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By Chuck Ebeling

Copyright 2016 – All Rights Reserved

Sometimes it’s what you don’t see that matters.

The recent death of Gene Wilder reminded me of an incident of some years back involving his sometime partner-in-crime Mel Brooks.

The year was 1985, and McDonald’s was receiving more and more requests to have its restaurants and products appear in commercial films. Hollywood hadn’t yet really figured out how to exploit the full marketing potential in placing commercial locations and other recognizable branded items in films. Prop masters would pour over film scripts for potential commercial tie-ins, as they were responsible for identifying and stocking locations to be used for filming, preferably at little or no cost to the production. McDonald’s had recently retained a Hollywood firm named Unique Product Placement (UPP), to assist in identifying the best and most appropriate opportunities to place their brand. They were paid a handsome annual fee for reviewing scripts, identifying the good opportunities and coordinating between the studios and our company. They knew and worked closely with prop masters and set designers, and in fact, were made up of such former professionals. When they found a good match, they would contact us with their rationale, and send us the scripts where McDonald’s might fit in. This saved us time and money, and helped screen out the potential movie bombs and inappropriate applications from those with high potential exposure for our brand.

As head of corporate communications, I was responsible for managing the relationship with UPP, and coordinating with our own marketing and other operational departments in implementing such movie tie-ins. One day the phone rang, and it was an international call from Spain. It was our Spanish marketing manager, saying the set decorator for a new science fiction film being shot in a desert region of his country under the aegis of Brooksfilm, the production company controlled by Mel Brooks, had referenced a letter, apparently authorizing our Spanish subsidiary to allow its equipment and signage company to cooperate with the film company and loan them a full-sized McDonald’s restaurant outdoor sign. I asked why, and he said he had a copy of the letter from McDonald’s chief marketing officer written to Mel Brooks himself, agreeing to the sign loan. So I called our marketing chief and asked him about it. He said he vaguely remembered a brief call from Mel Brooks that he said he took because of Brook’s Hollywood fame. Brooks had told him he was executive producer of a science fiction movie set a thousand years in the future in a post-cataclysmic Earth and they wanted to use some McDonald’s signage. The story was something about a boy who found a mysterious orb called Bodhi, lost it, searched for it and at the end, the orb helped bring water back to a parched earth. Our guy agreed, saying Brooks suggested the film and scene in question would be creative, and knowing Brooks great reputation for comedy.

That call had apparently been some months back. I called UPP and asked if they had reviewed the project, and they said it was the first they had heard of it, but they would get hold of Brooksfilm and look over a script and get back to me with their thoughts. I put the guy in Spain on ice, though he seemed in a hurry, as they would be filming the scene involving the sign in a few days. UPP was back to me in a flash. They said they were shocked Brooks was backing such a bizarre film, and they described the scene involved as one of a gang of filthy futurists crossing a post-apocalyptic desert and setting up camp in what would in the film appear to be the ruins of an ancient McDonald’s, and include a vulture or some such motley bird landing on a tilted, falling down McDonald’s road sign, while rape and torture were portrayed amidst a bacchanal going on around campfires within this crude setting. I quickly called our marketing chief, and he said “get us out of this!” So I talked it over with UPP and our legal staff, and they agreed that we could refuse to cooperate with the film people in Spain on the grounds that the film had been miss-represented to our marketing chief. Thus, we turned down the request, to the great chagrin of the Spanish production company.

The film, Solarbabies, was released in 1986. Some had predicated it would become Mel Brooks’ “Star Wars.” It had cost $25 million to produce; a giant overrun, and Mel Brooks sold it to the U.S. distributor for just $14 million. The U.S. box office proceeds for the film were only $1.5 million. It has been widely critiqued as Mel Brooks’ worst film and one of the worst movies ever produced, with legendary film critic Gene Siskel crowning it “pure trash.”

Years later, I finally saw the segment of the final film that had been targeted for the demolished McDonald’s, and instead of the bird landing on a tattered Golden Arches sign, he landed on piece of tilted wood hung with rusty cans, amidst a despicable yet unidentified desert campsite. No Golden Arches. Indeed, sometimes it’s what you don’t see that matters. Disaster averted.

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The first reference to Homeland Security was apparently made in a 1997 Pentagon report, and was a term coined by an unknown bureaucrat. In 2002 Peggy Noonan opined that”homeland” seemed like it was not an American term to her.

Since then, and all in the aftermath of 9/11, “homeland” has become all too common, and inappropriate, in my view. To me, it has an isolationist ring to it. Motherland, fatherland, homeland. Intonations of the old world, even of the Nazis. Ask a Jew what the term homeland connotes to them. Probably not Israel.

Of course, one does not deserve to be a critic without offering a better idea. In the last century, the American century as many remember it, we simply used the term “domestic” to refer to things within the United States.  Domestic security said it all, and still does in my book. “Homeland” has a sci-fi otherness associated with it that I have not become comfortable with, a dozen and more years on.

So going forward, I will use the word “domestic” and ban “homeland” from my personal vocabulary in referring to America and our security. And every time I hear a political candidate from either party use “homeland,” I will assume they are pandering to isolationist fears and the status quo of political correctness, and not thinking clearly as a true American would do.

 

As the U.S. considers if and how to react to the Sunni-led insurrection in Iraq, I have one comment: “We CANNOT afford it!”*

The conflict in the middle east across many nations between the Sunnis and the Shiites goes back over a thousand years. If we think that the U.S. or western nations can impose a political or military solution on what is one of the world’s most long-lasting social conflicts, we have another think coming.

*We CANNOT afford to intervene, economically, politically, socially. Let’s, for once, learn from the past.

Lyndon Johnson

Near the height of the Vietnam War, just before Tet in 1968, the USS Pueblo, a military intelligence ship, was captured by the North Koreans, and her crew of more than 150 Americans interred, starved and tortured. The Koreans claimed the ship was spying inside their territorial waters, which the U.S. said was not so.

The Pueblo was one of the smallest ships in the Navy, and was first built as a military freighter in Kewaunee, WI, in 1944. It was refitted as an intelligence-gathering vessel, and was very lightly armed. She was sent by the Navy in an ill-prepared condition on a dangerous mission to gather electronic info on Russian and North Korean defense systems. The crew was released after agonizing negotiations on December 23rd of 1968, just as I was flying home on emergency leave from my position as a combat press officer near Hue, site of the Tet offensive earlier that year.

The captain and crew of the Pueblo were put through the ringer of hearings and suspicion by the Navy, and never to this day heralded and rewarded for their sacrifice and loyalty to a Navy that treated they and their little ship like unwanted step-children. To this day, the Pueblo, the second oldest commissioned ship in the Navy after the USS Constitution, lies captive in the harbor of North Korea’s capitol.

That, my friends, is 46 years a captive commissioned U.S. Navy ship, a long forgotten son of Kewaunee, and a crew of brave once-young sailors, now aging veterans, that deserves at least the kind of Federal recognition afforded pro basketball and football teams.

Just happened to chose Thunderball from my James Bond collection to watch. Odd thought related to the plane disappearance in Malasia, is that in this 1965 film, a British Vulcan bomber with two atom bombs is hijacked, and soft landed in the shallow waters near Nassau, where the bombs are removed by Specter, and the bomber is covered underwater by camouflage netting. The pilot gassed the crew while he hooked up to oxygen to hijack the plane. Maybe just an odd coincidence I happened to see this tonight, while the search goes on for the Malasian plane.

Well, now we join the ranks of the victimized. First, we learn that Target took such little care to check on its own credit card security that 40 MILLION customers, including us, may have had their credit cards hacked. Then we learn that the greedy banks in the US still use vulnerable magnetic strips on the cards they issue, while European banks have used highly unhackable microchips in their cards for a decade. Now, we have no MasterCard in the days before Christmas. Humbug, Target and American banks. Coal in all your stockings.

Our decade in Afghanistan has not proven that America can “nation build,” but rather what the limitations of our cultural influence can be, even when backed with trillions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of troops and workers, and more than a thousand deaths. Now is not the time for us or Karzai to sign an agreement for the continuation of US troop presence in that country. It is time to leave, stop sacrificing lives for culture changes that are not forthcoming. We can continue economic aid. We can continue with some sort of “peace corps” presence. We can continue with some kind of military agreement, but not one that engages thousands of troops on Afghan soil. Let’s admit to ourselves, and to those who have loyally served in support of Afghanistan, that our ambitions there have been substantially inappropriate to the cultural realities, and while our intent has been good, our limitations are tangible. Let’s leave with some grace, wish them well, and refocus our efforts and resources, economic and human, on our domestic issues.

KABUL, Afghanistan –The White House threatened to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan next year, after President Hamid Karzai refused to sign a new bilateral security agreement.

The two countries remain deadlocked over future military involvement after an unsuccessful working dinner between Ambassador Susan Rice and Karzai at his palace in Kabul on Monday night.

In a statement, the White House said Karzai had outlined new conditions for a deal “and indicated he is not prepared to sign the BSA promptly.”

S. Sabawoon / EPA

Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks to the Loya Jirga on Sunday.

“Ambassador Rice reiterated that, without a prompt signature, the U.S. would have no choice but to initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no U.S. or NATO troop presence in Afghanistan,” the statement said.

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The dinner meeting came at the end of Rice’s three-day trip to Afghanistan to visit American troops and civilians and to assess conditions in the country.

On Sunday, a grand council of Afghan tribal leaders – the Loya Jirga – voted to accept the BSA, but Karzai has since indicated he may not sign it until Afghanistan has elected a new president in March.

The White House statement added: “Ambassador Rice conveyed the overwhelming and moving support she found among all the Afghans with whom she met for an enduring U.S.-Afghan partnership and for the prompt signing of the BSA.

“In closing, Rice highlighted the American people’s friendship and support for the people of Afghanistan as embodied in the extraordinary sacrifices of our service-men and women and the unprecedented investment Americans have made in Afghanistan.”

In Afghanistan, there are still 47,000 American forces. The U.S. has been in discussions with Afghan officials about keeping a small residual force of about 8,000 troops there after it winds down operations next year.

U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, have said the BSA must be signed by year-end to begin preparations for a post-2014 presence.

Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi said the Afghan leader laid out several conditions for his signature to the deal in the meeting, including a U.S. pledge to immediately halt all military raids on, or searches of, Afghan homes.

The agreement includes a provision allowing raids in exceptional circumstances – when an American life is directly under threat – but it would not take effect until 2015.

“It is vitally important that there is no more killing of Afghan civilians by U.S. forces and Afghans want to see this practically,” Faizi said, according to Reuters.

Karzai also called on Washington to send remaining Afghan detainees at the U.S. military detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, back to Afghanistan, saying that the Loya Jirga had endorsed the pact with this condition.

Alastair Jamieson reported from London. Reuters contributed to this report.

As the US seems on the cusp of beginning military action in Syria, for the humanitarian reasons being touted by the State Department and in the news media, I’m reminded that cruel treatment of human beings is going on across the globe, with no military intervention by our country. What about the political gulags in North Korea, the suppression in China, the injustices in Russia, the mayhem in our mid-eastern countries, and issues in Africa and south and Central America?

Yes, poison gas is still a vicious memory lingering from WWI. But hanging, starving, shooting and dismembering are equally vicious, as are beatings and endless imprisonment. And what, fellow Americans, about water boarding and Guantanamo?

And yes, even if the Syrian government deserves to be punished for their inhumanity, what happens after an initial attack? What new fuse do we risk lighting? And why not take out Assad? Well, leaders don’t usually do that to fellow leaders — remember when Ford forgave Richard Nixon for Watergate, and the resulting 22,000 American deaths after Nixon killed the Paris Peace talks, so he could steal the 1968 election?

So, the least we can do is think once, twice and three times before launching our un-manned missiles to kill even more Syrians, and trip another wire in the Middle East. Those who are saying our President is weak and indecisive need to weigh a lot in the balance before they render judgement. America’s vested interest may lie just as much, or more, in NOT pulling the trigger in Syria as in doing so. As anyone who has been alive and awake over the last 50 years can attest, we’ve made the wrong call more often than not.

The latest furor over the Boston bomber is his picture on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine, or rather the reaction of some retail businesses, refusing to sell this issue. It is a classical, visceral response triggered by the association of the alternative media reputation of the magazine with the attractive picture of the young man, as if it were some kind of endorsement of his deeply anti-social act.

Of course, it is and it isn’t. The cover copy describes him as a “monster.” And the same photo has appeared elsewhere, including in the New York Times. But, the combination of the appealing photo on the cover of this infamous alternative media publication seems to imply to some that he is being treated as some sort of rock star.

I have my own reasons for disliking the style of Rolling Stone, having once been personally attacked in its pages, and quite inappropriately so. But I suppose Bill McCrystal thinks the same thing about himself.

Anyway, that some companies like Walgreen drug stores refuse to sell this issue of the magazine is their own business, in my view. After all, companies are made up of people, just like magazines, and they have a right to their own views. The bomber is repugnant, and on this most agree. How we choose to treat him in the court of public opinion is up to each of us, and the private sector organizations to which we give our fealty. But what the courts do is a matter of law, not just of taste. And the taste we have in our mouths is a pretty awful one.
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Here’s a copy of a note to a friend who asked about my opinion of the recent Benghazi hearings:

Bottom line: I fear that our government structure and processes, including the current two-party system, is failing the republic, and us.

 I’m increasingly tired of our politics, and the lack of candor, and the dominance of spin, on both sides. So, I’m not responding as your liberal friend, but as your American friend.
 
When Benghazi first occurred, I felt we were being spun, by an administration determined to not allow the anniversary of 9/11 be seen as the occasion of a successful terrorist attack on our country. I’m pretty sure their analysis was that the electorate could not “handle” such a revelation, at a time when the President’s campaign was messaging that terrorism was down, and that the situation across the Middle East was under successful mitigation, as then emphasized by the US role in facilitating democratic restructuring and stability in Egypt.
 
But fast forward to now, six months later. Given all the pressure by the Presidential campaign, Congress and the ever present news media, why has it taken SIX months for Hicks and the others to come out saying they were suppressed by the State Department? I’ve never been a fan of Susan Rice — I see her as a political sycophant and loyalist of the Obama inner circle. She was simply the messenger, as you describe, if a willing one.
We have been spun by both sides of the current political spectrum, who have demonstrated a unhealthy disrespect for the intelligence and judgment of the American people. My support for our current system has thus been further eroded by this episode, despite whatever revelations may come next.
The French had a revolution against royalty and the church by the masses in 1788, partly due to the debt they incurred financing the American revolution, according to Jefferson. The French have thrown out the resulting government five times since then, not through elections but through more quiet revolutions. Now they are fairly stable, with a government in place for 70 years.
 
I think we are getting close to a point where we, after more than 200 years with one government, we may need to do what the French did 5 times before apparently getting it right. If the French monarchists and church had been willing to accommodate the masses, and reorganize their government to better meet everyone’s needs, they might have not had to go through so much. Can we take a lesson, restructure our election process, reorganize Congress and restore a balance of power and reflect the realities of our modern electorate, without the need of a quiet, or not so quiet, revolution?
 
I doubt it, and at our ages, I know we’d prefer some political stability and fairness. Maybe we should trade governments with the French. It’s that bad.
June 2018
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