Things We Saved in the Fire
By Mary Lyon
As I write this, a press release for the new Halle Berry drama "Things We Lost in the Fire" sits on my desk, while I scan a two-toned sky in the distance. Someone say "fire"? To the north, the sky is a remarkably bright blue. To the south, it's more like muddied rust. Salmon. Reddish-greige. Orange. Burnt orange. The daylight itself is a dull yellow-brown. This isn't just some alert-worthy smoggy day in L.A. Fires are literally raping and pillaging Southern California's coastal mountains from outer Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. The firestorms whipped by the extreme (and extremely capricious) "devil winds" the Santa Anas" look on camera to be about as angry as many of us feel, across the country.
I was going to dedicate this column to California Democratic Congressman Pete Stark. After years of being bullied and cowed by rapacious republic-CONS and their conservative media spin machinery, many of us hoped things would turn around starting last November. Maybe once we had a majority in both Houses of Congress, however scrawny that majority, things would change. What I've determined through my most-unscientific way of gauging public opinion (talking to people, blogging with people, following the conventional pollsters and news coverage) convinces me that it wasn't ONLY the war in Iraq that pushed Democrats into the winner's circle. That was a huge part of it, certainly, but there was also rampant and shameless corruption (almost exclusively the GOP's purview), immigration, and various privacy and civil rights-related issues from illegal wiretapping to rendition to torture.
I think it all could be summed up in one overarching concept: stopping George W. Bush. Stopping his policies, defeating his partisans, reversing his priorities, blocking whatever it is that someone with his mindset and world-view brings into governance with him. We had at least the previous six years as proof that his way isn't working. At ALL. It isn't just every neighbor, friend, or fellow parent who is completely disgusted with the way things have devolved. That revulsion has hollered out its existence in survey after survey that's asked if America was on the right track, or had veered off in the wrong direction. Every answer to that question over the agonizing length of Bush's tenure has trended toward the "wrong direction" response in steadily-increasing numbers.
We worked like sled-dogs all last year to change this. WE stood up to George Bush. And we voted in more Dems returning Congress to the Democratic Party. Surely the rubber-stamping and cowtowing and excusing-making would stop. There'd be at least enough people to stand up to Young George. Almost a year later, we don't have a lot to show for it. The Democrats have been outflanked at virtually every turn by the MINORITY party. The GOP is running FAR better interference now than our guys ever did when there were fewer of them. Few, if any, of our guys even stood up to cry foul. And we're still watching our reps cave, time after time, whether it's funding health insurance for children of the working poor, or resisting pressure to further compromise our privacy rights, or stopping the war, and/or its funding. Even as the majority party, STILL no one stands up.
And then came Pete Stark, who told a very stark truth while speaking for the above-mentioned children's health insurance program in Congress recently. It was a harsh, cruel truth with none of the razor-sharp edges sanded down. And it was a key statement in understanding the deepest, darkest "why's" of our ruthlessly and in my opinion criminally aggressive foreign policy. That policy did, after all, come in with Bush/Cheney. We didn't do stuff like this during Clinton/Gore. It wasn't even this bad during Bush/Quayle. Many constitutional and legal scholar/experts say it's never been this bad in American history.
California Democrat Pete Stark stood up and, in effect, shrieked "NO MORE! And HERE'S WHY!" He said what many of us echoed and deeply felt after Bush's veto of the SCHIP program was narrowly upheld something else the Democrats failed to head off. Americans in larger majorities than the Dems have on Capitol Hill hate this war and want out. Even larger majorities hate the idea of uninsured children whose parents play by the rules and juggle sometimes multiple jobs to keep the wolves away, yet still can't stretch their budgets far enough to afford health coverage. Pete Stark correctly stood up and denounced the vote that let the veto stand and denounced it HARD. He dared to utter the bitter truth that we have hundreds of billions of dollars to spend blowing up a lot of people, including many of our young ones, in Iraq, but somehow we can't come up with a tiny fraction of that spending for SCHIP.
And then, clearly angered and over-frustrated, he dared further. Stark slammed the blowing up of all those young Americans in Iraq, and the compromising of younger Americans' health when we need them to grow up so they, too, can ultimately be blown up in Iraq. And Stark growled that it was for "the president's amusement." He must have taken a great deal of heat for that, because on this Tuesday of California Brushfire Week, he allowed his resolve to be burnt up. That was a momentary flicker not of flame over the crest of a distant hill, but of a steely Democratic backbone.
Over the top? Maybe to some people. But those same people never speak up in similar outrage to criticize a Georgia Senate campaign that compared a triple-amputee Vietnam War veteran to Osama bin Laden, or the insinuation that a POW hero from that war might have fathered a black child out of wedlock (the young daughter who was actually adopted from Bangladesh). They remained silent when a 12-year-old accident victim still struggling to recover from grave injuries spoke out in favor of the SCHIP plan and earns death threats for himself and his family. They shrugged when a retired Iraq War general said the war, and the surge, were lost causes in a perpetual nightmare so egregious that any military leaders who'd initiated it would deserve removal and court martial. Any lower-ranked veterans who also objected were callously dismissed as "phony soldiers." Someone HAD to shout "ENOUGH!" Pete Stark did.
By the next week, he was issuing an apology when strong backbone was needed instead to stand by that accusation. There's ample evidence to support how Junior may indeed relish the discomfort if not agony of others. There were the missing WMDs he joked about at an elite, black tie event:
From Young George's reported fist-pumping on the night he announced "Shock and Awe" in Iraq to his taunting the enemy to "bring it on" to his boasting about "Mission Accomplished" and how we're "kicking ass in Iraq," there does indeed seem to be a clear manifestation of pleasure being derived from this bloody Mesopotamian mess. Multiple accounts of his cruelty have followed him. There was his smirking and mocking of the condemned and contrite Karla Faye Tucker:
But Gov. Bush's sincerity was called into question by Tucker Carlson, a conservative political columnist for Talk magazine and current conservative commentator for CNN News. Feeling like he was in the company of a sympathetic mind, Gov. Bush let his guard down in an interview regarding Karla Faye Tucker's execution. Mr. Carlson writes:
Bush's brand of forthright tough-guy populism can be appealing, and it has played well in Texas. Yet occasionally there are flashes of meanness visible beneath it. While driving back from the speech later that day, Bush mentions Karla Faye Tucker, a double murderer who was executed in Texas last year. In the weeks before the execution, Bush says, Bianca Jagger and a number of other protesters came to Austin to demand clemency for Tucker. 'Did you meet with any of them?' I ask. Bush whips around and stares at me. 'No, I didn't meet with any of them,' he snaps, as though I've just asked the dumbest, most offensive question ever posed. 'I didn't meet with Larry King either when he came down for it. I watched his interview with [Tucker], though. He asked her real difficult questions, like 'What would you say to Governor Bush?' 'What was her answer?' I wonder. 'Please,' Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, 'don't kill me.' I must look shocked -- ridiculing the pleas of a condemned prisoner who has since been executed seems odd and cruel, even for someone as militantly anticrime as Bush -- because he immediately stops smirking.
As governor, Bush certainly did not stand apart in his routine refusal to deny clemency to death row petitioners, but what does set him apart is the sheer number of executions over which he has presided. Callous indifference to human suffering may also set Bush apart. He may be the only government official to mock a condemned person's plea for mercy, then lie about it afterward, claiming humane feelings he never felt. On the contrary, it seems that Bush is comfortable with using violent solutions to solve troublesome social and political realities.
Long before he led our nation into war, George W. Bush exhibited an appetite for destruction. As a child, Bush inserted firecrackers into the bodies of frogs, lighting the fuses and blowing the creatures up. As president of his fraternity at Yale, he used a branding iron to maim young pledges. As governor of Texas, he was observed smirking over the execution of death-row inmates, many of whom were later found to have received inadequate legal protection.
Bush's tendencies toward sadism now play out on a bigger stage, with more resounding results.
These and other testimonials support the notion of the extreme carnage in Iraq exciting and even stimulating Bush. Pete Stark need not have apologized for that. Stark's were the first really gutsy anti-Bush statements we've had in a long time. There should be more of them MANY more, not less. It's George W. Bush and those who relentlessly give him cover who should be apologizing. Unfortunately, Stark went back to his seat with head bowed, probably not to be heard from again for some time. Meanwhile, most of the utterances from our side, from those who should have shown solidarity with him, there was either silence or criticism of Stark, for getting uppity.
But out of the smoking ruins of countless Southern California neighborhoods has come another defiant voice. Democratic Lt. Governor John Garamendi stepped up and onto the offensive on top of the soap box Pete Stark had just vacated. Garamendi was correct to point out that Bush's arrival in fire country later in the week to inspect the remains would be more of an annoyance and an unwanted impediment than a comforting presence. Bush's insertion into our regional agony merely be a reminder of the neglect and incompetence in his disgraceful mishandling of Hurricane Katrina. Will he offer us another round of empty promises of funding and support that never quite comes? Garamendi correctly added that the National Guard troops and their equipment that we could use to contain and subdue the raging fires, saving lives and homes by the hundreds, are still being wasted half a planet away in Iraq. Garamendi pulled no punches in stating these "inconvenient truths." I hope he won't apologize in the wake of near-certain firestorms of criticism from rabid Bush-excusers. None of us who speaks out against the Worst President Ever owes ANYONE an apology or backpeddling of ANY kind.
A lone dissenting voice has replaced Pete Stark, now calling from amid flaming hillsides and smoldering, shriveling Democratic party spines. In the clutches of all that desolation, John Garamendi's politically courageous outspokenness is one of the few things we saved in the fire.