Tuesday, July 26, 2005

An Interview with Don Pesci: How to Succeed in Politics Without Really Trying; a Primer for Connecticut Republicans

Most editors and commentators, provided you could get them to swear on a Bible, will tell you that there are only two political parties here in Connecticut: their bums and our bums. Because the state is overwhelmingly Democratic, the vast majority of the bums are either liberal or moderate to liberal.

National conservatives for some time have been making a fuss over the liberal media, and they have opened their own outlets. Fox News -- despite its claim that it is fair, balanced and objective – leans to the right. Rush Limbaugh is a man of the right. Bill O’Reilly claims to be a moderate every five minutes but, on many important issues, he carries water for Republicans, not all of whom are conservatives. Successful radio talk shows are mostly conservative; media outlets are mostly liberal. The blogs, mostly conservative, have exerted a moderating residual influence on the mainstream media.

The pool of conservative writers have expanded exponentially over the last few years. Are there so few conservatives in Connecticut’s media because publishers and editors, themselves liberal, have posted signs on their offices reading “No conservatives need apply here?” Possibly. The news media is a closed cirlce. Since the demise of the Hartford Times, The Hartford Courant is the only state-wide newspaper in Connecticut. Oddly enough, when both newspapers were competing with each other for dollars, the Courant was the conservative paper, the Times being more liberal.

John Zakarian, lately retired as Editorial Page Editor of the Courant, used to boast that conservatives would never be admitted on the staff of his editorial pages. True to his word, the editorial pages at the Courant were unsullied by conservative thought during his long tenure, a tradition that continues to this day. All the political commentators on the staff of he Courant are unapologetic liberals, and Zakarian's replacement on the Courant appears to be cut from the same cloth.

Contrarians begging admittance to the Courant therefore have a gatekeeper problem. Making matters worse, there is the ticklish problem of entropy. In the absence of a transforming force, all matter and energy in the universe tends to evolve toward a state of inert uniformity. This alone is sufficient explanation for the distressing unanimity in editorial opinion throughout Connecticut’s media. Because things are liberal, they remain so; that’s entropy. Entropy inevitably leads to the deterioration of systems and social organizations. That is what is happening nationally with the liberal media. Newspapers have lost their influence to a variety of new outlets; they are the malls, somewhat passe, of the information market.

Political parties – in the past, engines of change – also have been compromised. It would be truer to say they have been abandoned, at least as financial instruments and ideological mentors. And the campaign finance reforms written and supported here in Connecticut by Christopher Shays, a “moderate” Republican, don’t help one bit.

The reforms Rep. Chris Shays and Sen. John McCain put together criminalize contributions made to political parties, which is exactly what incumbent politicians here in the Northeast want. Cashes of money distributed by political parties may possibly affect the futures of incumbents. Usually, the playing ground between incumbents and challengers is leveled when the challenger spends more than the incumbent – which is why Jon Corzine, former head of Goldman Sachs, is now a senator in New York.

In Connecticut, every incumbent politician has become his own political party. Certainly Sen. Chris Dodd and Rep. Nancy Johnson, a liberal Democrat and a moderate Republican, need not rely upon their parties to support their campaigns financially. Entropy is king in Connecticut, and elsewhere in the nation, for all these reasons.

And, as always, the cowardice of the state’s “upper crust” plays an important roll.

Former US Rep. Barbara Kennelly, whose 1st District seat in Congress was safe as Fort Knox, once ran against a Republican who worked for large company in Connecticut. Writing columns featuring Republicans running in the overwhelmingly Democratic First District was for me a labor of love. Few columnists would write favorably about them. What was the point? Why risk the disfavor of the incumbent hegemonic Democrat from whom they would be able to milk information that would, in the future, flesh out their stories and columns? What is the point of gilding political losers?

But the Republican this time, so it seemed to me, was a capable, personable and intelligent loser. On the day I interviewed him, he seemed unusually distressed.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

The words came flaming out of him: “I just learned that my company – my company! – gave a larger campaign contribution to Kennelly than it gave to me.”

It is not unusual in Connecticut for people to give to politicians the rope they will use to hang them. Why do they do it? Why should any millionaire in Connecticut, to fetch for the most recent example, contribute any money to the campaign of any Democrat, now that Democrats have announced plans to plunder them?

At a minimum, politics is a battle of interests. Why do millionaires – and not, say, union stewards -- so brashly act against their own interests? Is it possible they think they can buy off determined liberals with campaign cash and tolerant attitudes? Republican Governor Jodi Rell's veto – a very slender reed indeed – is the only thing that stands between Fairfield "Gold Coast" contributors and a millionaire’s tax.

While it is true that Democrats haven’t got the tax yet, just wait; they’ll get it. In Rell Connecticut has a governor given to premature “compromises." Former Governor John Rowland at least was not afraid to get bloodied. Rell, a typical “moderate” Republican, doesn’t stand a chance against principled liberals.

This does not mean she will fail to be re-elected. But the terms of her re-election will involve the compromise of Republican principles. Since former Governor William O'Neill was driven from office by a hail of editorial bullets directed at him by Connecticut's liberal press, Conecticut has had three Republican governors -- Former Governor and Senator Lowell Weicker may be counted as a Republican, though he ran for governor as an Independent -- and no identifiably Republican programs. Republicans seem unwilling to fight for their principles; and he who does not fight in the political amphitheatre loses -- everything.

If the rich in Connecticut, however “rich,” is defined, pay most of the taxes, apparently uncomplainingly, why object? Is it not possible that liberals are right when they say the rich should pay “their fair share?” Surely, a vigorous protest would be an indicator that the patience of rich people in the state has been exhausted. Protests of this kind – non-existent – would mark the borders of “fairness.” If the rich are coughing up money without complaint, if they can “afford” the tax increases, why should the rest of us care?

That is a good question. Some Republicans -- not nearly enough -- are focused on spending, which has doubled in the state, and more than doubled, since Weicker’s administration. But the focus is filtered through a media that only cares how spending is to be financed -- not whether it is excessive. It was Weicker who bequeathed to Connecticut its first income tax. The last pre-income-tax budget, under O’Neill, was $7.5 billion; the present budget is inching up towards $15 billion, a figure that does not include a proportional increase in bonding.

That’s a lot of spending. When Weicker was last heard from a few months ago, he was loudly complaining – in the pages of the Courant, of all places – that spendthrift legislators had gone through the whole wad. "Where did it all go?" he lamented. The question arises: Is a spending increase of such magnitude "fair?"

Now, it happens that when this question is put to liberals in Connecticut, they will not answer it: The doubling of the budget within the space of two governors is not fair, by any measure. But the question is never asked. I mean, it is never asked – not by Republicans, certainly not by Democrats, not by the media.

An honest answer to the question would compromise moderate Republicans. The state could not have doubled tax receipts in so short a time if Republicans had mounted a principled and effective campaign against profligate spending. They did not because, among other reasons, support mechanisms were lacking. All the noise, all the political chatter, reinforces the view, held by virtually all Democrats as well as an increasingly politicaly disconnected citizenry, that the state does not have a spending problem.

The Courant’s political columnist put it exactly in those words: "The state has no spending problem; it has a revenue problem." Spending is not a problem; getting revenue is the problem. So long as you do not alienate the affections of a majority of Connecticut voters by forcing them to pay for the services they consume -- a risk avoided by taxing millionaires, the kulaks of Democratic polity in Connecticut -- you will be on safe ground.

The Democrat's answer to the revenue problem was proposed as Rowland was being ushered out of office by a grand jury, an impeachment hearing and barrel loads of bad press: Get it from the millionaires. Conservative Republicans had no support in the media, and they were abandoned by a governor who won his first term in office by campaigning on conservative principles but quickly capitulated to the prevailing forces.

It approaches fantasy to think that a Republican governor who won office by hinting he would repeal the income tax if elected presided over a budget that doubled under his auspices. Republicans in Connecticut stil have no party, no friends and are incapable of influencing people. They have a governor, Rell, for whom compromise is a reflex action, exactly the kind of "moderate" Republican respected by liberal political writers who think the state does not have a spending problem.

We are approaching the point where Republicans may only be able to win by losing. If Republicans lost the governor’s office, they just might recover their principles; if they lost the future gubernatoral battle, they just might win the war. During his historic long run as governor, Rowland consistently undercut members of his own party afflicted with conservative tendencies. In caucus, he would shout and yell at them in tones that might have brought a blush to the cheeks of Lowell Weicker, who once famously described himself as "the turd in the Republican Party punch bowl." When the Republicans offered Rowland substantial principled resistance in caucuses, the governor would cut a deal with the majority Democrats, arguing that, as governor, he was responsible for attending to the interests of all Connecticut's citizens, not just contentious and principled Republicans.

Rell method of governance is much the same. You cannot build a party on compromise; this always has been a political cul-de-sac for minority Republicans. No forward motion is possible under these terms. Compromise on important principles assures that there will be no exit from the status quo.

At some point, Republicans might consider forming a state conservative party, always a risky proposition. But the fear of failure is the hobgoblin of little minds.
When the modern conservative party first spilled out of Bill Buckley's fertile brain, it was a wee faltering creature with a great deal of ideological meat on its bones, but not much muscle.

A conservative party in Connecticut most likely would resemble the national conservative party, though not to a tee. Parties coalesce around ideas or persons, usually both. The way things are arranged now, every incumbent is his own party.

“Leadership political action committees” are all the rage among upward bound incumbents vying for prestige and power in Washington DC. They answer the question: How do you win friends and influence people in the congress? The answer is: You buy their influence and affection. Providing funds and succor to wounded incumbents and novice party politicians used to be a function of political parties. This function now has been appropriated by incumbents.

Sen. Chris Dodd and Rep. Nancy Johnson, thanks to Leadership PACs, now are able to finance the elections of other friendly and influential politicains, once the exclusive prerogative of political parties. As of July, 2005, Dodd’s PAC, absurdly titled Citizens for Hope Responsibility Independence and Service – CHRISPAC, get it? -- has pulled in $406,405. The top Democrat on the banking committee, Dodd has distributed $115,000 to other politicians, leaving him with $256.168 to purchase the affections of others who may, once they received the money, be obliged to gratify Dodd's most ardent wish.

Dodd’s lengthy stay in office has been financed by insurance, financial and legal mega-organizations. Might not these contributors be more generous if Dodd should become chairman of the banking committee, a prospect that cannot be brought to fruition unless Democrats retake control of the senate?

Johnson’s long run in the House could not have been possible without the support of Big Medicine: hospital associations, pharmaceutical and doctor’s groups. Johnson’s husband is a doctor. According to one news report, the congresswoman was given an opportunity to deny assertions that her husband had performed abortions and made no denial. This year, Johnson has given about $33,500 to vulnerable Republicans and $5,000 to the WISH list, a group that supports the election of women candidates who support – Guess what? -- abortion rights.

Billed in Conecticut's media as a "moderate," Johnson is chairwoman of the House health subcommittee and, after greasing a few palms, hopes to become chairman of the Ways and Means committee if, as expected, the current chairman steps down.

Now, there’s nothing unusual in all this; every incumbent congressman in Connecticut has formed a leadership PAC. But it should be noted that the PACs provide incumbents with advantages that cannot be equalized through any campaign finance reform thus far proposed. The PACs also leave incumbents open to attacks that they have been bought by their contributors, part of the bitter fruit that has issued from the disintegration of political parties.

To sustain itself, a conservative party in Connecticut would need, at a minimum, money, a means of communication, a message bearer and an organization. And, of course, the ruling party, incumbent politicians, would put up a stiff resistance.

But Republicans in the state have no where to go but up. They are losing ground in the legislature and have only one piece, the governorship, on the chess board. The governor's moves on the board are considerably restricted by the prevailing political philosophy embraced by the usual state "moderate" Republican: Can't we just get along? All recent Republican governors, including Weicker, have campaigned as Republicans and governed, once in office, as Democrats.

It was Weicker who broadly hinted, while running as an independent for governor, that he would not institute an income tax. Almost everyone in Connecticut can recall his words: Introducing an income tax, he said during his campaign, would be “like pouring gas on a fire.” Having been elected governor, Weicker proceeded to pile on the gas, while the usual political commentators bit their tongues.

The losing Republican in that race was John Rowland, who ran for office next time around on a pledge to repeal the tax. Apres Weicker came the deluge. Following the administrations of three governors – Weicker, a long time “maverick” Republican, Rowland and Rell, both Republicans – the state has doubled its spending, and Connecticut still is afflicted with those nagging problems that made an income tax necessary way back when the state budget was half of what it now is.

Will Rowland, now in jail, hurt Republican prospects?

He hasn’t so far. Most people in Connecticut are political grown-ups; they expect their politicians to give off a slight odor. North of our border in Massachusetts, we have a politician who, to say the least, assisted in the drowning of a young woman.

While Mary Jo Kopechne was imprisoned in a car driven off a bridge by Edward Kennedy, the senator, who that day had consumed a good amount of liquor, walked past two houses within sight of the bridge, and then spent a full day attempting to salvage his sinking political career. Having given a fellow reveler, a lawyer friend, to understand that he intended to report the accident to police, Kennedy swam to a motel, made more than a hundred phone calls to his friends and political operatives, and went to sleep. Criminal irresponsibility can be very fatiguing.

Why the layover before Kennedy called authorities to report the accident? No grand jury was convened to explore this and other nagging questions. Not only has Kennedy been re-elected numerous times, he is considered by moral epigones in the media to be above the salt. Go figure. Next to Huey Long and Edward Kennedy, Rowland was a piker.

No one drowned at Rowland’s lakeside cottage. He accepted gifts from contractors doing business with the state, not an unheard of practice in Connecticut politics. If we think of political contributions as gifts – some of them extorted by politicians and lobbyists from people who depend on the good will of incumbents -- every politician in the nation may be said to be tainted with corruption. Chris Dodd regularly receives from people he is in a position to benefit political contributions, free plane trips, meals and other amenities. So do other incumbents.

Though she was Lieutenant Governor in the Rowland administration, Rell has managed to position herself as a reformist governor – a marvel to opposition Democrats. The Democrats look upon her as a Puritan in pettycoats. Rell has trumped the Democrats on ethics, and her critics have not marveled too loudly. There is some reason to believe that an almost frantic concern for ethical behavior among politicians in the state has waned in Democratic circles since Rowland has been removed from office.

The tepid reaction of leading Democrats to the FBI investigation of state Sen. Ernest E. Newton is instructive. For months, Republicans have been beseeching Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams to remove Newton as deputy president pro tem, pleas that have fallen on deaf ears.

The Newton case eerily parallels the Rowland case. Newton is accused of accepting a $5,000 bribe from Warren K. Godbolt, the executive director of Progressive Training Associates in Bridgeport. The bribe was intended to purchase Newton’s aid in procuring a $100,000 grant from the State Bond Commission to renovate his headquarters.

Godbolt only recently pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy to embezzlement charges, about six months after the scandal surfaced in the press. For six months, Newton’s friends in high places have bitten their tongues. Even after Godbolt’s guilty plea, Lt. Gov. Kevin Sullivan, one of Newton’s mentors and friends – and an early and persistent critic of Rowland – declined to comment.

The governor’s popularity is driving the opposition batty. With a juicy scandal in hand, Democrats had a veritable bazooka to blow up Republican politicians connected with the Rowland regime. Yet, Rell has been able to dodge the missiles. Her favorability ratings are stratospheric, and none of the mud Rowland critics have slung at the former governor has yet stuck to her.

The media seems favorably disposed towards Rell, perhaps because she has taken care to wave liberal flags in the air: Rell supports campaign finance reform and civil unions: at one point she seemed willing to consider a millionaire’s tax.

The watchword of “moderate” Republican governors in Connecticut has been that chief executives, outnumbered in the legislature by opposition Democrats, must compromise, half a loaf being more nourishing than no loaf at all. The problem with premature compromise as a strategy is that the political current pushes everyone to the left. Opposition Democrats open any negotiating session with a demand for the whole loaf. If you surrender half a loaf before the negotiations have begun, you end up with crumbs. Then too, every compromise weakens and deflates the resolve of your political base.

In the absence of a strong party, other political players are left to shape the political agenda. In Connecticut, the political agenda is shaped by the media, largely liberal, interest groups, largely liberal, and the majority party, largely liberal.

So, here we are. Darkness has not swallowed up everything. Candles flicker in the wind. This morning, the Hartford Courant published on its op-ed page an editorial that previously appeared in the largely conservative Wall Street Journal warning Rell that her declared support of an increase in the gift tax would drive out of the state much reviled millionaires who are financing Connecticut’s spending binge. It's a candle Republicans ought not to leave burning under their bushels.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Lt. Governor Kevin Sullivan on the Burning Deck

It is always amusing – in a scary sort of way – to watch a politician leap from the burning deck into the icy, shark filled waters below.

Such was Lieutenant Governor Kevin Sullivan’s fate when newspapers began to report that he had planned to “host” a gala affair at the Mohegan Sun casino-hotel.

The annual meeting of the Eastern Regional Conference of the Council of State Governments is to be held this year in the post- Gov. John Rowland era, and eyes and ears were everywhere poised to discover offenses against relatively new ethical proprieties.

Since the hot-tub affair, when the former governor of Connecticut admitted publicly that he had accepted at least one favor from people doing business with the state, it had been generally assumed, especially by Democrats who began impeachment proceedings against the future felon, that the acceptance of favors from people whom politicians were in a position to reward was a “no-no.” That assumption remains operative today, even though legislation providing sanctions against this self destructive behavior now lies languishing on the draft board of the state legislature.

Sullivan, at the time, was among Rowland’s severest critics. So, imagine how surprised reporters and commentators were to discover that this paragon of political rectitude was “hosting” an affair in which services were provided free by companies that had or would have connections with prominent politicians.

Following a finding from the interim general counsel of the Office of State Ethics that the acceptance of free ferry rides from a company that last month received more than $1 million in state bonding money, Sullivan’s press spokesman leapt into action.

Sullivan had been receiving a drubbing on the Brad Davis radio show, and the press spokesman called in to point out that Sullivan was on record as having said he would not participate in proceedings deemed questionable by an ethics committee now in the process of extensive renovations.

Sullivan’s press spokesman wanted the talk show’s audience to know that his boss would not be making opening remarks at a Block Island event featuring a boat ride and reception for 15 East Coast governments scheduled to participate in the annual meeting. He had scaled down his responsibilities and would instead be participating in one of the forums. It had been an overstatement, Tapper said, to characterize Sullivan’s participation in the event as a “host.”

Shortly after Sullivan leapt from the burning deck, Connecticut’s Culinary Institute joined him in the treacherous waters of the wine dark sea.

The state legislature last month authorized millions of dollars in bonding money for the institute, which had consented to a request from one of Sullivan’s aides to provide $2,750 in free food for the Mohegan Sun gala. But after the institute discovered Sullivan had been making inquirers of the ethics committee, it withdrew its offer to provide free meals, proving that there really is no such thing as a free lunch. The institute now plans to charge the Council of State Governments $2,750 for its services.

In one news report, the institute’s director of public relations, Brooke Baran, described the relationship between the putative “host” of the event and his employer: “Kevin's office had asked for a food donation,” he said, “so we felt as though we could try to do something for them."

But for a few nosey reporters, Sullivan and the legislators he once served as President Pro Tem of the state Senate would have been much obliged.

Coming close upon the internment of several politicians of note for various improprieties, Sullivan’s lapse of ethical judgment invites comparison with Rowland’s sad fall from grace.

The differences are significant: Rowland was a governor and Sullivan, thanks to Rowland’s leave-taking, is a Lieutenant Governor, a breath away from the gubernatorial office. Rowland apologized for misleading the press, thus setting the stage for his downfall. Sullivan has issued no apology for his press secretary’s avowal that his role in the gala event fell far short of hosting it. Not to split hairs, but keynoting the event and arranging free meals for its participants are host-like activities. Rowland is in jail after having suffered the humiliations of daily press reports, a grand jury investigation, an impeachment proceeding, and a year and a day in jail. Sullivan is free as a bird. Rowland was a Republican. Sullivan is a Democrat.

Differences aside, Sullivan’s questionable ethical activities occurred after years of press exposure and prosecutions. So he cannot claim blissful ignorance as a mitigating factor – assuming anyone wishes to hold him responsible for his lapses. Ink by the barrel load was spilled during the Rowland scandal, mostly by political opponants and ill wishers in the media who wanted to see the governor in prison stripes. Sullivan will fare better. His ethical lapses will have a shelf life of less tahn a week, and many newspapers will decline to print the story.

Most political watchers are guessing that Sullivan will emerge from the shark infested waters wet but unscathed. Very likely the aide who facilitated the deal between Sullivan and the culinary institute will take the bullet on the burning deck, his hair singed and his shirt bloody, waving fondly to the struggling swimmer making his way determinedly to the shore.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Bishop Smith's Inhibition

The Episcopal dust-up between Bishop Andrew Smith and half a dozen Connecticut pastors, better known as the “Connecticut Six,” is but the tip of a volcano; the eruption is portentous because it points to a profound and long lasting split in the world-wide Anglican Church over the issue of gay pastors and, in this case, gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson, recently installed in New Hampshire.

The fissure in the Anglican Church began at the moment of Robinson’s consecration, the battle lines at that point forming around theological issues. Robinson’s installation was the tap of the jeweler’s hammer that split the Anglican diamond, some scholars now predict, into two world-wide provinces: a conservative contingent that opposes admission of gays to the clergy on doctrinal grounds, and a liberal contingent that favors such admissions and an allegorical reading of sacred texts.

Having threatened to depose the Connecticut Six, Bishop Smith now has “inhibited” – Episcopal-speak for “fired” – the Rev. Mark Hansen of St John’s Church in Bristol.

A description by senior warden of the church Mr. Rick Gonneville of the bishop’s raid on St. John’s reads like a fourth century account of the incursion of Attila the Hun, “the scourge of God,” into a small Gallic town in northern France.

Hansen is one of the notorious “Connecticut Six” now in dispute with Smith, who supported the installation of Robinson. The six dissenters, they and others insist, are in doctrinal communion with the the wold-wide Anglican faith and the Episcopal faith in the United States prior to Robinson installation.

Smith, Mr. Gonneville said in an interview, “told me he had inhibited Mark and said the Rev. Susan McCone was taking over as priest in charge. I told him that I was not accepting that. He said it didn’t matter whether I accepted it or not; Mark was now inhibited and this individual was now in charge. He then asked me to open Mark’s office. I told him that was his personal office and I did not have the keys. They (the bishop and his retinue of twelve assistants) called in a locksmith company and proceeded to pry open the door. When they had done that, they changed all the locks on the church doors. In a sense we have all been inhibited. We have been locked out of the church including the parishioners. No one can get into the church without the key held by the bishop and his priest in charge.”

The bishop and his retinue hacked into St. John’s computers and retrieved financial information, apparently to support Smith’s view that Hansen had “abandoned communion with his church” by being in arrears in payment to the diocese and taking an unauthorized sabbatical.

The support group for the Connecticut Six insist that Smith’s action against Hansen under Title IV, Cannon 10 for “abandonment of communion” is “wholly and patently a misuse of that canon. It is clearly inapplicable where, as here, the priest being charged has resolutely maintained his commitment to the theology and structure of the Communion. It is Bishop Smith, not Fr. Hansen, who has stepped outside the normative teachings of the Anglican Communion by participating in the consecration of the Bishop of New Hampshire, his ordination of active same-sex partnered clergy and his teachings consistent with these actions. It is Bishop Smith, not Fr. Hansen, who has aided and abetted these theological innovations that threaten our Episcopal Church's very claim to be Anglican.”

Since the sanction Smith has applied against Hansen is one used ordinarily for canonical offenses, Smith has undercut his case by insisting that he is not discharging Hansen on a point of theology; according to Smith, it’s all about money and clerical defiance.

Hansen is in arrears in payments for a diocesan loan, and he has taken an unauthorized sabbatical.

“The bishop is fully aware,” Hansen said, “that family circumstances necessitated a sabbatical leave. I have informed him of the fact that our son has needs requiring a variety of specialized support services. The needs are real, and the services are expensive. In inhibiting me, the bishop has knowingly and willfully endangered my family’s well-being and security. If the bishop had issues with my contractual arrangements with the congregation, surely his concerns could have been expressed through pastoral rather than canonical actions, particularly in light of his knowledge of my specific circumstances.”

The last time a bishop in Connecticut sought to remove a priest from his parish for insufficient reasons, the bishop was flayed alive by the media. The hapless bishop now finds himself fending off a legal suit. It had been hotly asserted in numerous stories and editorials that the bishop had used a charge of financial mismanagement as a cover for ridding himself of a pestiferous priest. Since the bishop was a Catholic and the priest an African, it was also suggested that the bishop may have been racially motivated. One editorial suggested that the sex scandal in the Catholic Church had considerably reduced the trust quotient of the laity towards its bishops.

Yet here is a case, emblematic of a split in the world-wide Anglican Church, in which a bishop may have discharged a priest on the same false pretense and, in addition, has threatened to discharge five other priests.

And the silence surrounding these events is deafening.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Bush Among The Gnostics

There are reasons why President George Bush continues to dance a minuet around his harshest critics: They are not nearly as bright as he is.

No one knows for certain where or when the “Bush is stupid” fallacy began, probably among media commentators infested with self importance who think too highly of their own intelligence. Bush’s abuse of the language, his slurring of words – and, of course, that famous smug grin on display whenever he found himself in front of a camera – gave color to the notion, eagerly adopted by his partisan critics, that the president was not up on his Proust.

It came as a shock to some of them when they learned, just recently, that Bush’s grades at Yale were slightly better than those of Sen. John Kerry, whom he bested in the last presidential campaign. Apparently, both presidential candidates were indifferent students.

Bush’s critics have vastly underestimated him, and they continue their folly – to their peril.

Just now, the “Bush is a dummy” crowd is delighting in the discomfiture of Bush’s “brain,” Karl Rove, even though it would be more beneficial strategically to assume that Bush is Rove’s brain, rather than the other way around; for if the president is an intellectually empty vessel, a mere prop in the hands of some master intelligence, then he simply is not responsible – for anything!

Mythologies that bear little relationship to the truth often develop around powerful men. The truth is that Bush possesses a masterful political intelligence, usually attributed by his critics to his handlers. He’s a natural -- like Huey Long and Teddy Roosevelt, both politicians very much underestimated by the political cognoscenti of their day.

The mythology surrounding Bush – very subtlety propounded here in the Northeast, where modern gnostics shape the political discussion – is fascinating. The notion that Bush is “other-directed” by superior handlers is only part of it.

The gnostics were the original “know-it-alls.” The nature of the universe and its progress depend on the mastery of a secret knowledge, a gnosis, in the possession of a priestly class: That is the essence of gnosticism. It is not possible to account for the overrated influence wielded by third rate political thinkers and the ubiquitous pollsters that infest modern campaigns without understanding the gnostic temptation.

This is the way it plays out in the present instance: Bush’s critics assert the president is a mindless dunce who dances to tunes piped by his handlers. But reality, wending its way into this fantasy, forces the gnostics to acknowledge the president’s successes, if only to condemn them: Bush did, after all, win the presidency twice, although his critics continue to insist that the first term was a “gimme” made possible by a friendly U.S. Supreme Court decision.

How to explain – or rather, explain away – Bush’s second presidential campaign victory? The gnostics are working on it. No doubt it has something to do with a flawed presidential candidate who was insufficiently liberal, a fatal misstep corrected when a real liberal, John Dean, was chosen as the new fresh face of the Democratic Party.

The reality is that Bush is a president who has displaced the ruling powers in two countries. And in the off term election, with considerable help from a mindless presidential puppet, Republicans won majorities in both houses of Congress, an astonishing accomplishment.

How do the gnostics handle the incongruities? By what alchemy can these apparent successes be transformed into evident failures?

Some of them have resorted to Orwellian misdirection: Winning is losing, losing is winning; down is up, up is down. And, in a crunch, there are always Iranian “insurgents” to provide uplift when the gnostics crash into a reality wall.

That wall has become most evident recently in England, where British “insurgents,” the spiritual heirs of Iraqi “insurgent” Abu Musab Zarqawi, have blown up trains and busses. “We are not afraid,” the heirs of Winston Churchill proclaimed on their coffee mugs. Of course, Zarqawi, a citizen of Saudi Arabia, is not an insurgent; he is a foreign terrorist whom the Iraqis will dispose of when nationalism comes home to roost in their hearts. And even Bush’s most virulent critics might admit, if they could be caught with their hand on a Bible, that the murder of civilians is not very sporting of terrorists -- not insurgents -- who operate outside the boundaries established by the Geneva conventions.

Bush’s response to terrorists – “Get’em” – has not changed since the “insurgents” blew up the World Trade Center towers. The response of the gnostics to terrorism is, to put it charitably, more subtle.

Friday, July 08, 2005

A letter to Major Donnelly's son


A letter to Major Michael Donnelly’s son Sean, who soon will be attending East Catholic in Manchester. Major Donnell was a hero who died in the service of his country.

Sean,

When you came to see me at Nordstrom with your uncle Tim in tow, there to buy a blazer for your father’s funeral, I was struck dumber than I usually am.

It was the sight of you that did it – because you looked as your father once did when your grandmother used to bring him to another store where we both worked, Luettgens Limited, now a blessed memory. He and your uncle Tim used to visit me there when he was a few years younger than you.

In the spot where your grandmother and I used to spend our days working and laughing away the hours, there now arises a towering apartment complex that, the city fathers hope, will help Hartford throw off its stupor and become, as the ad-men say, “a rising star.” But don’t bet on it.

If ever a son was the spitting image of his dad, you are that son. The shock of recognition was a little too much for me, and my tongue refused to wag in my mouth -- a very, very compromising situation for someone like myself, who spends his idle hours stringing together thoughts, usually on political subjects, that are discarded with the recyclables.

Anyway, I’ve decided to take the coward’s way out and tell you in a column some things you probably already know.

Your father, with the help of your aunt Denise, wrote in Falcon’s Cry, “In my mind, I am still and always the same. I am still and always Michael, named for the archangel. I am still and always Michael, pilot, athlete, hunter, father, husband, son. Michael patriot, American. It’s just that my body has become an inert weight suspended like a pendulum from the firmament of my mind, that pendulum ticking out the minutes of my life, and time is no longer a generous, infinite resource.”

If God is a poet – and some people, among them St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, in his mystical moods toward the end of his life, think He is – it is appropriate that He arranged to receive Michael near the Fourth of July; for your father was indeed a patriot, and well named after the archangel who is the protector of the Catholic Church.

Your father would be horrified to hear me say this because, in addition to all else, he was blushingly modest … in an Irish sort of way; which is to say in a mischievous, teasing, witty way that hints at but does not cross the border of boastfulness. His friends probably have told you that, while he lived, Michael was the most fully human creature on the North American continent.

The sufferings he bore during the years he was afflicted with ALS would have tested the resolve of Job. You will learn about Job, and much else that is useful, when you begin school later at East Catholic in Manchester, your father’s alma mater.

It is Job’s great suffering, and the certainty that he has not sinned against the light, that lifts him above the false reasoning of the wise and prideful “friends” who contend with him. The message of Job is that the suffering good men sometimes bear is not a punishment. It is never a nullity. Sometimes it is a trial in which a man is found innocent who believes, against all the testimony of his senses, that God, whose ways are unsearchable, is a good, just and faithful Father.

Within the Catholic understanding, suffering is not purposeless. It is part of the order of creation. This is not to say that Catholics do not love life to the full. Your father – Irish on his father’s side, and Italian on his mother’s side, a potent combination -- loved the work of God’s creation, which includes, among all the glories of the earth, Sean Donnelly. But Catholics understand that in suffering the love of God is purified. One who suffers much is freed of self seeking and brought closer to a true understanding of the meaning of the Cross.

Your father’s life, like the life of all fathers, was a life given up for others. That is what it means to be a father, husband, son, patriot, American.

I have a feeling, call it a prophesy, that someday you will, like him, grow to be a man in the pattern of your dad: upright, strong, courageous, and honest, a faithful father to your own son – with just a touch of Irish playfulness to sweeten your hours. All this lies in a future that today stretches before you like an endless summer day, an infinite resource. That future, so full of promise, is your father’s greatest gift to you.