Thursday, May 15, 2014

At one time, when a president made partisans of all stripes mad, the conventional wisdom was that he was doing his job well by giving and taking a little from everyone to find a middle ground. But as politics has turned into a blood sport -- conservatives call for another full investigation of Benghazi while liberals question President Obama's secrecy and a lack of transparency in how government operates under his administration, can we really be so sure?

Headlines in highly partisan websites raise the question if a Republican strategy to clog up vital functions of government would hurt the president's standing with the public, would that be reason to pursue that strategy?

In the upcoming "Dog on a Rope," an alternative reality in presidential politics comes into play -- both parties seek only to grab power for the sake of holding it, which is the ultimate quest in blood sport politics. The Republicans hold power through superior fundraising and continue to place candidates who will look presidential without considering reaching out to Democratic, Libertarian or Green parties. And the Democrats decide that the time is ripe for following a Ronald Reagan strategy -- elect a familiar figure who looks presidential, talks presidential and will deflect any criticism with an anecdote rich in simplistic takes on values. All the while, party hacks behind the scenes debate on how they will reward their financial backers, once they are elected.

The only flaw is that the Ronald Reaganesque Democrat tries to drive home a folksy image by chopping some wood on a warm spring day at his Missouri Ozarks cabin and suffers a stroke, incapacitating himself as the final primaries are in progress. And the current TV-handsome Republican president -- bogged down with bad decisions about the Iraq War as the 2008 election approaches reverts to his 1980s persona of a wealthy California party boy, deep into cocaine. One bad reaction to a relapse can be covered up, but on a trip to the western White House near Santa Barbara -- hewing to the party's Reagan roots -- and the stress and the strains lead to a fatal heart attack after he dismisses his White House staff following a briefing and prepares to meet later in the afternoon with his campaign staff.

His vice president, eager to start another war front in the Middle East, seizes this opportunity on the belief that voters will not switch leaders in war time -- another conventional wisdom that may or may not serve the best interests of Americans as a whole.

For the book's central character, Jay Dean Fine who is ending his quest to regain his moral compass and redefine how he will be responsible for his family two years after losing his job as a coach because of a cheating scandal, this backdrop of corrupted politics being accepted as the norm presents a stark contrast to his desire to rebuild his life by doing what is right for his family and community as a whole.  Do these disruptions on a national scene ripple through to his life as an individual? As a plot device, can his actions call into question our seemingly loss of government for the people rather than government for the special interests?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A story about responsibilities

When I started writing "Dog on a Rope," I started with the question about the responsibilities of a male adult who had been encouraged all his life to pursue his dreams. But what happens when those dreams  sour? Especially what happens when a family depends upon him, and his actions killed any hope of reviving that dream where he lives?

At the same time, I was intrigued by a comment made on the night Vice President George H.W. Bush gained the Republican nomination for presidency to succeed Ronald Reagan. We tend not to have a strong national memory when it comes to popular politicians, so  history is in order. The Reagan White House was mired in the Iran-Contra affair of selling weapons to Iran despite a military arms embargo, and turning the money over to Nicaraguan rebels, which Congress had previously prohibited. When the matter came to light, the White House talking points focused on how Vice President Bush was out of the loop in the second-term White House and was not involved in any way, that he was a step or two removed from being a nonentity slightly less important than the aide who kept the jelly bean dish full in the Oval Office.

After Bush secured the nomination, speculation turned to who the vice presidential nominee would be, with the network news commentator noting that a Bush candidacy could suffer if the vice presidential nominee was considered to be a brighter star than the nominee; the campaign would have to find someone perceived as less spectacular. Scratch any Dan Quayle jokes at this point,  and consider if that formula indeed had been parlayed into a Republican dynasty of continually lesser and lesser vice presidents turning into nominees each eight-year interval.

That thought provided a second thread. A two-term Quayle presidency would have ended in 2004, three years into the war on terror, and the lesser light that I imagined taking office  would be the scion of a Orange County California power broker who managed to raise funds and turn the Far West into a GOP-stronghold. And this particular lesser light fills the bill by having amassed numerous frequent flyer miles at various drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinics from his late teens through his early 30s before a threat to his share of a family trust brought him to a new understanding of his family's ambitions.

So who is the dog on the rope? Is the "dog" the street slang for the family man who has shattered his dreams with an error in judgment? Or is it a reference to all of us trapped in the U.S. by a political system that operates simply to amass power for either side with no thought for the "greatest happiness for the greatest number" strain of philosophy.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Thoughts on 9/11

Watching the CBS update on the documentary about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, I got a sense of the frustrations and heroism of the New York Fire Department company near the towers. The company was the subject of two brothers who are filmmakers, who had spent considerable time on a daily basis with the firefighters, and just happened to be out with them near the towers when the first plane crashed. The company responded as the first rescuers to arrive at the scene, and one of the brothers went along with them, camera in hand, photographing the scenes from inside the building for as long as he could stay, and from just outside the area as the towers collapsed.
The film was stunning, but, like any extremely close view, it gives a limited perception of the day's impact. We see it in the lives of the firefighters as they deal minute-by-minute with death and the fear of their own sudden deaths, on through the days of searching for remains, and how destructive that process was to the health of many of them. What's missing, though, is the impact of the events that day and their aftermath on the country as a whole.
 For a contrasting view, read George Packer's essay "Coming Apart" in the Sept. 11, 2011, issue of the New Yorker. Packer introduces his thesis through the the life of a former Navy Seal working for the then Blackwater private security force who realized at how poorly the country was prepared to fight a war against insurgents using improved roadside bombs, and began a company to improve the survivability of military transports. The ex-Seal, Chris Berman, ultimately built an armored vehicle that could withstand the impact. Packer tells how Berman set up shop in Mount Airy, N.C., which had been losing its manufacturing jobs for years, and how the chance to bid for a military contract to build sturdier transports was denied by the way Washington works. The struggles are emblematic of the general decline of the American economy since 2001 -- jobs disappearing, the wealthy accruing more wealth, the political divides widening as the years pass until today we see a vast difference between the post World War II America and the modern day America.
Then,  calamity was met head-on and America emerged stronger. Today, America is weakening, given the attention that resolving the budget deficit has taken from the effort to restore the economy. Attention to the wars now is too draining to be a sustained focus in the civic conversation. Conservatives who had rallied support for the wars now are blaming President Obama for reckless pursuit of adventures as he commits support to the NATO efforts in Libya with no certainty that a government friendly to human rights will emerge there or anywhere else in the countries seeing revolts against longstanding tyrants. Abandon the wars now and he is surrendering; continue the fight and he is wasting America's resources in their eyes. Thus, the war becomes just another tool to leverage public distrust of one side and to gain power on the other.
Packer's assessment is sobering in a fashion similar to seeing the bravery and undaunted courage of the New York Fire Department. Their bravery though, was representative of what brought us together. Packer's assessment is the aftermath of power politics has torn us apart.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The adventure awaits

With less than a week to go, I am starting on a fresh course – teaching freshman composition. My focus will be on developing their skills for academic writing, which they will need to earn a degree, and introducing them to the fundamentals of effective writing. The secondary expectation is that they will learn that writing can be enjoyable and a valuable tool in understanding the world. I don't expect anything profound from them – few will have had the challenges in life that spark insights worth sharing, and if they have had such experiences, they have not yet seasoned their senses to distill wisdom from what they have encountered. Part of my job is to encourage a love of learning, for college is no different from any other institution of modern life: what happens today is meaningful in five years only if you shape that knowledge into a useful tool. Otherwise, the knowledge first is covered with dust, then it gets pushed aside by something new, something different. The love of learning teaches us to keep our eyes, ears and minds open, and to evaluate what we see and hear. Simple enough to say now.

The added bonus of teaching is that I will once again experience an age-old wisdom. That is, if you want to improve your ability to do something, teach someone else to do it. I will not be teaching anything about journalism or creative writing, the two venues that I have sought refuge in to ply my trade as a writer. I'm not quite certain that teaching the basics of academic writing, the intellectual honesty that the work requires, and the desire to write persuasively will afford me improvements in my own writing. Still, the adventure of helping young minds develop their paths of reasoning and expression is reward in itself.