Bush’s Numbers

The New York Times is out with its latest poll on how we, red states and blue alike, feel about our commander-in-chief/village idiot. Here’s the lead:

“Increasingly pessimistic about Iraq and skeptical about President Bush’s plan for Social Security, Americans are in a season of political discontent, giving Mr. Bush one of the lowest approval ratings of his presidency and even lower marks to Congress, according to the New York Times/CBS News Poll.”

“Season of political discontent.” That’s got a ring to it. But does it actually mean anything? On its Web site, the Times publishes 21 pages of poll results. The statistics apparently include all the questions asked in its most recent survey as well the past results when the same questions were asked. It’s interesting to look at what people were saying a year ago.

Then, the Times poll found that 42 percent of respondents approved of the way Bush was handling his job, and 51 percent did not. Today’s dramatic change: 42 percent approve and 51 percent do not.

Let’s look at Iraq. The Times asked, “Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling the situation with Iraq?” A year ago, 36 percent said they approved and 58 percent said they disapproved; today, 37 percent approve and 59 percent disapprove.

(The poll’s historical numbers on Iraq seem to show how much we like a winner, how much we’re swayed by a good TV picture, and how ephemeral wide popular support of the war has been: The high point for Iraq support in this poll came in a survey done April 11-13, 2003, immediately after U.S. troops entered Baghdad and we all got to watch that Saddam statue getting pulled down: 79 percent said they approved of Bush’s handling of Iraq and 17 percent disapproved. The support numbers stayed in the 70s through late May ’03 — the month Bush declared victory — but fell into the high 50s in July. September 2003 marked the first time the poll found more respondents (47 percent) disapproving than approving (46 percent). And in fact, the approval number has risen above 50 percent just once since — the week after Saddam’s capture in December 2003, when it popped up to 59 percent, only to fall back into the 40s by mid-January.)

The point is, if we’re in a season of political discontent, it’s nothing new. The real question you need to unravel is how, with numbers like this, did Bush get re-elected. I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that, but some of the elements of an answer are out there: The public’s low regard for Congress (current approval number, according to Times poll, is 33 percent; and the rather confounding finding that people approve of Bush’s handling of the war on terrorism (52-40 in the current poll).

And beyond the numbers, there’s the fact the Democrats can’t seem to find the utterly perfect candidate that everyone seems to think they need as an alternative to Bush and his crew of nation wreckers. I wonder if people, in their discontent, would consider Kerry now?

Raining Monkey Wrenches


Nature’s mid-June turn toward winter continues, prompting a local news anchor to say, "This rain has certainly put a monkey wrench on a lot of special events." I wouldn’t dare try to improve on that.

But by my completely unofficial calculations, the two mild storms that have blown in from the Pacific over the past week may have been enough for Berkeley to break its record from June rainfall. Old record, 1.21 inches, in 1967; total this month: something more than that — a weather station up at the Lawrence Hall of Science, at a higher altitude than the official weather station on the UC campus, says it’s gotten 1.28 inches so far.

In related news: Tom’s last real day of high school was today. The graduation is tomorrow evening. Outdoors at the Hearst Greek Theatre on campus. Beware the meteorological monkey wrench. Kate and I met the Berkeley High principal at the grocery story the other night — sometimes this is a small town — and he said, "Hope it doesn’t rain. But if it does — well, we’ll do it anyway. There’s nowhere else to go."

When It’s Not the Ides

Trying to be smart once — once, mind you — I wished someone “happy ides of June” on the 15th of the month. I happened to say it to one of the few people I’ve ever met who could instantly set me straight. My assumption was that since the ides of March is the 15th, then it follows that the 15th of every month would be the ides. But my friend and sometimes trivia nemesis — I’ll call him Randy, since that’s his name –said, “Oh, it’s not the ides of June.”

That’s because we’re dealing with an artifact of the ancient lunar version of the Roman calendar — which has a series of special days to account for (kalends, nones, and ides), The long story short: the ides (which originally was supposed to designate the full moon) falls on the 15th in four months: March, May, July, and October. The rest of the time it falls on the 13th.

Inquiring minds want to know.

Flag Day, the Quiz

I just got my first American flag lapel pin in the mail, the result of having contributed some dough to the USO over the holidays. Now the USO wants more money so that the troops will know we love them even though we keep sending them off to Crazyworld (don’t worry — I’ll cheer up about that one of these years). So they sent me an American flag lapel pin. It’ll make a great conversation piece among future generations of Brekkes: “I don’t remember him ever wearing anything like this.” Or maybe not.

In any case, the lapel pin arrived virtually on the eve of Flag Day. The demi-holiday is nearly past, but it’s not too late to exercise some flag aptitude. Try:

–The Christian Science Monitor’s flaq quiz; it comes with a dollop of Flag Day trivia, too.

–The University of Saskatchewan’s Flags of North America Quiz.

–For serious U.S. flag geeks only: American Vexillum Magazine’s all-flag quiz. (You may reasonably ask, what in the world is a vexillum? To find the answer, read about vexillology.

–For deep, unguided flag browsing, see the Flags of the World’s international flag index.

Pneumothorax, the Sequel

The latest on Eamon’s collapsed lung is this: I talked to Sakura about midnight Monday, Pacific time (about 4 p.m. Tuesday, Tokyo time). Eamon’s doctor recommended a surgical procedure — something like arthroscopic surgery, carried out with a probe — to repair the lining surrounding the lungs and thus prevent a recurrence of this episode. Sakura, who was at the hospital with her mom (who had traveled down from their family home in Ibaraki prefecture, north of Tokyo), said the doctor told her everything went fine. Eamon was still knocked out when we spoke. It will probably be a while before we speak directly, because there are no phones in his hospital room, and apparently the hospital forbids using cellphones in the rooms, too. His only telecommunications option is to go to a public phone elsewhere in the hospital, but apparently he’s been in too much pain to get to it so far.

Greatest Americans

All right — it’s hard to resist the temptation to mock The Discovery Channel’s "Greatest American" series, to say that it’s just another opportunity to see our clueless fellow rubes and yahoos at work. Not that I don’t believe that. Please enter as people’s Exhibit A the appearance of George H.W. Bush and First Lady Babs and George W. Bush and First Lady Laura — four Bushes in all — in the original top 100 nominees list; meaning that there were only 96 candidates for Greatest American not named B-u-s-h.

But pointing out the drooling superficiality of that first list is just too easy. People’s B: Tom  Cruise. Yes, I loved the underwear dance in "Risky Business," too. But still.

See? That is too easy. And besides, it’s actually interesting to see who survives the media-mediated winnowing process to rise to the top.

The process is down to the Top 25: Muhammad Ali, Neil Armstrong, Lance Armstrong, G.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Walt Disney, Tom Edison, Albert Einstein (if I’m not mistaken, the only non-American-born figure in the group), Henry Ford, Ben Franklin, Bill Gates, Billy Graham, Bob Hope, Thomas Jefferson, JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., Abe Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Elvis, Ronald Reagan, Eleanor Roosevelt and, separately, her husband, Franklin, Geo. Washington, Oprah, and, collectively, Orville and Wilbur Wright.

What I’m struck by at first glance:

–How the first 125 years or more of our history vanishes. Only five of the 25 are truly pre-20th century figures (Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Lincoln and Edison), and they’d be on absolutely anyone’s greatest hits list. Heck, if they’re on money, they must be great.

–The two Armstrongs: I can’t understand how Neil makes it. Maybe he makes the grade because, as far as we know, he didn’t wet himself when his big moment came. But how, except for the luck of the draw, can he possibly be distinguished as great from any of the other first-generation astronauts? If you need someone to specifically represent the incredible accomplishment of getting to the moon — an OK idea — you need to recognize another immigrant: Wernher von Braun.

Then there’s Lance: Fine. He is a most excellent champion, a peerless model of the will to transcend and win. But his appearance on the list is due only to his recent run of victories in the one race that more than a tiny, tiny club of Americans know about. How many of the voters could name the first American to win the Tour (or know the story of his miraculous comeback from a brush with death)? How many could name another U.S. pro cyclist — just one, without looking (I declare that the readership of this blog is not representative of America At Large for the purposes of proving my point)?

–The two Roosevelts: It’s rather astounding that both members of a couple made the Top 25 list in their own right. You gotta have FDR — he meets the money test, for pity’s sake (until Reagan takes over the dime, anyway). And even if the current Bush is in the process of trying to abolish much of FDR’s legacy, he guided the nation through one of its most perilous periods. But Eleanor —  I’m of two minds about her, and neither of them is filled with a lot of factual information. You kind of get the feeling she’s there because, well, we’re not quite clear about or comfortable with any other accomplished American women who don’t have talk shows. Susan B. Anthony, anyone?

(Here are my top 5 from that list of 25: Lincoln. King. Parks. The Wright Brothers (well, I just read a fine book about them, "To Conquer the Air"). And FDR. )

One Thousand Seven Hundred and Two

It’s a beautiful, dry, warm day in the Bay Area. What’s mostly preoccupying us here today, if you go by the local media: a recent fatal pit bull attack on a 12-year-old boy; the woeful state of our resident sports franchises; a deadly highway accident; the cost of replacing the Bay Bridge. We know there’s a war on out there someplace. But most of us are lucky enough to live outside the pall it casts, even when we hear the latest news mentioned: Twenty U.S. troops (and scores more Iraqis) have died in the last four or five days; a total of 1,702 American soldiers, Marines and sailors have died since the first casualty was recorded on March 21, 2003. Check back tomorrow. The number will be higher, and the end won’t be any clearer.


The phone rang early this morning; not super early, but about 7 a.m., earlier than we usually get calls on a Sunday. It was Sakura, our daughter-in-law, calling from Tokyo. The combination — early morning, and the fact it was Sakura, not Eamon, on the phone, had an instantly alarming effect; that only increased as I listened to Kate’s end of the conversation — something had happened with Eamon, and he was in the hospital.

After a minute, I groggily got on the phone. The story is this: Eamon apparently woke up Sunday morning and found it extremely difficult to breathe. Sakura called an ambulance, and he was taken to a hospital. Once there, doctors determined Eamon had suffered a collapsed lung (also known as "pneumothorax").

That’s easy enough to treat, apparently, though the process doesn’t sound pleasant. Here’s the way one option is described: "Definitive treatment involves placing a plastic tube within the chest cavity, through a small incision near the armpit, under suction and water seal. This chest tube may need to stay in place for a few days before it can be removed."

In terms of what causes a spontaneous pneumothorax, smokers are at higher risk than most people. But Eamon’s not a smoker. It turns out he falls into another risk group — tall, thin people, among whom this condition occurs more frequently than among us somewhat shorter and wider folk. The doctor who saw him after he was admitted said surgery might be necessary to prevent a recurrence.

So what do we do now? Just wait to hear from Eamon. Under normal circumstances, it’s so easy to communicate back and forth that the 5,000-plus miles between us doesn’t seem like a big deal. Suddenly, we have a situation where there’s no substitute for physical presence in terms of being able to give comfort (and get it) and really size up the situation. Having the impulse (or the need) to go is one thing, and going is another:  I actually just found a round-trip United flight to Tokyo from San Francisco that’s priced at … $9,555.24. Seriously. (I also found a flight on a non-household-name airline, Asiana, for something like $1,400).

Law School Gig, Week 2


Times I’ve locked myself out of my office: 1. Boalt Hall has one, and only one, "key lady," someone named Wendy, who made the long trek up to my little room to let me back in.

New term:
"Chart strings" (University of California talk for "account numbers" when you need to bill expenses, like those for business cards or stationery.

Sight I can’t account for (above):
A stone bearing the legend "Knowles" that sure looks like a grave marker. It’s in an out of the way place in the angle between stairways at Boalt’s northwest corner. I haven’t been able to find a record of anyone named Knowles who ever went to the law school, or who has figured prominently in the university’s history. An architect named Knowles did design a nearby house for a professor, but that wouldn’t explain the marker.

Odd experience:
Talking to reporters who are looking for sources for stories. Hey, until not too long ago, I was on that side of the fence.

Brilliant idea that went nowhere, for now:
To have Barack Obama come out and do some event for the law school. It’s too long a story for tonight. But for one thing, I hear that about 400 people have the same brainstorm every week.