Saturday, April 25, 2009

'Frat Boy' George, 'Bleeping' Pirates, Alysheba...

The Frat Boy – A theory: George W. Bush never really wanted to be President. It’s been three months since he’s vacated the White House, and I think almost everyone agrees that Mr. Bush’s eight-year reign was a flop. Looking back at his full term, Mr. Bush never seemed comfortable in his role – oh, sure, he tried to act Presidential, but, in reality, his role-playing never seemed genuine to me. I suspect he even knew very early in his term he did not belong in that exalted position. Astounding as it sounds, I think George Bush never had an intense desire to be President, and almost drifted into the office. Just take a look at his biography before 2000:

We’ve all known his type: in the college I attended, there were a lot of them: rich, pampered, spoiled frat boys, unfailingly in good cheer, who seemingly never opened a book, partied ceaselessly, dated very good-looking women [I remain envious of that to this day], and generally acted as if they did not have a care in the world. These students just knew there was always back-up: Daddy’s and Grandpa’s trust funds would always nurture and support them, and whatever troubles that might befall them would be resolved happily by Daddy’s money and clout. It appeared they lived carefree lives.

That, in essence, was George Bush’s life. Apparently, he partied hard at Yale, and coasted through without any particular chosen path for his life. [How he coasted in New Haven is, to be honest, very difficult for me to comprehend; I was a student at that time, and had on numerous occasions visited friends on Ivy campuses, and it was my belief that Yale had the most taxing, rigorous curriculum of any of the Ivies.] But, coast he did. An MBA at Harvard, then a successful draft dodge by enlisting in the Louisiana Air National Guard, most certainly a result of Daddy’s substantial clout. This was a life of a drifting, aimless young man.

Yes, he did get married, he stopped drinking, and ran an oil business for a while -- that went bust [Daddy bailed him out again], and he ran a losing campaign for the House. Nothing so far that has remotely prepared Mr. Bush for the White House. But, again with the ample aid of some of Daddy’s rich friends, he fell into the fortuitous break of his life: for an investment of $200,000, George Bush became president of the Texas Rangers baseball team. Eight or nine years later, that small investment turned into a $15 million profit when the Rangers were sold. That mother lode fell into Mr. Bush’s lap, all set up, again, by Daddy’s contacts. Nothing in his life as yet really involved any heavy lifting

He subsequently won the election to be Texas governor, and reelection 4 years later. In reality, though, being governor of Texas is not a particularly onerous position, as Texas political activity is centered in the legislature. The governor’s almost a nominal position, with no real power. I think it was another instance of Mr. Bush being along for the ride, ambitious to attain the title of governor, but no abiding interest in governance.

Mr. Bush is certainly a fortunate man, I’ll give him that. He had no chance of winning the 2000 election against Al Gore, as the country was at peace and prosperous. Then, the heavens opened up with Monica Lewinsky’s noisy entrance; President Clinton’s reputation was destroyed, and Al Gore went down with the ship.

Suddenly, Mr. Bush was President. A passive vessel basically his whole life, he was constitutionally not suited to be President, and was completely unprepared psychologically: no foreign travel to speak of, no history of arduous or difficult work, no intellectual curiosity [a must for a President], and a peculiar passivity that permitted stronger personalities to dominate the formulation of policy. His history and emotional make-up made his failures inevitable.

And he knew it. Just remind yourself of how he comported himself in public: those hunched shoulders and that thrusting-forward pose he often carried just looked so inauthentic, as if he created a tough-guy pose to remind everyone he’s the President. To Mr. Gripes, that stance just emphasized his lack of confidence. Only in the last three or four months of his Presidency did Mr. Bush drop his guard, and Americans saw a President who basically had given up: appearing sometimes disheveled in appearance and unfocused on the crises that arose those last six months, he abandoned that tough-guy pose of his, and seemed like a defeated, crestfallen individual. No more disguises, he was asserting, my time is up, and I can’t wait to get out of here. He didn’t take charge of the financial debacle; he simply dropped it all into Henry Paulson’s lap: ‘Hank, now you take care of it’.

My suspicion is that, as he sips a diet-Coke in his Dallas living room and reflects on his time in office, Mr. Bush, not a stupid man, knows he was overmatched; Daddy just couldn’t save him this time.

Pirates – For just a moment, when those kid pirates off Somalia were eliminated by American sharpshooters, the world was in a better place. Not for long, of course – after all, reprisals were sure to follow, but, what the hell, we have to experience the small pleasures in this life. They were criminals and kidnappers, and deserved to die. This entire pirate lunacy absolutely boils Mr. Gripes’ blood: the idea that kids, armed with grappling hooks and AK-47’s, moving around in cockroach-infested, old fishing boats, can take over super-ships longer than a half-dozen football fields and imprison crews is such an insult to free, peaceful countries. And, then, rubbing salt into the wounds, the ship owners meekly hand over $2 million ransoms. These heinous acts have to stop. First, though, let’s ignore the advice of all those think-tank bobble-heads, festooned, as they are, with degrees in international affairs, who insist we must deal with the ‘root causes’ of the failed state of Somalia. Mr. Gripes’ reply: “Root this!” We’ve been down that road before, remember? Professors, don’t you recall Black Hawk Down? That was America’s harsh Somali civics lesson. Face it, this country isn’t going back there any time soon. Will there ever be a legitimate Somali state? Yeah, sure, right after the Gazans and Israelis sit down and break bread over a ham-and-peas Easter dinner.

I do have a solution, and it’s real easy: all the nations that depend on safe, secure shipping over there get together and come to an agreement on the creation of definitive shipping lanes in the waters off the Somali coast – three, four or five miles wide, whatever works best. That lane is then patrolled by a multi-national air force squadron and speedy attack boats. All cargo ships must travel within that measured area. Any other boat, and I don’t care if it’s a two-man tuna boat, ferry, or a few guys getting away from their wives for some blues night-fishing, enters into that shipping strip without authorization….KABOOM! Obliterated. I assure you these pirate-vermin would disappear from the coasts and take up scurrying about the streets of their Shangri-La, Mogadishu, very, very quickly.

Michelle Obama – The Michelle-Obama-Goes-to-Europe story has been the ultimate in pack-journalism: you know, when reporters of every stripe – TV, radio, blogs, cable, any of them – write the identical story, even if it’s basically fiction. Despite the myth that they’re obsessively digging for new material, journalists wouldn’t dare stray from the party line that Mrs. Obama’s trip in 2009 was identical to Jacqueline Kennedy’s trip to France in 1961. My readers, informed as they certainly are, know the history: Jackie, speaking fluent French and looking spiffy in her gorgeous outfits, took Paris by storm, even eclipsing her husband, the President of the United States. Every reporter covering the Obama G-20 conference in London this month resurrected that old story; now it was Michelle Obama, seemingly changing dresses at supersonic speed, who wowed London, and relegated President Obama to a secondary figure at the meeting. Every reporter over there used a new sobriquet for Michelle: she was ‘Mighty Michelle.’ Ugh. There’s Mighty Mouse, there’s the mighty Hudson River, and Paul Bunyan, the giant Minnesotan lumberjack, who’s described as ‘mighty.’ But Mighty Michelle? Asinine and lame.

Nevertheless, the media types succumbed to the narrative that Michelle was the dominant story, which was not true. Let’s face it: President Obama and the other nineteen leaders were doing damn serious work; the world economy is still very fragile, and not far removed from collapse. First ladies going to a few charity endeavors and donning new outfits every 90 minutes do not remotely resemble any important work. I think what’s going on here is the media outlets, obsessively worrying about ratings and subscriptions these days, generally have a bias toward ‘light’ and trivial information. The less serious the news, the higher the ratings: that’s the game. The problem? The public is being shortchanged and misinformed.

One more thing about Michelle Obama: America’s now in the midst of its worst financial crisis since the 1930’s. Official unemployment is at 9%, and unofficial [that includes citizens not actively looking for work, or not collecting unemployment any longer] joblessness is around 16%. Ponder that for a moment. Going to London, and showing off a dozen or more new ensembles costing – and I know I’m on very shaky grounds here -- $1,000 or more does not, Mr. Gripes asserts, send an appropriate message to Americans. It’s a time to promote frugal behavior, and to demonstrate to citizens that we all have to sacrifice a little to get through this economic quagmire. I understand that the Obamas, as the First Family, are essentially American royalty, and must look the part sometimes, but, my goodness, wouldn’t an image of Ms. Obama taking a few dresses for the trip, and using each one on multiple occasions, resonate better, considering the rampant desperation out there? Something’s not right.

Alysheba – My first obituary, and, wouldn’t you know it, it’s for a racehorse. A special horse, yes, but nevertheless only a race horse. First, though, with the reader’s tacit permission, I’d like to reflect a bit about perhaps Mr. Gripes’ favorite piece of Americana: the Kentucky Derby. Regular readers of this column are aware Mr. Gripes absolutely cherishes places and events that are quintessentially American: glancing up at a Pasadena sunset on a soft, early-November evening during a football game at the Rose Bowl; looking skyward at the faux-Sistine Chapel ceiling in a Las Vegas casino, as call girls slowly strut their stuff along the floor below - utterly tasteless, and only in America; standing on a house deck, peering out at a glittering lake, impolitely shoveling down hot dogs, potato salad and beer in the course of a distressingly hot July 4th; observing a ball hit in the ‘gap’ between outfielders, and the intricate, balletic drama that ensues: a perfect one-hop relay throw to the catcher at the very moment a base-runner thunders towards home.

The ‘Derby’ tops everything, though. Its history [133 years, and counting]; the build-up [there are 10 prep races all over the country in the months leading up to the race]; its place on the calendar [always the first Saturday in May in Louisville, Kentucky, and the first assurance that glorious spring and summer days are coming], its pageantry [as the horses come out to the track, ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ is played and sung, breathtaking in its poignancy and anticipation]. And, of course, the participants themselves, each one magnificent in its composition of sinew, muscle, strength, speed and power. Mr. Gripes has followed the Kentucky Derby since he was a boy of about 10, and I have my favorite winners and contenders down through the years: Nashua [beaten by Swaps], Ferdinand, Carry Back, Affirmed, Alydar [he’s Alysheba’s daddy], Spend a Buck, Barbaro, Tim Tam, Canonero, Sea Hero, Chateaugay, Sunday Silence, Needles, Silky Sullivan, and the peerless Secretariat, among many.

But my favorite will always be Alysheba, who died last week at 25. He supplied a thrill in a 1987 Derby stretch run that demonstrated not only his athletic superiority, but some sterling human qualities as well: courage, perseverance and the innate belief that losing was akin to dying, and winning was the only option. Here’s a facsimile of the stretch-run call:

DOWN THE STRETCH THEY COME! They’re at the quarter-pole in the middle of the track. It’s Bet Twice, Leo Castelli, and Cryptoclearance in the lead. Alysheba is moving up between horses. Alysheba is rapidly passing horses, and now is in third. Uh-oh, a horse cuts in front of Alysheba, clipping his heels. Alysheba stumbles, and pitches forward. It looks like he’s going down. Alysheba’s done. Wait a minute! Alysheba’s somehow regained his footing, straightens up, and from an abrupt stop, accelerates. He’s passing horses; now he’s ahead of Leo Castelli and Cryptoclearance. He’s taken the lead. Alysheba is pushing out in front. Alysheba, America’s horse, has just won the Kentucky Derby.

Just revisiting the race now brings back the goose bumps; my heart’s thumping away as if it’s May 1987 all over again. Alysheba’s finding his balance and keeping his wits about him amidst all the jostling, chaos and tumult in the desperate run to the finish, and emerging from all that as the champion, made him in that instant an immortal. He won many other races, but 300 years from now, all that will be remembered will be the stumble during the Derby stretch run. Oh, I almost forgot one other thing -- Mr. Gripes cashed a winning ticket for a couple of hundred dollars after that race. Beautiful. Thanks for the thrills, Alysheba. Rest in peace..