Monday, December 31, 2007

How About a Fresca?

As we all know, it was Judge Smales who said, “Danny, there’s a lot of baaaadness in this world. I see it in my courtroom every day.”

It’s hard to disagree with my philosopher king and avatar, but I must. Being a good-natured soul, however naïve, I happen to think day-to-day life for most people is pretty good, despite the media and social focus on the inexorable crush of Everything. And that's why I'll follow lockstep the federal law requiring on the last day of the year that shallow, self-absorbed blawg-meisters address the hard realities of 2007 and look ahead with hope and promise to the phantasms of 2008.

2007: Oh, this is easy: It’s all about the prism of politics. And the kaleidoscope of 2007 was a mirror of 1995 with a refraction of light from 2000. Like the 104th Congress, in which I was a foot soldier, the 110th Congress was going change the world, doncha know. Man, 11 bruising months later, we get a dollar increase in the minimum wage, more loan money for sullen, underachieving college kids, a couple congressional ethics laws, and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys gets a Kennedy Center honor. So that takes care of that.

But whoa, wait a minute. On the actual serious side, 2007 was a year framed by Nellie's Real People Tour. In my capacity as an apparatchik Chart Boy for various Power Brokers, Movers and Shakers, and Major Players (see April 27th post), I traveled to one-fourth of the states in the Union, visited dozens and dozens of cities and communities of various means, and spoke, no kidding, with hundreds of people. It was a nice break from my life sentence in a windowless office in a monolithic office building serving as a faceless, soulless bureaucrat pushing paper and sending meaningless email. From my American odyssey, several observations, however unscientific:

1. Guess what -- your typical person outside a 30 mile radius of the Capitol follows in only a desultory fashion what goes on in Washington. They don't watch C-SPAN, they don't paw through the Federal Register, they don't follow hearings in the Subcommittee on Paperclips and Office Furniture, all of which is probably why to a person they......

2.Think Washington is a town generally inhabited by full of people who are rather callow and self-important (c'mon, no way!). Americans don't have an intense dislike of politicians and legions of serfs (like Nellie) who run the gears of this tow; rather, it's more a disappointment people feel, fed by the endless stories of the perceived chicanery here, the superficiality, the grasping, the tantrums, and rigidity that politics so easily slides into. By and large, Americans get things done, whether it’s a week's work or a home project or raising kids. Outside Washington, the perception is that Congress does not get things done. And when they do get done, it's last minute, half-hearted, and filled with acrimony. Perhaps that's democracy with a small d, but it certainly is discouraging.

3. All that noise you hear about immigrant nation? Well, it's true. This won't strike Washingtonians as unusual, where you can be anywhere in the city and hear people yammering away in some clipity foreign tongue, but from the heartland, the coast, the remote reaches of small towns and extant suburbs, this nation is packed with immigrants from improbable lands. An entire Eritrean cadre runs the cab services in Kansas City; there are Russians and Nigerians running corner stores in Lancaster, CA; Guatemalans cleaning streets in Naperville, IL; Pakistanis in strip malls in Henderson, NV; Vietnamese and Thai running gas stations in Houston; Afghans in Harrisburg; Iranians in St. Louis. I've lived in cities like Los Angeles, Washington, New York, and San Francisco, where you expect enclaves of ethnics. But this spread of immigrants across the land is as steady as it is vaguely disquieting.

4. Out There, you run into people who actually do things – they run a restaurant, they are a building contractor, they work in a dental office, they teach schoolchildren, they buy and sell real estate, they manage a store, they make payrolls, buy commodities in bulk, work spreadsheets, and lead people, 3 or 53. In DC, and goodness knows I’m as guilty of this as any drone, it’s paper and phone calls and computer screens, and meetings and seminars and speeches and more paper. Within the District of Columbia boundary lies the softest economy in the land; out in the real world, people actually have to produce and sell and buy goods and services with their hands and savvy.

5. Despite the horror and doom you hear from the MSM, most people are doing pretty darn well. You move through communities-- in all regions of the nation -- and you can tell that the vast majority of Americans work hard, have a demonstrated sense of selflessness, are committed to their families and involved in their communities. The word here is decency -- it's palpable wherever you go.

Hence, the lessons of 2007, learned on the road with eyes peeled, a Chart Boy with peripheral vision and no free hands, thank you.

So 2008? Easy. The tidal wave of a presidential campaign engulfs us already, there will be no respite, we will all suffer mightily and beg for mercy, and all five observations above will have new meaning. How to handle it all? Easy. To once again quote from my intellectual North Star, Judge Smales, how about a Fresca?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Another Nellie White House Christmas

"I saw Smales cheating on the 12th hole."
"Nobody likes a tattle tale, Danny. Except me."
-- Danny Noonan and Ty Webb, Bushwood Country Club

Washington, D.C. – Because I assume that modern society is informed and shaped by the ethos of "Caddyshack," I'll come clean, unlike Judge Smales, and admit this post was written exactly a year ago. Nothing changed this time around, except the envoleope wasn't in my chair. It was laying on my desk.

The envelope sat on my chair at work one morning. Inside was the invaluable payoff that only a shallow, self-obsessed functionary like me could appreciate: an invitation to the White House Holiday Open House! Sure, maybe I am a washed up Santa Monica surfer, a bane of my liberal parents’ existence, a nothing burger in a town full of Big Macs. But, forget that all, man – Nellie was getting on the Beautiful People train and the first and last stop was 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Always one to stay grounded, I immediately began imagining the event – the twins, Jenna and Barbara twins would be there, winking at me. Karl Rove would want to know what I thought about Social Security privatization, I could swap Harley stories with that St. Albans Angel, Josh Bolton. Maybe even Laura Bush would be open to my irrepressible rap. Sure I’m middle-aged, plain, devious, and overbearing. But I sparkle inside. Or at least that’s what people have told me. People, I note haughtily, who were distinctly not going to the White House for some good old fashioned holiday open housing.
So on a balmy late afternoon earlier this week, I hustled on over to yes, “The White House!” as I said loudly to the taxi driver as I climbed in, so that all my equally faceless peers on the street corner could hear me. I was driven to the special entrance on 15th street that is open to the public, and soon was in front of a Secret Service guy with a transistor stuck in his ear. “You’re on the list,” he said causally. You got that right, brother, I thought, rubbing my palms together with glee. “I am indeed on the list,” I smirkingly said to myself, audible to anyone within earshot of twenty feet.
I passed through security easily with about 150 of the Prez’s best pals and soon was walking through the ground floor corridor in the East Wing. A stickler for details, the first thing I notice gazing out the windows to the south toward the Washington monument is couple of weeds growing through a nearby brick path. Well. There are no brick walkways at Nellie Manor but if there were, you can be dang sure there’d be no weeds in them. No wonder the country’s going to hell.
Then, some beaming elderly woman handed me a booklet, “Deck the Halls, Welcome All” – my first takeaway from the White House! Just in time too, folks, because now I didn’t have to accidentally “borrow” a pen or some other piece of bric-a-brac lying around to take home as a souvenir. I soon learned there would be no worry about that -- I wouldn’t get close enough to anything smaller than a chair or looser than a door.
Down an ornate corridor I saunter in a packed herd of well-wishers, flanked by huge red plants with red Christmas tree balls glued to them. Then it’s another corridor, then another -- I’m beginning to think this is just like the monotonous office building in which I toil, except for the inlaid marble floors, mahogany wainscoting, crystal chandeliers, tasteful throw rugs, and 20-foot ceilings.
At intervals, we are allowed to look in on several rooms. One was the “Library” so named because the sign out in front said it had 20,000 books in it, all about American life. Standing on my toes, peering through this narrow doorway, I could see about ten of them. There was also a fireplace and a few chairs. Hmm, I thought, this is where I’d probably hang out if I was the Commander-in-Chief.
Across from it was the “Vermeil Room”, where I saw a wood floor, a couple more chairs, and another fireplace. Before I had a chance to see what a “Vermeil” actually was -- a person or a certain kind of floor polish they used in there -- I was gently pushed out of the way by some nondescript guy and his matronly wife. I mumbled to myself like a crazy person -- “Well, I never….in the White House no less….there were no buttinskis during the Reagan administration…” Soon the sea of humanity ebbed on and flowed down another corridor.
Here was the East Room which they actually allowed us into. 35-foot ceilings and dimensions of oh, about 67 feet by 224 feet. Again, a fireplace, a couple stuffed chairs, and a long table. The Deck the Halls program told me that this is where the nieces of President Jackson went haywire one Christmas eve and “waged a tremendous cotton snow ball fight inside this room.” Well, good to know that kids didn’t have manners then, either.
Nice room, yes, but while all these crowds of obvious nobodies were milling around taking pictures, I still held onto my dreams. I gripped my program tightly and fingered the pen in my breast pocket, knowing that it would be only a matter of time before I’d have to whip it out fast when if I wanted to get an autograph from the twins or someone else important.
Then yet another hallway, ornate as the dozens of hallways I'd already been in -- red balls plastered, pine needle garlands, and some portraits. There’s Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, all with the men standing against backdrops of books and fireplaces and drapes. Off in a corner is an odd one, a painting of a brooding JFK, his has head down, his hands in his pockets, the colors light brown and grey and black, with a background representing a kind of mist.
Hey, what’s this?! A portrait of Hillary Rodham! She’s standing next to a table and what is here right hand gently grazing? Why it’s a drawing of a book – “It Takes Village”! You old rascal, Hil, I chuckle to myself. Subtly flacking a book in the East Wing about those marvelous towns in Africa that function like clockwork, except when people aren’t dying of malaria, starvation, thirst, or marauding Muslims. C’mon HRC, it takes a Special Prosecutor in that village.
Stopped before a huge portrait of either Dolly Madison or Eartha Kitt, I continue to note the crowds of ordinary looking folks milling. Jeez, the riff raff they let in the People's House.
Oh, here’s the “Green Room” – emerald city. Jefferson used to play his violin here I’m told by the booklet. How neat. I can’t seem to hear the echoes even now. Next the “Blue Room.” So named because you know why. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in this room with a “shaky hand” we’re told. Well, that settles that.
Next, the “Red Room.” My eyes are reeling. Something famous happened in here but I was too distracted by the trying to find somebody, anybody, to sign my dang program. And I was getting hungry. Good, because the next stop was the State Dining Room. Aha, I thought, this is where I can put on the nosebag, get a few of those delicious little wieners on toothpicks with the tangy mustard dip, and wash it down with some punch and maybe sneak the plastic glass into my pocket.
Well, folks, I want to tell you there is no chow line in the State Dining Room. Just another long table and a couple of secret service agents staring at me, making me paranoid, like I'm going to steal something. Which is true – I’d tried to twist off some pine needles from a garland and only got sticky fingers. I kept moving and presto, I was suddenly in the Grand Foyer and being hustled down a cascade of steps that lead down to the driveway and out to Pennsylvania Avenue.
I pause for moment on the ordinary asphalt driveway and wonder if this has all been a dream. The booklet tells me I’ve “now become part of the White House holiday history.” What? No twins, no First Lady, no souvenir pen or coffee mug, no tiny hot dogs, no Rove sighting, and now I’m standing on a plain asphalt driveway like the one I have at home. Still, I do have my booklet, and it sticks to my pine-tarred fingers as I walk proudly out the White House gates.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Service Lessons

About a week ago a friend I know from the Hill nonchalantly said that he'd wished he'd joined the service when he was younger because, as he said, "These military guys seem to have their act together." I thought, yeah, don't they?

I spent the summer of 1989 at Ft. Benning, Georgia, Home of the Infantry, in BCT, or Basic Combat Training. I was one of 40 in a platoon of guys in fatigues -- 4th Platoon, Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 37th Infantry Regiment. BCT was followed by 14 years in the Army Reserve and the Army Guard as an enlisted man, where I performed routine duty interrupted by occasional bursts of brilliance doing KP, driving Humvees to pick up stranded seniors in snowstorms, and pulling guard duty at midnight on vast, remote bases all over the United States.

The amazing thing about the Army – the military in general -- that most who have never served don't ever realize, is the ability to take raw young men, utterly diverse in backgrounds and skills and behaviors, and teach them to become proficient at complex, detailed endeavors under extreme circumstances. I once heard a general say that a 19-year-old on patrol makes more far reaching national security decisions in 10 minutes than an academic egghead desk jockey in Washington makes in a lifetime.

Just imagine taking 120 people off the street: Here’s an M-16 rifle. In several days, you will be required to learn it as well as the people who built it, break it down into pieces as small as a pin, meticulously clean every part, assemble it back together and fire and hit targets 300 meters away – at dusk as the wind is blowing up dust from the firing range.

It starts with the M-16 – and it never ends. M-60 machine guns, M-240 grenade launchers, 60 mm mortars, TOWs – and that’s just some the equipment the grunt masters. Think about what it takes to drive a tank, fire an artillery piece, fly a helicopter.

Then there are the other endless realms of the infantryman -- read grid coordinates on a map and mark positions within feet; operate a radio on endlessly shifting frequencies; walk miles of terrain with a compass; treat wounds; recognize a minefield or an IED; handle explosives. The expectations are always high because the drill sergeants will ride you until you get it.

One day, 4th platoon was randomly chosen to be a test unit for the-then prototype AT-4 antitank weapon. All 40 of us were marched to a huge gunnery area, instructed in the use of the tube’s aiming and firing mechanisms, watched over by a cadre of clipboard-holding civilians, and told to fire away at targets hundreds of meters down range, where every round was tracked and noted. We'd been in Basic for four weeks.

As hackneyed as it sounds, every platoon is out of Hollywood central casting. The suburban white guy, the brother from the 'hood, the earnest geek, a quiet, methodical Hispanic, the country boy, the joker. You are all thrown together in true man’s environment. The conditions are simple and harsh. Yeah, there's some groaning, but it's not sustained. Remember, these guys are volunteers – these are guys who follow directions, like the rough and tumble, yearn for the camaraderie. Throughout it all are the indomitable drill sergeants, yelling and screaming at us all.

Looking back nearly 20 years, I recall the countless lessons, realized and unrealized then – mastering tough tasks, being in put in charge of your fellows, making mistakes, the physical punishment --- at the root of military training. Here’s a harmless example: An entire battalion worth of two-man tents spread across a field with the starting point being a 2-foot post hammered into the Georgia clay by an NCO. From this post, in precise form, all the tents were laid out exactly three feet apart on all sides, in a huge grid. After two hours of everyone staking out their tents, rope lines, digging small drainage trenches around the tents, every tent was in a perfect line from the starting point of that one stake.

The drill sergeant then called us into formation in view of the stake, yanked it out of the ground, moved it one foot over, pounded it into the ground, and said he’d made a mistake and that all the tents would have to correspond to the new marking. It was in indescribable shock that we all looked at that stake. Every tent, the ropes and ditches had to be moved a foot over, which meant the whole field of 400 tents had to be taken down and put up in perfect lines again. My mind reeled at the thought of the whole process -- it was already night, we had to eat, break down weapons, set guards, and get up at 4 a.m. the next day, and it was already raining. Only later did I realize there were a lot of lessons to be drawn from this -- perseverance, adaptation, teamwork.

I recall dozens of these kinds of unyielding exercises in the training I received: the air assault course where the rock hard NCOs got us to the top of a 120-foot repelling structure and drawled, "If you don't wanna go off my tower, go back down the ladder and there's a truck there that'll take you home to mama." There was the two week "school" with Special Forces and Rangers in Martinique (I was deadweight for the SF and Rangers but the training was centered around water courses and I made the cut because I was a good swimmer) where we scoured the island at night, lived in the field, and blew off enough smoke grenades to obscure Miami.

Throughout all this, and as large as an institution as the military is, I was always impressed with my fellow soldiers, virtually every one of them. And this was just the reserves; my respect for active duty guys was and is boundless.

Now, as I talked with my Hill friend about the service, I told him to go read the Washington Post obituary of a soldier killed in Iraq, Army 2nd Lieutenant Christopher Loudon of Brockport, PA, of the 4th Infantry Division. To paraphrase the words of someone who knew him, Loudon was always able to confront a miserable situation with calm and find a way to lead everyone out of it.

It was a keen observation of what the service produces and instills. A mixture of courage and savvy, talent and foresight, leadership and decisiveness. It would be inaccurate to say it's in every soldier -- I'm not sure those qualities are in me. But it's the ideal, and along with military service, few other institutions in American life -- law enforcement, fire and rescue, medicine -- prepare an individual to confront an awful, seemingly hopeless scene and immediately gather the resolve to drive on and inspire those around him.

Most important, it's that ethos we have going on every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kosovo and Korea and every other place where you find a platoon of guys in fatigues.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Taking The Hit

Saturday afternoon and I’m sitting around with a bunch of guys watching college games. We’re Football Nation folks, and the channels are filled with Florida vs. Oklahoma, Akron vs. Toledo, Big Bad State vs. Awful Tech. Who knows whose playing --- it’s one big blur of painted kids dancing in the stands, cheerleaders hopping around, and a ball with white stripes on either end.

I’m always astonished by the ferocity of the college game. Big, strong guys with speed hitting their counterparts. And I’ve always had admiration for these athletes, able to condition themselves to take that kind of punishment. Because I couldn’t and didn’t.

I'd never played organized football before my junior year in college. My mom and dad wouldn’t sign the release forms in high school, explaining to me that I'd get irretrievably hurt. So I did other sports -- basketball, track, surfing and swimming. None of these were exactly like being president of the Astronomy Club in terms of the geek factor. But they weren’t football.

While at UC Berkeley, at that time a weak Division I school, I was a good enough athlete to play on the junior varsity basketball team where we’d scrimmage the varsity all the time. But true to my life before and after, I rode the bench like the pine-master I am. It's when I transferred to a small Division III school that I figured it was time to realize my gridiron dreams. “Time to show you what it's all about, mom and dad,” I said to myself, “You dang dream wreckers.”

When I showed up for the first practice at Williams, one of the assistant coaches who met me in the locker-room said, you want to try quarterback or receiver. I kid you not. The whole athletic scene was just less sophisticated back then. From playing other sports, I knew I had just enough agility and size to play some position other than Left Out. And I wouldn’t have even minded being fourth-string quarterback. But I honestly didn’t think I had the brain power to learn all that went into reading a defense and running an offense. So receiver it was.

To its credit, Williams is a Division III school where kids can participate in virtually anything they wanted if they were willing to show up to practice and tough it out. Plus, I have to say there weren't a lot of geeks at Williams, and there aren't today; nearly 70 percent of the student body, male and female, play some NCAA sport.

The whole football scene was like something out of an artsy, F. Scott Fitzgerald take on coming of age in the melancholy New England autumn. The locker-room was in an old, high-ceilinged brick field house, from which you walked down to massive fields surrounded by trees turning fall colors, with mountains ringing the whole valley. The girl’s field hockey teams practiced nearby and the teams mingled – guys in muddy pads, girls in tartan skirts -- after practice walking to the field house in the gathering dusk. Cut and print, baby.

The first game I ever played in was a scrimmage against Dartmouth and I got pounded on all three series in which I played. But it was against Colby that I really learned the lessons of the parents.

Third quarter, a play action pass. Fake to the half back and there I am in a simple post route turning into the middle about 12 yards out from the line of scrimmage. Our QB saw me, threw and I caught it. Simultaneously I got hit high in the chest and head by the safety and low in the thighs by a linebacker. Two terrific hits -- and I was knocked out.

As the pileup cleared away, I came to, still holding the ball with the ref reaching down to take it and mark the first down. I got up slowly and trotted back to the huddle with my head down, like nothing happened because I was completely and utterly bewildered. There was no pain, but my head was throbbing. I wasn’t sure what had happened but I dimly recall straining to remember the plays as they were called for the next couple series. There were no outward signs that I was different so no players or coaches were clustered around asking me if I was ok. Just a hard hit to be shaken off. Later, I realized it was a concussion.

It got worse. By the end of the game, I was breaking from the huddle knowing only from vague instinct where to line up and what patterns to run. We won the game and afterwards in the locker-room, I was moving slowly, my thoughts were disorganized, and I could hardly remember how to tie my tie. But amid the clamor of a win, nothing seemed unusual to anyone else. I knew something was not right with the already dim Nellie brain center. Some things were clear, like making small talk, other common details I couldn’t remember, i.e. I could barely remember my dorm and how to find it.

I went out to dinner that evening with a girl and her parents, who were from my home state of California and when I found her dorm, I had to concentrate hard to remember her name. Her parents had been at the game and her dad said, “You got socked!” “What a game,” I replied through the small aperture in the cement block that seemed to be my head.

Now I knew where the phrase "game face" came from. I wasn't talking gibberish and could hold a conversation, but I wasn't fast on my feet adn I couldn't remember vast areas of knowledge, like what classes I was taking and the names of professors.

Then there was the obligatory Saturday night call to my parents. I couldn’t recall my home number and had to read it out of my address book. I got them on the line with the usual rap. ‘Yeah, it was a good game…we won…nope, didn’t get hurt…had dinner with Laura and her parents from San Fran…yes, she’s nice girl…please send money…’ “Are you ok?” asked my father. “Oh sure, dad,” I said, sitting there like a zombie. At this point, even the game was a dim memory.

But the body heals, and when I woke up Sunday, things got a little more focused. All that day, the fog started to clear and by evening, I was recalling pretty much what had happened.

Today, I watch these college players – Division I behemoths, not Division II walk on scrubs -- take a beating on every play and I am always puzzled there are not more serious injuries. I took my hit, survived and my season continued and ended happily. The best thing is, mom and dad were never told – and not hearing the smug “I told you so” was worth much more than a day in a fog.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Yes You Can

Los Angeles, California -- I actually know who said, "You can't go home again" because I looked it up after hearing people knowlingly toss off the phrase dozens of times. However, I never read the book beccause that would have required mental heavy lifting of which I'm not capable nor inclined. But I knew that someday the phrase would come in handy.

I'm in Los Angeles to sit with yes, my famed good ole mom, while she recovers from a mild illness. Not only do I get to come home again, but I get to listen to her biting liberal observations spliced with lamentations of her ideologically lost son. It's a real tightrope -- showering genuine affection on a woman who lambasts your world view at every turn (please see "Good Ole Mom" post).

In addition to criticizing my entire professional career, she has never been comfortable with my upbringing, coincidentally which she oversaw. That's because I grew up in standard fashion: pretty happy-go-lucky, mildly excelling at school and sports, with many friends and no irretrievable mistakes.

Moreover, I actually liked the many hackneyed features of adolescence and reveled in all the mundaneity that it brought. No tortured childhood here, folks. No brooding intellectual, simmering with rage at subtle or perceived insults, no lifelong grudges against The Man and the vacuity of modern society. No ravings of how plastic everything was and how I was "misunderstood" and my sublime thoughts were not appreciated. I loved the beaches of Santa Monica, where I was born, and the pleasant suburb and schools that were my lucky lot. My teachers and coaches, almost to person, were admirable and my friends from 40 years ago are still today.

Indeed, if you're most crushing adolescent blow is having to go to the prom with your childhood friend, then you're simply not fit to be some dark, tormented neo-Goth nor conversely, some shrill, righteous crusader avenging wrongs and all that stuff.

In addition to boring All-American stability, growing up in LA gave you brushes with future fame mesiters that put life in perspective. One of Peter Lawford's daughters was in my high school class; former UCLA and Denver Nugget great Kiki Vanderweghe once blocked one of my numerous ill considered shots in a basketball tournament. On my track team and in my French class was Christopher Knight, aka the world famous Peter Brady of the Brady Bunch. Our rival high school was quarterbacked by John Elway and one of my best pals intercepted him. John Coltrane's family lived a few blocks away; Joan Jett a little farther. The nifty brushes with color and style added a swirl to the plain vanilla childhood I had, all of it against the express wishes of my flinty, sharper, penetrating mother. Despite this letdown, she wasn't despondent throughout and even today is grudgingly aware of having raised a son whom you can introduce to friends.

For example, when her friends visit and ask what I'm doing, I reply robotically, "I'm a loyal shock trooper in the Bush Administration." "That's nice," they say politely and ask about all those "wonderful programs you people want to cut."

But the old ghosts of three decades don't die. Mom and I are lounging on the patio one afternoon, trading casual invective at each other when the phone rings. It's an old pal along with whom I'm meeting that evening with a bunch of guys from the team who still live in the area. "We're all gonna meet at the Sagebrush Cantaina and talk b-ball and girls," I cackle mercilessly to a world-weary mother. She sighs at this preposterous continuance of the juvenile, cornball son I've been and remain. "Jeffrey," she says sadly, "As the man says, you can't go home again."

For one of the few times in my whole life, I am actually prepared for good ole mom. I clear my throat and reply, "Thomas Wolfe was a disillusioned, embittered old Southern cracker" and then I deliver the crushing finale, adding, "Besides, he never played against Kiki Vanderweghe."

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Fourth and inches

It’s a weekday midafternoon and I’m sitting on on wooden bleachers at a local high school. Its early autumn, breezy with a few wispy leaves. And middle son Braden is playing in the first organized football game of his life – the big Landon-St. Albans clash of the 6th grade titans.

Kids’ sports are a crazed part of the national pysche. I know. I’ve got three sons currently on 8 separate teams. I coach my youngest son in 3rd grade basketball with my winning “Cycle of Fear” motivational tool and have a car full of sweaty athletic gear all year long. And since I sat on the bench in high school and college in three sports, I bring a good-natured resilience to All Things Sports.

First, I naturally have a little pep talk before the big game, full of a homespun Nellie advice: “Son, pretend the running back is a Democrat after Dad’s job. Don’t let him get by you!” Just kidding. Actually, I say, “Take if from your old man, when it's fourth and inches, go long."

Second, I’m past getting nervous or uptight about games. I once figured out that since all three of my three sons started playing organized sports, I’ve watched more than 680 games, matches, and meets, no kidding. I tell myself it's making me a better person -- as far as I know.

Third, I’m also past the point of putting some phony smile on my face and saying to my kids after some atrocious mistake, “Ohhhh, that’s ok! So long as you have fun!” To hell with fun. A lot of the sports scene is a grind and the takeaways for the kids willing to stick it out, even on the bench, are teamwork, perseverance, discipline, selflessness. If it was always “fun,” everyone would score a ton of points, even the geeks.

Fourth, I don't get crazy anymore about playing time, no matter what coaching conspiracy is going on. Braden plays nose guard and doesn’t start. Big deal -- it’s his first season. He'll either learn or become president of the Stamp Club. But he’s a solid athlete. Last weekend during a lacrosse game, Braden was playing defense, scooped up a missed shot near his own goal, got out of traffic cradling the ball, went over midfield, got body checked hard by four different guys, kept on his feet and then shot and scored from 10 feet out. Coast to Coast, baby. Now that’s athleticism. He's just got to learn it on a different field.

Fifth, I admire initiative in a kid. Braden is parked on the sidelines, in full game viewing mode, when the team runs out of water. Suddenly, I see him go go speak with the coach, leave the field headed toward the team bus, and then come back holding a plastic crate of full Gatorade bottles. I laughed out loud at the subtle perfection of it all. Yes, truly his father's son.

Last, I always look for best in a less-than-desirable situation. Braden got on the team bus right after the game and I went back to work in the city. Later that night at home, I told him, “Well, well. Your first football game. Man, I really liked the way you manhandled that Gatorade crate.” He grinned, and familiar with my shtick because it’s rapidly becoming his, replied, “It wasn’t going to get by me.”

Monday, September 17, 2007

20 Years, 7 Maxims

It's a measure of my dim mind that it took Peggy Noonan two sentences to explain what I couldn't articulate during 20 years. In a recent coluum, she quotedWilliam F. Buckley Jr. observing that "Politics is not an ennobling profession." To which Noonan added, " Which means you better be good going in because you're not going to get any better."

It was as nifty a sentiment as it was keen. Of course Noonan deals regularly with grand thoughts and big ideas and velvet prose. Not that case with this ole primitive, so pass the ketchup and Ding Dongs, please.

But Noonan's reflections were on on my mind as I noted my 20-year anniversary in Washington and tried to frame something thoughtful about my tenure here. I arrived in 1987 in a Volvo station wagon containing two suits, a blue blazer, and how quaint: a couple of books from college courses in which I derived a C and a distaste for anything Arthur Schlesinger. Contrary to the popular mythology of the birkenstock clad, crunchy, peace-nic Volvo owner, my bumper sticker said, "I brake for fascists."

I'd come here because after seven years in journalism as a young, dogmatic, narrow-minded writer for magazines from Surfing to Naitonaol Review, and newspapers from the weekly Cambrian to the San Diego Union, I'd reached my creativite limits as a writer, i.e. duller and getting duller. So I got a room in a boarding house on Capitol Hill and three weeks later was working for a Member. The rest is political hack history.

20 year later, my cruurent office is 200 yards from my first office in Rayburn House Office Building, symbolic of how far I've progressed as a person and as a professional.

Naturally, one would think that after living and working in the epicenter of democracy all this time, during periods of peace and war, prosperity and doubt, the huge transition from the fax machine to email, that Nellie might have some sweeping proclamations and insight about what he's seen. Sorry to disappoint folks, but I came here armed with a bunch of never-miss lines from"Caddyshack" and "Animcal House" and that's where I am today. Oh, I could give you the usual boilerplate: politics is a tough business, democracy works, people are essentially decent, Americans are a fortunate people. And as Otter says, don't start a land war in Asia. The fact is, the big thoughts and truly profound things have all been captured by the Noonans and Buckleys of the world, leaving scant gems for us drones.

So if I don't have any shouts from Mt Olympus, a I do have a few murmurs from the cubicle.

1. Carry three pens and a clipboard with pad at all times. No matter what meeting or corridor conference you are in, someone important will say, "I don't have anything to write with," or your boss will say, "Make sure you write that down." Guess what, pal -- got it covered.

2. Always have a spare Oxford button down shirt and rep tie in your ofifce. (Because one of the pens in your pocket might explode, oh yuk yuk.) Actually, it may be your boss who needs it.

3. Nod sharply with a set jaw and determined look on your face whenever your boss opens his or her mouth.

4. Listen to everyone, from the folks in the cafeteria to the security guards, to the insufferable staff, all of whom know more than you. The corollary to that is: Don't speak unless 1. you're asked for your opinion, and 2. You have thought long and hard about what you're going to say. This sounds both elementary and rigid. It is.

5. Don't panic. My basketball guru, John Wooden of UCLA, was fond of saying in his basketball camps for us junior high geeks,"Be quick, but don't hurry." Think things out. Don't react immediately to any situation, particularly if you are bent out of shape by someone or something. When Senator Orrin Hatch gets steamed up, he writes letters to the editor on whatever topic is outraging him and then puts them in his desk drawer. Forever. Even though part of my family is Mormon, I don't have that LDS steadfastness. I simly steam for a while like some funky machine in Starkbucks. But I don't act.

6. Raise your hand. When I was in the Army, it was an article of faith that you never volunteered for anything. I never bought into that because I figured I could learn from anything and that somehow, someway, it might come in handy down the line.

7. The Mom factor, or, tell the truth. This sounds so damn hanckneyed it makes even me sick. But when you're backed into a corner, or when you see an opening to elaborate, stick to the facts, no matter what sounds good, no matter what you're trying to ward off. One small truth-streching turns into an avalanche.

I learned the first three before I came here. I knew if I followed the last four, I'd at least survive here. That's why I thought Noonan's observation so keen. I was a good-natured, decent guy when I got into politics. 20 years later, I may not be better but I'm not worse. Which, as Carl says so eloquently in the 'Shack, "is nice."

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Leading With McCain

It was a sublime Tuesday back in ‘95 and I was working for the House Transportation Committee (yeah, sounding like the forevermore Hill drone that is my destiny). Suddenly, the committee chairman, Bud Shuster, came to my office to ask me if we’d received any press calls about an obscure Arizona courthouse naming bill, moving through an equally obscure panel, the Public Buildings and Grounds subcommittee, from whence all names for federal buildings came. These are the tedious legislative vehicles where some dusty administrative building next to a strip mall is named for Mitch Blankenship, or Dobie Gillis, or whomever. Sounds innocuous, but building naming bills are a huge deal to constituents and their communities.

More than pleased to chew the fat with True Power on something I actually knew about, I told the Chairman that as a matter of fact, we had received a couple calls, which had surprised me, given that we were dealing with a $218 billion highway bill at the time, and the courthouse was something like twenty bucks to change a ceramic plaque in a dingy hallway. Well, as it turned out, on the Senate side, Arizona Senator John McCain had recently launched into one of his routine floor speech tirades about “pork barrel spending” and had singled out provisions in the highway bill. It was payback time – Politics 101. To paraphrase Danny Noonan in the classic “Caddyshack” scene with D’Nunnzio, “You go after my highway behemoth, you ain’t gettin’ no courthouse.”

An infinitesimal ripple in the great sea of politics, but instructive in looking at McCain. He was deliberately taking a huge public thwack at a House Member and Committee and only when his staff called over about the continuing delays to the Arizona courthouse naming bill did it become clear that everything had its price. When called by an ever-observant media about this clash, I said something like, “Well, fellas, as you know, these naming bills can be heavy lifting, like the ag bill or health care.” Eventually, the courthouse was named, but the subtle point was made by Chairman Shuster.

And like a lot of folks in politics, I’m not untouched by McCain. I recall, with a sting, the disdain McCain had for the work my committee did. I thought and think campaign finance “reform” is a mistake: I come from the slow-witted wing that think there’s not enough money in politics [see my last column--The price of Democracy] So 19 candidates, combined, spend not even a billion dollars in a contest run over a wealthy, geographically vast continent containing 300 million people, where the stakes are leadership of a $13.7 trillion dollar economy and the most powerful nation in the history of mankind?!

Neither am I a big advocate of cutting Member-requested projects or programs. After all, Members are responsible for raising tax dollars; they administer the federal tax system and take plenty of heat for it. So when it comes time to spend some of the money, they should have no say? Instead, we should have faceless, soulless federal and state officials – like your’s truly – direct every cent of your tax dollars?

I’m not smart enough to understand the immigration deal but I know it went against the grain of a substantial number of GOP voters. McCain, as a torture victim, highlighted Abu Ghraib and fought the administration on military tribunals and the prisoner treatment techniques. Since I’ve never been tortured (except for 8 long years in the 1990s), I have no qualms about killers of American soldiers feeling some pain, if it would save Americans.

And so today, McCain stands on the bridge of a once invinvible aircraft carrier, like his beloved Oriskanny, with a few senior campaign aides wandering around below in the smoke on the flight deck. He’s lost his alter ego, Mark Salters – who has as close a relationship with McCain as any staffer has with any Member in town. The campaign has a reported two million in the bank – perhaps none if rumors about debts are true. Just today he lost five campaign press folks. Things look as bad as he was checking in to the Hanoi Hilton.


On the book shelf in the Nellie Den is the book “Faith of My Fathers,” personally signed by the author to my three sons, Devlin, Braden, and Darby, with the note “Anchors Aweigh”. You read that book closely and you’ll never complain about anything in your workaday life ever again. As well, adorning the den are photos of my kids with McCain at a fundraiser.

Call me pretentious, but I consider myself a guy’s guy. And I like leaders, even those that bang me around the head from time to time. Goodness knows I’ve not always hit it off with people who were leading me, whether my parents or on college athletic teams or in the military or in politics. But I know what it takes to be a leader and McCain, if anything, is that.

He may be lose the nomination, and how odd and sad it would be to see this guy, who has been through fire for so long, to drop out and continue his Senate duty, as other guys, against whom I have no ill will, surge ahead to the nomination.

Imagine a September of 2008 when McCain is out on the stump, talking up the GOP candidate, whomever it is, and he’s thinking back: Christ, 40 years ago today I was in Hanoi, hanging from a rope in a dark room, my shoulders pulled out of their sockets, my left arm paralyzed, my right knee crushed, and some commie improbably asking me for the names of the guys in my flight squadron.

What’s worse?

Friday, June 29, 2007

Two Women – Two Decades

I’m sitting in the elegant House Ways and Means Committee room, my old stomping ground. I was an expert chart-holding staff guy who would sometimes be summoned here during hearings and sit on the dais behind my mentor, Congressman Bill Thomas, who would later became Chairman of the panel. I’d slouch in my "staff" chair and dream of setting tax policy – write-offs for football bets, clothing allowances for Hill drones, exemptions for underachievers.

Today, my current boss, a veteran of politics and one of the savviest people on health care in town, is testifying calmly and confidently, sparing with Democrats in their new found ascendancy. Suddenly there’s a tap on my shoulder and who is it but the first person to hire me in town and with whom I continue to keep in touch.

The person who tapped me on the shoulder and for my first job is Cathy Abernathy and the current boss is Leslie Norwalk. Abernathy to Norwalk – two bookends of my near two decades in politics – no big deal except for the but for the fact that both are women, both have been exceedingly successful, and between them, came a succession of strong females who were my superiors and contemporaries.

Now, I have no illusions about how women are treated or viewed sometimes in this town, or anywhere else for that matter. Washington, like the country, can be a misogynistic place, and factor in the stakes involved, i.e. power. Moreover, I confess I’m guilty of some of the locker-room behavior in this realm, despite the fact I sometimes revel in my right-wing, ex-Army, lacrosse playing, gum-chewing, caveman ways.

But in looking at Abernathy and Norwalk in the same room, I tumble to the fact that it’s been my good fortune to be serve, sycophantically so perhaps, two political women, emblematic of the way politics has evolved in Washington.

Cathy was the two-decade old chief of staff to Bill Thomas, former chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, the architect and engine behind the tax cut policies that will define this administration and this economy. Abernathy has been in the game since the 1970s, when Thomas was an obscure state legislator from central California; then, a new Member in a weak, flailing minority; then, a tactician who put the GOP in control; then, the chairman of arguably the most important committee in Congress. Yeah, he’s a remarkable guy, and yeah, he suffers no fools.

But what goes perhaps unnoticed, is the tremendous affect Abernathy had as his right-hand woman as he rose and rose and rose. I know because I saw it every day for more than 3 years. It’s impossible to describe what it takes to succeed to that level in politics -- and staff is vital. The grinding of monster egos, the subterfuge, the strategic fights, and the defeats suffered – and I’m talking about just from fights from folks in your own party. Don’t even get me started about what it takes to conquer an entrenched majority.

Abernathy was the field marshal in this crusade when there were few women on the Hill and a small handful in leadership positions. I saw what women faced -- the sheer disdain some men had about females. Always the innuendo about looks -- are they attractive, heavy set, mousy, ill-clothed – and about temperament: are these females figureheads, weak, are they pushovers, will they cry, are they dragon ladies? Abernathy made it despite the chauvinism. She could be hard as nails and I felt it smartly when I disappointed her. And yes, I took it like the simpering male I am, oh har har.

At the hearing, my current boss, Leslie Norwalk -- the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, a kind of noteworthy agency that runs the largest health care program in the world, covering 91 million Americans at a cost of of $646 billion annually-- is showing grace under pressure as Democrats try to take her and her agency apart. This is about the 9th hearing where she’s taken a pounding – nothing personal, you see, this is the way it’s played. Norwalk gives it back, poise gained during years as an attorney and a Bush 41 and 43 appointee when, as she once said, she "was always underestimated.”

Other women I’ve known and worked with in town include the late Ann Eppard, who like Abernathy, was a chief of staff to a senior member, Bud Shuster. Like Abernathy, she spent a lot of time in the wilderness with a minority member – helping him get to the House Transportation Committee chairmanship. There’s another, Suzanne Sullivan -- who like Abernathy and Eppard, was along time staffer for another chairman, Rep. Rep Norm Mineta -- who also was a top FAA aide (for another impressive female, Jane Garvey) and is now, yes, an evil lobbyist. Kathleen Harrington was another one of my bosses, a top official in the departments of Education and Health and Human Services, and a chief of staff to Congresswoman Nancy Johnson, one of the sharpest minds on health care in the entire country.

Every one of them brought a similar leadership style to the job – overpowering knowledge, politeness, a bit of breeziness and a larger bit of steel – succeeding in a town that, admittedly, has grown a bit more mature. And the interesting thing is, the hearing room in which Abernathy, Norwalk and I sit is jammed with women; yes, some of them venal lobbyists, but others who are advocates, staff and yep, Members.

Take it from this certified knuckle-dragger that times have changed. Because it wasn’t like this 19 years ago when Abernathy and I were sitting side-by-side in these chairs and I was dreaming of my special exemption.....

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Lacrosse Captain Standing Alone, Standing Last

Take a glance at those three rascals standing next door. The two older fellows are nice guys; the youngest is finishing his second year at Boys Town. All three play lacrosse, a sport demanding a combination of athleticism, endurance, and raw power.

The eldest, Devlin, plays lacrosse at the Landon School in Bethesda, Maryland, a 77-year-old traditional boys school cut from the old model: jackets and ties all day, sir and Mr. the only greetings, athletics required, and the boys call each other by last names. The most overwhelming thing about the place is the constant refrain drilled into these kids from 3rd to 12th grade: Integrity, discipline, selflessness. Even a casual visitor to the place is a bit astonished by the prevalence of this ethos and the tightness of the community, from the grounds, to the way the kids behave, to the bearing of the teachers. It’s remarkable place.

In the Landon gym hang photos (stared at with school boy fascination by Dev and his pals) of one of the school’s best lax teams ever, nationally ranked and captained by a guy who unfortunately got his 15 minutes of fame during the past year in a saga that brought out the worst that a biased media, a venal prosecutor, a cowardly university president, and a militant, racist academic corps can produce. He is David Evans from Bethesda, Maryland, captain of the Duke Lacrosse team.

Now, I don’t know Evans but virtually everyone in the nation knows the outline of the Duke University Lacrosse team story right now so nothing bears repeating. We know the whole ugly saga was pure fiction and for the families of the three accused lax players, it was an estimated $5 million legal ride.

Because of my ties to elements of the whole sad fiasco -- my kids at Landon, my mediocre college athletic career, my service as a zany dad with three sons who are members of the local lacrosse community -- the whole fiasco hit me, yes, like a monster check at midfield.

First, the college where I played three sports was so small that if you had a heartbeat, you made varsity and if you could throw a football 20 yards you were 3rd string quarterback. It was here I learned how to play lacrosse badly, which I proudly do to this day. So the deal is, I’ve been around hundreds of college athletes, men and women, in my day. Yeah, there are some knuckleheads, but let’s get one thing straight: The fact is, well-to-do lacrosse players at good schools -- and I’ve known dozens and dozens of such guys -- are simply not the ones garnering a lot of felony crimes. (David Evans was going to work at Goldman Sachs, not in the NBA or NFL.)

Second, as an admitted ideological caveman observer of the ideological scene, I once again viewed in full color the step-by-step destructive nature of the liberal academic mindset. There’s the utter venality of the Duke faculty – The brave Group of 88 ---and the woefully pathetic Duke President. I guess we’ve come to expect this kind of behavior, improbably, from those we expect to teach and guide our kids -- particularly those privileged white kids who do double duty as soulless jocks. You know, the ones who are so dense they end up working for investment banking firms in New York.

But hey, wait a minute -- isn’t it these Neanderthals who have the talent to get into Duke, and whose parents can pay the freight – through tuition and gifts -- that enables these high-minded professors to write their path- breaking studies on “Subjunctive Adverbs in Pre-Chaucerian Dialects”? Sheesh folks, thank goodness that those wily Duke admissions officers, who bring in all those crass, rich, over-achieving jocks will never
get a shot at the Nelligan boys, who are three sullen, geeky dullards (why, look
at that photo, man).

But the Duke case, most of all, represents so baldly the militant liberal imagination that will assume the absolute worst about anything that is white, male, and well-off. Throw in the jock angle, and you’ve hit the jackpot. No adherence to justice (an all lax team police line-up), no clear evidence (dated phone and ATM records, no DNA); no proof (2 recantations by the accuser, eyewitness accounts) can deter these fatuous academics from screaming about race and wealth.

The media, always culpable, always desperately wanting to believe the most outrageous proposition if a score can be settled, follows blindly. Add a venal prosecutor who plays this situation, through deceit and cunning, like a master, and you have an Olympian morality play about race and privilege in America. But of course, you don’t. None of it happened.

My middle kid, Braden, recently beat the odds of having me as a dad and was admitted to Landon. He plays lax and has seen the photos of Evans and team in the gym
As well. As a parent, I know it’s a school that sternly develops the best in kids, sees the best in them, and stands by them, despite their sometime setbacks. How ironic that David Evans, a solid product of Landon, expecting something at least equal from Duke, found himself in a place where the worse was assumed and he and his teammates stood alone.
Until of course, after enduring the lies and disloyalty, they were the last ones standing.

Friday, June 8, 2007

No slacker--Big Fred grinds it out

“We need to revisit the Improper Payments Information Act and focus on Appendix C to OMB Circular A-12. We’re looking at $21 billion in billing errors, and these H-codes gotta be adjusted, as per Clinger-Cohen.” Senator Fred Thompson (R-TN), press conference, Senate "Swamp"outside Capitol, May 21, 2001.

None of the five people reading this need my dim mind to weigh in on the Saga that is the race for the GOP presidential nomination. There are plenty of other seers who see this race with keener minds than mine, starting with Aaron “Be Free” Hase, Adventure Man and Blogmeister General. Indeed, of all the Republicans running, I have to say, as hackneyed as it sounds, that John McCain’s personal story is something that provides me with inspiration in many facets of my everyday life.

But the inevitable entry of ex-Senator Fred Thompson into the brawl-o-rama get this hack wound up like a cat in a rocking chair factory. No, the big man Tennessee doesn’t need zany Coastmaster in his corner but I feel the record needs correcting here. Every profile I’ve read on Thompson contains references, by the typical unnamed coward sources, to him being “lazy”, his Senate career lackluster, and gasp, there’s not a piece of legislation with his name on it! (Well gee, Teddy Kennedy has his name on a bunch of bills – and that’s made the nation a better place, n’cest pa?)

My experience with Senator Thompson dates to when I was the public affairs chief for GAO, the Government Accountability Office, a legislative branch agency providing oversight of the feds. Thompson was chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, the complementary panel to GAO. It’s kind of a backwater committee, with not the visibility of say, Foreign Affairs, or Armed Services, or Appropriations. But the committee is essential to investigating the mechanics of government – and how those gears can be made to work more efficiently.
So yeah, Thompson was a big show boater – a huge proponent of the Clinger-Cohen Information Technology Management Reform Act of 1996, doncha know; which required that the “government information technology shop be operated exactly as an efficient and profitable business would be operated.” Then there was his support for the President's Management Agenda, announced in the summer of 2001, “an aggressive strategy for improving the management of the Federal government…focusing on Expanding E-Government: Improved Service Delivery for the American People Using Information Technology and Expanding E-Government: Partnering for a Results-Oriented Government.” Yowzah, man, hot Hot HOT! Front page baby!

Thompson was committed back of GAO’s High Risk list, another blockbuster for serious students of government but relegated to a desultory affair, that identified those agencies in government that were performing sup par, wasting taxpayer dollars, and thus needed fixing.
These are the kinds of endeavors that are dull as dishwater but vital as air for those who want a Government That Works. Thompson was the guy who knew all these arcane subsections and cites, and while other members were dancing around getting headlines on the issue of the day, Thompson was grinding it out in Committee; I know, I had to attend those hearings and they were full of minutiae.
In fact, of the many Members I’ve dealt with in my primo roll as the number-one Hill hack, Thompson was one of the two or three who always impressed me as immersed in details, the guy who took on these arcane and non-headline issues, and pursued them doggedly. Another, coincidentally enough, was Senator Joe Lieberman, ranking on the Committee and a genuine friend of Thompson’s.
So we zing to the press conference outside the Senate, with just a few journalists, with Thompson going on calmly about improper payments and Medicare, the maddening system of billings done by Medicare providers that involved waste, fraud and abuse with a capital WFA. Then- OMB director Mitch Daniels was with Thompson, but Thompson knew this subject matter cold.
So now I hear the stories about Thompson, which are typical of 1. Opponents who want to drag him down, which is the way it works, and 2. A lazy press corps who but for a few stalwarts, didn’t cover this subject matter when Thompson was preaching at the wind.
Now, I’m too much of a nothing burger to have any say in this race. But Thompson, whatever his faults, is not getting a fair shake. When you’re waxing on about OMB circulars and Clinger-Cohen’s e-billing protocols, you’re not exactly lazy or lackluster. In fact, you’re actually doing what government is supposed to be doing, which is trying to do better.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Letting go with KoiKoi

Washington, D.C. – Since I was a kid, I’ve had an awful habit – it’s a mix of being a tedious prankster and being afflicted with what my dear mother calls a propensity for Never Letting Go, i.e. driving a gag into the ground. It’s harmless enough; it doesn’t rise to a personality disorder, or I don’t think it does, so get off my back. One manifestation of this is that for years, I’ve been bugging my youngest son, Darby, about his origins. But the other day, a dramatic incidents changed everything and big man that I am, I’m ready to stop my antics and will allow him to forgive me..
It all began when Darby was about a year old. I was walking him around the neighborhood in his baby stroller. At that age, he had coal black hair, an olive tinge to his skin, and a fat round face – I attribute this to the fact that I’m part Maori, the native tribe of New Zealand. Indeed, Darby’s middle name is KoiKoi, a family name dating back to the 1860s and my great great-great-great-grandfather, Parone KoiKoi, the last Maori chief to fight in combat the “pakeha” (translation: spindly little white man).
So we’re on our daily stroll and we pass a smiling, elderly German émigré several blocks from our house who looks into the stroller. Suddenly, her face hardens and she scowls and says, “You sin!” I’m taken aback and the old Frau notes my confusion. She points at gurgling Darby and practically shrieks, “Ein Chineek. Chineek!” I scuttle away from Brunhilda and piecing it together, decide that she saw Darby’s vaguely oriental looks, his resemblance to me, and assumed he was my illegitimate Chinese kid.
Well well well. You want to talk about Not Letting Go. We all know what this goofy man was going to do with this diamond of an encounter handed to him: I was going to spend it every dang time I got the chance.
First off, I told all my family and friends the story; it was so rich that it needed none of the famous Nellie embellishment. Step 2 was to lay the groundwork for subtly trying to convince folks that indeed, he was Chinese. At the playground, at games, at kid events, I’d gaze quizzically at Darby, as he sat in a stroller and lolled around on the floor and say to no one in particular, “Well, no question this kid has a definite Oriental streak in him – my goodness, look at his eyes and that pudgy face. Loves that rice, man. Whew.”
Because Darby was unable to speak and thus unable to understand anything, I’d tell perfect strangers about our “little Beijing bundle” and my “Gang of One.” People were too polite to question me and only a few looked at me narrowly, like I was trying to pull their leg. Which I was.
When he got to be three, I’d casually call him Ming Lee now and then. He would grit his baby teeth, his lower lip would come out, and he’d stammer out, “Me not Ming Wee!” This name-calling would persist for the next four years.
Of course, brother Devlin and Braden loved it when I chided Darby about his origins. They even for a short time called him “Wang Pao” after they heard me mention that at a museum exhibit we visited downtown. But I reined them in, gently admonishing them that, “Only adults can act like immature kids when tormenting family members.”
Darby, to his credit – call it steely Oriental resolve or inscrutableness – took much of this pretty well. But I knew the day of reckoning was coming – a time when I would need to let go.
That day came last week, when we went to, yes, a Chinese restaurant. It was packed and there was a line to get a table. Braden wailed, “This will take an hour.” “Watch this,” I replied smugly and turned to my youngest son while winking at his older brothers. “Hey Ming Lee, know any waiters here who can get us through this crowd of people here?” Darby looked up at me and with a straight face, no kidding, and said “Ming Lee doesn’t take cuts in line.”
And there you have it – battered for years by a goofy family over a heritage he never had and never asked for, the kid had speared me mortally with my own gag. The Chinese gag for KoiKoi was over. The time had come, yes, for letting go.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Friday, April 27, 2007

Chart boy

Several years ago, in a corridor of the Russell Senate Office Building , a fellow drone in a suit hustled by, lugging a 3-foot by 5-foot cardboard chart with a graph entitled “Foreign Sources of U.S. Oil Consumption, by Region.” Staring at the guy, sweat pouring off his face, tie askew, hair matted, I thought,`Man, that chart boy could be me someday.'
Since I’m an historian by nature because it was the easiest major in college, I pride myself on spotting major transforming historical trends, and hence I’ve always thought the dividing line between Old Washington and New Washington is not the ferocious lobbyist culture, extreme partisanship, slicked back hair or pastel ties. It’s more sublime.
My view of Old Washington is elegantly crafted speeches, written with fountain pens, copied on a dinosaur mimeograph machine, given by stately men in grey flannel suits, white shirts and muted ties. In their hands they grasped rolled up papers and flailed around a podium while a shock of grey hair fell over their foreheads. Think Clarence Darrow railing on about monkeys.
Across time and space we had the Agriculture and Industrial Revolutions and now today we have the Presentation Revolution. The subtle shift began with the reign of King Newt in 1994 who was poised to rule the world. Presentations, not speeches, became the rage. With presentations came The Chart.
Politicians, decision makers, and academic windbags now eschewed elegant speeches and instead stood up and pointed to these marvelously colorful charts that would explain everything — from the production of steel paperclips in Wishtokee County to the rise of non-defense non-discretionary spending during the McKinley era. Charts seemed to encapsulate everything about this town and about politics. Who can argue with a chart? Everywhere, overnight, you’d see legions of hacks following in the wakes of politicians who were going to make a presentation about paperclips, or the federal budget, or oil or chart production. Grab an easel, put up a gaudy chart and the argument was half won.
A Luddite, I was also a fortunate son as I avoided carrying these bulky charts. Sure, there were folders and manila envelopes to cart around for superiors. I once carried a dozen hard hats, like the ones on construction sites, looking like a carnival hawker in my outstretched arms at a highway event. As a State Department flunky, I carried bouquets of flowers, cheesy Uncle Sam paperweights and goat carvings throughout Whereverstan.
As time passed, I was entrusted with cell phones when my bosses were going on TV or about to speak to a huge group. Today, I am even entrusted to hold Blackberrys.
But the Day of the Chart was looming. It had to arrive. This week, it did. I was in my customary functionary mode, going to the Treasury Department for a news conference on the looming fiscal catastrophe. My office put together a chart displaying something, I don’t know what. “Is this showing future expenditures for the third floor coffee club if we switch to decaf and real cream?” I joked to the chart’s designer, who had an abacus and slide rule stapled to his belt. He adjusted his glasses and stared at me.
So we go into Treasury and I’m not holding the chart — a more senior guy is because he actually understands what’s on it. I’m just holding a manila folder entitled “Important Stuff.”
Yet I feel the chart is stalking me. The guy in charge of it is obviously uneasy holding it. As I said, more senior than me, to his credit he has a sense of chart responsibility. He’s got the dang thing practically pasted to his side as we walk a half-mile of corridors, following our escorts to a holding room before the event. Then he leans it up against a wall — I sit as far away from it as possible, like it’s a voodoo doll. People come and go and try to chat with me but I’m numb with apprehension.
We do the event. Some functionary with the department takes the chart and puts it on an easel in the briefing room and then takes it down after the event and puts it back in the room. The senior guy dutifully picks it up and we leave. But wait, he’s gotta follow my boss into a special meeting and everyone knows you can’t take a chart into a special meeting. So he hands it to me and scurries off.
There I finally am, standing in an ornate, marble floored hallway, underneath a monster portrait of Albert Gallatin, third Treasury Secretary of the United States , holding the chart. Standing beneath Old Washington, I now carried the baggage of New Washington. The bio next to the painting says Albert was from Scotland and a successful grain merchant before Jefferson picked him to lead the fledgling department. “Don't even say a word about this chart, Big Al,"” I say to his gaunt face staring at me.
We soon leave the building and go out into the sun and breeze on Pennsylvania Avenue and I have that accursed chart. Walking down the steps of Treasury, the White House visible next door, I reflect on my public policy career as the chart bangs against my leg. A gust of wind catches it and my wrist twirls as the chart flips all the way up and around and over my shoulder. My hair tangled, tie flapping, my face contorted and now a chart bouncing lightly on my head. It was inevitable. I had finally become what I always feared — Chart Boy.

Carteret County (N.C.) News-Times
Copyright 2007 Carteret Publishing Co., Inc.
All rights reserved.

Good ole Mom

Los Angeles – Not to be dramatic, but any visit to the City of Angels always brings me before my personal demons and my greatest adversary. With my teeth clenched tight enough to break and my mind racing, I am forced to confront the person who has dogged me at every turn in my professional life, wielding a strange power over my psyche and crushing my ideological beliefs into so much dust. That person would be my mother.

Despite what I've accomplished in my happy-go-lucky amble through life, good ole Mom views me as a narrow-minded, proto-fascist sprung from the womb of enlightenment. That’s right; she’s a radical, militant, liberal feminist. Educated at U.C. Berkeley and UCLA, she’s a longtime political activist, she’s a recognized expert in the arcane but critical mechanics of the statewide initiative process, voter registration, and ballot procedures (recall Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 in considering the significance of these issues). That’s why this faithful liberal workhorse remains appalled at the trajectory of her eldest and no doubt dearest son.

It all started when I left U.C. Berkeley to transfer to Williams College, from the hotbed of activism to a stodgy, elite eastern school. "Well, we'll just see how that words out for you," she sniffed.

Soon thereafter I began my descent into career oblivion, as she sees it, she actually answered the phone one day at house, when William F. Buckley Jr. was on the other line to offer me a job at National Review magazine in New York. Improbably, at the time, I was also interviewing with the CIA, which sparked her to call me a "traitor." When I accepted the magazine job, she sat in the living room, head bowed in hand, and said, "So this is what your father and I get after all we've done for you."

It continued down hill from there. Stints on the editorial pages of two conservative newspapers were met with muffled groans and gnashing of teeth.

Soon I was off to Washington D.C. to work for Congressman Bill Thomas, a California Republican cut from the Reagan mold. "Just get used to being in the minority, son,” was all she had to say.

Then it was to a speechwriting position in the administration of President George HW Bush -- you know, pushing the triumphalist line while gloating over the fall of those awful commies. "You’ve made a pact with the devil," she duly noted. Then I joined the Army reserves. "Have you no shame?" was her response.

There was no stopping the lengths at which I would go to disappoint and infuriate her. I got a job with a House committee position in the now resurgent GOP-led 104th Congress. We Gingrich-led political shock troops were going to change the world and all she said was, "Don't get used to being in the majority, son."

Now this tangled trail of professional failure and missteps has led me to a political appointment in the administration of President George W. Bush. When notified of my post, she exclaimed to no one in particular "I have now seen the face of evil." Oh that Mommer, what a card.

And it's not only in the grand sweep of politics and ideas that our battle takes place. It's the everyday things. We are having dinner and she asks me how I'd like my steak cooked. "Medium," I reply warily. "Well, I wonder what Ann Coulter would say about that," she shoots back.

Yes, she's my mother, but of course, sheer pride allows me not give an inch. Sitting on the patio of our home in Los Angeles, attempts at reason are made. I observe, "I'm quite fond of you, Mom, but your distorted world view continues to make me question your sanity." She signs condescendingly and says, "When my kind takes over, you'll be swept from the face of the earth." "Thank you,” I reply.

When I was recently quoted on the front page of the New York Times on a Medicaid issue, she called and said, "Congratulations. I see you're beating up on poor people again."

Mother will always have the last word. When I mentioned that I'd served as a reference for two longtime Democrat friends looking for jobs in town, she smiled and said, "That’s nice. It's good to have people who owe you." I evinced surprise at this hardball style from dearest mom. She smiled and then added, "Because my poor, misguided son, you're day is coming and you're going to need all the help you can get."

Carteret County (N.C.) News-Times
Copyright 2007 Carteret Publishing Co., Inc.
All rights reserved.

They were from Missouri---and they showed me

Washington, D.C. – Unless you are prepared to lose a lot of money on real estate, the lottery, football bets, or elections, don’t ever go with the Coastmaster on a hunch. My political myopia has been exposed for the psychotic madness that it is. As a ballot box prognosticator, I have been revealed as naked and bereft. As a seer of elections, I have been humbled. Everything came up Democrat and there’s nowhere for this hack to run.
But I’m not done yet. I’m wounded, I’m cursed. This past Tuesday has taught everyone to ignore everything about politics that the Coastmaster utters. Yes, folks, my pride and mind, not to mention my job, are reeling like a mad clown on a calliope, as I sit in the fading ashes of what were the GOP hopes off in the 2006 elections.
I’m still not done yet. Stray confetti blows over from Senator-elect Jim Webb's celebration party, and as Speaker Pelosi heads back to the Hill after having lunch with President Bush, and Majority Leader Reid heads down there today for a coffee klatch and some gibble-gabble, I ponder the ruins, howling at the moon as the ole political saying comes back to batter my shrinking ego and haunted mind: They were from Missouri -- and they showed me.
What a Tuesday it was. If you were a Democrat, then you are laughing madly, dancing a jig, your fingers itching to control the levers of power, flushed with excitement after 12 years in the wilderness. You’re ready to change the world and while you're at it, change the locks on your new offices. If you're a Republican, you’re going through your desk drawers, stocking up on leftover paperclips and pens, and trying to blow up your computer hard drive. Boxes of files will soon be outside all the House and Senate committee rooms and even now, the thunder of movers echoes down the halls of the Capitol. Give Speaker Pelosi the best suite – because she’s no longer knocking on the door, she’s inside and picking out curtains.
If you're in the executive branch you better think about legal advice because the big bad days have arrived. You are out of power and it it’s about as nice as getting whacked on the funny bone by a big gavel rapping to order a Democrat Congress.
First off, it’s hats off to the Democrats. I certainly wouldn’t have believed last year, last summer, (or even last week, I say sadly as Mr. Out-of-Touch Master) that they’d win. Perhaps it’s the echo chamber that is Washington – us zombies think victory lies in the districts are so sophisticatedly gerrymandered, that the Republican incumbents could count on local good works, that a torrent of cash at the end could save them. I’m hardly the first person to say it (though unlike most pundits, I have worked in Congress and the Executive Branch and thus should know dang better) that I thought the GOP would, for God’s sake, hang on.
I’ll fill in more later after I crawl out from my hiding place. But for now, just a few thoughts -- this election will be a windfall for Democrat lobbyists and firms that have been sucking wind for a decade. Lawyers, too, will get on the gravy train, because there will be investigations like you've never even believed. The whole executive branch will be tied up answering requests from new chairmen like John Dingell, and Henry Waxman, and Charles Rangel, and John Conyers. Vengeance time, baby. That's the way life and politics can work, and don't expect anything less than dynamite. I’ve heard the “hands across the aisle,” “working together,” “common ground,” “bipartisan spirit” mantra so many times I think I’ll put it on my tombstone when I pass away in into that great political hack cemetery in the sky. St. Peter will meet me at the gate and I’ll simply say, “Cream or sugar, sir?”
For now, there is a huge wind blowing, and the symbolism here is as solid as the reality of the majorities in Congress. Who would have thought? I sure didn’t – and now it’s back to ole Mizzou for me.

Carteret County News-Times Online EditionCopyright 2007 Carteret Publishing Co., Inc., Morehead City , North Carolina
All rights reserved.


Washington, D.C. – I’d just left a political event featuring members of the Evil Party at the National Press Club, for once not part of the service staff or carrying a clipboard and a box of thank-you trinkets. It being a mellow October evening, I took a circuitous walk around the downtown and the Mall in the evening breeze, ruminating on what had come to pass in the last couple weeks; events so wacky and tortured that my feeble mind could scarcely comprehend them.

The Washington Post and New York Times had all but announced Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House, this after the degenerate Mark Foley had exploded the GOP’s fall momentum with his sicko notes to young House pages. And speaking of explosions, Kim Donkey Kong Jong Il, the puffy-hair nutbag, blew up part of a mountain in his country, even as 2 million people died from starvation (I thought that only happened to people who couldn’t reach the breakfast buffet at the Pyongyang Ponderosa). Sunni and Shiites are busy beheading each other in the name of Allah. And don’t look now, but that leisure-suit garbed Muslin preacher, Ahamianabad is also closing on nuclear capabilities, while saying Israel should be wiped off the face of the And oh, in my ramblings, I look down and suddenly see several stains on my shirtfront are from dinner. Yikes, the world is going to you-know-where in a hand basket and the Coastmaster looks like a hobo. Stop the globe, baby, its time for me to get off.

There’s an old saying (and no, it’s not I’m from Missouri on that, har har), that a week in politics can be a lifetime. Make that two weeks and you’re talking about eternity. It’s a tired cliché to point to the rapidity of the news cycle and the electronic revolution. Thus, creepy Foley was caught sending email, the messages were stolen off a site on the Internet, the 24-hour news cycle spins like a dryer in heat, and now the House ethics committee is plodding through hearings, all in 18 days while the guys in the stodgy old big media are still blow drying their hair for tonight’s telecast.

To reiterate, I think psycho Foley utterly blunted the momentum the GOP had surging in September. Instead of talking about why the 13 terror “suspects” (jeez, who doesn’t think all 13 are guilty of something awful and should be sent to meet their 82 virgins), it’s Foley. Instead of the steep gas price decreases, the strong economy, unemployment at 4.5 percent, the stock market setting records, its Foley. Indeed, even Kim Wrong Il’s big blast was not quite big enough – here we go to the United Nations again – that paragon of vice and glacial movement. (The one good thing there is the departure of Kofi Anana, the first sub-Saharan African to lead the body, and who did so much good in places like Rwanda -- where he was the senior official for peacekeeping-- and Darfur. Whew, Kofi, take a break from the thievery and those free suits and shirts you’ve been getting. And trim that silly beard.)

Nor is there any peace is the stream of books that have been taking some heavy shots at the Iraq war. The titles alone say it: “Fiasco,” “State of Denial,” “Imperial Lives in the Emerald City, “or “Big Bad Mistakes in Baghdad.” Woodward’s “Denial” is especially neat and ABC’s Jonathan Karl recently wrote an outstanding piece in the Wall Street Journal on Woodward’s special style of reporting – you know, remembering six-year old conversations verbatim – that is conversations he wasn’t even a part of. Climbing inside people’s heads and knowing what they are thinking, even when their asleep. Using dozens of unidentified sources so you don’t know who the heck is saying what about whom (i.e. is that Andy Card or Captain Kangaroo on Slam Dunk George Tenant?). But you do know why they refuse to be identified. Because in Washington, how you rewrite history is anonymously, while stabbing everyone you know in the back. On a personal note, one of the things I’ve always despise in town is the unidentified source. This plagued me on the Hill, particularly when it was some junior knucklehead staffer whom a sympathetic reporter gave the standing of a Chairman.

Taken all together, right now, the GOP is one frightened bunch. And having been through more a several of these elections – in which my job and livelihood were at stake -- I kind of pay attention to these things.

So, being the heretic – and myopic man -- I am, I am here to declare that the GOP hangs on to the House and Senate. Wiser minds than the Coastmaster can frame it empirically. The GOP has loads of cash to pour into those seven critical days before an election. The GOP has a masterful get-out-the-vote effort, which is old shoe leather in the day and age of the computer chip. Its mechanics, yes, to be one of those poor unfortunates to walk precincts, motivating people to motivate even more people to get to the polling place. But it is magnified in an age of e-mail and computer lists and micro polling.

The Democrats smell blood, as they should. I sure know the smell – from 1994. But there’s something intangible out there. And so with 2 ½ weeks out to the election, I’m crazy enough to venture a guess. [Warning: I guessed a 14-seat GOP House pickup in 1998 and they lost five]. Here goes: 220-215 in the House, 51-47 and 2 (independents Bernie Sanders and Joe Liebermann) in the Senate.

That’s my guess two weeks out and I’m sticking to it. Just as, musing in the fall breeze near the Capitol Building, I note my dinner is doing same to my shirt and tie.

Carteret County News-Times Online EditionCopyright 2007 Carteret Publishing Co., Inc., Morehead City , North Carolina
All rights reserved.