Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cuba Libre

The saga of Walter Kendall Myers and Gwendolyn Myers, spies, has amused me far more than it should.

I'm sure it is a tragedy for the Myers family and the unfolding tale of espionage and intrigue - sort of - has caused profound embarrassment to an American foreign policy establishment that has bungled Cuban policy since Ike was president.

Kendall, 72 and the great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell, had a long career as a State Department analyst while Gwendolyn, now 71, parlayed some Capitol Hill experience and "political activism," in the arch parlance of the New York Times, into a covert career than has more in common with the comic fiction of Donald Westlake and Carl Hiaasen than with spymaster Aldrich Ames.

The Myers are pretty clearly guilty of something. And since their crimes are of no particular consequence, they are of course being held without bail. Better they should have looted Wall Street or figured out a way to get us involved in two bloody wars and steal millions of taxpayers dollars in the process. With few exceptions, those activities earn you a spot in the Obama kitchen Cabinet or a seat of power at the American Enterprise Institute.

Over time, the Myers allegedly sent documents to a Cuban government that cannot get out of its own way. They made copies of these mysterious documents and passed them to intermediaries in grocery stores. And they once had an audience with Fidel Castro.

As far as U.S. law enforcement can determine the Myers took no money for these activities, which is good because all evidence suggests the Cuban government doesn't have any money.

In short, nitwits.

To be more specific, '60s nitiwits. My people. McGovern supporters (It was 1972, kids). Guilt-ridden bleeding hearts. Ruling class liberals. World savers. Fans of the United Nations. To each according to his need; let's get some sushi.

In 1979, in their 40s, Kendall followed Gwendolyn Steingraber to Pierre S.D. where she had a job in the Public Utilities Commission, helping farmers use alternative energy sources. Perfect. Kendall worked on a biography of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the most celebrated appeaser of the 20th century. He was apparently a man Kendall admired. Perfect.

They grew marijuana plants in their South Dakota basement until the cops showed up. Again, perfect. Gwendolyn lost her political appointee's job and the pair returned to Washington, got married and became Cuban agents 202 and 123. Nitwits.

I'm thinking a 13-episode sitcom here. Kendall and Gwendolyn's Excellent Adventure.

Of course it wasn't the spying that drew attention to Agents 202 and 123. Remember the 9/11 terrorists and the flying lessons? As they say down South, the foreign policy crowd couldn't make cornbread if you gave them a cornbread-making machine,

No, apparently Kendall Myers made an unauthorized speech at a university suggesting that President George W. Bush had duped British Prime Minister Tony Blair into supporting the Iraq war.

Not very diplomatic, but I doubt any of Blair's friends or family would dispute that assessment. But the British press picked up the speech, painted Myers as something more than a Foggy Bottom contractor and that's part of what got the government's attention.

I don't know what sorts of papers the hapless Myers' gang was passing along to the Fidelistas. They'd have done Cuba more good if they'd smuggled in new transmissions and tires for those 1956 Chevy Bel Airs that crowd Havana streets.

This is a country that imports 80% of its food. The average worker makes about $21 a month, U.S. It has a well-educated population, so it trades doctors and nurses for oil from Hugo Chavez.

Cuba and Castro have played no significant role in world affairs since the 1960s, save annoying two generations of U.S. presidents and generations of foreign policy geniuses of the sort who gave Kendall Myers a Top Security clearance.

By the book, Kendall and Gwendolyn are a bit old to qualify as Baby Boomers, but I know this crowd. My guess is that they spied for Cuba - if the charges are true - because they spent their own lives being disappointed by the policy failings and moral failings of their own government. You know, Vietnam. The Reagan adventures. Iran-contra. Decades of failure in the Middle East. A history of backing the wrong side of history in places such as Iran.

They fell for the socialist myth of Cuba and El Jefe, as many in my political crowd did, long ago. It's just that most bleeding hearts saw through the mythology 35 years ago or so.

They'll probably bring the hammer down on Kendall and Gwendolyn and Fox News will probably spend itself trying to link them to the Symbionese Liberation Army, or at least to William Ayers.

If they're going to do time, I hope it's a place they can sit around, have an herbal tea and talk about the Port Huron Statement.

Look it up.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Jeff MacNelly

Nine years ago his week my friend Jeff MacNelly died of cancer. He was 52.

Jeff was a cartoonist, which is a little like saying Bob Dylan is a songwriter. MacNelly didn't much like Dylan, but no matter. Jeff won three Pulitzer Prizes for editorial cartooning, his first at 24, just two years after he "almost graduated" from college in Chapel Hill.

He wrote and drew the cartoon strip "Shoe" for more than 25 years, seven times a week, no complaints. A multiple winner of the Reuben award for cartooning, he was generally regarded as the best of his generation, both on the editorial page and in the funny papers.

MacNelly knew he was a big talent, but he was utterly lacking in pretense or vanity. I wrote once that he was nearly always not only the most talented person in the room, but the most decent, the most generous, and the funniest.

Ideas, laughs and perfect drawings poured out of him. In 1988, we worked together on a project for the Chicago Tribune. They let us do a series of full-page, full-color posters on the presidential campaign - the primaries, the conventions, the outcome. MacNelly and I would motor around Iowa or New Hampshire, happily drinking in the madness, usually in a rented Lincoln Town Car, Jeff being somewhere north of 6 foot 5.

After dinner we would talk about the events the day and I would generally have an idea. Jeff would have nine of them. Maybe a dozen. All good. Really good. All reflecting an astonishing eye for the moment, the characters, the detail and the nuance.

Some nights he would just start drawing on the placemats - Bob Dole in a fury; Michael Dukakis clenching his hands and babbling; a map of Illinois that included O'Hare International Airport and - just as big - O'Hare Baggage Claim.

On the editorial page MacNelly had great fun at the expense of Democrats, notably Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. He was a big fan of the Gipper. Our politics intersected at virtually no point, but it never mattered. You just looked at the page and shook your head in admiration.

"Shoe" was about whatever Jeff wanted it to be, which is why he loved it. Among comic strips, he admired Walt Kelly's "Pogo," he said, because "it wasn't about anything." Whenever a celebrated cartoonist would go on hiatus, citing creative burnout, MacNelly would offer the big, rueful smile that was a trademark. "We're drawing cartoons here," he'd say. "It's a cartoon strip."

Late in a too-short life, Jeff took up painting and sculpture, with a focus on Key West in the former and on the American West in the latter. His work was, of course, vivid and striking and unforgettable. But again, there was never a need to get all artsy-craftsy about it. For example, MacNelly delighted in the fact that the legendary Western artist Charles Marion Russell used to toss off drawings on scraps of paper to pay his saloon bills.

On a snowy night in 1989 in a Washington restaurant, my wife Jane and I introduced Jeff to Jane's longtime friend Sue Spekin. It seemed liked the snow had not even melted before she was Sue MacNelly, on the hilltop in Rappahannock County, with the barn and horses and dogs, representing the best interests of the guy she called "the 'toonist."

These days, Sue and a pair of his old cartoon amigos keep "Shoe" moving forward. If you can't find it in the paper - let's face it, you can't find anything in the paper anymore - it's all at The paintings are there, too.

Jeff's work graces our house and our lives, as does a photograph of him taken by our friend David Burnett. MacNelly is on his hilltop, smiling that electric smile, posed in front of his beloved, becalmed 1959 DeSoto.

They tell you that in this life you're supposed to get over this stuff. But you never, ever do. We miss Jeff every day.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The President and the Vice President Walk Into a Bar ...

Last week President Obama made yet another lunch-hour cheeseburger foray, this time to a Five Guys outlet near the Washington Nationals’ ballpark.

So far, the president has been sighted at Ben’s Chili Bowl, Ray’s Hell Burgers across the river in Arlington and now at a Five Guys. It’s fun to watch, although, as with all presidential maneuverings, it’s about as spontaneous as a production of “The Kennedy Center Honors.” On the Five Guys outing, the President just happened to have NBC anchor guy Brian Williams in tow.

And why the unblinking fascination with cheeseburgers? If the President is going to hit the streets, why should he limit himself and his traveling party to cheese pucks?

Suppose, instead of going out for burgers and fries, the President opted to slip out - in a spontaneous kind of way - to a downtown saloon for happy hour, maybe a bar on 19th St., not far the White House, maybe with the Vice President:

POTUS and VP approach the bar, Obama in a red tie, Biden in blue …

Biden: Hey, Ace. How about getting a couple drinks for me and my father down here? Hahahaha

Kevin the bartender: How did you know my name was Ace?

Biden: Just a lucky guess. Hahahaha. Anyway, the Boss and I are playing a little hooky.
If the First Lady calls, you know, mum’s the word. He’s not here. We told her we had to go see Hillary at the State Department, then stop by the hardware store on the way home. Hahahaha.

Bartender: Got it. Can I get anyone a drink?

Biden: Whattaya think, Mr. President? I’m going to have a Heineken.

POTUS (to bartender): There are those who would argue that this is inappropriate, that the Chief Executive should not be at a downtown happy hour at this point in our nation’s history. But I think most Americans would understand that situations such as this one afford me the opportunity to get outside the White House bubble, to walk among the people as Michelle and I did when we lived in Chicago.

Bartender: Would you like a drink, sir?

POTUS: I’ll have a Grey Goose martini, straight up, with extra olives.

Biden: Whoa, Mr. President. Grey Goose martini, straight up? Is that what you drank when you were a community organizer? Hahahaha.

Bartender: Who are all these other people, and what are they drinking?

Biden: Oh, these guys. Just the press pool, a few photographers, Secret Service. That’s Anderson Cooper, the CNN guy, and his crew. He’s doing a spontaneous day-in-the-life thing with the President. Hahahaha. What are you having, Anderson?

Cooper: I should like a Pimm’s Cup. I believe.

POTUS (looking at the entourage): And we’ll need six Miller Lights, five Budweisers, a vodka and tonic, a gin and tonic, a Jack and Coke, two glasses of Sauvignon Blanc, a red wine, an iced tea and a Bloody Mary. Did I get everybody?

Entourage: Yes, sir.

POTUS: Many Americans are feeling the strain of the economic downturn and it must be said that we have a long way to go. We’re working hard every day to make that happen. But judging from the atmosphere in this room, it seems the people have maintained a sense of conviviality and good cheer. Can you get ESPN2 on that TV? Love to get a White Sox score.

Bartender: I’ll get the manager.

Biden: Hey, beertender, do you have any bar snacks, pretzels, nuts?

Bartender: No.

Biden: No? In Scranton, where I grew up, even the fancy joints had bar snacks.

Bartender: In Scranton, the fancy joints make the bartenders cover up their tattoos.

Biden: Whoa, a comedian here. Funny guy. Hahahaha.

POTUS: Joe, a question.

Biden: Yes, sir.

POTUS: Were we right to leave Rahm at the White House? He seemed upset.

Biden: He’ll get over it, sir. I told him to do something useful. You know, call up Harry Reid and explain to him what a Democrat is. Hahahaha

POTUS: Joe, Senator Reid is to be commended for his accomplishments, growing up in the relative poverty of his Searchlight, Nevada home, ably representing the interests of the good people of his home state and, indeed, of all Americans

Biden: Just kidding, sir. A little humor. Good old Harry. Hahahaha. I know you’re still mad at me about that inauguration joke with the Chief Justice.

POTUS: Joe, it is so important that we raise the level of discourse here in Washington. As I said in my recent speech at Notre Dame, we must ask how each of us can remain firm to our principles and fight for what we consider right without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side.

Anderson Cooper: Well said, Mr. President. I’ll have another Pimm’s Cup.

Biden: Well, strictly bar rules, sir, all due respect, but maybe you ought to take that stuff up with Cheney and Gingrich. Bartender, I need another Heineken down here. A bird can’t fly on one wing. Hahahaha.

Bartender: Another Grey Goose, Mr. President?

POTUS: Nothing for me. Well, maybe just a splash. And give Joe the check. It’s always best to keep him occupied….