Friday, June 27, 2008

Having a Hoot

A posting from my
26th June 2008

I gave a seminar at the New York Bar Show last Sunday.

The Bar Show was a hoot even if Hooters was not exhibiting. As compensation, scantily clad maidens (perhaps) handing out flyers for Hustler Club, calendar girl competitions in your own bars, beer pong outfits to go and flip-shotz simultaneous shot drinking games. At the far end, the New York Arm Wrestling championships were going on opposite the cocktail bar juggling demonstration (start practicing with plastic bottles!)

Health was a big issue: dozens of vodkas, many of them claiming to be organic in various forms, and some infused with herbs, which by my reckoning made them gins. One organic gin that I really liked, Whitley Neill used Boabab and other African products and made me appreciate a spirit I normally don't care for that much.

Rums were under-represented, unless you counted cachacas, Cuca Fresca, Leblon, and Guapiara, who had their aged cachacas hidden under the counter for discerning customers. Rums of Puerto Rico had Barrelito Anejo on their stand, which is apparently being introduced into the New York Market, which should be a pleasant surprise for those who have not tried it. Brinley Gold and Montecristo held up the flag as well.

For my talk, I brought three bottles from my cellar, Rhum JM Tres Vieux, Zacapa 23 and El Dorado 21, which were much appreciated by the audience, and which I thought would illustrate my themes best.

All different, but all in their way excellent, they showed the diversity of rums, but also made my point. The premium rums should not be shelved with the flavoured cocktail bases, vodkas and other joy juices. They should take their place with single malts, the VSOP cognacs, and even the connoisseur Tequilas.

The other point is, of course, that an essential part of branding and marketing spirits is the magic ingredient I call “merdine” – bullshit. But Rum, of all spirits needs less of that any almost any other liquor. Between pirates, buccaneers, frontiersmen, revolutionaries, slavers and rum-runners, not to mention rum’s core essential role in Caribbean life, rum will sell itself if given an adroit push.

And as I recalled to the audience, which dutifully raised a shot of El-Dorado in toast, rums are overwhelmingly made in tropical, developing countries. Every drop you drink helps a poor country develop, which should give a warm glow in the heart, as well as the liver, as it goes down.

Budding Conflict

Budweiser, the toast of Belgium
Ian Williams 26 March 2008 Guardian CiF

America's most famous beer may taste like water, but if InBev succeeds in taking over its brewer the US will lose a national symbol

There is probably a graph somewhere correlating the decline in the strength of American beer and the value of its dollar. If so, it would likely feature Budweiser, the archetypal American beer. There are many mysteries about the US for non-Americans, but few so imponderable as their attraction for the fizzy, aqueous substance.

The old Q&A sums it up. Why is drinking Bud like making love in a canoe? Because it's f*ing close to water!

There is surely a thesis to be written about what happened to hundreds of varieties of cheese, beer and sausage taken by European emigrants to the US in the 19th century. By the time they reached Ellis Island, only the frankfurter, Wisconsin cheddar and Budweiser were left.

Somewhere around the mid-Atlantic ridge, will future marine archaeologists discover, preserved in the cold dark depths, a huge depositary of tasty, nutritious brands dumped overboard to ensure tasteless homogeneity on arrival?

So there is multiple irony in the threatened InBev takeover of the iconic American brand. InBev is mostly owned by a company from Brazil, home to one of the world's strongest liquors, cachacas, but it is itself from Belgium, a thoroughly heterogeneous country whose one unifying factor is an attachment to hundreds of tasty and strong varieties of beer.

However, Budweiser has the seeds of hope, emblematic of the new world. In a sense, it is already very cosmopolitan. In total defiance of the ancient Nuremburg laws on brewing, it is made with rice, so in one sense, it is America's most popular brand of sake, thus anticipating Asian domination of the US economy, and a Belgian takeover would somehow bring in the theme of Euro-power.

It is also a pleasant counterpart to the deranged, reactionary Coors brewing empire, bankers to all the causes that led us into Iraq and may yet lead us into teetotal Iran – probably with compulsory beer consumption as part of the occupation agenda.

And we really should cheer a company that gets "Pinko George Clooney", in the words of one Christian conservative blogger, to do their voiceover work. "I mean, come on, has this country gotten so pathetic where an American beer company can hire a radical liberal pansy to be its spokesperson," he continued, wondering why middle America was not "so freaked out that they have to fire him and issue an apology within two weeks!?"

Let us hope that InBev continues the good work – and, if the takeover is successful, improves the strength of flavour of its new brand so that the Bud blossoms at last toward the flavoursomeness of its Bohemian Budovar origins.

Afghan Quagmire

Deluded solutions to genuine problems in Afghanistan
My column in Tribune this week

The hundredth British death in the Afghan War should lead to some questions about just what the British, Canadians and other non-Americans are doing there. In Afghanistan, the fog of war became chokingly miasmic when it became a war on an abstraction “terror”.

As we have seen, the Bush administration, with the slavish apologetics of Blair, has found no crime that cannot be justified by indiscriminate references to combating “terrorism”.

Living down by ground zero on the fateful September 11, I remember vividly the front pages of the tabloid picturing the beturbanned head of Osama Bin Laden with a dead or alive message tacked up in shop windows and homes.

In the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Centre attacks, with the pungent smell of burning wafting uptown to the United Nations, the UN Security Council unanimously declared solidarity with the USA. It looked like everybody wanted Bin Laden’s head.

The wording was ambiguous but the meaning was clear, and the Taliban refusal to hand over Osama Bin Laden left them with no friends in the world. There have been quibbles about whether the Security Council resolutions condemning the attacks and invoking the UN Charter’s right to self-defence actually authorized military action against Taliban, but unlike the invasion of Iraq, nobody on the Security Council at the time or since has condemned the invasion of Afghanistan and removal of the Taliban.

Frankly, many of the people who opposed the invasion would have picketed the Normandy landings as an act of aggression, but in this case there was a clear international consensus that it was a justified response. Bin Laden claimed responsibility and the Taliban sheltered him.

In that sense, British participation in the attack was a display of solidarity with an old ally, against an evil regime, which was why most British supported it. Never mind the conspiracy theories of impending pipelines and counter-Kipling cries of the great game, there were indeed good and credible reasons to go into Afghanistan. But talk about roads to hell! When you see a road-building crew with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld & Co., you don't need a street sign to tell you which way the road goes.

However, the CIA’s way of winning in Afghanistan was to reinforce the power of the war-lords whose anarchic bickering had made the Taliban seem relatively attractive to many Afghans. Karzai’s government is still trying to cope with the consequences of that decision. Indeed, it would be nice to hear an acknowledgment, let alone an act of contrition for all the CIA resources that backed the Taliban through the Pakistani military all those years, and whose proxy wars against the Soviets had armed and funded the various warlords over the years.

But soon after the invasion, the search for ac wanted criminals, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, morphed Orwellianly into a war on a fatuous abstraction, the “War on Terror”. The Bush administration began withdrawing its own troops from Afghanistan, leaving the NATO Sepoys to take up the burden, so that they could begin gearing up for the attack on Iraq. Although advertised as part of the War on Terror, The Ba’athist regime had had its own brisk ways with Al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism and quite clearly had nothing at all to do with 9-11.

Early on, the US cable TV screens showed the Minitrue emanated triptych of terror, the burning towers flanked by Bin Laden and Saddam under the rubric of “War on Terror”. And then Bin Laden disappeared from the screens as suddenly and completely as he disappeared from White House priorities. Suddenly it was Saddam, no beard and no turban who was the target.

In effect, the White House went hunting the Snark in Afghanistan, where he turned out to be a Boojum in Iraq. The occupation of Iraq actually allowed Al-Qaeda into Iraq for the first time. Ironically, White House is now trying to pat itself on the back because they had some success in reverting to the Al-Qaeda-free status-quo, they have made exactly the same mistakes as they did in Afghanistan – paying a bunch of tribal war lords to change their allegiance so that they can fight the Shi’a militia who happen to be the majority in the elected government.

Nation-building with a wrecking ball seems to be a Bush specialty, so no matter how virtuous in intent the British presence, it does not seem to give London much influence over American lawlessness in Baghram, Guantanamo and even in the conduct of the war. It simply makes the UK an accomplice without giving it a voice.

Indeed, if the stories are true about prison hulks patrolling off Diego Garcia can we be sure the voices from London would be those of reason? Somehow, the “purity of arms” is collaterally tarnished. It was right to go in, but surely there should be some serious conditioning for continued presence. After all, you can agree that there is a genuine problem without agreeing to be part of a disastrously deluded and vicious solution.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Sex Futures

An immodest proposal

May, 2008, Speculator Column, IR magazine

Ian Williams gets excited about the sex trade

Former New York governor Elliot Spitzer always kept abreast of the imagination and invention of the derivatives markets. Some of the creativity he saw there may well have rubbed off.

In his contract negotiations with the now famous Kristen and the Emperor’s Club, the company that represented her, he was – perhaps inadvertently – pioneering sex futures. He was certainly investing in them. How else would you describe putting money down up front for anticipated needs?

There is already a futures market; surely the wizards of Wall Street cannot be far off slicing and dicing sex transactions for tradable options. If we consider domestic consensual copulation as an example of subsistence production and consumption that takes place outside the markets, it’s perfectly possible to differentiate commercial sex as a commodity. And once you accept that sex has moved from a subsistence level to a commodity-trading basis, there are serious market possibilities.

There is a technical hitch in Puritan hangover laws against prostitution, but criminalizing acts between consenting adults simply because there is money involved goes against every trend in our modern world. Today everything from medical care to psychotherapy comes with a price tag; in a free society, the nanny state should butt out of the axiomatically preferable market-based solutions.

Consider the options. If you buy pork belly futures, you don’t actually put your dibs on a particular physical side of bacon. Rather, you are buying a sort of metaphysical abstraction of a slab of pig meat, confident that the actual goods will be there when the time comes to bring home the bacon in the real world. Indeed, most traders in the derivatives chain would not know the snout from the tail of the actual beasts whose bits they are notionally hawking and buying.

After all, a tradable commodity has an abstract life of its own, separate from its physical reality. In the oil market, each barrel is bought and sold numerous times between the wellhead and the refinery, but at no time do any of the traders have the faintest smudge on their well-manicured fingertips as they manipulate their keyboards to churn the abstractions on their screens.

Like many sites in the world of commercial sex made possible by the internet, the Emperor’s Club website showed contractors with fictitious names, no faces and homogenized images posed to represent eroticism rather than real people with individual personalities. It was the transaction, not the parties to it, that had value.

New technology apart, old biological imperatives suggest sex futures could have increasing value. Unless you are stuck on a desert island, in which case your options for trading are somewhat diminished anyway, abstinence from bacon is not likely to boost the value of your future holding. However, as history teaches us, anticipation of sex actually enhances its value. And you can always go long on sex. Never mind the bulls and the bears – invest now in the birds and the bees!

French emissions

Emission mission

From abandoning routes to planting trees, airlines are doing all they can to save gas and reduce their carbon footprints
All comments (10)

* Ian Williams
o Ian Williams
o Monday June 16 2008
o Article history

On the face of it, Air France's flying 200 journalists from across the globe to attend a seminar in Paris on the carbon footprints of airlines has an inherent irony all of its own. But if this be madness, there's method in it.

The airline is wrestling with the European parliament, whose members want to levy an emissions tax on any flights originating in Europe. "Up to a point," agrees the French flag carrier. By agreeing to the main complaint that global warming is real and that airlines do contribute to greenhouse gases they hope to be listened to when they highlight the problems with this ambitious programme. Either it embroils Europe with Asian and American governments and airlines by trying to collect taxes from them, or, if only European airlines are taxed, it disadvantages them against their international competitors, who will transfer their hubs to places like the Gulf to avoid the tax.

They are also fighting off an attempt to make them pay more, based on the premise that even though they only amount to 2.6% of total carbon output, aircraft emissions in the stratosphere have a more potent greenhouse effect than ground based pollution.

Air France is being very clever - agreeing to the main point and then haggling about the important details, while demonstrating their struggle for carbonic virtue.

There is also a happy convergence in that carbon virtue has its own rewards when oil is $130 a barrel and rising. The airline's executives point out that one third of their costs are fuel, so any reduction in usage reduces red ink along with red flags for emissions. We may see an end to long non-stop flights, because it takes fuel to carry the fuel, while on a short stop Air France is considering running trains for internal traffic and has already abandoned some routes to the TGV railway routes.

For the seminar, their executives detailed the economics of eco-virtue, reducing weight carried, buying newer and more efficient aircraft. They did not quite sneer, but smiled with knowing sympathy for the US airlines, whose aging fleets, some of which would not actually be able to fly Europe because of their fuel consumption and noise output, have hit them particularly hard.

New aircraft are lighter, made with composite materials instead of metal alloys, and with more efficient engines. The grounded Concorde near the airline's headquarters stands as a mute underscore to the end of the age of speed and its replacement with size. The next gargantuan generations of Boeings and Airbuses instead of being airborne Chelsea chariots will go for economies of huge scale.

Apparently even the global epidemic of obesity is having an effect. Their passenger weight calculations assume a continuation of current trends: an additional fuel-guzzling pound per year per person, offset to some extent they say because the proportion of female passengers, who tend to be smaller, is also rising. They are far more likely to put on weight eating Air France's in-flight meals than the fasting imposed by many US airlines.

Perhaps the one qualm aroused is the display of the 45 kilos of aircraft documentation that they have proudly replaced with a two-kilo PC – using Windows. One can only hope that a crash in one never leads to a crash in another.

Air France's website has a calculator so the environmentally minded can find out how much carbon dioxide their journey costs the planet. And if they want a warm, virtuous buzz, they can offset it either in their own chosen way, or through Air France's anti-deforestation project in Madagascar.

Air France diffidently admits that only a very small proportion of their passengers avail themselves of the offsets. Clearly most consumers follow the directions given by Adam Smith's invisible hand rather than Greenpeace's admonitory waves. Price rises will drive consumption more than sermons.

By the way, the calculator showed that I burned up two tons of carbon getting to and from Paris, but I had decided that my Stakhanovite efforts in planting over a hundred trees around my Catskill Mountain fastness this spring not only made me a lighter passenger, but also offset the transient carbon usage. And then Air France sent an email assuring all participants that they had purchased offsets for their airfare, so there are trees sprouting in Madagascar with my name on them as well. Mon dieu … how cunning these French are!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Healthcare, Taiwan and the elections

A new article in the Washington Spectator -I'll post the full text later


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Bo to Obama

Been in Paris, of which more later. But this appeared in MidAtlantic


Who do you love?
Bo Diddley's death is a reminder of the great debt British bands owe to African-American blues legends

Ian Williams, Tuesday June 10 2008

The death of Bo Diddley is the end of an era. But it also reminds me that he was in at the beginning of an era whose culmination may be Barack Obama's nomination.

Somewhere in a garden shed in Liverpool are probably boxes of Love Me Do singles that Brian Epstein had had bought to get his new group, the Beatles, in the charts. It was, you will remember, a short, bluesy 45 rpm that turned them from local Scouse heroes to international stars.

The effect was immediate. A youth club I was in had been trying to get them for a dance, and already turned them down because they wanted £40 for a gig. As I remember, we got the Searchers for £20.

And then came success and desertion, as the Merseysound groups set off for London, New York and money. But all was not lost. One of the collateral benefits of the Beatles and the British invasion of the 1960s was musicians' union rules, which required that for every British band that went over to the US in the tailwind behind John, Paul, George and Ringo, American musicians had to be brought over to Britain.

British kids may have had their moments of casual post-imperial racism, but it was not systemic, and the black musicians of the US were the inspiration for most of the best British groups that took the black music back, laundered as it were, to the US.

It was the Rolling Stones' Little Red Rooster that made the white American crowds wake up, not the original black American bluesmen.

We had never heard of "race music." It was good music. We played LPs of obscure blues musicians, who were probably bemused to be dragged from behind their ploughs, or from their halfway houses, and flown across the Atlantic to play in front of crowds of enthusiastic honkies. In many cases, I presume, the Americans were subsidised, so they were great days to be a blues or rhythm and blues fan.

The highlight for me was Sonny Boy Williamson, backed by the Moody Blues, who I saw playing in the hot and fetid Cavern several times. But Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and the rest played at larger extravaganzas. In fact Eric Burden did a humorous and self-deprecatory take on the culture clash of Bo Diddley dropping in to a Tyneside club and hearing the Animals doing a cover of his music.

With the death of the inimitable Bo Diddley, it's worth remembering just how important black American music was for the whole 60s thing and to recall, that when we lionised them in the UK, there were many areas of the US where our heroes could not vote, stay in hotels or sit where they wanted in the bus. It's taken 40 years from Bo to Obama. We've come a long way.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Unpromised Land

Of course, within a day, Obama's team was backpedalling. Good for policy, bad for character and change!

The unpromised land
Obama's eagerness to placate America's Israel lobby shows the Democratic party's presidential nominee in a poor light

Ian Williams, Thursday June 5 2008 \

Imagine the shock-horror: Barack Obama attends the conference of an organisation whose former officials face trial for spying on the United States!

It would be all over the blogs, except that John McCain and Hillary Clinton were attending the AIPAC conference this week in Washington DC as well, pandering to the lobby that will get you accused of anti-Semitism if you quote its own website about its power.

This non-lobby has always harassed politicians into compliance – who now remembers the way they hounded Hillary Clinton for years as a crypto-Palestinian supporter? It works. Whatever the lobby asks for, she now gives them 50% cent more. And Obama gave them 100% extra.

So there we were, thinking that the country had come of age at last, finally putting truth in the rumours about liberty and equality first spread by a group of slave-owners some ten-score and thirty years ago. Obama's securing of the nomination alone underscores how much the country has changed in the 20 years I have been here.

However, I am glad that I kept some reservations about the idea of Obama taking us to the New Jerusalem. Not least since he was busy giving away the old one to those who stole it.

After viral emails and vicious attacks against him as an anti-Israeli or even Islamic sleeper, the worm turned – in the direction they pointed. Obama promised to support an "undivided Jerusalem," as Israel's capital in his speech to the lobby.

Not a single country recognises the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem. Indeed, the last few banana-ish republics that maintained embassies in West Jerusalem have removed them, since no country, including the US, is prepared to over-ride the UN partition resolution which designated the city as international territory.

There are proposals that would have the city as the joint capital of both Palestine and Israel, and it is possible that Obama was thinking of those. However that possibility was somewhat diminished by the complete absence of any mention of Israeli settlement building, the road blocks, the separation wall, all in defiance of international law, and indeed of Israel's own commitments to the Quartet and the peace roadmap. Indeed, far from pressuring Israel to live up to its obligations, he promised yet another $30bn in stringless aid!

Those of us who were, on Tuesday night, cheering the seeming end of the long years of neocon domination of foreign policy should pause and recall that Paul Wolfowitz addressed an AIPAC crowd and reminded them: "Israelis are not the only victims of the violence in the Middle East. Innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying in great numbers as well. It is critical that we recognize and acknowledge that fact." The crowd booed. However, he knew they would and was prepared to take the risk.

At any AIPAC rally since the defeat of Saddam, it is always good for a quick buzz to attack Iran, and of course, all the candidates obliged. So, the choice we are left with is choice between Obama, who is prepared to talk to the Iranians, but still waving a big stick, ("I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Everything in my power. Everything.") and McCain, who wants to dispense with the talking.

Of course, some AIPACniks mightn't like talking to the Iranians, but Obama could always send Ollie North, who has considerable experience bridgebuilding between Israel and Iran and seems to be still beloved of the lobby and its friends.

But he would be better off building up ties to J-street, the new Peace-Nowish lobby whose views seem to represent far more American Jews than AIPAC, which more and more looks like a Likudnik-Neocon lobby, prepared to fight to the last Israeli – and indeed the last GI - for their eschatological visions.

Let us hope Obama's speech was just a passing pander and that the peace drive he promised takes international law on occupied territories into account.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Obama crosses Finishing Line - Clinton keeps on Running

from Tribune, 6 June 2008

As I write, Associated Press has finally called the Democratic Primary for Obama. So far Hillary Clinton has not conceded, and presumably still hopes for her rival to be found snuggled in bed with Osama Bin Laden, or maybe even that one of her “hard-working white voters” may be catalyzed by her evocation of Robert Kennedy’s assassination as an example of how Primary outcomes can change unexpectedly. She has allegedly told her New York congressional colleagues that she would be open to running as Vice President on an Obama/Clinton ticket.

This would be one of the more debilitating dynastic matches ever made. Poor Obama would have a hard job fending off Clinton and spouse for his term of office. Electorally, he would have to compromise his promise of a new leaf in politics by grafting two of the most unprincipled stalking egotists in recent American politics onto his general election campaign.

A former Vice President once compared the office in importance to a “bucketful of warm spit,” but a Vice Presidential Clintonian job-share (which it surely would be) could be guaranteed to bring the house down if they did not get their way.
After all, they have already almost done that by prolonging the agony hoping that something would turn up.

The debilitating effect of the Democratic Primaries has been exactly as I predicted it over a year ago. Hundreds of millions of dollars spent squaring Hillary Clinton off against Barack Obama and using precisely the slimeball tactics that the right had used against her and her husband. With the difference that Monika Lewinski was real while Obama’s “madrasa” education was totally fictional.

I wish it were possible to exonerate Clinton of playing to the worst racist and anti-Muslim sentiments, but it isn’t really. Could such an experienced hand really have “accidentally” mentioned that she had the strongest support among hard-working “white” folks, with the consequent assumption that non-whites, idle welfare queens and feckless poor blacks were Obama supporters? Her comments were the equivalent of Obama saying that he had the support of most politically astute males while only ditzy bra-burners supported Hillary. And was her Kennedy assassination quip a Freudian wish fulfillment lapse or a hint? Neither way did it look good.

To his credit Obama has been turning the other cheek and not fighting back in kind as the Clintonistas would have liked, since then he would have forfeited his nice guy – and responsible party person – image which has had him winning the support of Democratic activists. While Hillary wanted to know why he had not disavowed his fiery pastor Jeremiah Wright, he forbore to ask loudly why the Clinton’s had invited him to the White House.

Obama sedulously avoided damaging future Democratic prospects against McCain, which he could easily have done by rattling the countless skeletons in the Clinton closet. She showed no such inhibitions. For the Clintons, like their erstwhile soul-mate Tony Blair, all politics is personal. The purpose is to save the country and the world by getting “me” elected.

Indeed, her hanging on in the primary when it was statistically impossible to win was quintessentially Clintonesque in the best family tradition. Somewhat reminiscent of Comical Ali as Baghdad fell her question to the media has been “Who are you going to believe? Me or the evidence of your own eyes?”

Firstly, she discounted the popular vote, and alerted everyone to the importance of the party placeholders, the “superdelegates.” Then, when the latter turned against her for her manifest willingness to sacrifice the Democrat’s general election chances on the altar of her self-perceived worthiness she decided the popular vote was what mattered – discounting the states that sensibly have caucuses. Originally, she agreed that the Florida and Michigan delegations should not be counted because they broke the rules on primaries – and then decided that because she needed their votes, they should after all be seated.

While these standards of duplicity certainly make her a fitting successor to the last two Presidents, Obama would have to do his maths very carefully to weigh how many extra votes she brought to the equation – and keep looking over his shoulder.

This is not to say that Obama’s election is in any way going to resemble the Second Coming. Any candidate who has been through the mill of the primaries has been ground down towards the centre, and Fox slurs notwithstanding, he did not exactly begin the race out of left field. He certainly has shown more integrity than either McCain or Clinton, and on foreign policy issues has offered some hope compared with them.

Perhaps most important is what his adoption as the Democratic candidate, let alone his election as President represents. While faux-feminist supporters of Clinton claimed the first woman in the White House had more potential social content than the election of a black, it does not stand up to scrutiny (not least for those of who saw the downside of the first woman in Number 10). Women in the US were not generally kidnapped, raped, enslaved, tortured and terrorized – unless they were black. They were not lynched, disenfranchised and banned from living in decent areas or going to decent schools as happened to black men and women in very recent living memory.

Obama’s election would finally put some truth in the pleasant rumours that a bunch of slaveholders spread some two score decades ago about all men being created equal.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Prisoner of Conscience > Ian Williams
Ian Williams
Prisoner of conscience

Scott McClellan's memoir shows him to be more of a Bush loyalist than the criticisms of his former White House colleagues would let on
Ian Williams

June 3, 2008 10:45 PM Guardian Comment is Free

He might not be up there with St Augustine, but former White House press secretary Scott McClellan give an honest depiction in his book of someone wrestling with his conscience. He is legibly torn between his loyalties to his country and to the president he helped elect. As Mr Everyconservative, his signposts on his personal road to Damascus are indeed those that define why the American public lost faith in the administration: the still unexplained rush to war in Iraq, the abysmal handling of the occupation and the inept response to Katrina.

The media reaction to his revelations on the duplicity of the Bush regime led to some unkind thoughts of front-page headlines on ursine defecation in the woods and papal Catholicism. Five years on, it is hardly the stuff of Pulitzers that the White House was not entirely candid over Iraqi WMDs and the Niger uranium letter, or had played a role in the vindictive outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent.

The surprised reaction to his book tends to weaken his argument that most of the press were doing a fine job all along. In fact, Arianna Huffington's new book has an honour roll of the press who did not go dizzy with the spin from McClellan and his colleagues. (In a spirit of full disclosure, she includes me in her list).

McClellan and his former chums were doing their job, which was to be as parsimonious with the truth as possible in what they fed to the White House press corps, which in turn seems to have bought the overall picture. While his apostasy from unwavering belief in a personal GOP with all the answers is impressive in itself, the sound of silence is still deafening. Perhaps the most egregious example, both of selective silence and of his professional stonewalling is his evasive refusal to answer veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas's questions about whether Bush had been sentenced to community service while he was supposed to be serving in the Texas Air National Guard. After 15 minutes, in February 2004, McClellan had not conceded a single word of substance.

Remarkably, neither Thomas herself nor the incident appear in McClellan's book. Also absent is mention of her exclusion, together with correspondents like her, from McClellan's list of journalists who were safe for the president to call on at his few and nugatory press encounters.

It seems that McClellan has not yet completed the 12-step programme to break his Bush dependence. McClellan shows he is still under the spell when he mentions the CBS 60 Minutes scandal over Bush's war record. He mentions it en passant, calling the documentary evidence "dubious". But the programme showed what others had demonstrated - that the story was substantially correct. Bush did dodge the Vietnam war, he did not fulfil his National Guard duty. And throughout, his answers were the presidential equivalent of pleading the Fifth Amendment.

McClellan explains how he began working for Bush because he thought the Texas governor would work in the White House in the chummy, bipartisan way that McClellan saw him at work in Texas. He is Texan himself, so he perhaps does not realise how anomalous the cozy condominium betweens the Dems and the GOP was, spanning as they do the full political spectrum from centre right to John Birchite.

Nevertheless, McClellan's honesty comes through - even though one has to wonder, first at finding a Texan Republican opposed to the death penalty, as he was, and secondly how he could work for a governor who put down more humans than most vets have cats.

He is still conflicted about Bush, in whom he sees reserves of intelligence, if not quite intellect, that most have not. He clearly has a point. Vituperation apart, it was Bush and not the more visibly cerebral John Kerry or Al Gore who is just finishing two terms in the White House. Even allowing for Cheney and Rove as puppet masters, which McClellan does not really see, McClellan is surely right that Bush is not as stupid as may appear to the rest of us.

But there is a complexity to Bush and his past, which McClellan hints at without really explaining. The British political euphemism "economical with the truth" never had a stauncher practitioner than the president, who carries an Orwellian memory hole in his jeans pocket. McClellan mentions that when he wanted to get Bush to sign a bill on drunk driving, longtime aide Karen Hughes told him that the president wouldn't because of "something in his past".

The precise issues came up later when he 'fessed up to a DUI citation, which was then cemented over far more hermetically than Clinton's tortured smoking without inhaling. Incrementally, under questioning, Bush put back the years to which he was prepared to say he had not used cocaine, but miraculously escaped answering the direct question whether or not he had used it.

McClellan recounts his growing doubts about the methods used to get into and get out of Iraq, and loyally but unconvincingly explains that while Cheney, Rumsfeld and the neocons all had their different reasons, the president's concern was for freedom and democracy in Iraq. He begs the question of why Iraq should be the sole country out of so many with a democratic deficit that needed such attention. Sometimes, one supposes, freedom's just another excuse when there's nothing else to use.

The Joseph Wilson/Plame outing was the real turning point for McClellan, who was loyally prepared to be parsimonious with facts when ordered and happily took an asymptotic line with his statements, which may have approached the sphere of lies but never quite touched it. The president, Cheney and Rove cozened him into telling absolute lies about the leak, which clearly hit his own personal integrity and his sense of loyalty to country rather than dynasty.

He is still prevaricating about whether Bush knew about the leak, but he should have read up on Henry II's meant-to-be-overheard exclamation about Becket: "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?"

Bush's attachment to fixed ideas like invading in Iraq, combined with his impatience with nuance, may have occasionally seemed to his many opponents like a convincing display of retardation, but if he seemed moronic, there is obviously method in it, allowing him to disclaim the messy details needed to fulfil his eschatological visions.

But in the end, McClellan's book is well worth reading. For anyone connected with any recent administration to admit that they were wrong is a major step forward for Beltwaykind. And one cannot help suspecting that as he clears his mental lungs of the mephitic atmosphere of the White House, his recollections and analysis will improve even more.

Monday, June 02, 2008

The Sound of Silence

Neither Helen Thomas, the resolute questioner at this briefing, nor the briefing itself in February 2004, is mentioned in Scott McClellan's new book which I will be writing about in the Guardian CiF, so this by way of background. The transcript is also reprinted as an appendix to my book "Deserter."

Q: Did the President ever have to take time off from Guard duty to do community service?

Scott McClellan: To do community service? I haven't looked into everything he did 30 years ago, Helen. Obviously, there is different community service he has performed in the past, including going back to that time period --

Q: Can you find out if he actually had --

Scott McClellan: Helen, I don't think we remember every single activity he was involved in 30 years ago.

Q: No, this isn't an activity. Was he forced to do community service at any time while he was on --

Scott McClellan: What's your interest in that question? I'm sorry, I just --

Q: Lots of rumors. I'm just trying to clear up something.

Scott McClellan: Rumors about what?

Q: Pardon?

Scott McClellan: Rumors about what?

Q: About the President having to do community service while he was in the National Guard, take time out for that.

Scott McClellan: I'm not aware of those rumors. But if you want to --

Q: Could you look it up? Would you mind asking him?

Scott McClellan: That's why I'm asking what's your interest in that? I just don't understand your interest in that.

Q: It's what everybody is interested in, whether we're getting the true story on his Guard duty.

Scott McClellan: Well, you have the documents that show the facts.

Q: I'm asking you to try to find out from the President of the United States.

Scott McClellan: Like I said, it's well known the different jobs he had and what he was doing previously, that we know. That goes back to --

Q: I didn't say "previously." I said, while he was on Guard duty.

Scott McClellan: But you're asking me about 30 years ago. I don't think there's a recollection of everything he was doing 30 years ago.

Q: Well, he would know if he had to take time out.

Scott McClellan: Again, I mean, the issue that was raised was whether or not the President was serving while he was in Alabama. Documents reflect that he
was --

Q: Well, this is another issue.

Scott McClellan: -- hold on -- that he was serving in Alabama. That was the issue that was raised. We went through, four years ago, other issues related to this.

Q: So you won't answer the question or you won't try to find out?

Scott McClellan: Well, I'm asking you, what's your interest in that question? I'm just curious, because rumors --

Q: Did he have to do any community service while he was in the National Guard?

Scott McClellan: Look, Helen, I think the issue here was whether or not the President served in Alabama. Records have documented --

Q: I'm asking you a different question. That's permissible.

Scott McClellan: Can I answer your question? Sure it is. Can I ask you why you're asking it? I'm just -- out of curiosity myself, is that permissible?

Q: Well, I'm interested, of course, in what everybody is interested in. And we have a very --

Scott McClellan: Let me just point out that we've released all the information we have related to this issue, the issue of whether or not he served while in Alabama. Records have documented as false the outrageous --

Q: I asked you whether he had to do any community service while he was in the National Guard.

Scott McClellan: Can I walk through this?

Q: It's a very legitimate question.

Scott McClellan: And I want to back up and walk through this a little bit. Let's talk about the issue that came up, because this issue came up four years ago, it came up four years before that -- or two years before that, it came up four years before that --

Q: Did my question come up four years ago, and was it handled?

Scott McClellan: Helen, if you'll let me finish, I want to back up and talk about this --

Q: Don't dance around, just give us --

Q: It's a straightforward question.

Q: Let's not put too fine a point on it. If I'm not mistaken, you're implying that he had to do community service for criminal action, as a punishment for some crime?

Q: There are rumors around, and I didn't put it in that way. I just --

Q: Could you take that question? I guess apparently that's the question, that he had to take time out to perform community service --

Scott McClellan: That's why I wanted to get to this because --

Q: -- as a sentence for a crime.

Scott McClellan: No, that's why I wanted to get to this because I want to step back for a second. I want to go back through a few things. Look, the -- I think we've really exhausted the issue that came up. The issue that came up was related to whether or not he had served while he was in Alabama. Records have documented as false the outrageous, baseless accusation that he did not serve while in Alabama. The conspiracy theory of one individual, that the National Guard cleansed documents, has been discredited.

Q: How so?

Scott McClellan: Read The Boston Globe today.

Q: Well, we want answers from you, not --

Scott McClellan: Read the Boston Globe. No, the answers are from the people that would have knowledge of that. But read --

Q: Why do you think this person made those allegations?

Scott McClellan: Hang on, hang on.

Q: What? Just read The Boston Globe --

Scott McClellan: Just read The Boston Globe. Read The Boston Globe. I would draw your attention to that. What I think we're seeing now is just politics. And we're not going to engage in it, because there are great challenges facing our nation, and there should be an honest discussion of the actions the President is taking to make our world safer and better and make America more prosperous and secure.

You want me to go --

Q: -- the personal record of a President is --

Scott McClellan: No, hang on, Helen, hang on. I've said from this podium, if we have new information that comes to our attention that relates to this issue, we have made it clear we will share that information. You're asking me to go and chase rumors. There was a conspiracy theory --

Q: I think --

Scott McClellan: Hold on, hold on, Helen. There was a conspiracy theory made by one individual, when everybody he accused of being involved in that said, it's ridiculous, didn't happen.

Q: This is not based on a conspiracy theory.

Scott McClellan: And there was a lot of attention given to this individual, and he's been discredited. There's a Boston Globe article on it this morning. And there are some --

Q: That says what? Your point --

Scott McClellan: You can go read it. I mean, we've got other things to move on to. I mean, you can go read it. But there are some, unfortunately, who simply are not interested in the facts. Again, the documents -- the records document that he did serve while in Alabama. And now there are people that are bringing up issues that were addressed four years ago.

Q: But you still haven't answered Helen's question. She asked you a simple question.

Scott McClellan: There are people that want to replay the 2000 campaign all over again, Bill, and --

Q: You still haven't answered her question about community service.

Scott McClellan: -- there are too many important -- there are too many important policies and decisions that are being made that we need to discuss.

Q: Why does a "yes" or "no" elude you on this?

Scott McClellan: I didn't say that. I said that these were all issues addressed four years ago. If there's additional information --

Q: This issue quite obviously wasn't addressed four years ago.

Scott McClellan: Oh, issues -- these issues were addressed four years ago.

Q: This issue was? The community service issue was addressed four years ago?

Scott McClellan: The issues -- the issues that we're going to here --

Q: I don't recall --

Scott McClellan: This is called chasing a rumor. And I'm not going to engage in this kind of politics, Bill.

Q: -- finding out whether a rumor is true or false.

Scott McClellan: No, this issue, absolutely --

Q: Why can't you say whether or not he performed community service?

Scott McClellan: Absolutely, this issue came up four years ago. And if you all want to play politics, then go call the RNC, call the campaign.

Q: The best defense is offense. We know that. Just, all you've got to say is you don't know.

Scott McClellan: Helen, it was -- this issue was addressed four years ago. I think people that were involved in the campaign will know --

Q: -- if they know --

Scott McClellan: -- that the issue that you're trying to bring up was addressed four years ago. It's about chasing rumors.

Q: It isn't a question of four years ago. The issue has come up now, very large.

Scott McClellan: I'm not going to get into chasing rumors.

Q: Headlines.

Scott McClellan: I'm not going to get into chasing rumors.

Q: So you refuse to answer the question?

Scott McClellan: You're saying that people said he was forced to do something, and you're asking me to chase a rumor.

Q: Everything is politics today, of course.

Q: She asked you a "yes" or "no" question.

Scott McClellan: Look, if you all want to -- this is just politics. That's what this is. And if there's any more information I have to share with you all, I will always -- I will do that.

Q: Scott, I have a question of this individual, and I confess, I haven't read the Boston article. But who -- what do you believe was this person's motivation, that if they have been discredited, for making these allegations?

Scott McClellan: Just -- I would read The Boston Globe. Everybody that he accused of being involved in this has said it was totally ridiculous. And there are others that --

Q: So are you saying -- was it politically motivated?

Scott McClellan: There are others that are quoted in The Boston Globe today, that you might want to see what they said.

Q: Speaking of politics, has the President authorized his campaign --

Scott McClellan: And we've got to --

Q: -- to release a video attacking Senator Kerry?

Scott McClellan: You need to talk -- you need to talk to the campaign. But let me go to the week ahead because we've used up more than 15 minutes.

Q: So the President did authorize --

Q: Scott, I've got --

Scott McClellan: I'm going to go to the week ahead.