Wednesday, June 27, 2007

For WWE, a Horrible Time for Life (and Death) to Imitate Art

The Sports-Entertainment Giant Was About to Broadcast a Staged TV 'Memorial' for Boss Vince McMahon's 'Assassinated' TV Character -- When the Devastating News Broke of the Real-Life Murder-Suicide of Star Wrestler Chris Benoit and His Family


World Wrestling Entertainment star Chris Benoit was found dead Monday along with his wife, Nancy and seven-year-old son, Daniel at the Benoits' suburban Atlanta home. Police ruled the deaths a murder-suicide. News of the tragedy came just hours before the WWE was to broadcast a staged, three-hour "memorial tribute" to its chairman Vince McMahon's TV character, "Mr. McMahon," on its top-rated USA Network cable show, "Raw." As part of the show's soap opera-like storyline, McMahon's character was "killed" two weeks ago in a limousine explosion. Monday night's broadcast instead became a real-life memorial to Benoit, pictured above being honored by his hometown of Edmonton, Alberta in April 2004 after winning the WWE world heavyweight championship. (Photo courtesy of The Canadian Press)

(Updated 10:00 p.m. EDT Wednesday, June 27, 2007)

By Skeeter Sanders

This blogger has been a fan of the often-madcap world of professional wrestling since I was a teenager in the late 1960s -- back when Bruno Sammartino was champion of what was then the World Wide Wrestling Federation, run by Vincent J. McMahon. Back then, the WWWF was one of more than two dozen wrestling companies operating in numerous regional territories across the country.

As a kid growing up in the WWWF's home territory of New York, I didn't understand why the crowning of a new WWWF heavyweight champion never got coverage in the local newspaper's sports section the following day, the way the crowning of a new heavyweight boxing champ did.

Back then, I didn't know that unlike boxing, the wrestling matches I watched on TV were choreographed and the outcome determined in advance. On the other hand, the Saturday-night wrestling telecasts in the late 1960s weren't the "soap operas for guys" they are today, either.

How times have changed. Now I know -- and so do most wrestling fans.

The World Wide Wrestling Federation is now known as World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc., a global, multi-million-dollar sports-entertainment empire. It's still run by a McMahon -- Vincent J.'s son, Vincent Kennedy McMahon -- better known to WWE fans for the past decade by his TV alter-ego, the "evil billionaire" owner, "Mr. McMahon."

After playing his overbearing TV character for nearly 10 years, McMahon,the real-life chairman of WWE Inc., had apparently grown tired of it and decided to take himself off the air for good to devote more time to running the company from behind the scenes -- and to spend more time with his three grandchildren (McMahon will turn 62 in August).

The plan was for McMahon's on-air alter-ego to be "killed" in a fiery limousine explosion to close out the June 11 live broadcast of the WWE's top-rated Monday-night show, "Raw" -- which airs on the USA cable network -- then have a three-hour "memorial service" to the "slain" chairman on the show two weeks later.

The blast itself wasn't live;the controlled explosion was pre-recorded the night before and woven into the live telecast. Despite some initial controversy, the McMahon storyline was proceeding without a hitch, leading to Monday's McMahon "memorial" special -- until late Saturday afternoon.

Chris Benoit, one of the WWE's best-known wrestlers and a former WWE world heavyweight champion, was scheduled to wrestle C.M. Punk for the WWE's Extreme Championship Wrestling heavyweight title at the "Vengeance" pay-per-view event Sunday night in Houston.

A Series of Phone Calls, Text Messages

But on the day before the pay-per-view, Benoit telephoned WWE co-workers, saying that he had missed his flight to another WWE live event in Beaumont, Texas and that his 43-year-old wife, Nancy, and his seven-year-old son, Daniel, were suffering from food poisoning and were throwing up, according to a timeline of events posted Tuesday on the WWE Web site.

A representative from the WWE's talent-relations department later advised Benoit to skip the Beaumont-bound flight, as he would have arrived too late for Saturday's live event there, and instead fly to Houston for Sunday's pay-per-view. Early the next morning, however, two WWE co-workers began receiving a series of text messages from Benoit's cell phone.

Most of the messages gave only the address of Benoit's home in the Atlanta suburb of Fayetteville, Georgia, while another message referred to his dogs and an open garage door -- prompting WWE officials to ask authorities to check on the Benoits.

By Monday afternoon -- just hours before the WWE's planned "memorial special" to "Mr. McMahon" was to air live on "Raw" from Corpus Christi, Texas -- the WWE received devastating news: The Benoits had been found dead.

A Double Murder, Then a Suicide, Police Say; Steroids Found at Home

Police said late Tuesday that Benoit strangled his wife, suffocated his son and placed a Bible next to their bodies before hanging himself with a weight-machine pulley.

Investigators also found anabolic steroids in the house and want to know whether Benoit became unhinged by the bodybuilding drugs, which can cause paranoia, depression and explosive outbursts known as "'roid rage."

Authorities offered no motive for the killings, which they said were spread out over the weekend, and would not discuss Benoit's state of mind. No suicide note was found. "I'm baffled about why anybody would kill a seven-year-old," District Attorney Scott Ballard told CNN. "I don't think we'll ever be able wrap our head around that."

Lieutenant Tommy Pope of the Fayette County Sheriff's Department told ABC News on Monday there were no signs of gunshot or stab wounds. Autopsies were scheduled to be performed on the Benoits on Tuesday, but as of post time early Wednesday morning, the results were not disclosed.

The family had moved into the Fayetteville neighborhood just under a year ago, said a neighbor, Alaina Jones. Other neighbors said they couldn't recall seeing police at the Benoit house before. On Monday night, about half a dozen patrol cars idled on the circular driveway of the home.

A Troubled Marriage: Couple Had Argued Over Care for Disabled Son

Just days before the tragedy, the couple argued over whether Benoit should stay home more to take care of Daniel, who suffered from a developmental disability, a WWE attorney disclosed Wednesday.

"I think it's fair to say that the subject of caring for that child was part of what made their relationship complicated and difficult, and it's something they were both constantly struggling with," said attorney Jerry McDevitt. "We do know it was a source of stress and consternation."

McDevitt said the WWE learned from the couple's friends and relatives that the Benoits were struggling with where to send the boy to school since he had recently finished kindergarten. Nancy Benoit didn't want her husband to quit wrestling, but she "wanted him to be at home more to care for the kid. She'd say she couldn't take care of him by herself when he was on the road."

The child suffered from a rare medical condition called Fragile X Syndrome, an inherited form of mental retardation often accompanied by autism, McDevitt said.

Nancy Benoit filed for a divorce in 2003, saying the couple's marriage was irrevocably broken and alleging "cruel treatment." She later dropped the complaint, as well as a request for a restraining order in which she charged that the five-foot-10, 220-pound Benoit had threatened her and had broken furniture in their home.

In the divorce filing, she said Benoit made more than $500,000 a year as a professional wrestler and asked for permanent custody of Daniel and child support. In his response, Benoit sought joint custody.

Shock and Grief on Monday Gives Way to Anger on Tuesday

Before the full, ugly details of the Benoit murder-suicide were made public Tuesday, the WWE -- stunned by the cruel irony of life imitating art -- canceled its scheduled McMahon "memorial" and instead devoted Monday night's three-hour "Raw" telecast to a real-life memorial for Benoit.

Standing in the center of the ring in an empty Corpus Christi arena, a visibly shaken McMahon -- his voice cracking with emotion and fighting back tears -- opened the broadcast by acknowledging that "Tonight's storyline was to have been the alleged demise of my TV character, Mr. McMahon. In reality, Chris Benoit, his wife Nancy and their son, Daniel, are dead. . .

"We here in the WWE can only offer our condolences to the extended family of Chris Benoit," McMahon continued. "And the only other thing we can do tonight is to pay tribute. . .to one of the greatest WWE superstars of all time."

For "Raw" announcers Ross and Jerry "The King" Lawler, Monday's broadcast was, in Lawler's own words, "the most emotionally difficult broadcast we've ever had to put on." And it showed, as other WWE wrestlers and announcers from all three WWE television shows, "Raw," "SmackDown!" and "ECW on Sci-Fi" -- some of whom broke down on camera -- paid tribute to Benoit throughout the program, which included highlights of Benoit's colorful, 20-year wrestling career.

At the WWE's corporate headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, a makeshift "memorial" for McMahon, which had appeared for the last two weeks on its television shows and Web site ( as part of the "assassination" storyline, was quickly removed Monday and another memorial -- this one for Benoit -- was set up in its place.

But after the grisly details of the Benoit tragedy became clear, McMahon's shock and grief on Monday turned to anger on Tuesday.

In a follow-up statement opening Tuesday night's ECW broadcast, McMahon all but apologized for the previous night's "Raw," declaring that, "Now, some 26 hours later, the facts of this horrific tragedy are now apparent. Therefore, other than my comments, there will be no mention of Mr. Benoit tonight.

"On the contrary," McMahon continued, "tonight's [Tuesday's] show will be dedicated to everyone who has been affected by this terrible incident. This evening marks the first step of the healing process. Tonight, the WWE performers will do what they do better than anyone else in the world -- entertain you."

The discovery of steroids in the Benoit home also brought back unpleasant memories for McMahon of a scandal in the early 1990s that saw McMahon go on trial in federal court, accused of distributing steroids to his wrestlers.

McMahon was acquitted of all charges, although he admitted to taking steroids himself in the 1980s. Since the trial, the WWE has maintained a strict zero-tolerance policy toward all performance-enhancing drugs.

Benoit Trained at Hart Family's 'Dungeon' in Calgary

Known alternately as "The Canadian Crippler" and "The Rabid Wolverine," Benoit (pronounced ben-WAH) was born in Montreal in 1967. He moved to the Edmonton area with his family at age 12 and later attended Archbishop O'Leary High School. An autographed picture of a young and well-muscled Benoit still sits in a hall display case there.

"He was a very nice young man with a very strong vision," Vicki O'Neill, who taught Benoit Grade 11 English, told the Edmonton Journal. "He knew what he wanted to do even then. Even in junior high, he wanted to go into wrestling. He fulfilled his dreams."

In 1985, Benoit got into his rusty car with $20 in his pocket and drove south to Stampede Wrestling in Calgary to train with Canada's legendary Hart family at their now-famous"Dungeon" training center.

He wrestled in Japan from 1989 to 1994 as The Pegasus Kid before making his American wrestling debut in the then-independent ECW. Since then, Benoit worked for North America's two largest wrestling promotions, the WWE and its now-defunct arch-rival, World Championship Wrestling.

It was during his tenure at Atlanta-based WCW in the late 1990s when Benoit met his future wife, Nancy, who managed several wrestlers and went by the stage name, "Woman."

At the time, Nancy's then-husband, Kevin Sullivan, drew up a script that had her and Benoit involved in a relationship as part of an ongoing storyline.

Soon after, the two became romantically involved in real life and married in 2000 (Benoit has two other children from a previous relationship, whose whereabouts were unknown at post time early Wednesday morning).

In 2000, Benoit moved from WCW, where he never won its heavyweight title, to the WWE, where he finally won it four years later -- ironically after McMahon's company bought out WCW in March 2001 (ECW went bankrupt two months earlier; the WWE resurrected the hardcore-wrestling brand in 2005).

A Fierce Pride in Benoit's Canadian Roots

Although Benoit and his family had lived in the Atlanta area for over a decade, he nonetheless maintained a fierce pride in his Alberta hometown. After winning the WWE heavyweight championship in April 2004, he returned to a hero's welcome during a WWE stop in Edmonton.

Then-mayor Bill Smith declared April 18 Chris Benoit Day in Edmonton as 300 fans cheered at City Hall. He later won his match in front of roughly 16,000 spectators at Rexall Place.

"It was overwhelming, just to hear the fans being so vocal and to feel that kind of support coming home," Benoit said at the time. "I've spent 18 years of my life dedicated to this industry. It's my passion. I love it. Coming home with the world championship means everything to me."

Benoit kept in touch with his O'Leary High School teacher O'Neill, the O'Leary teacher, over the years. She last heard from him five months ago, after he and his family moved into their Fayetteville home.

"Every time I talked to him, he was in good spirits," O'Neill said. "Chris went out of his way to make people feel good. He felt very strongly about growing up here. It meant a great deal to him when he came back here."

Where Does the WWE Go From Here?

All of this makes the circumstances surrounding Benoit's death and those of his wife and son all the more shocking. For the creative team at the WWE, the tragedy could not have struck at a worse time.

The company's current storyline about the fiery demise of "Mr. McMahon" had been weeks in the planning. Already controversial because it included a ten-bell salute to McMahon's TV character -- a longtime wrestling tradition reserved for mourning the real-life passing of wrestling stars -- the storyline went on despite the real-life death on June 15 of former WWE wrestler and stage manager "Sensational" Sherri Martell.

But the Benoit tragedy made it impossible for the WWE to continue with the storyline, and it was indeed halted. What will happen on WWE television next week? Stay tuned.

# # #

Volume II, Number 31
Copyright 2007, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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Monday, June 25, 2007

Now Playing: George W. Bush, Starring In 'Watergate II: The Sequel'

A Looming White House Clash With Congress Over Subpoenaed Documents -- and With the Courts Over Detention of 'Enemy Combatants' -- Makes Bush Look Increasingly Like Nixon, Only Worse


Former Attorney General John Ashcroft (center) speaks to reporters after meeting with the House Intelligence Committee last Thursday on the controversy regarding the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program, flanked by Representative Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), chairman of the committee (right) and Representative Peter Hoekstra (R-Michigan), the committee's ranking Republican. (Photo: Lauren Victoria Burke/AP)

By Skeeter Sanders

For any American who's over the age of 50 -- as this blogger is -- the mounting scandals engulfing the Bush administration over its abuses of executive power must by now conjure up some very unpleasant memories of another presidential administration that was mired in scandal while many over-50 Americans were in college.

That administration -- of President Richard M. Nixon -- ended in 1974 with Nixon's resignation in disgrace in the face of what was up to now the worst political and governmental crisis in U.S. history. That crisis was brought about by a scandal now known simply by a single word -- Watergate.

Writing in this space 18 months ago, this blogger wrote that never in a million years would I have thought that after Richard Nixon, we would ever again have a president in the White House during my lifetime more contemptuous of the constitutional right of Americans to disagree with his policies without fear of having their rights violated.

Remembering Nixon's Abuses of Power

Confronted with massive protests against the Vietnam War in 1970, Nixon ordered a massive police crackdown on anti-war demonstrators in the nation's capital, I wrote in January 2006. Thousands were rounded up and arrested in the May Day protests that year. An angry Nixon later approved a plan for greatly expanding domestic intelligence-gathering on anti-war activists by the FBI, CIA and other agencies -- without court orders.

That this violated the Constitution was made crystal clear when the Supreme Court declared unanimously in 1972 that warrantless wiretaps and other electronic surveillance by the Nixon administration for national security purposes were an impermissible breach of the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.

The justices handed down their ruling in United States v. Plamondon (Listed formally in the high court's archives as United States v. United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, et al.) just two days after the infamous Watergate break-in that ultimately led to Nixon's downfall.

Nixon's obsession with silencing his political opponents -- particularly over the Vietnam War -- ultimately prompted those who worked for him to resort to outright criminality, including the break-in of the Democratic Party's national headquarters at Washington's Watergate complex in 1972.

The rest, as they say, is history. Indeed, these and other abuses of executive power by Nixon were cited in the second of the three articles of impeachment handed up in Congress against Nixon in 1974. After Nixon's subsequent resignation, I came away with the firm expectation that we would never again have a president who would abuse his authority as recklessly as Nixon did.

Bush Proving to be More Reckless Than Nixon

But three decades later, I've been proven wrong -- in spades. In George W. Bush, not only do we have another president who is abusing his powers and endangering Americans' constitutional rights, but he's doing it with an imperious arrogance that goes far beyond anything that Nixon did. An arrogance that is coming dangerously close to Mussolini-style fascism.

After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, Bush ordered the super-secret National Security Agency to initiate monitoring of Americans' international telephone calls, whether originating in the U.S. or originating abroad. And like Nixon before him, Bush did not seek prior court orders.

This is in clear violation of both the Supreme Court's ruling in the Plamondon case and the law it spawned -- the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), passed by Congress in 1978 in response to the widespread abuses by the nation's intelligence community on American citizens during the Nixon era.

Now It Can Be Told: Ex-AG Ashcroft Opposed Wiretaps Without Warrants

Now, we've learned that in sharp contrast to Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell, who approved and implemented Nixon's warrantless surveillance program, Bush's first attorney general, John Ashcroft, challenged the legality of his boss' warrantless eavesdropping policies and refused to give them his approval.

According to Representative Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Ashcroft testified in a closed-door session of his committee that he sharply questioned the legality of the highly controversial NSA surveillance under the FISA law, which requires the White House to obtain warrant authorization for such surveillance by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

"It is very apparent to us that there was robust and enormous debate within the administration about the legal basis for the president's surveillance program," said Reyes.

Both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees are examining the role of Ashcroft's successor, Alberto Gonzales, in the warrantless surveillance. In public testimony before the committees, former Deputy Attorney General James Comey revealed that Gonzales, then the White House counsel, tried to pressure him and a then-critically-ill Ashcroft to certify the legality of the wiretapping program.

Comey and Ashcroft, who was in intensive care during Gonzales' 2004 hospital visit, both refused (Ashcroft later announced that he would not stay on as attorney general in a second Bush term).

Watergate Redux: Is Another White-House-Congress Standoff Over Subpoenaed Materials Looming?

If Bush's Nixon-like warrantless surveillance program wasn't bad enough, it now appears that he's girding for a showdown with Congress over White House documents over the surveillance -- just as Nixon fought Congress over the now-infamous Watergate tapes that exposed his cover-up of the Watergate break-in.

The Senate Judiciary Committee authorized — but has not yet issued — subpoenas to Gonzales and to the custodian of records at the Executive Office of the President for all administration documents on the legality of the program.

By a vote of 13 to 3, the panel approved giving the committee chairman, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), authority to issue the subpoenas -- with Republican Senators Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Chuck Grassley of Iowa voting with the majority Democrats.

The Bush White House -- like the Nixon White House more than 30 years earlier in the Watergate investigation -- made clear that it would invoke executive privilege and not comply with the subpoenas.

"It's important for Congress to understand that the information the committee is requesting is highly classified and not information we can make available," said Bush spokesman Tony Fratto. "Also important is for Congress to respect our need to ensure that internal executive branch deliberations are confidential."

One can only wonder what the documents that Congress is seeking -- and the White House is determined to keep secret -- contain about the NSA surveillance. Could they be as fatal to Bush as the Watergate tapes were to Nixon?

Congressional Democrats are insisting that the Ashcroft hospital story appears to contradict Gonzales' earlier sworn congressional testimony that there had been no significant disagreement within the administration over the program. Gonzales has stood by his testimony.

For his part, Ashcroft made it clear that he wants "to do everything I can to make sure that the framework we have for defeating terror, defending the liberty and security of the United States in the context of our Constitution, that that capacity remains intact and is functioning properly."

Conservative Court Also Rebukes Bush -- On Detention of 'Enemy Combatants'

Another front in the controversy over Bush's abuse of power re-ignited two weeks ago when a divided panel from a conservative federal appeals court delivered a harsh rebuke to the administration's anti-terrorism strategy, ruling that legal U.S. resident aliens -- as well as U.S. citizens -- cannot be locked up indefinitely as "enemy combatants" without being charged.

The three-judge panel of the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia ruled that the government must either charge Ali al-Marri, a legal U.S. resident and the only suspected enemy combatant on American soil, or release him from military custody.

The federal Military Commissions Act doesn't strip al-Marri of his constitutional right to challenge his accusers in court, the judges found in a 2-1 decision.

Indefinite Detention of Civilians on U.S. Soil Unconstitutional

"Put simply, the Constitution does not allow the President to order the military to seize civilians residing within the United States and then detain them indefinitely without criminal process, and this is so even if he calls them 'enemy combatants,'" the court said.

Such detention "would have disastrous consequences for the Constitution — and the country," Judge Diana G. Motz wrote in the majority opinion.

The Bush administration's attorneys had urged the federal appeals panel to dismiss al-Marri's challenge, arguing that the Military Commissions Act stripped the courts of jurisdiction to hear cases of detainees who are declared enemy combatants. They contended that Congress and the Supreme Court have given the president the authority to fight terrorism and prevent additional attacks on the nation.

The court rejected that argument, ruling that the act doesn't apply to al-Marri, who wasn't captured outside the U.S., detained at Guantanamo Bay or in another country, and who has not received a combatant status review tribunal.

"The MCA was not intended to, and does not apply to U.S. resident aliens like al-Marri, who have legally entered the country and are seized while legally residing in, the United States," the court said.

The government intends to ask the full Fourth Circuit --the most conservative of the11 U.S. Curcuit Courts of Appeal -- to hear the case, Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said.

"The president has made clear that he intends to use all available tools at his disposal to protect Americans from further al-Qaida attack, including the capture and detention of al-Qaida agents who enter our borders," Boyd said in a statement.

Al-Marri has been held in solitary confinement at the Navy prison in Charleston, South Carolina for four years. The Qatar native, a legal resident of the U.S. since 1994, has been detained since his December 2001 arrest at his home in Peoria, Ill., where he moved with his wife and five children a day before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to study for a Master's degree at Bradley University.

Latest Court Setback for Bush in 'War on Terror'

The decision is the latest in a series of court rulings against the Bush administration's anti-terrorism program. Last August, a federal judge in Detroit said the government's domestic spying program violated constitutional rights to free speech and privacy and the constitutional separation of powers. Five months later, the White House announced it would allow judicial review by the FISA Court of the spying program run by the National Security Agency.

A year ago, the Supreme Court threw out Bush's system of military trials for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, saying he had exceeded his authority and was in violation of international treaties. The Republican-led Congress then pushed through legislation authorizing war-crime trials for the detainees and denying them access to civilian courts.

But last week, military judges barred the Pentagon from prosecuting two of the Guantanamo detainees because the government had failed to identify them as "unlawful" enemy combatants, as required by Congress. The decisions were a blow to efforts to begin prosecuting dozens of detainees the government regards as the nation's most dangerous terrorism suspects.

When Will Bush Finally Get the Message That He's Not Above the Law?

Yet despite what is becoming a series of constitutional reality checks being imposed on the White House,the Bush administration remains stubborn in its belief that it's above the supreme law of the land -- which is what the Constitution is (Article VI, Section 2) -- in its pursuit of the "War on Terror."

It clearly is not -- and the time has long come to force this White House to live within the law. If it still refuses to do so,then this administration must be removed from power through the impeachment process.

# # #

Volume II, Number 30
Copyright 2007, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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