Okay, I lied; I wasn’t busy last night. I was staying up watching an HDTV marathon of “Bikini Destinations.”

Just kidding. I saw one episode, and it can best be described as “the stupidiest women you’ve ever seen saying ‘woooo!’ and/or pouting as they hitch up a thong on an interchangeable expanse of sand.” So tonight I watched “Treasures of Italian Art,” because unlike Bikini Destinations there is a chance I will someday go to Venice.

HDTV was made for shows like this; the paintings and the cityscapes are preternaturally vivid and alive. Odd: the show used 19th century music to accompany the 15th / 16th century art – Mahler in particular. Why? Because the program took place in Venice, and Mahler was used as the score for the filmed version of “Death in Venice,” and all the painters in the documentary are dead? It’s a bit of a cheat - modern ears are inclined to accept 19th century Romantic music as real music; that tinkly mouthful-of-fishbones harpsichord stuff that came before was just music warming up and getting ready. But when this Venetian art was created, the locals didn’t hear Mahler in their heads. And it’s that careful, reverential, Viennese-establishment gluey Bruno-Walter Mahler, not the nervous Jewish schmaltz-and-brine-pickle Mahler revealed to us by Lenny the B.

Anyway. The previous night I watched an HDTV PBS doc on the building of the bridge over the river Kwai – actually, the construction of the entire railway. They managed to find an old man who was a young man when the thing was built. A Japanese engineer responsible for solving many of the daunting problems of the project. They brought him back to Burma, teamed him with an American engineer responsible for Boston’s Big Dig, and explored the remains of the railway. Interesting. Very interesting. Here’s a bluff with a steep drop off; how did you build a trestle around it? That sort of thing. And about 25 minutes into the program I hit STOP and pressed DELETE because I didn’t really care how this fellow achieved his successes. He was using American and British slave labor to build the damn thing. It suddenly seemed like a documentary about the interesting railway logistics of moving prisoners to Birkenau. “Well, there was the question of turning around the trains to head back to the ghettos. Do we build a roundhouse and double the tracks heading back, or integrate the rail lines into existing tracks? Each had their advantages, you know.”

I kept waiting for the interviewer to cut off the engineer and ask “In your dreams, do the skeletal dead ever push through the dirt and claw at your shins, their fleshless faces leering in glee and pain?”
Perhaps that happened in the last half.

Delete. Switch to a movie – an HDTV movie! It’s “Max,” the merry tale of Hitler’s artistic years. Features John Cusack, who I like. (The thinking man’s Tom Hanks.) It began with George Grosz vomiting in a train shed, which counts for something.

Heard an amazing exchange on the Hugh Hewitt show last night. Hugh was interviewing Peter Beinart, the editor of the New Republic. Hugh wanted to talk about Sandy Berger cramming sheaves of classified papers down his codpiece. Beinart admitted that it could be a troublesome matter, but he reserved judgment; he was willing to admit that Sandy Berger existed, but whether he stole documents was a different matter. Time would tell. Anyway, it was testy, but then it got harsh.

Beinart snapped that Hugh was getting his “marching orders from the RNC,” which is lunatic nonsense. Even if I didn’t know Hugh, I do know the talk radio business, and people don’t get a daily briefing from Lord Rove, okay? It’s the sort of thing said by people who do – not – understand – talk radio, and think it’s orchestrated by chortling neo-cons smoking cigars with a Star of David on the band. Not to say Beinart believes that, but I’d never heard him put on the waders and head into the fever swamp before, so that was odd. But he followed it with a hissy-fit completely irrelevant to the topic, demanding to know if there were two issues where Hugh thought Kerry was better than Bush. Hugh couldn’t think of any.

“Then you are a hack,” Beinart spat. And he said it again, and again. “You are a hack.”

It was the most uncivil exchange I’ve ever heard on a talk radio show between a host and a regular guest. Part of Beinart’s frustration was Hewitt’s unwillingness to marvel at the feet of the 9/11 Commission’s report. I understand. There are few words that stir the blood of a Beltway wonk like “the Commission has issued its report.” That means that those in the government must now react, importantly, and those in the media must now react as well – dissect, digest, explain to the benighted groundlings what it means, and issue Important Recommendations by way of reasoned editorials aimed at the corridors of power, but more likely received by a schoolteacher in Iowa who photocopies it off and puts it on the bulletin board in the staff lounge with yellow highlight-lines through the better parts.

The commission has issued its report! Mo better, the commission has issued recommendations! And the Washington press corps open their beaks, spindly necks trembling, waiting for the savory worm to be dropped from the blue-ribbon mother bird.

Unless you’ve spent some time in DC you can’t imagine the tremendous self-importance that possesses the people who feed off the government. They’re like people who live in the same town where NASA has a tracking station, and think that it makes them all astronauts. And so it comes to pass that a perfectly reasonable talk show host wants to talk about an out-of-power guy stuffing annotated memos in his garters, and because he doesn’t want to talk about the two tablets handed down by A COMMISSION, he’s a blind hack.

As Beinart said, re: Berger - “That’s more important than the commission is calling for a reorganization of the intelligence community?”

Key words: “commission,” “calling for,” “reorganization,” and “community.” If those words don’t make you swoon, don’t go to DC.

Updated remarks: I don’t mean to suggest that the report itself is somehow useless - describing the enemy in clear terms is helpful, but there’s nothing there you couldn’t get from a half-dozen VDH columns. As for the stuff that disproves or backs up this or that, all well and good, but it won’t change minds. Minds are set. Some people believe – fervently, devoutly, for reasons I can’t quite grasp - there was no contact between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and the report comes too late to dislodge that viewpoint.


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c. 1995-2004 j. lileks