Tuesday, June 28, 2005


June 28, 2005

Heat comes easily to Washington on a late June afternoon. The air is thick like in a steamy shower, but there’s no curtain to pull back and the nearest street vendor is selling bottled water at ballpark rates.

The scene in the quarter mile radius that holds the city’s three major war memorials looks more like a theme park than a spiritual center. Young parents strain to track their zig-zagging kiddies through the swarms, while older gentleman, many in the dress of war veterans-- khakis, neatly tucked shirt, navy and gold cap-- walk two strides ahead of their wives and grown children. Their thoughts are thousands of miles and decades behind us in weird places that must make this pageant seem like their sweetest dream of heaven.

Although we’re only blocks away from K Street and the Capitol, you won’t find too many shirtsleeves on the corner of 17th and Constitution. And it’s not just because of the weather, though there isn’t a dry back in sight. It’s vacation season in America, you see, and families from all across the dark fields have made the trek to the capital. It’s vacation, so the dress is informal. But a trip like this is not made strictly for leisure, and the State Fair atmosphere is quieted by a chorus of sour faces made in the direction of anyone who forgets it.

If this is an educational excursion, then it might be interesting to consider what is being taught in and around the “Constitution Gardens.“ And if these questions are asked, and measured properly, the answers might be instructive-- not only as to the meaning or intentions of the memorials, but as to how Americans comprehend their violent history.

“Constitution Gardens”…the words won’t be heard rolling off the tongues of even the worst, immodest tourist. Most people know this rolling plot as the staging area for the Armies of the Night, or the site of Martin Luther King’s most fondly remembered speech (and, lest we forget, the place where Forrest cut short his speech and waded through the Reflecting Pool to reach Jenny). Less than a half mile straight south from the heavily fortified outskirts of the White House lawn is the head of the “Gardens” and, where King once mounted a stage to speak, sits the first, in one of two chronological considerations, of the three war memorials.

The World War II Memorial was opened to the public on April 29, 2004. It is a large and triumphantly designed spectacle. It is also, despite the howls of critics, the most comfortably arranged of the three memorials. At opposite poles of the coliseum-like enclosure are tributes to the soldiers of the Pacific and European fronts. Like the banners that line a baseball stadium, the names of each of the 50 states are engraved on smaller arches that circle the bowl. In the center is a large pool that visitors can dip their feet into on a searing hot day like today. One woman has fallen asleep on the edge of the water. With fountains surrounding the pool, it is a serene scene, but by no means somber.

World War II is the one war that Americans don’t have to apologize for. Not to other countries, not to hippies and pacifists, and not to their children. The monument and the people that pass through it are emblematic of this; the guilt that poisons the air only 400 yards away is clean as a whistle over here. The elegant phrases of the era’s political leaders, carved sporadically on the walls, stand as only vague reminders of the human cost of the war.

The memorials to commemorate World War II, Korea, and Vietnam were each completed in the last two decades, though in an order that contradicts their historical sequence.

The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial was, like the writer, born in the latter half of 1984, though its gestation period was slightly longer. The two years it took to translate Maya Lin’s dark vision into black granite reality were wrought with controversy, a fact not entirely disconnected from the idea that this, of all wars, was not the one to remember first. But it was, and today it remains the country’s most compelling war shrine, literally digging itself into hallowed ground.

You can’t quite see, even on the clearest of days, either of the other two locations from the almost subterranean topography of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. Dug into the center of two acres of crisp, green grass, “the wall” is almost 250 feet long and cuts an obtuse “V” when viewed from overhead. On the ground, the first, inch-high panels begin at foot level and stay there while the parallel walkway descends more than 10 feet before rising back up from the nadir.

On the wall is a list, written in the order by which, one day at a time, 58,000 American boy and men soldiers were killed during the war. It is a staggering number of dead, one that my father once described to me, in the only terms I could fathom at the time, as being enough to fill up Shea Stadium for a playoff game. Many years later, the volume of names engraved on the wall is still shocking, but for different reasons.

The names, and it’s hard to catch more than one-or-two per panel if you want to keep a slow pace, seem familiar today, more so than I when I first and last beheld them about five years ago. Baldwin, Ballard, and Banda are three names on the wall. And in my view they seem a stark representation of who fights the wars for this country today. They fit each of the arch stereotypes. “Kermit” Baldwin, the brother. “Cesar” Banda, the ese. “Carrol” Ballard, the seventh generation American, though he grew up poor. No, you can’t quite see the World War II Memorial from here, but its legacy lingers in air.

The cruel relationship between the two pivotal wars of the Republic’s modern history is never so clearly played out as in the “Constitution Gardens.” The soaring arches of one monument give way to the buried ignominy of another. In between lies the Korean War Memorial, a tribute as murky as the war it remembers. Scattered on the plot are sculptures of forlorn looking soldiers; None seem to be looking in the same direction. From a strictly interpretive standpoint, this memorial has the most to say about the state of modern war. The enemy flashes in and out of the shadows and the objective of the fight is blurred or unknown. The only honor is in surviving and, I imagine, remembering as few of the details as possible. A difficult task for the soldiers, but not so for civilians and politicians. Not at all difficult, in fact. Americans are gladly prone to forget.

It’s hard to not think, as you make the walk back to the subway, that some time in the not-to-distant future this carnival will gain another attraction. On the Constitution Avenue side of the Reflecting Pool lies a piece of virginal land that almost begs for marking. But this time, perhaps, we’ll do it differently…

Let’s dedicate a monument to the con-men and gluttons that make places like this necessary; to the men who make beautiful words meaningless. The ones who bequeath only frustration and anxiety to coming generations-- all in a lust to expire from their natural lives in the same spasm of mythical glory they claim to bestow on the dead American soldier.

Friday, June 24, 2005

June 24, 2005

A respectful note to Congress: Please, noble men of the Hill, write a law to ban Flag Burning.

If the House of Representatives follows through on this bold initiative, a great victory will be won for the decent people of this country. I can think of no more valuable a manner in which to fill the unending hours of this legislative season. The less pressing issues of our time will be pushed to the backburner, where they may be best resolved. Gay men will be free to hump with wedding bands on, guaranteeing an eternity of well-deserved hellfire; the site of the next, and most “splendid little war” will be hashed out in the boardroom of Exxon, rather than the backrooms of Congress (we all know private industries are more efficient). The natural order of things will be restored.

As a man of great national pride, and a proud member of the growing Neo-Fascist Libertarian movement, I believe that every American should be free to never, ever see the flag being desecrated. Remember this: The only things worth burning squeal when they catch, and anyone who doesn’t agree is not worth their weight in napalm.

For those that argue that such a law would only encourage outside agitators, anarchists and insurgents by making the action a legal taboo, I add this: Bring ‘Em On! This legislation would cast the bait into the water and we’d have nothing more to do than sit back and wait for the bastards to bite. Every dollar drained into the legal defense fund is one less for the Sierra Club. “Death by a thousand cuts” is the expression, but it is not the “machine” of the First Amendment that needs killing, it is the “ghost” within. This law would deal the craggily old ghoul a severe blow.

And the public will love it.

Yes, the best aspect of this law would be its immense popularity, and not just among cultural conservatives. Those snarky liberal geeks would hit the streets the hour MoveOn posts the news. There’d be a run on fuel in the Northeast and Southern California. Burning flags and John Fogerty on morning television? Stocks in the Rage Industry would skyrocket, Scarborough Country would explode… the Democrats will wriggle and we will stomp them.

And, oh!, to see the New York Times on that blessed morning. We could deposit a daisy cutter in downtown Tehran and no one would think twice. They’d be chained to the pillars of the Supreme Court building where, as far as I know, there is no wireless Internet.

But we should resist the temptation to rush the process. Sources in the healthcare industry tell me Rehnquist will be dead by President’s Day, clearing the way for Alberto Gonzales to gain a nomination. The confirmation process might be long, but, if we are patient, the “Chinese Water Torture” clause those bulldogs in the South are quietly pushing for could make the final draft.

As for the opposition, it will be there, but it will be meek. How many divisions has the Washington Post? None. And their circulation is dwindling, too. By the time they figure out how the game gets played these days, we’ll have thrown half of Massachusetts into the sea.
The line, my friends, it is drawn. The curse it is cast. It is now in the hands of House to follow through and seal the deal. A wise man once said that “action moves away from the center,” and recent history indicates that a majority of the country will move in ours.

Sunday, June 19, 2005


June 19, 2005

The lady that greets you at the elevator says that it would take two full days of your concentrated attention to ingest this whole place, so pay attention. “Never Again,” is the catchphrase here, and the importance of remembering is always at the forefront. It’s a dark place too, built with bare steel and copper-colored beams. There are no distractions. There’s nothing in Washington, D.C.’s Holocaust Museum to divert the visitor from his objective… Behold before you-- a stately but humanistic monument to the most focused bloodletting in known history.

Sitting to write this small, and perhaps ill-conceived account of my visit to the museum I am struck with how indistinctly I’ve measured my visit. I feel dirty writing about it, about my lack of feeling. Growing up in a Jewish community, the Holocaust Museum is the setting for many tales of cultural awakening and soulful reconnection to past generations. It is a monument not just to the millions killed by the Third Reich, but a reminder of the countless other less successful attempts to wipe out the Jewish race. It is, finally, a defiant symbol to Jews across the world of hatred and tragedy defeated.

But when I walked through the building itself-- starting at the top, third floor on down-- and passed by accounts of the early years of Nazi Germany, then into a room where home videos showed shattered concentration camp prisoners, triumph was the last thing coursing through my body. Instead, I only felt a little shame.

Let me explain with a sports analogy.

The Detroit Pistons won two NBA championships in 1989 and 1990. But the road to basketball’s so-called Promised Land was not easy for Detroit, and they suffered numerous gut-wrenching defeats on their way to glory. Defeat came in the seventh and deciding game of the ‘88 Finals against Los Angeles when A.C. Green’s running hook shot extended the Lakers lead with time winding down. As the ball fell through the cylinder, crazed Los Angelinos stormed their home court in rabid celebration of the team’s imminent victory. The referees, overwhelmed by the mob, could do nothing to provide the visiting Pistons with the three seconds, and the opportunity to tie, that the game clock indicated they were owed. The Lakers were crowned Champions once again, and the losing club had nothing to do except fly home. To Detroit.

That game, and even much of the season that preceded it, has often, in the past 10 or 15 years, been the subject of interviews conducted with Pistons stars Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas. But it is not hard-hearted sportscasters or abrasive writers who can be counted on to broach the topic. It is, and with an almost bizarre consistency, the players who like to talk about the game. Isiah Thomas, on numerous occasions, has said that in the off-season that preceded the 1989 basketball season, one in which his team would finally prevail, he watched tape of the past season’s last game over and over again. He wanted to make sure, he says, that such a thing could never happen again. It wasn’t the madness of the final moments that tormented Isiah, but the fact that he allowed his team into a situation where such a disastrous outcome was possible.

“Unfortunate, but necessary,” a Pistons fan might say today as he casually glances over a replay of the ‘88 game. He is able to watch with a smile only because he knows that in the following years his team would correct the mistakes of ‘88 and move on to a brighter, glorious future.

And so I am today, the human, the Jew, in place of the Piston fan, left to look over the relics of a most crushing defeat. But for humanity, unlike the Detroit basketball supporter, there has been no redemption. You can be confident Isiah would be reluctant to bring up the ’88 failure if it hadn’t been for subsequent successes. If the Pistons had gone on to lose in Los Angeles again and then in Portland there would be no one so bold as to say the ’88 season was the most important, the “building block” and the “rite of passage.” There would be no façade of elegance built to surround the pain, because no greater good could be called its offspring. It would have been just another sad episode in a prolonged tale of human suffering. Much like the Holocaust.

So that’s it, my grandmother, somewhere, is shivering. I’ve compared the Holocaust to the Pistons. And I’m a Nets fan. My point though, as I machete my way through this thick narrative brush, is not to demean the importance or criminal insanity of the Nazi’s Final Solution, but to point out the disingenuous shadow that looms over the monument built, supposedly, with the purpose of guaranteeing that such a horror should happen Never Again.

The hypocrisy poisons the air on all three floors. What is gained in beholding these images, some 60 years old, when similar situations are in play today, across the globe as the Janjaweed sweep through the Sudan? Or consider the deafening silence of the “civilized world” as 800,000 Rwandans were killed by their own countrymen in 1994. Was it was the same President Clinton, and I draw from the startling juxtaposition offered by Peter Maass in "Love thy Neighbor," who gave the speech now tatooed on the wall of the building while playing diplomatic hopscotch with Milosevic and his crazed Serbian death squads?

It’s a sordid mess of guilt and frustration at 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, and in that vein the building offers a more striking monument than most would like to imagine. The museum, in its material impotence, speaks to a generation that thought the dark days were behind, scattered in equal parts between the dense woods of Poland and our own Deep South. But more than ten years after President Clinton took the voice of his mentor and promised the youth that something better was at hand if only we worked hard and “remembered,” it is clear that little has changed, just the names and places. Bergen-Belsen is Srebrenica. Srebrenica is Darfur is Baghdad is Lower Manhattan.

Monday, June 06, 2005


June 6, 2005

So W. Mark Felt was back in the news this week.

It had been a long hiatus for “the man they used to call Deep Throat,” and his re-entry into the public domain as a half lucid and apparently broke old man did little to recall the vengeful/righteous character that helped reporters Woodward and Bernstein torpedo the last truly inept presidential administration. Spurred in 1972 by the news that a Nixon flunky had surpassed him as the heir to J. Edgar Hoover’s purple robe (and panties), Felt called on his ambitious pal at the Washington Post and established himself as the most influential “unnamed source” in American political history.

But he also helped to set off an ugly chain reaction across the world of modern news reporting. By the time Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman released their stylized 1976 version of “Woodstein’s” travails, campus’s would-be stars and partisans had found a new means to an old end.

Almost 30 years later, society regards most journalists with a disdain once reserved for lawyers or street hustlers. The daily scandal as touted by media ranging from major newsmagazines to Undercover Joe on the Channel 11 Nightly News has cheapened even the most exhaustively reported story. The dire result, as Jon Stewart pointed out on his Daily Show, is not that the media has lost its luster, though it has, it’s that even the truth now lacks credibility.

And this is bad news for journalists who want to bust balls in Washington.

Laws, even those set into stone centuries ago, do not exist in a vacuum. As much as the judiciary is supposed operate outside of public opinion, it is an organic body and responds to its environment. So when two reporters from “respected” publications like the New York Times and Time magazine are threatened with jail time for refusing to divulge their sources, the lack of public concern should not be surprising. And it’s not because people don’t understand the First Amendment, they just happen to view it in a similar context to “the Fifth”; a necessary, but thoroughly unconvincing means of defense.

Journalists Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper, of the Times and Time, respectively, have been ordered by ascending levels of the judiciary to reveal the White House source that criminally disclosed the name of a covert CIA operative. Now, the subservient hack who actually slithered his way to the phone and said the words “Valerie” and “Plame” to the reporters seems to be the only real criminal (in the going-to-jail sense) here, but his identity is being protected by the reporters’ semi-integrity; a qualification necessary when you consider the track-record of high-end media. Thus, a hungry Law must eat, and Proud Journalists are featured on today’s menu.

Cooper and Miller will soon argue to more judges-- and eventually in the books they write after leaving prison (unless Son of Sam laws apply?)-- that being forced to reveal their source will discourage future sources from coming forward, and thus impugn upon First Amendment rights. This may be entirely accurate, and in an America where Earl Warren is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court this case probably never unfolds the way it has, but the last thing the public perceives these days is an infringement on free speech. How do we know this? Because almost everyone who shares that opinion is inclined to express it on their personal web log.

But more of a problem for Miller and Cooper is the fact that the grassroots people that should be chaining themselves to Robert Novak’s hooves in the reporters’ defense-- like say, journalism students-- can’t quite swallow, with an as yet un-prostituted soul, the whole of their story. Miller and Cooper are not protecting an otherwise powerless whistleblower who, through an act of personal courage, is looking to expose government corruption. The way this sad story plays out, they are simply protecting their careers, and a partisan brat whose vile existence is validated only by a role in the beltway drama known as “a source in the White House…”

When the three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals D.C. Circuit upheld a lower court’s decision that prosecutors were acting lawfully to “compel” Miller and Cooper to reveal their source, New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. issued a statement condemning the decision.

“"We are deeply dismayed at the U.S. Court of Appeals decision to affirm holding Judith Miller in contempt, and at what it means for the American public's right to know,” he said, adding that “The protection of confidential sources was critically important to many groundbreaking stories, such as Watergate, the health-threatening practices of the tobacco industry and police corruption…”

It is a legally and historically sound argument that Sulzberger makes, but his words are again more evidence of the disconnect between Big Media and the public it swears by defending. In the wake of Watergate the profession of journalism was put on a pedestal and its “star reporters” were elevated to place of American Heroes. But things have changed in the past three decades, and in a postmodern society that is as fragmented as ever before, there is no place for the lone defender of the good.