Monday, November 27, 2006


Going to Albany Vacuum repair is a trip down memory lane to the era of personal service-- Owner Jerry Pearlman has been in the vacuum repair business for 45 years

As much as we like modern conveniences, the flip side is how annoying some of them can be. It’s great to have a means of communication from remote places, especially if you’re on the open road and need to call 911, or if you’re flying to meet family at an airport in Colorado and they need to call you- but gee whiz, wouldn’t you love it if teenagers and SUV drivers were banned from carrying cell phones?

And as much as it seems like progress to be able to receive messages at work when one is away from one’s desk or on another line- wouldn’t we all be happier if we could just talk to an intelligent assistant or secretary rather than being routed to voice mail? Of course, that doesn’t begin to describe the circle of hell one enters when calling certain government offices or large banks (press 1 for English, press 1 for customer service, press 2 for balance on your account, press 4 to get recent transactions, press a gazillion if you want to tell us that our outside bank teller is being robbed and we might want to alert security....). Seriously, I tried to call a local branch of my bank a couple of weeks ago to ask a simple question about a client’s problems getting a check deposited, and after about 10 minutes of not being able to speak to a human being, I started calling up every number in the book to see what it would take to have a real person on the other end of the phone. In the end, it was almost an hour before I could get a human being to respond to my simple question about endorsements on a check- and this service came from the largest bank in the country!

I think it’s safe to say that most Americans over a certain age are nostalgic for the good old days of real customer service from human beings, of mom and pop stores, of a time when we valued craftsmanship and wasted little.

So last Friday afternoon, when I walked through the glass door at 1004 North Slappey into Albany Vacuum Repair, I got both a pleasant surprise and a feeling of deja vu. There I was, back in the 60’s, in the era of personal service, when we repaired machines instead of replacing them. As I stood at the front counter leaving my contact information, I noticed with pleasure an old fashioned, wooden, mechanical (not electronic) cash register, complete with numbers on top.

I was greeted by the owner, Jerry Pearlman, and his son Michael. Jerry is old school, and Michael is “Old School” (as in Luke Wilson or Vince Vaughan- a cool college grad type of guy). In tandem they promised to have my semi-ancient (24 years and counting) Kenmore cannister vacuum cleaner repaired by the end of the day. This was thrilling to me, because earlier in the week an employee at the Sears repair store on Gillionville Road informed me that Sears doesn’t even service their older machines- not mine, anyway. I should have guessed that my vacuum cleaner was officially an orphan several months ago when I discovered that the Sears main store stopped selling my #5023 vacuum bags.

But the Pearlmans not only could fix my broken floor attachment, but also-- wonder of wonders-- they had the #5023 bags in stock. I dropped the vacuum off at 12:30, and by 5:30, it was fixed and cleaned to boot.

Jerry Pearlman, a South Carolina native who came to Albany in 1945, is something of a dinosaur. Jerry has worked on vacuum cleaners for over 45 years, succeeding his father who had a carpet and vacuum store on Broad Avenue. Jerry and son Michael split the store- Jerry operating the half appearing to be in a time warp from the late 50’s with hundreds of new and used vacuums, while son Michael runs his new millennium paint gun business in the other half.

As I waited at the counter to pick up my repaired machine, I had a close encounter of the black labrador kind as Jerry’s lab Bailey introduced himself by sticking his head between my legs and elevating suddenly. Fortunately for me, Bailey’s aim was off and I was spared an embarrassing and painful moment. That’s another thing you won’t find at any of the big-time chain stores- a family pet who acts as if he owns the joint.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


“In Iraq the [occupiers] brazened through the absurdities of their own making.... In June... a revolt began among the Shiite tribes near the holy cities and spread to the Sunnis of Fallujah., while in the north the Kurds had been causing trouble for months..... troop levels were grossly insufficient to keep the vast territory under control, and in [the occupiers’ capital] there were serious misgivings about the wisdom of an occupation. A headline in The Times proclaimed, ‘Bad to worse in Mesopotamia.’”

Current events chronicled? New York Times “liberal” criticism? Hardly. The occupiers in that instance were British, the nation’s capital was London, the paper was the arch conservative The Times of London, and the year was ..... (wait for it)..... 1920.

Americans have now learned- at a minimum cost of 2,865 American dead (as of November 16, 2006), tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) Iraqi dead, $300 billion dollars and mounting, the total destruction of worldwide goodwill towards America which existed immediately after the 9-11-01 attacks, and the erosion of our national security as we inflame and energize jihadists the world over- the price of electing as president a man who is ignorant of history, untraveled, incurious, unanalytical, and unreceptive to news which does not comport with preconceived notions.

There was no magic in forecasting a disaster if we invaded Iraq- been there, done that, as the British would say. Of course, that doesn’t explain the inexplicable- how the British, whose experiences in Iraq easily foreshadowed the incredibly violent chaos, anarchy, and civil war which have built up over the last 45 months, got sucked into the same mess, albeit at much lower troop levels and financial commitment.

For those Americans who would rather view the world through a factual history rather than the rose colored glasses manufactured by Dick “The insurgency is in its last throes” Cheney, there are two books out which are must reads for understanding two things: (1) why Iraq is such a mess today and won’t get better anytime soon; and (2) how our Administration rejected every good piece of advice before the war from its own experts. The new Democratic Congress which will be installed in 2007 can save millions of dollars in investigative costs just by buying and distributing to all of the members of Congress copies of Fiasco (© 2006) by Washington Post Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks and The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq (© 2005) by New Yorker writer George Packer.

I read Fiasco first, and even though the book was written at least a year later, with another year of the effects of the Iraq insurgency to contemplate, it’s probably better to read the latter book first. Ricks is a painstaking, organized, methodical reporter who spoke to virtually every person who was involved in the decision-making apparatus at the Department of Defense and the Department of State. He was in Iraq and made it a point to get input from Americans at every level- from platoon up to the commander in the theater. Never content to get one point of view, he gave rebuttal opportunities to every general whose competence or credibility was attacked by subordinates or fellow generals. The on the record quotes from the experts paints a dispiriting picture: the Bush Administration had experienced, knowledgeable officials in both the State and Defense departments who accurately assessed the situation before we invaded, who accurately assessed the dangers of the potential for an insurgency (plus the historical reasons why it would occur and who would be involved) shortly after “Mission Accomplished” in early May of 2003, and who accurately forecast the essentials necessary to counteract an insurgency (more troops to provide security both at the borders and internally, a retention of the civil servants and the infrastructure, and concrete steps to immediately restore or provide basic necessities like electricity, clean water, and jobs).

Some people emerge untarnished, such as retired Marine General (and former head of Central Command) Anthony Zinni and Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who had (correctly as it turned out) testified on February 25, 2003, before Congress that a commitment of troops on the order of “several hundred thousand” would be required to secure Iraq after combat operations had ended:

SEN. LEVIN: "General Shinseki, could you give us some idea as to the magnitude of the Army's force requirement for an occupation of Iraq following a successful completion of the war?"

GEN. SHINSEKI: "I would say that what's been mobilized to this point -- something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers are probably, you know, a figure that would be required. We're talking about post-hostilities control over a piece of geography that's fairly significant, with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems. And so it takes a significant ground- force presence to maintain a safe and secure environment, to ensure that people are fed, that water is distributed, all the normal responsibilities that go along with administering a situation like this."

Shinseki was publicly contradicted by both Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who, respectively, labeled Shinseki's troop level estimate "far off the mark" and "wildly off the mark." Wolfowitz said it would be "hard to believe" more troops would be required for post-war Iraq than to remove Saddam Hussein from power.”

On November 15, 2006, General John P. Abizaid, current head of the U.S. Central Command, acknowledged what has been obvious since the Summer of 2003- that Shinseki's estimate was correct:

U.S. Senator Lindsay GRAHAM (Republican, S.C.): “Was General Shinseki correct when you look backward that we needed more troops to secure the country, General Abizaid?”

ABIZAID: “General Shinseki was right that a greater international force contribution, U.S. force contribution, and Iraqi force contribution should have been available immediately after major combat operations.”

One of the stranger occurrences in the immediate aftermath of the invasion was the sacking of retired General Jay Garner, the first head of the Coalitional Provisional Authority (CPA, which Americans on scene wryly observed really stood for “Can’t Provide Anything”), only one month into the job. Garner had pragmatically realized that American occupiers needed to retain a functioning Iraqi Army in order to rule the country with only 100,000 to 150,000 troops. He also opposed a policy of “de-Bathification” (modeled after the “de-Nazification” of post war Germany) which would have put thousands of capable civil servants- the bureaucracy which actually ran the country- out of work.

Paul Bremer, who replaced Garner as CPA head, immediately reversed both policies and disbanded the Iraqi Army (Bremer later argued that the army had pretty much disbanded itself after the invasion, as troops fled and went back home) and, more ominously, dismantled and allowed the looting of virtually every government office and ministry in Baghdad and elsewhere- except the Oil Ministry. With those two acts, Bremer could accurately be labeled as the “Father of the Insurgency.” General Franks and some of his top generals on the ground did their part to create the current misery of Iraq as, unbelievably, the American military, on a wild goose chase for evidence of weapons of mass destruction, passed by (without securing) arms caches of thousands of tons of munitions and small arms. Those are the low tech weapons that have been used to create the improvised explosive devices (IED’s) and rocket propelled grenades (RPG’s) which are the primary causes of death of American troops.

The hubris and incompetence clearly came from the top, demonstrated no better than Secretary Rumsfeld’s pontification that “freedom is untidy” as American troops with no orders to intervene stood by in Baghdad and elsewhere while looters destroyed the government offices which American tax-dollars are now being spent to rebuild and refurbish. Rumsfeld not only did not anticipate the insurgency, he continually refused to recognize it even as commanders on the ground were requesting more troops, more spare parts, and, most infamously, the body armor and armored vehicles which led to the following exchange on December 9, 2004, as Army Spc. Thomas Wilson of the 278th Regimental Combat Team, a Tennessee National Guard outfit, asked Rumsfeld why more military combat vehicles were not reinforced for battle conditions:

"Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to uparmor our vehicles?" Wilson asked.

"As you know, you have to go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want," Rumsfeld replied.

Rumsfeld never explained why neither he nor President Bush figured this out before ordering the invasion of Iraq.

Ricks’ book also details how the Republicans vetted the persons assigned to the CPA for ideological purity, resulting in the denial or delay of positions for more capable, experienced officials (Tom Warrick and Megan O’Sullivan of the State Department were pulled off Jay Garner’s team due to objections by Vice President Dick Cheney’s office) who actually had a plan for post-War Iraq. Instead, 25 year old Republican errand boys were put in charge of major institutions in the rebuilding of Iraq. They were called “90 day wonders” because their tours typically only lasted three months. One of them listed as his previous experience “driving an ice cream truck.”

Ricks also pointed out that uber capitalists Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney wanted to bypass our military and spend American dollars on private contractors such as the Blackwater Corporation and Titan Corporation (Titan failed at their mission to provide Arabic speaking interpreters). The neoconservatives working for Cheney and Rumsfeld used Iraq as a giant laboratory to prove their theory that war and its aftermath could be more efficiently run by the private sector. Their theory imploded upon contact with reality on the ground in Iraq, as the private contractors on whom billions were lavished (much of which has gone missing) were so incompetent that the Iraqi battalions which they were supposedly training (and which resulted in the absurd statements in 2005 by Republican officials that we had over a hundred thousand trained Iraqi troops) were dismantled or fled when confronted with an actual war zone. Regular American military had to take over the job from scratch, and over three years later, it still hasn’t come close to completion.

If not a substitute for Congressional hearings, Ricks’ book is a blueprint for the investigations sure to come, comprised as it is by quoted excerpts from the political and military people responsible for the disaster as well as those who had post invasion plans ready to go (“Phase IV” of the operation) and were stunned to discover that the high muckety-mucks in the Pentagon and the Vice President’s office had ignored or buried them. The Presidential Medal of Freedom was infamously bestowed on those most responsible for creating the disaster- CIA director George (“it’s a slam dunk that there are WMD’s in Iraq) Tenet, Central Command General Tommy (no post war planning, no securing of borders, government offices, or arms caches used to supply the insurgency) Franks, and Paul (we will be greeted as liberators and “Iraq’s oil will pay for the post war reconstruction”) Wolfowitz. After reading Fiasco, it is clear that people like General Shinseki, General Anthony Zinni (who opposed the invasion), and Tom Warrick (who had a post war plan and who knew more than any of the people actually assigned to run the CPA) should have received the medals in their stead.

Packer’s book The Assassins’ Gate, although it contains much of the highlighted material as Fiasco on both generals and politicians, is a more personal look at Iraq, with lengthy and random (chronologically, at least) character studies of some people of whom we have heard, and others (Drew Erdmann, a yuppie Ivy League type who worked for the CPA who actually had a smattering of competence; Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi in exile who could have been their Thomas Jefferson if Iraq had been a stable country) from relative obscurity. Packer’s book has a hint of optimism, having been written not long after the January 2005 elections which were hailed in President Bush’s 2005 State of the Union speech as a sign of progress and victory in Iraq. Twenty-two months later, we know what the experts quoted in both books knew before the March 20, 2003 invasion was launched- without security, without a functioning central government, without provision of basic services such as clean water, a functioning sewage system, and, above all, electric power (still only a few hours a day in Baghdad three and a half years after Bush declared victory in Iraq on the carrier Lincoln)- without those essentials, democracy and stability are a neo-conservative’s opium dream.


After several manic movies, Will Ferrell decided to give acting a shot in "Stranger than Fiction"

Movies not only reflect our culture, they help create it. How many people have ever uttered phrases like: “I’m your worst nightmare” (Rambo); “You talking to me?” (Taxi Driver), “May the Force be with you” (Star Wars); “Damn glad to meet you!” (Animal House); “You had me at ‘hello’” (Jerry Maguire); “Make my Day” (Dirty Harry); and possibly the most famous of all, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” (Gone with the Wind).

We not only take over their phrases, but in some cases attempt to copy their style in our lives. Who we want to copy, who we identify with, tells us more about ourselves than we may want to know. Sometimes movie characters do the same thing. In Saturday Night Fever John Travolta’s character channeled Al Pacino’s character from Dog Day Afternoon. Certain lines from Woody Allen movies have resonated with me through the years: “I hit him in the elbow with my nose” (Woody in Play it Again, Sam after having his date taken from him by bikers) pretty much sums up the pathos of a nerd getting his lunch money lifted by bullies. Scenes from Animal House are not only cultural gems but produce real emotions on which we can draw for inspiration in our own tepid lives- like the last futile act of defiance when Delta House’s Deathmobile attacked the Faber College homecoming parade.

So that brings me to my weekend movie experience (and it truly was an experience)- Stranger than Fiction. How many of us go through our daily lives, viewing ourselves through the prism of other people’s opinions? Truth to tell, it is a rare iconoclast who is completely immune from external comment or criticism. Even George W. Bush, who famously said he’d continue to “stay the course” on his disastrous trip over the cliff of Iraq, even if only his wife Laura and his dog Barney stood by him, has bowed to the will of the American people on election day, firing Donald Rumsfeld and leaving open the possibility of an exit from Iraq without a victory.

But Stranger than Fiction brings a whole new concept to the table. What if the external voice wasn’t a vote, an op-ed column, or even simple gossip or comments of friends and co-workers? (You know, the kind of comment where they say “hey, you look great; have you lost weight?” Which you interpret as “boy, were you ever fat. Thank goodness you finally saw the light and dropped some of those ugly pounds.”). In this new Will Ferrell movie, Ferrell’s character, a stupefyingly boring IRS auditor named Harold Crick, wakes up one morning to discover that the voice over narrator isn’t just a movie trick- it’s actually a sound he can hear that takes over his life. Worse yet, he discovers that the narrator, an English mystery novelist (Emma Thompson), doesn’t just have the ability to observe Harold’s life, her writing actually changes it. She’s scripting his life, and not necessarily for the worse, as Harold discovers.

The movie works on a lot of levels- humor for sure, some of it laugh out loud, some very subtle. Dustin Hoffman is particularly good, toning down his Meet the Fokkers persona by about 100 decibels. But in another sense, it brings out the self-consciousness which is all too present among many of us, yet altogether missing in too many more who could use a good dose of connection to reality and other humans’ opinions every now and again- i.e., our clueless President (I never tire of giving ole’ George another “thumpin’” as he so eloquently phrased it in his morning after press conference) who woke up November 8th to discover that this White House could no longer “create our own reality” as a senior Bush aide (Karl Rove?) once famously put it:

“[An] aide to George W. Bush ... said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Ron Suskind, writing in New York Times Magazine two weeks before the 2004 Presidential election.


My comment to my date as we left the movie was that a lot of Will Ferrell fans who flocked to the feature to see Old School type antics were going to be sorely disappointed. Ferrell’s character is more like Chance the gardener (Peter Sellers) from Being There than the manic pickup artist Ferrell played in Wedding Crashers. Little do they know what a treat they will have in store for them, to borrow a signature phrase from the movie. Dustin Hoffman, who plays a literature professor, observes that he has given whole seminars on the third person omniscient, “Little did he know...” as he reels back Ferrell just after he has sent him off for psychiatric help.

Linda Hunt, who plays the psychiatrist from whom Ferrell had just come prior to his encounter with Hoffman, accurately observes that people who hear voices in their heads are schizophrenic. On the other hand, people who don’t hear the voices are characters in a movie or a novel, and Ferrell has unwittingly and unwillingly crossed the line between fact and fiction as he struggles to reconcile himself with the ending about to be written for him in Thompson’s novel (until her old fashioned typewriter key strikes paper, reality is on hold).

As we have all discovered, real life and reel life are very different. In reel life, everything is resolved (unless it’s Star Wars, the Emperor Strikes Back) when the lights go on and we pick up our coats to exit. In real life, as much as we may try to structure a happy ending, or even any ending at all, a satisfying conclusion usually evades us. The euphemism “closure” has been bandied about a lot in recent years. One of the funniest occurred on an episode of Friends when Rachel (Jennifer Anniston) called Ross’s (David Schwimmer) apartment to leave a voice mail telling him“obviously, I am over you. I am over you and that, my friend, is what they call closure.” When Ross got the message, his only response was to ask : “When were you ever ‘under me’?”

“Closure” has almost overtaken the do-it-all term“issues,” which was stunningly used by the moviegoer who was sitting just in front of us the other night (she worked for the same company as my date) when she casually remarked that her ex-husband had died because he had “issues.” Until that moment I had never heard that term used as a cause of death (was it on the death certificate, I wonder?). Typically the term “issues” only relates to problems with mental illness, drugs, alcohol, or other anti-social behavior, not mortal injuries.

But we rarely get closure in real life, hard as we might try. Lately, we don’t even get it on our favorite television shows, most of which used to be self contained and now have reverted to the 1930’s type serialized cliff hangers (24, Lost, Heroes, Prison Break), which never ended a story but always pulled the viewers back to find out how the hero will escape from certain death this time. Like many self conscious people, I not only write my own dialogue, but I listen to it, critique it, and on occasion attempt to revise it, which is why on certain special occasions (forging a new relationship or breaking off one) writing letters and e-mails is preferable to conversations where the delete key is unavailable. And with that, until next week, I will close with this: go see the movie. If nothing else, you will get closure.

Monday, November 06, 2006


If Nancy Pelosi is the next House Speaker, her first order of business should be to reach across the aisle and lower tensions

I’m deliberately writing this column and posting it to my editors before I know the results of the 2006 mid term election. I don’t want to be unduly influenced- either by elation or depression- by the results. The campaign is over. Now the hard part begins. Whoever is sworn into office come January of 2007 will have to make hard decisions. Here are some suggestions on how to deal with the tough issues that face us:

CAMPAIGN REFORM: If the Democrats manage to take either house of Congress, their first order of business should be procedural, not substantive. They should take a firm stand on campaign finance reform and give the public what the public wants- clean elections, fought by candidates over real issues that will matter the day after the votes are counted, not anonymous surrogates doing voice over ads with moronic attacks accusing opponents of raising taxes, coddling terrorists, and allowing a million immigrants to move in next door. If the battle for campaign finance reform does only two things: (1) redefine all lobbyist contributions as illegal bribes that will land the recipient and the donor in the federal clink; and (2) provide for public financing of all federal elections- then the rest of the issues will be actually doable and comparatively easy.

CHANGE THE TONE IN WASHINGTON: Whoever runs Congress would do us all a service by turning off the incredibly mean and personal sniping by both parties. What the country needs and voters want is a true bi-partisan working coalition of left and right, North and South, East and West, Red States and Blue States. Here’s some ideas that might work:

* Change the rules to allow every Senator and every Representative in Congress to have a recorded vote on at least one bill every year. Each member would be allowed to bring one bill to the floor that could not be amended and would be subject to a recorded vote. Whatever the issue- global warming, high gas prices, providing equipment and better pay and benefits for the troops- there will be no earmarks, no hidden pork, no poison pill amendments that will cause good bills to be voted down by the very people who sponsored them- like last term’s Republican joke of putting a repeal of the estate tax for billionaires on a bill to raise the minimum wage.

* Allow the minority party on committees to exercise subpoena power so that whatever party is out of power will still have the wherewithal to investigate waste and fraud by the current administration- whether it be Republican or Democrat. Amazingly enough, during the entire 2006 political cycle, not one candidate has managed to rouse the public to the fact that American taxpayers have been defrauded of billions of dollars by companies operating in Iraq with no oversight. Billions have literally disappeared, along with thousands of weapons and other gear provided by American taxpayers to help equip the Iraqi police- weapons which instead have gone to arm the insurgents because of incompetent oversight. Giving subpoena power to the party out of power will help curtail these outrageous abuses.

* End the practice of party caucuses deciding public business in secret. If it’s the public’s business being conducted, then we have a right to see how it’s being done. If Exxon is going to get a $30 billion tax break, if Merck and Pfizer are going to make billions from a prescription drug bill by keeping seniors from buying cheaper generic drugs abroad, then let’s make the proponents of those travesties have to make their speeches on the public record. No more drafting bills in secret and dumping thousand page pieces of legislation on members’ desks an hour before a vote to avoid a government shut down. Party leaders of whichever party is in power should apply the same “government in the sunshine” laws to Congress that currently apply to most local governments around the country.

ATTACK THE REAL PROBLEMS- NOW: Whether the issue is war, a sane fiscal policy or dealing with with Social Security or Medicare, we need real solutions, not sound bites for next year’s ads. Start with:

* OUR RUINOUS NATIONAL DEBT: As tired as I am of hearing Republicans attack my party as being “tax and spend” Democrats, I’m even more tired of the total lack of a riposte from spineless and clueless Democrats, who failed to point out that the Republicans’ “borrow and spend” antics have driven the national debt up from $5 trillion to over $8.5 trillion in just five years under President Bush. We are all stuck with the bill when Congress spends money on expensive new weapons or a drug benefit that will make more billions for drug companies without having the revenue to pay for it. We’re the ones paying $350 billion annual interest on that $8.5 trillion. It’s time to pay the piper, and better now that later, before the interest payments alone swallow all of our tax revenues. We’re going to have to make hard choices, and zero based budgeting requiring every agency, every department, to justify every dollar spent, is one way to start. Enacting real campaign finance reform and eliminating all money from lobbyists to candidates is the only way truly responsible budgeting will ever be possible.

* GLOBAL WARMING: Britain has just reported that if we don’t address global warming soon, later might be too late. Scientists have predicted that there is a “tipping point” not too far away after which we are all in deep trouble. Once the ice caps reach a certain stage of melt down and glaciers have all but disappeared, once the seas have warmed and started to rise, we don’t get a “do over” to get them back. When the process gets that far along, it won’t be reversed. Letting energy companies get away with paying scientists to muddy the issue and delay the inevitable is irresponsible governing, and a bi-partisan consensus needs to be reached before it’s too late for the planet and its inhabitants.

* SOCIAL SECURITY & MEDICARE: President Bush famously said, just after his 2004 election victory, that he had political capital to spend and he was going to spend it. So while Hurricane Katrina was devastating New Orleans, President Bush was on tour in Arizona and California touting his Social Security privatization plan that would have wrecked the fiscal integrity of the system. Soon after, his political capital was gone. But the problems remain, and no one appears to be interested in dealing with them because of the political fallout. Medicare will go belly up in about 10 or 15 years. Medicaid is already a disaster. And so called “tort reform” capping medical malpractice awards has had zero impact on doctors’ insurance premiums. Someone in power needs to call a “time out” and suggest that for once, we don’t need a committee or a blue ribbon commission. All we need is the willingness to schedule real hearings before committees on the issue with eminent experts to testify and tell us potential solutions. Then schedule real votes- not the “gotcha” kind that are designed to be included in next election’s campaign commercials. Instead of allowing amendments, let each representative or senator put out his or her proposal as a bill that will get an up or down vote (the once a year recorded vote mentioned earlier).

* OUR MILITARY AND FOREIGN POLICY: The next Congress is going to have to deal with the aftermath of the disastrous decisions of the Bush Administration which have decimated the military. Say what you will about John Kerry, but his tactless remark had one element of truth- the Army has had to drop its recruiting educational standards lower than they’ve been in 30 years just to try to reduce their shortfalls. What Kerry should have said was that with Bush, you can fail at your education but still be allowed to go to Iraq to serve with the smart kids who are already there. As for foreign policy, traditionally the purview of the President, Congress is going to have to hold hearings, investigate pre-war manipulation of intelligence, the outright fraud and theft of money and materials, and the poor preparation of the military- all legacies of the Iraq War. When Donald Rumsfeld said that you go to war with the Army and the equipment that you have, not the Army that you want to have, that should have been an alarm bell to both Congress and the American public. After all, it’s Congress’ Constitutional duty to raise the army and provision it, not the President’s job. His job is to be Commander in Chief once the army is ready to go and Congress has declared War. Somehow, Congress got left off the hook while the members went on junkets with defense contractors and took millions from them in campaign contributions. So the taxpayers ended up paying billions for useless relics of the Cold War like nuclear attack submarines and super cool next generation jet fighters- all of which are useless in dealing with an enemy using boxcutters, roadside bombs, and hiding in caves in remote mountains or among the general population in urban areas.