Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Decades of denial


The juxtaposition of images was unsettling.

On Sunday, as weather satellites showed the massive hurricane bearing down on New Orleans and as the director of the National Hurricane Center warned of the potential for catastrophic damage, President Bush vacationed in Crawford. Two days later, as televised aerial images showed the flattened wasteland of Gulfport, Miss., a rising lake around New Orleans homes, and daring helicopter rescues of survivors, the president ventured out to give a speech - not about what may prove to be America's worst natural disaster but about Iraq, comparing his resolve there to that of FDR in World War II.

W. seemed out of sync and out of touch. Yet there was an ironic symmetry to these images, some of what may be America's worst natural disaster and others of the president seeking a new rationale for one of the country's worst self-inflicted disasters. Both scenes seemed fused to decades of failed energy policies, policies for which there's more than enough blame to spread across both political parties.

Consider the President's Tuesday speech. In it, he opened a new front in his battle to shore up support for America's presence in Iraq: It is necessary, he said, to protect that nation's vast oil fields.

That same day, in a forceful column in The Boston Globe, author Ross Gelbspan wrote that Katrina embodies America's failure to slow global warming by curbing our insatiable appetite for burning oil and coal. It's a note he'd sounded passionately before in his 1998 book, "The Heat is On."

"In November 1995, 2,500 leading climate scientists announced that the planet is warming because all the emissions from coal and oil burning are trapping in more of the sun's heat than is normal for our climate," Gelbspan wrote then. "...The catalog of anticipated effects ...reads like a bibical apocalypse. Scientists say these consequences will include not only more extreme temperatures, with hotter heat and colder cold, but also ... extraordinarily destructive hurricanes...."

Despite such warnings, this country has done little to combat the so-called Greenhouse Effect or to set a rational course of energy conservation and conversion.

It was a quarter century ago, on July 15, 1979, that then President Jimmy Carter referred to America's need to confront and solve its energy problems as "the moral equivalent of war."

"Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problem?" he asked, calling for a crash program to develop alternative fuel and to conserve. If it had been enacted, Carter's vision might have curtailed America's growing addiction to Mideast oil -- such as that in the fields of Iraq. And it also would have cut the waste gases building up in the environment, speeding global warming. Maybe, just maybe, a less destructive hurricane would have roared up the Gulf.

But history records that Jimmy Carter lost the presidential election resoundingly in 1980 and Americans, embracing Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America," lost any will to sacrifice and conserve.

Cars today guzzle just as much gas per mile as they did then. (The abysmal miles per gallon rate of SUV's isn't even counted in these figures; they're considered trucks.) And this year, after years of stalemate and with significant bipartisan support, Congress passed an energy bill that gives little more than lip service to conservation or renewable energy.

Nor can we, as America's citizens, complain about our elected officials. For it is we who have flocked to buy those SUV's and hired contractors to build bigger houses to boot, homes that demand more air conditioning and heat -- and use more energy sources that strain supply and contribute more to global warming.

"The energy crisis is real. It is worldwide. It is a clear and present danger to our nation," President Carter said back then. Twenty-six years later, we're still fiddling while New Orleans sinks and gas prices rise.

The immediate cost is evident at my neighborhood service station: Regular gasoline there cost $3.29 a gallon yesterday, roughly 15 cents for each local mile driven.

The longer-term cost will be greater. Scientists already are debating whether we've waited too long to reverse the process of global warming. But surely intelligent policy could slow it down.

No one can say with certainty that a given storm, Katrina, resulted from global warming. But we can say with certainty that insurance companies have had to shell out billions more in catastrophic coverage over the last decade than previous decades. We can say with certainty that this summer has seen a remarkable surge in early-season hurricanes and tropical storms. We can say with certainty that mean temperatures in much of the world are on the rise. And we can say with certainty that American politicians, the public and the press have yet to make global warming or energy independence priority issues.

The time to do so is long overdue.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A glimpse of the heartland


AMARILLO, Texas – They’re not taking chances with A-rabs or anyone else here in the heart of the Texas Panhandle, where much of the nation’s beef is bred and the next generation of military helicopters will soon be built.

It may take just minutes to get through the airport security line because there really isn’t much of one. But be forewarned. If you try to drive through to “arriving flights,” two members of the airport’s security force will politely ask you to stop at a checkpoint and pop the trunk. They didn’t actually look inside our bags but you never know when someone will try to sneak through with a box marked “explosives” or “bomb here.” Vigilance, I'm sure they'd explain, is what makes the homeland secure.

We’d come to this land of big sky, deep canyons and cumulus clouds from heaven so that we could join our younger daughter in a remarkable reunion with her birth family. For Kathy and I, educators, Eastern liberals and city folk (though we met 37 years ago in the Colorado Rockies), it also was a chance to tap into the pulse of Red State America, where God and country rank 1 and 2 just ahead of ribs and big-bed pick-ups.

It didn’t take long. Our white Ford Escort from Avis, quite possibly the smallest car in this city of about 200,000, came equipped with a yellow ribbon on the window, an American flag and a “support our troops” sticker. It turned out to be standard operating equipment for the rental car company fleet. We soon learned Texans really do wear cowboy boots and white cowboy hats (I swear). They drive really big cars and eat really big meals (one local restaurants gives away 72-ounce steak dinners free to anyone who can eat one in a single sitting). And they do say “ya’ll,” as in “how’re ya’ll doin’ today” or “ya’ll come back soon now, ya hear.” The twang is contagious, even for a New York boy turned New Englander.

But this isn’t the kind of setting I’d readily find myself engaging in a soulful dialogue on the ethics of war with the burly guy up at the bar. Uh-uh. Unless, that is, I had a hankering to sweep the peanut shells on the floor with my right nostril.

It’s easy to be a liberal in New England. Or in New York. Or San Francisco. Or Chicago.

It takes courage to speak out against the war in the Great Plains or the Prairie or the Lone Star State. Real courage. And that’s just one more reason to tip our hats to Cindy Sheehan, the mom who pitched her tent in Crawford in an attempt to force the president to explain and defend his war.

But I suspect in truth that the people in Red States aren’t all that red and the people in Blue States aren’t all that blue. Instead people tend to lower their voices a bit when they sense their opinions run against the grain of the perceived prevailing social fabric.

It was on the third and last day of our visit, after we’d talked about family and writing, child-rearing and the journeys that add up to a life, that my daughter’s 93-year-old great grandmother and I oh-so-carefully touched on the topic of politics. She’d just read a book about Robert Kennedy’s assassination. I told her I had met him once and much admired him.

“And what do you think of our president now?” she asked.

“I don’t much care for him or his war,” I confided.

And she smiled. “I’m so glad,” she said. “I don’t either. And you don’t meet many folks around here you can say that to.”

We parted with a warm hug.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Oil, blood and patriotism

For the most part, the people sacrificing for this war are the troops and their
families, and very few of them are coming from the privileged economic classes.

-- Bob Herbert, New York Times


LEXINGTON, Mass. -- One of my neighbors apppears to take his responsibility of raising a family in this affluent birthplace of the American revolution awfully seriously. He has draped an oversized American flag over his front door. It hangs there day and night, in sunshine and in rain, about 15 feet from the SUV parked in the driveway.

I've been tempted to ask him about his definition of patriotism; to ask him why, if he believes so much in America, he drives a car that guzzles gas, helps push its price sky high, and makes all of us that much more dependent on foreign oil. I want to know how many of his relatives have fought and died in Iraq. And I'd like to remind him that the American flag is supposed to be folded at night and taken down in the rain.

My Toyota Camry likely gets twice the mileage of his car. Yet he's the one with the yellow ribbon on his car's window. The Times' Bob Herbert understands. "The loudest hawks are the least likely to send their sons or daughers off to Iraq," he writes. They're also, according to my strictly unscientific survey, the most likely to drive oversized cars and live in oversized houses.

Just what allows these folks to smugly claim the moral high ground? At the outset of this awful war, they mocked those who suggested oil might be behind the invasion. They're still mocking. But then why are we there? Does anyone really believe that this was a war to stop the proliferation of WMD? There were none. Does anyone watching the daily carnage truly believe we're on the cusp of bringing democracy and freedom to the Middle East? Or that Iraq today is a markedly better place ot live than under the oppressive rule of Saddam Hussein?

I doubt it.

Dirt does not power cars. Oil does. That's why few politicians, diplomats or armchair generals said boo about the systematic slaughter of tens of thousands in Sudan and Rwanda. That's why, this week, as more of our boys (and girls) are blown to bits on patrol, the Kurds, Shia and Sunni will keep fighting over a Constitution devoted as much to dividing Iraqi oil revenues as in creating democracy. That's why we'll still be in Iraq weeks and months after Cindy Sheehan ends her determined vigil by the Crawford, Texas, roadside, waiting in vain for an arrogant president to say, "I'm sorry."

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Let them eat cake


Poor George Bush. With just 38 percent of Americans supporting his war in Iraq, according to one poll, and a special prosecutor sniffing around awfully close to Boy Genius (or is it Turd Blossom?) Karl Rove, the last thing he needs is another festering problem. But he's got one -- and W. hasn't a clue how to deal with her.

In case you've been on vacation, let me introduce Cindy Sheehan. Her son was killed in Iraq last year. And when, two months later, the president met with her and other bereaved military families, she didn't much like the fact that he hadn't bothered to learn her son's name and walked around calling her "mom." As far as I can tell from reading press reports, those are two of the reasons she's decided to camp out on a hot, dustry road near Crawford, Texas, this summer. That and the fact she considers his war in Iraq a senseless waste of young lives.

Not only has Cindy Sheehan decided to leave her Vacaville, Calif., home to take a Crawford camping trip, but she says she's not moving until she can talk to the president -- even if it means staying put clear through W.'s five-week vacation. Now I haven't met Cindy Sheehan. But her picture tells me enough to give the president this one small piece of unsolicited advice: Get your ass out there, George. Do it now. Because if you don't, this story -- which has bubbled in just a few days from inside news pages to the outraged outcries of national columnists -- will just keep growing.

Some stories are defining moments. The smaller they are, the more easily they capture the public's imagination. I believe this is one that fits that bill. We have a president whose people are so into control that during his re-election campaign they'd only let Republicans -- no uncommitted voters, thank you -- attend his rallies. We have a president so stubborn that he never backs down and never says he's sorry: John Bolton's recess appointment is just the latest example. And we have a president so sure he's right that he never lets facts get in the way. That's right, we have King George with a drawl and swagger. Or should I say King Louis (you know, the one who hung out with Marie Antoinette of "let them eat cake" fame).

In the end it is this man, George W. Bush, who will make Cindy Sheehan's vigil so effective. This stubborn man and his bloody war that just keeps getting worse.

George W. Bush should have left his Crawford ranch the day Cindy Sheehan arrived. He should have shaken her hand, shared her sorrow, listened to her criticism and told her he'd take it under advisement. He might even have turned the tables and used the moment to announce another meaningless shuffling of troops. But that's not George W. Bush. The longer Cindy Sheehan stays out on the dusty road near Crawford, the more vehemently he will ignore her. It's the only way he does business, smile on his lips and middle-finger raised. Even at a grieving mom.

What's new is that the American public increasingly is coming to understand that this is the wrong way for a president to behave. W. still is considered a strong leader, according to the latest polls. But he's also considered an arrogant leader. Cindy Sheehan's vigil will shine a hot spotlight on the arrogance -- until and unless the president takes a few minutes to talk to her.

And I'm betting that'll never happen.