Letter from Louisiana

The following is a slice of Louisiana life from Ken Ringle, friend, boat partner and retired Style writer from The Washington Post. Consider it a New Year’s gift from me. TFS

Friends of Liberty:

In my never-ending effort to spread the gospel of Louisiana culture, I thought I should apprise you of my latest adventure which involved acquiring a modest .22 caliber pistol with which to deter, no, actually CANCEL the armadillos uprooting my yard and bamboo grove. Most of us believe, however grudgingly, that we need SOME sort of sensible gun control (at least at Virginia Tech) to keep the more extreme firearms (bazookas, RPGs, howitzers, etc.) out of the hands of the more paranoid and hallucinatory members of the general public, and/or those who believe that, while game animals are sometimes out of season, one’s fellow man never is. On the other hand, a major entertainment for some of us is documenting the Kafkaesque channels down which causists and legislators gallop while allegedly in pursuit of that goal. Makes you wanna vote for Ron Paul.

My favorite example of the above was the DC gun law, in force for some 30 years until it was finally overturned recently by the Supremes, which stated that you COULD (after elaborate and redundant, application, registration etc.) keep a firearm in your house for self defense, provided you kept it unloaded and disassembled at all times. You needed a separate license to move it into another room. Each time.

Anyway, we in Louisiana take a somewhat less stringent approach. You might expect that from a state that has drive-through daiquiri bars. We don’t care how many guns you have or, in general, where you get them or what kind they are. Up at Lafayette Shooters in Lafayette they stock enough ordnance to replay Vietnam, if not WWII. You can walk right out with a bolt-action bipod-equipped 50-caliber rifle, and if you like instant ground venison, that’s the weapon for you. Firearmswise, Louisiana makes Florida look like a Quaker state.

Thus, when I set out to buy my pistol, I didn’t expect a lot of trouble. The Brady law says that if you have a legitimate residence in two separate states, you are subject to the gun laws of whichever of those states you’re in when you purchase your peacemaker. I have a house in Louisiana, and I’m here so no problem. Thus my friend Mo and I set out one Saturday for one of the periodic gun shows held at the performing arts center in Lafayette. That will give you an idea of our priorities down here. When we arrived 30 minutes after the show opened, the parking lot was already filled with gun-racked pickup trucks. There were well over 1,000 Bubbas inside and a dazzling array of firepower dispersed over a couple of acres of floor space. And while there were a disturbing number of black assault rifles, extended clips, etc. (you could pick up a Bushmaster like that used by the DC sniper for under $300) most of those present appeared just cheerful hunters and other lock-and-load toy collectors. There was a distinct absense of the shifty-eyed militia types you see at such events in Montana or even Virginia. Almost no swastikas and Nazi regalia. And while there WAS one small table back in the corner peddling “The Truth About the War on the South”, “Memoires of a Pure Plantation Lady” and DVDs of– not “Birth of a Nation” but “Song of the South”!!– they got little business. Our first attempted sales contact was a tallish octogenerian lady of quiet dignity and silver hair. She looked like one of those women your Mother introduced you to at church.

“Have you tried the handle on this new version of the Red Terror”, she asked Mo with a smile, handing him a monster chrome .44 caliber revolver that would have shamed Dirty Harry. “I believe it’s going to be the real new thing.” She might have been passing the plate at Sunday service. Other vendors included pregnant moms trailing toddlers among the ammo clips and Czech bayonets and bored teenagers helping Dad unload the over-and-under 12-gauge.

Mo, who once did covert ops in Vietnam, moved among the booths and tables with the practiced aplomb of a chef gauging truffles. He had his heart set on a lever action frontier model Henry Rifle. It fires a 22-caliber bullet about twice as long as normal, a flat-trajectory critter slapper just made for the feral hogs that, freed by some past hurricane, quickly grow monster tusks and tear up the marsh like overweight porcine biker gangs. He didn’t expect to find the exact model he wanted but did, forked over the cash and started looking pleased. Meanwhile I had found my baby, a Walther P-22, plinker model of the James Bond gun, which comes complete with a laser sight. Just paint an armadillo between the eyes with that little red dot, and that sucker can kiss his scaley behind goodbye.

Actually, armadillos are kissing goodbye all the time. They hitched over here from Texas aboard the oil pipe trucks years ago and have been breeding and dying at a prodigious rate ever since. They give birth to four cloned offspring of the same sex and apparently identical pattern each time. I’m not certain how they do that, because armadillo sex is something of a mystery. A couple of purportedly authentic YouTube videos show the male mounting the female but not so much humping her as driving her around like a fork-lift. They would not seem to be made for love, but they certainly are made for death. They are incredibly stupid, nearsighted and hard of hearing and, when startled, leap straight up about three feet off the ground. This may be all right in the woods, but on the Interstate it serves them right up into the sweet spot of your average 18-wheeler front bumper, which is why so many defunct dillos are glimpsed 24/7 toes up on the highways of Louisiana. How their birth rate stays ahead of their death rate is another mystery, but it does, and they root up everything making burrows, which they will happily share with snakes, lizards, rats and other vermin, but only with another armadillo of the same sex. Hmmmmmm……

Anyway, that’s why I need my Walther. I found two, and quickly went for the one $75 cheaper. When we came to the paperwork to register the sale, I explained that I only had a DC driver’s license, but showed them my checkbook listing my Avery Island address. The 300 pound Momma from Big Al’s Gunshop in Pineville said that was fine but I needed a state issued ID attesting to my Pelican State bona fides. I asked how to get one. I was told at the DMV that I would need a birth certificate, my Social Security card and my passport or DC driver’s license. “All those say I live in DC,” I said. “How will that prove I’m also a Louisiana resident.” “We just want to know you’re who you say you are,” I was told. “You can put any Louisiana address on it you want.”

Nonetheless this surreal ID process could not be completed until Monday, so I couldn’t buy the Walther. Theoretically Mo could have bought it for me, but it’s against the law for anyone to purchase a weapon for someone else, so we couldn’t do that. But you know what? Darned if Mo didn’t decide as he was walking out the door that HE had to have a Walther just like the one I wanted. Surprising, huh? And son of a gun, on the way home he decided he didn’t want it any more and asked if I would like to buy it. Since private gun sales are perfectly legal, we transacted the deal, then went promptly to his personal target range at the edge of his sugar field and put a couple hundred rounds through that sucker. The laser is just too cool.

–Ken Ringle

The Fire Next Time

For the record books, the U.S. military involvement in Iraq is over.

The last units withdrew from Iraq into Kuwait just before Christmas. The only uniformed American military personnel still in Iraq are the roughly 200 members of an Office of Security Cooperation lodged in the American Embassy that is supposed to coordinate arms sales and supplies to the Iraqi military.

Substantial numbers of ostensibly civilian contractors remain to train Iraqi forces, and the C.I.A. has a significant counter-terrorism presence in-country. The State Department is operating one of the largest U.S. embassies in the world in Baghdad, but the number of American combat forces in Iraq is zero.

How long will it stay that way?

The Iraq that the US. has left behind is unraveling faster than even the skeptics in Washington and European capitals feared. The administration of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki is adopting heavy-handed policies that seem designed to strengthen his position by dividing the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities.

The Sunni Vice President, Tariq al-Hashimi, is essentially on the run, accused by al-Maliki of enlisting personal bodyguards to run a death squad. The capital is on fire from suicide bombs and explosions that have killed scores. And on Monday, a group of Iraqi lawmakers associated with the militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for the dissolution of parliament and new elections within six months.

The violence and political infighting that have followed the U.S. withdrawal may have may have predictable, but it is not a pretty picture. And it has already led a chorus of conservative critics in the U.S., led by Senator John McCain of Arizona, to renew their attacks on President Obama for failing to leave a residual force on the ground on Iraq.

The Administration’s response has been to point out that Iraq suffered similar and even worse violence and political chaos while large-scale American forces were there, so it is not logical to expect that a smaller residual force could prevent it now.

The challenge for Iraq is to work its way through this mess, using more political means than military, and to avoid outright civil war.

The challenge for the United States, now that it is out militarily, is to stay out. There are still some 40,000 U. S. military personnel in the Persian Gulf region, including the ground combat unit just across the border in Kuwait that was the last to leave Iraq. If the chaos in Iraq continues or grows, there are going to be calls to go back in to restore order.

President Obama is said to be adamantly against any re-introduction of U.S. forces. Politically, it would seem to be madness for him to even consider it. He got elected on a promise to end the war in Iraq. He could hardly run for re-election reversing that stance. Famously, he argued during the 2008 campaign that it had been “dumb” to go into Iraq in the first place. Surely it would be “dumber” to go back.

The chances that President Obama would re-insert any American troops in the foreseeable future seem slim to none. But the chance that several of the Republican Presidential candidates might call upon him to do so is much greater. They are a bellicose bunch, with the exception of Ron Paul, as evidenced by their calls to attack Iran to prevent it from achieving nuclear weapons. Should a suicide bomber attack the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, or the U.S. civilian personnel still posted there, the chorus could well arise.  That would be the “dumbest.”

The Other Nine Per Cent

Recent public opinion polls — I am sure you’ve seen them — suggest that nine per cent of the American public actually approves of Congress and the way it is doing its job. Of course, that was before this weekend’s bi-partisan wrangling over the payroll tax cut extension.

Who exactly are these nine per cent?

I am curious, since they are such a distinctive group. After all, nine per cent approval is an historic low, even for Congress, exceeded by the approval ratings for polygamy (11 per cent,) BP’s handling of the oil spill (16 per cent,) banks (23 per cent,) and pornography (30 per cent.)

So, I went looking for the nine per cent. I called my neighbor, Representative Pete Stark, D. CA, assuming that he, after 38 years in Congress, surely approved of what he and his 434 colleagues were doing. Are you one of the nine per cent, Pete?

“Heavens, no!” said Congressman Stark.”

And who did he think were the nine per cent?

“Our staff, and our relatives,” he said with a laugh, “and probably not all of them.” I might add that Pete said this on Sunday, as he headed in to the Capitol to cast a rare weekend vote that failed to break the deadlock.

So, who are these nine per cent who think Congress is on top of its work these days?

Add up the Congressional staff, who number around 20,000, lobbyists whose clients have come out on top, the famous special interests, the capitol police, the cafeteria staff, even the bloated office of the architect of the capitol and you still don’t come anywhere near the nine percent, which would amount to some 27 million Americans.

I went to a couple of holiday parties over the weekend and asked everyone I met whether they approved of the way Congress was doing its job. Nope. No nine-percenters there.

If anyone reading this blog is part of the nine per cent, please comment and let me know. And tell me exactly what it is that you approve, please. Is it the fun way Congress takes everything down to the wire? Is it the tendency, demonstrated again over the weekend and into this week to kick the can down the road?

How about the way Congress dealt with the President’s much-advertised jobs bill, which was pronounced D.O.A. when it arrived on the Hill? Did you approve of the way they handled that? Or deficit reduction? Or judicial appointments? Or ambassadorial nominees? Or the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency? Do you love the way they advise and consent on these things? Did you approve of the way they flirted with default a few months ago over the debt ceiling, sending the markets into a tailspin and dropping the nation’s credit rating? If you like delay, gridlock, logjams and half-a-loaf legislation, I suppose you love Congress.

Just guessing here, but I suspect Barak Obama’s greatest shock upon assuming the presidency was how incredibly hard it is to get anything through a divided Congress.
That is, a Senate where 60 votes are required to agree on the time of day. And the House of Representatives, controlled by a majority that, as we saw this weekend, can’t control its own majority. The President, and all of us, are learning that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell meant precisely what he said after the 2008 elections when he announced that his major goal was to assure that Barak Obama was a one-term President. That, and nothing more, apparently.

None of this Congressional inaction comes cheap, incidentally. This year, the American taxpayer will shell out $5.4 billion to fund Congress, its staff and perks. That includes the members, staff, gold-plated health care, generous pensions, the House gym and chaplains for each chamber. Evidently, the nine per cent feels they are getting their money’s worth, since they approve.

So, while the current focus is on presidential race, perhaps more attention should be paid to who leads and controls Congress, that co-equal and disputatious branch of government. How about a few televised debates among the leaders about how they intend to handle things in the next Congress? That could be entertaining.

Meanwhile, will the other nine per cent please stand up?

The Voice of Reason: Ron Paul?

I know Ron Paul can be zany, especially when it comes to abolishing the Fed, returning to the gold standard and reducing the federal government to a mom-and-pop-sized enterprise.

He certainly has his eccentricities, such as refusing to wear a seat belt in a car, or a helmet when bicycling, both of which he apparently regards as nanny-state interferences in his constitutionally-protected right to kill himself.

But in last night’s Republican debate, when his fellow candidates were falling over themselves in declaring their willingness to bomb Iran back to the stone age, he was the grown-up, the one voice that warned that what they were talking about would be “another Iraq,” or worse. He also repeated his call to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and generally to avoid meddling in other nations’ affairs.

Later, when Newt Gingrich was rolling out his idea for Congress to subpoena federal judges who make controversial rulings, and Michelle Bachmann was cheering him on, it was Ron Paul who spoke up and reminded the former Speaker that the constitution has this thing about separation of powers.

Watching at home, I suddenly found myself agreeing with Ron Paul. Ron Paul! He was making sense while the others on the stage were coming unhinged one-by-one. And I was nodding in agreement! Fortunately, no one saw me. My wife was wrapping Christmas presents and the dogs were sleeping. I switched off the set and watched a re-run of The League on my iPad and felt better right away.

The Republican debates can do that to you. I find myself talking back to the television set, laughing and shaking my head. Imagine how Republican contributors feel watching this gong show. Last night’s, the 16th in this series of reality shows, apparently was the last before the Iowa caucuses, now that Donald Trump has withdrawn. Finally, we’ll get to hear from some voters.

Here I Go Again….

Anyone with a modicum of common sense, and my record as a political prognosticator, would avoid making any predictions in a campaign as chaotic as the current Republican Presidential nomination sweepstakes. After all, I predicted Carter over Reagan in 1980, Gore over Bush in 2,000, (well, of course, Gore did win that one at the polls,) and Anybody-But-Bush over George W in 2004 (my reasoning that year: Americans are too smart to re-elect anyone who has misled them into an unjustified, unnecessary war.)
But here goes: despite the current Gingrich Boomlet, Mitt Romney will stagger through to the GOP nomination. The agent of Gingrich’s demise: Newt himself. Time and again, he has talked himself into political trouble. One voter in a Peter Hart focus group described Gingrich over the weekend as “careless and combustible.” Hard to put it more succinctly or accurately than that.
I remember interviewing Newt in the mid-1990’s in the Speaker’s expansive suite of offices in the Capitol. He was riding high on the Contract with America, and the new GOP majority in the House. Gingrich spent the entire time lecturing me on his remarkable accomplishments. He was particularly impressed that he was the only Speaker of the House with a Ph.D. His qualifications and innate skills were such, he explained briskly, that a long legislative career lay ahead of him. As it turned out, of course, he crashed and burned politically before he could remake America.
Today’s Newt is a more seasoned, more controlled political operator. He is smart enough to know that his mouth has hurt him in the past and that he must contain his rhetorical flourishes if he is to prevail against the political tortoise, Romney. But his ego won’t let him. His need to demonstrate that he is the smartest guy in the room is too strong. His confident prediction last week that he will be the GOP nominee is an example. “I’ll be the nominee,” he said cheerily, as though it was obvious to anyone with the wit to see the race clearly. Not prudent, as George H.W. Bush would say. Not with the Iowa caucuses looming.
The Obama re-election team seems to agree with this proposition. On the Sunday shows yesterday, David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs separately resisted the temptation to attack Gingrich and reserved their criticisms for Romney. Clearly, they see Mitt as the likely opposition in the general, despite the latest polls. (Of course, privately, they may hope that Gingrich gets the nomination, on the grounds that he will reprise Barry Goldwater’s 1964 performance, but they don’t seem to expect it.)
In one sense, Gingrich’s great strength is his greatest weakness: his unpredictability, his tendency to say whatever passes through his mind. He is not boring, and in this GOP field, that is saying something. Jon Huntsman should know that by now.
Mitt Romney is boring, at times, apparently, even to himself. His visible frustration at having to repeat his defense of his health care program in Massachusetts on Fox last week is a reflection of his own fatigue with the issue and the mind-numbing repetitiveness of the campaign process. But he is steady, and careful and likely, at this point, to prevail.