You Had To Be There

Do you really get a sense of a place and what’s really going on there from a visit, with a tour guide, a visit where you can ask questions? Some people think so, and out here in Hollywood you can make good money because they think so – it’s quite a racket. There are lots of guided tours you can take – studio tours, see-the-stars’-homes tours, and you can ride the double-decker bus and listen to the driver explain everything on Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard and down on Melrose. There’s even Dearly Departed: The Tragical History Tour – see the site of the Manson murders (just up the street in Laurel Canyon) and the places where famous stars died (and you really should know that F. Scott Fitzgerald died down on this corner, at Sunset and North Laurel – a heart attack while buying cigarettes at what was once Schwab’s Drug Store and is now a small mall with a multiplex and a California Pizza Kitchen).


But Hollywood is not like that, day to day. Live here for twenty years and you know it’s just another place – you seldom see celebrities, the layers of history don’t weigh on you, and when you come across a location shoot, with all the studio trucks, cables, flats, dollies and rigging, you bitch about the traffic. Paris Hilton goes to jail? All the news helicopters overhead are a pain.


So someone says they’ve been to Hollywood and know what it’s all about? No – they don’t. No one knows – take a look – and all that doesn’t cover the everyday stuff, which is much like everyone else’s everyday stuff. And Hollywood is certainly not like this. Watching the “inside Hollywood” shows on television is pretty much like watching science fiction – that’s stuff from another planet, not earth.


The same goes for other famous places – Paris, London or Manhattan – as you have to live there and speak the language, and buy the groceries and do the wash and all the rest. If you want to know what’s really going on – to get a feel for the rhythms of the place, for what matters to the people there, for what is serious and what is just fluff and nonsense – then you do the total immersion thing. Or you turn to someone who has – for Paris you read Adam Gopnik, and of course, if you want to know what is going on in Iraq these days, you turn to Juan Cole or catch CNN’s guy there, Michael Ware.


But some disagree. John McCain disagrees:


Republican senator John McCain has accused his expected presidential rival, Barack Obama, of refusing to visit Iraq after he turned down the offer of a joint trip by the two candidates.


In an attempt to portray Mr Obama as lacking the experience for high office, Mr McCain says his Democrat rival has shied away from visits despite being a member of the Senate armed services committee.


“Senator Obama has been to Iraq once – a little over two years ago he went and he has never seized the opportunity except in a hearing to meet with General Petraeus (the US commander],” Mr McCain said, campaigning in Nevada. “My friends, this is about leadership and learning.”To ram the point home, the Republican Party website now features an online clock showing the number of days, currently 873 (including today) since Mr Obama’s last visit.


Yeah, yeah – he should drop by for a briefing or two. McCain says the two of them should go together – he’d show Obama around or something. Obama says he is planning a visit of his own, but it would be a “political stunt” to arrive together with McCain – “If I’m going to Iraq, then I’m there to talk to troops and talk to commanders, I’m not there to try to score political points.”


But McCain is all over this issue – saying Obama knows nothing and refuses to learn anything new, like how the war is a stunning success and we’re winning.


There are other issues. See Karen Tumulty in Time’s Swampland blog saying McCain’s idea for a joint trip with Obama “is one of the worst ideas I have heard in a long time” – the security and logistical nightmare that would come with sending two presidential candidates into a “war zone is mind-boggling.” Still, she thinks it is a good idea for our leaders to go to Iraq “in a way that maximizes the value and minimizes the fuss and distraction.” And she thinks Obama could benefit from seeing what’s changed since his last visit in 2006 – on the idea that reports from others won’t do.


But there was that Seattle Times editorial arguing that Obama should ignore “McCain’s condescending offer” to show him around Iraq – Obama is right “that is a political stunt” that is part of the “jolly time” McCain is having “pretending he is the only candidate with enough cachet and experience to lead the US on military matters.” Obama should go to Iraq all right, but not with McCain as a “travel companion.” They say he should go as the candidate who’s right on Iraq, and on the need to see how to end the war, the one that McCain wants to continue.


But John Hinderaker in the blog Power Line says Obama being reluctant is simply “consistent with the Democrats’ irrational commitment to failure.” His point – “Obama won’t go to Iraq to size up the situation; to get our commanders’ ideas on how to bring the mission to a successful conclusion; to hear from the thousands of service members who would tell him that their mission is critically important and should not be abandoned.” You see, Obama is only interested in seeing the difficulties our troops face and how to bring them home “in defeat.”


Of course that’s the standard line – talk to any of our troops and they’ll tell you they love it there, things are going fine and we’re winning, and no American soldier would ever vote for a Democrat, and they’d be glad to do six or seven more tours. Even if all that were so, and it may not be so, the idea of letting the low-level troops on the ground make the big geopolitical decision is curious – they want to fight on so therefore that must be what they should do. But that does seem to be the idea.


Jennifer Rubin at Commentary argues Obama indeed “might gain something” by going – at least he’d “silence” the Republican drumbeat seeking to “embarrass” him for not having been to Iraq in more than two years. But he’ll give McCain the “upper hand” if he lets him “shame” him into making the visit. No kidding.


See “dday” at the Washington Monthly with this – “I guess the right thinks this ‘Obama’s afraid to visit Iraq, nanny nanny poo poo; taunt is a political winner for them. It certainly fits in with their strategy to paint the Illinois senator as un-American and weak.” But McCain is saying “that you cannot show proper judgment about Iraq unless you physically set foot in the country.” As a counter he cites Michael Ware saying that McCain has been in Iraq multiple times, “and yet has screwed up assessments of the situation on the ground over and over again.”


WARE: I’ll issue a word of caution, too. I mean Senator McCain has been here, what, more than half a dozen times. And we’ve seen him get assessments of Iraq terribly wrong. So I wouldn’t be hanging my hat on the fact that your opponent has only been here once.


The idea seems to be, as “dday” says, there’s no such thing as a legitimate “fact-finding mission” in Iraq:


The trips are highly sanitized dog-and-pony shows which make it nearly impossible to get a real picture of things. So on every level, McCain “killer attack” is more like a lead balloon.


But we have two realities here. John McCain has his:


So I can tell you that it is succeeding. I can look you in the eye and tell you it’s succeeding. We have drawn down to pre-surge levels. Basra, Mosul and now Sadr city are quiet and it’s long and it’s hard and it’s tough and there will be setbacks.


A few problems – Mosul isn’t quiet. and as Nico Pitney points out, McCain doesn’t seem to know how many troops we have in Iraq. Pre-surge, there were 130,000 troops in Iraq. The number of troops is supposed to be down to 140,000 by July. We end up, if we get there, with 10,000 more troops than before the surge. And this is McCain’s strength – his depth of understanding of all things military and of war as the ultimate tool for good in the world. He mixes up the Shi’a and Sunnis – who is fighting whom, and why – and now this.


John Kerry’s response:


If you don’t know the numbers of troops, it’s very difficult to make a judgment about whether or not they’re over-extended. It’s also very hard to have an understanding, as a citizen, about what levels of troops he’s going to keep there. If he thinks 150,000 is “pre-surge,” and that’s where he’s going to stay, that’s a deeply over-extended military, and it raises serious questions about his comprehension of this challenge.


The McCain campaign’s response was interesting:


Clearly John Kerry and Barack Obama have very little understanding of troop levels, but considering Barack Obama hasn’t been to Iraq in 873 days and has never had a one on one meeting with Gen. Petraeus, it isn’t a surprise to anyone that he demonstrates weak leadership.


What informed people understand, John McCain included, is that American troops are not even close to surge levels. Three of the five Army “surge” brigades have been withdrawn and additional Marines that were initially deployed for the ‘surge’ have come home as well – the remaining two brigades will be home in July.


Talk about a political stunt, it’s sending out campaign surrogates to parse words about a topic Barack Obama has no experience with, and has shown zero interest in learning about.


See Hilzoy here:


Maybe, if John Kerry and Barack Obama had McCain’s deep understanding of troop levels, they would see that while 130,000 and 150,000 are different numbers in normal cases, when you’re talking about troop levels, they are the same. Somehow, I doubt it.


McCain was wrong. He should just admit it, especially since he wasn’t just off by a little. The entire surge involved about 40,000 troops. We are now about 20,000 above pre-surge levels. The problem, of course, is that he can’t admit his mistake without undercutting his line that he’s the one who really understands Iraq, despite having been consistently wrong both about the broad policy and about such minor details as who the players are.


And Hilzoy particularly likes this exchange:


McCain national security adviser Randy Scheunemann conceded that McCain said troop levels “have” been drawn down to pre-surge levels. “If he had said ‘we’d drawn down,’ he’d be accurate,” Scheunemann said. “If he had said ‘we were drawing down,’ he would be accurate.”


“To get into a debate about a verb tense rather than the real fundamental national security issues … is really a distraction.”




Sometimes it matters whether something is true now, or will become true in the future. (If you doubt this, try explaining to the IRS why the fact that you will eventually send in your tax return is all that matters.) This is one of those cases. Eventually there will be no US troops in Iraq. That does not mean that if McCain had said that there are no US troops in Iraq now, noting that that was false would be debating verb tenses.


Still, it’s nice to know in advance that we can expect John McCain not to care about the difference between past, present, and future. It will be very useful, if he becomes President, to know that he regards a statement like “I have taken action” as equivalent to “I will, eventually, get around to doing something, but I haven’t yet”, and that he takes “I have already made all the documents available” and “several decades from now, I will get around to releasing them” to be interchangeable.


Ah, McCain just had another senior moment. It’s no big deal. You knew what he meant – we’re fighting, and winning, and should continue, so don’t sweat the details, like just who were fighting and why, and what it is costing us.


MSNBC previews Obama’s response:


“There are honest differences about how to move forward in Iraq, just like there were honest differences about whether or not we should go to war,” Obama is supposed to say. “John McCain was for the invasion of Iraq; I opposed it. John McCain wants to continue George Bush’s war in Iraq indefinitely; I want to end it. So there’s going to be a clear choice for the American people this November.”


“But that’s not what John McCain’s been talking about the last few days. He’s been proposing a joint trip to Iraq that’s nothing more than a political stunt. He’s even been using it to raise a few dollars for his campaign. But it seems like Sen. McCain’s a lot more interested in my travel plans than the facts, because yesterday – in his continued effort to put the best light on a failed policy – he stood up in Wisconsin and said, ‘We have drawn down to pre-surge levels’ in Iraq.”


“That’s not true, and anyone running for commander-in-chief should know better. As the saying goes, you’re entitled to your own view, but not your own facts. We’ve got around 150,000 troops in Iraq – 20,000 more than we had before the surge. We have plans to get down to around 140,000 later this summer – that’s still more troops than we had in Iraq before the surge. And today, Sen. McCain refused to correct his mistake. Just like George Bush, when he was presented with the truth, he just dug in and refused to admit his mistake. His campaign said it amounts to ‘nitpicking.'”


“Well, I don’t think tens of thousands of American troops amounts to nitpicking. Tell that to the young men and women who are serving bravely and brilliantly under our flag. Tell that to the families who have seen their loved ones fight tour after tour after tour of duty in a war that should’ve never been authorized and never been waged.”


Yeah, but he hasn’t been there in two years. He’s relying on facts alone, and the word of those who are living through this. And if he saw where John Belushi died, from his seat on the tour bus, he’d understand Hollywood.


See Hunter at Daily Kos with this:


As the week draws towards a close, I would just like to take a quick moment to congratulate John McCain and the Republican Party for doing everything they could this week to focus the public’s attention on the Iraq War. I think they are doing wonderfully, and will no doubt win in November if they simply keep doing what they are doing. We are very frightened of this new strategy, which is very clever and working out perfectly.


Let’s run down the stories just from the last few days, shall we?


McCain used a picture of himself with a uniformed Gen. David Petraeus in a fundraising drive – a rather gauche move, and a strict no-no – and had to apologize for it.


McCain launched a very odd and desperate-sounding initiative to try to somehow goad Obama into visiting Iraq with him as a sort of campaign field trip. But McCain’s previous field trips to Iraq have badly damaged what little credibility he has on the subject, so it’s not really a good topic for him to begin with.


And so on and so forth – the list goes on. And it ends with this:


So please, Republican Party. Please keep talking about Iraq. With every waking breath, if you can manage it. Please fill the pages of our site with your assertions about the Iraq War, and your demands that the nation continue the Iraq War, and most of all your candidate’s increasingly imaginary assertions about the basic facts of the Iraq War.


I’m sure it will work out to your favor, and gain you lots and lots of votes come November. Carry on.


And it only makes this worse in Iran, as, over at the Cato Institute, Justin Logan explains:


Beyond the presidency, the more important position of Supreme Leader will change hands eventually, and probably sooner rather than later. All of these changes could bear on U.S.-Iranian relations, for better or worse. To the extent that the threat environment in Iran is viewed as high, it is more likely that Iranians will select hard-line leaders. If the temperature should be decreased, there is a greater likelihood that the worst of the Iranian leadership will find itself out of power. This is only one reason among many that U.S. leaders should calm down the rhetoric on Iran and make clear that talks – without preconditions -are an option.


But McCain wants to hold their feet to the fire, and not begin to talk with them until they give in on everything.


But what else can McCain and the Republicans run on? Josh Kahn explains the problem:


Let’s start with the economy. When voters know what party each message comes from, we loose 37% to 58% and trail among independents by 18%. Ouch. However, when you read both messages without telling voters who they come from, the story gets worse. Republican voters like the Democrat’s message more than their own party’s message by a large 14% margin when they don’t know which party it comes from. Just as disturbing, numbers among independents drop by another 10%… giving the Democrats a massive 28% advantage. Even our horrifically damaged image is better than our message on the economy. Independents and even Republicans simply like the Democrats’ plan more than ours.


Iraq and trade both follow the exact same pattern. We’re getting smashed on both issues on the partisan test, but when you look at the nonpartisan test where our damaged image isn’t a factor, the numbers get even worse among Independents and Republicans. A few Democrats (and in the case of trade a bunch of Democrats) move our way on the nonpartisan ballot, but Independents actually agree with our messages more when they know the messages came from Republicans.


On taxes, the picture gets more complex. On the partisan text, Independents like the Democrats’ message by significant 14% margin, but Republicans still like our message and give us a resounding 39% advantage. That changes drastically on the nonpartisan test.


When the party’s names are removed, Independents are almost evenly split, giving the Democrats’ message a small 5% advantage. However, Republican voters stampede away from the GOP message. Among Republicans, support for the GOP message on taxes drops by a gargantuan 53% when the party’s names are removed, leaving the Democrats with a 14% advantage. You read that right, on the nonpartisan test, Independents like the GOP message on taxes more than Republicans do and even Independents slightly favor the Democrats.


The takeaway? Our message right now is electoral poison and this isn’t all about “brand.”


So McCain has to say things like, “You didn’t serve in the military so you know nothing.” And of course, “You weren’t on the tour bus so how can you know anything?”


Do we want an enthusiastic tourist as our next president?



About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Attack Politics, Iran, Iraq, Life in Hollywood, McCain, McCain versus the Facts, McCain: Senior Moment, Obama, Republicans, The Military Mind, The War. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to You Had To Be There

  1. katemcnamara says:

    I can only admit to a total amazement at the convolutions of the American Political Machine. The idea of a democracy in which all members are not radically included is quite a contradiction in terms. Much of the failure is , I know, the result of illiteracy and apathy; even in Australia we have problems with both these conundrums. However, if you do not vote in Australia at either State or Federal level, you have to go toa Court of Law and prove plausible reasins for your failure to vote or prove plausible reasonsw for your democractic right to abstain from voting and it follows that you therefore do not deserve to be a part of that democratic process; or you pay a fine. Interesting. Love your articles, you are a precise and incisive thinker. Good to find you in the Anglosphere.
    Kate McNamara

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