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At Black Tie Ceremony, Feith Passes Torch To Barton June 21, 2010

Honestly, I am absolutely sick of commercial air travel these days. Just dealing with security is bad enough, but then there’s the airlines, and…hey, all you really need to know here is that there has to be a pretty good reason for me to fly cross-country.

Well, I had one Saturday night, which is how I came to be in the Colonnade Room of the Fairmount Hotel, Washington DC with about 250 of my closest friends, in a classic shawl-collar tuxedo, attending one of the most exclusive “passing of the torch” ceremonies in recent Washington memory.

And when it was all over, Douglas Feith was a happy man.

Respect to your great place! and let the devil
Be sometime honour’d for his burning throne.

— Duke Vincentio, from William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

There are probably some of you who are thinking: “That Feith name is familiar, but why?”

You know the name because, as Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, he was the guy who basically planned how the Bush Administration would run the Iraq War.

To suggest he was not exactly a genius in the job would be the charitable interpretation; General Tommy Franks is famous for referring to him as the “dumbest mother@*&#er alive”, which is the official title he’s carried ever since.

But on Saturday night, the torch was passed.

And by the time the speeches had ended, and the applause had died down, Texas’ Congressman Joe Barton was the new keeper of the sputtering flame.

This was not the outcome most observers expected.

When my invitation arrived on Monday, it looked as though BP’s Tony Hayward would be wearing the sash and carrying the scepter (for those who don’t know, the scepter is a gold-colored three foot long extension cord…and if that’s the stupidest thing you ever heard in your life, you get the idea), having basically earned himself a “Lifetime Achievement Award” in a mere 60 days.

This was going to be tough for Hayward, of course, because he was already planning to skip his Farr 52 (I’m told he calls it Bob) in the 79th “Round the Island” race, back home in the UK on the same day (and he had a good race, too, coming second to Leopard).

But before BP could really address the question of who would accept the award on his behalf, Congressman Barton pulled off an amazing feat; eclipsing Hayward’s 60 days of corporate idiocracy in a mere five minutes by actually apologizing to BP for the Obama Administration’s insistence that they don’t go through all the necessary legalities before BP actually begins paying claims for damages.

Considering how he got the title in the first place, it’s fair to say Barton’s acceptance speech began with some classic “message confusion”…

“…Where I come from what we’d do about it would be take ’em out and string ’em up…We wouldn’t go through the legalities that we have to because of our due process…”

…and then went on to include a few more pearls of wisdom:

“…If homosexuality was normal we wouldn’t any of us be here…You have to have heterosexual behavior in order to recreate the species…”

“…In January 2009, I introduced the College Football Playoff Act of 2009. This isn’t a government gridiron takeover. It simply says that the BCS can’t call a game the “national championship” unless the participants are determined by a playoff. It doesn’t dictate what kind of playoff or how many teams have to be involved—those decisions would rest with the BCS or NCAA.

The biggest complaint about my bill is that Congress shouldn’t get involved. While this doesn’t rise to the level of healthcare reform or climate change legislation, it is more important than honoring the 2,560th anniversary of the birth of Confucius—one of dozens of resolutions passed by the House in the past few months (I voted against it)…”

Luckily for me, my own prior life experience as a caterer had prepared me for the evening; I had tipped our server at the beginning of the meal, and with the amount of wine available at the table, I was already well enough along that there were no “spit takes” during Barton’s speech.

Possibly the happiest person in the room was BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg. When I caught up to him over a glass of champagne he was happy to explain Hayward’s absence, although it’s clear he really isn’t a native English speaker:

“After it became obvious he wouldn’t be leaving with the award, I told him he needed to get back and replace Captain Neil; that he should handle the “Bob” himself, and I talked to him today, and he said he got all the way to second…”

At which point I just couldn’t take any more, and the interview came to an end.

And it’s at this point that I should say that while this story really didn’t happen, and that this was satire, Barton’s “acceptance speech” was actually assembled from his own very real words, found here, here, and here.

I should also say that in real life Doug Feith might have actually caught a break here; but with several months left until November, and the Republicans looking more and more “self-defeatable”, if I were Joe Barton I wouldn’t be building any expensive “shrines” for his new accoutrement, as another awards transfer ceremony could be coming up sooner than anyone thinks.

WARNING – Blatant Self-Promotion Ahead: It’s Netroots Nation time once again, and the fine folks at Freedom To Marry have chosen me as a finalist for their Blog 4 Equality contest. If I am one of the chosen, it’s off to Vegas…in July. You can vote for that Don Davis guy here, which is my “in person” name, once every 24 hours, so vote early and often. Voting ends June 25th. Thanks very much, and we now return you to your regular programming.


On Saving Louisiana, Or, Send Me Your Mud, Yearning To Be Free June 15, 2010

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is a story I originally posted in March of 2007 that seems so important right now I’ve brought it back for your consideration.

Let’s begin today’s discussion with a quick thought experiment.

What is the single most important thing necessary to ensure the survival of the State of Louisiana?

Improved government administration?
More and better levees?
The success of the “Road Home” project?

I submit it is none of these.

The single most important factor determining the future of the State of Louisiana is mud.

That’s right, mud.

Were you aware that the entire State consists of mud? When you look at a geologic map, there is nothing to be seen but sedimentary deposits dating back to the Cambrian period.

And the mud, it is a-sinking.

Katrina took out more than 57 square miles of land in Plaquemines Parish alone. That former land is now the Gulf of Mexico.

The Army Corps of Engineers has maps of the Mississippi river from 1998. When you get to the page, click on map 141. What you see is a portion of Plaquemines Parish. (Here’s the same place on Google Maps.)

Notice almost the entire map area consists of water, canals, and marsh. There’s only two narrow strips of solid ground evident. Now let’s pull out a bit. There’s just about nothing in the image but sinking ground. Now pull out just a little bit further, and guess what-there’s New Orleans.

This was the area of Louisiana most affected by Katrina.

It’s now time for you to meet Professor Oliver A. Houck. His essay “Can We Save New Orleans?”, published in the Tulane Law Journal, will be central to the remainder of this conversation, and I would encourage you in the strongest terms to take the time to read the document.

Here are some of the issues he brings to light:

–There is no consensus on what is to be done-should the emphasis be on maximizing the amount of developable land; or should the emphasis be on maximizing opportunities for natural processes to replenish the bayous? These are two mutually exclusive goals, and Houck suggests development is winning.

–The Federal government is responsible for maintaining navigation on the Mississippi, but flood control is managed locally. As a result of this and the huge amounts of money that are spread around through levee and other water control project construction, politics has more influence on the management process than science and inter-jurisdictional coordination.

–Environmental pollution-especially fertilizer runoffs-kill the marsh grasses that hold the soil together. As a result, the process of saving Louisiana starts in South Dakota, and is therefore a national, not just a State problem.

–It is easier to calculate the cost-benefit of industrial and commercial activity than the cost-benefit of saving lives-and safety advocates have fewer lobbyists.

–Money spent now, on non-development rights, for example, will be cheaper than money spent later on reconstruction or remediation.

And the most important of all:

–It’s the constant movement of silt down the river that makes it possible for there to be a Louisiana-and America’s history of “taming” the Mississippi has nearly brought that process to a stop. The River carried 400 million tons a year of silt 150 years ago, Houck reports, and today carries only 80 million. Without that “new” land to deposit in the Delta, there is no way to offset the erosion to the Gulf of Mexico.

That’s not the only reason the State is sinking, however. Pumping drinking water from aquifers has an impact, and the expansion of the ocean caused by global warming does, too. Even the weight of the levees themselves on the soft soil is affecting the situation.

Professor Houck, being a “fix-it” kind of analyst, has offered a ten-point prescription for Louisiana recovery. Here’s the “Reader’s Digest Condensed Version”:

1) Draw the map-in other words, there needs to be a set of decisions made regarding exactly where humans will be allowed to control the land, and where the river will have its say.
2) With a new map, reconsider the projects-Houck reminds us that Katrina changed everything, and that projects already designed or underway are probably the wrong solutions to today’s problems.
3) “Free the Mississippi 400 million”-open dams upriver to allow the 400 million tons of silt to do its thing downriver.
4) Free the rivers-the logical extension of point 3. Open the levees appropriately, and let the rivers do their thing.
5) Cut the upstream fertilizers-we discussed this above-fertilizer kills grass, and that kills land. This is where parties outside Louisiana have to step up to the plate-the EPA, the Corps of Engineers, the various States, and maybe even private actors such as the Nature Conservancy.
6) Heal the marsh-if grass holds the mud in place, then grass we must grow. Professor Houck uses a farming analogy-one in which Louisianans would essentially become “land farmers”.
7) Quit making it worse-dredging and filling for canals and subdivisions is the enemy. As we said above, prevention is cheaper than mitigation.
8 ) Make room for Nature-consolidate human development within protected areas to create room for natural restoration to work.
9) Dare to think retreat-Houck advocates completely removing residential development from threatened areas, through buyouts. He makes the argument that businesses can be sustained, however.
10) Global warming is real-Professor Houck suggests denial here just makes the problem much, much worse.

We have already seen the consequences of our desire to develop every inch of shoreline, and not just in Louisiana, but all along the Gulf Coast. And we already are beginning to understand that this is truly a national problem.

But if we hope to keep South Louisiana as a functioning economy or even as an above water piece of real estate, we better start talking about national solutions that help Nature’s solutions.