Saturday, November 30, 2002
Thursday, November 28, 2002
The crimes of Henry Kissinger. Christopher Hitchens has written a cogent, suitably outraged explanation for Slate on why we should all be appalled that President Bush has put the loathsome Henry Kissinger in charge of investigating the intelligence failures surrounding 9/11. Even the New York Times duly notes that Kissinger "has been called a war criminal for his role in the secret expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia and an enabler of [Richard] Nixon's worst traits."
A crisis of common sense II. I can't stand it. I need to take a deep breath and remind myself that we really do need universal health care, if only to protect people like Diane MacPherson and her husband, Mr. X, from themselves -- and from us, when the cost of their grotesequely irresponsible decision not to buy medical insurance for their families falls into our laps.
Today the Boston Globe offers us the downbeat but heartwarming Thanksgiving tale of Craig and Michelle Brenner, both of whom are unemployed as the holidays loom, but who are persevering because of their faith in God and their basic human optimism. Good for them! But there's more. The Brenners appear to enjoy a rather lavish lifestyle, and it's one of recent vintage. In 1997, Craig was making $37,000 a year managing a Bruegger's. He jumped into the burgeoning dot-com economy and, before you know it, was pulling down $135,000. The inevitable happened, and he's been without work since October 1 -- with no prospect of finding a new job that pays anywhere near that.
So what did the Brenners spend their newfound income on? A $400,000 home on an acre of land. And, judging from this photo (online today only), a spiffy new red SUV. Now, I'm not going to get all judgmental here and say that they shouldn't have bought these things. Why not? They were hardly the only ones who thought the New Economy was going to roll on forever. We'd have probably done the same thing.
But then this sentence hit me right between the eyes: "The family has no health insurance because the $750-a-month cost is too steep." Keep in mind that the Brenners have two boys, a four-year-old and a two-year-old. Hasn't anyone told them that, you know, things happen?
It gets better. Toward the end of the article, we learn this:
Finally, Michelle Brenner, who was a social worker before her husband's growing salary allowed her to become a full-time mother, is contemplating a return to the work force if Craig's emergency account -- he's socked away enough to get the family through much of 2003 -- runs out.
Michelle! You could bring home the $750-a-month cost of health insurance working part-time at McDonald's! And Craig could look after the kids. I mean, I know he's really busy, "plot[ting] out new business strategies" in his home office, but couldn't he do that after you got off work? I'm sorry to belabor the obvious, but the Brenners seem to need it.
Wednesday, November 27, 2002
Bush's sneaky Kissinger appointment. One of the best ways to bury an announcement that you're not too proud of is to make it on the day before Thanksgiving. Today President Bush named geriatric war criminal Henry Kissinger to head a commission that will investigate whatever intelligence failures may have contributed to 9/11. What a shocking and appalling insult to the families of the victims. To paraphrase what Mary McCarthy once said of Lillian Hellman, every word out of Kissinger's mouth is a lie, including "and" and "the." In 2001 I wrote an essay in the Phoenix on Christopher Hitchens's indictment of Kissinger as published in Harper's magazine; Hitchens's article was later turned into a book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger.
Views on the upcoming war in Iraq. Judging from the paucity of e-mail traffic during the past hour or so, it seems that everyone has abandoned his or her computer in order to get a jump on the holiday. Soon I'll join them. But I did want to call your attention to this roundup of commentaries on the likely war with Iraq, published in the new Phoenix. To read my contribution, click here.
Somerby and Gore, take 2. Russ Smith, publisher of the New York Press and writer of the unhinged "Mugger" column, sends this:
Bob Somerby, who used to run a comedy club in Baltimore (maybe still does) when I owned the City Paper there (and a very good guy) is more than a Gore "partisan" as you write today. As you know, he was a classmate, and, I believe, a roommate of Gore's at Harvard, which puts him beyond a mere partisan.
Actually, I half-recalled that Somerby had been Gore's roommate, but wasn't sure, so tried to weasel out with "partisan." My bad, and Russ was right to nail me on it. On the other hand, isn't it signficant that Somerby likes Gore after rooming with him in college? Did you like all your college roommates?
Gore's righteous take on the conservative media. Al Gore's interview with the New York Observer is the sensation of the media world today. People are so eager to read it that the Observer's Web server has been overloaded, and it took me several tries to get in. By now, you may have already heard that Gore states the obvious: that conservative media outlets such as the Fox News Channel, the Washington Times, and Rush Limbaugh's radio show amount to a permanent cheering section that gives the Republicans an enormous advantage in framing public debate -- and, of course, in winning elections. What's unusual is that Gore, a once and possible future presidential candidate, would be willing to speak such truth. Gore tells the Observer's Josh Benson:
Something will start at the Republican National Committee, inside the building, and it will explode the next day on the right-wing talk-show network and on Fox News and in the newspapers that play this game, the Washington Times and the others. And then they'll create a little echo chamber, and pretty soon they'll start baiting the mainstream media for allegedly ignoring the story they've pushed into the zeitgeist. And then pretty soon the mainstream media goes out and disingenuously takes a so-called objective sampling, and lo and behold, these RNC talking points are woven into the fabric of the zeitgeist.
Gore's best line is when he describes Fox's slogan "We Report, You Decide" as "the current version of their ritual denial."
The great shibboleth is that the media in this country are biased toward liberals. This shibboleth was given its widest airing in a clumsy, poorly argued, yet bestselling book by television journalist Bernard Goldberg called Bias, which I reviewed for the Boston Phoenix earlier this year. Broadly speaking, the media do have a liberal bias, at least on cultural issues. But Goldberg seemed more interested in imagining Dan Rather as a cross-dresser than in offering a serious argument.
Yes, mainstream media such as the New York Times, the network newscasts, and National Public Radio are liberal on cultural issues such as gay rights and reproductive choice. But what Goldberg and his ilk miss is that they are also cautious middle-of-the-roaders on the really big issues, such as the economy and foreign policy. Moreover, the mainstream is liberal, but it is not a tool of the Democratic Party. Witness the hell that it put Bill Clinton through, from Whitewater at the beginning of his presidency to Monica Lewinsky at the end -- or witness the disingenous attacks it launched on Gore during the 2000 campaign. Read this Bob Somerby analysis of how the media treated Gore. Admittedly, Somerby is a Gore partisan, but there is a lot of truth in his contention that the media had it in for Gore, and that George W. Bush was never subjected to the same scrutiny or, for that matter, to the same sort of dripping disdain. The media may not have respected Bush, but they hated Gore.
In contrast to the conflicted liberal mainstream, the conservative media are openly and nakedly pro-Republican. There is simply nothing like it on the Democratic side. Even now, Gore admits that he's smarting from a nasty piece by liberal Times columnist Frank Rich, snarkily headlined "Do We Have To Call You Al?"
Perhaps the difference is that, because most reporters are liberals, they are hypersensitive to being accused of liberal bias, and thus gleefully pounce on the weaknesses of liberal politicians. Perhaps it's because, as Nicholas Confessore argues in a profile of Times columnist Paul Krugman in the Washington Monthly, liberals in the media overwhelmingly come from the reporting ranks, whereas conservatives tend to come from the world of partisan politics.
Whatever the reason, in terms of ferocity and influence, the conservative media have it all over the so-called liberal mainstream.
Promising premiere. Nice debut by new columnist Howard Manly in the Boston Herald today. Manly was a longshot candidate for a metro columnist's slot at the Globe in 1998 after Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle imploded. He's a smart and interesting guy, and his column will bear watching.
Tuesday, November 26, 2002
Caveman unavailable for comment. I was doing a little research on a rare genetic condition called cleidocranial dysplasia when I ran across this:
A possible example of this disorder has been found in the skull of a Neanderthal man. (The patient could not be interviewed as to family history).
It's on a website called MedicineNet.com, which promises "Smart Medicine." If only.
It's the monopoly, stupid! I'm a day late in taking note of this Brian Mooney story in the Globe on the state of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. As Mooney notes, the Democrats have lost four consecutive governor's races, and they've done it while trying every conceivable model: a bombastic conservative (John Silber, 1990), a liberal policy geek (Mark Roosevelt, 1994), a reformist outsider (Scott Harshbarger, 1998), and a play-it-safe insider (Shannon O'Brien, 2002).
The current battle, Mooney reports, is between moderates, who think the party has moved too far to the left, and liberals, who complain that their party's candidates have grown so cautious that there's a growing passion gap.
I'm skeptical about all of this. The truth, I suspect, is that the best way for the Democrats to win back the corner office is to let the Republicans capture a meaningful chunk of seats in the legislature, and maybe even a couple of congressional seats and a constitutional office or two. Even during the heyday of Michael Dukakis, the Democrats did not have quite the iron grip on state politics that they do today. The voters, alarmed at this one-party dominance, have not quite demanded divided government (obviously), but they have opted for at least some minority-party oversight. Voting for Republican governors has been the best way they could do that.
This year's race tells the story. Coming out the primaries, O'Brien, a capable career pol who'd done a good job of running the treasurer's office, jumped out to a significant lead over Republican Mitt Romney. The public clearly had real doubts about Romney, who, despite his moderate rhetoric, came across as significantly more conservative on social issues than his Republican predecessors, Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Jane Swift.
So what turned it around? O'Brien's poor campaign, in part. The key, though, was when Romney started running against the "Gang of Three" -- House Speaker Tom Finneran (a staunch O'Brien ally), Senate president-apparent Bob Travaglini (brother of top O'Brien aide Mike Travaglini), and O'Brien herself. Voters took a second look, decided O'Brien would be one Democrat too many, and made a leap of faith by switching to Romney.
The real problem with Massachusetts Democrats is not that they are ideologically divided or out of touch, even though both of those propositions may be true. Rather, it is that they are the victims of their own success.
Monday, November 25, 2002
A crisis of common sense. I don't mean to make fun of Diane MacPherson and her family. I'm sure they're nice people. But they've been shockingly irresponsible, and the New York Times wants you to feel sorry for them.
These Lowell residents are the showcase example in today's front-page story on how the health-insurance crisis has reached the middle and even the upper classes. The family is solidly middle-class, and at the moment they are entirely without medical coverage.
How did this happen? By the Times' account, it began when Diane MacPherson lost her job. It would have cost them $931 a month to continue it through the federal COBRA program, so they dropped coverage except for their four-year-old daughter, reducing their monthly cost to $270. Then, when MacPherson's unemployment benefits ran out, they dumped their insurance altogether.
A sad tale, but there's more, much more. It turns out that MacPherson's husband -- he is never named, perhaps because he was too embarrassed to want his identity revealed -- makes $75,000 a year in construction, although the company for which he works offers no health benefits. So there you have it: a family of three, making roughly the median income for a family of four in Massachusetts (for the math-challenged, that means they're making more than the median), has chosen not to pay for health insurance, not for themselves, not for their child.
Continuing coverage just for their daughter would cost just 4.3 percent of their annual gross income, even if Diane doesn't find another job. Yet the Times says MacPherson and her husband simply can't do it, explaining, "Although her husband earns about $75,000 a year, construction work is seasonal and they could not be assured of enough income every month to pay for health insurance." Paging Diane MacPherson and Mr. X! You can set aside more money during the fat months so that you can pay your bills during the lean ones. It's called budgeting.
My wife peered over my shoulder as I was reading this and, photographer that she is, examined the photo of Diane MacPherson and her daughter and said, "Look at the window behind them. They're in a brand-new development!" And, yes, it does appear that they've living large -- way over their heads, no doubt, especially given their new, downsized circumstances. But what this is really about is the misplaced priorities of two adults who ought to know better -- not an insurance "crisis."
Now, if I were a conservative, I would end my little morality tale right there. But I'm not, and I won't. We do need some sort of universal health care to cover the 40 million or so Americans without insurance. Some are poor. Some are sick, and the insurance companies don't want them. Some are small-business owners struggling to keep their heads above water, and the Times documents those cases, too. And yes, some are like our Lowell family, middle-class but with idiotic priorities, putting their dream home and their lifestyle ahead of their health-care needs. The point is that unless you want to live in a Hobbesian state of nature, with everyone on his or her own, we ought to make health care a basic social benefit.
Still, you can't help but cringe when you take a close look at the choices that some people make.
Sunday, November 24, 2002
Howard Dean, President of 2003. God help us, here comes another one. This year's model of the socially liberal, fiscally conservative "reformist" Democrat who's running for president against the proverbial long odds is Vermont governor Howard Dean, profiled in today's Boston Globe Magazine by the estimable Charlie Pierce. Dean follows in the futile tradition of Bill Bradley (2000), Paul Tsongas (1992), Bruce "Stand up for taxes!" Babbitt (1988), and, arguably, Gary Hart (1984).
The good news is that unlike the self-absorbed, self-regarding Bradley, Dean actually seems to be something like a regular guy, openly ambitious, blunt (although not nearly as blunt as, say, John McCain, the Republican version of the Bradley/Babbitt/Tsongas strain), and the sort of political weasel we can all recognize, if not appreciate: he pissed off all sides in the same-sex-marriage debate by signing Vermont's civil-union law with so little fanfare you'd think he was signing pardon papers for Hannibal Lecter. The bad news, at least for the Dean family, is that he's not going to win.
But as Pierce notes, Dean is wowing the pundits, and he stands to be President of the Beltway in 2003. That's as close as he's going to come, though he could get consideration for vice-president or -- assuming George W. Bush can actually be defeated -- a Cabinet post. So do give this a read.
Friday, November 22, 2002
Romenesko verson 2.1. The folks at Poynter heard the cries of pain. The redesign of Jim Romenesko's MediaNews.org, unveiled last Friday, has been rejiggered. Most important, those short, cryptic plugs on the left-hand side of the page, much beloved by Romenesko fans, have returned after a brief time in purgatory. The typeface has also been made smaller to reduce scrolling.
Last week I referred to the redesign as "creeping Poynterization," but, overall, thought there was as much good as bad in the new look -- especially the addition for permanent links for each item, although they seem to have been implemented in a way that is unnecessarily confusing and labor-intensive.
Others took far greater exception, especially to the perception (an accurate perception) that the new page was too much Poynter, not enough Romenesko. The angriest missive came from NarcoNews.com's Al Giordano, who wrote: "Fellow and sister journalists and readers of Media News, our nation is under attack. It's like Pearl Harbor all over again. Poynter's warplanes have just airbombed an island previously inhabited by human journalism." (Giordano's entire letter is worth reading; click here.)
Bill Mitchell, the editor of Poynter Online, confesses all in a memo posted here.
Based on a first glance, it looks to me like the re-redesign not only improves on the redesign, but on the original, bare-bones look as well.
Quotes of the day
"He is a friend of mine. He is not a moron at all." -- Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien, on George W. Bush
"The Democrats have shown they can roll over but it's becoming harder to find one that can speak." -- Humorist Barry Crimmins; not posted yet, but check out his website)
Thursday, November 21, 2002
Jeff Jacoby's Canadian-style mistake. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby's main quarry today is Senator John Kerry, whose essay in last week's Phoenix Jacoby mocks as "a masterpiece of meretriciousness -- one gaudy bromide after another, paragraph upon paragraph promising everything while saying virtually nothing." (My only complaint about Kerry's piece is this sentence: "We must begin by demanding a different, better, fairer economic policy that grows [sic] jobs and creates wealth for all Americans." Oof! The decline of the language continues apace.)
But Jacoby also takes a swipe at Al Gore's recent endorsement of a Canadian single-payer health plan -- and manages to make the sort of whopping mistake that distorts the debate over what to do about 40 million uninsured Americans. He writes:
A Canada-style single-payer scheme would mean a major decline in US health care -- just ask a Canadian who has had to wait weeks for the results of an AIDS test, or months for cancer radiation therapy, or more than a year for a hip replacement -- and I doubt that Americans are any keener on the idea now than they were when Hillary Clinton was peddling it eight years ago [emphasis mine].
This is very interesting. The actual merits of Canadian-style universal health care aside, the truth is that the plan devised by Hillary Rodman Clinton and Ira Magaziner was, in fact, its exact opposite. The principal feature of the Canadian system -- its crowning attribute, according to proponents -- is that it does away with private insurance companies. The Clinton-Magaziner plan, by contrast, was designed specifically to achieve universal health care while preserving a prime role for private insurers.
James Fallows explained this clearly in a January 1995 post-mortem on the defeat of the Clinton-Magaziner plan that was published in the Atlantic Monthly:
A Canadian-style single-payer system has two big virtues. It is simple to administer, since doctors, hospitals, and patients no longer have to worry about dozens of insurance companies with scores of different payment plans. The single-payer approach also guarantees that everyone in the country has medical coverage. But [Bill] Clinton was dead set against a single-payer plan, arguing that it would require sweeping new taxes and would, in effect, abolish the entire medical-insurance industry.
Fallows doesn't say it, but there were also reports at the time that President Clinton was hoping that, by spurning a Canadian-style bill, he could enlist the political support of the insurance industry. It didn't happen, of course, as the insurers savaged the bill with those misleading "Harry and Louise" ads. And the proposal that Hillary Clinton and Magaziner crafted was much more complicated than would have been necessary if the administration had simply embraced the Canadian system. (By the way, Fallows's piece was titled "A Triumph of Misinformation." The triumphant march on. It's still worth reading, and is freely available online through public-library databases.)
Now, I've got my own doubts about a Canadian-style system. As the father of a child who's at some risk of running into high-cost medical problems that would have to be dealt with immediately rather than on a health bureaucracy's leisurely schedule, my personal inclination is to find a way of helping uninsured Americans without taking any flexibility away from us, thank you very much.
But the debate is corrupted if we can't agree as to what's on the table and what isn't. Eight years after its defeat, the Clinton-Magaziner plan remains toxic. Senator Clinton herself disavows it. Jacoby, by describing it as something that it wasn't, makes it more difficult to talk about the still-vexing problem of health care in a rational and honest way.
Wednesday, November 20, 2002
Bickering over Birmingham. Massachusetts Senate president Tom Birmingham's press secretary, Alison Franklin, writes: "Regarding today's Media Log, I wanted to let you know that contrary to Michael Jonas's assertions in his article, Tom Birmingham did try to talk to Michael on at least four occasions. I know this because I placed the calls and left the messages. Michael was frustrated that he and Tom kept missing each other. That is understandable but it should not have resulted in a mischaracterization of Tom's availability."
Jonas responds: "Senator Birmingham's office did indeed call on several occasions, hoping to put him on the line with me at that moment. However, despite multiple requests over the course of more than five weeks, including at least one full week following the September 17 primary, his office would not agree to schedule a time for him to be interviewed, even for 10 or 15 minutes by telephone, to discuss his Senate presidency."
What's wrong with the legislature? The tyranny of deadlines has not been kind to Michael Jonas's fine overview of what's wrong with the Massachusetts legislature, published in the current issue of CommonWealth magazine. (The piece, "Beacon Ill," is online, but free registration is required.) Not only had the race for governor not been decided, but Jonas had to turn in his piece even before we knew that state senator Bob Travaglini would be the next Senate president. But this is good stuff, and the lack of timeliness should not stop you from reading it.
One eye-opener: Senate president Tom Birmingham refused Jonas's attempts to interview him. Now, it's fair to point out that Jonas was doing his reporting in the midst of Birmingham's hard-fought campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. But the notion that one of the state's two top legislative leaders couldn't spare an hour to talk about substance is repellant. Farewell, Mr. President. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.
There's not an awful lot new here for political junkies, but those who follow State House antics with less-than-breathless enthusiasm will appreciate Jonas's efforts to lay out recent legislative history -- and especially how it came to pass that virtually all power was concentrated in the hands of Birmingham and House Speaker Tom Finneran. Let's not kid ourselves: rank-and-file legislators have never had much influence on Beacon Hill. But during the 1970s and '80s, committee chairs held great sway. It wasn't exactly democracy, but neither was it a dictatorship.
These days even the chairs count for nothing. The symbol of legislative gridlock in recent years is that photo of Finneran and Birmingham, negotiating the budget at a glacial pace on a State House patio. "Now there's no one to talk to," Citizens for Limited Taxation executive director Barbara Anderson told Jonas. "There's no playing field at all. They're just following the leadership."
Jonas also makes two key points. Writing before the gubernatorial election, he asserted that there might actually be more hope for change if Democrat Shannon O'Brien won rather than Republican Mitt Romney. "After all," Jonas wrote, "in the absence of true two-party competition, schisms in the state's dominant party, played out through shifting coalitions and alliances, may be the next best thing for the democratic debate." But with Romney heading up a party so tiny that Republican legislators can't even override his vetoes, state politics is likely to devolve into the Romney, Trav, and Finneran Show. Actually, make that the Finneran, Trav, and Romney Show.
Jonas's other point is simply to remind us of how accustomed we've become to the shameful inertia that now exists:
What is most remarkable about the dysfunction that has set in on Beacon Hill is just how unremarkable it has become. There is little expectation that budgets will be completed on time or that lawmakers will have significant roles in writing them. Members meekly approve major policy changes through outside sections tacked onto the budget, despite misgivings over their implications. Committee chairs stand idly by as the flow and content of legislation is controlled from above.
More than anything else, Jonas's piece underscores the harm that has been caused by the state's devolution into a one-party system. Think of how many times voters -- even liberals -- have cast their lots with Republican governors simply to keep the entire system from falling into the hands of the Democrats: John Volpe, Frank Sargent, Frank Hatch (well, okay, he lost, but he won most of the liberal vote), Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci. Romney is quite a bit more conservative than those Republicans, which is the only reason his margin of victory was even close. It's not surprising that his campaign only caught fire when he started targeting the "Gang of Three" -- Finneran, Travaglini, and O'Brien -- and raised the specter of Democratic insiders running amock.
The single most important thing Romney can do during the next four years is to rebuild the Republican Party into a moderate, reform-minded force that competes in elections and wins enough to make a difference.
Tuesday, November 19, 2002
The last refuge of scoundrels. Yesterday the Wall Street Journal editorial page claimed it simply wasn't true that Saxby Chambliss, the Republican victor in Georgia's US Senate race, had impugned the patriotism of Democratic incumbent Max Cleland, a decorated war hero who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam. "We thought we'd set the record straight, before the tale becomes one more liberal political legend," the editorial stated. "Mr. Chambliss won by exposing Senator Cleland's voting record on the issues that mattered most to Georgians, such as taxes, missile defense and especially homeland security."
Today the Boston Globe's Joan Vennochi repeats the charge that the Journal attempted to refute, beginning her piece: "Senator Max Cleland of Georgia lost both legs and his right arm in a grenade explosion in Vietnam in 1968. That did not stop C. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican with no military service, from questioning his patriotism in 2002." Was Chambliss rough but fair, as the Journal argues? Or did Chambliss cross the line and stoop to questioning the patriotism of a man who's long been a national symbol of sacrifice?
They say the winners get to write the history books, and the Journal's conservative editorial page is clearly on the side of the winners in the midterm elections. The Journal has every reason to defend Chambliss, who'll enter the Senate under a cloud for viciously attacking Cleland. Chambliss himself got out of serving in Vietnam because of a bad knee. Poor thing!
Nailing this down is important, because the aftermath of the toxic Chambliss-Cleland contest will help set the tone for the next two years. Senate Democrats are said to be furious at Chambliss and, by extension, at George W. Bush, who lent him crucial support down the stretch. The evidence suggests that Chambliss played it cute. You won't find any statements from Chambliss or even from his campaign stating, "Max Cleland is an unpatriotic American." Nevertheless, Chambliss's statements and his strategy point to a slimy assault on Cleland's patriotism, with just enough of an out so that Chambliss could deny it whenever reporters came calling.
Chambliss started warming up months before the election. Consider, for example, a "Notebook" item from the New Republic of June 10, originally reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 1997, Cleland had voted against a motion to expand the Chemical Weapons Treaty that would have barred inspectors from any nation that had sponsored terrorism or had violated nonproliferation agreements. (TNR noted that the United States already had the power to ban such inspectors.) Congressman Chambliss, in an opening salvo to the Senate campaign, dredged up that five-year-old vote and charged that Cleland had "directly contradict[ed]" his oath "to protect and defend" the nation. TNR accurately called Chambliss's remarks an "attack on Cleland's patriotism," adding that it was "repulsive" given Cleland's service to his country. I don't think any reasonable person could disagree with that assessment.
But the main event was the homeland-security bill. Cleland supported a Democratic version, but refused to go along with Bush's, which would remove union protections. That earned him, as Vennochi notes, a Chambliss TV commercial featuring the faces of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Chambliss's tactics were sleazy and out of bounds. Essentially he sounded themes of antipatriotism while denying that was ever his intent. In the November 4 issue of AdWeek, columnist Barbara Lippert wrote:
In the most egregious example of Husseinicide, Republican Senate candidate Rep. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia ran an ad against Democratic incumbent Sen. Max Cleland that began with shots of the Mideastern rat pack [i.e., bin Laden and Saddam] and went on to claim that Cleland is "weak and misleading" on homeland security, questioning his "courage to lead."
Ugh. And here's the exact line from the ad, reported by the Chicago Tribune's Jill Zuckman (a former Globe staffer) on October 27. The narrator intoned: "Since July, Max Cleland has voted against the president's vital homeland-security efforts 11 times. Max Cleland says he has the courage to lead, but the record proves that's just misleading." (Speaking of courage, Saxby, how's the knee?) Take away the photos of Saddam and bin Laden (which Chambliss did after he was ripped for it), and it's nasty but basically fair. With the photos, I don't think it's unreasonable to say that the ad actually did call Cleland's patriotism into question.
Cleland, understandably, cried foul, which led George Republican Party chairman Ralph Reed to tell Zuckman: "Max needs to understand that when somebody is telling the truth about his voting record, just because he gets upset about it doesn't mean they're questioning his patriotism." Added Chambliss: "He [Cleland] got $600,000 from the labor unions. I'm suggesting the union bosses are telling him he better vote against it."
There's also this intriguing tidbit, from the Economist of November 2: "Senator Cleland, a Vietnam veteran who goes down well with local military people, 'unpatriotically' voted against the creation of the Department of Homeland Security." Why is "unpatriotically" in quotation marks? Clearly the Economist believed that the Chambliss campaign had questioned Cleland's patriotism, and the quotation marks are either meant to express the magazine's skepticism or to ascribe a direct quote. But a direct quote from whom? The magazine doesn't say. (Bad, Economist! Bad!)
There's no smoking gun -- Chambliss was careful enough to make sure of that -- but there's plenty of smoke. Chambliss managed to impugn Cleland's patriotism without ever saying it directly. The ideologues at the Wall Street Journal can believe what they want, but Chambliss ran a miserable campaign against a man with far more courage than he. Max Cleland has been a national symbol since Jimmy Carter made him head of the Veterans Administration in the 1970s. Now a new generation of Democrats can go about the business of turning Saxby Chambliss into a national symbol of a very different kind.
Sunday, November 17, 2002
Feds probe alt-weekly double suicide. The Los Angeles Times' Tim Rutten reports that the US Department of Justice is investigating the alt-weekly collusion that led to the recent shutdown of New Times LA and the Cleveland Free Times. The details of this sleazy deal cry out for an antitrust probe. New Times Media, headquartered in Phoenix, agreed to shut down its LA paper -- and thus stop competing with Voice Media's LA Weekly -- if Village Voice Media, the parent company of the Village Voice, would shut down its Cleveland paper, which had been competing with New Times' Cleveland Scene. Millions of dollars changed hands as well. (I found this story through Glenn Reynolds's InstaPundit.)
Rutten writes that the nature of the investigation suggests that Justice officials may seek criminal charges, which carry with them the possibility of individual fines of $300,000 and company fines of $10 million.
There is considerable irony, he notes, in the spectacle of media companies that trace their roots to "the insurgent journalism of the 1960s counterculture, being treated like a 19th century cartel." (Although Rutten could use a history lesson. The Village Voice was founded by Norman Mailer and his friends in the 1950s, whereas the Phoenix New Times began publication in 1970.)
And recently, Village Voice media columnist Cynthia Cotts wrote a doleful piece on where it might all be headed: to an eventual sellout to a mainstream daily-newspaper chain. It's not like it hasn't happened before, either. In 1999, Times Mirror (now the Tribune Company) purchased the Advocate weeklies. Among its holdings: the Hartford Advocate, whose mission was to cast a skeptical eye at Times Mirror's daily Hartford Courant.
The mainstream media doesn't have to kill the alternative press if it is intent on committing suicide.
Hitchens versus Hitchens. Formerly left-wing Christopher opposes Islamism because it's not secular. Still-right-wing Peter opposes it because it's not Christian. Having oversimplified their views nearly beyond recognition, I urge you to take a look at this year-old-but-still-relevant piece on the Hitchens brothers, on the British website Spiked Online.
The price of free speech: mediocrity! Patrick Healy's "Campus Insider" column in today's Globe has the link to that controversial cartoon in the Harbus, the Harvard Business School student newspaper, that led to yelping from school officials and the subsequent resignation of editor Nick Will. Unfortunately, it sucks.
Friday, November 15, 2002
The creeping Poynterization of Romenesko's MediaNews.org. During the past few years, Jim Romenesko's MediaNews.org has established itself as the virtual water cooler for media news and gossip. Romenesko's terse but cheeky style even survived his transition from entrepreneur to employee of the Poynter Institute a couple of years ago.
This week, though, Poynter has unveiled a major redesign of MediaNews. It's attractive, and includes some long-needed features, especially links to individual items. But there's also a greatly increased Poynter presence on the page. Gone are the weird little tidbits on the left-hand side of the screen; they've been replaced with links to other Poynter pages. On the right-hand side, a "New on Poynter" feature takes up so much space that you have to scroll down before encountering Romenesko's invaluable links.
This may be fine. It may, overall, be an improvement. But the creeping Poynterization of MediaNews is something that bears watching.
Censorship by other means. White House budget director Mitch Daniels wants to save taxpayers $70 million a year by transferring authority over the publication of public documents from the Government Printing Office to individual Cabinet agencies. At least that's what he says. But according to this editorial in the Los Angeles Times, the real effect would be to make it far easier for the executive branch to edit out anything it finds embarrassing or inconvenient. (Thanks to PB for the link.) Here's how it would work, according to the Times:
Currently, a federal agency such as the Pentagon can't delete an embarrassing passage from a historical document without first going through the hassle of asking each reading room to obscure the passage with a black marker.
If Daniels gets his way, all an agency will have to do is call up the document in Microsoft Word and quietly hit Control X to delete the passage for eternity.
It amounts to the perfect censorship scheme: take a system that has worked since the era of Thomas Jefferson and trash it in the name of budget-cutting and efficiency. And do it in such a low-profile manner that few people other than the most inside of insiders have any idea of what's going on.
Brian Golden, no-tent Democrat. GM writes that I missed the best part in my 11/12/02 item on Allston-Brighton state rep Brian Golden's beef with Democratic State Committee chairman Phil Johnston:
When I was in West Palm Beach, Florida in November 2000, helping Al Gore on the recount, I was shocked to see Brian Golden acting as an observer in the recount for George Bush. It's one thing to publicly endorse a candidate of the opposing party, but it was entirely different to join the die-hard Republican Brooks-Brothers rioters in helping George Bush steal the election. I agree that the Democratic Party should have a big tent, but I don't think that tent should include partisan Republicans. One other thing -- Dave Friedman, Golden's primary opponent -- was in West Palm Beach helping Al Gore while Brian Golden was on the Republican side helping George Bush.
Here's a Town Online article from last June -- republished on Golden opponent Friedman's website -- verifying GM's recollection.
Don't ask, don't tell, don't translate that terrorist threat. You can't make up stupidity like this. The AP reports today that the Army has discharged nine linguists, including six trained in Arabic, because they are gay. "The soldiers' dismissals come at a time when the military is facing a critical shortage of translators and interpreters for the war on terrorism," the report notes. Last week's New Republic goes into this absurdity in some detail. And the whole issue of the consequences engendered by the military's ridiculous don't-ask/don't-tell policy is followed by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
Thursday, November 14, 2002
Donut delirium and animal rights. I'll be on the road today, personally investigating Congressman Ed Markey's claim that Boston's winning the 2004 Democratic National Convention has created "a delirium that is breaking out at every Dunkin' Donuts shop across the state of Massachusetts that would be hard to capture."
But I don't want to let the week go by before urging you to pull last Sunday's New York Times Magazine out of the recycling bin and read the cover story, a critique of the animal-rights movement by Michael Pollan. Pollan does a masterful job not just of describing the moral, environmental, and health-related evils of factory farming (that's easy), but also of showing why vegetarianism is unnatural, harmful to the environment, and even bad for animals. Important, counterintuitive stuff that's left our family wondering where we can buy organic meat.
Wednesday, November 13, 2002
Romney's not Weld. That's bad -- but maybe good, too. Bill Weld exemplified the kind of Republican who can thrive in Massachusetts: he was fiscally conservative, tough on crime, but libertarian on personal-freedom issues such as reproductive choice and lesbian and gay rights. I suspect Governor-elect Mitt Romney would have doubled his margin over his Democratic opponent, Shannon O'Brien, if he had done a better job of assuring voters that he's not a social conservative. Certainly Romney's retrograde stand against civil unions -- never mind same-sex marriage -- didn't help.
But there was one gaping hole in Weld's administration, as well as those of his successors, Paul Cellucci and Jane Swift. And if Romney is willing to fill that hole, he can improve considerably over the records of his Republican predecessors. Weld campaigned against the Democratic machine in 1990, targeting then-Senate president Bill Bulger with the same tenacity with which Romney went after the "Gang of Three" -- House Speaker Tom Finneran, incoming Senate president Bob Travaglini, and O'Brien. But to say that Weld didn't mean it would be quite an understatement. Weld ended up presiding over an administration as laden with patronage as any in the state's history. He even made common cause with Bulger, who, in his day, was as unpopular with the public as Finneran is in 2002.
Perhaps nothing symbolized Weld's indulgence of the machine politics that he'd campaigned against as much as his elevation of David Balfour, a Republican hack whom the then-governor elevated to be the head of the MDC. On November 4, the Globe's Stephanie Ebbert quoted an unnamed Democratic consultant as saying that Balfour exemplified the difference between Weld and Romney:
"Bill Weld would embrace the David Balfours of the world and get a kick out of them," the consultant said, referring to the Republican advance man and Metropolitan District Commission chief who has been nominated for a clerk-magistrate job. "Mitt Romney doesn't get a kick out of them. This is a very political world, so it's hard to know how it will play."
This morning it all comes together on the front page of the Boston Herald. David Wedge and Jack Sullivan report that Balfour's MDC recently paid $675,000 in public (i.e., our) money to buy a tiny slice of land that is now being used as a parking lot by a Stoneham restaurant where Balfour likes to eat, and which is sometimes the venue for MDC meetings. Outraged Stoneham officials, 30 percent of whose town is already owned by the MDC and is thus exempt from local taxes, are demanding an investigation. "We feel very, very strongly they are doing something illegal. I just feel it's wrong to acquire this land with public money," selectman Cosmo Ciccarello told the Herald.
Balfour is now up for a cushy clerk-magistrate's job in Suffolk Juvenile Court, a post to which he was nominated by Governor Swift. The Governor's Council will vote on November 27.
Romney doesn't become governor until January. But if he's serious about eliminating patronage abuses, he should send a loud, public signal that the parking-lot fiasco will be the subject of a vigorous investigation once he's in office -- and that the Governor's Council ought to think twice before handing a lifetime job to someone who will be the principal subject of that investigation.
Friedman on Bush and the UN. It seems lazy and obvious to point out that Tom Friedman has a brilliant column in this morning's New York Times, but guess what? He does. Friedman puts his finger on precisely why the UN Security Council's unanimous vote to force Saddam Hussein to comply with weapons inspections is such a hopeful development. Writes Friedman:
It was the first time since then [9/11] that the world community seemed to be ready to overcome all of its cultural, religious and strategic differences to impose a global norm -- that a country that raped its neighbor and defied U.N. demands that it give up its weapons of mass destruction not be allowed to get away with it.
And Friedman gives George W. Bush just the right amount of credit for standing up not only to Saddam, but to the "superhawks" in his own administration who tried to convince him that real men don't ask the UN for anything.
Obviously a lot could still go wrong, and with a Republican Senate, I worry that Bush will be more inclined to listen to warmongers such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz than Colin Powell. But this has been a good week for anyone who supports both peace and a vigorous, UN-backed effort to force Saddam to give up his weapons.
Tuesday, November 12, 2002
Mitt Romney, defender of the Constitution. Jay Fitzgerald has a fascinating item on Mitt Romney's inconsistent stand on patronage (jobs for his top-level supporters, a meritocracy for everyone else). "He didn't make that distinction before the election, so he's probably going to take some heat for it now," writes Fitzgerald. The most interesting part, though, is Fitzgerald's discussion of a 1990 US Supreme Court decision, Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois, in which the Court held that patronage is unconstitutional in hiring government workers because it violates their First Amendment right to hold the political views of their choice. The one exception: top-level appointments, the theory being that elected officials need to fill the most important jobs with people with whom they agree, and who will be committed to carrying out their agenda.
The majority opinion was written by a liberal, Justice William Brennan, who opens in this vein:
To the victor belong only those spoils that may be constitutionally obtained. Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347 (1976), and Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507 (1980), decided that the First Amendment forbids government officials to discharge or threaten to discharge public employees solely for not being supporters of the political party in power, unless party affiliation is an appropriate requirement for the position involved.
Well, now. Romney must certainly take comfort in knowing that he can wrap himself in the Constitution as he goes about rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies.
And now, the rest of the story. With apologies to Paul Harvey, this morning Media Log points out an inexplicable omission in a cry from the heart written by state representative Brian Golden and published on the op-ed page of today's Boston Herald. Golden, a Democrat (at least that's what he claims) from Brighton, calls for the removal of Democratic State Committee chairman Phil Johnston, blaming him for such allegedly extreme liberal views as believing that lesbians and gay men ought to have the same rights as everyone else. Such apostasy, Golden argues, was responsible for Republican Mitt Romney's surprisingly easy victory in last week's gubernatorial election.
But this is just boilerplate, designed to run up the word count so that Golden can talk about what's really on his mind:
[I]n a highly unusual move, Johnston interfered in at least two local Democratic primaries -- one of them being mine.
As a two-term incumbent, I was shocked to find the state Democratic Party backing one Democrat over another. Rather than allowing local Democrats to choose their own nominees, Johnston injected himself into races and places he didn't even vaguely understand.
Here's what Golden leaves out: in October 2000, just before Al Gore and George W. Bush held their first debate -- in Boston, no less -- Golden announced that he had decided to endorse Bush because of the Republican's opposition to the late-term abortion procedure that opponents label "partial-birth abortion," and because Bush favored public aid to Catholic schools.
Now, of course, there's nothing wrong with disagreeing with your party's presidential candidate on the issues -- even in public. But to endorse his opponent is to call into question whether you ought to be a member of that party in the first place. There's a name for Johnston's effort to replace Golden with a real Democrat: politics. Then, too, if Golden re-registered as a Republican, his career as a state rep would be over.
"There is no role for differences on matters of conscience in Johnston's party, no big-tent philosophy," Golden whines at the end of his Herald piece. What tent? As Lyndon Johnson once explained in deciding to reappoint the notorious J. Edgar Hoover as head of the FBI, "It's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in." Golden stepped outside the "big tent" two years ago. And he's been relieving himself on his supposed fellow Democrats ever since.
Monday, November 11, 2002
Tony Hawk II. I knew this was going to happen. It turns out that the Boston Globe published a 2000-word feature on Tony Hawk last June, on the front of the Sunday arts section. Although it's long gone from the Globe's free archives, I managed to find the piece -- by staff writer Geoff Edgers -- here. So obviously my argument that the mainstream media have ignored Hawk was off the mark. Nevertheless, given Hawk's enormous popularity with teenagers, his appearance at the FleetCenter last week deserved more coverage than it got.
Patronage, Romney-style. Just in case there were any doubts, Mitt Romney has said it twice since becoming governor-elect last Tuesday: his crusade against patronage was not meant to apply to his political allies, just to people who have to work for a living.
Here's the relevant excerpt from Rick Klein's piece in last Thursday's Globe:
Romney, who railed against patronage appointments on the campaign trail, also sought to clarify to reporters yesterday what role people with political connections will play in his administration. He said he expects to appoint some people with political experience and connections to top posts in his administration. But for lower-level workers, he said that ties to political leaders or his campaign will be a disadvantage, not an advantage.
"I will look for people to get jobs based on what they know, not who they know," Romney said. "I want people who are secretaries of the various executive offices -- some of them -- to have substantial political experience. But as we look down those organizations, and as we go into middle management, the people driving the trucks and clearing the snow, there's no reason to have political association with those kinds of jobs."
Then there's this, from Yvonne Abraham's front-page interview with Romney published in the Sunday Globe:
He was also reluctant to discuss what his new administration would look like. The Republican, who railed against patronage on the campaign trail, was very specific in his definition of the term on Friday. He said his top staffers would include some of the people who had worked on his campaign, people with extensive political experience, and with whom he had worked for a long time. Nothing wrong with that, he said.
"Where patronage begins, in my view, is where you start going down into the positions inside a government, where that kind of political experience is not necessary,'' he said. ''And yet where campaign workers and members of the party and perhaps even contributors find themselves getting jobs in the courts, or the Turnpike Authority, where it's clear political history is being rewarded.''
For applicants for those positions, Romney said, ''a political history, or a relative in politics, will be a burden they will have to overcome.''
Romney couldn't have been more clear. If you're an aspiring bureaucrat, especially an aspiring top-level bureaucrat, you'd better have made your bones getting Romney elected. But if you're down on your luck and looking for a job as a toll-taker, a truck-driver, and the like, well, you can fill out an application just like anybody else, pal.
It's easy to be for a meritocracy when it only applies to people you don't know.
Saturday, November 09, 2002
The indispensable man. Today's New York Times has a fascinating inside look at how Secretary of State Colin Powell, starting in August, managed to steer President Bush away from gung-ho, let's-invade-Iraq-now advisers such as Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and toward a multilateral approach to disarming Saddam Hussein. The result was yesterday's stunning 15-0 vote on the part of the UN Security Council to back tough new weapons inspections in Iraq --- a vote that carries with it the implicit threat to topple Saddam's regime if he continues to resist international efforts to remove his weapons of mass destruction.
Bush deserves enormous credit for taking the approach advocted by Powell rather than launching the unilateral war he seemed to be on the verge of declaring these past several months. But it also cements Powell's reputation as the one indispensable member of Bush's foreign-policy team. Just last week, I picked up an old issue of Time magazine in a doctor's office in which sources to Powell said he would definitely leave at the end of Bush's first term. That's a truly scary prospect.
America's best-known unknown superstar. Tony Hawk is a pop-culture phenomenon. Yet I'm pretty sure my son, Tim, is the only person I know who can tell you anything about him. Last night, Tim and I spent two hours at the FleetCenter taking in something called "Tony Hawk's Boom Boom Huck Jam," an extreme-sports combination of skateboarding (Hawk is among the best in the world, and certainly the sport's most accomplished promoter), BMX stunt-bike riding, moto-cross motorcycle tricks (Tim informed me that one of the riders last night is the boyfriend of Pink), music (two DJs plus a 40-minute set by the veteran punk-metal band Social Distortion), a light show, and a loud and extremely annoying emcee.
The FleetCenter appeared to be sold out, although it was hard to tell, since large sections of the arena were closed off for line-of-sight and safety reasons. And though a large proportion of the audience consisted of fathers and their sons (ages six through early teens, I'd estimate), there were also a lot of teenagers and twentysomethings on hand, as well as a small but vocal subset of Social Distortion fans who'd come more for the music than the half-pipe antics.
Yet the Globe offered not one word on this beforehand, and the Herald had only a brief preview last Wednesday. (The Phoenix's Carly Carioli wrote a fairly meaty preview in the November 2 issue.) Nor was there anything in either daily today. Now, maybe they'll prove me wrong with a Sunday feature, but it strikes me that Tony Hawk is an example of something that had supposedly all but disappeared in today's overhyped media environment: a wildly popular performer who is instantly recognizable to millions of fans, and yet who has managed to slip almost entirely under the radar of the mainstream.
Friday, November 08, 2002
Goldman to Finneran: No new taxes! Democratic political consultant Michael Goldman -- a leading liberal who advised Robert Reich during his gubernatorial run -- has written an open letter to House Speaker Tom Finneran begging him not to raise taxes, thereby letting Governor-elect Mitt Romney take credit for solving the state's fiscal crisis à la Bill Weld in 1990. It's a great read. But it's on the Salem News site, so hurry up and read it! Salem News links expire faster than unpasteurized cream.
I want my TNR -- on time. Got my pre-election issue of the New Republic yesterday afternoon. Thanks, Marty! If I had a bird cage, I could do something with it. Meanwhile, please get your circulation department to take a look at the Weekly Standard's website. Rupe and company let paid subscribers download the entire issue as a PDF file on Saturday, at the same time that the print edition is coming off the presses. If you've got a fast enough printer, you could even print out the entire issue and take it to the bathroom with you.
Meanwhile, TNR keeps offering less and less of its print-edition content online. That's understandable -- giving content away on the Web hasn't exactly proved to be a viable business model. But that's the beauty of what the Standard is doing. It's only available to readers who've already bought subscriptions. And you get the entire magazine, including advertisements -- thus negating an argument one of your editors once made to me in explaining why TNR couldn't be made available to subscribers electronically.
Marty, I would even be willing to subscribe only to an electronic edition of TNR -- for a substantial discount, of course. But think of all the production costs and postage you'd save. And you'd have at least one less pissed-off customer forced to look at coverlines such as "Can the GOP Convince Blacks Not To Vote?" two days after we already know the answer.
Thursday, November 07, 2002
The bumpy road ahead. The Democrats' intramural war over the next two years will be fought between the moderate, neoliberal branch that dominated during the Clinton years and the paleoliberals who always harbored a grudge over Bill Clinton's accommodation to the center.
Today the New Republic's Peter Beinart stakes out the neoliberal ground while the Nation's David Corn speaks up for that old-time liberalism. Not that they disagree entirely -- both urge the Democrats to challenge George W. Bush's tax cut for the rich, something the party was notably loath to do in the past election. For the most part, though, they lay out different visions for the Democrats -- although not radically different, since both Beinart and Corn are more or less on the same side.
Both of these pieces are worth reading for any liberal who's wondering where we go from here.
Wednesday, November 06, 2002
The Republican victory. The Democrats lost the Senate -- and George W. Bush finally gained the legitimacy he failed to earn two years ago -- because Daschle, Gephardt, et al. tried to campaign on a gutless, vacuous agenda. Later today, bostonphoenix.com will publish a post-election roundup, including a few thoughts from me. Meanwhile, if you -- like me -- are a liberal who's gnashing your teeth today, let me add to your pain: the Weekly Standard's David Brooks gets it exactly right. Can the Democrats learn?
A Mass. tax backlash. Before last night, the scenario for solving the state's fiscal crisis if Mitt Romney were elected governor was simple. The legislature would pass a tax increase. Romney would veto it. The legislature would override Romney's veto. And everyone would get back to business as usual. Romney would fulminate, and try to use the "Democrat tax hike" to boost Republican numbers in the legislature in 2004. But with deficits looming as far as the eye can see, he wouldn't be all that upset to have the extra money.
Well, you can now rule that scenario out. Not only was Romney's victory by a wider margin than anyone had expected, thus giving a boost to his anti-tax message; but Question One, Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Carla Howell's radical proposal to eliminate the state income tax, lost by a margin of only 55 percent to 45 percent. Given such circumstances, the Democratic-controlled legislature can no longer be expected to go out on a political limb and raise taxes. As WLVI-TV (Channel 56) Jon Keller observed last night, not a single poll had predicted Question One would do that well, which demonstrates pretty decisively that there's a lot more anger and frustration among voters than any of the prognosticators had realized.
In fact, the Globe/WBZ-TV (Channel 4) poll of November 1 showed Question One losing by 59 percent to 34 percent; on September 29, the margin was 58 percent to 31 percent. What that means is that virtually everyone who made up her or his mind at the last minute voted for a massive tax cut that would leave the state on the brink of bankruptcy.
Of course, late deciders are also the least informed and most disengaged part of the electorate. So when Romney said he could cut taxes without harming services by going after the bureaucracy, these voters actually believed him. At some point Romney can be expected to pay a price for his disingenuousness, but not this week. His victory was so broad that he won an absolute majority -- nearly 50.6 percent -- even if the votes of all five candidates are tallied up. And if you assume that Shannon O'Brien would have received all of the votes that went to the Green Party's Jill Stein, she still only would have gotten 48.4 percent.
Mitt's got a mandate. We'll see how well he delivers.
Tuesday, November 05, 2002
Kristof's ugly smear. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof today charges that "liberal Web sites" are raising the possibility that Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone -- killed in a plane crash a week and a half ago -- was the victim of an assassination by his political enemies on the right. "The White House team that executed Vincent Foster must have struck again," Kristof sneers. His so-called point is that liberals are reacting to George W. Bush and the Republican Party with the same demented paranoia that marked conservatives' stance toward Bill Clinton and the Democrats.
Kristof's use of the word "liberal" suggests that mainstream Democrats are calling for an investigation into whether Bushies planted themselves on Minnesota's equivalent of the grassy knoll and shot down Wellstone's plane. But he offers no evidence in trying to make the case for moral equivalence. Cartoonist Ted Rall -- who's way to the left of liberal -- recently wrote a piece claiming that "some Democrats and progressive Americans" are raising questions about the Wellstone tragedy. But, like Kristof, Rall names no names, and in the end he concludes that the conspiracy theory is highly unlikely. There's also some chatter on the websites of the Independent Media Centers, which, frankly, are way to the left of Rall. Conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan, writing in Salon.com, had to strain to find another nutty conspiracy theorist, a Dr. Michael I. Niman of Buffalo State College. And even Niman ends up admitting that Wellstone's death was probably just an accident.
It's not that no one is raising questions about Wellstone's death. It is, after all, not difficult to find websites that raise questions about whether the earth is round, or if people really did land on the moon. But Kristof's tone suggests that I should be able to read the latest on the Wellstone conspiracy at the website of, say, the Democratic National Committee. Please. When Clinton aide Vince Foster committed suicide, no fewer than two special prosecutors were ordered by congressional Republicans to look specifically into the question of whether the White House had him assassinated. Even the sex-crazed Ken Starr concluded that was ridiculous. As Times columnist Bill Keller pointed out on Saturday, Republican congressman Dan Burton of Indiana, a member of the House leadership team, once went so far as to shoot bullets into a watermelon in a twisted attempt to prove his Foster-was-murdered theory. (Presumably Burton would have used a cocoanut if he believed Foster had really killed himself.) Where are the Democrats calling for an investigation into the Wellstone "assassination"? The answer is that there aren't any.
Conservative paranoia during the Clinton years reached the highest levels of the Republican Party. By contrast, Kristof offers no evidence that anyone other than a few people on the far left believe the Bush White House had anything to do with Wellstone's tragic death. Kristof's charge amounts to a smear against Democrats and liberals, unsupported by facts.
Monday, November 04, 2002
Embrace, extend, and standardize. Last week I was cleaning out an old desk when I found a box of five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks. They contained much of the work I'd done in graduate school, including my master's thesis. And though I didn't throw them out, they are also utterly worthless: the documents imbedded on them were created on a Radio Shack Color Computer, a machine with its own perverse and obscure operating system, abandoned by the world some 15 years ago.
Which brings to mind last Friday's decision by US District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly to give Microsoft little more than a slap on the wrist in the seemingly endless antitrust case. The suit had long since been abandoned by the federal government, but it continues to be pursued like Moby Dick by a handful of Ahab-esque attorneys general, including Tom Reilly of Massachusetts. The desultory media coverage Kollar-Kotelly's ruling generated shows that we live in a world considerably different from the one that existed in 1997, when the Clinton administration first filed suit. Amid the wreckage of the New Economy, Microsoft -- a technology company that makes real products and turns a real profit -- now looks pretty good.
Moreover, the commodification of the personal computer and the software that makes it useful has advanced considerably during the past five years. Bill Gates likes to talk about the "freedom to innovate," but that's always been ridiculous. Microsoft's products over the years have invariably been derivative and, in many cases, inferior to products that came to market first. The company's real innovation has been to bring dozens of competing standards under one roof and to enable nearly everyone who uses a personal computer to speak the same language. I don't like Microsoft Word, and I don't use it. Yet the ability to share files created with Word makes for a much more efficient universe. I pay a price for my obstinacy, having to use kludgy translation software whose results are imperfect at best. Even more important, files created with Word today are likely to be readable in at least some form 15 years from now, unlike my poor lost master's thesis. For the vast majority of us, innovation is nice, but standards are better. The Wall Street Journal editorial page today puts it this way:
We've always argued that Microsoft's sin, if you'd call it that, was primarily in giving consumers what they wanted -- a standard operating system for hardware and software makers alike. Quibbles over the company's hardball business strategies aside, the main effect of its monopoly position was to get new Web tools to consumers quickly and efficiently, vastly speeding up the PC revolution.
That's too sunny a spin, but it's right on the facts.
The frustrating thing, and one many Microsoft critics seemingly can't get over, is that Gates and company won by waging total, relentless war against their competitors, illegally (don't forget that) exploiting the monopoly their Windows operating system enjoyed to harm other products, such as Netscape Navigator and Sun's Java. Last week, Salon.com ran a detailed, two-part report that Microsoft's tactics continue: the company has reportedly incorporated features of streaming-video software called Burst into its Windows Media Player, and is being sued by Burst.com.
My view of the Microsoft case is admittedly colored by two factors. First, I own some Microsoft stock. Second, I don't use any Microsoft products, with the exception of Internet Explorer for the Macintosh. (I also sometimes use Mozilla, an "open source" alternative to Explorer that is supposed to be the choice of concerned anti-Microsofties everywhere. Guess what? It's not as good.) Yes, I like standards, but I've gambled that Apple has succeeded in establishing an alternative standard that will be supported well into the forseeable future. So, yes, I'd like my stock to increase in value, and no, I don't believe that anyone is forced to use Microsoft products, which is what the Tom Reillys of the world would have you believe.
Mr. Attorney General, if you'll abandon your futile quest, I will send you a box of five-and-quarter-inch disks. The postage is on me.
Sunday, November 03, 2002
Why O'Brien isn't leading Romney by six points. "There's nothing that I have concretely said that I would support" -- Shannon O'Brien, on the possibility of a gas-tax increase, in today's Boston Herald. Got that?
Saturday, November 02, 2002
Fritz ducks killer bugs! Hurry! This could change by the time you read it. But right now, Drudge has a weird and wonderful juxtaposition of headlines. His banner: "EXPERTS WARN: 'SUPERFLU' COULD KILL HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS." The kicker: "MONDALE DOESN'T SHOW AT DEBATE ..." All that's missing is a reference to Mondale's age.
Friday, November 01, 2002
The Florida fiasco revisited. WGBH-TV (Channel 2) will air Danny Schechter's documentary on the fiasco in Florida, Counting on Democracy, tonight from 10 to 11. Schechter, well-known in Boston from his days as the "News Dissector" on the old WBCN Radio, wrote about his efforts to get PBS to run Counting on Democracy a couple of weeks ago in the Boston Phoenix. Although he's had no luck with the network, at least Boston's public television outlet has agreed to show it, and in prime time no less.
Counting on Democracy convincingly demonstrates that the presidential election in Florida ended in a virtual tie only because a massive and corrupt disenfranchisement of African-American voters cost Al Gore a decisive victory over George W. Bush. You can learn more about Counting on Democracy by clicking here; choose "Watch a Scene," and you'll be able to see a clip that, among other things, features an interview with yours truly. I was included because of a piece I wrote on African-American disenfranchisement after the US Supreme Court had declared Bush the president-elect.
Two years after Bush was made president despite losing the popular election by a half-million votes and despite the dubious outcome in Florida, this misfiring of democracy remains an open wound. Josh Marshall today points to an excellent commentary by the New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg on Bush's bizarre "victory," and on Gore's subsequent silence -- a refusal to "accept ... the responsibility that his popular-vote victory had laid upon him."
Being denied a Gore presidency isn't worth one shed tear or one lost moment's sleep. What happened to our electoral system two years ago, though, remains something to ponder and even mourn.
Cutting back at the Prospect. The Globe's Mark Jurkowitz today reveals that the liberal American Prospect will soon move from a biweekly to a monthly publication schedule. New executive editor (and former Globe publisher) Ben Taylor -- whose hiring was reported exclusively in Media Log yesterday (okay, okay, the Prospect's own website got there first) -- tells Jurkowitz, "It's a more natural schedule. I think we can do a good job in a monthly format.''
Macero: Romney lied. Globe columnist Brian McGrory this morning is outraged because "Shannon O'Brien call[ed] Mitt Romney a liar in Tuesday's debate." Brian, could it be because ... he lied? The Herald's Cosmo Macero, no flaming liberal, writes today:
I felt like throwing the TV out the window the other night when Shannon O'Brien had the nerve to call Mitt Romney a liar in their final debate.
And then the darndest thing happened: Mitt lied.
No two ways about it, Romney pledged back in August to try to squeeze $1.7 billion in additional Medicaid reimbursements from the federal government.
Romney's flat-out denial that he'd ever said such a thing was and is a shocking breach of debate protocol -- far worse than finger-wagging, interrupting, and smirking, the O'Brien tics that tick McGrory off so much. O'Brien's attempts to evade answering questions about tax hikes were visible for all to see, and voters can judge her accordingly. But by lying about his past statements on live television, Romney calls into question the very purpose of having debates. Yes, the O'Brien campaign was able to refute Romney's refutation after the debate. But the average viewer probably came away convinced that O'Brien had leveled a reckless charge against Romney, and that Romney had skillfully swatted it away. Ugly stuff.