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Monday, January 31, 2005

President Bush has made it clear that he will be talking about Social Security during his State of the Union address on Wednesday. What he won’t be talking about is the concept of Social Security in general and global terms. If you want to find out about that, you’ll have to do your own research, but our own Social Security Administration makes that rather easy for those of us who are interested in how we stack up against the rest of the world. A click here will open a gateway to information about social security programs in more than 170 nations..

Quite a few of these programs have been around longer than ours. England started theirs in 1908. - Belgium in 1900, France in 1910 and New Zealand in 1898. I haven’t kept up with all of the news from these countries, but I haven’t heard anything about them going bankrupt because of their Social Security programs and I haven’t heard of any of the systems collapsing under the weight of increased numbers of seniors collecting pensions for longer years than in the past.

Most countries of the western world have systems similar to ours, in that the primary support comes from a percentage of earnings deducted from paychecks , with varying amounts chipped in from other sources. But I think that there is a basic difference between most of these systems and our own - and that is the matter of national priorities.

I have no expertise when it comes to analyzing the condition of our own system. It can be pretty confusing to read all of the conflicting numbers that are being cited by people with opposing views. We either don’t have any kind of problem for the next 30 or 40 years, or the system will shut down in three weeks or today’s 30 somethings will have to continue to contribute to the system when they reach 65 in order to support the 80 and older crowd.

My concern with the Bush approach to fixing what he perceives to be a problem, is that he wants to change the basic premise of Social Security from a guaranteed, tax supported pension plan, to a partial - and I would imagine if he has his way - a total individual investment plan, stripping it of the very core of its being, which is a guaranteed retirement or old age pension.

Social Security is a solemn contract that the American people made with themselves in 1935. To change the basic nature of that contract would be like the U.S. offering bonds with no guarantee of any return at maturity. The program can be fiddled with, as it has been on several occasions. Few can remember the time when the tax was only 1 or 2% on wages that were less than five figures annually. You know how much it is today. So changes can be made and no doubt they will be made in the future, but unless Mr. Bush is able to invalidate this 70 year old contract, the basic premise will be the same as it is today. Whatever the formula and whatever the amount, it will be guaranteed, not subject to the ups and downs of any investment program.

Now Mr. Bush wants to allow some portion of an individual’s social security deduction to be invested somewhere for the benefit of that particular individual instead of going into the pot for the benefit of all If that investment goes south around the time when the individual retires - well that’s too bad. That’s the American way. Rugged individualism., And while those individual portions of Social Security are being diverted into private investment accounts, we’ll blithely borrow a few trillion to keep the payments going to current and near future retirees. That too is the American way of late under the Bush administration.

Those who advocate individual investment of social security taxes maintain that return from the stock market has always outpaced the return of such things as treasury bonds and that the money would be much better off invested there. If the Bush administration believes that to be true, why don’t they - instead of asking individual taxpayers to assume the risk of investing part of their social security taxes in the stock market, advocate that the Social Security Administration invest taxes that aren’t needed to fund current pensions- and have future retirees reap the benefit of an increased return by increasing the amount of their pensions? The basic guarantee of the full pension that exists under the current system would be intact - but if the stock market soared to ethereal heights and money was bursting out of the SS coffers, individual retirees could reap the same kind of benefits members of Congress assign to themselves. And if it went bust - why then, the basic retirement checks would still be guaranteed.

The bottom line about maintaining the integrity of the Social Security system has to do with how we arrange our priorities. When Mr. Bush asks Congress for another eighty billion to support our operation in Iraq, we don’t say to him - "Wait a minute. You and past Presidents should have anticipated that these kinds of emergencies would crop up. You should have invested portions of our tax money in the stock market when it was going through the roof and then set all the profits aside for just an emergency like Iraq." No, we dither about it just a bit - unless we’re Republicans - and we vote to give him the money. It comes from somewhere. From general revenues. Or from increased debt. But we don’t say sorry, we’re broke. The system’s busted. We don’t ask our troops to hold bake sales to fund the operation in Iraq. We come up with the money.

In my view , Social Security should be prioritized in exactly the same way. Stop crying about how few workers today are supporting how many retirees and when the system will run out of money and stop trying to kill it and turn back the clock to the days of laissez faire insecurity. Tweak it if need be. Increase the tax fractionally. Raise the income level that would be subject to SS tax. To infinity if necessary. Discuss the possibility of means testing. Discuss the possibility of those who don’t need it, voluntarily declining to receive a SS pension..

But at the end of the day, leave the basic premise intact. An inviolable contract made by the citizens of the United Sates with themselves to fund a guaranteed retirement pension for all workers who pay into the system for the required amount of time to qualify for benefits. And back that guarantee up with the same money source that provides 80 billion dollars when the President asks for it. From general revenues. From the same pot that pours millions into boondoggles for pet projects of our elected officials. In other words, get our priorities straightened out. Use our tax dollars for all that is necessary to maintain our free society, but put the well being of all of us at the top of the list. And for sure, guarantee that our senior citizens who worked all their lives and weren’t able to accumulate enough to support themselves in their old age - or perhaps who did manage to save enough but saw it fritter away in that stock market that Mr. Bush sees as a panacea for Social Security problems - receive a basic income.

Oh and while you’re at it, enact a national health insurance plan.

Hey - in the blogosphere, all scenarios are possible.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

How can you tell when a lawyer’s lying? His lips are moving.

What do you have when you have a lawyer buried up to his neck in wet concrete? Not enough concrete.

What do you get when you cross a lawyer with a librarian? All the information you need, but you can’t understand a word of it.

O.K. Lawyer jokes can be pretty mean, but more often than not, there’s more than a kernel of truth in most of them. Take that last one for instance, about not being able to understand a word of what a lawyer might tell you.

I’m a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit. Or at least my wife is. We didn’t instigate it. We didn’t even know about it until we got a letter in the mail "telling" us about it. A bunch of lawyers are suing Health Care Service Corporation, otherwise known as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois . A couple of years ago, a kid in an SUV smashed into us and my wife got shook up, She had some medical treatment and therapy and we collected a few bucks from the kid’s auto insurance - or her parent’s auto insurance - and the insurance company also repaid Blue Cross for the medical bills they paid.

Now this lawsuit says Blue Cross did something wrong - and we might be able to collect a few bucks back from them. At least I think that’s what the letter says. It also has a number of formulas to explain how any refund would work.
First, they explain the meaning of any abbreviations used as follows:
The final assertion amount for the reimbursement lien case at issue (‘FA")

A negotiated discount significance factor ("N"), or alternatively , the Average Discount Percentage ("ADP") value of the actual contractual allowance ("ACAS") involved in the case.

Whether an attorney was engaged to assist the member in obtaining the third party recovery that was the subject of HCSC’s reimbursement lien (an "attorney involvement" case).

To the extent there is such attorney involvement, the common fund percentage applicable to the case ("P") as determined by the default percentage negotiated by the parties (28%) or alternatively, to the extent the claimant submits a copy of the fee agreement or a disbursement statement, the attorney’s fee percentage referenced therein (absent an appeal), up to a maximum of 33 1/3 %; and:

The amount recovered by HCSC in satisfaction of its reimbursement lien ("RA")
Wait. There’s more. The letter also includes formulas for how much the repayment might be, depending on whether or not an attorney was involved. There was no attorney involved in my wife’s case, so the formula for how much she might get was clearly explained to us as follows:
1. For non-HMO and HMO claimants where the FA is between $0 and $4,999.
Claim value = RA X N (where N = 23)
2. For non-HMO claimants where the FA is $5,000 and above:
Claim value =RA X (ADP value /FA)
3. For HMO claimants where the FA is $5,000 to $17,499:
Claim value = RA X N(where N = 30)
4 For HMO claimants where the FA is $17,500 and above:
Claim value = RA X (Actual Discount/FA)

So where can you find a good attorney? In the cemetery.

I don’t expect to see a thin dime from this lawsuit, but I assume that the lawyers will collect millions - and nobody, but nobody will ever understand why.

Now here’s the kicker and this is as scary as it gets. By last count there were 228 lawyers in Congress. "Writing" our laws!!!
And the kind of things they should do

Now if these lawyers who are getting ready to rake in big bucks for suing Blue Cross on a "class action" basis, meaning they get millions and members of the "class" get a coupon or some such token award - here’s a company, also involved in healthcare, they can sue on behalf of four unhappy ex-employees.

There may not be any really big bucks in it, but the cause would be noble.

The company is WEYCO of Okemos, Michigan and it’s a smoke free company. That means that employees can’t smoke anywhere on the premises. I’m all for that idea. I’m an ex-smoker myself. Used to smoke 2 ½ to 3 packs a day before I quit in 1988. When we go out to eat, it’s a pleasure to go to a restaurant that is smoke free as it is to fly on a plane without having to deal with second hand smoke. I must admit though that every once in a while I get whiff of cigarette smoke and it smells wonderful and I realize that I miss smoking - that I’m not a non smoker but a smoker who doesn’t smoke anymore. But I digress. Back to WEYCO.

When I said that WEYCO was a smoke free company, I wasn’t being totally accurate when I said it meant that employees can’t smoke on the premises. WEYCO imposes a much more stringent rule. Its employees cannot be smokers!! Anywhere!! Not just on the premises, but anywhere at all. At home. In the local bar. At a ball game. Any place at all. If they’re smokers they can’t work at WEYCO.

When WEYCO imposed the rule, they required their employees to take a test to prove that they weren’t smokers or they’d be canned. Four of them thought this was a violation of their privacy rights and refused to be tested. Supposedly they left their jobs voluntarily, but there was no doubt that they couldn’t continue working there without taking and passing the test.

I have no idea why this hasn’t been a big story in the United States, but it is certainly making waves around the world. As a matter of fact, I first heard about it from a BBC broadcast!!

This is more than a case about the rights of employers to impose work rules or to be able to fire people for any reason. In my view this is a case of blatant discrimination as much as if the company decided and announced that their employees could no longer be women or African Americans, or homosexuals or Jews or people who ate raw onions at breakfast. - and those people would either have to change who they are or get canned.

You might expect something like this in one of those countries that our President plans to liberate in between "fixing" social security and re-writing the tax code. There are countries where individual citizens can be punished for something that they do in the privacy of their own homes - something as simple as having an alcoholic drink for instance. But the last time I looked, we were still a free people, able to drink, smoke and be merry in our own homes without the fear of the morality police knocking on our doors in the middle of the night and hauling us off to re-education camps.

So if lawyers want to do something to improve their image in America - assuming such a task is even remotely possible - they should take up the case of these four unemployed smokers and sue the pants off of WEYCO.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

A few impressions from yesterday’s press conference.

I watched some of it on the PBS News Hour and I can’t agree with the assessment of the President's demeanor offered by columnist Mark Shields and National Review editor Rich Lowry. They thought he exhibited more confidence than in press conferences of his first term.

I’m sure he was confident, but what came through to me more than confidence, was arrogance and disdain, which I am coming more and more to believe is a good part of the true nature of the man. He who "won’t negotiate with himself." He who can never admit that anything he does could be wrong. For much of the press conference, his facial expression was a rerun of the first debate with John Kerry. A disdainful glower. There were moments when I thought he was about to emulate his father and look at his watch. Some of the questions seemed to annoy him and his answers reflected that annoyance.

The questions about Condoleezza Rice and Alberto Gonzales weren’t answered at all and none of the reporters were brave enough to call him on it. His answer to questions about Rice was the same answer he gives any time he’s asked about her. (Wasn’t she a Playboy centerfold twenty years ago?) "She’s a fine person. She’s a wonderful person. She’ll make a great Secretary of State and she should be confirmed." And Gonzales?( Is it true that he runs a pornographic book shop on the side?) "He’s a fine man and he should be confirmed!!"

Of course no such questions were asked, but the answers that he gave had nothing to do with the questions about these two that were asked. It was like a vaudeville act.

Questions about Iraq provided the President with another opportunity to continue to write his own version of a "Back to the Future" screenplay. The invasion of Iraq in 2003, became part of the 2005 pledge to spread democracy and end tyranny in the world. There was no more weapons of mass destruction discussion. Now it’s simply an assertion that Saddam Hussein was a threat even without weapons of mass destruction - a convoluted conclusion - and that the world is better off without him in power, with which no one can disagree.

The reasons for the invasion have changed so many times, I’ve lost track of the evolutionary details. I am now aware of course, that it’s all part of our noble obligation as the world’s super power, to spread freedom and democracy - and in a few days, the fruits of our efforts and the sacrifice of more than 1300 young American servicemen and women, will blossom in the form of a democratic election .

I wish I could be as sanguine as Mr. Bush about how great an accomplishment and contribution to the peace of the world that will be. I hope for a wonderful outcome, but I have a nagging feeling that whatever happens on Sunday, it will be the beginning of a movement toward something that we don’t want and that could be as dangerous to the peace of the region as Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was alleged to have been. It’s almost certain that that the Shiites will dominate the election - and it’s almost certain that with the majority of the nation’s population in power, there will be increasingly less tolerance for the secular society that existed under Saddam. There is a possibility that down the road, Iraq will end up like Iran - an Islamic dominated society with Ayatollahs calling the shots.

Whatever happens, it will be a test of the President’s vow that "America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling."

On the News Hour program that I watched, Rich Lowry said that the promises that Mr. Bush made in his inaugural address were unsustainable .They were hyperbole. (My word - not his). The danger though is that the President may believe that he is destined to implement his doctrine of bringing freedom to the world, sustainable or not.

There was some question about the reason this news conference was called - seemingly with very little advance warning. Some pundits have suggested that it was because support for the President’s ideas about Social Security are eroding and he wanted to keep the issue on the front burner. Certainly, he used the occasion to re-state his determination to change the system and certainly his thematic approach to this topic tied in beautifully with the entire Iraqi scenario. You make an assertion of grave danger - of crisis - of imminent catastrophe. The assertion doesn’t have to be true. The known facts might be in direct opposition to the assertion. But you keep repeating the assertion as though it represented the facts - and pretty soon, those in opposition begin to cave.

Fortunately, when it comes to Social Security, even some of the President’s staunchest supporters are expressing their reservations.

I have some pretty strong ideas about Social Security myself, the central theme of which is - don’t mess with it!! I’ll express some of those thoughts here by and by.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Shades of Ronald Reagan!!

Do you remember the "morning after" following his press conferences. The press conference about the press conference at which Marlin Fitzwater or Larry Speakes or Jim Brady or whoever pulled the short straw that morning, explained what the President really meant. And this was the "great communicator" mind you. Just without a script.

Now we have Daddy Bush coming to Dubya’s rescue to explain what the President really meant or didn’t mean in his inaugural address.

Bush the elder insisted that there was no intention to signal "new aggression or new assertive military forces." That’s not what the speech was about, he said. It was about freedom!!

Unfortunately, that’s not how a lot of people are reading it, including people in countries that are not "free" under the President’s analysis of their lot. And he appeared to be sincere and firm about his desire to bring them the gift of freedom and democracy. So it isn’t surprising that some of them are wondering just how this wonderful gift will be packaged. I wonder too.

If the relative freedom of the countries of the world as designated by the Freedom House organization is accurate, the task that Mr. Bush has set for his second term is Herculean indeed.

Among the countries rated as "not free" are China, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Russia, which has just been downgraded in the Freedom House ratings from "partly free" to "not free." Could the President have been talking about these countries when he said "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know. The United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors.?" Will the leaders of these countries respond to his urgings that they abandon their systems of government and switch to democracy and civil liberties and free elections and freedom of the press? Or will they tell him to shove it?

It’s interesting that when Mr. Bush talks about his grand plans to bring freedom to the far corners of the earth, he trumpets the "success" of the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan and elections that have taken place there - and the phenomenon of an election scheduled to take place in Iraq.

I don’t know whether you could classify what has happened so far in these two countries as examples of how the United States can spread freedom and democracy to "oppressed peoples," but I do know that there has been great cost for the little that has been accomplished.

Most of the non-free nations of the world present a much greater problem than Afghanistan or Iraq. They are either dominated by Communist rule and ideology or under the influence or rule of Islam. Of the two, I would think that the chances are better that Communist China and quasi dictatorship Russia will move gradually in the direction of increased individual rights - though not necessarily adopting any form of democracy - and Mr. Bush may have to accept the fact that there’s not a great deal that he can do to influence those situations. Like the original collapse of the Soviet Union, if it comes at all, it will come from within.

In my view, the bigger challenge to the idea of a free world is that of Islam. Of the nations of the world classified as "not free," more than half have majority Islamic populations.

There are more than a billion Muslims in the world. Some authorities count up to close to two billion. Their growth rate has been cited as the fastest of any of the world’s religions and it’s a religion that doesn’t mix well with our concepts of freedom and democracy.

I’ve raised the question before of whether or not we should be "at war" with Islam, and you might want to look at my comments of May 4, 2003 and May 19, 2003.

There are of course scholarly discourses on this subject to be found on the Internet if you have the patience to read them, such as can be found here.

But the question that I have and that I raised after the inaugural address, is does the President have any idea how to go about turning his lofty words into the kind of actions that can produce results? What do his words mean? Does he have any idea what kind of action he can take that would make sense when dealing with nations that are majority Muslim and not free? Will it be the same approach he has used for the past two years, or does he have something specific and innovative in mind?

The world is confused about the meaning of all those words and we’re going to need a lot more than his father trying to tell us what he didn’t mean. We need to hear the President evince an understanding of the problem of exporting democracy to societies to which the very concept is inimical - and how he plans to get past the philosophical, political and religious barriers that are in place there.

This morning, he promised us one miracle that will be revealed in the State of the Union address. How he will cut the budget in half in the next four years. In HALF!! Maybe he’ll make it a "two fer" and tell us what he really meant by "seeking and supporting the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

1. Good - Johnny Carson

Before moving on to other things, I feel compelled to post a comment or two on the death of Johnny Carson.

To me, it’s like the final act of a two act play , each act describing the end of an era, the first represented by the great Jack Paar, the second by the equally great Johnny Carson.

Both were unique - in a class by themselves, and it will be a long time before we see their like again - if ever. David Letterman gave it just the right touch, saying that he and others who came after Carson, were "pretenders."

I never met Johnny Carson. The closest I ever came to him was being in his studio audience many, many years ago, when he did his show in New York. I had a ticket or a pass, courtesy of his brother Dick, who was directing the show in those days. Both he and I were members of the Directors Guild of America and it was through the DGA that I got to see the show while I was in New York on some other business - the nature of which I can’t remember. As I said, it was a long time ago. In the very early days of his reign. I can’t remember who was on the program. About the only thing I do remember is that it wasn’t that easy to see Carson or any of the guests. There was a lot of equipment between the audience and the stage. I’m sure it improved over the years as equipment and staging became more sophisticated.

It’s kind of eerie that the two late night greats died almost exactly a year apart - Paar on January 27, 2004. I wrote about Paar’s death a year ago and then as now, noted the event as the end of an era. - or at least of my era. On a somewhat somber note, I noted the deaths of many of the stars I had grown up with and talked about my world fading as though it was preparing me for my own demise. Carson’s death reinforces that same feeling.

At first, I didn’t think anyone could replace Paar and have the same impact. Boy was I wrong. I became a Carson fan in very short order. . He was a performer who used the medium of television well - perhaps better than anyone since Paar. The early pioneers of the genre - Garroway and others who had such great dreams for the future of the fledgling medium, would have been proud of what he accomplished.

When he left the Tonight Show in 1991, the morning conversations around office water coolers changed - perhaps for ever. Before Carson, it was "did you see what happened on Paar last night?" There it became "did you see what happened on Carson last night’? An incident on Letterman or Leno may get a mention once in a while - but it will never be the same. They will never achieve the relationship that Carson had with his audience - almost that of a family member.

Even Newt Minnow would have to acknowledge that for the thirty years that Carson came into our living and bedrooms at night, he brightened the look of that "vast wasteland" that the former FCC chairman dubbed television broadcasting in 1961.

I thought at first that the hype about his career was a little over the top after seeing the same friends, colleagues and former guests on program after program along with the same clips from old Tonight Show programs. All of those people were saying that Carson wouldn’t have approved the kind of hooplah that was being rolled out. I guess the absence of any public memorial is because he didn’t want one and his family is respecting his wishes. But on reflection, I changed my mind about the hype being "too much." It should run for a few days and keep us watching and listening and remembering before we get back to the daily struggle. It’s a way for those of us who never knew him but believed we did, to say goodbye.

And thank you. For thirty years of fun and class.

2.. Bad hype - Andrew Gieseler

Yesterday, I shopped at Target for a few items. As I was walking towards the exit after checking out, I noticed that one of the items hadn’t appeared on the credit card receipt. The checkout clerk had scanned a $1.50 item twice, thinking that another item, five times the price, was the same thing. I walked back and pointed out the error. It w as adjusted and I was thanked for "my honesty." I suppose I was being "honest," but calling the error to their attention was a no brainer. Once I spotted the error, not pointing it out would have been theft.

The incident reminded me of another Target story - the one about a 12 year old kid who found a bag with nine grand in it, just outside the store - and turned it over to store personnel. And oh the hype. Screaming headlines about an honest kid. TV interviews on every local station. An appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres show. An interview on a New York radio station. If you Google his name, you get 8690 hits!!

Well, I guess he’s an honest kind. He could have stashed the money in some secret hiding place and spent a little at a time for years on all the goodies that tickled his fancy. Except that before he did the right thing and turned it in, someone knew that he had found it. Someone who was with him when he picked it up. His mother!! He was out shopping with his mother who you can confidently assume is not 12 years old

What the blazes is going on here? Unless we’re dealing with a family of gypsies with some peculiar set of moral laws, the choice wasn’t the kid’s to make. The way the story was reported in some circles is that he picked it up, saw that it was a lot of cash and his mother asked him what he thought HE should do with it. Maybe she was testing his honesty. Maybe she wanted confirmation that she had brought the kid up the right way. Apparently he said that he or they should turn it in - and that is what set off the ridiculous hype.

I repeat - the kid was with his adult female parent at the time, so the question of who spotted the money bag or picked it up is irrelevant. Unless the world was turned upside down a couple of weeks ago without me noticing it, the choice wasn’t the kid’s to make.

If the fact that he agreed or asserted that the money should be turned in to someone at the store so that the rightful owner could be found is a matter to be celebrated on a national scale, then we have surely lost our way and are in sore need of the "moral values" that we are told are so important to the fabric of our nation.

If one definition of news is an "incident out of the ordinary," then the reporting of this "story" and the hype that it has received is saying that dishonesty is the norm - and what this kid (and his mother) did is a departure from the norm.

Give me a break!!!

Friday, January 21, 2005

I have to admit that I didn’t watch any of the inauguration ceremonies, nor did I listen to the President’s speech. These kind of ceremonies usually bore me to tears. I equate much of what goes on at Presidential inaugurations with royal processions and rituals which I have not much interest in watching either. The exception, for me, has always been the ceremony that surrounds moments of sudden tragedy. The JFK assassination for example. When I wasn’t working on contributing to the ceremony (I was working for ABC- TV at the time), I was glued to my television set. The same with the death of Princess Diana.

Presidential inaugurations, we are made to believe, are joyful expressions of our system of government and way of life, but they are much more a celebration by the connected to the exclusion of the average citizen.

Oh for sure, average citizens get to line the streets and cheer or jeer as the armed convoy passes by. Some are able to have seats at the outdoor swearing in ceremony. And there are always stories of ordinary people who get invited to attend some part of the celebration and rub shoulders with the elite, and you’ll usually hear or see these people being interviewed by the broadcast media in their home towns and maybe read about them and see their picture in the local paper.

But for the most part, the celebrants are the well connected, starting with the major corporations that divvy up millions of dollars for the balls and the concerts and the food and the booze and the limos and Lord knows what else. In some ways, it serves an unintended purpose in that it provides an interesting look at how so called representative government really works.

I did read the speech this morning and marked a couple of passages that I thought worthy of comment. . No one can argue with the idea that freedom is a good thing and that it would be wonderful if democratic governments existed everywhere.

I can agree and think it is a noble goal for the policy of the United States to be, as Mr. Bush put it
"to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
So far so good, but I’m not quite sure from some other things he said, how we would go about it. For example, he also said,
"All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know. The United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."
O.K. But what does "not ignoring" oppression or oppressors mean? Are we prepared to send military forces to any country where we believe the people are being oppressed? How about Cuba for example? Easy to reach and not much of a threat to our military might. It sure seems to fit in with the next few lines that he spoke.
"Democratic reformers facing repression, prison or exile can know. America sees you for who you are - the future leaders of your free country."
There are certainly Cubans in all three of the categories mentioned, but then, unlike his "axis of evil" speech three years ago, he didn’t name any particular countries - he just provided descriptions. Maybe that’s a way to keep the oppressive regimes guessing. Are they on the Bush hit list or not?

I would imagine it was a relief to some of the tyrannized, yearning to be free, to learn that in the event that were able to achieve their goal, they wouldn’t have to emulate our way of life. The President made that very clear.
"When the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling."
It’s refreshing to hear that kind of language from a President. Much better than bitter discussions about who "lost" one country or another. As if we ever "owned" any of them. I have to wince a little though at the word "unwilling." Does that mean that if we suggest that they do try our kinds of institutions and they say no, we’d actually think of them as being "unwilling" - as in "ungrateful" maybe?

One other thing that jumped out at me from the speech transcript was the gauntlet thrown down to countries with which we have relations but whose governments do not meet with our approval.
"We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people."
About time. Saudi Arabia take note. If you want us to buy your oil, you’d better start giving women driver’s licenses and quit lashing people in public for double parking.

If I sound cynical, I am. The headline in today’s Chicago Tribune describing the speech, was "A Vision of Freedom." The trouble is, I don’t think Dubya has a clue how to achieve it. Having speechwriters put together some stirring words to express how he feels is all well and good, but if we go by the ancient adage that past is prologue, the prospects for achieving any of his international goals - or even kick starting them, don’t look very promising.

Although he said that our policy of seeking to support democratic movements
"is not primarily the task of arms,"
the major effort of the Bush first term to bring "freedom" to oppressive regimes, has been to invade Iraq and issue veiled threats to Iran, South Korea and Syria. I have seen no sign or any implementation of any non military policy that would begin to move oppressive regimes in the direction of freedom and democracy. Maybe that’s coming. Maybe he’s going to expound upon those glowing words of the inaugural speech and spell out some specifics that will give us hope for a brighter future. Maybe in the State of the Union address.

But I’m not holding my breath.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

The news that ailing Chief Justice William H Renquist was scheduled to administer the oath of office to George W Bush at noon today, was a sharp reminder of the power vested in the presidency to appoint the members of the highest court in the land.

Renquist will almost certainly retire in the near future.. John Paul Stevens is 80. Sandra Day O’Connor 70.. The rest are in their late fifties and early to mid sixties. The chances are pretty good that Mr. Bush will make two and perhaps even three appointments during his second term, affecting the philosophical and political make up of the Supreme Court for years to come.

Having been so reminded of this particular power of the presidency, I thought I would devote today’s blog comments to a Supreme Court story.

Many years ago, in another life, I produced, edited, narrated and distributed a daily radio program called "Moment Of Destiny." It was a short narrative about events that happened on each day of the year, complete with music and sound effects. The program created for airing on January 20, read as follows - and please bear in mind that this is a transcript of spoken words
This is an important day for Americans. This is the day we inaugurate Presidents.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated for his third and fourth term on this day. Harry S Truman took the oath of office on this date and during his term ordered development of the hydrogen bomb. Dwight David Eisenhower took office On January 20, 1953 and soon brought a halt to the fighting in Korea. This is the day that John F. Kennedy posted notice that "the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans - born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage.

A great deal of Americana had its beginnings on January 20, but in spite of the impressive list of Presidents who took office on this date, the January event that may have had the most meaningful effect on our way of life was the day that a Virginia lawyers was named Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Washington DC was an unhealthy place in the early 1800’s. The streets were muddy. The air was full of mosquitoes. It was also full of politics. John Adams’ administration was nearing the end of its term

Thomas Jefferson and his Democrat-Republicans would soon be taking office. Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth, appointed by George Washington, had resigned on December 15, 1800 and in order to continue the Federalist domination of the court, late in January, 1801, Adams filled the vacancy by nominating his Secretary of State as Chief Justice.

The Senate quickly approved the nomination. Within a few weeks, Adams left office and when Jefferson arrived to be inaugurated, the man who administered the oath was Chief Justice John Marshall. And when the oath was administered on that day, both the new Chief Justice and the new President considered the constitution to be primarily his responsibility.

The Supreme Court was part of a minor branch of government when Marshall took over - not even having its own courtroom or office building. But by the time of his death in 1835, the Judicial branch has been elevated to equal status with the Executive and the Legislative.

It was in his sixth year on the bench when the confrontation with Jefferson came. Former Vice-President Aaron Burr was on trial for treason and it was made clear to Marshall that Jefferson would seek his impeachment if Burr went free. The Chief Justice’s reaction was to write a 50 page opinion stating very clearly that in a treason trial, the government had to prove an act of war had taken place and that the accused had played a part in it. The government couldn’t prove it and Burr went free. Marshall was never impeached and the Supreme Court had gained a bit of independence. He went on to serve for 34 years, participated in over 1000 cases and authored over 500 opinions.

There are those today who say John Marshall’s influence is no more - that the Supreme Court has overturned many of his decisions. They miss the point. The fact that a court today can decide to overturn a decision but not have to seek permission from another branch of government to do so, proves Justice Marshall’s influence.

John Adams said, "My gift of John Marshall to the people of the United States was the proudest act of my life."
And apart from a commercial breaking the narrative into two parts and a dramatic close which I won’t repeat here, that was the "Moment of Destiny" broadcast on radio stations around the country on many a January 20. I have 366 of these scripts and maybe I’ll post a few more of them here if they tie in with current events Or even if they don’t!!.

Anyway, let’s hope that any justice appointed by President Bush and approved by the Senate, will exhibit the same wisdom and independence as John Marshall - a man some consider to be the most influential justice in the history of the Supreme Court.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

I watched a few minutes of the Condoleezza confirmation hearings on the news last night. The same old Condoleezza, spinning the administration’s spin on Iraq, on terrorism and just about everything else. There’s no question about her loyalty to the president. When she speaks to officials of other countries, there won’t be any doubt about whose views she’ll be expressing. It wasn’t that way with her predecessor, who frequently expressed views that were not in lock step with the president or others in the administration.

But I have my doubts about her diplomatic skills. She said that the time for diplomacy was "now," which last night’s Daily Show interpreted as meaning during the hearings, after which all bets were off!! But where she had opportunities to be diplomatic during the hearings, she fell down miserably.

Barbara Boxer - one of two panel members to vote against her confirmation this morning - the other being John Kerry - asked if her loyalty to the president didn’t overwhelm her respect for the truth (about Iraq). It was a tough question. It was an insulting question. It was a perfect opportunity for Condoleezza to display her diplomatic skills and to gently parry the thrust of the question. Instead, she responded with obvious anger and not a small amount of arrogance, another of her faults that she shares with her boss. She said she hoped that she could have this conversation and discuss what happened "without impugning my credibility or integrity."

Or to put it in street language - "who you calling a liar?" The defense of a street fighter, not a diplomat. From the little that I saw of yesterday’s hearing, she didn’t come close to charming the socks off of any of her questioners, even the ones throwing the softballs. Not that a Secretary of State needs to be charming - visions of Henry Kissinger come to mind - but being pleasantly diplomatic would be a step in the right direction.

In my view the hearings are a waste of time. Just about all of the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had already said that they would approve her nomination and her confirmation by the full Senate was never in doubt.

The only value of hearings for cabinet nominees whose confirmation is not in doubt, is to provide a bully pulpit for Senators to make political statements that might get a little more coverage than if made outside of a committee hearing.

I hope Ms Rice will be hugely successful for the next four years, but I know I will wince every time I see her on the boob tube and even more so every time I hear someone address her as doctor Rice. What is it with these people who go around wearing their academic degrees like some sort of medal? To just about everyone outside of academia - and probably to most people inside academia, a doctor is someone who practices some kind of medicine. If someone wants to be referred to as doctor, my advice would be for them to enroll in medical school.

A final thought on the hearings. I was pleased to see John Kerry vote no instead of going along with the majority. Maybe that’s the first step on the road to being an independent thinker, following his conscience. Would that he had voted "no" on giving the president authority to wage war against Iraq. Would that he had said "no" when asked if he would have voted yes on that resolution had he known at the time of the vote what was subsequently discovered about Iraq and "weapons of mass destruction." The outcome of the election might have been very different. Still, better late than never. We’re going to need strong critical voices in the Senate for the next four years - and if Kerry can be one of them, he might redeem himself from the debacle of his election failures.

Bringing Freedom, Justice and Democracy to the Middle East

In just a few days we’ll see an attempt to justify the grand plan of the neo-cons surrounding and influencing Mr. Bush to bring democracy and freedom to the Middle East, when Iraqis go to the polls to elect their new leadership. Just like the old domino theory, Iraq is supposed to embrace democracy and that influence will spread to other nations in the area - the Israelis and Palestinians will settle all their differences, the Saudis will issue driver’s licenses to women and wolves will lie down with lambs.

There may be a slight problem with the Saudis though. Seems like our great allies aren’t quite ready to fall in line with the plan. A handful of democratic minded Saudis tried to exercise some not yet granted rights recently by protesting against the monarchy. It wasn’t a very big protest. Only 21 people were involved and there were no reports of violence - at least not at the protest sites. The story only made squibs in American newspapers. Maybe the fourth estate didn’t want to upset the sensibilities of American readers. Maybe they didn’t want to upset the cozy relationship between the Bush family and the House of Saud.

The protesters were arrested. 15 of them have already been tried and sentenced by a religious court. One of them was a woman. They got between one and six months in the pokey plus between 100 and 250 lashes!! That’s our wonderful allies, the Saudis. They’re going to string up these people and lay a whip across their backs - from 100 to 250 times.

Think about it for a minute. Think about a whip or a cat-o-nine tails or whatever it is that they use, coming down on your back again and again - up to 250 times. Do you imagine that you could survive such torture? And if you could, do you think your life would ever be the same?

These are our allies, ruled by a royal family that we support. Do you wonder why people in the region are not kindly disposed towards us?

Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the wall the first time Condoleezza Rice sits down with Crown Prince Abdullah or Saudi foreign minister Saud Al Faisal? Well maybe not a fly, but if I had any eye teeth left, I’d give one of them to watch that scene unfold. Specially if she gives any of them one of her steely eyed reptilian looks.

It’s going to be an interesting four years.


Tuesday, January 18, 2005

For those who have complained that Tony Blair is or has been little more than President Bush’s lackey , this week will bring a modicum of solace as we observe more than just a little trans-Atlantic quid pro quo watching George Bush doing his impersonation of a member of the House of Windsor.

229 years ago, we told England and its King where to go in a document known as the Declaration of Independence. We really told the King where to go, blasting him in sentence after sentence - finally letting him know that we were dropping any and all allegiance to his royal crown - and presumably all of its trappings.

In its place we created our own governmental trappings, carefully avoiding any resemblance to royalty. Or so we would like to think. But on close examination, it seems like we figured out a way to have our cake and eat it. We got rid of the King, but not the fun of having something resembling the pomp and circumstance of a royal family, and this week, to my dismay, we’ll be putting it on display for the whole world to see.

I know it’s been going on for decades, but what have the excesses of our presidential inaugurations have to do with a democracy and the American way of life? Right there in the second paragraph of that historic declaration, it says that all men are created equal. There are no kings among us . But it seems that despite all that was said in that declaration, we obviously didn’t mean all of it. We just didn’t want an absentee king!!

I wrote about our apparent need to cling to the trappings of royalty following the death of Ronald Reagan, whose death we commemorated in truly royal fashion. And now we’re about to put on our quadrennial display of excessive ostentation. Over a three day period, there will be nine balls, a fireworks display, concerts with all kinds of entertainment, a parade and Lord knows what else.

The cost of this second Bush inauguration will be many millions of dollars . I’ve seen estimates of 40 million and of fifty million. We may never know the total costs or how much will be picked up by the taxpayers. We do know from all of the announcements coming out of Washington that there will be thousands of military personnel and thousands of police personnel guarding the president and all of the sites involved in the grand celebration. The city of Washington will be turned into something resembling a war zone. Indeed it will be a wonderful advertisement for the effectiveness of terrorism. "See - the President of the great Satan is scared to go out among his people without thousands of soldiers and police to protect him and to keep order." What a wonderful scene to beam to the rest of the world.

It’s unseemly. It’s unnecessary. Particularly, this is no time to put on this ridiculously ostentatious and expensive display. We are engaged in a war that Mr. Bush led us into for reasons that have been proved to be false but for which more than a thousand of our young military personnel have lost their lives and thousands of others have been seriously injured - some paralyzed, some blinded, some with limbs amputated.

We have expended billions on this war. A budget surplus that Mr. Bush inherited has been turned into a horrendous deficit. This is not just the time for this particular Americanized version of a royal coronation to be cut back to a simple swearing in ceremony, but a time to consider whether we need to continue this inaugural celebratory nonsense at all.

Across the pond, where Tony Blair sits ready to follow his presidential buddy into whatever evangelically inspired adventure he may be have in mind as the crown jewel for his second term, the election of a political party - and thus its leader as prime minister - is certainly cause for celebration, but not for public displays of excessive and expensive ostentation. No fancy dress balls. No parades. No pomp and no circumstance. No "royal" trappings of any kind.

Unlike us, the Brits never did find the need for a written constitution. And while they evolved from being ruled by royal personages, they made the wise decision to retain a royal family so that they could entertain the public masses with periodic displays of "bread and circuses." Instead of trying to use the presidency as some kind of amalgam of a prime minister and a queen - or a king - we should take a leaf from their book and separate the two chores of leadership and national symbolism.

We have our film and television "royalty." Hell, we have the royal personage of Oprah. Shouldn’t that be enough to please the masses?

Monday, January 17, 2005

CBS and its news people may have been guilty of some horrible judgment in rushing ahead with the phony papers story about George Bush’s military service, but for the past few weeks, NBC has been acting as though it needs to make extra efforts to overtake CBS in the bad judgment sweepstakes - at least when it comes to judgment of taste,

Just one week ago I expressed my dismay at their week-end, Today Show "coverage" of a spectacular murder case, which consisted of persuading the father and grandfather of the victim to appear on the show just days after the crime was discovered, to answer inane questions about how they felt.

This past week-end they did it again, this time persuading the father of the first known victim of the avalanche in Utah to appear. Again, there was no news value in the appearance of the father, who seemed remarkably composed and matter of fact. He related what a companion of his son had said about the conditions of the ski slope and what occurred immediately prior to the avalanche - and of course, co-host Campbell Brown expressed sympathy for the father’s loss.

She did then ask a few questions of a local sheriff about the progress in searching for victims - and that at least was somewhat informational and newsworthy. But the father of the first known victim?

I just don’t understand it. I try to imagine how I would feel if one of my children died in a tragic accident or was murdered in some horrendous way. The very last thing that I would think of doing in the midst of my grief would be to appear on a national television program to answer inane questions about how I felt and what I knew about the tragedy. Does the lure of television cameras and a celebrity TV program host evoke a stronger emotion than grief?

I guess maybe the older I get, the less I understand my fellow human beings.

Walmart Largesse??

I have no strong opinions about Walmart one way or another..

I know they have been criticized for many things - for putting ma and pa retail stores out of business, for being a non union shop, for bias against female employees and for paying lousy wages. Some towns and big city suburbs have fought tooth and nail to keep Walmart out of their communities.

There are no Walmarts anywhere near me. The only time I’ve ever shopped at a Walmart is when I’ve been visiting my wife’s home town of Concordia, Kansas. It’s the only discount store in town so it’s where you would go to get the best prices on a variety of merchandise. My experience there was that the prices weren’t that great. I could find the same prices at many stores in my immediate neighborhood - but then I live in a suburb of a big city and I have choices. In little old Concordia, the prices look good to local residents because there’s no discount competition. Walmart is it!!

The people working at the store seemed to be reasonably nice and helpful and polite. They didn’t seem to be unhappy - but even if they were, I don’t imagine that they would be expressing their unhappiness to customers in the middle of a busy shopping day. Not if they wanted to keep their jobs that is.

So I don’t really know how much if the criticism of Walmart actually comes from the people who work there. But Walmart has been feeling the heat of all the criticism and has launched a vigorous defense by way of full page ads in more than 100 newspapers in which its treatment of its employees is prominently featured. It talks about all the nice things they do for their employees who they call "associates." I guess giving employees a title is supposed to make their jobs more dignified. Like calling a garbage collector a "waste management engineer."

I read the ad and it seemed that they were making a reasonable argument. 74% of their employees are full time. They offer health and life insurance and a stock plan and 401(k) retirement plans and the average pay for their employees is nearly twice the minimum wage!!

Whoa!! Nearly twice the minimum wage. And people are criticizing their employment practices? Why, Walmart "Associates" are getting rich!!

The last time I looked, the Federal minimum wage was $5.15 an hour. So how much is "nearly" twice the minimum wage? Ten dollars and hour? Nine? Or split the difference and call it $9.50. No, let’s be generous and call it $9.75. For a 40 hour week, that would be $390. For a whole year, that would be $20,280 - less taxes and other deductions. And that would be damned close to poverty levels depending on family size. But that’s just considering Walmart’s "average" wage. Some people would me making more, but some people would be making less!!

Now I know that the retail industry is not where you’ll find too many high paying jobs - though I would imagine that employees at union shops make a little better than twice the minimum wage - but the fact that Walmart would tout its wage levels as a huge positive - as a defense against their critics - tells me that even though they might enjoy wonderful sales figures, they don’t understand the general public. Most of us don’t work in the retail industry, so our general attitude when we see the world’s largest retail chain crowing about paying their employees nearly double the minimum wage is that they are a bunch of cheapskates. What other business would take out help wanted newspaper ads touting a pay scale as a multiple of the miniumum wage?

Let’s face it, Walmart didn’t get to be the world’s largest retailer by offering quality goods and competitive prices to the buying public while paying attractive salaries to its work force. Walmart is already at the place that other companies would like to get to and indeed are making efforts to get to in order to survive. By paying their help as little as they can get away with.

If the Walmart giant wants to defend itself, the last thing they need to emphasize is how "much" they pay their happy and smiling "associates."

Friday, January 14, 2005

As readers of this blog know, even though I was born across the pond and went to school there and served some time in the army over there, I have aimed criticism at our British cousins when I’ve observed un-British behavior.

I took them to task when they were being beastly to the antics of David Blaine in London.

I deplored the idea of London bobbies being allowed to wear turbans!!

When I think they’re misbehaving, I don’t hesitate to say so. But I can’t join in the chorus of those condemning young Prince Harry for attending a fancy dress party dressed in a Nazi uniform - and it’s a large and growing chorus.

From what I have been able to gather from the tabloids, it was supposed to have been a private fancy dress party, though how any kind of Nazi uniform with a swastika on the arm could be considered part o the reported party theme of "colonial and native" is difficult to understand.

But it was a private party and Harry’s selection of "fancy dress" should never have become a public affair. But since it has, let’s take a look at how bad it was for the young prince to have dressed up in this manner.

Frankly, I think his biggest mistake was dressing so casually. According to news reports, he was wearing something that was supposed to be the uniform of World War Two General Erwin Rommel’s Africa Korps. From what I can make out from the tabloid pictures, it looks like a short sleeve summer shirt with insignia on the lapel . I don’t know what he wore beneath the waist. If it was supposed to be a desert uniform, probably short pants. He wore no hat. The most prominent Nazi feature was the swastika on his sleeve.

As I see it, the "uniform" wasn’t enough of a uniform to be a fancy dress costume or to be a spoof of Nazi brutes, so in that sense, Harry goofed on a couple of grounds. He should have dressed in a full uniform with tunic, covered in medals and buttoned up to the neck and wearing an officer’s cap and mid calf boots. Maybe he should have thrown in a fake mustache for extra effect.

Let’s face it, we’ve been spoofing the Nazi get up for years and nobody raises a ruckus when its use is an obvious spoof. We wouldn’t get upset if kids came around at Halloween with Hitler masks. The kids - or their parents - are obviously making fun of an historical monster. One of the most successful stage shows in recent memory was Mel Brook’s "The Producers" in which a featured cast member is an avowed Nazi and the "show within the show" is Springtime for Hitler" with those cast members in full Nazi regalia.

Well, you might say, there’s a big difference between a Broadway musical and the third in line to the British throne dressing up as a Nazi. But there’s also a similarity by way of context and intent.

It was a large party for his friend’s 22nd birthday. The papers said 250 people were invited - and all were supposed to show up in a costume. I have no idea what went through Harry’s mind as he tried to decide what to wear - what to surprise and delight fellow guests with, but I would imagine when he settled on dressing up as a Nazi, he probably figured no one else would pick the same costume. Or maybe he figures that lots of guests would come dressed that way and they could get together for spoof drills and generally act like idiots. Not unlike the portrayal we have seen of Nazis in television sitcoms over the years.

That was the context. A spoof, just like a Broadway show or trick or treaters. The second similarity is intent - and I am reasonably sure that there was nothing venal in Harry’s intent. Dressing as a Nazi for a fancy dress party, he would be making fun of the uniform and those who wore it - not in any way conveying a message that it was an appropriate get up to wear.

I am as sensitive as anyone to the images that are conjured up by Nazi insignia. Distant members of my family died in the holocaust. I am disturbed when I see neo-Nazi punks dressed up in Nazi regalia. I am disturbed at the Nazi images one can find on line. I am disturbed at holocaust deniers. I am disturbed when anti-Semites compare Israelis to Nazis.

But to me it’s all about context and intent. If Prince Harry is a closet anti-Semite and wore the uniform to hammer home a point of view - to throw a visual barb at his fellow countrymen of the Jewish faith - or to Jews everywhere - I would be close to the head of the line of people raising their voices in protest. But absent any evidence of that nature - and I have seen none anywhere in the vast coverage of this non-event - I think we’re looking at a storm in a teacup and all the protesters need to lean back, take a deep breath and maybe even have a cup of hot tea while they contemplate how big a sin the young man has committed. That is, if they can find such a beverage in his grandmother’s realm - another issue that I complained about in my comments of September 18, 2003 (link above) about the British being beastly.

We need to save our energies and our outrages for real problems.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

In the movie "True Lies," Jamie Lee Curtis is married to the Governator - that is to say, the former movie performer Arnold Schwarzenegger, who she believes to be some kind of mild mannered salesman. In truth - I guess that’s how they came up with the title - he’s a spy or a secret agent. I’m not sure that the movie makes clear just which agency he works for. But what’s important is what kind of spy he is - an action spy - a James Bond type. License to kill and all that. Yet he comes home from work each day, unruffled - and presumably about the same time of day, even though he may have spent the day in gun battles or in hand to hand deadly combat. And Jamie Lee Curtis doesn’t have an inkling about all of this until the script writers lead her toward making that discovery. After they’ve been married for years. And then she’s shocked, shocked!!

Implausible? Of course. But it’s a movie. You can posit the nuttiest situations in a movie. It’s not like real life. Unless you live in Chicago. And you’re in politics. Or have political connections. Or if you just enjoy following the political scene. Then you get an idea where movie makers get their ideas. Does the phrase "art imitating life" ring a bell?

For years, columnists and news reporters have been writing about a politically connected family in Chicago - the Duffs. Allegedly, they were also connected to organized crime figures. The Duffs did a lot of work for the city of Chicago. Janitorial work. Tens of millions of dollars of janitorial work.

The Duffs were friends of Chicago’s mayor, Richard M Daley, son of the legendary Richard J Daley . The firm’s chief, James Duff, attended functions with the mayor, palled around with him at other times and contributed generously to his political fund.

There wasn’t any question about who the Duff’s were and who owned their business, yet they obtained their contracts with the city under set aside programs for women and minority owned businesses. The columnists and reporters in town wrote about this seeming misuse of the set aside programs and the mayor was frequently asked questions about the Duffs, to which he often responded with giggles and "I dunnos."

The Duffs have now been indicted and James Duff has pled guilty to a whole raft of criminal counts. He’s on his way to the big house and not - as we used to say about light sentences in the army - for a shit, shave and a haircut. He’ll do some serious time.

And Mayor Daley is shocked, shocked that this fraud was perpetrated on his beloved city for so many years. Even more shocked than Claud Rains was when he discovered gambling going on in Humphrey Bogart’s Café in Casablanca.

And Chicago’s newspapers are reporting how shocked he is. One is actually suggesting things he can and should do about such shocking discoveries so that they are not repeated in the future. Or at least are slowed down.

I’m just a little confused. Am I missing something here? Everybody in Chicago and most people in the surrounding counties knew that the Duff company wasn’t owned by James Duff’s aging mother and some faceless African American. The years of newspaper and broadcast news stories about the company’s ownership could provide enough material for a book. A large book. But now that James Duff has entered his guilty plea, the mayor is shocked.

What do you think they talked about when they got together - Duff and the mayo? The Duff company reputedly received over one hundred million in city contracts. One hundred million of tax money. Do you think the mayor ever asked how things were going? Do you think he ever said "How’s your mother doing, running that business you work for? Your mother and that African American owner that you also work for. What was his name again?"

Obviously it would be difficult to prove that some sort of conspiracy existed between James Duff and the mayor to defraud the city of Chicago, but as Duff’s attorney has been quick to point out, the city has defended the Duffs in the past, saying the work that they were hired to do was performed in an exemplary fashion. They defended the contract for years and now they’re expressing shock and surprise that it was obtained fraudulently.

Call me a cynic, but you have to wonder how these kinds of scandals keep cropping up in Chicago without any of the blame - to say nothing of the criminal liability - sticking to the mayor. It’s a big city with many departments and a huge work force and the mayor doesn’t personally award contracts to independent companies. But one of the main janitorial tasks under the Duff contract was to keep O’Hare Airport clean. The expansion of O’Hare is one of the mayor’s pet projects. He’s intimately involved with what goes on at the airport. And he’s a friend of the Duffs. Yet he claims that the revelation of the true ownership of the Duff firm is a total surprise to him. And so far, that claim isn’t being seriously questioned by the city’s newspapers or Federal prosecutors.

Does the word TEFLON come to mind?

I remember the current mayor’s father. When Daley senior was asked about such potential scandals, his answer was more or less along the lines of " who do you want me to give city business to - a bunch of strangers?" And if you didn’t like that kind of answer, the mayor would tell you to "kiss my mistletoe."

No criminal liability ever stuck to Richard Daley senior either, but at least he didn’t open and close his press conferences by asking us to believe in the tooth fairy.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

From time to time I receive e-mails that I’m asked to pass on to others - and if the subject matter is interesting, I will sometimes include it in a blog post. Today I received such an e-mail, the content of which follows and which I will be forwarding to my local newspaper - one that is mentioned by name in these comments:
I, Mike Levine, citizen of Israel and the United States, accuse you, NY Times, LA Times, Boston Globe, Denver Post, Atlanta Constitution, CNN, Times of London, and thousands of other newspapers and TV networks worldwide… I accuse you of gross bias against, and naked hatred towards the Jewish state of Israel.

For years most of you have shown a clear bias in favor of the Arab Muslims and Palestinians, taking every opportunity to demonize Israel, the only Democracy in the Middle East, and the only Jewish state in the world.

But in the past two weeks you have raised your hatred to a new high, while your journalistic standards have fallen to new lows.

While coverage of the earthquake and tsunami in Asia has been extensive and your reporting of international fund raising and rescue efforts has been massive, you wrote hardly a word about the fact that Israel was one of the very first to offer substantial aid and send medical rescue missions to the
stricken areas! Within hours planeloads of well trained rescue people and experienced trauma doctors were on their way.

Israel is one of the tiniest nations on earth, with a total population far less than many cities of the world, yet in the first hours following the earthquake and flooding, Israel assembled hundreds of doctors and other medical personnel, many planeloads of medical supplies, tents, food, blankets, even baby diapers. While other, much larger, much richer nations, were still rubbing their eyes in disbelief, Israel was already setting up many aid stations in the worst hit areas.

Nor did you report the unbelievably hateful refusal of Sri Lanka, and a couple other Muslim states, to accept the entry of Jewish medical and rescue personnel, although they did cynically accept the supplies and equipment sent by Israel.

I accuse world media of gross incompetence.
I accuse world media of abrogation of journalistic integrity.
I accuse world media of sheer and transparent prejudice against Israel and the Jews.
I accuse world media of pandering to the Islamic nations hatred of anything Jewish.

Only a few publications outside Israel mentioned the major contribution being made by Israel. Only a very few pointed out that Israel’s per capita contribution of manpower, equipment, supplies, and money WAS THE HIGHEST IN THE WORLD!

Only a few bothered to mention that only a tiny trickle of aid was offered by all of the world’s Muslim nations, nations sitting on half of the world’s oil reserves, nations raking in billions of dollars daily, nations whose elite live lives of such opulence as can hardly be imagined by most of
the world’s masses.

Saudi Arabia sat unmoved for a week while the world scrambled to raise funds and send massive aid, then magnanimously pledged a measly ten million dollars, a pledge which has yet to be paid! Imagine, this from a brother Muslim state, a state that provided families of Palestinian suicide bombers with $150,000,000 (one hundred fifty million dollars) during the past year alone!

Kuwait, the second richest Muslim nation, pledged an equally paltry ten million!

You people in Chicago…did you read any of this in your newspapers? How about you good people in Dallas? Paris? Berlin? Melbourne? Did any of you read or hear of Israel’s incredible generosity of spirit, manpower, and money? Did you read one editorial praising the fact that the Jewish state
unselfishly came to the immediate aid of Muslim nations that have long called for the destruction of Israel?

No, chances are you did not. Maybe you ought to let your editors know how you feel about their treatment of Israel and the Jewish people. Because if you don’t speak out, they will continue to believe no one gives a damn about Israel, and they will continue speaking of Israel only in negative terms,
writing only about how the Jewish state mistreats the Palestinians and their terrorists.

Join me when I say to world media loud and clear …J’ACCUSE!
I haven’t had a chance to check on the extent of the Israeli aid that Mr. Levine cites, but just a quick look at one Israeli paper today supports the basis of his contention - a story about tons of aid to a country with whom Israel has no diplomatic relations!!

Monday, January 10, 2005

One of the drawbacks of taking a blog break - at least for me - is that one loses the rhythm of penning daily comments - and as you can see, I have yet to get back in that groove and probably won’t for a while. Many other things are cropping up that are keeping me away from the computer, so I may not get back to daily musings for a while. But with millions of us blogging away on line, I’m sure not too many people will miss my small contribution.

On the other hand, who knows which blog was the one that pushed the blogosphere just far enough to become one of ABC’s "persons of the year?" It could well have been whatsallthisthen, though I noticed in the piece that the blog titles that flashed briefly on the screen didn’t include mine. But then I don’t do this for fame and fortune - just to amuse myself and annoy a few people.

Speaking of annoyances - a regular feature of this blog, a few popped up recently, some during and some immediately following my brief hiatus. The most egregious was the horrible judgment displayed by the producers of NBC’s "Today" show, when they thought it would be good programming to let Campbell Brown interview the father and grandfather of Bobby Joe Stinnett.

In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, Bobby Joe Stinnet was the pregnant 23 year old Missouri woman who was murdered by a woman who she met on the Internet. The woman, one Lisa Montgomery, strangled Stinnet and then removed her fetus, which she carried back to her home in Kansas and passed off as her own. The murderer was discovered quickly, using clues found on Stinnet’s computer. Miraculously, the fetus survived and has since been turned over to the custody of Stinnet’s husband.

This all happened in the space of a few days. The murdered woman was discovered on December 16 and the murderer arrested on December 17!! I don’t recall which Saturday or Sunday the father and grandfather of Bobby Joe Stinnet appeared on the Today Show - but it was during the Christmas/new Year holiday break.

What was NBC thinking? What was the news, entertainment or any other kind of value in hauling these two before the cameras to talk about this horrific murder? And what possessed the grieving family members to appear before millions of viewers to answer the kind of inane questions that Ms Brown posed to them?

I have nothing but sympathy for the family members of anyone so brutally murdered, but I have to wonder what kind of people would be willing to go on a national television program before the body was figuratively cold - and discuss the gruesome details.

I switched away in disgust. I know the Saturday and Sunday morning "Today" telecasts are mostly fluff and I am something of a fan of Lester Holt, but the producers of this program are showing increasingly bad judgment in the topics they feel they have to cover.

Still on the topic of bad judgment, there seems to be plenty of it in the one place where you would hope it would not be found - the nation’s courts and the people we elect or we appoint to run them - the judges.

President Bush wants to see some sweeping reforms in our courts as they pertain to one particular kind of court case - the malpractice lawsuit - and more particularly, the frivolous malpractice lawsuit. He has all kind of suggestions, mostly about capping the amount that could be awarded in many cases, figuring I suppose, that this would stop or at least slow down the number of suits being filed by money grabbing lawyers whose only interest is how much their third or forty percent of any award would amount to.

There is of course a much easier way to stop or slow down the number of frivolous law suits being filed and it doesn’t require any effort on the part of the President or any action by congress. All that is needed is for judges to exercise some basic judgment and throw out such suits - to not allow them to see the light of day. It seems though that they are not exercising those kinds of judgments, or we wouldn’t have Mr. Bush running around the country talking about the malpractice "crisis."

But as long as he is running around the country excoriating the money grubbing malpractice lawyers, maybe he could take a moment now and then to talk about the lack of judgment exhibited by some judges.

Take the judges in the "Friends" writers sexual harassment case for example. An assistant gets hired to take notes at brainstorming sessions by the shows writers. She’s told that the sessions get raunchy unlike whatever may have gone on in her previous job with the Nickelodeon show - a CHILDREN’S show!! . She gets canned for typing too slow and files a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Those nasty writers used dirty words. They talked about SEX and sexual activities!! They didn’t direct any of the dirty talk at the assistant, Amaani Lyle. But she heard all the dirty talk and listening to it harassed her sexually!!!

So of course she sued. Who knows what mental and physical damage she suffered from having to listen to dirty talk??

Incredibly, this case has been allowed to proceed through the courts, The California Court of Appeals ruled that "creative necessity" might be a legitimate business reason for the vulgar language, but it was up to a jury to decide. The case was sent back for trial.

The obvious question n that this ruling cries out for is what kind of jury should decide? Should it be a group of housewives? How about a nice mix of CPA’s, auto mechanics, two cooks and a waitress? Would that be an appropriate group of people to judge the workings of the creative process - to decide what would be an appropriate and acceptable method of creating scripts for one of the most successful shows in television history?

The concept is ludicrous. There is absolutely no way that behavioral standards can be imposed on the creative process .And there is absolutely no way that a jury of non-writers can decide what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior during writing brainstorming sessions. Even a jury of writers couldn’t make such a decision. If the writers of a particular television show get inspiration from taking off all of their clothes and having food fights - so be it. Who is to tell them that this is illegal behavior?

If it bothered Ms. Lyle, her remedy was there at the very first writing session she attended. It was there before she attended her first writing session. She could have quit!! She also could have stuck around for a while - say six or seven weeks - become thoroughly disgusted, and then quit and then filed a sexual harassment lawsuit. But no - she waited until she got canned and then decided that she’d been harassed.

From what I can find out about the law suit, No lewd suggestions were ever directed at her. No one tried to coerce her into doing anything that would conflict with her moral values. The writers just carried on in a manner that offended her sensibilities.

That judges are allowing this matter to be presented to a jury offends my sensibilities.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

A few years ago, my wife and I were out to dinner at a Red Lobster. No, I’m not flaunting our extravagant life style. We don’t always eat at fancy and expensive restaurants. What’s that? You know about Red Lobster? O.K. Just kidding. I like Red Lobster. The food isn’t at all bad for a formula chain. And the service is pretty good too. Usually. But not on the occasion I’m talking about.

The waiter had introduced himself. (It might have been a her-self. I don’t really remember but it doesn’t change the story). Orders had been taken and we were waiting for our food. And waiting. And waiting. We finally called the waiter over to ask what was going on. We assumed that some disaster had occurred in the kitchen. Or maybe some kitchen staff people were late to work and a skeleton crew was struggling with a backlog of complicated dinner orders. Instant bouillabaisse for example.

But it was none of that. The kitchen was fully staffed. Mountains of food were waiting to be cooked. But there had been a glitch. A computer glitch. At Red Lobster - and very likely at other formula chains - food orders aren’t taken back to the kitchen and yelled out to the kitchen staff - or hung on a line for the cooks to see and to fulfill. No, they are entered into a computer and all flows from there - the orders to the kitchen, the preparation and delivery of food, the generation of the check - and very likely a personal horoscope for each patron.

But the computer was down - and the entire restaurant had come to a grinding halt. No one knew how to proceed without the computer!!!

I was reminded of this incident during my Christmas/New Year’s blog break when Comair, a subsidiary of Delta Airlines, canceled ALL of its flights on Christmas Day, screwing up the travel plans of 300,000 passengers in 118 cities. Terrible weather problems? A sudden wildcat strike by every last Comair employee? No. A computer glitch. The computer system that manages the airline’s flight assignments was down - and there was no back up system to take over!!

Think about that for a moment. This wasn’t a major airline, but 300,000 passengers could surely fill a stadium of hungry Lions and overpaid airline executives with 600,000 thumbs turned firmly down.

No back up system, so everything closes down. The computer hiccups and the world comes to a screeching stop. We are living in a world where people can create wonderful computers to do wonderful things that they haven’t the foggiest idea how to do themselves if the computer gets a headache.

I am old enough to remember a time without computers and all of the other gadgets that run our lives today . Airlines seemed able to get along just fine. Restaurants flourished with waiters and cooks and managers communicating with each other verbally and with written food orders. The check out staff at grocery stores managed to figure out the price of whatever you were buying without the aid of UPC bar codes - and they could figure how much change you had coming without having a cash register that told them how much.

My generation is fast fading. The one behind it too. Soon, the world will be populated by people who never knew a time when there weren’t computers and an Internet and cell phones and MP3 and Palm Pilots and the myriad other push button devices that do what our brains and brawn used to do. Pretty soon, there will nobody left who has any idea how to run an airline and get planes in the air and move passengers from one city to another, without relying on computers and computer programs.

I won’t be around to witness those times and you know what? I won’t regret missing them one bit!!

The Ryan trial begins 10 weeks early - in the media!!

Some people at the Chicago Tribune are very happy that the US District Judge in charge of former Illinois Governor George Ryan’s corruption case has unsealed the government’s "proffer" or summary of the case they will present when it goes to trial in March of this year. They’re so happy that they made it their lead front page story yesterday, and their page two columnist made it the subject of his offering of the day.

Ryan’s lawyers had objected to the unsealing of the 114 page document, arguing that its contents could prejudice potential jurors and make the task of jury selection much more difficult.

I agree with Ryan’s legal team, having experienced something similar myself many years ago. I wrote about it a little over a year ago, when the indictment was first returned.

I won’t repeat everything I said in December of 2003, except to express disappointment that the renowned prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, felt the need to argue his case in the press weeks before the trial. And make no mistake about it, the allegations will be pawed and chewed over and printed and broadcast and talked about in bars and on street corners and "verdicts" will be rendered.

I don’t know if Ryan and his co-defendant Larry Warner are guilty of any crimes. If they are, they should suffer whatever penalties are called for. I do know that indictments - and "proffers" - can be written like cheap novels, alleging all kinds of nefarious activity, without any of it being true. That’s the way it was in my case more than four decades ago. Some of the newspaper stories even got my name and age wrong, but I’m sure all the information was absorbed by readers as "fact."

The Illinois media will have many field days with their access to what amounts to the prosecutor’s opening statement and it will be an unusual day indeed if a jury can be impaneled that hasn’t been exposed to the prosecution’s case and - though none will admit it - already has an opinion about its merits.

What will happen next - from now until the trial begins? Will the defendant’s lawyers present a multi-page document rebutting the prosecution’s proffer - and will that make the pages of the Chicago Tribune and other Illinois papers? And will the prosecutors then rebut the rebuttal?

Heck - by the time the trial date rolls around, the case could be over, courtesy of the Illinois media that think they are performing some kind of public service by publishing all of this material.

I prefer the way the law is designed to handle such cases. To try them in the courts and then report what the prosecutors and the defendant’s lawyers and the witnesses said.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

As the horror of the tsunami unfolded, I commented to my wife that this was one occasion where we weren’t likely to hear any blathering about it being "God’s work." It was just too great a tragedy, too large a loss of life for anyone to try to rationalize from a religious perspective.

Boy, was I wrong. I know that there are those who believe that major events in their individual lives - good or bad - are the result of a personal plan that "God" has drawn up for them - but I didn’t realize how fervently many of them believe that everything that happens on this earth is part of the same grand plan drawn up by a divine architect - and how willing they would be to argue that view with anyone who might question it.

The realization was brought home to me as I was driving the day after the tsunami hit, and punching into different radio stations as is my sometimes habit. It’s about the only way I ever catch what Rush Limbaugh is talking about - or others with his general take on things. At home, I don’t have any push button radios, and I’m certainly not about to sit close to a radio and manipulate the dial to see what’s on different stations. I have a TV zapper if I want to indulge my habit in that way, which - as my wife will attest, I do freely.

And so it was in my car that I landed on a talk show where the discussion centered around the "why" of the tsunami disaster - and sure enough, there were the callers insisting that this was not only the work of God, but it was "work" fully explained in the Bible.

I’ve heard it again and again. Hundreds of times. But it still absolutely floors me that people can turn to this work of historical fantasy to "prove" the efficacy of their beliefs. It’s like a perpetual chicken and egg story. Something is believed so it is written down. Then, in written form, it becomes the proof of thar belief. We refer to it as the authority which explains all unexplainable things.

One caller expressed surprise that anyone would question why God would allow such a thing to happen - or indeed to cause such a thing to happen. We have no right to question God, this caller said. It’s God who has the absolute right to question us!! And there was a lot more blather about original sin and how we are all born sinners and that’s why we’re being punished.

Of course when you listen to the blather, you have to wonder where the "devil" fits in to all of this. The people who believe in God and in "God’s plan" and in the efficacy of the Bible, are also people who believe in the existence of heaven and hell and of an arch rival of God in the form of Satan.

I am not a student of the fantasy beliefs of the world’s many religions, but I would think that if people believe in the existence of Satan as the evil arch enemy of God, HE would be the one responsible for acts of evil and terror on earth. "God" is always spoken of as being loving and forgiving and compassionate, so why would he (or she) be considered to be the cause of horrible human tragedies?

No doubt the believers could furnish a variety of answers to that question. For that matter, so could I. That’s the way it is in the world of fantasy belief. You can always craft an answer to the unanswerable. If you feel so inclined, you can ascribe successful acts of evil to the devil - and miraculous escapes from tragedy as God’s will - as prayers to God answered.

I don’t believe for a moment that the death of more than 150,000 people, the anticipated death of many more due to disease and starvation and homelessness, the destruction of entire communities and the means by which hundreds of thousands of people made their livings and were able to survive, was caused by some divine being or some divine plan. Nor do I believe that any of the survivors owed their survival to the kindness of any divine being.

What I do believe - and what is obvious from this tragedy and others like it in the past, is that the human race, for all of its scientific knowledge and instrumentation, is powerless in the face of any unleashed force of nature. That force could have been avoided and many thousands perhaps could have survived if there had been a warning issued once the undersea earthquake and the beginning of the tsunami was detected. That wouldn’t have required an intervention by God or any adjustments to his "plan" for any particular individual. Just a practical warning system.

I suppose it’s possible that there is more good than harm in believing that there is some divine purpose to these kinds of catastrophes. It’s a way for some people to cope with tragedies that are beyond understanding. On the other hand, the possible downside to such beliefs is the tendency to accept evils that don’t need to be accepted - that can be resisted and overcome.

My personal feeling is that while we probably will never be able to do much to avert natural disasters like the one that has just occurred, the human race would be a lot better off without most of our religious beliefs and particularly in the belief that acts of nature are acts of God and that our individual actions and fates are determined by some divine power and not by us.

We wouldn’t have less earthquakes or floods or tsunamis, but maybe we’d have less people blowing themselves up in order to kill those who they believe "God" wants them to kill, while screaming "God is Great."

Monday, January 03, 2005

It’s hard to know where to pick up after a two week break from blogging. The tsunami disaster of course is on everyone’s minds and I will comment on some of the discussion of the tragedy that I hear on American talk radio. But for the resumption of this blog’s comments on the passing parade, the subject has to be our personal ongoing tragedy known as Iraq and the visit there of one of the architects of the grand strategy - the beleaguered Don Rumsfeld.

I say "beleaguered" because of the growing criticism of his stewardship from both sides of the aisle. But President Bush keeps assuring us that he’s doing a wonderful job and he’s not about to replace him with a clone of Condoleezza Rice - or give his job to Condoleezza as a part time add on to her upcoming tenure as Secretary of State.

But even with those assurances from his president, Mr. Rumsfeld apparently felt the need to polish up his image by visiting the battlefront. I think only the naïve would believe that he was there to bolster the morale of our troops. Not after the revelation of the non-signature signature on condolence letters to survivors of our fallen warriors. Just writing those words make me sick to my stomach. And not after answering a question about the absence of armor with the ridiculously unfeeling comment that "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time." He went there for himself, not to give our service personnel a morale shot in the arm. They had David Letterman and his crew for that.

And once again he got a question which he answered in typically inappropriate Rumsfeld fashion. In fact in typically and insultingly inappropriate Bush administration line fashion.

The question - from an unidentified soldier in the audience: "Everything we do good, no matter whether it’s helping a little kid or building a new school, the public affairs sends out the message that the media doesn’t pick up on. How do we win the propaganda war?

And how does Rumsfeld begin to answer the question, which he obviously relishes. "That does not sound like a question that was planted by the press. That happens sometimes."

It was sad to see that comment greeted with laughter by the brave young men and women in his audience. It was sad because of the utter callousness of Rumsfeld’s comment - implying that because an embedded newsman had helped frame the question about the lack of armor that was asked by a soldier in Kuwait a few weeks ago, the question itself lacked legitimacy. It was "planted." Writing this makes me sick to my stomach too.

But after the laughter had died down, Rumsfeld launched into the line that the administration and its supporters have been using since it became obvious that the Iraq adventure had become a costly disaster and that nothing that was happening there had been anticipated or planned for.

" Everything we do here is harder because of television stations like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia and the constant negative approach," he said. "You don’t hear about the schools that are open, and the hospitals that are open, and the clinics that are open, and the fact that the stock market is open and the Iraqi currency is steady."

It’s absolutely amazing. The headline in the paper the other day - and it wasn’t even the front page headline - that was filled with the tsunami disaster - was "Iraq car bombs, gun attacks kill 25." And on the very next day - "Baghdad blast kills 29 after attackers set trap." And just about every day, there is a similar headline. But Mr. Rumsfeld complains that there is something wrong with this kind of reporting. Despite the fact that we are engaged in a war that is killing and maiming our young military personnel at a horrifyingly steady pace, to say nothing of the hundreds and thousands of Iraqis being slaughtered, he wants our headlines to report " schools open in Iraq," or "hospitals open in Iraq," or "clinics open in Iraq," or "Iraq stock market open."

The "good" news about the war. But are those things what the war is about or was ever about? They imply that before we invaded, there were no Iraqi schools or Iraqi hospitals or Iraqi clinics or an Iraqi stock market. But of course there were - and the fact that we have been helping to re-open some of these institutions, in no way detracts from the fact that those that were closed, were closed because of our invasion!!!

What have schools and hospitals and clinics and the stock market have to do with weapons of mass destruction and imminent threats to our security - indeed to the security of the world? And what is "good" about a 24 year old Yale graduate with no stock market experience being in charge of the Iraqi stock market reopening? Could he, along with Bush and Kerry, be a member of Yale’s secretive Skull and Crossbones?

How much stranger can it get?

And now that Osama Bin Laden has given his blessing to the efforts of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's terrorist attacks, we are already hearing the trumpeting from the Bush administration that "we are fighting Al-Qaida in Iraq!!" Yes we may be, but only because we brought them there!!

I guess I can answer my own question. It’s going to get a lot stranger. And sadly - more tragic.

On a lighter and brighter note, I have to thank ABC for picking me as one of their persons of the year. I’m truly flattered. After all, I haven’t worked for ABC for more than 40 years - and I don’t think I made that much of an impression while I was there. Of course there are people still in the business who tell me that I was their role model in those far away days. Imagine that. Me a role model!!

But then again, the network didn’t actually mention me by name - just by my hoblogging. That’s a new word to describe the millions of us around the word who have adopted blogging as a hobby.

But even as one of millions, I can still brag that I was picked as one of the persons of 2004..

Thank you my alma mater.