Saturday, July 28, 2007

Losing the war against complacency

Everybody's against this war and pretends to have been since the start.

Yes, there's still a solid 20 percent of true patriots who back the war — a record low, making the Bushies yearn for the numbers Nixon pulled for Vietnam.

But let's get back to the majority, even as our voices are drowned out in the Oval Office and the halls of Congress.

And let's fess up. The polls represent a complete reversal from when we started bombing Baghdad to kingdom come on March 20, 2003. Back then, better than 80 percent of us joined the war pep squad, right down to the ubiquitous yellow ribbon magnets on our SUVs.

Now we've ripped those babies off as quickly as we slapped them on, without even chipping the customized paint job.It's a somber and potent symbol of our complacency.

Complacency marked our initial euphoria with the war — bless the troops, don't send my boy and hand me another tax cut.And it's the hallmark of our current revulsion with the conflict that has left more than 3,600 U.S. troops dead and another 26,000 wounded. Can't protest now; "America's Got Talent" is on.

We've come a long way from rocking the nation with rallies during Vietnam.

The Iraq war appealed to the best of our nature — love of country and those who protect it, faith in freedom and the desire to help those suffering.

But this war also appealed to the very worst in our psyches — the visceral need to kick some ass, even if innocent people (say, 650,000 Iraqis we were supposed to be liberating) die in the crossfire.

It was the wrong war. But it felt right.

The pain still throbbed of almost 3,000 Americans being incinerated; al-Qaida and Osama had proved slipperier targets than we thought and somebody had to pay, dammit.

We just knew Saddam Hussein was laughing at us dumb Americans. Boy, did our bunker busters wipe the smile off his mustachioed face.

When we invaded Iraq, three-quarters of Americans believed Saddam was behind 9/11. More than 90 percent thought he possessed weapons of mass destruction.Both were dangerous lies propagated by a delusional, demagogic administration.

And we bought it.

But who today admits they did, aside from requisitely remorseful Democrats duking it out for the presidential nod? Even their normally bellicose Republican counterparts have backed away, sheepishly muttering something about "mistakes being made" in Mesopotamia.

We insist Sen. Hillary Clinton flagellate herself at the altar of smug sanctimony — "Forgive me, Father, for I have pandered" — but who among us is without sin?

We bought President Bush's Shock and Awe ad campaign that he'd made us safer since 9/11 — and gave him four more years as the Leader of the Free World.

More than 1,000 U.S. troops died in Iraq by Election Day 2004. But three-quarters of Americans believed the country was doing better than under Saddam's rule, and more than 60 percent thought he had posed a serious threat to U.S. security.

By the next year, we came down with buyer's remorse and the president's polls plummeted. It wasn't because everyone collectively pored through the 636-page 9/11 Commission Report and realized the Iraq-al-Qaida link was a neoconservative hoax.

It was the wrenching site of flag-shrouded coffins carried through our hometowns. They kept coming — with no end in sight.

And the high-decibel defense of this war — usually by those who had skirted their own duty to serve, like Vice President Dick Cheney — sounded terribly hollow against those caskets.

The Bushies continue to muddle the issue and unleash a new marketing strategy every few months. (Was al-Qaida in Iraq before the war? Who knows? You know how hard it is to muddle through the intelligence bureaucracy. The important thing is, the terrorists are there now and we're blowing 'em to bits.)

The administration is still desperately trying to exploit the worst in our nature. Its latest tagline is Americans may want to high-tail it out of Hilla, but they really want victory more.

It's too late. We ain't buying. But that's not enough.

The troops are being asked for superhuman sacrifice. Some are on their fifth deployments in a war that cannot be won militarily and whose objective and justification constantly change. And the sickening part is, the intelligence shows Americans aren't any safer.

Our troops will fight as long as we ask.We need to stop — now. All of us own this war and its eventual $1 trillion price tag.

We need to tell our leaders in Washington — however many times as it takes — that we want them to end the war. It's not enough to do that via osmosis while sitting on the sofa snickering at "Big Brother 8."

Our silence doesn't protect us. And it doesn't protect our troops.

We were supposed to have learned painful lessons from Vietnam. But perhaps only our cynical politicians have: No draft, no demonstrations.

And no accountability.

If they only had a plan

After two weeks vacation, our Lansing leaders are no closer to discovering the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, who will magically solve the $1.6 billion budget deficit.

They've been stumbling down the yellow brick road since January, in fact, and still can't figure out which way to go.One path looks a lot like Dust Bowl-era Kansas — depressingly black and white, with the next twister right around the bend. Family farms are going belly-up, schools are ramshackle and downtowns are fast becoming ghost towns.

But at least the dang government is minding its own business.

The other path blooms in Technicolor — and if the gentle, wildflower-dotted hills don't quite look like Silicone Valley, it's at least Pennsylvania. After last week's partial government shutdown, the Keystone State promptly passed a budget boosting spending on schools, daycare and senior services.

Imagine that.

Of course, Michigan can just run out the clock until its Sept. 30 deadline. What's the worst that can happen? Record 7.2 percent unemployment? The continued exodus of business and bodies from our state?Stall on, Lansing. Budgets are hard work. And our leaders clearly don't like being on the surrealist journey together.Everyone's jockeying for first billing in this melodrama.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm plays Dorothy, the heavily rouged Democrat who thinks there's no place like home in Wayne County, where the McNamara machine would just take care of pesky tax questions for her.Senate Minority Leader Mark Schauer is Toto, Dorothy's loyal sidekick, cute enough to fit into a picnic basket. Occasionally, the Bedford Township Dem pokes his head out to nip at Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop.

Bishop, R-Rochester, stars as the Tin Woodsman in need of a heart, who thinks nothing of slashing college funding and medical care for poor kids.

Is he trying to appease the Wicked Witch of Notaxistan lobby, whose Flying Monkey, former state Rep. Leon Drolet, hounds legislators with his gigantic, fiberglass pig? Or are dreams of the governor's mansion dancing in the boyish Bishop's head?

The Cowardly Lion is novice House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford Township, who clearly needs a shot of courage after going into hiding during the last round of negotiations.

Lastly, there's easily overlooked House Minority Leader Craig DeRoche, aka Scarecrow, who still wistfully calls himself Speaker and can't add up the deficit right. The Novi Republican is just now cobbling together a task force to help him out.

Like it or not, this preening cast of characters is stuck with one another.And we're stuck with them.But if they need help, there's not just one Wizard to consult — there are a dozen from the bipartisan Emergency Financial Advisory Panel, chaired by former governors William Milliken and Jim Blanchard.

They put forth sensible ideas the overwhelming majority of Michiganders support — investing in schools, the arts and health care; modernizing the tax code; and reforming state employee benefits.Precious little of that has been done — save for the new Michigan Business Tax — even as an F-5 economic cyclone barrels through the state.

Now I lived in Iowa long enough, surviving three separate tornadoes, to know that if you choose to shut your eyes in the middle of a twister, it'll still heave your mangled body onto the nearest barn or farming implement.

Our problems aren't going away. The storm grows stronger each day.

But our leaders seem content to keep using the budget as political theater, knowing they can always take cover in their tax shelters.

Right now, too many in Lansing see the world in black and white. It's up to us to tell them we'd rather live in Technicolor.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

History offers real fireworks on the 4th

Independence Day is one of those kick-back, crack-open-a-beer kind of holidays, so I could think of no better way to celebrate than with a jaunt over to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, Calif.

After all, it's a day to commemorate our democracy, so why not visit the birthplace of the man whose imperial secrecy came closest to subverting that tradition in the last half-century?

As my editor says, I'm a nerd.

Of course, after strolling through the orange-tree-lined grounds, memories of the Watergate Hotel break-in, illegal wiretapping and enemies list seem to melt under the southern California rays.

Touring Nixon's snow-white boyhood home humanizes the image of a glowering, unshaven 37th president as it's meant to, providing a window into his austere Quaker upbringing as the second of five boys.

An accordionist, violinist and pianist, he made up for his lackluster skill with undying determination, which would become the hallmark of his political career, starting as an upstart congressman fresh out of the Navy in World War II. And it was that quality Nixon unfortunately took to a paranoid extreme in the 1970s in his quest for a second spell in the Oval Office.

Like all presidential museums, this one provides a glossy, official history, beginning with a Nixon-approved biographic film in which he serenely airs long-standing beefs with the liberal media and vote stealing in Illinois during his 1960 White House run.

Following the golden rule of public relations rehabilitation, the museum collection starts with laudatory coverage of Nixon's death in 1994, complete with tearful letters from schoolchildren around the globe ("Nixon's still the one.")

There are the usual pastel beaded first lady gowns, bumper stickers with now-implausible slogans ("Democrats for Nixon") and the formulaic Great Man historical synopses next to correspondence and photographs.

But the library also is a careful reminder of Nixon's diplomatic expertise in opening the door to China and establishing d├ętente with the Soviet Union. One wishes he would have employed that talent far earlier in Vietnam, as he had promised, and spared tens of thousands of lives.

The final chapter of Nixon's brilliance and ambition gone awry is missing. A revamped Watergate exhibit opens next week, including newly released documents and analysis critical of the former president.

Although the section does not appear to be as extensive as the Gerald R. Ford Library's exploration of the Nixon pardon, it avoids the knee-jerk temptation to whitewash history. One wonders what the Iraq war exhibit will look like at President George W. Bush's future library.

Years ago, I was a history major lucky enough to live 10 minutes from the birthplace of Herbert Hoover in West Branch, Iowa. I know many of my neighbors didn't even know that gem of a museum existed.

After delving into Hoover's isolationist and individualist policies, I remained unconvinced he could have yanked America out of the Great Depression, just as I failed to be moved by Nixon's rebuff of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs. But I did walk away with a greater appreciation of both men and their motivations.

You don't get to pick your history. You can only learn from it — and you never will by only reading about those with whom you agree.

So it did my heart good to see so many families pour into the Nixon Library on the Fourth of July before heading to the beach or ball game. One silver-haired Marine held his hand over his heart the whole time. A mother struggled to diplomatically explain to her 9-year-old daughter why we still have to honor the only president to have resigned the office.

Democracy is messy. Our history is terrible and triumphant.

There are no easy answers. What's important is that enough people keep asking questions.