A Powerful Political Commercial

What makes a good political commercial?  I’m not sure, but speaking as a long-time Ohioan — and therefore someone who unfortunately has had to endure the onslaught of TV ads every time a presidential campaign rolls around and “Battleground Ohio” is in play — I can say that most political commercials are generic, insulting, and uninspired.

It’s rare to see a political commercial that is quiet, thought-provoking, and capable of cutting through the clutter.  I think this ad featuring a man named Elbert Guillory, which tackles the difficult task of trying to convince African-American voters that Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana isn’t worth supporting, is one of those rarities.

Whether you agree or disagree with its viewpoint and argument, I think it delivers a powerful message in less than two-and-a-half minutes.  If all political commercials were this well made, watching TV in October in Ohio would be lot more tolerable.

An Old-Fashioned Honorable Resignation

Today the director of the Secret Service, Julia Pierson, submitted her resignation.  She did so after being ripped by Congressmen of both parties for a series of appalling security lapses by the agency charged with protecting the President, including most recently the disclosure that the Secret Service had somehow — astonishingly — allowed the President to get on the elevator with an armed man.

Pierson said she resigned because it was obvious that Congress had lost confidence in her ability to run the agency — and she was right.  I can’t defend her management of the Secret Service, but I can applaud her decision to do the honorable thing and resign.

Pierson’s candor and approach is refreshing and, unfortunately, all too rare in Washington, D.C. these days, where embattled agency heads seem to routinely try to batten down the hatches and blame somebody else for the failings of their agencies.  Kathleen Sebelius presided over one of the worst, most expensive debacles in federal government history during the rollout of the healthcare.gov website, and she hung around for months afterward.  Who has resigned to atone for the obvious failings in security along the Mexican border, for allowing a whistleblower to spirit away a huge cache of top-secret government documents, for allowing the IRS to target groups because of their political orientation, or for countless other disasters?  Has anyone?

Pierson’s resignation reminds us that the people serving in government used to serve at the pleasure of the President and Congress and were decent enough to take the blame and submit their resignations when screw-ups occur on their watch.  Julia Pierson, at least, understood her proper role and had the class to do the right thing — but such an act of personal accountability is incredibly rare.  What does that tell you about the people who now serve in our government and don’t seem to be accountable to anyone?

The Education of Barack Obama

Last week President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly, which he has done five times before.  He spoke of a “network of death” and the “cancer of violent extremism” in the Middle East and said that “the only language understood by killers like this is the language of force” while promising to lead a coalition to find a military solution to the challenge of ISIS.  The President also had sharp words for Russia, describing it as a “bully” and rejecting its “vision of the world in which might makes right.”

Observers have noted that the UN speech represents a dramatic change in the President’s tone and focus.  A National Journal article compares the six UN speeches and shows a President who has been transformed from a believer in “hope” and “change” and a world in which everyone shares a common interest in peace to a man who realizes that there are bad people in the world, that they want to do evil things, and that the only way they can be thwarted is by deeds, not words.  Optimism — about relations with Russia, about common values and shared dreams, about an inexorable arc of progress toward a rosy future — has been replaced by a recognition that the world right now may be teetering on the brink.

Only two years ago, President Obama mocked Mitt Romney’s realpolitick view of the world and America’s role — I thought an unseemly low point for the President in this regard came during a debate discussion about Russia in which he sarcastically stated that the 1980s had called and wanted its foreign policy back — but now the President has come around to largely adopt Romney’s position, and to use language that is reminiscent of President George W. Bush.  He probably won’t acknowledge that fact, but at least he now recognizes the threats we face and is resolved to do something about them.

Conservatives may criticize the President for being late to the game and for failing to more quickly recognize and respond to the threats posed by ISIS, Russia, and other bad actors on the world stage.  That’s fair, I suppose, but I think most of us learn from experience and modify our views of the world as we go through life.  President Obama also is learning the lessons taught by the School of Hard Knocks.  As we all know, such lessons can painful, but we can hope in this instance that they are lessons that are well-learned.

Ebola On A Plane, And In The U.S.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has announced that a person has brought the Ebola virus into the United States on a commercial airplane flight.  The man, who was not exhibiting symptoms of the virus at the time, landed in Dallas on September 20.  He is being treated at a Dallas hospital, and in the meantime the CDC is sending a team to Dallas to try to figure out who else may have been infected.

How big of a deal is this news?  That’s not clear — but it certainly would be better if it hadn’t happened.  According to the CDC website, Ebola is transmitted by coming into contact with the blood or bodily fluids of someone who is infected with the disease, or with the clothing or other items that have come into contact with those substances.  The website actually addresses what the CDC would do under these circumstances:  “If a traveler is infectious or exhibiting symptoms during or after a flight, CDC will conduct an investigation of exposed travelers and work with the airline, federal partners, and state and local health departments to notify them and take any necessary public health action.”  The website doesn’t specify what the “necessary public health action” might be.

For those of us who have to travel as part of their jobs, this news is somewhat unnerving.  Airports and airplanes are the great crossroads of the modern world, where your path might intersect for a few seconds with travelers from faraway lands while you wait to board a plane or go through security or get some crappy grub at a fast-food outlet.  In a modern airport, you could be sneezed upon by people from just about anywhere, or unknowingly sit in a seat that minutes ago was vacated by a complete stranger whose health condition is absolutely unknown.  How many people were transported in the plane that brought the infected man to this country before anyone became aware this issue existed?  How do we know where the infected man sat, or whether he used the bathroom?

We’re probably not to the point where people will be traveling in hazmat suits, but don’t be surprised if you see an outbreak of those mouth and nose masks the next time you take a commercial airline flight.

When Is A Beheading An Act Of Terrorism?

Last week, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, a woman working at a food distribution center was beheaded by a former co-worker.  Witnesses said that the killer had been trying to convert other employees to Islam, and his Facebook page included a photo of Osama bin Laden and a picture of a beheading.

And now the media is engaged in a debate:  should the killing be described as an act of terrorism, or as the deranged action of a disturbed guy who just went “postal” after his firing?  An interesting piece in the Christian Science Monitor poses that question and wonders just how terrorism should be defined.  Is premeditation required?  Does a terrorist act have to be part of achieving some larger terrorist goal?

In some respects, this seems like a debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  After all, it’s not as if all terrorist acts are carefully calibrated to achieve some larger and rational geopolitical objective.  The Boston Marathon bombings, for example, weren’t designed to take out American leaders or discourage American actions in some faraway land, they were simply designed to terrify random people — which seems like a pretty good definition of terrorism to me.

By that definition, a beheading of an innocent former co-worker by an Islamic man who has tried to convert co-workers and apparently follows the teachings of terrorists falls comfortably within the ambit of terrorism.  The depredations of ISIS and other Islamic terrorists have made beheadings — as opposed to other methods of killing — a form of terrorist political statement, and I don’t think it’s far-fetched to conclude that the Oklahoma City killer chose his approach with that understanding in mind.

If we can’t recognize terrorism for what it is, how can we hope to defeat it?

The Country That Couldn’t Shoot Straight

Sometimes you have to wonder how this country once managed to put a man on the Moon.  Often it seems like we just can’t seem to do anything right anymore, and our formerly hyper-competent and capable nation is now just a shadow of its former self.

The latest evidence is the developing story about the intruder who leapt a fence and sprinted into the White House.  We already knew that the Secret Service somehow failed to unleash a dog that would have knocked down the intruder and left the front door to the White House inexplicably unlocked.  Now the Washington Post is reporting that the intruder, who was carrying a knife, made it much farther into the White House than was originally disclosed.  He apparently overpowered an unaware Secret Service agent inside the front door — the agent wasn’t warned because alarm boxes nearby had been “muted” because they were too noisy — and then ran around the lower floor of the Executive Mansion.  Fortunately, the First Family wasn’t there, and the intruder was subdued.

This kind of appalling incompetence would be comical if the potential consequences weren’t so serious.  Of course, alarms are supposed to be noisy — their sole purpose is to unmistakably alert people to a problem.  Whoever approved their “muting” and stripped away an important part of the President’s protection should be fired.  Even worse, in this one incident we see a cascade of failures by the Secret Service — which has one of the most important jobs in the federal government and at one time was held in high esteem.  Now these revelations, following on the heels of scandals involving boozy high-jinks with prostitutes, make the Secret Service seem inept, badly managed, and poorly trained.

In one of the seasons of The Wire, a Baltimore longshoresman who was wrapped up in a smuggling scheme wistfully said, to a friend, something along the lines of:  “This country used to make things once.”  I’d amend that to say, “this country used to be able to do things once.”  Now we can’t even maintain security alarms, use guard dogs, and keep a disturbed man from entering one of the highest security places in the country.  It’s sad.

Wrestling With A Life-Or-Death Decision

We’ve been dealing a big health scare with Penny.  It’s frightening because we don’t know the exact status of her condition or what is causing it, and it’s uncomfortable because it has caused us to start talking about very difficult end-of-life decisionmaking.

Penny is having gastrointestinal problems.  We’ve had to buy her special food, and at times she can’t keep it down.  If you know Labs, you know that is a warning sign; normally Penny would gladly eat her own weight in just about anything.  Last week, things took a turn for the worse.  Penny was losing it from both ends without regard for what she was doing, leaving our carpets terribly stained and the house smelling like a latrine.  She also was disoriented, apparently uncomfortable sitting, and moving and wandering aimlessly.

-1Thursday Kish took her to MedVet, a local emergency room for pets.  They concluded that she had a severely inflamed stomach and intestinal lining and was dehydrated.  They kept her for two days, gave her intravenous fluids, prescribed steroids for the inflammation, and did a scan and biopsy to try to determine the cause of the problem.  The fluids helped her disorientation, and the diarrhea stopped.

We brought Penny back home on Saturday, with her belly and bands on her forepaws shaved, and have held our breath hoping that she is okay.  So far, she hasn’t had any accidents — thank God! — her appetite seems to have returned, and this morning she had a solid bowel movement, which was a cause for minor celebration in the Webner household.  That’s the way it is if you are a pet owner.

We still don’t know why Penny had this problem in the first place, though, and we’re waiting on the biopsy results to see if it was caused by disease, environmental factors, or something else.  In the meantime, Kish and I have talked about the possible scenarios.  If Penny has a disease that leaves her unable to control her bowels, what alternatives do we have?  She’s a house dog, not an outdoor dog, and her prior bout with this problem was intolerable.  How comfortable is she?  If she does have a disease, what are her prospects?

The discussion includes difficult, almost mathematical calculations.  Penny turns eight next month, and Labs typically live to 11 or 12.  If she has a problem that could be addressed by surgery, what would it mean for her likely life span, and what would her post-surgery quality of life be like?  If it could be treated by medication, would it have side effects?  And lurking behind all of the scenarios are uncomfortable considerations of cost.  Penny is a member of the family, but if the news is bad how much should we be willing to pay — on top of what we will have to pay already — to give her another few months or a year?

This kind of decision-making is profoundly difficult and depressing.  I don’t want to be the Grim Reaper, making life-or-death judgments about a pet.  We’re keeping our fingers crossed, hoping that the tests indicate that this was a one-time thing, and dreading what we might have to decide if we get bad news instead.