Friday, May 26, 2006
Bigger than da Vinci?
The rise of The Da Vinci Code phenomenon -- book and now movie -- began with the dropping of a name that, unequivocally, means genius: Leonardo da Vinci. So we decided to take a look at the person behind that name.
Born to an unwed mother in a town outside Florence, Italy, da Vinci displayed extraordinary artistic talent as a child and as a young adult was already producing masterful drawings, sculptures, and paintings.
But his range of talent went far beyond art alone. He was also a scientist who made contributions to biology, geography, botany, geology ... the list goes on and on.
And as an inventor, da Vinci drew intricate designs for flying machines, palaces, tanks, submarines, and so much more, long before the technology even existed to implement some of his ideas.
And, by the way, he also created what might be the most famous painting of all time: Mona Lisa.
If I created a list of the top ten most significant figures in the history of this world, I would assuredly put Leonardo near the top. Who else would you put on the list?
The lingering power of grief
It's been a really interesting week for me. Surreal, to say the least.
Writing a book can be a very personal act. There are many long hours of staring at a computer screen, many hours with nothing but your thoughts. Then the book is done, and copy editing is complete, and it disappears for a while.
You know it is out there somewhere being worked on by printers and publishers, but you are thankful it is done and use the extra time you suddenly have to catch up on sleep. Then, a few weeks before the book is released, you get your first copy.
It's startling, really, to see your words bound, packaged, printed neatly on a page. But it is still very personal somehow. It is not in bookstores. No one is talking about it. This week, however, all that changed with the release of the book
On Tuesday, I was on Oprah, and I know a lot of you watched, because many of you have written to me about it. I continue to be amazed by Oprah's talent and was really touched that she had read the book so thoroughly and was so passionate about it. I will sit down with Larry King soon in a program that will air sometime next week. And then more television appearances will follow.
I just wanted to say how much I appreciate all the feedback I've gotten from you on the book. I've already received a lot of letters and emails from people sharing their own experiences of loss and survival. Many of the notes are very moving, and if there is a common thread in them, it is the lingering power of grief, and the determination it takes to get through it.
I wish I could respond directly to all of your notes, but it would be virtually impossible to do so. Please know that I appreciate the many responses you have sent to me via this blog and in other ways. Thank you.
Thursday, May 25, 2006
Could Al Gore be the next Nixon?
Most Americans last saw Al Gore on December 13, 2000. That's when he ended his concession speech by saying, "And now, my friends, in a phrase I once addressed to others, it's time for me to go."
But look at Al Gore today. Magazines are running articles on "The Resurrection of Al Gore" (Wired) and "The Comeback Kid" (New York). His new movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," opened this week, and it's drawing good reviews: "A necessary film," writes A.O. Scott in The New York Times. For an Al Gore movie, that's a rave.
Could this be Al Gore's moment?
Since 2000, the former vice president has been traveling the world delivering lectures on the threat of global warming. More than a thousand lectures, in fact.
"I set myself a goal to communicate this real clearly," Gore says as the movie shows him trudging through airports, carrying his own bags. "The only way I know to do it is city by city, person by person, family by family."
He means it. At an advance screening in Washington last week, Gore was asked why his lectures had not gotten much press attention. "I deliberately kept them off the record," he said. "I wanted to preserve the intimacy of each occasion."
Hollywood producer Lawrence Bender saw Gore's talk and said to himself, this has got to be a movie. "We need to get millions of people to see it," Bender told CNN. "So we filmed him all around the world -- in China, all over the country, doing this presentation. It's truly phenomenal. It's going to blow your mind."
A lecture by Al Gore?
"The message is one that is serious and urgent and complicated," Gore said at the Sundance Film Festival in January. "They have made it entertaining and enjoyable and funny and really watchable."
How did they do that? By doing what Hollywood does best: Telling a story.
Director Davis Guggenheim said, "One of the things I wanted to do was tell his personal story, why he's so invested in this, why these facts and figures are so interesting to him." He added, "It all goes back to his life on the farm and tragedies in his family and the 2000 election. The process was very much an intimate storytelling experience."
The film includes the story of Gore's sister's death from lung cancer. "That's one of the ways you don't want to die," Gore says in the film. "The idea that we had been part of that economic pattern that produced the cigarettes that produced the cancer. It was so painful on so many levels. My father -- he had grown tobacco all his life. He stopped."
The filmmakers refuse to call it a "political" film, because they see the picture's message as unifying. Guggenheim said, "Gore frames it not as a political issue but as a moral issue, something we should all really think about no matter who we are."
Ok, but does President Bush plan to see it?
"Doubt it," Bush said. He explained, "We need to set aside whether or not greenhouse gases have been caused by mankind or because of natural effects and focus on the technologies that will enable us to live better and at the same time protect the environment."
These days, some Hollywood liberals have doubts about Hillary Clinton. Is she selling out? Can she be elected? Al Gore is emerging as their dark horse. After all, they say, he's been elected.
The Clinton legacy was something of a problem for Gore in 2000. A lot of Democrats believe Gore lost because he tried to distance himself from Bill Clinton. But you could also argue that Gore lost because he couldn't distance himself from Bill Clinton, even though he tried. That's why Gore put Joe Lieberman, Clinton's severest Democratic critic, on the ticket.
If Gore and Hillary Clinton were to run in 2008, both Democratic contenders could claim the Clinton legacy -- the former president's wife and his vice president. On the theory that a helpmate is closer than a running mate, Hillary would probably have the stronger claim. That could liberate Gore to run against Sen. Clinton from the left.
"He has a true vision," producer Bender told CNN. "He's strong. He doesn't equivocate. He's great on all the issues. He's passionate. He's funny, and he's grounded."
Well, Gore did appear on "Saturday Night Live" recently, where he pretended to be speaking as the president elected in 2000. "We have way too much gas," Gore said. "Gas is down to 19 cents a gallon, and the oil companies are hurting. I know that I am partly to blame by insisting that cars run on trash."
Gore calls himself a recovering politician, but adds, "There's a danger of a relapse." He said on NBC's "Today" show, "I'm not at the stage of my life where I'm going to say, 'Never in the rest of my life will I ever think about such a thing.'"
Talk about a smart marketing strategy: The film is coming out at the perfect moment. Millions of Americans are angry at President Bush and worried about energy.
The film is not overtly partisan, but few viewers will miss the visual cue after Gore says, "I was in politics for a long time. I'm proud of my service." The next shot shows the terrible devastation of Hurricane Katrina, an event some people believe hurt President Bush.
Would Americans really elect a president who served eight years as vice president, then ran for president and failed, and then was out of power for eight years?
It worked for Richard Nixon, because the moment was right.
Gang-raped and mutilated but still praising God
The cries of the women in a tiny hospital are as harrowing as they are haunting. I will never forget what I felt when I walked into a hospital room filled with the walking wounded in the town of Bukavu in Eastern Congo.
"This a pain worse than death," says 28-year-old Henriette Nyota. She's one of hundreds of women who've sought treatment at Panzi Hospital for a crime that continues to be committed here on an almost daily basis -- multiple rapes by men in uniform with the intention, aid workers say, of destroying their child-bearing capabilities.
The story is as complicated
as the Congo itself. The men in uniform are members of Congo's recently integrated army. Some of the men are from one ethnic group and they're raping and mutilating women from a different ethnic group in ways that can only be described as barbaric and medieval. After all, this is peacetime Congo. The civil war that killed more than three million people ended nearly three years ago. This isn't supposed to be happening today.
"These animals insert knives and other sharp objects into the women after raping them continuously for days at a time," says Dr. Denis Mukwege Mukengere, the lone physician working here. He's just finished a six-hour operation to repair one woman's uterus. She'd walked 300 miles to get here, exhausted, traumatized and overcome with excruciating pain.
"They seem to do this to prevent another generation of warriors from being born," Dr. Mukengere tells us.
He takes us on a tour of his hospital. Outside, in the corridors, new arrivals have just been dropped off by a Good Samaritan. I count a dozen of them, some with infant children, others too old to have children, all victims of unimaginable atrocities. He counsels them in his slow, methodical way and asks his small army of nurses to assist them. He's a kind of Mother Teresa, a person who has come to help the helpless. This hospital has become a haven for Congo's suffering masses, an oasis surrounded by horror and hatred.
We enter one of six wards dedicated to victims of sexual violence. Dr. Mukengere introduces us to 19-year-old Helene Wamunzila. She first came here five years ago after being raped repeatedly. Dr. Mukengere was able to stitch her back together and eventually discharged her. He says she cried the day she left, pleading with him to let her stay here because she said the evildoers were waiting for her back in her village. He didn't listen then and now regrets his decision. She's returned, badly mutilated physically and permanently scarred psychologically.
"I wish I'd let her stay," he says, shaking his head.
Victims of these horrible atrocities lie helplessly in bed, colostomy bags hanging below. Hanging over their heads is the fear that not only might they not be able to have children, but that they may have contracted HIV/AIDS, an almost guaranteed death sentence in this part of the world.
"Four out of 10 end up being HIV positive," Dr. Mukengere tells us. "It's almost as though God is punishing these people in the worst possible way."
Rose Mujikandi, 24, tells us 14 men broke into her parents' house two months ago. She says they killed her father and mother, two brothers and infant sister, but not before they had their way with her.
"It's the last thing my father and mother saw before they were killed. Can you imagine living the rest of my life knowing this is the image they went to heaven with?" she asks, tears streaming down her face. "But I have faith in God. What happened to me happened for a reason," she concludes.
In an open-air recreation area, more women, hundreds of them, talk quietly among themselves. They see Dr. Mukengere and one of them breaks into song. The others follow, but some are too traumatized to think of singing. The song is as haunting as it is defiant. I ask the doctor what it means.
"They're telling the men that they will never be broken, that their spirits will never be broken," he says.
The song ends and I turn to one of the women. She's using a cane to walk because of the damage she's received from days of multiple rapes and mutilation. She gives me her name only as Tintsi and says she's 21 years old. She was brought here by her relatives on a stretcher for a short distance, she says, only 25 miles. She tells me she was gang-raped by 15 men for eight days and eight nights. She just recently began walking again and the cane helps her get around.
"They can destroy my womanhood," she says, "but they can never destroy my spirit."
I ask her where she gets her strength and I almost know what she will say before the words leave her mouth.
"God," she whispers. Then, as if for emphasis, she cries aloud, "Only God can save the women of Congo." The women around her applaud. Some shake their heads in agreement. Others simply stare straight ahead.
I turn to Dr. Mukengere and ask him why everyone here refers to God after being the victims of such atrocities.
"God is the only thing they can hold on to that no one can take away from them. They've lost their dignity. They've lost their womanhood. They have nothing left," he says. "But if you ask me, God forgot about Congo a long time ago."
I wonder if he believes this. If he did, would he be here doing what he's been doing every day for the past three years?
I turn to leave this place and can't help feeling sick to my stomach. Every time I feel things are getting better on this continent that I grew up in, this land I proudly call my home, this place that has so much to offer, I'm confronted with the stark reality that all is not well in the place many people proudly call "Mother Africa."
We need to do more. We need to take care of our mothers, our sisters, our daughters and our grandmothers. Most of all we need to make life better for the generations that are yet to come.
We'll have to start somewhere, and the Congo it seems, is as good a place as any.
Congo rape victims -- how to help
After watching Jeff Koinange's story on air or reading his personal take here, many of you are probably wondering how you can help. Here are two organizations working in Congo:
The Swedish Pentecostal Mission -- PMU
Contact person: Marie Walterzon
Tel in Congo (243)-81-318-6246TEARFUND
-- A British NGO
Contact person: Tilly Leuring
Tel in Congo: (243)-997-089-850
Democrats: Poised to strike or flailing around?
It's now a little more than five months until the November elections. President Bush continues to take it on the chin in the polls, as does Congress. The number of competitive seats in the House continues to rise, according to the Rothenberg Political Report, and the Democrats are leading Republicans on every major issue, including terrorism.
The environment for the Democrats couldn't get much better. So why is it that when we asked people on the street yesterday what the Democrats' plan for America was we encountered responses such as "I have no clue -- to be honest, I have no clue what they're doing"?
It could be because the Democrats have yet to articulate anything that resembles a substantive plan. Oh sure, there have been bits and bites, but there's yet to be a clear election-year agenda. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean says "there's plenty of time for specifics - the election is a long way off."
But if they hope to prevail in those exceedingly tight Congressional races, how long can Democrats continue to get by solely on rhetoric like Senator Harry Reid's declaration that "We as Democrats are declaring our commitment to change"?
For a while longer, according to Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel, whom many Democrats say is the guy driving the bus this year. Emanuel hears the calls from inside the party to lay out -- as quickly as possible -- a Democratic version of the Republicans' famous 1994 "Contract With America."
But he's keeping his powder dry for now, recalling that the Contract was released just six weeks before the '94 election. To do it now, he fears, would leave an agenda open to dissection and scrutiny, Republican attacks and inter-party fighting for a long time. Plus, what would be left to do in the fall?
The danger for Democrats, however, is that Republicans have been pretty effective at labeling them as the "party with no ideas, failing to articulate any core principles or governing philosophy."
Of course, that's merely a strategy to draw them into the debate. But as we saw in August of 2004, when John Kerry's campaign sank amid a barrage of unanswered attacks by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, sometimes you need to put some meat on the bones if you hope to have a chance of fighting back.
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
How do you prove Jesus existed?
It takes about one-and-a-half hours to drive from the center of Rome to the tiny town of Viterbo, Italy. With reporter Delia Gallagher, photojournalist Claudio, and our driver, Alfredo, we made our way through the hills of this ancient Etruscan town on our way to see a man with a very controversial cause.
Luigi Cascioli is suing the Catholic Church. He says he wants them to show proof that Jesus Christ actually existed.
As we drive up the road to his old stone house, my first impression is that this lifelong atheist is not at all what I expected. I'm not sure why. Perhaps as a Roman Catholic I thought he'd have horns and a tail? Instead, a robust, friendly septuagenarian approached the car to welcome us, accompanied by his dog, Pluto.
He says he has dedicated his life to bringing down the Catholic Church, and he's spent years of his life researching his subject. He says there was, in fact, no Jesus, but a military man named John of Gamala who lived in the time of Christ. And, he claims, it was the gospel writers who turned that mere mortal into the character of Jesus, a figure powerful enough on which to base an entire religion.
Cascioli's lawsuit is based on two points of Italian law. One makes it illegal to "abuse the popular credulity." The second outlaws impersonating another person. The chain-smoking, former construction worker speaks only Italian, and he doesn't mince words. He calls the Catholic Church leaders "con men," and says "they take advantage of the popular belief."
He began his case in 2002, suing a local Viterbo priest, Father Enrico Righi. He says he chose Father Righi because the law prevents him from suing the Pope, who is a head of state. But his case was rejected by the Italian courts time and time again. So why is Luigi Cascioli so interesting now? Because the European Court of Human Rights has agreed to consider hearing his case.
That means, at some future date, leaders of the Catholic Church may be called upon to present hard evidence that there once was a man named Jesus Christ. The question is, in this age of DNA testing and CSI drama, how do you prove a man existed more than 2,000 years ago using nothing but the written word?
'Illegal immigrant' discovers he was legal after all
Imagine owning a winning lottery ticket, and carrying it with you for decades, but not knowing you had it. Riches could lie ahead, opportunities might abound, but you don't know about the possibilities, until someone brings it to your attention. So it was for Wilfredo Garza, a man whose life is now changed forever.
Garza has lived for 35 years, much of the time wishing he could become an American citizen. He was born in Mexico to an American father and was raised in Mexico, always assuming he was Mexican. But at a chance meeting last year, Wilfredo learned from an immigration attorney that just like his dad, he was an American citizen.
Garza is a working man with almost no formal education and has long figured the best future for him was in the United States, not Mexico. For years, he and his brother crossed the Rio Grande almost daily, sneaking into the United States. Garza was deported on four separate occasions, but managed to swim back into the United States each time.
Eventually, Garza and his brother scraped together enough money to buy a small ramshackle home in downtown Brownsville, Texas. Wilfredo is proud to have worked hard for everything he owns. He says he didn't cross the river looking for handouts; he came to work and work hard. On a good day, he says, he'd make $25 to $30 a day.
Garza puts a unique face on our immigration crisis. He's an immigrant who really wasn't. But through his story, his struggle, we learn just how important it is to be "an American."
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
'Dispatches from the Edge'
After many long months and many long hours of writing, my book "Dispatches from the Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival" is in stores today. It's a very strange feeling.
In many ways, I've been writing this book in my head for the past 15 years, ever since I became a reporter. But it wasn't until Hurricane Katrina that I actually started putting it together on paper.
In those dark, difficult days in New Orleans, I started to worry that when the floodwaters receded, and the convention center was cleaned up, people would move on and forget what had happened.
I know we all like to say, "Oh, we could never forget such a tragedy." But the truth is tragedies are forgotten all the time. The media moves on, and so do people's lives.
I suppose that's just the way it is, but I didn't want the heroism, the heartbreak, the compassion, the negligence to just be forgotten, so I started writing about what I was seeing behind the scenes, the kinds of moments and conversations that never make it on television.
I first started working as a reporter soon after graduating from college. I couldn't get an entry level job at ABC News, so I came up with my own plan. I figured if no one would give me a chance, I'd have to take a chance.
With a fake press pass made by a friend and a borrowed video camera, I left the United States to report on wars around the world. In retrospect, it was a foolhardy thing to do, but I was young and didn't feel like I had any other options.
Since those early years, I've visited a lot of countries in conflict, and have seen people lose their lives because of the color of their skin, the ideas in their heads, or simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I've worked in Somalia, South Africa, Haiti and Rwanda, and in all these countries, in all these conflicts, I've been awed by what humans are capable of doing to one another -- acts of terrible barbarism and brutality, yes, but also acts of kindness and courage.
In the far reaches of the world, you see what truly lurks in the inner reaches of the human heart, and those lessons were something I wanted to write about.
When I was a child, my father wrote a book about growing up in Mississippi. I remember when I was about eight years old and couldn't sleep, I'd go into his study late at night as he was typing his book and curl up in his lap. Laying my head against his chest, I could always fall asleep listening to the sound of the typewriter and the steady beat of his heart.
Writing my own book has been a very difficult process for me. As I said earlier, it feels strange to suddenly have it enter the marketplace, because it is in many ways a very personal book. It's not only about the tragedies I've covered as a journalist; it's also about the losses in my own life that propelled me to go overseas in the first place.
I will be on the Oprah show today. This will be the first time I will talk about the book in any detail in a large public forum. I don't really know what people will make of it. I do think that loss is a bond all of us share and one many people can relate to. If you choose to read the book, I'd love to hear from you.Click here to read an excerpt from "Dispatches from the Edge"
MARS is producing oil again
Let me just say first that I am not an early riser. But how often does one get the opportunity to fly out into the Gulf of Mexico and land on an oil platform?
That's how I spent most of my day yesterday -- up at 5 a.m. and straight to a waiting chopper with some folks from Shell Oil.
Shell has about six deepwater floating oil platforms in the Gulf, including one called the MARS platform, which was the biggest oil producer in the Gulf before Hurricane Katrina. The storm caused MARS' daily production to drop from 140,000 barrels of oil to zero.
We had hoped to visit MARS yesterday, but we couldn't because it had just started producing oil and natural gas again. While an estimated 15 percent of the Gulf's oil rigs are still down, the MARS rig is expected to be at full production in June.
Shell says it has spent nearly $300 million on Gulf recovery because it believes there are at least 71 billion gallons of oil out there waiting to be drilled.
With MARS off-limits, we toured the similar Ram Powell oil platform instead. It was humbling to stand on this structure, which is about the size of a football field. The oil rig that is clamped to the platform weighs as much as two 747 airplanes.
While walking around the rig we had to wear hard hats, safety glasses and steel-tipped shoes. And the stairs -- oh my! There's no elevator, so getting around is a workout.
Here's something that surprised us -- Shell wanted to periodically test the camera we were using to shoot this story. They were afraid the camera could give off a spark and cause a fire as it mixed with the gases in the air. So they monitored the camera and the gases as we walked around the platform.
We spent about an hour touring the rig and then climbed back aboard our helicopter for the hour-long flight back to dry land.
Monday, May 22, 2006
The 'forgotten war' flares again
It is springtime, and here on the Pentagon beat we're watching with interest the so-called "forgotten war" in Afghanistan. Every spring, as the weather warms up, the Taliban come out of the hills and start mixing it up again with U.S. and Afghan forces.
I was just in Afghanistan in late February and early March. During the visit, U.S. and NATO commanders warned me it was going to be an active spring. Sure enough, their intelligence was correct. Taliban forces have moved into the south of the country flush with money and new weaponry.
The U.S. military doesn't like to get involved in body counts. You know, "We killed more of them than they killed of us, so we win." Vietnam proved that's the wrong measure of who is winning. That said, U.S. commanders do point out the Taliban has suffered "extraordinary losses" in the past three or four weeks, including some mid-level Taliban leaders who were captured or killed.
The Sunday night/Monday morning strike near Azizi in Kandahar is the latest example. It looks like up to 80 people might have been killed when U.S. Air Force A-10s strafed and bombed Taliban positions. Kandahar is one of three southern provinces where the Taliban have come back stronger than they were last year.
The locals say many of those killed were innocent civilians, including women and children.
The U.S. military says it thinks most victims were Taliban fighters or civilians with "terrorist ties." The military says it does not target civilians and insists it takes all reasonable measures to prevent unintended civilian deaths. But it's also not willing to let the Taliban have safe havens in civilian homes.
Here is a statement from the Combined Forces Command, Afghanistan: "The Coalition only targeted armed resistance, compounds and buildings known to harbor extremists. Coalition forces must retain their ability to defend against fire emanating from known enemy positions."
And here is a possible translation of that statement: "If you hang with the Taliban, you may die with the Taliban."
What do the latest skirmishes with the Taliban mean? Are the Taliban staging a comeback in Afghanistan? That is difficult to say. But one thing is clear: The war here has become a test of wills as much as a test of firepower.