Saturday, September 08, 2007

A Tale of Two Parties

A Tale of Two Parties
Two gatherings in the nation's capital help point up the difference between theorizing about war--and fighting one.
By Eleanor Clift

Sept. 7, 2007 - Washington was out in force--right, left and center--this week for a party to toast the publication of a new book by Mark Penn, the pollster credited with re-electing Bill Clinton in 1996 who is now the principle strategist for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “Isn’t he dangerously DLC?” asked antitax conservative Grover Norquist, referring to the centrist group that launched Bill Clinton’s candidacy. As fellow editors at the Harvard Crimson a couple and a half decades ago, Penn was Norquist’s soul mate, a right-wing radical in the eyes of the “Harvard socialists,” says Norquist with a laugh, implying that Penn is suspiciously centrist.

Wherever Penn is on the ideological spectrum, he’s positioning Hillary for a general election, bucking up her centrist credentials while moving her to the left enough on the war to quiet critics. His book is avowedly nonpolitical, a breezy look at societal ripples entitled “Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Big Changes.” It’s the latest blending of marketing and politics, a way to identify social changes and tap into them for a big payoff on Election Day.

Chatting with partygoers over the salmon and cucumber canap├ęs, the mention of one trend in Penn’s book, “red-shirting,” triggered a burst of conversation. The phrase refers to the growing phenomenon of mostly upscale parents holding their children back a year from entering kindergarten.

At Georgetown Day School, a top-flight private school in Washington, there are kids 13 months apart in age in his child’s class, one father exclaimed. The practice originated in college sports with student athletes postponing enrollment to spread their eligibility to play over five years, when they’re bigger and stronger. High-achieving parents who struggled up the greasy pole of meritocracy to reach the finest institutions consider it a defeat if their children don’t make it to the Ivies, and they want to give them any edge they can. The extra year is supposed to give them a better chance to excel. It’s a crazy elitist trend that has little to do with the world most people live in.

Four blocks away from the Corcoran Museum of Art, where the Penn party was held, a very different event was unfolding at the Reagan Building. Actor James Gandolfini, best known as Tony Soprano, mingled with another cross-section of Washington for the premiere of a new HBO documentary, “Alive Day Memories,” about the wounded of Iraq, and the challenges they face. I slipped in late, right behind Paul Wolfowitz, one of the major promoters of the Iraq War and arguably its intellectual godfather. Seated to my left was a young woman, Robin Cleveland, whose husband, Tai, is in a wheelchair owing to spinal-cord and brain injuries he received in Iraq. “You have no idea how many people are suffering from this war,” she said. On my right was a young man in a wheelchair who had lost a leg and who knows what else. As I looked around before the lights dimmed for the film, I saw many more young men and some women with metal limbs and prostheses.

When John Edwards talks about the “two Americas,” he means the growing gulf caused by poverty, but the phrase could just as well refer to the divide between the people who do the theorizing about war and the America that does the fighting, the people who have the luxury of red-shirting their kids and the kids trying to reclaim their lives in hospital wards. The wounded from Iraq, now numbering more than 20,000, all have two birthdays--the day they were born and their “Alive Day,” the term of art given to the day they were wounded. Gandolfini interviews 10 returning soldiers, posing simple questions, keeping his back mostly to the camera as he lets them talk. Their stories carry the film. It’s hard to separate the character of Tony Soprano from the real-life Gandolfini. But the role he plays here is more like Dr. Melfi, Tony’s therapist, eliciting what happened, saying little and serving as a sympathetic sounding board.

The result is as compelling as it is graphic and hard to watch.

The therapists at Walter Reed make a big deal out of your “Alive Day,” says Sgt. Bryan Anderson, 25. “But from my point of view, we’re celebrating the worst day of my life. Great! Let’s just remind me of that every year.” Anderson recounts how he was smoking a cigarette right before the bomb went off. He knew he was hurt, and when he went to wipe the blood and the flies off his face, he noticed a fingertip was gone. He thought, that’s not so bad, as he continued assessing himself. A chunk of his other hand was gone. I can live with that, he thought. Then he saw that both his legs were gone. “What did you think then?” Gandolfini asked gently. “I thought, ‘Oh, Shit’.”

In any other war, Anderson would be dead. The number of wounded relative to casualties was 3 to 1 in Vietnam; it is 7 to 1 in Iraq, according to the film. Once a star gymnast, Anderson endured 40 surgeries and found the will to live in the hand surgeons saved. “I can still pick up a fork and feed myself,” he said. “Alive Day” brings the wounded home to America with unblinking realism. “Now the rest of the world can see,” said the woman next to me. And Wolfowitz? Give him credit for attending. “Fantastic,” he told reporters as he hurried out. “Very realistic, unfortunately.” If the sheer number of these wounded warriors among us don’t bring the “two Americas” together, shame on us all.