One of the advantages -- or disadvantages, depending on how you see it -- of writing a column about "the news" only every other week is that you can't stay on top of the stories as they pour over you, "24/7." A commentator and a reporter aren't the same thing, which leaves yours truly, each time a deadline comes around, wondering just where to land.
This week I was lucky; I've been too sick to care. For 10 days, I've been ill with the worst winter cold and sinus infection since the Pope started hiring attorneys. No disrespect to His Holiness, who from what I hear is now "breathing on his own," after the emergency tracheotomy that saved his life last week. Granted, he still can't speak, but he did turn up at his hospital window on Sunday in a "surprise appearance," waving and coughing at the faithful in his weekly Angelus prayer and blessing.
"Wearing white robes with the collar loosened to conceal the tube in his throat, the pontiff made a one-minute appearance, saluting the throng outside and crossing himself," writes London's Independent. "At one point he clutched at his throat as if it was irritating him before being wheeled away."
Good for you, John Paul -- sometimes, silence is best.
Another one "breathing on her own," at last report, was the Queen of England, following the announcement of her son's pending marriage to Mrs. Camilla Parker-Bowles. What began as a simple and quiet statement of intent has since turned into a "public relations fiasco," unequaled in Britain since 1820, when the Queen's collateral ancestor, George IV, barred the doors of Westminster Abbey on the day of his coronation and refused to allow his lawful consort, Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel, to be crowned alongside him. The spurned Queen Caroline spent the rest of her life wandering around Europe with a carved-out pumpkin on her head, telling anyone who asked that a pumpkin was as good as a crown.
This is the kind of thing that comes to mind when you feel as lousy as I do. It's like Mr. Whipple and the Charmin. There you are, desperate for a moment of solemn reflection, and all you can think about are TV housewives running up and down supermarket aisles and wondering which brand of toilet paper is the softest. It makes you want to throw up -- but you already are. And you wonder which way to turn your head in order not to see the pure fakery all around you.
Now I lift the newspapers to see that George W. Bush, sweat dripping from every pore of his phony Texan body, has "chastised" Russian President Vladimir Putin, former head of the Soviet KGB, to whom sweat is unknown, over what Bush considers to be a "rollback" of "democratic freedoms" in that country. That is, Russia, about which Bush knows nothing and cares less. His spike-heeled Secretary of State, the suddenly "sexy" Condoleezza Rice, who at least does speak the Russian language, gave a similar "tongue-lashing" to Putin's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. The two met for an official dinner a few weeks ago in Ankara, Turkey.
"We are now debating whose democratic system is better and whose human rights are more correct," Lavrov declared discreetly -- dare I say diplomatically? -- after his subjection to this corporate prima donna and her blather about "freedom." And at a time when American citizens can be arrested and held in perpetuity without lawyers and without trial; when "the war on terror" is used as an excuse for every abuse of democratic liberties (starting and ending with the right of habeas corpus); when schoolchildren in parts of our country are obliged to wear electronic badges to monitor their movements; when political prisoners are "outsourced" for torture; when the mothers of soldiers killed in Iraq can be arrested simply for showing up at a Bush rally to protest his policies; when Congressional efforts are underway -- don't doubt it -- to ban from the public stages, television and films anything and everything that "depicts the homosexual lifestyle in a favorable light." Mr. Lavrov knows exactly what he's saying.
At Ankara, Lavrov urged Ms. Rice to take a good, hard look at the Russian press, even handing her a sheaf of published criticism, videos from news broadcasts, articles, letters and journals that under the Soviets were smuggled around. Last week, after Dopey's confrontation with Putin in Bratislava, Lavrov asked again "if the State Secretary has read the articles and watched the television programs" he gave her. But no: "Ms. Rice said she had no time for that. I recommend her to do it very soon."
No wonder Hunter S. Thompson blew his head off last week. No one would argue that the Russian Federation is now a "free" country, or that there have not been "rollbacks" on such freedoms as spontaneously burst forth after the fall of the Soviets in 1991. But for a great country, with a great and tragic past, to be lectured to by the likes of Bush and his dried-up stick of a "sexy" oil-tanker secretary, crosses the bounds of even ordinary diplomatic hypocrisy. It's enough to send you sniffling, wheezing and coughing back to bed. Which is where I'm headed now, until next time.