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Democracy in Salisbury - and our national shame

The transfer station  vote in Salisbury last week was a thrilling demonstration of small-town democracy in action. No fewer than 512 citizens — the most I can remember ever at a town meeting — took their responsibilities seriously enough to listen to the pros and cons and register their convictions. The 364-175 vote to purchase the Luke and Fitting properties as a new site for the beleaguered Salisbury-Sharon transfer station was decisive. Now the details can be worked out and the work can begin.

What was most impressive to me was the decorousness of the meeting. People had their say — emphatically — but there was no name-calling or impoliteness.  I have to think that the main reason for this was that the selectmen and others who worked on various aspects of the project were remarkably well prepared and kept their cool. In the end, Salisbury citizens made what to me was the right decision, as they almost always have.

Special congratulations are in order for First Selectman Curtis Rand and Bob Palmer for their masterful presentation and to Charlie Vail for his even-handed conduct of the proceedings.  It made me proud, once again, to be a small part of this especially New England way of reaching decisions.

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I wish I could be proud of our national government, but more evidence keeps accumulating to reinforce my belief that the Bush administration is the worst in American history in the damage it has done to our institutions and reputation. One of the newest examples — and somehow it makes me the maddest — is the sleazy way Pentagon officials sought to influence the TV commentaries of retired military officers by feeding them thoroughly skewed accounts of what was actually happening so as to make them think it was authentic. The New York Times deserves great credit for exposing the way in which carefully staged tours to Iraq and Guantánamo sought to conceal the true situation. Not only was this a scandalous attempt to mislead the American public, it also was a shameful attempt to manipulate the patriotism of military officers who have devoted their careers to serving the country.

A growing number of top generals have been emphasizing in memoirs how they were misled by former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. One of the most recent was by Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who was in charge of ground forces during the first year of the war in Iraq. Getting straight answers must have been like trying to negotiate with a bowl of Jell-O, but afterward Rumsfeld would claim that he didn’t know anything about the situation on which he had been asked for guidance.

And then there is the matter of torture, on which President Bush and Vice President Cheney have taken an especially hard line. More and more accounts by persons freed after being held at Guantánamo for long periods, some with no charges ever made against them, detail the hideous practices that Bush and Cheney repeatedly have contended don’t exist. This is not to mention what happens to prisoners who suffer “renditions” to other less fastidious countries.

How to erase or at least minimize this stain will be an urgent task for the next president, be it Democrats Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, or Republican John McCain — all honorable persons to whom torture is anathema.

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In fact, the more I learn of the turmoil in Iraq, the more I now am convinced that we must get out entirely and at the earliest opportunity. That means setting a firm deadline, say six months after the inauguration of a new president in Washington, telling the Iraqi government in Baghdad that it will be on its own, and really removing all our troops.  We can’t resolve the animosities of a civil war that will have to be settled by the Iraqis themselves.  The fact that we precipitated that war is a blot on our record — but it would be only made worse by prolonging our involvement.

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Of necessity this column had to be written before the outcome of Tuesday’s primaries.  There have been many observations that Hillary Clinton has shown extraordinary toughness and resilience, whereas Barack Obama was badly hurt by his tiff with the Reverend Wright and now is regarded as elitist in depressed industrial states like Indiana.  The only way he can prevail, in my view, is because people regard him as a new phenomenon in American politics, dedicated to racial justice and equal opportunity at home and to winning renewed respect for America abroad.

If he wins, in my view, it will be because voters see him as he is, rather than because he shares a beer with a blue collar worker in Indiana or panders to displaced workers who are misled into believing that free trade areas with Canada and Mexico are the cause of their woes. Obama is a unique phenomenon in the breadth of his experience and background, and this is what he ought to be stressing to voters.

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Pride goeth before a fall.  I had been telling anyone interested that I had finally solved the squirrel and bear problem. An inverted plastic bowl with a hole in it, mounted and suspended by clamps on the metal pole below the arm from which the birdfeeder is suspended prevents the red and gray squirrels from reaching the feeder suspended on a chain — and they seem to accept defeat and are content to pick up dropped seeds. This arrangement brought us a wide variety of birds feeding either directly on the feeder or on the ground. I brought the feeder into the house at night to foil marauding bears.

Well, it all worked fine until Sunday night when I was preoccupied with other matters and forgot to bring in the feeder. Sure enough, Monday morning it was missing. The pole had been shoved aside and the feeder was in pieces about 20 feet away on the edge of a wetland — a sure sign that bear season is back with us. This is the third time such indignity had been inflicted on our efforts to keep the birds as happy visitors.

Well, I shall attempt to repair the feeder or if necessary get a new one, but the experience is humbling — again. Outsmart the animals? Not likely!

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