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Excerpt: Obliviously On He Sails

The New Yorker humorist and best-selling author writes a weekly news-based poem for The Nation. Here's a sample from his latest collection.

- June 25, 2004

Like a birthday party organized around a theme, America's view of the world often seems to be organized around a Demon in Chief. For years, the Demon in Chief was Fidel Castro. Muammar al-Qaddafi was the Demon in Chief for a while. A foreign affairs graduate student could probably chart the staying power of Demons in Chief by attending the Greenwich Village Halloween parade every year and counting the villain masks.

Osama bin Laden must have had the shortest run as Demon in Chief since Manuel Noriega. After the attacks of September 11, George W. Bush, declaring a war on terrorism, said we would go to Afghanistan or anywhere else to bring bin Laden back, "dead or alive:" The Taliban, who had been harboring bin Laden, were defeated. As usual, the country rallied behind a wartime president. George W. Bush saw his approval ratings soar.

But bin Laden couldn't be found. The White House had a bold response: It quit uttering his name. Absent a Demon in Chief, though, the war on terrorism seemed a bit hollow. Eventually, despite a new Homeland Security Department and color-coded alerts and exquisitely ornate security precautions at airports, the country seemed to settle back into peacetime, always a more problematic time for whoever occupies the White House.

It now appears that Saddam Hussein sent word through back channels that he would meet all American demands in order to avoid an invasion, but there was one factor he may have failed to appreciate about the United States: You can't be a wartime president without a war.


ON THE APPOINTMENT OF HENRY KISSINGER, THAT CHAMPION OF OPENNESS IN GOVERNMENT, TO CHAIR THE 9/11 INQUIRY

"Mr. Kissinger said today that he was not aware that any of his clients might pose conflicts of interest with his mission as chairman of the commission, which is to investigate why the United States failed to prevent the attacks." —The New York Times

There are no conflicts to prevent
This mystery from being solved.
From that we can at least conclude
That Pinochet was not involved.
—December 23, 2002


RUDY GIULIANI, WHO SAW NEW YORK THROUGH 9/11, HONORED BY TIME MAGAZINE

So Rudy is the person of the year.
We join the world in offering a cheer.
At certain times, it now must be conceded,
A paranoid control freak's just what's needed.
—January 21, 2002


RUNNING OUT OF TARGETS IN AFGHANISTAN
(A Pilot's Lament)

We're running out of targets, guys,
There's nothing to destroy.
They simply don't have buildings here,
Like Baghdad or Hanoi.

Today I sent a missile off
And said, "That's all she wrote."
It turned out that I'd vaporized
Two camels and a goat.

So let's go back to Serbia.
These gunsights have to glom
On something that's not rocks or sand.
There's nothing here to bomb.
—November 19, 2001


A TWO-PRONGED APPROACH TO THE AFGHAN PEOPLE

By night our missiles rain on them,
By day we drop them bread.
They should be grateful for the food—
Unless, of course, they're dead.
—October 29, 2001


SLEEP TIGHT
(A Lullaby Sung Each Night to Osama bin Laden)

Sleep tight. There's no one making much ado.
So sleep this night, Big O—in peace, sleep through it.
The folks you bombed now never mention you.
They're chasing down a guy who didn't do it.
—September 1, 2003


EVERYTHING GEORGE BUSH NEEDS TO KNOW HE LEARNED ON THE PLAYGROUND

Let's say that from the east while you look south
An icy snowball hits you in the mouth.
You see the kid who did it run, the wretch,
But he proves quite impossible to catch.
He's gone. So you, your anger quite unsated,
Beat up another kid you've always hated.

You hit him from above and underneath.
Then smash his nose and rearrange his teeth.
Yes, pound on him until that dreadful punk'll
Have no alternative to crying uncle.
Though he is not the wretch too fast to chase,
It's hard to tell that once you've smashed his face.
—April 28, 2003


ON PAUL O'NEILL'S REVELATION THAT THE BUSHMEN WERE PLANNING A WAR WITH IRAQ FROM THE EARLIEST DAYS OF THE ADMINISTRATION

It now appears that they saw 9/11
As, even though not quite ordained in heaven
To punish godless sins allowed in bed
(As Falwell and Pat Robertson had said),
At least a blow that could be put to use—
Though tragic, sure, a heaven-sent excuse.
—February 9, 2004


THE 9/11 COMMISSION HEARS FROM RICHARD CLARKE

When testimony came from Richard Clarke, he
Inspired White House spokesmen to get snarky,
Because, with words combining bite and bark, he
Revealed their tough-guy pose as pure malarkey.
—April 19, 2004

Calvin Trillin has been The Nation's "deadline poet" since 1990, contributing a news-based piece of verse each week. This is excerpted from Obliviously On He Sails: The Bush Administration in Rhyme, by Calvin Trillin. Published by Random House. Copyright © 2004 by Calvin Trillin. This usage granted by permission of the author. All rights reserved. You can buy Obliviously On He Sails at Amazon.com.



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