Anchor Adrift

Chris Matthews free-associates at the opening of the Clinton Library.

The best part of the opening ceremony at the Clinton Presidential Library was watching MSNBC’s Chris Matthews kill time.  I’ve finally figured out the secret of Matthews’ weirdly hypnotic charm: he’s more comfortable free-associating on TV than most people are on their analyst’s couch, so the duller the event he’s covering, the further out he gets. As the guests arrived to take their seats in the icy rain, Matthews battled his worst enemy – silence – with some of his usual libidinally charged ramblings: “Boy, that Tipper Gore is a good-looking woman. I’m sorry, I’d like to offer that commentary.”  During the “Star Spangled Banner,” Matthews mused aloud about the inherent unsingability of our national anthem – a point everyone secretly agrees on, but how many news anchors would say it on the air? Best of all, though, were his memories of bygone meetings of a Washington social club for presidential speechwriters, “back in the days when people used to drink.” Later, Pat Buchanan, Matthews’ fellow member in that club, predicted a grim future for Bill Clinton: “Twenty years of basically just sort of fading away.” Matthews objected to this scenario: “You have him just going from watering hole to watering hole, gaining weight.” Perhaps Matthews’ sympathy for Clinton (which was evident throughout the broadcast) springs from the fact that the two men have a lot in common; both are blustery, hyperintelligent Irish-Americans with poor impulse control and a seemingly endless appetite for political trivia. Tonight’s Hardball will focus on the library and what it means for Clinton’s presidential legacy; the very dullness of the topic guarantees that the host’s fevered imagination should be in top form.

Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2004

President Bush loves to talk about the 19-year-old Afghan woman who was the first to cast a vote in October’s presidential election. In the last few weeks before the election, he could hardly mount the podium without getting dewy-eyed over the thought of this spunky, once-veiled young lady casting her vote, not just for the candidate of her choice, but for Western-style democracy. What the president neglects to mention (besides the fact that the  election was widely regarded as troubled and fraudulent) is that the  girl in question, Moqadasa Sidiqi, voted absentee. A refugee from Afghanistan’s two decades of war, she has been living in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city, since her family emigrated there twelve years ago. In an interview after voting, she said she had voted for peace in the hope that her country would one day be safe enough for her family to return.

Afghanistan Unveiled, a one-hour documentary which will premiere this week on PBS (check local listings for airtimes), provides a glimpse of the complexities of life in Afghanistan for the  less fortunate women who actually live there now. The film is both by and about Afghan women: fourteen young Afghans were trained in videojournalism before going on a tour of the country with the French journalist Brigitte Brault. In their travels, they interview women from four different parts of Afghanistan. An old woman named Zainab, a member of the dirt-poor Haraza ethnicity, speaks so eloquently of her people’s ethnic cleansing under the Taliban that you can hear the filmmaker weeping behind her video camera (if you can stifle your own sniffles long enough.) Then, just when you’re feeling righteous about having chased those Taliban sons-of-bitches from power, a young mother in the city of Herat tells of losing her brand-new husband and his brother to collateral damage from US bombings in the fall of 2002. In the end, one comes away with the impression that the Afghan people, still reeling from two decades of war and occupation, are simply relieved to have a break from the bombing. For most of the shell-shocked, malnourished interviewees, the right to vote seems several notches down the priority list.

In the traditional city of Herat, a merchant complains that since the rout of the Taliban, his brisk business in chadris, the head-to-toe coverings worn by women, has fallen off. The interviewer herself, wearing only a light headscarf, then gets into an argument with a group of men in the street about whether or not the wearing of the chadri is prescribed by the Koran; of course it is, they assure her, but the young woman contradicts them: “No, that is not true. Any person who says that is ignorant beyond comprehension.” I have no idea which interpretation is correct, but the irreconcilable terms of this argument – conservative dogmatism versus progressive disdain – can’t help but recall the debates raging in this country around our own divisive social issues of religion and gender. I guess democracy really has arrived in Afghanistan after all. … 3:12 p.m.