Saturday, August 25, 2007

A Grand Gathering, but One With a Solemn Note

This Land
The New York Times
August 26, 2007


As with most matters of Odd Fellowship, nearly every aspect of the annual convention of the Sovereign Grand Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows must adhere to protocol. The dais for the officers’ banquet, for example, must be two-tiered and able to accommodate 50 people, important on the bottom, really important on the top.

Seats for the sovereign grand master, the deputy sovereign grand master, the sovereign grand warden, the sovereign grand secretary and the sovereign grand treasurer. Seats for the leaders of the two uniformed branches, the Patriarchs Militant and its Ladies Auxiliaries. A seat for the president of the International Association of Rebekah Assemblies, established when the Odd Fellows long ago recognized “the need for a woman’s touch.”

Here they are now, the officers and their escorts, proceeding solemnly through the grand ballroom of the Adam’s Mark Hotel as the sovereign grand musician plays “Pride and Gallantry” on the piano. Six hundred people rise to their feet, more than a few with some difficulty.

Robert Robbins, the soft-spoken sovereign grand master whose yearlong tenure ends with this convention, takes his honored place. His black tuxedo is adorned with an eye-catching medallion of merit and the grand master medal he will soon relinquish. His jewelry is modest, given the glint of Odd Fellows bling in the room.

Gazing out upon this gathering of Odd Fellows and Rebekahs, all about to dine on small portions of beef or salmon, he sees a bobbing sea of gray and white. In this crowd he is practically a stripling, at 69.

Since his installation as top Odd Fellow, Mr. Robbins has warned that this order, dedicated to caring for the widowed, the orphaned and the needy, is in a “state of crisis.” Members are dying by the thousands, local lodges are closing by the dozens, and actual participation among the 289,000 members is dropping. If the people sitting before him do not heed his call to replenish the ranks, they will be the Odd Men and Women Out — defunct, extinct, done.

“Unless we can do something to turn the membership losses into significant gains in the next couple of years,” he says later, “we may be at a point where we can’t recover.”

Once we were a nation of joiners, and so many joined the Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization whose name stems from an English journalist’s observation in 1745. He found it “odd” to see “fellows,” rather than the aristocracy, helping widows, orphans and one another. The name stuck, oddly.

In many communities, you can still find an old I.O.O.F. building, a place of some mystery, where the rituals would include acting out the story of the Good Samaritan. Members were to apply that story to real life by aiding their brothers and sisters, chipping in to pay burial costs, for example. You merely had to express belief in one Creator to be eligible; atheists and pantheists need not apply.

Odd Fellows tended to frown on alcohol, loved bestowing medals on one another, and reveled in seeing their sword-carrying, uniformed brothers, the chevaliers of the Patriarchs Militant, march in Main Street parades. In their small worlds, Odd Fellows mattered.

Then came social changes to dull the appeal of fraternal organizations. Tighter government regulations forced the Odd Fellows out of their signature cause, orphanages, while baby boomers found all the pomp and secrecy to be, um, silly. Several years ago, after contentious debate, the Odd Fellows allowed women (!) into their ranks, but that has done little to stem the decline.

It’s gotten so bad that many members of the Patriarchs Militant are too old to march anymore. “Because a lot of them can’t even walk,” explains one chevalier, who includes himself among the nonparading ranks.

Still, here the Odd Fellows are, in Denver, 1,000 strong and not so, coming together from many states and a few countries on an expansive hotel concourse with many large meeting rooms, thus accommodating those using wheelchairs and walkers and cutting down on the chance for escalator mishaps.

At times the concourse is still, as private meetings focus on bylaw changes and membership crises, the protocols of medals and the worthiness of certain charities. Rituals have their occasional glitches, as when the Mardi Gras music of a Rebekahs gathering in one room filters into a memorial service being held by the uniformed branches in another.

But when those meetings break, the floor becomes awash with color, much of it radiating from the distinctive dress of the Ladies Auxiliaries: white nurse dresses, white shoes and white gloves, offset by purple-and-gold capes, purple -and-gold sashes, and purple-gold-and-white yachting caps. You know them when you see them.

Facing his brothers and sisters at this night’s banquet, the grand sovereign master cannot help but wonder what will become of his beloved order. Here is Hank Dupray, 63, a former sovereign grand master from North Carolina who guided the order into establishing an orphanage in Cambodia. Here, too, is Harrell Shoultz, 84, a retired farmer from Indiana who, with his wife, LaVern, just pledged $50,000 to that orphanage.

And here is Mike Easley, 64, who arranged this convention with his wife, Linda. His mother became seriously ill in the early 1950s, leaving him and his three brothers to spend years in a fine Odd Fellows orphanage. He says that he is simply giving back now and mentions in passing that his mother lives today in an Odd Fellows retirement home.

A toast then, to all national leaders of the world, as is Odd Fellows custom. Another toast, to all fraternal leaders of the world. Dinner, remarks, benediction, recessional to the strains of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Odd Fellows and Rebekahs everywhere, good night.

Swift-Boated by Bin Laden

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
August 26, 2007

Doha, Qatar

One thing that has always baffled me about the Bush team’s war effort in Iraq and against Al Qaeda is this: How could an administration that was so good at Swift-boating its political opponents at home be so inept at Swift-boating its geopolitical opponents abroad?

How could the Bush team Swift-boat John Kerry and Max Cleland — authentic Vietnam war heroes, whom the White House turned into surrendering pacifists in the war on terror — but never manage to Swift-boat Osama bin Laden, a genocidal monster, who today is still regarded in many quarters as the vanguard of anti-American “resistance.”

Dive into a conversation about America in the Arab world today, or even in Europe and Africa, and it won’t take 30 seconds before the words “Abu Ghraib” and “Guantánamo Bay” are thrown at you. Yes, both are shameful, but Abu Ghraib was a day at the beach compared to what Al Qaeda and its Sunni jihadist supporters have been doing in Iraq, yet none of their acts have become one-punch global insults like Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.

Consider what happened on Aug. 14. Four jihadist suicide-bombers blew themselves up in two Iraqi villages, killing more than 500 Kurdish civilians — men, women and babies — who belonged to a tiny pre-Islamic sect known as the Yazidis.

And what was the Bush team’s response to this outrage? Virtual silence. After much Googling, the best I could find was: “ ‘We’re looking at Al Qaeda as the prime suspect,’ said Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman.” Wow.

Excuse me, but what exactly are we fighting for in Iraq, or in this wider war against Islamist extremism, if the murder of 500 civilians can be shrugged off? Even if we don’t know the exact perpetrators, we know who is inspiring this sort of genocide — Al Qaeda and bin Laden — and we need to say that every day.

Ask yourself this: If Osama bin Laden were running against George Bush for president, how would Karl Rove and Karen Hughes have handled the Yazidi murders? Within an hour, they’d have had a press release out saying: “This genocide of Iraqi civilians was inspired by bin Laden. We accuse bin Laden of the mass murder of 500 women and children. Bin Laden has killed more Iraqis and Muslims than any person alive. Support bin Laden and you support genocide against Muslims.” And they would have repeated that point on every network, every day.

Why should we care? Because bin Laden and his sidekick Ayman al-Zawahiri care! Read their statements. They care about their image. They do not want to be labeled as “genocide perpetrators.” They want to be known as the “resistance,” because it affects their street appeal and therefore their ability to recruit and operate.

Sure, some Sunni tribes in Iraq, who are directly threatened by Al Qaeda, have turned against it, but in the wider Arab-Muslim world bin Laden has out-maneuvered Mr. Bush. The man who Swift-boated John Kerry and Max Cleland has been Swift-boated by bin Laden. Mr. Bush is losing a P.R. war to a mass murderer. Yes, it is not easy breaking through the innate, anti-American tilt of the Arab media, but we have barely tried.

I spent Friday hanging around the newsroom of Al Jazeera here in Doha, on the Persian Gulf. I asked Arab reporters here what would be the results of a popularity poll in the region between Mr. Bush and bin Laden. Mr. Bush wouldn’t stand a chance, they said. One big difference between them, though, added one journalist, “is that Bush’s term is about to come to an end and bin Laden is staying in office.” An Egyptian analyst here added that liberals in the Arab world who supported the U.S. democratization effort in Iraq are now dismissed in the Arabic press as “intellectual marines.” U.S. marine is now a term of insult.

Bin Laden has created a situation in which the U.S. occupation in Iraq is viewed as entirely “illegitimate” and therefore any violence there by Sunni jihadists against Americans or Iraqi civilians is considered entirely legitimate “resistance.”

As The Economist magazine just noted, “This is profoundly mistaken.” Yes, military attacks against foreign soldiers who have come uninvited into your country can be called “resistance.” “But the mass murder of Iraqi civilians can make no such dignified claim. Under all established norms and laws of war (and by most accounts under Islamic law, too), the deliberate targeting of civilians for no direct military purposes is just a crime.”

So why don’t we say that? If you can’t win a P.R. war against bin Laden, you have no business fighting a real war anymore in Iraq.

Why the Roller Coaster Seems Wilder

Fair Game
The New York Times
August 26, 2007

STOCKS regained some composure last week, and not a moment too soon for investors worn out by the market’s turbulence. Credit markets remain easily spooked, however, and justifiably so. There is still so much that investors do not know about what lurks in portfolios around the world and exactly when it might jump out and say “boo!”

Periods of volatility come and go, of course. The question is, are the recent wild swings temporary, or are they a result of fundamental changes in the makeup of the markets?

Certainly, the huge pools of capital overseen by hedge fund managers play a big role in the volatility. And their propensity to congregate in the same trades means this: When the bets go awry, everybody runs for the exits.

The trouble is, their choice of refuge is often the United States Treasury market, which, at $4.4 trillion or so, is easily swamped by them. The mortgage securities market, for example, is $9 trillion, and when investors want to shift out of those securities and into the haven of Treasuries, volatility happens.

But other factors may be making the stock market’s downstrokes more pronounced. That is the view of Muriel Siebert, the Wall Street veteran and financial sage, former state banking superintendent of New York and founder of the Siebert Financial Corporation, a discount brokerage firm. Ms. Siebert, who has seen her share of markets, both bull and bear, said she believes that several recent changes to stock trading practices may be exacerbating the downdrafts when they come along.

“We’ve never seen volatility like this. We’re watching history being made,” she said. “When I look at it, I see changes in the marketplace that are influencing this.”

Naturally, as with everything market-oriented, the factors that concern her are related. Item 1: the Securities and Exchange Commission’s elimination last month of the uptick rule on short sales. This regulation was put in place in 1938 to defang so-called bear raids on stocks, when sellers ganged up on companies’ shares and profited by driving them down.

THE uptick rule required that anyone shorting a stock — selling shares he or she does not own in hope of making a profit — can do so only on an uptick in its price. But the S.E.C. got rid of the rule on July 6, after it concluded that such restrictions “modestly reduce liquidity and do not appear necessary to prevent manipulation.”

The commission drew its conclusions after years of study, analysis and discussion, of course. But Ms. Siebert said that with the rule no longer in place, it is easier for sellers to overwhelm stocks on down days. Their short sales may not be placed in the same bear-raid manner — they may be trying to hedge other positions, for example — but the downward push on a stock is the same.

“I don’t think we know the effect of it,” Ms. Siebert said. “The S.E.C. took away the short-sale rule and when the markets were falling, institutional investors just pounded stocks because they didn’t need an uptick. We have to look at that and say, ‘Did that influence and add to the volatility?’ ”

Her second concern relates to the influence of electronic trading in big-name stocks. The specialist system — in which a human being with capital at stake is obligated to use it to maintain orderly markets — has been in decline for years. But Ms. Siebert said that the recent down days in the stock market might have a lot to do with the fact that the New York Stock Exchange is now dominated by computerized trading. Unlike specialists, machines that match orders don’t have to put up capital to stabilize disorderly markets.

“Yes, the specialist system was like a candy store,” Ms. Siebert said. “But they also had an obligation to deploy capital and to the extent that institutions and hedge funds are placing orders electronically, it’s a plain and simple bid-and-ask procedure.”

Fans of electronic trading and the I-hate-specialists crowd will laugh this view off as antiquated. But recall that in the 1987 market crash, Nasdaq market makers — the equivalent of today’s electronic trading — abandoned their markets altogether. It was ugly.

Ms. Siebert is all in favor of trading online — two-thirds of her firm’s business is done on the Internet. But she said that the New York Stock Exchange should examine the spreads in its electronic trades — the difference between the bid and ask prices when transactions occur.

Wider spreads are often found in stocks where market makers put little or no capital at risk. “The spreads in New York Stock Exchange stocks were significant” during the recent wild swings in the market, she said.

Professional traders like volatility because it gives them profit opportunities. But individual investors, in Ms. Siebert’s view, are scared away by it. “Should we be looking at this, or are we just going to accept that markets will be this volatile?” she asked. “If so, will individuals continue investing in them?”

INDIVIDUAL investors are a concern to Ms. Siebert because her brokerage firm caters to them. But her point is well taken. Individuals should have confidence that they will not be whipsawed when they try to buy stocks.

Of course, the fact that hedge funds use such enormous leverage is another element at work here. Ms. Siebert said it would be instructive for regulators to get a handle on the degree to which leverage contributes to violent moves in stocks.

“These things represent a change in the way markets are moving,” she said. “Did they add to the pressures in the markets? Is anybody asking these questions? Or am I expecting too much?”

Earthy Mentor to Eclectic Collection of Protégés

Sports of The Times
August 26, 2007

The old boys range from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet to minister to endodontist. There was even a Knick who became a senator.

Every day in their chosen fields, they think about their earthy mentor with the booming guffaw and the ripe cigar. They find themselves imitating Butch van Breda Kolff in ways big and small, civil and profane.

Larry Lucchino, the president of the Boston Red Sox, says he urges his staff to compete in matters like guessing the day’s attendance or predicting the weather or simply remembering the worst idea from previous meetings. These contests remind Lucchino of the little games Butch held during practice to keep the boys laughing when Lucchino was a backup guard at Princeton.

Stephen Dunn, who was awarded the 2001 Pulitzer for poetry, was allowed to take only jump shots against the zone when he played for Butch at Hofstra. In an e-mail message, Dunn recalled Butch as “the kind of thinker who introduced me to what a good mind, well-versed in his subject, could offer.”

“Heady stuff, to this day,” Dunn added. “Things like, ‘He goes left if he’s going to drive, otherwise he’s going to his right, and will pull up for a jump shot after two dribbles.’ Downright Jesuitical in its logic and exactitude.”

Butch would have scoffed at the Jesuitical part. He did his teaching at high decibels, punctuating it with two fingers against his prominent teeth, emitting a fierce whistle that cut through a noisy gym, striking fear in his players. He once kept Wilt Chamberlain on the bench. And his Lakers lost in the finals. And Butch never second-guessed himself. Ex-Marine. Tough guy.

Butch, who died Wednesday at 84, was the best college basketball coach I ever saw. After observing him up close as a student publicist at Hofstra from 1956 through 1960, I later saw Smith and Knight, Thompson and Krzyzewski, but nobody could top Butch.

“He put people in the right spot so they could be successful,” said Gary Walters, once a star point guard for Butch at Princeton, now the athletic director there.

Butch is a legend to most of the old boys — and girls — he coached all over the map. (He coached a women’s pro team in New Orleans for a while. Said the best thing about it was the huddle. Which was pretty much the essential Willem Hendrik van Breda Kolff, whom I came to think of as Zorba the Dutchman, in that he seemed to fascinate introspective types. I remember watching Bill Bradley’s eyes widening at Butch’s Rabelaisian output (vulgar pregame talks, gross sounds) during Bradley’s first season. Butch was good for Bradley. Loosened him up. Would have been helpful out on the hustings, having a coldie with the locals.

Christopher M. Thomforde, a Lutheran minister who is now the president of Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa., was a serious (and tall) young man when he encountered Butch in a summer camp on Long Island. Butch was in his 40s by then, a former Knick from the Pleistocene era who would play in the games, outthinking the youngsters. Then Butch came around to recruit Thomforde for Princeton.

“My father was an immigrant from Germany,” Thomforde said the other day. “He believed in hard work. Some coaches would talk about the Bible or praise me. My father asked Butch what he thought of me.”

“ ‘Yeah, he’s not too bad,’ ” Thomforde recalled Butch saying. “ ‘He needs a little work, and after a while, he’ll be O.K.’ ”

That was enough for Fredrich Thomforde. His son enrolled at Princeton, not for the prestige but for the hard work. Princeton would be a top-10 team in his years.

Butch kept it simple, didn’t run as many patterns as his pal and successor, Pete Carril. But they had the same idea: move around, move the ball, get open. Butch had learned from his college coach, Cappy Cappon, and the Knicks’ coach, Joe Lapchick. He had roles for everybody, although Bradley was a different case — given his huge mix of talent and unselfishness.

In the 2005 book “Coach: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference,” the author John McPhee recalls Butch’s foghorn advice to Bradley during a game: “Will ... you ... shoot ... that ... ball.” Only then would Bradley let loose.

“Very bright, very crude,” Stephen Dunn said by telephone Friday. “A person everybody in the room had to deal with.”

Dunn remembered something else: a Hofstra road trip to Gettysburg, Pa., circa 1960, when Teddy Jackson and Bob Stowers, the two black players, were not allowed to use the hotel game room.

Butch marched the whole team out of the hotel, not sure where they would stay but knowing it would not be there. Tough guy. Hard to believe he could wind down.

“I’ve been mourning him for two years,” Gary Walters said the other day.

All his old players mourn him now. Can still hear the whistle and the voice — and the purposefulness behind them.


Jammin’ With Gabriel

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
August 25, 2007

They were rambunctious geniuses — Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Max Roach — the nucleus of a group of immensely talented musicians who engineered a revolution in jazz as wondrous and profound as the birth of Cubism in painting.

Max was a tall, skinny kid who had grown up in Brooklyn and was so gifted a percussionist by his early 20s that Dizzy would express the mock fear that the angel Gabriel (the only trumpeter who could rival Dizzy at the time) might try to steal Max to play drums in some heavenly band.

He warned Max to stay put if Gabriel came to call.

I imagine they’re all jammin’ with Gabriel now. Max, the last survivor of that rowdy crew that created bebop, the stunningly complex and sophisticated music that ignited modern jazz, was buried yesterday. My great fear is that the music, underappreciated and poorly understood, is dying, too.

Max had an easy surface personality, which belied the torments he had to fight through as he adhered obsessively to the highest artistic standards, and the lifelong resentment he felt about the way the music was treated.

Elegant, husky-voiced and quick to smile, he was full of stories about the titans of jazz. I remember him chuckling one afternoon as he pointed to an elaborately carved straight-backed chair in his apartment on Central Park West. He was telling a story about Charlie Parker that went back to the 1940s.

Bird, peerless on the saxophone, was not only addicted to heroin, he was also phenomenally charismatic. His personal habits were as closely imitated by other musicians as his music.

“The guys would flop at my house in Brooklyn,” Max said. “My mother did day work, so we’d be there by ourselves all day. Now Bird was clever. He knew my mother was very religious and as soon as he’d hear her putting that key in the door, he’d pick up the Bible, jump in that chair and pretend he was reading it.

“My mother would say to me, ‘Why can’t you be like that nice Charlie Parker?’ I’d say to myself, ‘That’s my problem.’ ”

Like so many others in Bird’s orbit, Max became addicted, too. Bird would die at 34 from the effects of heroin addiction and alcoholism. Max was able to kick his habit. He then advanced the triumph of bebop with the creation of a stunning new sound — dubbed “hard bop” — that emerged from his alliance with the trumpeter Clifford Brown.

By the mid-’50s, Max was standing atop a pinnacle. Compulsively creative and an absolute virtuoso, he had almost single-handedly dragged the drums out of the shadows and demonstrated that they were much more than a mechanism to keep time for the rest of the band. They could be the expressive equal of any of the other instruments in the jazz repertoire.

And he was the co-leader, with Brown, of a phenomenal quintet that was recognized by critics and fans alike as a genuine artistic achievement. Brown, a modest, soft-spoken young man with a warm and powerful sound, was being hailed as the most talented trumpet player to emerge since Gillespie.

“Oh, man, he was something else,” Max said. “He was going to set the world on fire.”

The quintet was booked to play a gig in Chicago in the early summer of 1956. Brown, who was 25, and the band’s pianist, Richie Powell (Bud Powell’s younger brother), were to drive from Philadelphia to Chicago to meet Max and the rest of the band there.

Not long after midnight on June 26 the car in which they were traveling, driven by Powell’s wife, Nancy, careened off the rain-swept Pennsylvania Turnpike and plunged down an embankment. All three occupants died.

Max went into a tailspin. He drank heavily and sank into a depression.

But there was always the music, his recovery mechanism, and it was always fresh and inventive. “His artistic integrity was always intact and operating at a high pitch,” said Shannon Gibbons, a singer who was close to Max for many years.

Jazz no longer commands the attention it once did, and many of its greatest practitioners have slipped into the realm of the forgotten. (Your average person has never heard of Clifford Brown.)

Once when I was talking with Max in his living room, I noticed that his gaze had shifted to a spot over my shoulder, and there was an odd look in his eyes. Behind me, over the sofa, was a large photo of Max with Bird and Diz, Bud Powell and the bassist Charles Mingus.

Dizzy had only recently died. Remembering when they had all been young and wild and great together, Max said, “Damn, now all of those cats are gone.”

Running an Empire? No Sweat

Talking Business
The New York Times
August 25, 2007

Richard D. Parsons sat down at a quiet table by a window at Porter House New York, the fine year-old steakhouse on the fourth floor of the Time Warner Building, and looked at his watch. It was 7 p.m. “I’m going to have to leave at 8:30,” he said. “I’ve got another meeting.” He shot me a small, pained shrug. “It’s the middle of August, and I’m still busting my chops.”

We had come to this restaurant, to be blunt about it, to drink Mr. Parsons’s wine. In addition to his day job as chief executive of Time Warner, Mr. Parsons owns a small vineyard in Italy called Il Palazzone, which makes a high- quality Brunello di Montalcino. He acquired his taste for wine, he told me, back when he worked for Nelson Rockefeller.

Porter House’s sommelier, Beth von Benz — clearly no dummy — had the wit to get some of the Il Palazzone Brunello on her wine list. Mr. Parsons has since become a semi-regular and usually orders the Brunello di Montalcino Riserva for his guests, at $185 a bottle. “Our motto is, ‘We drink all we can, and we sell the rest,’ ” he chuckled.

A line like that — funny and low-key and mildly self-mocking — is classic Dick Parsons. True, the winery doesn’t make any money, but the wine is very good. A spokesman for Domaine Select, the importer, said that Mr. Parsons has been “heavily involved with the winery,” an assessment the man himself did not dispute. It’s just that, well, Dick Parsons would prefer that you never see him busting his chops. All his professional life, he’s wanted to be seen as someone who never seems to break a sweat.

Of course, there are plenty of people on Wall Street who believe that Mr. Parsons doesn’t break a sweat — and that’s been the biggest problem in the five years he has been running Time Warner. Why hasn’t he followed the example of his fellow media mogul Rupert Murdoch, scooping up hot Internet companies like MySpace, and buying coveted brands like Dow Jones? Why hasn’t he spun off Time Warner Cable? Why can’t he figure out what to do about AOL? And why, oh, why can’t he get the stock price to rise?

“At the beginning of 2005,” said Richard Greenfield, a media analyst with the independent firm Peri Research, “the stock was at 19. Right now, it’s around 18. When do they start taking shareholder value seriously? They have had long enough to make this thing work.”

There is another view about Mr. Parsons’s tenure as Time Warner’s chief executive, though. According to this view, which is held almost universally within Time Warner, when he first took over the company, he performed nothing short of a miracle, rescuing it from the single worst deal in modern business history, the AOL-Time Warner merger.

In 2002, when he became chief executive, Time Warner stock had dropped so precipitously that the company was in danger of violating its debt covenants. AOL and Time Warner executives were at war. The company was being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department. “It was a mess,” said Don Logan, who was one of Mr. Parsons’s top lieutenants until he retired at the end of 2005. “It needed a calming influence to get it stabilized so that people could get back to running their businesses.” Mr. Parsons is a listener, a persuader, a diplomat — and those qualities made all the difference. To the chagrin of his critics, though, that’s still what he is.

It’s a little odd to be in the spot Mr. Parsons is in right now. Not yet 60 years old, he’s getting ready to retire, and everyone knows it. He doesn’t deny it, either. “When you find the right person to take over,” he said, referring to Jeffrey L. Bewkes, his No. 2, “and that person is ready to rock ‘n’ roll, you’ve got to get out of the way.” He added, “I want my legacy to be simple: I left the place in good shape and in good hands.”

I can see his Wall Street critics rolling their eyes. Where is the expansionist drive that fuels competitors like Rupert Murdoch? Where is the fire in the belly? “News Corp. is Rupert’s life’s work,” Mr. Parsons replied calmly. “He inherited a fairly small newspaper operation in Adelaide 50 years ago and has been relentlessly building it into a global media goliath. I think of myself as a professional manager. I am not trying to build a dynasty or create a monument. I know this comment will upset some people, but this is my job. It’s not my life. I don’t define myself by this.”

Sitting across the table from me was his press aide, Edward I. Adler, who didn’t look very happy as Mr. Parsons spoke. He had clearly briefed Mr. Parsons on the talking points he wanted the boss to get across — a list of all the things he had done during his time at the helm: the divisions he had sold ahead of the crowd, like Warner Music; the way he had deftly handled the long-running government investigations (“Now that took some diplomacy,” Mr. Parsons acknowledged); the way he had eased out Stephen M. Case, while ending the culture wars raging within Time Warner. It was a long list, and Mr. Parsons duly recited it, though not, I thought, with any particular passion.

Still, he had to acknowledge that the stock price has been “a huge source of frustration,” and that he hoped it would not be the only prism through which he would be judged. Given the world we live in, however, it seems likely that that rap that he didn’t do enough to “enhance shareholder value” will stick to him. This will be especially true if Mr. Bewkes — more of a money guy by background and inclination than Mr. Parsons — moves to shake up the company and its stock price. In which case, it will probably be right to say that Mr. Parsons was the right man for the first part of his tenure, but maybe not for the latter part. That’s not going to bother Dick Parsons, though. Nothing really bothers him. Or, to put it more precisely, nothing ever rattles him.

Never was this more obvious than a few years ago when the feared investor Carl C. Icahn ran a very public proxy fight, trying to put pressure on Mr. Parsons to break up the company. One thing Mr. Icahn does exceedingly well is get under management’s skin, but that never happened with Mr. Parsons. “I came home one day,” he said with a laugh, “and my wife said, ‘Who’s the guy calling you a moron? That’s my job.’ ”

No matter how many times Mr. Icahn described him as incompetent, Mr. Parsons never took it personally. Instead, he did two things. He ran what amounted to a political campaign, pressing his case with the 600 or 700 institutional investors whose votes most mattered. Secondly, though, instead of giving Mr. Icahn the back of his hand, he embraced him.

“Carl is not stupid and he is not crazy,” Mr. Parsons told me, after he had ordered a second bottle. (Don’t worry: The Times paid.) “And I agreed with him that the company was undervalued. I just didn’t agree with his prescriptions.” So he began to wine and dine Mr. Icahn, hearing him out, and diplomatically devising a solution that allowed his adversary to save face: Mr. Parsons agreed to a huge stock buyback. All the talk of breaking up the company went away.

“I don’t believe it ever serves anyone well to try to crush the other guy or leave him in a position of being humiliated,” Mr. Parsons said. As the well-known mutual fund manager and media investor Mario J. Gabelli put it, “He handled Carl Icahn by saying, ‘Let’s have lunch.’ ”

When I called Mr. Icahn, he denied ever calling Mr. Parsons names. “He lived up to everything,” Mr. Icahn said. “He did the buyback. The stock went up and our fund made a large profit. People thought we gave in, but he agreed to do a lot of things that helped shareholders. I saw it as a victory.” He continues to have occasional dinners with Mr. Parsons and Mr. Bewkes. “I like the guy,” he said.

Mr. Greenfield, the analyst, however, believes that if some new activist hedge fund manager made the same breakup proposal today, it would get a far better reception, because the Street’s patience has largely run out. In the last quarter, for instance, when Time Warner reported that AOL’s advertising growth had suddenly slowed, the stock took a big tumble, reverting back to around $18. (It closed yesterday at $19.01.) The truth is, though, that Mr. Parsons is in his victory lap, and the Street’s frustration notwithstanding, there is a real sense among Time Warner executives and even board members that Mr. Parsons’s work in those first critical years as chief executive has earned him some slack.

It was around 8:45 when Mr. Parsons got up to leave our dinner. Though already late, he seemed a little reluctant to leave. “We haven’t talked enough about wine,” he said. “Do you know what I like about that?” he asked, pointing to the empty Brunello bottle on the table. “Some time ago, those were grapes. We picked them, we fermented them, we bottled them. There is something to show for your effort. We have a product.”

Rumors abound about what Mr. Parsons will do when he leaves Time Warner, the loudest being that he will run for mayor of New York, something he staunchly denies. But I can guarantee he’ll be spending more time at his winery — and doing all the other things he enjoys doing. He’ll live well.

When I was talking to Mr. Icahn the next day, I asked if he had ever drunk any of Mr. Parsons’s wine. Carl Icahn is more than a decade older than Dick Parsons, but he is never going to retire: he remains as maniacally focused on doing deals and making money as ever. Unlike Mr. Parsons, his work really is what he lives for.

“I don’t know,” Mr. Icahn replied. “I guess so. He chooses the wine.” He paused a minute. “Wine really isn’t my thing,” he said.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Ted Nugent Threatens Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Shouldn’t the Secret Service be paying him a visit?

COMMENT: Bill Clinton didn’t inhale and Ted Nugent never took drugs. (However, he did crap his pants when he went for his draft-board physical--which not surprisingly got him rejected. What a patriot. In the George W. Bush tradition.) Nugent hasn‘t been involved with anything musically significant since "Journey To The Center Of The Mind". One of these days that pathetic goof-bag is going to end up barbecuing his own dumb neo-Confederate ass. Essentially, he’s just a frightened little dipshit exploiting a decadent proto-fascistic entertainment niche.


The Opinionator

August 24, 2007, 1:09 pm
Bad for the Country, and for My Numbers
By Tobin Harshaw
Tags: , ,

In the Democratic presidential race, it’s been a week of ambiguously controversial remarks. Michelle Obama got things going with “if you can’t run your own house …”, and now The New York Post reports that Hillary Clinton, in a New Hampshire appearance, had this to say about a potential devastating terrorist attack on the United States: “It’s a horrible prospect to ask yourself, ‘What if? What if?’ But if certain things happen between now and the election, particularly with respect to terrorism, that will automatically give the Republicans an advantage again, no matter how badly they have mishandled it, no matter how much more dangerous they have made the world.”

For the right wing, this looks like fish in a barrel: “Got that? Another terrorist attack in the next year or so on American soil would be horrifying to think of, because it might give the GOP an election-year advantage,” writes Jules Crittenden.

“That the sitting Senator of the state which suffered the greatest number of losses on 9-11 would make these kinds of blatantly self-serving remarks about the possibility of another terrorist attack happening before the 2008 elections are very telling as to what her priorities are, and they have nothing to do with protecting the American people, but instead protecting Hillary Clinton’s chances of getting elected to serve as the first female president and Commander in Chief.”

More surprising is the reaction among some of the more thoughtful members of left side of the Web. Matt Yglesias at The Atlantic thinks it’s “a disaster”:

Two points in response. The first is that I think the Democrat best positioned to deal with GOP political mobilization in a post-attack environment is going to be the one who isn’t reflexively inclined to see failed Republican policies resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Americans as a political advantage for the Republicans. The other is that I think there’s a pretty clear sense in which the further one is from Bush’s Iraq policy, the easier it is politically to say that the failures of Bush’s national security policy should be blamed on Bush’s failed policies. Obama has a straight shot (“this is why we should have fought al-Qaeda like I said”) and Edwards (and Matt Yglesias) has a straightish one (“this is why we should have fought al-Qaeda like I think in retrospect”) whereas I’m not 100 percent sure what the Clinton message would be. Most of all, though, I think the politics of national security call for a strong, self-confident posture that genuinely believes liberal solutions are politically saleable and substantively workable, not the kind of worry-wort attitude that says we need to cower in fear every time Republicans say “terror.”

August 24, 2007, 10:32 am
Antigua and Goliath
By Tobin Harshaw
Tags: , ,

Gary Rivlin of The Times reported on Thursday about a curious trade dispute between the United States and Antigua and Barbuda over Internet gambling sites. The tiny Caribbean nation instigated a trade complaint “against the United States, claiming its ban against Americans gambling over the Internet violated Antigua and Barbuda’s rights as a member of the W.T.O.” Antigua won the case in three different forums, and now is asking “the trade organization to grant a rare form of compensation if the American government refuses to accept the ruling: permission for Antiguans to violate intellectual property laws by allowing them to distribute copies of American music, movie and software products, among others.”

It’s an interesting enough story on its own, but Wretchard at the Belmont Club manages to find broader significance:

The Antigua story underscores how asymmetries operate in international trade and political relations. A regulatory regime is created, but that fact does not guarantee “fairness.” The huge disparity in the size between Antigua and the United States makes the island’s trade retaliatory power weak. And in a straight trade dispute the odds would weigh overwhelmingly in favor of the US. But lawyers are clever and the loophole cited by the New York Times makes it possible for Antigua to demand the right to pirate US intellectually property — under the rules — and “morally” too because a mechanism which allowed the US to use is preponderant economic power would be “unfair.”

Where have we seen this before? Pretty much everywhere. While not exactly the same, the Antigua decision has structural similarities to the way some international lawyers think about the Geneva Convention and human rights legislation. The US is “bound” by the letter of the law, and if a terrorist mass murderer can find a legal loophole to escape then he is “entitled” to use it. But the Convention is not obeyed by weaker parties because it is impractical to enforce it. Just as pirated DVDs can be found being openly sold in many street corners in Asia without being similarly available in Australia, countries with well-functioning legal systems find themselves at a disadvantage compared to countries with no enforcement. In the area of human rights, for example, America has courts before which lawyers can appear. Al-Qaeda has a cave in Pakistan where accommodations are notoriously poor. The US will obey a legal judgment. Legal judgments against al-Qaeda are an exercise in futility.

World economy: Credit crunch fallout begins to spread

By Nick Beams
24 August 2007

While stock markets have stabilised—at least for the time being—the effects of the credit crunch sparked by the crisis in the US subprime mortgage market are now working their way through the banks and financial institutions and the economy as a whole.

This week, the financial fallout spread to Britain where HBOS, the owner of Halifax and Bank of Scotland, announced that it would extend credit to Grampian, a $37 billion debt-financed fund, or conduit, which deals in repackaged loans, including mortgages, credit cards, and motor loans. The bank said the funding would continue until market finance improved to an acceptable level.

In Germany, where two banks IKB and SachsenLB have already been hit by the liquidity crisis, it is clear that the problems extend deep into the financial system. As a report in Monday’s Financial Times noted: “SachsenLB and IKB may have been small players but the impact of their downfall and the embarrassment faced by the Bundesbank [Germany’s central bank] have spread far beyond Germany. Financial markets and policymakers have been left worrying whether further bank crises are lurking and whether bank regulators are really in command of the facts.”

According to Alexander Stuhlmann, the chief executive of WestLB, another state-owned regional bank, the situation facing the German banks was “not uncritical.” “We sense a reluctance on the part of foreign partners to extend credit to German banks,” he said. “If we have a banking crisis in Germany with other countries cutting us off, then other banks will also face difficulties.”

The German banking system has been among the hardest hit by the credit crisis because of the moves over recent years by smaller banks, particularly the state-owned Landesbanken, to counteract the effects of a downturn in the domestic market and increased competition pressures by engaging in riskier financial investments. While the major Landesbanken are outside the top 30 of Europe’s biggest banks, they all rank among the top 30 conduit sponsors.

The problems in the banking sector have led to calls from industry for the European Central Bank [ECB] to cancel a rise in interest rates planned for next month. According to the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce (DIHK), banks had already tightened lending standards and raised borrowing costs for small companies.

Issuing a plea that the ECB not raise rates, DIHK chief economist Axel Nitschke said: “What we are seeing in the credit markets is likely to have a major effect, damping economic dynamism in coming months, not just in Germany but across the world.” He said the DIHK had been receiving distress calls from middle-sized German companies back in June.

The flow-on effects of the crisis on the broader economy were also the subject of a warning by John Lipsky, the number two official at the International Monetary Fund. Speaking to the Financial Times, the IMF first deputy managing director warned that the financial market turmoil would “undoubtedly dampen economic growth”. While so-called “emerging markets” had so far withstood the crisis, he added, it was “far too optimistic” to assume that there would be no impact at all.

There would be no quick end to the turmoil because of the uncertainty as to how much damage it would do to economic growth. There were also dangers for the entire financial system caused by the lack of transparency on the part of the banks as to the true extent of their exposure to riskier investments.

“Lack of transparency can create doubts that translate into market volatility,” Lipsky said. “We are finding that in some cases regulated financial institutions are carrying off-balance-sheet risks that have indirect implications for those institutions.” This had caused uncertainty about the level of risk born by major institutions, which contributed to the drying up of liquidity in parts of the financial market.

As far as the broader economy is concern, the chief fear is that the slump in the US housing market will lead to a fall in consumption spending and the onset of a recession. On Thursday, Countrywide Financial’s chief executive Angelo Mozilo warned that the housing market was showing no signs of improvement. Asked if this could bring about a recession, he said: “I think so ... I can’t believe ... that doesn’t have a material effect.” There was a “very serious situation” in the US housing market and the environment was “certainly not getting better.”

The latest industry figures and surveys bear this out. The median price of new homes has fallen from $262,000 in March to $237,000 in June—a decline of nearly 10 percent in just three months—while the overhang of unsold homes is equivalent to 7.8 months’ supply.

According to the data firm RealtyTrac, the number of US homes facing foreclosure increased by 58 percent in the first six months of the year. In all, 573,397 properties faced some kind of foreclosure activity in the first half the year, including notices of default, auction sale notices, or repossession by lenders. And the number of foreclosure filings could rise to 2 million by the end of the year.

The housing slump is impacting on other areas of the economy as profit warnings by Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Macy’s indicate. Car sales in July were the lowest in nine years.

Some of the processes at work in the mortgage crisis and in the US economy as a whole were revealed in an article on income figures published in the New York Times on Monday. An analysis of tax statistics revealed that the average income in 2005 was still 1 percent less than in 2000 after adjusting for inflation. This was the fifth consecutive year that American wage-earners had made less money than at the peak of the last cycle of economic expansion in 2000. This was a “totally new experience” in the post-war period, which saw total incomes listed on tax returns grow every year, with a single-year exception, until 2001.

These statistics make clear why the housing bubble, which played such a decisive role in the growth of the US economy since the recession of 2000-2001, was destined to collapse. While house prices and consumption spending in general were being inflated by the expansion of credit and lower interest rates, real income for the vast majority of working people in the US was going in the opposite direction, creating the conditions for a “scissors crisis.” Now the bursting of the bubble has set in motion economic forces that could bring a recession not only in the US, but in the world economy as a whole.

President Bush’s history lesson

By Barry Grey
24 August 2007

On Wednesday, President Bush delivered what the White House billed as a “major foreign policy speech” to the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, meeting in Kansas City, Missouri.

The purpose of the speech, given, as is the custom with the president and vice president, before a military audience, was to set the tone for the report on the military “surge” in Iraq to be made to Congress next month by Gen. David Petraeus and US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker.

The address featured Bush’s standard litany of banalities and lies, portraying the US devastation of Iraq as the “front line” of an “ideological struggle” to defend civilization against Islamic terrorism and extremism, safeguard the security of the American people, and spread the blessings of democracy throughout the Middle East.

It was directed against all those calling for an early end to the war, whom Bush accused of succumbing to the “allure of retreat,” and employed the usual fear-mongering ploy of invoking 9/11 and claiming that if US troops left Iraq, the terrorists would “follow them home” and kill thousands more Americans.

The center of the speech, however, was a potted history of US involvement in Asia. On the basis of a wretchedly distorted and ignorant presentation of America’s conflict with Japan in World War II, the Korean War and the War in Vietnam, Bush attempted to provide a measure of historical legitimacy for the ongoing bloodbath in Iraq.

In something more akin to a twisted fairy tale than a historical review, Bush argued that America’s military interventions in Asia, motivated by the most noble and beneficent aims, had produced a flowering of democracy and prosperity throughout the region, and strong pro-US regimes in Japan and South Korea—a precedent for the bright future the people of Iraq and the broader Middle East would enjoy if only the US stood firm and continued to wage the twenty-first century “war on terror.”

“I’m going to try to provide some historical perspective,” Bush said, “to show there is a precedent for the hard and necessary work we’re doing, and why I have such confidence in the fact we’ll be successful...”

The manner in which Bush began his pseudo-history established the method of ahistorical analogy and crude amalgam that he employed throughout. “I want to open today’s speech,” Bush said, “with a story that begins on a sunny morning, when thousands of Americans were murdered in a surprise attack—and our nation was propelled into a conflict that would take us to every corner of the globe...

“If the story sounds familiar, it is—except for one thing. The enemy I have just described is not al Qaeda, and the attack is not 9/11, and the empire is not the radical caliphate envisioned by Osama bin Laden. Instead, what I’ve described is the war machine of Imperial Japan in the 1940s, its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and its attempt to impose its empire throughout East Asia.”

Here you have it! Pearl Harbor equals 9/11, and Imperial Japan equals Al Qaeda. Of course, Bush is obliged to indulge in a bit of verbal sleight of hand, equating the caliphate “envisioned” by bin Laden and his scattered terrorist bands with the economically and militarily most powerful imperialist state in twentieth century Asia.

It is not possible here to answer all of the historical falsifications and absurdities mouthed by Bush. But the most important ones need to be addressed.

It is expedient to cast the war between the US and Japan as a conflict between good and evil. In fact, it was a struggle between two contending imperialist powers for influence in the Pacific, and above all, in China. All of the wars undertaken by the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have their roots in America’s emergence as an imperialist power in the Spanish American War of 1898, when the US took control of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

Bush’s depiction of America’s struggle against Japan as a humanitarian and democratic exercise conveniently omits the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed somewhere between 200,000 and 350,000 innocent civilians. In his speech, he praises the US decision to leave intact the Japanese imperial throne—an action that belied Washington’s democratic pretensions.

He lauds Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the post-war military proconsul of Japan, for establishing parliamentary institutions and giving women the franchise. In truth, America’s actions toward post-war Japan were largely motivated by fear of social revolution in the devastated country.

Next Bush turns to the Korean war of 1950-53. “America intervened,” he says, “to save South Korea from communist invasion.” It was yet another crusade for democracy against totalitarianism.

But facts, as the saying goes, are stubborn things. Bush, again conveniently, omits any mention of the dictator Syngman Rhee, whom the United States installed in the South in 1948 and intervened militarily to save in 1950. Prior to the outbreak of the war, Rhee’s police state detained and tortured communists and left-wing workers and students. It carried out massacres, including the bloody suppression of a leftist uprising on the island Jeju.

Rhee was forced into exile in 1960, but the police dictatorship remained intact, with US political, financial and military support, for three decades after the war.

The US invasion to prevent the unification of Korea on a non-capitalist basis resulted in the death of an estimated 2 million Koreans and nearly 34,000 US troops. Military blunders by MacArthur and other US commanders were directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of American soldiers.

At the time, the People’s Republic of China opposed, entirely legitimately, Washington’s attempt to establish a US puppet regime on its border, and intervened with millions of Red Army troops. In his potted history, Bush makes no mention of the decision by President Harry S. Truman to fire MacArthur for publicly criticizing Truman’s military policy and calling for a nuclear attack on China.

Instead, he points to critics of the Korean War within the US political establishment half a century ago in order to draw a parallel with those who criticize his war policy in Iraq today. The defeatist critics were wrong then, Bush argues, and they are wrong today.

In fact, the Korean War was a serious setback for the United States, ending with a negotiated compromise that left the Communist Party regime in control of the North.

Bush then proceeds to Vietnam, advancing the politically obscene argument that the tragedy which befell the Vietnamese people was the result of America’s withdrawal, not its more than decade-long military onslaught on the country. This argument is, of course, put forward to justify the continued devastation of Iraq.

Bush states that “... one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps,’ and ‘killing fields.’”

For millions of people around the world, the US war in Vietnam is associated with other terms, which have come to denote American atrocities and war crimes: terms like “My Lai,” “agent orange,” “napalm,” “Christmas bombing” and “destroying the village to save it.”

During the conflict, approximately 3 to 4 million Vietnamese were killed, in addition to another 1.5 to 2 million Lao and Cambodians. As in Korea, the United States intervened to prop up a brutal and despotic US puppet government in the South. Both wars exemplified the role of US imperialism in seeking to thwart the legitimate impulse of the Asian masses for national independence and freedom from foreign imperialist domination.

Bush does not mention the significant faction of the US ruling elite from which he himself is descended, which pushed for using nuclear weapons against both China and Vietnam.

As the historian Robert Dallek said in response to Bush’s twisted reference to Vietnam: “We were in Vietnam for ten years. We dropped more bombs on Vietnam than we did in all of World War II in every theater. We lost 58,700 American lives, the second-greatest loss of lives in a foreign conflict....

“What is Bush suggesting? That we didn’t fight hard enough, stay long enough?”

One inconvenient fact Bush omits is the refusal of the United States and its puppet regime in Saigon to abide by the provisions of the 1954 Geneva Accords, which called for national elections in 1956 to choose a government of a unified Vietnam. At the time, US President Dwight Eisenhower acknowledged that if elections had been held, Ho Chi Minh would have won 80 percent of the vote.

Bush’s reference—invoking the “killing fields” of Cambodia—to the mass murder carried out by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge after the 1975 defeat of the US in Vietnam is yet another grotesque whitewash of America’s role. The horrific events that unfolded in Cambodia were set into motion by the United States’ invasion of that country in 1970. The illegal Cambodian invasion was one of the articles of impeachment drawn up against Richard Nixon in 1974.

Following the US invasion, Washington engineered the overthrow of the government of Norodom Sihanouk and the installation of the American puppet Lon Nol, who subsequently fell to the Khmer Rouge. In the midst of the Khmer Rouge’s bloody rampage, the US supported it against the Vietnamese. The terror in Cambodia was ended only when the Vietnamese entered the country and brought down the Khmer Rouge regime.

Bush also leaves out of his account other US operations in Asia, such as the 1965 American-backed military overthrow of Suharto in Indonesia, which resulted in the murder of 1 million workers, students and intellectuals.

In his attempt to discredit critics of the Vietnam War, Bush ventures a literary allusion, citing Graham Greene’s 1955 novel about American intrigue in Vietnam, The Quiet American. Bush describes the main character, Alden Pyle, as a “young government agent” who is a “symbol of American purpose and patriotism—and dangerous naiveté.”

He neglects to mention that Pyle is a covert US intelligence agent who promotes a right-wing military thug as a counterweight to Communist-led nationalist forces and is implicated in a terrorist bombing in Saigon. One might safely assume that Bush has never seen the film, let alone read the book.

Bush’s claim that America’s withdrawal from Vietnam was responsible for mass killings and other atrocities is an attempt to lend historical credibility to the constant invocations of the threat of a bloodbath in Iraq should the US end its military occupation.

This is an argument worthy of a war criminal. The United States, by invading and occupying a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and represented no threat to the American people, has reduced an entire society to ruin and killed hundreds of thousands of its people. It has brought the horrors of Abu Ghraib, fueled sectarian warfare and ethnic cleansing, and turned Iraq into a living hell.

The supposed concern for the wellbeing of the Iraqi people comes from a government that to this day refuses to provide an accounting of the number of Iraqis killed as a result of its actions. If one were to add up the total number of people killed as a result of American military interventions in Asia, the sum would be staggering—perhaps 10 million or more.

The Iraq war, launched on the basis of lies, is but the latest act of imperialist brigandage carried out by the United States in Asia. And more are being prepared.

It is worth taking note of the response of the semi-official organ of American liberalism, the New York Times, to Bush’s speech. In a “news analysis” published Thursday, Thom Shanker writes: “President Bush is right on the factual record, according to historians.”

This attempt to dignify Bush’s wretched exercise in lies as though it were a legitimate contribution to historical debate is indicative of the general environment of unscrupulousness, ignorance and deceit that characterizes the entire American ruling establishment, and underscores the complicity of all of the official parties and institutions in US imperialism’s crimes.

Seeking Willie Horton

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
August 24, 2007

So now Mitt Romney is trying to Willie Hortonize Rudy Giuliani. And thereby hangs a tale — the tale, in fact, of American politics past and future, and the ultimate reason Karl Rove’s vision of a permanent Republican majority was a foolish fantasy.

Willie Horton, for those who don’t remember the 1988 election, was a convict from Massachusetts who committed armed robbery and rape after being released from prison on a weekend furlough program. He was made famous by an attack ad, featuring a menacing mugshot, that played into racial fears. Many believe that the ad played an important role in George H.W. Bush’s victory over Michael Dukakis.

Now some Republicans are trying to make similar use of the recent murder of three college students in Newark, a crime in which two of the suspects are Hispanic illegal immigrants. Tom Tancredo flew into Newark to accuse the city’s leaders of inviting the crime by failing to enforce immigration laws, while Newt Gingrich declared that the “war here at home” against illegal immigrants is “even more deadly than the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

And Mr. Romney, who pretends to be whatever he thinks the G.O.P. base wants him to be, is running a radio ad denouncing New York as a “sanctuary city” for illegal immigrants, an implicit attack on Mr. Giuliani.

Strangely, nobody seems to be trying to make a national political issue out of other horrifying crimes, like the Connecticut home invasion in which two paroled convicts, both white, are accused of killing a mother and her two daughters. Oh, and by the way: over all, Hispanic immigrants appear to commit relatively few crimes — in fact, their incarceration rate is actually lower than that of native-born non-Hispanic whites.

To appreciate what’s going on here you need to understand the difference between the goals of the modern Republican Party and the strategy it uses to win elections.

The people who run the G.O.P. are concerned, above all, with making America safe for the rich. Their ultimate goal, as Grover Norquist once put it, is to get America back to the way it was “up until Teddy Roosevelt, when the socialists took over,” getting rid of “the income tax, the death tax, regulation, all that.”

But right-wing economic ideology has never been a vote-winner. Instead, the party’s electoral strategy has depended largely on exploiting racial fear and animosity.

Ronald Reagan didn’t become governor of California by preaching the wonders of free enterprise; he did it by attacking the state’s fair housing law, denouncing welfare cheats and associating liberals with urban riots. Reagan didn’t begin his 1980 campaign with a speech on supply-side economics, he began it — at the urging of a young Trent Lott — with a speech supporting states’ rights delivered just outside Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964.

And if you look at the political successes of the G.O.P. since it was taken over by movement conservatives, they had very little to do with public opposition to taxes, moral values, perceived strength on national security, or any of the other explanations usually offered. To an almost embarrassing extent, they all come down to just five words: southern whites starting voting Republican.

In fact, I suspect that the underlying importance of race to the Republican base is the reason Rudy Giuliani remains the front-runner for the G.O.P. nomination, despite his serial adultery and his past record as a social liberal. Never mind moral values: what really matters to the base is that Mr. Giuliani comes across as an authoritarian, willing in particular to crack down on you-know-who.

But Republicans have a problem: demographic changes are making their race-based electoral strategy decreasingly effective. Quite simply, America is becoming less white, mainly because of immigration. Hispanic and Asian voters were only 4 percent of the electorate in 1980, but they were 11 percent of voters in 2004 — and that number will keep rising for the foreseeable future.

Those numbers are the reason Karl Rove was so eager to reach out to Hispanic voters. But the whites the G.O.P. has counted on to vote their color, not their economic interests, are having none of it. From their point of view, it’s us versus them — and everyone who looks different is one of them.

So now we have the spectacle of Republicans competing over who can be most convincingly anti-Hispanic. I know, officially they’re not hostile to Hispanics in general, only to illegal immigrants, but that’s a distinction neither the G.O.P. base nor Hispanic voters takes seriously.

Today’s G.O.P., in short, is trapped by its history of cynicism. For decades it has exploited racial animosity to win over white voters — and now, when Republican politicians need to reach out to an increasingly diverse country, the base won’t let them.

Of Fliers, Fines and the Limits of Patience

The New York Times
August 24, 2007

The last straw for Simcha Felder came months ago. Actually, it was more like the last scrap of paper. His mother had been given a $100 sanitation summons for some advertisement fliers that lay messily on the sidewalk in front of her house in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

You’ve all seen those kinds of fliers and their pesky first cousins: restaurant menus that are dropped on stoops or slipped under doors by delivery guys. Some people find the advertising useful. But for many New Yorkers — we bet most — it is a giant pain.

“I hate coming home to the stuff,” said Mr. Felder, who lives in Midwood, Brooklyn. “O.K., it’s a nuisance. But my mother, she’s in her late 80s. My father has Alzheimer’s. They have a corner building. They’re getting stuff thrown near the door. She can’t clean up every day. So she gets a sanitation summons for some of the stuff that fell out of the bag, that got wet, that’s on the sidewalk, that’s matted down, whatever.”

“For her to get a ticket is like a convicted felon,” he said. “That’s how she feels. Of course, I paid the ticket. But she was so upset about it.”

Fortunately for Ida Felder of Borough Park, she has a son who looks out for her. But her boy Simcha happens also to be a city councilman. He can do more than fight City Hall. He can try to change it.

In March, Mr. Felder introduced a bill that would make it unlawful to distribute “any unsolicited printed material” in houses or buildings that post notices that say, in effect: Go away. The councilman held a news conference at City Hall, where he threw a fistful of fliers on the front steps

It was, he acknowledged, a touch of silliness. “But that’s what I’m supposed to do to get attention,” he said.

He did indeed get attention. But his bill sat dormant. There was no reason for the City Council to act, not with a similar bill making its way through Albany, sponsored by two Queens lawmakers, State Senator Frank Padavan and Assemblyman Mark Weprin. Signed into law this week by Gov. Eliot Spitzer, it sets fines ranging from $250 to $1,000 for businesses that ignore signs telling them to take their fliers elsewhere.

But Mr. Felder said he would revive his bill if the Legislature failed to make changes in the law. Amendments are already being considered in Albany to deal with matters like what to do if some renters in an apartment building want the menus. Who exactly will enforce the law, and how, also needs to be spelled out.

One could question the usefulness of laws that arguably amount to feel-good measures that are hard to enforce. That said, however, the menu stranglers are trying to get hold of a nuisance that has bugged the daylights out of countless New Yorkers for years.

Don’t forget the security aspect, Mr. Felder said. “If you’re away for a week,” he said, “you come home to 10 copies of the stuff on the doorstep screaming: ‘Hi, I’m not home. Come and take whatever you want.’ ”

Safety aside, laws like this satisfy a certain Garboesque streak in New Yorkers. Sure, they accept the city’s hubbub, even embrace it. But there is also a part of them that just wants to be left alone:

Enough with panhandlers hounding them on the weary subway ride home. Enough with loud cellphone yakkers on the bus. Enough with phone solicitors interrupting dinner.

At least the phone intruders have been held in check by way of the do-not-call registry. As of June, holders of nearly nine million phone accounts had registered in New York State, according to the state’s Consumer Protection Board. That compares with 7.5 million a year ago and 5.5 million in 2005. What are all those people saying? Simply, just leave us alone.

The anti-flier law is the do-not-call list’s equivalent. As with that registry, politicians and charities are exempt from restrictions, our lawmakers having apparently decided that the average Joe may not want to be bothered by a cable company huckster but is somehow dying to hear from someone running for office.

Those exemptions make no sense to Mr. Felder. But even his bill would give charities a pass from a no-flier ban.

How’s that? What makes them a special case?

Things are different “when it comes to God,” the councilman said. With charities, “some of them are not his messengers, but some of them are. I don’t want to be on his bad side.”

When his own time comes, he said: “I don’t want to be asked about this. I have enough on my plate.”


Giants Await a Leader, but Also Need Followers

Sports of The Times
August 24, 2007

How playful the Eli Manning-Tiki Barber quarrel seems, relative to more vexing issues dogging the N.F.L. Compared with the Michael Vick case, it’s a food fight in the school cafeteria or one of those intramural training camp scuffles that real men like Coach Tom Coughlin believe will make their players’ pores ooze with orneriness.

But it’s August, devoid of meaningful competition, and Vick, barring an unforeseen audible, will officially plead guilty Monday to dogfighting charges that will put him in jail. He hasn’t served a redemptive day yet and already the Atlanta chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., among other sources, is clamoring for him to play again. Imagine the unpleasant decisions, inevitably fraught with racial repercussions, facing N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell.

For now, as Goodell tries to remake his league’s battered behavioral image, he needs volunteers to step up, speak out, change the subject. If I’m Goodell, I’m thinking, keep talking, Tiki. Get down on all fours and bark, if you’d like.

The broadcast game is about distinguishing one’s self from the rest of the ever-expanding pack, and Barber knew what he was doing when he announced himself in the studio Sunday night by describing Manning’s leadership qualities as “comical.” Manning answered Barber, his teammate only eight months ago, with a salvo that looked and sounded more sheepish than furious.

Easily impressed, his Giants teammates reacted with a right-on, about-time gusto, which mostly underscored the belief that what Barber said, however self-serving, was essentially true.

People often miss the point when they say that it is not easy for Manning to be the little brother of Peyton, quarterback and pitchman extraordinaire. Performance issues aside, Eli’s problem, born of a personality that is seemingly guileless, transcends genealogy. Forget Peyton; in his three seasons with the Giants, Eli has been everyone’s little brother, alternately picked on and stood up for. In either case, not the most ideal leadership conditions.

“Well, I guess I’ve always been even keeled, never really responded back and tried to always make things smooth and easy,” Manning told reporters Wednesday. An admirable approach in most places except inside the football arena; it’s a sport not exactly given to attitudinal complexity and languid body language.

We will know that Manning, 26, has met the big-boy challenge when teammates do not have to defend him so vigorously in the locker room, when Coughlin doesn’t think he is too fragile to treat him as churlishly as he did, for example, Mathias Kiwanuka, a rookie, last season. And most of all, when Manning has finally had enough and shoves a football in the face of the next receiver to show him up on the field, as Jeremy Shockey and Plaxico Burress have become so accustomed to doing.

If the Giants had any real leaders last season, including Michael Strahan and Barber and, for that matter, Coughlin, those gestures of exasperation upon being underthrown or overlooked would not have been tolerated.

By season’s end, the network cameras were well trained on the Giants’ receivers after pass plays, anticipating overreaction and more embarrassment for Manning. Where were his supporters when he needed them most? Where was Strahan, the Giants’ most tenured and typically outspoken star?

Invisible, just as he is now, as he contemplates retirement or times his arrival to miss the most grueling part of training camp. Isn’t that just like a me-first Giants star in the years under Coughlin and his predecessor Jim Fassel?

There haven’t been many locker rooms as chatty as the Giants’ has become, where talk has been so cheap. Here, in fact, is Barber, on Manning two days before last season’s regular-season finale against the Redskins and 10 days before his retirement, when asked if he had any regrets of leaving a still-developing quarterback alone in the lurch.

“I care about Eli and it’s been fun playing with him for three years,” Barber said. “But he’s capable of handling it himself. I know he is.”

Barber then went out and carried the Giants into the playoffs with a franchise-record 234 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns. “Thank you, thank you,” Manning told him later that night when they passed in the interview room.

Payback, it appears, was Barber deciding to tell it like it is, Cosellian-style, to mark his network debut.

It wasn’t the most honorable act of Barber’s career, but, again, in the context of how we define aberrant N.F.L. behavior, it is hard to get more angry than Manning appeared to be — or not — when he tweaked Barber for last season’s long retirement melodrama in his unassuming, Andy of Mayberry way.

Bottom line: Barber, besides giving football fans something other than Vick to debate, did Manning a favor. He made himself a stationary target, handing Manning the motivation to allow teammates to see him, for once, stand up for himself.

Making them stand behind him, and making Barber admit he was wrong, we’ll just have to see about that.


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Great Clock Plot

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
August 23, 2007

This week, The Times reported that President Hugo Chávez is planning to move Venezuela’s clocks ahead by half an hour. The story created one of those wonderful moments of newspaper community, as readers around the nation suddenly shared an identical thought:

Say what?

Chávez unveiled his plans on his regular Sunday television show, in what several other news reports referred to as a “rambling” address. Reaction was swift, with many people recalling the scene in Woody Allen’s “Bananas” when a revolutionary hero becomes president of a Latin American country and announces that from now on, “underwear will be worn on the outside.”

The other popular comment was that Americans are in no position to make fun of countries whose leaders make incoherent speeches.

Chávez has always been strong on the grand leftist gesture. (Remember the day that he called George W. Bush “the devil” at the United Nations?) But it’s hard to quite grasp the populist appeal of having to use a calculator to figure out when the next plane arrives from Bogotá.

In his speech, Chávez connected the time change to his plan to reduce the Venezuelan work day in 2008. His administration believes that:

1) Cutting everyone’s work day to six hours will increase national productivity; and 2) That if you change 7 a.m. to 6:30, it will create a “metabolic effect, where the human brain is conditioned by sunlight.”

Now I know all this sounds extremely silly, but in the name of fairness, remember that:

1) You live in a country where the administration believes that cutting taxes for the heirs to billion-dollar estates will lead to increased prosperity for unemployed steel workers.

2) Every year, most Americans spring forward and fall back so that the Sun God will send extra rays to we who honor him with the ceremony of the changing of the clocks.

3) So far, Hugo Chávez hasn’t invaded anybody.

Inquiring minds still want to know about that half-hour. The Venezuelan science minister says the government wants to return the country to the system it used before 1965.

When it was changed. For convenience.

Perhaps President Chávez just isn’t a clock-watching kind of guy. His weekly TV program is six hours of him talking, which is an extremely long time to ramble on unless you’re Fidel Castro or an American sports commentator.

But what if there’s a trend under way here? The list of countries who use the half-hour system does not inspire much confidence. There’s Burma. And Afghanistan. And then there’s Nepal. When the countries around it are at 3 p.m., Nepal believes it to be 3:45. This may have something to do with the altitude.

Newfoundland is on the half-hour system, defying the rest of Canada to do anything about it. The reason, as Premier Danny Williams once explained, is that Newfoundlanders “like to be different.” Their country is mainly about cod — very important, historically speaking, but not frequently in the headlines these days.

So people there like a little attention. They like having a Newfoundland Time Zone. They like the fact that the national broadcasters always have to say: “Stay tuned for the news on the hour. On the half-hour in Newfoundland.”

We may be on to something here. How many countries do you think would feel better about the world if they just got mentioned once in a while? Probably won’t work for Afghanistan at this point, but we could try getting the networks to say things like: “News is up next, and let’s hope it’s a nice day in Surinam.”

Sooner or later, somebody in the White House will notice that the one other country whose clocks are running to the tune of a different drummer is Iran. Chávez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are extremely cozy, always pinning medals on one another and sending anti-Bush jokes back and forth. At this very minute, Vice President Dick Cheney is somewhere in his basement, working up a new theory about the Evil Axis of Half Hours.

Let’s just not go there. Riordan Roett, the director of the Western Hemisphere studies program at Johns Hopkins University, says that the fact that the president of Venezuela announces something does not necessarily mean it’s a done deal. “See if Chávez repeats it,” he advised. “If it’s just a one-time thing, the rational people who are still in the government will just ignore it.”

If only we had a similar system in the United States, imagine all the things we might have avoided over the last six years.

Sarkozy’s New Order

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
August 23, 2007


Nicolas Sarkozy, the neophyte French president who can’t keep still, has already been likened to Napoleon Bonaparte. Set aside visions of Sarko invading Egypt or retreating from Moscow and you get to the kernel of truth in this comparison: he wants to trash the old order.

The presidency of the French Fifth Republic, built for Charles de Gaulle in 1958, was always the most monarchical of democratic institutions. It was conceived to allow a national hero to deliver France from its Algerian nemesis and imbued with something of Louis XIV’s crisp view: “L’état, c’est moi,” or “I am the state.”

Sarkozy has long indicated his impatience with this regal presidency, once comparing his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, to an out-of-touch French monarch on the Revolution’s eve. In a relentless road show since taking office in May, he has trampled tradition, abandoned aloofness and targeted taboos.

The performance has been exhausting to watch — suggestive of an unscarred first-term Tony Blair on amphetamines. But it has produced results. Among them are new forms of parliamentary oversight of the presidency and a bipartisanship that has allowed opposition Socialists, like Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, into high office.

Above all, Sarkozy has redefined presidential style, doing the unthinkable by vacationing in Wolfeboro, N. H., alongside millionaires. Money has never been a thing to display in France. That was the vulgar Yankee way.

To grasp the enormity of all this, imagine President Bush abandoning Texan brush for a three-week sojourn in St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.

As it happened, Bush showed up at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Me., to meet Sarkozy. The choreography was blown when Cécilia, the volatile first lady of France, failed to show (illness was professed, a tiff widely assumed). Still, the presence of Bush’s father signaled a desire to bury Iraqi bitterness and return to the good times of the former president’s “Europe whole and free.”

French-American relations are always complex. Seldom have two countries been more reluctant, or stubborn, allies. The universalizing ambitions of both nations, their thirst to embody and spread the ennobling values of mankind, lead to tensions at the best of times. When things go south, as they did with Iraq, you get freedom fries and other less trivial forms of vilification.

So a warming of relations is good news if you believe, as I do, that when the trans-Atlantic bond is broken, the world grows more unstable. Still, the ironies of the amiable Maine picnic were hard to swallow. On one end of the corn on the cob you had a French president who seems determined to make his office more accountable, more accessible, more open, and invoking American-style checks and balances to achieve that.

On the other, you had an American president who, in the name of the war on terror, has, with Dick Cheney, been bent on placing the authority of the White House as far as possible beyond the offsetting power of the legislative and judicial branches.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the late historian, found in Nixon the villain of his 1973 book “The Imperial Presidency,” but thought Bush had gone further still in pursuit of a Caesarist democracy.

Schlesinger discerned in Nixon “the all-purpose invocation of ‘national security,’ the insistence on executive secrecy, the withholding of information from Congress, the attempted intimidation of the press.”

Sound familiar? The Bush presidency has shown contempt for due process, placed “illegal enemy combatants” in unacceptable limbo, fired politically recalcitrant federal prosecutors, dreamed up a bizarre oversight-free definition of the vice presidency, resorted to warrantless surveillance and disdained Congress’ constitutional role.

The price of keeping America safe, Bush would argue. But the real price has been the tarnishing of the country and consequent erosion of its ability to coax other nations to its views and objectives. American isolation in Iraq has been devastating.

Which brings us back to universal ambitions. France under a president descended from the heights seems more at ease in the world, attuned to globalization and attractive because less remote. The U.S. under Bush has seen its magnetism dimmed as the commander in chief has built his fortress of executive privilege.

To the next U.S. president will fall the huge task of restoring America’s international standing. I wonder whether a dynastic succession back to the House of Clinton as if all we had were Tudors and Stuarts would be the best way of stripping the regal and so returning the country to itself and the world.


The Opinionator

August 23, 2007, 1:25 pm
That Vietnam Analogy: Reactions
By Tobin Harshaw
Tags: , ,

As he promised, President Bush’s speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars yesterday contained a number of comparisons between Iraq and the Vietnam war: “Then as now, people argued the real problem was America’s presence and that if we would just withdraw, the killing would end … The world would learn just how costly these misimpressions would be.”

The Times’s Thom Shanker has a fine roundup of historians’ reaction to the analogy, but of course the blogosphere has plenty of less-academic responses.

“Whatever one thinks of the stunning cynicism and immorality of the Nixon/Kissinger strategy, the American people at least understood and I suspect strongly approved of an agreement that allowed America to extract itself from a terrible and bloody quagmire that had killed over 58,000 US troops and millions of Vietnamese,” writes Scarecrow at the liberal blog Firedoglake.

“I’m not sure Americans cared what happened next; they just wanted out, and the agreement got them out, slowly, late, after too many deaths, but eventually out. Looking back, I doubt there are many Americans who think we should have followed the advice Bush is now offering; do they really believe we should have heeded the warnings of dire consequences of withdrawal from a country that had no real strategic interests for the US and is now a friendly trading partner?”

Bob Franken at The Hill feels that the president is “ignoring perhaps the most important similarity. The major U.S. military commitment in both conflicts came as the result of U.S. government deception: the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam and Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.”

Jonah Goldberg at The Corner finds such views shortsighted: “The mainstream media and a lot of liberal-leaning analysts seem to think it’s politically foolish or reckless for Bush to compare Vietnam to Iraq because they have one very specific narrative in mind when it comes to that war: America shouldn’t have gotten in, couldn’t have won, and then lost. What they have long failed to grasp is that’s not the moral of the story in the hearts of millions of Americans who believe that we could have won if wanted to and it was a disaster for American prestige and honor that we lost (whether we should have gone in is a murkier question for many, I think).

This is a point the Democrats fail to grasp: being on the side of surrender in a war is popular enough during the war, but if you succeed lots of Americans will later get buyer’s remorse and feel like it was a mistake and the next generation will see things very differently than their anti-war activist parents.”

To which P. O’Neill at Best of Both Worlds responds directly: “What else could America have done to have ‘won’ in Vietnam? Nuclear weapons? Incidentally, those against the Vietnam war weren’t for American ‘surrender.’ They were for letting Vietnam sort out its own problems.”

The president’s reply to that, one supposes, would be that Vietnam did an unacceptable job of sorting out those problems. The bigger question, presumably, is whether the Iraqis can do any better.


August 23, 2007, 10:13 am
Sporting Steroids: Ban the Ban?
By Tobin Harshaw

Should we just relax about sports and steroids? The controversial Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, writing in The Japan Times, thinks so. He approvingly cites the work of the Oxford medical ethicist Julian Savulescu, who feels sports “should drop the ban on performance-enhancing drugs, and allow athletes to take whatever they want, as long as it is safe for them to do so.” Singer writes:
Savulescu proposes that instead of trying to detect whether an athlete has taken drugs, we should focus on measurable indications of whether an athlete is risking his or her health. So, if an athlete has a dangerously high level of red blood cells as a result of taking erythropoietin (EPO), he or she should not be allowed to compete. The issue is the red blood cell count, not the means used to elevate it.

To those who say that this will give drug users an unfair advantage, Savulescu replies that now, without drugs, those with the best genes have an unfair advantage. They must still train, of course, but if their genes produce more EPO than ours, they are going to beat us in the Tour de France, no matter how hard we train. Unless, that is, we take EPO to make up for our genetic deficiency. Setting a maximum level of red blood cells actually levels the playing field by reducing the impact of the genetic lottery. Effort then becomes more important than having the right genes.

Some argue that taking drugs is “against the spirit of sport.” But it is difficult to defend the current line between what athletes can and cannot do in order to enhance their performance …

Moreover, I would argue that sport has no single “spirit.” People play sports to socialize, for exercise, to keep fit, to earn money, to become famous, to prevent boredom, to find love, and for the sheer fun of it. They may strive to improve their performance, but often they do so for its own sake, for the sense of achievement. Popular participation in sport should be encouraged. Physical exercise makes people not only healthier, but also happier. To take drugs will usually be self-defeating.
“Usually” self-defeating, I guess — but can we also assume there are plenty out there who would be made “happier” by an Olympic gold, no matter how it was achieved?


August 22, 2007, 2:18 pm
Spinning the Surge
By Tobin Harshaw
Tags: ,

It’s as close to an admission of fallibility as you’re likely to hear from a prominent political correspondent: “I predicted here that the August congressional recess would be a difficult time for Republicans, because they would be returning to their districts to face voters who were furious over the Iraq war,” writes Karen Tumulty at Time’s Swampland. “But if this morning’s Washington Post is right, the exact opposite has happened: It’s the Democrats who are being put on the defensive over the war.”

So, what did the Post’s Jonathan Weisman and Anne E. Kornblut report? “Democratic leaders in Congress had planned to use August recess to raise the heat on Republicans to break with President Bush on the Iraq war. Instead, Democrats have been forced to recalibrate their own message in the face of recent positive signs on the security front, increasingly focusing their criticisms on what those military gains have not achieved: reconciliation among Iraq’s diverse political factions.”

Cue the grumbling from the left. “With all this undisciplined, rambling ‘the surge is working’ talk and a Republican ad blitz coming around the corner to bolster Bush’s White House Report, it’s clear the Democrats have strayed so dangerously off message as to threaten what we’ve worked for all this time,” writes the liberal radio host Taylor Marsh. “Bush got his surge, with an escalation on top. The political movement in Iraq is non-existent, but yet the Democrats are about to be pressured that ‘the surge is working’ through a political ad blitz right before Petreaus delivers the White House Report on — wait for it — 9/11/07.”

Then the triumphalism from the right: “The Democrats have already admitted that good new in Iraq is bad new for Democrats,” writes Paul at the conservative collective Wizbang. “So now they have to change the message and whine about the supposed lack of political progress. It’s not surprising they continue to use Iraq as a political football. They have a long history of it.”
Michael van der Galien at The Moderate Voice, however, keeps his reflexes in check:

Where the strategy was first to argue that the military surge would not work, the Democrats seem to be ready to acknowledge — behind closed doors that is — that they were wrong. Instead of admitting that publicly, though, they choose to focus on something else: the main message is and remains the same — Iraq is lost. There is no hope. Now, I am a critic of the surge — I supported the war for a long time until I believed that Bush et al. messed it up beyond repair. I criticized the surge because, to me, it seemed as if it was too little and especially too late. However, now I see that there might be something good happening in Iraq I — and other critics — have to be so honest to acknowledge the progress made. This does not mean that we should suddenly embrace the surge, but it does mean that we should try to keep an open mind about it. As I said, basically, when the surge started: I hope Bush proves me wrong. He just might.

“Just might”? Well, that’s an assessment that lives up the blog’s name.


August 22, 2007, 10:12 am
Remembrance of Fries Past
By Tobin Harshaw
Tags: , ,

August has traditionally been considered a slow news month (as a newspaper employee who long lacked the seniority for late-summer vacation, I’d beg to differ — remember Boris Yeltsin on that tank?), so the press tends to draw up a lot of coverage of anniversaries — get ready for Katrina redux. Laura Rozen at Mother Jones’s MoJoBlog brings up the fourth anniversary of something a great proportion of Americans have likely forgotten, or at least tried to erase from their memories: “It was only four years ago that Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and Walter Jones (R-NC) announced the official name change in Congressional cafeterias from French fries and French toast to Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast.”

“My, how les temps have changed!” she adds. “Now ex-Rep Ney is serving 30 months jail time, Jones has become a fierce war critic, and lo and behold, the French may be coming to the rescue in Iraq.” To back up that last claim, she cites a Washington Post report that “French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner used a surprise trip to Baghdad to call on European countries to help the United States repair Iraq.”

Rozen’s take: “Kouchner’s humanitarian background as co-founder of the medical relief group Medecins Sans Frontieres may begin to explain the willingness to overlook the anti French GOP posturing of the not so distant past and to let bygones be bygones.”


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