Friday, December 5, 2008

The next voice you hear

Some of my fellow Republicans seem to be in a race to make the GOP deserve the name of "Know-Nothings." First, the Governor of Alaska was taken in by radio pranksters who convinced her that she was talking to the President of France, and now, Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has hung up on Barack Obama, twice, refusing to believe it was he. Had she thought to ask him a difficult question, she could have told at once: intelligent as he is, he can't stop himself from blurting out "Well—" or "I tell you what—" before answering, when he anticipates that what he says may not be liked. From the first Presidential debate, I became convinced that Obama needs to hire a debate coach who will fire off a flare pistol whenever he does that. He has things to say, and he needs to say them, in the face of likely disagreement, without awkwardness or apology.

The President-elect regularly heads for the basketball court to work out and clear his mind; perhaps he should take up chess as well, since the rapidly emerging crises will force anyone to think several moves ahead. As Edward Tenner writes in the current Atlantic:

ChessBase, introduced for Atari in 1987, is now a compendium of 3.75 million games reaching back more than five centuries. Compiling statistics, including the results from games just downloaded from the Web, it also shows percentages of games won after various alternative moves.

....Knowing thine adversary has never been easier. Even the victorious defending champion Viswanathan Anand has said he can’t afford to have a favorite opening. Under pressure because of efficient scrutiny through databases and analysis engines like Fritz (another popular high-level software program that works out new moves), top players must prepare more variations than ever.

That sounds like an excellent analogy for what the new Administration faces, in both economics and foreign affairs. Of course politics has always resembled chess, but the rapid spread and relentless retention of information, forcing even the masters to vary their favorite strategies, seems peculiar to our own day.

Failure to think several moves ahead seems to have been a major contributor to the worst airline disaster of all time, the crash of KLM flight 4805 with Pan-Am 1736 at Tenerife, Canary Islands, in March, 1977. Airline pilot Patrick Smith's gripping account of the tragedy, appearing in Salon last year to mark the 30th anniversary of the event, describes not only its senseless horror but the irony that the individual more responsible than any other for the crash, KLM pilot Jacob van Zanten, was distinguished in the aviation world as a safety expert—indeed, on first hearing of the crash on the radio, KLM authorities tried to reach van Zanten, in the hopes that he could lead the investigation!

Van Zanten's last recorded words were "We gaan" (let's go), a phrase that, in the blind obstinacy in which it was spoken, might be a fitting epitaph for the Bush Presidency.

For memories of better times in aviation, see this fascinating gallery of early photos from Dayton and Kitty Hawk. I also like the photos of Wilbur and Orville Wright, both of whom look as if nothing could get past them. (Years ago, when saying her evening prayers, my daughter said, "Dear God, thank you for inventing the Wright brothers so we could fly to Granny's house for Christmas.") A quote from Wilbur is equally applicable to aviation and statecraft:

It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

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