Sunday, September 21, 2014

Pondering The Obamalypse & Other Musings On The Autumnal Equinox

The eve of the first day of autumn at the mountain retreat began with a stroll to the road and our mailbox under a sunlit canopy of leaves just beginning to turn to the sublime reds, oranges, yellows and browns of the season.  The mailbox disgorged a phone bill, the new issue of Vanity Fair ("Hell in the Ebola Hot Zone!"), several advertising circulars and some dragon smoke.  Alas, as I walked back to the house, my mind was not on the foliage, although I did pause long enough to notice that the maples are likely to be especially brilliant in the coming weeks.  Instead, I pondered what a mess the world seems to have become. 

Yes, there's always some stickiness or other going on somewhere or another, hemorrhagic African viruses included, but in the words of Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, a Great Unraveling is underway, a mash-up of tragedies representative of the devolution of the world order, chief among them -- until the next outrage comes big footing in -- the beheading of two journalists and an aid worker murdered by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and America's resultant return to war.
I do not necessarily disagree with Cohen, but it is a law of nature that shite rolls downhill and a law of our times that at the bottom of the hill sits the White House and Barack Obama, who is either doing the best he can to lead a planet being especially unruly, or is a Hamlet-esque procrastinator, or if you are one of the too many people taking the especially uncharitable right-wingnut view, responsible for the whole bloody mess.  An Obamalypse is at hand, they claim.  A clever turn of phrase, which unfortunately has, if not the ring of truth, a wee tinkle of it.

In my view, bad stuff is always happening, it's just that a lot more bad stuff is happening on Obama's shift, but it has been a terrific opportunity for the right-wingnut media to trot out Fall of the Roman Empire analogies even if such analogies are factually bereft, and most ridiculous of all, accusations from the equally reprehensible hard left that Obama is returning us to the outrages of the Bush-Cheney era.

* * * * *
Word is that the coming winter will be severe, which would make two in a row and two too many. The evidence for this foreboding isn't exactly scientific.  After all, no one would compare the Old Farmer's Almanac with the National Weather Service, although come to think about it, the Weather Service does seem to get it wrong an awful lot.  (Blame Obama.)
My own view is that the winter to come will be pretty much normal, and I base that prognostication on perhaps the most reliable year in-year out predictors: The hummingbirds who migrate each spring to the mountain retreat and return to tropical climes in the fall.  They know what kind of weather is in the offing, and based on their departure date this year -- that day when their tiny tummies are filled to bursting with flower nectar and sugar water from our feeders -- the winter will be nothing to sweat.
* * * * *
The big story hereabouts is not the fate of the Western World or the possible severity of the winter, but the assassination of a Pennsylvania state trooper and wounding of another trooper by a 31-year-old gun nut survivalist coward whose idea of a good time is dressing like a Serbian soldier.
The young man, armed with an AK-47 and other deadly weapons, remains inconveniently at large somewhere in the extensive woodlands hereabouts some nine days after picking off the troopers under the cover of darkness as they changed shifts at a state police barracks.  This has pretty much brought the region to a halt and is raising heck with the tourist business, forcing the closure of schools and incurring the harsh glare of the national media, which has belabored the obvious in declaring that the area where the coward lives "has seen better days."  (Blame Obama.)
The news media is up to it's usual name game bull in calling the guy everything other than what he is -- a terror-freaking-ist, because he is an American and doesn't wear funny clothes and worship a false God.  That noted, I have a modest suggestion for how to end this drama appropriate to the violence that has come to characterize American society: Deputize people who own AK-47s and other assault weapons, of which there are said to be many in the hood, and send them into the woods to track down the coward.  
* * * * *
If you've read this far, you may still have a brain cell or two stuck on the opening paragraph of these musings and are wondering what the heck dragon smoke is.
It is just what the name implies -- smoke for a dragon; you know, the stuff it blows out of its nostrils to scare off chivalrous knights who are trying to rescue damsels in distress, and stuff like that.  In this case, the dragon is part of the fuzzy troupe accompanying a hard-working ventriloquist who is stopping over at the mountain retreat amidst a nine-month tour that will take him to schools and youth groups in a good many states.  He is bringing much needed laughter to kids and a rare moment for teachers and other grown ups to forget about the mess Obama has made of things.
IMAGE: "The Return of the Herd" (1565) by Peter Breugel the Elder

Friday, September 12, 2014

Rave Reviews For 'There's A House In The Land'

Intrepid crew of the Zytax Zymo prepares to embark 
from the farm (Memorial Day, 1977)
My new book, There's a House in the Land (Where A Band Can Take A Stand) is getting rave reviews.  A sample:

If you can imagine the smooth wry blending of The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test and Swiss Family Robinson then you know in a nutshell what you are about to experience when you take on There's a House in the Land.

Veteran wordsmith Shaun Mullen's many gifts -- his wonderful way with words, fantastic attention to detail and crisp breezy analyze-as-you-go style that is uniquely his own all work together to inform and entertain his reader with a veritable blizzard of images and impressions creating a tapestry, a collage of colors bright and dark, of feelings elevating and depressing, that is fluid, fast paced and possessed of a wonderful range of polarity from har-dee-har-har ribaldry to eye moistening poignancy.

It is page after page of never-a-dull-moment documentation of an era in our history that is resurrected (or should I say exhumed?) with an unabashed self-effacing honesty that most any other writer would be reluctant to reveal.

The book's beauty is that it is a composite, a cross cut, an intense study of the doings, the exploits, the escapades, the shenanigans, the labors and the passions of a bruised and battered generation outraged by its government and traumatized by its war; the time of the quest for a new definition of freedom: freedom from and freedom to "be me," set against the backdrop of the drug culture which his true-life characters immerse themselves in with a hedonistic if not joyful abandon while remaining fully functional and creatively, responsibly and industriously providing for their own upkeep all along the way.

To those who are old enough to appreciate those times, please read this book.  You'll be glad that you did.  To those who are too young to appreciate those times, please read this book.  You'll be glad that you did.

This is a literary banquet that will stick to your ribs and is as American as strawberry rhubarb pie.

More reviews here.  And if you haven't already anted up for a copy of There's A House, it's available in both trade paperback and Kindle editions.
Photograph by the author

Thursday, September 11, 2014

America Is A Nation Addicted To War & Other Key Takeaways From President Obama's ISIS Address

President Obama has been fairly sparing in his prerogative of pre-empting prime-time television to address the nation over the last five and a half years, but last night's address was a doozy.  Here are the big takeaways:
(1.) Hard to believe, but Barack Obama may be best remembered not as the president who rescued the economy and then provided millions of Americans access to decent health care, but as starting a war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria that may take a generation to fight.
(2.) The war will be unlike any other.  Comparisons to World War II, let alone the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, do not begin to describe a conflict based on Whack-a-Mole air strikes backed by the marginally competent ground forces of Iraq, Kurdistan and Syria.
(3.) The air war in Libya didn't work.  Why should this one?
(4.) Not only will ISIS not be a pushover, it has learned well from the mistakes of Al Qaeda.  It has deep pockets, a vast arsenal (much of it captured U.S.-supplied weapons), friends in high places who are supposed to be America's allies, and is social-media savvy.
(5.) The conflict may well come to be known as the War of the Drone.  The Obama administration has conducted about 120 deadly drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia, more than in terrorist hotbeds of Pakistan in the last year, and the morality of the use of the lethal weapons may suddenly and regrettably become a non-issue.
(6.) American combat arms will be stretched so thin -- and intelligence on the ground is so poor -- that it is possible Al Qaeda will have breathing room unprecedented since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington 13 unlucky years ago today.
(7.) The war will effectively erase the border between Iraq and Syria and further blur the relationship between the U.S. and Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, who lest we forget has killed hundreds of thousands of his own people.
(8.) Obama called Iraq a "dumb" war at its outset in 2003, but the war he christened last night has aspects uncomfortably similar to Iraq, notably vague but unsubstantiated threats to the homeland that in the case of Saddam Hussein were proven to be utterly false.
(9.) The war clichés are flying fast and furious, but none is more apt than the fact no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.  And that once a war is started, a strategy (to the extent has Obama outlined one) can be impossible to control.
(10.) Unlike George Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, let alone FDR after Pearl Harbor, there is support among most Americans for going after the enemy while most of them disapprove of  the president's leadership.

(11.) The war is likely to be a wash on the campaign trail this fall, and it difficult to see how the conflict will change the likely outcome: a continuing and comfortable Republican majority in the House, a razor-thin Republican majority in the Senate, and gridlock all around.  But all bets are off for the big dance in 2016.
(12.) Obama avoided sticky constitutional questions.  But because of his own weak standing with the public and obdurate Republicans, some of whom have repeatedly goaded Obama to escalate military operations against ISIS, he must seek congressional approval for the war before casualties start mounting.

(13.) The Iraq war has cost more than $1 trillion and severely burdened the U.S.  The new conflict will further divert money and attention from crying domestic needs, including education, continued health-care reform, mass transit and other infrastructure improvements and, yes, immigration reform.

(14.) Killing anti-American sentiment abroad will prove to be far more difficult than killing terrorists and their leaders.

(15.) When will the U.S. stop its endless projection of the use of military force?  It has not happened in my long lifetime, and I conclude yet again that absent a viable anti-war movement, war will be a central theme of 21st century America.
Photograph from The Telegraph (UK)

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Is President Obama Being Judged Too Harshly On Foreign Policy?

In the ceaseless sturm und drang over Barack Obama's foreign policy and the U.S.'s response to the many conflicts abroad, two important questions are not being asked: Isn't the world different than it was even 10 years ago, let alone 50 years ago, and isn't it unfair to judge the president without taking that into account?
The answer is both yes and no.
Yes, because while the U.S. remains the sole superpower (with China coming up fast in your rear view mirror), the greatest threats to the homeland and America's global predominance come less from Putin's Russia, although it has an uncomfortable resemblance these days to the former Soviet Union at its most bellicose, but from the rise of the Islamic State and a resurgent Al Qaeda. 
And I have little doubt that Obama's foreign policy legacy will improve with age because history has a way of smoothing out the bumps that occupy our attention in a 24/7 news world.
No, because Obama's foreign policy shortcomings cannot be overlooked even when you consider his enormous domestic achievements -- the significance of which grow larger by the day -- of expanding affordable health-care coverage to millions of uninsured Americans while slowing runaway costs.  Oh, and rescuing the economy. 
These shortcomings cannot be balanced out even when you consider five years of unrelenting Republican obstructionism, including cries that the sky is falling whenever Obama has sought to use diplomacy to engage Iran and other mortal enemies of the Dr. Strangelove wing of the GOP, as well as unfair criticism over his reluctance to commit to specific courses of action on occasions when his administration is moving with appropriate caution.
But the fact is, while Obama won the historic 2008 presidential election in part by promising to spare the U.S. future wars and end ongoing ones, he could well leave office with the homeland in more danger than it was at the merciful conclusion of the Bush-Cheney interregnum. After all, there is now a cross-border caliphate in the Middle East that, in the words of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, represents "an imminent threat to every interest we have," while students of history recognize that Putin's nationalistic blood thirst for annexation and conquest was the key ingredient in starting two world wars.
* * * * *
Alas, once the fancy rhetoric is stripped away, Obama's foreign policy is something akin to Don't Do Stupid Stuff.

That, in principle, is just fine considering the predilection for the Bush administration, led by a man of limited intelligence, to do stupid stuff.  At the top of the list is, of course, the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, which was the greatest foreign policy blunder in American history after the Big Muddy, while starving the nascent war in Afghanistan and hunt for Osama bin Laden in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to feed the fool's errand in Iraq. 
The Bush administration's blindered policy on Iran seemed calculated to fail, it's policy toward Pakistan was schizophrenic, while its obsessive unilateralism, mated with a grotesque reliance on torture, sowed deep distrust and antagonism throughout much of the world.  Obama, who in comparison is no dummy, ended one war and is ending another.  And in the service of not doing Stupid Stuff, his policy toward Iran, built on a mix of economic sanctions and efforts to sew mutual trust, has been comparatively successful, although events out of the president's control have fostered the two nations' strange bedfellows relationship in fighting ISIS.  
But the Obama administration also has failed when it comes to containing Pakistan's well-practiced penchant for undermining American interests in Afghanistan and the region at large.  The president's failure to do more than repeatedly draw lines in the sand in Syria is pathetic, at this point, while his efforts (more or less in tandem with NATO) to contain Putin's overreaching in Crimea and Ukraine verges on the tragicomic since economic sanctions are not putting the Russian bear back in its box, and at this point I've run out of fingers and toes to count the number of ceasefires. 
Is Obama too reluctant too often to commit to a specific course of action?  Would having an Obama Doctrine, a clear foreign policy strategy that goes beyond not doing Stupid Stuff, help?
While I applaud Obama's stay cool demeanor and pragmatism, his under-appreciated efforts to scale back unrealistic American ambitions abroad and the quality of his advisers, including Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, I believe that having a clear strategy would at least be a reference point even at this late date in his turn at the plate. 
Yet such a strategy almost inevitably would be at odds with the president's vow to not start new wars.  This means that he may well serve out his last term not as the global leader in foreign affairs but as a victim twice over: Of having scant foreign policy experience before being elected, and inheriting the most important job in the world at a time when in which any foreign policy that falls short of being willing to engage in large-scale armed conflict -- which happened to be the lynchpin of the Bush Doctrine-- is futile.
Photography by Doug Mills/The New York Times

Monday, September 01, 2014

' Oh, The Days Dwindle Down To A Precious Few . . . '

Oh, it's a long, long while
From May to December
But the days grow short,
When you reach September.
When the autumn weather
Turn leaves to flame
One hasn't got time
For the waiting game.
Oh the days dwindle down
To a precious few . . .
September, November . . .
And these few precious days
I'll spend with you.
These precious days
I'll spend with you.
Oh the days dwindle down
To a precious few . . .
September, November . . .
And these few precious days
I'll spend with you.
These precious days
I'll spend with you.
These precious days
I'll spend with you.
Image: "Autumn" by Thomas Moran (c. 1893-97)

Friday, August 08, 2014

'There's A House In The Land (Where A Band Can Take A Stand)' Available In Kindle, Trade Paperback Editions

A character in the Doonesbury comic strip once called the 1970s "A kidney stone of a decade," and compared to the 1960s and 1980s, it indeed was.  It was a period of economic and political decline and, of course, abuses of power with Watergate being the worst but by no means only scandal.  Decades get demythologized; it is a quintessential part of the Great American Meat Grinder, but nobody has bothered to demythologize the 1970s because there was nothing mythical about them. 
The decade opened with a cyclone killing a half million people in Bangladesh and the Beatles breaking up, at midpoint, the Vietnam War was sputtering to an end and New York City was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, while its conclusion was marked by the Iran hostage crisis and introduction of the first Sony Walkman.  The decade's three presidents -- Nixon, Ford and Carter -- were dirty or mediocre, and the state of the union was not good.
It also was a time of bad hair and bad music, but none of that mattered to the tribe who lived on a farm beyond Philadelphia's far western suburbs. At first glance, this farm would seem to have been one of the then-ubiquitous communes, but it most definitely was not.   
There's A House In The Land (Where a Band Can Take a Stand) is the compelling, funny and sometimes heartbreaking story of that tribe and that farm.  It is fact lightly disguised as fiction in that the places, events and people are real, but the names of some places and people have been changed to protect the innocent.  As well as the guilty.  
Click here to order the trade paperback or Kindle editions of There's A House In The Land
Headline lyrics from "Stairway to Heaven"
by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant

'There's A House' Excerpt: 'There Must Be Some Way Out Of Here Said The Joker To The Thief'

MILK HOUSE AND BARN (circa 1975)
(Excerpt from opening of first chapter) 

    The first time I went out to Kiln Farm, bumping along in an aluminum beach chair anchored to the floor in the back of  Eldon's Chevy Step Van, it seemed like it took forever although the farm was only 10 miles from New Park.  

    Back then New Park was a quaint college town without a single decent restaurant.  But it did have the New Park Tavern, which Edgar Allan Poe is said to have cursed when he got falling-down drunk following a lecture at the college and was thrown out, as well as two

other establishments where students could hoist a pint before returning to the comfy confines of a picture book campus with ivy-covered buildings.  The Poe story is apocryphal because the tavern didn't exist when the poet-storyteller gave the lecture, but that hadn't prevented the management from plastering raven images on beer mugs and T-shirts.

    Today that quaintness is long gone.  There are several decent restaurants, the tavern is still raven-centric, but has been cleansed of its rusticated piss and beer charm.  About the curse, I don't know.  After a night of drinking, students now return to a campus that has grown up to become a world-class university known for far more than its football team.

    As for the farm, all but the farmhouse was razed years ago.  The garden, apiary, barn, milk house, chicken coop, black walnut tree that little Caitlin swung under, and the fields that seemed to go on forever, were bulldozed and replaced by cookie cutter townhouses in a development insultingly called Kiln Farms.

* * * * *
    Eldon turned off the state road onto a driveway flanked by row after row of field corn and began the bumpy ascent to a place that would be my home for the next 10 years.

   My initial impression was a cosmic wow! For the first time since I had returned from Nam, I finally felt like I was home.  It just wasn't the kind of home I had expected when a past and future resident of the farm, whom I had met in Saigon shortly before we caught Freedom Birds home, invited me to hang out until I got my bearings.
    The upper story of the farmhouse came into view as we began to crest the last hill and broke free of the cornfields.  Windows blazing brilliant orange with the reflection of the late afternoon sun framed by white stucco walls and topped by a faded red tin roof created the appearance of a gigantic grinning jack o' lantern. Appropriate, because it was Halloween.  There was music playing.  Very loud music.  I recognized it as King Crimson's "In the Court of the Crimson King."

    The music was blaring from large Pioneer speakers on a porch flanked by two guys guarding a half keg of beer in a wash tub filled with chunks of ice.  Both could have been mistaken for guitar god Duane Allman with their tall and lean builds, bushy moustaches and long hair, while an Irish setter, whom I imagined had to be deaf from the volume of the music, slept on the steps between the porch and front lawn, where a hotly contested game of horseshoes was being played. 

    The guy sitting on one side of the keg was resplendent in a sparkling red lamé jumpsuit, MARS emblazoned in big letters on the back.  His head and arms were painted a matching red, as well.  The guy on the other side was wearing a similar only blue lamé jumpsuit with VENUS across the back, his head and arms painted blue.  Trick or treating had obviously started early for these two planets . . .
Headline lyrics from "All Along the Watchtower" by Bob Dylan
Photographs by the author

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Robert Stein (March 1924 ~ July 2014)

Bob interviews Marilyn Monroe (1955)
Robert Stein was the longtime editor of Redbook in its heyday, publisher, media critic, journalism teacher and blogger, former chairman of the American Society of Magazine Editors, and author of Media Power: Who Is Shaping Your Picture of the World?  He was a friend of the rich and famous, including Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy Onassis.  And he was my friend.
Before the war in Iraq, Bob wrote in The New York Times:
"I see a generation gap in the debate over going to war in Iraq. Those of us who fought in World War II know there was no instant or easy glory in being part of 'The Greatest Generation,' just as we knew in the 1990s that stock-market booms don't last forever. We don’t have all the answers, but we want to spare our children and grandchildren from being slaughtered by politicians with a video-game mentality." 
This, Bob explained, was not meant to extol geezer wisdom but suggest that:
"Even in our age of 24/7 hot flashes, something can be said for perspective. The Web is a wide space for spreading news, but it can also be a deep well of collective memory to help us understand today's world. In olden days, tribes kept village elders around to remind them with which foot to begin the ritual dance. Start the music."
Bob kept blogging practically until the day he left this mortal coil.  We shall miss him.
More here.
Top photograph by Ed Fayngersh

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Happy July 4th. Be Hopeful & Stay Dry

When the best thing to happened in months is the Supreme Court closing down for the summer, then you know that 2014 has not been the most auspicious of years.  Neither was 1776, but there is a certain holiday celebrated because of the events on July Fourth of that year (except that nothing of consequence happened on the Fourth; the real events occurred 238 years ago on July Second.  No matter.)
Anyhow, we are living through a time of extraordinary human events, most of them definitely not for the good.  But no matter one's personal and political views, let's glory in the greatness that the United States of American once represented and hope for better times.  And enjoy the fireworks Friday night.  Unless you're on the East Coast and in the path of Hurricane Arthur.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Will General Motors' Massive Safety Recall Force A Change It's Atrophied Culture? Don't Bet On It.

With 29 million cars now having been recalled by General Motors for safety problems -- which is substantially more than the 22 million recalled last year by all automakers combined --  it is easy to conclude that GM has learned little from its turbulent recent past, which has included hemorrhaging market share for decades because of a crappy product line and then a near-death bankruptcy averted by a taxpayer and labor union bailout just as it was beginning to make attractive vehicles not destined for rental-car fleets.

GM's product line today -- from entry level compacts to behemoth pickup trucks -- is as competitive as any vehicle manufacturer anywhere.  Its Cadillac brand is back from the dead and its overall fleet has been at or near the top in initial J.D. Power quality ratings in recent years.  Several of GM's most venerable brands have been put out to pasture, and with the company concentrating on fewer product lines its future looked bright and Mary Barra, the first woman to head a major global automaker, seemed like the right person for the job.
 Until its past began catching up to it in an extraordinary series of recalls, many of which were for safety issues that came to the attention of GM years ago but it failed to address head on. 
* * * * *
I trace the beginning of General Motors’ downturn back to 1976 when a peppy little import called the Honda Accord first arrived in the U.S. The 1976 Accord had just everything that the GM cars of that era didn’t.  It was attractive, albeit in a cute sort of way. It was larger on the inside than it appeared from the outside, not the other way around. It had a rear hatch that opened to a collapsible back seat, offering lots of storage space. It handled well, had oomph and was economical, which was no small thing arriving as it did between the twin 1970s oil crises. A practical friend who had owned GM cars forever bought a metallic silver Accord and was hooked. I drove it and was hooked, too.

GM’s response to the Accord and successive waves of hot selling offerings from Honda and later Toyota and Datsun (Nissan) was to continue churning out formulaicly unattractive and uneconomical cars of dubious quality. In fact, GM’s only direct response to the so-called Japanese Invasion was an abomination called the Chevette.

The General’s fortunes briefly improved after Rick Wagoner took over as CEO in 2000 and GM's share price soared to a record $90. (It is $37 today.)  But beneath the gloss the same fundamental problems persisted, eating into the huge corporation like rust spreading through the underbody of a Cadillac Coupe de Ville.

These problems included overcapacity – too many assembly plants and not enough orders, sweetheart contracts with the United Auto Workers union, purchasing foreign car companies and then taking huge losses when GM couldn't make them work with their business model.  (What it did to Saab was unforgivable.)

But the biggest problem was that Wagoner’s GM was coasting along with pretty much the same tired product line as much of the rest of the automotive world was stealing a march on it with attractive and innovative products.

One GM brand was virtually undistinguishable from another. Calls to cut back on the duplication of models between brands and to even fold the lesser selling brands largely went unheeded. Most ominously for GM, Japanese automakers were opening U.S. plants and turning out cars (and later small trucks) that were as well made as those at their vaunted home plants while GM’s U.S. plants continued to produce poorly made vehicles.

In 1994, GM sold 35 percent of all cars sold in the U.S. Today it sells 18 percent. In 2005, it suffered its biggest loss ($10.6 billion) since the Depression, and its failure to shake off its old ways drove it to the verge of bankruptcy in 2008.  Waggoner took a hike at the behest of the Obama administration in 2009 as an unstated condition for its taxpayer-assisted bailout of the automaker, Pontiac, Saturn and Hummer joined Oldsmobile in going bye-bye, and while GM trails badly in hybrid technology, it finally seemed to be shedding all that rust as it introduced spiffy new models.

Yet it kept its old way of doing business.

In a blistering report last month prompted by the deadly Chevy Cobalt ignition switch problem that only scratched the surface of the GM culture, former federal prosecutor Anton Valukas described what he called the "GM nod."  That's when managers nod in agreement about a course of action but then do nothing.  Then there is the "GM salute." That's when managers, arms folded and pointed outward, indicate that the problem at hand is someone else's responsibility.
* * * * *
In the wake of the record recalls, which now total 54 in all, much has been made of the fact that the turnaround of Ford, which alone among Big Three automakers did not need a bailout, can be traced to Alan Mulally, who became Ford's CEO in 2006 after a long career at Boeing, and not being a car guy, let alone beholden to longtime Ford executives as Waggoner and now Barra are, set out to change Ford's corporate culture.  Considering that Ford lost $12.7 billion in 2006 and made $8.6 billion last year, it would seem that he succeeded.

To give Barra credit, she came up in the product-development side of GM.  Her father was a toolmaker at Pontiac for 39 years.  She seems to have cooperated fully with Valukas; it was she who told him about the G.M. nod.  Most importantly, she seems to understand what is wrong with GM's deeply inbred culture, which punishes whistle blowers rather than heed them. 

But there is no indication that Barra knows how to change that culture, let alone an arrogance that has survived GM's long slide from being the world's largest automaker to its near-death experience and now the stunning series of recalls, many of which would have never come to light had it not been for the Cobalt crisis.  Mulally's vision eventually trickled down to middle managers.  What is Barra's vision and how is she going to make sure it trickles down?

Fifteen GM employees have been dismissed for their roles in allowing the original ignition defect to go unrepaired for more than a decade, while regulators imposed a $35 million penalty for failing to report the problem in a timely manner.  A wrist slap, to be sure, and it is highly unlikely there will be criminal prosecutions as a plan fashioned by compensation expert Kenneth R. Feinberg to swiftly pay fatal accident victims' families more than $1 million, and in some cases as much as $4 million, each goes into effect.

What makes Barra's job even tougher is that a precipitous drop in sales might have a sobering effect, but GM is selling cars like hotcakes despite the recalls, yet again confirming that P.T. Barnum was right.

GM registered a 12.6 percent increase in sales in May, significantly outpacing Ford's 3 percent growth, and eeked out a 1 percent increase in June as Ford sales fell 5 percent, while the many millions of dollars that will be paid out will be written off as the price of doing business.  

Like the 9/11 and BP funds administered by Feinberg, the GM fund is designed to keep victims from filing lawsuits.  They must be willing to waive the right to sue before they are paid.  And those millions to be paid do not include punitive damages, so taken in the most uncharitable light, GM is getting away with murder.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Will Amazon Take A Hit On J.K. Rowling's Latest?

The Silkworm, a new detective novel by Robert Galbraith, is the guaranteed hottest bestseller of the summer.  If you've never heard of Galbraith, try J.K. Rowling, who has now written two books under that nomme de plume since publishing the last book of her wildly popular Harry Potter series.  But what makes the buzz over this book different than the usual reviews of recommended beach-reading mystery fare is that Amazon, by far the world's largest bestseller, is taking a beating over its consumer-friendly image because of it's ongoing sandbox fight with Hachette Book Group, whose Mulholland Books imprint, a division of Little Brown, publishes The Silkworm

The exact nature of the sand throwing is itself a mystery, but has something to do with Amazon wanting a bigger cut of each Hachette e-book it sells.  Amazon has given customers trying to buy the 5,000 Hachette titles it lists the middle finger by telling them there will be lengthy delays before delivery, as opposed to its famous Prime service, which delivers e-titles immediately and most hardback and paperback titles to your doorstep within 48 hours, and sometimes less.  The initial wait time for The Silkworm was one to two months, now down to two to four weeks as of this writing.
I have been an Amazon Prime customer since the service began in 2005.  My recent purchases have included a garden hose nozzle, low-cut athletic socks, a hickory walking stick and another batch of racket balls, which are rugged enough and not too small for our brother-sister chocolate Labradors to fetch, chew to their heart's content and drool all over, but they eventually get lost when the current in the creeks and rivers where they swim carries them away.
But I digress. 
I will not be ordering The Silkworm from Amazon less because I don't want to wait up to a month (I've got a big unread book backlog as is), but as an author myself with some grasp of the publishing biz have become weary of its bullying. 
Retailers like Walmart are drooling at the anticipated sales bonanza because of Amazon's hissy fit.  Walmart is deep discounting The Silkworm, but I won't be buying the book there because of its abominable labor practices.  I'll probably eventually buy it from an indy seller like Third Place Books in Seattle, which happens to be where the vast Amazon empire is headquartered.
For the record, the Harry Potter books bored me, which is to say that I tried to read the first couple and then bailed on the last five, while Rowling's first post-Potter offer, The Casual Vacancy, was pretty bad, especially considering that she is one of the most successful authors evah.
As for The Silkworm itself, I anticipate it to be just as good as Rowling's . . . er, Galbraith's terrific No. 1 bestseller The Cuckoo's Calling, the inaugural offering in what is likely to be a long series of books featuring detective Cormoran Strike, who lost a leg to a landmine in Afghanistan, and his comely sidekick, Robin Ellacott.  (Think Holmes and Watson.)  Strike is endlessly described as a loveable Rubeus Hagrid type by critics who just can't let go of the Hogwarts analogies.  Somewhat ironically, Strike wades into the dark underbelly of book publishing in the new offering.
Anyhow, reviews of The Silkworm have been uniformly adulatory even if I do suspect that many critics not only have a hard time avoiding the Potter references, but judging Gailbraith on "his" own terms.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Obama 's Justification For Killing An American Abroad Doesn't Fly

There was a familiar odor emanating from the Justice Department memo finally made public this week that sought to justify killing the American citizen and radical Muslim cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen: It was legal gobbledegook clearly designed to reach a desired conclusion, and the last time we saw antics on this scale was in the infamous Bush Justice Department memos justifying the use of torture despite it being clearly unconstitutional and a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
It took a while to me to conclude that the drone strike was justified.  Make no mistake about it, Awlaki was a terrorist. It can be argued that he was an American citizen in name only, but it is undeniable that he not only was the inspiration, but the strategic and tactical commander for terrorist operations that caused the death of U.S. citizens. He was in direct communication with Nadal Hasan, who killed 13 soldiers at Fort Hood. He personally recruited and trained Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to explode a bomb in his underwear aboard a flight with 290 passengers. When Senator Rand Paul claims Awlaki was "not directly involved in combat," he draws a distinction that seems out of touch with reality.
What is so troubling about the Obama administration memo is that, despite the need to carefully articulate the legal grounds on which to slay American citizens on foreign soil, it seemed hal-assed and was released only after an extensive legal fight led by The New York Times and American Civil Liberties Union.
As the Times notes in an editorial, "the memo turns out to be a slapdash pastiche of legal theories — some based on obscure interpretations of British and Israeli law — that was clearly tailored to the desired result. Perhaps the administration held out so long to avoid exposing the thin foundation on which it based such a momentous decision."
The primary theory outlined in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel memo justifying the U.S. killing one of its own, if they pose a threat, is the "public authorities justification."
This is a legal concept that permits governments to take actions in emergency situations that would otherwise break the law. As the editorial notes, that's why fire trucks can break the speed limit and police officers can fire at a threatening gunman. But the justification opens the door wide to myriad government misdeeds, especially since Congress has never authorized an exception for killings like Awlaki's, while the concept of due rights that Americans typically are granted in criminal proceedings are given short shrift.
Besides which, drone strikes have killed innocent bystanders, which certainly are not comparable to the police shootings that the memo cites as precedent.
We still do not know how the U.S. knew that Awlaki was planning the "imminent" mayhem that the memo claims because that information was  redacted from the memo.  All it says is that Awlaki had joined Al Qaeda and was planning attacks on Americans, but the government did not know when or where these attacks would occur.
How ironic that President Obama has been repeatedly accused of being weak on fighting terrorism by the Republican national security choir, but has been far more successful in five-plus years than the bombastic and serially reckless Bush administration was in eight years.

The aggressive Obama administration pushback has included stepped up drone attacks and commando raids in Afghanistan and Pakistan and in the mountainous Wild West border region they share, the assassination by Navy SEAL team of Osama bin Laden, and the assassination by drone of Awlaki on September 30, 2011 in Yemen.
The justifications in the Awlaki memo are not the leaps of logic in the reverse-engineered opinions written by John Yoo for the Bush Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel to provide legal backfill and ass covering for torture regime policies already well in place.

Those leaps of logic included Yoo's disingenuous commingling of World War II prisoners of war with post-9/11 enemy combatants, as well as the assertion of Michael Mukasey, who was easily the most dangerous of the three Bush administration attorneys general, that Yoo and his brethren cannot commit crimes when they act under the orders of the president and the president cannot commit crimes when he acts under the advice of his lawyers.
But that is small comfort.  No president should be able to pick and choose when to uphold and defend the Constitution, let alone Obama, who was once a constitutional scholar.  His legal eagles need to craft a redo on the Awlaki memo.  The alternative is to acknowledge that despite the fact Awlaki was a very bad man, a strong legal case wasn't made to take him out.  
And Obama needs to go to Congress for its blessing to authorize the killing of Americans overseas when they are viewed as threats to the homeland.  Yes, getting Congress to do anything is nearly impossible these days, but history will be less kind to the president for weak legal justifications and not giving Congress an opportunity to exercise its constitutional prerogative. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Why The Crisis In Iraq Is Like A Real-Life 'Game Of Thrones'

When the British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes sat down with François George-Picot, his French counterpart, on May 16, 1916 in London for the last in a six-month series of tea-and-negotiation meetings, it was the pilot episode of a sort of a real-life Game of Thrones.

The diplomats had been negotiating on how to divvy up the spoils of the Ottoman Empire.  The conclusion of World War I was still two and a half years away, but the end of Turkish hegemony in the region was a foregone conclusion and the superpower governments in London and Paris, which were kind of like the Westeros and Essos of the time, wanted to leave as little as possible to chance in fulfilling their imperialist desiderata, least of all to make good on vague promises made to the Arabs -- and the legendary Lawrence of Arabia, the leading advocate of the Arab cause -- for their own homeland as a reward for their assistance in crushing the Turks in the arid western expanses of their empire.

Subsequent episodes of this real-life Game of Thrones, minus scantily clad maidens and a dwarf named Tyrion, but with plenty of civil wars and bloodshed to go around, have been playing out for nearly 100 years beginning with the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, which set the artificial boundaries of colonial Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (and eventually the state of Israel) and provoked never ending cycles of ethnic strife, poverty, disenfranchisement, religious extremism and, of course, terrorism.  Which brings us to the current episode -- the disintegration of Iraq -- where all that is on offer.
What will the next episode bring?

Business as usual for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki no matter how intense the domestic and international pressures on him are.  Much, although by no means all, of the world of hurts that Iraqis find themselves in stem from Al-Maliki using his office, with the acquiescence of the Bush administration, to install fellow Shiites in all the key posts while driving out Sunni politicians and generals.  That is not going to change.
* Because that is not going to change, the Obama administration's response to the disintegration of Iraq will take that into account.  Neocon dogs of war like Paul Wolfowitz, who misunderstand everyone and mismanage everything, drove the U.S. into the democracy-at-point-of-gun invasion in the first place (check out reruns of 2003 season episodes) and can bark about going back into Iraq until they go hoarse.  Shame on them.  And praise Barack Obama for his coolness under fire.
* Iran, which exerts major leverage in the region, will play a crucial role.  The feelers that the Great Satan have put out to the Iranian government, which include behind-the-scenes talks in Vienna regarding how these strange bedfellows might work together to try to defuse the crisis, are hugely important regardless of the natterings of those dogs, whose policies empowered Iran in the first place, as well as their Republican helpmates on Capitol Hill.
* Accentuating the positive.  The rapprochement between rival Kurdish factions, which has resulted in democratic elections and a flourishing economy, has brought an unprecedented stability to northernmost Iraq.  Kurds and the Arab and Turkmen ethnic minorities in the region like paved roads, decent schools and hospitals, having electricity 24 hours a day, and not being blown up by suicide bombers.  They do not like Al-Maliki or his central government.  Tough.
* Understanding that Iraq is not Syria and Syria is not Iraq.  While they share a border and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria jihadists are the major players in the civil war in Syria and the current upheaval in Iraq, as well as feeding Shiite-Sunni tensions throughout the region, a one-solution-fits-both-states outcome is not in the cards.  Nor will either country be unified in the foreseeable future.
* The offensive by hair-on-fire ISIS insurgents that precipitated the crisis central to the current episode is unsustainable.   Maintaining the Sykes-Picot borders are in the best short-term diplomatic interests of the U.S., but if three states with notional borders divided by ethnicity and faith -- Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish -- do emerge, future episodes might just reveal that they are more stable.  And that Joe Biden, who as a senator argued that sectarian states were preferable to recurring chaos, was right.
* The recriminations about who "lost" Iraq will rage on.  Well, Sykes and Picot lost Iraq, while the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld troika lost it even more.  Oh, and it was Bush who negotiated the agreement that would have left a residual U.S. force.  Obama just happened to have become president when Al-Maliki rejected the agreement because the U.S. wouldn't abide with a provision stripping U.S. troops of legal immunity from Iraqi prosecution, something that even John "A Hundred Years of War" McCain would not abide.
Stay tuned.
Photograph courtesy of HBO

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The O.J. Saga 20 Years On: So Why Did Why He Become A Murderer?

O.J. with friends two months before the murders
It was a balmy June evening on the East Coast, 20 years ago today to be exact.  We were watching Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets at Madison Square Garden on a Los Angeles television station because we were putting our recently installed 12-foot satellite dish through its paces and had swung it into a position where we could pull in California signals. 
It was about 10 p.m. and the Knicks were ahead by a basket in a lead-changing nail biter when the station suddenly cut away to a Los Angeles freeway, where a camera from a news helicopter showed a phalanx of police cruisers, their lights madly flashing, in pursuit of a white Ford Bronco.

Four days earlier, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, described in early press reports as an acquaintance of the estranged wife of legendary football star O.J. Simpson, had been found slashed to death outside her L.A. condominium. 
The TV announcer breathlessly intoned that O.J. had been charged with the murders, had reneged on a promise to turn himself in to the police, and his Bronco had been spotted on a southern L.A. freeway in what would become, according to one survey, the sixth "most universally impactful" TV moment of the last 50 years -- a suspenseful but in retrospect comical low-speed chase that paled next to other impactful moments, including the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the space shuttle Challenger disaster.
We were transfixed as we watched the chase.  Hell, all of America was transfixed as Domino's Pizza reported record home-delivery sales because the chase unfolded during dinner time on the West Coast.  This epic pursuit, with O.J. best friend Al Cowlings at the wheel and the Juice himself riding in the back, reportedly with a gun in hand, ground to a halt 50 miles, two hours and hundreds of thousands of consumed pizzas later later as Simpson, clutching family photos, staggered out of the Bronco in the driveway of his Brentwood home, collapsed into the arms of police officers and was handcuffed.
Moments after the chase ended, the phone rang.  It was the City Desk at the Philadelphia newspaper where I was working.  I was told that I was on the O.J. case full time.  Big Boss's orders.  As it turned out, I would be on the case full time for the next 16 months as I covered the murder investigation, pre-trial maneuvering and then the nine-month Trial of the Century.  Looking back on the whole sordid affair 20 years on, it was an unrelenting exercise in hyperbole that somehow nevertheless never became bigger than itself in laying bare our obsession with celebrity and the ugliness of our nation's racial divide, the vulnerability of single women, and the debut of an apparently foolproof new forensic technique involving DNA analysis, while revealing how little most of us knew about the criminal justice system, let alone how to game a jury into believing that O.J.'s blood-soaked gloves didn't fit him.
Yet for this career journalist and long time observer of the ebb and flow of American fads, interests and mores, the biggest story was and remains why Orenthal James Simpson became a murderer.
* * * * *
In a society that judges a person by the color of their skin, O.J. had something that very few black Americans could claim: He was so accomplished and at one time was so popular that, in advertising agency parlance, he was "race neutral."

That is to say that when most people looked at him they saw not a black man who happened to have overcome a disadvantaged childhood in a broken home, but a handsome and gifted athlete who found fame and fortune by parlaying outstanding college and professional football careers into a successful big-bucks life off the field selling everything from men's footwear to rental cars, and as a broadcaster and later a not-bad Hollywood actor who married a gorgeous blonde woman, had two beautiful children with her, seemed to be in a giving marriage in a multi-racial community not unusual for Southern California but at that time alien to the rest of the country, and was endlessly kind and considerate to his friends. 
Simpson’s acquittal on charges that he murdered his wife and Goldman at the conclusion of the storied 1995 criminal trial can be attributed, in large part, to black jurors who believed that he had been framed because of his skin color.  (The families of Brown Simpson and Goldman eventually were awarded a $33.5 million wrongful-death civil judgment.) 

Yet it appears that to most people O.J. still remains O.J. despite the bitterness and animosity that the verdict unleashed on both sides of the racial divide (although it was us white folks who were shocked, just shocked, that the divide existed, while it was an inescapable fact of life for blacks and other minorities).
Today O.J. still is not merely a black man gone bad.  Never mind that his good looks have faded, his waistline has exploded, and he is a long-term guest of the Nevada state prison system because of a 2008 conviction for a botched sports memorabilia robbery at a Las Vegas casino-hotel.  Which unlike the murder trial, did not become a racial flash point.
* * * * *
I had a great ride off of O.J.  Given free rein by the Big Boss, I wrote at least one story each weekday for 16 months, as well as a syndicated column of gossipy tidbits called "The Simpson File" that was wildly popular and published in newspapers throughout the U.S. and Canada.  There was no such thing as a slow news day, and I never ran out of material.
I was one of the few reporters to plumb the racial aspects of the jury early on -- 10 women and two men, nine of whom were black, two white and one Hispanic -- and while I did not predict the acquittal, I wrote that such an outcome would not necessarily be surprising because woman jurors seemed so sympathetic to O.J. and the truth stretching but convincing arguments of his Dream Team of defense lawyers, who had basically eaten Marsha Clark and her fellow prosecutors for lunch.

I was the only reporter, to my knowledge, to explore gender views of Nicole. 
In one story, I riffed off of trial testimony showing that after returning home with her two young children on the night of the murders, Nicole had put them to bed, then lit candles throughout her condo, put on soothing music and taken a long bath.  And that to most men, such a scenario indicated that she was getting ready to meet a lover, in this case Goldman, while most women believed that like many a mother, she just wanted to chill out after a long and stressful day, which had included an unpleasant encounter with O.J. at an ice cream parlor.  Meanwhile, Goldman just happened to show up to return a pair of reading glasses she had misplaced.  Men couldn't relate to the tired mom scenario.  Women could.

My one "big" scoop concerned the fact the Nicole's breasts had been surgically enhanced because O.J. liked 'em big, something I confirmed in an interview with the Main Line Philadelphia plastic surgeon who had done the deed.

* * * * *
Celebrity became O.J., but he could not overcome his humanness.  I claim no special insight into the demons that possessed this Hall of Famer.  All I know is that despite his accomplishments and exalted status, he was just another person vulnerable to the baser temptations of life in the fast lane who succumbed to the frailties – in his case outbursts of rage, jealousy and a fondness for illegal substances -- that bedevil many of us.

Perhaps no one knows when O.J. hit bottom -- possibly not even The Juice himself.  That occurred sometime in the run-up to the slayings, which probably were a result of a cocaine-fueled binge, a fit of jealousy, or most likely both.  As it turned out, he had severely beaten Nicole on New Years Day 1989 in an earlier fit of rage.

In any event, it is sadly obvious that Simpson had been bottom crawling since the double murders. I will leave it to greater minds to do the moral calculus on whether his convictions for the Las Vegas crime spree some 13 years to the day of his murder trial acquittal and a jail sentence somehow makes up for him getting off in 1995.

My own view is that life -- and death -- don't work that way.  Besides which O.J., even at the advanced age of 66, seems incapable of being chastened no matter how hard he once looked for "the real killers" of Nicole and Ron, and how much jail time he does.
Photo from Splash News/Cobris via Vanity Fair