Friday, May 27, 2005

National Treasure

The Washington Post reports today that the Smithsonian Institution, which houses many of our nation’s most precious artifacts, is in severe need of repair.

A leak at the National Air and Space Museum caused rust on the wing of the first plane to hit Mach 2. Plaster walls are weeping in the Renwick Gallery. Some buildings and exhibits on the Mall and at the National Zoo have closed because of disrepair, and more leaks threaten the Smithsonian's historic collections and irreplaceable objects, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.

The cost to fix all of these problems is estimated to be about $2.3 billion over nine years. But we are unlikely to spend that amount of money which is currently 13 times greater than the Smithsonian’s facility budget.

The Smithsonian's repairs-and-maintenance budget for fiscal year 2004 is $184.4 million of its $904 million operating budget for 18 public museums and galleries, 10 science centers, the zoo and other facilities. There are 660 buildings altogether that display, study and safeguard 143.7 million precious objects and specimens and 166.3 million archived documents and photographs.

The GAO report goes on to detail how "structural deterioration" and "chronic leaks" have closed some buildings, restricted access to others and damaged some collections.

Among the casualties are the landmark 1881 Arts and Industries Building on the Mall and the zoo's sloth bear building and birds-of-prey flight cage, which have been shut down pending repairs. The Old Patent Office Building at Seventh and F streets NW, home to the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum, has been closed since 2000 for revitalization for reroofing, but is scheduled to reopen in July 2006.

Some precious objects have also been damaged. At Air and Space, the pioneering Lilienthal Hang Glider that influenced the Wright Brothers' flight designs has been blemished by a leak, and the Douglas Skyrocket D558, the first airplane to break Mach 2, has some visible rust. As stopgaps, Smithsonian conservators have had to drape plastic sheeting over valuable artifacts.

This is inexusable that Smithonian curators have been reduced to covering our national artifacts with plastic sheeting to keep them from being damaged by leaky roofs and faulty plumbing. So why isn’t the Bush administration doing something about this? Are we really that poor and cash-strapped?

Not when it comes to nation building in Iraq! This year alone the Bush administration is spending $21 billion on reconstruction projects in Iraq of which $3.3 billion has been allocated just for security.

The head of the U.S. reconstruction effort in Iraq said Saturday that as much as 16 percent of the $21 billion reconstruction budget would be spent on providing security for its projects and workers -- roughly double the original estimate...
His office also disclosed that 295 civilian contractors had been killed in Iraq as of April 30...

So remember that the Smithsonian repairs would cost 2.3 billion over nine years - and that is more than we are willing to pay - but we are spending more than $1 billion than that this year alone just on security for Iraqi reconstruction projects.

As one side note, I should also point out that the GAO study concluded that the disrepair at the Smithsonian facilities is not due to neglect or mismanagement, but is instead due to the fact that they have been ”strapped by staffing reductions and a tight budget.”

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Bush Oligarchy

Here is an excellent analysis from the Washington Post about how Republicans have been consolidating power in the executive branch in order to push through their radical right agenda.

The campaign to prevent the Senate filibuster of the president's judicial nominations was simply the latest and most public example of similar transformations in Congress and the executive branch stretching back a decade. The common theme is to consolidate influence in a small circle of Republicans and to marginalize dissenting voices that would try to impede a conservative agenda.

House Republicans, for instance, discarded the seniority system and limited the independence and prerogatives of committee chairmen. The result is a chamber effectively run by a handful of GOP leaders. At the White House, Bush has tightened the reins on Cabinet members, centralizing the most important decisions among a tight group of West Wing loyalists. With the strong encouragement of Vice President Cheney, he has also moved to expand the amount of executive branch information that can be legally shielded from Congress, the courts and the public.

Now, the White House and Congress are setting their sights on how to make the judiciary more deferential to the conservative cause -- as illustrated by the filibuster debate and recent threats by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and others to more vigorously oversee the courts.

"I think we have used the legislative and executive branch as well as anybody to achieve our policy aims," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). "It is a remarkable governing instrument."

Pretty scary, if you ask me. Historians will probably refer to this period as the Bush Oligarchy.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The filibuster fight in perspective

There was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal on Monday, May 23, that I just got around to reading that put the whole judicial filibuster controversy into perspective. The gist of the article is that the extreme political views of Bush’s nominees is not the issue so much as which courts they are going to.
Many of the nation’s circuit courts today are precariously balanced on either a partisan or ideological level. The Bush administration has carefully selected judicial nominees with extremist views and matched them with circuit courts where they could wreak the most havoc. For example, Janice Rogers Brown, who likes to compare the government’s regulatory authority to slavery, is poised to take a seat on the D.C. Circuit court that handles the majority of appeals of government agency rulings.
Then there is William Myers, a long-time lobbyist for cattlemen and mining interests who has a long history of attacking environmental groups who is nominated for a seat on the 9th Circuit which deals with most land-use cases.
And William Pryor, the former Alabama attorney general who thinks the Voting Rights Act needs to be overhauled and gutted, is nominated for a seat on the 11th Circuit court which has jurisdiction over a large portion of the south.

But why shouldn’t Bush be allowed to tip the balance on these courts? After all, he won the election so he should be allowed to do what he wants, right? Well, yes and no. That brings us to the final point of the article and the one that sticks the deepest in the craw of the Democrats. Many of these court vacancies that Bush is trying to fill first became vacant during the Clinton administration. Yes, that’s right. They should currently be filled with Clinton appointees, but Republicans used Senate rules to block Clinton’s nominees and then once Bush came into office they changed the rules so that Democrats couldn’t do the same thing and now they are trying to push through hard right nominees to fill seats that by all rights should have gone to Democratic appointees. And remember that Republicans have controlled the White House for 17 of the last 25 years, so they have had ample opportunity to get their own nominees in place making it all the more unfair for them to be stealing away Democratic spots.

Our fundamentalist president

There is a picture of President Bush on the front page of the New York Times today kissing a baby. The carefully staged photo-op was done to support Bush’s plan to veto bi-partisan legislation that would lift some restrictions on scientific research into embryonic stem cells. The baby in the picture is one that came from a donated embryo left over from a fertility clinic.
I think it is wonderful that some family was able to have a baby using a donated embryo. But we also need to consider that there are far more of these excess embryos left over from fertility treatments than can be used and about 90 percent of them are discarded on a routine basis.

The bill that Bush is threatening to veto would allow scientists to study these embryos that are going to be discarded anyway in hopes of finding cures for certain diseases. Why is this such a problem for religious fundamentalists? You have something sitting in a petri dish that could possibly be used to save countless lives and improve the quality of life for many more people and yet we are just going to continue to toss them into the trash bin because a small group of fundamentalists - including our president - believe as GOP Leader Tom DeLay said yesterday that "an embryo is a person.” That’s like saying an acorn is a tree. If you sweep up a bunch of acorns off your driveway and throw them in the trash, is that the equivalent of going out with a chainsaw and chopping down several acres of Live Oak trees?

So let’s be perfectly clear here. While President Bush may seem like he cares about “life” because he is kissing that baby, the truth is that he cares more about the contents of a petri dish than about the millions of people out there suffering from debilitating diseases and genetic conditions. Notice how they were careful not to show Bush standing next to any children suffering from multiple sclerosis or spinal bifida.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Filibuster compromise

Ahhhh, the sweet smell of compromise! It’s what makes our form of government work. Without it we would find ourselves constantly bogged down in these kinds of partisan fights. The reason we have had so many during these past four years is because President Bush has been one of the most obnoxiously partisan presidents in recent memory and has refused to compromise at almost every turn. In this case, however, it was up to the Senate to strike a deal and that is what they do best.

So this means we will likely wind up with three more awful judges on the federal bench (although there is still a chance that one or more could be voted down), but the rest will be stopped dead in their tracks and the filibuster rule remains intact. This is good because requiring a 60-vote supermajority in some cases forces the administration to nominate judges who can meet that higher standard of acceptability on all sides. Thus we end up with fewer extremist judges on the left or right in the long run.

Monday, May 23, 2005

All-Time 100 Movies

Time Magazine’s movie critics are coming out with their ALL-TIME 100 Movies this week. Their list is filled with obscure foreign films I’ve never seen and probably never will.
A better effort, in my opinion, is the American Film Institute’s 100 YEARS...100 MOVIES series.

Following is my personal list of the All-Time 100 Movies based on my obviously limited exposure to mostly American-made films of the past 40 years.
My only criteria for including movies on the list was that I have actually seen them in their entirety and if they were to come on TV right now the liklihood that I would drop whatever I was doing and watch them again.

Abyss, The
Adventures of Robin Hood
African Queen, The
Annie Hall
Apollo 13
Arsenic and Old Lace
Author, Author
Back to the Future
Beverly Hills Cop
Birds, The
Blazing Saddles
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Chariots of Fire
Citizen Kane
Conan the Barbarian
Cool Hand Luke
Court Jester, The
Dirty Dozen, The
Dirty Harry
Dr. Strangelove
Duck Soup
Emperor’s New Groove, The
Fish Called Wanda, A
French Connection, The
Fugitive, The
General, The
Godfather, The I & II
Gold Rush, The
Gone With the Wind
Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The
Graduate, The
Great Escape, The
Groundhog Day
Hard Day’s Night, A
Harry Potter series
High Noon
It’s a Wonderful Life
James Bond series
Jerry Maguire
Jurassic Park
Karate Kid, The
King and I, The
LA Confidential
Lawrence of Arabia
Lethal Weapon
Lord of the Rings trilogy
Maltese Falcon, The
Mary Poppins
Matrix, The
Men in Black
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Notting Hill
Philadelphia Story, The
Pirates of the Caribbean
Planet of the Apes
Princess Bride, The
Pulp Fiction
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Road to Morocco (and Singapore, Utopia, Rio, Zanzibar, etc.)
Road Warrior, The
Searchers, The
Singin’ In the Rain
Some Like it Hot
Sound of Music, The
Spiderman I and II
Star Trek series
Star Wars trilogy
Take the Money and Run
Taxi Driver
Ten Commandments, The
Terminator I & II
This is Spinal Tap
Time Bandits
To Kill a Mockingbird
Total Recall
Toy Story I & II
True Grit
What’s Up, Doc?
Wizard of Oz
Working Girl


Because 100 is such an arbitrary number, here are a few more movies that would make my All-Time Best list.

The Sting
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Little Big Man
True Lies
Godzilla (the original)
Monster's Inc.
Guys and Dolls
The Quiet Man
2001 A Space Odyssey
Die Hard
The Breakfast Club
Apocalypse Now
Going My Way
An American in Paris
Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Pink Panther series
Oh God!
Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness
Omega Man
Crimson Tide

A biased and misleading headline

After reading the New York Times report of the brutal treatment of two Afghan detainees at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in late 2002, I was curious to see how the story would be played in the local paper. Some local critics of the paper would have you believe that such a story would get major coverage in order to shed a poor light on the U.S. military involvement in Iraq.

But what we got instead was a severely truncated AP story (here is a slightly fuller version from another paper) buried on page 4A of Saturday's paper that gives only the barest details of the story surrounded by official pronouncements from military and White House spokesmen saying that such mistreatment of prisoners is never tolerated.
And whoever put this story in the local paper gave it one of the most outrageously misleading and biased headlines I think I have ever seen:

Military bristles at newspaper's abuse report:
New York Times tale alleges prisoners repeatedly were abused

So from this headline you first get the impression that the military is denying the published reports - which they are not since the report is simply relaying information from the military's own investigation of the event. Next, it gives the impression that the story is based on an investigation by the New York Times and not the military itself - which is clearly untrue. And to top it off, it tries to make the reader think the abuses may not really have happened - it is a "tale" by the NYTimes that "alleges" that there was abuse.
The story itslelf was also conveniently edited in the local paper so that someone reading only this version would not even learn that the taxi driver who was abused died as a result of his mistreatment or that his interrogators believed that he was innocent.

The paper would have done better to just close its eyes and ignore this story than to run something as shamelessly misleading and inaccurate as this piece.
Whoever edited this story and wrote that headline clearly has an agenda to push. That should make some of the paper's noisiest critics very happy. It means they are staring to win their battle to turn the local media into a propaganda mill that does little more than churn out fluff pieces that have been officially approved by the Bush administration.

Perhaps this is a reaction to the harsh criticism leveled at the media as a result of the sloppy Newsweek story on Koran desecration, but it is a major disservice to the readers.