Hard News by Russell Brown

Not writing

My Mum says that back when we went on our family summer holidays, she and Dad would usually get so frazzled over packing and preparation that they wouldn't be speaking for the first couple of hours of the trip. Funny thing is, I can't remember that at all.

It's the way of memory that the most vivid, happy experiences tend to stick. So presumably our kids will forget the first, frenzied day of this year's hols, which was blighted by two unaccountable cock-ups on Dad's part which very nearly left us without (a) a car to drive, and (b) a place to stay. I won't go into the details, but let us say that it could have been a lot worse than it was.

So anyway, we rolled up eventually at the house we had hired from friends' family in Pauanui. Pauanui is a little more like, say, Waikanae than you might think, but without the beneficiaries. Our initial encounter - Saturday herding time at the shopping centre - was a little traumatic (think Newmarket with far fewer clothes) but things settled down thereafter.

The house was basic but nicely kept up, both in terms of its physical condition and its store of nutrition for the soul: including several decades' back issues of National Geographic and a remarkable collection of board games. It also had an old Shacklock oven that had been possessed by the devil and routinely achieved internal temperatures roughly equivalent to those in the centre of the Sun. You had to admire its attitude. I couldn't get my stainless steel Smeg at home that hot if I tried.

I have never been to a place as spectacularly blessed with aquatic resources as Pauanui. The broad, gentle Tairua Harbour, the magnificent surf beach - there's even fine river swimming further up the valley. The regular punters positively hurl themselves at the water, in and on boats, launches, kayaks, doughnuts, boards, skiffs, anything. In the mornings, they go out and power-walk by the horde. Culture appears to be confined to suntan development, but the place is what it is, and the glory of the setting triumphs over all.

I enjoyed Chad's Star Times story about staying in the city and writing over the summer hols (I tried to find it on Stuff, but no luck - and the only Chad Taylors in Google News were people who got hit by trucks or messed up in bar brawls), although my experience was quite different. I brought my notebook, but did not write a word on holiday, which actually felt really good.

Instead, I read most of Michael King's Penguin History of New Zealand, and found it open-minded, rewarding and enjoyable, especially in its opening chapters and its last quarter, where King is able to put aside some of the plot and develop themes, which roll in elegant and powerful like sets at the surf beach. Nice. I'll have to read it again as single chapters, though.

So anyway, back home, to 1200 spams (in eight days!) and more news on Iraq and stuff. Paul O'Neill's startling criticism of the Bush administration shouldn't really be a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention: it simply corroborates a great deal of speculation about how Dubya's White House works. He depicts Bush as bizarrely disengaged from policy discussions, fingers Cheney as the real source of power and advances the view that the invasion of Iraq was, from the first days of the administration, a policy looking for a pretext. Policy in general, he says, was devised on the basis of ideology and electoral politics.

O'Neill is, in turn, already being depicted as a man with an axe to grind, which he probably is. His dismissal as Treasury secretary in 2002 must have been a humiliation. But O'Neill is an old-fashioned conservative, the orthodox kind, not the spooky never-mind-the-facts kind. He worked for Ford and Nixon, was a success in the corporate sector and was invited to join the new administration. His departure was linked to his criticism, on orthodox economic grounds, of the administration's risible steel tariffs and its embrace of tax cuts and consequent vast fiscal deficits.

Yet even if you accept the view of O'Neill as self-serving and disgruntled, it's unthinkable to suppose that he simply made up the substance of what he has to say. But unless it forms part of a wider old-conservative revolt - and you wouldn't want to entirely discount that - O'Neill's attack probably won't damage Bush all that much.

After all, the Carnegie Endowment's lacerating report (summary here) on the case for war, which alleges that US government officials systematically exaggerated Iraq's WMD threat, "over and above intelligence findings" hasn't exactly set the American media on fire (although it's been extensively reported in the Arabic and Asian press). Rush Limbaugh's hilarious response (he ignores the substance of the report, but somehow contrives to introduce Monica Lewinsky to the argument) sets the tone of the backlash.

Baron Gellman's Washington Post investigation sheds a good deal more light on the weapons that weren't, and charitably suggests that US intelligence in some cases fell prey to the same lies that Saddam's officials and scientists peddled to their leader.

Former presidential counsel John Dean wrote an essay on FindLaw last June. He listed a few of the wilder claims about Iraq's weapons from Bush and others, and said:

To put it bluntly, if Bush has taken Congress and the nation into war based on bogus information, he is cooked. Manipulation or deliberate misuse of national security intelligence data, if proven, could be "a high crime" under the Constitution's impeachment clause. It would also be a violation of federal criminal law, including the broad federal anti-conspiracy statute, which renders it a felony "to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose."

It's important to recall that when Richard Nixon resigned, he was about to be impeached by the House of Representatives for misusing the CIA and FBI.

Don't hold your breath.

Hey, anyway, some unconventional weapons have been found, probably. Three dozen old shells which might once have contained blister gas, disposed of 10-15 years ago by burial in the middle of nowhere. Given that they are probably leftovers from the Iran-Iraq war, during which Saddam had a free pass from the West, is safe to conclude that these weren't the weapons they were looking for.

Salam Pax has been extending maximum props to Hassan Fattah's essay Hearts and minds: A ten-point plan for solving the difficulties of the occupation in Iraq, and it's easy to see why. It's enlightened, positive and lucid. It also calls for a rethink of the occupation strategy so sweeping as to be a somewhat unlikely prospect.