Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Sublime Judy Collins

I attended a concert last night with Judy Collins. Judith Marjorie "Judy" Collins (born May 1, 1939; Seattle, Washington) is an American folk and standards singer and songwriter, known for her eclectic tastes in the material she records (which has included folk, showtunes, pop, and rock and roll); and for her social activism. The concert was at the The Birchmere, which is a well-known, intimate concert hall in Alexandria, Virginia, known for presenting performers in the bluegrass, country, folk, and jazz genres. The main stage has table seating with dinner service. The room seats 500 people and the tables in front are about two feet from the stage. Ms. Collins appeared on stage with big white hair. I liked it because I haven’t seen many mature women who are willing to let their hair be white and long (other than Emmylou Harris).

I have always liked Judy Collins although as I matured, her voice struck me as shrill, particularly in the high end. But her songs were compelling, telling stories of love, loss, remembrance, joy, and sorrow. Collins spent about 10 minutes reminiscing about the 1960s and early 1970s. She knew everyone who was anyone in music during that time. Her memories touched on the era when folk music was in the ascendency, especially as it related to the Vietnam War. She also touched on her drug use, which during the 60s, included the use of LSD. Later she developed a major alcohol problem.

Ms. Collins voice was sometimes unstable, especially as she sang in the lower registers, and when she played the piano and sang at the same time. I suspect it had to do with being seated where breathing can be more difficult. Her rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” was particularly pitchy. She also had sporadic difficulties with remembering lyrics. Simon Cowell would not have been happy, but Ms. Collins is 70-years old and if her voice and memory are dimmer, it was ok with me and the rest of the audience.

One of Ms. Collins songs, “The Blizzard”, is a tedious song that drones and whines about a Colorado snow storm. It was a low point for the evening. She also sang Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust”, which is an angry and unpleasant song. On the other hand, Ms. Collins sang her sublime “Since You Asked.”

What I'll give you since you asked

Is all my time together;

Take the rugged sunny days,
What I'll give you since you asked
Is all my time together;
Take the rugged sunny days,
The warm and rocky weather,
Take the roads that I have walked along,
Looking for tomorrow's time,
Peace of mind.

As my life spills into yours,
Changing with the hours
Filling up the world with time,
Turning time to flowers,
I can show you all the songs
That I never sang to one man before.

We have seen a million stone lying by the water,
You have climbed the hills with me
To the mountain shelter.
Taken off the days, one by one,
Setting them to breathe in the sun.

Take the lilies and the lace
From the days of childhood,
All the willow winding paths
Leading up and outward.
This is what I give
This is what I ask you for;
Nothing more,

She also sang her beautiful and sentimental “Secret Garden”:

My grandmother's house is still there
But it isn't the same
A plain wooden cottage
A patch of brown lawn
And a fence that hangs standing
And sighing in the Seattle rain
I drive by with strangers
And wish they could see what I see
A tangle of summer birds
Flying in sunlight
A forest of lillies
An orchard of apricot trees
Secret Gardens of the heart
Where the flowers bloom forever
I see you shining through the night
In the ice and snow of winter
Great grandfather's farm is still there
But it isn't the same
The barn is torn down
And the fences are gone
The Idaho wind blows
The topsoil away every Spring
I still see the ghosts
Of the people I knew long ago
Inside the old kitchen
They bend and sigh
My life passed them up
And the world passed them by
Secret Gardens of the heart
Where the old stay young forever
I see you shining through the night
In the ice and snow of winter
But most of all
It is me that has changed
And yet I'm still the same
That's me at the weddings
That's me at the graves
Dressed like the people
Who once looked so grown-up and brave
I look in the mirror
Through the eyes of the child that was me
I see willows bending
The season is Spring
And the silver blue sailing birds
Fly with the sun on their wings
Secret Gardens of the heart
Where dreams live on forever
I see you shining through the night
In the ice and snow of winter

It was a great evening with a classic artist who tells stories about our lives. It was a treat to see her and to hear her.

The Emerson String Quartet

I attended the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society concert featuring the Emerson String Quartet. The Emerson String Quartet is a New York–based string quartet in residence at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Previously the Quartet was in residence at The Hartt School. Formed in 1976, they have released more than twenty albums and won eight Grammy Awards. Both violinists in the quartet were students of the noted violinist Oscar Shumsky. Formed in the bicentennial year of the United States, the Emerson String Quartet took its name from the great American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Violinists Drucker and Setzer alternate as first and second violinists.

The program included:

IVES – String Quartet No. 1, “A Revival Service”

Chorale: Andante con moto

Prelude: Allegro

Offertory: Adagio cantabile

Postlude: Allegro marziale

JANACEK- String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters

Andante con moto




BARBER – Adagio (from String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11)

SHOSTAKOVICH – String Quartet No. 9, Op. 117

Moderato con moto





The Carnegie Music Hall is a perfect venue for chamber music. It is intimate, yet reverberant. There is no bad seat. It is elegant. The quartet sounded like silk come alive. Their tone was rich but never strident. I did not detect intonation problems. I generally have not liked Ives, particularly for his use of historical American music with dissonance thrown in. His Revival Service, however, was full of melody and richness. The Janacek was exciting. The skill of the players was evident when the score called for bouncing the violin bows against the strings. It was done precisely with complete control. The Barber is overly familiar music and is played whenever someone even moderately famous dies. When played by the full string complement of an orchestra is can sound overwrought and treacly. When played by a string quartet, it is lean and beautiful. It was possible for me to hear this warhorse with “new ears.” The Shostakovich was played without interruption. It is complex music that does not contain hummable melodies. Rather, it challenges the listener to stay focused on its multi-layered construction. The Emerson played it with precision.

I have not attended a concert recently that passed by so quickly. Its 2-hour length seemed like minutes. That speaks to the quality of the music and the playing. Each member of a string quartet is under the auditory microscope. An individual player can’t hide in the sound of another, as is possible in a full-scale orchestra. Each of the four Emerson virtuosi carried off their respective roles with unbelievable skill and aplomb.

The Phipps and Frabel

To see all of my photos, click or paste this link:
I visited the Phipps Conservatory again. It is a beautiful Victorian Glass House that recently hosted a reception for the G-20 Summit. It’s a great place to take pictures- the featured flowers and plants make for good photo opportunities and the building’s light helps to take the guess work out of camera settings. The Phipps featured an exhibit of art glass by Hans Godo Frabel (born 1941 in Jena, East Germany, who) is an East German-born lamp work glass blower, now living and working in, of all places Atlanta. His sculptures are whimsical, playful, and colorful. This exhibit featured his Longfellow (elongated glass figures), flower goblets, vineys and sprites, Aces & Deuces, Jokers wild, lizards, and snowflakes.

My photos also include two Chihuly works located at the reception center of the conservatory and at the desert room.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Watchmen are Bereft

I dislike superhero movies. They are so predictable. You can tell the bad guy early on because he is the good-looking guy, as in “Watchmen”, or the guy with the goofy beard, i.e., Jeff Bridges in “Ironman.” So I saw “Watchmen”, against my better judgment. It is 2.5 hours I will never get back. The plot is silly, the characters are unsympathetic, and the acting is wooden. Star Billy Crudup must have attended the Keanu Reeves School of Soporific Acting. Given that Reeves was initially cast as Dr. Manhattan, this was probably appropriate. I had a difficult time identifying with the character Rorshach, played by Jackie Earle Haley, who was so effective in “Little Children.” He was so good in that film that I will always see him as a child molester. The only good thing about this movie for me was the use of the music of Phillip Glass. Otherwise, “Watchmen” is an unmitigated disaster. Apropos of nothing, “Superhero Movie”, the hilarious send-up of the genre, was thoroughly enjoyable!

I also saw “Bereft”, a made for TV movie starring Vinessa Shaw. She plays a young widow, Molly, who is struggling with the death of her husband about a year earlier. The movie depicts her descent into high-risk behavior, under the influence of her creepy man-boy neighbor and his uncle. Shaw, a former model, is stunningly beautiful. Marsha Mason plays her mother, who is steely cold, insensitive, and oblivious. Edward Herrmann plays her alcoholic father who also doesn’t have a clue. Only her sister, played by Ari Graynor, seems to understand Molly’s pain, but is also unable to connect. There is a scene toward the end of the movie where Molly has an extraordinarily controlled meltdown. I’m not sure it rang true, but it’s not due to Shaw’s acting, but rather the way it was scripted. The most wonderful part of the movie is the beautiful cinematography. The saturation of the colors in the Vermont landscape is stunning. There is only one scene that turns dark, but it’s appropriate for the content of the film. This is not a great film, and I can’t say I enjoyed it, but it pulled me in and I felt for Molly. The music by Mark Snow was also quite good.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"Danika"- surprise within a surprise

Because I woke up very early this morning, I watched the film “Danika.”

Fom Wikipedia: Merrick (Marisa Tomei) suffers from increasingly disturbing paranoid hallucinations. Most of her hallucinations involve threats to her family and media-fueled fears such as child kidnappings, car accidents, her children lying, and terrorism. Danika confides to her husband, Randy (Craig Bierko), and Evelyn (Regina Hall), her psychiatrist. The movie begins with Danika apologizing for her tardiness, and being scolded by her bank manager about incorrect collections. Her manager leaves the office instructing Danika to correct the errors, and remain in the office. Danika then witnesses a bank robbery in progress with two trigger-happy robbers shooting anyone that moves. The alarm goes off and the robbers force Danika's boss to tell them where the security monitors are located. The manager points to her office where a shivering Danika seeks shelter in the corner. As the door opens, she expects to come face to face with a gun toting bank robber, but is confronted by her manager who wonders what is wrong with her. The movie continues with increasingly paranoid events .

I had not heard of this movie but the blurb for it indicated it is a psychological thriller. It is for about 15 minutes but I anticipated the “surprise” ending about an hour into the film. I won’t give it away, but the children will give you a clue as they morph throughout the movie. Marisa Tomei plays the title character with appropriate hysteria and fear. Craig Bierko walks through every part I have seen him in. The real shocker of the movie is seeing Regina Hall as a therapist. At the San Diego Film Festival in 2006, she won the "Best Actress” award for her role. In case you forgot she is best known for her roles in the “Scary Movie” franchise. “Danika” kept my attention until I figured out the ending. After that I watched it just to be sure I was right.

A brief visit to Berlin

To see my photos of Berlin, click this link:

Through fortunate circumstance I was able to spend a day in Berlin. I stayed in a wonderful little hotel, the Hotel Alt-Tegel near the airport. It was a beautiful, if cold, snowy day. The streets near the hotel were covered with a nice blanket of white. The old-style street lights added charm to the neighborhood. I surprised how much this part of Germany looks like Western Pennsylvania. From the freeway, it looked like I was traveling the Parkway on my way to Pittsburgh. Because the hotel was within 1000 feet of the last stop on the subway, I went into the city. The subway was clean, well maintained and quiet- no sounds of wheels screeching on steel rails. Coming out of the subway station in the city, I saw a statue titled “Trains to Life,Ttrains to Death 1938-1945.” It was covered with snow, the whiteness of which contrasted starkly with the red flowers placed on the statue. I walked many blocks to see Checkpoint Charlie (from Wikipedia: Checkpoint Charlie "Checkpoint C" was the name given by the Western Allies to the most well-known Berlin Wall crossing point between East Germany and West Germany during the War. The Soviet Union prompted the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 to stem the flow of Eastern Bloc emigration westward through what had become a "loophole" in the Soviet border system, preventing escape over the city sector border from East Berlin to West Berlin. Checkpoint Charlie became a symbol of the Cold War, representing the separation of east and west, and—for some East Germans—a gateway to freedom. Soviet and American tanks briefly faced off at the location during the Berlin Crisis of 1961.)

The importance of Berlin in modern history cannot be underestimated. I took pictures of some of the information boards surrounding the site, which is under construction. I thought my picture of the old Soviet automobile was quite good!

I walked along Friedrichstrasse. (From Wikipeida: Friedrichstrasse is a major culture and shopping street in central Berlin, forming the core of the Friedrichstadt neighborhood. It runs from the northern part of the old Mitte district (north of which it is called Chausseestraße) to the Hallesches Tor in the district of Kreuzberg. Due to its north-southerly direction, it forms important junctions with the east-western axes, most notably with Leipziger Straße and Unter den Linden. The U6 U-Bahn line runs underneath. During the Cold War it was bisected by the Berlin Wall and was the location of Checkpoint Charlie. As central Berlin's traditional shopping street, Friedrichstraße is three blocks east of the parallel Wilhelmstraße, the historic heart of the old government quarter until 1945. The Friedrichstraße was badly damaged during World War II and only partly rebuilt during the division of Berlin. The section in West Berlin was partly rebuilt as a residential street; in the late 1960s, the remains of the former Belle-Alliance-Platz at the end of the Friedrichstraße, renamed Mehringplatz, were completely demolished and replaced with a concrete housing and office development designed by Hans Scharoun. Despite its central location, this area remains relatively poor .Friedrichstraße was rebuilt in the 1990s, and at the time it was the city's largest construction project; work continues north of Friedrichstraße station. A number of well-known architects contributed to the plans, including Jean Nouvel, who designed the Galeries Lafayette department store and Philip Johnson, who created the American Business Center at Checkpoint Charlie. The redevelopment received mixed reviews, but the street once again became a popular shopping destination.)

The buildings along Friedrichstrasse are of the same scale as the buildings in Washington, D.C. They are mostly under five or six stories and provide a pedestrian friendly corridor.

I then walked to the Brandenburg Gate (From Wikipedia: The Brandenburg Gate is a former city gate and one of the main symbols of Berlin and Germany. It is located west of the city center at the intersection of Unter den Linden and Ebertstraße, immediately west of the Pariser Platz. It is the only remaining gate of a series through which one formerly entered Berlin. One block to the north stands the Reichstag building. The gate is the monumental entry to Unter den Linden, the renowned boulevard of linden trees which formerly led directly to the city palace of the Prussian monarchs. It was commissioned by King Frederick William II of Prussia as a sign of peace and built by Carl Gotthard Langhans from 1788 to 1791. The Brandenburg Gate was restored from 2000 to 2002 by the Stiftung Denkmalschutz Berlin (Berlin Monument Conservation Foundation). Today, it is considered one of Europe's most famous landmarks.)

I was very excited to visit Berlin for even a short time. I will be very happy to return.

Monday, January 11, 2010

High in the Sky Security- Part 2

Our government looks like it will turn the heat up further-on US citizens. Through the increased use of “pat-downs” and full body x-rays, the government hopes to assure us that the airways are now safe from the occasional extremist who wants to commandeer an airplane. I will feel much better when every 6-month old gets a thorough screening and when my 91-year old mother gets a good pat-down. Has anyone noticed that three recent kerfuffles in the sky (AirTran 297 and 175, and Northwest 253) were aborted by airline crew (especially flight attendants) and other passengers? Why are the airlines not putting material in their in-flight magazines about how to deal with dangerous situations? They make room for advertising and for their list of available alcoholic beverages- why not for information about dealing with disruptive fellow passengers? The airlines probably don’t want to upset us, but what is more upsetting than all of us being under suspicion while experiencing TSA scrutiny. No system will perfectly protect us, but as someone once said, ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. Finally, I bet if the Chinese (why are they no longer the Red Chinese?) see a buck in all of this, they will bring their entrepreneurial spirit to bear and find a solution to inflight security.

Brief Reviews of mediocre movies

Brief movie reviews:

From Wikipedia: August is a 2008 drama film directed by Austin Chick. The screenplay by Howard A. Rodman focuses on two brothers, ambitious dot-com entrepreneurs attempting to keep their company afloat as the stock market begins to collapse in August 2001, one month prior to the 9/11 attacks.

Josh Hartnett has to carry most of this movie. It is about the rise and fall of one entrepreneurial young man and his more conservative brother, in the heady days of the bubble. The dialogue has a lot of insider business mumbo-jumbo that is supposed to explain what was going on. It didn’t, at least for this outsider. Harnett does his best acting when he is called upon to interpret the depression, loneliness, and lack of direction that happens when one involuntarily looses a job. This saves the movie from being a total disaster.

From Wikipedia: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a film adaptation of Michael Chabon's best-selling novel of the same name, which was published in 1988. The screenplay was written by Rawson Marshall Thurber, who also directed. It made its world premiere in January 2008 at the Sundance Film Festival.

The cast includes:

• Jon Foster as Art Bechstein: The well-manner, intelligent son of a Jewish gangster who gets caught up in a tangled love triangle with Jane and Cleveland, as well as an affair with Phlox.

• Sienna Miller as Jane Bellwether: Cleveland's girlfriend. In the novel, Jane is a minor character but has been elevated to leading lady in Thurber's adaptation.

• Peter Sarsgaard as Cleveland Arning: Jane's rebellious bisexual boyfriend, with whom Art becomes involved. In the novel, Cleveland is an entirely heterosexual character, but in adapting the film, he became merged with the homosexual character Arthur Lecomte, one of the novel's key love interests.

• Mena Suvari as Phlox Lombardi: A strange girl who works at the book shop who becomes romantically involved with Art. In the novel, she is one of the main romantic interests along with Arthur, but her role is greatly reduced in the adaptation.

• Nick Nolte as Joe Bechstein: Art's father is a Jewish gangster who is disappointed with his son's choices, and would like him to become a stockbroker.

Plot summary

In Pittsburgh, affairs with Jane (Sienna Miller) drive both of her lovers, Cleveland and Art, into bisexuality.

This is a really bad movie, in spite of me being a fan of all things Pittsburgh. Jon Foster seems to be doing an impression of Keanu Reeves on a sedative. Sienna Miller, while attractive, generates little excitement. Sarsgaard is the best of the bunch. Read the plot summary- it describes how silly the plot really is. Foster and Sarsgaard play a gay love scene. They both appear to be laughing while doing “it.” It was totally unconvincing. No wonder the film was a box office bomb.


From Wikipedia:  De-Lovely is a 2004 American/British musical biographical film directed by Irwin Winkler. The screenplay by Jay Cocks is based on the life and career of Cole Porter, from his first meeting with Linda Lee Thomas in 1918 until moments before his death in 1964. In the final moments of Porter's life, it flashes before him in the form of a musical production staged by the archangel Gabriel in the Indiana theater where the composer first performed on stage. From the start, Linda is aware of Cole's gay feelings, but her love for and devotion to him are strong enough for her to overlook his romantic flings outside their marriage. But when he fails to show up at one of his own opening night parties and doesn't come home until the following morning, she finds it impossible to ignore his indiscretion and the continuous innuendos in his songs and goes to Paris, leaving him bereft. Not until he is injured in a horseback riding accident that seriously cripples him does she return to his side, willing to forgive but still finding it difficult to cope with his extramarital affairs. Cole is photographed in an amorous embrace with another man in the rest room of a gay nightclub, and both he and Linda are blackmailed into paying a heavy settlement to suppress publication of the pictures. Eventually she is diagnosed with lung cancer, and as she prepares herself and her husband for her impending death, she attempts to forge a relationship between him and her interior decorator so he'll have a companion following her death, which deeply affects him. The eventual amputation of his right leg adds to his deep depression, affecting his creative output. Porter becomes increasingly seclusive, as well as becoming more dependent on alcohol.

This is an ok movie. Its amazing to be reminded of how many songs Cole Porter wrote that are in the popular cultural memory. Kevin Kline, as Porter, and the beautiful Ashley Judd, as Ms. Thomas are good in their respective roles. The appliances used to age them are very believable. The period costuming is well done. There is something about the photography that just doesn’t seem to fit the movie. The colors, especially at the film’s end, are sharp and vibrant in contrast to the somber themes. Porter’s relationship with his wife was interesting. He had repeated gay encounters, but, at least as portrayed in the move, they loved each other with every fiber of their beings. They were true soul mates. The relationship harkens to that portrayed in the movie “Carrington” about the relationship between the title character and Lytton Strachey.

Many contemporary singers are used on the sound track of De-Lovely. They include:

1. "It's De-Lovely" performed by Robbie Williams

2. "Let's Do It (Let's Fall In Love)" performed by Alanis Morissette

3. "Begin The Beguine" performed by Sheryl Crow

4. "Let's Misbehave" performed by Elvis Costello

5. "Be a Clown" performed by Kevin Kline, Peter Polycarpou, and Chorus

6. "Night and Day" performed by John Barrowman

7. "Easy to Love" performed by Kevin Kline

8. "True Love" by Ashley Judd and Tayler Hamilton

9. "What Is This Thing Called Love?" performed by Lemar

10. "I Love You" performed by Mick Hucknall

11. "Just One of Those Things" performed by Diana Krall

12. "Anything Goes" performed by Caroline O'Connor

13. "Experiment" performed by Kevin Kline

14. "Love for Sale" performed by Vivian Green

15. "So In Love" performed by Lara Fabian and Mario Frangoulis

16. "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" performed by Natalie Cole

17. "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" performed by Jonathan Pryce, Kevin Kline, Cast, and Chorus

18. "In the Still of the Night" performed by Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd

19. "You're The Top" performed by Cole Porter

Some were terribly mismatched to the material. Listening to Sheryl Crow crow “Begin the Beguine” was a horrible experience. She has limited skills as a singer, and each limitation was highlighted by the music. Morrisette, on the other hand, was credible in “Let’s Do It.” Robbie Williams did a credible job also. By far, Natalie Cole is the best- she understands the music and has a voice that compliments it.

Taking Responsiblity- or not

I have been somewhat surprised by all of the news coverage of the fact that the President said he takes responsibility for the multiples failures of the intelligence gathering agencies concerning the “underwear bomber.” He did this presumably to meet his other goal of not wanting to blame individuals. Some liberal or progressive bloggers take the President’s statement as a positive acknowledgement, especially since his predecessor isalleged to have never taken responsibility for his actions.

Something about these discussions troubled me. Since words and their meanings matter, I decided to explore it a bit more. The Macmillan dictionary defines responsibility in three ways which seem most relevant here:

1. the state or job of being in charge of someone or something and of making sure that what they do or what happens to them is right or satisfactory (e.g., She has a lot of responsibility as a nurse) or responsibility for ( e.g., Overall responsibility for the school lies with the head or have responsibility for (doing) something (e.g., You will have responsibility for sales and marketing) or take responsibility for (doing) something (e.g., Would someone take responsibility for bringing Paul home?) or assume responsibility for (doing) something (e.g., Serrano immediately assumed temporary responsibility for foreign affairs) or a position of responsibility (e.g., People in positions of responsibility cannot behave like ).

2. a duty that you have to do because it is part of your job or position (e.g., She is my responsibility, now that her parents are gone ) or a responsibility to do something (e.g., It is your responsibility to provide us with concrete evidence) or responsibility to/towards (e.g., What is the individual’s responsibility to others in modern society) or have a responsibility to/towards someone (e.g., We have a responsibility to our shareholders and to our depositors) or have a responsibility to do something (We have a responsibility to make sure this never happens again) or a sense of responsibility (e.g., Parenthood brings a huge sense of responsibility).

3, blame for something that has happened such as claim/accept responsibility for something (e.g., No one claimed responsibility for the attack on the embassy) or take responsibility for (doing)something (e.g., Allan has got to take responsibility for the failure of the deal)

So what do we think the President meant? Since he did not want to blame anyone was he saying that we can blame him? If so, he could have simply said “The failures of the intelligence agencies were my fault and I should be held accountable.” Did he mean that he is in charge of the executive branch of government and part of his duties is to make sure what it does is right or satisfactory? Or did he mean that ensuring that the intelligence agencies work properly is part of his job or position? Maybe understanding the duties of the President can help here. According to

Under Article II of the Constitution, the President is responsible for the execution and enforcement of the laws created by Congress. Fifteen executive departments — each led by an appointed member of the President's Cabinet — carry out the day-to-day administration of the federal government. They are joined in this by other executive agencies such as the CIA and Environmental Protection Agency, the heads of which are not part (sic) of the Cabinet, but who are under the full authority of the President. The President also appoints the heads of more than 50 independent federal commissions, such as the Federal Reserve Board or the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as federal judges, ambassadors, and other federal offices. The Executive Office of the President (EOP) consists of the immediate staff to the President, along with entities such as the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

Thus, it is the President’s responsibility to execute and enforce laws relating to the intelligence agencies. Therefore, he might well have been saying that he is in charge of the executive branch of government and one of his duties is to ensure that its actions are right or satisfactory, or that ensuring the proper functioning of the intelligence agencies is part of his job description. In either case, it strikes me as the President stating the obvious.

The analyzed former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez’s taking responsibility for firing the federal prosecutors this way:

What interests me is the phenomenon of people taking responsibility for actions but not suffering any consequences for what it is they are taking responsibility for. …Gonzales said… that "mistakes were made" in the way the department handled and explained the firings and he said "I accept that responsibility," Gonzales said during a press conference. "And my pledge to the American people is to find out what went wrong here, to assess accountability, and to make improvements so the mistakes that occurred in this instance do not occur in the future." So, Mr. Gonzales accepts the responsibility for this mess but apparently not the blame for it. There is a very important distinction to be made here. If you accept the blame for something, then you will normally suffer real consequences. You may go to prison, as with the enlisted people who worked at Abu Ghraib or Scooter Libby, or be forced to resign from your position… But in many cases, it seems to be possible to get away with accepting responsibility for an action without suffering any consequences….The young are told over and over that they must accept responsibility for their actions. They are told that they must be accountable for their actions. In the (then) current Administration, what they are teaching us is that there is a real distinction between accepting responsibility and being accountable. You can do the one without doing the other….

By saying that he did not want to place blame, the President was simply acknowledging that his job description includes ensuring that the intelligence operations are functioning properly. I did not hear him say that he was at fault or that he should be held accountable for their ”lack of playing together well.” He was accepting responsibility for an action knowing that there was no possibility of suffering any consequences, at least until the 2012 elections. Being the wordsmith that he appears to be, I am sure that he knew that his words sounded good, but had little practical import. I am not so sure that his “taking responsibility” was all the different than President Bush never taking responsibility. Responsibility without accountability is simply saying it’s in my job description

Thursday, January 7, 2010

And the Beat Goes on....

The recent “underwear bomber”, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is the latest iteration of the attempt by radical Islamists to attack Americans. President Obama, having learned well from his predecessor, blamed failures in American intelligence efforts and lack of inter-agency coordination for the government’s inability to stop this alleged Al-Qaeda from boarding the Northwest airlines aircraft. But, nevertheless, those who failed and those who did not coordinate will remain employed the executive branch. We have not yet had a “you’re doing a great job, Brownie:”-like statement, but maybe the lack of terminations is the equivalent. Maybe Janet Napolitano was just too busy getting her hair plasticized to be bothered with the reports that suggested holidays attacks were a possibility. Of course there is also the issue of having no director for the Transportation Security Administration. According to the Washington Post, the nomination of a former FBI agent, Erroll Southers, to lead the TSA hit a new obstacle Wednesday as several Republican senators expressed "serious reservations" about the nominee and pressed the White House for details of incidents in which he improperly accessed a confidential federal database year ago. Apparently Southers provided differing accounts to the Senate about incidents in 1987 and 1988 in which he inappropriately accessed a federal database, possibly in violation of privacy laws, in a search for records about his estranged wife's boyfriend. He was censured for this incident. On the plus side, in addition to four years as an FBI agent in San Diego, Southers has served as a police officer, a senior official in the California governor's office of homeland security, and associate director of a homeland security center at the University of Southern California. He is assistant chief of homeland security and intelligence with the Los Angeles World Airports police department. In an interview, Thomas Hughes, who was head of the San Diego FBI office while Southers was there, said he does not recall the circumstances leading to Southers' censure. He said people who worked more closely with Southers described him "as an energetic, athletic, smart and competent agent who was well liked by everyone." All of this seems like damning with faint praise, but Southers may be good for the next White House pick-up basketball game. Is there really no one more qualified out of 300 million Americans?

I am awaiting the President’s address to the nation about this incident. I have several predictions of what he will say:

1. He will take responsibility for the failures of coordination and communication. I am underwhelmed by this because I am not sure what it actually means. It’s also easy to say but probably means nothing in actual practice.

2. There will be measures put in place that will inconvenience the traveling public further. Many will say that it will be worth the hassle if it makes us safer. It seems, however, that previously introduced hassles have not been successful so why should we expect these new hassles to do better?

3. From my years in government, I learned that the best way to look like you are actually doing something is to reorganize. I expect Obama will move around the deck chairs on the Titanic.

4. He will call for the quick approval of the Southers’ nomination. That gives me scant security.

5. Obama may call for increased focus on the buildup of Al Qaeda in Somalia and Yemen. I hate to think what this might mean in terms of lives and the treasury.

6. Obama will go out of his way not to criticize Islam, but will go after the “extremists.” Nevertheless, Americans will continue to blame Islam, characterizing it as a violent religion. They forget about the 400 years of Christian incursions into the territory of Islam during the Crusades. But I guess it’s important for us to hew to the principle that our god is better than theirs.

There are several things that I do not expect to hear from the president:

1. That the US will no longer unconditionally support the war-like and discriminatory policies of the Israeli government toward the Palestinians. Our unbridled support for the Israeli government inflames many Muslims, but we do it again based on the notion that our (Christian and Jewish) Abrahamic god is better than their Abrahamic god.

2. That the US will reduce the”war on terror” as embodied by our adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan.

3. No individuals and their failings will be highlighted. No one will be fired. The players will remain with great hope that the game will be played differently in the future.

4. Obama will never admit that maybe it is not possible to stop individual acts that attack the US. The public cannot be expected to handle the truth but it will accept the requirement to spend trillions on false expectations of safety.

I am happy that I am not in charge.

And so goes the sunset.