Saturday, August 11, 2007

Shuffling Off to Crawford, 2007 Edition

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
August 12, 2007

THE cases of Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch were ugly enough. So surely someone in the White House might have the good taste to draw the line at exploiting the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. But nothing is out of bounds for a government that puts the darkest arts of politics and public relations above even the exigencies of war.

As Jane Mayer told the story in last week’s New Yorker, Mariane Pearl was called by Alberto Gonzales with some good news in March: the Justice Department was releasing a transcript in which the long-incarcerated Qaeda thug Khalid Sheikh Mohammed confessed to the beheading of her husband. But there was something off about Mr. Gonzales’s news. It was almost four years old.

Condoleezza Rice had called Ms. Pearl to tell her in confidence about the very same confession back in 2003; it was also reported that year in The Journal and elsewhere. What’s more, the confession was suspect; another terrorist had been convicted in the Pearl case in Pakistan in 2002. There is no known corroborating evidence that Mohammed, the 9/11 ringleader who has taken credit for many horrific crimes while in American custody, was responsible for this particular murder. None of his claims, particularly those possibly coerced by torture, can be taken as gospel solely on our truth-challenged attorney general’s say-so.

Ms. Pearl recognized a publicity ploy when she saw it. And this one wasn’t subtle. Mr. Gonzales released the Mohammed transcript just as the latest Justice Department scandal was catching fire, with newly disclosed e-mail exchanges revealing the extent of White House collaboration in the United States attorney firings. Had the attorney general succeeded in enlisting Daniel Pearl’s widow as a player in his stunt, it might have diverted attention from a fracas then engulfing President Bush on his Latin American tour.

Though he failed this time, Mr. Gonzales’s P.R. manipulation of the war on terror hasn’t always been so fruitless. To upstage increasingly contentious Congressional restlessness about Iraq in 2006, he put on a widely viewed show to announce an alleged plot by men in Miami to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago and conduct a “full ground war.” He said at the time the men “swore allegiance to Al Qaeda” but, funnily enough, last week this case was conspicuously missing from a long new White House “fact sheet” listing all the terrorist plots it had foiled.

The Gonzales antics are, of course, in the tradition of an administration with a genius for stirring up terror nightmares at politically opportune times, like just before the Democratic convention in 2004. The Sears Tower scenario came right out of the playbook of his predecessor, John Ashcroft. In 2002, Mr. Ashcroft waited a full month to announce the Chicago arrest of the “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla — suddenly commandeering TV cameras in the middle of a trip to Moscow so that this tardy “news” could drown out the damning pre-9/11 revelations from the F.B.I. whistleblower Coleen Rowley. Since then, the dirty bomb in the Padilla case has evaporated much like Mr. Gonzales’s Sears Tower extravaganza.

Now that the administration is winding down and the Qaeda threat is at its scariest since 2001, one might hope that such stunts would cease. Indeed, two of the White House’s most accomplished artificial-reality Imagineers both left their jobs last month: Scott Sforza, the former ABC News producer who polished up the “Mission Accomplished” spectacle, and Peter Feaver, the academic specialist in wartime public opinion who helped conceive the 35-page National Security Council document that Mr. Bush unveiled as his Iraq “Plan for Victory” in November 2005.

Mr. Feaver’s document used the word victory six times in its table of contents alone, and was introduced by a speech at the Naval Academy in which Mr. Bush invoked “victory” 15 times while standing on a set bedecked with “Plan for Victory” signage. Alas, it turned out that victory could not be achieved merely by Orwellian incantation, so the plan was scrapped only 13 months later for the “surge.” But while Mr. Feaver and his doomed effort to substitute propaganda for action may now be gone, the White House’s public relations strategies for the war, far from waning, are again gathering steam, to America’s peril.

This came into sharp focus last weekend, when our military disclosed, very quietly and with a suspicious lack of accompanying White House fanfare, that it had killed a major terror culprit in Iraq, Haythem Sabah al-Badri. Never heard of him? Usually this administration oversells every death of a terrorist leader. It underplayed Badri’s demise for a reason. The fine print would further expose the fictional new story line that has been concocted to rebrand and resell the Iraq war as a battle against Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda — or, as Mr. Bush now puts it, “the very same folks that attacked us on September the 11th.”

To understand how, revisit the president’s trial run of this new narrative, when he announced the surge in January. Mr. Bush had to explain why his previous “Plan for Victory” had gone belly up so quickly, so he came up with a new premise that absolved him of blame. In his prime-time speech, the president implied that all had been on track in Iraq after the country’s December 2005 elections until Feb. 22, 2006, when one of the holiest Shiite shrines, the gold-domed mosque in Samarra, was blown up. In this revisionist history, that single terrorist act set off the outbreak of sectarian violence in Iraq now requiring the surge.

This narrative was false. Shiite death squads had been attacking Sunnis for more than a year before the Samarra bombing. The mosque attack was not a turning point. It was merely a confirmation of the Iraqi civil war that Mr. Bush refuses to acknowledge because American voters don’t want their troops in the middle of one.

But that wasn’t the only new plot point that the president advanced in his surge speech. With no proof, Mr. Bush directly attributed the newly all-important Samarra bombing to “Al Qaeda terrorists and Sunni insurgents,” cementing a rhetorical sleight of hand he had started sketching out during the midterm election season.

In fact, no one has taken credit for the mosque bombing to this day. But Iraqi government officials fingered Badri as the culprit. (Some local officials told The Washington Post after the bombing that Iraqi security forces were themselves responsible.) Since Badri is a leader of a tiny insurgent cell reportedly affiliated with what the president calls “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” Mr. Bush had the last synthetic piece he needed to complete his newest work of fiction: 1) All was hunky-dory with his plan for victory until the mosque was bombed. 2) “Al Qaeda in Iraq” bombed the mosque. 3) Ipso facto, America must escalate the war to defeat “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” those “very same folks that attacked us on September the 11th.”

As a growing chorus of critics reiterates, “Al Qaeda in Iraq” is not those very same folks. It did not exist on 9/11 but was a product of the Iraq war and accounts for only a small fraction of the Sunni insurgency. It is not to be confused with the resurgent bin Laden network we’ve been warned about in the latest National Intelligence Estimate. But this factual issue hasn’t deterred Mr. Bush. He has merely stepped up his bogus conflation of the two Qaedas by emphasizing all the “foreign leaders” of “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” because that might allow him to imply they are bin Laden emissaries. In a speech in Charleston, S.C., on July 24, he listed a Syrian, an Egyptian, a Tunisian, a Saudi and a Turk.

Against the backdrop of this stepped-up propaganda blitz, Badri’s death nine days later was an inconvenient reminder of the hole in the official White House narrative. Mr. Bush couldn’t do his usual victory jig over Badri’s demise because there’s no way to pass off Badri as a link to bin Laden. He was born in Samarra and was a member of Saddam’s Special Republican Guard.

If Badri was responsible for the mosque bombing that has caused all our woes in Iraq and forced us to stay there, then the president’s story line falls apart. Far from having any connection to bin Laden’s Qaeda, the Samarra bombing was instead another manifestation of the Iraqi civil war that Mr. Bush denies. No wonder the same White House “fact sheet” that left out Mr. Gonzales’s foiled Sears Tower plot and, for that matter, Jose Padilla, also omitted Badri’s name from its list of captured and killed “Senior Al Qaeda Leaders.” Surely it was a coincidence that this latest statement of official Bush administration amnesia was released on Aug. 6, the sixth anniversary of the President’s Daily Brief titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”

And so the president, firm in his resolve against “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” heads toward another August break in Crawford while Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan remains determined to strike in America. No one can doubt Mr. Bush’s triumph in the P.R. war: There are more American troops than ever mired in Iraq, sent there by a fresh round of White House fictions. And the real war? The enemy that did attack us six years ago, sad to say, is likely to persist in its nasty habit of operating in the reality-based world that our president disdains.

A Fictional Minority

Guest Columnist
The New York Times
August 12, 2007

The buzz about the new ABC show “Cavemen” is not good. The negative vibes take two forms. Some who have seen the pilot episode find it slapdash, poorly written and unfunny. Others worry that the show will reinforce racial stereotypes by encouraging viewers to identify the maligned Cro-Magnons with African-Americans.

If those who voice the first kind of criticism turn out be right, there will be nothing more to say; after the first week, no one will be watching. The moral objection is a trickier matter, too tricky it seems for the show’s producers, who are backpedaling as fast as they can.

Asked about the charge that plotlines like the perils of interspecies dating seem racially insensitive, one of the producers, Josh Gordon, disclaimed any intention to have the cavemen “stand in for” any racial group. The show, he insisted, is about “the fish-out-of-water experience.” (As a fish out of water myself, I’m tired of people who think that they can deflect criticism by hiding behind a fish metaphor.)

Another producer, Mike Schiff, added that he and his colleagues just want people to “care about these three guys under a lot of makeup.”

Maybe the producers should read the description of their show on the network’s Web site: “They have been around since the dawn of time ... making them one of the world’s oldest minorities. ... Joel, Nick and Andy have to overcome prejudice from most of the Homo sapien world.”

Of course it’s a show about minorities and racism, despite the writer Joe Lawson’s demurrer that it’s really about people struggling to acclimate, “something everybody deals with ...whether you’re a minority or not.”

Why all this pussyfooting? The truth is that there is nothing risky or edgy about a show taking on (or pretending to take on) racial discrimination. Nothing could be safer, for reasons explained briskly by Walter Benn Michaels in ”The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality,” just issued in paperback.

Michaels’s big point is that Americans, especially Americans on the left, love discrimination. Not that they love to practice discrimination; they love to deplore the fact of discrimination. And they love to propose strategies for lessening it: affirmative action, the celebration of diversity, the promotion of a culture of respect.

The reason we love those strategies, Michaels says, is that they involve cosmetic changes that allow us to feel good about ourselves while also allowing us to turn our eyes away from the economic inequalities that remain untouched as we busily respect everyone in sight.

Respect is an easy coin to proffer; it doesn’t cost much.

Michaels argues that if we think “racism is the problem we need to solve,” all we have to do to solve it is “give up our prejudices.” But if we think our problem is that too many people are poor, hungry, homeless and uneducated, solving that problem “might require us to give up our money.”

Far easier to add three minority representatives to the board of directors, or 10 minority faculty members to the roster of an Ivy League college, and then congratulate ourselves for having fought the good fight by slightly altering some statistics. Confession, absolution and good works in one pain-free package. What a bargain!

So bring on the cavemen. If Michaels is right, and the differences we ritually complain about are the differences we love (because beating our breasts about them is a cheap form of virtue), any controversy that the show might provoke will fit right into the society’s unwillingness to contemplate real social change.

Already, before the first episode is broadcast (if it ever is), we’re getting a taste of what is to come. After ABC canceled his show, the comedian George Lopez began talking as if he had been the victim of discrimination. “So a Chicano can’t be on TV, but a caveman can?” he said.

Is Lopez upset because one minority is being preferred to another? Does he believe there are cavemen? Or is he upset because a fictional minority is being preferred to a real one? Would he feel better if it were not cavemen, but Gypsies?

As long as the show, even in prospect, generates questions like these, and as long as such questions define the parameters of social concern, no C.E.O. making $130 million a year need worry about a thing.

A Week When Risk Came Home to Roost

Fair Game
The New York Times
August 12, 2007

FOR something that everybody assured us was “contained,” the subprime mortgage mess certainly has spread.

Last week, the hemorrhaging credit markets bled right into the stock market. The major indexes are still up for the year, thankfully, but the Dow Jones industrial average, which hit 14,000 just three weeks ago, has lost 5.4 percent of its value since then. And the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index is down 6.4 percent from its July peak.

Why are the bond market’s troubles something for stock investors to worry about?

The easy answer is that all markets, both here and around the globe, are intertwined. And despite Wall Street’s insistence that diversification — and therefore safety — could be found in different types of assets, investors are again learning that diverse holdings often behave similarly. This is especially true in periods of uncertainty like the one we are enduring now.

But there are other reasons that the stock market is getting dinged by bond woes. One involves private equity firms, which provided perhaps the biggest push to stock prices when they paid significant premiums to acquire public companies. If these firms cannot borrow money in the bond market to finance their buyouts, or if they must pay more for those borrowings, their business models do not work as well. And that means the private equity bid for stocks fades away.

Even more surprising, to young hedge fund managers at least, is the way the credit crisis has begun to hammer seemingly conservative equity investment funds. This is another explanation for the stock market’s upheaval last week.

Using what are known as market-neutral strategies designed by computer models, hedge fund traders have been blindsided by a correlation between bonds and stocks that they never expected would occur.

Portfolios of this stripe are often known as quantitative funds; some of their most common trades are called statistical arbitrage. These bets are suggested by brilliant mathematicians and academics, using computer models to scour the markets for interesting trading patterns that continue for long periods.

For example, a computer might trace the relationship and trading characteristics of two similar assets, like shares of General Motors and Ford. The fund manager then makes trades, going both long and short, based on the way these shares generally trade. If Ford typically trades cheaper than General Motors, the manager would short Ford and buy G.M., capturing what might be small profits, but on a large volume.

Another type of trade might involve stocks’ performance immediately after an analyst downgrade or upgrade. Trades are placed on thousands of stocks to try to capitalize on the “typical” behavior that the computer coughs up.

Seeing that such bets typically generated profits over long periods left traders believing that their stakes were conservative.

The only trouble is, financial markets do not always trade in a way that is typical or predictable. And when they deviate from the norm, all the wonderful and smart trades stop behaving according to plan.

ANALYSTS call it model misbehavior.

In a research report from Lehman Brothers last week, Matthew S. Rothman described the phenomenon. Fund managers experiencing losses in their fixed-income portfolios who were unable to sell their positions then tried to unwind the trades they could sell — that is, stocks. They cashed in the shares they had purchased and bought back the ones they had sold short.

The result was that stocks that had historically been weaker became stronger, and vice versa.

“It is not simply that model returns are flat (or not working),” Mr. Rothman wrote, “but specifically that the models (ours included) are behaving in the opposite way we would predict and have seen and tested for over very long time periods (45-plus years).”

As a result, “risk models are miscalibrated for the current market environment,” he wrote.

Compounding the problem, of course, is the borrowed money these funds use to enhance their performance. When things start to unravel, leverage aggravates an already painful fall.

Mr. Rothman also pointed out that so many fund managers had the same trades on their books that when they went to cash out of them, the ill effects were exaggerated.

The losses that investors are suffering this month, he wrote, are comparable only to those in the 1960s and during the bursting of the Internet bubble. “This appears to be an event with little precedent,” he wrote.

None of this would be a problem, of course, if fund managers were not relying so heavily on just that — precedent — to make their decisions. Computer models seem so perfect, so scientific, so flawless, and they are advertised to investors in precisely that fashion. Ingenious models lull investors into a dangerous complacency about the risks they are taking. It is almost as if the models eliminate risk entirely from the markets.

But risk is never gone, as investors are recognizing with a jolt. And that is so even if Wall Street assigns conservative-sounding labels to portfolio strategies that are, in fact, aggressive.

“They have their standard deviations, correlations, ‘stable value’ and ‘real return’ funds and nothing for what the normal human being would call risk at all,” said Frederick E. Rowe Jr., a money manager at Greenbrier Partners in Dallas. “They’ve taken the word ‘risk’ and hijacked it. The concept of risk — the permanent loss of capital — vanished in the minds of the people who speak the new language.”

Risk, and all that it should connote to investors, is back in the language now. Unfortunately, it has brought an awful lot of losses with it.

Sounding the Alarm, or at Least Trying To

Our Towns
The New York Times
August 12, 2007


And speaking of troubled infrastructure.

Admittedly, it’s a different category than the recent rash of collapsing bridges, exploding steam pipes and overwhelmed storm sewers.

Still, in a summer whose theme seems to be things that don’t work, a rimshot, please, for the ongoing exercise in malfunction at a place where you really would rather not see it: the Indian Point nuclear power plant.

True, this is not about running the reactors. Instead it’s the ongoing “Keystone Kops” episode about putting together a functional siren system that is now nearing another big deadline. That would be Aug. 24, when the updated $15 million system of 155 sirens is supposed to be ready to alert residents (let’s not dwell on what they would be alerted to) of Westchester, Rockland, Orange and Putnam Counties who are within 10 miles of the plant on the Hudson River.

The new system was initially due by Jan. 30, but Entergy Nuclear, which owns the plant, wasn’t ready and was granted an extension by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission until April 15.

Whoops! On April 12, 31 of what were then 150 new sirens failed to sound during a test. That led to a $130,000 fine.

And now? The company said 96 percent of the sirens worked properly in its most recent test. On the other hand, it’s not a great sign that with two weeks to go, the company and regulators are arguing about just how loud the sirens have to be.

Siren-Gate dates to 2005, when provisions inserted by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton into the federal Energy Policy Act required backup battery power for the sirens at Indian Point, which were installed when the plant was built in the mid-1970s.

The plans called for replacing the 156 old sirens, which had mechanical rotating horns and were activated by radio signals, with new units featuring activating systems that can be triggered by cellphone, microwave radio or Internet-based signals.

But company officials say numerous glitches have prevented the system from operating properly. And public officials say the project has become a nightmare, sucking up time, energy and resources, with the outcome still uncertain.

“This has consumed so much time for so long — half my staff on a daily basis in one way or another,” said Tony Sutton, the commissioner of emergency services in Westchester County. “And when we’re done, what will we have? An outdoor siren system born in the cold war.”

Well, one hopes it will be a better siren system, but still, the episode does raise questions.

The first, as enunciated more than once by the county executive, Andrew J. Spano, is if Entergy has so much trouble getting the sirens to work, what does it say about its ability to run, say, a nuclear plant?

Second, as Mr. Sutton puts it, is this is the level of technology we should expect now? The sirens, it turns out, are meant to be heard outside, not inside. This might have made sense three decades ago, when most people didn’t have air-conditioning and left the windows open, and shopped on Main Street instead of at a bunkerlike mall. Might not a system with text messages, e-mail links, chips that turn on television sets — something in tune with modern technology — make a bit more sense today?

AN Entergy spokesman, Jim Steets, said the company’s expertise was in running nuclear plants not siren technology. He said that the idea that the siren problems speak to the overall operations of the plant was something of a cheap shot. Still, he says, “I’ll admit that we put ourselves in a position that enabled them to say it.”

And both sides know that the siren issue isn’t really a siren issue. There’s not much margin of error on many large projects the public depends on — ask the drivers who use the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis. But there surely isn’t much on a nuclear plant at the edge of the most densely populated part of the country, which periodically has to explain things like leaks, however minuscule, of tritium and strontium 90.

The sirens, presumably, will work sooner or later. The real battle, just beginning, is the epic one over renewing Indian Point’s license to produce electricity until 2035, a matter that probably won’t be decided for three years.

And on that one, the issue is about a lot more than the sirens. It’s about why the sirens are needed, whether to renew the license for a plant that almost certainly could never be built at Indian Point today, and whether there’s any real alternative to the power it provides.


Here Comes Federer, the Polite and Polished Star

Sports of The Times
August 12, 2007

In a Gillette commercial, Thierry Henry, Roger Federer and Tiger Woods appear as liquid mercury images stepping out of a movie screen of sports clips and into your home wearing Soho-inspired black suits.

The three of them — supernovas of soccer, tennis and golf — stand shoulder to shoulder at the end, with Federer playfully caressing Woods’s close shave.

On the set in Rome, where part of the ad was filmed months ago, Henry and Federer took their stage marks with Tiger in between. Or, rather, Tiger’s stand-in — a man in a green bodysuit with eye holes who could be digitally whisked away and later replaced with Woods.

“I touched an Italian guy in green,” Federer laughed as he sat in a Montreal hotel suite for an interview last week. “That was Tiger.”

Illusions are part of every icon’s pitch. Build an aura. Create an empire. But the increasingly common vision of Federer in America’s living rooms seems less of a camera trick and more of an honest outreach.

“In some ways, yes, what I’m looking for is definitely recognition in the States,” Federer said. “I hope they appreciate my achievements and results, but I don’t want to force it on the public because that is always up to them to decide.”

He is not David Beckham, imposing his global celebrity and Posh wife and exposed pecs on America’s soccer simpletons for the profit of Brand Beckham. Instead, Federer has moved judiciously into our culture, with more ads and more victories, becoming an excellent houseguest.

For one, he doesn’t break things — as in fan trust. With his fusion style, all at once high tech and retro, Federer has captured 11 Grand Slam titles in four years without surfacing in the tableau of sports scandals. No doping, dogs or deceit.

He is not an ill-mannered squatter on our landscape, either, revealing no symptoms of anti-social behavior. He doesn’t lord his greatness over, say, a headwaiter. Federer actually smiled at the absurdity of a recent report that praised him for refusing to pull a don’t-you-know-who-I-am moment at a crowded restaurant, as if acting like a normal person were heroic. “I knew I was too late,” Federer said.

He is not the kind of company who will come home sauced with a groupie one night — and land in the tabloids tomorrow. By all accounts, Federer’s big escape is downtime with his girlfriend of seven years, Mirka Vavrinec. “Honestly, I’d rather have tea with Mirka and speak about life,” he said.

He is a metro male on an Obama scale, isn’t he? Federer is a chatty Swiss who is curious about others.

Many elite athletes use headphones as a convenient way to hide from the public, tuning out autograph requests or questions or even teammates. Federer owns about a half-dozen iPods but has little use for them.

“I think they’re a great creation, but if you put them in,” said Federer, pointing to his ears, “you can’t speak to anyone. You’re isolating yourself and I don’t like that.”

Federer is a worldly boarder who prefers to leave a tidy legacy behind him when he exits. As a Unicef ambassador, he visited India last Christmas on the second anniversary of the destructive tsunami of December 2004. He rode hundreds of miles across the country, moved by the faces of determined people, impressed by the meticulous organization of the villages and sickened by a car ride turned thrill ride.

“They were driving so fast,” Federer said, widening his eyes. “And there was one lane going this way and one going that way and they were overtaking all the time. So you’d go heading right at another car, then they turned the wheel just in time. At one point, I think I’m not even looking anymore. You look out the side, but you get sick.”

He isn’t a backseat driver. So Federer won’t be barging into America this month — as the hardcourt season peaks with the United States Open — pushing an agenda other than winning another major and, if it’s meant to be, winning over the public.

He is on his way at least commercially. Tiger is not only his Gillette co-star but provides the voiceover to Federer’s Nike ads. Not a bad icon to provide Federer’s long-awaited introduction to the mainstream masses, from the Corn Belt to each coast.

Maybe there is a place for a Swiss to fill an American craving for a superstar of authentic quality this summer, one who is neither polarizing nor perplexing. Federer is, at least on stage, not an illusion. What a refreshing change.

“I take being a role model seriously,” he said. “So I hope I can fit that spot that is maybe missing at the moment. I don’t know.”

To date, Federer has never broken, trashed or ruined anything. He is a host’s dream guest.


Baseball’s Celebrity Witch Hunt Misses Mark

Sports of The Times
August 12, 2007


Chipper Jones did not take nearly enough heat for putting Alex Rodriguez into the conversation with Barry Bonds, and that was before Rodriguez gave Jones a pass here Friday night, insisting that Jones, his old friend from when they were Florida high school prodigies, “didn’t say anything out of order.”

Rodriguez’s manager, Joe Torre, said he read Jones’s comments about steroid questions and public trust last week in the New York newspapers and that it was, as Jones fumed afterward, simply another case of those evil tabloid people not synchronizing their headlines and articles.

“He said that anybody is going to come under scrutiny, get asked questions,” Torre said. “And that is true.”

Anybody, apparently, attempting something special, like chasing Bonds, as A-Rod is said to be in the process of doing. He was at 503 homers for his career and 39 for the season, after two two-run blasts in the scorching Yankees’ 11-2 lockdown of the Indians. But is that what the sanctioned and much-ballyhooed investigation, led by former Senator George J. Mitchell, is all about? Pursuing royalty? Protecting records?

If it is, then the pending report will not be an honest accounting of baseball’s implicit acceptance of performance enhancement while other sports were at least acknowledging and legislating against the scourge. It will be a celebrity witch hunt, a few famous heads for the commissioner, Bud Selig, to mount on his wall.

Why investigate that way at all when baseball has the exiled crusader Jose Canseco dropping a big name here, another there, as he shamelessly shops another book proposal, by way of the public?

My guess, my hope, is that Mitchell understands that the essence of his work has been to examine the core issues of a bastardized culture, explain how baseball as an industry injected itself with the belief that steroids — like peanuts and Cracker Jack — were staples of the sport.

It should be apparent to everyone by now that the Popeyes who blew past Maris and Ruth and Aaron were far from the only major leaguers spiking their spinach. In the nontesting era, there was so much to be gained, nothing (it seemed) to be risked, from going on the juice even if you weren’t tracking history or the Hall of Fame.

“It’s just so far-fetched, the numbers that those guys are putting up,” Jones said during his Bonds-Rodriguez seminar. “And a lot of it comes from the era that they’re playing in.”

Yes, the home run chases and the subsequent revelations put the spotlight on the sluggers, but why is their enhancement, alleged or admitted, more morally reprehensible than anyone else’s?

One career year by an average player on the threshold of free agency could bring the contract of a lifetime. A few chemical boosts could mean the difference between major league perks and minor league misery. If cheating is cheating, the same at all institutional levels of productivity, then why would A-Rod, as Jones said, have to “answer the questions” more than others achieving the unexpected or the extraordinary?

Jorge Posada is hitting .338 this season — or 51 points higher than his career best — with his 36th birthday coming this week. Beyond baseball’s drug-testing program, should he have to “answer the questions” of the legitimacy police? Should Hideki Matsui have to explain his July power surge? Should Joba Chamberlain, 21, with a body type that Roger Clemens didn’t grow into until he was past 30, have to convince us that his 99-mile-an-hour fastball is au naturel?

Before serving a one-game suspension Friday night, Torre said he interpreted Jones’s comments to mean that “anybody is going to come under scrutiny.” But Jones didn’t talk about anybody. He connected A-Rod to Bonds and was shocked when headlines rolled off the presses. How naïve is that?

Jones cited suspicions about A-Rod that were raised self-servingly in a recent radio interview by Canseco, while adding that he was inclined to believe that A-Rod’s home run numbers were pure — which is akin to calling a news conference to announce that your so-called friend probably doesn’t beat his wife.

This isn’t to say Canseco’s first literary work wasn’t enlightening, on the money, with arguably greater impact than the journalistically brilliant “Game of Shadows.” Without Canseco, maybe there is no March 2005 Congressional hearing on steroids, and Mark McGwire winds up sitting between Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn last month in Cooperstown, N.Y.

But let’s not forget that Canseco has an agenda, and knows what he has to do to keep himself relevant: Drop names, big names; and feed the insatiable public appetite for celebrity news. Jones should not have played along. It wasn’t fair to A-Rod, and it didn’t raise the more important institutional questions the Mitchell investigation had better answer.


Weekley Is Not Like the Others

Sports Of The Times
August 12, 2007

Tulsa, Okla.

You would think Boo Weekley would have known, or should have known. You would think that any golfer in this 89th P.G.A. Championship at Southern Hills would have known that Tiger Woods’s 63 on Friday tied the major-tournament scoring record. But Boo is different. Delightfully different. Asked if he knew what it would have meant had he made his 40-foot birdie putt on the 18th green for a 63 yesterday, he shrugged.

“No, I didn’t know,” he said.

Told he would have tied the record, Weekley said: “Really? That would have been nice.”

You really didn’t know?

“I was just trying to play enough break because I knew I had a lot of break in the first 20 feet of it,” he said in his Florida Panhandle drawl. “Just trying to get it on the top of the ridge there and roll out to the hole. I moved my big head and kind of flubbed it a little with the putter.”

He flubbed it 6 feet short, missed that putt and tapped in for a 65, the day’s low score. Tiger Woods, with a 69 in his bid for a 13th major title, retained the lead and was three strokes ahead of Stephen Ames of Canada going into today’s final round. Weekley, who is seven shots back, played the round with Sergio García, who was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard; it was Weekley who accidentally wrote a wrong score for the 17th hole.

Boo is different. At 34, he’s a country boy from the Florida Panhandle who would rather fish and hunt. As a graduate of the Nationwide Tour who won the Verizon Heritage in April, he’s playing golf so well that he’s 19th on the PGA Tour money list with more than $2 million in prize money. He’s also 45th in the world rankings and 17th in FedEx Cup points for the four-tournament playoffs that begin Aug. 23 at The Barclays at the Westchester Country Club.

“I don’t know nothing about the FedEx Cup,” he said. “I never was good at math.”

What if Jack Nicklaus phoned him tomorrow and selected him for the United States team in the Presidents Cup matches next month in Montreal?

“That would be great,” he said. “I don’t know where I am on the points. I haven’t got a clue.”

Did he have any ambitions to play in the Ryder Cup matches next year at Valhalla in Louisville, Ky.?

“If they invite me to come to play, I’ll play,” he said. “But no, I don’t know a whole lot about it. I’ve seen some clips of it. I think Justin Leonard made a putt or something. That’s about the only thing I remember of the Ryder Cup stuff.”

Growing up in Milton, Fla., where, he says, “there’s more pickup trucks than cars,” he never watched much golf on TV.

“That’s just something I’ve never done,” he said. “Still to this day I will go home and watch a little bit of golf, like if I’ve seen they caught a little bit of me on TV and maybe my friends Heath Slocum or Bubba Watson or Joe Durant, but I just can’t sit there and watch golf. It’s just not my cup of tea.”

Boo is different. Most successful pros intend to play tournament golf forever, but he can’t wait to be home in Jay, Fla., with his wife, Karyn, and his son, Thomas, who turns 6 this month.

“I want to play 10, 12 years, whatever it takes to get enough money in my bank and I’m done,” he said. “I love the game, but I get tired of the grind. I get tired of being away from my family. I get tired of being away from my friends. I love to play the game, but my heart is really with hunting and fishing.”

How much money in the bank would be enough?

“I don’t know,” he said. “I ain’t got that far yet.”

Boo is different. As a youngster, he played football, baseball and basketball, but was often injured.

“I figured I might want to pick up a sport where I don’t get hurt as much,” he said. “Gene Howard was his name, the golf coach that taught me how to play.”

He then attended Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Ga., before working at a chemical plant in Florida for three years.

“Then my buddy Heath Slocum and his daddy talked me into coming back and playing golf,” Weekley said. “So they were laying off at the plant. I took the layoff and started playing golf.”

In his first “major event,” as he called it, at The Moors in Milton, Fla., on the Emerald Coast minitour, he said: “Won $2,200. I was like, man, this is an easy way to make a living right here, so I just kind of stuck with that. Easy way of making a living.”

Easy for him, but maybe that’s because Boo is different. Delightfully different.

Lessons For Today's Market In 1907 Panic

August 11, 2007

NEW YORK - The current upheaval in global markets has many on Wall Street drawing comparisons to turmoil seen in 1998, 1987 and even 1929, but a new book suggests investors should look back as far as 1907 for insight into the mechanisms that can trigger a crash.

"The Panic of 1907" (Wiley, $29.95) begins with the Park Avenue suicide of Charles Barney, a prominent New York banker. Barney was one of many casualties -- both individual and institutional -- of an attempt to corner the market in shares of United Copper Co., which brought a string of banks to the brink of collapse.

Authors Robert Bruner and Sean Carr illustrate the domino-effect of the panic, from the plunge in United Copper shares all the way to the bankruptcy threat for the city of New York. "The Panic of 1907" also paints a picture of the many conditions that made the economy vulnerable to such a brutal chain reaction.

Timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of one of the worst financial meltdowns in U.S. history, the book's arrival on shelves in September is all the more fortuitous, since even mom-and-pop investors are now aware of the volatility that has gripped Wall Street over the past few weeks.

Some of the conditions that laid the ground for 1907 panic may look familiar to anyone who has read the business pages this year: a booming economy and unprecedented rash of corporate mergers and acquisitions and a profusion of "borrowers and creditors (who) overreach in their use of debt."

"Credit anorexia" set in once "bank directors awoke to the inadequacy of their capitalization relative to the credit risks they had taken," causing them to cut off the new loans available to their clients. Soon afterwards, long lines of panicked depositors were forming outside several banks waiting to withdraw their funds.

Bruner and Carr, both professors at the University of Virginia, identify seven elements that can converge to create a financial "perfect storm," no matter what the century. Key among them is some kind of real economic shock. In the case of 1907, one of the shocks was the San Francisco earthquake the year before.

If such a storm were to strike today, we wouldn't be able to identify the shock until after it hit, the authors point out. But one of the potential culprits they cite are the high amounts of leverage used by hedge funds and their tight relationships with major banks, which could make any losses ripple through the financial system.

In 1907, it was J. Pierpont Morgan who led the charge to stop the bleeding on Wall Street. Bruner and Carr credit the financial titan with putting his own firm's capital on the line to save smaller banks from collapse, compelling his counterparts to act as a collective to stave off contagion.

One hundred years later, Bruner and Carr pose the question, does today's rapid, automated style of trading leave any room for such a cooperative rescue effort, should such a panic occur again?

Friday, August 10, 2007

A Bloodbath in Newark, and Beyond

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
August 11, 2007


Cory Booker seemed tired, beleaguered, bewildered.

The young mayor had been on the run with very little sleep for several days. Now, during a break in a private room at City Hall here, he leaned forward in his chair and said, “There is something going on in our country that people are not, for some reason, awake to.”

He then mentioned what he described as a “poignant” meeting he’d had with a top official of the F.B.I. “I asked him, ‘What is the solution to this problem?’ ” said Mr. Booker. “And he said to me, ‘It’s not law enforcement.’ ”

The mayor was talking about the violent crime that, like a dragon from some Medieval fairy tale, continues to devour the lives of young Americans, especially those in poor black and brown neighborhoods. This is a tale with no happy ending in sight.

Newark has been convulsed since last weekend when the dragons materialized late at night in the rundown playground behind a public school. A 19-year-old college student, Natasha Aeriel, was gravely wounded by a gunshot to the head. Her three companions, including her 18-year-old brother, Terrance, were then marched at gunpoint down a flight of stone steps and ordered to face a 6-foot-high concrete wall.

The youngsters were told to kneel and then were executed with shots to the back of the head in a tableau that seemed too insane to be real. Staring at the wall in daylight, under an extremely hot August sun, I found myself resisting the idea that this really happened, that three young people really died right there, like casualties in a war zone.

Forty years after the riots that wrecked this city, Newark is once again unnerved. People are calling for the resignation of a mayor who has been in office only a year. Others want the National Guard to start patrolling the streets, a stomach-turning suggestion to many who remember the riots.

The sheriff of Essex County, Armando Fontoura, lost it completely on Tuesday, loudly declaring, “I’m on the verge of telling my guys to suspend civil liberties and start frisking everybody.”

There’s a fever in the city. But the biggest mistake one could make in looking at the gratuitous slaughter of these young people (three arrests have been made and more are expected) is to view it as a problem peculiar to Newark.

A month ago, I was interviewing people in a playground outside an elementary school in Chicago, where a 13-year-old girl had been shot to death. She was just one of many. Nearly three dozen public school students in Chicago were slain over the past school year, most of them shot to death.

“It’s difficult out here,” said a woman who was watching her two young sons scamper around the playground where the 13-year-old had died. Her tone was every bit as weary and beleaguered as Cory Booker’s.

In Camden, N.J., on a Sunday morning in June, a 24-year-old nurse’s aide was killed in a burst of gunfire as she stood talking with a friend on a street corner. She was one of four young people killed in a four-day eruption of violence in Camden.

A teenager who lives in the city tried to explain to me what it was like to have a number of friends or relatives murdered: “You don’t exactly get used to it,” he said, “but you expect it.”

Philadelphia, across the Delaware River from Camden, is struggling with an even worse problem. As if signaling the start of an accelerated killing season, six people were murdered on the first day of summer. Philly’s homicide rate is on pace to break last year’s tally of 406.

As Senator Barack Obama said during a visit to a Chicago church last month, “From South-Central L.A., to Newark, New Jersey, there’s an epidemic of violence that is sickening the soul of this nation.”

More attention to this crisis of violence is needed, and more police resources, and more jobs, and better schools, and improved prison re-entry programs, and tighter gun controls. But more than anything else, a cultural change is needed.

The communities hardest hit are those in which too many parents have failed their children. The most effective anti-crime effort begins at home with parents (fathers, are you listening?) who raise their kids to know better than to point a gun at another human being and blow that person away for no good reason.

That’s the essential component. Without it, all other crime-fighting efforts are doomed, and thousands upon thousands of poor youngsters will continue to be denied their most basic civil right — the right to grow safely to adulthood.

Republicans in the Straw

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
August 11, 2007


Happy Iowa Straw Poll Day!

Today40,000 Republicans are expected to make a pilgrimage to a large tent in Ames, Iowa, where they will eat an enormous amount of free food and vote for a presidential candidate. Mitt Romney is going to serve barbecue, and one of his sons has just visited all 99 counties. I don’t think we need say more.

The Iowa Republicans are known for being socially conservative, and the candidates are dragging in every relative they can get their hands on to demonstrate their familial credentials. “Mom and Dad will be up on Saturday,” promised Senator Sam Brownback, possibly embarrassed that he had come to the Iowa State Fair armed with only one daughter. Romney moves around with so many photogenic sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren that they look like one of those singing families that were so popular in the ’70s.

(“Now here’s the Romneys with their No. 1 hit, “I Woke Up in Cedar Rapids This Morning.”)

Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but all the divorced candidates have taken a pass on the straw poll. The rest have been fighting over who opposes abortion the most. (There are eight Republicans campaigning here, and if you can name them all you need to re-examine your priorities.)

As a result, we have not devoted nearly enough attention to interesting moments like the time Romney equated service in the military with son Josh’s ordeal driving the Mitt Mobile around Iowa all summer long.

On the plus side, some of the more hopeless candidates might give up if they do badly here, and stop cluttering up the debates. Supporters of Tommy Thompson have reportedly been warned that Thompson will commit political hari-kari if they fail to turn out in droves. It’s hard to imagine they’ve been empowered by the way the campaign refers to them as S.O.T.T.’s.

It’s tough getting even Iowans to focus on the 2008 presidential race in August of 2007. When Brownback took his turn at the traditional Iowa Fair Soapbox Address the other day, only a handful of people were prepared to sit on picturesque bales of hay in the hot sun and listen. “Just let me conclude by saying this is a wonderful nation,” he said before wandering off past the X-Treme French Fries booth.

The Iowa State Fair is not actually about politics so much as about finding new things to deep-fry. (Twinkies! Candy bars! Pork-chop-on-a-stick!) This is why Michael Bloomberg is never going to be president. Midwestern fairgoers could never relate to a man who believes all fast food should come with a calorie count.

While Brownback was speaking to an enthusiastic crowd of about 20, the line of people waiting to see Harry Potter carved in butter snaked around the Agriculture Building. Since the statue itself is behind glass for climate-control reasons, the scene strongly resembled the viewing of the Pietà in the Vatican.

Harry, pointing his buttery wand toward the flower-arranging competition, was surrounded by toads and potion bottles and, of course, the traditional Butter Cow which has to be there whether it really fits the theme or not. This was all the work of Sarah Doyle Pratt, a 30-year-old elementary school teacher, who apprenticed under the legendary Norma “Duffy” Lyon, creator of the never-to-be-forgotten all-butter Last Supper.

Truly, if you are into art forms based on dairy products, you have to go to Iowa. The year Hillary Clinton first ran for Senate, the state of New York suffered a deep humiliation when half the world went traipsing through the fair in Syracuse and all we had to offer was a butter sculpture of a refrigerator.

All the other states are wildly jealous of the fact that the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary come first and get so much attention. Florida has been particularly whiney, which is really like the kid with all the toys howling because he sees another child with a rather attractive piece of string. But everybody is shoving their way to the front, putting us in deep jeopardy of an Iowa Christmas Caucus.

Instead of fighting about who gets to actually vote first, perhaps the states could just supercede the straw poll by producing their own meaningless exercises in summertime fund-raising and attention-getting. Personally, I’m only in Iowa for the butter sculpture, and I’d be happy to be diverted if, say, Arkansas challenged its voters to pile up watermelons for their favorite Republican, or Kansas did a Candidate Winnowing. Winners will be judged on originality and public participation.

Extra points for carving things out of local produce.

Making a Home, and a Haven for Books

About New York
The New York Times
August 11, 2007

Kurt Thometz got to the brownstone on 160th Street first, but a woman who designed lingerie came with more. “The underwear lady, she had $2 million in her purse, or so the broker told me,” he said. “Maybe what that actually meant is that she didn’t need a mortgage.”

At that point, the ordinary arc of life in New York called for Mr. Thometz — a man so passionate about rare and obscure books that he has spent his life happily making a modest living trading in them — to forget the brownstone and hunt down a good-sized closet that he, wife, son and books could afford.

Off he wandered, finding nothing. One day, though, he passed the brownstone, still unsold. The underwear lady had gone away. He saw the woman of the house, Bun-Ching Lam, on the stoop.

“Your husband is a rare book dealer, and so am I,” Mr. Thometz remembered saying.

“He is just home from Düsseldorf. You must meet him,” she said.

Down the stairs came the husband, Gunnar Kaldewey, a maker of fine art books. Mr. Thometz gave him a copy of an acclaimed anthology of Eastern Nigerian market literature he had edited in 2001.

Over embossed endpapers, they bonded. “I’ll entertain your bid for the house,” Mr. Kaldewey told him.

Mr. Thometz went to the bank, but came back short of the asking price.

In that moment, love — ferocious, unmanageable, deliriously detached-from-all-reality love — conquered even the Manhattan real estate market.

“Gunnar gave us a second mortgage so I could do it,” Mr. Thometz said. “That it is still a haven of books means a lot to him.”

And so, in defiance of the end of reading and the printed word, in the teeth of the empire of chain stores that stretches to every corner of the retail world, the pilgrimage of Kurt Thometz has carried him from the grand salons of New York to his own bookshop on the northern tip of Harlem.

Mr. Thometz has tended the serious private libraries of Brooke Astor and Diana Vreeland, Leonard Lauder, Felix Rohatyn and various Newhouses, and others of such staggering wealth that an interior decorator could summon him to provide a collection with only one specification: “53 feet of books bound in forest green.”

Now he presides at Jumel Terrace Books ( on the ground floor of his family’s home at 426 West 160th Street. A sign on the window says, “Open by Invitation, Appointment, or Serendipity.”

Mr. Thometz; his son, Adam; and his wife, Camilla Hoey, a dress and costume maker, arrived on 160th Street in 2004 with 400 cartons of book, some 10,000 volumes. The specialty is local history and African and African-American literature.

They live down the street from the oldest house in Manhattan, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, where Washington, Jefferson and the Adamses dined; where a woman who grew up in a bordello became the wife of Aaron Burr, a courtesan without peer, and by dint of shrewd real estate dealings, one of wealthiest women in America. “Eliza Jumel is the grand horizontal story of all time,” Mr. Thometz said.

Around the corner is 555 Edgecombe Avenue, home over the years to, among others, Count Basie, Joe Louis, Thurgood Marshall, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, Lena Horne, Canada Lee. “It’s one of the most intensely historical places in the United States,” Mr. Thometz said. “It’s the crossroads where the founding fathers met the founding brothers.”

Mr. Thometz, 54, was born in “middle-state Minnesota,” and came to New York in 1972. “I didn’t go to college, I went to Book Row,” he said, working at the Strand, University Place Bookstore and the Madison Avenue Bookshop.

He found additional work as the private librarian to rich people — some of them serious readers, some of them looking to furnish a room with eye candy.

“They didn’t know what they were hiring me for, they just knew that Mrs. Vreeland told them to,” Mr. Thometz said.

Some clients had very particular interests. At the request of a professional dominatrix, he said, he provided a set of the Marquis de Sade, bound in black leather with fetish strappings. “Butched out,” Mr. Thometz said. “She was a Dante scholar as well.”

Adam, a son from his first marriage, had autism, accompanied by its common side effect, divorced parents. Adam lived with Mr. Thometz and Ms. Hoey in Brooklyn Heights when 9/11 sent them all into a tailspin.

“There was no call for what I did for a long time,” he said. Two years later, they were bailed out: Ms. Hoey got a call from Celine Dion, who needed costumes for a Las Vegas extravaganza, three shows a day, seven days a week, 30 dancers, with changes.

In the ground floor parlor on 160th Street, Mr. Thometz gives the tour: 18th century over there. On this shelf, slavery, many oral histories; sports, jazz, street literature, narcotics, black military history. Bound volumes of Muhammad Speaks. Vinyl records of speeches by Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver. A signed Langston Hughes volume. Bruce Davidson’s photos of 100th Street. Mr. Thometz had a very good day last month at the Harlem Book Fair, when 40,000 people visited 145th Street.

THE passion for books survives. He has a story about that. By the age of 5, Adam had not yet spoken an intelligible word — not Mommy, not Daddy, not milk or no. Mr. Thometz read to him every night for two and a half years. With Adam in the crook of his arm, the weight of the day on him, Mr. Thometz was reading Thomas the Tank Engine for the 200th time.

“Henry the engine,” he read.

“Green,” Adam interrupted.

Yes: the proper name was Henry the Green engine. Mr. Thometz had dropped the word. “He supplied it,” Mr. Thometz said. “It was the first time he had used a word on purpose.” And it was the first rung on the ladder he climbed from his isolation. Today, Adam, 16, entertains friends, plays music, and is thriving.

And now, long after the summer days have given way to dusk, a glow spills from the ground-floor window of the brownstone on 160th Street. Four letters seem to float in the window, cutting a silhouette into the light from the bookshop beyond.

“WORD,” it says.


Browns’ Quinn Shouldn’t Need To Apologize

Sports of The Times
August 11, 2007

Berea, Ohio

Brady Quinn took his first cautious steps as an N.F.L. quarterback this week. After an 11-day holdout, Quinn, the former Notre Dame star, bolted into the Cleveland Browns’ training camp.

At the end of practice Thursday, Coach Romeo Crennel compared Quinn’s enthusiasm to that of “a young colt that has been tied up in the barn for a while.”

Make that a wealthy young colt. Quinn signed a five-year deal worth a reported $20.2 million, including a $7.75 million signing bonus.

“He was excited and frisky to be out there running around,” Crennel said. “He was the first guy out to practice, and he was running around excited to throw the ball.”

Quinn’s holdout was an issue with Crennel — an old-school coach of the first order, in the mold of his mentors Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. Crennel wouldn’t refer to Quinn by name until Thursday afternoon, and he still refuses to refer to Quinn by position.

The dollar amount was an issue in the sports media, which, for reasons I’ve never understood, typically adopt management’s they-should-be-grateful mentality on issues of money and player holdouts.

Quinn spent the first 72 hours of his pro career on the defensive, responding to questions about his situation as if he were a naughty schoolboy who had cut class. How would he make it up to fans? Was he concerned with how his contract would sit with fans? How did he feel about being called spoiled by fans? Did he feel he had let people down by holding out?

Critics say Quinn was spoiled. I’ve never seen that in my brief dealings with him, nor have I seen Quinn as a player who was caught up in the role as the face of the Fighting Irish, a role manufactured by the news media.

Any pretensions that Quinn might have had were shattered on draft day, or even before that. He was a star in college until January, when he played in the Sugar Bowl against Louisiana State and JaMarcus Russell, who was the Tigers’ strong-armed quarterback.

Russell and L.S.U. were the overwhelming winners, 41-14, and Quinn’s stock began to plummet. Far from being the first, second or third player taken in the draft, Quinn dropped all the way to No. 22.

Now, in a football sense, he is the underdog.

“I think the fact that he slid as far as he slid in the draft, that kinds of breaks him down, that humbles a guy,” Crennel said. “Now I think he understands that things are not given. That was a good lesson in itself. Now he might have a chip on his shoulder.”

N.F.L. fans want blood: your blood, his blood. Blood.

Yes, the game requires skill and tactics; football is a game of chess. But the game at its core is defined by collisions, which the networks show again and again and again. This is what fans like about football. The fate of the players after they fade away is not the fans’ primary interest.

For all the bizarre and fairly consistent criticism of salaries out there, players need to make as much as they can and hold out for as long as it takes to receive the correct figure.

There’s no need to apologize. Trust me, if the franchise didn’t have it, the player wouldn’t get it.

Football fans will cringe — and cheer — when Quinn takes that first, crushing blindside hit or has a miserable afternoon of hard sacks.

Fans of professional football are fickle, and those who follow the Browns may be even harder on Quinn because he is one of them; he was born in Columbus, Ohio, and grew up in nearby Dublin.

I’m not telling Quinn to forget the fans, just to put them in the corner of his mind reserved for harmless background music.

What Browns fans have to ask themselves is whether more than $20 million is a bargain if it means reaching the Super Bowl.

“The home fans are going to cheer for him, and they’re going to pull for him when he gets in there,” Crennel said. “But then, if you don’t produce when you get in there, they’ll turn on you pretty quickly, too.”

The only questions that matter are: Is Quinn worth his contract? Did we see his best at Notre Dame, or is what we saw then merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of his talent?

Earlier this week, Quinn apologized for, or at least tried to explain, an event in which fans were charged $75 for his autograph.

“That was a misunderstanding,” he said. “That was set up a long time ago. It wasn’t as if I was charging for that.”

He said the money went to a charity in Ohio called Welcome House, which helps provide housing for people with mental or developmental disabilities.

Brady Quinn: stop apologizing. You have the contract, and your championship-starved franchise thinks you’re worth the money. And you think you are a starter.

Now prove it.


One More Reason To Smile for Verplank

Sports of The Times
August 11, 2007

Tulsa, Okla.

Until Tiger Woods shot his record-tying 63 yesterday, Scott Verplank, with a 66 as the Oklahoma homeboy in this 89th P.G.A. Championship, heard the loudest cheers. He lives 100 miles down the road in Edmond, played college golf at Oklahoma State and has been the diabetic marvel of the PGA Tour for two decades. But he doesn’t seek sympathy.

“I just monitor what I’m doing,” he said. “I check my blood sugar. I have this insulin pump that is helpful. I do it five or six times a round. I’m in my own little world and kind of have to be.”

He has made the most of that little world. As an amateur, he won the 1985 Western Open, one of the few amateurs ever to win a PGA Tour event. He couldn’t collect the prize money, but he did collect rave notices that his Type 1 diabetes sometimes prevented him from justifying. But he always kept smiling.

“I didn’t think I was going to come out and win every golf tournament, because I have other things that I deal with that most other people don’t deal with,” he said, a quiet allusion to his medical condition. “I’m happy that I’ve won five times on the Tour. I’m disappointed that I haven’t won more.”

Now 43 years old, Verplank, a diabetic since he was 9, won the Byron Nelson Championship in Dallas in May, and he has earned more than $20 million on tour. He is also one of the most positive pros.

“It’s a little bit of a show to you guys,” he said, alluding to his listeners in the media center yesterday. “If you heard me talking under my breath when I’m out on the golf course, you probably wouldn’t think I’m that upbeat. No, I wouldn’t say it’s a show, but I’ve been so far down at the bottom of the barrel, I know what that’s like, and you can only beat yourself up so much, and now I’m just trying to give myself a better chance.”

For all his success, Verplank has never won a major. And in today’s third round, he and Woods, two strokes ahead as the 36-hole leader, will tee off in the final pairing.

Don’t assume Verplank will fold under Tiger’s glare. As a Ryder Cup player in 2002 and 2006, Verplank had a 4-1 record, including 2-0 in singles. Those individual triumphs were against two of the European teams’ best, Lee Westwood and Padraig Harrington, the recent winner of the British Open. And at Southern Hills yesterday, Verplank had a bogey-free round after having had only two bogeys during his par 70 in the opening round.

“I hit the ball yesterday and today as good as I’ve ever hit it,” he said. “I just hit lots of fairways, lots of greens, very solid shots, and I was putting for birdie most holes.”

Earlier this week, Verplank played a practice round with Phil Mickelson, who said that Southern Hills “set up perfectly” for Verplank’s distance, especially on the dogleg holes.

“The greens roll nicely; he’s a great putter,” Mickelson said. “When he gets hot, he makes it on all these types of greens. He reads them so well and rolls it so good. He spent a lot of time in Oklahoma and Texas with this Bermuda rough. He’s able to get up and down on the greens. I think he’ll be the guy to beat this week.”

Verplank is already the guy much of the gallery is rooting for.

“It’s always nice to have people pulling for you,” he said. “There’s extra people out here that obviously recognize that I’ve been an Oklahoma State person. I’ve heard a lot of ‘Go Cowboys’ and ‘Go ‘Pokes.’ ”

As a homeboy, Verplank has had what he happily described as “a lot of extra demands,” meaning requests for tickets for family and friends.

“I don’t know what night it was, Monday or Tuesday night,” he said with a smile, “I was like an accountant trying to get all of these tickets done in the right envelopes. I think I put like 15 envelopes at will call and I’m like, that’s enough.”

After his round yesterday, Verplank practiced his putting, then headed to the house he rented this week for his family.

“I have my wife and four kids and a nanny and my dad and a couple of nephews,” he said. “I’ll probably go swim with my little 3-year-old. Either be in the water or inside out of the heat, and I’ll watch some TV. There’s never a dull moment when you’ve got four kids.”

And there won’t be a dull moment today when Scott Verplank tries to overtake Tiger Woods.

Credit fears spark stock market plunge

By Patrick Martin
10 August 2007

Stock markets worldwide slumped Thursday amid mounting fears that the crisis in the subprime mortgage lending market is leading to a more generalized credit crisis. The Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the most widely followed stock index, ended down 387.18 points, its largest loss in six months and the fourth triple-digit movement in five days, an indication of the increasing instability in financial markets.

Thursday’s triggering event was the announcement by BNP Paribas, the biggest publicly held French bank, that three of its subsidiaries engaged in trading in US mortgage-backed securities were suspending operations. This came as a German central bank meeting was underway to discuss a bailout of IKB Deutsche Industriebank, a regional bank overexposed to losses in the US subprime market. At the same time, the Dutch lender NIBC Holding said it had lost $189 million on United States mortgage investments.

BNP Paribas said that no redemptions would be made on the $3.8 billion invested in the funds until it could determine the value of the assets held by them. “The complete evaporation of liquidity in certain market segments of the U.S. securitization market has made it impossible to value certain assets fairly regardless of their quality or credit rating,” the bank said in a statement.

Securitization is a process in which a home mortgage is resold by the mortgage lender and then combined with thousands of other mortgages in packages that are sold to hedge funds and other huge investment firms in the form of Collateralized Debt Obligations, or CDOs. The process is so complex, and the distance so great between the underlying asset—the home—and the paper held by the investor, that determining the actual value of the investment under conditions of rising defaults and foreclosures has become problematic.

French stocks fell 3 percent in afternoon trading, while Germany’s DAX index dropped 2.13 percent and Britain’s FTSE 100 fell 1.96 percent. The New York Stock Exchange fell 200 points in its first hour, then rallied, partly in response to well-publicized interventions by central banks to stabilize the financial markets.

The European Central Bank made available nearly 100 billion euros ($130 billion) at a cut-price 4 percent interest rate for bank lenders. It was the first such intervention by the ECB, which manages the value of the euro, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 shut down the New York financial markets for several days.

After the European action, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York injected $24 billion into the money markets by entering into repurchase agreements with major banks. The Bank of Canada also injected funds into the banking system, and issued a public statement that “it will provide liquidity to support the stability of the Canadian financial system and the continued functioning of financial markets.”

Even President Bush joined in the confidence-building exercise, issuing a carefully worded reassurance to the market in the course of his last White House press conference before embarking on his month-long sojourn in Crawford, Texas. He avoided the subject in his opening remarks—since that would have underscored the magnitude of the crisis—and waited until reporters asked his reaction to the financial upheaval.

In comments that were clearly rehearsed, Bush declared, “The fundamentals of our economy are strong.” He added, “Another factor one has got to look at is the amount of liquidity in the system. In other words, is there enough liquidity to enable markets to be able to correct? And I am told there is enough liquidity in the system to enable markets to correct.”

Bush later added—in another reassurance to Wall Street—that he opposed any proposal to raise the tax rate on the earnings of hedge fund managers, by taxing so-called “carried interest” as income rather than capital gains. While endorsing the billion-dollar incomes of the big speculators, he rejected any effort to bail out homeowners facing foreclosure or huge increases in monthly payments under adjustable-rate mortgages.

But in afternoon trading in New York, the wave of selling returned, partly in response to further indications that the subprime lending debacle was having a wider impact. This included press reports of heavy losses and forced selling of holdings by North American Equity Opportunities, a hedge fund run by Goldman Sachs, the huge investment bank.

A letter to investors in Black Mesa Capital, another hedge fund, noted that one “very large hedge fund” was liquidating a “massive” trading portfolio. The letter, reported Thursday by MarketWatch, declared, “‘ Clearly, something is amiss in the markets that few in our strategy, if anyone, have experienced before.”

American International Group (AIG), the largest US insurance company and a major mortgage lender, warned Thursday that defaults on subprime mortgages were increasing, and that the increased delinquency rate was spreading to mortgages in the category just above subprime, which AIG terms “nonprime.” AIG said 10.8 percent of subprime mortgages were 60 days overdue, compared with 4.6 percent in the nonprime category.

Press reports emphasized the shock effect of the French banking crisis on Wall Street trading. According to the Associated Press (AP): “The announcement by BNP Paribas raised the specter of a widening impact of U.S. credit market problems. The idea that anyone—institutions, investors, companies, individuals—can’t get money when they need it unnerved a stock market that has suffered through weeks of volatility triggered by concerns about available credit and bad subprime mortgages.”

The AP suggested that the massive intervention by the European Central Bank had had a boomerang effect. According to the Associated Press, “Although the bank’s loan of more than $130 billion in overnight funds to banks at a bargain rate of 4 percent was intended to calm investors, Wall Street saw the step as confirmation of the credit markets’ problems.”

Other events this week have demonstrated the deep-going crisis in the financial system. On Monday, American Home Mortgage, once the 10th-largest home mortgage lender, filed for bankruptcy, laying off nearly 7,000 employees, many at its Long Island, New York headquarters, and suspending most operations.

The giant investment bank Bear Stearns fired co-president Warren Spector, holding him responsible for the failure of two hedge funds that were part of the asset management group he supervised. The two funds, specializing in securities backed by subprime mortgages, filed for bankruptcy after losing billions, and last Friday Bear Stearns saw its credit rating lowered.

Figures reported in the financial press show a wider pattern of credit-tightening. Thomson Financial reported that sales of high-yield junk bonds fell from $22.4 billion in June to only $2.4 billion in July, while sales of investment-grade bonds fell from $109 billion in June to $30.4 billion in July, the lowest monthly figure in five years.

The Los Angeles Times noted, “many analysts say the real test will come in September, when private equity firms and investment banks will need to find investors for an estimated $330 billion in bonds and loans needed to finance corporate buyouts that already have been announced.”

The economics columnist for the Washington Post, Robert Samuelson, normally a free-market true believer, expressed the gloom settling in among financial observers. In Thursday’s column, written before the latest market plunge, he bemoaned the almost incomprehensible complexity of the mortgage securitization process: “The peril is that so much has changed so quickly that no one knows how the system operates. It’s often roulette. Monday’s defensible investment may become Tuesday’s silly speculation. Global markets are interconnected, and financial conditions are tightening. Some hedge funds—including foreign funds—have suffered huge losses on US subprime mortgages. These could harm banks that lent to hedge funds. Up to a point, losses are inevitable and desirable. They remind investors of risk. But too many losses—too much fear of the unknown — can trigger a chain reaction of selling and credit contraction. This must worry the Federal Reserve and other government central banks.”

Another Post business columnist, Steven Pearlstein, wrote: “Meanwhile, at hedge funds, insurance companies and the big Wall Street banks, masters of the universe are sweating bullets over what they are going to tell investors and regulators about all those assets on their balance sheets that, suddenly, nobody wants to buy. They include credit swaps and other fancy derivatives, along with loans to private-equity firms for corporate buyouts.”

Pearlstein was scathing about what he termed the Bush “administration’s Katrina-like response to the meltdown in the mortgage market, which has spread well beyond sketchy subprime loans... when, as result of market and regulatory failures, millions of Americans face the prospect of losing their homes, jobs or retirement savings, you’d expect the government to show a bit more urgency and candor about the problem, and more creativity and leadership in addressing it. This is hardly the time to head for the ranch and the beach and leave everything to Mr. Market.”

Is Fraud O.K., if You Help Just a Little?

The New York Times
August 10, 2007

It takes a team to pull off a good corporate fraud. Of course, the manager is responsible, but what about the people — and the companies — who just helped out a little? It may be that they are the only ones with enough cash to pay billion-dollar judgments.

That is a major point at issue in the legal quagmire that is emerging at Refco, the bankrupt commodities brokerage firm. And it is an issue that the Supreme Court may well decide in its next term, in a decision that could terrify — or greatly relieve — those who simply cooperate in a fraud. And that, in turn, could make future frauds more or less easy to pull off.

Does a company have any obligation to avoid transactions it knows are intended to deceive creditors and investors? What about lawyers who help structure such transactions? If other executives or directors see red flags, but choose not to investigate them, can they be held responsible?

In the case to be heard by the Supreme Court, a cable television operator, Charter Communications, cooked up a deal to buy set-top cable boxes from Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta at premium prices — with the excess payments sent back to Charter in the form of advertising purchases. That allowed Charter to show revenue it desperately needed.

To an appeals court, Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta did no wrong — or at least not enough to count as being more than aiders and abettors of the fraud, and therefore subject to civil suits for damages. They were not the ones who told lies to investors. “Imposing such liability would introduce far-reaching duties and uncertainties for those engaged in day-to-day business dealings,” the court said.

At Refco, the company’s longtime chief executive, Phillip R. Bennett, has been accused of hiding hundreds of millions in losses from auditors and investors. He is said to have hidden it using fake transactions with cooperating companies.

It was not noticed when the Thomas H. Lee companies took control of Refco in a leveraged buyout in 2004, or when Refco went public in August 2005. But two months later a new employee figured it out and told the board’s audit committee. Refco collapsed into bankruptcy and was liquidated. Creditors lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Now, the lawsuits are flying. The Lee companies sued Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw, which was Refco’s law firm, claiming it helped prepare the documents for the false transactions that covered up the fraud.

This week Refco’s trustee turned around and sued Mr. Lee and his company, claiming they would have discovered the fraud if they had done a decent job of due diligence before the leveraged buyout. It seems that Mr. Lee got a tip before the buyout, but rather than have his accountants check it out, he asked Mr. Bennett about it and then accepted his assurances that all was fine.

More defendants may yet appear. Among the candidates are Grant Thornton, Refco’s former auditor, and Ernst & Young, which did tax work for the company. The underwriters of its stock offering, led by Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, may also be sued, and Refco’s bankruptcy examiner has suggested suing Weil, Gotshal & Manges for not doing a good enough job when it represented the Lee companies in the buyout.

Weil, Gotshal is still representing Lee, and filed its suit against Mayer, Brown.

Looking at litigation like this, it is tempting to dismiss it as a search for deep pockets, and to agree with some courts that it such is a threat to normal business practices.

But those practices may deserve to be threatened. It is hard to imagine that Motorola did not understand something was fishy when a customer asked to pay extra for its product, and then get the money funneled back to it. As for Mayer, Brown, its lawyers told the Refco examiner that they had no idea why the fake transactions were being conducted, and deemed it to be none of their business. They had little recollection of the work they had done.

The ultimate liability of Mayer, Brown may hinge on the Supreme Court’s coming decision. If it agrees with some lower courts, it could say such conduct can get a company in trouble. Or it could agree with other lower courts who conclude that lawyers have no duty to speak, and therefore cannot be liable if they fail to point out a fraud.

There is no question that you will be in trouble if you get caught engineering a corporate fraud. But it may be O.K. if you just help out a little.

García Is Feeling the Heat at Another Major

Sports of The Times
August 10, 2007

TULSA, Okla.

In the gray chill of the British Open at Carnoustie nearly three weeks ago, Sergio García missed an 8-foot par putt on the 72nd hole to fall into a four-hole playoff that Ireland’s Padraig Harrington won. And in Oklahoma’s oven heat at Southern Hills yesterday, García missed a 5-foot par putt to finish bogey-bogey for a par 70 in the first round of the 89th P.G.A. Championship.

“Nice way of throwing a good round into the trash,” he said as the sweat slid down his neck. “Two bad reads in the last three.”

Whenever a golfer wastes an opportunity to win a major title — especially for what would have been García’s first major — he is always under a microscope to see how he performs in the first round of the next major. And for 16 holes yesterday in numbers as red as his slacks, García was in and out of the lead that John Daly grabbed with a 67 before England’s Graeme Storm shot a 65.

But for García, a 27-year-old Spaniard, those two bogeys took all the joy out of what could have been a 68, just as the heat had drained his energy.

“It was really hot,” he said, sipping a bottle of water. “It definitely affects you, mainly because you’re constantly sweating. So you have to dry yourself, dry your arms, your hands and the grip. And 15 seconds later, you’re sweating again.

“It does take a little bit out of you, no doubt. But not only me. I think everybody. You kind of get slower as the day goes on.”

Slower and soggier. But isn’t sunny Spain just as hot?

“It’s not as hot in Spain,” he said. “Not as humid, either.”

To some, García sometimes sounds as if he’s making excuses for himself, like when he griped about having to wait at Carnoustie for a greenside bunker to be raked on the 72nd hole. But to others, he’s merely explaining, not complaining.

Whichever you prefer, at the British Open he clinched the dreaded distinction of being today’s best golfer not to have won a major. Yet.

He will. He’s too good, too talented. But until he does, he’s got to live with the dreaded distinction that so many others had to live with until they finally won a major.

Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, of course, never had that monkey on their backs. Nicklaus was a 22-year-old rookie on the PGA Tour when he won the 1962 United States Open at Oakmont. Woods was 21 in his first full year as a pro when he won the 1997 Masters.

Others needed time. Phil Mickelson was 33 when he won the 2004 Masters, Jim Furyk was 33 when he won the 2003 United States Open at Olympia Fields outside Chicago and Vijay Singh was 35 when he won the 1998 P.G.A. Championship at Sahalee near Seattle.

Going back six decades, the great Ben Hogan was 34 when he won his first major, the 1946 P.G.A. Championship, then a match-play event, at the Portland Golf Club in Oregon. And he went on to win eight more majors.

When García, then 19, challenged Woods in the 1999 P.G.A. Championship, losing by a stroke at Medinah after scraping a 6-iron off a tree trunk and scissors-kicking to see it land on the green, he appeared capable of winning a major soon. But his quest has dragged, especially when he didn’t win at Carnoustie after he held the lead for so long. Not that he sounds discouraged. Or haunted.

“You don’t forget it,” he said yesterday, ignoring his final-round 73 at Carnoustie when a 72 would have been enough to win. “On a scale of 100, there were probably 95 positive things and 5 negative things. So you can’t forget about a week that is so positive. Even though I didn’t win, it’s going to be good for me in the future. It’s definitely going to help me throughout my career.”

And he hasn’t begun to doubt himself.

“It’s just a matter of giving myself chances, and I’ll definitely give myself a lot of them,” he said at his news conference Wednesday. “I feel, I’ve always said it, like I should have won at least more than one major by now, but it hasn’t happened yet. The only thing I can do is keep putting myself in that position and it will happen.”

And it will. But maybe not this week and maybe not until he stops finishing with a bogey when a par would have won, the way it happened at Carnoustie, or until he stops finishing bogey-bogey, the way he did yesterday at Southern Hills, to turn a 68 into a 70.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Very Scary Things

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
August 10, 2007

In September 1998, the collapse of Long Term Capital Management, a giant hedge fund, led to a meltdown in the financial markets similar, in some ways, to what’s happening now. During the crisis in ’98, I attended a closed-door briefing given by a senior Federal Reserve official, who laid out the grim state of the markets. “What can we do about it?” asked one participant. “Pray,” replied the Fed official.

Our prayers were answered. The Fed coordinated a rescue for L.T.C.M., while Robert Rubin, the Treasury secretary at the time, and Alan Greenspan, who was the Fed chairman, assured investors that everything would be all right. And the panic subsided.

Yesterday, President Bush, showing off his M.B.A. vocabulary, similarly tried to reassure the markets. But Mr. Bush is, let’s say, a bit lacking in credibility. On the other hand, it’s not clear that anyone could do the trick: right now we’re suffering from a serious shortage of saviors. And that’s too bad, because we might need one.

What’s been happening in financial markets over the past few days is something that truly scares monetary economists: liquidity has dried up. That is, markets in stuff that is normally traded all the time — in particular, financial instruments backed by home mortgages — have shut down because there are no buyers.

This could turn out to be nothing more than a brief scare. At worst, however, it could cause a chain reaction of debt defaults.

The origins of the current crunch lie in the financial follies of the last few years, which in retrospect were as irrational as the dot-com mania. The housing bubble was only part of it; across the board, people began acting as if risk had disappeared.

Everyone knows now about the explosion in subprime loans, which allowed people without the usual financial qualifications to buy houses, and the eagerness with which investors bought securities backed by these loans. But investors also snapped up high-yield corporate debt, a k a junk bonds, driving the spread between junk bond yields and U.S. Treasuries down to record lows.

Then reality hit — not all at once, but in a series of blows. First, the housing bubble popped. Then subprime melted down. Then there was a surge in investor nervousness about junk bonds: two months ago the yield on corporate bonds rated B was only 2.45 percent higher than that on government bonds; now the spread is well over 4 percent.

Investors were rattled recently when the subprime meltdown caused the collapse of two hedge funds operated by Bear Stearns, the investment bank. Since then, markets have been manic-depressive, with triple-digit gains or losses in the Dow Jones industrial average — the rule rather than the exception for the past two weeks.

But yesterday’s announcement by BNP Paribas, a large French bank, that it was suspending the operations of three of its own funds was, if anything, the most ominous news yet. The suspension was necessary, the bank said, because of “the complete evaporation of liquidity in certain market segments” — that is, there are no buyers.

When liquidity dries up, as I said, it can produce a chain reaction of defaults. Financial institution A can’t sell its mortgage-backed securities, so it can’t raise enough cash to make the payment it owes to institution B, which then doesn’t have the cash to pay institution C — and those who do have cash sit on it, because they don’t trust anyone else to repay a loan, which makes things even worse.

And here’s the truly scary thing about liquidity crises: it’s very hard for policy makers to do anything about them.

The Fed normally responds to economic problems by cutting interest rates — and as of yesterday morning the futures markets put the probability of a rate cut by the Fed before the end of next month at almost 100 percent. It can also lend money to banks that are short of cash: yesterday the European Central Bank, the Fed’s trans-Atlantic counterpart, lent banks $130 billion, saying that it would provide unlimited cash if necessary, and the Fed pumped in $24 billion.

But when liquidity dries up, the normal tools of policy lose much of their effectiveness. Reducing the cost of money doesn’t do much for borrowers if nobody is willing to make loans. Ensuring that banks have plenty of cash doesn’t do much if the cash stays in the banks’ vaults.

There are other, more exotic things the Fed and, more important, the executive branch of the U.S. government could do to contain the crisis if the standard policies don’t work. But for a variety of reasons, not least the current administration’s record of incompetence, we’d really rather not go there.

Let’s hope, then, that this crisis blows over as quickly as that of 1998. But I wouldn’t count on it.

The Straw Poll Man

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
August 10, 2007

Early on, before the campaigning begins in earnest, presidential candidates lunch with journalists in order to get acquainted. During one of these lunches, Mitt Romney was talking about the global economy and was asked why he thought some nations grew rich and others didn’t.

He said there are at least two schools of thought on this question, one associated with Jared Diamond of U.C.L.A., which emphasizes natural resources, and another associated with the Harvard historian David Landes, which emphasizes culture. Over the next several minutes, he weaved the two theories together, siding a bit more with Landes.

The answer demonstrated an ability to handle contradictory information streams. From it, you could see how Romney had managed to graduate with honors from Harvard Law School, while graduating in the top 5 percent of his class at Harvard Business School. You could see how he managed to start Bain Capital and turn it into a $4 billion firm, doubling the return on investment every single year, on average. You could see how he turned around the Salt Lake City Olympics and passed bipartisan health care reform in Massachusetts.

You could also see a natural theory for his presidential campaign. Romney would be Mr. Execution. He’d be the one who could untangle complex problems. He’d take on the challenges of a rising China and globalization. He’d defuse the ticking time bomb of entitlement debt. As the Democrats went anti-corporate populist, he’d run as a responsible, businesslike steward.

But execution has not been the central theme of the Romney campaign. Instead Romney has highlighted ideology, and molded himself to fit the G.O.P. electorate.

This electorate has changed, even in the past 10 years. As a study by Fabrizio, McLaughlin and Associates demonstrates, Republicans are more conservative than even a decade ago. Seventy-one percent are self-declared conservatives, compared to 55 percent in 1997. Republicans are much older. Forty-one percent of Republicans are over 55, compared to 28 percent a decade ago.

Republicans are also much less economics-oriented. A decade ago, the party had thriving deficit hawk and supply-side factions. Now the thriving groups, as the study indicates, are organized around issues like immigration, terrorism and stem cell research.

Romney’s campaign conforms to those interests. Its animating idea is that Romney is the true inheritor of the Reagan mantle. This means the central word in his speeches is not “competence,” but “strength” (Giuliani’s turf). Instead of emphasizing data and pragmatism, he emphasizes creed and conviction.

His campaign is oddly short on autobiography. He talks about his family, which is wholesome, but not his accomplishments (too intimidating) or his spiritual journey (too Mormon), or the odd incidents of his life (he was once declared dead after a traffic accident).

His stump speech features generic Republican lines that could be uttered by any candidate at any time, almost as if they were originally designed for someone else and implanted onto him. He recently got into a more-anti-abortion-that-thou fight with Sam Brownback.

Maybe this market-tested, generic approach is working. Romney is ahead in Iowa and New Hampshire and tomorrow he is going to win the Iowa straw poll, though probably by less than some think.

Yet the campaign ill-fits the man. His audiences are impressed, but often unfulfilled.

In interviews, Romney talks easily about books by Fareed Zakaria and Rory Stewart, but in public his frame of cultural reference is mostly limited to songs like “Whistle While You Work.” (Why do the Democratic candidates pretend to be smarter than they really are, while the Republicans pretend to be dumber?)

He is also the world’s worst culture warrior. George H. W. Bush’s son could resent the coastal cultural elites, but George Romney’s son just can’t. He’s a 1950s consensus man — he asked his grandkids to call him Ike, after his hero — who is play-acting at being Pat Buchanan. He’s unable to do anger. I asked him recently who he hated, and he dodged the question.

Finally, Romney’s real passions seem sparked by issues he rarely gets to talk about. When I asked him why the G.O.P. is in such bad straits, he said it’s because the party had ceded issues like the environment, education and health care to the Democrats.

Somehow the Romney campaign seems less like an authentic conservative campaign than an outsider’s view of what a conservative campaign should be. It oversimplifies everything, and underexploits the G.O.P.’s vestigial longing for efficient administration. I suspect the Romney campaign would do even better if it let the real Mitt Romney out to play.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Opinionator

August 10, 2007, 5:34 pm
Taxing Big Bucks on Campus
By Tobin Harshaw

Tom Nugent, a principal at Victoria Capital Management, writes at National Review Online of his intriguing plan to boost government revenues without raising income or corporate taxes:

According to a recent study prepared by Bloomberg, the value of the top-25 school endowments alone is a whopping $180 billion. So let’s do some math. The growth rate of these endowments over the past twelve months was 16.2 percent, with the managers of these funds retaining about 11.2 percent of that gain (based on a 5 percent payout). So if we assume these funds grow at a 12 percent rate over the next twenty years and distribute that 5 percent each year, their total value would be about $697 billion from growth alone. (Ongoing donations would make this total even bigger.)

Now, if the federal government imposed a 30 percent foundation tax on the investment gains of these endowment portfolios, the following would happen: The future value of the top-25 foundations would be “only” $469 billion twenty years from now — much less than $697 billion, but certainly enough to take care of each school’s related needs. However, the total revenues generated by taxing these endowments would be about $1.9 trillion over this time, enough to keep the tax man off the back of hard working Americans

August 10, 2007, 1:49 pm
Dems in the Gay Rights Spotlight
By Tobin Harshaw
Tags: , ,

Last night’s forum for the Democratic candidates sponsored by the gay-rights group Human Rights Campaign wasn’t a debate at all — the candidates appeared one at a time and the panel of questioners, including the rocker Melissa Etheridge, did a fair amount of cheerleading. Still, as the staff at CQPolitics reports, some candidates were a bit … well, uncomfortable:

Etheridge … asked [Bill] Richardson pointedly if he believes being gay is a personal choice or an inherent biological trait. Richardson voiced the most conservative view among the candidates. It is a choice,” he said quickly, looking down.

Etheridge repeated her question in a friendly tone, wondering aloud if Richardson did not understand her the first time. “I’m not a scientist,” he answered. “I don’t see this as an issue of science or definition. I see gays and lesbians as people … I don’t like to answer definitions like that that are grounded in science or something else that I don’t understand.”
The explanation didn’t seem to do much to calm the crowd, and soon after leaving the stage, Governor Richardson called Pam Spaulding of Pam’s House Blend, who was liveblogging at the scene and told her, she reports, that “this is something you are born with, and regardless of whether there is conflict about the science of it (homosexuality), I support full and equal rights. I fully support domestic partnerships.”

Spaulding finds the whole incident “perpexling,” and also thinks that Hillary Clinton was less than perfect: “An even bigger faux pas, if you can call it that, was Clinton’s reassertion that it should be up to the state to decide who can marry. This is simply not acceptable, given the history of bigotry legislated at the state level.”

Dan Blatt, one of the conservatives at Gay Patriot, is amused by Mike Gravel’s statements that marriage is a “commitment of two human beings in love” and that if there’s “anything we need in the world, it’s more love.” He adds that panel-member Margaret Carlson “is right to say there’s no daylight between him and Kucinich on ‘love.’ I agree with that sentiment. But, what does that mean politically? Are they going to create a Department of Love to sit next to Kucinich’s Department of Peace?”

Mustang Bobby at Bark Bark Woof Woof admits that he fell asleep early on, but still feels that the event accomplished two important goals:

First, it tells the electorate that the LGBT community is more than just people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered. Issues that impact the community impact us all. When there are over 1,100 laws and regulations on the books that specifically deny equal rights to those people — including me — they might as well deny all the rights we have as citizens in this country because we don’t get to fully participate, and in many cases we have to bear an extra burden, be it insurance, health care, inheritance, or even the simple matter of going on a two-for-one cruise …The second result of last night’s forum will be to put the anti-gay crowd, whether they’re hiding behind their religion or they’re just plain bigoted, on notice that the LGBT community can’t be taken for granted …An overwhelming majority of Americans think it is wrong to discriminate against gays and lesbians in hiring, and a growing number realize that there are gay people in their families, their work places, their schools, and that they vote.
Well, we’ll see if that proves true. But for now, it seems pretty clear that one person not taking the gay rights crowd for granted right now is the governor of New Mexico.


August 10, 2007, 9:06 am
‘Hottest Year’ Data Meltdown
By Tobin Harshaw

You just thought you were sweating? Among global warming Cassandras, the fact that 1998 was the “hottest year on record” has always been an article of faith. Stephen McIntyre, who runs the Climateaudit blog was always puzzled by some gaps he saw in the raw data provided by NASA that supported the claim (data compiled in part by James Hansen, the climate scientist who has long accused the Bush administration of trying to “silence” him). McIntyre says he has “reverse engineered” the data to find NASA’s algorithm, discovered that a Y2K bug played havoc with some of the numbers, and notified the space agency.

Michael Asher at DailyTech explains the fallout:

NASA has now silently released corrected figures, and the changes are truly astounding. The warmest year on record is now 1934. 1998 (long trumpeted by the media as recordbreaking) moves to second place. 1921 takes third. In fact, 5 of the 10 warmest years on record now all occur before World War II. Anthony Watts has put the new data in chart form, along with a more detailed summary of the events.

The effect of the correction on global temperatures is minor (some 1-2% less warming than originally thought), but the effect on the U.S. global warming propaganda machine could be huge.
Note: Many commenters on this post have assumed that the author intended the term “Cassandras” to be pejorative, and also that he was unaware that the predictions made by the prophetess Cassandra, daughter of King Priam of Troy, came true. Rather, the term was being used in its common modern sense: one whose dire predictions, true or false, go unheeded.


August 9, 2007, 4:30 pm
‘American Idol’ It’s Not
By Tobin Harshaw
Tags: , ,

According to’s TVNewser, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. Democratic forum televised Tuesday night on MSNBC “was the lowest rated-yet of the eight primary debates/forums held this election season. Based on live + same day data, Nielsen found the debate had 960,000 total viewers and 340,000 viewers in the 25-54 demo.”

Don Surber, a columnist at the Charleston Daily Mail posits three explanations on his blog: “Maybe it was Keith Olbermann’s presence. Maybe the shark was jumped. Maybe it is just that this is another summer rerun.”


August 9, 2007, 12:40 pm
Primary Primacy
By Tobin Harshaw
Tags: , ,

Election ‘07? South Carolina’s Republicans are going to move their presidential primaries to Jan. 16, 2008, which will likely set off a domino effect in New Hampshire, Iowa and elsewhere, “that could push the start of voting to New Year’s Day or even to before Christmas,” according to the Washington Post.

This is stupid,” says Gaius at Blue Crab Boulevard. “Both parties are being foolish here and the states that are playing around here are risking serious damage to the system. In an attempt to gain influence in the primary process, they risk losing all relevance to that process.”

Tigerhawk has mixed feelings:

It is entertaining, of course, because anything that forces a presidential campaign to depart from its script creates the opportunity for candor mistakes, which are almost always funny and frequently useful to bloggers and even the electorate …

But, and this is a big “but,” this race to the top of the primary season is also ridiculous. By the time the dust settles Iowans may be going to caucus before they get the harvest. Much as I like a presidential election, I need to pace myself. Florida and South Carolina should stop this silliness before we all decide to federalize presidential elections (which, by the way, would be bad news for all of us who look to politics for entertainment).
The Politico’s Ben Smith, however, has word from Iowa that this may be overblown. Smith quotes Carrie Giddins, the communications director for the Iowa Democratic Party, Carrie Giddins, as saying, “Iowa’s not going to be driven by Republicans in South Carolina [into] making a change.”

Those who decry Americans’ apathy toward politics are probably hoping Smith has the story straight, as one can only assume that people will have other priorities than hitting the voting booths during the last week of December.


August 9, 2007, 9:22 am
In Search of a Stance on Iraq
By Tobin Harshaw

The Associated Press is reporting that some of the biggest critics of the Iraq war seems to be softening their stances, or at least hedging their bets:

Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin, Bob Casey and Jack Reed. Even Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee, said progress was being made by soldiers.

The suggestions by them and other Democrats in recent days that at least a portion of Bush’s strategy in Iraq is working is somewhat surprising, considering the bitter exchanges on Capitol Hill between the Democratic majority and Republicans and Bush. Democrats have long said Bush’s policies have been nothing more than a complete failure.

The Democrats’ choice to acknowledge the military’s progress in Iraq signals support for the troops, a message that voters want to hear. But they still heap criticism on Bush and his Iraq strategy, which promises to be a prominent issue in next year’s presidential election.
Some see a change in strategy, not a change of heart. “The Democrats don’t support the troops; their behavior has made that abundantly clear,” writes Paul at Wizbang:

It was just [two] years ago that the now positive Dick Durbin took the Senate floor and said our soldiers [were] as bad as the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge.

They’re not supporting the troops. They are supporting their own reelection. When they think they can garner votes by bashing the troops, they’ll bash the troops. When they think they have to give the troops lip service they will do that too - at least until November ‘08.
Dodd Harris at Outside the Beltway thinks the Democrats are working on a shorter, more tactical political timeline:

In short, with the polls showing support for the mission improving of late as the realities of actual progress make themselves known, this is the first step of the climbdown from their heretofore steadfast insistence on mandating defeat. They have a little over a month now before General Petraeus’ briefing. A few weeks ago they could still convince themselves he wouldn’t say anything that would hinder them from forcing a pullout. But things have changed.

So, I think we can expect rather a lot more of this sort of talk over the next few weeks. And then, if General Petraeus says what everyone who’s actually been paying attention since before the polls swung ’round is expecting him to, they’ll have given themselves advance cover for the switch. That they can do so while still castigating Bush out of the other side of their mouths is just the spoonful of sugar.
Attaturk at Rising Hegemon, however, thinks the A.P. story is a reach: “This A.P. writer still cannot distill the meaning of the quotes right in front of her. ‘Tactical Success’ which the United States has enjoyed in every battle of any size since the Chinese crossed the Yangtze is different [than] strategic success, which has long since sailed into the night. Now the battle is to have the least bad strategic loss.”

Tactics and strategy, strategy and tactics: whether the battlefield is in the Mideast or Washington, bloggers seem to feel some things are constant.


August 8, 2007, 4:45 pm
What’s Good for Romney …
By Tobin Harshaw
Tags: ,

Mitt Romney is quickly feeling the heat over this comment at an Iowa campaign event that, while none of his five sons volunteered for military duty, they are aiding the country by “helping me get elected.”

(Rachel Griffiths, who asked the question that prompted the comment, has her recollection of the entire episode at Daily Kos.)

The responses, while predictable, have been pretty amusing: “Mitt Romney, as you’ll recall, avoided combat duty in the rice fields of Vietnam by getting multiple deferments to perform his Mormon mission in the vineyards of France,” writes John Perr, at his Perrspectives blog. “He has deployed his sons to the cornfields of Iowa to aid his campaign. The perfect hair and gleaming teeth of the Romney clan are found on the Five Brothers blog, not with a band of brothers outside of Baquba.”

Chet Scoville at Big Brass Blog was more upset with something else Romney did at the event: saluting a man in uniform. “A salute is something that people in the military give to each other; it represents the bond not only of command but of mutual sacrifice,” insists Scoville. “I would never think of saluting a soldier; it would be presumptuous, disrespectful, and wrong for me to do so. It’s also wrong for Romney to do so.”

Of course, the real Web response we’re all waiting for won’t come from the left, but from the Romney boys themselves on the Five Brothers blog they’ve been writing in service to their father and, apparently, the nation.


August 8, 2007, 2:15 pm
Blogger to Pay $30,000 in S.E.C. Case
By Chris Suellentrop
Tags: ,

Prominent liberal blogger Jerome Armstrong has agreed to pay nearly $30,000 in fines in a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission over allegations that Armstrong touted the stock of a software company on Raging Bull, an Internet bulletin board, in 2000, without disclosing that he was being paid to do so.

Armstrong, the co-author of “Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics,” with Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos, and the founder of the Democratic activist site, consented to a civil penalty of $20,000, plus disgorgement of $5,832, and $3,235 in interest.

Click here to read the S.E.C.’s litigation release on the settlement.

The settlement resolves the S.E.C.’s claims against Armstrong, said Robert Burson of the S.E.C.’s Chicago office.

Under the agreement, Armstrong neither denies nor admits to the allegations.

“It’s good to see the matter finally end,” Armstrong said in an e-mail message to The Opinionator today.

For The Opinionator’s previous coverage of the S.E.C. allegations against Armstrong, see:

Politics As Usual in the Blogosphere

Elite Liberal Bloggers to Themselves: Shhh!

Warner’s Falling Star


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