Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Attacking Kerry's war record. You'd think it would be impossible for the Republicans to turn John Kerry's military experience against him. Indeed, Kerry and his supporters hope that his status as a Vietnam veteran and a war hero will offset his reputation as a Massachusetts liberal. But Jed Babbin, a Defense Department official for Bush I, gives it a try this morning on the right-wing American Prowler website. (I found the link at Real Clear Politics.) Babbin's is a crude and ugly attack, fascinating mainly because it may serve as a rough draft for what's coming should Kerry succeed in winning the Democratic nomination.

According to Babbin's screed, Kerry's service in Vietnam so damaged him that he wound up a dangerous bleeding heart who can't be trusted as commander-in-chief. Here's the nastiest passage, attributed, naturally, to anonymous sources:

One senior Army officer, a warrior from Gulf War 1, told me that Kerry suffers from the Vietnam syndrome. In his judgment, Kerry is, "too traumatized by the lost war to cope with any other war under any circumstances." A former Navy SEAL told me he thinks Kerry is an opportunist. That same judgment of Kerry came independently from a Marine whose Vietnam service was as tough or tougher than Kerry's. He told me, "I do not trust people like [Kerry] -- scratch that individual and watch an opportunist bleed."

So the right, after eight years of distrusting Bill Clinton because he never served, now distrusts Kerry because he did serve. Apparently the only proper course for a future commander-in-chief is that of George W. Bush, who safely maneuvered planes over Texas skies, thus giving him the military record that Clinton lacked while sparing him of the terrible knowledge that Kerry paid such a high price to obtain.

Monday, December 23, 2002

Nyhan's column lives. Walter Brooks, who compiles the invaluable News Junkies Weekly Fix, sent me an e-mail explaining where Salem News content disappears to after that day's issue expires. So without further ado, here's the link to David Nyhan's column of last Thursday. But hurry! Once this Thursday's paper comes out, it will be gone for good.

Sophisticated kidvid. The Wild Thornberrys Movie is wonderful, a story aimed at adults and kids alike. I took my daughter to see it on Saturday, and felt like I'd been rewarded for all the times I'd been forced to sit through such loathsome fare as the Pokemon movies and Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius. There are lots of children's movies that try to lure in the adults with double entendres that fly over the kids' heads, but The Wild Thornberrys doesn't stoop to such cheap tricks. It's sophisticated enough for the grown-ups, and it never panders to the kids.

Happy holidays. Media Log is going on semi-hiatus until after New Year's Day. I may feel the urge to spew a couple of times, but between Christmas, travel, and some serious computer problems that I haven't been able to diagose, it seems like it would be a good idea to hibernate for a few weeks. I won't be sending out e-mails, but you might want to check the website from time to time.

Sunday, December 22, 2002

The real Trent Lott. There's a school of thought -- a blessedly small one, to be sure -- that poor Trent Lott was forced to resign just as he was finally starting to get it.

According to this thinking, the real reason that Senate Republicans finally rose up and overthrew him was not that they were offended by his decades-long record of racist statements and actions, but that they feared he was morphing into a pro-affirmative-action moderate. That might what Globe columnist Tom Oliphant was trying to say this morning, although I'm reserving judgment until I see the English translation.

With such woolly-headedness on the loose, it's great to see the post-resignation Lott cutting loose and putting all doubts to rest. According to this dispatch from the Associated Press, Lott drops the pretense of being sorry and makes it clear that he thinks his only mistake was to fall into a "trap" set by his political enemies.

Lott acknowleges having made an "inappropriate remark," thus slithering away from his two endorsements of Strom Thurmond's segregationist presidential campaign -- spoken 22 years apart -- as well as his association with the white-supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens, his opposition to the Martin Luther King holiday, and the like. Incredibly, he adds:

There are some people in Washington who have been trying to nail me for a long time. When you're from Mississippi and you're a conservative and you're a Christian, there are a lot of people that don't like that. I fell into their trap and so I have only myself to blame.

So now you have the Gospel according to Trent. It's not that he's a racist, or that he made racist remarks, or that he has sought friendship and support from racists for his entire sorry career. It's that he's ... a Christian. God help us.

Friday, December 20, 2002

Nyhan calls Romney's bluff. Retired Globe columnist David Nyhan takes a look at Mitt Romney's suddenly inoperative promise to steer the state through the budget crisis without raising taxes or cutting services in any significant way. Nyhan's column appeared in yesterday's Salem News; you can try following this link, although if past practice is any guide, it will expire long before the end of the day.

Nyhan goes easier on Romney than he should, given that the parameters of the current crisis were well-known before Election Day. You could even argue that Romney won because he reassured voters that they had nothing to worry about while his opponent, Shannon O'Brien, was somewhat more honest. (I think Romney would have won anyway, but maybe by a smaller margin.)

Still, Nyhan is unsparing in reminding readers that Romney was claiming a $1 billion deficit when everyone else was using a figure of $2 billion -- a number that Romney has now embraced -- so that he could mouth his phony promise to eliminate that deficit through reorganization. No one, including the highly credible Massachusetts Taxpayers Association, believes Romney can save anywhere near that much without slashing services. Nyhan also notes that the deficit was fed in large measure by $4 billion in tax breaks for the affluent during the Weld/Cellucci/Swift years. Nyhan writes:

Mitt had to lowball the deficit during the campaign if he was to have any credibility at all with his no-new-taxes approach. He even went so far as to vow to roll back the $1 billion in new/old taxes that the Legislature forced upon acting Gov. Swift in facing up to the deficit avalanche swooping down on the state.

But if Mitt is to have any future in national politics as a Republican candidate for president, vice president, or the Bush cabinet, he has to go the no-new-taxes route.

Nyhan's conclusion: "So what does all this amount to? Politics as usual, I'm afraid. Yep, it's even worse than we thought."

And by the way, Dave, let's make a deal: get your son or one of his friends to put together a website collecting your columns so that they don't disappear into the ether within a few hours of their being posted, and I promise to add a link somewhere.

Thursday, December 19, 2002

NU J-school director whacks Buckingham. Steve Burgard, the director of Northeastern University's School of Journalism and a former editorial-board member at the Los Angeles Times, e-mails Media Log on an additional reason why Virginia Buckingham would be a poor choice as the Herald's deputy editorial-page editor:

The Boston Globe has reported that Virginia Buckingham, a former head of the Massachusetts Port Authority, has been talking to the Boston Herald about becoming deputy editorial page editor. Let's hope that the lunch meeting she was spotted having with Rachelle Cohen, the editorial page editor, was that and only that. Lunch.

To see why having Buckingham as number two of one of the city's major daily editorial boards is a bad idea, look no further than today's (Dec. 19) Herald. In a story headlined "Logan hit hardest post 9/11," the newspaper reports on a study that found that Logan International Airport lost almost a quarter of its flights since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Massport's spokesman was quoted as citing drastic agency actions such as cutting budget, laying off 15 percent of its work force and delaying capital projects.

Readers look to major editorial pages to make sense of important stories like this. How much stock could they put in an institutional voice spoken by a former political appointee whose fingerprints were all over Massport and its troubles?

Editorial pages can and should have a point of view, but they will cheat readers of clear, independent thinking if they are too politically connected or ideologically rigid. Make no mistake either about the clout inherent in a deputy editor's position. At major newspapers, deputies exercise enormous influence over the daily editorial line, and when the boss is out of the office, they often set it.

Burgard's letter has already been posted by Romenesko, too. The Globe item described Buckingham as a "shoo-in." But you've got to wonder if the opposition of someone as respected as Burgard might make Cohen and publisher Pat Purcell pause.

Larry and Rummy, kissy-kissy. Here's my favorite exchange from Larry King's on-his-knees interview last night with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld:

KING: Morale is high?

RUMSFELD: Excellent, just excellent.

Of course, it's too easy to make fun of King. You can't deny that there's value in letting someone like Rumsfeld talk unimpeded for the better part of an hour. You might even learn more than you would if an interviewer with an agenda kept trying to steer the interview in his direction. Given Rumsfeld's refusal to answer any questions about the inner workings of the administration, it's easy to see how someone other than easy-going Larry would have turned the entire hour into a testy exchange over the Defense secretary's penchant for secrecy. Okay, but he's still not going to answer the question.

But even given King's low standards, I was nevertheless stunned that he failed to ask about the single biggest Rumsfeld story of the week. Veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has a piece in this week's New Yorker on Rumsfeld's controversial efforts to push the military into carrying out smaller, faster operations aimed at taking out terrorist cells -- operations that his critics call "assassinations."

Hersh is often criticized for becoming a prisoner of his sources, but this piece is better balanced than some of his previous efforts. I came away impressed with how dangerous it is to carry out operations like the recent missile attack in Yemen, where Al Qaeda leader Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi and five other men were killed. Hersh's sources make it clear that Rumsfeld risks (a) making mistakes and killing innocent noncombatants and (b) elevating assassination to the status of a legitimate tool of warcraft that can just as easily be used against the US.

Yet Hersh also takes note of the danger of not acting as well. He quotes a "Pentagon adviser" on Rumsfeld's frustrations in dealing with his cautious -- overly cautious? -- generals: "The idea of not wanting to go after the senior leadership of a paramilitary group that has declared war on you is such a perversion that it's mind-boggling. The problem of a peacetime military is that they cannot conceive of doing what they are paid to do. 'Going after the leadership of Al Qaeda -- that's a serious problem.' My God!"

It's an important and fascinating look at one of the most momentous debates going on inside our government, and Larry had an hour to interview one of the principals. Too bad he didn't ask him about it.

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

A Bulger defender checks in. The Dorchester Reporter's Bill Forry finds some things to like and some things to object to in my recent commentary on UMass president Bill Bulger's refusal to testify before the Burton committee. (Click here, here and here for what I wrote.) Forry doesn't have a whole lot of nice things to say about the rest of the media regarding the Bulger Chronicles, either, except for Globe columnists Brian McGrory and Tom Oliphant. Worth a read.

Yes, Virginia, there really is a Santa Claus. The Globe reports this morning that the Herald is wooing former Massport director Virginia Buckingham to be its deputy editorial-page editor. Why? I am not a Buckingham-basher. Yes, she got her last job through political connections, but so did all of her predecessors, and she was more professional and diligent than many of them. To blame her for 9/11 is ludicrous. But her only published piece that I'm aware of was a self-pitying essay for the Globe's Sunday magazine last fall. And if she has any ideological convictions other than being a Republican, she's done a good job of hiding them.

For some reason, the Herald has never seemed willing to turn its editorial and op-ed pages into a smart, conservative alternative to the Globe. Of the local columnists who write for those pages now, Wayne Woodlief and Tom Keane aren't conservatives, and Beverly Beckham belongs in the lifestyle section. The departed Don Feder was a conservative, but his screeds were boring, lazy, and predictable. If publisher Pat Purcell really wants to give the Globe a run for its money in the pundit department, he should give editorial-page editor Shelly Cohen the budget to expand from two pages a day to four (giving her approximately the same square footage as the Globe) and to sign up some bright new columnists.

Hiring Buckingham sounds like a sideways move -- and an expensive one at that.

You've got Cosmo. Jay Fitzgerald's Hub Blog beat me to it (I overslept), but Boston Herald business columnist Cosmo Macero has unveiled a personal website and a weblog. No doubt Macero will make it worthwhile. But it's unusual, and a little dangerous, for a newspaper staffer to write a blog that's not connected to his newspaper's website.

Earlier this year, the Houston Chronicle fired Steve Olafson for his extracurricular blogging activities (but not before reportedly being told to "take the fucking site down"). Brit commentator Andrew Orlowski referred to Olafson's firing as an example of "America's constipated 'journalism ethics.'"

Be careful, Cosmo. It can get ugly out here in Blogland.

Monday, December 16, 2002

Now, Kerry versus Lieberman. The New Republic's Ryan Lizza, in a dispatch today for TNR Online, makes the case that Joe Lieberman will be the chief beneficiary of Al Gore's decision not to run for president in 2004. Of course, Lieberman's right-of-center Democratic Leadership Council credentials make him a favorite of TNR. In the current print edition, editor Peter Beinart actually urges Lieberman to run against Gore, a personal friend of the magazine's editor-in-chief and chairman, Marty Peretz.

Still, Lizza is right. What Gore may have guaranteed is a showdown between John Kerry and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party versus Lieberman, the best hope of the moderates. With a primary schedule even more front-loaded than 2000's, there will be a huge premium on candidates who are already well-known and who can raise vast amounts of money before the first vote is cast. No dark horses need apply. Sorry, Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt, Tom Daschle, John Edwards, etc., etc. (Although John Ellis, interestingly, sees it as Lieberman-Gephardt.)

The New Yorker has already published long profiles of Kerry (marred by a rare lapse by writer Joe Klein, as reported by the Globe's Alex Beam) and Lieberman (by Jeffrey Toobin). Both pieces were positive, to say the least. But you can't understand the candidates unless you first understand how they see themselves, before the political and media spinners start ripping them apart. A plea to editor David Remnick: put the pieces online!

Bored pundits, outraged public. All-purpose quote machine Larry Sabato makes some smart observations about Trent Lott on Newsweek's website. The most important is that the media are so bored and cynical that they had to be reminded by the public that Lott's racist remarks were truly outrageous. Says Sabato:

Public officials frequently say things that are out of the box and those who are covering it can slough it off and say, "there he goes again." Average people have a different, much more human reaction which is to take a more genuine offense.

David Brooks's contribution to the Newsweek package is an assertion that Republicans really don't wax nostalgic about cross-burnings and segregation when they get together and no one else is around. I'm sure that's true of Brooks's well-educated neoconservative crowd. But the question remains: what do Southern Republicans such as Lott talk about among themselves? Lott's comments are racist enough even when the cameras are rolling.

The problem with the Republican Party today is not that it is racist -- the genuine outrage over Lott's remarks expressed by George W. Bush and a range of conservative commentators is evidence of that. The problem is that a cadre of hardcore racists make up a small but important part of the Republican coalition.

Put it this way: the reason that 95 percent of African-Americans routinely vote for Democratic presidential candidates is not because they don't want a tax cut.

Saturday, December 14, 2002

Gellman speaks -- okay, types. Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman yesterday conducted an online conversation with readers to discuss his Thursday bombshell, in which he wrote that terrorists linked to Al Qaeda may have smuggled nerve gas out of Iraq. (Click here, here, and here for my earlier posts on this.)

The transcript is worth reading in full, but here is the most salient exchange:

Fairfax, Va.: How certain are you that this transfer may have actually occurred? If it did occur, are any sources discussing specific plots in which the nerve gas might be used?

Barton Gellman: Many levels of uncertainty. One, whether the information that the CIA obtained is true -- it comes mainly from a single, sensitive source that's seen as credible, but it's not corroborated by another source yet (that I know of) and errors of interpretation are always possible. Two, whether those who got the chemical agent are working for al Qaeda. three, whether they got it out of the country (though age old smuggling routes are efficient). Four, whether any such transaction had Saddam's consent. Five, whether I know as much as (no I don't) what the US government knows, and whether what I do know is accurate (I have good reason to think so). No simple answers here, I'm afraid.

Thanks to RB for the link.

Tricky Bernie. They're right, but they don't know why. The two dailies trot out apologists for Cardinal Law today -- Eugene Kennedy in the Globe and Joe Fitzgerald in the Herald -- and they each make the same breathtakingly idiotic analogy: Someday we'll all appreciate the good that Law did. Just like we did with ... Richard Nixon!

Neither Kennedy nor Fitzgerald is obtuse enough to assert that Law hadn't made serious mistakes (as Nixon might put it, "Mistakes were made"), or that he shouldn't have resigned. But they each argue that, over time, we'll see that the good Law accomplished outweighed the bad, just as it did with Nixon. Kennedy writes of Nixon -- who launched a secret, illegal war in Cambodia, who facilitated the assassination of Salvador Allende, and who repeatedly and flagrantly subverted the Constitution -- that he was "undone by one fatal misjudgment about Watergate." Fitzgerald notes that a lot of people turned out for Nixon's funeral. Well, there's nostalgia for Stalin in Russia, too.

This follows on the heels of the Reverend Peter Gomes's truly embarrassing defense of Law in Friday's Globe. Gomes offered his own analogy: "The news is bad enough, but when columnists and editorial writers weigh in with their shrill characterizations and cries for arch-episcopal blood, one cannot help but empathize just a bit with the Nixon-like figure who is damned at every turn."

As Hunter Thompson put it in his now-classic Nixon obituary, "He was a crook." Whether Law was actually a crook, or was simply an egregious enabler of child abuse, remains to be seen. What's certain is that he will mainly be remembered for the vigorous manner in which he helped pedophile priests rape kids again and again. That Law had a rational approach to Cuba policy, or that he reached out to the Jewish community, is nice but beside the point.

By the way, Dale Stephanos's Law cartoon in today's Herald is so good that you should go out and buy a copy just for that.

Friday, December 13, 2002

One-day wonder? No real follow-up today to yesterday's explosive Washington Post story on allegations that Iraq recently supplied a group linked to Al Qaeda with nerve gas. The Post itself runs a dispatch from the Associated Press in which Saddam Hussein's government issues a ritual denial.

Reader RB upbraided me last night for failing to note that the sourcing in the original story was a tangled mess of anonymity. Fair point, though I believe anyone who read the story could tell that it was transparently coming from Bush-administration sources. Protecting sources is unremarkable; the question is whether reporter Barton Gellman and his editors exercised due diligence in determining whether those sources were passing along reliable information, or were simply trying to blow smoke up the Post's, uh, tailpipe.

Not that the Post was under any particular obligation to advance the story today. But if there's no significant follow-up soon, that will speak volumes about the original report.

Zittrain on the Aussie Internet ruling. Got some excellent e-mail regarding the Australian court decision ruling that Dow Jones may be sued for libel in Australia for a piece published by Barron's magazine, which it owns. The court's ruling, in a nutshell, held that because the piece was available on the Web, it was "published" in Australia just as surely as it was published in the United States. Click here and here for my earlier posts on the ruling.

The most interesting e-mail comes from Harvard Law School professor Jonathan Zittrain, whom I tweaked for not reacting with what I believed was the appropriate level of outrage. Here's his entire e-mail:

I don't see how the court could have realistically decided otherwise without essentially immunizing Internet speech from any legal boundary, while keeping books, magazines, etc., in a separate box. Certainly the U.S. view of its own jurisdiction is broad: if someone far away does something to hurt someone here, and there's any indication that the activity was targeted to the U.S. or even likely to end up here, that's all it takes. (Just ask Manuel Noriega.) I was actually impressed with how solicitous the written opinion is about the burden to someone publishing over the Internet of knowing and hewing to dozens of countries' respective laws about speech. A lot of discussion in the opinion distinguishes a paid-subscription site that actively solicits business around the world from a site that might simply be up and not targeted anywhere in particular -- so there's room for the average blogger to not be hailed into court in Australia for saying the same thing the Barron's article did.

On the actual merits, I think this really is a dilemma: like you, I don't want to see the revolutionary reach of the Internet gummed up by a network of oft-conflicting laws. But the other side is that it's not fair for someone injured by a faraway wrongdoer to have to travel to, say, New Jersey to seek vindication. (At the extreme, one might publish through Sealand and then say, since Sealand bans very few things, that there's no recourse.) One might think that there ought not to be any laws restricting speech at all (the First Amendment certainly says that on its face!), but then the issue isn't jurisdiction, but that any sovereign near or far might complain about speech. The satellite point is an interesting one -- how terrible if each country (or individual homeowner...), with respective airspace going straight up forever, could complain about satellite orbits. But that's too easy: satellite orbits have no measurable burden on life in the country they overfly. (Leaving aside spying.) Imagine one simply wanted to fly planes, or hot air balloons, around the world without regard for boundaries -- somehow a country demanding permission for that doesn't seem so archaic. Balloons and planes can impact the citizens within, giving the country some measure of moral authority to regulate.

Zimbabwe will do whatever it does -- restraint by Australia would bring no particular pressure on that country to refrain from trying impose touch speech laws if that's what it's inclined to do. It's probably worth noting that Dow Jones doesn't care one bit what Zimbabwe thinks about its publishing, since there's no realistic way for that country to make Dow Jones's life hard. Ultimately what would make an adverse judgment in Australia have bite is a bank account or other operation by Dow Jones there -- much more fair game. An attempt to get U.S. courts to execute an Australian judgment against U.S. assets would have to pass some form of first amendment scrutiny. So, so long as one keeps one's arms and legs inside the U.S. car, judgments other countries make about one's Internet speech don't matter so much -- at least if they would not pass constitutional muster here.

Much of this debate seems frozen in 1995 or so. The dilemma of Internet jurisdiction goes back that far, with the underlying Internet technology evolving all the while. The real advance that will impact this debate is the ability of the provider of content on the Internet to actually express a preference for who should be able to see it. If Dow Jones could check a box that said, "This material not for consumption in Australia," it'd be a lot harder for them to cry foul if they left the box unchecked and then had to answer in Australia for it. I think these checkboxes are in rapid development -- they're the sort of thing that a three-expert panel found Yahoo could implement to keep those on French territory largely away from Yahoo auctions that would be banned in France -- and they suggest a world in which really strict countries end up shooting themselves in the foot: if Australia wants to have draconian speech laws, everyone outside will check the "no Australia" box and citizens there will find a much less interesting Internet to surf. I find the prospect of a cantonized Internet horrible, but it may be inevitable, and countries could find themselves under a natural pressure to harmonize their rules about speech so as to encourage Internet speakers not to exclude their citizens from what they have to say. Australia may think that a given article in Barron's is no good, but they're not China -- they wouldn't be pleased to see Dow Jones taking its ball home if it were easy to do. I hate the idea of a "little guy" Internet speaker being cowed into circulating her stuff only to her neighbors -- checking most of the boxes -- so as to avoid faraway lawsuits. But as the architecture of the Internet starts to more and more track that of the physical world, we need either to make a compelling case to Australia to simply change its defamation laws to be a little more lenient, or see that it won't hesitate much to impose its laws as soon as our bits cross its borders.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the Australian ruling is that it does make sense. Yes, of course the Barron's article was "published" in Australia. How can anyone argue that it would be wrong for the aggrieved party to be able to sue for libel in Australia? But though not necessarily wrong, it's still bad. As Zittrain himself notes, what we may be seeing is the cordoning-off of the Internet, which would be terrible news for anyone who cares about free speech.

Thursday, December 12, 2002

Lott, Republicans, and African-Americans. The Time.com story that Drudge linked to tonight should finish off Trent Lott by no later than sundown on Friday. Lott, it seems, helped lead an effort to keep black students out of his fraternity at Ole Miss. Segregation now, segregation forever! Meanwhile, Lott's friends at the racist Council of Conservative Citizens have finally updated their website, and they've got a really spiffy contribution from one Michael Andrew Grissom, the author of such tomes as Southern by the Grace of God, The Last Rebel Yell, and Can the South Survive? Grissom writes:

Lott may never have meant, as happily charged in the press, that we would have been better off with a segregationist President, but I wish he had. It is true, and it is time someone says so....

Politicians, who make the laws, have submitted to the black agenda, and we see an increasingly socialistic government as a result. In other words, give up your liberties quietly or be prepared to suffer ignominy. There is no fight left in the white public sector. That is why we saw immediate disavowals and apologies from Trent Lott.

Thanks for sharing, Michael.

Meanwhile, I got several e-mails today from people who thought I was too easy on George W. Bush, reminding me of Bush's appearance at Bob Jones University during the 2000 presidential campaign, among other things. To which I say, Come on. I mean, I like to think I'm a fairly unstinting Bush critic, but I really don't think the man has a racist bone in his body. And I would believe that even if Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice were not among his closest advisers.

But it's true that the Bushes have a complicated relationship with race. As Franklin Foer observed two years ago in the New Republic, the Bush family is forever baffled at their lack of African-American support, believing they should be judged by what's in their hearts rather than by the conservative policies they support, many of which blacks rightly perceive are not in their interests. Foer writes:

In fact, the Bushes' problem on race isn't that they're insincere; it's that they're overly sincere. They're so convinced of their personal decency that they expect it to trump the deep, long-standing ideological differences that separate their party from black political opinion.

Foer's piece mainly traces Jeb Bush's efforts to do away with affirmative action in Florida. But you can see George W. in it, too. In many ways, his faith-based initiative was a way for him to reach to black ministers such as the Reverend Eugene Rivers. But, as John DiIulio wrote in his astounding letter to Ron Suskind, Bush ended up letting it fall apart in the name of appeasing "the most far-right House Republicans."

Faced with the choice between doing the right thing and doing the political thing, the Bushes have invariably chosen the latter. Unfortunately, that hardly makes them unique.

Bush lets Lott have it. And we didn't even have to wait another day. CNN quotes the president as saying, "Recent comments by Senator Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country. He has apologized and rightly so. Every day that our nation was segregated was a day our nation was unfaithful to our founding ideals." Good for Bush. Unfortunately, he did not call on Lott to resign. We can only hope that Lott has already told Bush that he's going, thus sparing himself further public humiliation.

More on Saddam and Al Qaeda. The indefatigable Glenn Reynolds has found this on the links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. Guess I'm going to have to go check out Vanity Fair for this month.

Meanwhile, Barry Crimmins writes of my item from this morning on the Washington Post piece: "Dan, I don't understand.The US is now supposed to bomb the populace of Iraq if this story is accurate? Why?" My answer: I don't think we need to bomb Iraqi civilians, and I hope to God that we don't.

Assuming the Post story is accurate -- and I'm not prepared to assume anything yet -- it's still hard to imagine that Iraq has any significant war-fighting capability left after more than a decade of sanctions, no-fly zones, and steady bombings by the US and Britain.

I have no first-hand understanding of military matters, but since our armed forces will be fighting in our name, and since I haven't given up on the idea of democracy quite yet, I'll risk sounding like a fool. I would hope that if we do any bombing at all, it will be limited to carefully targeted Iraqi military facilities. If Saddam has surrounded said facilities with, say, a ring of nursery schools, then leave 'em alone. We're not talking about Germany circa 1942 here; we're talking about a country that couldn't surrender fast enough in 1991, when it was presumably a lot stronger than it is today.

If we absolutely, positively have to invade -- if more sanctions and more inspections simply aren't going to get the job done -- then let's invade by land and hope for a rapid collapse of the Iraqi army, followed by the fall of Saddam. We may even be greeted as liberators -- for a day or two. After that it could get incredibly ugly. But if the Iraqi exile groups can put their country back together with a minimum of involvement on our part, that would certainly be the best we could hope for.

But I'm not a pacifist. I'd rather see the US and its allies take action than let Saddam equip terrorists with nerve gas that can be set off in cities throughout Europe and the United States.

This is a terrible moment. President Bush needs to approach it with humility -- a word he used a lot when he was running for office, but which we haven't heard much of since he was installed.

Lott's conservative critics II. Didn't mean to leave the ultraconservative Family Research Council out of the list of former Trent Lott allies who are appalled by his racist remarks. Council president Ken Connor writes:

Sen. Lott has apologized for his thoughtless remarks, dismissing them as "A poor choice of words [that] conveyed to some the impression that I embrace the discarded policies of the past." A poor choice of words? Discarded policies? This is a quaint and benign way to describe the insidious evil that was Jim Crow. Now, we do not believe that Sen. Lott is a racist. But such thoughtless remarks -- and the senator has an unfortunate history of such gaffes -- simply reinforce the suspicion that conservatives are closet racists and secret segregationists.

Connor concludes by suggesting that the Republican Party would be a lot better off if Lott would resign.

Lott's conservative critics. What Trent Lott and nitwits such as Sean Hannity seem not to realize is that this isn't partisan, and it's not really about the racist remarks Lott made at Strom Thurmond's birthday party last week. Many conservatives have been leading the charge in the effort to drive Lott out as Senate Republican leader, if not out of the Senate itself. And the reason is that Lott's praise for Thurmond's 1948 segregationist presidential campaign was reflective of Lott's longstanding practice of seeking friendship and support from the most racist, retrograde elements of the Republican Party.

This morning, Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, a stalwart conservative, calls on Lott to resign, calling him "a witless yahoo who waxes nostalgic for the pre-civil rights South." WTKK Radio (96.9 FM) talk-show host Jay Severin, who stands approximately to the right of Tom DeLay, has been urging Lott to step down as well. No surprise there: Severin delights in calling affirmative action a form of "racism," but he also marched for civil rights in the 1960s.

Another conservative, the Wall Street Journal's John Fund, writes today, "Mr. Lott's remarks reopen one of the rawest and ugliest moments in American politics." Fund reports that the four Republican appointees to the US Civil Rights Commission -- including the extremely conservative, anti-affirmative-action Abigail Fernstrom -- have issued a statement saying that Lott's comments "were particularly shameful coming from a leader of the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, and the party that supported all of these essential steps forward far more vigorously than the Democratic Party, which at the time was the home of Congressional southerners committed to white supremacy." (Question for Thernstrom: the Democrats used to support slavery, too. Is that still relevant?)

Conservative Andrew Sullivan has been huge on this, and has posted more good stuff this morning -- including a shot at the loathsome Hannity. (Last night, on the Fox News Channel's Hannity and Colmes, the witless cohost demanded that the black congressman who'd agreed to come on the show defend the Reverend Jesse Jackson's statements that he spit into the food of white people when he was a youth. Say what?) Sullivan writes that Lott "cannot be Republican Senate Majority Leader any more without destroying a good deal of what George W. Bush has accomplished" -- a reference, I suppose, to the president's halting but sincere efforts to make the Republican Party more inclusive.

Reader LC called my attention to yet another conservative columnist who is demanding Lott's resignation, Charles Krauthammer, who writes in today's Washington Post:

This is not just the kind of eruption of moronic bias or racial insensitivity that cost baseball executive Al Campanis and sports commentator Jimmy the Greek Snyder their careers. This is something far more important. This is about getting wrong the most important political phenomenon in the past half-century of American history: the civil rights movement. Getting wrong its importance is not an issue of political correctness. It is evidence of a historical blindness that is utterly disqualifying for national office.

And on and on it goes, and will go, until Trent Lott finally goes.

One final point. Hannity-inspired boneheads who blame Lott's woes on liberals should consider that it's the Democrats who have the most to gain by his staying on, as Wayne Woodlief notes in today's Boston Herald. You can be sure that President Bush is waiting for Lott to do the right thing so that he doesn't have to whack him in public. But Lott's values are not Bush's, and if Lott insists on staying, he's going to cripple the next two years of Bush's presidency.

I suspect Lott has maybe one more day to step down before Karl Rove tells him to expect the president to mention him in a brief statement on the White House lawn.

The smoking gun? If you haven't turned on a radio or TV set today, you may not know that today's Washington Post reports that a terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda may have obtained nerve gas from Iraq and smuggled it out through Turkey in October.

If this proves true, then the endgame really is at hand. Even most of us who have opposed the Bush administration's war plans have said that if there were credible evidence of a threat against us, then we should go in.

But Mr. President, please: we need proof. Some of us haven't forgotten the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Turn the evidence over to the UN Security Council and give it, say, one week to make its own evaluation. If the council agrees that it's credible, then I guess it's bombs away. Ugh.

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

More on the Aussie court ruling. The Phoenix's Seth Gitell called my attention to this excellent editorial in today's Wall Street Journal. The Journal, in turn, reports that Stakhanovite blogger Glenn Reynolds has been all over it. Well, not quite; but Reyolds does direct his readers to an op-ed piece he wrote for the Australian, making the argument that the court's ruling raises concerns similar to those posed by space travel a half-century ago:

Each nation's territory thus consisted of a wedge beginning at the Earth's core and continuing infinitely upward and outward. This posed a number of absurdities, but the greatest difficulty was to orbiting spacecraft. Flying over a nation's territory without permission was illegal, perhaps even an act of war.

Similarly, Reynolds notes, holding the New Jersey-based Barron's to the libel standards of Australia simply because the Barron's website is available in Australia means that

internet publishers -- simply by choosing to publish on the internet -- are held to be subject to the various laws of every nation reached by the internet, which means, of course, of every nation on earth. The results are likely to be damaging for the internet, encouraging a lowest common denominator approach in which internet publishers strive not to be offensive according to anyone's standards, which is likely to mean not publishing at all, or publishing only inoffensive pap.

I've already gotten several e-mails suggesting that this is no big deal. Folks, this is a big deal.

A terrifying blow to free speech. Those who think John Ashcroft is the biggest threat to their free-speech rights are about to get a terrifying awakening. The High Court of Australia has ruled that a mining mogul can file a libel suit against Dow Jones in the Australian court system, even though the offending article -- in Barron's magazine -- was published in New Jersey. The rationale: the article was posted on the Web. Thus the court ruled that the article was "published" in Australia just as surely as it was in the United States.

And what is the deal with this bit of nonsense from the usually stalwart Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard Law School professor who's an outspoken advocate of online freedom? Zittrain told the AP that the ruling was no big deal, explaining, "Their words are their product and if they export it internationally they know how to work the cost of litigation into the sale of their product." Huh? One of the most important qualities of Internet journalism is that it gives independent, alternative voices the power to go up against Big Media. Dow Jones may be able to afford the cost of defending itself against an Australian libel suit. An independent operator, on the other hand, is going to have to stay out of Australia -- or avoid writing anything controversial in the first place.

As an example of how the Australian ruling could affect free speech on the Internet, First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams told the Wall Street Journal (also owned by Dow Jones): "If Dow Jones is subject to a Singapore court ruling on things communicated from one American to another within the U.S. because it related to Singapore, then the very availability of the Internet as a place where people can communicate will be imperiled." (No link; subscription required.)

David Schultz, the lawyer who represented a consortium of media companies that supported Dow Jones's defense, told the New York Times (a member of that consortium): "In a nutshell, what the court said was that there is nothing wrong with an Australian court hauling Dow Jones into Australia to go to court.... If that becomes the law of the Internet, the problem isn't that individuals will be suing all over the world -- though that is a problem. The problem is that rogue governments like Zimbabwe will pass laws that will effectively shut down the Internet."

Abrams and Schultz are right. But by reaching for the extreme examples of anti-speech, authoritarian regimes, they actually manage to play down the problem. The US has the freest press in the world, guaranteed by the First Amendment. Our libel laws are far more favorable to publishers than are libel laws in democratic countries such as Canada, Britain, Germany, France, and, of course, Australia -- never mind Singapore and Zimbabwe. And there's not a damn thing the ACLU can do about it.

The reaction to this dangerous ruling is just beginning.

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Trent Lott's racist past. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman this morning doesn't hesitate to remind readers that incoming Senate majority leader Trent Lott -- under fire for praising the racist 1948 presidential campaign of Strom Thurmond -- has a, uh, history with this sort of thing. Krugman notes that, as recently as the 1990s, Lott, a Republican from Mississippi, was involved with the Council of Conservative Citizens, a notorious white-supremacist group.

In fact, the CofCC's website -- festooned with a Confederate flag -- was full of praise for Lott even before Lott's surprising endorsement of segregation (surprising in the sense that he said it out loud). The site was last updated on Friday, before Lott's racist words had hit the fan. But there's a big smiling photo of him, labeled "A LOTT of Courage! Sen. Trent Lott calls for the Army to PROTECT U.S. Borders against the Illegal Alien Invasion." That, in turn, leads you to the transcript of a radio interview Lott recently gave to the Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly in which he did, indeed, suggest the use of troops to keep illegal immigrants out, and to a resolution that the council recently passed in support of Lott.

So what is this racist group with which Lott is so closely associated? Click on "Editorial," and you'll find this essay by someone called "Beauregarde," titled "Deconstructing Liberals." Every sentence is a hate-filled gem, but it all comes to a head here:

When liberals extol tolerance, they do so with haughty distain for anyone who does not concede to the liberal mantra on the subject. Liberal tolerance is not a matter balancing opposites without losing the liberal perspective, but is instead a freeze-out of nonliberal views; particularly those ideas concerning white racial consciousness. Due to prevalent liberal attitudes on race, many otherwise rational white people have a superstitious aversion to racial self-awareness. Whites, when confronted by racial hostility, automatically deny being racist. Chief among these superstitions is the notion that all races are created equal.

The Anti-Defamation League says of the Council of Conservative Citizens that its ideology is "Christian Identity, white supremacy, neo-Nazi, paramilitary," adding:

Advances its ideology by inflaming fears and resentments, among Southern whites particularly, with regard to black-on-white crime, non-white immigration, attacks on the public display of the Confederate flag, and other issues related to "traditional" Southern culture.

Now, it's only fair to note that Lott claims the CofCC's love for him is unrequited. But it's equally fair to point out that Lott seems not to be telling the truth. Consider, for example, this, published in the New Republic in January 1999, when Lott's racist associations briefly became an issue:

According to a number of CofCC members, ... Mississippi Senator Trent Lott is a dues-paying member of the group, which is particularly strong in his home state.... The Citizens Informer [the CofCC newsletter] occasionally carries Lott's freely distributed newspaper column. Moreover, despite Lott's claim that he had "no firsthand knowledge" of the CofCC, Edsall [Thomas Edsall, of the Washington Post] reported on December 16 that Lott addressed the group in 1992, telling the audience members that they "stand for the right principles and the right philosophy."

And there's this, from CQ Weekly, published around the same time as the TNR piece:

No matter how hard Lott tries to distance himself [from the CofCC], questions remain because his uncle Arnie Watson, a former Mississippi state senator and current member of the council's executive board, remembers Lott being an "honorary member." Watson and others find it hard to fathom that Lott could be uninformed about a widely known political group in his own state.

"In Washington, they like to use the word 'disingenuous,'" said Bill Minor, a political columnist in Mississippi for 51 years, when asked about Lott's assertion that he was unaware of the council's beliefs.

"He had good reason to know what was going on, but if he didn't, he was like the piano player in the house of ill repute who didn't notice what was going on all around him."

The big question remains: will President Bush do the right thing and demand that Trent Lott step down as the Senate Republican leader before the GOP assumes the majority next month?

Bill Bulger: the aftermath. Two fascinating postscripts on UMass president Bill Bulger's refusal to testify before a congressional committee investigating the FBI's corrupt deal with Bulger's gangster brother, James "Whitey" Bulger.

Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis today passes along some speculation that Bill Bulger's 17-year Senate presidency may have been jump-started by former FBI agents John Connolly and John Morris, the duo that served as Whitey Bulger's handlers and protectors. The question Gelzinis asks: did Connolly and Morris deliberately target state senators Joe DiCarlo and Ronald MacKenzie in the MBM scandal of the 1980s in order to grease Bulger's path to the Senate presidency? To be sure, Gelzinis offers nothing more than the whispers of an anonymous tipster, but it sounds like a matter worth investigating.

Differing 180 degrees is Globe columnist Tom Oliphant, who blasts the congressional investigation as an exercise in buffoonish grandstanding. Oliphant can't help himself -- he goes way too far, all but nominating Bill Bulger for the Nobel Peace Prize. Nevertheless, he's dead right in denouncing Watermelon Man Dan Burton's performance as a "farce" and a "sham."

Monday, December 09, 2002

Trent Lott's racist outburst. I'm only beginning to catch up on incoming Senate majority leader Trent Lott's shocking statements of last Thursday in which he slobbered over that ancient segregationist Strom Thurmond and waxed nostalgic over the good ol' days of good ol' boys, separate rest rooms for them coloreds, and crosses burning in the night.

At a 100th-birthday party for Thurmond, Lott lauded the Methuselah-like bigot's 1948 campaign for president:

I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either.

As commentators from conservative Andrew Sullivan to liberal Joe Conason have noted, Lott's got to go. Conason thinks there's no chance that George W. Bush will speak up for decency, and he's probably right -- but this would be a perfect opportunity for the president to put a little distance between himself and the more retrograde elements of his party on Capitol Hill.

Anyway, Sullivan's been all over this. And Conason expresses the appropriate outrage that the so-called liberal media have gutlessly given Lott a pass on this not-uncharacteristic outburst.

Another take on James Foley. Hub Blogger Jay Fitzgerald considers himself a personal friend and (former?) admirer of Catholic priest James Foley, whose horrendous but by-now-unsurprising misdeeds (affairs with married women; two children by a woman who died of a drug overdose, possibly because he failed to call 911 quickly enough) were revealed last week.

I wouldn't cut Foley one millimeter of slack. But Fitzgerald's post is fascinating for its insight into how complicated these people really are. I don't doubt for a moment that Foley has done a lot of good in his life. But, unfortunately, he has to come to terms with the awful truth: his entire career will be judged by his misdeeds, at least in this life. And, worse for him, it should be.

Stop this cardinal from taking flight. Maybe state attorney general Tom Reilly doesn't want to tip his hand just yet. But he'd better act quickly, given that Cardinal Bernard Law has both the means and the motive to become a fugitive from justice.

Means: both the Globe and the Herald report this morning that Law slipped out of the country once again last week, allowing his handlers to lie about his schedule, so that he could seek advice in Rome. Motive: elected officials have been understandably reluctant to suggest that Law could face criminal charges. But his failure to report the involvement of a priest, James Foley, with a woman who died of a drug overdose would certainly strike many observers as the sort of thing that could land the globe-trotting cardinal in very serious legal trouble. It's unlikely that the thought hasn't occurred to Law, too.

At the very least, Reilly should seek to have Law designated as a material witness who cannot leave the state without the permission of the attorney general's office. Not only would that have the practical effect of preventing this loathsome cleric from going on the lam, but it would also have the symbolic effect of publicly underscoring precisely how contemptible -- and possibly criminal -- Law's conduct has been.

You mean Brian Williams left MSNBC? Here's how little attention anyone is paying to MSNBC these days. The New York Times today has the latest in what seems like an endless string of articles on the woes of the cratering all-news cable network. And the print edition of the story includes a photo of Brian Williams. The cutline: "Brian Williams, left, is the network's anchor."

Well, uh, no, he's not. Williams, now the official heir apparent to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, fled to sister station CNBC in July. No one watches him there, either, but at least he's able to avoid the stench of high-profile failure that has become to pervade MSNBC, whose latest bright idea is ... Jesse Ventura! John Ellis had the definitive take on the Ventura-to-MSNBC idiocy way back on November 13.

Friday, December 06, 2002

Time for Bulger to go. UMass president Bill Bulger took the Fifth this morning rather than answer questions from a congressional committee. I can't say I blame him: the committee, chaired by Vince Foster obsessive Dan Burton, had set a classic perjury trap for Bulger. If Bulger contradicted anything he'd said before a federal grand jury nearly two years ago, he could have been hit with perjury charges. He wasn't allowed to see a transcript of his grand-jury testimony, even though a copy had been leaked to the Globe. So his choice was to hope his memory was perfect, or to keep his mouth shut.

That said, it's now time for Bulger to resign. His failure to cooperate with an investigation of the corrupt deal that the FBI made with his homicidal brother, James "Whitey" Bulger, is understandable -- up to a point. But it's also completely inconsistent with his status as one of the state's leading public citizens, and with the need to learn the truth.

Besides, if Bulger leaves instead of making a pathetic attempt to hang on, he may manage to accomplish something that at one time would have been thought unimaginable: to be held in higher public regard than Cardinal Bernard Law.

What's wrong with talk radio? Onetime Boston City Council candidate Anthony Schinella, now a reporter with Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell's Community Newspaper chain, has written a worthwhile column on the demise of talk radio. (Inexplicably, his byline got dumped, although maybe it will be restored by the time you read it.)

Schinella -- a liberal who's hosted a talk show at Tufts's WMFO Radio (91.5 FM), but could never break into commercial radio -- laments the dominance of conservatives on talk radio. The culprit, he argues, is deregulation, which led to the demise of the Fairness Doctrine in the 1980s and the horrendous Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed a few megacorporations to gobble up most of the nation's radio stations.

Normally, I'd be the first person to scream "First Amendment!" But broadcasting is, as Schinella points out, different: the reason it was regulated in the first place was that it necessarily involved the government's parceling out a scarce, publicly owned resource -- the airwaves -- to corporations that would then turn around and use that public resource to make a profit. Broadcasting, as Schinella notes, "is a closed market. Companies or audiophiles can't just buy a transmitter and start broadcasting. Well, they can -- but they will quickly find themselves in jail."

In such an environment, it made sense to require broadcasters to offer a variety of views in return for being awarded a license to print money. Unfortunately, that thinking no longer prevails. Free-market ideology rules, even though the nature of the technology makes a true free market impossible.

Schinella also takes on another shibboleth:

Radio programmers say that liberal talk show hosts can't make it because listeners don't want to hear liberals on the radio. But in an area that is dominated by a left-of-center voting population, these comments don't ring true. As well, liberals have never actually been given a fair opportunity to compete in the Boston.

I'll take it one step further. Although there are few examples of successful liberal talk-radio hosts in commercial radio, they have done quite well in public radio -- which is, after all, essentially a privatized system dependent on ratings, listener donations, and corporate underwriting, and is thus at least as sensitive to market pressures as commercial radio. Centrist and liberal-leaning shows such as The Connection and On Point, on WBUR Radio (90.9 FM), have done quite well, as has the nationally broadcast Talk of the Nation.

Indeed, former Connection host Christopher Lydon was among the most popular talk hosts in Boston when he got dumped nearly two years ago in the midst of an incredibly ugly contract dispute. The fact that he was unable to work out a deal with any of the city's commercial stations speaks volumes about their priorities -- not so much to keep liberals off the air, I would contend, as to maximize profits with cheap, lowest-common-denominator programming.

Unfortunately, deregulation continues apace. Paul Krugman has a good column in today's New York Times on the deregulatory zeal of FCC chairman Michael Powell. And the Center for Digital Democracy has an excellent guide to what's at stake.

Thursday, December 05, 2002

Howell Raines's critics get to howl. It's ironic that longstanding conservative criticism of New York Times executive editor Howell Raines has come to a head at the exact moment that liberals are finally beginning to speak up about the conservative media.

In recent weeks the Times has mounted a relentless, and incredibly boring, crusade to force the Augusta National golf club to admit women. Newsweek's Seth Mnookin reports all the messy details, going so far as to quote an anonymous staff member as saying that Raines is "in danger of losing the building."

Now we learn that Times managing editor Gerald Boyd -- perhaps acting on Raines's order, perhaps not -- killed two sports columns that took issue with Raines's anti-Augusta crusade. Romenesko has all the dirt, including a defensive, self-serving memo from Boyd.

Almost from the moment that Raines was elevated from editorial-page editor to executive editor, just before 9/11, conservatives such as Andrew Sullivan, as well as a few moderates such as Mickey Kaus, have railed against his supposed liberal bias on issues ranging from welfare reform to the Bush administration's regime-change policy with regard to Iraq.

Of course, the Times has always been the house organ of what Richard Nixon used to call the Eastern liberal establishment. But the Times' brand of liberalism was always polite, respectful, and not particularly ideological. Under Raines, the critics charge, that liberalism has become harsher and more confrontational.

Former Globe columnist (and Bush cousin) John Ellis has gone so far as to argue that this new liberalism may even be good for business, as the media marketplace may be changing from one that rewarded objectivity (always a dubious concept) to one that favors different ideological flavors for different audiences. (Ellis notes that those are merely the views of a Smith Barney analyst he'd talked to, and that he's not completely convinced.)

Recently the mediasphere has been abuzz with the revelation that Fox News chairman Roger Ailes has functioned essentially as a political consultant to George W. Bush, and with Al Gore's interview with the New York Observer, in which he accurately described the relationship between the Republican National Committee and such conservative news organizations as Fox, the Washington Times, and Rush Limbaugh's radio program.

But it looks like conservatives have managed to change the conversation once again. It's too bad that Raines himself deserves much of the blame.

If you knew what we knew, then you'd know what we know. Mitt Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom today invokes the second-to-last refuge of a scoundrel in response to veteran liberal policy advocate Jim St. George's contention that the state budget crisis isn't as bad as Romney aides claim. (Patriotism, of course, is the last refuge.) Fehrnstrom told the Globe's Yvonne Abraham:

If Jim St. George had access to the same data we've been looking at, it would make his hair stand on end. This is not the time to be playing politics by downplaying the problems facing the Commonwealth.

No it isn't, Eric. So put those numbers out there and let us all have a look.

Wednesday, December 04, 2002

Bulger and the Watermelon Man. For US Representative Dan Burton, the past week has been like magic. He has metamorphosed from right-wing nutcase to august statesman, and all he had to do was issue a subpoena to UMass president Bill Bulger.

Burton, famed for shooting up a watermelon in his backyard as part of his so-called investigation of Vince Foster's suicide (Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, 5/5/98), and for attempting to subpoena Elian Gonzalez (UPI, 1/21/00), is now being taken seriously for the sole reason that he's zeroed in on the politician everyone loves to hate.

The editorial pages of the Globe and the Herald, as well as Globe columnists Scot Lehigh and Eileen McNamara and Herald columnists Cosmo Macero, Peter Gelzinis, and Shelly Cohen, have all called on Bulger to obey Burton's subpoena and tell his committee what he knows about his serial-killer brother, former Boston mobster Whitey Bulger. The only columnist who has leapt to Bulger's defense is the Globe's Brian McGrory.

I'll admit that I'm tempted to side with McGrory -- to urge Bulger to tell the grandstanding Burton to screw. There are two really odious aspects to this: the implication that Bulger is somehow complicit in his brother's misdeeds, of which there is no evidence; and, of course, Burton himself.

But, yes, Bill Bulger should testify. Whitey Bulger, as we all know, was at the center of a vast criminal conspiracy in which he and his gang were protected by the FBI -- perhaps the worst scandal in the history of that scandal-plagued agency. And Bill Bulger's testimony to a federal grand jury -- improperly leaked to the Globe's Shelley Murphy, but fascinating nevertheless -- suggests that the Good Brother may have known a bit more about the Bad Brother than he's ever admitted publicly.

Burton or not, this is a legitimate inquiry. Bill Bulger should testify -- or be gone.

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Starbucks versus Dunkin' Donuts. The hell with politics. Let's talk about something really important: coffee. Today, Globe business columnist Charlie Stein -- after admitting that he's "a non-coffee drinker" -- asserts that he can't understand how Starbucks can thrive in the shadow of Dunkin' Donuts. "I can't fathom why people are willing to pay $3 for coffee when the Dunkin' Donuts down the street charges half as much," Stein writes. "But customers are willing to pay up, even when money is tight."

Charlie, since you admit that you don't drink coffee, did you at least check the prices before you blithely stated that a cup of Starbucks costs double that of the same brew from DD? Now, I don't have a price list in front of me, but as a frequent customer of both establishments, I can tell you, without fear of having to post a correction later today, that a cup of regular coffee costs pretty much the same at Starbucks as it does at Dunkin' Donuts. Maybe Starbucks will set you back an extra quarter or so, but it's worth it to be able to choose between dark roast and mild, and to be able to add half-and-half and sugar to your own liking rather than allowing some DD drone to turn your "regular" into a lukewarm coffee milkshake.

What costs $3 and more at Starbucks are those fancy espresso drinks, the lattès and cappuccinos that Starbucks-haters are so fond of sneering at. But even at the upper end of the menu, the prices at Dunkin' Donuts are nothing to rave about. Starbucks's Frappuccino and DD's Coolatta are both ridiculously expensive. But I've been into Dunkin' Donuts stores where a Coolatta costs more than any Frappuccino. Plus, Frappuccinos are great; Coolattas are revolting.

If you want more on the great Starbucks-Dunkin' Donut debate -- and other than Charlie Stein, who doesn't? -- check out the "Wicked Good Guide to Coffee," at Boston Online.

Monday, December 02, 2002

Does Russert go both ways? An alert reader sent me this gem, from the October 13 showing of Meet the Press. Said Tim Russert to Lindsey Graham, the Republican candidate for the US Senate from South Carolina (and the eventual winner in the Strom Thurmond sweepstakes): "Since Inauguration Day, the Dow Jones is down 26 percent. The unemployment rate is up 33 percent. The budget had a $281 billion surplus. We now have a $157 billion deficit and there's been a net loss of two million jobs. You were prescient, prophetic about the Bush tax cut. Why did you change your view and vote for it?"

Now, every honest liberal who opposes the Bush tax cuts knows that they have scarcely had an impact on the federal budget so far -- the impact will mainly be felt in future years. So here Russert ascribes the effects of the bursting of the stock-market bubble, the resultant recession, and the economic fallout from 9/11 to the Bush tax cut and tries to hang it around Graham's neck. This is just more disingenousness on Russert's part, and I'm not surprised that the conservative Media Research Center singled it out as an example of liberal media bias. (I would provide the direct link, but 10 minutes of futzing yielded nothing more than a microscopic image of a PDF file.)

The early bird catches Russert. Apparently I'm going to have to get up earlier if I want to beat Bob Somerby. Today's Daily Howler -- which I'm pretty sure was posted before my Russert-Kerry item (below) -- makes many of the same points. Worth reading.

Russert to Kerry: Why won't you help the rich? I caught the last 15 minutes of Tim Russert's interview with John Kerry last night when CNBC rebroadcast Meet the Press. And what I saw was the host peppering Kerry with what were essentially Republican talking points about tax cuts, and intellectually dishonest ones at that.

Russert asked Kerry whether he favored rolling back the Bush tax cut. Kerry -- trying to be a little too cute for my taste, but nevertheless clear on what he wants -- essentially said, no, he wouldn't, but he would oppose "any new Bush tax cuts," meaning that he would cancel cuts for future years that have been approved by Congress but that have not yet taken effect. Instead, Kerry said he favors a cut in the payroll tax -- i.e., the Social Security tax -- that would favor middle- and lower-income workers, and would give an immediate jolt to the floundering economy.

It went downhill from there. Let's go to the transcript:

MR. RUSSERT: But would you implement the ones [tax cuts] that are now scheduled to take place?

SEN. KERRY: Those are new tax cuts.

MR. RUSSERT: The Bush administration says that is raising taxes because people ...

SEN. KERRY: Well, I don't care what they say, Tim. The average American understands that a tax cut that you don't have today is a new tax cut. It's not raising taxes. I mean, at the same time, I told you, if you're told by NBC that your pay is going to go up in a year but it doesn't go up because they can't afford it, did you have a pay cut? The answer is no you did not.

MR. RUSSERT: But the Republicans...

SEN. KERRY: And in no way -- look, we can't cower in front of their silly argument that by not being given a new tax cut it's an increase. No average American believes that's an increase, and every American...

MR. RUSSERT: So when the Republicans wanted to limit the growth in Medicare that should not have been called a cut by Democrats.

SEN. KERRY: No. If you're holding something at equal spending, but inflation is going up at a rate above that, you're not keeping up with inflation, that is a cut. That is in fact a cut, Tim. But the fact is that if you don't get a tax reduction that is promised -- now, look, the heart of this tax cut is in 10 years.

Did you catch the reference to Medicare cuts? Back in the late 1990s, the Newt Gingrich-led Republicans tried to cut Medicare. They protested loudly that all they were proposing was a slowdown in the rate of growth, not an actual cut. But, in fact, that slowdown would have required a cut in services -- higher costs for senior citizens, less health care, or both. Yet Russert compares a proposal that would have actually reduced medical benefits for the elderly to tax cuts for the wealthy that have been passed but that haven't yet been implemented. Who was that speaking into his earpiece? Karl Rove?

Russert then flashed on the screen a quote backing across-the-board tax cuts: "In short, it is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low and the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut its rates now." I instantly recognized the quote as being from John F. Kennedy; I'm not sure whether Kerry did or not, but when Russert smugly revealed his source a few moments later, he acted as though it were an "ah, ha!" moment. Kerry didn't fall into Russert's trap, but neither did he offer the most effective comeback: that the top marginal tax rate when Kennedy came into office was 92 percent. Today it's less than 40 percent, and will fall to 33 percent if all of the Bush cuts are implemented.

Back to the transcript:

MR. RUSSERT: And the people at the top end pay a disproportionate number of the tax revenues.

SEN. KERRY: Yes, they do.

MR. RUSSERT: Why would you deny them a tax cut?

SEN. KERRY: We aren't. We gave them a tax cut. We've given people a tax cut in the last few years, Tim. The question is: Can we afford it now, measured against the other needs of the country? If John Kennedy were here today, I am convinced John Kennedy would feel we need to invest in our education.

Look, we have 25 percent of our kids, preschool, in poverty in America; 20 percent of our children are in poverty in America.

MR. RUSSERT: But he [Kennedy] gave an across-the-board tax cut...

SEN. KERRY: But...

MR. RUSSERT: ...wealthy and middle class and poor.

SEN. KERRY: But, Tim, you can't do it all at the same time. That was a different economic time. That was a different moment. It also was preceded by a different number of years under the Eisenhower administration, during which we had a different economy. We have given tax cuts in the last few years, but we have disinvested in America.

Later on, Russert asked Kerry, "But won't you be branded another Massachusetts Ted Kennedy liberal?" He surely will be if interviewers such as Russert are going to engage in the kind of disingenuousness that he displayed on Sunday.