Monday, May 20, 2013

A Scandal Trifecta

"I gave them a sword," Richard Nixon said of his political enemies during the infamous David Frost, post-resignation interviews, "and they twisted it with relish." Had the roles been reversed, he said, "I'd have done the same thing." So, don't look at me to defend the Obama administration over the recent trifecta of scandals infecting the government. I am an equal opportunity scorn dispenser, and when an abuse of power occurs, it matters not the affection I have for the executive, but the severity of the breach of public trust. Obama is well aware that his every utterance comes under scrutiny by those who would undermine his presidency, so the careless and stupid actions of his subordinates threatens to squander the moral high ground established during the first term. Now, regardless of the outcome, Obama's second term will be mired in hearings, depositions, and legal briefs. The sharks were already circling. They were just waiting for a little blood in the water. He gave them the sword.

The tragedy of Benghazi is like catnip to the House Republicans and their propaganda arm known as Fox News. They have been flogging this story since Ambassador Susan Rice repeated redacted talking points on all the Sunday shows. An ambassador and an aide died in the conflagration, yet the GOP's focus of inquiry has been on the reporting about the attack. Republicans accuse the administration of a "political cover-up," claiming the president's staff manipulated talking points regarding Benghazi in order to influence the 2012 election. In return, the White House released a hundred pages of emails which show the CIA was responsible for the blather, which was then edited by someone in the State Department trying to make the agency look better than it deserved. Hillary Clinton's now famous eruption of, "What difference at this point does it make," in response to questions concerning terrorist involvement in the Benghazi attack have been turned into a GOP ringtone in preparation for the 2016 elections. The remainder of her statement; "It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from happening again," was forgotten in the ensuing hysteria.

The IRS targeting of Tea Party groups requesting tax exemption is inexcusable and illegal and deserving of the "heads will roll" attitude of the administration. The IRS acting director, Steve Miller, got dumped. I expected him to sing "Take the Money and Run," upon his departure, but I'm showing my age again. As long as I am, however, I well remember the IRS being used as a political weapon by Richard Nixon and his crewe. What's galling is that these political hit squads, both left and right, are supposed to be "social welfare" organizations that help to inform the electorate about the candidates, before they get their tax exempt status. After the IRS grants that status, the groups are free from reporting on their donors or the amount they spend. Ironically, the IRS flagged smaller Tea Party organizations for scrutiny while giving the big fish a pass. Karl Rove's American Crossroads super pac spent over 100 million dollars with such tax-free status, and none of it was for "social welfare." The politicization of the IRS still reflects the fact that Democrats can be as petty and ruthless as their counterparts and more firings are in order. The harassment of right-wing groups seeking a tax exemption, however, does not rise to the level of Rep. Michele Bachmann's accusations that Obama used the IRS to steal the election.

While the media focuses its attention on the IRS screw-up, the most egregious of the scandals is the covert collection of phone records from the Associated Press. Now we're into Nixon territory, and should the Justice Department's national security concerns fail to persuade, then Eric Holder has got to go. I understand he was personally questioned in regards to the AP matter and has thus recused himself from the investigations. Holder claims his Deputy ordered the harvesting of personal records from AP phone lines. There are other ways of obtaining information than breaking the law. The surreptitious collection of AP phone records could compromise the integrity of their sources and discourage whistleblowers from coming forth in the future. Associated Press CEO, Gary Pruitt, claimed the seizure of reporters' phone records "unconstitutional," and said the organization is considering legal action against the Justice Department. I don't hold many allegiances, but my first is to journalism. Earning that degree took a good deal of study, and much of it was about the constitutional protection of free expression. I believe the trampling of the 1st Amendment right of a free press by the Justice Department deserves the resignation of the Attorney General. Whether the AG is John Mitchell, Janet Reno, or Alberto Gonzales, when they skirt the law they were sworn to uphold, they become a drag on the presidency, and a negative representation of his government.

I don't understand the Republicans. They claim to be the party of family values with a special emphasis on marriage and fidelity. This president is a wonderful father and role model, faithful to his wife, without a hint of scandal, and yet they hate him so much. The zeal with which the Republicans are attempting to prove that Obama was the Svengali that micro-managed every crisis reminds me of the GOP's inquisition of Bill Clinton. By portraying Clinton as Satan, the GOP managed to obfuscate his real transgressions and ultimately turn the tide of public opinion in his favor. Recent polling indicates that Barack Obama's popularity has remained steady despite the shitstorm of conservative abuse. These "scandals" will consume Obama's presidency only because of political posturing by the Republicans, and ultimately they won't amount to much. Watergate was a scandal. Teapot Dome was a scandal. These are merely the bumblings of bureaucratic zealots, but the poisonous wing of the Republican party is already talking impeachment. It didn't have to be this way, but Obama's legislative agenda has been hijacked by a witches' brew of controversies. What a waste of talent.


Monday, May 06, 2013

Call The Wrecker For My Heart

"The Possum," George Jones, finally bought the farm at age 81, at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville on April 26. To his family's eternal credit, last week's funeral was declared open to the public. Some of Country music's greatest stars, with some unusual dignitaries, gathered at the Grand Ole Opry House along with thousands of fans, some of whom began gathering before dawn, for the memorial service. For those who couldn't attend the funeral personally, the event was live-streamed on the Internet, two different cable channels covered the obsequies, and as a tribute to Jones' transformative effect on country music, all local Nashville television stations broadcast the farewell in tribute. It was a ceremony fit for the King of Country Music, but Roy Acuff already claimed that nickname, and it's no longer accurate to call George, "No-Show" Jones. He was in the middle of a nationwide tour that was to have wrapped up in November with an all-star concert in Nashville. For a man who missed all those performances earlier in his career, he sure died with his boots on.

For those few poor souls unfamiliar with the singer, let's just say he was the Elvis of Country music, and I ain't talking Costello. Sam Phillips once referred to the Nashville music bidness as "having a follower's mentality," and in a town full of imitators, George Jones, like Hank Williams before him, must have been the most imitated singers in country history. His backwoods soul, seemingly linked to a bottomless well of pain, made for classic songs like, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," sung movingly by Jones acolyte Randy Travis at the funeral. Until that one came along, Jones' signature song was a tune written by former Memphis teen-heartthrob Dickie Lee called,"She Thinks I Don't Care," or as we other jealous songwriters laughingly referred to it; "She Stinks But I Don't Care." Dickie Lee could afford to laugh. Jones made him rich. George's rowdy side was best illustrated by a famous story from his raucous marriage with Tammy Wynette. George was schnockered and wanted to drive to the liquor store so Tammy hid the car keys. A half-hour later, the police stopped Jones on the highway, driving to the package store on a riding lawnmower. Jones credited his fourth wife, Nancy Sepulvado, with straightening him out for good. I owe her too.

During the decade I spent writing songs in Nashville, a period I refer to as my "Babylonian Exile," having George Jones record one of your songs was akin to, as I said, getting a cut by Elvis, or Jimi Hendrix, for that matter. I was a new hire at a fledgling publishing company that paid me a pittance each week for gruel, but did offer me access to the recording studio. I had been in Country Music City for a couple of years and had such rotten luck, I used to sprinkle rejection on my Corn Flakes for breakfast. Once, during a Memphis-in-May-type downpour, I parked my car and ducked quickly into an office building on Music Row for a writing appointment, but the other guy never showed up. As I stood waiting for way too long, I fixed my gaze on the parking lot below and spotted my car with the headlights still on. Soaked, I dove underneath the hood to find the battery dead and no one around in the driving rain. While waiting for a tow-truck, I started to write the lyrics to a song titled, "Call the Wrecker For My Heart." After I became quasi-employed, I presented the half-written tune to my songwriting partners, but they thought it so corny, they didn't want to have anything to do with it.

Each week, the boss held a company demo session for those writers with just a single song to record. I brought "Wrecker" to the session and everyone seemed well pleased with the result, although finding a prospective artist for a parody song was admittedly difficult. My friend and stablemate, awarded writer Eddie Burton, also had a song on the same session and took a cassette tape (remember those?) over to the house of his friends, Nancy and George Jones, to listen. George loved Eddie's song, and while they discussed it, the tape continued on to the next song, which was mine. Before they could turn it off, Nancy said, "Wait a second, I like this one, too." So they listened again. Later that month, Eddie took me aside at a staff meeting and said, simply and with a smile, "You got your Jones cut." I didn't just want to kiss him, I actually did. My song was to be on an album called, "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes," and co-incidentally, it not only appeared as the track after Burton's on the LP, it was also the B-side to Burton's song. If that's confusing to younger readers, a B-side is the flip side of a 45 RPM record. If the A-side sells a million, so does mine, only 45s weren't doing so well in the mid-80s, and the record died a quick death. Still, a B-side on George Jones was, and is, my proudest accomplishment as a songwriter. It should have cemented my reputation.

The music business being the venal pit of writhing greed that it is, however, new owners bought out my employers and decided to downsize. Since I was among the lower-tier writers, in pay and reputation, I was unceremoniously hustled out the door, George Jones cut and all. Instead of my Jones song being a great beginning, it was the beginning of the end for me in Nashville. Unable to latch on elsewhere, I ultimately returned to Memphis with my country tail between my rock and roll legs. The Jones LP of which I was so proud, for whatever reason, became the single album he recorded in the eighties that did not make the elevation to Compact Disk. Thus, my song was never digitized, never played on the radio, and faded further into obscurity. I had to content myself with having written the George Jones song no one had ever heard, and when I was asked the title, folks had a good but unnerving laugh at my expense. Last I checked online, the few test CDs of the album were going for $129.20. When the funeral was over, and after everyone from Laura Bush to Kid Rock had spoken, and Barbara Mandrell called Jones "the greatest Country singer of all time," sales of George Jones albums were up a reported 1000 percent. So, I figure that after 28 years, my novelty tune might get heard after all, and I can say yet again, "Thank you, Old Possum, for recording my song when everyone around me told me that it was silly. You too, Mrs. Jones."