Sunday, June 29, 2008

From the Files

Shortly after George W. Bush was sworn into office in January of 2001, beginning what can now aptly be described as his "reign of terror," I wrote a piece that went unpublished. In truth, there weren't many outlets for a piece like this; I tried the "Shouts and Murmurs" section of The New Yorker and got a nice handwritten note saying they liked it and I should try again in the future. I rather liked this piece, too, which imagined a "conversation" by instant messaging between the newly inaugurated president and then Russian president Vladimir Putin. It's a bit dated, but as the Alfred E. Neuman presidency comes to a close, it's nice to think back to those early days when there was something funny about the idea of a goofball from Crawford, Texas assuming the role of leader of the free world. Of course, as you survey the wreckage of the USS United States he isn't so funny anymore.

In the event, here is the column that never ran:

The advent of Instant Messaging (IM) promises to improve the Moscow/Washington "hot-line," established originally as a telex link to help avert nuclear war, as evidenced by this exchange on the evening of January 20, 2001.

vputin007: privyet, mr president. i see i am not only one who cannot sleep. let me be first, on behalf of soviet people, to say congratulations on soviet-style election victory :-)

dubbya2: and let me be the first to say there have to be con-se-quences.

vputin007: what is dubbya2? some kind of tax form? :-)

dubbya2: very cute. i thought i read somewhere that the soviet union doesn't exist.

vputin007: my mistake. u r correct. ussr not on map, but lives in hearts and minds of countrymen. like florida.

dubbya2: thank u for clarification. there still have to be con-se-quences.

vputin007: foreign minister eager to know where next russian ambassador should be posted, washington or tallahassee.

dubbya2: i will check with secretary of state katherine harris™.

vputin007: what happened to colin powell. he sang at republican national convention, no?

dubbya2: my mistake. will check with powell.

vputin007: we have much to discuss. pls. visit moscow at first opportunity.

dubbya2: can u send directions?

vputin007: yes, but easy to find. look for golden arches. ( ) when can u come?

dubbya2: will check with laura in a.m. what do we need to have a con-ver-sation about?

vputin007: russian government very concerned about many things. especially school voucher program.

dubbya2: school voucher program!?

vputin007: just kidding! :-)

dubbya2: you had me there for a minute vladimir.

vputin007: please, call me mr president, mr president. is what I call u. :-)

dubbya2: ok, you don't have to get snippy about it. texas is an informal place.

vputin007: yes, but we r not in texas anymore r we, toto?

dubbya2: who is toto?

vputin007: little dog in favorite movie, wizard of odds, about jimmy the greek.

dubbya2: wizard of odds?

vputin007: just kidding again mr president! :-) is little dog in big american movie about people who hide from tornado in bomb shelter which brings me to big upset.

dubbya2: what's that?

vputin007: u know. big upset. major concern. large worry :-(

dubbya2: yes, yes. i know what an upset is. don't un-der-esti-mate me. what is your big worry?

vputin007: missile shield to protect states with 271 electoral votes.

dubbya2: u have nothing to fear from a missile shield. all the best scientists say it won't work.>>>(>>>=ΩΩΩ

vputin007: then why u.s. of a. prepared to spend 100 billion on it? is a lot of caviar.

dubbya2: good question. will ask rumsfeld. he is my wizard of odds.

vputin007: if u.s. of a. builds missile shield russia will have no choice but build many more missiles. ∆∆∆∆∆∆∆. look like hershey kisses, no? how would u like to have big hershey kiss planted on Austin? :-)

dubbya2: don't mess with texas :-x

vputin007: conversation not leading anywhere. seriousness of situation not appreciated. :-(

dubbya2: what situation?

vputin007: situation between russia and u.s. of a. russia going down proverbial toilet. needs help of u.s. of a. to avoid plunger.

dubbya2: i can have agriculture secretary send vouchers redeemable at golden arches ( )

vputin007: there will be consequences.

dubbya2: r u threatening me, mr president?

vputin007: maybe instant messaging not best way to communicate.

dubbya2: what else is on your mind?

vputin007: baseball.

dubbya2: what about it?

vputin007: u big baseball man. russia would like expansion franchise in irkutsk. lots of baseball fans in irkutsk. short season though. ground thawed only two weeks in august.

dubbya2: so u r talking about some kind of, what do they call it, cul-tur-al ex-change pro-gram?

vputin007: nyet. am talking about moving milwaukee brewers to irkutsk. players can freeze baseballs off there :-)

dubbya2: i'm afraid i can't help you there, mr president.

vputin007: call me, vladimir, george. moscow very informal place.

dubbya2: i will put u in touch with bud selig.

vputin007: is he dog in beer commercials?

dubbya2: no he's the commissioner of baseball. like czar.

vputin007: what does he think of missile shield? :-)

dubbya2: i never asked him.

vputin007: just think for cost of missile shield you could have alex rodriguez play secretary of treasury. hah! :-)

dubbya2: it's been a long day, vladimir, and tomorrow I have to start my new job :-)

vputin007: what is new job? mr cheney's valet? hah! :-)

dubbya2: very funny. job of being president of all the people. so far only american league fans r on board.

vputin007: well, sleep well, mr president. russia sleeping very well at moment but don't wake bear.

dubbya2: i won't. i always sleep in pajamas. g2g.

vputin007: me, too. have meeting of top military brass in one hour to discuss putting IM in missile silos! good idea, huh? like r u 486. ttyl :-)

Friday, June 27, 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen, Load Your Guns!

As every first year law student learns (I know, I was a first year law student once), a basic rule of statutory construction is always to interpret the language of a law or regulation so as to give meaning to all its words. Or, to put it another way, if a particular interpretation would render some of the language meaningless, go back and try again. Only if you’ve exhausted the possibilities and the words still can’t be made to make sense can you conclude that the “meaningless words” were slipped in as a practical joke by some guy named Biff down in the printing room.

The Supreme Court’s recent 5-4 landmark decision striking down a District of Columbia hand gun ban made a mockery of this basic rule of statutory construction. If, as the majority ruled, the framers intended there to be a private run to gun ownership the second amendment would simply have read: “The right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” But, that is NOT what it says. It says: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Apparently, that guy named Biff in his wire-framed glasses and ink-stained smock who was charged with printing the Bill of Rights pulled a fast one by inserting that first part because the Supreme Court just ruled that, for all practical purposes, those words were never written and are not a part of the Bill of Rights. But those words place a clear qualification on the right of citizens to keep and bear arms: that they be part of a "well-regulated Militia," and this doesn't mean a bunch of extremists in Montana because those guys aren't well-regulated at all.

Writing for the Court, Justice Scalia, the same justice who wrote that giving detainees at Guantanamo the right to challenge their detentions in federal court would cost American lives, claimed that the Court did not have the power to render the second amendment extinct. What he meant to say, I’m sure, is that the Court only had the power to render PART of the second amendment extinct. And if he thinks giving detainees access to the courts will cost American lives, wait ‘till he sees how much more carnage there will be now that he’s virtually declared the entire country a free fire zone. What next? If this Court is asked to define "arms" hold on to your hat because five justices might just conclude that "arms" could include your own cruise missile, Bradley armored fighting vehicle, and suitcase nuke. After all, the founding fathers couldn't conceive of some of the modern weapons that are, apparently, part of the right to bear arms. So, where do we draw the line?

Which brings me to another point. All you Hillary supporters who are thinking of voting for John McCain? Get over it. How long do you think it will be until this Court overrules Roe v. Wade? Are you really prepared to bite your nose to spite your face and extend the Bush legacy for four more years? OK, John McCain would have to really put his mind to it to f__k things up as badly as Bush, but are you willing to give him the chance?

This is what it has come to. A large swath of Americans, including some who were actually viable presidential candidates (i.e. Mike Huckabee) don’t believe in evolution despite overwhelming scientific evidence. They believe, instead, in Intelligent Design, which is supported by exactly zero scientific evidence. (By the way, if there were an Intelligent Design to the Universe would George Bush be president?) Republicans in Congress bring a halt to the nation’s business and the President flies to Washington all the way from Texas to try and keep one brain dead woman, Terry Schiavo, on life support (it’s the “culture of life”) even as they fight to put more guns on the street, guns we know are being used by Americans to kill Americans in horrifying numbers. How, exactly, do they square this "culture of life" with the gun violence that accompanies easy access to guns in this country? Did you know there are politicians who think the answer to gun violence is more guns? Seriously. I saw some of them on TV. They argue that if students and faculty on college campuses were armed they could have prevented the Virginia Tech shootings, for example. These people apparently don't know much about college life which is a combustible mix of drugs, alcohol, testosterone, and the occasional philosophy course. Great idea. Let's throw a bunch of guns in there and see what happens! And, this is what it's come to in this country: we can’t have life-saving stem-cell research because we need to protect the life of an embryo, but we think nothing of sending young men and women, many who have actual children, not to mention embryos of their own, to their deaths in a wrong-headed, unnecessary war. Those embryos we're saving from stem-cell research apparently have more value than the 35,000 actual people who will die gun-related deaths this year. Go figure.

But, you know, George Bush says he sleeps well at night. Good for him. But I wish he would, just once before he rides off into his multi-million dollar retirement sunset, show one brief moment of self-doubt; just one tiny glimpse of remorse. I wish he’d just get up there and say, “I’m sorry.” I mean, it’s no small feat to bring a country to its knees, especially your own.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

George W. Bush: A True American Hero (Not)

Every week for the past two years or so I have obsessively watched George Bush’s poll numbers at, which provides regular updates of all the major polls. I noticed a couple of things. First, typically the poll taken by FOX news showed Bush’s favorability rating a few points higher than most other polls. That’s probably because they polled 1,200 people of whom 1,150 were Sean Hannity who would defend Bush even if he were caught mugging Hannity’s own mother. And we all know what a reputable, fair and balanced news organization FOX is. It speaks volumes about FOX that you can get more reliable information about the world from watching “Family Guy” on FOX than you can by watching any of their so-called newscasts. Second, I noticed no matter how hard FOX tried to give Bush a little nudge up, for the past two years he rarely even hit a 40% favorability rating.

Bush hasn’t been higher than 29%-30% in any poll in recent weeks, and in the most recent L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll his approval rating is at an astonishing 23%, with 73% disapproving of his performance. But to me it isn't astonishing that his poll numbers are so low; it’s astonishing that they're so high! The Bush legacy of incompetence, ignorance and arrogance is by now well–documented, even by his own former press secretary. So what do these 29% (I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on the L.A. Times/Bloomberg numbers) see in Bush?

If you are old enough to remember Ronald Reagan’s first campaign, against the peanut farmer from Georgia, you will recall that Reagan made a lot of hay by asking Americans a simple, if arrestingly self-absorbed question: “are you better off today than you were four years ago?” If the answer was “no,” and it will be recalled that the Carter years were marked by soaring interest rates and high inflation, the suggestion was that you should vote for Reagan.

So, let’s start by asking ourselves the same question: are we better off than we were eight years ago? And let’s look at it the way Republicans look at it, which is to say, from a purely selfish, financial point of view.

The day Bush was sworn in for the first time, after the Supreme Court handed him a presidency he lost fair and square, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) stood at 10,587. Historically, the market gains about 8% a year on average, meaning it doubles, again on average, every nine years or so. Which means that had historical averages prevailed, the Dow today would be somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000. It would be up by nearly 100%. Where is it really? Somewhere south of 11,500. In other words, it is up under George Bush by about 10%, or a pathetic 1-2% a year. Consumer confidence is at or near an all time low. Millions are losing their homes. Job growth is nil. Our huge budget deficits are being financed by the Japanese and the Chinese who own many hundreds of billions of dollars worth of U.S. treasuries. A U.S. dollar is now worth less than a Canadian dollar. If you are breathing you know the economy is in the tank, literally. Goodness, when oilman Bush came into office the price of oil was about $20 a barrel. Today? Try $135. Oh, and have you checked the value of your home lately?

Now, I understand the president can't control all economic events, but if Reagan asked the question in 1980, it's fair to ask it again in 2008. And by any measure, the economic life of the average American has suffered mightily under Bush and his master, Dick “Shoot Straight” Cheney. (Hedge fund managers are not, by the way, average Americans.) Remember that for the first six years of the Bush presidency he had a GOP controlled Congress. And what did they do with the budget surplus racked up under Clinton? It’s now a massive deficit to be paid for by our children and grandchildren. They spent like drunken sailors. And this is the party of fiscal discipline? While they were throwing billions at Iraq, most of which went to well-connected private contractors, they told you you could have you cake and eat it, too. They cut taxes to the tune of about $270 billion, of which the richest 1% of Americans got $90 billion, the next 9% got $90 billion, and the rest of us, the bottom 90% got $90 billion. That’s called tax equity.

But, you know, when I ask myself the “are you better off” question, I think of it not just as a money question (I know this is hard for Republicans to wrap their heads around). I think about it in terms of the country my kids are growing up in. Here’s where Bush really shines.

Thousands of young Americans have died in Iraq, not to mention countless Iraqis. It’s now beyond debate that the Bush crowd built a phony case for war. I don’t care how many American flag lapel pins Bush and Cheney wear on their suits, it is unpatriotic and un-American to send kids to die and be maimed in a war you ginned up. It’s even worse to send them to war without the equipment they need and to have them return without adequate health care and other supports they will need, many for the rest of their lives. I don’t care how many American flag lapel pins they pin on their chests, but it is unpatriotic and un-American to expose an undercover CIA agent because her husband presented evidence, now proved correct, that undercut your case for war. I don’t care how many American flag lapel pins they glue to their foreheads, but it is unpatriotic and un-American to sanction torture. Goodness, what kind of America is this? It is an America that is no longer respected in the world, a weakened America that has no moral authority anymore.

Let’s talk about the environment for a minute. Bush/Cheney spent the first seven years of their reign dismissing all the accumulating scientific evidence on climate change, even going so far as to silence some of the government's top climate scientists. (These people have no faith in science, only in their own divine wisdom.) They have spent the last year proposing utterly inadequate measures to deal with what is unquestionably a looming planetary crisis. Modern day Neros, they have fiddled while the planet burned. What a colossal waste of time. The argument always seems to be, we can’t cap carbon emissions because the economy will suffer. Wow. How much worse can it get?

Finally (one could go on for seven or eight years like this because it’s hard to imagine a day that Bush hasn’t inflicted some additional harm on the body politic), there are Bush’s famous signing statements, the ones he attaches to every piece of legislation he intends to ignore – many hundreds of them, far, far surpassing any previous president. Apparently, Bush mistook a 5-4 Supreme Court decision handing him the presidency as a coronation.

If you were to make a list of ways to inflict lasting, grievous damage on the United States of America and its citizens, you would pretty much have a list of what Bush has done with his presidency. And to think a Republican Congress impeached Bill Clinton for...well, you know.

January 20, 2009. It ought to be a day of national celebration – the day the dark cloud that has blotted out the sun that used to shine on America finally moved out to sea. Bush is a national grace and a stain on this good country. Goodbye and good riddance!

Monday, June 23, 2008

John McCain and Me

I spent a lot of sleepless nights as a kid wondering whether I would be able to serve as President of the United States. I’m not kidding. Not even out of junior high school, I feared I had already been eliminated from contention, not because I was Jewish and no U.S. president had been a Jew, and not because I hadn’t yet reached 35 years of age, the Constitutional minimum: time would cure that. No, I worried I might be ineligible for the simple reason that I happened to be born in Puerto Rico.

You see, the Constitution says the president must be “a natural-born citizen,” though precisely what that means has never been settled in U.S. law. Which brings me to John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee.

John McCain and I don’t have a lot in common. He served in Viet Nam when I was a college student protesting the war. He’s from Arizona and I live in Massachusetts. He’s a Republican and I am a Democrat. He’s running for president. I am not. Rush Limbaugh hates his guts. Rush Limbaugh has never even heard of me. But McCain and I have a common problem about our eligibility to be president. He was born in the Panama Canal Zone. Oops!

Now, it surely seems counter-intuitive that a person who has served our country as John McCain has, even enduring years in a North Vietnamese prison, might be ineligible for the presidency because his parents happened to be living in the Canal Zone. And I’m especially sympathetic to McCain on that score because I was born on a U.S. Air Force base in Puerto Rico when my father was stationed there as an Air Force officer. But my sympathies don’t resolve the question: just what did the Founding Fathers mean by “natural-born citizen,” especially since none of them had ever given birth, naturally or otherwise?

The question has arisen before. Barry Goldwater, the 1964 GOP nominee, was born in Arizona before it became state. George Romney, father of former candidate Mitt, ran for president in 1968 and he was born in Mexico. (Mitt was so busy trying to stake out ground as the toughest hombre on the immigration block he failed to mention that his father came to this country, literally, from Mexico.)

Did the Founding Fathers really intend to eliminate from contention patriots like John McCain and me just because of the fortuitous circumstances of our birth? After all, we were born, unlike California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, to U.S. citizens on U.S. territories. (Ah-nold, by the way, probably cannot be president and not because he once appeared in a movie as Danny DeVito’s twin.) In my own self-interest, and John McCain’s, I would say that what the Founders were really trying to prevent was the prospect of, say, Prince Charles, running in the New Hampshire primary.

Thus, the real issue here must revolve around the meaning of “natural-born.” The founders, I submit, weren’t referring to a person’s place of birth, but to the method of their birth.

Accordingly, each candidate for president should henceforth be required to submit evidence that he or she (a) is not a test tube baby, (b) was not conceived using anything but the most tried and true methods, and (c) was not delivered by Caesarian section. I can’t speak for John McCain, but I am still in the running. Now I just have to vet my running mate.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The World on Two Wheels

Between April and October, when the weather is good, I take my bike out three or four times a week for a spin through the western suburbs of Boston. Usually it’s a 20 to 30 mile ride that begins in my home town, winds through Dover and Sherborn and then, depending on my mood, continues through either Medfield or Millis and Holliston, before turning back for home.

I keep up a pretty decent pace for a guy my age, but it isn’t about the speed. I stop every 10 miles or so, usually in the same spots, to admire the hay fields and the tree line, to listen to the crickets, watch the hawks, and just generally enjoy the natural beauty that still exists not far from the big city. There are places around here that look every bit as rustic as Vermont – old stone walls and sheep filled pastures -- it’s just that they don’t go on and on the way they do further north. Sometimes, regrettably, just around a bend that looks like a picture postcard of New England is a new subdivision that looks like it belongs in a calendar called “New Jersey Life.” But, all in all, there’s some very pretty riding in these parts.

Every February my wife and I have our annual “why do we live here” discussion. As we peer out at the dull gray sky and the dirty snow along the roads, I try and remember the ride I took on the first 70 degree day in spring, or the unseasonably warm and brilliant day in late October when I rode through canopies of golden leaves and inhaled the unique woody scent of fall. On more than one occasion I’ve said to my sometime riding buddy, Bill, that people pay good money to visit places that look like this.

I don’t think about much when I ride, and that’s part of the pleasure. I ride for the physical exercise, and because I enjoy the rural roads, but I also ride for my mental health. Riding, for me, is a chance to erase the hard drive for a little while. And, every once in a while, I find inspiration while I’m out on the bike.

While riding on a hot day a few years back, a couple of cyclists hailed me down. They were trying to give directions to a truck driver but were unfamiliar with the roads. As I slowed down, I noticed that both riders were a good deal older than me, and after the truck driver drove away (still lost) we chatted for a few minutes.

One of the riders was 73 and the other 78. One of them had recently had quadruple bypass surgery. They were about 13 miles out on a 26-mile ride. They weren’t on fancy bikes – indeed, one of them didn’t even have toe-clips, let alone the more modern clip-in biking shoes, on his pedals – and they weren’t in a hurry. They were clearly having the time of their lives.They told me they ride regularly, choosing different routes in the area. And, when they’re not riding, they’re hiking in the White Mountains. These two men, with more than 150 years between them, had not surrendered, mentally or physically, to their advancing years and as I rode away I wondered whether I would still be out here when I am their age; indeed, whether I'd ever even be their age. For now, I'm counting on it.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Blogging for Dummies

OK, after procrastinating too long, I decided to give blogging a try. I'm an author and everyone has been telling me to start a blog. I thought my web site was enough, but no. And since there are so few blogs out there, fewer than a billion I am told, this should be an easy way to get a lot of attention -- easier than, say, scaling the Chrysler Building with my bare hands.

So, who am I, and why would anyone want to read my blog? For about 20 years I've been a freelance journalist and writer. I've written for dozens of newspapers and magazines in the US and abroad, including the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Bicycling Magazine, and many others. Why read my blog? I'm too modest to tell you. Just follow along for a while and perhaps you'll answer the question for yourself.

Lately, I've turned my attention to writing books. Since I am able to write in my head while cycling it works out pretty well. (Though I do eventually have to download everything that's in my head onto my computer because I have yet to find a publisher willing to take my word for it.)

My first book, "Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry's Extraordinary Ride," was published in late 2007. It's the story of a young Boston mother (who happens to be my great-grandaunt) who became the world's first international female sports star when she circled the world by bicycle in 1894-5. There's an entire web site devoted to her story: In addition to English (my native tongue), the book is being published in German and Korean, neither of which I can read or speak. My goal for the Korean edition is to ride my bike from Seoul to Pyongyang and hand deliver a copy to Kim Jong Il. The cycling in North Korea should be excellent because you don't have to share the roads with any cars.

My second book, published in April 2007 was a collaboration with Dr. Tom Graboys, a distinguished Boston cardiologist now battling Parkinson's disease and dementia. The book is a memoir of his illness: " Life in the Balance: A Physician's Memoir of Life, Love and Loss with Parkinson's Disease and Dementia."

My third book, also a collaboration, was written with Robert P. Smith. It will be published in early 2009: "Riches Among the Ruins: Adventures in the Dark Corners of the Global Economy." Ironically, I met Robert while researching my first book: he's a distant cousin whom I'd never met, but I wanted to know if he recalled any family stories about our common ancestor, Annie Londonderry.

So, what can you expect to find on this blog? Well, for one, I am going to reprise a few of my more popular columns and stories from the Boston Globe and a few other newspapers. How do I know they were popular? Because my kids liked them. I am also going to share some musings on the events of the day, on the ups and downs of the writer's life, and whatever else happens to pop into my mind. In short, at the beginning at least, I'm going to wing it and see what happens. Please bear with me while I figure out the ins and outs of blogging.