The worst sentence ever: “Mistakes were made”

In my day job as a journalist and editor, I eradicate a lot of passive voice. Let’s face it, 95% of passive voice usage is bad writing. It’s the easiest thing to attack when I first sit down to edit something. Find the passive voice construction, figure out what the subject and predicate of the sentence should be, rewrite. It’s the fastest way to improve someone’s writing. The next step? Strip out adverbs. Third step? That’s a trade secret.

Anyway, I highlighted some wisdom from Stephen King in my blog recently. He once wrote that the use of passive voice is a sign of a timid and insecure writer. I absolutely agree with him.

But there is one example of a passive voice sentence that is not indicative of timidity. “Mistakes were made.” This sentence is a dodge. It’s an example of political obfuscation, cowardice and cunning. Countless politicians and hacks have used this sentence construction to admit fault without actually pinning any blame to themselves. Look at the sentence: “Mistakes were made.” Who made the mistakes? This sentence certainly doesn’t explain it.

Wikipedia has a helpful list of historical uses of the sentence. President Ulysses S. Grant used a variation of it while discussing corruption in his administration. Richard Nixon used it quite a bit during the Watergate scandal. Ronald Reagan used it while discussing the Iran-Contra affair. Bill Clinton used it while discussing some fundraising shenanigans.

“Mistakes were made” is a slippery phrase people both in and out of power use to avoid accepting full responsibility. My fellow journalists should not allow politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats to get away with it. If you are at a press conference and you hear a senator or a CEO utter those words, interrupt him or her.

“Mistakes were made.”

“Excuse me, Senator. Who made those mistakes.”

“Um, I did.”

That’s right. Pin those people down. Their communications directors and pollsters have trained them to never actually say “I made a mistake,” and civil society suffers as a result. These people are avoiding accountability. Someone might counter and tell me, “Oh, we know what they mean. We know they made the mistakes.”

Well sure, we know it. But we have to extrapolate that truth for ourselves. We’re not really hearing an admission of guilt from Nixon, Reagan or Clinton. There is no accountability in their statements. Language is a powerful thing. There is a reason why they are using passive voice in this case. They know what they’re doing. And we should call them on it.

Just contemplate the emotional reactions you have when you read these two sentences.

“Mistakes were made.”

“I made a mistake.”

You cannot deny the power of that second sentence. The person speaking those words is taking a stand. They are claiming responsibility for something that went wrong. We, the listeners, hear and accept that admission of guilt. And in some small way, we accept it. We’re ready to move on. We’re ready to fix whatever went wrong.

The person speaking the passive voice is hiding in the shadows. We may be angry about those mistakes, but the speaker is being slippery. Maybe he made the mistake. Maybe someone else did. We can’t be sure because no one and standing up and taking the blame. So we feel cheated. We feel lied to. And the person who speaks the words gets to dodge blame in some small way. It has to stop.

“Mistakes were made” is the worst sentence in the English language. We need to kill it.

Why the love? Give your characters a reason to want each other

Writing about relationships — whether romantic or not — in fiction is hard, but I think you can make it a little easier if you think about that relationship as a character.

Character development is perhaps the most important step any writer needs to take before embarking on a story. The needs and wants of a character drive plot, create conflict and help readers sympathize with the character and his or her story. A writer has to flesh out those needs and wants with concrete details about the character that convince the reader of their authenticity. If you give your character experiences, emotions and physical attributes that make these needs and wants plausible, the reader will buy into the fiction and care about your story. Why is your character angry? He lost his job. She can’t throw a ball like she could when he was younger. His daughter doesn’t call him as much as she used to. She struggled with learning how to read and it still affects her confidence years later. Characters are driven by these challenges and when you write against these conflicts, your characters come alive.

The same holds true for the relationships that characters form, whether in friendship or romantic love. There has to be something between those people that bonds them together. And that relationship should evolve if it is central to the plot of the story. As the characters change, so too should their relationships.

I recently read “Wormwood is also a Star,” a novella by Andy Stewart that appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is an inventive and enjoyable story, part murder mystery and part romance. Although I liked it a lot, something was missing. There is a romantic relationship at the center of the novella that the author hasn’t fleshed out.

The characters are having an illicit affair, and Mitka, the female protagonist, is torn between her passionate love for Vitaly and her sense of obligation to her husband Yuri. This triangle has a lot of things going for it, but one essential piece is missing. I never saw any explanation in the story for why Mitka had fallen in love with Vitaly.

Vitaly has some paranormal attributes that make him intriguing on the surface. But he’s mostly a flat character. In fact, he’s a cipher. He’s a teenage boy who is emotionally unsophisticated and expresses almost no needs or wants throughout the story. He has a wound, in the form of a sister who committed suicide. But we only perceive that tragedy through the eyes of Mitka. Vitaly never really expresses any feelings about this loss throughout the story, except at the end of when he expresses a desire to be reunited with his sister.

The author never presents a moment or a feeling or an experience that explained why these two people were together. Mitka was simply in love with the boy who was more than a decade younger than she was. Perhaps the relationship was about her own pathos. Perhaps Vitaly was meant to be a cipher and so the relationship was meant to be one-sided. Still, the affair rang hollow to me. The passion they had for each other seemed inauthentic. And it kept me from truly buying into the novella.

Overall, Stewart’s novella is a good read, but that flaw in the story’s core relationship held me back because most of Mitka’s actions throughout are driven in part by her love for Vitaly. It’s not the only relationship that drives the story. Her relationships with her father and husband are also pivotal. They are also more well-developed, which makes them work.

In my in-progress novel, I’ve been fleshing out some central relationships between characters. Some are romances. Others are friendships. Still others are mentorships. I find that the more time I spend treating these relationships as characters, the more realistic they are. And as those relationships develop, they drive the plot. One of my characters finds himself torn by loyalties to two different mentors. As I strengthen each of those relationships, the dramatic tension for the character is heightened.

I’m bolstering the portrayal of those relationships with tiny details. A couple lines of dialog here. And kind gesture there. A promise of reward here. A punishment there. These things flesh out the relationships and make them characters in their own right. The relationships develop their own narrative arc. I don’t feel comfortable pushing my plot forward until I’m convinced that all of the relationships intertwined throughout have a firm foundation. If I neglect this step, I’m convinced that my readers will not buy into the story.

Three lessons learned from Stephen King’s “On Writing”

On Writing by Stephen King is much more of a memoir than I anticipated. I expected it to be more prescriptive, like many of the books on writing that I’ve read. But King had a different lesson in mind. He decided to show how his life had shaped his writing, and vice versa.

King does offer some instruction on writing in the latter half of the book. I took away three key lessons from it.

1. The first draft is for you.  The second draft should be for everyone else. King says he learned this approach as a teenager from his first newspaper editor, who told him: “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

I’ve been a journalist for more than a decade, and I know this lesson well. Reading it in King’s book was a good reinforcement. Every piece of writing I have ever done has begun as a story I told to myself. I think that’s my favorite part of the process — getting the story out there so that I can enjoy it. I admire the heart of the story. I enjoy the turns of phrase. I stuff in every bit of information I have that I think is interesting.

When I’m done, I read it as a reader, not  a writer. The second draft is for everyone. Maybe a turn of phrase is too florid for someone who isn’t particularly impressed with my writing skills. I take that out. I notice some repetition of an idea or information, so I make some cuts. I examine whether my reader will have any unanswered questions. I ask myself if I’ve given the reader a reason to start and finish the story. As King says in this book, you write the first draft with your door closed. The story is just for you. Then you open the door upon starting the second draft, because after that the story belongs to the whole world.

2.  Fear is a writer’s enemy. King writes: “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”

I’m an editor as well as a writer, and I’ve seen my fair share of bad writing. Some of the worst writing has come from writers who had no confidence in their abilities. They assumed that whatever they wrote was going to be terrible. And they fulfilled that prophecy.

King points out that overuse of the passive voice, for instance, comes from a writer’s timidity. The writer is fearful of asserting an idea too strongly. He or she backs into ideas or actions rather than boldly laying them out for the reader. The timid writer writes “Joe was shaken by his own quick decision to shoot the guy” rather than “Joe shot the guy and trembled.”

The same goes for turgid prose. Overuse of adverbs and adjectives. Reaching for cliches rather than coming up with something original. Writers do this when they think their writing is plain or dull. But a confident writer can pen lean prose that rivets an audience. Any inexperienced or tentative writer should approach the second draft of a story with the intention of cutting 50% of all their adverbs and adjectives. Replace adverbs with more descriptive verbs and nouns. Those are the most powerful words in any sentence. Adjectives and adverbs are like perfume. Too much will give you a headache.

3. A good story with good characters beats everything else. This sounds simple, so let me quote King: “When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story.”

What does this mean to me? It’s not the gimmicks that really matter. Genre writers might be able to catch some eyeballs with some fabulous world-building, cool magic systems, and awesome technology. But in the end, readers want good characters that they can relate to and care about. And they want a story that pulls them along.

With that in mind, you should try to put a something real into all of your characters. Give them a piece of you or a piece of someone you love. Or someone you hate.  You don’t have to make your characters analogs of yourself. Every human being is complicated by thousands of memories and feelings and fears and desires. Just give one or two of those things to your characters. Yearning for a lost love. A desire to rise to the top in a career. A fear of heights. A weakness for cookies. These things make characters human. And you’ll find it easier to add other traits and quirks to them that don’t necessarily come from you.

Once those characters come alive, the story also comes alive. Whatever your characters want will drive the story.

4. King had another lesson related to the one about a good story, a lesson I disagree with. He says plotting isn’t important. Character and situation is important. Put a good character in a situation that they need to get out of and the story will come. Apparently that is King’s approach to writing his gigantic novels. Obviously it works for him. He’s made a fortune with it. Others subscribe to this approach, too.

I can’t operate that way. I do build characters and I do put them into situations. But I also need to have a plan. Otherwise, I get stuck. I don’t have to start with that plan, but ultimately I need to have it. I need to map the plot to some extent. Thousands of other writers agree with me, so I won’t bother to argue the point.  Some writers are gardeners and others are architects, or as Chuck Wendig would say: Some people are plotters and some are pantsers (i.e. seat of their pants).

A meditation on women in fantasy and scifi

I read a short story this week by a well-respected science fiction and fantasy author that had five characters — four men and one woman. The physical description of the one female character started with “high-breasted.” Not her hair color or eye color. Not her complexion. Just “high-breasted.”

The author’s treatment of the character didn’t improve from there. While all the male characters in the story had reasonably complex personalities, the woman in the story served almost exclusively as a sexual foil. She slept with two of the other characters in the story. And her personality was generally just a reflection of the protagonist. She amplified  his personality rather than challenged it. She was only a “high-breasted” source of moral support.

I’ve been acutely aware of issues like this ever since a sexist cover of the magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ of America touched off a heated blog debate among authors in the market. Many authors, both men and women, have written very thoughtfully about this issue, like Delilah S. Dawson and Mary Robinette Kowal. Chuck Wendig has written a whole series of posts about the issue.

I’m an unpublished genre author and my experience with this situation is limited. I don’t have anything substantial to add to the debate. But this whole episode has made me much more thoughtful about how I portray women in my own work.

When I was describing the fantasy novel I am writing to a female friend of mine recently, she asked me if it had any strong women characters in it. My answer was a qualified yes. I had some interesting women characters, but not any strong women characters. The book has three protagonists — all boys or men. There were two major female characters. One dies early on. The other is pivotal to the plot, but rather passive. I think this is a problem.

The issue has been percolating in the back of my mind as I work on the book. Coincidentally I reached a point in the writing process where the book wasn’t working. The plot was not coming together the way I wanted it to. I started avoiding the book. I lost the will to deal with it.

I stepped away from the writing process for a couple weeks and did a lot of thinking. I realized that I needed to change some the motivations of my principal characters to unlock the plot. To do this, I needed to a couple more characters.

I decided that the new characters would be women. Not only women, but powerful women. Not damsels in distress. Not sex objects. Not foils. They would be well-rounded characters with their own hopes and dream. They would command respect within their communities. And they would have the ability to determine their own destiny.

These characters were not there to fulfill a quota of strong female representation. I needed them in the book. And as soon as they were added, the pieces of the plot started falling into place. With these women there, I was able to change the relationships between the men in the story. The women took on some of the roles previously played by male characters. The plot became more complex but it also started to make sense again. The book is back on track and I’m excited to be work on it once more.

The Red Wedding still hurts! Why?

I finally watched the Game of Throne episode, “The Rains of Castamere,” and even though I knew what was coming it was still painful to see it happen again. I’ve read A Storm of Swords three times, so I was prepared for what was to come. I’d seen this horror before in my mind’s eye. But watching it play out on the screen was a surprisingly emotional experience. I think this is interesting, because I was never particularly emotionally attached to the characters who suffered the most during the Red Wedding. So why should it be such an emotional experience to read or watch it unfold? I think it has to do with George R.R. Martin’s genius.

SPOILERS FOLLOW!

First let’s get the particulars out of the way. The Red Wedding is perhaps the most pivotal moment in all of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire saga. Major characters die, the balance of power in the ongoing struggle for Westeros shifts tremendously. The King in the North Robb Stark and his mother Catelyn Stark are murdered, as are many Stark and Tully bannermen and soldiers. It’s a disaster.

When I first red that chapter ten years ago, I was shattered. But why? I was never particularly attached to Catelyn Stark, who had been a primary “point of view” character in the first three books. She hated one of my favorite characters (Jon Snow). She undermined her son’s authority by freeing Jaime Lannister. She sparked a war by kidnapping Tyrion Lannister. Cat and I weren’t close.

And Robb? Readers of the books know that Robb is a much more distant character than he was in the show. Martin never writes from his point of view. When he goes off to war, falls in love, and gets married, there are no point of view characters with him. Martin always maintains a narrative distance between Robb and his readers. We are much more emotionally attached to characters like Jon Snow, Sansa, Arya, and even Bran Stark, despite that silly, three-eyed crow business. And everyone loves Tyrion, But I never loved Robb and I never loved Catelyn. So why did it hurt so much when they died?

Here are the reasons:

  1. The Red Wedding is a major violation of the cultural norms that Martin created in his world.  Martin’s world building is fantastic. His readers are well-versed in the laws of hospitality and honor in Westeros. Before Walder Frey and his co-conspirators murdered the Starks, he offered them guest rights. This is the formal act of offering bread and salt to your guests. If they accept it, then you are both bound by the old gods and the new to do no harm to each other. Frey violates that sacred right when he kills Catelyn and Robb and so many others (Umbers, Mormonts, Mallisters, etc.)
  2. The fall of Stark also boosts the Lannisters. Martin has done a wonderful job of crafting a villainous family in the form of the Lannisters. Even though readers love Tyrion from the outset and grow to like Jaime Lannister after he loses his hand and learns humility, we still hate House Lannister. Cersei is a witch. Tywin is jerk. And Joffrey. Ugh! Joffrey. Worst. King. Ever.  Robb and Catelyn’s deaths seem to let the Lannisters off the hook for cuckolding King Robert, murdering Ned Stark and everything else. The Starks won’t be able to take their revenge, which we’ve been craving for thousands of pages. Now, someone else might come along and teach them a lesson (If you’ve read all the books, don’t spoil it for the TV-only folks. We know something is coming). Still, we wanted to see Joffrey and his kin answer to Robb for their crimes. Now it isn’t going to happen.
  3. We don’t love Robb, but we do love House Stark. We care about House Stark and what it stands for. We love Arya. We grow to like Sansa as she gets over being a brat. We love Bran. We love the wolves! These characters are complex. They have flaws, but they are also fundamentally interesting and sympathetic. And we want to see things turn out well for them. We want them to get home to Winterfell safe and sound. The best hope for that was Robb Stark. He was winning the war, until he screwed up and broke off his betrothal to House Frey (cursed be that name). When Robb dies, our hope for a happy ending for the Starks dies, too. The north is shattered. Bran is the next in line and he’s paralyzed. In the medieval world of Westeros, a pre-teen boy who can’t walk won’t be able to lead. Rickon is a toddler. Jon Snow is a bastard. Our hope to see some measure of peace for this family is gone.  Martin has chosen his key characters and we readers have invested emotionally in them. We love Robb Stark’s kin, but we don’t love him. But we hoped Robb would redeem and protect his house and restore order in this world. Alas, it will fall to someone else to fulfill that. Dany Targaryen and her dragons are still on the loose, so… we’ll see.

Robb was one of the best hopes for restoring order to Westeros and saving many of the characters I love.  But Martin knew that Robb wasn’t the person that needed to do these things. He’s not one of the heroes of this series. He was always a secondary character. His success would have felt like a betrayal to the structure of the story. Instead, Martin used Robb’s character as best he could. He sacrificed Robb in spectacular fashion, and that sacrifice advanced the plot of these books tremendously. Everything changed. The order that Robb was supposed to restore was thrown even deeper into chaos. Readers like me were hooked forever. I will never give up on these books until I see someone set things right in Westeros. Let’s hope Martin’s endgame gets us there.

Fantasy novel revision: Introducing Horace

Here is a revision of the first couple pages of an early chapter in my book. It introduces Horace, the main character, as a child. He is an adult for most of the book, but here we see him when he  uses magic for the first time.

This revision is based on suggestions made by an editor I met with at the Manuscript Mart at Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace.

If you want to learn more about Horace and the nature of his power, stay tuned :)

When Horace was five years old, he used magic for the first time. In his mind it wasn’t magic. It was just a wish that came true.

Horace and his brother Zain were walking home to their village of Stony Field. They had spent the day sitting beside the West Tower Road, near a spot where a nasty wheel rut was baked hard as stone by the summer sun. It was the only road that led out of their village, to the border town of West Tower. A few wagons made the journey between the towns every day.

When wagons struck that rut, their wooden frames groaned, their drivers cursed, and — if Horace and Zain were lucky — something good would shake free from the wagon load. The drivers never noticed. But Horace and Zain would scramble forward and scoop up whatever fell. Mama sent them out to beg and scrounge every day for whatever they could, and this rut was generous to them. Today they had collected two winter apples, a head of lettuce, a small loaf of hard, black bread, an onion, and a wooden mug. Six-year-old Zain carried their treasure in a patched linen sack slung over his shoulder.

There was one other prize that Horace had wrapped in a dirty rag and stuffed into his pocket. It was a handful of seeds.

“Mama will find out about the seeds,” Zain said. “Seeds go in the garden.”

“I want to feed the bird,” Horace said.

“She’ll hit you with her broom.”

“She won’t know.”

A house finch with a brilliant red neck had been perching on the scrap-wood fence that Mama and their older brothers and sisters had built around the family’s garden. Horace thought it was a beautiful bird, with its narrow brown body and the shock of raspberry-red feathers around its neck. Every morning it would land on the fence and whistle a couple notes. Horace waited for the bird to see its red feathers, but it didn’t stay long. It was searching for food. It was waiting for something good to grow in the garden. Horace knew birds liked seeds.

“Don’t get beat for a stupid bird, Horace.”

“I won’t!”

They walked in the tall grass that lined the West Tower Road. Stony Field was only a mile away, closer if they cut across the rocky field that gave the village its name. Horace had no shoes, so crossing the field was always hard on his feet. The stones left bruises if he wasn’t careful. Zain cut toward the field and Horace followed.

“I’ll race you,” Zain said.

“All right.”

As Horace sprang forward, Zain pushed him to the ground and sprinted away.

“Not fair!” Horace yelled. Horace was the youngest of his seven brothers and sisters, and the others were always pushing him around, including Zain. But Zain made a joke of it when he shoved Horace. They laughed about it together as brothers. Zain was the second smallest, so he knew it was hard to be the little one.

Horace got his hands and feet under himself and prepared to stand. He stopped. He had landed on an earthworm and crushed its middle. It was twisting back and forth trying to right itself, but its middle wouldn’t work.

Horace felt a desperate, guilty sadness as watched the worm struggle. It was dying and it was his fault.  Well, it was Zain’s fault, too. Zain had shoved him down. But Horace didn’t like the idea of something dying because of him. Stony Field had already had its share of dying. So many of the men had gone off to fight in the emperor’s war. They marched away and they didn’t come home. Horace’s father was one of them, but Horace didn’t remember him. He was only a baby when their father marched to war.

Horace watched the worm struggle in the stony earth and wondered if a worm could feel pain. He touched its crushed middle with the tips of his fingers. It was cold and moist. The worm just twisted and twisted. Horace closed his eyes.

“I’m sorry, little worm. I’m sorry I landed on you.”

He imagined the worm all better. He wished he had never hurt it. The thought made him dizzy. Then the dizziness passed and he felt tired. He opened his eyes and shook his head to clear it. He didn’t want to fall asleep in the field. Mama would be mad.
He looked down at the worm. It was whole again. It crawled away.

“Oh,” Horace said. “Isn’t that lucky?”

The lazy fantasy world-building of a 1,000-year-old empire

Guilty as charged! I’ve set my novel in a 1,000-year-old empire.

Author Rachel Aaron blogged this week about the absurdity of millennia-old fantasy fiction empires. An eternal empire is lazy fantasy world-building that authors use to create a sense of historic scale, she wrote. The problem isn’t necessarily the length of time that these empires exist, but the lack of change within them.

To me, enormously long blocks of time in books where things stayed basically the same are the epitome of lazy world building. Want to make something sound impressive? Add a big number to it!

Aaron points out that these empires are full of people who are more than props or names on a character list. They’re inventing things. They’re striving to improve their lives. They rebel. They fight wars. Civilization evolves. Empires fall.

Even the Roman Empire split in half within half a millennium, and the Roman western half collapsed nearly 800 years before the eastern Byzantine half finally crumbled. Empires are not static. They wax and wane. They break apart. They rise again as something new. Aaron writes:

The point is that generations of thinking mortals do not pass time idly.

In other words, don’t be lazy with your fantasy world-building and throw a big impressive number out there for your readers to ponder. A 10,000-year-old empire might sound impressive, but you better prepare to give the reader a sense of time passing and also be ready to explain how that empire held together for so long. An empire that old probably fought its earliest wars with bronze swords and  its last wars with muskets. Are you prepared to explain that much history? You don’t need all the details, but you need to sketch together enough history to make your reader believe in it.

The book I’m writing takes place in a 900-year-old empire that has been ruled by the same dynasty throughout all that history. That first detail is a problem that I’ll probably have to address.  I started with that large number because I needed a broad sweep of history. I wanted to establish some distance between the action of my book and a series of historic events that took place centuries before. These historic events not only shape many of the rules of my world, but also influence some of the characters and ultimately drive the plot.  The sweep of time also shapes the evolution of the magic system in my book. Magic was nearly erased from the world during a series of pogroms against people who practiced it. Only centuries later did magic re-emerge under tight legal controls. And the magic that emerges is a pale shadow of the powers wielded by people centuries before because so much knowledge was destroyed and lost to time.

I’m only 80% through my manuscript (it stands at 100,000 words today), but I’ve started revising it based on some advice I received from an editor and an agent. I admit that the stability of this empire that I’ve invented has troubled me, although at the time my book takes place the empire is in decline. I’ve been thinking about how the civilization of the empire has evolved over those centuries. Aaron’s post confirms that my instincts are right.

It’s a good thing I”m in revision mode. I’m open to making big changes right now. In addition to plot and character changes, I need tweak the history of my world. I’ve done a tremendous amount of fantasy world-building over these seven months, but I’m still a novice. I have a lot to learn. So thanks to Rahcel Aaron for the good tip.

NPR’s Kai Ryssdal’s essential interview with Donald Rumfseld

Old man Donald Rumsfeld has emerged to flog another book. He’s making the rounds on various media outlets to promote Rumsfeld’s Rules. Unlike his memoir, this book has no narrative. Instead it’s a set of dozens of rules that he’s come up with over the years as guiding principles for his management philosophy.

When he walked into the NPR  American Public Media (apologies for conflating NPR and APM) studio recently to do an interview with Kai Ryssdal, host of the network’s business and economy show Marketplace, Rumsfeld probably wasn’t expecting a hard-hitting interview, but that’s exactly what he got in the six minutes he spent on the air. You can hear the whole interview by clicking this direct link to Marketplace.org.

Actually I’m surprised that Rumsfeld could have expected anything less than a grilling based on how things started out. Ryssdal’s first question asked Rummy to expound on the origin of one of the rules in the book: “It’s easier to get into something than it is to get out of it.” That the management philosophy of the man who ran the Defense Department during the invasion and initial years of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars that we are still trying to extract ourselves from more than a decade later.

Rumsfeld said he came up with that rule when he was the Middle East envoy for President Ronald Reagan during the bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed 241 U.S. Marines.

Rumsfeld: I concluded then that the United States has to be careful about putting ground forces in [a country] because we’re such a big target. And I also over the years came to the conclusion that the United states really wasn’t organized, trained and equipped to do nation building.

This is a shocking revelation from the man who was the Secretary of Defense during the launch of two wars that both had no exit strategy. Ryssdal did not let it go.

Ryssdal: I sort of can’t believe these words are coming out of your mouth ten years later. So this was on your mind as Iraq was bubbling up?

Rumsfeld: Absolutely.

Ryssdal: And yet here we are.

At this point, Rumsfeld tried to deflect, as Republicans so often do when confronted by the foreign policy and war policy disasters of the Bush Administration. He said the United States had only 23,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan during his time in office and President Obama ramped that deployment up to 100,000. This deflection is pure cowardice. Obama ramped up that deployment for a variety of reasons, one being that for the first decade of our occupation of Afghanistan countless experts chafed at how undermanned our mission was in that country. Any gains that were made couldn’t be held because the Bush Administration and Rumsfeld devoted too many resources to Iraq.

Modern political rhetoric is trapped in this cycle of never accepting full responsibility for anything more consequential than a sex scandal. Democrats and Republicans are guilty of this. It’s the attitude that led to politicians and bureaucrats to use the phrase “Mistakes were made.” The passive form of that sentence in itself is a dodge. It allows someone like Rumsfeld to admit fault without actually having to say “I made a mistake.” It’s cowardly and it’s weak. I wish we had leaders who actually owned their mistakes. But here we have a master of obfuscation. The intelligence was bad, so mistakes were made.

After deflecting the Afghanistan question by hiding behind Obama’s surge, Rumsfeld argued that his and Bush’s foray into Iraq was also done with careful consideration about putting troops on the ground.

Rumsfeld: We had a relatively small footprint and we changed the [Iraqi] regime, which was the policy of the United States in the Clinton Administration. Once you get a mission creep where people start attempting to do things well beyond that, that’s obviously not something the Department of Defense is trying to do.

I am astonished. Did you see how he tried to hang Iraq around Bill Clinton’s head, as if Clinton might have advocated an invasion? I’ve heard Bush apologists make this connection before, but I’m shocked that Rumsfeld is trying to do it in this context. Clinton wasn’t the one who failed to come up with an exit strategy. That’s all on Rumsfeld and the rest of that administration. Ryssdal doesn’t let him get away with it.

Ryssdal: I will do you the favor, Mr. Secretary, of assuming you are not trying to shift any responsibility here.

Rumsfeld: I’m not, it’s just reality that when you do something, then someone wants you to do something else, and then something else. And then over time the mission histrionically creeps into something other than was initiated at the outset.

Now Rumsfeld seems to be throwing the whole Bush regime under the bus. It wasn’t his idea to try building modern democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps not. But it was the U.S. military that was asked to do that job. And he was in charge of our military.

Finally, Ryssdal gives Rumsfeld to a chance to demonstrate some legitimate reflection and take ownership for at least some of his mistakes. No mention of the torture policy he administered. Ryssdal isn’t going into Rumsfeld’s warm crimes. Just his poor leadership and management. And yet, Rumsfeld just can’t take himself there.

Ryssdal: I do wonder whether you read Robert McNamara’s memoirs when they came out — The Secretary of Defense during Vietnam.

Rumsfeld: I have not. I served in Congress during that period.

Ryssdal: That book was widely seen as an apology for his role in Vietnam. And I looked in this book pretty hard for any rule that you had about apologizing and I couldn’t find it.

Rumsfeld: And what’s your question.

Ryssdal: Did you ever think about apologizing?

Rumsfeld: My goodness, you know, as Napoleon said, I’ve been mistaken so many times I don’t even blush for it anymore. Sure you see things that don’t turn out the way you hoped.

And that, folks, is the closest Rumsfeld is able to come to apologizing for the disaster he participated in — two wars that cost us trillions of dollars, thousands of lives and so much more. The Republican party still needs to come to grips with its role in driving us into that ditch. Until it does, it is not fit to govern our nation.

IT’s easier to get in to something than it is to get out of it.
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In honor of Maddie on Things

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Bishop the cat

In honor of our attendance of a “reading” by Theron Humphrey from his book Maddie on Things, I’m posting a picture of Bishop the cat. Bishop is my silent coauthor. At least 50,000 of my manuscript’s 100,000 words were written with him on my lap. As you can see in this picture, he’s a big fan of laps, especially from October to May. Once spring gives way to summer, he prefers a cool surface for his lounging. But until then, he’s a cuddle-bug.

By the way, I put the word “reading” in quotes because one does not read from Maddie on Things. One enjoys the pictures.

If you aren’t familiar with Maddie, she is a young, deer-spotted coonhound belonging to Theron Humphrey, who has discovered that his dog not only has the balance of an acrobat but also the patience of a saint. He’s photographed her in some remarkable positions as the two of them have traveled the country together. The blog that is devoted to her portraits is wonderful. There isn’t another dog in the world who would be willing to stand on the rim of a basketball hoop for a photograph.

Anyway, my favorite independent bookstore,  Brookline Booksmith, hosted a stop on he and Maddie’s book tour tonight. While Theron presented a slideshow of his work and talked about his passion for photography and his love of his zen-like dog, Maddie wandered around the bookstore’s basement greeting the more than 100 people who crowded the room to catch a glimpse of her.

Hyperbole and a Half’s home run post on depression

Cartoonist Allie Brosh wrote an epic post on her blog Hyperbole and a Half about her struggle with depression. I think she’s done a wonderful job of illustrating the disease not only to people who have never suffered from it, but to the people who live with it every day.

The first few paragraphs capture the experience of the disease perfectly.

I remember being endlessly entertained by the adventures of my toys. Some days they died repeated, violent deaths, other days they traveled to space or discussed my swim lessons and how I absolutely should be allowed in the deep end of the pool, especially since I was such a talented doggy-paddler…

But as I grew older, it became harder and harder to access that expansive imaginary space that made my toys fun. I remember looking at them and feeling sort of frustrated and confused that things weren’t the same.

I played out all the same story lines that had been fun before, but the meaning had disappeared… Depression feels almost exactly like that, except about everything.

The worst aspect of depression for me was loosing my emotional connection to the world. The meaning drained out all my experiences and memories. And explaining this to anyone, even myself, was nearly impossible. I did not know how to comprehend, let alone explain, what was happening to me.

I Think Ms. Brosh has performed a wonderful service by articulating these things. Cheers to her.