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Tuesday, April 13, 2004

The most depressing thing in the world is being in your office late at night working.

No. The most depressing thing in the world is being in your office late at night, working, while the sounds of music pulse through your window, reminding you that on this glorious night there are people who are enjoying life, while you are reviewing documents, the same documents that you have reviewed before, the same documents that you will review again.

Well, no. I mean, let's get some perspective. The most depressing thing in the world is probably the Holocaust, or the existence of serial child murderers, or something like that. Cancer. The Nick and Jessica Variety Show. Something really nasty like that.

But this sucks.

A secretary stopped by my office at the end of the day today -- that was four hours ago -- and chatted with me about my pictures of Jonah. I have decorated my office in Early Jonah Photo, and when we had gone through those photos, I even pulled up the very latest photos on the Internet to show to this secretary. And there he was. Curly hair, big eyes, pursed lips. And there she was -- my wife, beaming with happiness. I literally sank into my chair, deflated. The secretary became extremely uncomfortable, because she realized how much I wanted to go home and be with my little guy. She politely edged out of my office and left me to cry in my Diet Coke.

But that's life these days. After a long period where my efforts at the office seemed to gain little traction, it has all hit me at once, and I'm working long, long hours to try to catch up.

I need a break, and Jonah is already asleep, so I'll take a moment to wrap up my comments on the Great Speeches of the Twentieth Century.

Few of the remaining speeches struck me as being very good. FDR's "a day that will live in infamy" speech was better than his other efforts -- he slows down and takes his time, which got rid of the earlier impression that he was stepping on his d*ck every time he opened his mouth. The same with LBJ's speech on signing the Civil Rights Act. When he takes his time, he can be a competent orator. And Jerry Rubin's address to the Yippie Convention was hilarious, in that he sounds like Lenny Bruce and has the same sense of humor.

I was fascinated by the recording of Nixon and Kruschev arguing, because to hear Kruschev speak is to understand the John Birch Society. The man's every word sounded like raving insanity, like he was ready to tear off a hunk of human flesh with his teeth at any moment. Nixon sounded like a complete incompetent; you could only hope that he was packing heat so that he could defend himself.

I was also fascinated at the recording of the fight at the UN between Adlai Stevenson and Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin over the Cuban Missile Crisis. To listen to the brinksmanship of the two, and the way that Stevenson turned the tide of UN opinion because he could put his money where his mouth was, is to understand the grave errors of the Bush administration. Powell's nonsense has put America in the position of the Soviets -- we bet everything, in front of the whole world, and got utterly humiliated. Our only hope is that we never again need to ask any other country to "take our word for it." Stevenson was a little stiff, but he had the goods, and it was glorious to hear him in his finest hour.

In contrast, there were two speeches that competed for the title of "worst speech in human history." It's hard to pick which one is the worst, sort of like how it's hard to decide whether you would rather have your balls fried or parboiled.

On the one hand, we have Neville Chamberlain's speech to the nation in which he informs them that England is at war. Chamberlain's effete voice sounds leaden as he tells England that he told Hitler that he demanded a response to his concerns about the Poland invasion by 11:00, or else a state of war would exist between England and Germany (passive voice his), and he received no response, so (heavy sigh)... I regret to tell you that the nation is at war. (Morbid pause.) I'm sure you understand how disappointed I am. (Pause. Eons pass.) Anyway, I'm sure we'll win eventually.

That's a paraphrase, but it's not far off. At the moment of England's greatest need, it got its greatest invertibrate. It's kind of funny now, because we know that Churchill is coming, but I imagine that Chamberlain's self-absorbed fatalism rocked England to the core.

So there's that one.

And on the other hand, you have Nixon again. Only this is Nixon squared, Nixon to infinity, Nixon pulling down his pants and mocking his own penis. Nixon's idea of a concession speech. I had heard about this one, but it was even worse than I could have possibly imagined, because it's so long.

If you've just lost the election, what do you do? Say a quick few words, congratulate the opponent, thank the volunteers, and leave the stage with the remaining shreds of your dignity, right? Sure you would.

But you aren't a masochistic, pent-up little wad of bile named Richard Milhous Nixon.

Here are some examples of the problems with his sixteen minute long bloodletting:

Nixon says "and one last thing" at least half a dozen times, each time opening a new wound and pouring salt on it. The effect is of a man that not only can't shut up, but who seems to be perversely enjoying his own humiliation.

He says "I don't blame the press" another half a dozen times, each time continuing on to say "they have the right to publish whatever they want, and if they don't want to report what I say, that's their right." He calls out reporters by name and praises or criticizes them, or their paper, for their coverage of the campaign.

He strains to keep the tone light, but his voice quakes and his words are curdling from the venom, so there is a dramatic tension that makes you wonder if he's going to snap.

He becomes his own worst enemy, by making the arguments against himself with far more persuasion than he makes his own case -- as when he wants to dispel the thought that he is humiliated by his loss, but spends so much time lingering on the hypothetical question ("People asked me when I ran for Governor, isn't this a come down? From being Vice President? And no, it's not, I was proud to... run... for governor.") that it sinks in far worse than if he had just breezed past it. He ran for the lesser office and LOST.

And then, to cap it all off, in a feigned attempt to be jovial with the press corps, he offers his farewell to public life. Here's a paraphrase:

"So, you destroyed all my hopes and dreams, you bastards of the press, who covered my campaign as if I were an unlikeable, petty, sniveling tyrant with zero people skills. But just remember this -- you're losing out on your best game, because [insert famous quote here:] 'You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore.'"

To my mind -- and this is just me -- I think Nixon permanently forfeited his right to be President at that moment. It was so ill-advised, so unrestrained, that Nixon should never have been trusted again. For God's sake, it's even less forgivable than leaving Mary Jo Kopechne at the bottom of the river, and we all know that Kennedy lost his President privileges over that.

So, there it is. The best and the worst speeches. Listen with care.

Ironically, earlier tonight, Shrub spoke to the nation about the emerging proof that any reasonable person would have done a hell of a lot more before 9/11, even if 9/11 itself couldn't have been prevented. "Oh sure," he's probably saying right now, "I have a sore ass and a smelly thumb, but that was merely historical proof that I had my thumb up my ass." And if he says he "had no actionable intelligence," it could be the first completely accurate thing he's ever said. Somehow I think that he'll never make it into the Great Speeches of the Twenty-First Century set, not even with his 9-11 speech. He does stand a chance at winning Worst Tie Of All Time.

A final thought: Richard Cohen wrote an absolutely wonderful op-ed piece today in the WaPo. Read it here. Read it now.

It begins:

Here are the reasons Iraq is not Vietnam: It is a desert, not a jungle. The enemy is not protected and supplied by major powers such as the Soviet Union or China, not to mention a formidable front-line state such as North Vietnam. The Iraqis are not, like the Vietnamese, a single culture fighting a long-term war of liberation from colonial masters. They are fragmented by religion and language, and they have been independent ever since the British left lo these many years ago. In almost every way but one, Iraq is not Vietnam. Here's the one: We don't know what the hell we're doing.

And it ends:

The lesson of Vietnam is that once you make the initial mistake, little you do afterward is right.

Damn straight, brother.

If you take offense at the comparison, if you think that the media is to blame for not reporting more of the "good news," if you think that I'm being foolish, then spend some time here and let me know when you change your mind.

 10:41 PM

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