The Magazine

The war room redux, Sean Penn, and more.

Dec 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 16
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The Democrats' Flag Fantasy

THE WAR ROOM LIVES! Within minutes of Trent Lott's statement that he was stepping down as majority leader, Democrats were repeating their headquarters-dictated talking points--make that talking point: The GOP is the party of the Old Confederacy.

Nancy Pelosi, top House Democrat, said: "The Republicans have repeatedly exploited the issue of race, as recently as the election in November in Georgia, where their successful campaigns for U.S. senator and governor centered on the Confederate flag."

A letter from John Conyers Jr. to Attorney General Ashcroft was released, accusing Republicans of racist foul play in 13 states, beginning with some concerns about "key races that were under the purview of National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman Bill Frist"--Lott's likely successor.

DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe echoed Conyers with a statement expressing concern over "incidents of minority voter intimidation" in Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, and New Jersey Senate campaigns.

Hillary Clinton chimed in: "Two senators were elected in the South on the Confederate flag. There was concerted voter suppression of black voters in places like Arkansas, Louisiana, and Maryland, and other places."

So did Bill: "They've tried to suppress black voting, they ran on the Confederate flag in Georgia and South Carolina, and from top to bottom the Republicans supported it. So I don't see what they're jumping on Trent Lott about."

Well, the Democrats certainly have rich fantasy lives. The voter-intimidation anecdotes are as reliable as the papers that reported them. (What? You're not a regular reader of the Montgomery Advertiser and the Las Cruces Sun-News?) As for the flag business, when Sonny Perdue beat Roy Barnes in Georgia, Barnes chalked up his loss to the flag issue out of sour grapes. But Perdue barely mentioned the flag, and then only when asked. Same with Mark Sanford, who beat Jim Hodges in South Carolina. Hodges's decision to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol might have annoyed some voters. But it wasn't a Sanford issue. All in all, an impressive display of synchronized spinning. Too bad the outrage was phony.

Spicoli Diplomacy

WE THOUGHT we had reached the apex of celebrity nitwittery when reporting last week that the formerly famous Ed Begley Jr. had decided the best way to stunt the Butcher of Baghdad was to pull together, follow our consciences, and drive electric cars. But then Sean Penn went to Iraq.

The Scrapbook couldn't get enough of the surly actor, who, as Jay Leno suggested, must have been elated to be in Baghdad--"the first time Sean Penn has ever been in a country where he was the only guy who had slept with Madonna." We were glued to the footage of Penn doing what he does best: skulking around, smoking cigarettes, looking pompous. But in an interesting twist, he was holding a camera, playing paparazzo. We must admit, we were kind of hoping that some poor Iraqi citizen, mindful of his privacy, would make like stateside Sean Penn and punch him in the face.

This, of course, isn't Penn's first foray into the antiwar effort. Last month, he took out a newspaper ad to publish his open letter to George W. Bush. In it, he charged, "As you seem to be willing to sacrifice the children of the world, would you also be willing to sacrifice ours? I know this cannot be your aim, so, I beg you Mr. President, listen to Gershwin, read chapters of Stegner, of Saroyan, the speeches of Martin Luther King. Remind yourself of America. Remember the Iraqi children, our children, and your own." The ad cost $56,000, proving that there's one thing even Sean Penn's money can't buy: coherence.

At the time, The Scrapbook thought that with the possible exception of making "Shanghai Surprise 2," it would be nearly impossible for Penn to more greatly embarrass himself. Then, he accepted the invite of the lefty Institute for Public Accuracy to go to Iraq. While there, Penn claimed, "I did not come here to criticize any government or president." That must explain why, while hanging out at the Al-Rashid Hotel, he told the Washington Post, "Somewhere along the line, the actions of this government are the actions of me. And if there's going to be blood on my hands, I'm not willing to have it be invisible." The Post reported that he was "puffing away on a cigarette." Whether it was tobacco wasn't specified.

By the time Penn got home, he was in for a rude shock. Iraq Daily had released an account of a phony Penn statement, saying that he "confirmed that Iraq is completely clear of weapons of mass destruction and the United Nations must adopt a positive stance towards Iraq." Penn's people were stunned. Norman Solomon of the sponsoring Institute for Public Accuracy said it was "preposterous" and that Penn had "never said anything of the kind." Penn's publicist said, "Propaganda exists and will be used to suit the perpetrator's advantage." Imagine that--a country whose only newspapers are run by something called the Ministry of Information putting out propaganda.

While Hollywood will no doubt soon be bestowing on Penn some sort of lifetime humanitarian achievement award, we're prepared to offer our version of the same: the Spicoli award (for celebrities more clueless than the stoner surfer Penn played in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"). Or at least we were prepared to make him our Spicoli laureate until we heard the news, as we were going to press, that the original Baghdad Sean, Hanoi Jane Fonda, has just touched down in Israel to protest the West Bank occupation, along with an international feminist organization called "V-Day" (Vagina-Day). With Fonda in the field, and rumors that Mary-Kate and Ashley are off to Myanmar to demand the release of political prisoners, there's still plenty of time to pick a winner--and to get caught up on those Stegner chapters. To be continued. . . .

Truth, Lies, and Clones

STANFORD UNIVERSITY'S DUPLICITY about its new plan to experiment on cloned human embryos--the subject of our editorial last week--continues. On December 11, the university published a "Q&A" on its website, describing its intention to pursue research that "involves inserting the nucleus isolated from an adult cell into an unfertilized egg." It declared that such research is not in fact "human embryonic cloning" (which it is) but "nuclear transplantation (or transferal) to produce human pluripotent stem cell lines." And it further claimed that "President Bush's own bioethics review panel" agreed with the university that cloning is not cloning and that harvesting cloned embryos is a "necessary step" for medical progress.

In fact, the President's Council on Bioethics explicitly rejected Stanford's brand of terminology and unanimously concluded in its July 2002 cloning report that what such research produces and destroys is a "cloned human embryo." And the council did not "endorse" such experiments at all, as the Stanford press release claimed: To the contrary, the council majority recommended a four-year moratorium on this "morally troubling" research. As Leon Kass, the council chairman, put it: "We have resisted the temptation to solve the moral questions by artful redefinition."

Stanford, by contrast, has gone postmodern. After it received a letter from Kass demanding a correction and urging the university to halt its planned cloning experiments, Stanford deleted any reference to the council from its website, apologized for its error, and called the council's view one "interpretation" of the science. But the biggest lie of all remains: Stanford continues to claim that cloning is not cloning, embryos are not embryos, and that the public and the media are not smart enough to know the difference.

As one Stanford spokesperson put it: "We plan to perhaps use the technique we describe but we are calling it something else." In other words: Pay attention to what we say, not what we do.