McCain's hero worship?

Dick Cheney = low. General David Petraeus = high. Wall Street bailout = low. Main Street rescue package = high. Political buzz words often have numbers attached to them. Not dollars and cents numbers, but approval/disapproval numbers. Because Dick Cheney's popularity rating is in the low double-digits, you'll see more Democrats than Republicans mentioning the Veep by name. He's a political third rail; invoke his name in a sentence, and the electorate's acceptance of whatever you're taking about (even giving free kittens to kids with cancer) will plummet. GOP pollster Frank Luntz wrote a whole book, Words That Work: It's Not What Your Say, It's What People Hear, about this strategy of using popular language to shape public opinion.
So when Alaska governor Sarah Palin drops the name of
Gen. David Petraeus into every answer she gives on Iraq or the war on terror, it's not by accident. A Gallup poll conducted in September 2007, when Gen. Petraeus delivered his assessment on Iraq to Congress, found that Americans had a 61% approval rating of the general--far above the low 30's registered by President Bush at the same time.
But what I find troubling is the worshipful tones she and John McCain use to describe Gen. Petraeus. During the vice presidential debate she said, "I am thankful that that is part of the plan implemented under a great American hero, Gen. Petraeus." During Sen. McCain's convention acceptance speech he said,
"[t]hanks to the leadership of a brilliant general, David Petraeus, and the brave men and women he has the honor to command." Midway through the first presidential debate, McCain said almost the same thing, calling Petraeus a "great general." But why stop there. During a July interview with Katie Couric McCain described the then commander in Iraq as "one of the great generals in history." Would Sun Tzu, Genghis Khan, or Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (who McCain invoked with significant errors in historical fact during his opening statement at the first debate) care to object?
I am naturally wary of politicians who tie their political fortunes to the poll numbers of buzz words. But I am afraid of those leaders who attempt to chip away at the essential wall between civilian government and military war-fighting for political gain. Would a McCain-Palin administration find room for Gen. Petraeus in their cabinet? Probably. But by telegraphing those intentions so blatantly, McCain is blurring the boundary between the military's apolitical allegiance to the Constitution and the orders of the President and the gamesmanship of political campaigns. It's time for war hero McCain to stop his hero-worship of Gen. Petraeus for the benefit of the TV cameras.


Obama's Nigerian 419 problem

Have you ever received that email forward about Jay Leno's monologue on America's greatness? What about the one that claims funding for Sesame Street and NPR is under threat in Congress? And then there's the famous $250 Nieman-Marcus cookie recipe.
Like a deal that sounds too good to be true,
99 percent of all email forwards (and all three of the above examples) are completely false. And yet, just like Nigerian 419 scams, these forwards trick people into sending them on to friends. So often, in fact, that there's a website called Break the Chain set up specifically to debunk Internet urban legends.
Why do so many smart people who normally catch a friend's spoken lie extend the lifespan of these silly scams by sending them on? One reason is that the best forwards tap into already held beliefs--like that a fancy department store would rip off its customers. They also mix the right levels of detail and newsworthiness (a "recent" Newsweek article and Jay Leno's non-political reputation) to appear credible. So in a time of stretched-thin 24/7 news coverage, some of us are conditioned to believe whatever we see on TV or the Internet, especially if it fits with what we want to believe.
The success of fake email forwards is one reason why I'm worried about Barack Obama's chances to win the White House this November. And then a June 30th Washington Post article about
how false anti-Obama rumors are attracting believers in a small Ohio town crystallized my fears. Besides the article's lede, which snidely paints Findlay-resident Jim Peterman as a backwater bumpkin who buys cheap tourist trinkets on his vacations, this is the line that caught my attention:
Peterman has also absorbed another version of the Democratic candidate's background, one that is entirely false: Barack Obama, born in Africa, is a possible gay Muslim racist who refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
The article describes how Peterman is under pressure from friends and relatives who feed him false rumors about Obama's religion and background, many propagated by talk radio and the Internet. Voting for Obama, these people tell Peterman, would be surrendering the United States to the enemy. Confused by all the conflicting accounts of Obama's he hears, Peterman tells the Post reporter, "I'm almost starting to feel like the best choice is not voting at all."
With his dark skin and Indonesian upbringing, Obama's exotic past makes him a prime target for attacks that piggyback on hot-button issues like the American flag, Muslim terrorists, and illegal immigration. You don't have to be racist to believe the lies (although they provides a good cover for bigots), just narrow-minded enough to not know any better (like the easy-to-fall for tale of a $250 cookie recipe). And for people who can't imagine voting a black man to be president, these rumors, however false they know them to be, give them a convenient escape clause without appearing racist. 'He's probably a Christian like he says, but what if he's lying?' the rumor-fed logic goes. A few weeks ago I heard a former Clinton supporter named Charles on NPR-broadcast political roundtable sneer that "Obama" and "Osama" have just one letter different between them. He also remarked that Obama's middle name is Hussein, and he comes from a Muslim family. He couldn't vote for Obama, he said, even after he voted for Hillary in the New Hampshire primary.
The Washington Post article got slammed for extrapolating the views of a single Findlay resident to spoil the the town's image, but I don't think the reporter missed the mark. He needed a place to represent the rumor war against Obama, and he found that message resonating in Findlay.
And you don't need to be a conspiracy wing nut--like the type that believes Israel's Mossad executed the 9/11 attacks--to bite on these falsehoods. The Obama rumors circulate in more mainstream circles, and even get occasionally airings on FOX News. Every controversial issue these days needs to have two sides, and the view of Obama as a Muslim sleeper-agent is just the slightly exaggerated opposition to the Democratic candidate's official position. This is wh
y historians smartly refuse to "debate" Holocaust deniers and why creationism merits no official scientific discussion; to do so gives legitimacy to a preposterous position.
What can Obama do to counter the word-of-mouth insurgency against his reputation? Create a war room to fight back against the rumors, as Obama's Fight The Smears campaign is doing? Get everyone to read his autobiographies? That would help, but a woman quoted in the Post article said that even after she hands Obama doubters his books, they refuse to read them.
"They just want to believe what they believe," she said. "Nothing gets through to them."
Or, we can trust the intelligence of the average American voter to separate the rumors and lies from the real story. However, if you've ever received an obviously fake email forward from a friend with the breathless note, "I think it's important you read this," that hope doesn't bode well for an Obama victory.


Keen on the Keystone State

I am moving east again. In four weeks I will load up my trusty Subaru, and cut across a few local roads to merge onto I-76-East. And then drive. By now it's a routine. Eight months ago I put the rolling farm roads of Pennsylvania in my rear-view mirror as I drove west to Boulder. And 16 months before that I watched the smudged caps of the Sangre de Cristo peaks disappear behind me as I left New Mexico and drove for Oklahoma City, St. Louis, Akron, and finally a new job in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. Now I'll be moving to Lancaster, PA, a small city about 90 minutes southwest of where I lived before.

But this time something will be different. Sure, I'll have my battleship posters, book cases, and comforting knick-knacks that I've hung on walls going back to Boston, and even before. But I'll also have someone to share this new move and new home with. My wife-to-be, Jackie. We'll get married two weeks before we trundle into Lancaster (pronounced "Lan-KIS-ter," I've been told or warned) with our combined belongings and another open road, one of sharing our lives, ahead of us. And for that road, I don't own a map. Same for my new career as a freelance writer, though I've met some travelers on both. We'll figure it out.

All these changes remind me of a poem called "Old Paths" I wrote years ago when I first learned to drive. The road that inspired this poem was Stoney Hill Drive, not far from the house where I grew up in Hudson, Ohio.

Old Paths

You know you’ve grown up

when one day, driving fast on a road

you realize how many times you

biked up this hill in childhood struggle.

Feet pounding the pedals, body arched in conflict

with the cruel rise.

the gears slip automatically
to the machine's prescribed rhythm.
The curves dwindle in the background,
memories regulated to a small, rectangular mirror.
Already, I forget what road it was.


Finally finding HMAS Sydney

Last week a search began that is 67 years in the making. In late November 1941 the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney battled the German raider HSK Kormoran off the west coast of Australia. Both ships sank. All 645 men from the Sydney disappeared, while 341 of the Kormoran's crew of 390 were rescued. The resulting mystery has endured for more than six decades: Why did all of the Australians vanish, and most of the Germans survive?
After fundraising for three years, the Finding Sydney Foundation has finally launched the effort to discover the wrecks of these two warships, and solve one of the last remaining mysteries from World War II. Check back here for more updates, and read my account of the ferocious battle.


Reading Crazy Horse

I'm nearing the end of a remarkable book that tells history like I've never read it before. It narrates the life story of Crazy Horse, the Lakota warrior whose life played out at the sunset of the traditional Plains Indian culture. Sure, I knew his name. Most Americans do. But did I know who Crazy Horse really was? Did I believe he actually lived? Or was he like some man transformed by myth, like Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan. And how was he different from Geronimo or Sitting Bull or Chief Joseph, other names recalled--but not really understood--from old school textbooks with sepia photos.
But now I'm learning that Crazy Horse was a real man. He was born, near the Black Hills of South Dakota, around 1840. He was Lakota, or Teton, or Brule Oglala, or what we mostly known as Sioux, the buffalo-hunting horse people of the Great Plains. But it was all more complicated than that, of course. And that complexity comes across in Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas, the book by Mari Sandoz that I am reading. Sandoz, Nebraska writer celebrated for her histories of the Plains culture, writes in the language of Crazy Horse and his people. October isn't October, it's "the Moon of the Changing Seasons." Cannons are "wagon guns," and railroads are "iron roads." And sprinkled everywhere in the book are the myths, sayings, jokes, insults, and imagery of the Lakota culture, carefully added by Sandoz's careful research and accumulated knowledge.
When the book opens, Crazy Horse is a young boy known as Curly, a nickname earned by his wavy hair and light-colored skin. Later he is given the name His Horse Looking. He became Crazy Horse, also his father's name, after a daring act in battle. But always he was known as "the strange one" by his people and his followers. He lived on the plains and valleys between the North Platte, the Big Horn mountains and the Missouri River. He never joined an agency or camped near the trading posts. He was what the U.S. Army called a "hostile," a Native American who resisted both the overtures and the depredations of government agents and soldiers. He died in 1877, a year after annihilating Gen. George Custer's calvary at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, after a soldier bayoneted him as he struggled to escape his captors at an agency.
Despite illuminating so much Plains Indian culture for me, this book also raises many new questions, especially about the study of history. Because it is told from the Indians' perspective, there is no overarching view of army tactics, settlement pressures, or the drive for westward expansion. Our orderly view of history vanishes into the smoke of pipes for both peace and war. In the book, the action follows much like this: Whites arrive. Indians watch. Warriors ride out to scare the whites. Soldiers come. Warriors fight soldiers. Soldiers attack Indian camps. Warriors raid settlers and forts. And atrocities mount on both sides. Instead of zooming back to Washington or relating strategies discussed at soldier forts, the story lingers in Indian lodges, goes on vision quests, and follows action of the battle from the back of a panting horse. Although I know how Crazy Horse and his people's dream dies, and remember the bloody names like Wounded Knee and Standing Rock, with this book, I feel like I am reading American history for the first time.