Thursday, October 16, 2014

Why The Ebola Crisis Is Only The Latest Government-Scripted Disaster

The news that the Centers for Disease Control was unprepared for the ebola virus now that it has made landfall in the U.S. is not exactly a bolt from the blue.  Government agencies have been failing us for many years.
The CDC, it turns out, had issued lax guidelines to health-care providers on how to treat people with ebola-like symptoms, the predictable result being that one person is dead at a Dallas hospital because of appallingly lax emergency room care and two nurses have been infected.  The question of whether these infections are outliers or merely the first casualties in what will become a full-blown public health crisis is now looming very large, as is the credibility of the CDC.
Unless you've been living in a cave, you know that the CDC has plenty of company.  Here's a partial list:

* The Agriculture Department is beholden to major food producers, which is why schoolkids still eat a lot of crap despite the efforts of First Lady Michelle Obama, pediatric obesity specialists and others not in the ketchup-as-vegetable crowd. 

* The Food and Drug Administration is beholden to profits-obsessed Big Pharma, which is why undertested prescription drugs kill and maim so many people. 

* The Defense Department is beholden to big defense contractors, which is why the armed forces are unable to wean themselves from ridiculously expensive and unnecessary weapons systems three decades after the Cold War drew its last breath. 

* The Federal Highway Administration is beholden to  vehicle manufacturers as has been shown in the sorry saga of too little oversight in General Motors' recall of tens of millions of unsafe vehicles.

* The Federal Communications Commission is beholden to the gigantic national cable television companies who believe the best Internet is one that most folks can barely afford.

* The Department of the Interior is beholden to the corporations who are turning our national parks into trees with McDonald's.
* The Department of Education is unable . . . no make that unwilling to really crack down on for-profit colleges that graduate few of their students but suck up hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid money.

* The Department of the Interior is beholden to the corporations who are turning our national parks into trees with McDonald's.

* The Department of Veterans Affair has, of course, recently been in the crosshairs for cooking its books in the service of not treating needy vets at its network of hospitals.  
* The Secret Service has shown itself to be so dysfunctional that the safety of the president has repeatedly been compromised. 
* And who can forget the reform-averse Securities and Exchange Commission, which slept through the run-up to the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression despite an abundance of warning signs and has pretty much taken a powder when it comes to preventing the kind of Wall Street excesses that triggered the downturn. 
Who have I left out?
Barack Obama happens to be the guy in the Oval Office and must take responsibility, to some extent, for these failures.  But every one of them predates his presidency.  Bill Clinton, for example, is the bad guy when it comes to the deregulation of banks and other lending institutions who were among the chief villains in the recession, while the administration of George W. Bush elevated defanging federal agencies to an art form.
While we're spreading blame around, let's not forget the Supreme Court and Congress.  Oh, and us.
The top court, which has morphed into a de facto arm of the Republican Party (do not be misled by the recent spate of non-decisions on abortion and same-sex marriage), effectively neutered the Food and Drug Administration a few years ago when it ruled that consumers could not sue the agency for its slipshod reviews of bad medical devices, to cite but one decision with a decidedly pro-big business slant.
Congress, meanwhile, has acted more like an ambulance-chasing attorney than a watchdog when government agencies fail us.  Time and again, the folks up on Capitol Hill, who are in the bag with well-heeled and well-connected campaign contributors, have reacted to bureaucratic-fueled crises with scripted outrage.  It turns out, of course, that many of these crises stem from the unwillingness of legislators to adequately fund agencies in the first place, the VA hospitals scandal being only the latest such instance, or their refusal to put real teeth into agencies' regulatory choppers, the GM recall scandal being only the latest such instance.
Finally, how many of us -- and not just those Tea Party wackadoodles -- criticize government for being too big and too meddlesome until we want it to do its job, whether protecting our Uncle Leo from hemorrhagic viruses, making sure his plane is airworthy and lands without incident when he visits at Thanksgiving, or that he not be stuck on a secret VA waiting list when this sweet old Vietnam vet really, really needs a new artificial limb.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Frein Manhunt In Disarray As Unanswered Questions Continue To Pile Up

As the manhunt for state trooper killer Eric Frein lurches toward its sixth week, the Pennsylvania State Police are on the defensive because of the latest scandal to tarnish the long troubled agency, while a law-enforcement insider says the search itself is in disarray.

The insider, who has many years of experience in tracking and surveilling criminal suspects, asked that his name not be used.  He acknowledges that any search the size of the Frein manhunt involving disparate law-enforcement agencies, in this case the state police, local and regional police forces, as well as the FBI and ATF, is bound to encounter some jurisdictional bumps and bruises.  While the various groups are assigned their own search sectors, the insider said they "are barely cooperating because every group wants to be the one to catch him."
"It's a clusterf---," said the insider, who confirmed the accuracy of an earlier Kiko's House post and updates on the dragnet.  "The locals [local police forces] know more than they're telling the state police and the feds."

Frein (pronounced Freen) shot and killed state police Corporal Bryon Dickson and wounded Trooper Alex Douglass on September 12 in a sniper-style attack in the late evening darkness as they changed shifts at a barracks in Blooming Grove, a small Pike County community about 20 miles north northeast of Frein's parents' house in the village of Canadensis in Monroe County.  The self-trained backwoods survivalist crashed his Jeep near Blooming Grove and is believed to have hiked south southwestward through nearly unspoiled forest to an area near Canadensis that provides many hiding places not visible from the air, let alone on the ground a hundred yards away.
In the early days of the manhunt, a state police spokesman repeatedly stated that searchers were closing in on Frein and there were repeated but largely unconfirmed sightings of the 31-year-old, who likes to dress up like a Serbian soldier and play Cold War-style games, and has long harbored a well-documented grudge against law enforcement. 
The number of apparent sightings since then has diminished, and the boastful claims that searchers had found items belonging to Frein have sometimes blown up in their faces.  Case in point: The state police spokesman crowed that soiled diapers left by Frein had been recovered during the manhunt.  It turns out the diapers would only fit an infant and had been in the woods for some time. 

The latest scandal to hit the state police reaches all the way to the top: Commissioner Frank Noonan is among several high-ranking state officials to receive emails with pornographic content.  Several officials have resigned or been fired, but Noonan told Governor Tom Corbett that he never opened any of the 300-plus pornographic emails he received, which exonerates him in the eyes of an ethically challenged gubernatorial administration.  By this standard, Noonan could drive past a gang rape in his official car while on duty, not try to stop the rape nor even notify authorities of it, and therefore is absolved of responsibility because he didn't get involved. 
* * * * *

One of the more curious aspects of the Frein drama is why his parents have not issued an appeal urging their son to surrender.  A state police spokesman has said it is believed the fugitive has a radio or other means of monitoring news reports, so why not have his parents record a message, which could additionally be broadcast from loudspeakers on the helicopters flying over the search area?  Indeed, why not?
Among other questions being asked but not answered:

* Will the state police learn from the mistakes investigators made in the five-year-long manhunt for 1996 Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph and expand their search from the area where they have been focused from Day One?  Like Frein, Rudolph was a well-trained survivalist and like the Frein manhunt, in his case searchers also concentrated on a specific area of forest.  Rudolph finally was apprehended after he was found rummaging through a grocery store trash bin away from the search area.

* How much is the manhunt costing and where is the money coming from?  The spokesman will only say that "millions of dollars" have been expended.
* At what point will the search for Frein begin to seriously impact on other parts of the regional criminal-justice system, or has it already?  In just one of a growing number of instances, charges recently were dropped against a man who slapped a state police horse at Musikfest in Bethlehem because the trooper riding the horse was unable to attend the trial because he was involved in the manhunt.

Meanwhile, as a career journalist, it has been dismaying to watch the Pocono Record abdicate its responsibilities and concede the biggest story to hit the region since back-to-back hurricanes took 78 lives in 1955, to its competitors.  
The Allentown Morning Call and Scranton Tribune Times, which have some circulation in Monroe County, have aggressively covered the manhunt.  These papers have repeatedly broken stories that require enterprise and shoe leather -- and that the Record shamelessly picks up and runs on its front pages, while major media outlets like The Philadelphia Inquirer and CNN have run circles around the Record.  That is understandable to an extent.  Both the Inky and CNN have reporters who have sources deep within the FBI and ATF, but that does not explain why Record reporters seem reluctant to even leave their newsroom. 

* * * * * 
So why didn't Noonan notify Corbett of the pornographic emails, which he received while chief of the criminal division in the Office of Attorney General, which was headed by the governor-to-be at the time?  Why did he still not notify Corbett of the emails after Corbett named him state police commissioner?  We probably will never know, because the state police modus operandi has long been to close ranks and stonewall any questions about its own standards, or simply lie when confronted.  (The state police are virtually alone among state agencies exempt from Pennsylvania's Right to Know Law.) 
I know about the state police propensity to lie first- and second-hand.
While researching my 2010 book on the unsolved 1981 ax murder of Eddie Joubert, a popular bar owner and civic leader in the eastern Poconos village of Delaware Water Gap, I repeatedly contacted the state police in order to confirm that the murder was  considered a "cold case."
As I wrote in the Afterword of the book:
"Repeated calls elicited a range of excuses about why this simple piece of information was not forthcoming, and I had to threaten to go to higher ups if my request was not answered.  It finally was, and the case is indeed as cold as a midwinter night in the Poconos.
"How cold is that?  A subsequent query revealed that the commander of the Swiftwater barracks [the primary state police unit in the Poconos] asserts that unsolved murder cases such as Eddie's are assigned to troopers who are required to spend some time each year on them.  But Eddie, it seems, did not make the cut.  This is borne out by family members, [his] employees, friends and law enforcement officials whom I interviewed who state that they were not aware of any state police activity whatsoever regarding Eddie's case over the past 28 years."
The state police had no reason to lie, but they lied anyway, which is a deeply ingrained part of its culture and also was the common denominator when a close friend was twice stopped by state police  in recent years while driving and hit with bogus charges. 
In both cases, my friend knew she had done nothing wrong and requested trials to appeal the tickets, although the fines were minor.  In one case, two troopers lied about the circumstances, the judge rolled over, and my friend had to pay the fine and court costs.  In the other case, the trooper lied about the circumstances, the judge was rightfully skeptical of the cock-and-bull story the trooper told, and the charge was dismissed. 
All of this begs a very important question: What lies are the state police telling regarding the Frein manhunt and investigation?

Image from Japan Times

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Friday, October 03, 2014

(New Update) The Poconos Take Yet Another Hit As Pennsylvania State Police Botch Their Manhunt For Cop Killer Eric Frein & Outrage Hunters

If there was any question that the Pennsylvania State Police-led manhunt for cop killer Eric Frein was in big trouble -- indeed, that the trail for the marksman-survivalist in the northeastern Pennsylvania woodlands may have gone cold -- a photograph on the front page of the Pocono Record on Monday, the 17th day of the search, betrayed a harsh truth.  And now, to make a bad situation worse as the manhunt drags on and state police encounter the first murmurs of public criticism, they find themselves having little choice but to outrage perhaps the most influential constituency in the region -- hunters.

The Pocono Record photograph showed troopers clad in camouflage and SWAT
team mufti preparing to search a vacant cabin for Frein.  The cabin was not one of many that dot the woodlands, which already had been searched, but was on a well-traveled state road, not exactly the kind of place that a crafty, if troubled, 31-year-old charged with criminal homicide who likes to dress up like a Serbian soldier and play war games would choose. 
State police clearly are at the end of their rope -- or nearly so.
Frein shot and killed state police Corporal Bryon Dickson and wounded Trooper Alex Douglass on September 12 in a sniper-style attack in the late evening darkness as they changed shifts at a barracks in Blooming Grove, a small Pike County community about 20 miles north northeast of Frein's parents' house in the village of Canadensis in Monroe County.  The self-trained backwoods survivalist crashed his Jeep near Blooming Grove and is believed to have hiked south southwestward through nearly unspoiled forest to an area not far from where his parents live.
State police had set themselves up for failure -- or at least a frustratingly long search -- by taunting Frein in public pronouncements and repeatedly boasting that they were closing in on him.  Lieutenant Colonel George Bivens, the lead state police spokesman, declared at one point that trackers, which include FBI agents, local police and dogs in addition to troopers and number about a thousand officers in all, had confined Frein to a one-square mile area and had him surrounded. 

As the dragnet dragged on, the area increased to five-square miles and then Bivens' "We know where you are and we're coming get to you" boasts stopped altogether.  Frein has appeared to be taunting back, hanging an AK-47-style assault rifle from a tree trunk in plain view that is believed to be his, while leaving a trail of butts from Serbian cigarettes and perhaps soiled diapers, as well.
Some 20 days after the murder, the impression grows and has begun to be voiced by a few people in a community that has showed overwhelming support for the state police despite myriad inconveniences caused by their manhunt, including residents being forced to stay away from their homes for days: Had the murder victim been one of them, the manhunt already would have been called off or there would not even have been one.
The state police also have struggled to stay on message.  
Asked about rumors that Frein's sister had a relationship with Trooper Douglass, Bivens initially denied they had "an inappropriate relationship," which ginned up the rumor mill even more.  Bivens later sought to clarify matters by stating they had not had any kind of a relationship and did not even know one another, but the impression lingers that despite Frein's well-documented hatred of police in general, he did not pick out Douglass at random with plenty of other law-enforcement targets closer to home. 
And a state police report that Frein had been leaving behind soiled diapers was called into question.  
While well-trained snipers wear diapers because of the many hours they sometimes have to wait for their prey without moving, area residents well familiar with the many black bears who populate the woodlands, noted that it was not unusual for bears to drag bags with household waste, including soiled diapers, into the woods.  This may have prompted a cryptic state police statement released Friday, unusual in and of itself, stating that they would not comment on any possible evidence.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has appeared at Dickson's funeral, a state police press conference and other Frein-related news events, but that has failed to resuscitate an re-election campaign that is running on empty because of his slash-and-burn cuts to the state education budget and lingering questions about whether he foot-dragged on the Jerry Sandusky-Penn State sex scandal while attorney general.
Bivens has said Frein was spotted by trackers at a distance around dusk on the evening of September 22 while being tracked by dogs, and trackers detonated a flash-bang device.  He said a helicopter was overhead but could not follow Frein because of the thick forest canopy, and he was able to slip away.  There were unconfirmed reports of another spotting on Monday.
The spokesman has explained the failure of apprehend Frein by noting there are numerous caves in the woodlands, trackers are taking their time clearing them because Frein is considered armed and dangerous, while there is concern that because two pipe bombs have been found in the search area and because Frein has experimented with explosives in the past, he could have booby-trapped the area or is capable of another sniper attack.
"I'm calling on you, Eric, to surrender," Biven said at a Tuesday afternoon press conference. "We continue to take your supplies and weapons stockpiles . . . We are not going anywhere."
There was a certain inevitability that a man accused of killing a cop in cold blood would become a cult hero.  There are several Facebook pages in Frein's honor, including one called "Eric Frein Is God," and a rap tribute on YouTube.
The search turned tragicomic on Wednesday night when two state troopers fell 20 feet from a tree stand during the search and were injured.  They were flown to a Lehigh Valley hospital, treated and released, which provoked additional criticism because the injuries appeared to be minor.
Perhaps Frein will have been been apprehended by the time you read this.  Or gunned down while refusing to surrender.  Or has taken the coward's way out by killing himself.  Let's hope so.

But the Pennsylvania State Police historically has been a troubled and scandal-plagued agency long on boastfulness and short on accomplishments,  the most recent scandal enveloping none other than State Police Superintendent Frank Noonan, who sent and received hundreds of sexually explicit photos, videos and messages from his state e-mail account.  In other words, pornography.  Talk about role models.
Given the state police's history, the failure to find Frein comes as no surprise.  Nor does the abysmal coverage of the Pocono Record, which has been gifted an international story right in its front yard but has rolled over and allowed out-of-town media to break the big stories, such as they are, while dutifully kowtowing to the state police and officialdom, taking everything they have said at face value with nary a skeptical question asked, let alone published, as it has become increasing obvious that the massively expensive operation to bring Frein to ground has been unraveling. 
Not a single Record story in the last three weeks has showed the kind of initiative and doggedness that has allowed the Scranton Times-Tribune, Allentown Morning Call, Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Times and the television news networks to run circles around it.
The manhunt could not have come at a worse time for the Poconos. 

The Monroe County economy crapped out long before the rest of the nation, and for a while it led all counties nationwide in home foreclosures per capita.  This is because local bigs, not content to try to build the tourist industry and brand the Poconos as a special place with beautiful woodlands chockablock with trails, waterfalls, creek and rivers, as well as golf courses, ski slopes and family friendly resorts, climbed into bed with rapacious developers and usurious financial institutions after the 9/11 attacks to sell the Poconos as a safe haven from a world gone crazy.
(Not surprisingly, although Frein fits the definition to a T, the news media is up to it's usual name-game bull in calling him 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.)
Anyhow, people flocked to the area from the Bronx, Queens and northern New Jersey by the thousands after 9/11, but the gauzy illusion that the Poconos was some sort of paradise soon gave way to a harsh reality of which wise locals were all too aware: There was an apathetic political establishment resistant to reform, many roads and bridges were in atrocious condition, social services were overtaxed, schools ranged from mediocre to poor, rates were well above state county-by-county averages for adult major crime, drunk driving and vehicular fatalities, an increasingly degraded environment, and stratospherically high local tax rates that have been crushing to all but the relatively few affluent residents. 

Many of the homes built for new arrivals were substandard, many of the people who bought them were marginally solvent and easy prey for unscrupulous mortgage companies -- and there were no decent jobs.
Politicians' post-9/11 promises that a major complex of financial institutions that they dubbed Wall Street West would be built in the Poconos and long-moribund passenger rail service would be restored between the region and New York City were so much hot air.  
Virtually the only jobs were and remain minimum wage -- dishwashers, groundskeepers, chambermaids and burger flippers -- while the commute to and from North Jersey and New York City and decent paying jobs is a killer; in fact, it is regularly described as the worst commute in the nation by rating services.  Fickle educators went on a school building binge as a result of the population explosion, but today some schools have been shuttered and teachers furloughed.  A reverse migration has kicked in as many of the same people who were lured by false promises have retreated back to where they had come from -- foreclosed on, broke and broken.  
Meanwhile, the manhunt comes when fall foliage, an attraction for day trippers and other tourists, is kicking in early because of a dry summer.  It promises to be spectacular. 
Inn keepers and restaurateurs report lousy to nonexistent business.  And don't mind that huge image of Frein, with a smirking mug and Serbian army hat, his inclusion on the FBI's Most Wanted List duly noted, on a huge electronic billboard at the Delaware River Toll Bridge on Interstate 80, the eastern and most heavily used portal to the Poconos.  (There is nary a peep about the manhunt, let alone the fact that much of the region remains open for visitors, on the website of the reliably somnambulant Pocono Mountain Visitors Bureau, the lead tourism agency.)
Then there is the fall hunting season, an annual orgy of wildlife carnage in a gun-crazy region where public schools still close on the first day of gun deer season and tables, lunch counters and bars at pubs, roadhouses and diners usually glow hunter orange from the beginning of deer bow season, which opens on Saturday, followed by seasons for deer and elk, squirrel, rabbit and hare, and various wildfowl that run through to the end of December.  
State police initially green-lighted hunting in even the deepest woods once the seasons opened, but on Wednesday the state Game Commission had second thoughts and banned hunting in a huge area in seven townships that is substantially larger than the area where the manhunt is ongoing. 
It is hard to imagine a more incompatible mix: Hunters armed to the teeth filling woodlands teeming with state troopers armed to the teeth, but the Game Commission edict has provoked outrage from both casual hunters and hunters who rely on filling their freezers with venison and other game to make it through harsh winters.
"Thank you Pa. Game Commission for making it official, one indignant hunter declared.  "The police have been lying to us about knowing the general area where Frein is.  I understand them closing the area where they claim he is . . . yet they want the game commission to close such a massive area.  I support the police for putting their lives on the line, but the higher up's are not being honest with the public."
"If anybody should be honest and straightforward with the public it is the police," said another resident.  "I have been supportive of the police from the start, but that support is wearing thin other than wishing them good luck and safe going."
* * * * *
I reveal how the Pennsylvania State Police, aided and abetted by an indifferent criminal-justice establishment, blew a high-profile Poconos murder and botched several other murders in my 2010 book, The Bottom of the Fox: A True Story of Love, Devotion & Cold-Blooded Murder.  The book is available online in trade paperback and Kindle versions at Amazon and at Barnes & Nobles and other online booksellers.
Photograph from

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Shameless Self-Promotion: Meet Me, With Great Music & Food, To Boot

If you live in the Greater Philadelphia-Baltimore Co-Prosperity Sphere and have some time to kill on Sunday (September 28), here's a special event for you: I will be signing copies of There's A House In The Land, my just-published saga of the 1970s, beginning at 1pm and again at 8pm at the Blue Crab Grill in Suburban Plaza, a mere two miles from Interstate 95 in Newark, Delaware.

The event also will feature a reunion of Snakegrinder and the Shredded Fieldmice, a psychedelic-tinged band with a song from which I stole a lyric for the title of the book.  And the Blue Crab has a wonderful menu of seafood and other delectables to die for. 
In addition to copies of There's A House and The Bottom of the Fox, my previous opus, Snakegrinder CDs and commemorative postcards will be for sale.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Memo To Christie Fans: Fugeddabout Bridgegate, It's The Economy, Stupid

There has been much happy talk among Republicans hoping for -- no, make that desperate for -- a moderate nominee to take on Hillary Clinton in 2016 since federal investigators have been unable to link New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to Bridgegate, the public-safety mess resulting from the closing of several lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee in retaliation for the mayor of that fair burg not backing the governor in his re-election bid.  The feds say their probe is "very much ongoing," but barring a key aide who might flip and provide the smoking gun prosecutors have lacked, Christie is likely to skate.
But the jubilation is misplaced because even with the obstacle of a criminal indictment removed and his well-known penchant for bullying and political revenge-seeking like Bridgegate put aside, Christie arguably has an even bigger problem: He has trashed New Jersey's economy, in large part because of cooking the books and a co-mingling of official businesses and GOP favoritism extraordinary even in a state where the official motto might as well be "Pay to Play."
Not only can Christie not point to economic success back home as did then-Texas Governor George W. Bush when he ran for president in 2000, but his opponents in the grueling GOP primary season and presidential election can note that New Jersey's credit rating has been downgraded eight times on Christie's watch -- more than under any governor in the state's history. 
In the eighth downgrading earlier this month, Standard & Poors belabored the obvious in stating that "New Jersey continues to struggle with structural imbalance . . . New Jersey will face increased long-term pressures in managing its long-term liabilities, and that the revenue and expenditure misalignment will grow based on reduced funding of the state's unfunded actuarial accrued liability."
Translation: Borrowers will impose even higher interest rates on a state under the budgetary gun when they lend it money to finance schools, which already are underfunded, and fix roads and bridges, which are a mess.
It gets worse: Since Christie took office in January 2010,  private-sector job creation in New Jersey has increased by only 3.8 percent -- tied for second worst in the nation with the basket case known as Mississippi. 
The New Jersey job growth rate is far more anemic than in Indiana (led by potential GOP presidential contender Mike Pence), Louisiana (Bobby Jindal), Texas (Rick Perry), Wisconsin (Scott Walker), and Ohio (John Kasich), and all five of those states have unemployment rates lower than the Garden State's 6.6 percent, which is half a percent higher than the national average.
My blogger friend Will Bunch nails it when he calls what Christie has done over the last five years a political Ponzi scheme in which money, tax breaks and other perks have been steered to his Republican cronies and other friends, all at the expense of New Jersey's suffering middle class and Mississippi-caliber poor.
To wit: 
* Christie ripped off hundreds of millions of dollars originally designated for a badly-need commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River to Manhattan to pay for the state's collapsing infrastructure, primarily the decrepit Pulaski Skyway, the main connector to the Holland Tunnel, which is on the verge of literally collapsing.
* The city of Hoboken was denied Superstorm Sandy relief money because its mayor would not role over when Christie tried to ram an immense condominium and business park development down her throat that was backed by influential Republicans.
* He paid for a Sandy-related tourism campaign with federal dough while doling out the bulk of Sandy funds allocated to the state to friends and supporters.   The neediest storm victims got little or nothing.
* He named a close ally to head the dysfunctional Port Authority with no experience, but the contract did enrich his law firm. 
Christie has a steep enough mountain to climb in seeking the nomination because he is not deemed conservative enough by the purists who have hijacked the Republican Party (among his cardinal sins was appointing a judge who happened to be Muslim), so his dismal, corruption-studded performance in managing New Jersey is a huge liability.
As GOP strategist Keith Appell said, "The economy is always the biggest issue . . . because the first question people ask is, 'What can you do for me? And this goes directly to their wallet or purse."
Which, blogger Dick Polman notes, is a lot more important than whether they've ever crossed the George Washington Bridge.
ABC News photograph

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 clich├ęs 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