Monday, April 12, 2004

SOMBER ANNIVERSARY. Boston Herald reporter Jules Crittenden, an embed with the Army's Third Infantry Division last year, has a terrific "Radio Diary" at the website for the WBUR Radio program On Point.

Crittenden recalls riding through the desert with the Atlantic Monthly's Michael Kelly and NBC News's David Bloom. Within days, both would die, Kelly when a jeep in which he was riding came under attack, Bloom of an embolism that was probably caused by his cramped traveling conditions.

"It was not possible that Bloom and Kelly could be dead and I would survive," Crittenden says. "I was already dead. It just hadn't happened yet."

Crittenden also recalls his unit's rolling into Baghdad and coming under fire - a moment when he called out the positions of Iraqi gunners and thus helped US soldiers to kill them. He wrote about it unapologetically, even defiantly, in the Herald last April. Now he says of those doomed Iraqis:

I watched you die. Forgive me. We all made our choices when we showed up for work that day. It was your day to die. Not mine. But I remember you. I observe the anniversary of your deaths and those of David Bloom and Michael Kelly with the knowledge that this year of life has been a gift.

Via Hub Blog.

THE RETURN OF CLARIBEL VENTURA. In the early days of the welfare-reform movement, there was no more horrifying a symbol of dysfunctional dependency than Claribel Ventura. It was a young Boston Globe reporter named Charles Sennott - now a foreign correspondent - who helped make her so.

Ventura, then a 26-year-old welfare mother of six, was accused of scalding her four-year-old son's hands with boiling water as punishment for eating her boyfriend's food. In 1994 Sennott checked in on her extended family, and found that it had about 100 members, virtually none of them working, pulling in about $1 million a year in government benefits.

It may be no exaggeration to say that welfare reform might never have happened in Massachusetts without Sennott's story. Indeed, the fact that the liberal Globe would publish such a story was seen in some circles as a sign that the political structure now had permission to try something new.

Now Sennott, on a visit to Boston, has tracked down Ventura in an effort to learn what he had wrought. He writes that Ventura's life today is a mixed success: after seven years in prison, she appears to have kicked drugs, and has begun a new family. Yet - not surprisingly - she remains consumed with bitterness and resentment, especially toward him.

Sennott also notes that legislators are threatening to cut funding for the drug treatment program that helped Ventura put her life more or less in order.

The welfare-reform story is a muddled one. Certainly ending the culture of dependency was necessary. Yet the law's Draconian aspects - especially its emphasis on low-paid work over education, which traps families in a cycle of poverty - bespeak to shortsightedness on the part of then-governor Bill Weld, who appeared to be more interested in scoring cheap political points than anything else.

Claribel Ventura was a powerful symbol. I even found an academic article called "Bad Mothers and Welfare Reform in Massachusetts: The Case of Claribel Ventura" in a 1997 book, Feminism, Media & the Law.

Sennott reminds us that the symbol he helped create is also a real person.

MORE SCALIA. Good Bob Herbert column in today's New York Times on Scaliagate. Even if Herbert does seem to think that reporters have a constitutional right to record Scalia's speeches. (They don't.)

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