Saturday, July 07, 2007

A Profile in Cowardice

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
July 8, 2007

THERE was never any question that President Bush would grant amnesty to Scooter Libby, the man who knows too much about the lies told to sell the war in Iraq. The only questions were when, and how, Mr. Bush would buy Mr. Libby’s silence. Now we have the answers, and they’re at least as incriminating as the act itself. They reveal the continued ferocity of a White House cover-up and expose the true character of a commander in chief whose tough-guy shtick can no longer camouflage his fundamental cowardice.

The timing of the president’s Libby intervention was a surprise. Many assumed he would mimic the sleazy 11th-hour examples of most recent vintage: his father’s pardon of six Iran-contra defendants who might have dragged him into that scandal, and Bill Clinton’s pardon of the tax fugitive Marc Rich, the former husband of a major campaign contributor and the former client of none other than the ubiquitous Mr. Libby.

But the ever-impetuous current President Bush acted 18 months before his scheduled eviction from the White House. Even more surprising, he did so when the Titanic that is his presidency had just hit two fresh icebergs, the demise of the immigration bill and the growing revolt of Republican senators against his strategy in Iraq.

That Mr. Bush, already suffering historically low approval ratings, would invite another hit has been attributed in Washington to his desire to placate what remains of his base. By this logic, he had nothing left to lose. He didn’t care if he looked like an utter hypocrite, giving his crony a freer ride than Paris Hilton and violating the white-collar sentencing guidelines set by his own administration. He had to throw a bone to the last grumpy old white guys watching Bill O’Reilly in a bunker.

But if those die-hards haven’t deserted him by now, why would Mr. Libby’s incarceration be the final straw? They certainly weren’t whipped into a frenzy by coverage on Fox News, which tended to minimize the leak case as a non-event. Mr. Libby, faceless and voiceless to most Americans, is no Ollie North, and he provoked no right-wing firestorm akin to the uproars over Terri Schiavo, Harriet Miers or “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.

The only people clamoring for Mr. Libby’s freedom were the pundits who still believe that Saddam secured uranium in Africa and who still hope that any exoneration of Mr. Libby might make them look less like dupes for aiding and abetting the hyped case for war. That select group is not the Republican base so much as a roster of the past, present and future holders of quasi-academic titles at neocon think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute.

What this crowd never understood is that Mr. Bush’s highest priority is always to protect himself. So he stiffed them too. Had the president wanted to placate the Weekly Standard crowd, he would have given Mr. Libby a full pardon. That he served up a commutation instead is revealing of just how worried the president is about the beans Mr. Libby could spill about his and Dick Cheney’s use of prewar intelligence.

Valerie Wilson still has a civil suit pending. The Democratic inquisitor in the House, Henry Waxman, still has the uranium hoax underlying this case at the top of his agenda as an active investigation. A commutation puts up more roadblocks by keeping Mr. Libby’s appeal of his conviction alive and his Fifth Amendment rights intact. He can’t testify without risking self-incrimination. Meanwhile, we are asked to believe that he has paid his remaining $250,000 debt to society independently of his private $5 million “legal defense fund.”

The president’s presentation of the commutation is more revealing still. Had Mr. Bush really believed he was doing the right and honorable thing, he would not have commuted Mr. Libby’s jail sentence by press release just before the July Fourth holiday without consulting Justice Department lawyers. That’s the behavior of an accountant cooking the books in the dead of night, not the proud act of a patriot standing on principle.

When the furor followed Mr. Bush from Kennebunkport to Washington despite his efforts to duck it, he further underlined his embarrassment by taking his only few questions on the subject during a photo op at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. You know this president is up to no good whenever he hides behind the troops. This instance was particularly shameful, since Mr. Bush also used the occasion to trivialize the scandalous maltreatment of Walter Reed patients on his watch as merely “some bureaucratic red-tape issues.”

Asked last week to explain the president’s poll numbers, Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center told NBC News that “when we ask people to summon up one word that comes to mind” to describe Mr. Bush, it’s “incompetence.” But cowardice, the character trait so evident in his furtive handling of the Libby commutation, is as important to understanding Mr. Bush’s cratered presidency as incompetence, cronyism and hubris.

Even The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, a consistent Bush and Libby defender, had to take notice. Furious that the president had not given Mr. Libby a full pardon (at least not yet), The Journal called the Bush commutation statement a “profile in non-courage.”

What it did not recognize, or chose not to recognize, is that this non-courage, to use The Journal’s euphemism, has been this president’s stock in trade, far exceeding the “wimp factor” that Newsweek once attributed to his father. The younger Mr. Bush’s cowardice is arguably more responsible for the calamities of his leadership than anything else.

People don’t change. Mr. Bush’s failure to have the courage of his own convictions was apparent early in his history, when he professed support for the Vietnam War yet kept himself out of harm’s way when he had the chance to serve in it. In the White House, he has often repeated the feckless pattern that he set back then and reaffirmed last week in his hide-and-seek bestowing of the Libby commutation.

The first fight he conspicuously ran away from as president was in August 2001. Aspiring to halt federal underwriting of embryonic stem-cell research, he didn’t stand up and say so but instead unveiled a bogus “compromise” that promised continued federal research on 60 existing stem-cell lines. Only later would we learn that all but 11 of them did not exist. When Mr. Bush wanted to endorse a constitutional amendment to “protect” marriage, he again cowered. A planned 2006 Rose Garden announcement to a crowd of religious-right supporters was abruptly moved from the sunlight into a shadowy auditorium away from the White House.

Nowhere is this president’s non-courage more evident than in the “signing statements” The Boston Globe exposed last year. As Charlie Savage reported, Mr. Bush “quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office.” Rather than veto them in public view, he signed them, waited until after the press and lawmakers left the White House, and then filed statements in the Federal Register asserting that he would ignore laws he (not the courts) judged unconstitutional. This was the extralegal trick Mr. Bush used to bypass the ban on torture. It allowed him to make a coward’s escape from the moral (and legal) responsibility of arguing for so radical a break with American practice.

In the end, it was also this president’s profile in non-courage that greased the skids for the Iraq fiasco. If Mr. Bush had had the guts to put America on a true wartime footing by appealing to his fellow citizens for sacrifice, possibly even a draft if required, then he might have had at least a chance of amassing the resources needed to secure Iraq after we invaded it.

But he never backed up the rhetoric of war with the stand-up action needed to prosecute the war. Instead he relied on fomenting fear, as typified by the false uranium claims whose genesis has been covered up by Mr. Libby’s obstructions of justice. Mr. Bush’s cowardly abdication of the tough responsibilities of wartime leadership ratified Donald Rumsfeld’s decision to go into Iraq with the army he had, ensuring our defeat.

Never underestimate the power of the unconscious. Not the least of the revelatory aspects of Mr. Bush’s commutation is that he picked the fourth anniversary of “Bring ’em on” to hand it down. It was on July 2, 2003, that the president responded to the continued violence in Iraq, two months after “Mission Accomplished,” by taunting those who want “to harm American troops.” Mr. Bush assured the world that “we’ve got the force necessary to deal with the security situation.” The “surge” notwithstanding, we still don’t have the force necessary four years later, because the president never did summon the courage, even as disaster loomed, to back up his own convictions by going to the mat to secure that force.

No one can stop Mr. Bush from freeing a pathetic little fall guy like Scooter Libby. But only those who paid the ultimate price for the avoidable bungling of Iraq have the moral authority to pardon Mr. Bush.

Phantom at the Opera

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
July 8, 2007


Here are five things you might not know about John Edwards:

¶He never saw a single episode of “The Sopranos.”

¶He doesn’t like the opera, but his favorite musical is “Phantom of the Opera.”

¶His first date with Elizabeth was dancing at the Holiday Inn in Durham or Chapel Hill — he can’t remember which — sometime after which she made an ironclad rule that politicians should never dance.

¶He became a lawyer because as a kid he loved watching “Perry Mason,” “The Defenders” and “The Fugitive.” (Richard Kimble really needed a lawyer.)

¶His top sex symbol is a fellow North Carolinian, Andie MacDowell.

John Edwards has not written soulful poetry, like his old running mate John Kerry or his current rivals Barack Obama and Dennis Kucinich. And he says that “if I have a Saturday off, I’m not going to the ballet.”

His approach to culture tends to be geographic — lots of Southerners, especially North Carolinians — and thematic, embracing subjects that dovetail nicely with the campaign trope of Two Americas.

After Mr. Edwards told George Stephanopoulos that “The Trial of Socrates” by I. F. Stone was “a wonderful book,” Bob Novak jumped on him, claiming that he had chosen a book by a “radical” journalist “identified as a covert Soviet agent.”

I tell the Democrat that Poppy Bush drolly told the story about his ’64 Texas Senate race, when a John Birch Society pamphlet suggested that Barbara Bush’s father, the president of McCall Publishing, put out a Communist manifesto called Redbook.

He laughs and says of Bob Novak, “Wait till he finds out I also like Langston Hughes.”

“There was a really beautiful piece about African-Americans and rivers,” Mr. Edwards says. “And another one that starts something like, ‘My old man is a white old man, my mother’s black.’ I thought it was really well done.” Those are from Hughes’s poems “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Cross.”

Though he’s often compared to a Southern lawyer out of John Grisham, and he says he used to “blow through” Grisham novels, Mr. Edwards doesn’t read him much anymore. The literary character he is “inspired” to identify with is, of course, Atticus Finch.

He likes Kaye Gibbons’s novel “A Virtuous Woman.” “She’s from North Carolina,” he says. And he enjoyed “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier, another North Carolinian. “That was set in North Carolina,” he says. Right now he’s reading nonfiction, “The Race Beat,” by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, a chronicle of civil rights press coverage in the South.

He says the paintings in his house are by Southern artists, including North Carolinians named Joe Cave and James Kerr.

Asked about his Hollywood dream girl, natch, she’s a North Carolinian. “She’s in those skin commercials,” he says. “She was in ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral.’ ” And his favorite actress is Glenn Close, who had to dub Andie MacDowell’s lines in her first big part, “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan,” because her Southern accent was so thick.

Fave actors? Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. (Don’t tell Bob Novak.)

He doesn’t watch much TV, he says, except when his son Jack gets him to watch “Jimmy Neutron,” or Elizabeth gets him to watch “Boston Legal” and “Brothers & Sisters” (a show he likes).

He loves Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who once defended the right of rich pols like him to talk about poor people. He says he’s seen his fellow Southern lawyer Fred Thompson on “Law & Order” a time or two when flipping channels to get to sports. “I’m a huge Tar Heels fan,” he says. “I know way too much about basketball and football.”

Movies? “ ‘Shawshank Redemption,’ ” he says. “I loved ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ ‘Schindler’s List.’ And on a much lighter note, ‘Old School.’ ”

He may look like Bobby Sherman, but as a teen he liked the Allman Brothers, the Doors and the Stones. Now he plays U2, Springsteen and Dave Matthews on his iPod, “mostly compilations.” He says he’s not particularly fond of Celine Dion, whose “You and I” is Hillary’s insipid jingle.

Recalling his first date with Elizabeth, in law school, he says: “I was such a classy guy, I took her to the Holiday Inn to dance. It was loud. Elizabeth made fun of me for weeks for taking her there. Elizabeth thinks the two rules you always use in politics are: Don’t dance. And don’t wear hats.”

Especially not if you’ve got such a fabulous haircut to show off.

Live Bad, Go Green

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
July 8, 2007

Over dinner with friends in London the other night, the conversation drifted to global warming and whether anything was really being done to reverse it. One guest, Sameh El-Shahat, a furniture designer, heaped particular scorn on programs that enable people to offset their excessive carbon emissions by funding green projects elsewhere. “Who really checks that it’s being done?” he asked. And how much difference does it really make?

But then he hit on an ingenious idea: If people really want to generate money to plant trees or finance green power, why not have them offset their real sins, not just their carbon excesses? We started to play with his idea: Imagine if you could offset the whole Ten Commandments.

No, really, think about it. Imagine if there were a Web site — I’d call it — where every time you thought you had violated one of the Ten Commandments, or you wanted to violate one of them but did not want to feel guilty about it, you could buy carbon credits to offset your sins.

The motto of Britain’s Conservative Party today is “Vote Blue, Go Green.” GreenSinai’s motto could be: “Live Bad, Go Green.” That would generate some income.

Here’s how it would work: One day, you’re out in the backyard mowing the lawn and suddenly you covet your neighbor’s wife. Hey, it happens — that’s why “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” is one of the Ten Commandments. No problem. You just go to and buy 100 trees in the Amazon or fund a project to capture methane from cow dung in India — and, presto, you’re free and clear.

Obviously there would be a sliding scale. Taking God’s name in vain or erecting an idol might cost you only a few solar water heaters for a Chinese village, whereas bearing false witness or stealing would set you back a pilot sugar ethanol plant in Louisiana.

As for adultery, well, I think that’s where the big money could be made. My guess is that we could achieve a carbon-neutral world by 2020 if we just set up a system for people to offset their adultery by reversing deforestation of tropical rain forests or funding mega wind and solar power systems in China and India.

O.K., O.K., more seriously, I raise this issue of carbon offsets because they’re symptomatic of the larger problem we face in confronting climate change: everyone wants it to happen, but without pain or sacrifice. On balance, I think carbon-offsetting is a good thing — my family has purchased offsets — if for no other reason than it directs resources toward clean technologies that might not have been funded and, therefore, moves us down the innovation curve faster.

But the danger, argues Michael Sandel, Harvard’s noted political philosopher, “is that carbon offsets will become, at least for some, a painless mechanism to buy our way out of the more fundamental changes in habits, attitudes and way of life that are actually required to address the climate problem.”

“If someone drives a Hummer and buys carbon offsets to salve his conscience, that is better than driving the Hummer and doing nothing,” added Mr. Sandel, author of “The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering.” “But it would be even better to trade in the Hummer for a hybrid. The risk is that carbon offsets will make Hummers seem respectable rather than irresponsible, and distract us, as a nation, from harder, bigger changes in our energy policy.”

People often refer to the current climate buzz as “a green revolution,” but the very term revolution suggests a fundamental break with past habits, attitudes and public policies. Yet, when you suggest a carbon tax or a higher gasoline tax — initiatives that would redirect resources and change habits at the scale actually needed to impact global warming — what is the first thing you hear in Congress? “Impossible — you can’t use the T-word.”

A revolution without sacrifice where everyone is a winner? There’s no such thing.

Katherine Ellison wrote a wonderful piece on this topic for in which she quoted Stephen Schneider, the Stanford University climatologist, as saying: “Volunteerism doesn’t work. It’s about as effective as voluntary speed limits. No cops, no judges: road carnage. No rules, no fines: greenhouse gases. We’re going to triple or quadruple the CO2 in the atmosphere with no policy. I don’t believe offsets are just a distraction. But we’ll have failed if that’s all we do.”

There’s a saying at the Pentagon that “a vision without resources is a hallucination.” For my money, the green revolution today is still a hallucination.

A Quiet Escape on the Rivers, and an Endangered Species

This Land
The New York Times
July 8, 2007


The boat moves through the murky river waters while swallow-tailed kites stir the evening sky and a little blue heron poses beside the cypress-lined shore, as if for Audubon. But these natural wonders only distract from the expedition’s purpose, which is to seek out a specific endangered species.

Shhh. There’s one now.

“River shack!” Chris Crolley, the boat captain, says, his tone a mix of awe and disgust. “There you go.”

His vessel gently sidles up to the specimen: a kind of raft made of planks and 55-gallon drums, some plastic, some rusting metal, and featuring two padlocked tool sheds made of plywood. The few homey touches include a foot-tall plastic picket fence, a small grill, a couple of buckets that might serve as toilets, and a ceramic frog or two. Keeping it moored is a long pole bolted to an ancient cypress.

Mr. Crolley and others on his bobbing boat examine the unoccupied structure the way a clutch of botanists might study an unusual plant. They marvel at both the cheap construction — “This is on the lower end of nice,” someone says — and the audacity of its appearance here on the scenic, public Little Pee Dee River, a few miles from the small town of Hemingway.

But this particular shack defies easy classification because it has not one but two sheds. Mr. Crolley, 36, so familiar with these waters that he is sometimes called Aquaman, pauses in thought before looking up from under his floppy hat and giving name to the subspecies before him. “Duplex,” he says triumphantly.

For who knows how long, people have plopped these river shacks into watery coves and curves along the South Carolina coast. They permanently anchor their shacks miles from the nearest landing and use them to fish, hunt or just get off the grid for a while. Some contraptions are so modest that to call them shacks is too kind, while others are so well appointed that they all but cry out for granite countertops and potpourri.

It all sounds so innocent, so idyllic — so American, in a Huck Finn kind of way. That is, until you consider that the river shack owners are essentially laying claim to public property without paying license fees, taxes or, in some cases, even respect. A few people use the river as their personal toilet; others abandon their shacks, leaving the structures to rot amid the natural splendor.

But environmentalists who see these shacks as an affront to the concept of resource management recently succeeded in lobbying for their extinction. This spring the state passed a law requiring owners to seek permits for the structures — recent surveys counted at least 170 on several rivers and Lake Marion — with the stipulation that in five years all shacks must be removed from the water.

The law has angered people like John Hilton, 21, a college student who has spent years building and refining a river shack on Lake Marion with a few friends. “There’s 90 55-gallon drums floating it,” he says. “It has a tin roof, screened-in porches, and is made with treated lumber.”

True, he says, he and his friends do not own land or water rights. And true, their river shack is analogous to some buddies plunking down a Home Depot shed on a public beach and calling it their own. “But I don’t see it fair to bring that concern up after all these years of them being legal,” he says.

The issue even posed a dilemma for Gov. Mark Sanford, who ultimately decided to allow the river shack bill to pass into law without his signature. While he supports land preservation, he explained in a letter to legislators, he wonders about increasing gentrification, and “the idea that someone could tie a bunch of 55-gallon drums together and stake out a house on the waterway is representative of what I would consider the magic of ‘old time South Carolina.’ ”

But Patrick Moore, a lawyer working for the Coastal Conservation League, which led the legislative fight against river shacks, sees no dilemma. “The idea that these shacks are some sort of entitlement of our natural heritage is, frankly, an insult to that very heritage,” he says.

Mr. Moore, 28, peers from under his own floppy hat as he sits in the back of Mr. Crolley’s 18-foot boat, now churning north in search of more specimens. Mr. Crolley is a naturalist whose company, Coastal Expeditions, explores and celebrates the South Carolina coast. He tends to call out the scientific classification for every animal and tree he sees, and, like Mr. Moore, he detests river shacks.

They come upon a cluster of river shacks with no one home, a kind of hamlet, really. Here is a cute white cottage on the water — literally. And here is a structure that appears to be the Versailles of river shacks, with electric lights, an air conditioner, a stainless steel grill large enough to cook a whole pig, a —

“Is that a satellite dish?” Mr. Crolley asks, incredulous. “Yes it is.”

The boat moves on, its passengers struggling with mixed feelings of outrage and envy. Soon an abandoned river shack appears on the horizon, and then another, and then another, victims of the swampy environment and neglect. All that is left of one are some Styrofoam pontoons, looking like faux ice floes. Another is flipped upside down, its only visitor the river, streaming through two broken windows.

No human comment is necessary. A flock of white ibises glides past. A jumping fish makes a splash. And a river in old time South Carolina carries on.

In a Corner of the Woods, Teenagers Escape From the Trials of Military Life

Our Towns
The New York Times
July 8, 2007


“I don’t want this to sound rude,” said Alicia Jade Geurin, who is 13. Rude was the last word that came to mind. “But civilian kids just don’t understand. You say your dad’s away, and they say, ‘Oh, that’s O.K.’ They think it’s like being away for a week on a business trip. That’s what’s so cool about this camp. You don’t have to say a word, and everyone still understands how you feel.”

At Camp Deer Run in the foothills of the Shawangunk Mountains last week, the 59 teenage campers, all with parents in the military, could take on the Eagle’s Nest ropes challenge course, scale the rock climbing wall, wander down by Plattekill Creek.

They could also listen to a soldier just back from Iraq describe what it was like there and hear his family talk about the impact of the deployment on them. Along with other fare (excellent paella with kosher chicken the other day), they could sample military M.R.E.’s. They could literally share war stories or, their common ground established from the day they arrived, use the time to get away from it all.

The camp sessions, known as Operation Purple, last one or two weeks and are organized by the National Military Family Association. This was one of the camps held at 34 locations in 26 states, serving close to 4,000 children for free across all the military branches. But the really striking number is a different one: 155,000. That’s about how many children have a parent serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to the association. That’s an awful lot of kids under an awful lot of stress.

“One of the favorite comments I heard was from a 15-year-old boy who said, ‘People don’t realize that we serve too,’ ” said Kuuipo Ordway, a behavioral health care consultant for the camps. Which is not to suggest a cadre of mopey kids pining for distant parents. Instead, a visitor gets two contradictory impressions: how unnaturally mature and self-sufficient some of them are, and how much of a quiet burden others seem to carry.

In the first category, you could put Alicia, who lives at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey and whose dad recently returned from a tour with the military police in Afghanistan. With the élan of a gung-ho cadet, she seems on a different planet from many of her pampered peers in the MySpace/iPod/Abercrombie generation.

“Two parents have responsibilities, and if one isn’t there, whatever they can’t do, you have to do,” she said matter-of-factly. “But if you know you don’t have Mommy around to hug every night, or Daddy, you learn to be self-sufficient. I know I can go anywhere, introduce myself, I’m not going to be someone sitting in the corner. I love the military life. I love it.” She wants to be a marine.

But for others the anxiety, even in the green repose of the woods, is almost palpable. You can hear it in the questions they ask of visiting service personnel from Iraq, some sort of playful (How big are the spiders? How often do you get to wash your socks?), some as playful as a hand grenade (Have you ever killed anyone? What is it like when a bomb goes off? Are you really sorry when you miss your son’s soccer game?).

For those with a parent in Iraq, like Elizabeth and James Darney of Virginia and Chris Seger of Kingston, the stress is particularly acute. So ask Elizabeth about a military career, and she says no, thanks. Too hard on the family. Chris has it all figured out: Study accounting at Pace University and open a pizzeria.

A lot of the challenges addressed by Operation Purple seem like the problems of modern life, but amplified: divorces and blended families on top of deployments abroad. But Ms. Ordway, the psychologist, says this moment is particularly tough on military kids. Deployments are longer and less certain, and there is a nonstop din of gruesome war coverage. There are more older soldiers, with older kids at more complicated times in their lives, and many parents are returning with grievous injuries or, increasingly, with post-traumatic stress disorder.

It’s not likely that a week or two in the woods will solve all that, but if it shows kids there are others in the same boat, if they get to ask questions they can’t ask anyplace else, maybe that’s a start.

Up on the ropes course, snug in a harness, was Samantha Santiago, Alicia’s pal. Over the past two years or so, her grandmother died of cancer, her mother served in Germany for more than a year as a nurse, and her parents divorced after her mother’s return. Samantha, who wants to join the Navy, clambered along ropes ending at a platform 35 feet above the ground. From there, the goal was to end the exercise with “the leap of faith,” jumping from the platform toward a bell hanging from the cable.

With the other kids hollering encouragement from below, she hesitated. Then she jumped, and for a fleeting moment, Samantha Santiago flew.


A Board That Knows Two Words: No Sale

Fair Game
The New York Times
July 8, 2007

IT is the kind of takeover bid that shareholders dream of, with a suitor offering a healthy premium and the potential for postmerger success. So why is the target’s board dead set against it?

The bid in question is a nearly $400 million offer that AirTran Holdings, the discount airline with headquarters in Orlando, Fla., is making for the Midwest Air Group, based near Milwaukee. While Midwest’s stockholders are jumping up and down for the deal, its directors have staunchly rejected it. As a result, some Midwest shareholders wonder whether the board is performing its duty to the company’s owners or acting instead to benefit a management with whom it has long been associated.

Timothy E. Hoeksema has been chief executive of Midwest since 1983 and is also chairman of its board.

Some shareholders say their concerns begin with the fact that the Midwest directors refused for six months even to meet with officials of AirTran to hear their proposal. The board has not appointed a special committee to look at the bid. The company also has a poison pill in place to thwart a takeover.

“I don’t think management wants to sell the company at any price to anyone and I think the board has been supporting management,” said Joe Leonard, chief executive and chairman of AirTran. “It has been extremely unusual for the board not to hear what we have to say. We have said we were willing to pay for additional value if they could show that the value is there.”

Last month, at Midwest’s annual meeting, its shareholders rose up, booting out the three Midwest directors up for re-election and replacing them with AirTran’s nominees. Only then did Midwest’s directors agree to sit down with AirTran officials. That meeting will be on July 16.

AirTran said it first approached Midwest with a merger proposal more than four years ago. Rebuffed, it returned in 2005, and again last fall. Confronted with opposition from Midwest’s board, AirTran has raised the price on its most recent bid three times. The offer now stands at $9 in cash and 0.5842 shares of AirTran stock, equal to $15.43 at Friday’s close.

Midwest’s shares closed last week at $14.93. The AirTran deal reflects a 65 percent premium to Midwest’s stock price the day before last fall’s offer was publicized; it is set to expire on Aug. 10.

Before the AirTran offer came along, Midwest’s stock languished in the single digits, reflecting a string of losses at the company. Midwest was not alone in its difficulties — most airlines have shown losses in recent years. The company turned a $5.4 million profit in 2006.

AirTran says the merger would result in increased departures for the combined airline, an expansion of Midwest’s hubs and new markets. It would also bring 1,100 new jobs to Milwaukee, Midwest’s main hub.

But Midwest says the merger is not in the best interests of the company’s shareholders or the employees because it does not reflect the value of a strategic plan recently put in place by Midwest’s management.

“The board spent a lot of time and resources evaluating the AirTran offer and consistently concluded that it underrepresents the long-term value of the company,” said Carol N. Skornicka, Midwest’s general counsel and secretary. “The offer was so substantially inadequate the board did not engage in negotiations.” Ms. Skornicka declined to make Midwest directors available for interviews.

But Mr. Leonard said he is not persuaded that the Midwest board has responded properly to the offer. “In a normal merger-and-acquisition transaction, the board would appoint a special committee of independent directors,” he said. “They referred it to the governance committee. It has nothing to do with M. & A., but it does have as chairman Dave Treitel, who has been advising the company for a number of years.”

Mr. Treitel, a Midwest director since 1984, is chief executive of Simat Helliesen & Eicher, an aviation consulting firm that has worked for Midwest in recent years.

Midwest shareholders certainly seem fed up with the nine-member board. More than two-thirds of the votes at the annual meeting were cast against the Midwest directors who were up for re-election. With the exception of a new board member in 2006, there had not been a board change at Midwest since 1997. The new directors nominated by AirTran are not affiliated with it.

More Midwest directors might have lost their seats in the recent election if not for the fact that membership on the company’s board is staggered, meaning that only a few directors stand for election each year. In general, shareholders do not like the staggered terms for directors because that makes it difficult to oust an entire board that is seen as not performing.

Midwest’s outside shareholders have also resoundingly supported a tender offer for the company’s stock that AirTran started earlier this year. Almost two-thirds of the shares held by outside investors have been tendered.

Still, regardless of the shareholders’ support for the offer, a merger cannot happen without the board’s approval, Ms. Skornicka said. “Under Wisconsin law a board can consider other stakeholders, it can consider the interests of customers as well as employees,” she said. “While those things are difficult to quantify, they can impact the decision of the board.”

By agreeing to hear the AirTran proposal later this month, Midwest’s directors are by no means expressing an interest in negotiating, she said.

Mr. Hoeksema is undoubtedly less than eager to sell the company because he might lose his job as chief executive, a post that earned him $1.25 million in 2006. Mr. Hoeksema would also not receive an enormous windfall if Midwest changed hands — possibly giving him more of an incentive to hang on to his job so he can keep drawing a paycheck.

Documents show that if a change in control had occurred last December, Mr. Hoeksema would have received $2.6 million from a key executive employment agreement. Based on current prices, he would also get roughly $3.6 million when options and restricted stock vested as a result of a deal done around $15 a share. Not bad, but it is a far cry from the tens of millions and more that many other chief executives have received when their companies were sold.

Ms. Skornicka said Mr. Hoeksema’s relatively small payout in a merger reflected the modest compensation paid by the company in line with its industry and size. She said the payout played no role in the board’s response to the deal.

It will be interesting to see how Midwest’s newly configured board responds to AirTran’s offer.

“The shareholders who tendered their shares are saying, ‘I want you, the Midwest board, to remove the obstacles so I can get my money,’ ” Mr. Leonard said. “The shareholders didn’t vote out of ignorance. They’ve seen our plan, they’ve seen the Midwest plan and they knew what they were voting for when they tendered their shares.”

Certainly Midwest’s shareholders have spoken, and plainly. Now it becomes a matter of whether the Midwest board is listening.

Williams Resumes Confident Gait of a Champion

Sports of The Times
July 8, 2007


The shot was a winner against most others, maybe all. On the run, Marion Bartoli bent for a two-fisted forehand, lifted it off the grass and up the line, a floater that drifted high above the net and beyond her opponent, seemingly destined to efficiently land just inside the service line.

The opponent was Venus Williams, however. Six-foot-1, with a stride that instantly alters a grass-court point, draws the sun from behind the rolling clouds and over her side of the Wimbledon court.

Weight on her left foot, Williams half-turned, arched the racket across her body, reached high and gracefully flicked a backhand volley winner into the open court.

It was the point that set up an early second-set service break, let Bartoli — the French upstart, the Pierce Brosnan fan — realize that no James Bond rescue was forthcoming. Williams was in no compromising mood on this championship day, not after sputtering and surviving before reaching a level that could only be described as stunning.

Not after reaching the final in this first year of equal prize money for women here that she helped bring about two years ago, when she told a room full of Grand Slam tournament executives, “Close your eyes, imagine your daughter is being treated as less than an equal.”

In her Wimbledon-white hot pants, Williams rose higher and higher the past two weeks, seemed to become taller and swifter, outpacing her pedestrian seeding and midcareer crisis, transforming herself from the world’s 31st-ranked woman into, as Bartoli called her, “the world’s No. 1 player on grass.”

She always had the legs of a champion. Over the last few years, for reasons that could be explanation or excuse, only here has she perfected the look.

“It’s been a long road back,” she said after her 6-4, 6-1 victory Saturday cemented a fourth Wimbledon title and the trophy they happen to call the Venus Rosewater dish. It was the living Venus’s sixth Grand Slam title, 14th for the Williams family over all, tying a record held by Mrs. Sampras, mother of Pete, for most major titles produced by one womb.

“I can’t see a player that can beat her when she plays like this on grass,” the determined but under-equipped Bartoli said, citing the 120-plus mile-an-hour serves, including one that left her shaking her right wrist, in addition to her head.

It must be noted that on the Wimbledon grass is where Williams has won her only two Grand Slam titles in the last five-plus years, although losing four finals in 2002 and 2003 to her little sister Serena factors significantly into her record.

Venus was always the more studious and at times more sullen, wonderfully protective of Serena when Venus was on top, easy to root for when she was down. Anyone with two children and especially a younger one with that unmistakable make-way-for-me spirit and sense of entitlement had to wince at some of those encounters; only imagine what it would be like for the younger one to dominate the older one in front of the world.

The Williamses would tell you — as Venus and her father, Richard, reiterated yesterday — that the all-sister finals, regardless of the outcomes, were exclusively their dreams come true.

“I think that if Venus won one and Serena won 50 it would all be good because it all comes to the same home,” Richard Williams said after the match when asked if, when their final balls have been struck, he wouldn’t mind Venus pulling even in Grand Slam titles, having the sisters’ rivalry declared a draw. This mentality has always sounded implausible, even rehearsed, but what is it about the Williams story that could be defined as orthodox, by what others believed?

Some of us used to argue that the competition would eventually force more separation of the sisters. But there was Serena yesterday in the family box, Venus telling the Center Court crowd that she was motivated to win here by Serena’s out-of-the-blue victory at the Australian Open last winter, Serena fetching the dress Venus had left at their house nearby and wanted to wear to her post-match news conferences. The parental architects, Richard Williams and Oracene Price, have divorced. The sisters have had their injuries, their struggles, their dalliances with real life. There was a time not that long ago when the father seemed outside the circle but he was here these past two weeks, in classic form, typically insightful and inciting.

After she put a gimpy Serena out of the tournament, he gave Justine Henin the treatment he once saved for Martina Hingis, ridiculing her need for eye-contact support from her coach after almost every point.

Yesterday’s sermon was a condemnation of Wimbledon and England’s racial attitudes after a question meant to coax him into commentary on the significance of Venus’s victory 50 years after Althea Gibson became the first black player to win Wimbledon.

“Blacks are treated the same way as when she came along,” he said, chiefly noting the absence of blacks — perhaps his daughters — in the pre-Wimbledon promotional blitz.

Tactics aside, Richard Williams has been right about many things, first and foremost in the belief that he could grow tennis prodigies in Compton, Calif. Maybe there was some point to make about this, but there is a time and a place and Venus’s shining moment was not it.

We scold other tennis parents — Maria Sharapova’s father, Yuri, comes to mind — for their indelicate intrusions when their daughters are most capable of handling such matters on their own.

Venus is 27 now, having reached the status of mature young woman, full-blown Tour stateswoman and spokeswoman for its new partnership with Unesco to promote gender equity. She’s all grown up, with limbs meant to last, with a wingspan still capable of reaching new heights, ranking be damned.


Entertainers in Sports Are Grappling With Reality

Sports of The Times
July 8, 2007

The Samoan Bulldozer recently launched into an end-zone dance of sorts with a W.W.E. title belt of gaudy gold clenched in his teeth like a chew toy as he preened and flexed in the ring. With a quick glance of the crowd, you could see fans gyrate and mug along with him.

“We’re entertainers,” Vince McMahon, World Wrestling Entertainment’s chairman, said on the “Today” show last week. “We entertain people all over the world and we put smiles on faces.”

San Diego’s Shawne Merriman celebrates clenching a quarterback by flipping a tattoo of a light switch on his muscular forearm as he shimmies and shakes on the field in a sack dance called Lights Out, a reference to his nickname. In a quick search of YouTube, you’ll find Merriman’s moves mimicked in videos of drunks, a child and one cat.

“I think of myself as an entertainer," Merriman has often said.

Barry Bonds is followed by the sports paparazzi to catch his every sigh, stumble or swat. He once dismissed baseball’s issue of steroid cheating by saying: “We’re entertainers. Let us entertain."

How do you distinguish sports from entertainment, fakery from reality, when the two are so inseparable? What prods Congress into an obsession over steroids in baseball and concussions in football while ignoring the same issues that have fed a death march in professional wrestling?

McMahon, for one, is relieved by the slight. Usually, he is as much a Vegas-styled poser as his wrestlers, with a bulked-up body that renders his head the size of a hood ornament on a Winnebago. McMahon’s outsized persona has seemed smaller in mourning.

He was in defense mode on “Today” — attempting to separate W.W.E. from Chris Benoit, the Canadian Crippler, who the police say murdered his wife and 7-year-old son before hanging himself from a weight machine in his Georgia home last month.

A Bible was found next to each victim, and a cocktail of prescription drugs and anabolic steroids was discovered in the house. Toxicology reports are still out, but out of reflex, you wonder what prompted Benoit’s undoing: drug withdrawal or ’roid rage or brain trauma from too many head butts and canvas crashes?

Pratfalls can be lethal, too. In 2004, USA Today reported that 65 wrestlers younger than 45 died over a seven-year period in a profession where the mortality rate is seven times higher than the national average. But the choreographed nature of W.W.E. makes it easy for serious-minded politicians to dismiss the deaths of wrestlers like Mike (Crash Holly) Lockwood and Mike (Road Warrior Hawk) Hegstrand.

Pro wrestling is not a sport, lawmakers can rationalize. After all, it’s not part of ESPN’s programming, like, say, Nathan’s Famous hot-dog-eating competition. To be sure, if contestants had been devouring Ball Park franks, which suspiciously plump when you cook ’em, Congressional hearings would have been scheduled on the spot.

It is increasingly impossible for any Beltway inhabitant to marginalize W.W.E. as a farce when farce is braided with sports in so many ways:

¶W.W.E. is pure fiction, but so was the home-run chase between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire during what now seems like a 1998 plot by baseball to seduce fans who dug the long ball.

¶Pro wrestling is only theatrical smack talk, but N.F.L. players once spouted the same reasoning when the slashing motion was in vogue as an on-field taunt.

¶W.W.E. events are scripted to the last letter, but wasn’t that also true of the profane T-shirt A-Rod’s wife wore to Yankee Stadium after the couple’s recent made-for-tabloid escapades?

¶Pro wrestlers appeal to niche devotees of fakery, and yet baseball fans, and perhaps a few Giants employees, just rushed the ballot boxes to place Bonds in the All-Star Game.

Athletes are athletes, masked or unmasked. Benoit leaned on medical assistance like a lot of competitors. Authorities say Benoit’s doctor prescribed excessive amounts of antidepressants and painkillers and steroid dosages when they indicted Phil Astin, a physician, last week.

Was Astin a wrestling fan who would do anything for the Canadian Crippler?

Access to athletic fame can skew Hippocratic oaths in any arena. A year ago, James Shortt was sent to prison after he supplied several members of the Carolina Panthers’ 2004 Super Bowl team with miracle potions, from steroids to human growth hormone.

There is no differentiating sports and entertainment in the mosh pit of anything-goes competition.

It was Merriman, as flamboyant as any overblown wrestler this side of Ric Flair, who had his Lights Out routine shut down for four games last season after he tested positive for a banned substance under the N.F.L.’s antidoping policy.

It is Bonds, as electric as any love-hate draw on the W.W.E. scene, who has been dogged by federal agents panting to link him to any Balco sins.

It is McMahon, a serial performer willing to stage his own death, who is left to lamely defend W.W.E. against steroid suspicions amid a backdrop involving another dead wrestler.

They’re entertainers, each man will claim. But who is real, who is unreal? It is impossible to tell.


Two Icons and the Challenge of Passing the Test of Time

Sports of The Times
July 8, 2007

Until the other day, my inner misanthrope kept thinking that some modest deus ex machina might keep Barry Bonds from breaking Henry Aaron’s record. Nothing serious, mind you, just a twinge or a bruise that would keep him from hitting his 756th home run. But once Bonds hit his 751st homer Tuesday night, I saw the futility of such negative thinking.

My reverse body English reminds me of the minority of cycling fans who chanted multilingual imprecations at Lance Armstrong in the latter stages of his seven-year streak in the Tour de France. (I can’t help it; the Tour is on my mind as the riders push from London toward La Belle France today, with a terrible cloud of drug abuse over the entire sport.)

Bonds and Armstrong have a lot in common: Both have admirably maintained their edge late into athletic old age; both have former associates who cannot stand them; both are the subject of books suggesting they used performance-enhancing drugs, which both deny.

But I react differently to them: Armstrong’s seven Tours seemed compelling, while Bonds’s approach to Aaron’s record has seemed mostly sour, even though I regard him as a Hall of Fame athlete. Bonds was obnoxious as a slender young player and he’s even more obnoxious as a hulk.

Armstrong is interesting, not just because of his iconic role as a cancer activist but because he is complicated, presenting himself as the most-tested athlete in the world. The difference between them springs from the culture and structure of their sports, setting up Armstrong’s role as control-freak leader of the pack versus Bonds’s role as solipsistic slugger.

The two stars have fought off another dread foe, bad luck. In 2005, Bjarne Riis, the manager of the CSC team — who recently abdicated his 1996 Tour championship, acknowledging that he had taken illegal substances — noted that Armstrong had avoided the injuries that put two key CSC riders out of the Tour. Armstrong blustered that he would put the Riis comments in his psychological “hard drive” to motivate himself even more, as if that were possible.

Riis had a point, but Armstrong also made his own luck, as Casey Stengel used to say. In 1999, Armstrong and his outriders spurted to the head of the pack before a muddy causeway, thereby escaping a nasty spill behind them. In 2003, Armstrong escaped three tangles that could have easily stopped him at four consecutive Tours.

The pursuit of Armstrong continues in a new book, “From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France,” by David Walsh. The book describes how a Dallas company, SCA Promotions, tried to withhold a $5 million bonus, citing suspicion that Armstrong, while receiving cancer treatment in 1996, had acknowledged past usage of performance-enhancing drugs.

Two key witnesses were Frankie Andreu, a former teammate of Armstrong’s, and his wife, Betsy, as well as Greg LeMond, a three-time Tour champion, who testified that an Armstrong associate, Stephanie McIlvain, told LeMond she had witnessed the alleged admission in 1996. McIlvain, under oath, denied it. Armstrong’s office forwarded an affidavit from his oncologist, Dr. Craig Nichols, saying he did not know of any such confession. In the end, arbitrators ruled that Armstrong, as the official winner of seven Tours, was due the $5 million bonus and $2.5 million in legal costs and interest.

Walsh’s book also discusses the claim in August 2005 by L’Équipe, the French sports daily, that six of Armstrong’s urine samples in 1999 had more recently tested positive for erythropoietin, a blood-boosting hormone also known as EPO. Armstrong has denied using EPO for cycling and has noted that there was no test for EPO in 1999, that all samples were retained solely for research purposes and that samples could have been tainted over the years.

“EPO is a powerful drug,” Armstrong told me in 2005. “Some say it makes you 10 percent faster. Let’s say I took EPO in 1999 and didn’t take it from 2000 to 2005. My performance never dropped off. Obviously, I’m not saying I did. But I only got faster.”

Walsh and LeMond insisted that Armstrong became unnaturally fast, beyond his previous physiological predictors. They cited his long association with the Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, an adviser to cyclists who later failed drug tests.

Not having subpoena or testing powers, I always figured it was up to officials to clean up cycling, baseball, football and the rest. Armstrong may indeed have been the Gingerbread Man, but I saw him annihilate dozens of cyclists who have since confessed or been busted while he passed every drug test cycling managed to impose.

As for Bonds, he seems to have made his personal breakaway from grand jury inquiries into the Balco scandal as well as from the suggestions of tax evasion and perjury in the illuminating book “Game of Shadows,” by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams.

Those charges taint Bonds as he chases Aaron. I’m taking my cues from the dyspeptic look on the face of Commissioner Bud Selig whenever he is asked if he will attend the 756th home run. It’s going to happen. Let’s get it over with.


Giving Nepotism a Good Name

Talking Business
The New York Times
July 7, 2007

“The fundamental fact is that people love television,” said Ralph J. Roberts a few weeks ago. “And if you can provide them with more television, they love it even more.”

It was a stifling Wednesday afternoon in Philadelphia, but sitting at his desk in a downtown high-rise, Mr. Roberts was decked out the way businessmen used to dress, back when the executive suite was still a formal place, with a white handkerchief peeking out of the front pocket of an elegant suit. At 87, Mr. Roberts still has a full head of white hair, combed back in a way that reminded me of Paul Drake, the rakish sidekick in the old “Perry Mason” show.

Some 47 years ago, Ralph Roberts founded Comcast. He was a middle-aged man who had recently abandoned the belt and suspender business, and was looking for something new. He found it in a tiny company in Tupelo, Miss., which was erecting a giant antenna to provide the local citizenry with signals from the television stations in Memphis, 90 miles away.

At that moment, Mr. Roberts became a cable pioneer. Along with Ted Turner, John Malone, Charles Dolan of Cablevision, John Rigas of Adelphia and a handful of others, he was one of the men who built the cable industry, pulling off one of the more unheralded achievements in modern business: getting people to pay for something they had always assumed would be free.

Today, most of the cable pioneers have sold out or retired, or, in the sad case of Mr. Rigas, gone to jail. But in his understated Philadelphia way, Mr. Roberts turned out to have more ambition than the lot of them, and lo these many years later, his company is the biggest cable provider in the country. It serves around 25 million subscribers, employs 90,000 people and will generate an estimated $31 billion in 2007 revenue.

Except that it isn’t his company anymore. Not really. While Mr. Roberts remains a Comcast director, Comcast is his son’s company now. And therein lies a story that is pretty unusual in corporate America. And pretty instructive, too.

THINK for a minute about the generational sagas you usually read about in the business pages. Rupert Murdoch’s son Lachlan decides he can no longer work for his father, so he quits his job as the publisher of The New York Post. Charles Dolan and his son James, who control Cablevision, always seem to be fussing and feuding about something. Sumner Redstone’s daughter Shari has long been viewed as his heir apparent. But her octogenarian father can’t bring himself to let go of his companies, and he has a deep need to show the world who’s boss. Just last fall he publicly criticized his daughter — even as he was being sued by his son Brent. Geesh.

It’s never been like that with Ralph Roberts and his son Brian, who became Comcast’s president in 1990 at the age of 31, and has been chairman and chief executive since 2004. “Theirs is a relationship of love and mutual respect,” said David Calhoun, a former Pennsylvania politico who joined the company five years ago as executive vice president. “They are incredibly close.”

Brian Roberts knew he wanted to work for his father practically from the moment he emerged from the womb, and Ralph Roberts knew pretty quickly thereafter that he wanted his son to finish what he’d started.

As far as anyone can tell, they’ve never had so much as an open disagreement at Comcast, despite all the obvious stresses that running a business can put on any relationship.

I had originally gone to Philadelphia thinking I would write about Comcast’s recent success. Although it’s not been a knockout stock, that’s mainly because Wall Street is annoyed that Mr. Roberts won’t use some of the cash flow Comcast is generating these days to take on more debt and buy back shares.

What is unarguable, however, is that the company, having completely recovered from its failed effort to buy Disney three years ago, is clicking on all cylinders. Its revenue is growing at a healthy double-digit clip. The rise of high- definition television has turbocharged earnings. Its Internet service is going gangbusters. It has even started to make inroads against the telcos, selling its own phone service. All the talk that cable would be overrun by the Internet hasn’t remotely come to pass. On the contrary: cable in general, and Comcast in particular, seem stronger than ever.

“This is an extremely good business,” said Stephen Burke, who is Mr. Roberts’s No. 2. “We have 25 million customers who pay us an average of $100 a month.” Yes, indeed, people love their television.

Brian Roberts, who, like his father, also wears suits to the office, but unlike his father takes his jacket off once he gets there, would have been perfectly happy taking a deep dive with me about the state of Comcast’s business. He is a soft-spoken man, who answers questions with an appealing earnestness and lack of pretense. The reason Comcast wasn’t piling on debt, he said, was that the company has always been run conservatively; that was a cultural value his father, a product of the Depression, had instilled from the start.

“My father used to have two years’ worth of cash on hand,” Mr. Roberts said. “Cash! If we owed $5 billion, we might have $500 million in cash, earning just 2 percent. We were superconservative in a business that was wildly leveraged.” That the son had adopted the father’s fiscal conservatism was something Mr. Roberts wasn’t about to apologize for.

Indeed, to hear Mr. Roberts tell it, his father was the greatest entrepreneur in the history of the cable industry. He kept peppering his answers with references to his dad, and every time he did his eyes would light up. Eventually, I took the hint, and began steering the interview in that direction.

“My father has a wonderful mentoring style,” Mr. Roberts said. “He would never say, ‘This is a terrible idea.’ Instead he says, ‘Have you thought about this?’ ” When he was as young as 12 and 13, he would ask his father if he could sit in on meetings while Ralph was negotiating loan agreements with the banks. Afterward, Brian would ask questions about why Ralph had taken this tack or that one. Other fathers and sons went to ballgames, but this is how the Robertses bonded.

When Brian Roberts graduated from Wharton, his father resisted bringing him into Comcast immediately; he felt his son would be better served gaining some experience elsewhere. But the younger Mr. Roberts didn’t want to work anyplace else.

“My father is 40 years older than I am,” he said. “His father had died when he was 15. His mother died when he was 19. His brother had passed away in his 50s. How many good years were we going to have together?”

So Ralph Roberts relented, and Brian joined the company. It was obvious from Day 1 that he was the heir apparent, but the elder Mr. Roberts insisted that he work his way up.

Brian began his Comcast career as a line installer. Then he put in several years in branch offices before becoming head of operations at age 26. And at 31, his father made him president. At the time, Comcast didn’t use the title chief executive, so Brian Roberts was running the company. Ralph Roberts remained chairman of the board, but stepped aside from the day-to-day operations

Wasn’t that an awfully young age? I asked the elder Mr. Roberts. “It seemed to me that he was ready to be president of the company,” he replied, “and there was no reason not to let him have the job.” Besides, he added, “we seemed to think a lot alike.” What happened next is the real key. As often as not, when a son or daughter takes over a parent’s company, tension is the inevitable result. The heir wants to upend some of the practices the parent holds dear. He wishes the parent would stop coming to the office or meddling. The parent, meanwhile, finds it hard to let go, and second-guesses the child.

But that never happened with the Robertses. “It is hard to find a company that has done this transition better,” said Mr. Calhoun. It is not as if Ralph Roberts had set out a grand plan for the transfer of power. But he instinctively knew that it was important to step aside, to not second-guess, to offer advice when it was asked for, and to keep quiet when it wasn’t.

He also understood that he needed to make it clear to everyone at Comcast that Brian was the boss now, not him. That all requires a kind of supreme selflessness — a quality not often found in ambitious entrepreneurs.

“It’s not that I have no ego,” Ralph Roberts says now. “But I’ve learned that if you give people confidence and let them take some risks, most of the time they are winners.”

“Ralph doesn’t support Brian or give him advice because he has to but because he wants to,” Mr. Calhoun said. “And Brian doesn’t have a connecting door between their offices because he feels he owes his father anything. There is simply no one whose judgment he respects more.”

Because he is every bit as ambitious as his dad, Brian will probably spend the next 20 years or so trying to make Comcast bigger still. He believes the same thing his father does: people love television. And Comcast can make a lot of money servicing that desire.

“Here are two great facts,” Mr. Roberts told me as we moved the conversation back to the business. “Last year, more people bought more TV sets per household than any year in history. And half of those sets were 50 inches or bigger.”

Ralph Roberts, meanwhile, doesn’t have a title at the company anymore, but he does still have an important role as the keeper of the Comcast flame. After Hurricane Katrina, it was Ralph Roberts who went to Mississippi to visit Comcast employees working to get television service restored, even though their own lives had been disrupted. And whenever Comcast buys another company, it is the elder Mr. Roberts who makes the new employees feel good about their new workplace.

“I just got back from Boston, where I spoke to 1,200 new Comcast employees,” he told me as our interview wound down. “I encourage the idea that it is a family company. I tell them if they have relatives who want to come work here, don’t worry about nepotism. I have it right here with my son.” He smiled.

“And look how that worked out,” he said.

Nixon's Mole

Not all would put a heroic sheen on Thompson's Watergate role

By Michael Kranish, Boston Globe Staff | July 4, 2007

WASHINGTON -- The day before Senate Watergate Committee minority counsel Fred Thompson made the inquiry that launched him into the national spotlight -- asking an aide to President Nixon whether there was a White House taping system -- he telephoned Nixon's lawyer.

Thompson tipped off the White House that the committee knew about the taping system and would be making the information public. In his all-but-forgotten Watergate memoir, "At That Point in Time," Thompson said he acted with "no authority" in divulging the committee's knowledge of the tapes, which provided the evidence that led to Nixon's resignation. It was one of many Thompson leaks to the Nixon team, according to a former investigator for Democrats on the committee, Scott Armstrong , who remains upset at Thompson's actions.

"Thompson was a mole for the White House," Armstrong said in an interview. "Fred was working hammer and tong to defeat the investigation of finding out what happened to authorize Watergate and find out what the role of the president was."

Asked about the matter this week, Thompson -- who is preparing to run for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination -- responded via e-mail without addressing the specific charge of being a Nixon mole: "I'm glad all of this has finally caused someone to read my Watergate book, even though it's taken them over thirty years."

The view of Thompson as a Nixon mole is strikingly at odds with the former Tennessee senator's longtime image as an independent-minded prosecutor who helped bring down the president he admired. Indeed, the website of Thompson's presidential exploratory committee boasts that he "gained national attention for leading the line of inquiry that revealed the audio-taping system in the White House Oval Office." It is an image that has been solidified by Thompson's portrayal of a tough-talking prosecutor in the television series "Law and Order."

But the story of his role in the Nixon case helps put in perspective Thompson's recent stance as one of the most outspoken proponents of pardoning I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. Just as Thompson once staunchly defended Nixon, Thompson urged a pardon for Libby, who was convicted in March of obstructing justice in the investigation into who leaked a CIA operative's name.

Thompson declared in a June 6 radio commentary that Libby's conviction was a "shocking injustice . . . created and enabled by federal officials." Bush on Monday commuted Libby's 30-month sentence, stopping short of a pardon.

The intensity of Thompson's remarks about Libby is reminiscent of how he initially felt about Nixon. Few Republicans were stronger believers in Nixon during the early days of Watergate.

Thompson, in his 1975 memoir, wrote that he believed "there would be nothing incriminating" about Nixon on the tapes, a theory he said "proved totally wrong."

"In retrospect it is apparent that I was subconsciously looking for a way to justify my faith in the leader of my country and my party, a man who was undergoing a violent attack from the news media, which I thought had never given him fair treatment in the past," Thompson wrote. "I was looking for a reason to believe that Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States, was not a crook."

Thompson was a little-known assistant US attorney in Tennessee when the Watergate investigation in Congress got underway. He had served as campaign manager for the successful 1972 reelection of Senator Howard Baker, a powerful Tennessee Republican.

When the Senate Watergate Committee was established in 1973, Baker became the ranking Republican member and brought Thompson to Washington to serve as minority counsel. Baker, who has been among those now urging Thompson to seek the presidency, did not return a call seeking comment.

John Dean , Nixon's former White House counsel, who was a central witness at the hearings, said he believed that Baker and Thompson were anything but impartial players. "I knew that Thompson would be Baker's man, trying to protect Nixon," Dean said in an interview.

The website of Thompson's presidential exploratory committee,, suggests that Thompson helped reveal the taping system and expose Nixon's role in the Watergate coverup. And while Thompson's question to presidential aide Alexander Butterfield during a Watergate hearing unveiled the existence of the taping system to the outside world, it wasn't Thompson who discovered that Nixon was taping conversations. Nor was Thompson the first to question Butterfield about the possibility.

On July 13, 1973, Armstrong, the Democratic staffer, asked Butterfield a series of questions during a private session that led up to the revelation. He then turned the questioning over to a Republican staffer, Don Sanders, who asked Butterfield the question that led to the mention of the taping system.

To the astonishment of everyone in the room, Butterfield admitted the taping system existed.

When Thompson learned of Butterfield's admission, he leaked the revelation to Nixon's counsel, J. Fred Buzhardt .

"Even though I had no authority to act for the committee, I decided to call Fred Buzhardt at home" to tell him that the committee had learned about the taping system, Thompson wrote. "I wanted to be sure that the White House was fully aware of what was to be disclosed so that it could take appropriate action."

Armstrong said he and other Democratic staffers had long been convinced that Thompson was leaking information about the investigation to the White House. The committee, for example, had obtained a memo written by Buzhardt that Democratic staffers believed was based on information leaked by Thompson.

Armstrong said he thought the leaks would lead to Thompson's firing. "Any prosecutor would be upset if another member of the prosecution team was orchestrating a defense for Nixon," said Armstrong, who later became a Washington Post reporter and currently is executive director of Information Trust, a nonprofit organization specializing in open government issues.

Baker, meanwhile, insisted that Thompson be allowed to ask Butterfield the question about the taping system in a public session on July 16, 1973, three days after the committee had learned about the system.

The choice of Thompson irked Samuel Dash , the Democratic chief counsel on the committee, who preferred that a Democrat be allowed to ask the question. "I personally resented it and felt cheated," Dash wrote in his memoirs. But he said he felt he had "no choice but to let Fred Thompson develop the Butterfield material" because the question initially had been posed by Sanders, a Republican staffer.

When Dash told Thompson on the day of the hearing that he had agreed to let Thompson ask the question that would change US history, Thompson replied: "That's right generous of you, Sam."

So it was, at the hearing, that Thompson leapt into the national spotlight:

"Are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?" he asked Butterfield during the national televised hearings.

"I was aware of listening devices, yes, sir," Butterfield responded.

Even as he quizzed Butterfield during the hearing, Thompson said later, he believed the tapes would exonerate Nixon, so he saw no problem in pressing for their release. It was after Thompson heard Nixon incriminate himself on the tapes that Thompson finally decided that Nixon was a crook -- and stopped be ing a Nixon apologist.

"Looking back, I wonder how I could have failed to realize at once . . . the significance of the tapes," Thompson wrote. "I realized that I would probably be thinking about the implications of Watergate for the rest of my life."

Michael Kranish can be reached at

One Man’s Plea for Mercy, With a Recent Precedent in Mind

About New York
The New York Times
July 7, 2007

If official mercy comes back into fashion, thanks to the clemency that President Bush granted this week to a former member of his administration who was headed to prison, it won’t be a moment too soon for Frederick Lake, a resident of East Flatbush, Brooklyn, for most of the last 20 years.

Mr. Lake has been to prison and finished his time; he was convicted in the 1989 robbery of a payroll company, and now faces deportation to Jamaica. From the moment of his arrest, he has insisted that he is not guilty. “I didn’t do this thing,” he said. “I wasn’t in the country.”

Now he has applied to Gov. Eliot Spitzer for a pardon, which is a legal cousin of clemency. A pardon erases the conviction from the records — and in Mr. Lake’s case would spare him from deportation — while clemency reduces a sentence, but does not eliminate the conviction.

Mr. Spitzer, in office only since January, is new to the exercise of official mercy. It has largely fallen into disuse, in New York and elsewhere.

Over the last 25 years, New York’s governors have granted fewer and fewer pardons or commutations of sentences. Perhaps they could find no one worthy of it, though the number of prisoners has grown fourfold. More likely, they feared TV ads saying that they were easy on criminals, or they fretted that one of those shown mercy would commit another crime.

The only person pardoned in New York since 1990 was the comedian Lenny Bruce, cleared in 2003 by Gov. George E. Pataki of “using foul language in public,” as state officials put it. At that point, Bruce was a safe bet to cause no further trouble for any governor: he had been dead for 37 years.

On Monday, President Bush granted clemency to I. Lewis Libby Jr., an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney who was convicted of lying to a grand jury — a single thread in the web of untrue stories that were spun to justify the Iraq war. At age 56, Mr. Libby was about to go to prison for 30 months, until Mr. Bush stepped in and declared that the sentence was “severe” and “excessive,” considering Mr. Libby’s public service and the hardship to his family. He is probably as safe a bet for Mr. Bush as Mr. Bruce was for George Pataki.

Mr. Lake, 54, is the father of children ages 8 and 9. He has heart disease and diabetes. Before going to prison for six years, he worked at night, cleaning aircraft at Kennedy Airport, and ran a car-repair business during the day.

In turning to Governor Spitzer for a pardon, Mr. Lake is asking not just for mercy, but also for the justice that he and his lawyers, John D. B. Lewis and Claudia Slovinsky, say they were unable to get in court.

“I’m here laying in the bed, thinking, when is I.N.S. going to come for me?” he said. “What about my children? My whole life is crumbling for something I never did.”

On May 18, 1989, a payroll company in Inwood, on Long Island, was robbed of $103,000 by a short, stocky man wearing an earring. Some months later, Mr. Lake passed along a money order that had been stolen in the robbery. At a trial in 1991, three people identified him as the stickup man, though he did not have a pierced ear and is close to 6 feet tall.

Mr. Lake, a legal resident of the United States, produced airline tickets and passenger manifests from Jamaica Air showing that “F. Lake” flew from Miami to Kingston, Jamaica, on May 12, 1989 — a week before the robbery — and then back to the United States on Sept. 29, 1989.

On his passport, the stamps matched the dates on the tickets.

“The truth is swimming on top of the water,” Mr. Lake said.

Prosecutors in Nassau County challenged his alibi by calling to the witness stand a Jamaican immigration official, who testified that he could not find a landing card filled out by Mr. Lake, a requirement for anyone entering the country. Later, a judicial inquiry in Jamaica found grave inaccuracies in the official’s testimony and said that if the jury relied on it, Mr. Lake had been the victim of a “serious miscarriage of justice.”

“Whenever I talk about this, it tears me up,” Mr. Lake said. “The medical care in Jamaica, that will be the finish of me. My son says, ‘Daddy, why are you crying? Are they going to put me in the casket with you?’ ”


Others Are Trying to Speak Federer’s Language

Sports of The Times
July 7, 2007

Wimbledon, England

When it comes to being mouthy, Roger Federer isn’t John McEnroe, but when the world’s No. 1 player is absent for a week from the most important tournament on the tennis calendar, one he is trying to win for the fifth straight year, there is a lot of catching up to do.

After dispatching Juan Carlos Ferrero in their four-set quarterfinal yesterday, Federer started in English, switched to Swiss German, then High German, and finally to French.

As the day turned out, the French were entirely deserving of the last word. In the final match on Center Court, Marion Bartoli, a physically unimposing, plucky grinder born in France but relocated to Geneva, staged a mind-bending upset of top-seeded Justine Henin to set up a women’s final today with her athletic opposite, the collection of elastic appendages named Venus Williams.

In the evening shadows on Court One, Richard Gasquet, a rising Frenchman, rallied from two sets behind against Andy Roddick, taking consecutive tie breakers against a player who had won 18 in a row and the fifth set, 8-6, when Roddick’s primary weapon, his serve, deserted him and his robotic net play ruined him.

The Jimmy Connors-coached Roddick had tried to summon his inner Jimbo, working himself into a gladiatorial frenzy, challenging the pro-Gasquet crowd and screaming, “Let’s go, come on,” after holding serve for 1-1 in the fifth set. But Gasquet’s racket was speaking a dialect of Federer’s by then, especially with the backhand, to earn his first Grand Slam semifinal today with Federer, the four-time defending champion, budding legend and practiced linguist.

Federer’s four-tongue news conference lasted more than 30 minutes, or about the length of two of the four sets he needed to dispose of Ferrero. American tennis fans following Federer across Europe during the spring clay-court season on television may recall him addressing crowds directly in Hamburg, Germany, and a couple of weeks later in Paris after losing the French Open final to Rafael Nadal — that scary young Spaniard whose game is translating more and more on grass.

Federer obviously reaped the cultural benefits of growing up in Basel, in northwest Switzerland, bordering Germany and France. While only able to vouch for his English yesterday, idioms and all, it didn’t seem to me that anyone in the room was complaining about the quality, or unappreciative of the effort.

When the news conference ended, a Swiss journalist admitted that Federer does get annoyed having to repeat himself on what he did differently in the third set from the second. But Federer is a throwback champion who generally welcomes the role of global tennis ambassador.

He also realized how strange it was not to have been in the interview room since beating Marat Safin on the first Friday of the tournament until the completion of the Ferrero match that was suspended Thursday at 5-5 in the first set.

What had Federer done on his Wimbledon summer vacation? “Yeah, not much, really,” he said. “I went to the city once or twice. Went to the hairdresser. Watched movies. Played cards. Hanged out.”

All right, he’s not grammatically perfect, or terribly exciting, but there is no more majestic player in tennis — or any sport, for that matter. It was good to have him back, bewildering Center Court fans when he dropped the second set, before shedding the rust and reserving his Center Court place today, with Bjorn Borg, the man he is trying to match this weekend with a fifth consecutive title, expected in the royal box.

“Oh, no pressure, I’ve played in front of him,” Federer said. “Obviously, to maybe equal his record would be fantastic, him maybe watching my match.”

Roddick’s demise no doubt bettered Federer’s chances of making the final, as Gasquet left his news conference last night at half-past eight, complaining of fatigue and tight quad muscles. Then again, Nadal’s opponent today, Novak Djokovic, needed five hours and on-court back treatment yesterday to survive Marcos Baghdatis.

The results and conditions created an air of inevitability around the men’s semifinals, as well as the women’s final that pairs Williams, the three-time champion, with Bartoli, whose fourth-round exit at the French Open this spring was the best she had done in 22 previous Grand Slams.

Forecasts here should never be etched in stone. Clouds can roll out quickly. Bartoli, who always looks exhausted between points, trying to catch her breath, dropped the first set to Henin, 6-1, before reversing that score in a mind-blowing third-set rout. Flaky as a croissant, she credited the handsome sighting in the stands of the actor Pierce Brosnan as her inspiration.

For his part, Gasquet said he told his coach in the third set that Roddick was serving too well, compared his own play to dog excrement and said he “didn’t expect to come back at all” before leaving Roddick so distraught he could barely speak English, much less a foreign language, at his postmatch news conference.

“Come on” turned to “Allez.” The French carried two players into the tournament’s final three matches, along with an American, a Spaniard, a Serb and, of course, Federer, the Swiss master of language and, for the last four years and counting, the voice last heard on the Wimbledon grass courts.

Maybe It’s Best if Bonds Marriage With Giants Runs Its Course

Sports of The Times
July 7, 2007

San Francisco

With five more home runs, Barry Lamar Bonds will become baseball’s new home run king. In a perfect world, Bonds would then retire gracefully — as a San Francisco Giant — at the conclusion of this season. It would be the end of an era, and perhaps the diminishing of a controversy that has become something of a civil war.

“That would be the ideal situation,” said Peter Magowan, the Giants’ managing general partner, during an interview Thursday. “But he seems determined to go on and play, and I have no idea where.”

Magowan was dropping an unambiguous hint that if Bonds were to play next season, it would not be in a Giants uniform, although Magowan said he expected to see him hitting home runs for someone. “I’m sure there’s going to be interest in him,” he said.

The Giants are preparing to serve as hosts of the All-Star Game next week, but it is life after Bonds that seems to be foremost on the team’s mind. Once just a hazy concept, the post-Bonds era in San Francisco is now a virtual reality, the only question being how soon it will come.

Maybe it can’t begin soon enough. The Giants are in last place in the National League West, hopelessly out of contention and headed for a third consecutive losing campaign. After the All-Star Game on Tuesday and after Bonds hits that record-setting home run — whenever that occurs — the Giants will be left to grind out the rest of the season in futility.

For Magowan, the All-Star Game plum is only mild consolation for an otherwise dreary season. “I do feel good about the All-Star Game; we’re excited,” he said. “But some of the excitement has been taken away from me by the performance of our team this year. I want to see the Giants win a World Series.”

For that to happen, the Giants need to take some bold action. If there is interest in Bonds, as Magowan suggests, why wait until the season ends, when Bonds will leave anyway? If Bonds breaks the home run record before the July 31 trade deadline, then the Giants should try to trade him and jump-start their reconstruction era.

That’s cold-blooded, but baseball is a cold-blooded business. Besides, Bonds will apparently be back with the Giants at some point. He has a 10-year personal-services contract with the team that starts when he retires.

In 1972, the Giants traded a fading Willie Mays to the Mets, letting him finish his career in the city where he began it. So why not trade Bonds?

“That’s certainly something that’s never been discussed,” said Larry Baer, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Giants, when asked about the idea.

On the contrary, I think it has been thought about within the Giants’ organization, if not seriously discussed. If one of the other 29 major league teams offers a package for Bonds that can begin to reverse the Giants’ skid, the team should pull the trigger and say goodbye.

The Bonds-Giants marriage began before the 1993 season, with swashbuckling passion and tons of money. The Magowan group scooped up Bonds and signed him even before their purchase of the team had been officially approved.

The first decade of marriage happily moved toward a championship. In 2001, Bonds had one of the great statistical seasons in baseball history. He hit a record 73 home runs, batted .328, drove in 137 runs and walked 177 times. In 2002, the Giants won the National League pennant and nearly won the World Series, with Bonds leading the way. In 2003, they won 100 games in the regular season to capture their division.

But since then, the marriage has gradually been overwhelmed by persistent, if unproven, allegations that Bonds used steroids to transform himself. The steroid cloud has taken much of the joy out of what should be a great national celebration as Bonds closes in on Hank Aaron’s record of 755 career home runs. In many ways, the controversy has isolated the Giants and their fans, who are seemingly the only ones in the country who still cheer for Bonds, their left-handed slugger.

The more intriguing question is where Bonds might land if he were traded this season. The difficulty is not Bonds’s contract — just one year, $15.8 million — and certainly not his ability, which is still formidable for someone who turns 43 this month. The difficulty is that cloud of suspicion.

But what if that cloud were lifted? What happens if the federal prosecutors, who have had Bonds in their sights for several seasons in connection with the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative steroid-distribution case, decide to drop their investigation sometime this month, when the current grand jury may expire?

Is there a market for a left-handed home run king? “As far as I know,” Magowan said, “no one’s called us up and said, We’d like to take Barry Bonds off your hands.”

Bonds would fit in the middle of the lineup in San Diego or Los Angeles, two teams fighting for the division lead in the N.L. West. I can’t imagine Bonds in San Diego, where fans once greeted him by throwing a syringe on the field. And if you’re a Dodgers fan, caught up in the rivalry with the Giants, you cannot imagine Bonds at all.

For my tastes, any Bonds trade speculation brings us, as always, to the Yankees. Give us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses longing to be free.

The Yankees were suitors for Bonds 15 years ago. He turned them down. Now the Yankees somehow find themselves under .500, in peril of missing the postseason for the first time in Joe Torre’s dozen seasons as manager. Bonds could help the Yankees, as a more dangerous designated hitter than they currently have. But would they really take him, then deal with the news-media onslaught that would follow?

In the end, what the Giants have in Bonds may be a player that everyone grudgingly admires from afar but will not dare touch. The marriage that began in 1993 will probably have to run its course. “Till death do us part” would seem to apply.


Friday, July 06, 2007

A Girl’s Fear and Loathing

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
July 7, 2007

In a column earlier this week I wrote about a cop who grotesquely abused his power by invading a high school classroom in the Bronx because a girl had uttered a curse word in a hallway. Not only did the cop handcuff and arrest the girl in a room filled with stunned students and a helpless teacher, but he arrested the school’s principal, who had attempted to reason with the officer.

The principal was suspended from his job immediately after the arrest in February 2005, but was reinstated when the charges — bogus from the very beginning — were eventually dropped. Still, the police commissioner, Ray Kelly, defended the police officer’s action, telling reporters at the time, “The principal was simply wrong.”

As I continued to look into this case, it became clear that police officials were trying to withhold important information about the officer, Juan Gonzalez. In response to a question, a spokesman for Commissioner Kelly said that Officer Gonzalez, now 29, had been placed on modified duty and that his gun and shield had been taken away.

But why? Despite repeated requests, the department would not say.

Then I found out through other sources that Officer Gonzalez had gotten into trouble for stalking, kissing and otherwise harassing a 17-year-old girl at another high school in the Bronx. The girl, extremely upset over the unwanted advances, notified school authorities and they notified the Police Department.

The Police Department confirmed this yesterday.

The encounter with the girl occurred in September 2005 outside Truman High School. The girl, questioned at a hearing by a lawyer representing the city, said she had just left the school and was on her way to a bus stop when Officer Gonzalez, in uniform, walked up to her.

He let her know that he had been watching her, and he followed her as she tried to walk away. He asked to see her school program, which lists, among other things, a student’s classes and schedule. She handed it to him.

According to the girl, the officer said, “It doesn’t have what I’m looking for.”

She said that when she asked what he was looking for, he replied, “Your address.”

The girl said Officer Gonzalez began touching her as they were passing another school. “He started touching my hair,” she said, “and pulling it all towards one side to touch my neck.” She backed up against a wall, she said, and the officer leaned over her, pressing his arms against the wall.

“I wasn’t looking at him,” the girl said. “I was turning my face away, and he touched my face and put my face to look directly towards, at him. He said, ‘Why can’t I look at him?’ And he touched my waist and pulled me closer to him, and he kissed me on my cheeks.”

The girl said, “I tried to push him away, but I couldn’t. So I had to duck under his arms.”

Officer Gonzalez followed her as she resumed walking toward the bus stop. He suggested they go out on a date. The girl said she told the officer, “I don’t think so.”

Then, she said, he told her what a powerful man he was, how he had kicked down doors and even arrested a high school principal.

This week, even as I continued asking questions about Officer Gonzalez’s status, the Police Department gave him back his gun and his badge and put him back on patrol.

It was a wildly irresponsible decision. Parents across the city should be warned about this officer.

Over the past several weeks I have heard one credible story after another of police officers ruthlessly harassing, and frequently arresting, youngsters who have done nothing wrong. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly seem to be in denial about this problem, which is widespread. There is an astounding reluctance to criticize or properly discipline police officers, no matter how egregious their conduct.

The big losers are the good kids who are treated like criminals by bullies and predators masquerading as New York’s finest. Other losers are the many cops who routinely take their crime-fighting mission seriously, but are undermined by these lowlifes in blue.

Jonathan Moore, a civil rights lawyer who represents the girl harassed by Officer Gonzalez, said his client had agreed, with “some hesitation,” to my request to tell her story in a column. She is still afraid, he said, that Officer Gonzalez will “track her down and cause her harm.”

A-Rod and Me

Guest Columnist
The New York Times
July 7, 2007

The 10-year-old girl waited in line two hours for the most gifted man in baseball, Alex Rodriguez, to sign the children’s book he had just written. When at last she got his autograph, my daughter hurried home and read every word — taking the lessons to heart.

It was called, “Hit a Grand Slam!” For a man now so reviled in many parts of the baseball world, his life story was sympathetic and sad, Dickensian with a Latin twist. A-Rod talked about throwing up on the school bus, getting dumped by the first girl he fell for and the father who walked out on them.

“Dad’s coming back, you’ll see,” he said to his sister, but Dad never came back. “I still can’t understand how a parent could abandon a family.”

By book’s end, he is rich beyond measure, the best young player in the game, and has a best friend for life, Derek Jeter. But A-Rod tells children that life is not about money or fame.

“It’s not all about the Benjamins,” he sums up. It’s about friendship, character, playing honorably. “If an injury suddenly ends my career tomorrow, I want people to like me for what I have inside.”

My daughter still has her A-Rod poster up in the now-empty bedroom, dating to his days as a Seattle Mariner. But nearly 10 years later, we are having trouble fitting A-Rod into the dissonant home we keep in our hearts for star athletes. Try as we might, it’s hard to separate the player on the plasma screen from the baseball card next to the kid’s pillow.

Tuesday is baseball’s All-Star Game, and the leading vote-getter from fans was Rodriguez, the Yankees’ third baseman. He’s having a year for the ages, setting an American League record for the most home runs in April, and leading all of baseball in homers. And in last night’s win, his home run tied him with Lou Gehrig and Fred McGriff on baseball’s career list.

But A-Rod’s character has never looked more haunted. Everyone knows politicians are scum and film stars are ditzy. As for athletes, well — children, in any case, still expect something more.

And as much as A-Rod now begs for his privacy, it’s his fault that we got involved with him. He invited us, and our kids, to like him for what he has inside. He asked us to look at him as a man, not a hitting machine.

At least Barry Bonds said people should not hold him up as a role model. Give him credit for that. But his advice is too late for all the 15-year-olds buying vitamin “supplements” to get ripped like Barry, the human asterisk.

In less than a decade, Rodriguez has gone from A-Rod to Pay-Rod to A-Fraud to Stray-Rod. Each dimension downward came with a story, a character twist, that may outlive the numbers.

As the Mariner who made the major leagues before his 19th birthday, he looked as if he had been created by Michelangelo. Coaching Little League, I told my kids to watch him move, to emulate his sweet swing, and to listen to what he said off the field.

A lasting image for Mariner fans was A-Rod with his arm around a crying Joey Cora after the amazing 1995 season ended just short of a World Series bid. It began to unravel when Pay-Rod emerged. He signed the richest contract in baseball, and left Seattle for — arrgghhh! — Texas. Turned out, it was about the Benjamins.

With the Yankees, all it took were a couple of Bush League plays — swatting a ball out of a pitcher’s mitt at first base, yelling at opposing infielders under a fly ball — for A-Fraud to surface.

More troubling was the breakdown of his friendship with Jeter, the Yankees’ shortstop and designated Good Guy, and the strange episode with the stripper, captured in the tabloid headline, “Stray-Rod.” He’s married, of course, and is a father as well.

In that children’s book, he said having a friend like Jeter, was “more valuable than gold.” An athlete can survive crass acts. Ted Williams spit on Red Sox fans, several times, but more people remember that he left the game to serve as a fighter pilot.

I’ll leave it to A-Rod’s therapist, whom he credits with helping him immensely, to sort his demons. But please — no more children’s books, no more invitations to share the soul-ride.

Athletes build their legends for marketing purposes; it comes with collateral damage, on both sides.

Timothy Egan, a former Seattle correspondent for The Times and the author of “The Worst Hard Time,” is a guest columnist.

Web Site Hit Counters
High Speed Internet Services