Tuesday, July 24, 2007

There was more to Tammy Faye than makeup

I never met Tammy Faye Bakker Messner, who died of cancer last week, but I feel as though I have.

In 1987, I made several trips down to Fort Mill, SC to cover the breakup of Jim and Tammy Bakker's PTL Club and Heritage USA amusement park and chronicle the Rev. Jerry Falwell's part in that sad saga.

Nearly 20 years later, I heard Tammy Sue Bakker, the couple's daughter, speak at the Lighthouse Church in Lynchburg.

In between, like everybody else, I was alternately outraged and amused by the flood of publicity that turned Tammy Faye in a caricature.

It was her makeup, for one thing. She wore lots of it, as everyone knows, and a popular T-shirt from the late 1980s consisted of random blobs of various colors and the words: "I ran into Tammy Faye at the mall."

She cried a lot, was another thing. She cried when she was happy, when she was sad, when she felt the rush of the spirit take her over.

Of course, a lot of people -- including state and federal law enforcement authorities -- thought that the Bakkers were crooks. I was one of them, and I've often reprised a classic pronouncement Tammy Fay once made during a healing service.

Looking out over a vast field of believers, she blurted out "Someone out there has just been healed of cancer, and they didn't even know they had it."

Now, wasn't that special?

The interesting thing to me, though, when I visited Heritage USA, was how loyal many of the Bakkers' followers remained to the couple even after the bad news hit the fan.

"Jim and Tammy would never do anything to hurt us," I remember one woman telling me.

Actually, they wound up hurting each other. Jim had a fling with a church secretary named Jessica Hahn (who was so traumatized by the experience that she went on to pose for Playboy), and the couple was eventually divorced. Tammy Faye then married Roe Messner, another PTL figure, who was later convicted of financial wrongdoing himself.

Tammy Faye was never convicted of anything, though, and the arc of her life continued -- from evangelism to pop culture icon. She appeared on several reality shows, occupied Larry King's guest chair on a number of occasions, and became a sort of latter-day Judy Garland, adopted enthusiastically by the gay community.

Even her lingering death from cancer became a public spectacle. Periodically, Tammy Faye would appear on Larry King Live to report of the progress of the disease.

So what did all this mean?

To me, Tammy Faye's career provided an object lesson in the fraility of humanity. By all accounts, she and Jim started out on the right path, only to be lured into the underbrush by the onslaught of riches that suddenly came their way.

The Bakkers showed the world that it is always more advisable to follow the message and not the messengers. In the end, though, Tammy Faye managed to fight her way through the notoriety and the silliness to emerge as a redeemed and triumphant figure.

"She's a good person," Tammy Sue Bakker said of her mom last year in her visit to Lynchburg. "She really is."

I believe her.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Now, it's a federal case: Who let the dogs out?

A throwaway line in the Paul Simon song "You Can Call Me Al" goes something like this: "Get these mutts away from me -- I don't find this stuff amusing any more."

Michael Vick can certainly relate. Or, he might find an appropriate theme song in that late '90s hit by the Baha Men: "Who Let the Dogs Out?" Even if the Atlanta Falcons' quarterback isn't suspended by the league, I'll bet he hears that blasting over the PA system in every city on the road.

Vick hasn't been proven guilty of participating in (and bankrolling) illegal dogfighting, of course -- but he has been proven self-destructive, by a long series of embarrassing incidents. I'm not sure what it is about the Tidewater area, but his problems remind me a lot of Allen Iverson, the Hampton-born basketball star, who also seemed determined to hang onto his tough guy, pseudo-gangsta image even after the Philadelphia 76ers made him a multi-millionaire.

In recent years, Iverson appears to have matured. Vick, 27, may have lost his chance.

Tuesday's federal indictment against Vick and three alleged co-conspirators (including a guy named Pernell Peach) was not only damning, but grisly. At one point, it accuses Peach of electrocuting the loser in one dog fight with Vick looking on. If true, that's not going to go over well with PETA.

Perhaps the hardest of Vick's statements to believe is the one about his relatives and friends staging dog fights at the Suffolk County property the quarterback owned without his knowledge.
("Quick -- Michael's coming! Let's hide the 50 pit bulls in this closet!")

That would be like Osama bin Laden saying that he thought those Afghan terrorist training centers were really summer camps for disadvantaged kids.

Even worse, Vick repeated his blanket denial to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in April.

Unlike the federal court system, the NFL doesn't have to try Vick with a jury of his peers. If it's determined that he's become enough of an embarassment to the league, he can be suspended. Period.

Either way, this is a huge problem for Vick's team, which has built its offense, its salary structure and its marketing plan around Vick's twinkling feet and howitzer of an arm.

Falcons' owner Arthur Blank has hung in there with Vick for several years despite the fact that the former Virginia Tech star has only rarely fulfilled his enormous promise on the field, has embarrassed him at every turn, and was openly defiant of previous coach Jim Mora. Mora's replacement, Bobby Petrino, was brought in from the University of Louisville largely because it was thought that he can both coach and control Atlanta's maverick star. Oops.

Now, the Falcons have a huge hunk of dog doo-doo on their collective shoe -- and a backup quarterback, Joey Harrington, with less than All-Pro credentials.

It couldn't be more fitting that Atlanta's training camp will open in August -- the Dog Days.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Reflections on the Peace Mom's visit

I have a lot of respect for Cindy Sheehan. Increasingly, though, I'm starting to wonder what she's thinking.

When she started her activism against the Iraq War, she was in firm possession of the high moral ground. She was coming at the issue as a grieving mother anguishing over the thought that her son may have died for nothing. In that role, she earned the sympathy of a lot of Americans who may not have agreed with her political stance.

I don't believe the skeptics who now say Sheehan is putting herself "out there" just to get publicity, or as part of some scheme to line her purse. No one ever heard of Cindy Sheehan before her son Casey was killed in action in 2004, and there can be no doubt that her grief was initially what drove her.

What I wonder about is the path she's taken since.

Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with Sheehan broadening her efforts and becoming a spokesperson against the war. My problem is with the way she's doing it.

I saw it all too often during the Vietnam era -- the "peace" crowd increasingly circling the wagons, lashing out in irrelevant directions and spending a lot of time congratulating each other.

This is not how you win an argument. You win an argument by addressing the people who disagree with you, and trying to convince them.

One of our biggest problems as a nation, I believe, is that we tend to get tangled up in ideology. Come to think of it, that's probably the biggest problem of all nations -- it's part of the human condition.

What this does, though, is keep us from focusing on a problem in isolation. The Iraq War is not necessarily a Democratic, Republican, liberal or conservative issue. It is what it is, irrespective of our politics, and we need to take a clear-eyed, objective look at it. The same with global warming and tax reform and prison reform and all the other issues we've managed to politicize.

But back to Cindy Sheehan. In my humble opinion, she's getting scattered. Instead of focusing all her energy on convincing other Americans that the war in Iraq is a bad idea, she's now focusing on getting President Bush and Vice-President Cheney impeached.

Another bad idea, it would seem to me. For one thing, it would take a mighty convincing case against Bush and Cheney to conjure up the two-thirds majority it would take to get them out of office. Impeachment is easy -- a simple majority. Following through is excruciatingly difficult.

Just as the Republicans did it to Bill Clinton -- knowing they didn't have a two-thirds majority -- an impeachment of Bush and Cheney would just be a distraction at a time when we don't need to be distracted. And again, as with Clinton, what is the point of trying to impeach leaders as their term winds down to a close?

Moreover, if you make the issue a personal attack on Bush and Cheney, you open an argument that can't be won. For the most part, people either love them or they hate them, and it's hard to imagine that anything Cindy Sheehan says is going to change that. So rather than trying to make the point that the current administration is stupid, or evil, it makes more sense just to take the position that they're wrong, and let history take care of the final judgement.

Sure, it can be argued that the Iraq War is part of a larger problem in American foreign policy, and that we need to start viewing the world differently. But making trips to Venezuela (where leader Hugo Chavez is openly defiant and contemptuous of the U.S.) and Cuba, as Sheehan has done, isn't going to help change hearts and minds.

It's the Jane Fonda mistake all over again -- her trip to North Vietnam cost her any shred of credibility she may have had among moderates.

Having said all that, I think it's exciting that Sheehan is stopping here (I'm speaking as a newspaper person here), and I hope a lot of people turn out to hear her, whether they agree with her or not. Whenever we stop freely exchanging ideas, we stop being America.

If Cindy Sheehan won't do it, I will

An open letter to those who still support the Iraq War:

First of all, I admire your perserverence. It's not easy to hold to an idea when it seems to be falling apart around you. Nor am I assuming that you're necessarily wrong, although I happen to think you are.

Of course, what do I know, besides what I read, and hear, and see on TV? I haven't taken a "fact-finding" mission to Iraq, like so many of our elected officials. I don't know a soul over there, although I have interviewed some returning soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Like you, I have to rely ultimately on guesswork and gut feelings.

I would like to make a couple of points, though -- and let me add that I don't consider myself either a liberal or a conservative. I won't bore you with a checklist of my positions on a laundry list of issues, but trust me on this: The older I get, the more I realize that there are virtues and flaws on both sides of the ideological divide.

1. Wars are not automatically noble causes. Some are necessary, some are not. Some are motivated by morality, others by greed.

As anyone who knows me well will tell you, I have an enormous respect for the American soldier. My father was a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, my mother worked for the military during World War II, and I grew up in that culture. Over the years, I have written innumerable stories about soldiers who did their duty. A soldier serves where he or she is told to serve, period.

Still, we Americans have a right to question whether a war that is costing billions of dollars of our tax money is a good thing. That's what differentiates us from a lot of other countries, where citizens don't have that right. What irks me is when people use the argument that "You wouldn't be able to say those things in Iran" to convince others not to say them. You can't have it both ways.

Anyway, just because our military is deployed somewhere doesn't mean that the officials who sent them there are right. And if they're wrong, it's no reflection on the troops, as long as they follow the general laws of humanity. They're still brave.

The just wars, by and large, are obvious. Otherwise, a war is very much like a joke -- if you have to spend a lot of time explaining it to people, it's probably not going to work.

2. A lot of this is about Israel.

I'm not saying that's a bad thing, necessarily. They are, after all, a longtime ally.

Think about it, though. Suppose Iraq did have "weapons of mass destruction." They have no delivery system, and hardly any Air Force. In order to use those weapons against us, they would have to ship them here by UPS. Or smuggle them in -- but they could do that anyway, from anywhere. Occupying Iraq won't stop that threat.

Same with Iran. They are really no danger to us, in the traditional sense. But both Iran and a radical Iraq would be a huge threat to Israel, which they could reach with those weapons. That, it would seem to me, is what we're worried about.

It is also about oil, but I won't go there.

3. We need to start learning our geography.

I remember Alan Jackson's poignant song after 9-11, where he said "I'm just a simple man. I don't know the difference between Iraq and Iran."

I don't see that as a good thing. I get the sense with a lot of you who strongly support the war that you see all of the Middle Eastern countries as an indistinguishable mass, even though they are actually very different. The Iranians, for example, are not Arabs. I don't know enough about these places as I should, but I know that much.

Reflexively attacking Iraq because of Sept. 11 makes about as much sense as if we had attacked China after Pearl Harbor, arguing, "Why not? They're all Orientals, aren't they?"

Given that logic, and the fact that the majority of the hijackers were Saudis, wouldn't it have made more sense to bomb Saudi Arabia?

4. Who are these guys?

George Bush has gotten a lot of flak for his "Mission Accomplished" pronouncement, but in a sense, he was right. We took over the country, which we now occupy, and not only ousted its leader, but had him hung.

It's the aftermath that's the problem. In Vietnam, we at least knew who we were fighting. In Iraq, there are a dozen different groups fighting each other -- and us, because we're in the way. There are no hills to take, no beaches to land on, no cities to liberate. We have been reduced to a peacekeeping force, as well as a sitting target for a host of radical militias.

The question then, is not really "How do we win the war in Iraq?" We handled the war quite effectively -- it's the peace that's getting badly screwed up.

5. What do these people want?

They aren't all mentally disturbed, although I have to think at least some of them are (agreeing to strap explosives to your body and blow yourself up just to kill a few civilians is in a marketplace would seem to be certifiable). So what's going on in Iraq, as chaotic as it seems, must be for a reason.

Religion might motivate the rank and file, but probably not the leaders. They have an agenda, so what is it? That doesn't mean we should agree with it, but it might be nice to know.

By the way, I don't understand what President Bush is talking about when he says "they" will "follow us here."

They certainly aren't going to invade us with their armies, because that would be like the Concord Little League All-Stars challenging the New York Yankees. So "following us" must mean terrorism.

I think most people in other countries, especially developing countries, envy us for our wealth but would love to climb aboard our gravy train themselves. What the opposition in the Middle East hates us for, as far as I can surmise, is because we support Israel and because we're occupying Iraq.

5. How can we end this honorably and with a minumum of bloodshed?

If I knew that, I wouldn't be working in Lynchburg, VA -- I could sell that knowledge for millions.

Obviously, the perfect solution would be to have to Iraqis fight their own battles. The problem is, their government seems too polarized and paralyzed to be able to do that.

I do think, with our military clout, that we could keep the surrounding countries from piling on if we left. But we couldn't keep the violence from escalating within Iraq, and we'd have to be willing to accept that.

Anyway, this is just what I think -- take it or leave it. I'd also love to hear any arguments for remaining in Iraq that don't include the words "liberal scum." Send them along, and I'll print them.

Do we have two City Councils?

First of all, I don't care what Darin Gerdes' religious or political affiliation may be.

I don't care if he's a fundamentalist Baptist, a Hindu or a Unitarian; a Rush Limbaugh conservative or a Michael Moore liberal. That's not the point. What bothers me is the manner in which he was recently appointed to the Lynchburg School Board by City Council.

I think it should be bother you, too.

Whatever their philosophies may be, the seven members of City Council were elected to work together for the good of the city.

That's not to say that they can't disagree on some matters. That's inevitable, and probably healthy. A council operating in total lockstep would be kind of scary.

But here's what apparently happened with the substitution of Gerdes for Tom Webb on the School Board. Council members Michael Gillette and Ceasor Johnson were out of town at the time the matter came up for a vote. Although two of the remaining five members wanted to delay the vote until a full council could be assembled, the other three overrode them, voted anyway, and appointed Gerdes.

Obviously, the business of council can't come to a screeching halt whenever someone is absent -- these are all busy people with other obligations, and that happens all the time.

In the case of the Gerdes appointment, though, it seems painfully transparent that the reason this was rushed through was because council members Jeff Helgeson, Joe Seiffert and Scott Garrett knew that their guy would not be confirmed by a vote of the full council.

Sure, this had been delayed once before, but what was the hurry? This was a School Board appointment, and this is July, when public school business essentially grinds to a halt.

I find it disturbing that the board has become so fragmented that one faction decided to act independently of other members. I would find it just as bothersome if Gillette, Johnson and Joan Foster had waited until Helgeson and Garrett left town to re-appoint Webb.

This episode also seems to speak to the communication (or lack of it) between board members. Wouldn't have been a good idea for Gillette and Johnson to ask the other members not to decide on this matter until they returned?

Oh, wait -- they did.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Why does everybody hate the gas pump cop?

If you ever stop for gas at a self-serve station (and about 99 percent of us do), you have to feel sorry for the guy whose picture is emblazoned on most of the pumps here in Virginia.

He's wearing a state police uniform, complete with Smoky the Bear hat, and he's staring grimly out at us and saying: "Drive off without paying, and it may be the last time you drive!"

Or something like that. (I don't have a gas pump in front of me at the moment).

Really, the gas pump officer is just trying to do us a favor. He's reminding us that while it might seem like a prudent cost-saving measure to avoid spending that $40 to fill your tank (after all, all oil companies are pirates), such a rash act may wind up costing you your drivers' license -- after you are run down by a high-speed chase and TASERED and pepper-sprayed to within an inch of your life.

Of course, if you lost your license, you wouldn't need to buy any more gas, so maybe it's a tradeoff.

At any rate, though, people seem to hate the guy on the gas pump. I've started keeping track, and the last 10 times I've stopped for gas, I've noticed that his face has been either been obliterated with magic marker, slashed to ribbons with a pen knife, or studded with wads of used gum.

The poor guy. Whether he's a real state trooper or just a model who donned a uniform for the advertisement, he's probably on a psychiatrist's couch by now.

In a way, I know how he feels. My newspaper once decided to put my picture on the sides of newspaper racks, but that experiment was short-lived. Somebody shot one of them.

Do our kids need us that much?

While I was visiting my mother in New York last month, she told me a story.

"When we lived in Wisconsin, you used to go across the street and play in the schoolyard," she said. "One day, the kindergarten teacher stopped by the house. She said, 'Did you know that Darrell has been going to class over here? He just invited himself in.'"

Shortly thereafter, I was officially enrolled in kindergarten at age four.

A cute story, I thought, until I pondered for a moment.

Wait! I was four years old, and my Mom didn't know where I was? What about pedophiles, psychopaths, rabid animals and trolls? This was, after all, the state that later produced Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer, who became infamous for eating people.

"You were with the other kids," she said, "so I knew you were alright."

When I returned, I began asking friends around my age how much parental supervision they remembered as children. Almost invariably, their recollections involved interacting with other kids in an adultless world, especially in the summertime.

Back then, parents didn't barricade their kids inside the house -- they kicked them outside.

"Go play with your friends," they'd say. "Be back for dinner."

No wonder all those stay-at-home moms were able to maintain their sanity.

So has society devolved since then? Is it really all that dangerous for kids? I wonder.

The Virginia State Police Website on child safety warns: "Don't leave your child unattended in a car, even for a minute."

There are two ways of looking at this. One is to say: "The odds on my child being snatched up by somebody are very long, indeed, so I'm just going to go on about my business." Or, you might say: "Sure, it doesn't happen very often, but one time is too many if it's my child."

Now, if a parent has his or her attention diverted even for an instant from a child who then wanders off, the news stories always make a major point of it.

Granted, it's lunacy to leave your young children in the house alone and, say, go out to an all-night disco. But we act today as if the really responsible thing to do would be tether your offpsring to you at all times with a stout rope, lest something awful happen to them and you be blamed by the local TV anchorperson.

Child molesters, you know.

Moreover, we have become terrified that our children might come home from school and find no adults there. If that happens, then they're "out on the street" with, God forbid, their friends.

Maybe if we gave our kids a little more space, they might develop more maturity more quickly.

Anybody have any thoughts on this?

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

A Goode time to explain myself

The theme of my July 2 column was "What does it mean to be an American?" and included this line: "To Rep. Virgil Goode, apparently, it means speaking English and reading the Bible (reminiscent of another Congressman who once blurted out, in the midst of a floor debate on multi-culturalism, 'If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me!')"

A reader named Tucker Watkins took exception to the Goode reference, and wrote:

"Dear Mr. Laurant:

"Your comment on Congressman Virgil Goode was a cheap shot at best.

"Why didn’t you write a real story and call him and ask rather than give us your biased opinion?

"Your article would have been much better had you called Virginians of many political stripes and asked them what it meant to them to be an American. That might have given us all words of inspiration to remember on this wonderful holiday.

"Instead you took the easy way out and wrote something that will best be soon forgotten.

"If you took the time to get to know Virgil, you would find he is an amazing student of American history who cares a great deal about this country and feels that being an American is very special. It is sad for you and the readers of the newspaper that you have not made that effort.

"I would hope that in the future you learn a great deal more about your subject matter before putting your pen to paper."

I respect the opinion of Mr. Watkins, who seemed quite knowledgeable when I talked with him on the phone. (He is, in fact, a former Fifth District Republican chairman). But it also gives me the opportunity to explain the difference between a news story, an editorial and a column.

A news story is supposed to provide all the facts (or as many facts as the reporter can scare up) and, if it's an issue story, offer an opportunity for both sides to be heard.

An editorial injects the added element of the writers' opinion, but is still usually backed by factual evidence. In this case, though, it is not considered essential to contact both sides.

Which brings us to the column, which is sort of the newspaper version of what Jay Leno and Rush Limbaugh do. Our goal is to inform, but also to entertain, and I'm sure neither of the aforementioned on-air personalities call up every politician or celebrity about whom they make a throwaway comment.

I actually have spent some time with Virgil Goode, and have found him exceedingly affable. I once tailed him and one of his aides on Election Day, and he went out of his way to make sure I was able to make connections with them.

However, he's also a public figure, and his comments about an incoming Black Muslim Congressman using the Koran for swearing in were not only public but Virgil-initated.

Do I really think that's how he defines being an American? Probably not. I was just having a little fun at his expense (along with, I might add, a lot of other pundits around the world), although there was at least a kernel of truth there.

I do find it a little sad that we seem to have lost the ability to kid each other. These days, whenever a columnist or humorist uses politics as a jumping-off point, he or she is immediately branded as a mean-spirited zealot trying to advance some ideological agenda.

When I write a column, I'm not trying to depict myself as an expert. I'm not trying to browbeat anyone. I'm simply the guy on the next diner stool who's saying: "You know, here's what I think about this ..."

If I can stimulate some discussion and make people think -- or even laugh -- I've done my job.

So don't take me so seriously. I don't, and I doubt very seriously that Virgil Goode does. The Congressman, I guarantee, has a very thick skin.

Having said all that, though, don't be surprised if I take Tucker Watkins' suggestion next Fourth of July. It's a good idea.

Drowning a hero in beer

If you want a multi-cultural experience (or maybe you're just bored) try clicking on the Website http://www.johnsmeaton.com/.

Smeaton was the husky baggage handler who helped thwart a recent terrorist attack on the Glasgow Airport by knocking down one of the perpetrators.

"The impressive thing," said Jenny Haynes, a recent British import to Lynchburg who told me about this, "is that the guy he was fightng with was on fire."

So was the Scottish public, who immediately annointed Smeaton a hero on the order of the Flight 93 passengers. The apparent Webmaster of johnsmeaton.com wrote:

"But where, in all this insanity, is The Man Himself? Has he spurned us? Has he discarded the scrawled note, handed heart-a-flutter, to young Daniel Maddis in Arrivals at 2200 hours last night?

"The World clamours for him. Grasping hands reach out for a touch of that fluorescent vest. To feel - just once! - those red stripes that show he is Senior Ramp Assistant. To watch with reverence as he re-enacts the famous punching motion.

"The eyes of the World quest for him. And yet still he remains a stranger to us.

"This is not a man interested in a cheap shot at his 15 minutes of fame. Oh no. As al-Qaeda found out on Saturday, when Smeato acts, it is on Smeato’s terms.

"And yet - somewhere, perhaps in the wilds of Renfrewshire, he waits. He watches. Maybe he has nipped out and is having a fag (cigarette) right now. Maybe he’s reading this site right now, passing anonymously among us, like that bit in the basement of Lou’s Tavern in Fight Club. Maybe he’s even posted under a fake name. Mary? Amy? Mamy? Your guess is as good as mine.

"But I have faith. I am staying resolute, with the JohnSmeaton.com mobile phone ready for his call. Whatever the time he chooses, I will be here. Resolute and unflinching."

In the meantime, though, people have been furiously clicking on a part of the site labeled: "Pledge a Pint for John."

And John Smeaton now has 1,500 pints of beer waiting on his tab at the Glasgow Airport holiday Inn," the number rising.

Perhaps another solicitation might be: "Pledge to drive John home."