May 27, 2006

Deadwood, Washington DC

Let us return briefly to those glorious days, circa 1977, when I was employed in the Bank of America Building, working as an associate attorney for The Firm With Three Names which occupied the 33rd and 34th floors, on a full-floor basis, with panoramic views of the Golden Gate, the waterfront, the Bay Bridge, and of course the south of Market area, which in those days was still mostly an unregenerated slum. A big firm, with a lot of work, in a thriving legal market which could support a lot of outside counsel, before insurance companies and banks and corporations went increasingly in-house to control costs. When America was still King, sort of. Everyone wearing wool suits and white shirts, silk ties and leather wingtips. Drinking, carrying on, being unfaithful, sexually harassing.

How I hated it. I thought it was sick. Yet, obviously, other lawyers thrived. There are always humans who not only can handle a heirarchical structure of associates, partners, committee chairs, and professional associations; who navigate successfully through the shark-filled shoals of company politics; who seek and relish wins, promotions, peer-group approbation; yea, verily, and way more. There are people who positively must have all of this. So if life in a big firm slowly extinguished all life outside it, hermetically sealed off normal emotions, relations, made one's life, essentially, into Life In The Firm, then so be it.

Over time, of course, there were regrets among those who stayed the course. Looking back, all they could see was The Firm. And, given the vicissitudes of the market place, the particular lawyers at The Firm With Three Names cannot even say that, since the place imploded under pressures of competition and the in-house movement. But what I want to talk about right now is that curious cohort of lawyers known as "deadwood," in the argot of big firm partnerships as they existed way back when. By and large, these were lawyers who had worked hard for decades, got to the top of the pyramid, were wealthy and financially set, and had lost all interest in the practice of law. They had become nonproductive, objects of resentment among the hotshot trial lawyers twenty years younger who were doing all the hard work and maintaining the firm's reputation. The Deadwood put in minimal hours, kept a clean desk, left often before 5 pm, drank at lunch, and became expert only in the art of Delegation of Everything to associates and junior partners. They had long ago given up attending continuing education of the bar courses and often betrayed, in discussions of cases, an astounding ignorance about changes in civil procedure and substantive law which had occurred, say, in the last 15 years or so. Yet they assumed, for the most part, that they were still thoroughly professional, still up-to-date, still oh so au courant.

Which brings us to Washington D.C., 2006, and to the U.S. Senate. The Senators have an average age of 60.4 years. Some Senators are much older than this (Akaka, Byrd, Lautenberg, Specter, Warner, Kennedy, Grassley, Hatch, Stevens who are all in their 70s and 80s), and only a few are much younger (Obama, Sununu). For the most part, the United States Senate is an Old Man's Club, and membership is practically guaranteed to any incumbent who chooses to run. There are no term (and certainly no age) limits. And another similarity with the Deadwood brigades of the 1970s: most Senators are lawyers. A very large Deadwood law firm could be formed out of the Senate, beginning with Shelby (age 72) and Sessions (59) of Alabama, continuing through Stevens of Alaska (82), on to Dodd (62) and Lieberman (64) of Connecticut, to Biden (61) of Delaware, through Kennedy (74) and Kerry (62) of Massachusetts, to Sarbanes (73) of Maryland, to Levin (72) of Michigan, to Cochran (69) and Lott (65) of Mississippi, to Hillary Clinton (59) of New York, to Specter (76) of Pennsylvania, to Hatch (72) of Utah, to Warner (79) of Virginia, to Byrd (89) of W. Virginia. Had they remained lawyers throughout their lives, most of these Senators would be very old and tired men, and most likely Deadwood.

Instead, the 55 lawyers of the United States Senate are the majority cadre of one-half of America's bicameral system. The Senate, in fact, is almost bereft of any legislator who had a pre-Senatorial life as something other than a lawyer or lower-level politician (Boxer, Collins, Richardson, Nelson of Florida, many other career "public servants."). Maybe one way to explain Bill Frist's ascension to Majority Leader is that his background is somewhat sui generis. He actually did something in the real world at one time, as did Chuck Hagel (investment banking), Lautenberg (computerized payroll company), Kohl (department store) and Salazar (rancher and owner of a Dairy Queen). Frist must seem like a total exotic to someone like Biden, who entered the Senate at the age of 29 after the briefest of legal careers (but which he nonetheless talks about as if it were yesterday).

If you want to understand why the United States Senate was unable to come up with an immigration bill, after months of wrangling, that was anything other than a reprint of the 1986 Amnesty Bill, you need look not much farther. These guys and gals are a spent force. They are Deadwood. They are way, way past their prime.

And something else. It is inevitable that these Senior Citizens carry with them a visualization of the modern world, an image, that is based upon America in the 1950s, that halcyon period when America stood astride the world in Rhodesian fashion. They don't get it. They don't understand what's happened in China, in India, in Kuala Lumpur, they don't grasp the implications of an America running its affairs on energy policies appropriate to the Eisenhower Administration, but way way out of date for a country currently importing 14 million barrels of oil a day at $70 per barrel. They don't understand, as they head down to the infirmary in the Capitol Building, that America's health care system does not consist of Ol' Doc Robbins ridin' his buggy over to the Hawkins household to look in on l'il Timmy, to make sure that sore throat is comin' along.

These Ancient Mariners stand in the well of the Senate and deliver the most excruciatingly boring speeches in the history of modern oration, and to what effect? Why do they use this outmoded form of persuasion? No one listens. There are only two votes in the Senate that matter: cloture votes, to end debate, and...okay, only one. Because the other vote is to pass or defeat another completely useless and irrelevant piece of legislation.

Is it any wonder Senators, as a preface to every mind-numbing utterance they rise to make, fall all over themselves to praise, lavishly and nauseatingly, the sterling qualities of every Senator who has had anything to do with the matter at hand, reassuring all of us that they are all such good friends. Of course they are. They've got the greatest scam going, guaranteed, high-profile employment, a large staff of toadies, an expense account, and a gullible public which for the most part still credits them with functionality and relevance.

Or maybe I'm wrong about that last point. The public's 20% approval of Congress, which includes the Senate, is not really "for the most part." Maybe the increasingly desperate posturing and play-acting now on view via C-SPAN is an indication they realize their cover is being blown. That the junior partners, the American public, are tired of supporting their nonproductive ways. That the little black dog has pulled back the curtain to reveal a couple of bridge games at a retirement home and not much else.

May 26, 2006

The Haditha Massacre: A Prehistory

Venturing where none but fools should venture in, I offer this time-saving prehistory of the Haditha Massacre story, as it will be covered by the media.

Step One: Melodic Modulation. This has already been largely accomplished. The military and Congressional war heroes (John Warner, John McCain) change their tune from one of skeptical derision of media stories about a "massacre" to concerned utterances that something went terribly wrong in Haditha.

Step Two: Construction of the Context. Ironically, a brief resuscitation of the Iraqi war effort will be achieved during this phase, in which the valiant cause shouldered by America's Finest is spun at the best Fox/MSNBC/CNN hagiographic RPM. Batter up at Hardball, as Chris Matthews, with one of his characteristic high hard ones which telegraphs none of the answer he seeks, drills Marine Lt. Colonel Faustian Granite right in the ribs: "Colonel, we know the kids, they're great kids, I go to Bethesda every waking moment I'm not in the studio, they're under tremendous pressure, and it's like Vietnam, how do we know? ya know, the good guys from the bad guys, you can't, fish in the sea, Chinese Revolution, Mao, the whole thing, they snap, they see their buddies go down, I was never in the military, never been in anything rougher than a pillow fight, but we sit in judgment, how can we do that? they're the ones with their asses on the line, and I know I talk rough, but I'm a rough guy who really asks the questions no one else dares ask." Colonel Granite: "I think that's right, Chris."

Step Three: Obfuscation of the Moral Imperatives. This step is handled with one Rumsfeld press conference. "Where is it to be, the bad or the good, in time we see it everyday, good golly Moses, you'd think we use them for target practice, instead of the careful, painstaking discrimination of things we don't know yet must know, in the midst of chaos, order, of a high degree, of a physics like probability."

Step Four: Sanitization Through Senate Hearing. John Warner and Nelson or Whatever (Jay, I guess) Rockefeller convene the Committee. Levin and McCain are there, along with several other Senators who can't phrase questions designed to elicit answers. Moral outrage, demands for accountability, where does the buck stop, chain of command, blah, blah, blah.

Step Five: Down the Memory Hole. The squad leader and two of the trigger men are singled out for court martial, prosecuted and sentenced to short stretches in the stockade. The Iraq War continues.

May 25, 2006

Coalition of the Clueless

I don't know when I first started noticing it. It's definitely an artifact of the Bush Administration, so I suspect sometime after January 2001. At some point, in any case, public officials began saying stupid, illogical things without any sort of media challenge. And the inanity would be repeated until it gained the force of conventional policy, of doctrine. It's hard to describe the phenomenon with any more precision than that. I don't know exactly what to call this development. I do know that over time it can make you crazy with a simmering rage and frustration.

A classic example is the oft-cited bromide that the war in Iraq is justified, in part, because if we fight them there, we won't have to fight them here. No one has ever tried to explain why this should be the case. Deconstructing each part: who are "them?" Arabs? Muslim fundamentalist terrorists? Rotary Club members? Supposing Iraq has something to do with 9-11, how would a battle against Sunni insurgents and roving militias of various sectarian stripes in Iraq exempt us from fighting "them" here? The 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia and Egypt; the "masterminds" were expatriate Saudis, Egyptians and Kuwaitis. Why would fighting Iraqis make it impossible for 19 other Saudis & Egyptians and the same, at-large masterminds to come up with another plot? Wouldn't it, in fact, be easier, given the war in Iraq? Aren't we in the midst of doing something of such colossal irrelevance, of such massive depletion, of such catastrophic self-destruction, that another 9-11 is actually more likely rather than less? If we have 133,000 troops fighting "them" over there, don't "they" actually have fewer of "us" to fight "over here?"

And then today. Bush & Blair at the podiums. What about Poland? Bush probably wanted to ask again, but in a different way this time. What about Spain and Italy? Nah, it's just the Anglo-American Feel-Good Team still hangin' in there. Bush had a new one for the Suspension of Sanity Hall of Fame. It went something like this: with the "unity government" now in place, the Iraqi people now know when an insurgent blows up a bomb, it's a strike against all of the Iraqis, because they're now part of a united Iraq. Bush said this with his usual masterful imbecility, pausing to make sure we got it, that the nuances sank in. His eyes sweeping the room like arrogant search lights, the smirk barely controlled. He's got us now. Now whenever we read about a bomb exploding in Baghdad, or Ramadi, or Kirkuk or Mosul, or in all those places, often on the same day, fountaining the green-black sewage which runs freely in the streets of the unelectrified, water-barren environs of Iraq's cities --whenever this happens, the Iraqi people will know it's now a strike against all of them, because a cabinet has been chosen for the unity government of Iraq.

Just once how I wish some reporter with a good set of nuts would raise his hand, stand, and confront this silly President of ours with one riveting inquiry. "Mr. President," he could ask, "just what in the fuck are you talking about?"

May 24, 2006

school's still in

If this keeps up, maybe I'll just enroll. Something I never really grokked 1966-70: Berkeley is really a beautiful campus. The fresh spring air, I find, is even nicer without the tear gas. The coeds (I suppose they're still called that) are yet more beautiful, in their halter tops and jeans skirts, than the Blue Meanies of the Oakland Sheriff's Department, with their azure jumpsuits (I wouldn't use "azure" to their face), smoky riot shields and black truncheons. No doubt the protest years were unique, stimulating, inspirational. I realize now, as I walk the wide paths near the Life Sciences Building in the cool air, that it would have worked wonderfully just as, you know, a college.

Amazing what an "all-volunteer army" will do. We faced the draft and a meat grinder called Vietnam. It concentrated the mind wonderfully, reminded us that we were, after all, the parties with "standing" to raise a ruckus. That we'd better do it ourselves, since if we didn't, who would? History, I submit, has proven us correct. The narcoleptic American society of 2006 just lets it all happen. We blog about it, we read other blogs about it, but mostly, if Jamaal and Jose want to toss in the wrench at Jiffy-Lube and give military life a spin -- hey, dudes, nobody made you. It's the Pentagon's private affair, and they've got their own mercenaries to enforce America's business plan.

But such thoughts weren't really on my mind as I stopped by the Free Speech Movement Cafe for a decaf cap. Or capp. See how cosmo I've gotten? I didn't know that when I was an undergrad. Of course, I didn't know anything. Over to Benjamin Ide Wheeler Hall for Day Two of the China-USA Climate Change Forum. I just had to hear Amory Lovins, the "soft energy paths" guy of the Rocky Mountain Institute. As a bonus, there was Peter Schwartz of Smith & Hawken, formerly a rocket scientist (literally - studied fluid dynamics), formerly at SRI, formerly everything. Essentially, he and Amory are brilliant for a living. I didn't know what Amory would look like, but I should have known. Nebbishy, thick black walrus mustache, glasses, balding, designer/nerd shoes, short, abrupt, supremely confident. When he was done with his half hour, you really wanted to ask: where's the problem? Let's get on with these carbon composite cars that get 111 mpg running on switchgrass booze and move on to the next thing! Why was Inez Fung, the Lawrence Berkeley Absolute Whiz on all things globally warmed so bummed yesterday? Why did she begin her talk on the science of climate change, which she commands with a mastery Michelangelo brought to that church ceiling -- why did she say she was "worried. Very worried"? Amory to the rescue!

Maybe it was because of something Peter Schwartz said. There were two people left in America who aren't sure about global warming. Unfortunately, they're George Bush and Dick Cheney.

So for two days in a row, I'm left scratching my head. How, exactly, did we get in this predicament? The problem is real, the solutions are not only here, but exciting! capable of reversing America's balance of trade problem! fun! interesting!

And on the news, a car bomb exploded in Baghdad, killing 8 and wounding 15.

May 23, 2006

a day at Berkeley

It was like old times, spending a day on campus. The occasion was the China-USA Climate Change Forum at Wheeler Auditorium. Al Gore was going to attend, bringing along his movie, but a union strike kept him off campus. After a couple of hours of the forum, I thought that was just as well. It didn't need any politicizing or Hollywood treatment. The scientists in attendance did fine without the glitz, without the carefully calibrated emotionality of the professional pol. Al's got his act, but it would have been out of place today. How nice just to listen to Steven Chu, Nobel Laureate, Director of Lawrence Berkeley, lay out in one clear, twenty-minute Power Point the state of global warming science, the scope of the problem, the solutions at hand. Questions I'd wondered about, he answered. Yes, the United States has the hectares to continue feeding the world, thanks to the Green Revolution, while converting land now kept fallow because of government subsidies to cellulose farms, with enough ethanol-making capacity to fuel the American car fleet several times over. All of it can be done. The Chinese are working hard as well. They see the problem. The US produces 25% of the greenhouse gases, the Chinese 20%, so if those two countries get their acts together, we're well on our way to a sustainable future.

The Chinese recognize they're being asked to take a route different from the USA, to pass up the glutton phase and go directly to green responsibility. They know they have to. As one eminent Chinese scientist put it, if China used paper at the US per capita level, we would need "four Earths" to supply the trees. To run their cars at the US level, "three Earths" to supply the oil. We've got one Earth, and we need to share it.

One good thing about Bush's War. It's kept the U.S. military pinned down in Iraq, it's true. But it's also kept Bush pinned down. He's blown all the money, seriously damaged the military. He's wrecked the Republican Party. By the time he's through, in January 2009, he will have spent almost all his years attacking Afghanistan and Iraq. Those will be the signature features of his Presidency. We will have to look back on those eight long years as the woodshed period, the sabbatical, when the best brains in the USA, China and elsewhere kept thinking, kept innovating, without any help from Bush or Washington, DC. He was busy sending young men off to die a long way from home. And he did it mostly in the service of his private demons. So to American soldiers who left a leg or arm or your vision or your sanity in Iraq - that much was accomplished, and it's not trivial. To the families who lost a son or daughter - I'm sorry, but that will have to do. I don't believe there's anything else to show for it. But by answering the call of duty, by obeying your Commander in Chief, you avoided even worse mischief at his hands.

Except, perhaps, that we've also learned you can't elect an obviously unqualified man as President. We can't afford that again. Let us never elect a guy again because we think we'd like to have a beer with him, and for no other reason. That's not enough, and I think most of us are at the point where we know in our hearts that would be one bitter drink anyway.

I had lunch at the Free Speech Movement Cafe. I appreciate the gesture of these young students, and their tribute to a generation that passed here quite a while ago. All of us, including this studious, quiet group now at Berkeley, waited this clown out, for eight long years. Maybe we had that luxury this time through. Time will tell. But remember what a contemporary of mine said so long ago, just in case it happens again:

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.

Rest in peace, Mario.

May 22, 2006

Blogging: The Hidden Agenda

Admittedly, it's all a ploy to get Working Assets to notice me and give me a book deal, like they gave Glenn Greenwald for "How Would a Patriot Act." The editor, Jennifer Nix, lives just down the road in Sausalito. How can she not notice another lawyer churning out verbiage about Bush outrages? I'm right here, Jennifer.

Let me say a few words about Glenn. My facts are based on reading the Chronicle article about him and Working Assets. The piece ran a couple of weeks ago, and that's all I'm going on, that and reading Unclaimed Territory, his blog, ever since. I won't give you the URL because you're reading me right now. It's a nice blog and says all the right things about the NSA/FISA violations, Alberto "The Torque" Gonzales and his threat to prosecute journalists for violation of the Espionage Act, the Iraq War, etc. All the stuff you read on the every day, in other words. Jonathan Turley and Bruce Fein, even John Dean, have covered this stuff to death, and reached the inevitable conclusion that Bush gets up, every morning, every day of the week, and resumes violating the law, committing felonies left and right. No lawyer who went to an accredited school, took Con Law and passed the bar would have much trouble figuring out that Bush doesn't have a leg to stand on. Every legally trained person knows it. The only reason there is even a hint of controversy is that we have an utterly gutless Congress, including the faux-brave Arlen Specter, who pretends to be exercising oversight but is actually falling all over himself to amend the FISA law to accommodate Bush's law breaking. Imagine that.

Cop (outside bank): Come out with your hands up!
Robber (from inside bank): Not until I shoot the rest of these people, take all the money and do anything else I want!
Cop: Why can you do that?
Robber: I have the absolute right to do it!
Cop: Who says so?
Robber: I do!
Cop: How about we amend the Penal Code to make what you're doing legal? Would you come out then?
Robber: I'll think about it! (Bang! Bang!)

A first, in other words. Congress is utterly hopeless. We have been fully transformed into a system of men, not laws. But I was talking about Glenn Greenwald. He is praised for not being a "name caller," and for writing long, lawyerly arguments. Also, he spends most of his time in Brazil, according to the article.

Okay, let's take a look at my blog and me. I live right here in California. My passport expires in July, and since I'm so disorganized and lazy, I'll probably wind up trapped here under the Bush tyranny. I can write long, lawyerly arguments as well as the next lawyer who hates being a lawyer. I have to say, though, and maybe this is name calling and will turn Jennifer off: Glenn's writing is a little sententious, and I don't mean the first meaning, "terse and energetic." I mean the subsequent, probably incorrect definitions, such as "pompous, overblown and full of aphorism." This is something lawyers who hate being lawyers do. It's all they know how to do, actually, write sententious prose based on secondary sources. I don't have any "sources" in the White House and I doubt Unclaimed Territory does either. The blogosphere is just people feeding off those felons-to-be, the ones with sources, real journalists, who now face rendition and probable water-boarding in Jordan as the result of revealing that the CIA runs a gulag of prisons in places like Jordan where they do water-boarding. I wish water-boarding were a fun thing, something you did behind a speed boat with a tow rope, but I don't think so.

Anyway, lawyers write like that because I think litigating attorneys, pound for pound, have to do more writing than any other profession, including journalists and novelists. Hey, I've purged my "closed files," lined up 20 or 30 banker's boxes in a parking lot, representing maybe just a decade's worth of work, and ordered their shredding. That's a lot of writing, even if only half of it was me. The other half was some other shmuck practicing law, "opposing counsel." I've got all their originals, or did, till they went to the landfill or back to Strathmore. Dostoevsky? Tolstoy? Pikers. You could take all their combined works, add Herman Melville, and fit it into two of those boxes, with room left over for my billing records, 1982-85. Now I'm not saying anything about quality. That's the point. To churn out all that pablum, all those letters, memoranda of points and authorities, briefs, discovery documents, all that "costly nonsense" (Dickens, Bleak House), you have to write fast with ready-made phrases, like gluing strips of words together. "Apparently opposing counsel seriously contends..." "Assuming this is not another instance of disingenuousness..." you sneer. On and on.

Hey, if you've ever read Scott Turow, you know how this stuff translates into lawyers writing fiction. His prose actually reads like a brief. If he wants to get the idea across that a lawyer is emotionally devastated by the revelation his wife has been unfaithful, he'll describe his protagonist with the fanciful name, Rusty Thornbrick or something, as follows: "Elias Ortega y Gasset, his wise and patient counsel, delivered the hammer blow as gently as possible. It didn't help. Rusty was emotionally devastated by the revelation his wife had been unfaithful."

So I don't know about bloggers writing legal arguments on the Web, unless, of course, they truly think of an original point that has simply been overlooked. And really, Jennifer, as you read back through my posts, can't you see some of those? And that title: "How Would a Patriot Act." Too cute by half, if you ask me. Mine would be more subtle, something like "The American Fourth Reich: Life Under Der Fuhrer Bush," something that doesn't betray my bias too quickly.

So that's what I'm aiming for. Just a book deal. A good friend from Berkeley days, so faithful a friend that he has won the coveted Croix d'amitiƩ for lifetime achievement in friendship, has as much as implied that my blog is little more than a self-indulgent exercise in vanity. It is so much more than that. It is the desperate cry of the currently non-practicing lawyer: please, please, don't make me do that again! No more glu-lam sentences, no more dreary numbered pleading paper! No more legal bullshit. Free-form bullshit, Jennifer. Where do I sign?

May 21, 2006

thoughts on a rainy Sunday evening in May

Seasonally, I suppose, I'm in the September of my years. Assuming that favorable genetics and good luck might yield a man 80 years, or about 30,000 days, I've used up about 21,000 so far, or 2/3 of the allotment. Translating that into a 12 month year, I'm in about the 8th or 9th month, or August/September. I haven't seen a horoscope of day-counting, which is remarkable given the general consuming interest in all things occult. What I mean is, I suppose you could count days, translate the days into the sort of fraction I've just calculated, and figure where you are against that 30,000 day approximate allotment. So although I'm an Aquarius, maybe right now I'm in the Virgo with Libra rising stage of my life. Here's a reading from the LA Times for Libra today: "We dance around the ring and suppose, but the secret sits in the middle and knows." -- Robert Frost

I can't get much out of that either. Nice, though, to come across something from Frost I hadn't seen before. As the years go by, you learn things just as well as in your youth, I've found. And it's always knowledge tempered with the wisdom of experience, so you're not so quick to credit something you read with infallibility just because it's in print. You've learned that people write and say things for all kinds of reasons, and authoritative assuredness is not often the motivating reason. Quite often it's a projection of what someone needs to believe for very personal reasons. As an immediate example, if someone told me exactly what that Frost quote was supposed to mean for me, right now, I would view it with a high degree of suspicion. Look at all the assumptions built into the interpretation: that this "moving through horoscopic stages" thing I've just made up has some validity, that astrology means something despite the precession of the equinoxes, that the positon of constellations at the moment some guy was born in a rural area in Decatur, Alabama on a cold February morning in 1948 is decisive in his day-to-day reality.

Although I admit - I am a classic Aquarian, as I understand the type. Idealistic, artistic, somewhat aloof, more intellectual than emotional. Yet -- harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding...

I have learned that there is something to this idea of "stages," even to the Gail Sheehy concept of passages. Intuitively it sets in, around 40 or so. You learn that things go away and never come back, that they belong to a certain age, an appropriate energy level, to an enabling naivete. I could cite many examples but I won't. You know what I mean, if you're in July or so. Leo or thereabouts.