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Stateside with Rosalea: Uncle Sam's Waistband

Stateside with Rosalea Barker

Uncle Sam's Waistband

Pardon my delving, but what is going on down there? It would be very nice, thank you, for a nation as well-respected as New Zealand is by the people of the US not to give the words "proportional representation" a bad name. It is a concept that will come into its own over the next 20 years here as it becomes increasingly obvious to even older members of the two main parties that a politically complex internal landscape would enable the United States to understand and deal better with a politically complex external world. End of pontification.

So, the week that was. It started off with the local news bulletins showing the images they had taken of the peace march across the Golden Gate Bridge, from the point of view of how it impacted traffic flow. It was shocking to see how many California Highway Patrol officers had been assigned to cover the march, but I suppose most people just thought it was a reaction to the terrorism alerts regarding public monuments and the fact that it was going to be the bridge's 65th birthday on Monday (Memorial Day). Once they were given the amateur video of the girl who was dragged away from the marchers, all the local news stations used that footage, and lengthy interviews with the girl, her father, and the CHP were aired.

Was it my imagination or did more newscasters and reporters than usual wear black at the beginning of the week, when the memorial service for Chandra Levy was held? Whatever you might think about the local Washington intern's life, loves and death, there is no mistaking the devastation writ large upon the face of her mother and father by her disappearance and the recent discovery of her remains. These are respectable, decent, honest people who quite clearly feel they've had their trust betrayed. They look so much like they are fighting against the weight of the whole world that you wonder if the discovery of their daughter's remains on the very day an interview on 'Oprah' would have aired, combined with the sheriff's deputy at their door keeping all reporters away, shouldn't have the media visiting Fort Lee, Virginia, to see if any year-old carparks have been recently dug up and resealed. I mean no disrepect.

Then came all the brouhaha about the FBI and its restructuring, which steadily opened the bureau up to more and more criticism the more it tried to explain and extricate itself. This morning the director himself, Robert Mueller, appeared for the first time on a Sunday morning talk show, CBS's 'Face the Nation'. Mueller has George Clooney eyes, a fact which gives me the uneasy feeling that his personal appearance was being saved for a time when he (and it) would be really, really needed. He disclosed that he has daily briefings with the President in which he goes over the "threat matrix" and what's been done to prevent terrorism in the last 12 hours. Prevention is a new goal for the FBI, which previously had only been on the prosecutory end of the chain. You need someone with George Clooney eyes when you're trying to sell new powers of undercover investigation for FBI agents, such as attending public meetings and religious services.

Yes, he said "12 hours" and said it again in respect of what the CIA head, George Tenent, reports on to the President as well. But you get the picture - strong President, eager to protect the American people, meeting in the Oval Office with the CIA and FBI heads. Separately. CIA first, of course, since it reports directly to the President and National Security Agency, not to a government department and the Attorney-General. I don't suppose there's any hope of Tenent and Mueller exchanging any useful intelligence information as they pass in the hallway.

Attorney-General "J for Job" Ashcroft was over on another talk show being browbeaten into giving an assurance that the FBI whistleblower won't lose her job. The message he really wanted to get across was that the refocusing of the FBI has a benign - not a malign, anti-civil liberty - goal. "If you destroy people at the rate we did on September 11," he said of the FBI, then obviously prosecution is not as good a goal as prevention. One gets the sense that the only thing that's hit the fan so far is some preliminary breaking of wind and judging by the stench from that, it's time to grab the gas mask and don the wet weather gear.

Which brings us to all this absolute nonsense about India and Pakistan, which the media have fallen for hook, line and war games scenario. 'This Week' should know better. The only voice of reason was Cokie's quiet pointing out that the two countries have been less at war since they've both had nuclear capability than at any other time in their troubled history. Is this just one more example of a beleaguered US administration trying to make itself look good at home by turning somebody else's pimple into a boil then sending in the lancers? The words of Senator William Fulbright in his 1966 book 'The Arrogance of Power' are as true now as they were then: "Power confuses itself with virtue and tends also to take itself for omnipotence. Once imbued with the idea of a mission, a great nation easily assumes that it has the means as well as the duty to do God's work."

But heck, I've nearly used up all my thousand words and still not told you what Uncle Sam's waistband is or why it interests me. It's the transcontinental railroad that was built from Sacramento to Chicago during, after, and because of the Civil War. "Because" because, if the southern states hadn't seceded, the bill to approve government support of using the middle instead of the southern route for a transcontinental railroad would never have passed. Did you know that the rails are 4 feet 8 and a half inches apart because President Lincoln decreed they should be? This time next week, I'll be travelling over them. Free at last.
Lea Barker
Sunday, 2 June 2002

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