expected, and the justification for it seems to change week by week, but now that we're committed, we must defeat our opponents and then continue trying to establish peace in Iraq. There's no other option at this point.

Here's hoping three things:

1) We take no casualties (or, realistically, as few as possible).
2) No civilians die (or, realistically, as few as possible).
3) Every insurgent who's trying to kill our troops is defeated (no qualifier here).

Reps call for e-voting investigation

I'm glad someone else is paying attention to this issue. Three Democratic congressmen -- Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, and Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida -- have requested that the Government Accountability Office investigate this year's e-voting problems, which included the Ohio machine that gave Bush 3,893 extra votes, the Ohio machines that changed Kerry votes to Bush votes, and the machines in Florida and North Carolina that just ignored some votes altogether. (The link goes to a PDF, so have some free time or a fast connection.) The reps are all partisans who doubtless voted for Kerry, but the necessity of accurate vote counts transcends partisanship.

An investigation is a good start, but the integrity of our elections is too important a concern for Americans to allow it to remain mired in the bureaucratic swamp. Our unwavering and inflexible goal must be a law requiring a backup paper trail in all precincts that use e-voting. The technology to ensure the fairness of our elections is ready; now it's time to require its use.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Rudy, Rudy, Rudy...

Comforting news has already begun to emerge for those of us who deeply hope Bush will use his second term to become the kind of president he promised to be during the 2000 campaign.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, who famously and unforgettably lost an election to a dead man in Missouri, is very likely to resign before Inauguration Day. Ashcroft's aides, in classic political fashion, cite "health problems" as the justification for the move. Other problems not mentioned include "showing prosecutors how to use the Patriot Act's borderline unconstitutional antiterrorism provisions to take down everyday offenders" and "making a really big deal out of a bare breast on a statue." But I'm sure those things had nothing to do with it.

So who should replace our favorite overzealous Patriot Act enforcer? How about this guy? Rudolph Giuliani is a well-liked, pro-choice Republican moderate who supports gay rights and who was the nation's de facto public pillar of strength in the hours after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Plus, he cleaned up New York City, and if you don't like that, he'll hit you in the face with a bat.

Just make him AG and back away slowly.

Why we shouldn't blindly trust e-voting

It seems an electronic voting machine in Columbus, Ohio, awarded Bush 3,893 more votes than he actually received. That's just one voting device in one precinct in the state that decided our presidential election. That total also represents almost 3 percent of the 140,000-vote spread by which Bush won Ohio.

Does anyone else see a huge problem here? Many of these electronic voting machines don't have paper trails as a backup in case the system crashes. Computer glitches could add, delete, or change votes in a nanosecond. So could malicious hackers or programmers or software developers. And without a paper trail, there's no way we would ever know.

This isn't a partisan issue. It's a fundamental threat to our republic. We can spread democracy around the world all we want, but if we can't verify the validity of our elections, we're no longer living in a democracy. We must act on this issue immediately.

Another black eye

I've been expecting the national coverage on this issue for days, and now it's finally come to fruition. Alabama voters, misled by selfish demagogues who claimed a "yes" vote would raise their taxes, voted against an anti-segregation constitutional amendment. An automatic recount is still pending because the vote was so close, and Gov. Bob Riley promises to reintroduce a version without ambiguous language if this amendment fails.

I see two long-term problems stemming from this vote:

1) Roy Moore and his cronies still have way too much influence in my home state. A scarily high amount.

2) The provision that caused many people to vote "no" would have repealed an amendment that said there is no constitutional right to a public education. Does our fear of higher taxes honestly trump our fear of an uneducated populace? We have to get our priorities straight.

It's another self-imposed black eye for Alabama. We can do better than this, ladies and gentlemen. We must.

People are reading already

Two comments in the first three hours of this site's existence. Not bad. As you know, I love to read your comments and I welcome them at all times, but you must adhere to these guidelines:

1) Please include an opinion, observation, joke, etc., about the post on which you comment. Pretty much anything is relevant as long as it's tasteful and within reason. But if you're just trying to prolong the discussion indefinitely by raising a bunch of tangential points, I'll shut down the thread. As a general rule, if you comment on a post after it goes off the front page, chances are very high that I will delete that comment. If you're going to strike, strike while the iron is hot so other readers can have a fair chance to respond.

2) Please refrain from comments that might send law enforcement knocking on my door or yours. That means you should avoid even the appearance of soliciting or encouraging major crimes. This rule is for our mutual benefit.

Regardless of your political beliefs, most of us have That Politician who we can't stand. (I have several.) Feel free to rail against That Politician, tear That Politician's policies to shreds, or call for That Politician to be voted out or thrown out of office. But don't threaten That Politician's life or safety or make any statements that could be construed as such a threat. Even if I think it's clear that you mean no real harm, I'll still terminate such comments with extreme prejudice.

3) If you post a link to a story or blog post, please ensure that it engages in some degree of rational discourse rather than pure ad hominem attacks. Equating someone's political affiliation with a "disease" and a "mental disorder" is not rational discourse. Indeed, it's just the sort of counterproductive, divisive rhetoric that prompted me to start this site in the first place.

4) I retain the right to delete comments that I believe are designed primarily to antagonize, harass, or intimidate other commenters or me. Repeated violations of this rule may result in temporary or permanent revocation of your commenting privileges.

Thanks for the attention so far, folks. There's more to come soon.

Second verse, same as the first?

Conventional wisdom says incumbent presidents lose when they start unpopular wars for inscrutable reasons. They lose when the economy is sluggish and more jobs have been lost than gained on their watch. They lose when their job approval ratings drop below 50 percent. And they always lose when the Washington Redskins fall in their final home game before the election.

Conventional wisdom is dead. Next?

Next is a second dose of George W. Bush in the White House, something that, to say the least, I'm not overly enthused about, but also something I don't think will end up being as bad as many of his opponents predict. One must never forget that Bush is still the same trigger-happy blueblood in a cowboy costume who for the last four years has been spending our money like he won it in a big Powerball payout, but he's at least talking a good game as he heads into his second term. "Unity" and "bipartisanship" are renowned D.C. buzzwords by now, but they provide some of the only hope remaining for those of us who honestly want to see the country join together again and work toward common goals.

Will Bush's goals be what the country needs? That's uncertain. For one thing, his administration's doctrine of pre-emptive warfare is unlikely to change, and with our military stretched to the breaking point, that could quickly become a problem. Realistically, we face two options in Iraq: 1) Stay there for several more years, which would require better safety equipment and additional personnel (dare we speak the word "draft"?) or 2) Pull out within the next year or so, which, considering the instability there now, would probably result in a bloody civil war that wouldn't exactly be a shining PR moment for the neocon dream of spreading democracy around the world.

The media don't like to talk about it much because it's harder to cover, but the unsecured nuclear weapons in Russia and the other former Soviet republics are a huge national security problem, because if terrorists are going to get their hands on WMD, the black market is the likeliest point of access. John Kerry realized this early and made it an important but largely unheralded part of his campaign platform, even during the primaries. I hope Bush was paying attention. I also hope Iran and North Korea don't get away with continuing to develop nuclear weapons with impunity, but I fear our commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq have limited our options elsewhere.

Domestically, Bush's fervent devotion to cutting taxes again and again is here to stay. Call me a fiscal conservative, but it doesn't seem like a good idea to keep spending more money to sustain or launch foreign wars as you simultaneously keep reducing the amount of money coming into the coffers to pay for it all. If I run up more and more charges on my credit card each month and pay off less and less of that debt, I'll be in big financial trouble in a hurry. The same principle applies to our national budget.

I look for Bush to push for two domestic initiatives that look good on paper but would be bad ideas in practice: a national sales tax and a partial privatization of Social Security. The advantage of the national sales tax would be that it only penalizes people who buy things, but that's also its (much larger) problem. The poor spend far more of their income on the necessities of life -- food, clothing, housing -- and would be disproportionately taxed as a result. The national sales tax would be one of the most regressive and punitive policies that our country could ever possibly consider, and I truly hope Democrats stand their ground if the GOP tries to impose it. I can easily see this becoming the campaign issue in the 2006 midterm races.

Privatizing Social Security sounds like a great idea on the surface; what could be better than to let people invest a small amount of the money they would otherwise set aside for retirement and allow them to live out their golden years with the huge profits from those investments? Capital idea, old chap ... except that our Social Security system doesn't work that way. The money you pay in now isn't set aside for you; it's spent right away on the benefits for current recipients. With the Baby Boomers hitting retirement age in the next few years, we're facing a huge influx of recipients and not nearly enough workers to pay for the added costs. Allowing workers to reduce their contributions to the system would only worsen that problem.

All the demagogic campaign talk about a constitutional ban on gay marriage disgusted me, but I doubt we'll see much action on it soon. Gay-baiting is a very effective campaign tool for social conservatives, and I don't see them wanting to give it up any time soon. Besides, I suspect Vice President Dick Cheney, who has a gay daughter, would put his foot down if the amendment train started seriously picking up steam. Abortion is another effective wedge issue, so the fears of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade after the inevitable addition of a couple of new Bush-appointed justices are probably unfounded.

A hundred other issues confront Bush in his second term, but I don't have time to go into them all now. Suffice it to say that if the "war president" wants to secure his desired legacy as "a uniter, not a divider," he's going to have to do much better at compromising and staying open to new ideas than he did in his first term.

Then again, he could always just replace U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist with former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore.

Here goes nothing

"May you live in interesting times."

It's an old Chinese curse, the implication being that it's better to live in a peaceful world full of boredom and predictability than in a tumultuous world full of violence and intrigue and other things that enable journalists and historians to pay the bills.

We, my friends, live in interesting times. The United States, the world's sole remaining superpower, is deeply immersed in two wars in the Middle East as many other security threats -- Iran, North Korea, loose nuclear material in the former Soviet Union -- loom prominently. Given the aggressive and no-holds-barred nature of our country's recent foreign policy, many of our allies are questioning how actively they wish to show their fidelity to us, or indeed whether they even want to continue supporting our policies at all.

Millions of young Arabs, facing bleak economic prospects in their home countries, are filled with anger and looking for a release, a scapegoat, a way to feel important in the great scheme of things. Unfortunately, many of them are turning to terrorism, and it appears more of them are opting for that route every day. Millions of people are dying of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, leaving the continent facing the prospect of a whole generation of orphans. Half of the people in the world live on less than $2 a day.

On the home front, Americans, as the cliche goes, have divided themselves into two sides. The Civil War saw the Blue vs. the Gray; today, we have the Red States vs. the Blue States, the heartland vs. the coastlines. The stereotypes are well established by now: Red Staters, according to the Blues, want to drop a nuclear bomb on everything that moves, impose theocratic rule, and eliminate taxation of any kind so gated-community dwellers can have all of the money. Blue Staters, according to the Reds, want to surrender the country to the United Nations and the terrorists, redistribute 100 percent of taxpayers' hard-earned money to people who refuse to work, and imprison anyone who dares to express anything that resembles a religious sentiment.

More than they realize, the sides agree on a lot of core issues -- the country must be safe, the economy must be strong -- but many people's entrenchment in their respective camps leaves them blind to that fact and unwilling to negotiate or alter their myopic worldview in any way. Two consecutive bitterly contested presidential elections have only deepened the divisions and made the prospect of reconciliation seem more remote than ever.

We live in an unhealthy environment where honest political debate has been replaced by a mindless shouting match, where demagogues can win elections with promises to discriminate against an irrationally feared minority, where people are told they hate America if they deviate from the accepted party line. It's a wretched environment for democracy, for basic human decency, and for our future. It has to change.

As Benjamin Franklin was leaving Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention ended in 1787, someone asked him, "Well, Doctor, what have we got -- a republic or a monarchy?" Franklin, famously, responded, "A republic, if you can keep it."

Consider this blog, however sporadic the posts may end up being, my small contribution toward helping us keep our great republic. Welcome aboard. I hope you enjoy the ride.