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 k / o
                                       politics + culture

Saturday, March 31, 2007

the president versus the people

I've been looking for a simple and direct formula to characterize the impending standoff between the President and Congress over Iraq. The most direct way to express this stand off, in my view, is this:

The mid-term elections of November 2006, if they meant anything, reflected the desire of a clear majority of the American electorate for a change of course leading to a withdrawal of United States combat forces from Iraq.

It goes without saying that voters saw this change as happening in the near term. A change of course taking effect on any slower timeline...ie. after the 2008 election cycle...would make the 2006 mid-term elections meaningless.

The "stand off," then, between the President and Congress is, in point of fact, actually a double stand off between the President and a clear majority of the American electorate. I say double stand off for this reason.

First, the voters did not vote for, and by and large, do not support, the current administration policy of a surge/escalation of combat forces in Iraq. In fact, in November of 2006 they voted for the exact opposite policy.

Second, a change of course leading to a withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq is something the voters voted to see to happen in the near term. ie. Even if the "on the ground" reality in Iraq takes some months to show the effect of that transition, the voters want an immediate overarching policy change.

The current funding legislation set to clear both houses of Congress reflects both of these conditions while at the same time giving the executive branch a great deal of sway. ie. While both the Senate and House measures authorize funding for the troops currently deployed in Irag, both measures, at the same time, also establish a formal change of course in Iraq with 2008 as the zone for that change of course to take full effect.

What we have then, is not so much a disagreement between the President and the Congress over U.S. policy in Iraq, but a rift between the President and the American electorate.

The voters did NOT vote for the current Bush surge in November 2006. No fair-minded political observer dare suggest otherwise.

Further, since every public opinion poll before and after the election clearly indicates the voter's desire for a withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq, it begs the question then, if that transition does not begin to take full effect in 2008, a presidential election year, when would it happen, and why did we even bother to hold elections in 2006?

That is the crux of the political meaning of the stand off between this President and the current Congress. In order to veto this funding legislation, the president, politically, must nullify and negate the will of the voters clearly expressed in the 2006 elections.

Now, it is in this President's interests to characterize his argument as simply a partisan disagreement with Democrats in Congress. That is, however, simply not the case.

We held an election in November of 2006 and this President's policies and party were soundly defeated. Despite that, he has been given every penny, and more, he asked from the current Congress. Is the President suggesting that the legislators in Congress owe him more deference than they give to the will of the voters they represent?

From the moment George W. Bush rejected the suggestions of Iraq Study Group and moved to push the current surge in Iraq he embarked on a political path that put him at loggerheads not simply with the new Congress, but with the American electorate itself.

The best way to express this political moment, then, is the formulation: the president versus the people.

The meaning and import of that phrase, more than anything else, is what we will see play out over the next weeks.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

one evening in san francisco

There's a kind of balmy spring evening that visits the Mission District in San Fransisco from time to time. The sun shines warm on the fronts of buildings. A kind of stillness hangs over streets like Folsom and Mission and Valencia. Warm. A brief respite from the fog's chill. A reprieve from the oncoming night.

The kind of evening, after a hard day's work, you might be driving with a buddy listening to music on the radio...looking out at the faces on the street...the kind of evening where, of a sudden, you get reminded of simple things that link us human animals together.

Weather. Sun. That tangible feeling of commonality that comes when the gods of nature deign to give us some little gift...


I wish I could paint the picture for you. I wish I could show you the man as I saw him.

A junkie, no doubt. Waving his arms exuberantly. His face turned to the sun. A speed walker. A man singing in public. A man who had lost all care. A careless man.

Somebody's brother. Someone's son. A tragedy. A waste.

But, as the sun hung over Twin Peaks...as it cast its glow over that broad valley of plaster, brick and stone that runs between the Castro and Potrero Hill...there he was, face upturned, speed walking, mumbling, singing, gesticulating, enjoying the sun like the rest of us.

Just another loss. Just another wasted life. Just another evening in San Francisco.

I'm a photographer. I take pictures of people. I study their faces.

When I get to thinking, sometimes, I think...so much is right there...in that willingness to look, to see, to read the story in someone's face.

We human animals can't really keep secrets. Everything is there. It's in our eyes. It's written in our expressions...the stories of our lives. The weight we carry. Our burdens. And, for all of us, our fiercest and closest held hopes.

I wish I could write tonight and say, somehow, that any of us is exempt from being vulnerable. I wish I could write tonight and say that blights like cancer...and addiction...that blights like mental illness...and violence and depravity and sudden accidents did not exist.

Sometimes the sun shines warm in the evening in the Mission District. And it shines warm on all of us alike. It's a gift. It's brief. Like life. And then it's gone.

Knowing that, our job is to understand that the greatest gift we can give one another is to show ourselves. To share the fire that illuminates our hope, to share the secrets, the substance...the ideas, the commitments, the people, the history, the love...the stuff that makes us who we are and who we aspire to be.

And when facing someone else's grief, our job is simply to show our face. To look that grief in the eye. To share it. To take it in. To attempt to comprehend. To be vulnerable ourselves.

It's easy to be brave when there's nothing to lose. It's harder to be brave when you know how much has already been lost.

I don't need to tell you what this diary is about. Life. Loss. Human vulnerability. We've all got that in common.

Not all of us are brave.

When you see bravery, know you have been given a gift. It's uncommon, but more common than you think.

Some evenings the sun washes warm over the Mission District, and when it does, it washes over all of us alike.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

for steve gilliard: 1966-2007

I've watched with a mixture of trepidation, anguish and hope as Jen updates us on Steve Gilliard's health. Like so many of you, I want nothing more than to click on Steve and Jen's News Blog and read Steve's distinctive, unmistakeable voice.

There is no substitute.

While, selfishly, we all would like to have Steve back writing again as soon as possible, I can also speak for all of us when I say that, most importantly, we want Steve to be healthy for those who are most close to him. I hope Steve and Jen know how many of us are thinking of them right now.


For those of us writing and reading in this new medium...the blogosphere, online community, the blogs...there can be an awkwardness when a voice we've come to know goes silent through a personal crisis. How do we bridge the gap in what is, at times, a cold and impersonal medium? Frankly, I don't know. I can say this:

There is nothing cold and impersonal about Steve Gilliard.

Whether it is his coverage of the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina or New York City politics, Steve is often an essential...if not, at times, the essential...read on a given story. Steve Gilliard brooks no bullshit, especially from those in power, and he always cuts to the core of the issue at hand. While I don't always agree with him, when Steve is "onto" a story, like many others, I find myself going back to his blog time and again.

When you are looking for someone to break an issue down to its essential core, especially, but not exclusively, when that issue deals with race in America, Steve Gilliard's News Blog is a must read. This is not simply for Steve's own cogent views and voice, but also his willingness to pull from an eclectic range of sources for articles on his front page.

Now, I don't know Steve personally. He has published a few of my pieces on his blog and I've made forty or fifty comments there. My links to his site have, most certainly, had an insignificant impact on his overall traffic. I can say this, however: there is something about the way Steve writes, about the way he gives himself to the stories and issues he covers, about his forthright honesty, that has made a deep impression on his readers and on me. Steve has defined, in his own way, the mix of personal and political that defines what it means to blog, to be a "blogger."

And that brings me to my final point.

It is easy to imply that politics are simply about big ideas, about party and ideology, about the ever spinning news cycle. That point of view obscures something, however, that Steve's health crisis brings home.

Politics is, most essentially, about connectedness and community, about people, about our polis, whether it be virtual or concrete. That is the core insight, if you ask me, behind all political thought: we are in this together. That is why the French put fraternité, or fellow feeling, in the trio of values of their Republic. And that solidarity, or fraternity, is what informed at the deepest level the writing of Steve's progenitors in opinionated coverage of the news...writers like Molly Ivins, George Orwell and I.F. Stone.

At the end of the day, this fellow feeling is based on specificity. We are loyal to our friends, to our communities, to our colleagues. We live in our "cities," whatever their nature, and those cities bind us together. What happens to one of us impacts us all. We care when one of our friends, like Steve, falls ill. And on this level there is most certainly love in politics. That is not too strong a word when referring to Steve Gilliard, even if he might not use it himself.

Steve's love of a good argument, his clear love of Jen and their culinary adventures, his passion for getting at the unvarnished truth and his desire to share that truth with his readers, and, most inherently, in everything he writes, Steve's love of New York City as a place to think about and debate the news of the day: all these are clear to those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

To which we, his readers, might add.

We love you, Steve. Get well soon.