Pols, guns and androgyny

A speed-of-light cultural flyover covering McCain, Koresh, guns, Hillary, "G.I. Blues," a heartfelt appeal to the Winslet Brigade, "Star Trek" and, well, you get the idea.

Published February 23, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Although Michigan's chaotically open Republican primary has given Sen. John
a numerical victory, Gov. George W. Bush, the overwhelming favorite of
registered Republicans in that state, will surely be the party nominee in
this year's general election.

McCain's cult followers in the Northeastern media still look stunned from his
embarrassing loss to Bush last weekend in the South Carolina primary. What
fun it was to watch them squirm and pout as they tried by rote to blame
McCain's defeat on "negative ads" or on Bush's visit to Bob Jones University
(which few people have ever heard of and even fewer care about). Bush
triumphed because he got his ass in gear after flubbing New Hampshire and
because South Carolina Republicans fought back Trojan Horse Democrats trying
to sabotage Bush by voting for McCain -- a guerrilla strategy that worked
against Bush in Michigan.

Vice President Al Gore, unfortunately the likely Democratic nominee (I'm a Bradley supporter), would wipe the floor with McCain in the general election on matters of both content and form. Try to imagine those two head to head, or rather head to hip! McCain -- surprise, surprise -- is only 5-feet-7-inches tall, but thanks to the sleight of hand of liberal picture editors, he is constantly shown in heroic photo angles from below. Like it or not, with few exceptions (e.g., Jimmy Carter) the taller presidential candidate always wins.

There's a primitivistic sorting device going on in most searches for leaders -- which is why women have so rarely gained the topmost post in modern democracies. After a slow start, Gore is outgunning Bradley on the road in sheer vitality level, and Bush, an inarticulate lightweight, has come on like gangbusters. It's brute raw energy that won the presidency for the relatively unknown Gov. Bill Clinton in 1992.

Political reporters keep doggedly judging candidates by their skill in stagy debates, but the electorate is sick and tired of glib Ivy Leaguers who parse every word. Clinton stormed onto the national stage like a barb-tufted Arkansas boar but degenerated over time into a celebrity schmoozer and indolent diddler of big-boobed creampuffs.

McCain's nastiness nicely surfaced in his concession speech last weekend -- forcing his nerdy liberal flacks (who would vote Democratic this fall even if the nominee is Attila the Hun) to tsk-tsk nervously. Hey, wake up and smell the axle grease: This guy was always a jerk! The real victim of Bush's South Carolina sweep was the credibility of the inside-the-Beltway press corps, who blushingly giggled and sighed their way through McCain's factitious ascent. What a wok of genderless wet noodles they are!

My long suspicion of McCain turned into utter disdain during those stomach-churning tales of teenagers weeping or being alleged to weep because Bush's bully boys (terror by telephone!) had maligned McCain's character and record. This barrel of unctuous schmaltz, straight out of the "Sally Jesse Raphael Show," was swallowed by the media in one big burp.

Thanks to Rush Limbaugh for replaying an exchange on Chris Matthews' CNBC show "Hardball" when McCain, facing a Clemson University audience three weeks ago, was flushed out of his usual slippery doubletalk about abortion. McCain admitted he believes Roe vs. Wade should be overturned on constitutional grounds and returned to the states for judgment; then he declared he would want the states to declare abortion completely illegal. As a pro-choice member of Planned Parenthood, I condemn the liberal media's censoring of this vital detail about McCain's reactionary views.

McCain's use in campaign events of large onstage posters of himself as a young Navy flier is inappropriate and propagandistic. His experience as a POW, however admirable, is irrelevant to his suitability for high political office. (It was equally objectionable when the feisty Lt. Col. Oliver North wore his Marines uniform to testify before Congress during the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings.) The presidency requires managerial and administrative skill -- exactly what McCain, the choleric, megalomaniacal loner, has never excelled at in his 17 years as a senator.

Furthermore, McCain's longstanding open-door policy with reporters is a sign not of candor but of weakness and even neurosis. It suggests a craving for distraction to avoid being alone with one's thoughts. Those with a strong sense of self and a rich inner life (like the often too-Olympian Bradley) need privacy and know how to draw lines. McCain's compulsive, seductive schmoozing resembles the sociopathic conference-hustling of the academic elite, who are most themselves when sashaying their whimsical way through shallow, boondoggling panel events.

Many Salon readers have sent support of my anti-McCain position. For example, M. Bateman says:

Thank you for telling the truth about John McCain. To hear the media tell it, John McCain is a family-values moderate with a squeaky clean financial past. Nothing could be further from the truth. He has the same voting record as Jesse Helms, yet his fans in the press, many of whom despise Jesse Helms, shower praise on McCain and portray him as a "moderate."

It is time somebody told the public who John McCain is. He cheated on his first wife with a string of strippers, he was up to his eyeballs in the Keating Five debacle, and he has consistently voted to help the polluters. The mainstream news media will not tell the public who John McCain is.

A reader signing herself Judy declares:

I'm in agreement with your assessment of John McCain. I live in Phoenix, so I've been able to see this guy's bag of tricks for a few years, going back to the Charles Keating/Lincoln Thrift debacle through the spin control on his wife's theft of mood-altering drugs from her own charitable organization, and let's not forget his notorious temperament. I, for one, am definitely uncomfortable with the idea of him having his finger on the button.

Yes, Judy, I too am nervous about the hair-trigger McCain in charge of our military -- and not because of his Vietnam traumas. I suspect that McCain's psychological turmoil started long before in his subordination to an autocratic military father, from whom he got as big a jump-start in life as did George W. Bush from his own father. (Note how we've heard more about Bush's C average at Yale than about McCain's graduation near the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy.)

C.C. Karr writes from Kirkwood, Mo.:

Isn't it odd that McCain will try to achieve the presidency by stroking his political experience as a loser (prisoner in an un-won war) vs. Eisenhower, a victor as the Allied supreme commander in World War II, who told his GOP lackeys that he would never appear in a military uniform again, practically underplaying his military experience. Hmmm.

Exactly. McCain's coercive evocation of a glorious military past covers up his lack of genuine achievement in Washington. A disabled veteran and retired major, asking that his identity be concealed out of fear of "retaliation," writes the following:

I couldn't agree with you more on the sanctimonious senator from Arizona (I moved here last year from New Jersey). He is more than a Clinton-clone faker. John Sidney McCain is not the war hero he advertises himself as.

Please check Page 47 of U.S. News & World Report for May 14, 1973. In his own words, McCain (apparently prior to getting "political ambitions") reveals that on the fourth day of his captivity he said: "OK, I'll give you [his North Vietnamese jailers] military information if you will take me to the hospital."

There were more than a few POWs who were brutally tortured for four years and still revealed only "name, rank and serial number." Also, McCain appeared upon release to be much heavier in weight than his fellow prisoners. I wonder why?

Yes, he's "creepy" all right. Especially that weird "laugh" that makes my skin crawl. If any major media ever did a real investigation into his conduct during those five and half years, John Boy's "hero" image might be permanently punctured. I wasn't a flier, but I did serve part of three years in combat with the U.S. Army on the ground in Vietnam. And I know many veterans and POW-MIA family members who simply loathe McCain. Apparently with good reason.

James Kelm adds this interesting point of view:

I, too, have been getting a spooky feeling while watching John McCain's appearances over the past year. During his tantrum of a concession speech the other night, I suddenly caught myself thinking of Shakespeare's "Richard III," specifically Ian McKellan's performance in the recent movie adaptation. I can't get the image out of my head.

Joy Loth seconds my unease with McCain (which I attributed to "intuition"): "My intuition concerning McCain has to do with his face, which reminds me of a papier-mbchi mask. His eyes seem embedded behind it." However, Mike Davis sends me a scathing message from Ontario, Calif., titled "Intuition is no substitute for reason":

Considering your evocation of intuition as a legitimate basis to reject a candidate outright, where, might I ask, was this penetrating instinct when you voted not just once but twice for the man you now concede to be an embarrassment to the institution of the presidency? Maybe your intuition is in need of recalibration, or perhaps Laura Schlessinger was right when she so aptly pointed out that emotions fail us because they have no I.Q.

As for me, I'll opt for logo-centric rationality every time. It served me well in my early appraisal of Mr. Clinton as a facile obfuscator, as I suspect it has done in my support for the man toward whom you have expressed such an animus. Given that you are 0 for 2, perhaps you might consider a change-up this time around.

Touchi, Mr. Davis! While not an early Bill Clinton fan, I did indeed hope, after his first presidential nomination in 1992, that he would bring the idealism of my baby-boom generation to fruition. However, my very positive article on him for the San Francisco Examiner in 1992 (commissioned by David Talbot before he co-founded Salon) raised questions about whether he would be able to govern successfully. By the 1996 election, I had few illusions left, but there was no chance that I would vote for the robotic, saturnine Sen. Bob Dole, who showed few signs of consciousness of the contemporary world.

Prof. Michael Baranowski, writing from the University of Evansville in Indiana, asks my opinion of Alan Keyes, who he thinks is "the best speaker of the bunch" in the current presidential sweepstakes. Keyes is, in his view, "perhaps one of the few candidates who may actually have a core belief other than political survival (which is clearly not all that important to him -- or to Gary Bauer, for that matter)." As an epigraph Prof. Baranowski adds an amusing aphorism from Napoleon Bonaparte, which says a lot about current American politics: "Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence."

Amardeep Singh in Durham, N.C., also asks about Keyes. Describing himself as "basically a pro-choice, queer-friendly lefty who disagrees with his entire program," Singh says that he at first was "simply interested to see an African-American man in the Republican race, bringing in fringe conservative votes with his mad loquaciousness."

Keyes' revelation at the Feb. 15 CNN-sponsored debate that he's Catholic "makes him even more exotic, since African-American religion is usually so strongly marked as Baptist." Singh wonders if this doesn't make Keyes in effect "Italian" -- that is to say, "dangerously loquacious, passionate and massively in excess of the parched Protestant landscape of the 2000 elections": "Keyes is weird, fringy, and often loony, but at least he's not in denial."

My judgment about Alan Keyes somewhat parallels what I've said about John McCain: It's very dangerous to raise loners to the presidency, which requires complexities of teamwork, persuasion, consensus-building and compromise. Keyes is obviously highly intelligent and endlessly energetic. He has all the bratty baby-boom Harvard College articulateness that the back-slapping, Secret Society, old-style "white shoe" Yalie George W. Bush lacks.

But like Steve Forbes, Keyes has spent far too little time thinking about the president's job as an administrator or commander in chief. Keyes seems to be running for chairman of the campus debate team. His often snide and disruptive behavior at the CNN event also won him no points with me. Keyes would make an outstanding college teacher or host of an ideas-and-issues TV talk show, but I fail to see that he has a shred of political talent. And his escalating charges of racism against the press and electorate are simply cheap hysteria.

In the three weeks since my last column, Hillary Rodham Clinton has been up hill and down dale, beating the bushes in upstate New York to try to convince someone somewhere that she is a woman of substance rather than a raisin-eyed, carrot-nosed, twig-armed, straw-stuffed mannequin trundled in on a go-cart by the mentally bereft powerbrokers of the state Democratic Party.

It's been a diverting few months for us charter members of Hillary Watch, but I couldn't be bothered to turn the TV on for her poorly scheduled and overlong Feb. 6 announcement extravaganza: There are far better things to do with two hours on a Sunday afternoon. Typical of Hillary's gang-that-couldn't-shoot-straight campaign, the big news that trickled out of that cumbersome event was: the playing of a masturbatory Billy Joel song beforehand; the castrated silence of the onstage president; the lopping of the telltale Clinton name off the Hillary banner; and the flaunting of salads and omelettes during the sugar-on-sugar video.

Those eggs hit the fan two days later as Hillary and her aides managed to forget to tip the waitress in a diner in Albumen -- sorry, Albion, N.Y., where the male owner comped the first lady her two caloric plates in a row of scrambled eggs and home fries. Big deal, one might have said, had Hillary or her campaign staff quickly rectified the oversight.

But when a reporter asked about it a day later, Hillary's first impulse as always was to stonewall, calling it a "wild story." Deny, deny, deny: Here in nuce -- or should we say in ovo -- is how this country got dragged into the impeachment crisis. It was Hillary's refusal to settle with Paula Jones, as well as the defamatory attacks on Jones and other complaining women that Hillary countenanced, that led to the unearthing of Monica Lewinsky in the multi-volume Clinton Casanova Chronicles.

Ten days later, after rising publicity and a conservative Web-driven stunt producing a flood of dollar bills from around the country for the stiffed waitress, Hillary's spokesman announced that a $100 savings bond was in the mail for the waitress's son. The whole episode was a classic Marie Antoinette Moment: Hillary managed to show that far from being the champion of working women as she claims, she is so used to being treated like royalty that she is now smugly removed from practical reality.

R. Rouff writes to protest my "monotonous criticisms" of Hillary, which "neglect the fact that while Bill was governor of Arkansas, he and Hillary had a solid record of championing progressive governmental initiatives, this in a state that was for many years poverty stricken and, in terms of social services, grossly underserved." Significantly, "Arkansas' previous claim to fame before the Clintons was the racist reactionary Orville Faubus."

The latter point is well taken, but I still need to be convinced that it's Hillary rather than Bill, the native Arkansan, who should take credit for these achievements -- about which Arkansans in general seem strangely silent, by the way. As for the monotony of my criticisms, I plead guilty -- but it must be realized that I was an early Hillary fan whose laudatory statements and articles about her beginning in 1992 are on the record in the U.S. and the U.K.

I belong to a group much dwelled on of late in political commentary: the white, middle-aged, Democratic professional women whom Hillary by her own dishonest and manipulative behavior (and not through the occult intervention of any right-wing conspiracy) has managed to totally alienate. More and more are speaking out now, but my changing views were clear in "Ice Queen, Drag Queen," my April 1996 New Republic cover story that produced a squealing letter to the editor from Hillary's smarmy show-biz chum, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason.

Joy Loth, already quoted above, remarks: "Hillary is the Forrest Gump of politics. Was she really at the rally for Martin Luther King? It seems she's been there, done that, and is that whenever it suits her political purposes." Joyce Hathaway writes from Alexandria, Va.:

I am always amazed at the tributes paid to Hillary for her work with children. She has subjected her own daughter to an awe-inspiringly dysfunctional family life. She and Bill subjected a very young Chelsea to questioning (grilling) at the dinner table and claimed that people, saying similar things about her father, were part of a vast conspiracy of liars.

All things considered, I think Hillary exhibits a total lack of understanding of what kids are all about. Why is this never mentioned?

I'm afraid I laughed uproariously at Fred Schreier's mischievous sally:

I find it odd that in the eight years of the Clinton residency in the White House we have seldom if ever heard Chelsea speak. Is she a mute? Her father never shuts up -- so maybe he is not the biological father.

Finally, to leave our Clinton cell for this week, an item in the New York Post's Page Six reported that Westchester County Republicans have offered "a suggestion for what Bill and Hillary Clinton should call their new home in Chappaqua: Disgraceland."

The exchange on gun control in my last column produced many fascinating responses. Crow Carter, who describes himself as a "professional handgun instructor with many female graduates," applauds Tim Hartin's letter for its description of "the irrational fear of weapons dubbed 'hoplophobia' by Jeff Cooper, known as the 'Father of Modern Handgunning' [from the Greek 'hoplon', meaning weapon or tool]." Carter supports my interpretation of the Second Amendment:

If one reads the Founders one cannot escape the realization that this amendment, second only to the First, which it protects, was placed where it is precisely to allow the people to take back their government should it fall into the hands of some future Hitlerian despot.

Meanwhile, Gunowners of America, the junkyard dogs of the Second Amendment, asks about your Democratic Party, "What part of 'infringed' don't they understand?"

Bill King similarly declares:

I have thought for some time that this is a cultural issue. In the home I grew up in, the presence of a gun was quite normal. Many of my relatives were farmers, and killing animals for food was also normal. All of my cousins and I were introduced to hunting first as helpers in camp; then as drivers of game; and finally as hunters. We were taught what to do and learned the rules of the game.

A person from an urban background in which guns are only encountered along with a request to part with money can't understand just how benign a gun is to me. I have several guns and have never understood why the controllers are concerned with how many guns a man owns. After all, most of the troops who conquered Germany only had one gun.

Tim Stinnett sends appreciation for my "defense of decent, law-abiding" gun-owners: "That guns in the hands of responsible citizens pose no measurable problem for public safety seems brutally sensible to me." However, he questions my use of the word "loophole" for the way that a girlfriend of the Columbine High School mass murderers was able to purchase weapons for them at a gun show:

Private sellers, those who are not in the business of selling guns but wish to buy, sell or trade their own personal firearms, are not subject to federal and state laws regulating gun dealers, just as laws regulating automobile dealers do not apply to "Fred" when he sticks a "for sale" sign in the window of his Pontiac and parks it by the road. That Fred can sell his personally owned Pontiac without being subject to the same laws regulating a Pontiac dealer doesn't make it a "loophole." Regulating those engaged in business differently from individuals selling personal property is entirely reasonable and purely intentional.

As you may know, both Harris and Klebold initially attempted to purchase guns from a licensed gun dealer. He refused them because they were not of age. The girlfriend who purchased weapons at a gun show was of legal age to purchase rifles and shotguns from any licensed gun dealer. The seller asked for ID to prove she was at least 18. She would have been able to walk into any licensed gun dealer, pass a background check and purchase the same guns anywhere in Colorado or virtually every other state. Where is the "loophole"?

Thanks, Mr. Stinnett, for the correction. Although I was familiar with these facts, it's clearly wrong to go on calling the problem a "loophole." Surely something needs to be done, however, to tighten up procedures and streamline record-keeping so that guns can be kept out of the hands of psychotics while at the same time preserving the rights of responsible gun-owners. Self-regulation by the gun industry and private collectors is infinitely preferable to government intrusion by grandstanding liberal bureaucrats.

Don Baldwin, who describes himself as a National Rifle Association Life Member ("certified by them as a pistol and rifle instructor") and is president of Democrats for the 2nd Amendment, confirms Tim Stinnett's point:

The gun show "loophole" is not an intentional oversight in the law. It is an intentional limitation because the federal government has no authority to regulate private sales of firearms within the same state, when the seller is not a federally recognized gun dealer.

That being said, there is certainly room to create a situation in which the gun community can regulate itself. If the NICS "instant" background check system was made available in such a way that law enforcement agents could run voluntary checks for individuals at gun shows -- and if sellers using that system were relieved of any liability if someone with a clean background committed a crime with the gun -- then almost all gun sales at gun shows would be conducted using the NICS system. It would be a lot less of a ham-fisted approach than the White House suggestion, which is meant to kill gun shows.

My family and I are also members of PFLAG [Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays]. Here near Seattle we are presently running an experiment: offering NRA Refuse to be a Victim (and gun safety) classes for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community.

I have the theory that the gun rights/gay rights intersection will be a powerful one, as both groups are taken for granted by the parties with which they are most closely affiliated: gays taken for granted by (my fellow) Democrats; gun owners taken for granted by the GOP.

A very promising political gambit, Mr. Baldwin! The establishments of the two major parties have gotten far too arrogant and complacent, and this is just the sort of thing that could shake them up.

An opposing point of view is taken by Salon reader Jukka Hohenthal in Uppsala, Sweden:

Comparing murder rates between the U.S. and my native country of Sweden is a frightening exercise. And it is not only gang and/or drug- related murders that are the difference. In Sweden, the law-abiding citizen will use his fists on his wife and her lover when catching them in the act, while the American law-abiding gun owner will shoot them. When the police arrive at the scene of the crime in Sweden, they will find people shouting at each other; in the U.S. they will need body bags.

How can you seriously claim that gun-ownership is no big problem? You are much more likely to use a gun if you have one, and since guns' major function is to kill living beings, you are far more likely to kill someone when using it than you would by using your fists or some other blunt instrument. Or is your claim that the price for the odd father killing his daughter's boyfriend, in the belief that he is a burglar, is worth paying for the security you say it gives in an emergency? Even in an emergency you are likely to be worse off if everyone has a gun than if no one has one.

These arguments are very compelling. However, what Europeans sometimes fail to fully realize is that the U.S. is enormous -- the size of a continent, with many states bigger than European nations -- and that our population lacks the ethnic and racial homogeneity of Scandinavia. Whatever its internal disputes, Sweden is historically much more of an extended family than is the U.S., with its massive history of immigration and its competitive minorities.

The American frontier is still open here -- a spatial as well as cultural fact. Our people have a thousand forms and faces, and our quarrels and our creativity are in dynamic relation. American guns are the dark side of American genius. Our aggression overflows into violence but also empowers our brilliant entrepreneurship in technology as well as the vitality of our popular culture.

Yes, I must admit, in this country we are more concerned with the restless rights of the individual than with the claims to comfort of the majority. We prefer the adrenaline rush of the random to the consoling drowsiness of cradle-to-grave socialism. I apologize (as a worshipper of Sweden's national treasure, Ingmar Bergman) if this seems too harsh!

Greg Jorgensen is Jukka Hohenthal's ally in this deftly reasoned letter from Portland, Ore.:

I'm not a politically correct whiner, but I do think it's time to abandon the cowboy mentality. With guns and ammunition so easily available, feeding into a culture fascinated by violence -- even the fake violence of professional wrestling -- we are bound to have a lot of crossfire.

Some of the anti-gun-control arguments are bogus. Here's my take on a few of them:

1. "We need an armed population to protect ourselves from the government, and to limit the power of the police and the state." This made sense in 1800, when the government was weak and didn't control the town and state militias. Today, the police and the military have such superior weapons, and a practically unlimited supply of arms and ammo, that only a fanatic imagines winning a fight against even a small force of them. We already live in a police state, and no matter how many Glocks you own, they have lots more. The government has already demonstrated its willingness to use its superior force and weaponry, and it has done so without any serious organized resistance.

2. "The Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right of anyone to keep and bear arms." The bit about "a well regulated militia" is usually forgotten. Even someone with a public school history education should be able to figure out that the founding fathers didn't imagine Uzis and AK-47s in every home. They didn't imagine a police state, the federal income tax, the "war on drugs," intervention in foreign wars, or much of anything else that is American life today. Over time we abandoned slavery and gave women the vote; we can amend the other parts of the Constitution as well.

3. Hunting. People who need to hunt for food, or want to hunt for sport, should have no problem restricting their gun collection to actual hunting weapons. In England, hunters belong to clubs, and the guns are kept at the club.

My reply to your well-honed points, Mr. Jorgensen, is threefold. First, the abolition of slavery and the granting of suffrage to women expanded civil liberties, while the most extreme programs of gun control would take constitutionally guaranteed liberties away.

Second, my reading of world history, ancient to modern, suggests that law and order can collapse virtually overnight in crisis situations, such as a severe climatological disturbance. This column has warned again and again that the financial markets and long-term investments and pensions will vanish in a poof of smoke if Mother Nature, like Atlas, shrugs. We will all be scrambling for survival again -- and those with guns will be able to defend their family and property.

Third, the lessons of Waco are that even a liberal Democratic administration is capable of fascist acts and that a reasonably armed citizenry is the only recourse against government tyranny. I don't own guns, but I feel more secure that others do.

My prior references to Waco have inspired protests from some readers. Jimmy A. Roberts-Miller, for example, declares:

While I agree with you on the scandalous (criminal!) nature of the government's actions at Waco, I do have to take you to some task for your reference to David Koresh's "ranch." Not only were there some less than wholesome things going on there (deserving of investigation, though not immolation) but that was no more a "ranch" than those 10-acre "spreads" fancied by some yuppies where they keep a horse or two. My dad ran 1,500 acres of real ranch in the scrub brush country south of San Antonio; I know whereof I speak. Calling that place a ranch is both being a bit disingenuous and insulting to real ranch people.

A thousand apologies to ranchers everywhere! The 1956 film version of Edna Ferber's "Giant," which I saw when I was 9, burned into my mind forever the image of the heroic dirt-and-steer rancher (Rock Hudson) fighting off the greedy oil barons. In describing Koresh's compound as a "ranch" (which it was before he acquired it), I was trying to convey the property's physical look to Salon's international readership, who haven't seen the constant aerial images on TV.

James Ravenscroft objects to other matters in my analysis of Waco:

You describe the use of tanks at David Koresh's compound as an outrageous example of government totalitarianism. Now, believe me, I'm familiar with the excesses of the federal government from Japanese internment in World War II to the use of soldiers as guinea pigs for radiation and biological testing.

The use of armored vehicles at Waco, though dramatic, was no more offensive to a free society than the use of helicopters or armed federal agents. People who have never worked for the government often presume a huge monolithic entity of limitless power and faceless, nameless automatons. The fact is that the federal government is composed of men and women who want to do their job and go home safely.

Four ATF agents were killed serving a lawful warrant, raising the stakes at Waco. Koresh and his followers were equipped with long rifles capable of penetrating body armor, helmets, car doors, aircraft fuselage and practically anything available to law enforcement. You can bet that nobody wanted to be that fifth victim, and yet FBI agents cannot simply go home. There is a job to do. Only tanks could move close to the compound safely. The tanks did not use the considerable firepower available to them. They knocked down the structure to allow everyone to escape had they wished to. And they did take gunfire in the process.

Law enforcement has taken on a more paramilitary look in the past few years. The scene of SWAT teams who are indistinguishable from soldiers with military equipment has been prompted by the increased firepower and organization of domestic criminal groups. I would remind people that if it were you going into a drug lab or cult compound or hostage barricade, you would want all the protection you could get.

My background is that I am an Army Reserve tank officer and Border Patrol agent. I have friends in every federal law enforcement agency. Two weeks ago, I sat in a Border Patrol expedition with steel mesh covering all of the glass to allow Mexicans to throw rocks at me. Last night, I sat in a Border Patrol expedition with bulletproof glass, prompted by a friend of mine being shot in the head while he sat in the same position I did on the U.S.-Mexico border. Yet I am still not allowed to carry a long rifle due to the risk of innocent casualties in Mexico. I think you would agree that I do my job out of patriotism, but I do not wish to die for my country. The body armor and handgun I'm supplied with can do only so much, and I can't walk away from a dangerous situation that I'm expected to deal with. Your points about guns being inanimate objects incapable of committing their own evil is true of helicopters and tanks as well.

Thank you for your superb and inspiring letter, Mr. Ravenscroft. However, it is not the heroic men on the ground whom I blame for the grotesque 51-day siege and disastrous attack on the Koresh compound, which resulted in the fiery death of more than 70 adults and children, but those in charge, from the clumsy, egotistical regional coordinators all the way up to the Department of Justice, attorney general and White House. (The latter's command structure at the time remains murky but may have included the first lady and her confidant, the suicidal Vincent Foster.)

David Koresh was a fruitcake, but his remote encampment, however heavily armed, offered little immediate danger to the community or nation. The needless and sometimes manic escalation of that confrontation into a full-scale military assault, where tanks were used against American citizens, was one of the most shocking uses of arbitrary government power in the history of modern democracies.

Those four dead ATF agents were martyrs to administrative stupidity and incompetence, but their lives were not redeemed by the barbaric slaughter of Koresh followers that followed. And the liberal media's failure to hold the new Clinton administration accountable led directly to the death of 168 innocent citizens in Timothy McVeigh's moronic revenge bombing two years later at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Two readers write to protest the assertion about Kimberly Bergalis in a letter from a Salon reader in my last column. Ward Chanley declares, "There's no conclusive evidence that Bergalis contracted HIV from her dentist." He goes on to cite a Web summary of a 1996 report in the Annals of Internal Medicine:

Centers for Disease Control scientists say that they may never be able to explain how and if Florida dentist David Acer transmitted HIV to six patients, including Kimberly Bergalis. "The science doesn't provide us with a conclusive answer [on Acer], but it does reiterate the overall safety for both healthcare provider and patients," says Dr. Donald Marianos, a CDC researcher.

A reader in Hawaii who asks not to be identified recalls admittedly obscure follow-up reportage containing the revelation that Bergalis suffered from a different strain of HIV than did her dentist, that she was not a virgin as she claimed, and that she had been a drug-user: "She scammed the nation, including in her congressional testimony."

Robert Ames asks to clarify a reader's reference to a London train imbroglio involving Prime Minister Tony Blair's wife Cherie:

Cherie didn't have the correct change for the ticket-vending machine at the station she was boarding, but it was at one of the more outlying tube stations where there's no gate to get past. Hence, she did not "sneak" on; she just walked on like everyone else, intending to purchase a ticket at the station where she got off.

But they now have a policy of fining anyone that boards the Underground without a ticket, regardless of intent. Ms. Blair was unaware of this policy until she went to pay her fare after her ride. So please don't let people think that she stooped to sneaking onto the Underground.

Thanks, Mr. Ames. A veritable torrent of material has arrived on the sad state of contemporary American education. I hope to quote it all in time, but meanwhile here's a taste. A reader signing herself Sherry declares:

Being a high school English teacher, I just finished completing a three-year survey to evaluate the quality of my career preparation for the school of education at University of Wisconsin at Madison. It was both cathartic and infuriating.

Questioning and discussion methods are given scant importance in the face of popular, feel-good "theories" of education. Writing quality is pushed aside in the name of "process over product" teaching; indeed, I was never taught how to evaluate for quality in written material.

I learned theories at UW-Madison, not good teaching techniques. I was only taught to value "my emerging style." Subjectivity ruled the day.

I agree with Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, that schools of education, as presently constructed, are virtually worthless as practical preparation for a teaching career. The teachers unions and education bureaucrats, who have sold their souls to the limousine liberals of the Democratic Party, have poured choking oceans of p.c. mush into the public school system.

And now for a blazing manifesto from Alexis Kirschbaum:

As a recent graduate of Smith College, I felt that I had a personal stake in your comments about the discontinuance of Smith College's esteemed Art History survey course. The move by the college's administration and faculty points to a pervading academic laziness within certain camps of academics brought about by a fear of becoming culturally outmoded. Although I did receive a thorough classical education at Smith College from brilliant and engaged professors, the institution is unfortunately catering more and more to politically correct platitudes.

I could never determine if the student body, who experimented illimitably with their own sexual orientation but came to the classroom and dinner table uninterested in any topic that even remotely suggested controversy or erudition, would be considered a cause or an effect of this trend among the administration. As you might well guess, I was considered pretentious in this climate, but in fact, the hypocrisy of the women with blue hair, two girl friends, and an entourage chanting "free the oppressed" over a candle- lit dinner table, four-course meal and bon bons first made me retch and then bored me to tears.

I wasn't pretentious, just dissatisfied with the company. I would stare at them blankly as they "flouted the establishment" and thought to myself that my coevals have lost sight of the place of true revolution and blur the lines abysmally by failing to recognize the tradition of revolution in art. The confusing of political fact with the delicate knowledge afforded by the arts and the constant overshadowing of artistic inventiveness by ideas of purportedly political advancement left me socially beleaguered and intellectually jaded.

I enrolled in what I then conceived of as a sacred institution, only to become removed from the precious and ensconced in the mundane. So what I want to ask you is, as a professor, have you felt similar tremors in liberal arts institutions? Another thing: the "real world" is even more blasi toward what I consider invaluable, so what in the hell can I do with an English degree in today's world?

Wow! What a devastating report from what used to be the crown jewel of the elite Seven Sisters colleges. Smith's slide toward banality is the end result of a quarter century of anxiously p.c. feminist politics in the Lesbian La-La Land of northwestern rural Massachusetts. You of course confirm everything I have been railing about in American education since I arrived on the scene a decade ago.

All I can say to you and to all like-minded independent thinkers is that the best education is self-education. Timorous or trendy teachers can't stop you from plunging into the treasure house of the world's great books and art objects. Investigate, assimilate and then propagate your own ideas into the general culture. An intellectually awakened life is possible in any job. Don't be limited by your environment: It's just pasteboard walls, easily pierced by the spiritual eye.

And now for our usual pop culture finale. I was gratified by the volume and quality of support I received from fellow Italian-Americans after my latest attack on HBO's loathsomely over-praised series, "The Sopranos." I want to use it all but must postpone that to a future column.

Hayley Mills fans continue to respond to my celebration of "The Parent Trap." For example, George M. Hook declares:

Much thanks for the praise to Hayley Mills. As well as "Pollyanna" (a true Disney classic that evokes a dreamy Americana better than any Norman Rockwell painting), one of Hayley's great moments was portraying a frisky, rebellious Catholic schoolgirl in "The Trouble With Angels." In my early youth, I adored Hayley Mills -- an English girl with style and sass.

Coby Lubliner writes from Berkeley, Calif.:

In your discussion of the 1961 film "The Parent Trap" you neglected to mention its being based on a classic novel, "Das doppelte Lottchen," by Erich Kdstner, or the fact that there have been several other movies based on it, including the lovely British "Twice Upon a Time" (1953). I have, of course, the advantage of having been a schoolboy in Germany, where Kdstner's work is (was?) a staple. But if you just look him up on imdb.com, you will see the huge number of movies, including Hollywood-made ones, that his work has inspired over the years.

Thanks for the tip, Mr. Lubliner, which is supported by Albert S. Zeller's intriguing note:

I must take serious exception to your characterization of Hayley Mills as "androgynous." In 1964 my sister dragged me to a showing of "The Parent Trap" largely because she is a big fan of Erich Kaestner, the author of the original story. Kaestner was probably the leading author of children's books in the German language, and we were exposed to a lot of his work in the old country (Switzerland).

I have to admit, being only a few years older than Miss Mills, of developing a big crush on her and often fantasized about being in bed between her two incarnations as the identical twins. While Hayley was only pubescent at the time and thus girlish instead of womanly, this is not the same as being androgynous.

A striking distinction, Mr. Zeller! It could well be that my career of cataloging sexual personae has made me too amorous of the androgynous. In defense, I would say that Hayley Mills' androgyny can be clearly seen if stills from "The Parent Trap" are juxtaposed with photos of early Mick Jagger, whom she in some sense prefigured as a mercurial symbol of the high-energy 1960s. Rock on, Hayley!

Only one reader, oddly enough, sprang to the defense of Helen Hunt, whom I cattily maligned for her grand theft of Kate Winslet's Oscar. Jshannes Birgir Jensson writes from Reykjavmk, Iceland first to defend gun control ("Don't know about you guys, but the best weapon in natural catastrophes could be a shovel"); then to zing Julia Roberts ("Has she ever played anything? She's stayed in the same character forever"); and finally to applaud Hunt: "I never liked her until I saw her in the TV show 'Mad About You'. She is dead good there. Great show."

I'm not sure, Mr. Jennson, if Hunt's Nordic persona endears her more to Reykjavmk than to Little Italy -- but on the other hand, I've always loved Nico, the Teutonic blonde Amazon of "La Dolce Vita" and the Velvet Underground. Benjamin Scuglia, I note, has my Italian take on things:

Helen Hunt gave a competent performance in "As Good As It Gets," one no different from her television work. Kate Winslet did not merely transcend a banal script, she took her performance one step further, embodying "Titanic's" Young Rose with layers of sensuality, wit, sadness. Rose was quite different from the women Winslet brought to life in "Heavenly Creatures," "Holy Smoke" and "Hideous Kinky," and yet they are all real women, complex and beautiful.

David Brown supports my "right-on appraisal of the talents of the wonderful Kate Winslet" and goes on to protest: "Why that wimpy drip Leonardo DiCaprio emerged as the mega star after 'Titanic' instead of Kate is beyond me. She's beautiful, funny, sexy, loaded with talent, gives good interviews, and seems to be a relatively 'normal' gal." Shawn A. Cullen also goes to the mat for Winslet:

All hail Kate! She is truly a real woman and a superb actress. Put me on the list as one of your "baying, frothing hounds" eager to haunt wimpy Helen Hunt to the grave and pull that ill-deserved Oscar from her pale, cadaver-like hands!

The Winslet Brigade is taking arms across the globe. I issue an appeal to my fellow warriors: Whoever first sees Helen Hunt in public, whether at the grocery store or on the red carpet, please sing out, "Give back Kate Winslet's Oscar!"

Finally, my top pop moments of the past three weeks. First, Juliet Prowse in a glittery, silver-ribbon-over-nude-fabric dress doing a sensationally provocative, long-legged dance in a nightclub in the American Movie Channel's broadcast of "G.I. Blues" (1960), starring Elvis Presley. (Boy, does that woman have great extension in her wrists and ankles -- unusually balletic for hoochie-koochie choreography.)

Second, Jeri Ryan (a favorite also of critic James Wolcott) as the brusque, blond, half-Borg Seven of Nine on just about any episode of the nightly repeats of "Star Trek: Voyager" being aired in Philadelphia by the UPN affiliate, WPSG. Few entities of heaven or Earth can reduce me to a helpless puddle, but the crisply cool, very pneumatic but divinely svelte Ryan (another trained dancer) sure is one!

By Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Her most recent book is "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars." You can email her at askcamille@salon.com.

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